Communism 1830-1917

From setting an example and insurrections to state communism

Early French intra-communist debates were primarily around ‘How to achieve communism?’ Some 19th century French communists answered: By example and education. Some: By a revolution to destroy state power. And others: By seizing state power and using it

1. Exemplary communism 

The example of communism could lead others to follow. Society could be transformed by establishing ideal communities within the existing order. Utopian communist ideas and projects flourished during the first half of the 19th century. Many built upon egalitarian Christian beliefs to give them wider legitimacy, often looking to messianic figures to offer leadership. 

Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) initiated the most influential of these experiments with his ‘Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria’, popularised in a French translation as Voyage en Icarie in 1840. It was Cabet whose pamphlet ‘Le crédo communiste’ first drew the word communist into the political vocabulary. 

Cabet founded the Icarian colony at Nauvoo in 1849 but died in 1856. The last Icarian group dissolved itself in 1898

By the mid-1840s Icarian communist groups existed in several French cities as well as in Paris. After trials for conspiracy in 1847, Cabet argued his supporters should emigrate to Texas to establish communist communities: 

The community suppresses egoism, individualism, privilege, domination, opulence, idleness and domesticity, transforming divided personal property into indivisible and social or common property. It modifies all commerce and industry. Therefore the establishment of the community is the greatest reform or revolution that humanity has ever attempted. 

2. Insurrectionary communism 

Other 19th century communists considered the revolutionary insurrection itself to be the principal way of preparing for a new society. It would overthrow private property and the state. Once the old power structures were removed the new world could be built by the working classes themselves. 

For insurrectionary communists the barricade was the way the state would be defeated. This 1871 photograph is of the barricade in the rue de Charonne

Barricades appeared in Paris for 3 days in 1830, 2 days in 1832, 1 night in 1834, a few hours in 1839, 2 days in February 1848, three days in June 1848, one day in December 1851 and for a week in May 1871. 

Eric Hazan’s History of the Barricade begins by pointing out: 

We could say that this is only a succession of defeats – some immediate, on the ground, others delayed – in which the forces of domination end up reversing the gains of an ephemeral victory. But thanks to Baudelaire, Blanqui, Hugo and Lissagaray, this is a history that is still living, a source of inspiration for those unresigned to the perpetuation of the existing order. 

After the bloody suppression of the 1871 Commune the next Parisian barricades were only erected in 1944 and 1968, but the inspirational idea of a great event-led transition remained embedded in left French thought. 

Direct action and the General Strike as opposed to political action were adoped by the founding conference of the CGT in 1895. This photograph is of the 1906 campaign for a general strike to bring about the 8-hour day

During the third quarter of the 19th century the barricade was gradually replaced by the General Strike as the hoped-for transformative event that would ensure the transition to a communist society.

The term ‘anarcho-communist’ covers those who held, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922), that after the great event and the overthrow of the national government, the state and authority of the employers, the existing workers’ organisations would be able to democratically run society. 

3. State communism 

The third way of achieving communism borrowed from Babeuf and Robespierre in seeing the role of the state as key to achieving a new world. 

Drawn to Babeuf’s ideas by Buonarroti, Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) aimed to seize state power and use it to suppress the ruling elite. All the decisions on behalf of the Parisian workers and the French provinces should be taken by a handful of dedicated revolutionaries. 

A proclamation was read on the steps of the Paris Town Hall on May 12 1839 in the names of the ‘Provisional Government’ including Blanqui (who was named ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the republican army) and Armand Barbès (1809-1870). 

Their self-constituted Provisional Government called for support from Parisian workers to:

‘Perish finally the exploitation, and may equality sit in triumph on the mingled ruins of royalty and aristocracy’. 

On May 15 1848 in the aftermath of a protest march against the new government’s lack of support for the Polish revolution, Barbès announced a new government from the steps of the Town Hall. 15 men and were tried in July 1849. Barbès and Alexandre Martin /Albert (1815-1895) were sentenced to deportation, Blanqui to ten years and the republican scientist François-Vincent Raspail (1794-1878) to six. Louis Blanc (1811-1882) was acquitted. 

The 15 arrested after the May 1848 protests against government inaction over the Polish revolt against the Russian colonisers included insurrectionary revolutionaries like Barbes and Blanqui alongside socialist republicans like Blanc and Raspail.

The Blanquists wished to seize state power without any democratic mandate from the workers who they believed would then follow the revolutionary leadership. 

Marx’s influence 

In the third quarter of the 19th century the political meaning of ‘communist’ and ‘communism’ in France shifted to specifically highlight the need for the whole working class (and not a handful of conspirators) to capture and use state power to rule on behalf of their class and so ensure a transition to a better world. 

This evolution was to a large extent due the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Their Communist Manifesto was published in German in February 1848. 

Its first French translation appeared in Paris just before the June 1848 workers’ uprising. Yet hardly anyone read the Manifesto or knew it existed in Paris in 1848. 

Although both Marx and Engels had already lived some time in Paris before 1848, the small influence they did have on the dominant Proudhonian anarcho-communism in France only began to appear from the late 1860s. Two of Marx’s daughters, Laura in 1868 and Jenny in 1873, married French socialists who had come to London to learn from Marx, Paul Lafargue (1842-1911) and Charles Longuet (1839-1903). 

Engels and Marx with Jenny, Eleanor and Laura photographed about 1865

The next French version of the Communist Manifesto only appeared after the defeat of the Commune in 1872 in a New York-based French-language paper, Le Socialiste. Volume 1 of Capital was translated under Marx’s direction and published in Paris in 48 sections between 1872 and 1875. 

Marx’s view of working-class rule involved rule of the whole class rather than of a few revolutionaries. Friedrich Engels specifically attacked the Blanquist understanding of ‘dictatorship’ in 1874: 

From the fact that Blanqui conceives of every revolution as the coup de main of a small revolutionary minority, what follows of itself is the necessity of dictatorship after its success – the dictatorship, please note, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small number of those who made the coup de main and who themselves are organized beforehand under the dictatorship of one person or a few. One can see that Blanqui is a revolutionary of the previous generation. 

Hal Draper’s Dictatorship of the Proletariat also quotes Marx in 1875 as arguing that:

‘Freedom consists in transforming the state from an organ set above society into one thoroughly subordinated to it’. 

From the mid-1870s, after the return of the thousands of those deported and jailed after the Commune, Marx’s ideas, challenging both Blanquism and Proudhon, began to get a wider French audience. 

Marxist-influenced parties 

Jules Guesde (1845-1922), the founder with Lafargue of the small Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier) sect in 1882, was introduced to Marxism in student discussions at the Café Soufflet on the corner of the rue des Écoles with the Boulevard St-Michel after returning from exile in 1876. 

In 1880 Guesde and Lafargue travelled to London, where Marx drafted the preamble to the Workers’ Party programme, and Guesde and Lafargue detailed its specific political and economic sections. 

The French Workers Party was very small but it was the first to claim to be Marxist

It was not long before Marx fell out with Guesde and Lafargue (as he did with many others). In response to their ‘revolutionary phrase-mongering’ he wrote: ‘What’s certain (if that is Marxism), is that I’m no Marxist’. 

In the 1890s after 20 years of economic depression and rising inequalities, Marx’s ideas spread rapidly and widely on the French socialist left. 

His scientific analysis of the instability of emerging capitalism and acute political observations on 1848 and the rise of Louis Napoléon as well as of the Paris Commune made him a key point of reference for 

many leading socialists such as Jean Allemane (1843-1935), Edouard Vaillant, Georges Sorel, Charles Andler and Jean Jaurès (1859-1914). 

The founding of the French Section of the Workers’ International in 1905 to create the SFIO brought together France’s more rhetorically revolutionary groups like Guesde’s Parti Socialist de France and the more reformist groups and independent socialists such as Jaurès. 

Within ten years, however, Jaurès had been assassinated by a pro-World War 1 French nationalist and Guesde was Minister without Portfolio in the National Unity (Union Sacré) Government. 

World War 1 

August 2 1914 outside the Gare de l’Est saw a popular mass mobilisation for the war against Germany

Nearly the entire French ‘Marxist’ left supported the war effort arguing that aggressive German military imperialism was the biggest threat to French workers. Three days after Jaurès’ murder, Vaillant argued he was ‘For the Country, for the Republic and for the Revolution’. 

Unlike several British and Russian socialists, on August 4 1914 every single French SFIO National Assembly deputy voted in favour of war credits. They included Marx’s grandson, Jean Longuet (1876-1938). And, unlike the situation in Germany, Russia and Britain, a government of National Unity (Union sacrée) was established the same day. Socialists and radicals were incorporated in the war effort from the very start. 

Virtually the whole CGT (Confederation générale du travail) leadership also supported the war. Opposition to World War 1 was at first limited largely to a handful of revolutionary-syndicalists. 

Pierre Monatte (1881-1960) of the CGT’s La Vie Ouvrière monthly, Alphonse Merrheim of the metalworkers’ federation and Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) met Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) in a left bookshop on the Quai de Jemmapes near the CGT’s offices to plan their anti-war campaign. This was soon after Trotsky was deported to France from Austria in November 1914. 

Zimmerwald Conference 

Half of those attending the September 1915 Zimmerwald Conference called on the initiative of the Italian Socialist Party

In 1915 Merrheim attended the September 1915 Zimmerwald conference. With Lenin and 16 other delegates he signed the final compromise Manifesto drafted by Trotsky: 

Workers of Europe… Since the outbreak of the war you have put your energies, your courage, your steadfastness at the service of the ruling classes. Now the task is to enter the lists for your own cause, for the sacred aims of Socialism, for the salvation of the oppressed nations and the enslaved classes, by means of the irreconcilable working-class struggle. It is the task and the duty of the Socialists of the belligerent countries to begin this struggle with all their power… 

Never in the history of the world has there been a more urgent, a more noble, a more sublime task, the fulfilment of which must be our common work. No sacrifice is too great, no burden too heavy, to attain this end: the establishment of peace between the nations. 

Working men and women! Mothers and fathers! Widows and orphans! Wounded and crippled! To all who are suffering from the war or in consequence of the war, we cry out over the frontiers, over the smoking battlefields, over the devastated cities and hamlets: “Workers of all countries unite” 

This call fell largely on deaf ears in France where the pacifist opposition to World War 1 grew very slowly. The anti-war trade unionists linked up with Louise Saumoneau (1875-1950) and Hélène Brion (1882-1962) campaigning for working women’s rights. 

In January 1916 Merrheim and Saumoneau set up the Committee for restoring International Relations (le Comité pour la reprise des relations internationals – CRRI). 

Women sewing machinists striking in Paris in 1917 were supported by the growing numbers opposing the war and its slaughter

Russian Revolution 

Following the first 1917 Russian Revolution the Committee published a leaflet calling for support for a May Day strike and a Russian call to ‘The Proletarians of all countries’ to unite against the War. 

Conscious of growing support for the Russian soviets, in December 1917 the CGT congress passed a resolution nearly unanimously that welcomed both President Wilson’s April decision that the US would enter the War as an ally, and the Russian Revolution. 

The anti-war movement grew in 1917, but it was still a minority. In June 1918, when Gaston Monmousseau (1883-1960), a member of the CRRI, moved a motion at the CGT Railway workers’ conference denouncing the ‘union sacrée’ and calling for the ‘energetic pursuit of the class struggle’, he rallied just one third of the votes. 

French communism, by 1917, was a very broad spectrum. It included the followers of Marx, of Proudhon, of Blanqui, and of the handful of revolutionary syndicalists who had opposed World War 1, as well as socialist pacifists, feminists, anarchists and anti-authoritarian writers and artists. 

The only communist tendency that had disappeared since 1830 were the utopian communists. 


Over the next 70 years French communism would be transformed. It would be reshaped and reorganised into a generally monolithic force driven largely by the consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution.