The Significance of the Paris Commune 152 Years After

Paris Commune
I would like to thank the International Manifesto Group for hosting this event, and for inviting me to say a few words about the relevance of that heroic experiment in socialist democracy which took place 152 years ago.

My discussion of the Paris Commune’s relevance, and of the relevance of Marx and Engels’s reflections on it, will revolve around three key points.

First, the worldview through which Marx and Engels approach the Paris Commune.

Second, the conclusions they derived from their study of the Commune, how the Commune helped them refine and concretize their understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and what relevance these have today.

Third, if we are faithful to the worldview through which Marx and Engels approach the Commune – and not limit ourselves to simply accepting the conclusions, we come to see that after 152 years since the birth of the Commune, we have had many socialist experiments from which we can learn in ways similar to Marx and Engels with the Paris Commune. The experience of these offers us many lessons – I would like to mention just two of them: 1 – the necessity of developing the productive forces, the sciences and technologies, and the military capacities of the state to protect its sovereignty from imperialism; and 2 – the necessity of adapting socialism to the conditions of the context it is taking root in.

1- Marx and Engels’s Approach to the Commune

As I am sure most know, in September 1870, six months before the establishment of the Paris Commune, Marx would say that “any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly.”[1] In the coming months, as the antagonism between the bourgeois government and the armed workers developed, an attempt was made in March 18th 1871 to disarm the workers. The workers refused to give up arms, and war between Paris and the French government ensued. The Commune was elected on March 26, and proclaimed on the 28th. As the situation unfolded, Marx was turned from a skeptic to an ardent supporter of the Communard’s actions. Less than a month after the Commune was proclaimed, he would go on to say, “what resilience, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians!” They were “storming the heavens,” and “History has no like example of [such] greatness.”[2]

I think the significance of this transition in Marx is often undermined. Over the last century, large sections of the Western left have expected the socialist and anti-colonial people’s movements which have arisen in the global South and East to measure up to their standards of what socialism ought to be. If these movements fail to meet the purity with which socialism is treated in their minds, they are condemned by the Western left as ‘authoritarian,’ ‘Stalinist,’ ‘state capitalist,’ or ‘not real socialism’ (which is my personal favorite because of its paradoxical character). The outlook of the Western Marxists is a complete inversion of the one which mediates Marx’s study of the Commune. The Commune was not ‘pure,’ it had its downfalls and contained serious ideological deviations from Marx and Engels’s thought, not least of which is the influence of Blanquism and Proudhonism. This did not prohibit them, however, from supporting the Commune and learning from it.

Lenin, as always, saw this with extreme clarity. He said that “when the mass revolutionary movement of the proletariat burst forth, Marx, in spite of the failure of that movement, in spite of its short life and its patent weakness, began to study what forms it had discovered.”[3] Marx and Engels, Lenin would go on to say, “examined the actual experience of a mass proletarian movement and tried to draw practical lessons from it,” “re-examining [their] theory in light of it.”[4] They did not treat socialism as an abstract ideal they could use to denounce emancipatory movements. Since the middle of the 1840s, Marx and Engels refused to treat communism as a static “state of affairs… an ideal to which reality [would] have to adjust itself.”[5] Instead, their commitment was to “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”[6]

Today, many self-proclaimed Marxists in the West prefer to hold on to socialism as a pure unchanging ideal than to have that ideal be desecrated by the lessons which have arisen from the difficulties of constructing socialism in the imperialist stage of capitalism. Instead of learning from the successes and failures of revolutionary movements in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela, and so on, many are content with condemning these real movements of history because they don’t measure up to the pure ideal in their heads. Samir Amin put it nicely in respect to China when he said that “China bashing panders to the infantile opinion found in some currents of the powerless Western left: if it is not the communism of the twenty-third century, it is a betrayal!”[7] I think it is clear that the truth of this statement spans well beyond just China. It is grounded in the purity fetish outlook – a form of engagement with the world which couldn’t be any further from Marx and Engels’s dialectical materialist worldview.

Where Marx and Engels, as dialectical materialists, emphasize the material movement of history, the purity fetish of the Western left emphasizes a static pure ideal. If we are to celebrate, as we are, the Paris Commune by reflecting on the relevance of Marx and Engels’s insights on it, without a doubt the question of the worldview through which they approached the world is of utmost primacy. Without this, their genuine insights are nothing more than dead conclusions, severed from the form of thinking which would allow us to do today what Marx and Engels did 152 years ago; that is, to learn from the dialectical movement of the working masses towards freedom.

2- What the Commune Taught Marx and Engels

In emphasizing the worldview behind Marx and Engels’s assessment of the Commune I am not saying that the conclusions drawn are unimportant or outdated. Both the worldview and the conclusions must be seen in light of each other, and each in light of their context. Nonetheless, the fundamental lessons of the Commune remain today as relevant and true as ever. In the preface to the 1872 German edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels would make only one correction to that historical document explicit – they said, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”[8]

Previously, Marx and Engels’s comments in the Manifesto on the working class’s conquest of political power said the following:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.[9]

I will return to the question of the development of the productive forces in the following section, but for now, it is important to note how the Commune helped Marx and Engels refine their understanding of the state itself, and more specifically, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In a speech given the month the Commune was overthrown, Marx would say that as the antagonism between capital and labor intensified, “state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.”[10] It was not simply the case that the modern state was “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” but also that the state institutions and structures through which this aim was achieved – that is, the “standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, judicature,” and so on, were designed precisely for the sake of this function.[11]

The proletariat could not successfully wield state power through state institutions crafted to keep labor subordinated to capital. For the proletariat, as the Manifesto urges, to be organized as the ruling class, it needed to smash the existing bourgeois state and replace it with working class institutions of “a fundamentally different order.”[12] The Commune showed that the state had to be transformed from being “a ‘special force’ for the suppression of a particular class to the suppression of the oppressors by the ‘general force’ of the majority of the people – the workers and peasants.”[13] Hence, Marx says that “Paris could resist only because … the first decree of the Commune … was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”[14]

Qualitative changes of this character were found in the Commune’s transformations of public functionaries, which were now paid “workmen’s wages” and “revocable”; in the application of universal suffrage; in the new judicature; in the making of “education … accessible to all,” freeing science “from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it;” in short, in destroying the state as a “parasitic excrescence” which represses labor for the sake of capital, and putting in its place a genuinely democratic working class state which would use the general force of society to repress the old exploiting classes and administer state functions in the interests of the mass of people.[15] This is what the dictatorship of the proletariat, as a higher form of socialist democracy, entails.

This lesson is more vital today in our neoimperialist stage of capitalism – as Cheng Enfu and Lu Baolin label it – than it was in 1871, and perhaps even more vital than it was in 1916 at the time of Lenin’s major writing on Imperialism.[16] Today, any revolutionary process which sustains even the smallest space for bourgeois political parties and participation will be leaving a door open for imperialism’s entry through its collaboration with the national bourgeoisie. Since the tragic overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Chile in September 11th 1973; to the lawfare coups against Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from 2016 to 2018; to the astroturfed 2018 protests against Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista revolution; to the propping up of the clownish Juan Guaido as ‘interim president’ of Venezuela in an effort to destroy the Bolivarian revolution; to the fascist 2019 coup in Bolivia which killed dozens of workers and indigenous protesters; it is clear that in so far as bourgeois state structures remain – even if under the control of a worker’s or socialist party – a window will always be open for the national bourgeoisie to collaborate with imperialism in bringing forth what W. E. B. Du Bois called a “counterrevolution of property.”[17]

It is much more difficult to imagine a figure like Guaido or Jeanine Áñez getting as far as they did under worker states like Cuba, China, Vietnam, and the DPRK. Why is this the case? Let us recall the categorial distinction Mao makes in 1957 between political and economic capital. While sustaining that economic capital does not necessarily have to be stripped all at once, that is, as Marx had already noted, that it can be ‘wrested by degree’ from the bourgeoisie, in accordance with the role it plays in developing the productive forces for socialism, “political capital,” Mao says, must be “deprived … until not one jot is left to [the capitalists].”[18] As Domenico Losurdo has eloquently noted,

It is, therefore, a matter of distinguishing between the economic expropriation and the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. Only the latter should be carried out to the end, while the former, if not contained within clear limits, risks undermining the development of the productive forces. Unlike ‘political capital,’ the bourgeoisie’s economic capital should not be subject to total expropriation, at least as long as it serves the development of the national economy and thus, indirectly, the cause of socialism.[19]

This is where revolutions like the Bolivarian, the Bolivian, the Nicaraguan, and others (for all their successes) have fallen somewhat short – they have not been able to fully expropriate the political capital of their bourgeoisie, and neither have they been able, subsequently, to complete the process of the proletarianization of the state, that is, of the construction of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is not a condemnation. I am, like Marx and Engels were with the Commune, an ardent supporter of these emancipatory movements; I consider there to be a lot to learn from them. But as Marx and Engels had already noted with the Commune, in not going far enough in their use of the repressive apparatuses of the worker’s state, the door was left open for counterrevolution. As Engels wrote in 1872, “would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?”[20] Lenin says something similar in 1908, arguing that the Commune, “instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.”[21]

I think a similar question should, and from what I have seen is, asked by our comrades in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and so on – that is, to what extent can the proletarianization of the state prevent the conditions which gave rise to the disturbances of 2018 to 2020? In other words, how can the interests of the bourgeois and landholding sections of the population, those which have consistently collaborated with imperialism’s hybrid warfare to overthrow popular revolutions, be excluded from power in any of the state’s institutions? These are all complex questions which must be addressed organically as these revolutions develop. It is also clear that, in some of these left-wing governments in South and Central America (especially the more moderate ones), certain biases inherited from the sham bourgeois notion of democracy – which reduces democracy to a parliamentarian game of choosing which flavor of bourgeois rule a people will have for the next few years – must be outgrown and replaced by the concrete question of “democracy for which class?”[22]

Without a doubt, these recent Latin American experiments in 21st century socialism have succeeded in making this transition in many areas. Who can forget, for example, the eight Silvercorp mercenaries caught in 2020 by Venezuelan fishermen and Bolivarian militias in the coastal town of Chuao? What a better example of the general force of the people taking up the role of repressing the enemies of the revolution? However, the threat presented by imperialist hybrid warfare – it seems to me at least – can be better averted as bourgeois state institutions are overcome, and proletarian and popular ones are put in their place.

3- Learning From the Many Communes of the 20th and 21st Century

Since the fall of the Commune 152 years ago we have seen many Socialist experiments arise, some which are still with us, others which suffered the same fate as the Commune. The ‘Marxists’ of the West, in their majority, have been unable to carry forth the legacy of Marx and Engels’s approach to the Commune. The plethora of Socialist experiments which have arisen have been, in one form or another, condemned for their impurities. This has prevented not only a genuine show of anti-imperialist solidarity, but also the ability to draw lessons from the successes and failures of these experiments. The failures have often been magnified, de-contextualized, and synecdochally painted as the whole experience.

Against this theoretical current dominant in the powerless Western left, we must bring forth the living spirit of Marxism to our study of 20th and 21st century Socialist experiments – the vast majority of which have been incredibly successful despite being under the boot of constant imperialist hybrid warfare. Out of this study I think two key lessons must be drawn, both of which are found already in Marx and Engels’s analysis of the Commune in a more or less implicit fashion.

First, in the age of imperialism, or Neoimperialism, socialist experiments must focus on developing not only an efficient worker’s state, but also the forces of production, the sciences and technologies, and the securities and defense structures of the state. In China, for instance, these goals were conceptualized by Zhou Enlai as the four modernizations. Without these developments, which are made exceedingly difficult by the reality of imperialism and its global dominance over intellectual property, a socialist project will be unable to flourish. Without these developments, the global inequality between the looting imperialist powers and everyone else – or, to use the despicable metaphor from EU foreign-policy chief Joseph Borrell, the inequalities between the garden and the jungle, will not be bridged, and the imperialist powers will maintain their global position unthreatened.

The success of China, which stands today as the beacon of a new, post-Columbian world, testifies to the immense importance of these developments in the battle against capitalist-imperialism.

The emphasis on developing the productive forces, of course, is seen throughout the whole corpus of Marx and Engels’s work – their writings on the Commune included. For instance, an important critique Engels levied on the Commune was that “in the economic sphere, much was left undone;” they did not take the Bank of France, which could have put “pressure on the whole of the French bourgeoisie [to have] peace with the Commune.”[23] Lenin made a similar critique, saying that the Communards “stopped half-way: instead of setting about ‘expropriating the expropriators,’ [they] allowed [themselves] to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task.”[24]

In our age, after the experience of the Soviet New Economic Policy, Yugoslavia’s socialist market economy, and most importantly, of China’s Reform and Opening up – where socialist markets have been developed and private ownership sustains a large but auxiliary role in the development of the productive forces – we have learned that this development can take many forms. In some cases, such as Cuba, the full expropriation of the expropriators was immediately necessary. In other cases, such as China, the development of socialism has always maintained – since the pre-49 liberated areas – a ‘mixed’ economic form, where private property and markets exist within the centrally planned state economy. Far from using cherry picked comments from Marx and Engels to condemn these developments, we should do with them what they did with the Commune. We should learn from them and attempt to understand how these forms have become necessary for the real movement of history which abolishes the present state of things.

The second important lesson which subsequent socialist experiments have taught us concerns the relationship of socialism to a people’s national history. I think here, again, the failure of the Western and US left is grounded in a problem of worldview. The dialectical worldview (both in Hegel and in Marxism) rejects the idea of an unchanging, pure, ahistorical universal, and instead urges that universals are necessarily tied to historically changing concrete particulars. Universals are always concrete – that is, they exist and take their form through the particular. “The universal,” as Hegel and Lenin emphasized, “embraces within itself the wealth of the particular.”[25]

What does this tell us about socialism? Well, simply that there is no such thing as abstract socialism. Socialism is the universal which cannot exist unless concretized through the particular. In every country it has taken root in, socialism has had to adapt itself to the unique characteristics of the peoples that have waged and won the struggle for political power. In China this has taken the form of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics; in Cuba this has meant incorporating José Martí and the anti-colonial traditions into socialist construction; in Venezuela this has taken the form of Bolivarian socialism; in the Plurinational state of Bolivia this has taken the form of combining Marxism with the indigenous communist traditions which have been around for centuries; in the continent of Africa this has taken the form of Pan-African socialism, and so on. In each case the struggle has been, as Georgi Dimitrov had already noted in 1935, “national in form and socialist in content.”[26]

In various parts of the U.S. left, the purity fetish outlook has obscured this historical lesson, and made rampant the phenomenon which Dimitrov called national nihilism. Their people’s history is reduced to slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, and all the evils of capital and the state. In doing so, they reject drawing from their national past to give form to socialist content. Far from the ‘progressivism’ they see in this, what this actually depicts is a liberal tinted American exceptionalism, which thinks that the struggle for socialism in the US will itself not have to follow this concrete universal tendency seen around the world, where socialism functions as the content which takes form (i.e., concretizes) according to the unique circumstances in which it is being developed.[27]

This has prevented the U.S. left from genuinely learning from its progressive history and connecting with its people. A perfect example of this is the fact that, from 1865 to the counterrevolution of 1876, in many previous slave states of the U.S. South, reconstruction developed a dictatorship of labor. This dictatorship of labor was headed by the black proletariat – who had recently freed itself through a general strike that converted the war to preserve the union into a revolutionary war to emancipate slave labor. It was organized by the Freedman’s Bureau and defended militarily by the federal government. It was our Paris Commune; it started before and lasted way longer than the original. Like the Paris Commune, it also fell thanks to a counterrevolution of property. Besides the few on the U.S. left who take the work of the great Dr. Du Bois serious – this legendary experience of a new worker’s democracy, not unlike the Paris Commune, is a largely erased and forgotten period of U.S. revolutionary history, and it has so, so much to teach us, both tactically and theoretically.


I am honored to have had the privilege of discussing this Titanic event in world-history with all of you today.

Whether we consider the Paris Commune the first modern dictatorship of the proletariat, or give that title to the black proletariat in the U.S. South, is somewhat irrelevant. What matters, in my view, is that the Paris Commune, as Lenin argued, by fighting “for the freedom of toiling humanity, of all the downtrodden and oppressed,” is still being honored 152 years after its fall “by the proletariat of the whole world.”[28] This is why, in the words of Lenin, “the cause of the Commune did not die … it lives to the present day in every one of us.”[29]


[1] Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 2021), 35.

[2] Karl Marx, “Marx to Kugelmann,” April 12, 1871. In Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 44, International Publishers., pp. 131-132.

[3] V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1970), 47.

[4] Lenin, The State and Revolution, 40, 30.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, MECW Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 49.

[6] Engels, MECW Vol. 5, 49.

[7] Samir Amin, Only People Make Their Own History: Writings on Capitalism, Imperialism, and Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019), 110.

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (New York: Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005), 45.

[9] Marx and Engels, MECW Vol. 6, 504.

[10] Marx, The Civil War in France, 62, 61.

[11] Marx, MECW Vol. 6, 486; Marx, The Civil War in France, 61.

[12] Lenin, The State and Revolution, 35.

[13] Lenin, The State and Revolution, 36.

[14] Marx, The Civil War in France, 64.

[15] Marx, The Civil War in France, 65.

[16] Cheng Enfu and Lu Baolin, “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism,” Monthly Review  73(1) (May 2021).

[17] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (New York: The Library of America, 2021), 697- 762.

[18] Mao Tse-Tung, “Talks at a Conference of Secretaries of Provincial, Municipal and Autonomous Regions Party Committees,” In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 5 (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1977), 357.

[19] Domenico Losurdo, “Has China Turned to Capitalism?—Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, International Critical Thought 7(1) (2017), 18-19.

[20] Engels, MECW Vol. 23, 425.

[21] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 13 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 476.

[22] Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 28, 249.

[23] Engels, “Introduction,” in The Civil War in France, 10-11.

[24] Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 13, 476.

[25] G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Trans. A.V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1993), 58.

[26] Georgi Dimitrov, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1938), 61-64.

[27] For more on national nihilism and the Western left see my article “The Importance of Combatting National and Historical Nihilism,” Midwestern Marx Institute (February 2023): or my book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (Dubuque: Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2023).

[28] Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 17, 143.

[29] Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 17, 143.

This is an elongated version of a speech for the International Manifesto Group and Midwestern Marx Institute co-hosted event on the Paris Commune’s Significance. To attend Sunday March 19th at 10 am EST click HERE. You may also find the recording after the event in the IMG’s YouTube Channel HERE and in the Midwestern Marx Institute’s YouTube Channel HERE

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American PhD student and instructor in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (with an MA in philosophy from the same institution). He is an editor at the Midwestern Marx Institute and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. Carlos is the author of the forthcoming book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023) and edited and introduced Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview: An Anthology of Classical Marxist Texts on Dialectical Materialism (2022). His popular and scholarly writings are usually on topics relating to Marxist theory, U.S. socialist history, and global struggles against imperialism.
Originally published in MidWesternMarx

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