Karl Marx saw signs of a socialist future in the Paris Commune
When we talk about the role of IMWA, we must avoid anachronism. It was neither a solid organization of mass national parties, like the Second International founded in 1889, nor a centralized party of world revolution, as the Third International aspired to be. It was a rather loose network of heterogeneous components (unions, proto-parties, associations of emigrants, underground organizations) reflecting the varied realities of the workers’ movement of the time.
As far as I know, there was no proper central apparatus and no one had paid employment in its General Council. The International was a forum whose congresses discussed the main programmatic orientations for the workers’ movement and a militant network setting up concrete forms of solidarity between the struggles taking place in various countries. He had neither the will nor the ability to “lead” a revolution anywhere in the world – and the same is true of Marx and Engels.
However, IMWA tried to play an active role in the Municipality and in the process that led to it. A distinction must be made here between the activities of the General Council of London, of which Marx was undoubtedly the central figure, and those of the French sections, particularly in Paris. The General Council issued three declarations during the period extending from the start of the Franco-Prussian war (July 1870) to the immediate aftermath of the Commune, the most famous of which is Civil war in France, which analyzed the war, its consequences, and above all the Municipality itself. Marx worked on the text from mid-April 1871 but did not complete it until the last days of Bloody Week.
The Council of London had also been active in the organization of solidarity with Republican France, after the fall of the Bonapartist regime, then with the Commune and, after its fall, with the exiled Communards. He supported the march from Clerkenwell Green in London to Hyde Park on April 16, 1871 in support of the Paris uprising – but, surprisingly, he had some reservations about this due to tensions with the main organizer of the protest, the International Democratic Association.
It is sometimes said that Marx and the Council of London remained silent in public during the Commune. But the letters they sent to Times and other newspapers show that they wanted to refute the calumnies propagated by the Versailles press presenting them as German agents commanding the insurrection. And the situation in Paris was quite uncertain, with little chances of success for the Communards, as Marx soon realized.
However, at the end of April, the London Council issued a public statement confirming the decision to deport [Henri] Tolain, a prominent member already expelled by the Paris section after deserting at Versailles. This declaration insisted on the fact that “the place of each French member of the IWMA is undoubtedly on the side of the Paris Commune and not in the usurping and counter-revolutionary Assembly of Versailles”.
Marx and the Londoners had to be careful, but they tried to intervene directly in the events. This turned out to be very difficult given the breakdown in communications with the besieged French capital, surrounded by the Prussians and then also by the army of Versailles. The Parisian section of the International had also been severely weakened by Bonapartist repression in the months leading up to the conflict and, ultimately, by the enlistment of men in the army and the consequences of the war.
Shortly after the establishment of the Republic in September 1870, the Council of London decided to send a special envoy to Paris, with the full powers of the Council. They sent Auguste Serraillier, a Frenchman who had lived in Britain for many years and was close to Marx and Engels. Serraillier remained in Paris until the end of the Commune, with only a month’s hiatus at the end of the winter of 1871, to report to the Council.
It is not clear from the available documents what his mission was. But we know that in the months preceding the break-up of the Commune, he tried to reorganize in depth the Parisian section, to change its direction and to orient it towards a politically more voluntarist attitude, to bring it closer to the line. defended by the Blanquists. He didn’t seem to have accomplished much at this point, however. More important was his later role as a member of the Commune’s council and its Commission for Labor and Exchange – a stronghold of Parisian internationalists.
From the end of March, a second envoy is sent to Paris, the Russian Elisabeth Dmitrieff. An extraordinary figure, she was a true romantic heroine but also an extremely committed and articulate revolutionary, who had already been part of Marx’s circle in London. She played a key role in organizing the largest women’s organization during the Commune, which decisively pushed for truly socialist measures, such as the requisition of factories abandoned by their owners and their transfer to workers.
Marx was also in direct correspondence with other actors, in particular Leó Frankel, a Hungarian worker, member of IMWA and head of the Commune’s Labor Commission. Only part of this correspondence has been saved, but it is quite clear that Marx essentially responds to the requests of his interlocutors.
He advises on various matters, mostly economic but not only, not sending ukases to be performed by others. He was enthusiastic from the start about what was going on in Paris, he made an intense effort to get reliable information and even to intervene but he never tried or pretended to conduct this experiment. On the contrary, he wanted to draw lessons from it and reformulate fundamental points of his political thought in the light of this experience.