China's revolution at 70: reality trumps myths

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Mao's revolution was not socialist

Mao's revolution was not socialist

As China launches its official celebrations marking 70 years since the revolution of 1949, Adrian Budd looks at the longer context of what was a national revolution, far from any vision of communism.

On 1 October China was set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Massive parades are organised, children will sing patriotic songs whose lyrics they have learned by heart but do not understand, military hardware has been polished. The multi-millionaires who run China will admire themselves in their new hand-made suits and dresses.

On this “national day”, and over the following few days, China’s leaders will wax lyrical about China’s stupendous economic transformation. But they will also remind China’s workers that more still needs to be done. Few need reminding, as millions are required to make up for lost output by working the surrounding weekends each year.

Workers will watch the celebrations and listen to the songs and speeches. They will marvel at the fireworks and partially forget their own concerns in the performance of national unity. They hope for a brighter future and that one day they will be able to afford some of the consumer goods they produce. But doubts about vast inequality, poverty, ecological decay and corruption cannot be far from their thoughts as they turn for home and prepare to go back to work. Millions of women ask themselves why they remain second-class citizens.

The People’s Republic

Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949 marked a revolutionary transformation of Chinese society. The impact was greatest on the rural landlords, warlords and corrupt and vicious Guomindang government, which fled to Taiwan. But as China’s old order was swept away so too was subjugation at the hands of imperialism. The revolution was not socialist, but it promised to pave the way for national liberation and development.

Following hard on the heels of the USSR’s expansion into Eastern Europe after the Second World War, the Chinese revolution shook the West. In the United States, Republicans rounded on Truman’s Democratic administration for the “loss of China”, encouraging Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical anti-Communist witch-hunts of the following years. Here was US thinking in all its imperial grandiosity, for the roots of the revolution lay not in the State Department but in Chinese society and its relations with outside powers.

Roots of revolution

Revolutions involve strategic decisions, organisation and planning by conscious social actors. But they are rooted in deep-seated social structures, and should be understood in the context of what the great French historian Fernand Braudel called the “longue durée”.

For over a century China (the world’s largest economy in 1820) experienced humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism. “Concessions” were granted to Western countries, which used their military might to secure inroads into China’s economy via control of coastal cities and territories, including Shanghai and Hong Kong. Humiliation was reinforced by Western racism: in Shanghai, the popular waterfront park was reserved for Westerners with signs that read “no dogs or Chinese”.

There was a pervasive sullen acceptance of subordination, but rebellions (against both the Emperor and imperialism) punctuated the second half of the 19th century and periodically promised salvation. The Boxer rebellion of 1900 was defeated by eight foreign armies, but in 1911 the Wuchang Uprising put an end to the Qing dynasty and ushered in the Republican era. China’s new rulers were mistaken in expecting the victory of the bourgeois democracies in the First World War to allow China to take the path of independent development. Humiliation persisted into the 1920s.

By then, however, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had provided a beacon of hope, and model of revolution, for the world’s colonised and less developed countries. It was against this backdrop that the Chinese Communist Party was established in 1921. It was soon to face, and fail, a huge test.

Workers’ power

Between 1925 and 1927 a powerful revolutionary movement with the working class at its heart developed, particularly in the south east. It involved tens of millions of workers and peasants, mobilised initially around the nationalist aim of ridding China of Western and Japanese imperialism after a British massacre of demonstrators in Shanghai in May. Strikes were launched against foreign firms and a year-long general strike took place in British-controlled Hong Kong.

The nationalist focus of these struggles enabled the Guomindang, nationalist party, to grow and challenge the republican regime. But, its demand for national unity soon fell victim to class antagonisms. In the countryside, peasants focused on their immediate oppressors — landlords and money-lenders. In the cities, trade union membership mushroomed and workers became increasingly conscious of their independent interests. Strikes were now organised against Chinese capitalists, exposing the contradictions at the heart of nationalism.

By 1926, as newly-formed workers’ militias took control of the streets in some cities, national unity had evaporated and a workers’ revolution was rapidly developing. Guomindang reliance on the mobilisation of subordinate classes to achieve its goals went into reverse. Its savage response to a situation that had spiralled out of its control revealed the depths to which it would sink to preserve the power of China’s capitalists and landlords.

In the provinces it supported the landlords’ ferocious backlash against the peasants. In April 1927 it turned on the Shanghai workers: 50,000 were slaughtered and their organisations destroyed. Tens of thousands were murdered elsewhere. The Guomindang was responsible for the massacres, but working class defencelessness against the assault rested with the strategy pursued by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.

The Communist Party

The revolution increased the CCP’s membership from 1,000 in 1925 to 30,000 by early 1927. It became a major force in Chinese politics, particularly in the cities, and had a growing influence in the labour movement. But that influence bore the hallmarks of developments in Moscow and the Communist International (Comintern) which had been launched by the Bolsheviks in 1919 with the aim of promoting the world socialist revolution.

By 1924, when Soviet advisers began to help build the Guomindang’s party organisation and train its armed forces to challenge imperialism, the Stalinisation of the Comintern was already under way. The most disastrous consequence of Stalinism for the global labour movement was the failure to prevent the rise of German (and later, Spanish) fascism. But the groundwork for these failures was laid in China.

Stalinism reflected the interests of a new ruling class that emerged from the decimation of the working class during Soviet Russia’s post-1917 civil war and the wars of foreign intervention. Its power, based on control of the state and of state property, was consolidated with the defeat of the Bolshevik Left Opposition and the establishment of centralised planning in 1928. The new bureaucratic state capitalist ruling class was interested not in supporting socialist revolution but in protecting what it saw as the national interests of the USSR, and therefore its own power. The Comintern was equally Stalinised and the world’s communist parties became tools of the Soviet ruling class.

The major threat to the USSR came from western imperialism. To weaken imperialism, while trying to prevent the emergence of a new revolutionary state outside Soviet control, Stalin supported the Guomindang and promoted its radical credentials. In March 1926 the Comintern executive defined the Guomindang as a “revolutionary bloc of workers, peasants, intellectuals and the urban democracy” and admitted it as a “sympathising party”.

The consequences were catastrophic. The Comintern insisted that the CCP form an alliance with the Guomindang. This in turn limited the independence of the CCP and encouraged it to preach restraint to the labour movement. And, when the workers’ “ally” attacked in April 1927 the movement was ill-prepared for its self-defence. In effect, in 1925-7 the CCP acted as the Guomindang-left, with only one or two leading figures calling for an end to the alliance. Mao Zedong was not among them, and supported the alliance with the Guomindang to the bitter end. But there was an alternative.

Permanent revolution

Developed after Russia’s 1905 Revolution, Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution argued that in less developed and semi-dependent countries such as Russia the weakness of the capitalist classes rendered them incapable of defeating reaction and completing the bourgeois revolution. The defeat of Russian Tsarism would require the support of the masses.

In a predominantly rural society, albeit with pockets of advanced industry and concentrated workers’ movements, much of the anger driving change would come from the peasants. But their geographical dispersion and the divisions between rich and poor peasants made them unable to unite and carry the revolution forward. This task would require the concentrated power and organisation of the working class.

This posed a problem for capitalism, for once mobilised the working class’s own interests would begin to come to the fore. If, as Trotsky argued, the bourgeois revolution could only be completed by the working class, the revolution would rapidly grow over into the socialist revolution. The revolution would become “permanent”.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 demonstrated the accuracy of Trotsky’s analysis. Tragically, the Chinese events of 1925-7 provided a negative confirmation of Trotsky. The Comintern and CCP argued precisely the opposite to Trotsky. They failed to promote independent working class interests, imposed a tight restraint on workers’ activity, and promoted the idea that the Guomindang could lead a successful struggle against imperialism. Where, Trotsky argued, only a programme of radical social change could enlist the masses and “preserve the revolution from military defeats from without”, the CCP disoriented the movement and exposed it to the butchery of the Guomindang. In 1931 the Japanese invasion of north east China met almost no resistance.

The long road to 1949

The defeat of 1927 left an indelible mark on the 1949 Revolution. In 1926, only Trotsky voted in the Russian Politburo against the election of Guomindang leader Jiang Jieshi, the future butcher of Shanghai, as a member of honour of the Comintern. Now, the CCP broke from the Guomindang, albeit shifting its allegiance to the “left-Guomindang” government in Wuhan until it too, as Trotsky predicted a few days earlier, attacked the Wuhan workers at the end of May.

Maoism was the product of defeat. The butchery in Shanghai and elsewhere had destroyed the working class base of the CCP. Mao and the other leaders were able to gather the party’s scattered remnants together, but henceforth the party was characterised by a peasant base and urban intellectual leadership.

The remnants had some initial successes in establishing red bases in parts of the countryside where Guomindang forces were relatively weak. But in the early 1930s the Guomindang fought back. By the end of 1934 the leadership concluded that survival depended on a strategic and geographical retreat.

This was known as the “Long March” and it was truly heroic. Nearly 100,000 set off in October 1934, but a year later only 8,000 arrived in the northern province of Shaanxi, far from Guomindang power to the south. En route Mao had demonstrated great tactical skill in dealing with landlords and warlords, and an ability to enlist peasant support. Now firmly under Mao’s leadership the CCP used Shaanxi as a base to restore its military strength and deepen its roots among peasants.

Shaanxi was also the base for CCP resistance to Japanese imperialism. This further increased respect for the party, but its perspective remained thoroughly Stalinist. In 1935-6 Mao proposed that the CCP and Guomindang form a “united front against Japan”, in pursuit of which the CCP ditched its commitment to a “worker-peasant democratic dictatorship” and to the dispossession of landlords. The proposed alliance with the class enemy mirrored the popular frontism of the European communists.

While efforts to secure a popular front again entailed restraint on workers, CCP opposition to Japan helped it to grow into a mass force, with almost a million members by 1940. The Guomindang meanwhile was riven by factions and, just as Trotsky’s perspective predicted, hopelessly incapable of defeating imperialism. Unable to protect China’s territorial integrity, the Guomindang’s claim to represent the national interest was undermined.

By the end of the Second World War the Red Army controlled over 10 percent of China and was influential in much of the rest of the country. As soon as the war was over civil war broke out again, but compared to 1927 the tables were turned. The CCP was now armed and while the Guomindang held 90 percent of the territory it inspired little commitment among the mass of the population, or even its own armies. By October 1949 Mao was in power and the Guomindang had fled to Taiwan.

The national revolution

For Marxists Mao did not lead a socialist revolution. As he put it shortly before October the CCP’s aim was the reform of capitalism and not its overthrow. Indeed, as the Red Army liberated the cities its top brass sent orders ahead that workers should stay at work. But if October 1949 did not see the self-emancipation of the Chinese working class it certainly saw a revolution.

The overthrow of the Guomindang-dominated old order also ended the humiliation of China at the hands of imperialism. It created an opportunity to realise the dream of national development, but Chinese private capital was too weak to generate the necessary capital accumulation and investment. As in the USSR, the state was mobilised as an economic force, and a new ruling class of senior party bosses, industrial managers and military leaders emerged.

The major developments, and the twists and turns of state policy, since 1949 can only be understood when we recognise that China’s leaders are members of a bureaucratic state capitalist ruling class. The corollary is that the working class has been an object of state policy, a source of economic output and political support but not of independent initiative and political power. Occasionally, workers and peasants have been mobilised by competing factions of the ruling class, only to be demobilised once scores were settled or mass activity risked breaching the strict limits set from above. The so-called “great proletarian cultural revolution” of the mid-1960s is the key example here.

Only those unable to see beyond titles — “communist” for example — or to grasp the exploitative social reality behind the form of state property can believe that the People’s Republic is anything other than a form of capitalism. China was made in the image of Stalin’s USSR in 1949 and remains essentially state capitalist today.

Therein lies the hope for the future. For all forms of capitalism, whether in Hong Kong, Hunan or Halifax, are dependent on the surplus value produced by workers. And, as the People’s Republic’s 70 years bear witness, workers are not passive by-standers in their own exploitation or silent about oppression. From Tiananmen Square in 1976 and 1989, through “Democracy Walls” across China in the late 1970s, to strike waves between 2007 and 2015 and the Hong Kong struggle today, Chinese workers have shown that only they have the power to complete the Chinese revolution.