The Commune at 150: Socialists and the State

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Chris Maisano praises “Marxist reformism.” But for Marx himself, the Paris Commune of 1871 showed the need for revolution.

On March 18, 1871, workers raised the red flag over the Paris City Hall and proclaimed the Commune. The working class took up the traditions of the great French Revolution of 1789: “Citizens, to arms!” They set up a revolutionary government, elected directly by working people. They established the eight-hour day and introduced public education that was free in secular.

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In 1789, the sans-culottes had been pushing their bourgeois leaders to the left. Even in its most revolutionary phase, the Convention had defended bourgeois private property. That is why the revolution could never achieve the goal of “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” In 1871, however, the workers had seen that they could accomplish their goals only by breaking with the bourgeoisie and taking power for themselves.1

The Paris Commune represented a new era in the history of revolutions — but it also implied a breakthrough in Marxist theory. Marxism is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a “a summing up of experience [of revolutions], illuminated by a profound philosophical conception of the world and a rich knowledge of history.”2 Put another way: Marxism is the science of working-class revolution.

Before the Commune, socialists had understood that the working class was the force that could take power and create a new society. Marx and Engels proposed that after overthrowing the bourgeoisie, workers would create a “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the transition to socialism. Looking back at the Commune 20 years later, Engels stated clearly what that meant: “Do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

One-hundred and fifty years after the Commune, some socialists are trying to push a theory of “Marxist reformism.”3 In an editorial in the latest issue of Jacobin, Chris Maisano argues that running in elections as part of the Democratic Party is the central task for socialists. We will look at his arguments at the end of this article, after surveying the history of the Marxist position on the state. But Maisano does not — and could not — provide a single reference to Marx’s thinking or to the history of the workers’ movement that would justify what makes his reformism “Marxist.” In fact, “Marxist reformism” makes about as much sense as “atheist Catholicism” — it’s just not a thing.

Earlier Socialist Thought

The founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, wrote their Communist Manifesto on the eve of a wave of revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848. Yet their immediate program at the end of their pamphlet remains rather vague. Their vision was that the working class would fight alongside the bourgeoisie to topple absolutism, while maintaining a critical attitude and preparing to fight the bourgeoisie after democracy had been won.

Yet this perspective failed. In 1848, the bourgeoisie did not allow itself to be pushed to the left. The working class was much larger and more powerful than it had been in 1789. The bourgeoisie was scared that any serious revolutionary mobilization would turn against the interests of private property. So while the bourgeoisie in 1789 had taken the kings to the guillotine, the bourgeoisie in 1848 preferred to make compromises with the old order.

Marx and Engels drew the necessary lessons from this shift. Speaking to the Communist League in 1850, they said,

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible … it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power.

In other words, the working class would need to constitute itself as an independent political force, opposed to all wings of the bourgeoisie:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election, the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention.

Marx and Engels adopted a program of permanent revolution. Yet this program found no immediate application: after the defeat of the Springtime of the Peoples in 1848, reaction held sway in Europe for the next two decades. Marx wrote in 1852 that one of his main contributions to political thought was the idea that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Yet there was still no scientific answer to the question: What would such a revolutionary dictatorship look like? Above all: What would the proletariat do with the state apparatus that the bourgeoisie had inherited from feudalism and then perfected for its own ends?

The Form

When the working class of Paris established the Commune, they showed what workers’ power would look like. Workers could create their own state, composed of delegates elected directly by the rank and file. These delegates could be recalled at any time, creating a far more profound democracy than any bourgeois parliament can offer. The Commune would have both legislative and executive functions — not only passing laws but also implementing them. And instead of a bureaucracy separate from the working population, this workers’ government relied on the self-organized people to maintain order.

For Marx, the Commune was “the political form at last discovered.”

This model would appear in every future workers’ revolution. In Russia in 1917, such delegate bodies were called “soviets”; in Germany in 1918, they were called “Räte.” Other revolutionary processes have used different names. But the key is that such bodies of working-class self-organization are central to a Marxist theory of revolution. Workers’ councils start out as centers of resistance to capitalist rule, but in the course of a revolution, they become the basis of a workers’ government.

The Commune did not attempt to take over the existing state apparatus and issue new instructions to the officers, police, judges, and bureaucrats. The state apparatus is designed to serve the interests of a particular class. The bourgeois state guarantees the exploitation of the workers. Therefore, the workers must smash it. In Marx’s words, “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Thus, the Commune got rid of the standing army and police, and replaced them with the National Guard, which was nothing more than the citizens in arms.

Theoretical Retreat

The Paris Commune suffered a bloody defeat, and 30,000 workers were massacred. This established another period of reaction in Europe. In the following three decades, capitalism grew enormously and entered the imperialist era. Massive social democratic parties emerged in different European countries — the largest of them, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), counted up to a million members. These parties formally adhered to Marxism, but they were built in a time without revolutions, and many believed that workers’ living standards and democratic rights would strengthen only slowly and continuously.

It is no wonder, then, that socialist thinkers like Eduard Bernstein soon declared that the old ideas about revolution were no longer relevant. In Bernstein’s view, capitalism was becoming more harmonious, and the capitalist state was becoming more democratic — such developments would lead to “evolutionary socialism.”

The “Marxist center” of the SPD opposed Bernstein and hung on to Marxist orthodoxy. Karl Kautsky defended the idea of revolution — but only after social democracy had won a majority in parliament. Kautsky’s view was that a socialist party could slowly accumulate forces, waiting passively for revolution to fall into its lap: “It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.” Kautsky believed that a workers’ government would take over the existing state bureaucracies: “Our programme does not demand the abolition of state officials, but that they be elected by the people.”4

Even a revolutionary leader like V. I. Lenin long fell victim to this opportunist distortion of Marxism. Even as late as 1915, Lenin believed the working class could make use of the bourgeois state:

Socialists are in favour of utilising the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism.

It was only in the midst of a world war, on the eve of a new wave of proletarian revolutions, that Lenin could rediscover Marx’s ideas. The working class needs to follow the model of the Commune, smashing the bourgeois state and creating its own workers’ state. But these two kinds of states are qualitatively different. As Engels put it, the Commune had “ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term,” since it was no longer a privileged bureaucracy designed to maintain the rule of a minority — it was the majority of society, the working class, governing itself. A state is always an instrument of one class to oppress others — but a state like the Commune, in which the working-class majority oppresses the minority made up of former exploiters, is a state well on its way to becoming superfluous.

Bernstein’s idea that capitalism would become more peaceful was refuted in the most dramatic way possible. Just 15 years after he published his treatise, capitalist states around the world launched history’s greatest massacre. Kautsky was proved wrong as well. He had promised that on the “big day” when revolution arrived, he would switch to a “strategy of overthrow” — yet the revolution did arrive, and Kautsky positioned himself with the reformists trying to save capitalism.

Lenin’s positions were confirmed when the working class in Russia built soviets in 1917. These councils became the basis for a workers’ government on the model of the Commune.

Twentieth-Century Reformism

Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin were taken up by revolutionaries around the world. Yet reformism did not disappear. It reflected the interests of better-situated workers in the imperialist countries, and especially of the massive bureaucracies built on top of the workers’ movements, in the unions and social democratic parties.

Reformism got another big boost when Stalin — the “gravedigger of the revolution,” as Trotsky correctly characterized him — declared that communists were to aim for a peaceful transformation of society by aligning with the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie and forming Popular Fronts. Stalin’s lackeys, over the years, became more and more reformist. The so-called “Eurocommunists” of the 1970s were indistinguishable from social democrats.5 This kind of late-Stalinist reformism was theorized by Nicos Poulantzas, who postulated that the state was not an organ of class rule but rather a “condensation of class relations.” Thus, just as the working class can fight for hegemony in bourgeois society, Poulantzas postulated, it can also fight for hegemony within the state apparatus.

This was all presented as an “innovation” in Marxist thought. But it is really just a reformulation of Bernstein’s ideas about socialists joining the bourgeois state. This idea was first attempted in 1899 when Alexandre Millerand — the first socialist in history with a ministerial post — joined the French cabinet. Rosa Luxemburg, whose birthday was also 150 years ago, rejected this kind of “ministerialism” in principle:

The role of Social-Democracy6, in bourgeois society, is essentially that of an opposition party. It can only enter on the scene as a government party on the ruins of bourgeois society.

Eighty years later, the Stalinists of the French Communist Party joined a social democratic government under François Mitterrand. In both cases, the results were the same: socialist ministers offered left window dressing for a government that attacked the working class.

During the 20th century, the reformist thesis was put to the test again and again. There were social democratic governments in imperialist countries, such as those of Olaf Palme in Sweden or Mitterrand in France, that offered minor concessions to their working-class voters. But such reforms were possible only because the capitalists were making huge profits — when the economic situation got worse, these governments switched to “counter-reforms” and austerity. Despite all the talk about “structural reforms” that would transform private ownership to public, governments like those of Palme and Mitterrand never took even the smallest step in that direction — something that confounds reformists today.

There have also been examples of reformist governments that attempted to improve the lives of working people in a situation when the capitalists did not have enormous wealth available to redistribute. The social democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile, for example, was convinced that it could use its electoral majority to implement real reforms, such as nationalizing certain sectors of the economy. Allende discovered, far too late, just how “democratic” that state is when a section of the military led by General Augusto Pinochet carried out a military coup with the help of the CIA, and imposed a brutal neoliberal dictatorship lasting decades. This is about as close as humanity has ever gotten to the “reformist road to socialism.”

Reformism Made in the USA

And that brings us to the United States today. Politicians and media across the political spectrum say that we are living in “the greatest democracy in the world.” But as the country’s organic crisis deepens, more and more people are realizing that the United States is not very democratic at all. Representative democracy is hobbled at every step by an aristocratic Senate, an unelected Supreme Court, and an executive far removed from democratic control.

Would anyone claim that the U.S. state apparatus is subject to democratic control by the people? The United States maintains a gargantuan military armed with the deadliest weapons ever constructed; police forces that are also equipped with weapons of war; a prison system that keeps millions of people trapped like slaves; giant corporations that surveil every single person around the clock; and state bureaucracies run by lobbyists from the corporations they are supposed to regulate. Does anyone seriously think that such apparatuses will be fundamentally changed by voting? Quite the opposite: several decades of attempts at “police reform” and “community control” have proved, very clearly, that these apparatuses cannot be reformed.

This is the context in which Chris Maisano, writing in the latest issue of Jacobin, celebrates the successes of “Marxist reformism.” The Democratic Socialists of America have indeed experienced spectacular growth. The DSA was once a tiny sect trying to act as a pressure group in the Democratic Party, following the ideas of Michael Harrington, the chief theoretician of social democratic reformism in the U.S. Now the DSA has 100,000 members on paper, and Maisano can gush that “socialists have been elected to hundreds of offices around the country.” This, he claims, shows the correctness of “Marxist reformism.”

It has been a century since the United States had a mass socialist party. Maisano is convinced that the U.S. working class will become a political subject “largely (though not exclusively) through electoral politics.”

The problem here is not just that Maisano uses the term “electoral politics” to refer to supporting candidates of a capitalist party, as if it were inconceivable for socialists to participate in elections as representatives of the working class. No, this claim is particularly strange in the context of the largest protest movement in U.S. history. While millions of people were on the streets, Jacobin dedicated its cover to the failed campaign of a reformist politician who hoped to become the presidential candidate of an imperialist party.

Sanders, the great hope of this “Marxist reformism,” recently came out against raising the minimum wage to $15 anytime soon. “It was never my intention to increase the minimum wage to $15 immediately and during the pandemic,” Sanders said, according to The Hill. Apparently the country simply cannot afford that right now. Sanders does, however, consistently vote to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. military.

Reformism was never a realistic strategy for abolishing capitalism. But there were certain moments in history, such as the decades before World War I or the decades after World War II, when capitalism grew rapidly in the imperialist centers and reformism could at least offer minor reforms. Today, however, reformism appears like a terrible anachronism from a long-gone time. In 2019, Jacobin’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara published a book that he opened with a vision of how capitalism could develop peacefully toward socialism until 2038. Less than a year after the boon appears, the U.S. is experiencing a deadly pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis, and a mass uprising against police violence that has radicalized a generation.

Jacobin’s strategic vision requires at least 20 to 30 years of peaceful development:7 electing more and more Democratic Party politicians who identify as socialists, waiting for them to pass legislation so we can get some semblance of a capitalist welfare state, and then hoping that they attempt to make more structural reforms to the U.S. economy. But can anyone look at the world right now and assume that capitalism will allow for even a few decades of harmonious evolution?

This faith in capitalism’s supposedly peaceful nature informs the reformists’ view of the kind of party we need today. Sunkara talks about a kind of pre-1914 SPD, in which revolutionaries and reformists could be united without a common strategy. The condition for such a party to flourish, of course, is that capitalism have no major crises. It was precisely when a mass socialist party was most needed, when capitalism’s crises exploded in the form of war, that the SPD‘s model up to 1914 failed.

Reformism Ain’t What It Used to Be

Before 1914, not a single member of the SPD in Congress ever voted for the government’s budget. “Not one man and not one penny” was their motto. But when Maisano talks about hundreds of socialist officeholders, he fails to mention that the most prominent ones are voting to fund the Pentagon and ICE. Jacobin might make an occasional nod to anti-imperialism — yet its chosen representatives support imperialist policies pretty consistently.

Even Bernstein, the trailblazer of opportunism, was only ever talking about a working-class party forming alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie. Modern U.S. reformists, in contrast, want workers to unite in one party with the liberal bourgeoisie. Just a few short years ago, they talked about a “dirty break” with a capitalist party. Now the task of building a socialist party is now something to be taken up “eventually.”

This is, in fact, something they have in common with Kautsky. The leading thinker of centrism promised that the SPD would switch from its reformist policies to a “strategy of overthrow” some day. Today’s neo-Kautskyans similarly promise that they will break with a bourgeois party some day. But Creedence Clearwater Revival has a better grasp of Marxist politics than either Kautsky or Jacobin: “Someday never comes.”

This strategy of pushing the liberal bourgeoisie to the left is, at best, a kind of pre-1848 socialism, when the idea of class independence had not yet taken hold in the workers’ movement.

As the DSA continues to grow under the new Biden administration, many members will hope that they can pressure the White House to adopt more progressive policies. Just a month in, Biden has continued to deport people and lock children in cages. He has launched a bombing campaign in Syria while entirely surrendering the demand for a $15 minimum wage. If reformists cannot get the capitalist government to make even minor concessions, does it seem realistic to expect the capitalists to let their power slowly slip away until their very rule collapses?

When Maisano claims that the DSA’s growth proves the correctness of its “Marxist reformism,” it is worth remembering that less than a decade ago, Jacobin was offering the same praise for the reformist party Syriza in Greece. That party also experienced meteoric growth — so much so that this “coalition of the radical Left” ended up forming a government. This “government of the Left” submitted to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, applying the very austerity measures it had once promised to fight. Syriza and their supporters discovered, as if any proof were needed, that even under a “left government,” the state remains tied to the needs of capital.

This is the same warning that Luxemburg issued the very first time a socialist tried to join a government. Does this mean the Left should not aspire to govern? The workers of Paris showed the way 150 years ago: the working class can govern — not by taking over the capitalists’ state, but by smashing it and crating a workers’ state.

An Alternative

Maisano’s strategic hypothesis is based on the idea that we are living “after the Age of Revolutions.” Therefore, he writes, revolutionary politics are “incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy.” Again, a strange claim. How many people in the U.S. believe that either their democracy or their welfare state are “advanced”?

Any working person would offer a better assessment of the situation than this leading theorist of “democratic socialism.” The U.S. Constitution, once revered as an almost holy document, is recognized by millions of people as a charter written by enslavers. It is absolutely normal for young people to express hatred of capitalism.

An empiricist from Jacobin’s editorial board might say that there is no interest in revolutionary politics in the United States today. This is a reflection of our times: the world has not seen a successful revolution in several decades. And the most profound revolutionary processes of recent times, that of Egypt in 2011, led to bloody defeats.

Yet discontent and despair are growing everywhere. And it’s not like capitalism can promise anything for the future except for even greater crises.

Revolutions do not happen because a lot of people suddenly sign up for a Marxist party. Capitalism’s contradictions develop in a molecular process, beneath the surface — until they finally explode and sweep away the existing order. And when 54 percent of people in the United States support the burning of a police station in Minneapolis, is it that hard to imagine how the forces of revolution will emerge?

Had we asked a liberal in Paris in the year 1870 about revolution, they would have similarly scoffed: A revolution? Had not Paris been under the tight grip of a buffoonish (one might almost say “Trumpian”) dictator for two decades? Had not the last revolution in 1848 ended in bloody defeat, never to raise its head again? And yet the revolution was being prepared. Marx compared revolution to a “mole,” undermining the foundations of class society.

Social explosions and revolts are inevitable. But as we saw last summer, they will not necessarily beat the existing order. We need to build up a party that can transform an elemental revolt into a socialist revolution. In the face of such revolts, “socialists” inside a ruling-class party will stick to their progressive electoral campaigns. (This might sound like an exaggeration, but leading DSA members were campaigning for an imperialist politician while millions of people of color and young people were in the streets!)

There is a radicalization underway in the United States. The ongoing, multiple crises of capitalism will ensure that this radicalization continues. “Marxist reformism” is nothing more than a step of this radicalization, on the path to a new workers’ party that fights for socialism. Such a party will base its program on the brave example of the Communards from 150 years ago. They tried to “storm heaven,” and while they were defeated, they marked the road for later socialists to follow.

Notes

1 Left Voice will begin publishing a three-part history of the Paris Commune by historian Doug Enaa Greene on March 11. Stay tuned!
2 V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution, marxists.org.
3 Chris Maisano, “A Left That Matters,” Jacobin, No. 40, Winter 2021, 10–14.
4 Quoted in Lenin, State and Revolution.
5 Ernest Mandel, “The PCF and the State,” in From Stalinism to Eurocommunism: The Bitter Fruits of ‘Socialism in One Country (London: Verso, 1978).
6 Luxemburg was referring to the revolutionary socialist movement of her day, not today’s reformist social democracy.
7 As Jacobin’s Connor Kilpatrick put it: “Even at my most pessimistic, I’d say we’re looking at no more than twenty or thirty years max for a decent social-democratic project to truly take hold of American life.” Connor Kilpatrick, “We Lost the Battle, but We’ll Win the War,” Jacobin, April 8, 2020.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.