The Shanghai Commune and the rightist reaction

Part IV: The suppression of the Left in China

January 10, 1977

This month marks the tenth anniversary of what has been popularly called the Shanghai Revolution. It was a monumental event in itself and constituted a turning point in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

This January, however, there is little if any mention of the Shanghai Commune in the Chinese press. Rather, there is a campaign going on which amounts to a veritable rehabilitation of former Prime Minister Chou En-lai, and possibly of Teng Hsiao-ping.

Chou, of course, was never formally denounced by the party leadership during his lifetime. But it is well established, and events will further confirm it, that he was not merely a moderator between the factions in the course of the Cultural Revolution but a strong opponent of the left. There is no question that it was he who advanced Teng, who had been ousted in the Cultural Revolution, back into a position of preeminent importance in the government and in the party. Chou was able to obtain the acquiescence, if not the approval, of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

It was only after the fall of Teng and after Chou's death last year that it became clear that Chou En-lai himself was a principal issue in the struggle. The current articles in the Chinese press seem calculated to elevate Chou to a position in the history of the Chinese Revolution not merely second to Mao but even rivaling him, and with a none too vague note of preference for Chou.

All this build-up, which is bound to take on a greater momentum with the passage of time, is promoted in an effort to reject, discredit, and disqualify the revolutionary achievements of the Cultural Revolution, which the left symbolized. It is no accident that the tenth anniversary of the Shanghai Revolution has received scant attention in the Chinese press, if at all. And certainly, the capitalist press is not likely to draw attention to this grotesquely conspicuous omission.


It should be noted that the new governing group, which is a coalition of mostly rightist and centrist elements, may be overdoing it. The demonstrations commemorating Chou's death ominously point in the direction of a still deepening conflict between the rightists and the centrists. It is significant that the wall posters for the commemoration were utilized by the more extreme of the rightists to attack Wu Teh, a Politburo member who also holds a position in the Peking Municipal Committee comparable to mayor and who is regarded as an ally of Hua in the suppression of the left.

The commander of the Peking garrison, Ch'en Hsi-lien, the one who may be regarded by the revolutionary left as having betrayed their cause and having played a key role in their suppression, also has come under attack by wall posters which, if they don't have official sanction, are by organized groups deep in the struggle.

But the fact that there has been a steady increase in the number of wall posters demanding Teng's rehabilitation shows that all this may have gone much further than the present uneasy coalition in the government group would view with equanimity. The fact that none of the leadership as of this writing observed Chou's anniversary is itself significant.

It may very well be that the new Hua ruling group feared that on the anniversary of Chou's death there would be a second version of the Tien An Men demonstration of last April when the counterrevolutionary elements mobilized in large numbers and were well-nigh able to overwhelm the officialdom, necessitating the call-up of security troops.

Up until the January 1967 Shanghai Revolution, and particularly its singular development, the Shanghai Commune, the struggle for the Cultural Revolution was largely confined to students. Many, of course, were drawn from working class and peasant families. That was the day of the Red Guards, which convulsed all China with mounting interest and curiosity. But participation by the working class, as such, was still peripheral.


The January Revolution, however, marks the period in which the working class, for the first time in the Cultural Revolution, intervened on a truly mass scale and transformed the entire political situation, not merely in Shanghai but throughout China. For the first time vast numbers of the great industrial working class of Shanghai seemed to take destiny into their own hands. Shanghai, it must be remembered, is not only the largest and most industrialized city in China, but can truly be called the proletarian capital of all Asia. The seizure of the reins of power there on behalf of the Mao forces and the Cultural Revolution ten years ago to this day is scarcely an event that could be forgotten in China.

Yet the Hua regime has managed to overlook it. It is small wonder. The problem that the Hua regime faces is that the principal leaders of the Shanghai Revolution were none other than Chang Chun-chiao, Yao Wen-yuan, Wang Hung-wen, and, of course, Chiang Ching. It is impossible to write about the January revolution without writing about them. But they are precisely the ones who are now being slandered and vilified beyond recognition.

Chang Chun-chiao was the chief party propagandist in the Shanghai Party Committee and subsequently the leader of the Shanghai Commune. Yao Wen-yuan is the famous literary critic whose attack on Wu Han's play, The Dismissal of Hai Jui, initiated the Cultural Revolution. Both of these leaders were later drawn into the leadership of the GCCR (Group in Charge of the Cultural Revolution) in Peking.

Wang Hung-wen, who was less well-known at the time, was the youthful textile worker who organized the first revolutionary workers' committee in Shanghai to combat the anti-Mao revisionist forces. He is most famous as the one who put up the poster in the Shanghai mill where he worked which attacked the rightist party leaders as "capitalist readers." This was the signal to the Shanghai proletariat to take another look at their "superiors" in the mills and factories of Shanghai.

It scarcely need be added that Chiang Ching contributed greatly to the Shanghai Revolution, especially in the early work of collaborating both with Chang Chun-chiao and Yao Wen-yuan. Their attacks on Wu-Han's play ultimately resulted in the fall of Peng Chen, the principle leader in the Peking Municipal Committee and a key promoter of the Liu Shao-chi and Teng Hsiao-ping rightist faction.


It was impossible to topple Peng from his powerful post from within Peking itself. Peking was a stronghold of the rightists.. It is an administrative center. Shanghai, on the other hand, is the greatest industrial center and the city where the Maoist forces had their strongest base. The Cultural Revolution was launched in Shanghai with the attack on Wu Han's play, but was aimed first and foremost to dislodge the rightists from their power base in Peking.

The tremendous importance of the first victory in Shanghai can scarcely be overestimated. Mao called it decisive precisely because it freed the Cultural Revolution from the narrow confines of the student and youth movement. That was the first great revolutionary and proletarian manifestation of the Cultural Revolution.

It is impossible to understand the later defeat of the left and the current ascendency of the rightist forces unless we examine, even if only in outline form, the meaning of the Shanghai Revolution, the subsequent development of the Shanghai Commune, and its supersession by the Triple Alliance.

It must be understood that the Cultural Revolution was inspired and directed from above. All such efforts directed from above, no matter how progressive their social and political content, have a limited character unless they are accompanied by or awaken the revolutionary involvement of the masses. Previous reforms from above throughout all of history have faltered, precisely because they were unable to arouse the participation of the masses.

It was the good fortune of the Cultural Revolution that in Shanghai it found a ready, really tremendous, spontaneous response and involvement of the working class itself. Therein lies one of the fundamental and unique features of the Shanghai Revolution. It is therefore no accident at all that after a period of time the Shanghai Commune was set up there. It had the backing of the workers through its principal organization, the Shanghai Workers General Headquarters, headed by none other than Chang Chun-chiao.

The Shanghai Commune, brief though it was, spread terror in the camp of the rightist revisionist forces. The Commune idea held out the prospect of eventually dislodging the rightist forces more effectively than the form of government which later superseded it.


It is to be remembered that the Commune idea, modeled on the Paris Commune, had tremendous revolutionary appeal. Although the great Paris insurrection is now more than a hundred years old, it has never ceased to be a source of inspiration, as well as a hoped-for model for the construction of a revolutionary workers' state.

Whenever there is a genuine revolutionary crisis in capitalist society, the Commune idea immediately becomes a source of controversy. Everyone knows that Lenin's State and Revolution is based on a popular exposition of the significance of the Paris Commune and how Marx evaluated it in his day. The older generation in China knows also of the Canton Commune, which ended so tragically as a result of its destruction by the counter-revolutionary Kuomintang forces headed by Chiang Kai-shek. Mao's early polemics against Khrushchevite revisionism, in which he condemned the bourgeois parliamentary road and showed how the seizure of power must be based on destroying the old state apparatus of the bourgeoisie, were full of allusions to the Paris Commune.

Almost all of the left-wing in the Cultural Revolution were enthusiastic about the Commune idea -- the idea of setting up or restructuring the state so that it would be based on the dictatorship of the proletariat with the Paris Commune as a model. Chang Chun-chiao was, of course, in favor of it. So were Yao Wen-yuan, Lin Piao, and Chen Po-ta. The truth of the matter is that it was hard not to be in favor of the Commune.

The bourgeoisie have charged that the Commune was a form of irrational violence, chaos, and anarchy. But despite what its detractors say, the Commune idea was not one which arose spontaneously or germinated in the heads of the left as a response to an uncontrollable anarchist current in the working class. The idea itself was sanctioned in the most authoritative document of the Cultural Revolution, popularly called the Sixteen-Point Decision and undoubtedly written by Mao himself. It was adopted Aug. 8, 1966, at the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Point Nine specifically states that "it is necessary to institute a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees, and delegates to the cultural revolutionary congresses. The list of candidates should be put forward by the revolutionary masses, after full discussion, and the elections should be held after the masses have discussed the lists over and over again.

"The masses are entitled at any time to criticize members of the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates elected to the cultural revolutionary congresses. If these members or delegates prove incompetent, they can be replaced through election or recalled by the masses after discussion."

It also states that the cultural revolutionary groups, committees, and congresses "should not be temporary organizations but permanent, standing mass organizations." Nor are they to be confined to "colleges and schools" but are also to include, and this is of key significance, "government and other organizations and factories, mines, and other enterprises, urban districts and villages."


It is clear that what is aimed at here is a restructuring of a deformed, degenerated, and bureaucratized workers' state into a genuine proletarian democracy based on the Paris Commune model. It is no wonder that the Commune idea spread so rapidly and enlisted such popular support as well as the endorsement of the left-wing leaders. It was not something that the left-wing leadership had set up against Mao or went beyond Mao, but was a practical application of what was codified in a principal party directive.

But it ran up against a strong opposition of the rightist forces who were deeply entrenched in the party and government and who would not easily yield to what appeared to be a medium to completely dislodge them. Why then were the Shanghai Commune and the very idea of the Commune soon superseded by the Triple Alliance or the Three-in-One Combination, as it is more often called?

According to one of the latest versions, inspired by official Chinese sources, it was "Mao who had second thoughts about it." So writes Han Suyin in Wind in the Tower (1976). "Mao Tse-tung called Yao Wen-yuan and Chang Chun-chiao, then busy in Shanghai with the commune establishment, to discuss the matter in Peking." According to her, Mao warned that "'ultra-democracy' can be the seedbed of Bonapartism," and was upset that "Chen Po-ta was calling for communes of the Paris type to be established everywhere and in Taiyuan, and Peking, posters and leaflets were proclaiming the imminent formation of communes with 'all power to the proletariat.' "

Mao told Chang and Yao, says Han Suyin, "that the Shanghai victory had been brilliant and decisive for the cultural revolution by bringing the working class to its proper role as the main force, but the working class was still being split and divided, it had to clarify its ideology and unite. There were still seven hundred or more organizations in Shanghai's factories" which were not yet in the Commune.

Mao is also quoted as denouncing as "extreme anarchism and downright reactionary" an alleged demand by the Shanghai People's Committee (not to be confused with the Shanghai Commune itself) that Chou En-lai do away with all heads of departments in government offices.

"Communes of the Paris type," Han Suyin quotes Mao as saying, "are too weak when it comes to suppressing counterrevolutionaries." Therefore the Triple Alliance, based upon the mass organizations, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and the party cadres, was more suitable and appropriate both for broadening the mass support and for successfully prosecuting the struggle against the rightists.

First of all, it should be noted that the reasoning attributed to Mao for superseding the Communes with the Triple Alliance can not be documented and does not lend itself to credibility. Both Han Suyin as well as Jean Daubier in his History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution are too solicitous of Chou En-lai and have fully committed themselves against Lin Piao and Chen Po-ta, both of whom were strongly for the Commune along with Chang Chun-chiao and Yao Wen-yuan.

The reasoning attributed to Mao for preferring the Triple Alliance as against the Commune does not go to the essence of the matter. It is true that the Shanghai Commune had not yet obtained the full endorsement of most of the working class in Shanghai, but there is absolutely no reason why, with the help of the central party leaders, the support would not broaden. Most of the organizations opposing the Commune, which were adhering to the revisionist line in the first place, were beginning to fold up. And there is no authentic confirmation, historically, of why a strongly established Commune should not be able to cope with counter-revolutionary efforts or should succumb to anarchism or Bonapartism.

In the light of what has happened since the supersession of the Commune by the Triple Alliance and the defeat of the left, it becomes more necessary than ever to examine the basic difference between the Commune and the Triple Alliance.


Historians friendly to the Cultural Revolution, such as Daubier or William Hinton, in addition to Han Suyin and others, neglect to point out, if they are aware of it at all, that there was a fundamental difference between the Triple Alliance and the Commune. The Triple Alliance is based upon three categories only: representatives of the people designated by them through mass organizations, representatives of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), and party cadres. The Triple Alliance was in reality only a coalition.

The Commune is not merely a coalition. In a Commune there can be several coalitions. It is not restricted but is based on the workers, peasants, and mass of the people. The Shanghai Commune had the potential for this had it been given the opportunity to develop and broaden out.

The Triple Alliance presupposes as its nucleus and principal instrument the three forces in the struggle: mass organizations, the army, and the party cadres. The Triple Alliance, therefore, narrows the participation of the broad masses to these three categories.

It is otherwise with the Paris Commune-type of state. For instance, during the era when Lenin was alive, the Soviets were composed of workers, peasants, and soldiers. There was no such thing as a Soviet restricted to mass organizations, army, and cadres.

The Triple Alliance owes its composition first of all to the forging of a coalition from the top. Therein lies a fundamental difference with the Commune, which presupposes elections by workers, peasants, and soldiers, and the institutionalizing of this form, as the basic medium for consummating a proletarian democracy.

The truth of the matter is that the Commune idea was shelved because the rightist forces in the party, who in reality had engulfed the party and the government, were too strong. Therefore a compromise was made whereby the forces which were to be combatted, that is, the rightist, revisionist, bureaucratic, and elitist elements, were really included in the new form of state. The door was left wide open for them to come in through the use of the term "cadres. " This vague formulation meant that the bureaucratic right-wing and the entire governmental apparatus, including the apparatus of the party, could regain entrance simply by affirming that they were for the Mao Tse-tung line.


In a Paris Commune-type of state, that is, in a workers' parliament, as was originally explained by Marx and used as a popular exposition of the nature of the Commune by Lenin in his State and Revolution, the administrators, the bureaucrats, the technical intelligentsia, and so on, were to be employees of the workers' parliament to be hired or fired in accordance with the wishes and policy of the government. The entire administrative apparatus, including the party apparatus, was subject to the will of the Commune, of the Soviets, as under Lenin. That was, in a general way, what the left-wing during the Cultural Revolution had envisioned and it must be assumed that that was Mao's position as well, if we are to take the Sixteen-Point Decision as an authentic document, having his approval if not wholly written by him.

In a Paris Commune-type state, the military is subordinate to the Commune. The specter of Bonapartism is if anything less of a danger than in a bureaucratized form of workers' state. The Red Army during Lenin's time was subordinated to the will of the Soviets. During the Paris Commune, the National Guard was subordinated to the Executive Committee and the Commune.

Daubier in a footnote touches on the vital difference between the members of the revolutionary committees, that is, the Triple Alliance, and the Paris Commune. The difference, he says, is that "in the Chinese setup those elected must belong to one of the three categories and only a third of the members can come from any one category." (Daubier, History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, p. 160.) That in itself nullifies the very conception of a Paris Commune-type state. It explains why the Chou En-lai forces were so vehemently opposed to the Commune and why their target was precisely the revolutionary left-wing elements who were for it.

Daubier stresses the unquestionable value of the Three-in-One Combination in that it gave impetus to the trend toward centralized leadership in the Cultural Revolution through a method that was democratic and that the revolutionary committees (Triple Alliance) gave the Chinese population greater control over their future leaders. Unfortunately, events following the writing of his book have not borne out his prediction. The purge of such leaders as the heads of the Cultural Revolution group, Chen Po-ta, and Lin Piao completely demolished the limited revolutionary character of these committees led to the ultimate demise of the Group in Charge of the Cultural Revolution itself.


The change from the Commune to the Triple Alliance was seemingly an organizational move to broaden popular support, but in reality it was a qualitative change backwards. Under the Commune-type of organization, the bureaucracy was under the thumb of the Commune. Under the Triple Alliance, the bureaucracy became an indispensable pillar of the new state form. The masses would ultimately be shut out.

Once again it was a return to the old order. Once again the intractable, elitist managerial and governmental apparatus was "in authority." The full implementation of the Triple Alliance meant the triumph of a radically different conception from that of the Paris Commune-type of state. It was a subtle but nonetheless real shift in class forces.

The Commune idea didn't necessarily mean a violent struggle on a mass scale against the bureaucratic elements. But it did not preclude it. It was a question of a transition to a new form of proletarian democracy in which the managerial elite would be subordinated to the workers' government and where the overall political authority would be exercised over the administrative, technical and academic elite rather than by them.

If we are to seek the roots for the defeat of the left-wing and the ascendency of the current rightist, Thermidorian reactionaries, certainly one of the fundamental reasons must be sought in the shift away from the Paris Commune-type idea and back to a much more restrictive, in fact a liberalized version of the old type of workers' state which steadily degenerated and became overwhelmed by the influx of bourgeois forces into the state and the party.

The very term "seizure of power," used so frequently during the entire course of the Cultural Revolution, can only be understood in light of the fact that a Commune-type of state was an objective of the Cultural Revolution, as validated in the Sixteen-Point Decision. The very idea of the seizure of power is comprehensible only in light of the Marxist conception of the Paris Commune which taught that it was inadequate to purge the old state apparatus, that a new state form based upon the proletariat and its allies had to be erected. Under such a state the "cadres," which is for the most part a euphemism for the bureaucratic, elitist, and privileged social grouping which held the reins of government in China after the victory of the 1949 Revolution, would be held in tow by a workers' parliament.

Under the Shanghai Commune-type of state, the administrators, the managerial elite, and the bureaucratic elements whom the workers' government may need for a time would be under the control of a workers' government. As Lenin said, under a Paris Commune-type of state every cook would be able to run the government. The more classes begin to disappear, the less need would there be for the special type of bureaucratic, managerial elite which in one degree or another dominates the socialist countries today.

Under the Triple Alliance, on the other hand, no matter how well the revolutionary elements strive, in the words so frequently used in the last few years in Chinese party literature, to "keep the bourgeoisie out of the party," to "fight the bourgeoisie within the party," the ascendency of the rightist reaction becomes inevitable.

All this must be seen within the context of the workers' state. While the ascendency of the bureaucracy can, of course, lead to further degeneration and pave the way back to capitalism, the other possibility is the regeneration of proletarian democracy through the resumption of a revolutionary offensive by the proletariat newly inspired by a new Marxist-Leninist leadership.

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