Paris Commune: provided vindication

Build on solid foundations

Socialists need a programme, but not just any old programme. Donald Parkinson of Cosmonaut magazine and the Marxist Unity Slate in the Democratic Socialists of America sets out the history and great advantages of the minimum-maximum programme

In this essay, I am going to talk about an important part of Marx that is often ignored: his contribution to the art of political programme.

There is no lack of literature exploring the theories and philosophical ideas of Marx. Yet we often forget that Marx was not only a political strategist, but someone who contributed to existing political movements. The Communist manifesto is probably the most famous of his contributions of this type, written in the midst of the struggles of 1848. However, this was early in Marx’s political career. If we want to attain an understanding of his most ‘mature’ political contributions, a key document is the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,1 co-written with Jules Guesde. This document stands not only as an expression of the political views of the mature Marx, but as a model to base the construction of a minimum-maximum programme, which in my opinion is the model that today’s socialist movement should orient itself around.

The reason I am focusing on this question is not to perform an exercise in historical archaeology, but to shed light on modern issues regarding the question of a political programme for today’s socialist movement. It is my opinion that the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier holds up to this day as a model - not simply because it was a Marx’s contribution after his experiences with the First International and the Paris Commune, but also because its minimum-maximum structure is superior to other programmatic methods commonly used by the socialist left today.

One such method, which I will examine later on, is the transitional programme favoured by the Trotskyists at the US publication Left Voice, which took aim at the minimum-maximum model in a recent critique.

Parti Ouvrier

To begin, I will take a close look at the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Its origins can be found in a workers’ congress eight years after the fall of the Paris Commune - the French Workers’ Congress of 1879 - which declared the formation of an independent workers’ party and the necessity of collectivising the means of production. This was a blow to Proudhonian trends that had previously dominated socialism in France and represented the rise of Marxist politics as an organised force.

The two main figureheads of Marxist (or what would come to be known as Marxist) ideas in France at the time were Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde. Lafargue was Karl Marx’s son-in-law, while Guesde became the leader of the newly formed Federated Socialist Workers’ Party. Both sought collaboration with Marx himself in writing the party programme in preparation for the national legislative election in 1881.2

The process of drafting it began with Marx drawing up a 101-item questionnaire for working class readers of the socialist paper La Revue Socialiste. The aim of the questionnaire was to find information about the living and working conditions of the French proletariat that could help inform the drafting of demands. Guesde toured the country to organise local and regional groups, finding that most workers’ groups were primarily interested in reformist demands for greater social and civil rights. Following the tour, Guesde travelled to London to meet up with Marx and Engels and draft the programme itself in May 1880.3

The preamble of the party written by Marx is one of the most effective yet to-the-point summaries of communist politics ever put on paper. Engels himself called it “a masterpiece of cogent argumentation rarely encountered, clearly and succinctly written for the masses: I myself was astonished by this concise formulation.”4 Marx begins the preamble with a simple summary of the communist thesis: “that the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”. Right here is a clear rebuttal of all claims that Marx’s communism was only of concern to industrial workers, refuting in one simple phrase that Marxism is mere ‘workerism’. The struggle of the proletariat - the productive class under modern capitalism - is seen not as an end in itself or related to particularist interests in class society, but as a means towards the emancipation of universal humanity. And, to make it clear, Marx emphasises the truly universal nature of this humanity by clearly stating that he means humanity without distinction of sex or race. The internationalist and anti-patriarchal character of Marxist politics is thus made clear from the beginning.

The next section states the condition upon which the productive class can be emancipated: that “they are in possession of the means of production”. This may sound straightforward from our standpoint, but in Marx’s time it needed to be clarified. This is why the next line of the preamble differentiates between two forms, through which the means of production can be under the possession of the producers: the individual and collective. The individual form is a reference to the peasant and artisan, who own their own means of production as individuals. This form of ownership was seen as an ideal to be strived for by the followers of Proudhon, who were dominant in French socialism until this time.

Marx’s argument is that this form of ownership is increasingly antiquated and irrelevant with the development of capitalism, which itself socialises the means of production within the framework of private ownership and market competition. As a result, the means of production can only be appropriated collectively, by moving beyond the framework of private ownership in favour of social ownership. Capitalist development has proletarianised the labouring population by separating them from the means of production, developed the forms of labour themselves to be far more cooperative, and closed off the possibility of restoring small ownership if the current forms of production are to be maintained and improved upon. A return to individual ownership is impossible, making the only possibility for the emancipation of the producers to come in the form of collective appropriation.

From this flows the next section of the preamble, which states the need for the class independence of the proletariat and its organisation as a political party: “collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party”. In other words, only the proletariat as a class will be compelled through a struggle to take hold of the means of production, as they have no property titles that give them a stake in the maintenance of the system of private appropriation. Therefore, the proletariat must organise its own political party with politics that express its needs as a class and not the needs of the property-holding class.

This does not mean that only proletarians can be a member of the party or that only proletarians can benefit from the politics put forth. Peasants, intellectuals, professionals, even class traitors of the bourgeoisie can be members. Yet when they enter the party they must leave their particular class interests at the door and fight for the needs of the proletariat, even when those needs come into contradiction with their own class.

The preamble then states that this class independent party of the proletariat shall pursue its goals by all means necessary. Yet the example given of such means is not armed struggle or a general strike, but universal suffrage - “transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”. It is through mass politics, not the action of militant minorities, that the proletariat must struggle as a class, and this entails contesting elections with the parties of the bourgeoisie. Marx was aware of the limitations of the electoral process and knew that it was used as a legitimation apparatus for the bourgeoisie. Yet he also realised that universal suffrage had massive potential as a tool for the proletariat that could be subverted. The electoral arena must not be left in the sole hands of the bourgeois, but must be contested by the workers’ party, bringing its politics into the national arena.

The preamble then ends, proclaiming that the Parti Ouvrier must enter into elections with a following list of demands. Before exploring these demands, a certain point must be pressed: the preamble can be understood as a maximum programme. It represents the final goal of the party that will be attained after a period of economic reconstruction and social transformation. It describes the general aim of human emancipation and that this must be achieved through the proletariat and its party coming to power and collectivising the means of production. In other words, it proclaims the long-term goal of moving beyond capitalism into a communist society.

The demands that follow are both political and economic in character, representing a minimum programme. These represent immediate changes that the party will fight for before taking power and will collectively institute before taking power. While taking a closer look at these demands, we will see two important things: (1) that, taken individually, they do not entail a break with the capitalist economic system; and (2) if instituted in totality they would entail a break with capitalist rule over the state and the establishment of the political rule of the proletariat. In short, the aim of a minimum program is not to simply create a list of reforms that a party will fight for to gain support and popularity, but to provide a roadmap for the proletariat to seize state power entirely in a revolutionary break.

This minimum-maximum format is not unique to the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. As Jack Conrad has pointed out, it can be found in the Communist manifesto, the Erfurt programme and the 1902 programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.5 The reason for my particular focus on this historical document is that it is a very simple and clear expression of this format that clarifies many confusions about its nature if one gives it a close and attentive reading, particularly its political demands.


The first demand in the political section is instructive, in that it is focused on the democratic rights of the working class:

Abolition of all laws over the press, meetings and associations and above all the law against the International Working Men’s Association. Removal of the livret, that administrative control over the working class, and of all the articles of the code establishing the inferiority of the worker in relation to the boss, and of woman in relation to man.

Marx and Guesde here are primarily concerned with political freedom - the light and air of the proletariat, without which it cannot breathe. Considering the history of ‘actually existing socialism’, this may be surprising for some. After all, should the suppression of the bourgeois press not be the focus? Certainly, we should not allow the capitalist monopolies to hold control over the media as they do now. It is also clear that Marx here is most concerned with the press freedom of the working class, as he says the focus should be on laws against the International Working Men’s Association.

The focus here is on ensuring that the working class has the capacity to govern, and in Marx’s mind this must mean the establishment of a press, where the working class is able to freely associate. Questions of shutting down the capitalist press were secondary and contingent to the circumstances of revolution.

Mentioned next is the livret - essentially a form of bonded labour that existed in France until 1890. The livret was essentially a passport one needed in order to change employers. It took the form of a card that listed one’s outstanding debts and obligations to former employers, meaning that in order to change employers these debts and obligations must first be cleared. Such a system shows the backwardness of French capitalism - not yet able to use the ‘carrot’ of unemployment to control the labour force and instead relying on the ‘stick’ of internal passports.

The abolition of the livret is then followed by the destruction of all laws of the Napoleonic code that ensure not only the “inferiority of the worker in relation to the boss”, but also those that enforce the inferiority of woman in relation to man. While these demands may not necessitate a break with bourgeois governance, they are nonetheless necessary.

After discussing press freedom and the livret, Marx and Guesde move on to what is essentially an anti-clerical demand, calling for the “Removal of the budget of the religious orders” and the “the return to the nation of the ‘goods said to be mortmain, movable and immovable’” (citing the example of the Paris Commune), as well as the “suppression of the public debt”. These demands are both inspired by the example of the Commune and essentially compatible with a thoroughgoing bourgeois-democratic revolution, but not necessarily demands that require a dictatorship of the proletariat.

It is the next two demands that best help us understand the nature of the minimum programme as not simply reformist demands to rally the workers, but rather carry a revolutionary content. First is the classic socialist demand for the people’s militia: “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people”. This is then followed by calling for “the commune to be the master of its administration and its police”.

What is important in these demands is that they would require a break with the existing state in France - the Third Republic that was denounced by French radicals as “the monarchy without the monarch”.6 Breaking down the standing army and the general arming of the people, coupled with the transfer of administration and control of armed force to the commune, would have meant a transfer of sovereignty and a rupture in the general form of the state. The reference to the Commune makes this clear, as Marx pointed out that the main lesson of the Commune was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.7 These minimum demands, taken as a complete package, are therefore not mere reforms - they are a call for a radical break with the existing state and a transfer of power to the working class in a new democratic republic.

The radical nature of these political demands was lost on Guesde, who saw the planks of the programme as mere slogans to rouse the workers into action in the hope that they would take up a truly revolutionary struggle. Marx himself had no time for such “revolutionary phrase-mongering” and emphasised the practical yet also transitional nature of these demands. They were meant to provide a practical roadmap for the workers’ movement in taking political power, not mere slogans to shout in order to inspire mass strikes that would throw up workers’ councils. It was this disagreement with the empty sloganeering of Guesde that inspired the chronically misused statement from Marx that, if this was Marxism, “What is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”.8

A possible source of confusion as to the revolutionary nature of this programme is the nature of the economic demands. They include things such as: the reduction in the working day to eight hours and the working week to no more than six days; the responsibility of society for the deaf and disabled; the supervision of apprentices by workers’ associations; the abolition of inheritance above a certain amount; the prohibition of immigrant labour being hired at wages below that of French workers; and other demands that are essentially reforms. These individual demands do not necessitate a break with capitalism as an economic system, whereas the political demands taken as a whole do necessitate a break with the capitalist state.

The reasoning behind this is simple. Marx essentially saw revolution as a two-stage process - first, the proletariat is to seize political power and establish the democratic republic, and then afterward within this newly established framework can now take up the tasks of reconstructing society on a communist basis. The seizure of political power by the proletariat does not inevitably lead to the victory of socialism. What is accomplished with the seizure of power is the inauguration of a new phase of the class struggle, where the proletariat holds control over the general means of coercion. Classes still exist, the capitalist mode of production is still intact. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a phrase entails the existence of classes. One enters a contradictory situation where the exploited class now holds power over the exploiters. It is only through the victory of communism that this contradiction can be resolved.

When writing on the Paris Commune, Marx argued that a general form of the proletariat in political power had been uncovered by the motion of history. The Commune hardly laid its hands upon the institution of private property. What made it revolutionary was that it radically transformed the form of the state, establishing a radical democracy that allowed the wage-earning class to rise to a position of political supremacy. Measures such as the recall of delegates, the levelling of wages and the people’s militia were all meant to politically expropriate the capitalist class.

By placing the working class in power, Marx wrote that the Commune “affords the rational medium through which the class struggle can run through its various phases in the most rational and humane way”.9 This, combined with Engels’ comments that the Paris Commune was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, sets the first steps of a theory of transition as a class struggle itself. A state where the proletariat rules is still a situation where the proletariat exists as a class, and is therefore not a classless society. It is merely the first step towards such a society, but this makes it no less of a rupture with the existing social order.


The minimum-maximum programme, as exemplified by the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, is often negatively compared to Trotsky’s transitional programme, originally titled The Death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International and later reprinted under the title The transitional programme and the struggle for socialism.

A recent article by Nathaniel Flakin in the Trotskyist publication Left Voice is one example of such a negative comparison, taking aim at the approach of myself and comrades in Cosmonaut magazine and the Marxist Unity Slate in the Democratic Socialists of America.10 Flakin argues that the minimum-maximum bifurcation was adopted due to the immaturity of capitalism at this era, accepting the common understanding that the demands of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier were meant to be mere day-to-day reforms, which I hope to have demonstrated as a falsity. Flakin also goes on to claim that the minimum-maximum programme was a cause of passivity and reformism, and a source of the Social Democratic Party in Germany own degeneration into supporting World War I - a simplistic historical narrative, to say the least.

Flakin’s argument is that the minimum-maximum programme contains no bridge between minimum and maximum demands and is therefore not suitable for an era where capitalism’s contradictions have developed to an intensified degree. The crisis of capitalism has intensified so much that there is no time for “several decades in which the socialist movement can win political and economic concessions from the bourgeoisie, and leave the question of socialism to the distant future”. Therefore, it is necessary to raise demands that will somehow lead to a revolutionary situation if taken up and pursued by the working class.

This idea is rooted in Trotsky’s own transitional programme, which begins by stating that the objective criteria for revolution have been fulfilled, leaving only the subjective factor of leadership to be put in place.11 This leads to an approach where what the workers need is essentially better leaders who will provide better slogans and demands than those of the reformists and Stalinists. The latter hold back the working class masses, who would be in a revolutionary situation if not for their misleadership.

Flakin uses the example of housing: rather than demanding public housing from the bourgeois state, a genuine revolutionary party would call on workers to take part in the “occupation of luxury condos and office buildings to house all working class and poor families”, so that “Such occupations can be integrated into a plan to make all housing public, administered by renters and their representatives via direct democracy”. What organisation will lead such an occupation is left to the imagination - it is almost as if such demands are simply a way to rouse the workers into action with hopes that such a struggle will organically develop into a struggle for socialism itself, when they realise that occupations of luxury condos will not be tolerated by the bourgeois police.

What we have here is essentially a strategy of impatience - rather than using the programme as a means to unite the working class around a vision of political change, the aim is to provide slogans and tactics that will get the masses into action, hoping it will somehow lead to a “transition” towards a genuine struggle for socialism. How this transition is supposed to happen is unclear - Flakin mentions workers’ councils and factory committees, suggesting that perhaps the demands raised by a Trotskyist party will help lead to their formation. Even if this is true, and the workers are roused into action, forming workers’ councils through their struggle, their mere existence is not an actual substitute for a working class majority that desires a regime change and has an actual roadmap for how to achieve it. Mass actions of the class are no substitute for this, and in the end the transitional programme as imagined here can only fall back on spontaneity when pressed on how its demands are actually transitional toward socialism.

Flakin admits that the version of the minimum-maximum programme espoused by Marxist Unity is meant to lead to a break in the class rule of the bourgeoisie. So what is the problem? That there is no explanation of what this transition would look like; and that there is an arbitrary division between the minimum and the maximum. Regarding the first objection, the transition that the transitional programme espouses, between its demands and the direct struggle for socialism, is illusory. It presses upon the workers to take militant action in the hope that such action will spill over into a revolutionary situation, or at least inspire mass action that will produce one at a future date. The hope seems to be that transitional demands will mobilise the workers into action, creating the need for workers’ councils or soviets, which then gives the revolutionary vanguard an opening to guide these councils in the proper direction. Such scenarios are a pipedream at best: at worst they are attempts to trick the working class into making revolution.

The second objection - that if our proposed programme is actually revolutionary then a minimum-maximum division is pointless - misses the fact that a socialist revolution is a two-stage process.12 The minimum demands, taken as a whole, are meant to establish the power of the working class. Yet, as I clarified earlier, this is not the same as the establishment of a socialist economy. It is merely the creation of a political framework that establishes the rule of the working class and opens the possibility of an economic transformation. Class struggle does not end, but merely enters a new stage, where the class struggle takes on the character of a movement for the abolition of classes themselves through the transformation of the relations of production. The minimum programme corresponds to the first stage of this process; the maximum to the second. Unless we believe that revolution itself will immediately see the creation of communist relations of production - a proposal of various ultra-leftists such as the obscure French pamphleteer, Gilles Dauvé13 - then the separation of the minimum and maximum is not arbitrary but rather a clarification of the process of revolution itself.

In the end, what the approach of Flakin amounts to is revolutionary phrase-mongering - only with slogans more radical than the ones Guesde was stuck with in the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. The working class does not need radicals telling them to occupy luxury condos in the hope that they will see the necessity of socialism. What they need is a vision of the kind of changes that are necessary to break with the political rule of the bourgeoisie - and a party that can fight for these changes in the arena of mass politics and provide the organisational basis for a new proletarian sovereignty.

The modern Trotskyists at Left Voice are certainly not opposed to building a workers’ party, but their straw man of “several decades in which the socialist movement can win political and economic concessions from the bourgeoisie” comes off as a dismissal of the years of patient struggle and education that it will take to form such a party - one that has the legitimacy to govern.

Today’s needs

The minimum-maximum format of Marx’s and Guesde’s Programme of the Parti Ouvrier is suited exactly for such a task. It puts the political changes necessary for the working class to hold power front and centre, allowing us to build a majority that is aware of what it is fighting for.

It promises no short cuts to that power, no false hopes that if the masses are roused into action by radical slogans they will create a potential revolutionary situation. It clarifies that revolution will see the establishment of the workers’ democratic republic, opening the path for the economic reconstruction of society on socialist lines, and that the seizure of power by the proletariat is only the beginning of a new stage in the class struggle rather than an immediate leap into communist society. It brings to the surface the still relevant battle for democracy and excludes revolutionary phrase-mongering and empty calls to action. Clarity and openness must be the hallmark of all our movement’s agitation and education, and the minimum-maximum format best lives up to these ideals.

The minimum-maximum format, however, is simply that: a format. We cannot take programmes fossilised in time, and cut and paste them onto our own political situation. Political programmes need to be based on both the accumulated experience and theory of our historical movement and a deep understanding of the current political situation. In developing such a programme today, an aspiring socialist movement would have to embrace demands that speak to the current needs of workers and their existing struggles. But it would also have to include demands that may not be immediately popular, but are ‘correct’, in the sense that they are necessary measures for the working class to take power. The aim of a programme should not simply be to give expression to popular demands from the masses, but to also inject revolutionary demands into mass politics. Often such demands will be in contradiction to prevailing popular consciousness, which is to be expected. But the programme should be an educational tool that explains the necessary steps for achieving a genuine socialist transformation.

Let us take the question of the police as an example. Popular consciousness in the United States today is very much divided on that question: some polls claim 67% of Americans are opposed to abolishing or eliminating the police, while 43% of Americans support transferring funds from police budgets to other social services.14 To programmatically address this question we cannot fall into the trap of chasing opinion polls; nor can we simply take up slogans from the popular movement without further consideration. A proper Marxist programme would clarify the tasks of the proletarian revolution in regards to the question of law enforcement, which has classically meant the abolition of the current armed forces in favour the arming of the working class through the organisation of a popular militia.

Marxists have taken up this demand because we recognise that if the working class is to genuinely command state power through its own institutions it must smash the repressive bourgeois state apparatus instead of hoping to wield it as an instrument. Simply raising the slogan of police abolition as a transitional demand, hoping that it will mobilise the masses into a collision course with capitalism, when they realise the necessity of its abolition to achieve this goal, does not provide the clarity that a programme needs to provide. Nor does simply calling for the defunding of the police in favour of social services suffice; while it may be more palatable to existing popular opinion, it does not explain the necessary tasks that the working class must perform upon coming to power.

It is the same for questions related to the democratisation of the state and the constitution. Loyalty to the US constitution is a fixture in American politics, yet a proper political programme in this country would nonetheless call for its abolition and the drafting of an explicitly socialist constitution as the basis of a new democratic republic. It would address the necessity of developmental reparations and self-determination for internal neo-colonies. Its economic section would lay out the basic socialisation of the commanding heights of the economy, as well the need for radical overhauls in infrastructure and urban planning. It would abolish the current labour law regime and institute a new labour regime based on the initiatives of workers on the shop floor. By refusing to only take up demands that are already popular and therefore winnable in the immediate term, the party is forced to fight for its beliefs among the masses and explain the necessity of revolution rather than mere reform.

By making the minimum part of the programme a description of the basic tasks the working class must perform if it is to take power, our movement is able to insert these basic questions of institutional change into our agitation. This will forever be preferable to an approach that simply echoes reformist demands or makes calls for militant action that fall on deaf ears. Our movement can tell the public with an honest and straight face the political and economic transformations that we hope to enact upon coming to power and articulate the long-term goal of human emancipation they are meant to bring us towards.

The minimum-maximum programme in the spirit of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier is not a wish list for the capitalist state, but a roadmap for building a revolutionary workers’ movement that is conscious of what it is fighting for and confident in its political aims. And to make such a programme more than a fantasy we must fight for the unity of the Marxist left and bring the good news of socialism to the masses of workers who have yet to be politically activated.

This article first appeared in the US Cosmonaut magazine15

  1. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.↩︎

  2. See L Derfler Paul Lafargue and the founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882 Massachusetts 1991, pp184-85.↩︎

  3. Ibid.↩︎

  4. wikirouge.net/texts/en/Letter_to_Eduard_Bernstein,_October_25,_1881.↩︎

  5. J Conrad, ‘Our republic’ Weekly Worker November 23 2006: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/650/our-republic.↩︎

  6. S Bernstein, ‘Jules Guesde, pioneer of Marxism in France’ Science and Society No1 (1940).↩︎

  7. K Marx Civil war in France (1871): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm.↩︎

  8. Quoted by Engels in a Letter to Bernstein, 1882: hiaw.org/defcon6/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.html.↩︎

  9. Quoted in M Johnstone, ‘The Paris Commune and Marx’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ The Massachusetts Review Vol 12, No3, 1971, pp447-62.↩︎

  10. leftvoice.org/in-defense-of-the-transitional-program.↩︎

  11. See L Trotsky The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International (1940): “All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet ‘ripened’ for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’: they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution - in the next historical period at that - a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat: ie, chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership” (marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/transprogram.pdf).↩︎

  12. This is masterfully explicated in Kautsky’s excellent pamphlet The social revolution (1902): marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev.↩︎

  13. See G Dauvé and F Martin Eclipse and re-emergence of the communist movement (1974) for a statement of this perspective: libcom.org/library/eclipse-re-emergence-communist-movement.↩︎

  14. See eu.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2021/03/07/usa-today-ipsos-poll-just-18-support-defund-police-movement/4599232001.↩︎

  15. See cosmonautmag.com/2021/05/the-revolutionary-minimum-maximum-program.↩︎