Marx200: the Paris Commune and the Marx family


The Paris Commune only lasted from March 28 to May 28, 1871 but it inspired Karl Marx and continues to inspire and inform socialists today, argues Judy Cox

The Paris Commune transformed the international socialist movement and irrevocably changed the lives of the entire Marx family. 18e March 1871, the French government surrenders to the German armies of General Bismark. The city of Paris had endured appalling hardships during a period of siege by German troops and was reluctant to surrender. French Minister Adolph Thiers sent French troops to disarm the Paris National Guard which was made up of workers. In the early morning, women delivering milk from house to house spread the news that the soldiers of Thiers are taking the guns. Hundreds of Montmartroises surrounded the cannon and confronted General Lecomte. He ordered his soldiers to shoot, but the women called on them and the troops chose to shoot their general instead. By noon most of the cannons were in the hands of the Parisians. They took the defense of the city into their own hands and, in doing so, created new and innovative ways to organize the city and implement democratic control from below.

The revolutionary council elected on March 26 not only organized essential services, but also adopted a wide range of social measures. The Council disbands the standing army and separates the Church from the State, ending religious rule over the schools and confiscating Church property. Marx described the importance of this legislation: “Having got rid of the element of physical force of the old government, the Council broke the spiritual force of repression, or “power of the pastor”. The civil servants of the Commune received only an average worker’s salary and were immediately dismissed. The Commune reformed working conditions by abolishing night work for bakers and limiting the working day to 10 hours. They also explored ways to transform the very nature of work by giving workers the right to take over workshops left empty when owners fled town.

The democratic system meant that the government was responsive to workers’ demands. The death penalty has been abolished. Parisians dragged the guillotine to Place Vendôme and burned it in front of a jubilant crowd. Tools and household items pawned during the siege were returned. Unmarried partners of soldiers received pensions. Marx described the impact of these measures:

When the Commune of Paris took over the management of the revolution, simple workers dared for the first time to encroach on the governmental privilege of their natural superiors… the old world writhed in rage at the sight of the red flag, symbol of the Republic du Travail, flying over the Town Hall.

For two months, the workers, craftsmen and poor city dwellers of Paris are in the saddle and an immense surge of creativity is unleashed. The walls were lined with news posters. The painter Gustav Courbet organized a Federation of Artists which confiscated the art collection stored in the Parisian mansion of Adolph Thiers. At Courbet’s instigation, militarist statues are pulled down. Artists write manifestos calling for “Community Luxury” and “Public Beauty”. Political clubs sprung up throughout the city, including the Women’s Union. Contemporary commentators scoffed at the large number of women who attended club meetings. Hostile contemporaries described how screaming women with crying babies and red sashes dominated some of these clubs. Marx saw it differently: “The real women of Paris again showed the heroic, noble and devoted surface. Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris, almost unconscious in its incubation of a new society, of the Cannibal at its gates – beaming in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative!

The Marx family

The Commune transformed Marx’s home in London into a public place, first of fervent debate and organizing, then a place of refuge for the flood of penniless and persecuted Communards. One of the Marx family’s oldest friends, Gustav Flourens, was elected an official of the Commune but was captured and shot on 3rd April. The grief at the Marx home was deeply felt, with Jenny Marx calling Flourens, “The bravest of the brave”. Laura Marx was married to French revolutionary Paul Lafargue and lived in Bordeaux. In the spring of 1871 Laura had a sick child and a new baby. Lafargue was arrested after visiting the Commune, as an envoy of the First International and for being the son-in-law of Karl Marx. Jennychen and Eleanor, who were only 16, were determined to visit their sister. They traveled through France on fake passports using Williams’ name to hide their relationship with their notorious father. The two young women were nevertheless arrested and interrogated for several days as officials first tried to have them incriminate Paul Lafargue and then accused them of being subversive. At one point, the policeman in charge asked Jennychen: “And the International – is the association strong in England? She replied defiantly, “Yes, the most powerful and so it is in all countries!” Eventually, Jennychen and Eleanor were released. Back in London, they helped organize the rescue of desperate Communard refugees, a campaign they took very personally. Jennychen married the exiled communard Charles Longuet in 1872 and Aliénor became engaged to Hippolyte-Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, historian of the Commune.


The Commune transformed Marx from an obscure socialist activist into a figure of international hatred. Those terrified of the Commune refused to believe that ordinary men and women were capable of running their own towns and sought out the real “leaders”. They found Marx who was portrayed as the ‘Red Doctor’ and ‘Dr Terror’. He wrote to a friend: “I have the honor of being the most slandered and threatened man in London at this moment. It really feels good after a tedious idyll of 20 years in the woods. Marx’s account of the Commune, The Civil War in France, sold thousands of copies and was translated into all major European languages. It was in this book that Marx revealed what the Communards had achieved by creating their own state: “One thing in particular has been proved by the Commune – that labor cannot simply take over the apparatus of ready-to-use state and use it for his own purposes”. . The Commune exposed the nature of the capitalist state and this proved crucial to Lenin’s State and Revolution which translated the liberating potential of the Commune into the conditions of Russia in 1917.


“A gender event”

Writer Rachel Holmes calls the Commune a “genre event”. Marx recognized the role of communard women in his writings and he encouraged female militants. Elizabeth Dimitrieff was a 20-year-old Russian socialist who was sent to London to meet Marx. She spent three months in London, talking to Marx and befriending his daughters. When the First International decided to send a representative to be “its eyes and ears” in Paris, Marx appointed Dmitrieff. Dimtrieff is more than a representative: she becomes a figurehead of the Commune.

Natalie Lemel was a radical Parisian bookbinder. In the 1860s, she became a strike leader, which was unusual for a woman, and campaigned for equal pay. She joined the First International in 1865. Lemel published one of hundreds of public addresses that gives an idea of ​​her determination to fight: “We have arrived at the supreme moment, when we must be able to die for our Nation. No more weakness! No more uncertainty! All women to arms! All women to duty! Versailles must be annihilated!

In April, Dimitrieff and Lemel founded the “Women’s Union” to strengthen support for the Commune among working women and organize support for the wounded. Every member of the Union was to join the First International. The Union campaigned for equal pay, for girls’ education, for the right to divorce and for work. It became one of the most powerful organizations in the Commune.

Anna Jaclard was another young Russian who corresponded with Marx and alongside Louise Michel, she created the Vigilance Committee of Montmartre which organized ambulances and campaigned for women’s rights. When the Commune calls for help, Anne Jaclard’s committee proclaims: “The women of Montmartre, driven by the revolutionary spirit, want to attest by their actions to their devotion to the Revolution”. Anna was one of the many communard refugees who went to Marx to escape execution or deportation. The fact that several prominent female Communards had direct ties to Marx and the First International suggests that Marx actively promoted female activism. There were thousands of other women insurgents in 1871, women who shed prejudice and asserted their right to participate in the creation of a new society.


The bloody week

The 22ndn/a May the French government launch its murderous crackdown on the Commune. For a week, soldiers burned, shot and shelled their own capital. The last battle took place in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Some 25,000 children, women and men were shot against the cemetery walls and across Paris thousands more were imprisoned and transported. Dmitrieff, Lemel and many other women stood on the barricades for days on end. The extreme brutality demonstrated by the French government reveals the depth of the ruling class’s fear and hatred of the Commune. Eugène Pottier wrote the socialist anthem, L’Internationale, to commemorate the dead in Paris and the durability of their vision of a disrupted society.


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