In Defense of Revolution and the Insurrectionary Commune

Published in Regeneration Magazine November 1st, 2020.

As the elections draw near, we face an escalation of violence by Trump and his death cult.[1] With the unmistakable threat of a coup this November 3rd and beyond, by invoking the Insurrection Act, Trump could unleash an arsenal of enhanced state repression beginning the night of the election itself.[2] Regrettably, those like the “Dump Trump, Then Battle Biden” signatories remain convinced that the important task of defeating him electorally can be achieved without broader preparations against a possible violent coup d’etat. In the absence of preparations far beyond defending the election, any realistically attainable “Electoral College margin” becomes a politic of societal suicide.[3]

We must prepare for the possibility that the elections will be violently contested, including by DHS/DOJ paramilitary forces, militias, police, and Trump’s armed “poll watchers,” with the entire death cult claiming the elections are being stolen by “the left.”[4] With the help of a compliant media, the death cult has made the core of their 2020 electoral strategy an “all-out assault” on the right to vote, including broad preparations to provide cover should Trump initiate a coup, quasi-constitutional or otherwise.[5] Even before Roger Stone explicitly advocated for a coup to take place on election night, 47% of the county had already come to fear that Trump would attempt something.[6] Less than a month later, a separate poll conducted by YouGov reported that 55% of registered voters expect violence.[7]

It seems clear that the threat is not only what Trump and the death cult may do if or when he loses, but that their attempted coup could begin on election night regardless, without patiently waiting until mail-in votes are counted. They will likely seek to create chaos at the polls then claim victory on election night, deploy an elaborate legal challenge to invalidate the election, and, no matter the results, seek to repress the country into obedience as soon as possible.[8] This would imperil a peaceful transition of power in January even if Biden were to technically win, so why discourage preparations?

A mass uprising that evolves to counter any attempted coup may end up being all that stands between us and an even deadlier phase of fascism that could take years to overthrow. Fortunately, contained within the collective experience of any upcoming coup attempt is also the potential for “combat-organizational knowledge” against it.[9] Though this potential is sufficient for an uprising to organize commune-ized systems of social reproduction capable of sustaining tactical dominance against the forces of fascism, that hardly guarantees it will emerge, especially dependent on the time frame in question.[10]

The previous article put forth a strategic assessment as to the possibility that mutual aid assemblies and other forms of revolutionary self-organization could proliferate with general or social strikes against the threat of a fascist seizure of power in November and beyond. In this article, the previous assessment is reinforced by a critical examination of the arguments Karl Marx made on revolution and what is here referred to as the insurrectionary commune. This is undertaken to further examine the extent to which the November elections could precipitate a revolutionary struggle for the direct transition to commune-ism.

Trump could end up losing the election and, in response, escalate whatever initial coup attempt he began in November through at least the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, January 20th, 2021. We must not assume that the military and intelligence agencies will step in to “defend the constitution,” whatever that actually means to them. Depending on the extent to which this catalyzes enough of an uprising, it could very well be the beginnings of a revolutionary upsurge.

Also, Trump could actually “win” re-election. Between solidifying a pliant Supreme Court and the countless ways the death cult is already working to undermine the popular vote, a Trump electoral victory could occur. Though he will likely claim victory on election night regardless and attempt some form of coup then, if he waits for the electoral process itself, and there is absolutely no guarantee that he will, he could end up emerging the winner through a long and drawn out process. At this point, and claiming a mandate from voters, he would likely attempt a swift display of power, an attack on whatever or whoever stands in his way.

Yet any escalation of state repression and vigilante violence can help solidify further support for a revolution against what is becoming a more nakedly anti-democratic, fascist force by the day. If an uprising can establish the systems for its own social reproduction through the figurative scaffolding of insurrectionary communes, then either of these first two possible scenarios can be decisively shifted toward revolution. In either of these scenarios though, the so-called “democratic republic” will have been all but bludgeoned to death by fascism.[11]

Thirdly, the so-called “popular front” Bernie Sanders advocated at the Democratic National Convention could prove successful; that Biden wins and Trump eventually steps down.[12] Looking to Marx on revolution and the insurrectionary commune can be useful to find lessons on how to ensure that the “immediate revolutionary excitement is not suddenly suppressed after the victory.”[13] As the main governing bodies of a revolutionary proletarian political party called The Communist League, these communes were definitely not like political parties today, including the recently launched Movement for a People’s Party.[14]

Overall, the viability of liberal, progressive, and democratic socialist politics has become critically wounded by the orchestration of an obvious right-wing coup of sorts. Similarly, if Trump wins, the future potential of electoral politics, including even municipalist socialism, remains highly in doubt.[15] Unfortunately, there seems to be a deep pessimism regarding the possibility of revolution. Out of this pessimism, ultimately rooted in class privilege, many now seek alliance with the military. During what is perhaps the greatest crisis this country has faced in generations, a crisis that could advance a revolutionary movement more than over the course of the entire neoliberal era, we must reject the endless array of electoralism and prepare ourselves for what is to come.

In December 2019, Chris Hedges, journalist and author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and their War on America, noted the possibility of an attempted Trump coup in an article titled “Onward Christian Fascists.”[16] Going forward to August 2020, he wrote that “the election will not stop the rise of hypernationalism, crisis cults and other signs of an empire’s terminal decline.”[17] Against “the two ruling parties in the service of a corporate oligarchy,” he argued, it is necessary to “mount sustained acts of mass civil disobedience to bring down the empire.” However, when it comes to identifying that which should be built from the ashes of the fallen empire, he just pessimistically urges us to “mobilize to build an open society.” Sadly, Hedges is far from alone in this thinking.

In a Common Dreams article from August 2020, political scientist Jeffrey Isaac argued that “we must be prepared to defend a democratic election in the streets.”[18] Unfortunately, Isaac does not believe in the possibility of revolution, arguing that “no serious person imagines that we are on the cusp of a genuinely ‘revolutionary situation.’” He presents what is perhaps the clearest example of why liberals, progressives, and advocates of the electoral path to socialism have little to offer. According to Isaac, if Trump loses the election and tries to retain power, the goal of an uprising should be “to work in tandem—a complex and agonistic collaboration to be sure–with professional politicians, communicators, lawyers, bureaucrats, and police and military officers to defend the rule of law.”

Isaac discusses two other sets of people who advocate a similar approach to save the “democratic republic.” This includes two neoconservative military officers from the George W. Bush administration who co-authored a piece directed at General Malley, current chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying; “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order.”[19] Isaacs’ views are shared by notable leftist academic and former advisory board member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Francis Fox Piven. In an August 2020 article published by The Intercept, she and Deepak Bhargava urged us to believe that, in the event of Trump refusing to leave office, we should emulate Ukraine from November 2004 to January 2005, saying: “We can pull off a peaceful Orange Revolution of our own.”[20]

What exactly are they advocating by looking to Ukraine anyway? Though a popular uprising was successful in forcing the removal of a president who rigged an election in an attempt to remain in power, not only was he voted back in a few years later, but it was a single instance in a long line of so-called “color revolutions” backed by and also in the interests of US imperialism.[21] When it comes to the strategy of defending the rule of law and to protect the results of the election, much of the more conservative elements of the US left have implicitly adopted this regime change strategy.

The event of a “constitutional crisis” or “contested elections” could entail an immediate escalation of coup tactics by Trump and the death cult. An uprising would no doubt be up against a dangerous enemy who may emerge victorious in any early battles come November. But even then, if, over the course of winter and into the spring, enough communities establish their own commune-ized systems of social reproduction, including self-defense forces, even in but nascent form, their resulting general or social strikes could build toward a revolution. Instead, much of the left has tasked itself with rescuing the republic at a moment in time that would potentially be a greater “revolutionary situation,” as Isaac called it, than what has occurred in generations. At least military historian Andrew J. Bacevich was upfront about the strategy of an alliance with the military when he said “Down that path lies rule by military junta.”[22]

To “protect the results” of the election, as a broad progressive coalition of some 100+ non-profit organizations under the umbrella of Stand Up America intends, hinges on exactly this strategy.[23] With a digital approach, Stand Up America played a key role organizing demonstrations in support of the limited Trump impeachment attempt, culminating in 600 “nobody is above the law” rallies throughout the country.[24] The brand is different and the coalition has grown, but is their goal to assist in building the necessary popular power or flash-in-the-pan rallies that fizzle out as soon as they begin? How are people supposed to take this seriously when the fascist opposition is preparing for a possible coup, including both state repression and vigilante violence? Against this threat, the purported strategy here is last minute text messages and Facebook posts for people to gather.

Turning to Stand Up America’s managing director from a press release; though Donald Trump is “an existential threat to our democracy,” the response is only “mobilizing to vote him out of office and peacefully take to the streets to defend the valid results of this election if necessary.”[25] The inclusion of the word “peacefully” here is important, similar to what Lazare and Johnson noted back in June with regard to “democratic leader’s shamefully tepid response to Trump’s threat of military crackdown on protests.”[26] Clearly, the Democratic Party wants to be sure it can repress any uprising that no longer serves their goals. They have been laying their own groundwork for this since George Floyd was murdered by police, based upon a much longer history that includes “cooptation as ruling class strategy” and the belief “that you can somehow get rid of the police without overthrowing the system that the police are there to protect.”[27]

When it comes to these sorts of liberal, progressive, or democratic socialist arguments, Marx hoped the “various middle strata of bourgeois society,” as he viewed them, would “rapidly get over their illusions and disappointments” the more nakedly a “bourgeois republic” degenerated from class dictatorship to one ruled by emperor.[28] He hoped the “middle strata” would recognize the necessity of revolution before it was too late and argued for a “proletarian commune,” the core of a revolutionary movement toward “insurrection.” As for the insurrection itself, Marx hoped revolutionaries would seize upon the failures of a “protect the results” coalition in his day and launch a general or social strike in order to “plunge into the fight and push the revolution forward beyond the petty bourgeois aim set for it.”[29]

So we should look to what union organizer Chris Townsend wrote in a “Letter to the Socialists, Old and New,” published by Regeneration Magazine July 2020.[30] He encouraged us to “dismiss the pleadings of former movement glitterati who long ago gave up on revolutionary change” because “it’s your movement now, it’s not theirs anymore.” Though Townsend also cautioned against “bitter critiques of Bernie Sanders” and to “recall the destructive effects of sectarianism,” now is the time to push the preponderance of the “glitterati” and their electoralism off a cliff. Only in exposing the fallacies of their own privileged positions and beliefs can we truly “open even wider the doors of our movement,” as Townsend encouraged.

We turn to a June 2020 Left Voice article by Ahmed Kanna for instruction.[31] Titled “Vivek Chibber’s ABCs of Reformism: Reality Has Overtaken Social Democratic Illusions,” Kanna encouraged us to say “goodbye to all that,” what he referred to as “reformist and electoral illusions,” because “the rebellion has accomplished more in two weeks than have decades of slow, incremental electoralism.” Unfortunately, with regard to the possibility of a Trump coup come November and beyond, these “reformist and electoral illusions” increasingly become a politics of societal suicide. Marx referred to it as “that peculiar malady” of “parliamentary cretinism, which holds those infected by it fast in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, and understanding of the rude external world.”[32] Despite the escalating violence of the forces of fascism, the “glitterati” preach a defense of the rule of law, to protect the results of the election, and the same kind of last minute, vaguely articulated protests that failed to stop past republics from crumbling under the weight of similar maladies.

Kanna’s article focuses primarily on Jacobin Magazine board chair and NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber who, in a 2017 article entitled “Our Road to Power,” said that when it comes to the possibility of revolution; “it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.”[33] Chibber continues this line of thinking in The ABCs of Capitalism, published by Jacobin in 2019, then again in a Verso Books interview from May 2020. We also see this in a February 2020 Jacobin article celebrating the late sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who Chibber called “this era’s greatest class theorist” and who was “dedicated to deepening Marxist theory and socialist politics.”[34]

In this piece, Chibber focused on Wright’s posthumously published book, How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the Twenty-First Century, arguing against the possibility of revolution yet again. In this particular book, Wright devoted only a few paragraphs to the subject though. However, if we go back to Wright’s 2010 book, Envisioning Real Utopias, he devoted an entire chapter and more to what he regarded as the relative impossibility of “ruptural transformation,” i.e. revolution.[35] Today, we see Wright’s self-identified pessimism in these articles by Hedges, Isaac, Piven and Bhargava, as well as Chibber, all with increasingly deadly consequences.

Whereas the rest of the “glitterati” has simply assumed the potential for revolution away, at least Wright put forth elaborate arguments on what he regarded as its relative impossibility, more so than these other five individuals combined. If one actually goes back and examines the preconditions for revolution that Wright set forth, preconditions he pessimistically believed could not be met, we would see that not only does revolution remain possible today. According to Wright’s conditions themselves, revolution has become imminent.[36]

Overall though, Wright bases his arguments against the possibility of revolution on a misrepresentation, if not intentionally simplistic caricature, of what Marx actually wrote. Using the phrase “smash first, build second,” Wright claims this is what Marx advocated, also saying this “revolutionary scenario for the transition to socialism is the iconic version.”[37] But when we look at what Marx actually wrote on revolution and the commune, for example, it is clear that this in no way conforms to Wright’s caricature.

This article examines two particular analyses of Marx on revolution and the commune; that of the late socialist Zionist and existentialist philosopher Martin Buber as well as the communist theory of Mario Tronti. Each look to similar passages in Marx to arrive at complementary conclusions. Buber advances what is arguably an anti-fascist theory of the commune in revolution, while Tronti emphasizes the commune and its role in furthering revolutionary class struggle overall. As such, this article expands upon their combined approaches to explore the relevance of Marx on revolution and the commune by looking at three different instances.

The first section provides a more general introduction to Buber on Marx, including his report on the Paris Commune of 1871. The second section looks to Tronti and the insurrectionary commune Marx discussed for Paris June of 1849 amidst a “bourgeois republic” similarly eroding toward dictatorship. The third looks at what Marx and Engels’ wrote for the central committee of The Communist League in a March 1850 address where they cover the role of the insurrectionary commune in preparation for and after an electoral victory by “petty-bourgeois democrats.”[38] Throughout these writings, Marx advanced views and strategies that defy the constriction of Wright’s supposed “iconic version.”

While the reformist left mobilizes to save “democracy,” without being grounded in commune-ized systems of social reproduction, it is unclear the extent to which any election mobilization will be able to endure what stands against us. It is unfortunate that so many of the left’s supposed leaders remain mired in pessimistic electoralism, siding with the fallacy of the rule of law, just like their intellectual ancestors did, falling to dictatorship and then fascism in the preceding centuries. This approach hardly seems advisable, rather dangerous, and will, in what seems increasingly probable, be rendered irrelevant by the death of electoral politics as a terrain of struggle. As such, let us heed the words of communist theorist Antonio Negri; to “start again from Marx,” which, in this case, means starting again from Marx on revolution and the insurrectionary commune.[39]

Martin Buber on Marx, Revolution, and the Commune

In service to his disingenuous arguments against the possibility of revolution, Erik Olin Wright looks to the “anti-authoritarian socialist theory” of Martin Buber in his book, Paths in Utopia, completed in the spring of 1945.[40] Here again, much like with Marx, Wright advances a caricature, this time a transparent attempt to claim Buber would have agreed with him on “interstitial transformation” and not revolution, which is incorrect.[41] Paths in Utopia examines the relationship between communes, cooperatives, and revolution from utopian socialists of the early 19th century up through and including Proudhon, Bakunin, Marx, and Lenin. Though Buber’s chapter on Marx is just 19 pages of this short book, his brief analysis illuminates much more than “smash first, build second.”

Furthermore, the entire last chapter of Paths in Utopia, titled “In the Midst of Crisis,” is devoted to the anthropological and historical origins of the communal form as well as what Buber believed necessary for revolution. As he says in the preface, it “sums up my own attitude.” What he argues does not conform to Proudhon’s formulations, nor Wright’s. Despite living through two world wars, the second of which was still raging on both fronts, leaving Germany for Jerusalem in 1938 to escape annihilation by the Nazis, Buber did not share Wright’s self-identified pessimism. He sought an understanding of the commune to ensure that fascism would never rise again, which required, then as now, a revolution and the direct transition to communism.

Buber examined Marx’s writings from 1844 up to his letter (and drafts) to Vera Zasulitch in 1881 on communes in Russia, their direct transition to communism, and that they, according to Marx, “must first of all eliminate the injurious influences which work upon it from all sides, and then secure for it the normal conditions of spontaneous development.”[42] Buber concludes the book with two sentences re-affirming his own position. “Just as I do not believe in Marx’s ‘gestation’ of the new form, so I do not believe either in Bakunin’s virgin-birth from the womb of Revolution. But I do believe in the meeting of idea and fate in the creative hour.”[43]

When Buber wrote “I declare in favor of the rebirth of the commune,” he was using this term interchangeably with cooperatives.[44] He was not, however, thinking of them as businesses, like the dominant ideology of cooperatives today. In the last chapter, Buber also uses the words “community” and “collectives” interchangeably with cooperatives and communes. He goes on to say that the commune “need not be founded” in terms of some sort of legal incorporation. What, he argued, was most important was that “its members have a common relation to the centre overriding all other relations.” Communes emerged, he said, “whenever historical destiny had brought a group of men together in a common fold,” what he otherwise referred to as “a living togetherness, constantly renewing itself” that was based on “the immediacy of relationships.”[45] When it came to the possibility of revolution and the direct transition to communism, he believed the formation of communes, even just their nascent “idea” as “relationships,” was essential. In his words, “everything depends on whether they will be ready.”[46]

In this way, Buber discussed centralization versus decentralization during a revolutionary struggle, as well as thereafter. His support for centralization, both in the form of a revolutionary party and any ongoing role of the state, was a reluctant one, arguing that it should be allowed “only so much as is indispensable in the given conditions of time and place.” He believed centralization would be required unless revolutionary movements fostered the proliferation of “collectives into whose hands the control of the means of production is to pass.” Buber argued that communes in revolutionary struggle must be immediately endowed with a degree of “economic and political autonomy—for they will of necessity be economic and political units at once.” But the degree of autonomy versus centralization must be determined over and over again “with the constant and tireless weighing and measuring of the right proportion between them.”[47]

It would appear, at first glance, that Wright was correct in his reading of Marx, as Buber goes on to say that “Marx’s dialectical formulation leaves no doubt as to what the sequence of events actually is in his opinion: first the political act of social revolution will annihilate not merely the Class State, but the State as a power-formation altogether.” Moreover, Buber also wrote that Marx believed in “the reconstruction of society, only after the complete overthrow of the existing power,” that “whatever organizing activity preceded the Revolution was only organization for the struggle.”[48] Unlike Wright though, Buber understood a deeper relationship at the heart of Marx’s thinking. This was not the “iconic version.”

Buber categorized Marx’s thinking into “the economic, social, and political,” arguing that, for Marx, “the political act of revolution remained the one thing worth striving for.”[49] Whereas the necessity of revolution always remained clear, Marx’s views on the commune and its role in the social restructuring of capitalist society fluctuated over the course of his life. Overall, Buber argued Marx believed that “each commune is already invested in principle with its own proper powers and rights within the revolutionary process, but it is only after the accomplishment of the common act that they can come into actuality.” Buber goes on to argue that whereas Marx “accepted these essential components of the commune-idea,” he did not weigh this social aspect of revolutionary struggle with the centralism he believed necessary for the political act itself.[50]

Whereas Marx believed communes were instances of a new societal form, whenever pursuing their development came at the cost of revolutionary class struggle, he was highly critical. As Marx put it of the class struggles in France before June 1849, communes divorced from revolutionary class struggle were seeking “its salvation behind society’s back” and would “necessarily come to grief.”[51] It was a criticism Marx aimed directly at people like Proudhon on cooperatives and his advocacy for reforms like the “people’s bank,” which was a much more radical politic than advocates of public banking today.[52] Marx was proven correct by what followed: a president with aspirations of dictatorship seized power while the bank was years away, the left most certainly came “to grief” in late 1851, and another twenty years would elapse before the Paris Commune of 1871.

When it came to the Paris Commune of 1871, Buber wrote that Marx regarded it as still “a pre-revolutionary process, one, moreover, whose nature consists in the formation of small, federable units of men’s work and life together, of communes and Co-operatives, in respect to which it is the sole task of the Revolution to set them free, to unite them and endow them with authority.”[53] A broader revolution was necessary, like Marx wrote to Vera Zesulich ten years later, in order to “eliminate the injurious influences which work upon it from all sides.”

Communes could be considered part of the necessary “organization for the struggle” depending on the extent to which they formed an integrated part of the broader revolutionary movement. As such, Buber did not disagree with Marx on whether or not communes were “political units,” referring to them as “battle-organs of the revolution.”[54] Buber just also believed that even loose and informal communal relations throughout society prior to a revolution could better ensure both the success of the revolution itself and it resulting in the establishment of communism directly thereafter. As he put it of the commune, “the more such a society is actually or potentially in being,” the greater the possibility of its “actuality in the changed order,” achieved through revolution.[55]

Buber goes on to quote Marx, who said of revolution in his report on the Paris Commune of 1871 that “it has only to set free those elements of the new society which have already developed in the womb of the collapsing bourgeois society.” Buber argued that this assertion is directly in line with Marx’s views “in the Critique of Political Economy twelve years previously” regarding the inability for revolution until “material conditions,” including the commune, have sufficiently “gestated.” He goes on to argue that “it is nowhere hinted in the report of the General Council that the Paris Commune miscarried because the gestation had not been completed.” In Buber’s reading, what led to the demise of the commune was “but for this or that particular circumstance.”[56]

Over this period of two months in 1871, communes had, in Buber’s words “become the cell-substance of the new society.” This term, “cell-substance,” encapsulates Buber’s views regarding the communal form. The more this “cell-substance” proliferates throughout society is the extent to which Buber believed decentralization and autonomy could be the foundation for the revolution itself, while ensuring the quickest transition to communism. As such, Buber argued that “When Marx says that the few functions ‘which will then remain for centralization’ should be handed over to communal officials, he means without a doubt: decentralize as many State functions as possible and chose those that must remain centralized into administrative functions, not, however, only after some post-revolutionary development lasting an indefinite time, but inside the revolutionary action itself.”[57]

In his concluding paragraph, Buber reaffirms that he does not agree with Marx on the necessity of the full gestation of material conditions and the commune, while also not agreeing with Bakunin that communes should only be formed within the act of revolution itself. Though Buber does not elaborate on what he refers to as “the meeting of idea and fate in the creative hour,” it seems clear that he is referring to a balance between Marx and Bakunin. This balance is mediated by what he regarded as the proliferation of communal relations, or the commune as “idea,” prior to and during “the creative hour” of revolution.

Unfortunately, Buber did not examine Marx on the more insurrectionary commune he wrote about in his Class Struggles of France 1848-1850, as well as what he and Engels’ wrote in their March 1850 address to The Communist League. Not only will we see that their analysis of the role of the commune was more supportive and nuanced than Buber seemed to understand, but it also illuminates the significance of his particular conclusions regarding “the meeting of idea and fate.”

Mario Tronti on Marx and the Insurrectionary Commune of June 1849

In his 1966 book, published in English for the first time in 2019 with the title Workers & Capital, Tronti referred to the Paris communes, those in both 1871 and 1849, as “two limit-models, between which are located an infinite, extraordinarily varied series” of “‘technical’ inventions” or “forms of struggle.”[58] Additionally, in looking to Marx on the commune, Tronti asserted that “he was not making an empirical observation or still less a historical judgment, but drawing a simple political watchword.”[59] This notion of a “political watchword” is similar to Buber’s notion of the “cell-substance of the new society.” But Marx’s description of this insurrectionary commune defies Buber insistence that he failed to articulate their role in the political act of revolution, while offering up useful instruction as to the possible role of this insurrectionary commune today.

Whereas Buber’s insistence of the commune as idea during “the creative hour” rests on existentialist language regarding the formation of interpersonal communal relations, Tronti was quite clear what he thought was necessary, as was Marx; to be engaged in class struggle.[60] Unlike Buber though, Tronti examined the insurrectionary commune of 1849 and the significance of the struggle overall, but he did not delve into what, exactly, fell under the “political watchword” of the commune itself.[61] It is precisely in the forms of struggle that constitute this insurrectionary commune, as well as similarities with our present circumstances, that most inform a communist politics against a Trump coup and beyond.

Marx briefly described a “proletarian commune” in what would get published in book form as Class Struggles in France 1848-1850. In each of the four articles that made up this short book, he reflected on what had taken place; describing events while emphasizing conflicting class dynamics. During this period, France went from “bourgeois republic” in February 1848 to dictatorship under Louis Bonaparte in December 1851. The report Marx wrote after 1851, titled The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, would go on to influence a generation of Marxists who sought to understand the rise of 20th century fascism. But in these four articles, Marx focused on issues of political strategy against what was a historical precursor to fascism, much more so than anywhere else in his writings.

Marx argued that the left must accept the revolutionary proletariat’s leadership, warned of the republic’s instability, and the dictatorial aspirations of its president. The proletariat won the revolution of February 1848 to create the republic itself. But by June of that year, after multiple betrayals by allies in the revolution, the working class had “no choice,” Marx wrote, but to launch an “insurrection.” It was a “tremendous insurrection in which the first great battle was joined between the two classes that split modern society.” He went on to say that “without chiefs and lacking a common plan,” the proletariat in Paris, despite being “without means and, for the most part, lacking weapons,” launched this insurrection. It was “for the preservation or annihilation of the bourgeois order” and though he called it an insurrection, it can hardly be considered a violent strategy for revolution when they were “lacking weapons” and “held in check” those that marched against them.[62]

Defeated with over 3,000 dead and tens of thousands forced into exile, this “bloody school” would inform the revolutionary proletarian strategy a year later.[63] Marx hoped another insurrection in June of 1849 would cause a seizure of the economy. He wrote that “Public credit and private credit are the economic thermometer by which the intensity of a revolution can be measured. The more they fall, the more the fervor and generative power of the revolution rises.”[64] The French economy and its government were facing unprecedented levels of debt, just like we are today. In conditions such as these, it does not take violent street battles to suspend the “normal” functioning of the economy. Before the pandemic, protesters in Hong Kong showed the extent to which a popular uprising and their “be water” strategy can bring an economy to its knees, forcing it into technical recession.[65] This power is with us today and even if the worst transpires in November, the spring and summer can bring seizure anew.

Marx hoped that an insurrection would take place June 1849, roughly one year after the initial proletarian insurrection. The revolutionary working class convinced their “petite bourgeois socialist” partners “to come out beyond the confines of the parliamentary struggle, in the event that its bill of impeachment was rejected.[66] Their “Red party” also tried to narrowly impeach a president aspiring to dictatorship, as Democrats attempted in the US as well. The revolutionary proletariat was unable to convince the broader left to join them for this insurrection in Paris though. Instead, in Marx’s words, what transpired amounted to only a “street procession,” which was “a caricature, as ridiculous as it was vile, of June, 1848.”[67]

Marx argued that the “socialist clubs,” what had become “secret workers’ societies” after being forced underground, had become a “coalition of the whole working class.” Marx referred to them as “the gathering points, the conspiratorial seats of the revolutionary proletariat.” He went on, asking “what were they but a coalition of the whole working class against the whole bourgeois class, the formation of a workers’ state against the bourgeois state?” When it came to their role in the insurrection, he asked “were they not just so many constituent assemblies of the proletariat and just so many military detachments of revolt in fighting trim?”[68] Though he referred to it as insurrection, it was more a general or social strike.[69]

Marx called these “gathering points” in coalition “a proletarian commune” that “was already formed which would take its place beside the official government.”[70] Whereas his usage of the word “beside” raises questions as to what he regarded as the purported relationship between these assemblies and the state, he does not elaborate. What does remain clear though is that he in no way implies that the commune was somehow not “destined to outlast the upheaval,” as Buber argued. By affirming the revolutionary movement under the “political watchword,” as Tronti put it, Marx identifies the “proletarian commune” in contradistinction to the republic, also affirming the commune’s component parts, i.e. its “constituent assemblies.” If we use Buber’s analysis of Marx on the next Paris Commune, these assemblies were a similar “cell-substance,” while “beside” becomes a direct transition to communism “inside the revolutionary action itself.”

Marx did not write much about this “proletarian commune” in 1849 France, including specifics as to its role in the insurrection. Tronti himself only briefly wrote about it, but as one of the two “limit models” and the importance he placed on “analyzing the forms of struggle,” this insurrectionary commune can inform contemporary revolutionary struggles at the precipice of another republic’s demise.[71] The question then becomes how can this insurrectionary commune prove useful today?

Given our ability to articulate the commune as a “political watchword” as well as “cell-substance,” the role of this insurrectionary commune can be viewed through the lens of social reproduction for insurrection and the direct transition to communism. In 2016, Silvia Federici wrote about the importance of reading Marx’s “analysis of capitalism politically, coming from a direct personal experience,” in order to establish “the foundation for a feminist theory centered on women’s struggle.[72] Federici noted his “undertheorization of domestic work,” of gender, and its “parallel here with the place of ‘race’ in Marx’s work.”[73] To transcend these limitations requires “a refocusing of political work on the issues, values, and relations attached to the reproduction of our lives and the life of the ecosystems in which we live.”[74] This holds true for Marx’s analysis of the proletarian commune in the Class Struggles in France.

For theorists like Tithi Bhattacharya, Marx “failed to develop fully” the role of labor in capitalist society in terms of the “familial as well as communitarian work that goes on to sustain and reproduce the worker, or more specifically, her labor power, is naturalized into nonexistence.”[75] Clearly, if there would have been an insurrection, “familial as well as communitarian work” would be an enormous and vital undertaking. Those engaged in an insurrection would still have to eat, sleep, etc. The revolution would have had to be socially reproduced over time, but Marx rendered this unseen.[76]

More so than anything else, it would seem, an insurrectionary commune grounded in social reproduction would foster that which Buber asserted was necessary for communal forms to “be ready.” Is it not precisely social reproduction where we most intimately, comradely feel that “living togetherness, constantly renewing itself” based upon “the immediacy of relationships” that Buber believed so essential?[77] Similarly, like Marx argued when it came to the 1849 insurrection he hoped would materialize, when it comes to efforts to “protect the results” of the election, we too can “plunge into the fight and push the revolution forward beyond the petty bourgeois aim set for it.”[78]

Turning to the social reproduction theory of Sophie Lewis, let us hope that this year “mark[s] the beginning of the end of class society.”[79] Especially given what Lewis refers to as the “riotous nationwide insurgency currently underway for Black lives,” this consideration of working toward “a general strike that gives rise to a giant archipelago of protest kitchens” seems highly appropriate. Lewis continued, positing that a strike may be what “in turn, leads to the overthrow of exploitation, and the founding of a million co-housing projects, co-ops, and communes.” For Marx on Paris in 1849, the commune itself was the force organizing toward a strike. It was composed of various forms of self-organization, but the commune was “cell-substance” and “political watchword,” not another social form alongside co-ops.

In “Six Steps to Abolish the Family,” theorist M.E. O’Brien argued for “permanent communes of collective social (re)production,” each where an “assembly square becomes a meeting space for democratic administration.”[80] This is like Marx on the insurrectionary commune, except now social reproduction has been rendered seen. As such, Marx’s insurrectionary commune can now be centered for struggle.

No doubt “permanent communes” cannot be established as defensive positions throughout the country in advance of a Trump coup. But what transpires around the elections will no doubt call for the commune’s “rebirth,” if we have any hope of emerging victorious from this descent into fascism. This communal form as “idea,” at least in the sense Buber meant it, has a broader and more robust existence even in our recent history, reborn again and again from situations of crisis and struggle. Whether or not existing forms of struggle will prove capable is an open question. But as the election unfolds and the threat of violence continues to escalate, whatever uprising takes place can establish itself for a more protracted struggle. This could very well amount to a “meeting of idea and fate in the creative hour,” where our passionate striving can become a revolutionary upsurge, communal forms spreading far and wide, potentially culminating in our own insurrection against fascism and the subsequent direct transition to communism.

Marx & Engels on The Communist League March 1850

Should Trump lose the election and Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee, ascend the presidency, can we turn to Marx on the insurrectionary commune to inform our preparations, including toward revolution? Can these preparations remain appropriate no matter what transpires around the elections? In their “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850),” Marx and Engels offers useful insight.

The Communist League was an international revolutionary party set up in 1847, precursor to the First International. In a footnote on the first page of their address, we are introduced to the League’s structure. “The basic group of the Communist League was the ‘commune’ (Gemeinde), consisting of between three and twenty members. A ‘district’ (kreis) was formed by between two and ten communes falling within a specified geographical area, its committee (Kreisbehorde) being an aggregate of the elected commune committees.”[81] Like the insurrectionary commune of June 1849, here is another instance that Buber missed, a concrete example that does not conform to his analysis.

The communes were the basic units of what was to be “an independent organization of the workers’ party” that “must aim to make every one of its communes a centre and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.”[82] Whereas the importance of articulating “the position and interests” would no doubt be vital, here again the critical role of social reproduction has been rendered unseen. In this address though, Marx and Engels were intent on positioning the League to be prepared for electoral victories on the part of the “democratic petty-bourgeois” parties; who “hope to bribe the workers with a more or less disguised form of alms and to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable.”[83]

As the “centre and nucleus,” Marx and Engels argued that the communes “must work to ensure that the immediate revolutionary excitement is not suddenly suppressed after the victory. On the contrary, it must be sustained as long as possible.”[84] Given current conditions in the US, this would seem apt advice. Mutual aid as social reproduction, for example, can better ensure an uprising will maintain momentum through the upcoming elections and beyond. Grounding the left in communes, even if they were but the “idea” of communal forms in hopes of building the capacity for social reproduction, seems vital. What though, more specifically, did Marx and Engels believe should occur in the event the “petty bourgeois democrats” achieve victory?

“Alongside the new official governments they must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments,” Marx and Engels said, “either in the form of local executive committees and councils or through workers’ clubs or committees.” Much like Marx had described the “socialist clubs” in France as “constituent assemblies” and “military detachments of revolt,” making up the insurrectionary commune, we now see them argue for a wider variety of forms of revolutionary self-organization as part of this coalition, a League of communes as unified “political watchword.”

The communes were to ensure “that the bourgeois-democratic governments not only immediately lose the support of the workers but find themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers.”[85] This did not mean that Marx and Engels believed electoral contests were the path to communism. They argued that it was essential for the revolutionary left to form their own, as Buber called them, independent “battle organs of the revolution.”

They encouraged the League to run candidates, but when it came to elections, more important was that “from the very moment of victory,” by which they meant of the “democratic petty bourgeois” candidates, that “workers’ suspicion must be directed no longer against the defeated reactionary party but against their former ally, against the party which intends to exploit the common victory for itself.”[86] They believed the “democratic petty bourgeois” were on the verge of electoral victories against feudalism and the counterrevolutionary absolutist state. The Communist League had a role to play, but this was not an electoral path to anything.

Marx and Engels went on to warn comrades. “As soon as the new governments have established themselves, their struggle against the workers will begin.” This too seems apt advice in case Biden wins and Trump leaves office. “If the workers are to be able to forcibly oppose the democratic petty bourgeois,” they said, “it is essential above all for them to be independently organized and centralized in clubs.”[87]

When it came to the June 1849 insurrectionary commune in France, the “socialist clubs” were the very foundation for what Marx referred to as the overarching “proletarian commune” itself. These were the “constituent assemblies,” the “conspiratorial seats.” When it came to The Communist League in 1850, these clubs were to emerge from the local communes themselves, to rapidly expand a revolutionary movement upon conclusion of an electoral cycle. No matter what transpires as a result of the November elections, for Marx, the insurrectionary commune was critical for situations where a republic was degenerating from class dictatorship to a dictatorship of one, as well as in situations where “bourgeois republics” remained more stable and effective against the threat of a return to feudal society.

This is a far cry from where much of the left is today. Looking to the recently launched Movement for a People’s Party (MPP), the initial press release lays out their purported strategy; “organizing local hubs across the country that will form the building blocks of state parties and get ballot access.” From these “hubs,” the MPP “will run for Congress in 2022 and for the Presidency in 2024.”[88] It is difficult to feel inspired by this when we cannot even be certain any 2022 or 2024 elections in the US will take place at all, or be even more compromised than the 2020 elections, making this yet another approach that has great potential to be but a candle in a hurricane. Though the future is obviously unwritten, the MPP’s strategy seems to rest on what Marx meant by “parliamentary cretinism,” which is most unfortunate. Only time will tell though, but here is another example of something that could be commune-ized for more revolutionary ends.

What is clear today is that organizing self-defense forces, solidarity kitchens, and everything else that is required to repel fascist assaults, reproduce a revolutionary upsurge, ensure collective care, and more all depend on commune-ized systems of social reproduction. As both “political watchword” and “cell-substance,” our own insurrectionary communes could include mutual aid efforts, people’s assemblies, tenant councils, workers’ councils, autonomous zones like the short-lived Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) in Seattle, what Symbiosis PDX calls Neighborhood Action Collectives, and more. Rather than myopic electoralism in the face of fascism, left leaders could have advocated a revolutionary strategy toward insurrectionary communes for the social reproduction of general or social strikes. We could be in an infinitely stronger position against Trump and his death cult today, but the force of “parliamentary cretinism” is strong in those who refuse to jeopardize their privilege by advancing a politics that will actually matter.

  1. Chauncey Devega, “Trump’s death cult finally says it: Time to kill the “useless eaters” for capitalism,” Salon, March 27th, 2020.
  2. Morgan Chalfant, “Trump says he would put down riots on election night ‘very quickly’,” The Hill, September 11th, 2020.
  3. Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Sonali Kolhatkar, Juliet Schor, “Open Letter: Dump Trump, Then Battle Biden,” Common Dreams, September 23rd, 2020.
  4. Anonymous, “What Would a Contested Election Look Like?” It’s Going Down, September 17th, 2020.
  5. Alex Kotch, “GOP’s Strategy for 2020 Election Looks Like an All-Out Assault on Voting Rights,” Truthout, September 19th, 2020. & David Armiak, “GOP-Aligned Groups Use Discredited Ideas to Promote Fear of Mail-in Voting,” Truthout, September 6th, 2020.
  6. Miles Mogulescu, “Roger Stone Coaches Trump on How to Stage an Election Coup,” Common Dreams, September 15th, 2020. & David Smith, “Most Democrats fear Trump could reject election defeat, poll shows,” The Guardian, September 2nd, 2020.
  7. Sharon Kyle, “Violence in the Streets; Or Peaceful Transfer of Power,” LA Progressive, October 13th, 2020.
  8. Amanda Marcotte, “Right-wing talk about “sedition” and the Insurrection Act has one purpose: Stealing the election,” Salon, September 17th, 2020.
  9. Daniel Gutierrez, “Seizing the Times: Five Theses on Militant Development,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 21st, 2020.
  10. Anonymous, “The Swarm Approach to Warfare: An Introduction for Frontliners, Ill Will Editions, September 6th, 2020.
  11. Benjamin Fearnow, “Pelosi Calls Out Trump Admin Over Portland Unrest: ‘We Live in a Democracy, Not a Banana Republic,’” Newsweek, July 19th, 2020.
  12. Jake Johnson, “The Price of Failure Is Just Too Great to Imagine’: In DNC Speech, Sanders Urges Popular Front to Defeat Donald Trump,” Common Dreams, August 18th, 2020.
  13. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850),” in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Political Writings: Volume 1, edited and introduced by David Fernbach, (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). P. 325.
  14. Christopher D. Cook, “New People’s Party Rises Amid Grim Election Options,” The Progressive, August 31st, 2020.
  15. Eleanor Finley, “The New Municipal Movements,” Roar Magazine, Issue 6, Summer 2017.
  16. Chris Hedges, “Onward Christian Fascists,” Truthdig, December 30th, 2020.
  17. Ibid, “America’s Death March,”Scheerpost, August 10th, 2020.
  18. Jeffrey Isaac, “We Must Be Prepared to Nonviolently Defend a Democratic Election in the Streets,” Common Dreams, August 22, 2020.
  19. John Nagl and Paul Yingling, “‘…All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic’: An Open Letter to Gen. Milley,” Defense One, August 11th, 2020.
  20. Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava, “What If Trump Won’t Leave?” The Intercept, August 11th, 2020.
  21. Mark Ames, “The Hero of the Orange Revolution Poisons Ukraine,” The Nation, March 1st, 2010.
  22. Andrew J. Bacevich, “The Military’s Role in a Contested Election,” The Nation, September 17th, 2020.
  23. Ryan Thomas and Emily Phelps, “Responding to Trump, “Protect the Results” Announces Coalition Has Grown to Over 100 Diverse Groups Ahead of Possible Contested Election,” Common Dreams, September 24th, 2020.
  24. Ryan Thomas, “TODAY: 600 ‘Nobody Is Above the Law’ Rallies to Impeach Trump,” Common Dreams, December 17th, 2019.
  25. Ibid, “Response To Trump Tweet: America Must Be Prepared For Trump To Contest Valid Election Results,” Stand Up America, September 17th, 2020.
  26. Sarah Lazare and Adam Johnson, “Democratic Leaders’ Shamefully Tepid Response to Trump’s Threat of Military Crackdown on Protests,” In These Times, June 2nd, 2020.
  27. Coco Smyth, “Burning and Looting: A New Rebellion or a Reactionary Conspiracy?” Left Voice, June 7th, 2020. & Matthew Lyons, “Cooptation as ruling class strategy,” Three Way Fight, June 23rd, 2020. & Kites Editorial Collective, “Defund, Abolish…but what about Overthrow?” Kites Journal, July 27th, 2020.
  28. Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, (New York: International Publishers, 1964). P. 54.
  29. Ibid, 99.
  30. Chris Townsend, “Letter to the Socialists, Old and New,” Regeneration Magazine, July 27th, 2020.
  31. Ahmed Kanna, “Vivek Chibber’s ABCs of Reformism: Reality Has Overtaken Social Democratic Illusions,” Left Voice, June 10th, 2019.
  32. Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (New York: International Publishers, 2004). P. 91.
  33. Vivek Chibber, “Our Road to Power,” Jacobin Magazine, December 5th, 2017.
  34. Ibid, “How to Be a Socialist in the Twenty-First Century,” Jacobin Magazine, February 19th, 2020.
  35. Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, (New York: Verso Press, 2010).
  36. Ibid, 309-320. For an in-depth analysis of Wright’s preconditions for revolution, see the full version of this article at:
  37. Wright, 303.
  38. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850),” in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Political Writings: Volume 1, 322.
  39. Antonio Negri, “Starting Again from Marx,” trans. Arianna Bove, Radical Philosophy, Issue 2.03, December 2018.
  40. It is important to reference here both a personal criticism of Buber as well as that of the role of what he described in the epilogue of his book, the “full cooperative,” as it has been practiced historically. Ari Davis, “Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia. The Kibbutz: an experiment that didn’t fail?” in Peace News, Issue 2446, March-June 2002.
  41. Wright, 328-329.
  42. Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, (New York: Collier Books, 1988). P. 93.
  43. Ibid, 138.
  44. Ibid, 136.
  45. Ibid, 135.
  46. Ibid, 137.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid, 82
  49. Ibid, 96.
  50. Ibid, 95.
  51. Ibid, 84.
  52. Marx, Class Struggles in France, 134.
  53. Ibid, 88.
  54. Buber, 95.
  55. Ibid, 81.
  56. Ibid, 88.
  57. Ibid, 94-95.
  58. Mario Tronti, Workers & Capital, (New York: Verso Press, 2019). P. 198.
  59. Ibid, 197.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Ibid, 191-193.
  62. Ibid, 56.
  63. Ibid, 98-99.
  64. Ibid, 46.
  65. Vitalist International, “Summer in Smoke: Report from the World’s Biggest Black Block,” Chuang, December 8th, 2019. & Staff, “Hong Kong confirms economy fell into recession amid protests, trade war,” Reuters, November 14th, 2019.
  66. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 98-99.
  67. Ibid, 93.
  68. Ibid, 83.
  69. Lorenzo Feltrin, “The Climate Strikes & the Social Strike: Working-Class Environmentalism and Social Reproduction,” We Are Plan C, June 18th, 2019.
  70. Marx, Class Struggles in France, 99.
  71. Tronti, 197-198.
  72. Silvia Federici, “Capital and Gender” in Reading ‘Capital’ Today, eds Ingo Schmidt and Carlo Fanelli, (New York: Verso Press, 2016). P. 80.
  73. Ibid, 90.
  74. Ibid, 94.
  75. Tithi Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping social (re)production theory,” in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya (London: Pluto Press, 2017), P. 2.
  76. Tronti, 191-192.
  77. Roar Collective, “ROAR Roundtable: A feminist response to the pandemic,” Roar Magazine, August 19th, 2020.
  78. Ibid, 99.
  79. Sophie Lewis, “Covid-19 Is Straining the Concept of the Family. Let’s Break It.” The Nation, June 3rd, 2020.
  80. Michelle O’Brien, “Six Steps to Abolish the Family,” Commune Magazine, December 30th, 2019.
  81. Marx and Engels, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850),” in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, 319
  82. Ibid, 324.
  83. Ibid, 323.
  84. Ibid, 325.
  85. Ibid, 326.
  86. Ibid.
  87. Ibid, 327.
  88. Movement for a People’s Party, “The People’s Convention Draws More than 400,000 Views. Attendees Cast Historic Vote to Build a Major New Political Party Free of Corporate Money and Influence,” Common Dreams, August 31st, 2020.

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