China’s Communards in the Cultural Revolution

  • March 18, 2021

Paris Commune 150

The memory of the Paris Commune in China was used to justify political purges, but it also inspired the founding of communes from Beijing to Shanghai.

Excerpt from: Dennis Bos, “Bloed en Barricaden. De Parijse Commune herdacht,” (Amsterdam, 2014).

Translated from Dutch by Bastian Still.


he centenary of the Paris Commune happened at a time when socialism and the labor movement seemed more powerful than ever. This global surge of revolutionary fervor was set in motion in May 1968, when in Paris — of all places — radicalized students erected barricades, huge numbers of workers occupied factories, and a general strike shook France to its foundations. Alongside new, playful slogans like “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” and “Under the paving stones, the beach!” the time-honored “Vive la Commune!” once again adorned the facades of Paris.

While heavy street fighting between strikers and riot police meant that some positions had to be ceded, barricades were again set ablaze to cover the activists’ retreat. The only difference with the Paris Commune of 1871 was that the wooden barrels of old had been replaced by burnt-out cars. A participant in the renowned “nuit des barricades” gave a gripping account of the evening of May 10, when the student activists saw their ranks swell with diverse groups of supporters, vividly bringing to mind the events of 1871: hundreds of workers, both young and old, “beaucoup d’étrangers” as well as large numbers of girls were said to have joined the street fighting. The photo magazine Paris Match dedicated a double-page to portraits of female students who took part in the protests armed with the black flag of anarchy and wearing army helmets.

From the Petroleuses to the Poésie du Pétrole

Shortly after these events, the historical continuity with the Commune was evoked by the adaptation of an old song by Eugène Pottier: “Elle n’est pas morte.” The updated lyrics of “La Commune n’est pas morte (Juin 1968)” celebrated the festive character of the recent battle on the barricades that had taken place as the “the old world was going up in flames.” Ravaged boulevards, looted stores, burning cars, and images of cops with their “asses lit on fire” provided plenty of inspiration for the anonymous songwriter to compose the new verses, described as “Poésie du pétrole.”

Even if the protesters had already returned to the drudgery of daily life, of boredom and wage slavery, by the time this song was being composed, the seeds of the next May revolution continued to be sown.

Tout ça pour prouver, Carmela,
Qu’la Commune n’est pas morte (bis)

The new generation did not lack historical consciousness. The small group of activists involved in the radical journal Internationale Situationniste played an important role in the formation of ideas and mobilizations that led to the eruption of the student revolts of May 1968. Six years earlier, the group had written an essay outlining 14 visionary theses about the meaning and relevance of the Paris Commune — “la plus grande fête du xixème siècle,” (“the biggest festival of the 19th century”) as they called it.

Six years later, from the occupied university campus of the Sorbonne in Paris, these “situationists” together with other “enragés” bombarded the politburos of the Russian and Chinese Communist parties with telegrams. Their message was clear. They declared the impending downfall of the Stalinist government leadership, and reminded them in a menacing tone (“shake in your shoes”) of the heroic battle of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921, the betrayal of the Shanghai Commune in 1927, and the Hungarian (“councils”) Uprising in Budapest of 1956.

The foremost lesson drawn from the century-long history of revolutionary class struggle presented in this message was that humanity will not be happy until the day that “le dernier bureaucrate” is hung by the guts of the last capitalist.

However, not all those involved in the protests would come to the same libertarian conclusions. Disappointed by the uprising that had failed to achieve the desired results, many reverted to more authoritarian traditions of the revolutionary movement. The self-proclaimed Comité Communiste Joseph Staline, for example, published a document shortly after May ’68 which drew a direct link between the Commune, the October Revolution and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that was taking place in China at that time. According to the Comité, the main lesson of leftist history is that the dictatorship of the proletariat can never be accomplished without the leadership of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party and “la pensée Mao-Tse-toung.”

The Global Revolutionary Wave

While Paris in May 1968 served yet again as the epicenter of an international revolutionary revival, its after-shocks were now felt across the globe. That same year it looked as though the Prague Spring would end the stagnation of “real socialism” in Eastern Europe. Hotbeds of “anti-imperialist” resistance sprang up across Latin America, Asia and the Arab World. As hopeful eyes turned towards these postcolonial liberation movements, many folks in Western Europe and North America were expecting them to provide the necessary impetus for a world revolution. Violent riots in the black ghettos of North America as well as the military and political triumphs in Cuba and Vietnam served as proof that not even the mighty army of the US could prevent capitalism’s downfall.

On March 18, 1971 newspapers not only covered the centenary of the Commune but also reported on a devastating military defeat suffered by the invading South Vietnamese army — backed by the US air force — at the hands of the “Lao People’s Liberation Army.”

Nevertheless, a great schism was emerging in the early 1960s between the postwar communist states. While the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe carefully sought to distance themselves from their Stalinist past, the Chinese party was starting to criticize the Soviet Union’s leadership within the international communist movement. These tensions reached a boiling point in 1963 when Chinese communists openly accused their former comrades in Moscow of revisionism, deviating from the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and espousing an imperialist strategy towards Eastern Europe and the People’s Republic.

The Paris Commune and the Cultural Revolution

In China, these fierce attacks on the new, moderate Soviet Union and its “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, coincided with a revived interest in the Paris Commune. After the communist defeats of 1927 in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, the Commune had all but faded into oblivion for over 30 years. In Mao Zedong’s collected works, the Commune was mentioned only a few times and even then only in passing.

Towards the end of the 1950s, however, the silence was radically broken. The commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Paris Commune in 1961, prompted a notable series of Chinese publications on the topic. In addition to an anthology of texts by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin on the Commune, a collection of biographical portraits of Communards as well as a booklet on the Commune’s poets, that year also saw the translation of the official accounts of the Paris Commune Council meetings and the publication of the first Chinese edition of Lissagaray’s classic account of the revolution of 1871. Five years later, the anniversary of the Commune served as the occasion for a new Chinese edition, with an English translation, of Marx’s The Civil War in France.

The sudden enthusiasm among Chinese communists for the Commune of 1871 did not arise exactly from a spontaneous historical interest. Rather, the history of the Paris Commune was deployed in the early 1960s to strike at the party leaders in Moscow. In the eyes of the Chinese, the Soviet Union had wandered astray by opening up the possibility of a peaceful coexistence in the international arena and even going so far as to accept a “peaceful transition” to socialism under certain circumstances. Beijing heavily opposed this “Soviet revisionism,” often drawing on the lessons from the Paris Commune. Marx’s thesis, claiming the Commune had shown that the working class could not simply lay hold of the capitalist state machinery but had to destroy it, was particularly relevant.

According to China, the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be achieved through revolutionary means. The fact that those in power in Moscow as well as their “puppets” elsewhere had changed their views on this, proved for Mao that they had forsaken the October Revolution and betrayed the Paris Commune. In fact, as the Chinese party continued to adhere closely to the ideals of the Commune and October Revolution, “fake communists” like Khrushchev and the Yugoslavian Tito followed in the footsteps of the head of the French government during the repression of the Commune Adolphe Thiers, secretly plotting the restoration of capitalism in their own countries.

The rising tensions among fellow socialist states reached a crescendo in China in 1966 in the form of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Characterized by a widespread and broadly supported terror campaign, the Cultural Revolution swept across the country under the pretense of a spontaneous insurrection by the masses. The people had risen up against a corrupt party bureaucracy that, like in the Soviet Union, was attempting to restore capitalism on Chinese soil. The political purges set in motion at Mao’s behest left the People’s Republic in a state of upheaval: an internal power struggle among the party leadership, the mass mobilization of youth in so-called Red Guards and armed clashes between revolutionary associations attempting to outclass each other in radical zeal and blind loyalty to the Great Helmsman.

Detail of a Chinese poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune.

Looking back, perhaps the first signs of the Cultural Revolution appeared in March 1966, during the commemorations of the 95th anniversary of the Paris Commune. In a detailed article published in Red Flag (Hung-Ch’i) — the Communist Party’s own political journal — very different aspects of the Commune were being highlighted compared to the ones praised during the celebrations five years earlier. Obviously, “The Great Lessons of the Paris Commune — In Commemoration of its 95th Anniversary” could not resist a passing shot at the Soviet revisionists. Its readers were reminded that the lessons from the Commune were written in blood, that the rebels should not have left the Bank of France and its reserves untouched, and that a lack of political consciousness was to blame for the ultimate defeat of the Communards, who had failed to “wipe out” the enemy when they had him pinned to the wall. However, the essay of party-historian Cheng Chih-Szu shed new light on the contemporary relevance of the Commune and the central message of 1966: the revolution has been, first and foremost, the work of “the masses.”

Taking full advantage of the Chinese publications on the Commune that had appeared five years earlier, Cheng Chih-Szu in his memorial article for Red Flag paid special attention to the following: the democratic functioning of the Paris Commune, measures taken against the bureaucratization of the revolution, and the proletarian self-sacrifice of the Commune’s delegates who had reduced their salary to that of a skilled French worker. Daily, around 20,000 “activists” are said to have come together in massive popular assemblies, submitting revolutionary proposals and criticizing the policy and organization of the Commune whenever needed.

This revolutionary initiative of the masses was, according to Cheng Chih-Szu’s, the true strength of the revolution. It was therefore all the more regrettable that the Commune had not listened more attentively to the voices from below. Had they done so, the leadership would not have fallen victim to the deceitful talk of peace from Versailles in 1871. Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn by the author on this historical event were positive: from its inception the Commune had prevented revolutionary functionaries from appropriating privileges and criticized or even removed from office any traitor or incompetent leader.

All in all, this version of the Paris Commune, in which the liberatory force of the masses and their distrust of established officials stand out, reads like a historical blueprint for the Cultural Revolution that would be announced in China two months later. Just like the Commune had smashed the state bureaucracy to pieces, so the rebelling Chinese masses would now have to break the power of the ruling elites, who, according to Mao and his followers, were taking the People’s Republic down the road of capitalism.

Communal Initiatives in China

From the very start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao appropriated the Paris Commune as an ideological justification and source of inspiration for the new political purges. In May 1966, the “spontaneous” appearance of handwritten wall posters across the campus of Beijing’s most prestigious university, set in motion the wave of violence that would last for ten years. Invoking the dictatorship of the proletariat and the “Mao Zedong ideology,” radical students denounced their “right-wing” professors and university board.

Soon, similar actions followed, and on June 1 Mao spoke out in support of the students and proclaimed the posters as the manifesto of a new “Beijing Commune” — a commune of the 20th century, whose political and historical significance would eclipse that of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Emboldened by the endorsement of the highest authority, Chinese students started to target their teachers with violence and drop out of school en masse to join the Red Guard and plunge China into chaos. This revolutionary storm reached a peak in the early days of 1967 when Red Guards and insurgent workers seized power in Shanghai and overthrew the communist city council and local party leadership. On January 27, 1967, the new municipal administration proclaimed their Shanghai Commune.

In the first half of February, similar communes were announced in Beijing and Taiyuan in the northern province of Shanxi as well as in the Manchurian city of Harbin and the harbor city of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea, each time explicitly invoking the Paris example from over 95 years ago. The lesson Marx had drawn from the Commune, that the revolutionary proletariat could not assume power over the existing state apparatus but had to destroy it in order to build something new, seemed to have become more relevant than ever in the context of the Cultural Revolution.

The End of the People’s Commune of China

Within weeks, the exponential increase in numbers of new communes had spun out of control in the eyes of the Party’s top leadership, who were observing this revolutionary spectacle unfold with great concern. Premier Zhou Enlai, who had spent some years in Paris in his twenties and therefore was considered somewhat of an expert on the matter, had already alerted the rebelling youth by the end of January to the fact that universal suffrage, a concept the students borrowed from the 1871 Commune, might not really fit the Chinese context after all.

In mid-February, at a meeting with the political leaders of the Shanghai Commune, Mao himself spoke out. Even though he was responsible for the enthusiasm with which communes in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere were established, Mao expressed great concerns about the consequences of these initiatives. That his reasoning bordered on the ridiculous did not detract a bit from the gravity of his statements.

According to the Chairman, the establishment of municipal communes across the country risked having to rename the People’s Republic to something like the “People’s Commune of China.” This, however, would permit rival states like the Soviet Union to reject the new Chinese state. Other enemies like Great Britain and France, on the other hand, might recognize China just to put its people to shame. Moreover, the status of China’s embassies abroad might be put in jeopardy as a result of the name change. Instead, Mao instructed his young audience not to get lost in the manners and etiquettes of the revolutionary process but instead to focus on its content. After all, the real issue at stake was which class was wielding power.

In reality, however, Mao’s concerns appear to have arisen from the excessively lenient behavior of the Communards in Shanghai. According to some reports, political prisoners there had been allowed to leave the police stations from the back entrance immediately after they arrived. Whatever the real reason for Mao’s remarkable change of mind, 18 days after its inauguration, the Shanghai Commune had ceased to exist. Here and elsewhere, the Cultural Revolution would henceforth continue without reference to the Commune.

La Commune n’est pas morte!

However, the fact that the memory of the Paris Commune — celebrated and revived with so much revolutionary zeal — had not simply faded away, became clear in the summer of 1968. Some 7,000 Chinese marched through the streets of Beijing in solidarity with the rebelling students and workers of Paris chanting “Long live the revolutionary heritage of the Great Paris Commune!”

It was only with the passing of Mao Zedong in September 1976, and the arrest of the “Gang of Four” shortly thereafter, that the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Even then, the Commune remained an important source of inspiration. In reaction to the arrest of Mao’s widow and three of her staff members, radicals in Shanghai called for an armed insurrection that would rally China’s masses behind them “within five days” to carry the Cultural Revolution to the end: “And even if we fail, we’ll go down in history like the Paris Commune, having shed our blood to educate the next generation!”

Dennis Bos

Dennis Bos (1969) teaches Dutch history at Leiden University and is a historian of left-wing socialism and the labor movement.

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