I wrote about some of the tactical points brought out in the articles in the third volume of Marx’s political writing published by Verso in an earlier post. The other important work of Marx’s in this book is “The Civil War in France” where he analyses the Paris Commune, Europe’s most significant revolutionary event since 1848. The seizure of power by the Paris workers prompts Marx to think about the nature of the state, the impact of its seizure by the working class, and the nature of state power after the revolution.
For Marx the structure of the state is inherently connected to the nature of the economic system on which it is based. So in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” he says:
“…the various states… have this in common, they all stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society although the degree of capitalist development varies.”
(Marx 2010, p. 355)
And in “The Civil War in France”:
“[the state’s] political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society.”
(Marx 2010, p. 207)
However Marx’s attitude to this capitalist state seems deeply ambiguous. On the one hand while Marx portrays the make up of the state as being broadly determined by developments in the wider society and economy, he also gives the impression that it is separate from it with an element of independence. It is not simply the tool of the ruling class. Characterising the state of the French late Second Empire he says:
“it was the only form of government possible when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”
(Marx 2010, p. 208)
In other words implying that it is an independent ruling entity dominated by a ruling class perhaps, but not an organic part of that ruling class. It is therefore a mechanism that the working class could perhaps take over and operate for its own purposes.
On the other hand, he is clear that the state is something that must be overcome by the revolution and is not simply a set of mechanical levers that can be taken over and operated by the working class:
“…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”
(Marx 2010, p. 206)
And of the specific progression of the Second Empire:
“the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of class despotism.”
(Marx 2010, p. 207)
Marx outlines how the Paris Commune represents a clear break and a separate form to the bourgeois state of the Second Empire. A “working body” where the representatives were revocable and paid workers’ wages and supported by a National Guard of the people rather than a professional army. By constituting a new structure outside the existing state the Commune represented an opportunity for truly revolutionary change.
“It was essentially a working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”
(Marx 2010, p. 212)
“The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”
(Marx 2010, p. 212)
Here Marx seems to be saying that the state is not an independent entity to be taken over by the working class movement and used for its own purposes. Instead the existing state is inextricably linked to the domination of the capitalist class, and therefore rather to be wholly overthrown and replaced by a new and separate structure.
This is crucially important for deciding the strategy of a movement aiming at the fundamental transformation of society. Should it work within the existing ‘rules of the game’ or seek to subvert them? In “The Civil War in France” Marx is writing about a specific contemporary event rather than outlining theory and this obviously colours his approach, but well worth studying for all that.
Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)