‘Marx’s ‘The Civil War In France” by Franz Mehring from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1918.

Barricade tenue par les femmes – gravure de José Luis Pellicer, 1871.

Franz Mehring gives his expert, eloquent guidance on the background consequences one of Marx’ great works. Third Address of the International on the Franco-Prussian was written in vastly different circumstances than the previous two. Instead of being addressed to the workers of the belligerent countries, this address was voiced to the workers of the world in order to explain and defend the Paris Commune, crushed just days before Marx completed it. Ending with one of Marx’ immortal lines, ‘The Civil War in France’ is not just a political statement and historical overview, it is a work of literary art and is Marx at his most incandescent.

‘Marx’s ‘The Civil War In France” by Franz Mehring from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Chapter 14, Section 2. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1918.

Paris capitulated on the 28th of January. The agreement which was drawn up between Bismarck and Jules Favre to define the terms of the capitulation provided expressly that the Paris National Guard should retain its arms.

The elections to the National Assembly resulted in a monarchist-reactionary majority, which then elected the old intriguer Thiers as President of the Republic. His first care after the adoption of the peace preliminaries – the cession of Alsace and Lorraine and the payment of five billion francs as a war indemnity – by the National Assembly was to disarm Paris, for the ingrained bourgeois Thiers, and also the reactionary landowners, regarded Paris in arms as nothing less than the revolution.

On the 18th of March Thiers attempted to seize the guns of the National Guard with the insolent lie that they were the property of the State although they had been cast during the siege at the cost of the National Guard and were recognized as the property of the National Guard in the agreement of the 28th of January. The attempt met with resistance and the troops detailed for the coup went over to the people. The civil war had begun. On the 26th of March Paris elected the Commune whose history is as rich in heroism and sacrifices on the part of the workers of Paris as it is in cowardly brutality and malice on the part of the Versailles parties of law and order.

It is unnecessary to stress the burning interest and sympathy with which Marx followed the development of these events. On the 12th of April he wrote to Kugelmann: “What resilient vigour, what historic initiative and what self-sacrifice these Parisians are showing! After six months of starvation and ruin brought about more by internal treachery than by the open enemy, they rise in revolt as though there had never been a war between France and Germany, as though Prussian bayonets did not exist, as though the enemy were not at the gates. History can show no similar example of such magnificence!” If the Parisians were defeated it would be due to their “good nature.” After the troops and the reactionary section of the National Guard left the field they should have marched on Versailles at once, but conscientious scruples made them wish not to open the civil war. As though the malicious abortion Thiers had not already opened it by his attempt to disarm Paris! But even if the Parisians should be defeated, their insurrection would remain the most glorious achievement of our party since the June revolt. “Compare these heaven-storming Titans with the pious slaves of the Prusso-German Holy Roman Empire with its posthumous masquerades, exuding a stale air of barracks, churches, rural obscurantism and, above all, Philistinism.”

When Marx referred to the Paris Commune as an achievement of “our party” he was entitled to do so both in the general sense that the working class of Paris was the backbone of the Commune, and in the particular sense that the Parisian members of the International were amongst the most capable and gallant fighters for the Commune although they represented only a minority on its council. The International was already notorious as the cause of all the troubles of the bourgeoisie and it served the ruling classes of all countries as the scapegoat for all unpleasant events. It was very natural therefore that the bourgeoisie regarded the machinations of the International as responsible for the Paris Commune also. Curiously, however, one of the organs of the Paris police press sought to absolve the Grand chef of the International from any responsibility in the matter and on the 19th of March it published a letter alleged to have been sent by Marx to the Paris sections, reproaching them for paying too much attention to political and too little attention to social questions. Marx immediately sent a letter to The Times characterizing this document as “an insolent forgery.”

No one knew better than Marx that the International had not made the Commune, but from the beginning he regarded it as flesh of its flesh and blood of its blood. Naturally, however, he did so only in the spirit of the program and statutes of the International, according to which all working-class movements aiming to emancipate the proletariat were the concern of the International. Neither the Blanquist majority in the Council of the Commune, nor the minority which, although it belonged to the International, was influenced chiefly by the ideas of Proudhon, could be counted amongst Marx’s immediate supporters. During the period of the Commune he kept in touch with this minority as far as the situation permitted, but unfortunately very little evidence of this is still extant.

Replying to a letter from Marx which has not been preserved, Leo Frankel, a delegate for the Department of Public Works, wrote on the 25th of April: “I should be very glad if you would assist me with your advice as far as possible, because at the moment I am responsible, completely responsible in fact, for all the reforms which I wish to introduce in the Department for Public Works. One or two lines from your last letter are sufficient to indicate that you will do everything possible to make all people and all workers, and in particular the German workers, understand that the Paris Commune has nothing in common with the old-style German commune. In any case, you will be doing our cause a good service in this respect.” If Marx replied to this letter or gave Frankel any advice we have no evidence of it.

A letter sent by Frankel and Varlin to him has also been lost, but on the 13th of May Marx replied to it: “I have spoken with the bearer. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to put papers of such a compromising nature for the Versailles canaille in a safe place? Such precautionary measures never do any harm. I have received a letter from Bordeaux informing me that at the last municipal elections four members of the International won seats. Things are beginning to move in the provinces too, though unfortunately their action is localized and peaceable. I have written several hundred letters for your cause to all corners of the world where we have connections. In any case, the working class was in favour of the Commune from the beginning. Even the English bourgeois newspapers have now abandoned their preliminary hostility. Occasionally I have succeeded in smuggling a favourable article into their columns. It seems to me that the Commune is wasting too much time on unimportant details and personal disputes. Obviously there are other influences apart from those of the proletariat at work. But all this would not matter if you could make up for lost time.” Finally he pointed out that speedy action was necessary in view of the fact that three days previously the definitive treaty of peace had been signed between Germany and France in Frankfort-on-Main, and that Bismarck now had the same interest as Thiers in the suppression of the Commune, particularly in view of the fact that with the signing of the treaty the war indemnity payments were to commence.

As far as Marx gave any advice in this letter, one can feel a certain reserve and without a doubt everything he wrote to members of the Commune was couched in the same tone. It was not that he was unwilling to take complete responsibility for the actions and omissions of the Commune, for he did that immediately after its defeat in full public and in all detail, but because he felt no inclination to play the role of dictator and to determine from afar what was to be done on the spot by those who could best see what should be done and what not.

On the 28th of May the last defenders of the Commune had fallen and two days later Marx presented the General Council with the address on The Civil War in France, one of the most brilliant documents that ever came from his pen and all in all, even to-day, the crowning contribution to all the voluminous literature which has been published on the Commune. Once again he demonstrated on the basis of this difficult and complicated problem his extraordinary capacity to recognize the historic essence of a situation under the deceptive surface of an apparently insoluble confusion and in the middle of a hundred conflicting rumours. As far as the Address dealt with facts – and its two first as well as its fourth and last sections describe the actual course of events – it recognized the truth in every instance and has never been refuted in any single point.

The Address certainly gives no critical history of the Commune, but that was not its aim. It was written to defend the honour of the Commune and to justify it against the vilification and injustice of its enemies, and it did so brilliantly. It was written as a polemic and not as a historical judgment, and since then the weaknesses and errors of the Commune have been subjected often enough to severe criticism on the part of socialists, sometimes too severe. At the time Marx contented himself with the following hint: “In every revolution people of a character very different from that of the real representatives of the revolution push themselves forward side by side with the latter. Some of these people are survivors from earlier revolutions with which they are completely bound up; they have no understanding of the present revolution, but, thanks to their well-known courage and high character, or perhaps to mere tradition, they still enjoy considerable influence on the masses of the people. Others again are mere bawlers who have repeated the same declamations against the government of the day for years and thus by false pretences won the reputation of being revolutionaries of the first water. Such people also appeared on the scene after the 18th of March and in a number of cases they even played a prominent role. As far as lay in their power, they obstructed the real action of the working class just as they had obstructed the full development of all earlier revolutions. Such elements, the Address pointed out, represented an unavoidable evil. Given time, it was possible to shake them off, but the Commune had not been granted the necessary time.

The third section of the Address, which deals with the historical character of the Commune, is of particular interest. With great discernment Marx demonstrates the difference between the Commune and earlier historical forms which might appear similar to it – from the mediaeval commune down to the Prussian municipal system: “Only a Bismarck (who, were he not fully occupied with his blood and iron intrigues, would gladly return to his old handiwork as contributor to the Kladderadatsch, so perfectly was it suited to his mental calibre), only such a mentality, could conceive the idea of crediting the Paris Commune with any yearning for that caricature of the old French municipal constitution of 1791, the Prussian municipal system which debases the urban administration to a mere subordinate cog of the Prussian State machinery.” In the manifold nature of the interpretations placed on the Commune and in the manifold nature of the interests expressed in it, the Address recognized the fact that it was a political form easily capable of extension, whereas all previous governmental forms had been chiefly of an oppressive nature: “Its real secret was that it was essentially a government of the working class, the result of a struggle between the producing and the expropriating classes, the finally discovered political form under which the economic emancipation of labour could take place.”

The Address was unable to offer proof of this statement by producing a detailed governmental program of the Commune, for the latter did not develop thus far and could not do so owing to the fact that from the first day of its existence to the last it was compelled to fight a life and death struggle with its enemies. However, the Address proved its point on the basis of the practical policy which the Commune had pursued, a policy whose inner essence consisted in the destruction of the State, which in its most prostituted form (the Second Empire) represented no more than “a parasitic growth” on the social body, sapping its strength and preventing its free development.

The first decree issued by the Commune abolished the standing army and replaced it by the people in arms. The Commune deprived the police force, up to then the mere tool of the government, of all political functions and turned it into an instrument responsible to the Commune. After having abolished the standing army and the police force as the material weapons of the old government, the Commune proceeded to break its spiritual weapon of oppression, the power of the clergy. It decreed the dissolution and expropriation of all the churches as far as they were property-owning bodies. It opened up all educational institutions to the people without charge and freed such institutions from all interference on the part of the State and Church. And finally, it tore up the old State bureaucracy by the roots by making all State officials, including judges, subject to election and deposition at any time and by fixing the maximum rate of pay for State servants at 6,000 francs.

The way in which the Address dealt with these details was brilliant, but there was a certain contradiction between them and the opinions previously held by Marx and Engels for a quarter century and set down in The Communist Manifesto. They had held that one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution would certainly be the dissolution of that political institution known as the State, but this dissolution was to have been gradual. The main aim of such an institution was always to protect by force of arms the economic oppression of the working majority of the population by a minority in exclusive possession of the wealth of society. With the disappearance of this minority of wealthy persons the necessity for an armed repressive institution such as the State would also disappear. At the same time, however, they had pointed out that to achieve this and other still more important aims of the future social revolution, the working class must first of all seize the organized political power of the State and use it to crush the resistance of the capitalists and reorganize society. These opinions of The Communist Manifesto could not be reconciled with the praise lavished by the Address of the General Council on the Paris Commune for the vigorous fashion in which it had begun to exterminate the parasitic State.

Naturally, both Marx and Engels were well aware of the contradiction, and in a preface to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto issued in June, 1875 under the immediate influence of the Paris Commune, they revised their opinions, appealing expressly to the Address of the General Council and declaring that the workers could not simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for their own purposes. At a later date, and after the death of Marx, when Engels was compelled to engage in a struggle against the anarchist tendencies in the working-class movement, he let this proviso drop and once again took his stand on the basis of the Manifesto. It is not difficult to realize that the supporters of Bakunin interpreted the Address of the General Council in their own way, and Bakunin declared mockingly that although the Commune had overthrown all Marx’s ideas, the latter had doffed his hat to it in violation of all logic and been compelled to accept its program and its aims as his own. And in fact, if an insurrection which had not even been prepared but forced on the workers by a sudden and brutal attack was able to abolish the whole oppressive machinery of the State by means of a few simple decrees, was not that a confirmation of Bakunin’s steadfastly maintained standpoint It was not difficult for those who wanted to believe this to find support for their attitude in the Address, which tended rather to present as already existing something which in reality was no more than a possibility developing from the character of the Commune. In any case, the fact that Bakunin’s agitation began to meet with greater approval in 1871 than ever before was due to the powerful impression made by the Paris Commune on the European working class.

The Address concluded with the words: “The Paris of the workers with its Commune will be commemorated for ever as the glorious herald of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its destroyers have already been pilloried by history, and not ail the prayers of their priests and parsons will be able to set them free.” The Address immediately created a tremendous sensation, and in a letter to Kugelmann Marx declared: “It has kicked up the devil’s own rumpus, and at the moment I have the honour of being the most slandered and most threatened man in London. It is doing me good after twenty long and boring years of idyllic isolation like a frog in a swamp. The government organ – The Observer – is even threatening me with prosecution. Let them try it! I snap my fingers at the canaille.” Immediately after the first howl of wrath had gone up, Marx had proclaimed himself as the author of the Address.

In later years he was reproached, even from social democratic sources, with having endangered the International by burdening it with the responsibility for the Commune although it had not been the duty of the International to shoulder any part of the responsibility. To defend the Commune against unjust attacks was very well, but he should have crossed himself in the face of its defects and errors. In any case, such opinions were not widely held and the tactic proposed might have been good for a liberal “Statesman,” but not for Marx just because he was Marx. It never occurred to him to endanger the future of his cause in the deceptive hope that he could thereby diminish the dangers which threatened it in the immediate present.

Karl Marx: The Story of His Life by Franz Mehring. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1918.

Contents: Author’s Preface, Chronology, I) EARLY YEARS, Home and School, Jenny Von Westphalen, II) A PUPIL OF HEGEL, The First Year in Berlin,The Young Hegelians, The Philosophy of Self-Consciousness, The Doctoral Disseration, The Anekdota and the Rheinische Zeitung, The Rhenish Diet, Five Months of Struggle, Ludwig Feuerbach, Marriage and Banishment, III) EXILE IN PARIS, The Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, A Philosophic Perspective, On the Jewish Question, French Civilization, The Vorwärts and the Expulsion of Marx, IV) FRIEDRICH ENGELS, Office and Barracks, English Civilization, The Holy Family, A Fundamental Socialist Work, V) EXILE IN BRUSSELS: The German Ideology, “True Socialism”, Weitling and Proudhon, Historical Materialism, The Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung, The Communist League, Propaganda in Brussels, The Communist Manifesto, VI) REVOLUTION AND COUNTER-REVOLUTION, February and March Days, June Days, The War against Russia, September Days, The Cologne Democracy, Freiligrath and Lassalle, October and November Days, An Act of Perfidy, And Another Cowardly Trick, VII) EXILE IN LONDON, The Neue Rheinische Revue, The Kinkel Affair, The Split in the Communist League, Life in Exile, The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Communist Trial in Cologne, VIII) MARX AND ENGELS, Genius and Society, An Incomparable Alliance, IX) THE CRIMEAN WAR AND THE CRISIS, European Politics, David Urquhart, G. J. Harney and Ernest Jones, Family and Friends, The Crisis of 1857, The Critique of Political Economy, X) DYNASTIC CHANGES, The Italian War, The Dispute with Lassalle, New Struggles in Exile, Interludes, Herr Vogt, Domestic and Personal Affairs, Lassalle’s Agitation XI) THE EARLY YEARS OF THE INTERNATIONAL, The Founding of the International, The Inaugural Address, The Breach with Schweitzer, The First Conference in London, The Austro-Prussian War, The Geneva Congress, XII) DAS KAPITAL, Birth Pangs, The First Volume, The Second and Third Volumes, The Reception of Capital, XIII) THE INTERNATIONAL AT ITS ZENITH, England France and Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, Bakunin’s Agitation, The Alliance of Socialist Democracy, The Basle Congress, Confusion in Geneva, “The Confidential Communication”, The Irish Amnesty and the French Plebiscite, XIV) THE DECLINE OF THE INTERNATIONAL, Sedan, After Sedan, The Civil War in France, The International and the Paris Commune, The Bakuninist Opposition, The Second Conference in London, The Disintegration of the International, The Hague Congress, Valedictory Twinges, XV) THE LAST DECADE, Marx at Home, The German Social Democracy, Anarchism and the War in the Near East, The Dawn of a New Day, Twilight, The Last Year, Bibliography, Index. 608 pages, illustrated.

PDF of 1935 book: https://archive.org/download/karlmarxstorylife/karlmarxstorylife.pdf

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