Karl Marx

Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/menu.inc).

Karl Marx on the Weight of History

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 25/07/2021 - 7:12am in

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. […]Men make their own history, but they do not make it … Continue reading →

George Comninel, ‘Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/06/2021 - 6:00am in


Blog, Karl Marx, Labour


The revival of Marx and Marxism emerged as one of the inevitable consequences of the critical questioning of capitalism with the long-term effects of the Global Crisis by 2007-8. Seeking to carry ‘the renaissance of Marx and Marxism’ forward, Palgrave-Macmillan’s Series expands the studies on Marx, Engels and Marxism(s) with several titles, including George Comninel’s recent contribution: Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx. This book sheds light on the origins of the method of historical materialism and the different departure points of different Marxism(s) from the work of Marx and Engels, eventually opening up a rift between historical materialism’s main focus and various Marxisms’ strategic arrangements of political theory.

Marx’s original conception of historical materialism explores and politicizes the forms of exploitation and the existence of private property. As a result of this, alienation is the central focus in Marx’s attempt to conceptualize capitalism. Hence, without breaking the link between Marx and the influence of the political context after the French Revolution on his thought, (human) emancipation considered by Comninel as Marx’s main motivation to engage with philosophy and politics, especially in the period when Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology and the Manifesto. Comninel’s second important focus here is how Marxism(s) coming after the founding fathers interpreted these works. However, these references of Marxism(s) according to Comninel were under the influence of liberal materialisms of the precursors and contemporaries of the founding fathers.

Summary of Content & Topical Scope & Key Issues

Comninel’s purpose is to introduce Marx’s approach in relation to the “social history of political theory”, a mode of examination in which the “social, political and economic context of an author, and not merely the contemporary context of ideas, not only powerfully shaped the author’s thought but generally constituted the terrain of its engagement” (p. xv).

At the heart of this effort, Political Marxism appears as a practice Comninel associates his and his circle’s approach with. Political Marxism as a tradition seeks “to emphasize that in pre-capitalist forms of class society the supposed separation of political and economic spheres of social existence does not exist even in superficial appearance as it does on capitalism” (p. xvii). The significant question here is: ‘what constitutes capitalism? What characterizes capitalist relations relies on the forms of extraction, economic relations in wage labour and market compulsion, while the ‘real secret’ is the second form of compulsion experienced by capitalists themselves. In other words, what transforms the non-capitalist social property relations to capitalist social property relations is essentially the mode of production becoming completely dependent on market relations (p. xix).

After a methodological clarification, attention then turns to Marx and the context of his very early works, starting with the debates surrounding Hegel’s philosophy. Rather than offering a rudimentary biographical summary, Comninel draws our attention to the story of Marx’s early life, primarily by showing the influence that the French Revolution had on Marx’s conception of human emancipation and the idea of progress, which created a new ‘telos’ in history. By approaching the philosophy of Hegel with the theories of the French Revolution, Marx problematized Hegel’s interpretation of history, in which the philosophy of history and the history of philosophy were united to conceptualize the historical development of social forms, corresponding to the realization of philosophical truth (p. 10). Hegel’s absorption of liberal conceptions of historical progress to frame history in idealist philosophical terms resonated in a way with the religiosity of the Prussian monarchy. From the point where the Left Hegelians criticized this resonation, Marx’s main finding in his critique of Hegel went beyond Feuerbach’s materialism and his conceptualization of alienation. Marx traced alienation to the forms of the state, with a strong argument rejecting Hegel’s universal middle class, distinguishing and defining private property as a product and consequence of the alienation of labour (p. 2). What distinguished Marx from the Young Hegelians was how he went beyond Feuerbach and others and offered a much more radical interpretation of alienation which is founded on private property.

Before Marx returned to his analysis of alienation in Grundrisse, his studies on alienation were limited to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), and the Manuscripts of 1844, while his priority was to understand the potential for emancipating humanity from all forms of alienation. As Comninel writes, the critical task here is first to identify what is original in Marx, and “the ideas that not only were original but which may even be discerned to stand at odds with those ideas Marx advanced throughout his ongoing critique of political economy, the merely liberal ideological conceptions from which they were drawn”(p. 93).

For Comninel, The German Ideology remains at the center of misunderstandings about what is unique in Marx. Besides the fact that it is an incomplete work never intended for publication, The German Ideology was written as a political polemic rather than as a theoretical text, a ‘romantic narrative beaconing for the visionary conception of communism’ (p.114). In these manuscripts, both the terminology used and the practical materialism borrowed from the historical stages theory of liberal scholarship already more than fifty years old. While the emphasis on production remains consistent with terms of analysis of the British and French liberals, Comninel argues: “history is not depicted as the history of class struggles, but merely in terms of the success of materially determined social forms” (p. 133). Since it is not concerned with the development of class exploitation, Comninel concludes that The German Ideology treated class as a product of the division of labour (p. 136).

The reason this is problematic is that no pre-capitalist societies had a highly advanced technical division of labour. Therefore, the division of labour becomes the central conceptual tool to analyze the relations of production in capitalism. Using division of labour for the historical analysis carried Marx away from his original starting point, allowed him and Engels to focus on the ‘natural productivity to trade’ as the foundation for the division of labour in a very Smithian way. This shifting focus of Marx and Engels leads to an analysis that considers mental and physical labour separately in The German Ideology, outputting a utilized use of these concepts unmatched in any of Marx’s other writings (p. 137).

For Comninel, the return of Marx to his original starting point happens not through an intellectual rediscovery, but rather with the contextual change during the politics of Manifesto in continental Europe. As the 1843 writings about alienation do not meet with the rise of class politics, and also as Perry Anderson argues, the absolutist state reemerges as a sort of “redeployed and recharged” system that brings back the exercise of pre-capitalist forms of exploitation (Anderson, 1974). As absolutism was re-emerging, Marx intensifies his questioning about human emancipation.

Comninel points out that Marx’s return happens in The Poverty of Philosophy where the confusion between liberal and historical materialisms come to an end. Marx asserts that the classes do not emerge in a given society through the operation of pre-existing processes, and production is defined through the class characteristic organization of surplus appropriation. The priorities of production for Marx are determined first from alienated labour and second, from the materiality of social reproduction (Comninel, 2018, p. 196).

The methodological development of these priorities was realized in the Grundrisse where Marx focusses on the specificities of capitalism. While this focus led Marx to depart from the pre-Manifesto idea of property relations conceived as historically specific expressions of the antagonistic relations of production fundamental to each particular epoch, Marx’s insights into the pre-capitalist form of society are integral to the development of his analysis of the capitalist mode of production (p. 207). By seeing private property as an expression of alienated labour, Marx turns his attention to capital as being distinct as the most fully developed form of property relations in capitalism. Marx reaches the crucial point that the historical social formation of capitalism relies on its distinguishing relation with pre-capitalist forms of landed property. In the Grundrisse, Marx distinguishes capitalist from pre-capitalist property relations by focusing on forms of exploitation involving the landed property.

According to Comninel, in the Grundrisse, Marx discusses ‘alienation’ on several occasions in three different ways. To start with, (i) in analyzing the development of individual economic autonomy in relation to social interdependence through the exchange. He observed that the universality of production based on exchange values, in turn, produces: (ii) the alienation of the individual from himself and others. Lastly: (iii) alienation as in relation to the appropriation of alien labour without exchange, without equivalent, allows Marx to identify the surplus processes which produced the social forms (p. 15). In this regard, for pre-capitalist societies, primitive accumulation can be defined as a process “nothing else than divorcing the producer from the means of production” (p. 17).

A distinguishing feature of capitalism for Marx is that capital is a social relation in which private property is both the product of and a source of alienation. First, for Marx, capital becomes a social relation through the production of commodities under the capitalist system of wage labour which exploits. Second, while exploitation is realized in production, capital becomes the dominant power in managing and controlling the processes of social reproduction (pp. 38-39). Therefore, capital orchestrates the processes of social reproduction for totalizing a system grounded in the logic of the property’s self-expansion.

In this regard, unlike other forms of society characterized by normative social relationships of production, with the commodification of labour-power within society, capitalism through the realization of the social form of abstract labour, constitutes a general system of class exploitation. Moreover, at the same time, it is providing the enjoyment of political, civil and economic freedoms by social individuals. Returning to the framework of the separation of the economic and the political, Comninel’s interpretation argues that Marx’s revolutionary project meets with his examination of the capitalist mode of production, allowing him to conceive the alienation of labour in relation to the development of humanity as a whole and to recognize the necessity and possibility for a social revolution to put end to it (p. 247).

In the following parts of the book, Comninel traces the journey of these findings in Marx’s political involvement in the First International. Regarding his concentration on The Ten Hours Bill and the growth of the co-operative movement among the working classes of Europe after the defeats of eight years of international efforts (pp. 258-264).

Aside from his political commitments, Marx’s reinterpretation of the idea of progress carries significance due to its central contribution of the recognition that the capitalist form of society is only one in a succession of exploitative class societies. Departing completely from the influence of liberal social thought which guided political economy, Marx considered the history of the development of Western societies “to have the character of movement through human estrangement to a point where estrangement itself could be transcended” (p. 298). Explaining the sources of the global spread of capitalism from a perspective of the abstraction of alienation of labour, Marx’s historical materialism distinguishes itself from economic determinism with its focus on the specific characteristics of a certain mode of production without depending upon any canonical development pattern, a transcendentally applicable conceptual analytical tool or any certain class agency carrying pre-given roles (as in the example of the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution).

The alienation of labour remains central for Marxist political theory for two reasons. Firstly, because the alienation of labour is not only the specific form of capitalist class exploitation but it is rather it is the general form of class exploitation through social property relations under capitalism. Secondly, the alienation of labour is not a naturally necessary condition of production. Rather it is a result of the historical necessity of private property (p. 300).

Arrangement of Book

The book consists of thirteen chapters each analyzing the key issues of Marx’s political methodology and political theory throughout his engagement with his terrain and contemporaries. In the first part of the book, Comninel concentrates on describing the approaches to Marx and his concepts in his early writings relating them with the influences of the intellectual legacy of liberal social thought and classical political economy on them. The main purpose of Comninel here to expose and unpack how Marxism(s) received and processed Marx’s historical materialism. By showing the original position of Marx throughout his unique conceptualization of alienation of labour, Comninel examines the process of how Marx with the impact of the social and political context of his terrain, reconstitutes his interpretation of capitalism by perceiving capital as a social relation and alienation of labour as a commodified and abstracted source of private property in capitalism. In the final parts of the book, Comninel’s attention turns to locate Marx inside his political involvements where he further evaluates the alienation of labour as a tendency of capitalism to transcend as a universal source of exploitation. Comninel concludes with a remark that clears out why Marx’s historical materialism is in discontent with the further interpretations that created a canonical understanding of the Marxist framework can be considered as economic determinism.


The Longue durée after the Cold War until the ‘Revival of Marx’ after the Global Crisis was composed of repetitions of political theorizing on Marxism. In the canon that Marxist literature has generated, there are two different traditions: (i) the tradition that derives from Marx’s Hegelian background and (ii) the tradition that builds up a structural critique of capitalism on his internal contradictions (Knafo & Teschke, 2017, p. 1). Comninel’s Alienation and Emancipation in this regard places emphasis on casting Marx once again by tracing his actual engagement with the conceptual framework of his social history’s political thought. The source of these diverging approaches to theorizing historical materialism can be located inside the different departure points from Marx’s theoretical production. Comninel’s interpretation tries to avoid the content under the influence of liberal materialisms rather focusses on how the original conceptual framework of Marx evolved with his critique of capitalism from his initial framework of alienation of labour. From where alienation of labour becomes an analytical tool that both explains the specificity of capitalist class exploitation, historical features of the social formation of capitalist society develops with Marx’s revolutionary project towards socialism.

George Comninel’s exciting contribution can be regarded as a fresh start to recast Marx with his own social and political context, with a strong critique of the Marxist accounts that undermined the essential features of the historical materialist method. This important step to end the desolation of historical materialism also can be considered as a prominent move forward to enrich the materialist explanatory capacity of ‘social history of political theory’ as a method.


Anderson, P. (1974). Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: N.L.B.

Comninel, G. (2018). Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx. (1st ed.). Palgrave Macmillan US.

Knafo, S., & Teschke, B. (2017). The Rules of Reproduction of Capitalism: A Historicist Critique.

The post George Comninel, ‘Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx’ appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

One Struggle: The People Oppressing the Indian Farmers Are Also Donors to the British Tories

As I’ve mentioned previously, last Friday I went to a Virtual pre-May Day rally on Zoom, put on as part of the Arise festival of left Labour ideas. It lasted for nearly an hour and a half, and featured great speakers from across the world, including our own Jeremy Corbyn. The international guests included Daniele Obono, a Black socialist politician from across the Channel in France, and peeps from Ghana, India and Latin America. They spoke about how people everywhere had to fight against exploitation from their own national elites, as well as combating racism, colonialism and the legacy of slavery. One of the speakers graphically showed how the poor African countries are very much at the mercy of the big multinationals with a story about Kenya and Vodaphone. The Kenyan government had asked the phone company not to give its shareholders their dividends this year, because the pay out would bankrupt the African nation.

I was also very much interested in the talk by an Indian lady about the appalling policies of Modi’s Hindu Supremacist government. This is the Indian nationalist BJP, which is extremely right-wing and bitterly intolerant of Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, as well as liberal Hindus, who believe in a secular, tolerant, pluralist India. The BJP are trying to privatise the state purchasing mechanism for the agricultural sectors. This was set up to guarantee a fair price to India’s farmers. However, the BJP are neoliberals and so want to hand it over to private entrepreneurs. This will force down prices, sending millions of farmers into abject poverty. There have been mass demonstrations and strikes against it right across India. She said that it’s the biggest protest movement in the world, number 250 million people. And Modi and his crew have reacted brutally, sending the police in to break up the protests, beat demonstrators and arrest the journalists covering them.

And guess what? Some of the businessmen backing Modi’s privatisation are also donors to the Tories over here.

This also shows how multinational capital is operating across the globe to impoverish and exploit working people.

A few months ago we had as guest speaker at a Virtual meeting of my local Labour party here in Bristol a member of Sikh community to talk about Modi’s attacks on the Indian farmers. Most of the farmers affected are Sikh, and so there are Sikh charities in this country which are giving aid to their coreligionists in India.

But it’s also very clear that working people across the world also need to unite to tackle the poverty and oppression created by capitalism because of the impact of globalisation. I am very definitely not a Communist, but Marx made this very clear in the slogan on the Communist Manifesto.

We really do need the workers of the world to unite. Because if we don’t, we will be in chains.

Bristol South Labour Party Passes Motion of Solidarity with Indian Farmers

Bristol South CLP held its monthly meeting last Thursday, and passed a number of motions. Due to the Coronavirus, these are now held over Zoom, like many meetings up and down the country generally. A number of motions were debated and passed during the meeting, one of which was solidarity with the Indian farmers. Explaining the issues was a guest speaker, Dal Singh, from the Sikh community. According to Mr Singh, the central issue is the poverty caused by the BJP’s government’s privatisation of the state purchasing apparatus for agricultural goods. The Indian government had a state organisation that bought up the farmer’s produce, giving them a fair price. But now Modi is handing this process over to private entrepreneurs, who are paying starvation prices for the produce purchased. Singh said that as a result, the farmers are going to be in debt for the rest of their lives. The farmers affected and involved in the protests aren’t all Sikhs, but Sikhs form a majority of those affected. When asked what the attitude of the Sikh community was to it, Mr Singh seemed to indicate that they were more or less resigned to it. He called it a ‘genocide’ several times, and said that Sikhs regarded it as part of the long history of their people’s suffering going back to the horrors of the partition of India and the British occupation of the Punjab. He also described how the police and armed forces were being used by the Modi government to brutalize protesters and muzzle the press, with the arrest and beating of journalists covering the protests. As well as explaining the situation, Mr Singh also gave details of charities to which people could donate to help the affected farmers, though I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what they were.

I had absolutely no problem supporting the motion. Socialists are internationalists, as the Style Council song reminds us, and we have to stand in solidarity with working people around the world. ‘Workingmen of all countries, unite!’ as Marx and Engels said in their little Manifesto. I am very pleased that others agreed, and that the motion was passed.

Someone at the meeting commented that the Indian farmers were yet more victims of Neoliberalism. Absolutely. Around the world, working people are being pushed further and further into poverty as wages are slashed, hours increased, rights at work taken away, industries privatised and deregulated. The book Falling Off the Edge, which is a critical examination of this process, the poverty it’s causing, and the violence and terrorism that it engenders as a backlash, describes very clearly how its affecting the average Indian worker. And this poverty is the creation of Modi’s BJP Hindufascist government.

Hindufascist? Yes, absolutely. The BJP is a nationalist organisation, which actively persecutes non-Hindus like Christians, Sikhs and Muslims. One of Modi’s fellow BJP politicos was the governor of a province, which took absolutely no action when pogroms broke out against the Muslim population back in the 1990s. The BJP also have connections to the RSSS, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary outfit modelled on Mussolini’s Fascists. Not only has the BJP followed the standard Neoliberal policies of privatisation, deregulation and low wages, they’ve also been trying to abolish the affirmative action programmes intended to improve the conditions of the Dalits, the former ‘Untouchables’. Debt slavery was one of the forms of exploitation and servitude that afflicted many Indians, and Mr Singh’s comment that Modi’s privatisation will mean that farmers will not be able to get out of debt certainly makes you wonder if the scumbag is actively trying to bring it back.

It’s not only non-Hindus and the lower castes Modi is persecuting. The BJP, or at least parts of it, have a real, bitter hatred of Gandhi and his influence on Hinduism, because he preached tolerance and the inclusion of the Muslims rather than turning India into a Hindu state. The party also actively persecutes liberal Indian journalists and writers. Tony Greenstein, the long term campaigner against Zionism, racism and Fascism, has also rightly criticised Labour party leader Keir Starmer for supporting Modi. Yes, I know – India is now a global powerhouse. Yes, it’s a vital trade partner with this country. But the country’s prosperity should not come through the exploitation of its working people. Just like ours shouldn’t. But this seems lost on Starmer and the rest of the Blairites.

I am very glad, however, that my local Labour party has made this gesture of support for the Indian farmers, and hope this will give them strength in their struggle with a Fascistic, exploitative government.

Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France and the historical materialist method!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/03/2016 - 6:00am in


Karl Marx

Karl Marx did not only involve himself in abstract conceptual work on how to understand the capitalist social relations of production. He was also an engaged analyst of class struggles at his time. This included three separate writings on developments in France: The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (1850); The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852); and The Civil War in France (1871). In this post, I will discuss key aspects of Marx’s historical materialist approach in relation to The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50 and conclude with some ideas of what this method implies for efforts today to understand the global political economy as well as the possibilities for revolutionary change.

Key aspects of Marx’s method include (1) a focus on the social relations of production, (2) an acknowledgement of different class fractions, (3) the importance of the international dimension in understanding class struggle, as well as (4) the historical specificity of developments in individual countries.

Focus on the social relations of production

For Marx, a focus on the social relations of production is essential, when analysing historical developments and class struggle. He asserts that ‘wage labour is the existing bourgeois organisation of labour. Without it there is no capital, no bourgeoisie, no bourgeois society’. Equally, when examining the reason for the eventual defeat of workers in France in the period of 1848 to 1850, he refers to the social relations surrounding production. ‘What succumbed in these defeats was not the revolution. It was the pre-revolutionary traditional appendages, results of social relationships, which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonism’. It is on the basis of how production is organised that he identifies a range of different relevant classes and class fractions in the French struggles from 1948 to 1950.

Different class fractions

Marx assumed that ultimately all capitalist societies would be divided into two large classes, capital and labour. However, he was sensitive to the fact that the development towards this situation was a historical process, within which many more classes and class fractions were involved. In other words, rather than simply thinking in terms of capital and labour, he identified a range of relevant classes on the basis of an analysis of the social relations of production. In France in 1848, this included the industrial proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie such as small shop keepers, the peasant class as well as capital. The latter were sub-divided into different class fractions. ‘The bourgeois class fell apart into two big fractions, which, alternately, the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July monarchy, had maintained a monopoly of order’. He further established that finance capital was dominant in France, while manufacturing played a subordinate role. In short, Marx was prepared to modify and adjust his general concepts such as capital and labour to the concrete empirical situation he was investigating.

The international dimension

Marx always understood capitalism as an international phenomenon and appreciated that class struggles within one country were directly affected by economic developments elsewhere. In 1848 he wrote that ‘French production relations are conditioned by the foreign trade of France, by her position on the world market and the laws thereof; how should France break them without a European revolutionary war, which would strike back at the despot of the world market, England?’. And equally, when discussing why there had been a revolution in France in February 1848, he pointed out that ‘the second great economic event which hastened the outbreak of the revolution, was a general commercial and industrial crisis in England’. The capitalist social relations of production and class struggle can only be understood within an international context.

The historical specificity

When analysing concrete struggles, Marx was careful not to generalise his findings from one country to another. In the case of France, he acknowledged the rather different production structure from the one in England, which then, in turn, led to a different assessment. Discussing the position of French manufacturing, he stated that ‘in England industry rules; in France, agriculture. In England industry requires free trade; in France, protection, national monopoly besides other monopolies. French industry does not dominate production; the French industrialists, therefore, do not dominate the French bourgeoisie. This focus on historical specificity already included an implicit reference to uneven development, the fact that different countries are in rather different positions within the global economy, which was later developed by Leon Trotsky in the notion of ‘uneven and combined development’. ‘Just as the period of crisis occurs later on the Continent than in England, so does that of prosperity. The original process always takes place in England; she is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. On the Continent, the different phases of the cycle through which bourgeois society is ever speeding anew, occur in secondary and tertiary form’. This historically different location has then also implications for where revolutionary uprisings are more likely to erupt. ‘Violent outbreaks’, Marx argues, ‘must naturally occur earlier in the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, since here the possibility of adjustment is greater than there’ (see also Uneven and combined development and the issue of resistance in the UK!).

Karl Marx and the analysis of the global economic crisis

In his assessment of class struggles in France from 1848 to 1850, Marx highlighted the importance of crisis as an opportunity for revolutionary change. ‘A new revolution is only possible in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, also just as certain as this’. Today, we face another, much larger economic crisis on a global, but especially also European scale. Marx’s method developed more than 100 years ago remains relevant. First, we cannot understand the crisis by looking solely at issues such as the regulation of financial markets, as vulgar economists do. Rather, we need to analyse the underlying social relations of production and the related developments, which have brought this crisis about. Second, we need to identify the different social class forces, when thinking about agency for change. We cannot automatically assume, for example, that all workers are likely to be revolutionary agents. Different class fractions of labour are likely to act differently. Third, the international dimension is of importance. As different countries are in a different location in the global economy, so are different labour movements. It is no surprise that Greek workers are much more involved in open resistance, being in the periphery of the European political economy, than British workers from the core. Finally, we need to investigate the historical specificity of the capitalist social relations of production and here the way capitalism has evolved since the mid-19th century. While Marx’s method can be used for an analysis today, his findings cannot simply be transferred.

This post was originally posted on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (5 July 2012) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group. 

Karl Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/03/2016 - 7:35am in

HollowayThe notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is widely vilified. Often linked to Stalin’s authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union, there is little positive said about it. Moreover, the negative evaluation is also regularly linked back to Lenin and his idea of a vanguard party taking over state power in order to change society for the better. As John Holloway argues in Change the World Without Taking Power, ‘you cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost’. And yet, these reflections overlook Marx’s own discussion of what the dictatorship of the proletariat may entail in practice. Most importantly they neglect his analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871). For as Engels pointed out in 1891, ‘well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.

In this post, I will look more closely at Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune and his ideas about how to organise popular government.

It is especially the third part of the Third Address, given by Marx to the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association in May 1871, which is relevant for our purpose here. First, Marx makes clear that the proletariat cannot simply take over the bourgeois state and its institutions, if it wants to change society. ‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’. Parallel to the ‘pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’. In order to bring about a new society, therefore, the very institutions of the bourgeois state form have to be changed first. For example, ‘the police was at once stripped of its political attributes’ in the Paris Commune. Furthermore, Marx recognised the importance of education for a truly free society and praised the Commune’s steps in this area. ‘The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state’.

Second, Marx highlights the governance structure, introduced by the Paris Commune. ‘The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms’. In other words, rather than representing authoritarian government, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a fundamentally democratic set-up, within which the individual has a direct impact on decision-making in that delegates have the task to transfer local decisions and can be re-called and replaced at any time. Equally, in relation to the judiciary, ‘like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable’. The overall goal is the ‘self-government of the producers’. This system, once established in Paris, should then also be implemented in the rural communities, with delegates being elected to represent these districts to the National Delegation in Paris. Again, each delegate was ‘to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandate imperative (formal instructions) of his constituents’. In short, for Marx the dictatorship of the proletariat always implied direct participation by the people in all aspects of the decision-making process. It did not mean authoritarian rule.

Importantly, restructuring of the bourgeois state form did not simply focus on bourgeois institutions. For Marx, it was always clear that capitalist exploitation was rooted in the way production was organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production. To overcome exploitation, therefore, it was necessary to abolish private property and this is precisely what the Paris Commune did. ‘Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labor’. In other words, the economy cannot be regarded as separate from politics, if true change is to be accomplished.

Finally, Marx was aware of the importance of the Commune’s international dimension. ‘If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men’s government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labour, emphatically international’. Thus, for Marx it was always clear that the defeat of capitalism could not only be achieved in one country or even one city – after all the Paris Commune fell after a couple of months – but must always have an international aspiration.

To establish ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as experimented by the Paris Commune is not really on today’s agenda. And yet, perhaps developments in Venezuela are potentially one step into this direction? The so-called Housing Mission, for example, did not only succeed in building thousands of homes for the poor, but also managed to include barrio residents in their planning and construction, as argued by Steve Ellner in 2012. To conclude, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as envisaged by the Paris Commune, is an aspiration at best at this point in time, but an aspiration worthwhile to pursue and push further.

This post originally appeared on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring (14 September 2012) and appears here as one of the texts originally read in the Marxism Reading Group.