The Paris Commune Illuminates and Deepens the Content of Capital - Raya Dunayevskaya

Blue Cover with Marx and Lenin's writing son Hegel in background

The Paris Commune Illuminates and Deepens the Content of Capital from Raya Dunayevskaya's 1978 pamphlet Marx’s Capital and Today’s Global Crisis.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on November 28, 2022



1) The Despotic Plan of Capital vs. the Cooperation of Freely Associated Labor

Marx had begun his analysis of capitalism some three decades before the establishment of the Paris commune in 1871. Labor was the pivot of his theory from the start. It was the concept of alienated labor that enabled him to dig deep into the inner mechanism of capitalist production. The first edition of CAPITAL, published in 1867, disclosed that what appeared, ideally, as plan, revealed itself, in reality, in the labor process, to be but the undisputed authority of the capitalist. For Marx, the theoretical axis of CAPITAL–the central core around which all else develops–is the question of plan: the despotic plan of capital against the cooperative plan of freely associated labor.

The despotic plan inherent in capitalist production reveals itself in a form all its own–the hierarchic structure of control over social labor. To keep production going on an ever-expanding scale, to extract the greatest amount of surplus or unpaid labor, requires a whole army of foremen, managers, superintendents. These all work for the capitalist with one aim and purpose: to force labor out of the many laborers. The attempt to control cooperative labor within capitalist confines must of necessity assume a despotic form. Planned despotism arises out of the antagonistic relationship between the workers, on the one hand, and the capitalist and his bureaucracy on the other hand.

Cooperation under the mastership of the capitalist is in direct opposition to the cooperating laborers. The worker had lost his individual skill to the machine. But he gained a new power in cooperating with his fellow workers. From the start this is a mass power. The opposition is between the nature of the cooperative form of labor and the capitalistic form of value production.

Cooperation is in itself a productive power, the power of social labor. Under capitalistic control, this cooperative labor is not allowed to develop freely. Its function is confined to the production of value. It cannot release its new, social, human energies so long as the old mode of production continues. Thus the nature of the cooperative form of labor power is in opposition to the capitalist integument, the value-form. At the same time the monstrous creation of monotony, speed-up, uniformity, military regularity and more speed-up robs science also of its self-development, confining it to the single purpose of extracting ever greater amounts of surplus, unpaid labor from the workers.

This develops into the absolute contradiction between the nature of machine industry and the value-form of its operation. Technological writing had analyzed the few main fundamental motions. There it stopped. It could go no further because there is no such thing as an abstract, remote, classless development of machinery. Technology is an integral part of the development of the productive forces. To exclude from it the greatest productive force–living labor–cripples and emasculates science itself. Under capitalism, the separation of the intellectual powers of production from manual labor, the incorporation of all science into the machine, means the transformation of intellectual power into the might of capital over labor, the engineer and technician against the worker. In a word, it means the transformation of man into a mere fragment of a man, just when the narrow technical needs of the machine itself demand variation in labor, fluidity, and mobility–all rounded, fully developed human beings using all of their human talents, both natural and acquired.

This is what Marx announced to the whole world in 1867. Before this theoretic onslaught, so total as to include both history and the actuality of the class struggle, bourgeois economics lay prostrate. Whereas nearly fifty years earlier, in 1821, Ricardo had at least posed the contradiction in machine production, vulgar economy was now, in 1867, reduced to denying this contradiction altogether. The emptiness of bourgeois economic thinking can be seen in their argument: since the contradiction is not inherent in machinery “as such,” it is a delusion to think that there are contradictions in machinery under capitalist control. This adding of two and two and coming up with zero did not stop the bourgeois economist, however, from declaiming against the “backwardness” and stupidity of the worker who broke up the machinery. The capitalist ideologist tries to argue away the workers’ enslavement to capital at the same time that society itself is threatened with the destruction of its human resources.

If the workers are too absorbed in their concrete struggles to indulge in abstract arguments about machinery “as such,” the very struggles nevertheless reveal them to be full of new perceptions. True, they fought the machine itself as a competitor. But the first appearance of machinery as a handmaiden of capital was its true appearance. Their instinct was right while the economist’s thinking was abstract. There is no such thing as machinery “as such.” The worker could not possibly regard the machine “as such” –as standing above and apart from the capitalistic mode of production under which the machine was developed to extract relatively greater amounts of unpaid labor from the workers. In the further struggles against capital, the worker learned to fight not the instrument of labor, but the capitalistic employment of it–the conditions of production which transformed him into a mere cog in the machine.

Due to the cooperative form of the labor process the resistance of the workers is also a mass power. The workers’ revolt develops from their fight against the instruments of labor into their struggle against the capitalistic conditions of labor. The workers thus at one and same time fight for their emancipation and against the capitalistic limitations of science and technology. The depth and breadth of the class struggles are a sign that the contradictions of capitalistic production are driving toward a new resolution. The resolution toward which the Paris Commune drove shed such strong illumination on the fetishism of commodities and the law of motion of capitalism that it deepened the very content of CAPITAL.

2) The Paris Commune–a Form of Workers’ Rule

The social revolution that erupted in Paris on March 18, 1871 was not like anything ever before seen in history. The treason of the ruling class necessitated the saving of French civilization by the proletariat. A few months earlier, Napoleon III had suffered defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The bourgeois republic which took over the reins of government was more afraid of revolutionary Paris than of Bismarck’s army. With the flight of this government to Versailles, the revolutionary proletariat reached the greatest turning point in history–the remolding of itself as the ruling class.

Louis Blanqui, famous revolutionary and head of a secret armed force, had been plotting insurrection, seriously and unremittingly, for years. He tried again when the Republic of France showed itself ready to sell out to Bismarck. Without mass support, the insurrectionary plan of his elite group failed of necessity. In real life, the insurrection came at the peak of ascending revolution, not vice versa, and not as a plot.

On March 18th, the soldiers were ordered by M. Thiers, the head of the reactionary government, to transport the cannon of Paris to Versailles. The milkmaids, who were on the streets before dawn, saw what was afoot and thwarted the treacherous plans of the reactionary government. They surrounded the soldiers and prevented them from carrying out Thiers’ orders. Although the men had not yet come into the streets on this early morning, and although the women were not armed, they held their own. As in every real peoples’ revolution, new strata of the population were awakened. This time it was the women* who were to act first. When reveille was sounded, all of Paris was in the streets. Thiers’ spies barely escaped with the information that it was impossible to inform on who the leaders of the uprising were, since the entire population was involved.

*Since the publication of Marxism and Freedom in 1958, a beautiful work on the activities of women in the Paris Commune, which also takes up their relationship to Marx, has been published. See The Women Incendiaries by Edith Thomas (Secker & Warburg, London, 1967; George Braziller, NY, 1966).

This act of self-defense by the Parisian masses was also the act of self-government. Just as the Second Empire was the natural offspring of the parliamentary government which had crushed the 1848 Revolution, so the parliamentary government that had succeeded Napoleon III had but one function–to be the engine of class despotism.

The first act of the Revolution was to arm itself. The armed people struck out against the everywhere present state organs–the army, the police, officialdom–which were such a faithful copy of the hierarchic division of labor in the factory. The first workers’ state in history, called the Commune of Paris, was born.

The Commune was composed, in the main, of Blanquists and Proudhonists. But the Blanquists became Communards only by giving up their insurrectionary plan and riding on the wave of the peoples’ revolution. The Proudhonists likewise had to give up their utopian schemes. The development of large-scale production had already undermined the artisan type who formed the social base for Proudhonism. Now, the 1871 Revolution destroyed entirely the Proudhonist philosophy of “no political activity.” The Parisian workers, who had just overthrown bourgeois domination, got down to the task of ruling themselves and setting down the conditions of their labor. All this was being done while the enemy was at the gates.

The first decree of the first workers’ state was the abolition of the standing army. The first announcement of the type of political rule to be set up is typical: “All public services are reorganized and simplified.

The armed people smashed parliamentarianism. The people’s assembly was not to be a parliamentary talking-shop but a working body. Those who passed the laws were also to execute them. There was thus to be no division between the executive and legislative bodies. The sham independence of the judiciary was similarly eliminated. Judges, as all other representatives, were to be elected and subject to recall. Representatives of the proletariat, however, were not yet the proletariat as a whole. Therefore, to assure control over the elected representatives, they too were subject to recall. Thus, the power remained always in the hands of the mass as a whole.

Public service was to be performed at a workman’s wage. Thus was laid the basis of inexpensive government. The hierarchic divisions of labor were given further blows. The decree separating church and state abolished religious control of education and kindled intellectual life on all fronts. True to their proletarian spirit, some districts began immediately to clothe and feed their children. Education was to be open and free to all. Even above that, the reorganization of the methods of education was to begin with the fullest participation of the whole people. The first call went out to teachers and parents. The teachers were instructed “to employ exclusively the experimental and scientific method, that which starts from facts, physical, moral and intellectual.”

The utopians had been busy inventing political forms of rule; the anarchists had been ignoring all political forms; the petty-bourgeois democrats had been accepting the parliamentary form. But this Commune was what the workers came up with–smash the state form of capital’s rule; supercede it by a commune-type of self-government. This then was “the political form at last discovered to work out the economic emancipation of the proletariat.” Marx had deduced from history that the bourgeois state form would disappear and the proletariat, organized as the ruling class, would be the point of transition to a classless society. He hailed the heroism of the Communards. He studied their specific form of proletarian rule and disclosed its secret: “The political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery.”1

The inseparability of politics and economics was established by the Commune, by its own working existence. Its Commission of Labor and Exchange, staffed mainly by members of the International, accomplished its greatest work, not in the decrees it passed, but in the stimulation it gave to workers to take things into their own hands. It began by asking the workers to reopen the works which had been abandoned by their owners and to run them by “the cooperative association of the workers employed in them.” The aim was to transform land and means of production into mere instruments of “free and associated labor.”

The Commune’s workshops were models of proletarian democracy. The workers themselves appointed the directors, shop and bench foremen. These were subject to dismissal by the workers if relations or conditions proved unsatisfactory. Not only were wages, hours, and working conditions set, above all, a factory committee met every evening to discuss the next day’s work.

Thus, plain working men, under circumstances of unexampled difficulty, governed, themselves. The Commune, by being the self-government of the producers, set free all the elements of the future society. Marx described it as “Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris–almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of the cannibals at its gates–radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative!”2

The spontaneous mass outburst that took this form of the Commune of Paris lasted only two months before the Parisian workers were massacred in one of the bloodiest terrors in history. But, in those two short months before the blood bath, the workers accomplished more miracles than capitalism had in as many centuries. The greatest miracle was its working existence. It abolished the standing army and armed the people instead. It smashed to smithereens State bureaucratism, placed public officials on a workman's salary and made them subject to recall. It abolished the division of labor between the legislative and the executive and transformed the parliament from a talking to a working body. It created new conditions for labor. On all fronts, the creative initiative of the masses had ensured the maximum activity for the masses and the minimum for their elected representatives. It thus stripped the fetishisms off all forms of rule: economic, political, intellectual.

3) The Fetishism of Commodities and Plan vs. Freely Associated Labor and Control of Production

The totality of the reorganization of society by the Communards shed new insight into the perversity of relations under capitalism. By smashing the old State-form and superseding it with the Commune, an end had been put to the hierarchic division of labor, including the division between politics and economics. By exposing the bourgeois State as the public force of social enslavement that it was, the proletariat demonstrated how the absolutely new form of cooperation, released from its value-integument, expresses itself. This was so clearly the absolute opposite of the dialectic movement of labor under capitalism, forced into a value-form, that all the fetishisms were stripped off of capitalist production.

Before the Commune, Marx had written that only freely associated labor could strip off the fetishism from commodities. Now that the Communards did precisely that, the concrete doing extended the theory. In the “Civil War in France,” Marx writes that what has now become clear is this: if cooperative production itself is not to become “a sham and a snare,” it must be under the workers’ own control. At the same time, he prepares a new, French edition of CAPITAL and there, as he tells us in the afterword,3 he has changed the section on fetishism of commodities “in a significant manner.” Marx asks: “Whence then arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities?”4 And he answers simply: “Clearly from this form itself.”

Previous to this edition, this was not so clear to anyone, not even to Marx. The simplicity of expression achieved in 1872 is worth tracing, especially since the significance has been lost.

There is nothing simple about a commodity. It is a great fetish that makes the despotic conditions of capitalist production appear as if they were self-evident truths of social production. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as these conditions were historically determined and rest on the servitude of the laborer, so the commodity, from the start of capitalism, is a reflection of the dual character of labor. It is, from the start, a unity of opposites–use-value and value–which, in embryo, contains all the contradictions of capitalism.

This simple relationship was beyond the perception of the greatest bourgeois economist, Ricardo, despite the earlier discovery of labor as the source of value. Although classical political economy had reduced value to its labor content, it had never once asked WHY did this content, labor, assume this form, value?

Long before CAPITAL, Marx had analyzed the duality pervading bourgeois society: “In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary; machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of arms seem bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on a dark background of ignorance. All our inventions and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force. This antagonism between modern industry and science on the one hand, modern misery and dissolution on the other hand; this antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted.”5

In general, but only in general, the logic of content and form of labor was actual to Marx’s thinking from the very beginning when he worked out the concept of alienated labor. Nevertheless, insofar as economic categories were concerned, he accepted them, more or less, as worked out by classical political economy. That is true as late as the publication of Critique of Political Economy in 1859, when he still used exchange-value in the sense of value and not in the sense of value-form. He still was “taking for granted” that “everyone knows” that production relations are really involved in the exchange of things.

By 1867, in the first edition of CAPITAL, he singles out the commodity-form as the fetish. Even here, the main emphasis is on the fantastic form of appearance of production relations as exchange of things. It is only after the eruption of the Paris Commune that his French edition shifts the emphasis from the fantastic form of appearance to the necessity of that form of appearance because that is, in truth, what relations of people are at the point of production: “material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

Having located the trouble at its source, Marx sees that a product of labor can have no other form than that of a commodity. Thus, to the question: whence the fetishism of commodities?–the answer is simple and direct: “Clearly from the form itself.”

It is not that Marx did not “know,” before the Paris Commune, that everything under capitalism is perverted. He “knew” that the machine dominates man, not man the machine. He “knew” that all science is embodied in the machine rather than in the actual producers. He wrote often enough that all human relations are confined and perverted under capitalism. He stressed that it cannot be otherwise so long as the process of production has mastery over man instead of being controlled by him.

This perverse relation of subject to object is so all-pervading that it has in its grip the oppressor class. That is why classical political economy could not dissolve the mystery. It met here its historic barrier.

“The value-form of the product of labor is not only the most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production, and stamps that production as a particular species of social production and thereby gives it its special historical character. If then we treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed for every state of society, we necessarily overlook that which is the differentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently the commodity-form and of the further developments, money-form, capital-form, etc.”6

What was new was that the Commune, by releasing labor from the confines of value production, showed how people associated freely without the despotism of capital or the mediation of things. Contrast the expansiveness of that movement with the mutilation of labor under capitalism, which robs the workers of all individuality and reduces them merely to a component of labor in general. That is the specific character of labor under capitalism. The value-form, which alone contains the reduction of the many, varied, concrete labors into one abstract mass, is the necessary result of this specific character of capitalist labor.

The Commune transformed the whole question of form from a debate among intellectuals to the serious activity of workers–“facing with sober senses the conditions of their being and their relations with their kind.” By dealing with their social relations openly and directly, they reorganized them completely and thm established a new social order. All existing relations were involved: production, property, the State, the market, the plan, the law of motion of the economy. The full and free development of each individual, once begun in the Commune, had become the condition for the full and free development of all.

The richness of human traits, revealed in the Commune, showed in sharp relief that the fetishism of commodities arises from the commodity form itself. This deepened the meaning of the form of value both as a logical development and as a social phenomenon.

Marx never looked at concrete events one-sidedly to see how they conformed to his previously-established theory. The theory always gained in depth by the processes of history itself. Not alone was the form of value fully illuminated. Important additions were introduced into the final part, on the “Accumulation of Capital.” In analyzing the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” Marx now poses the question of the ultimate development of the law of concentration and centralization of capital: “In a given society, the limit would be reached at the moment when the entire social capital were united in the hands either of a single capitalist or a single capitalist corporation.”7

Yet the importance of this crucial addition, with which we shall deal in detail when we analyze our own age of state capitalism in Part V, is not in the prediction of state capitalism, but in the fact that nothing fundamental is changed in the relations between classes by such an extreme development. On the contrary, all contradictions are pushed to the extreme. What was new was the concreteness this gave to Marx’s concept of the relationship of the ideal to the real. “They (the Communards) have no ideals to realize,” he writes, “but to set free the elements of the new society.”8

  • 1The Civil War in France, (included in Selected Works, Vol. II).
  • 2The Civil War in France.
  • 3This does not appear in the English editions. The International Publishers edition, edited by Dona Torr, does include some material from the French edition that is not in the standard Charles H. Kerr edition. The new Pelican edition does include all prefaces and postfares.
  • 4CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 82. Pelican, p. 164.
  • 5Speech at the anniversary of the PEOPLE’S PAPER, April 1856, (included in Selected Works, Vol. ll).
  • 6CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 93, footnote. Pelican, p. 174.
  • 7CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 689. Pelican, p. 779.
  • 8Civil War in France, (included in Selected Works, Vol. II).