When China threw off imperialism

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The 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution will be marked by the customary orchestrated celebrations in Tiananmen Square. In the first of a short series on China, Charlie Hore looks at how the revolution came about and its impact on the world.

The years after the Second World War saw national liberation struggles spread rapidly across Asia and Africa, ousting the old colonial empires and weakening the power of imperialism. The 1949 revolution in China was the first, and biggest, of these struggles, and it was to provide an inspiration for many other battles against imperialism.

In 1949 a millions-strong peasant army, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), overthrew China's old ruling classes, who were supported and armed by the US. The Red Army's victory ended the longest, bloodiest war of the 20th century. "Liberation", as China's new rulers called it, came at the end of a three-year civil war which had immediately followed 15 years of war against Japan's invasion of China. But the origins of the revolution lay in the devastating impact of imperialism on China from the 1840s onwards. As every major imperial power strengthened its hold on China, banditry and famine spread across large parts of the countryside, and millions of peasants fled to the cities.

In the 1920s a powerful nationalist movement spread across southern China, powered in large part by the rise of a very militant working class movement. This was largely led by the CCP which, on Stalin's orders, had entered into an alliance with the nationalist Guomindang movement - an alliance that was to prove fatal. The Guomindang represented capitalists and warlords, and the stronger the working class movement became the more it threatened their real interests. In 1927 the Guomindang turned its armies against workers, peasants and the CCP, and the first possibility of a real revolution against imperialism was drowned in blood. The Guomindang used its victory to install itself in government.

Mao Zedong, who was to become the undisputed leader of the CCP by 1949, led a small army into the hills following their defeat, and by the early 1930s the CCP had established Red Army base areas in remote parts of southern China. As the bases got bigger, the Guomindang came after them. By 1934 the Red Armies had to undertake a massive military retreat that came to be known as the Long March. Fewer than one in ten who started on the Long March survived, but those who did went on to be the core of one of the most successful guerrilla armies ever.

War against Japan

In 1931 Japan had invaded north eastern China in force and set up a puppet regime. From there Japanese forces advanced steadily into the rest of China, meeting no resistance from the Guomindang, who saw wiping out the CCP as the priority.

During the Long March the CCP redefined its aims as national resistance against Japan. It dropped its socialist language, called for "the unity of all patriotic classes" and for an alliance with the government. A revolt by some army leaders forced the Guomindang to agree, but the alliance was always more nominal than real. Open warfare with Japan broke out in 1937, but after brief resistance the government fled to the south west of China.

The CCP, in contrast, stood and fought, and grew hugely in the process. By 1940 the CCP had some 800,000 members, and there were 500,000 full-time Red Army soldiers, with many more local guerrillas. The deeper the Japanese army advanced into northern China, the more difficult they found it to hold the territory they had captured.

The Long March had been a harsh school in guerrilla warfare, and the CCP now applied brilliantly the lessons it had learnt. Two things combined to enable the growth of the CCP's power and influence. The first was the brutality of the Japanese army, which treated the entire population as actual or potential enemies, and reacted to any resistance by burning villages and crops and killing anyone captured. As most of the rural elites had fled to the cities, the CCP was left as the only force capable of defending the villages.

More importantly, this gave nationalism a real meaning for the peasantry. In most villages landlords and moneylenders were the law. The CCP stood above all social classes, enforcing both rent payment and maximum rents, and did so without the customary brutality of the landlords' thugs. To the desperately poor population of rural China, this was something completely unheard of.

In the process it won over an audience far beyond the "liberated areas" it ruled directly. The Guomindang, corrupt to the core and riddled with divisions, was incapable of defending China's "national interests" against Japan - the CCP had proved itself to be better at nationalism than the nationalist party.

Civil war and liberation

When Japan surrendered in 1945, the CCP occupied over 10 percent of China, and CCP-backed guerrillas were active over much larger areas. Although there was a brief lull, civil war between the Guomindang and the CCP was inevitable. The Guomindang was much better armed - with the US supplying weapons and ammunition - and on paper had much larger forces. But all it could offer was greater economic misery and the return of the old exploiting classes.

Jung Chang summed up its problems in her excellent book Wild Swans: "Corruption wreaked havoc. Inflation had risen to the unimaginable figure of just over 100,000 percent by the end of 1947 - and it was to go to 2,870,000 percent by the end of by the end of 1948 in the Guomindang areas... For the civilian population the situation was becoming more desperate every day, as increasingly more food went to the army..."

The CCP, by contrast, promised a better life, and an end to warfare and landlord rule. That vision enabled it to win battle after battle in 1947 and 1948, with hundreds of thousands of Guomindang soldiers, and even some generals, defecting to its side. By 1949 the Red Armies were larger than the enemy, and once the Guomindang leadership fled to Taiwan the revolution's victory was assured.

The new government moved swiftly to end inflation, improve living standards and curb unemployment in the cities. In the countryside the landlords were dispossessed and their land was shared among the peasantry. The years that followed saw impressive gains in healthcare, education, literacy and women's rights. For China's workers and peasants, this was liberation indeed.

Mao's victory in 1949 also had an enormous impact internationally. Although no US troops had fought against the Red Army, it was seen as a huge defeat for US imperialism, and it was to be both an inspiration and a reference point for national liberation struggles in Asia and Africa from the 1950s until the 1970s.

At the height of the Cold War, Mao's victory was seen as a victory for the Soviet Union. But the reality was that Mao had come to power without Stalin's help, and against his advice. In the early 1960s China broke openly with Stalin's successors. Although China offered no real alternative to Washington and Moscow, the simple fact that it had defied both of the superpowers weakened their grip on the world.

Socialist revolution?

1949 was a genuine revolution, which broke forever the power of the old ruling classes and ended China's domination by imperialist powers. But it was not a socialist revolution.

The civil war was fought by conventional armies, with the great mass of the population mere spectators. There were no strikes or risings by workers to welcome the Red Armies. The CCP explicitly argued against any such demonstrations, calling for workers to stay at work in cities they were about to capture.

At the time Mao didn't refer to the revolution as socialist, but rather as the victory of "new democracy" - symbolising the unity of all patriotic classes, including capitalists. More fundamentally, socialism is about transferring power from an old ruling class to the majority of workers and peasants. The reality was that the revolution of 1949 gave workers and peasants no greater power over their everyday lives than before.

Real power was concentrated in the hands of the inner circles of the CCP, who became a new ruling class of top bureaucrats, factory managers, politicians and military leaders. That class had a nationalist mission - to make China a strong industrial power capable of competing with other major world powers. This meant that improving workers' and peasants' living standards had to be subordinated to the accumulation of capital from China's meagre resources in order to begin constructing a modern industrial base. The improvements in living standards and welfare of the early 1950s didn't last. Mao launched many campaigns to speed up economic development which led to mass famine, social and political chaos and the destruction of economic capacity.

Was it worth it?

Earlier this year China overtook Germany to become the world's biggest exporter. Mao's successors have achieved what he could only dream of, though only by abandoning Mao's economic strategy. China has become a major industrial and financial power, and the past 30 years have seen the fastest economic growth ever in China's history.

The legacy of 1949 has come under sustained attack in the West, with influential biographies of both Mao and Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek suggesting that China would have been better off if the Guomindang had won the civil war. Mao's rule, it is argued, led to tens of millions of deaths, and China could have developed economically without the chaos of the 1950s and 1960s. But the reality is that the Guomindang represented the rule of the landlords and moneylenders, classes who held back any possibility of real economic development. Its victory would have meant the bloody reimposition of its rule, and would have most likely led to decades of guerrilla warfare.

China in the 1940s had suffered over 40 million deaths through warfare, famine and floods. In the absence of any real working class alternative, the CCP offered the only hope of breaking this seemingly endless cycle of warfare and destruction - as almost every contemporary account acknowledged.

That's why socialists should defend and celebrate 1949 - not because we want to defend the new ruling class who came to dominate China, but because the revolution was a crushing defeat for the old, vicious, corrupt ruling classes and their imperialist backers.