Reform, Revolution, and Abolition: Historical Reflections

The Paris Commune

By Rodney Green

This talk was given at the Abolitions Conference of the University of California Washington Center, May 6-8, 2023. Recorded sessions can be accessed at

The fight against state repressive institutions has a long history. Central to this history is strategic conflict between reform and revolution. Can change can come from reforming the system (working from within) or does it require a revolution that destroys the state and bring to political power the exploited and oppressed?

Today’s “abolition” initiatives share this conflict. Most participants in today’s abolitionist movements are deeply skeptical of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. All of us in these various movements have faced enormous frustrations in trying to bring about systemic change.

Why are there such heavy barriers to our success in these endeavors? The entrenched interests of capital, of capitalism, of capitalists, have evolved these repressive institutions to ensure their class power to exploit the global working class. They are formidable enemies, driven by the requirements of the capitalist accumulation process. They will stop at nothing to preserve their wealth, privilege, and global power.

This is not a new situation. I wanted to share a few historical examples suggesting that the revolutionary strategy can achieve our goals, which requires some additional planks in our platforms and organizations. These historical examples suggest that the revolutionary solution, however challenging it may be, can achieve abolitionist goals where other strategies cannot.

I’ll briefly note the early conflicts epitomized in the different strategies advocated by anti-capitalists William Godwin and Karl Marx, anti-slavery activists William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown/Harriet Tubman, and communists V. I. Lenin/Rosa Luxemburg and German social democrats Eduard Bernstein/Karl Kautsky/ Friedrich Ebert to illustrate this point.

Early effort to abolish capitalism

The rise of capitalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries led to intense battles and debates over how to resist effectively the inhumanity of this rising system of exploitation.

William Godwin, 1756-1836, and the utopian socialists sought an end to capitalism through moral suasion and alternative institutions. Godwin wrote in his 1793 “Inquiry concerning political justice, and its influence on general virtue and happiness” that private property was the root of civil laws which cause injustice and evils, oppression, servility, and fraud. He felt there was a practical way of constructing a human moral utopia and return humanity to its natural state. He proposed removing inequality in property. Once everyone had enough property, he argued, selfishness would disappear as a human motive, and with it an end to all conflict and vice. Human society would become benevolent. He advanced a strategy of educating all people in rationality and logic which would lead them to this goal.

Other utopian socialists followed similar approaches over the next several decades. They, like Godwin, wished to create a kingdom of reason and eternal justice. Robert Owen, for example, established New Lanark in 1800 as a cooperative factory village that stressed education and improvement for all while providing higher incomes for workers. He later attempted an even more socialist community called New Harmony in the US. These socialists had in common a desire to bring about radical reform (or even the abolition) of capitalism, through cooperatives and trade unions, but did not touch on how to defeat capitalism through political revolution. They were reformers and have since faded from view.

Karl Marx, 1818-1883, advanced a different analysis based on a materialistic understanding of the irreconcilable conflicts between social classes throughout history, especially the capitalists versus workers of his day. Marx argued in 1848 that a violent revolution against capitalism and its state apparatus was the way that the working class could come to power and end the various forms of exploitation and oppression from capitalism and its state. The victorious proletariat would use its political supremacy to wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie, centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the proletarian state, and establish a society of collectivity and equality. He fought for this analysis in the Workingmen’s Association that also included many of the followers of utopian socialism. While the utopian experiments failed, the Paris Commune of 1871, the first communist revolution to hold power even if for only a matter of weeks, was a demonstration of the need for workers to take power through revolution. The commune’s innovations in political and economic organization provided many lessons for subsequent working-class fighters. The leaders of the Commune included a large number of followers of this Marxist strategy from the International Workingmen’s Association.

The fight to abolish chattel slavery in the U.S.

A similar division existed in the anti-slavery or abolitionist movement, contemporaneous with the working-class movement in Europe. Two key figures in this were William Lloyd Garrison (1805 – 1879) and John Brown (1800-1859).

Garrison promoted a theory of “no-governmentism” and rejected the inherent validity of the American government on the basis that its engagement in war, imperialism, and slavery made it corrupt and tyrannical. He even burned a copy of the Constitution at an anti-slavery rally On July 4, 1854, condemning it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.” He was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and promoted immediate and uncompensated emancipation of those enslaved in the United States.

Still, he opposed violence in principle and advocated for Christian pacifism against evil. His approach to emancipation stressed “moral suasion,” non-violence, and passive resistance. I’m reminded of Kwame Ture’s quotation, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

Garrison launched the Liberator Newspaper in 1831 to agitate for emancipation. In 1834 it had two thousand subscribers, three-fourths of whom were Black people. Many more copies were distributed for free to political leaders and other notables. Many were sent to southern planters and officials to appeal to their moral sensibilities. Their response was to use their dominance in the U.S. Congress to ban the use of the U.S. Mail to distribute the Liberator and anti-slavery material in general!

John  Brown believed that he was “an instrument of God”, raised up to strike the “death blow” to American slavery. While not grounded in materialist philosophy like Marx, Brown was the leading exponent of violence in the American abolitionist movement. He concluded that, after decades of peaceful efforts to abolish slavery had failed, mass revolutionary violence was necessary to end American slavery. He organized fierce battles in Kansas in 1855 to support Kansas being a free state, killing pro-slavery mercenaries from the South who were fighting to make Kansas a slave state. He deliberately organized bold actions widely throughout the North where warrants for his arrest were widespread. At a public anti-slavery rally in Cleveland, Brown declared, “Inasmuch as President Buchanan has offered $250 for my capture, I will give two dollars and 50 cents for the safe delivery of the body of James Buchanan in any jail of the Free States.” His raid on Harper’s Ferry, supported by Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and a wide group of Black and white abolitionists, hastened the advent of the civil war that ended slavery, although it fell short of abolishing the capitalist underpinnings of the US slavery.

The moral suasion of Garrison, like that of Godwin and the other utopians, would not bring the strategic capacity to end slavery or capitalism. It required a revolutionary strategy. In Brown’s case, the raid on Harper’s Ferry was intended to spark a broader uprising of the enslaved, and Osborne Anderson, the sole Black survivor of the raid, averred that it would have succeeded in that goal had Brown retreated into the mountains to conduct a guerrilla war against slavery as he had originally planned.

To his credit, Garrison changed his outlook after the raid on Harper’s Ferry and supported Lincoln in waging the Civil War against slavery, while lionizing John Brown, with whom he had previously disagreed. In this case, the revolutionary violence of the Civil War replaced moral suasion and reform. Chattel slavery ended.

German Social Democracy versus the Bolshevik Revolution

In the aftermath of the Paris Commune, Marxist thinking permeated the workers’ movement throughout Europe. The strongest Social Democratic Party (SPD) was in Germany, under attack and outlawed by Bismarck. Despite repression, the SPD leadership moved away from a revolutionary approach to abolishing capitalism. Eduard Bernstein wrote the book “Evolutionary Socialism” in 1899 as an explicit rejection of the need for violent revolution to abolish capitalism, arguing that parliamentary means could gain workers power and that socialism could be achieved without significant violence. Later, Karl Kautsky joined him in this and was hostile to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary left wing of German social democracy, fought against this reformist line of march.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party produced a revolutionary wing, the Bolsheviks, led in substantial part by Lenin, leading to the seizure of state power in Russia and followed by an extended civil war to preserve that victory. In Germany, the social democratic leaders blocked with the conservative forces to crush the Spartacist communist uprising of 1919. Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert, a former protégé of Rosa Luxemburg, gave the green light to murder Luxemburg and other leaders of the KPD. The SPD relied on the electoral road to power. They held the majority in the Reichstag, the German legislature, for most of the 1920s but as political and economic crises resumed, they supported the rise of Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler as Chancellor. Reformers failed again.

The Russian Revolution, on the other hand, shook the world. Terrified capitalist classes sent troops and supplies to the White Army who opposed the revolution and supported a capitalist restoration. But the Bolsheviks prevailed, the capitalist state was smashed, a workers’ state was created, and major advances were made in the power held by the working class and in their quality of life. In Germany, on the other hand, the working class was decimated by war, by deteriorating working conditions, the destruction of their unions, and the murder of the communists who, by the 1930s, also had also retreated to an electoral path. The reformist path failed again.

Many more examples could be listed, but our question for today’s panel is what path should abolitionists take today?

Our own experiences in abolitionist and reform movements suggest that a strategy of reforming capitalist institutions, however radically imagined, will not achieve our goals, as capitalism constantly reinforces and renews the repressive institutions of the capitalist state. Thus, we must include the abolition of capitalism in our programs, work to build a revolutionary party to galvanize the many elements and interests of the working class, and advance the vision of a communist future.

The most promising of the historical developments mentioned today were the Paris Commune, which gave us many principles for a communist society, and the Russian revolution, which demonstrated that a disciplined revolutionary party with a mass base in the working could destroy the bourgeois state and put the working class onto a new road to equality and collectivity.

Rodney Green is a Marxist economics professor at Howard University and a long-time activist in the fight against racism and for communism.

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