Marx's Newly Unearthed Letter Reaffirms the Necessity of Internationalism and the Party

A letter in French by Karl Marx to Jules Guesde was recently unearthed, which we translate here:

10th of May 1879 41 Maitland Park Road London NW
Dear Citizen Guesde,
No French refugee who has any relation to me would have any doubt about the deep sympathy I feel for you or of the great interest I have in your work. Militant socialism certainly has many partisans in France, but there are few who unite as you do knowledge with courage and devotion. The election of Blanqui due to your initiative, is a first compensation for the sufferings and affronts that the upstarts in power inflict on you.(1)
As for the return of the Legislature to Paris, I have pronounced myself in front of Lissagaray and Longuet in the same vein as your articles.(2) After all, I attached more importance to the debates on this thing than to the thing itself, being well convinced that Messieurs les Gambettistes would rather live in Paris than vegetate in Versailles.(3)
The great task for socialists in France, is the organisation of an independent and militant workers’ party. This organisation which must not be confined to the towns, but must extend to the countryside can only be done by means of propaganda and continuous struggle, an everyday struggle always corresponding to the given conditions of the moment, to current necessities. Only posthumous Jacobins know only one form of revolutionary action, the explosive form. This is quite natural on the part of bourgeois who have only ever raised their shields after having already occupied dominant social positions.
According to my conviction revolution in the explosive form will start this time not from the West, but from the East – from Russia. It will react first on the two other grave despotisms [illegible], Austria and Germany, where a violent upheaval has become a historical necessity. It is of the utmost importance that at the moment of this general crisis Europe should find the French proletariat already constituted as a workers’ party and ready to play its part. As for England, the material elements of its social transformation are overabundant, but what is lacking is the driving spirit. It will only be formed under the explosion of continental events. We must never forget that however miserable the lot of the bulk of the English working class may be, it nevertheless participates, to some extent, in England’s empire on the world market or, which is even worse, imagines itself participating in it.
A few words on Longuet. You would be doing him a disservice if you thought he was your personal adversary. On the contrary, although he was invited by a few coquettish emigrants, he did not allow himself to be drawn into quips. If his opinions sometimes differ from yours in regard to the tactics to be followed, I don’t think they differ fundamentally. Finally family relations and friendships could have no influence on my political line from which I have never deviated.
In the hope that you will soon regain your freedom and your health, I am
Your very sincere friend Karl Marx(4)

The brief letter illustrates once again the importance Marx gave to the development of the workers’ movement in France. It was written a month after the foundation of the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France, from which the French Workers’ Party would split a few years later. Marx had not yet met Guesde. The letter unsurprisingly does not contain any groundbreaking new information, but illustrates Marx’s thoughts, which we analyse below, on world revolution and the necessity for workers to organise themselves as a party prior to said revolution.

The first thing that leaps from the letter is Marx’s conception of revolution as an international affair, in contrast to, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, the “domestic affair” Karl Kautsky and his epigones would reduce it to.(5) After all, it had always been clear to Marx and Engels that communist revolution could not take place in one country alone.(6) However, they first believed that this would be easier to achieve in the more industrially developed countries. The letter illustrates a shift that happened in Marx and Engels’ thinking since their exile to England. The most bourgeois country at the time may have had the most developed proletariat, but also the most developed means to keep that proletariat in check, notably ideological means. Marx notes in the letter that worse than the English working class participating to some extent in England's empire on the world market is the English working class imagining themselves participating in it.

They therefore looked to the continent, and notably France, for the spark that might ignite the whole of Europe. Yet Marx and Engels believed communist revolution would be impossible without the English working class precisely because of England’s domination of the world market. The working class of all countries would have to work in tandem, hence the necessity of an international workers’ party.(7) After the Franco-Prussian war and the defeat of the Paris Commune, they instead looked to Russia for the revolutionary spark. In fact, during the Franco-Prussian war, they foresaw as a consequence of the war that there would be a devastating war between Germany and Russia, with France likely allying with Russia, unless the revolution in Russia broke out first.(8) Marx’s letter is therefore not only to be read as affirming the necessity of the working class forming a party in preparation for revolution, but also in preparation against a world war as only “the alliance of the working classes of all countries will ultimately kill war”.(9)

Russia, of course, given its backwardness, could only have a communist revolution on the condition that “the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other”.(10) We therefore see in the letter that Marx thought the French working class still had a crucial role to play. Marx hoped that a revolution in Russia would result in a revolutionary wave across Europe and the French proletariat needed to be prepared for that by organising itself as a party. Today, in contrast to Marx’s time, capitalism encompasses the whole world. The revolutionary spark could therefore happen anywhere in the world. All the more reason to be prepared.

Today then, after a decade of fruitless protests across the globe, it is clearer than ever that party organisation is needed. However, what is a revolutionary party is not always clear.(11) This is the second thing that Marx’s letter, in combination with Guesde’s reply, makes crystal clear. The workers’ party must both be independent from the bourgeoisie and its political traditions, such as in this instance French Republicanism, and steer away from currents, like Blanquism, that believe revolution can simply be willed into existence.

We also see Marx wished for the party to not only reach towns, where the working class is concentrated, but also reach the workers in the countryside by means of vigorous propaganda. This is something the Second Congress of the Third International, in its theses on the agrarian question, criticised the Second International for not doing.(12)

Speaking of the failures of the Second International, while in his reply(13) Guesde concentrated, correctly, on the need for an independent workers’ party, and concurred with Marx that the explosive form of revolution “à la Blanqui”(14), useful in Russia, did not correspond to the situation in France, Germany or Italy, his reply is very telling in that he does not take up the theme of world revolution presented by Marx.(15) After all, Guesde preferred his country to the proletariat. He did not understand, or did not wish to understand, that “the nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is labour, free slavery, self-huckstering. His government is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is capital. His native air is neither French, nor German, nor English, it is factory air. The land belonging to him is neither French, nor English, nor German, it lies a few feet below the ground”.(16) Thus, when the world war Marx and Engels predicted came, Guesde betrayed the international proletariat.

In contrast, we in the Internationalist Communist Tendency recognise, like Marx, the necessity of internationalism and of an international workers’ party. However, the history of the working class forces us to take in what the past struggles have taught us. In the Russian Revolution, the decimation of the working class in a largely peasant land, due both to economic crisis and the fight against the Whites and international imperialist invasion, the Bolshevik Party created a state which increasingly supplanted the workers' councils (soviets). The decline in proletarian initiative in an isolated country led to the idea that if the class could not make or even defend the revolution then the party would have to do it instead. This substitutionism led later councilists to conclude that “all parties are bourgeois”. And thus they put their hopes in the spontaneous revival of the councils one day. However, in the Communist Left the debate was not about party or councils but about the nature of the party and its relation to the class and its representative organs (like the councils). For us this culminated in the 1952 Platform of the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Comunista).(17) This makes quite clear that the “class cannot delegate its historical mission to others … not even to its class party”. This is the basic axiom of our conception of the Party today. Before the revolution it politically brings together all those who can see the need for working class revolution to overthrown capitalism (more necessary than ever today), but it is an ideological leadership, and certainly not a government in waiting. The real power has to reside with the class-wide organs, the councils, which are the vehicles for involving the mass of the class in the transformation of its own destiny. But we have some time to go before an international political body can come into existence. In the meantime we will do all we can to enable it to come about, but we do not claim to be that party, only one of the elements which will need to come together in its formation.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
21 May 2024


(1) Auguste Blanqui’s election in April was in the end invalidated in June but he was nonetheless released from prison, which was the point of the election campaign.

(2) Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray and Charles Longuet had both participated in the Commune. Lissagaray stayed with Marx’s family for a period and wrote a history of the Commune, while Longuet was Marx’s son-in-law.

(3) The National Assembly had been in Versailles since the Commune. Léon Gambetta was a republican and president of the lower chamber at the time. Parliament finally moved from Versailles back to Paris in June.

(4) The letter and Guesde’s already known reply can be found in French in Actuel Marx:









(13) Guesde’s reply can also be found in English in Volume 45 of Marx/Engels Collected Works. In light of Marx’s letter, the date of Guesde’s letter indicated in the volume is no longer correct.

(14) The volume’s letter says Cafiero (no doubt in reference to the anarchist Carlo Cafiero). Actuel Marx indicates the name is not clear but opts for Blanqui. In light of Marx’s letter, Blanqui makes more sense. The letter in the volume also contains this passage on page 451:

Finally, like you I do not believe that the simple destruction of what exists will be enough to build what we want, and I think that for a more or less considerable period the impulse, the direction should come from above, from those who are 'better informed'.

It is indicated in the volume that ‘better informed’ is a quote from Marx. The discovery of Marx’s letter indicates that this is not the case. The version of Guesde’s letter in Actuel Marx does not contain “from those who are 'better informed'”. In any case, “from above” indicates that Guesde had quite a different conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat than Marx.

(15) Guesde also begins the letter by apologising for being against Marx during the time of the First International. In exile in Switzerland after the defeat of the Commune, Guesde, at the time an anarchist, published a few articles against Marx.



Tuesday, May 28, 2024