Karl Marx saw signs of a socialist future in the Paris Commune
When we talk about the role of the 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, clandestine organizations) reflecting the heterogeneous realities of the labor movement of the time.
As far as I know, there was no central apparatus as such, and no one was gainfully employed in its General Council. The International was a forum whose congresses discussed the major programmatic orientations of the workers’ movement and a militant network setting up concrete forms of solidarity between the struggles taking place in various countries. She had neither the will nor the ability to “lead” a revolution anywhere in the world – and the same goes for Marx and Engels.
That said, the IMWA tried to play an active role in the Commune and in the process that led to it. A distinction must be made here between the activities of the General Council based in London, of which Marx was undeniably the central figure, and those of the French sections, particularly those in Paris. The General Council made three declarations during the period from the start of the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870) to the immediate aftermath of the Commune, the most famous of which is The Civil War in France, which analyzes the war, its consequences and especially the Commune itself. Marx worked on the text from mid-April 1871 but did not finish it until the last days of Bloody Week.
The London Council had also been active in organizing solidarity with republican France, after the collapse of the Bonapartist regime, then with the Commune and, after its fall, with the exiled communards. He supported the march from London Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park on April 16, 1871 in support of the Parisian insurrection – but, surprisingly, he had some reservations about it due to tensions with the main organizer of the demonstration, the Association international democracy.
It is sometimes said that Marx and the London Council remained silent in public during the Commune. But the letters they sent to Time and other newspapers show that they were anxious to refute the calumnies spread by the Versailles press presenting them as German agents who organized the insurrection. And the situation in Paris was quite uncertain, with little chance 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 evict [Henri] Tolain, an eminent member already expelled from the Parisian section after his desertion at Versailles. This statement insisted that “the place of every French member of IWMA is undoubtedly on the side of the Paris Commune and not in the usurping and counter-revolutionary Assembly of Versailles”.
Marx and Londoners had to be careful – but they tried to intervene directly in events. This proved very difficult given the disruption of communications with the besieged French capital, surrounded by the Prussians and then also by the army of Versailles. The Paris section of the International had also been greatly weakened by the Bonapartist repression of the months preceding the conflict and, eventually, 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 emissary 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 break 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 outbreak of the Commune, he tried to radically reorganize the Parisian section, to change its direction and to direct it towards a politically more voluntarist attitude, to bring it closer to the line defended by the Blanquists. However, he doesn’t seem to have accomplished much at this point. More significant was his later role as a member of the council of the Commune and its Labor and Exchange Commission – a stronghold of Parisian internationalists.
From the end of March, a second emissary was 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 previously been part of Marx’s circle in London. She played a key role in organizing the most important women’s organization during the Commune, which pushed decisively for genuinely socialist measures, such as the requisitioning of factories abandoned by their owners and their transfer to the workers.
Marx was also in direct correspondence with other actors, in particular Leó Frankel, a Hungarian worker member of the IMWA and head of the Commune’s Labor Commission. Only part of this correspondence has been preserved, but it appears quite clearly that Marx essentially responds to the requests of his interlocutors.
He gives advice on various issues, most of them economic but not only, not sending ukases to be executed by others. He was immediately enthusiastic about what was happening in Paris, he made an intense effort to obtain reliable information and even to intervene, but he never attempted or pretended to carry out this experiment. On the contrary, he wanted to learn from it and reformulate fundamental points of his political thought in the light of this experience.