Basic Principles of Marxism – Part Two: 1848 Revolutions and the Paris Commune

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 86 April/May 1989 


In 1848 democratic revolutions against feudalism and absolutism shook the foundations of Europe. The February Revolution in France toppled King Louis Philippe. In Germany there were popular insurrections in Cologne, Vienna and Berlin. In Italy, Hungary and Poland liberation movements raised the banner of national unity and independence. These revolutions were in essence bourgeois-democratic and not socialist. Marx and Engels nevertheless worked energetically for their victory.

'Returning from exile, they based themselves in Cologne. Through the newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung, of which Marx was the editor, they became the representatives of the revolutionary wing of the democratic movement. Their writings form a handbook of the principles and tactics communists adopt in the national democratic revolution.

The victory of democracy, even of bourgeois democracy, by gaining for the working class the right to politically organise, was an essential step towards socialism. Therefore, as Engels wrote in 1847: ‘As long as democracy has not been achieved, thus long do Communists and democrats fight side by side, thus long are the interests of the democrats at the same time those of the Communists.’

Indeed in the Communist Manifesto itself they wrote that Communists ‘would fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way’ against the old order.

But Marx and Engels had no illu-sions in the bourgeoisie of 1848 and subjected it to remorseless criticism. Explaining why it played such a cowardly role Marx wrote: ‘The German bourgeoisie had developed so languidly, so timidly, so slowly that when it began to constitute a danger to feudalism and absolutism, it already found itself opposed on the other hand by the proletariat and all those strata of the city population the interests and ideas of which were identical with those of the proletariat . . . '

The bourgeoisie, therefore, was ‘inclined from the very start to betray the people and to make com-promises with the crowned representatives of the old society . . . '

Terrified by the mass movement whose final aim was not just democracy but the overthrow of all exploitation, the bourgeoisie reconstituted alliances with the monarchists and feudalists to defeat the 1848 revolutions. In France, where the working class was the most advanced, the bourgeoisie took part in the infamous massacre of workers in June 1848.

In 1848 the working class was socially and politically too weak to play the leading role in the revolution. But Marx and Engels drew essential lessons for the communist movement: in the age of capitalist ascendancy the bourgeoisie is incapable of playing a consistently democratic, let alone revolutionary, role. It is too terrified of the working class. Henceforth, the democratic revolution could achieve complete victory only if the working class has a leading role in the alliance of all the democratic forces. From its leadership of such an alliance, the working class, if it was strong enough, could then pass on to the socialist stage of the revolution.

These lessons were set out in the famous March 1850 Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League and in a series of brilliant pamphlets such as The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany.


The defeat of 1848 was followed by a period of political reaction. Marx and Engels, who had sought refuge in Britain, worked to reconstitute the Communist League. However, one of their emissaries was captured by Prussian authorities, who obtained a list of League sympathisers and organised the famous trial of Cologne Communists. Many of them were sentenced to long-term imprisonment. The Communist League was formally disbanded in 1852.

However, the future did belong to the working class and communism. This was ensured by the very development of European capitalism which in the 20 years after 1848 underwent massive expansion and development. This in turn, inevitably, produced a growing working class which began to fight for its own class interests.

Marx and Engels knew that the working class would only make progress if it had its own ideology and political organisation. In the decade of reaction which followed 1848, they worked to elaborate and strengthen the theoretical and ideological foundations for an independent working class organisation.

This work found its most enduring expression in Marx’s Capital, a scientific and revolutionary critique of bourgeois political economy. Volume One was published in 1867. It laid bare the laws of motion of capitalist society and showed that capitalism was riven by irreconcilable contradictions and contained within it the material conditions for the transition to a higher, socialist form of society, one free of class exploitation.

With Capital the working class’s struggle for socialism was placed on a firm and irrefutable scientific foundation. It contains the ideological and theoretical standpoint on which any independent working class organisation must be based. It is the working class’s weapon against all bourgeois and opportunist detractors of the communist movement and proletarian revolution  ̶  yesterday and today.


By 1857 the revolutionary movement had experienced a revival. This time it was primarily a working class movement. The economic crisis of 1857 had precipitated a new movement by English and French trade unionists and socialists which led to the formation, on 28 September 1864, of the first international working class organisation.

Though Marx had little to do with the organisational work to set up the First International, he was asked to join its leading committee. His writings and political work had earned him enormous credit in the working class movement. He eagerly took up the offer and even wrote the constitution of the new organisation.

Marx and Engels joined the First International immediately. They knew that the working class movement in 1864 was, from the standpoint of class consciousness, far behind that of 1848. Communism was not the prevalent ideology of the movement and opportunism was beginning to develop. The First International was by no means a revolutionary, communist movement. It combined many different working class and socialist trends and was full of contradictions and weaknesses. Marx and Engels also understood that the working class, which had grown by leaps and bounds, urgently needed an independent political organisation capable of advancing its own interests. Without this it would achieve nothing and remain the object of political manipulation by the bourgeoisie, the petit-bourgeoisie and the developing opportunists. In the First International Marx and Engels conducted a systematic ideological and political battle against petit-bourgeois opportunist trends. To firmly establish the principle that the working class required political organisation as an essential condition for its struggle, Marx and Engels had to wage bitter fights against the Anarchists in the International led by Proudhon and Bakunin.

Whilst fighting the Anarchists on the left, Marx and Engels also had to fight the English opportunists for an internationalist standpoint on Ireland. They worked hard and eventually succeeded in getting the International not only to support the Irish liberation struggle, but also to actively organise against British imperialism in England itself. It was during this period, in 1869, that they organised the biggest-ever demonstration in Britain in support of Irish political prisoners. Through this battle Marx and Engels established the fundamental communist principles of working class support for national liberation movements in the fight against imperialism.


The most outstanding and historic development during the period of the First International was the Paris Commune of 1871. Following the French bourgeoisie's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, the working class  ̶  communists, anarchists and other socialists  ̶  followed by the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie seized power in a popular insurrection. They formed the first-ever proletarian, working class state in history.

This was a momentous episode in the history of the working class. The French revolution of 1789 had brought the bourgeoisie to power. The Paris Commune brought to power the working class, spawned by capital, degraded, humiliated, starved and exploited. It was the first example in history of the majority, the exploited and oppressed, becoming the ruling class. It was the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Marx and Engels both warned against this seizure of power. They assessed that the working class was not yet strong enough to seize power and hold it. Yet, when the Parisian workers did take power, Marx and Engels set all their misgivings aside and pushed the First International to organise solidarity for the workers.

The French workers were showing the entire working class what real, proletarian democracy was. The ruling class’s standing army was eliminated and replaced by the armed people. The Commune became an executive and legislative body at the same time and the functions of the police and the law passed directly to the people

The bourgeoisie in France, in Germany and in Britain were aghast with terror and began to organise the counter-revolution. The Germans, who had just defeated the French ruling class, along with the British, extended credits to the French army.

When the Commune fell in May 1871 the ruling class revenge was bloody  ̶  24,000 workers were butchered. In his The Civil War in France, Marx however concluded: ‘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 priests will not avail to redeem them.’

Marx and Engels drew from the Paris Commune one fundamental lesson. Having formed its own independent organisations, the working class could not build socialism by merely taking over the existing bourgeois state. It could seize power only by smashing the bourgeois state apparatus and replacing it with the dictatorship of the proletariat: the majority of the people constituting itself as the ruling class and suppressing the old exploiting minority.


With the defeat of the Paris Commune, the First International was severely weakened. It formally ceased to exist in 1876.

After 1873 Marx spent most of his remaining years continuing his prodigious work on Capital. He died on 14 March 1883. Shortly before Marx’s death Engels had written his seminal work  ̶  Anti-Duhring (1878)  ̶  a critique of a petit-bourgeois professor who was gaining influence in the German Social Democratic Party. Hated by modern opportunists it remains one of the finest expositions of Marxism.

Lenin wrote that after Marx’s death ‘Engels continued alone as a counsellor and leader of the European socialists’. He wrote and published his famous Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1888) and numerous other pamphlets and articles on socialism, politics, philosophy and science. He played an important role, in collaboration with Marx's daughter Eleanor, in trying to create, through the Democratic Federation, a Marxist trend in the British socialist movement. He also played an important role in the formation of the Second International in 1889. Before his death on 5 August 1895 Engels also managed to edit and publish Volumes two and three of Marx’s Capital.

Today, with socialism in retreat an array of opportunists are brazenly attacking the principles of Marxism. To successfully resist this reactionary onslaught demands a thorough study and grasp of the ideological heritage that Marx and Engels created for the working class.


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