Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The Paris Commune: First Proletarian Dictatorship

First Published: Revolution, Vol. 3, No. 6, March 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

March 18 marks the anniversary of the Paris Commune. On that day in 1871, the workers of Paris “stormed heaven,” as Karl Marx described it, rising up in armed rebellion and holding the city for 72 days until France’s rulers finally were able to wreak their bloody vengeance on the slaves who’d dared to raise the flag of revolution. It was certainly not the first revolt of the oppressed, nor even the first rebellion by the young working class. But it was the first time that the working class seized power, and the lessons learned in that first successful (if only short-lived) revolution have established basic principles for working class revolution ever since.

The workers of Paris, who had twice revolted and twice failed in the few years before 1871, had been armed for the defense of their city in the course of a war the French bourgeoisie had launched against Prussia. The workers were both physically and politically isolated from the rest of the country and vastly outnumbered by the armed forces of the French and Prussian ruling classes. But the French bourgeoisie surrendered to Prussia and tried to turn Paris over to the Prussian army so as to put an end to the workers struggle there. French army units moved into Paris to disarm the workers who had organized themselves into a National Guard. The workers had little choice. They decided to use their weapons–to risk everything trying to free themselves once and for all instead of meekly marching to the slaughterhouse.

Dawn of Great Social Revolution

Although Marx, at that time following the events in France from England where he was exiled, thought the time wasn’t ripe for the Parisian workers to rise up and win, he quickly summed up the historic nature of events, declaring March 18, 1871 “the dawn of the great social revolution which will liberate mankind from the regime of classes forever,” and supported the Commune.

On that day, the Central Committee of the workers’ National Guard proclaimed that “The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs.” The government troops sent in to disarm the workers were beaten back. Within days, the idle rich, the capitalists, courtesans and common criminals fled Paris to Versailles, where the French ruling class declared war against Paris.

The Commune itself–the government formed by the workers–was made up of representatives of the various wards of Paris, elected by the citizens and recallable from office at any time. The majority of its members were workers or acknowledged representatives of the working class. Rather than a parliamentary body (such as the Congress in the U.S.), the Commune both made decisions and carried them out. And from the top to the bottom all its members and all who worked under its leadership received the same wages as the ordinary worker.

The army and the police were abolished. All citizens capable of bearing arms were enrolled in the National Guard, the only armed force. “The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the Apostles.” (Marx, The Civil War in France)

The schools were opened to all, on every level. All rent for housing was cancelled and all the pawnshops closed down. Night shifts were outlawed. The factories of the capitalists who had fled were seized, to be run by the workers themselves. The Victory Column, a monument to France’s chauvinist wars of aggression, was torn down. “The flag of the Commune,” the workers declared, “is the flag of the World Republic.”

The bourgeoisie likes to paint Marxism as no more than an idea, a hopeless dream or shuddering nightmare. Marxism is the scientific summation of all the history of the struggles of the oppressed, and of all the knowledge won through the struggles of mankind. It arose with the development and the growth of the struggles of the working class, whose stand and point of view is expressed in Marxism. As Lenin wrote in State and Revolution, “There is no trace of utopianism in Marx, in the sense that he made up or invented a ’new’ society. No, he studied the birth of the new society out of the old, and the forms of transition from the latter to the former, as a natural-historical process. He examined the actual experience of a mass proletarian movement, and tried to draw practical lessons from it. He ’learned’ from the Commune, just as all the great revolutionary thinkers learned unhesitatingly from the experience of great movements of the oppressed classes ...”

The most important lesson of the Paris Commune, what the workers of Paris taught first with their guns and then with their heroic sacrifice, is the central point of Marxism: the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“It is often said and written,” Lenin explains in State and Revolution, “that the main point in Marx’s theory is the class struggle. But this is wrong. And this wrong notion very often results in an opportunist distortion of Marxism and its falsification in a spirit acceptable to the bourgeoisie ... Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics . . . Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” As Marx himself put it in his Letter to Weydemeyer, written in 1852, “no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular, historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

In other words, the class struggle would inevitably lead the working class to establish the rule of the laboring majority over the exploiting minority, for the first time in history, and this would be the first step towards eliminating ail classes and class rule. This is what the Paris Commune represented. The working men and women of Paris established the world’s first dictatorship of the proletariat. Through the experience of their struggle, they gave life and form to that which Marx and the class-conscious workers in general had only conceived in a general way.

Nature of the State

Starting more than 20 years before the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels had analyzed the origin of the state and its nature. In the earliest days of human history there was no state. As the productive forces developed and society split into two basic antagonistic classes –those who worked and those who took for themselves the wealth created by others–the state emerged as the instrument by which the exploiting minority maintained its rule. From the first slave times through today, the heart of the state is “special bodies of armed men,” the armed force upon which the dictatorship of the exploiters depends. Even in the democratic republic of capitalist society, “This democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave owners... Marx grasped this essence of capitalist democracy splendidly when, in analyzing the experience of the Commune, he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representative of the oppressing classes shall represent and repress them in parliament!” (Lenin, State and Revolution)

The workers of Paris had participated in several revolutions in the past only to see the bourgeoisie snatch up the fruits of these revolutions and further consolidate their capitalist rule. In establishing the Commune, they could not and did not simply grab the old state machine out of the hands of the bourgeoisie. They overthrew and smashed the government of their oppressors, dismantling not only the fraudulent parliament and the bourgeoisie’s basic instrument of rule, the army and police, but also the judicial system and all the government bureaucracy which had been created to keep the workers down. In its place they created something entirely new. By their dictatorship over the exploiting classes–who were overthrown and kept down by what Engels, replying to the anarchists, called the “highly authoritarian” means of guns and cannon–the vast majority of people, the working class, could enjoy real democracy for the first time.

This was not just a quantitative change–simply a matter of “more democracy.” It was a qualitative change in the nature of the state. In the Paris Commune the workers took things into their own hands. The workers themselves–the majority–took up the running of society. Whereas the capitalist state was an instrument of the minority, as all previous states had been back to the time when the state first emerged as a negation of classless ancient society, the dictatorship of the proletariat which places the state in the hands of the producing class, the majority, is the first step of the working class towards the elimination of classes, the conditions which give rise to classes, and all class rule. When this is accomplished–under communism– the state will wither away.

As Marx summarized it, “This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.” {The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850) The historical mission of the working class is not just to seize power from the old exploiters, but to use its power–the dictatorship of the proletariat– to transform all of society and completely do away with classes, class rule and all the evils that have arisen from class society. “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

As Marx pointed out, the workers of Paris, surrounded on all sides and faced with famine due to economic blockade, could no more than begin their work during the 72 days of the Commune. They made certain political mistakes, as was inevitable in this first of all proletarian revolutions. Marx and Engels summed up that the Commune had failed to carry out the dictatorship of the workers over the exploiters ruthlessly and swiftly enough–the workers left the Bank of France, the country’s main financial pillar, untouched, and instead of disposing of the captured bourgeoisie in Paris and marching on Versailles immediately while the French bourgeoisie was still weakened from its defeat at the hands of Prussia, the workers of the Commune allowed them to escape and regather their forces. Then the French bourgeoisie with the aid of the reactionary Prussian rulers carried out “a slaveholders’ revolt” against the victorious slaves, turning Paris into a sea of blood as Communards by the thousands were killed in house-to-house fighting or shot down as prisoners.

But as Marx declared even while the battle was still raging in Paris, “If the Commune should be destroyed, the struggle would only be postponed. The principles of the Commune are eternal and indestructible; they will present themselves again and again until the working class is liberated.” (Marx, “The Record of a Speech on the Paris Commune”)

Growth of Revisionism

After the Paris Commune the influence of Marxism grew tremendously, in large part due to what the experience of the Commune had proved for all to see about the revolutionary tasks of the proletariat. The other political trends which claimed to speak for the workers, such as anarchism, were greatly exposed. But the very fact that nearly all of those who claimed to speak for the workers were calling themselves Marxists–while many were cutting the revolutionary heart out of Marx’s teaching, the dictatorship of the proletariat–led to the necessity for the working class to learn to distinguish real Marxism from sham Marxism.

“What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation,” wrote V.I. Lenin at the beginning of State and Revolution. While the oppressors hound such men during their lifetime, slandering them and ridiculing their theories, after their death the oppressors make their names holy–to a certain extent–“for the ’consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping” them, “while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance”–they keep what’s acceptable to the bourgeoisie.

During the latter part of the 1800s and the early 1900s, a trend emerged which revised Marxism so as to reduce it to the idea of class struggle and nothing more, to the idea of the workers struggle against the capitalists for their immediate demands, and to rob the working class of its historic and revolutionary mission of overthrowing the bourgeoisie and transforming the world to achieve communism. Although Marx and later En-gels had criticized this revisionism in its early stages, it was only with World War 1 that this revisionism emerged openly in its fully mature rotten form. On the eve of the proletarian revolution in Russia, in August and September of 1917 (the proletarian revolution took place a month later), Lenin found it absolutely necessary to revive the original teachings of Marx and Engels on the subject of revolution and to sum up the further experience of the working class in order to lay the theoretical foundations for the actual seizure of power that was about to occur. Without this revolutionary theory, the working class could not hope to really bring about a revolution.

What the revisionists had done was to substitute eclectics for dialectics: “In falsifying Marxism in opportunist fashion,” Lenin pointed out, “the substitution of eclecticism for dialectics is the easiest way of deceiving the people” (State and Revolution) and a lot of people were deceived. (Eclectics means mechanically combining things without regard to their real, dialectical relationship–in this case, raising a secondary aspect to defeat a primary aspect.) The revisionists had taken Marx’ and Engels’ teachings that the state would one day wither away, and brought this aspect to the forefront, in such a way as to hide the fact that Marx and Engels had taught that this could happen only after the violent overthrow of the bourgeois state and the suppression of the exploiting classes until the basis for such exploiters to arise was eliminated. According to the revisionists, it was the bourgeois state that would wither away–the exploiters would peacefully give up their power as a natural result of the evolution of society without the violent revolution and revolutionary dictatorship of the working class.

To the revisionists of Lenin’s time–as the CPUSA today–the struggle of the working class was simply a fight to take over the government, without changing the relations between the exploiter and exploited that the government reflects and protects and without really changing society. Even those revisionists who, as Lenin said, “flippantly admit” the necessity of the dictatorship ”’in general’” refused to “draw the appropriate practical conclusions.” These revisionists were all for building the struggle of the workers for their immediate needs and demands, especially in the trade unions, but they refused to build the workers struggle in such a way as to prepare the working class politically and ideologically (or organizationally and militarily) to seize political power and set out to transform the world.

Lenin on Proletarian Dictatorship

Against this revisionist line whose chieftains had turned the workers’ parties of the Second International in most countries into a loyal opposition to the bourgeois government, Lenin stressed again the class character of the state, the question of who really holds power. He pinpointed “the essence of the question– have the oppressed arms?” He quoted Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune extensively, bringing out the teachings that the revisionists had tried to keep buried. “Opportunism,” he declared, “does not extend recognition of the class struggle to the cardinal point, to the period of transition from capitalism to communism, of the overthrow and complete abolition of the bourgeoisie.” (State and Revolution)

In defending and developing the lessons of the Commune, which were of the greatest practical importance, Lenin affirmed that: 1) the workers had to put themselves at the head of all the oppressed in defeating the old exploiters in battle, and 2) having overthrown the old exploiters, the working class had to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat “for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from classless society, from communism.” (State and Revolution)

Later, in a speech given two years after the October Revolution, Lenin put it like this: “The revolution which we have begun and have already been making for two years, and which we are firmly determined to carry to its conclusion (applause), is possible and feasible only provided we achieve the transfer of power to the new class, provided that the bourgeoisie, the capitalist slave-owners, the bourgeois intellectuals, the representatives of all the owners and property-holders are replaced by the new class in all spheres of government, in all government affairs, in the entire business of directing the new life from top to bottom.” (Report at the Second All-Russian Trade Union Congress) This transfer of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, “is a persistent struggle–bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative–against all the forces and traditions of the old society.” (Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder)

Through its dictatorship of the proletariat–through its control of the state and ceaseless struggle against the forces of the old society on every front, from the economic and political organization of society to the realm of ideas and habits–the working class must transform all of society by carrying out its antagonistic struggle with the bourgeoisie to the end.

It is impossible to speak of a struggle against the “forces and traditions of the old society” unless it is linked, as Lenin does, with the dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, because this contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie remains the decisive question throughout the entire period of socialism, that is, of the transition to communism. Correctly handling the contradictions among the people and developing the productive forces are important tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, but the key link is class struggle against the bourgeoisie and maintaining the rule of the working class over it.

Lenin’s defense and development of Marxism on the central question of the dictatorship of the proletariat was of crucial importance in politically and theoretically preparing the advanced section of the Russian working class to lead the masses in seizing power when the conditions for revolution ripened. Lenin’s theoretical understanding, based on summing up the developments of the class struggle with the science of Marxism, made it possible for him to give practical leadership to the revolution as well.

During Lenin’s lifetime, the crucial question was establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. The work of drawing “the whole of the poor into the practical work of administration” (The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Government) and the clearing out of the bourgeoisie and its ways from all spheres of society had only just begun. Although Lenin did refer to the long-term necessity and tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat (such as in the quotes above), the development of the class struggle after his death made it possible and necessary to deepen and develop that understanding, and the practice of the dictatorship of the proletariat, not only from the point of view of the Overthrow of the old bourgeoisie but also from the point of view of transition to classless society, to communism. Mao Tsetung’s development of the theory of the continuation of the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat which arose out of the scientific summary of the experience of the class struggle in the USSR and China is the most important of Mao’s many contributions to Marxism. It was a theoretical breakthrough which enabled the working class and masses of China to make new practical breakthroughs in socialism and strengthen Marxism as a weapon in the hands of the working class of the whole world.

Experience of USSR

Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor, had made certain errors regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat. The problem was not, as the bourgeoisie tries to tell us, that Stalin was “a dictator” who carried out “a reign of terror.” The problem was that Stalin had thought that once the working class seized the means of production from the hands of the bourgeoisie and the peasant agriculture in the countryside was collectivized, there were no longer antagonistic classes and antagonistic contradictions in the Soviet Union.

This was the decisive thing that led to a certain misunderstanding and mishandling by Stalin of non-antagonistic contradictions, contradictions among the people, in the sense that, for instance, some people who held a wrong line but were basically loyal to the proletariat’s cause were labeled “enemy agents” and dealt with accordingly. Stalin didn’t see the existence of conditions giving rise to the bourgeoisie or fully recognize the influence of the bourgeoisie and its ideology among the people. Most importantly, his denial of the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat under socialism led him to neglect the possibility of capitalist restoration and a failure to arm the masses sufficiently against the forces of restoration.

Despite his errors, Stalin still upheld the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the developing bourgeois stratum in the USSR was still subject to attack. However with Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and other capitalist roaders at the top of the Soviet Party were able to seize control of the Party and state, and lead the bourgeois forces, new and old, in overthrowing socialism and restoring capitalism.

Khrushchev, upon taking control of the Soviet Party in the mid-’50s, took up the cry of the imperialists that Stalin was a “dictator.” He declared that since all antagonistic classes had been eradicated in the USSR, the dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer necessary. From now on, Khrushchev proclaimed, the Soviet Union would be a “state of the whole people.” But all this talk about ending dictatorship and how everyone in the USSR was one big happy family was a trick to disarm the workers politically and ideologically so that Khrushchev and the new ruling class could consolidate their power. In fact, while they were loudly proclaiming the end of antagonistic classes and class contradictions, the Soviet revisionists were reestablishing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, arresting, killing and purging revolutionaries, and reducing the working class to the position of wage slaves once again.

The new Soviet rulers tried to force their revisionist line on the working class and revolutionary-minded people of the whole world, including the various Communist Parties, both in and out of power. Communists in the capitalist countries were told to abandon the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the name of the “peaceful transition to socialism.” This was closely linked with the Soviet revisionist perversion of the concept of “peaceful coexistence” internationally, and pushing “peaceful competition.” In the socialist countries Khrushchev’s line and support spurred on the capitalist roaders. In China, Liu Shao-chi, a leader second only to Mao in authority, preached the “dying out of class struggle” and declared that “In China, the question of who wins out, socialism or capitalism, has already been solved.”

Thus the rise of modern revisionism once again brought to the fore the question of whether the working class had to continue on the path charted by the Paris Commune and the October Revolution–fighting to establish the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and continue, on the basis of this dictatorship, to criticize, attack and transform the vestiges of the old society and advance toward communism.

In 1957, just after Khrushchev and Liu Shao-chi had jumped out, Mao wrote in On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, “The class struggle is by no means over. The class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the class struggle between different political forces, and the class struggle in the ideological field between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will continue to be long and tortuous and at times will even become very acute. The proletariat seeks to transform the world according to its own world outlook, and so does the bourgeoisie. In this respect the question of which will win out, socialism or capitalism, is still not really settled.”

Mao made a major contribution in pointing out, for the first time explicitly, that this was true after socialist ownership had been established in the main. China, Mao pointed out, had established a socialist economic base (socialist ownership in state and collective form) “although still far from perfect,” and a socialist superstructure (the government and its institutions and laws, the line of the Party and the masses, education, culture, etc.) In general, this superstructure was in harmony with the economic base, “facilitating the victory of socialist transformation and the establishment of the socialist organization of labor; it is suited to the socialist economic base, that is, to socialist relations of production. But the survivals of bourgeois ideology, certain bureaucratic ways of doing things in our state organs and defects in certain links in our state institutions are in contradiction with the socialist economic base.” (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People)

All the contradictions left over from class society contain the seeds of the regeneration of antagonistic class contradictions even after the old bourgeoisie is defeated and weak–no longer the main source of capitalist reversion. This is true of the contradiction between manual and mental labor, between town and country, and between the workers and peasants. This is partly expressed in distribution: under socialism people are still paid according to their work (and not according to their needs). Unless all this is restricted, the potential exists for the development of greater and greater economic inequality and for money to once again become capital. It is the existence of these contradictions and the fact that some people still enjoy privileges from them that means that those who push a revisionist line in the Communist Party, who use their influence to protect these survivals of class society rather than to move against them, can always gain some kind of audience and can mobilize a social base for the restoration of capitalism. This is why the struggle between the socialist road and the capitalist road, between the line of going forward to transform society against the line of turning back, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, a struggle that is concentrated within the Party, is key to whether the working class can hold on to its dictatorship or will find itself once again dictated to. This is what Mao meant by saying that the question of “who will win out” is not “really settled.”

In order to develop the productive forces and socialist relations of production–in fact, to beat back the attacks of the bourgeoisie within the Party such as Liu Shao-chi, the working class had to move the contradiction forward, to deal with the backwardness of the superstructure in relation to the economic base. As Mao said later, summarizing further experience, “The proletariat must exercise all-around dictatorship over the bourgeoisie in the superstructure, including the various spheres of culture.” While the economic base sets the foundation for the superstructure, it was in turn only by making breakthroughs in the superstructure that the working class would make further major advances in developing the economic base, with each reacting dialectically on the other in a series of qualitative developments leading towards the abolition of classes and the elimination of all the scars left behind by class society.

Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, personally initiated and led by Mao, was a great example of the working class defending and developing the proletarian dictatorship and exercising “all-around dictatorship over the bourgeoisie in the superstructure.” This mass uprising of hundreds of millions of workers, peasants and other masses against those who Mao called “Party persons in power taking the capitalist road” was, as explained in How Capitalism Has Been Restored in the Soviet Union and What This Means for the World Struggle, not “simply a movement to criticize bourgeois ideology and bourgeois representatives in the field of culture, education, etc., but a revolutionary struggle directed at overthrowing people in high places in the Party and state who had actually entrenched themselves in power in many spheres of society–although they had not yet seized control of the whole state apparatus and actually begun restoring capitalism.”

In his analysis of the Paris Commune, Marx had pointed out how the dictatorship of the proletariat represented the beginning of a process that would gradually involve the great majority of the people (that is, the formerly exploited masses, led by the proletariat) and eventually all the people (after the elimination of classes) in the administration of society. In the Paris Commune, “simple workmen” (as Marx put it to blast the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie) took on the administration of everything, of all the functions of government (which the workers greatly simplified) and of all spheres of society, either by their direct participation or by “hiring” experts to work for the workers and under the guidance and direction of the workers. In the Cultural Revolution, socialist society took a qualitative leap toward the direction of the ideals of the Commune, advancing far higher than in socialist society before.

Under the leadership and guidance of Mao, nearly all the cadre (people with positions of authority and responsibility) in the Party and the state came under the intense scrutiny and criticism of the masses. Every aspect of society was criticized and struggled over. From Liu Shao-chi (and later Lin Piao and others like them) at the top to cadre at every level, those who stubbornly used positions of authority to serve themselves and hold back the revolutionization of society were criticized and overthrown. The workers and peasants cleared out the various institutions the way a good broom clears out dirt. Education was revolutionized, so that instead of educating the sons and daughters of the old exploiters and educating people to become new exploiters, the schools would be run by the workers and peasants for the needs and interests of the workers and peasants in transforming society and nature to advance toward communism. The bourgeoisie had held the dominant position in culture (books, movies, plays, art, etc.). They were swept away and the image of the workers and peasants and the outlook of the working class began to hold sway in these fields. By establishing revolutionary committees (three-in-one combinations of rank and file workers, Party members and administrators and/or technicians), the masses were able to actually seize back power in the factories, communes, schools, and so on, formerly run by capitalist roaders.

In addition to the People’s Liberation Army under the leadership of the working class through its Party, the masses of people themselves were organized in their factories and places of work into militias under Party leadership, thus making the state rest more securely than ever on the armed power of the working class and its allies. In January 1967, revolutionaries in Shanghai built an alliance of revolutionary mass organizations, the People’s Liberation Army and revolutionary Party cadres, which successfully seized power from the old capitalist-roader administration in Shanghai. Mao summed up and popularized this experience throughout China. People’s consciousness was greatly advanced.

Early in the course of the Cultural Revolution Mao wrote, “In the past, we waged struggle in rural areas, in the factories, in the cultural field, and we carried out the socialist education movement. But all this failed to solve the problem because we did not find a form, a method, to arouse the broad masses to expose our dark aspect openly, in an all-around way and from below.” The Cultural Revolution was that form and method. The masses of people had risen up, guided by the political and ideological line of the working class, to topple the bourgeoisie in every area where it had gotten the upper hand, taking huge, qualitative leaps in the development of society towards the great goal of communism.

Although the working class had its guns, the vast majority of the struggles of the Cultural Revolution did not involve force. Nevertheless, the Cultural Revolution was a practice of the proletarian dictatorship–“the current Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is absolutely necessary and most timely for consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat, preventing capitalist restoration and building socialism,” as Mao said. It was an expression of the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in a contradiction which centered on the question of what road the Communist Party would follow, which in essence, under socialism, is the decisive question in determining which class holds state power. It involved the broad masses in the struggle to continue to resolve this question in a revolutionary direction.

The Cultural Revolution did not bring class struggle in China to an end. Almost a decade after the Cultural Revolution began, Mao made this clear with his important instruction: “Why did Lenin speak of exercising dictatorship over the bourgeoisie? This question must be thoroughly understood. Lack of clarity on this question will lead to revisionism. This should be made known to the whole nation.”

Not just to a few people, not just to Party members, not just to a few million, but to the whole nation! With this Mao was explicitly saying that to fight revisionists and to prevent the revisionist overthrow of the proletarian dictatorship, broader and broader numbers of the working class and the masses needed to greatly deepen their understanding of Marxism and the tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By focusing on “why,” Mao focused on the fact that despite all the advances, the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is still the question of a transition from capitalism to communism. Although Marx’s writings clearly make this point, it was only the further experience of class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR and China that made it possible to sum up as explicitly as Mao did the long, sharp and complex nature of the struggle against the forces of capitalist restoration.

As the article “Bourgeois Right, Economism and the Goal of the Working class Struggle” in The Communist, Vol. 1, Number 1 puts it, “This is why the class struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie not only necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, but why this proletarian dictatorship must be exercised, in every sphere of society, until the bourgeoisie and classes are finally eliminated altogether. The working class must seize and wield state power to remove from society the basis for the existence of all class distinctions, by abolishing all the relations of production on which they rest, all the social relations that correspond to them and by revolutionizing all the ideas that result from these social relations. Thus, although it is a tremendous advance, the dictatorship of the proletariat is not an end in itself, but it is a necessary step, a transition to a higher form of society where all classes and all exploitation are abolished.”

This understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat from the point of view of the goal of communism, and not as an end in itself, is essential to Mao’s theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Like all processes, there is no such thing as standing still on the socialist road–there is only motion forward or backward. Any half-stepping, hesitation or vacillation along the socialist road definitely leads to the overthrow of the proletariat and the restoration of capitalism.

Furthermore, as both the experience of the USSR and China have shown, the advances of the revolution force the bourgeoisie to jump out to oppose it, and in this way battles to put an end to the “slaveholders’ rebellion” are forced on the proletariat, just as the working class was forced to fight to defend the Paris Commune, the first workers’ state, whether or not the working class “wants” any particular battle.

Principles of Commune Are Eternal

Mao Tsetung is reported to have said, “Marx at first opposed the Paris Commune . . . When the Paris Commune rose up he supported it, although he reckoned that it would fail. When he realized that it was the first proletarian dictatorship, he thought it would be a good thing even if it only lasted three months. If we assess it from an economic point of view, it was not worthwhile.” (“Speech at the Lushan Conference,” Mao Tsetung Unrehearsed, edited by Stuart Schram)

Of course neither Marx nor Mao looked at the Paris Commune from “an economic point of view”–from the standpoint of narrow immediate results. Even though the Commune failed, it had established basic principles for all proletarian revolutions to come. The heroic example of the Communards and the scientific sum-up of their heroic efforts provided the basis for a higher theoretical grasp of the tasks and the direction of proletarian revolution, which in turn made it possible for future efforts to succeed. It was knowing that this would be so that Marx wrote, “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”

Just as some so-called Marxists refused to recognize the lessons paid for in blood in the Paris Commune, so, too, when revisionism triumphed in the Soviet Union and capitalism was restored, some people refused to recognize this fact. Some people who had been revolutionaries felt that if the USSR had been lost to the working class, then everything they had fought for was for nothing, and sticking their heads in the sand, they tailed behind the new Soviet revisionists and allowed themselves to be dragged down, and everything they had done really was for nothing after all. This did great harm to the revolutionary cause.

In its time, the Paris Commune showed that proletarian revolution was not only necessary but possible. Its defeat only showed that the transition from capitalism to communism will be a very long process, with many twists and turns in its development, with setbacks for sure, but with a spiral development so that each advance of the working class stands on the shoulders of those who have fought and died in the proletariat’s cause before. This is only natural, since the development from capitalism to communism requires a complete break–a “radical rupture,” as Marx called it, with all previous forms of society and all traditional ideas and the greatest changes that the world has ever known.

In our time, the Cultural Revolution shows that the restoration of capitalism is not inevitable, that the working class and the masses can develop ways–whole new ways of doing things in the history of society–to defend their gains and beat back the enemy’s ceaseless attacks. Just as the Paris Commune provided the basis for the development of Marxism when Marxism was just emerging over a hundred years ago, so today through the Cultural Revolution, Marxism has developed and advanced and the working class of the whole world stands higher than ever before in its struggle to overturn the reactionaries of every country one by one and bring about the victory of communism all across the world.