On the 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune: Marx, Gender, and the Alternative to Capitalism in 1871, 1844, and Today

Celebrating the Paris Commune as a Positive Form of Communism

This year, as we mark the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871, the question arises as to whether that type of direct democracy with an anti-statist, anti-capitalist bent is realizable any longer. One of the many objections to the Commune as a model centers on the notion that such practices cannot be replicated on the large scale of modern nation-states, let alone a world socialist polity. Another objection holds that the subjective force that brought about the Commune, i.e., the emerging working class as a powerful group with enough social weight to really challenge capitalism, has receded in size and importance, at least in the most technologically developed countries. Still, the aspiration persists, as seen most recently in the Occupy movement of 2011.

The Paris Commune poses, even now, the possibility of a totally different way of life, one where the working people, broadly conceived, take power and implement not a mildly reformist social democracy or an authoritarian system that calls itself socialism, but real mass self-rule. Marx sums it up this way in his classic eulogy, The Civil War in France, written as a statement of the First International in the wake of the Commune’s violent repression by the French army: “It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”

This was communism in the positive sense, as Marx also wrote: “Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor. But this is communism, ‘impossible’ communism!”

Women and Revolution in the Commune and After

At the same time, a number of commentators, most notably Edith Thomas in her 1963 book Women Incendiaries, have pointed out the substantial involvement of women in the Commune. Marx also singled out the participation of women as one of its core features, writing of how “the real women of Paris” came out onto the streets, “heroic, noble, and devoted, like the women of antiquity.”

It is striking that these words describe not women under capitalism, but women taking a leading role in a social structure that is reaching beyond capitalism.

But hasn’t that often been the case? Didn’t women, for example, touch off the Russian revolution of 1917, with the demonstration by working women on March 8 of that year? And wasn’t Stalin’s turn to counter-revolution within the revolution in the 1930s connected to the dismantling of many of the gains of women during the revolution, among them free and legal abortion?

This takes us to a slightly different issue, gender relations as a measure of whether a given society is genuinely revolutionary, or is turning away from its most revolutionary possibilities.

Gender and the Critique of Crude Communism in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts

Looking from this angle also helps illuminate Marx’s most famous discussion of women, in a paragraph in the essay “Private Property and Communism” in the 1844 Manuscripts, where he writes of gender relations as a measure of social progress.

“Private Property and Communism” begins not with a discussion of how to transform capitalist society in a progressive direction, or even with how to abolish capitalism. Instead, Marx begins with the concept of communism itself at a very general philosophical level. He doesn’t sketch a positive model but instead develops a critique of “an entirely crude and unreflective communism.” Thus, we are conceptually already beyond capitalism and in a new society, but not in a positive sense. This crude communism is one of economic equality, but without real human emancipation, without the elimination of exploited and alienated labor. He adds: “The role of worker is not abolished but extended to all human beings.”

Marx ties this form of communism to gender, writing that such a “crude and unreflective communism” expresses itself in the notion of “the community of women,” wherein woman’s position is shifted from being the private property of one man to a type of “communal and common property.” Obviously, this not a positive solution to the problem of women’s subordinate position as the property of men, a system that has existed across many societies.

It is in this context, the critique of crude communism, including on gender relations, that Marx makes an important generalization: “This communism, which negates the personality of the human being in every sphere, is only the logical expression of private property.” He goes on to develop these critical remarks about crude communism for a few more lines of his essay.

Marx’s Most Cited Passage on Gender: Its Links to Communism

After that, Marx launches into what have become his most famous lines on gender relations, here quoted in part:

The direct, natural, necessary relationship of human being to human being is the relationship of man to woman…. Therefore, on the basis of this relationship, we can judge the whole stage of development of the human being. From the character of this relationship, it follows to what degree the human being has become and recognized himself or herself as a species being; a human being; the relationship of man to woman is the most natural relationship of human being to human being. Therefore, in it is revealed the degree to which the natural behavior of the human being has become human.

Thereupon, Marx returns to his discussion of communism as “democratic or despotic,” etc.

I have to admit that I have tended to see his famous paragraph on gender as a stand-alone statement about gender relations as a measure of social progress that could be connected to all manner of societies across human history. I did so, for example, in my introduction to Marx on Suicide in 1999. But when read carefully and in relation to the surrounding text, it becomes clear that this passage is about social progress in a very specific context, that of a society that has already abolished or begun to abolish capitalism, or at least tried to take steps in that direction.[1]

Thus, we need to view Marx’s 1844 comments on gender and human liberation very specifically as a discussion of gender in relation to the alternative to capitalism, just as we need to view those on women’s participation in the Paris Commune in a similar light.

To that I could add that his very last writings, particularly the Ethnological Notebooks of 1880-82, contain very lengthy ruminations on gender and the family in a number of precapitalist contexts, from Indigenous America to ancient Greece and Rome. This research, which concerns alternative forms of society to that of the industrial capitalism developing in Western Europe at the time, was also seen by Marx as related to the question of how a post-capitalist society could be organized on an emancipatory basis.

Taking It Forward to Today

Thus, on the basis of his 1844 Manuscripts, it could be said that Marx viewed gender relations as a very important yardstick that could measure whether a society aiming toward communism was getting on the wrong track. This problem weighs on us more deeply today, after developments like Stalinism or the Nicaraguan revolution. All too often, the counter-revolution that replaced the revolution did so on the backs of women, in a sometimes sudden and always vicious turn against women’s rights that was the harbinger of a much wider turning away from any possibility of human emancipation.

And what of the discussion within Marxist and feminist theory?

First, it should be said that most commentators on the 1844 Manuscripts have neglected the passage on gender.

That said, it should also be noted that several prominent feminist thinkers of the twentieth century have taken up the passage, as have newer studies like Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender and the Family (2012).

In 1949, the feminist and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir quoted Marx’s paragraph on gender at the end of her pathbreaking book The Second Sex. To de Beauvoir, this showed how connected the struggle for women’s liberation is to all social progress: “It is when the slavery of half of humanity is abolished and with it the whole hypocritical system it implies that the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its authentic meaning and the human couple will discover its true form.” And that is the way Marx’s passage has usually been read.

However, this kind of reading does not grapple with the specific context in which Marx writes these lines on gender relations as measure of social progress, the critique of crude communism. It is possible that de Beauvoir did not see or chose not to emphasize this aspect because at the time she was an apologist for Stalin’s Russia, siding with that regime — surely one of the best-known examples of a crude communism — against Western capitalism. In so doing, de Beauvoir was in agreement with her leftwing existentialist colleagues Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

By the 1970s, attitudes on the left toward Russia had shifted in the wake of its violent suppression in 1968 of Prague Spring’s “socialism with a human face,” after which it became very difficult to find apologists for the Russian regime on the left.[2] In 1973, the noted Marxist-Humanist and feminist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya took up the paragraph on gender in her groundbreaking work, Philosophy and Revolution, tying it to Marx’s critique “vulgar communism’s ‘sham universality’.” Dunayevskaya concluded that the women’s liberation movement of the time was offering a challenge not only to the capitalist order, but also to the narrow vision of communism being put forth from the left, especially the Maoist-tinged New Left of the 1960s: “The uniqueness of today’s Women’s Liberation Movement is that it dares to challenge what is, including the male chauvinism not only under capitalism but within the revolutionary movement itself.”[3]

Pulling these threads together leads to two observations about Marx, communism, and gender.

First, Marx’s initial discussion of gender in 1844 occurs as part of a critique of crude communism, not a critique of capitalism. This makes his critique especially crucial to any discussion of the alternative to capitalism, of the new communist society in a positive sense. One thing therefore becomes clear in terms of gender: Gender relations are an important measure of whether a communist project is crude and limited, or whether it is, in Dunayevskaya’s apt phrase, “reaching for the future” in a positive sense. To Marx, the Paris Commune was reaching toward such a positive form of communism, not least because of the central involvement of women, especially but not limited to working women, in its project. This notion, drawn from Marx in 1844 and 1871, is the theoretical argument developed in the present essay.

Second, all this needs to be connected to the empirical, factual experience of revolution in the twentieth century, as revolutions in the name of Marxism began to win, to come to power. Starting with the Russian Revolution of 1917, women’s emancipation has been a key factor in almost all modern revolutions, as has women’s leading role in the struggle against old regimes. Yet under Stalin, women’s rights were sharply rolled back at the very time the regime was transforming the revolution into its opposite, a totalitarian state-capitalism where the workers and peasants came under exploitation by the state and the Communist Party in order to build up a modern industrial economy. The terrible human cost exceeded even those horrors described by Marx in Capital as “primitive accumulation” because rapid transformation of Russia into an industrial society took a decade rather than being spread out over centuries. More recently, the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua involved crucial participation by women, both in the struggle and in the new regime. Nicaragua soon faced a brutal U.S.-backed war by counter-revolutionaries — the “Contras” — against the new regime. This partially dislodged the Sandinistas from power, but by the time they took full control of the state again in 2007, they had moved sharply to the right under the leadership of Daniel Ortega, especially on women’s rights. Ortega now supported a complete ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, or serious risk to the mother’s life. This was accompanied by all kinds of reactionary measures, whether in terms of democratic rights or the environment. Looking at Russia and Nicaragua as examples of how crude forms of communism have blocked the drive toward a humanistic communism, one could say that Marx’s 1844 critique has had enormous predictive power.

Overall, Marx’s critique of gender oppression under crude communism offers an insightful and still-timely perspective that links together a needed critique from within of the revolutionary movement and a conceptual framework that targets key features of an errant form of communism. It is an instance of something Peter Hudis underlines in his 2012 book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, that Marx often gives us insights into his own concept of communism in critiques of what he considers to be false and inadequate notions of communism.

[1] I would like to acknowledge at this point that my thinking on these issues was stimulated by a summer 2021 dialectics study group in which I participated with a group of students, intellectuals, and activists. We took several sessions to go over the opening pages of “Private Property and Communism,” as the participants kept insisting on reading these pages as a whole, rather than as a set of isolated statements. The group included Damian Algabre, Kristopher Baumgartner, Gerardo “Gary” Colmenar, the late Ali Kiani, Ndindi Kitonga, Derek Lewis, Andres Magon-Marmol, Nina, Jess, and Sushanta Roy.

[2] Angela Davis was a notable exception in this regard. It should also be noted that many like de Beauvoir who now attacked the Russian regime had switched to an equally uncritical stance toward Maoist China.

[3] A somewhat similar, more empirical critique can be found in Margaret Randall’s 1992 book Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda.