Monday, December 17, 2012

The Civil War in France

I recently read Karl Marx's The Civil War in France. It's about the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, 1870-71. This was the book that really began Marx's rise to infamy - accused of plotting the whole uprising from London. It was written during the war and subsequent revolution in Paris.

If, like me, you're not overly familiar with the history of 19th Century France (and Prussia), here is a short description of the main characters you'll encounter reading this book:
Large chunks of this book aren't very interesting for a modern reader. These sections are largely concerned with military strategy and the criticism of various personalities (mostly Bonaparte and Thiers). At the time, revealing these people for what they were was an important thing to do, but they're now long dead.

There are six chapters. I've summarised them below:

Chapter 1 is amazing in that it contains communiques from French and Prussian workers opposing the war.
The English working class stretch the hand of fellowship to the French and German working people. They feel deeply convinced that whatever turn the impending horrid war may take, the alliance of the working classes of all countries will ultimately kill war. The very fact that while official France and Germany are rushing into a fratricidal feud, the workmen of France and Germany send each other messages of peace and goodwill; this great fact, unparalleled in the history of the past, opens the vista of a brighter future.
Chapter 2 is mostly concerned with military tactics, towns of Germany and France and a history of the two nation's conflicts. The chapter ends with an extremely ominous (and prophetic) warning:
Let the sections of the International Working Men’s Association in every country stir the working classes to action. If they forsake their duty, if they remain passive, the present tremendous war will be but the harbinger of still deadlier international feuds, and lead in every nation to a renewed triumph over the workman by the lords of the sword, of the soil, and of capital.
In Chapter 3, Marx gets stuck into Thiers, describing him as a "monstrous gnome" and elucidating the build-up to the massacre. I thought chapters 3 and 4 were the least relevant to anyone reading nowadays.

In chapters 5 and 6 Marx writes about the events of the Paris Commune; its successes and its destruction.
In spite of all the tall talk and all the immense literature, for the last 60 years, about emancipation of labor, no sooner do the working men anywhere take the subject into their own hands with a will, than uprises at once all the apologetic phraseology of the mouthpieces of present society with its two poles of capital and wages-slavery (the landlord now is but the sleeping partner of the capitalist), as if the capitalist society was still in its purest state of virgin innocence, with its antagonisms still undeveloped, with its delusions still unexploded, with its prostitute realities not yet laid bare. The Commune, they exclaim, intends to abolish property, the basis of all civilization!

To find a parallel for the conduct of Thiers and his bloodhounds we must go back to the times of Sulla and the two Triumvirates of Rome. The same wholesale slaughter in cold blood; the same disregard, in massacre, of age and sex, the same system of torturing prisoners; the same proscriptions, but this time of a whole class; the same savage hunt after concealed leaders, lest one might escape; the same denunciations of political and private enemies; the same indifference for the butchery of entire strangers to the feud.

If the acts of the Paris working men were vandalism, it was the vandalism of defence in despair, not the vandalism of triumph, like that which the Christians perpetrated upon the really priceless art treasures of heathen antiquity; and even that vandalism has been justified by the historian as an unavoidable and comparatively trifling concomitant to the titanic struggle between a new society arising and an old one breaking down.

All the chorus of calumny, which the Party of Order never fail, in their orgies of blood, to raise against their victims, only proves that the bourgeois of our days considers himself the legitimate successor to the baron of old, who thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted in itself a crime.

Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.
Engels, in his 1891 Introduction, makes some very interesting comments about the state and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, especially relevant in light of the horrors done in his and Marx's name in the 20th Century.
From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
I read the edition at I've re-formatted it as an e-book (including the bulk of the appendix) and made it available at: The Civil War in France.


  1. An excellent post. One minor point: Thiers was the first provisional president of the Third French Republic (inaugurated after the Prussian defeat of the Second Empire).

  2. Whoops, fixed. These French switch from empire to republic slightly less frequently as they have skiing picnics on Mt Blanc.