From "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That"

The Paris Commune in Perspective: The Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions as Its Continuation and Deepening

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1241, May 23, 2004, posted at

The RW/OR presents an important series based on a major 1991 article by Bob Avakian, "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That."

RCP Chairman Avakian's polemical essay takes head on key arguments and questions that have been raised in opposition to the overall historical experience of socialist states in the world. He defends the crucial essence of that historic experience from attack, and, in doing so, brings new insights into learning from the achievements of the proletariat in power, as well as the mistakes, to carry forward with communist revolution in today's world.

In various excerpts that will appear in this series, he examines the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and in China under Mao and draws out lessons for the future. He discusses why the proletariat needs a vanguard party and a specific kind of state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to carry out this rule and carry forward the all-around transformation of society and the world. He examines how the masses rule, and the complexities and contradictions involved in that -- all of which has origins in underlying economic and social factors in socialist societies and in the world as a whole, which only the continuing proletarian revolution can uproot and transform. He also explains how the proletarian concept of freedom is different from bourgeois notions of electoral democracy.

Chairman Avakian's article originally appeared in the international journal A World To Win in 1992. It is a critique of the document "On Proletarian Democracy" by the CRC--a Marxist-Leninist formation in India whose main leader, K. Venu, launched an attack in 1990-91 on Leninism, Maoism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat and later abandoned revolution. What is at stake in this argument over the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing less than the right of the proletariat to rise up in revolution and establish their own rule, and carry through the long revolutionary transformation of society until the abolition of classes, communism, is achieved. Without the hope of that path-- and the leadership to take it--the masses would be left, as Bob Avakian wrote in his article "under the domination of an economic system of capitalist exploitation and a corresponding political system where, as Marx put it, they have the opportunity to choose, every so many years, which set of exploiters will rule over and oppress them."

The entire article by Bob Avakian will soon be available on line at, along with the CRC article it is criticizing.


This series begins with several segments of Bob Avakian's article which discuss the Paris Commune of 1871.1 Marx hailed the Commune as the first historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here Bob Avakian takes on the argument of the CRC, which upholds only the Commune as a legitimate exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat and pits the Commune's experience-- which was very important, but brief and initial--against the entire historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in socialist society beginning with the October 1917 Soviet Revolution.2


Let's turn to the review in this CRC document of what Marx summed up from the Paris Commune, in his monumental work The Civil War in France , particularly regarding the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people themselves and the fact that all officials in the Commune were elected and could be recalled by the votes of the people, through universal suffrage. These sections of the CRC document also recall how Lenin upheld these essential lessons in The State and Revolution (and some other writings in the period just before and for a period after the October Revolution), but then, even under Lenin, the CRC document argues, there began a basic departure from this path (see paragraphs 2.1-6.6).3

First, some "historical overview" is required. Here we have to call attention once more to the fact that in the experience of the Soviet Union (and of socialism generally so far), it has not proved possible to fully implement the policies adopted in the Paris Commune--and, to a large degree, in the very beginning of the Soviet Republic--policies to which Marx had attached decisive importance. To focus on a key aspect of this, it has not been possible to abolish the standing army as an institution and to replace it with the armed masses themselves. This is largely owing to what has been spoken to before: the fact that revolutions leading to socialism have taken place not in industrially developed capitalist countries where the proletariat is the majority of the population (or at least is the largest class), as Marx and Engels had foreseen, but in technologically backward countries with large peasant populations where the proletariat is a small minority; these revolutions have occurred not in a number of countries all at once, but more or less in one country at a time (leaving aside the experience of the Eastern European countries in the aftermath of World War 2, where there was some transformation in aspects of social relations but there was never a real socialist transformation of society); and socialist states have existed in a world still dominated by imperialism.

As for why it has not been possible so far--and is very unlikely to be possible for some time into the future--for socialist countries to abolish the standing army and replace it with the armed masses as a whole, it can be summarized this way: To do this will require an advancement in the transformation of production relations (and social relations generally), as well as in the development of the productive forces, to the point where the masses as a whole, and not just a small part of them, can be organized and trained in military affairs on a level that is really sufficient to deal not only with "domestic" counterrevolutionaries but beyond that the armed forces of the remaining imperialist powers and other reactionary states. When that point is reached, there will in fact no longer be a need for a section of the masses--a special body of armed people--who specialize in and devote their main activity to military affairs: the standing army can then be abolished and replaced with the armed masses. But, again, no socialist state that has so far existed has achieved or even come anywhere near that point.

Marx, in his writings on the Paris Commune (and Lenin when he wrote The State and Revolution before the October Revolution), did not have this experience to sum up. To a significant degree, while the fundamental orientation in these works concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat must be upheld, many particular aspects of their analysis reflect an insufficient understanding of the intensity, complexity, and duration of the struggle to carry out the communist transformation of society--and the world-- after the dictatorship of the proletariat has been established in one or a number of countries. After all, the Paris Commune only lasted two months and only in parts-- though very important parts--of France, and not in the country as a whole.

To highlight, in a somewhat provocative way, the historical limitations of the Paris Commune, it is useful to repeat what I wrote in Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?:

"In this regard, the following argument by James Miller concerning Marx's view of the Paris Commune of 1871 is worth citing:

`the insurgents of 1871 were remarkably like the Parisian insurgents of 1792, 1830, and 1848:4 artisans, journeymen, apprentices, independent producers, professionals, and only a few labourers in the new factory industries. Though the Commune of 1871 may be regarded as the last efflorescence of the French popular culture of politics Rousseau helped to define three generations before, it is far more difficult, particularly in the light of modern historiography, to find in it a harbinger of an international proletarian revolution.' (Miller, Rousseau, pp. 260- 61)

"While Miller's observations are one-sided and his last sentence in particular is wrong--it is Miller's bourgeois bias that makes it hard for him to find in the 1871 Paris Commune `a harbinger of an international proletarian revolution'--nevertheless, his comments are not without any validity. They do reflect the fact that even this Paris Commune embodied both elements of the old, bourgeois revolution as well as of the new, proletarian revolution and that it could not, as such, serve as a fully developed model of a proletarian state (especially one in the early stages of the international proletarian revolution and surrounded by powerful bourgeois states)." (Avakian, Democ- racy,pp. 38-39, footnote 63)

We cannot take an idealist and metaphysical approach of insisting that reality must be bent to conform to what was projected by Marx (and Lenin, before the October Revolution in particular) on the basis of this very significant but also very limited experience of the Paris Commune. If we are going to do that, we might as well insist that the proletariat leap immediately from capitalism to full-blown communism and thereby avoid all the contradictions involved in the socialist transition and the dictatorship of the proletariat! What we should insist on is evaluating the line and practice guiding the states where such revolutions have occurred to see whether in fact they are consistent with the fundamental orientation set forth by Marx through his summation on the Paris Commune--whether the lines, policies, institutions, and ideas that have characterized those societies have overall led in the direction of transforming society toward the abolition of classes and, with them, the state (and the party). On the basis of these criteria, we must once again reaffirm "the traditional Marxist-Leninist[-Maoist] interpretation" that the Soviet Union under the leadership of Lenin and Stalin, and China under the leadership of Mao, represented the continuation of the Paris Commune.

One other point must be addressed here--another way in which the expectations of Lenin with regard to the character of the proletarian revolution have not been fully borne out. In the first year after the October Revolution, Lenin wrote that:

"The misfortune of previous revolutions was that the revolutionary enthusiasm of the people, which sustained them in their state of tension and gave them the strength to suppress ruthlessly the elements of disintegration, did not last long. The social, i.e., the class, reason for this instability of the revolutionary enthusiasm of the people was the weakness of the proletariat, which alone is able (if it is sufficiently numerous, class-conscious and disciplined) to win over to its side the majority of the working and exploited people (the majority of the poor, to speak more simply and popularly) and retain power sufficiently long to suppress completely all the exploiters as well as all the elements of disintegration.

"It was this historical experience of all revolutions, it was this world-historic--economic and political-- lesson that Marx summed up when he gave his short, sharp, concise and expressive formula: dictatorship of the proletariat." ("The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government", LCW,vol. 27, pp. 264-65, emphasis in original)

Here Lenin was contrasting a revolution led by the proletariat with earlier revolutions in which the proletariat was not able to win leadership and carry the struggle as far as the overthrow of capitalism. But, in certain significant aspects, what Lenin says here--concerning the difficulty of maintaining the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses-- has also proven to apply to the proletarian revolution itself.

This is linked to what has been the actual process of the proletarian revolution so far in the world (discussed above) and the related fact that the transition from capitalism to communism has proven to be a much more long-term, complex, and tortuous process than had been previously envisioned, not only by Marx and Engels but also by Lenin himself before the October Revolution and in the period immediately afterward (it was in the early 1920s, in the last few years of his life, that Lenin more fully confronted the fact that the Soviet Revolution would very probably have to "go it alone" for a period of time).

All this, in turn, is bound up with the fact that there is a wave-like character to the class struggle under socialism and in particular a wave-like character to mass upsurges to defend the dictatorship of the proletariat and carry the revolution forward under this dictatorship. To return to Lenin's statement about maintaining the revolutionary energy and enthusiasm of the masses, the point can be put this way: as it has turned out, with the socialist transition period and the dictatorship of the proletariat lasting much longer than expected, and with the initial socialist revolutions not being closely followed by other revolutions in more technologically advanced societies; with the socialist states continuing to exist in a situation of being encircled by imperialism--with all of these factors that have been discussed, it is not realistic to expect nor has it been the case that the masses have been able to maintain a high pitch and intensity of revolutionary enthusiasm and energy on a continual basis. In fact, the expectation that they could is contradicted not only by experience but also by the principles of dialectics.

It is because of, and as part of, this contradictory nature of the whole process of transition from capitalism to communism, worldwide, that the role of the masses as rulers of society and owners of the means of production under socialism is real but is not absolute--it is relative and sharply contradictory--and is both expressed directly through their own involvement in all spheres of society and is mediated through a number of instrumentalities, above all the state and the vanguard party.

Once again, no formalistic approach--no insistence on formal democracy as the essence of the matter--can even seriously address, let alone resolve, this contradiction. And to insist on such an approach is in fact to act in accordance with the principles of bourgeois democracy and with the interests of the bourgeoisie in attacking and undermining the dictatorship of the proletariat precisely on the basis that, because it does not conform in every important respect to the principles of formal democracy, it therefore represents a negation of democracy, even for those in whose name it is exercised.



1The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first successful seizure of power by the working class. For 76 days, between March 26 and May 30, the revolutionary workers held the city of Paris.

The French bourgeoisie had been defeated in war by neighboring Prussia, and the two governments conspired to disarm and suppress the population of Paris. In defiance, the people rallied around their armed militia--the National Guard--and launched a struggle for power. On March 26, a city-wide council of workers and soldiers declared the Paris Commune .

While fighting courageously at the barricades and ramparts that defended the city, the revolutionary Communards took farsighted steps toward the social transformation toward classless communist society. They declared the abolition of the military draft and the standing army and police. They enacted the separation of church and state, nationalized church property, abolished night shift, abolished interest on debt, and canceled rents owed by the people. The hated guillotine was publicly burned and state execution was abolished. The workers reopened factories closed by the capitalists and ran them cooperatively. Schooling was made free and open to all. The Vendome Column, a monument to France's wars of aggression, was pulled down. It was announced that no one leading or working for the Commune would make wages above the workers'. Immigrant residents of Paris were declared full citizens of the Commune and held many posts in the revolutionary government--and it was declared that "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic."

At the same time, the working class had not yet formed a Marxist vanguard party to lead this revolution. The Marxist internationalist currents were still only a small minority among the many different utopian socialist and radical democratic trends.

The reactionary French government launched an invasion from the nearby town of Versailles. The heroic fighters of the Commune, including many women and youth, defended the revolution with arms, street by street. Finally they were overrun by enemy troops. Tens of thousands were murdered in a bloodbath of mass executions.

The founder of modern communism, Karl Marx, who supported and closely studied this great struggle, wrote afterwards: "Workingmen's Paris with its Commune, will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society."

[Return to article]

2"Throughout this critique of the CRC document, where I speak of how it repudiates `the entire historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat,' I am referring specifically to the experience beginning with the October 1917 Soviet Revolution. While the CRC document claims to recognize certain achievements of this historical experience, it is clear in examining this document that--even on its own terms and without considering the logical implications of its position, it regards this entire experience as fundamentally flawed and insists that a whole different orientation should be adopted. And it should also be said that, in pitting the limited experience of the Paris Commune against the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat since then, rather than recognizing and emphasizing the essential unity between them, this CRC document in reality rejects the fundamental spirit and lessons of the Paris Commune itself."--Bob Avakian

Return to article

3Throughout the article these paragraph notations refer to numbered paragraphs in CRC document, which will soon be available online at

[Return to article]

4 Revolution of 1792: The French revolution erupted in 1789 against the injustices of the feudal system and the oppressive monarchy. After complex and growing struggle, the most revolutionary and lower class forces came to power in 1792, abolished the monarchy, executed the king, declared a republic, and for the next two years carried out radical social changes that uprooted the old society and its feudal aristocracy--including granting land to the peasants and suppressing counterrevolutionary forces.

Revolution of 1830: In 1830, the masses of people in France rose up against the restored monarchy. The July uprising was fought with street barricades in Paris.

Revolution of 1848: Paris was a stronghold of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848. At the flaming barricades of the June Uprising, the question of overturning the new emerging capitalist order came center stage for the first time in history. A modern working class had now emerged and a new-born proletarian socialist movement made its appearance in the class struggle, including Karl Marx's Communist League. This great wave of revolution did not, however, lead to a proletarian revolution. In France, the king was overthrown and a second bourgeois republic was declared.

[Return to article]