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1966, 1917, and 1818: ‘Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend’

This year marks 50 years since Mao and his close comrades launched the Cultural Revolution in China.  Next year, 2017, will be 100 years since the February and October revolutions in Russia.  And, 2018 will mark the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose works were a compelling source of inspiration for the Russian and Chinese revolutionaries.  The three anniversaries will doubtless be occasions when, illuminated by their vision of a decent human society, the works of Marx and his close comrade and friend Friedrich Engels will be re-interrogated.  Surely questions will be asked as to why subsequent socialist revolutionaries inspired by that vision — most of all, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades in Russia, and Mao Zedong and his close comrades in China — despite their best efforts, could not lay the basis for a socialist society — a society of equality, cooperation, community and solidarity.1

‘Bombard the Headquarters’

The March 1966 issue of Red Flag, the theoretical political journal of the then Chinese Communist Party (CCP), carried an article on “The Great Lessons of the Paris Commune” of 1871, explaining how one can learn from the communards as to how to prevent the party-state bureaucracy from repudiating their assigned role of “serving the people” and instead becoming the masters of the people.  This theme of the Paris Commune was picked up and communicated on 25 May with a big character poster (BCP) from Beijing University that boldly declared the need for a “Chinese Paris Commune,” the significance of which, the poster claimed, “surpasses” that of the original Paris Commune.  Indeed, this BCP won Mao’s applause, and on 5 August, he released his own BCP, titled “Bombard the Headquarters.”  Then, three days later, on 8 August, the Central Committee of the CCP adopted a “Decision . . . Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” which, in its view, was “A New Stage in the Socialist Revolution,” “to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road.”  The Cultural Revolution also intended to “transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base.”

Indeed, if one goes by this Central Committee decision, which came to be known as “the 16 points,” there was an expression of the intention “to institute a system of general elections [my emphasis], like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the Cultural Revolution groups and committees and delegates to the Cultural Revolutionary congresses,” which were to be “permanent, standing mass organisations.”  Indeed, the Central Committee even intended to give the people the right to recall, a principle of the Paris Commune.  The “boldly aroused masses” that it hailed were, of course, the student-intellectual Red Guards and the workers.  The workers very soon rose up in early 1967 in China’s main industrial-heartland city, Shanghai, in what came to be known as the “January Storm,” which overthrew the Shanghai municipal government, and, on 5 February at a million-strong rally, proclaimed the formation of the “Shanghai Commune.”  Here was the first time that a post-revolutionary society was seriously confronting bureaucratism and elitism, or, at least, initiating radical trial runs in direct democracy to find a viable solution to these problems.2

Sadly, though, this time Mao did not applaud.  Indeed, he summoned the main leaders of the Shanghai Commune, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, to Beijing, called them “anarchists,” and ordered them to disband the commune.  Tragically, all the other Paris-type communes in the making also met with premature extinction.  Mao’s alternative to the commune was the tripartite “revolutionary committee,” composed of unelected People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel, CCP cadres, and representatives of the “revolutionary masses.”  Those who held on steadfastly to the Paris Commune-like original ways of the Cultural Revolution were now deprecated and dismissed as the “ultra-left,” to be dealt with harshly by PLA personnel in alliance with rival Red Guard groups.

Clearly, the fresh shoots of radical democracy were nipped in the bud, and as for those “communards” who persisted, worse was in store.  The so-called ultra-left’s time was up.  Unprincipled factional strife, excessive violence, personal tragedies, a lot of ugly features, and the cult of “Mao’s thought” — this last being ridiculous and harmful to scientific temper — had muddied the waters.  Of course, the context was that of a protracted political struggle between the “capitalist roaders,” headed by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, and the “proletarian roaders” headed by Mao.  But, even as Mao seemed to be in the lead politically, the Liu-Deng faction dominated organisationally, and tactically it even paid lip service to Mao’s thought and ideals.  Very soon, the struggle was no longer about what it was meant to be: the student-intellectual Red Guards and workers (both guided by Maoist intellectuals) taking on the elites of the party, the state, and the PLA.  The Maoist principles of handling contradictions among the people and those of the “mass line” (the leadership norm, “from the masses, to the masses”) went for a toss.

Had the voyage through the rough and stormy seas of the Cultural Revolution brought the vessel of the party-state perilously close to shipwreck?  Mao retreated.  At the Party Congress in April 1969, he justified the pulling back from the Paris Commune-inspired agenda he had himself applauded and decided upon in the 8 August 1966 Central Committee meeting.  The Cultural Revolution, in its original form, was over, but Mao promised that the future would bring more cultural revolutions.  He probably did not think a “People’s Commune of China” with a commune state was, theoretically and practically, a coherent proposition.  So, the powerful and privileged stratum that had emerged in the party, the government, the PLA, the enterprises, the communes, and the educational system, which had developed a stake in maintaining its favoured position and passing it on to its progeny, won the day.  But, some of the measures taken to reduce the differences arising from the division of labour between city and countryside, manual and intellectual labour, and management and employees were persisted with, until, of course, the capitalist roaders decisively took over and stymied them.

Nevertheless, the Cultural Revolution’s central idea that political, managerial, and bureaucratic power-holders entrench themselves as a ruling elite and, over a period of time, assume the position of a ruling class, and that the people have to be constantly mobilised to struggle against this tendency should never be forgotten.  Even otherwise, and more generally, given the existence of class, patriarchy, racism and caste over millennia, power and compulsion are deeply rooted in social reality.  Indeed, they have almost become a part of the basic inherited (but not unchangeable) “human condition,” which leads one to make a very strong case for civil liberties and democratic rights (gained through historic struggles waged by the underdogs) that should not be allowed to be abrogated, come what may.

At this point, I need to mention that part of the problem faced by the Chinese Maoists existed because the earlier New Democratic Revolution had failed to dismantle the central bureaucratic state.  This state had been inherited from Chinese history and had thrived under Chiang Kaishek, whose hierarchical apparatus — administered from the top down and predicated on separation from the people — was taken apart but reconstructed in another bureaucratic form after 1949.  Like in any other central bureaucratic state, conformity and loyalty brought promotions, personal well-being, power, prestige and privileges.  Even the Cultural Revolution with its attacks on Confucian culture had failed to usher in a modern state, let alone one that could have been a democratic role model as far as the Chinese people were concerned.  The earlier agrarian revolution demolished merely the local institutions of semi-feudalism without doing away with the central bureaucratic state, leaving the consolidation of power by the forces of New Democracy incomplete.

‘All Power to the Soviets’?

What about the 1917 revolutions?  In the first, the February Revolution, the popular masses overthrew the monarchy and its totalitarian regime, and allowed liberals representing the capitalists and the nobility to form a Provisional Government.  The second, the October Revolution, came on the anvil when the workers and soldiers (the latter, mainly peasants) were convinced that their February demands of a democratic republic, radical agrarian reform, renunciation of Russia’s imperialist war aims, taking the country out of World War I, and an eight-hour workday will not see the light of day with the propertied classes in power.  In the face of growing counter-revolutionary manoeuvring by those classes, the workers and peasant-soldiers demanded a transfer of power to a government of the Soviets (councils) of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies who were elected in the course of the February Revolution.  It was the Bolsheviks who, from April-end onwards, repeatedly called for and worked towards the replacement of the Provisional Government with Soviet power, which turned them into a major force that was able to lead the masses to victory in October (November by the Western Julian calendar).

The “Transition Period” (the period between the political overthrow of capitalism and the consolidation of socialism) that followed was a very difficult one: bloody civil war over four years, imperialist blockades and interventions, massive United States, British, and French military aid to the White armies up to late 1919, lack of food, complete disarray, the workers scattered and decimated.  In the face of such circumstances, the Bolsheviks adopted emergency measures — political repression, complete suppression of civil liberties and democratic rights, centralisation and monopoly of power, reliance on the conservative bureaucracy and specialists of the old regime, Taylorism and one-man management of the enterprises — that turned the commune state with the Soviets of 1917 into an authoritarian party-state (dictatorship of the party and the state over the whole people) in late 1918.

Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, though enthusiastically supportive of October, was among the first of the revolutionary socialists to write that the Russian Revolution — in its suppression of what should have been a democratic role model as far as the masses were concerned — would not lead to socialism.  But, she still hoped that October would help ignite social revolutions in the developed capitalist nations, especially in Germany, though tragically, these revolutions were nipped in the bud, leaving the Russian Revolution desperately isolated in an impoverished, war-ridden country.  Lenin, in his last writings — he died in 1924, seven years after October — expressed the need to create the basis for popular self-governance, for which, he felt, there must be a genuine revolution, where culture flowers among the people.

A cultural revolution, so that ultimately an educated, cultured, and enlightened working class might democratically take control of the intended workers’ state?  But, this was not to be.  The year 1921 had already witnessed the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the banning of factions in the Bolshevik party; 1927, the defeat of the left opposition; 1929-30, the forced collectivisation that broke the worker-peasant alliance; and the 1930s saw political trials and purges, especially the Great Purge of 1937-38 — all of which paved the way for the defeat of the socialist project.

At this point, I think I need to add something.  Bourgeois revolutions are, comparatively speaking, less difficult compared to socialist revolutions.  The former simply put in place a capitalist “superstructure” — institutions of the capitalist state, law, education, culture and ideology — to match an already existing capitalist economic base.  Moreover, the original (“primitive”) accumulation of capital has already taken place.  The socialist revolution, in sharp contrast, not only has to dismantle the capitalist superstructure and put in place a socialist superstructure, but it has no prior developing socialist economic base already in place, and therefore has to create this too, de novo.  All this makes the transition period in the aftermath of the seizure of power more complex and difficult to successfully carry through.

Moreover, in Russia, the February Revolution was not followed by the institutionalisation of a capitalist superstructure, for it was rapidly surpassed by October.  The subsequent immediate superstructure of the transition period was, thus, not a capitalist-socialist hybrid, with the former being rapidly superseded.  In fact, when the transition project following October suffered severe setbacks, what was left was much of the previous tsarist superstructure.  The envisaged democratic role model as far as the masses were concerned was a far cry.  Much of what happened was perhaps against the will and intentions of most of the original Bolsheviks, including Lenin.

‘Revolutionary Practice’

About 1818, in desperate brevity, regarding Marx’s revolutionary ideas, we need to articulate the essence of the last and the third of the “Theses on Feuerbach,” penned by the young Marx in 1845.3  The purpose of struggling to gain a thorough understanding of the world — which is what Marx spent his whole working life doing, and which was a deep struggle, this through “learning truth from practice” — was to lay the basis for revolutionary change.  Learning truth from practice, of course, means, as Paul M Sweezy once wrote, learning truth “from history, from economics and politics, from culture in the broadest sense — in a word, from the real world of social relations and class struggle, as distinct from the imaginary worlds of revelation and pure thought.”

The creation of a decent human society might ultimately come about, after many defeats and setbacks, but only in a process of struggle by people, ordinary people, who may not as yet be ready to emancipate themselves, but who can become capable of emancipating themselves by repeatedly launching and sustaining revolutionary struggles.  Marx expected that the transitional period between capitalism and socialism would witness a negation of capitalism, which would develop its own positive identity through a revolutionary struggle in which ordinary people would remake society and in the process remake themselves.

It must, however, be remembered that the workers, more generally, the masses (the majority), the ones who Marx and Engels expected would emancipate themselves in the course of remaking society, are society’s foremost productive force, but the advance of their capabilities is hindered by the relations of production (exploitative relations at work, and ownership relations that bestow capitalist control over the forces of production and the product) and corresponding educational, health, and cultural deprivations they are made to suffer.  In the circumstances, the guiding and leading role of middle-class revolutionaries in the vanguard party is indispensable until an enlightened working class emerges, of course, with the proviso that the middle-class educators must themselves be educated by “learning truth from practice.”

‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’

The anniversaries of 1966, 1917, and 1818 call for hard questioning.  For instance, why did Lenin and his close Bolshevik comrades, when the harsh conditions of civil war and imperialist intervention had abated, not bring back the Soviets to fulfil the role Lenin had assigned to the commune in his State and Revolution?  Why did Mao desert the “communards” in the course of the Cultural Revolution, after, at first, applauding them?  Was the view of Marx and Engels of the Paris Commune really an embryonic form of a coherent workers’ state?  Perhaps it is time we discard the halo around these three “prophetic” intellectuals once and for all.  Marx, Lenin and Mao would never have claimed that they had said the last word on anything.  Did Marx not write, in part, unadulterated twaddle about the Chinese Taipings (in Die Presse, Vienna, 7 July 1862) influenced as he seemed to be by official British propaganda?

But, on a more serious note, though he was light-heartedly responding to his daughters Laura and Jenny Marx’s questions, Marx once “confessed” that it was his “favourite motto” to “doubt everything.”  Clearly, in approaching all the serious questions that the anniversaries throw up, we should ask how Marx himself would have reacted if he were alive, for here was a brilliant intellectual, passionate about making a contribution to a worldwide struggle to liberate humanity from the miseries of capitalist exploitation, domination, and oppression.  In the spirit of mutual learning, the best approach to the three commemorations would be to “let a hundred flowers bloom” and “a hundred schools of thought contend.”  I, however, do not want to hide the unacceptable under the carpet.  Given the vast divide between Leninist political theory and the reformist political practice of the Indian communist parties wedded to parliamentarianism, the necessity of smashing the rotten bourgeois state is being paid no heed to.  Lenin in theory, Kautsky in practice!  “Bombard the headquarters” might indeed be the need of the hour.



1  This piece first took shape in the form of what would have been an unsigned editorial to mark the 50 years of the Cultural Revolution in China, but I had to rewrite it as a “Commentary.”  I have retained part of the editorial form and eschewed “References,” but need to add that I draw from essays in What Is Maoism and Other Essays (edited and with an Introduction by me; Kharagpur: Cornerstone Publications, 2010), by Paul M Sweezy, Ralph Miliband, William Hinton, and my own essay.  The other pieces that I draw from are my “Did Lenin and Mao Forsake Marx?” (Economic & Political Weekly, 29 May 2010), Hugh Deane’s “Mao: A Lamentation” (Science & Society, Spring 1995), and William Hinton’s “The Chinese Revolution: Was It Necessary? Was It Successful? Is It Still Going On?” (Monthly Review, November 1991).  More generally, the influence of Paul M Sweezy’s and William Hinton’s works is perhaps the most marked.

2  Of course, the leaders of the Shanghai Commune were neither democratically elected, nor were mechanisms put in place for the people to control them, nor did the people have the “right to recall” them, all three of which were basic democratic principles of the Paris Commune.

3  The last, the 11th thesis, the famous one, reads: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.”  And, the third, not that famous but equally important, thesis, in part, reads: “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated. . . .  The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionary practice.”

Bernard D’Mello ( is on the editorial staff of the Economic & Political Weekly and is a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.  This article first appeared in Economic & Political Weekly 51.33 (August 13, 2016).

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