Commune, Party, State

paris commune
Joachim Sperl, 2014

We asked several contributors to write on the theme of the state and revolutionary strategy, for a roundtable discussion revolving around the following prompt:

“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the socialist movement spilled a great deal of ink debating the question of state power. Lenin’s work was perhaps the most influential, but it also provoked a wide range of critical responses, which were arguably equally significant. But whether or not Lenin’s conception of the correct revolutionary stance towards the state was adequate to his own particular historical conjuncture, it is clear that today the reality of state power itself has changed. What is living and what is dead in this theoretical and political legacy? What would a properly revolutionary stance towards state power look like today, and what would be the concrete consequences of this stance for a political strategy? Does the “seizure of state power” still have any meaning? Does the party still have a place in these broader questions?”

This essay is one contribution to the roundtable. Please be sure to read the othersGeoff EleyPanagiotis SotirisJoshua Clover and Jasper BernesNina Power, Immanuel Ness.


As it forces the matter of the political form of the people, the Paris Commune serves as a key reference point in Marxist discussions of the state. What form does the people’s self-government take? Insofar as the people precede the state, analysis of the Commune event necessarily opens up to the people’s subjectification and to the political process of which the people are the subject. And insofar as the people politicized are people divided, a part of a constitutively open and incomplete set, the place from which the people are understood is necessarily partisan. The question of the party precedes the question of the state. Until we pose the party as a possibility, discussions of the state—of whether or not we should target or seize the state—are nothing more than fantasies that cloak failure as a choice: it’s not that we couldn’t take power; we just didn’t want to.

Crowd and People

A feature of every discussion of the Paris Commune is the crowd, the people, the working class, the shocking presence of those who have been excluded from politics now in its place and the confounding of politics that results. In the Commune event, crowd and Commune overlap in an expression of the desire of the people. Interpretations of the Commune read this desire, making claims about who the people are and what it is that they want.

It’s not quite right to say that what the people wanted was the Commune: prior to March 18, 1871 clubs and associations throughout Paris had repeatedly called for elections to a new Commune. People had rioted. But the protests and dissent hadn’t yet broken the connection with the National Government. That didn’t happen until the National Government attempted to disarm the Paris National Guard and the crowd emerged to stop it. In the wake of this rupture, advocates for a new municipal government, a Commune, present the Commune as answer and object, answer to the question of the political form for Paris (and perhaps all of France) and object of the desire of the people. The people are an effect of the positing of the object of their desire. They don’t precede it. What precedes it is the crowd.

After March 18th, there would be argument over who the Commune is—the working class in power?—and what it wants, but no one will dispute the fact that the situation had turned on the actuality of an insistence and a desire. The crowd forced an opening, an interruption that changed the political setting. It ruptured suppositions of order, inciting thereby attempts to expand, enclose, and target the unleashed intensities in one direction rather than another.

That the March 18th crowd event was followed by the Commune does not mean that the crowd created the Commune or that the Commune was an expression of the constituent power of the people expressed by the crowd. The Commune form preceded the event. It was an already existent political possibility, attempted yet thwarted in revolts in October and January.1 Throughout the fall and winter of 1870-1871, militants organized as vigilance committees in the districts of Paris collected and distributed information, debated proposals, and planned demonstrations. Yet when in their attempts to establish the Commune they pushed for revolt, the people weren’t with them. In the elections following the October 31st march on the Hotel de Ville, over 322,000 Parisians voted in support of the National Government. 54,000 voted against.2 In January, only a few hundred people responded to the “red poster” calling for insurrection that was distributed by the delegation of the Twenty Districts, which “saw itself as the Commune to be constituted.”3 Later that month, even as thousands were dying from the Prussian siege, only a few insurgents showed up for a new insurrection planned for January 22. The insurrection was brutally suppressed, and the National Government cracked down on clubs, public meetings, and newspapers. The national elections held in February, however, made it clear that while the majority of the French countryside supported monarchy, the cities favored a republic. Resulting anxiety over the restoration of a monarchy, the convening of the National Assembly in Bordeaux, the Assembly’s failure to pay the National Guard in Paris, and the exodus of the bourgeoisie, not to mention the ongoing destitution of the people because of the siege, produced conditions more auspicious for an uprising. The previous efforts on behalf of the Commune established in advance the idea of what an uprising would produce even as they couldn’t in themselves produce it. Commune could name a division, “the direct antithesis to the empire,” in Marx’s words.4 Yet until the crowd created the opening for it, it was just this “vague aspiration” denoting a fundamental opposition. As antithesis and aspiration, the Commune form preceded its arrival.

The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning. It has been offered as a figure for republicanism, patriotic nationalism, federalism, centralism, communism, socialism, anarchism, even secessionism. Marx views the multiplicity of its interpretations, “and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favor,” as indicative of the thorough expansiveness of the Commune form.5 This same excess can also be read as a lack, as the gap of the political. For example, although Charles Beslay’s opening speech depicted the Commune as a municipal government concentrating on local matters, its decrees quickly encompassed national affairs. As Prosper Olivier Lissagaray observes in his definitive account, it was, “Commune in the morning, Constituent Assembly in the evening.”6 Contention over the political form of the Commune is inseparable from, indicative of, the Commune event.7

Consider reception of the Commune in the United States. It was configured through the politics of Reconstruction.8 Some in the North saw Paris as wrongfully seceding from France, just as the Southern states wrongly left the Union. Commune and Confederacy both rejected legitimate centralized government. Others in the North, increasingly mistrustful of popular sovereignty, used the Commune as an emblem of the failure of Reconstruction. An editor of the Nation railed against the “Socialism in South Carolina” that came from “allowing incompetent black men to govern and vote.”9 As he saw it, neither Paris nor the South had the political capacity to govern itself. Some Southerners embraced the parallel between Paris and the Confederacy, particularly the revolt against a repressive governmental authority. Weirdly, a former vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who became a member of Congress from Georgia after the war, identified himself as a communist in 1880. For Stephens, to be a communist means to favor home rule, the sovereignty of the local government.10. He explicitly rejects the abolition of private property, capturing communist desire in a racist ressentiment that substitutes for and attempts to displace class struggle.

Marx suggests that the Paris Commune provided a glimpse of a solution to the problem of the political form of the people. While all previous forms of government had been repressive, the Commune was a “thoroughly expansive political form.”11. Marx’s rhetoric is stirring, polemically suited to struggle over the meaning of the Commune. “Commune” named an aspiration and antagonism; it designated the alternative to the empire. Within the ongoing struggle over the positive realization of that alternative, Marx prioritizes one among the multiple interests that could see itself in the Commune form, presenting the Commune “essentially” as the political form “under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” Analytically, Marx’s account is less satisfying insofar as it is equates proletarian self-government with a federal system composed of local communes, district assemblies (composed of delegates elected from the communes), and a National Delegation of deputies sent from these assemblies to Paris. That this arrangement presented itself does not make it uniquely suited for the emancipation of labor (distributed and federal political arrangements have served bourgeois and imperial power quite well). It was the break, the disruption, and the positing of a new arrangement for governance that matters. Moreover, Marx himself acknowledges that in Commune’s governing schema rural producers were brought under the lead of the towns; it didn’t eliminate repression. To the extent that Commune names a governing body, apparatus, or schema, one containing an arrangement of offices, the rules for their maintenance and distribution, as well as of a set of dictates connecting this arrangement to the people it would govern, Commune institutionalizes some possibilities and excludes others. Marx treats the coherence it inscribed as a partisan subjectification, an event in the political expression of the working class.

In the different accounts of the Paris Commune, the referent of “Commune” is unstable. It shifts from all of Paris, to the people of Paris who voted representatives to the Commune, to the working class, to those elected to the Commune, to those who served in it, even to particular sets of voices in the Council. While a politics can and should be traced in these shifts, for this movement is nothing but the expression and enclosure of a political subject, we might also note that the fact of shifting indexes an irreducible feature of the people as non-all, non-totalizable, and never fully present to itself. It is only present as few, some, or many. The substitutionism about which Trotsky warned is not a danger particular to communist or working class parties. It’s an unavoidable condition of any popular politics with emancipatory egalitarian ends. Neither people nor class (nor movement or mass) exists as a unity; every attempt to invoke, create, or speak in behalf of such a unity comes up against an ineliminable, constitutive, division.

Instead of solving a political problem, the Commune poses one: the sovereignty of the people. Is it possible and what forms can it take? The non-all character of the people has been a consistent sticking point in democratic theory. If the people are not a unity, how can they rule themselves? How can they speak or legislate? And how do we know? The theoretical discussions take place under various headings—foundings, constituent power, and the possibility of bringing something new into being. Taking the place of the mythic social contract, the power of the people to make their own history comes up against its grounding in what cannot be other than a crime against the prior order. Marxist theory makes the prior order itself the crime. The revolutionary class gives its ideas “the form of universality” and represents these ideas “as the only rational, universally valid ones.” Marx explains, “The class making revolution emerges at the outset simply because it is opposed to a class not as a class but as a representative of the whole of society.”12 This is the sense in which class struggle is a political struggle. Rather than determined within the economic conditions in which class confronts class as two distinct forces with particular interests, the class making revolution represents its interests as general over and against the particular will of the oppressing class. More precisely, class partisans and allies struggle to present the real of the crowd’s destructive interruption as expressions of the desire of the people.

Marx premises the revolutionary break within existing conditions of production; nevertheless, Marxist theory doesn’t escape the problem of the people. Whether as the limits of working class struggle in trade union consciousness, the failure of the masses to revolt, or the betrayal of elitist, authoritarian vanguard parties, Marxist theory and communist movement run up against the disorganized, disagreeable, divided people. The people resist and evade the very forms on which their political subjectivity depends. When it appears, which isn’t often, the movement for the majority isn’t necessarily in the immediate interest of the majority. Since they can never be fully present, no revolution or revolutionary movement can actually be that of the people. It will always entail the imposition of the ideas of some upon the many.

The Commune gives form to the break with the National Government effected by the crowd even as the people’s elusive desire propels a new subjective process, that is to say, a process of inserting the people into history as an active subject and re-reading history in terms of the actions of this subject.13 Interpretations of the Commune thus grapple with how to understand the power of the people. Marx suggests as much in the letter to Kugelmann that Lenin cites in The State and Revolution: heroic party comrades in Paris are attempting “real people’s revolution.”14The multiple, opposing treatments of the Commune are not just indications of an expansive political form. That is to say, they are not simply reflections of specific features of institutional design. Rather, they underscore the irreducibility of the gap between the people and their political forms, the gap constitutive of the people’s subjectivity. Badiou writes, “The subject glides between the successive partial representations of that whose radical lack institutes it as articulated desire.”15 Badiou is glossing Lacan. What I find suggestive is the possibility of seeing in the partial representations of the Commune traces of the people as a political subject. The point here is not to celebrate multiplicity or indeterminacy. It is to see in the overlap of the Commune form and the crowd event the specificity of an emancipatory egalitarian politics. Because it is a form for the expression of the people’s desire the Commune is necessarily lacking.

Subjectivization and Subjective Process

In Theory of the Subject, a book that grew out of a seminar given from 1975 to 1979, Alain Badiou says that the Marxist tradition has given us two assessments of the Paris Commune. The first, from Marx, objectively considers the Commune in terms of the political goals of the working class with regard to the state. The proletariat has to smash the old state machinery and build new organs of political power. It has to take a place and exert force. How exactly force is concentrated, Marx neglects to explain. The second assessment of the Commune, from Lenin, takes up this concentration. Lenin brings out the subjective aspect of force. Reading What is to Be Done? for its “silent assessment” of the Commune, Badiou tells us that Lenin draws four consequences from the Commune’s defeat:  “it is necessary to practice Marxist politics, and not some local romantic revolt”; “it is necessary to have some overall view of things … and not be fragmented into the federalism of struggles”; “it is necessary to forge an alliance with the rural masses”; and, “it is necessary to break the counter-revolution through an uninterrupted, militarily offensive, centralized process.”16 Lenin conceives the party by inferring a certain kind of subjective force from the Commune. In other words, he reads the Commune as an effect or consequence of a political subject and builds his idea of the party from this reading. The party is an “operator of concentration” of the four consequences, “the system of practical possibility for the assessment of the Commune.” The party provides the vehicle enabling assessment of the Commune even as it is an effect of this very assessment. Or, the place from which the Commune is assessed itself results from the Commune.

Badiou uses Lacan’s notion of the real to express the function of the Commune for Marxists. More than an historical event or political institution, the Commune serves as a concept that enables us “to think the relation of the political subject to the real.” Badiou writes, “The Marxist status of the revolutions is their having-taken-place, which is the real on the basis of which a political subject pronounces itself in the present.” The crowd rupture can be the exciting cause of a political subject, but its pronouncement or appearance as such a cause is a separate, analytically distinct, move. The crowd rupture has to be politicized, tied to a subject. The crowd provides a material opportunity for the expression of a political subject, a moment that has happened and the happening of which can be attributed to the workings of this political subject.

That’s not all. The political subject is more than the combination of event and interpretation. Badiou demonstrates that the Marxist approach remains incomplete. How event and interpretation are combined matters if an event is to be the cause of a subject. The real of the Commune event consisted in its rupture with the state, both the official state and the Marxist conception of the state. Confronted with the event, Marx was surprised. He had to change his thinking. Badiou writes, “It is by putting into effect a point of the impossible in this theory that it reveals its status as real, so that Marx, who logically disapproves of the triggering of the insurrection can only encounter in it the vanishing Parisian masses. Whence the obligation, to which he remains faithful, of being wholly on the side of that of which he disapproves in theory, so as to find the new and retroactive concept of his practical approval.”17 The people as a collective subject appeared through the disruption of the crowd insofar as there was something about the insurrection that was unimaginable prior to its enactment. The impossible happened, compelling Marx to take a stand: whose side was he on? Here was the unpredictability of an exciting cause, the people forcing a change of theory and practice. Riotous crowd, available political form, force of the impossible: the political subject impresses itself at the effervescent site of their convergence. Marx responds to this appearance of the people with fidelity. As he says in his letter to Kugelmann, no matter the Commune’s multiple tactical and policy errors, “the present rising in Paris – even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society – is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June insurrection in Paris.”18.

Marx nevertheless criticizes the Commune in this same letter. After praising the elasticity, historical initiative, and sacrifice of the Parisians, he chides them, first, for missing the right moment when they failed to march on Versailles. He faults them, second, for eliminating the Central Committee of the National Guard and holding elections to institute the Commune.

The order Marx lists his criticisms is odd, seemingly backwards in that the first is a consequence of the second; the second happened first. Badiou, drawing from Lacan’s discussion of anticipation and certainty in “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty,” explains why it is not. Marx is using Versailles’s reaction (or what he imagines Versailles’s reaction would have been) to register the Commune event. Versailles’s reaction validates the hasty or anticipatory move that created the Commune. A subject had acted and Versailles had no choice but to respond. Badiou writes:

Marx judges the Commune to be precipitated—subjectivizing in its political haste—and blames it for not marching onto Versailles. But this is in order to indicate retroactively the nature of the certainty (of victory) of which this haste itself could be the bearer, insofar as it could be deciphered in the other: in the initial disorder and surprise of the inhabitants of Versailles, and in the possibility of changing the lack into reason by a second haste, that of the military offensive against Versailles. The latter would then be finally caught up in the subjective process, that is to say, in a consequent political direction, which is the only validation of the vanishing algebra of the Parisian masses into a consistent subject.

In subjectivization, certainty is anticipated.

In the subjective process, consistency is retroactive.

To put into consistency the haste of the cause: therein lies the whole enigma of the subject.19

Understanding an event as the effect of a political subject the political subject requires conjoining two operations: subjectivization and the subjective process. We will win. We will be shown to have been right. The certainty of the political subject is too soon, an anticipation of results it cannot guarantee but pursues nonetheless. Precipitous certainty, we might say, is another term for political will. Rather than an amorphous combination of multiple possibilities, which is just a description of a manifold, the subject is a direction that cuts through this manifold. The other provides evidence of this direction. The response of the other, its disorder and surprise, indicates the presence of a subject. The other’s response reads the disorder as an effect of a subject, attributing to this subject a consistency of action, purpose, and will. That the other can do nothing but respond, that it cannot proceed as it had, that it pushed, affected, is the work of the subject.

Each operation, subjectivization and subjective process, involves political struggle. Militants, organizers, agitators, and vanguards try to set things in motion. They produce actions. They try to bring people out, get them to feel their collective power, and incite them to use it. They are alert to possibilities, to protests that may become ruptures. And, consequent to the gap of a disruption, militants, organizers, agitators, and vanguards work to render the disruption as an effect of a subject. They fight on the terrain of the other, endeavoring to insure that the gap remains and to give this gap meaning and direction, to make it consistent. Enemies fight back. They may deny that a disruption occurred: nothing significant happened; the demonstration or event was within the field demarcated by capital and state, part of business as usual, an expected and permitted protest, child-friendly and within the demarcated free-speech zone. They may deny that the disruption was the effect of a subject: it was hooligans; it was a motley and contingent array of disparate voices (here empirical sociological data that identifies and fragments crowd elements comes in handy). They may attribute the disruption to the wrong subject, another state, class, or agency. For the militants, organizers, agitators, and vanguards, establishing the collectivity as the subject of a politics, inscribing it in a process and rendering it consistent, politicizes the rupture.

Subjectification and the subjective process are connected by an anticipation and a lag. To disrupt and surprise, subjectification has to come too soon. It can’t be predicted, expected, or natural, for that would mean that it remained within the order of things. Rather than the advent of a new subject, “it” wouldn’t have appeared at all. Correlative to anticipation is a lag, a gap between a move that may or may not disrupt and the disruption as it registers in the other. The lag means that effects seem to precede their causes; only after an effect registers is its cause brought into consistency with it.

Badiou associates four “categories of the subject-effect” with subjectification and the subjective process. Anxiety and courage respond to the gap of anticipation. The former wants to fill in the void in the old order, to restore things to their proper place, to put the law back where it belongs. The latter wants to extend the hole, to force it forward in the direction of justice. Courage leaves behind (and no longer feels) the former sense of proper place. It looks ahead to the building of something new. Correlative to anxiety and courage, then, are super-ego and justice, which are themselves effects of the subjective process, reactions to the rupture of anticipation.

That perspective which gives body to the political subject is the party. Marx describes the Commune as a glorious achievement of “our party.” This is not a descriptive empirical claim regarding membership in a political organization. It is the point from which he responds to the subjectification effected by the Commune event, positioning it within a process oriented to justice.

Politicizing the people

Thirty years subsequent to his analysis of Commune, subject, and party, Badiou revises his analysis. In an essay included in The Communist Hypothesis (a slightly revised version of material presented in The Logics of Worlds), Badiou presents the Marxist discussion of the Commune in terms of the state. Rather than reading the party as the subject support of a politics, he figures it as the realization of the ambiguity of the Marxist account of the Commune.20 On the one hand, the Commune is a clear advance in proletarian struggle insofar as it smashes the machinery of the state. On the other, it ultimately fails because it smashed the machinery of the state—it’s unorganized, incapable of decision, unable to defend itself. To resolve these problems, the party takes a statist form. It is a vehicle of destruction and reconstitution, but reconstitution within the constraints given by the state.

Badiou’s rejection of party and state is familiar. Bruno Bosteels and Slavoj Zizek compellingly demonstrate the political inadequacy of this rejection. Arguing for the actualization and organization of communism in real movement, Bosteels criticizes the leftist idealism of the later Badiou’s emphasis on the pure Idea.21 Zizek likewise rejects the alternative of seizing or abandoning the state as a false one: the real challenge is transforming the state itself.22 I agree with Bosteels and Zizek. I want to add, moreover, that for us to focus on the state now is to short-circuit the discussion that matters. The left in the US, UK, and EU—not to mention communists—barely registers as a political force of any kind whatsoever. To worry about our seizing the state, then, is a joke, fantasy, and distraction from the task at hand. Rather than a concentration of political will, communist possibility remains diffuse, dispersed in the multitudinous politics of issues, identities, and moments of action that have yet to consolidate in the collective power of the divided people. What matters for us here and now is the galvanization of such a communist will.

In his effort to reduce the Marxist discussion of the Commune to the problem of the party-state, Badiou neglects the more fundamental question posed by the Commune, namely, that of the relation of the party to the people, the collective political subject. The Commune is less the form of a state than it is the form of a break with a previous state, both the state as in the National Government and the state of political incapacity associated with the workers, as Badiou himself emphasizes in the later work. As such a break, it opens up and disorders. The people are disassembled, suggestible, strong, and mobile as crowds. It is a mistake, then, to reduce the Commune to a state form and the Marxist tradition to commentary on and reaction to this state form. Badiou seems to have fallen prey to the fatalism his younger self criticizes—parties will be parties; “we will always be fucked over.”23 Particularly now, in the wake of the collapse of the socialist party-states and the generalized disarray of the left of the global north, the consolidated state power of a communist party state, should not be our concern. More pressing is the necessity of building collective power – the very problem facing the Commune that the party attempts to solve.

Marx himself analyzes the Commune in terms of the subjectification of the people. In the letter to Kugelmann, Marx treats the Parisians, the people of Paris, as “our heroic Party comrades.” Their advances are teaching new lessons in political struggle, namely, that smashing the bureaucratic-military machine is essential “for every people’s revolution on the Continent.”24 In The Civil War in France, as he presents the Commune as the “direct anti-thesis to the empire,” Marx describes it as the positive form of a republic in which class rule itself is superseded. He draws out the politics of constituting the people under the leadership of the working class, noting the replacing of the standing army by the armed people, the establishing of universal suffrage, the opening of education open to all, and, of course, the replacing of the parasitic excrescence of the old state organization with the self-government of the producers. Marx writes, “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.”

The people “storming heaven” don’t preexist the revolutionary event of the Commune. The Commune produces them as its cause. The middle class, which had helped put down the workers’ insurrection of June 1848, finds itself enrolling “under the colors of the Commune and defending it against the willful misconstructions of Thiers.” Marx explains this support as resulting from the Commune’s abolition of interest on debts and extension of time for repayment. The peasantry had Louis Bonaparte, but this support started to break down under the Second Empire. Were it not for the blockade around Paris, Marx argues, the French peasantry would have had to recognize that the Commune was its only hope, its only source of release from blood tax, gendarme, and priest. Again, the temporality is important: the peasantry “would have had,” had the Commune process been able to continue, a process that Marx presents as the subjectification of the people as party.

In his discussion of the Commune, Lenin takes up a similar problematic of people and party. State and Revolution observes that the idea of “a people’s revolution seems strange coming from Marx.”25 Lenin, however, thinks this idea is crucial—and crucial to understanding the role of the party—insofar as it points to the active and independent activity of the majority, “the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation,” imprinting the revolution with their own demands. Because in 1871 the proletariat was not a majority anywhere in Europe, a “people’s revolution” had also to embrace the peasants. Lenin writes, “These two classes then constituted the ‘people’. These two classes are united by the fact that the “bureaucratic-military state machine” oppresses, crushes, exploits them.” For Lenin, where the Commune fails and where its failure impresses itself on (en-forms) the party is in the constitution of the people, that is, in actually producing the alliance between peasants and proletariat necessary for revolution. Lenin commends Marx for seeing that, insofar as the “smashing of the state machine was required by the interests of both the peasants and the workers,” it united them and placed before them a common task. Smashing the state, or eliminating a “special force” of oppression, requires that the majority (workers and peasants) suppress the minority (the bourgeoisie), which means that the majority have to be organized to carry this out. This is the role of the party: concentrating and directing the energies of the people. The party shapes and intensifies the people’s practical struggles.

Given Lenin’s interests in establishing the revolutionary action of the Russian working class within the historical trajectory of proletarian struggle, that he highlights the idea of a people’s revolution isn’t surprising. The parallel with the Commune helps him here, providing a form by which to understand the Russian 1905 revolution. In an earlier text, “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising,” published in 1906, he looks more closely at the revolutionary events in Moscow in December 1905.26 And while he does not look specifically at the Commune, he does highlight the action of the crowd, seeing in the crowd the march of practice ahead of theory, or, the anticipation effect of the subject.

For Lenin, the December movement in Moscow demonstrates that the general strike, as a predominant mode of struggle, is outmoded: “the movement is breaking out of these narrow bounds with elemental and irresistible force and giving rise to the highest form of struggle—an uprising.” He argues that even as the unions and revolutionary parties “intuitively felt” that the strike they called for December 7 should grow into an uprising, they weren’t prepared for this; they spoke of it as something remote. At the same time, a general strike was already contained within the parameters of the expected. The government was ready for the strike, organizing its counter-measures accordingly. These counter-revolutionary measures on the part of the government pushed the masses of people to insurrection. As the government escalated its repression, “the unorganized street crowds, quite spontaneously and hesitatingly, set up the first barricade.” Lenin traces the move from strike, to isolated barricades, to the “mass erection of barricades and street fighting against the troops.” At each point, the revolutionary movement compels the reaction to further violence, further attack, further extension and exhaustion of its troops. The workers demand more resolute action: “what is to be done next?” The Social Democratic leaders are left behind, perhaps because they are still arguing over what is to be done even as the revolutionary masses have already destroyed the previous setting of action and are rapidly creating a new one.

Lenin’s excoriating critique of Plekhanov puts “into consistency the haste of the cause,” that is, it retroactively assigns consistency to the revolutionary workers in anticipation of the certainty of their ultimate victory. Lenin writes:

Thus, nothing could be more short-sighted than Plekhanov’s view, seized upon by all the opportunists, that the strike was untimely and should not have been started, and that “they should not have taken to arms.” On the contrary, we should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary. And now we must at last openly and publicly admit that political strikes are inadequate; we must carry on the widest agitation among the masses in favour of an armed uprising and make no attempt to obscure this question by talk about “preliminary stages,” or to befog it in any way.

Plekhanov failed to respond to the masses as subject; he failed to note how their haste brought into being another phase of political conflict. What if the party had not lagged behind the workers? As he makes the party the subject support of the revolutionary people, Lenin makes it responsive to the lessons they teach.

In a passage evocative of descriptions of the March 18, 1871 crowd event that made way for the Commune, Lenin praises the crowd:

In the December days, the Moscow proletariat taught us magnificent lessons in ideologically “winning over” the troops, as, for example, on December 8 in Strastnaya Square, when the crowd surrounded the Cossacks, mingled and fraternised with them, and persuaded them to turn back. Or on December 10, in Presnya District, when two working girls, carrying a red flag in a crowd of 10,000 people, rushed out to meet the Cossacks crying: “Kill us! We will not surrender the flag alive!” And the Cossacks were disconcerted and galloped away, amidst the shouts from the crowd: “Hurrah for the Cossacks!”

The party is the bearer of the lessons of the uprising. It is both the perspective from which the uprising is assessed and itself as an organization capable of learning and responding an effect of the uprising. The party learns from the subject it supports – and that it is the support of this subject is clear insofar as the subject necessarily exceeds it. Whether posed as crowd or Commune, the political form of the party cannot be reduced to a problem of the state. It must also be thought in terms of the collective subject of politics, to the subjectification of the people and their process as the subject of a politics.

In his classic account of the Commune, the French journalist and revolutionary socialist Lissagaray likewise links crowd and party such that movements in the street are legible as the actions of a subject. He describes the weeks and months prior to the Paris Commune—the defeats in the war with Prussia, negotiations toward surrender, substitution of plebiscite (an up or down vote of confidence in the provisional government) for elections, and increase of political clubs in working class areas of the city. As he does so, Lissagaray attends to poor, the working men, and the faithful children of 1789, young men from the bourgeoisie who “have gone over to the people.” In 1863, he tells us, these people scandalously affirm themselves as a class. In 1867, their demonstrations in the streets are the “appearance of a revolutionary socialist party” (which will be asserted more directly in a resolution adopted by a meeting of the vigilance committees in February 1871).27 In 1870, they alone in a paralyzed summer exhibit political courage. Yet this class, this party (Lissagaray doesn’t think it necessary to make distinctions here, implying, perhaps, the open, changing, and interconnected dimensions of each), remains unable to direct the energies of the crowd. They may be a “party of action,” but they are in a “chaotic state,” criss-crossed by different currents (and, again, “party” here suggests a collective that is part of a changing situation).28 So even as the crowd riots against the armistice, the people nonetheless endorse the government in the plebiscite that follows: 558,000 yes and 62,000 no.29 Lissagaray explains that this happened because those who were “clear-sighted, prompt, and energetic” were wanting in “cadres, in method, in organizers.”30 Jacobins like Blanqui “lived in an exclusive circle of friends.” Still other potential leaders “carefully kept aloof from working men.” Even the Central Committee of the twenty arrondissements, while “daring, eloquent” treated “everything by manifestos” and so remained “only a center of emotions, not of direction.”31

Lissagaray establishes the setting of the Commune in the challenge of responding to the opening the active crowd produces, in the consequences of the gap effected by the crowd for organizing the people. At stake is not the specificity of a form of government, municipal or national. Nor is it a matter of the legitimacy of elections, representatives, or decisions. Instead it concerns the movement from class, to people, to party, the movement at stake in politicization. The stakes of this movement, moreover, are not those of substitution, vanguardism, or domination—they are arrangements of intensity, courage, and will. The relation of the people to the party is a question of organization in the context of those who might steer the people against themselves, making them a means of a revolution not their own. Lissagaray suggests that a class enters politics as a scandal, a scandalous insistence on equality.  When this insistence makes itself felt on the streets, a revolutionary socialist party appears, a party characterized by action, even by a concentration of emotions. But action and emotion, subjective capacity, aren’t enough. The capacity, to persist as the capacity of a subject, has to be organized, incorporated, into a form. Thus, the problem of the party is organizing the people in one direction rather than another, but always retroactively.


  1. See Martin Breaugh, The Plebian Experience, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). 

  2. Ibid., 177 

  3. Ibid., 178 

  4. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871. Excerpt in Karl Marx, Selected Writings, edited by Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 301. 

  5. Ibid., 307 

  6. Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, translated by Eleanor Marx (London: New Park Publications, 1976) 130. 

  7. “From its inception the Commune was plagued with indecisiveness and a confusing diversity of aims and ideas. An American observer in Paris remarked, ‘It’s a madhouse inhabited by monkeys.’ From its beginning, lack of discipline and direction hampered its development, and understandably so, for it could never quite decide if it were the vanguard in the struggle against social injustice or for the restoration of national honor through war,” Frederick Busi, “The Failure of Revolution,” in Revolution and Reaction: The Paris Commune 1871, edited by John Hicks and Robert Tucker (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 19. The book is a reprint of The Massachusetts Review XII, no. 3 (Summer 1971). 

  8. Philip M. Katz, From Appomattox to Montmarte: Americans and the Paris Commune (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998). 

  9. Ibid., 97. 

  10. Ibid., 108-110. 

  11. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 307 

  12. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology,” in Selected Writings, 130. 

  13. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, translated by Bruno Bosteels (London: Continuum, 2009).

     

  14. V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917, chapter 3, section 1. 

  15. Badiou, 138. 

  16. Ibid., 46 

  17. Ibid., 220 

  18. Karl Marx, “Marx to Dr. Kugelmann Concerning the Paris Commune,” April 12, 1871 

  19. Badiou, 251. 

  20. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, translated by David Macey and Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2010) 182. 

  21. Bruno Bosteels, “The Leftist Hypothesis: Communism in the Age of Terror,” The Idea of Communism, edited by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 2010). 

  22. Slavoj Zizek, “How to Begin from the Beginning,” The Idea of Communism

  23. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, 328. 

  24. Marx, “Marx to Dr. Kugelmann Concerning the Paris Commune.” 

  25. V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917, chapter 3, section 1. 

  26. V. I. Lenin, “Lessons from the Moscow Uprising,” 1906. 

  27. Lissagaray, 11. 

  28. Ibid., 13. 

  29. Frank Jellinek, The Paris Commune of 1871 (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1965), 80; Breaugh gives different numbers. 

  30. Lissagaray, 25 

  31. Ibid. The Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondissement aimed toward centralizing democratic and socialist forces in Paris; the Committee met in the headquarters of the Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of the International. Eugene Schulkind writes, “Potentially, this committee and the constituent vigilance committtees in each arrondissement were revolutionary organizations in the modern sense of the word, capable of mobilizing extensive popular support around a concrete programme and a long-range strategy as well as developing an experiences cadre for an eventual revolutionary government. In fact, a number of concrete efforts were initiated in this direction by some of the leaders, only to peter out soon in random activity and endless neighborhood discussions” The Paris Commune of 1871: The View From the Left (New York: Grove Press, 1974), 36. 

Author of the article

is a political theorist who teaches in Geneva, New York. Her most recent book is The Communist Horizon.