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Mao & the Paris Commune

In response to:

Thoughts of Mao Tse-tung from the February 8, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

It seems rather curious that a writer claiming to interpret “Thoughts of Mao Tse-tung” (NYR, February 8) should apparently be quite ignorant of some of the better known works of Marx and Lenin. Mr. Benjamin Schwartz makes some really astonishing remarks (p. 29) on their views of the Paris Commune and, indeed, on the Commune itself. It is hard to see that Marx’s Civil War in France (1871), several introductions to later editions by him and Engels, and frequent references in his correspondence betoken only a “passing enthusiasm”; nor does there seem to be much textual evidence that Marx “found in the Commune prefigurings of a vaguely articulated utopia which would, of course, be anarchist in some sense.” (Incidentally, why “of course”?)

To Lenin the Commune had very much more than “a narrow polemical meaning,” as any even superficial reader of State and Revolution (1917) and The Dual Power (1917) could see. Particularly striking in State and Revolution is Lenin’s discussion of Marx’s attitude to Proudhon’s federalism (“to confuse Marx’s views of the ‘destruction of state power, a parasitic, excrescence,’ with Proudhon’s federalism is positively monstrous!”). The simple reasons why Lenin “simply fails to consider the question whether there was anything in the Commune anticipating a centralized bureaucratic organization like the Communist Party” are a) there wasn’t; b) when Lenin was at the Finland Station the Communist Party was not a bureaucratic organization.

As to the Commune itself, practically no one who knows anything about it would agree that “it was, in many [my italics] ways, an embodiment of certain nineteenth-century anarchist ideas.” Bakunin did, of course, try to make out a case in L’Empire Knuoto-Germanique (1871), but few later writers have followed him. It was not an “accidental fact” that the Commune was confined to Paris, but the result of a perfectly clear historical situation; though, as a matter of fact, there were other, short-lived, communes at Lyons, Marseilles, and elsewhere. No doubt being confined to Paris might have made its “anarchist-communitarian” character possible, if it had had one and if that term had had any meaning in France in 1871; the fact is that, except in one proclamation (of April 18), drafted mainly by Proudhonist journalists, it never had any such character, though it can be argued that it had some such aspects. There could, therefore, be no question of “the Commune’s anarchism” being “tested” if “its Paris government” had “extended its power throughout France.” It might, indeed, be asked what other government the Paris Commune had besides “its Paris government”?

It is indeed interesting that Mao should have referred to the Paris Commune during two critical periods in China, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; it would be helpful to have the specific references quoted in their context. There must be others besides paragraph 9 of the Decision of the Chinese Communist Party concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of August 8, 1966, which deals specifically with methods of elections to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees.

It is surely possible that Mao is a good deal more familiar with the Marxist and Leninist classics and with the actual history of the Commune than Mr. Schwartz seems to be; and so even non-sinologists may wonder why Mr. Schwartz feels it really necessary to write: “Mao, in fact, is not an anarchist.” Nor, for that matter, were by far the majority of the Communards.

Frank Jellinek

Haute-Savoie, France

Benjamin Schwartz replies:

It is an iron law of “Marxology” that any generalization about Marx will immediately elicit the comment from some quarters that the generalizer has neither read nor understood Marx. Whether or not I have understood the works in question, I can assure Mr. Jellinek that I have read them.

  1. Mr. Jellinek and I will probably never agree on how broadly the word “anarchist” may be used. It really does not matter so long as we know what we are talking about. When I refer to the Commune as “in many ways, an embodiment of certain nineteenth-century anarchist ideas,” I am referring not to the sectarian make-up of the participants in the Commune but to what seems to me the inner logic of its polity. It seems to me that when Marx draws lessons for the future society from it he treats it in much the same way. He stresses, among other things, the disappearance of central bureaucracy and military power, and the concentration of basic power in the local communes. The powers of the national center will be “important but few” and will be exercised by delegates from the communes who will be “revocable” at any time. The faith that such a national polity will hold together is based on the premise of a kind of pre-established general will no longer requiring a central source of higher authority. Proudhon, however, also believed that his federated units would be able to cooperate unproblematically on the larger undertakings required in a modern society. I would say that anyone who believes that in the good society the state will wither away is an “anarchist in some sense.”

  2. Lenin should have been deeply worried over the fact that “the dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Paris Commune was not represented by a centralized bureaucratic organization because contrary to Mr. Jellinek’s view, the Bolshevik Party even before 1917 had in concept all the earmarks of a centralized bureaucratic organization. It was to be centralized, hierarchical, and organized according to stable rules. When its assumption of state tasks called for a greater definition of bureaucratic division of labor after 1917, Lenin unhesitatingly helped to elaborate such a division of labor.

  3. I am prepared to substitute the term “clear historical situation” for “accidental fact.”

  4. There is a good article on the Chinese use of the Paris Commune by John Starr in the January-March issue of the China Quarterly (“The Paris Commune in Chinese Eyes”). At no time did Mao suggest that the “center” in China be composed of delegates sent up by the communes and revocable by the communes.

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