www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to issue 01 | PDF Version

International Socialist Review Issue 01, Summer 1997

China: From Mao to Deng

Ahmed Shawki looks at the rise of Mao and the development of China up to the death of Deng Ziaoping. He shows that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" had–and has–very little to do with the socialism of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.

The Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association died February 19 of "complications of lung infections" associated with Parkinson’s disease. At 92 years of age, this was the only formal post Deng Xiaoping held at the time of his death. But before taking up bridge, he was chairman of the Central Military Commission until he resigned in 1989, the year of the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. Despite his official departure from politics, Deng continued to be China’s "Paramount Leader," wielding enormous influence and power.

Deng Xiaoping belonged to a tiny core of leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who had survived the bloody crushing of the 1925-1927 revolution, the Long March and years of guerrilla struggle, Japanese invasion, and the subsequent upheavals and purges that followed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Indeed, Deng not only survived where others disappeared but managed several comebacks. Before his "rehabilitation" and return to power in 1973 and then again in 1977-1978, he had been denounced as one of the "two main capitalist roaders" and purged in 1967 and then again in 1976. Deng was one of the main targets of denunciation during the Cultural Revolution. The "Great Helmsman"–Mao Zedong–didn’t mince words. "Deng is a rare talent," said Mao. "He is like a needle wrapped in cotton. He has ideas. He does not confront problems head-on…His mind is round, but his actions are square."

Henry Kissinger, who as Secretary of State under the Nixon administration helped engineer "normalization" of U.S.-China relations, dismissed Deng as "a nasty little man."

This "nasty little man" oversaw the violent repression of demonstrators at Tiananmen square, and said of them: "We should never forget how cruel our enemies are. We should have not one bit of forgiveness for them."

The official appraisal of Deng was more flattering. The New China News Agency offered this assessment:

The death of Comrade Deng Xiaoping is an immeasurable loss to our Party, our army and the people of various ethnic groups throughout the country and will certainly cause tremendous grief among the Chinese people.

We must conscientiously study Deng Xiaoping’s theory of building of socialism with Chinese characteristics, learn from Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary style and his scientific attitude and creative spirit in applying a Marxist stand, viewpoints and method to studying new problems and solving new problems.

Without Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s theory, there would not be the new situation of reform and opening up in China, and there would not be the bright future of China’s socialist modernization.

It is not only in China that Deng was viewed reverently. Uniformly, the leaders of the major western capitalist powers and their media were quick to eulogize him. "Such a rare combination of skills and political genius does not come often in a national leader," the Wall Street Journal solemnly declared February 20. Bill Clinton said Deng would be remembered as an "extraordinary figure on the world stage over the past two decades."

Ironically, "Communist China" is now one of the showcases for pro-capitalist ideologues. China has become the favorite example of the benefits of the market and of untrammeled capitalism.

The "market reforms"–or in Deng doublespeak "Socialism with Chinese characteristics"–have indeed had a massive impact on China. With a growth rate averaging 9 percent per year since 1978, China now boasts, according to the 1996 World Almanac, the second biggest economy in the world. The U.S. investment bank Salomon Brothers notes that China is "probably the most attractive long-term environment for equities in Asia."

"Deng Xiaoping Theory" was summed up by his slogan: "We should let some people get rich first, both in the countryside and in the urban areas. To get rich by hard work is glorious." Deng himself knew that this was really a Reaganite trickle down theory saying: "When I die they will not call me a good marxist."

The critical question, however, is not how good a Marxist Deng was, but whether he was a Marxist at all. Most commentators on China, whether they approve or disapprove the changes that have taken place in the last two decades, share a common framework: that China has been moving away from some form of socialism towards capitalism (as the western pundits argue), or from some form of socialism to another form of market-oriented socialism. The problem with such views, however, is that they can make no sense of the Chinese revolution, of Maoism or of the present day.

Take just one example of what such thinking produces on the left. Writing in a journal whose title he hasn’t quite digested, Victor Lippit informs readers of Rethinking Marxism in the Spring 1993 issue:

China can be thought of as a society potentially in transition to socialism. The movement away from central planning is a movement away from statism and bureaucracy, not a movement away from socialism. The dramatic gains in living standards, growing rural-urban equality, and the rapid decrease in poverty suggest that substantial gains in the reform era are accruing to the working population, both rural and urban. It is also true that some capitalist entrepreneurs have become quite prosperous, as have some bureaucrats through various forms of corruption. Nevertheless, it appears that the lion’s share of the rising surplus has been garnered by people who work for a living. This suggests that the reform era is at least consistent with an ongoing transition to socialism.

Such views not only fail to explain the fundamental dynamic of Chinese society but also make a mockery of any concept of genuine socialism. The essence of socialism is no longer workers’ control over society, but which bureaucrats are in power and what state policies they pursue. Many on the U.S. left in the 1960s and 1970s dismissed or failed to even consider the position of the working class in a so-called workers’ state. The fact that a tiny handful of men ruled China with an iron fist was ignored, and their empty rhetoric about "Proletarian Revolution" was taken as gospel. When the rulers of China curtailed the rhetoric and embraced U.S. imperialism, their cheerleaders on the U.S. left found themselves disillusioned and disoriented. Worse, many became vocal opponents of "socialism" because they’d seen it and it didn’t work.

But to judge what is going on in China by what its rulers say is as misguided as judging what goes on in the U.S. on the basis of White House press releases. It’s a useless–not to mention boring–exercise. Of course, Deng Xiaoping maintained that his reforms were intended to improve the socialist system in China–even if some of the measures were antithetical to any notion of socialism. By the mid-1980s China had become a "socialist planned commodity economy." By the 14th National Congress in 1992, China underwent another metamorphosis and become a "socialist market economy." "A market economy is not capitalism," explained Deng, "because there are markets under socialism too." Apparently, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" appears to have all the features of capitalism.

Notwithstanding commentators east and west, there is not a huge gulf between Mao and Deng. Mao and Deng represented different approaches, different strategies to the same end: the economic development of China under the direction of a state capitalist ruling class. No matter what their differences–and there were many–they never disagreed on the need to defend the bureaucracy against the mass of workers and peasants.

What existed under Mao and what exists today have nothing to do with socialism and workers’ power. Socialism–as this article will aim to show–is not in China’s past, but in its future. "Marxism," as Simon Leys wrote, "has acquired a very bad name in China–which is quite understandable, though somewhat unfair: after all, it was never really tried."

Marxism and China at the Turn of the Century

Through the 19th century, China’s imperial dynasty decayed under the impact of imperialist penetration by Britain, France, Russia, Japan and the U.S. China’s great wealth was siphoned off as the competing powers took control of China’s coastal cities. Opium was imposed by force of arms by the British and French in the mid-1800’s. China’s traditional methods of production collapsed under the impact of imperialist guns and cheaper European goods.

As the dynasty became weaker, China came to be ruled by local fiefdoms of gangsters, bandits and mafiosi. In the coastal cities the Chinese nobility and civil servants moved in to take advantage of the cash generated in trade and bribes. Central government irrigation and drainage systems fell into disrepair, and the land became subject to terrible disasters causing famines and peasant rebellions. Weakened beyond repair, the old dynasty collapsed in the revolution of 1911. Historian Harold Isaacs explains:

Internal corrosion had already reduced the dynasty to a cipher. Only a tiny push was needed to erase it. The revolution of 1911 generated enough energy to produce this tiny push, no more. No class or group emerged from it capable of directing the transformation of the country, of solving the agrarian crisis, of regaining national independence and building strength to resist the pressure and incursions of the imperialist powers.

With the collapse of central authority–nominal as it was–power passed into the hands of regional warlords and the main imperialist powers–each carving out their "spheres of influence" and maneuvering for an advantage over the others.

The revolution of 1911 was led by Sun Yat Sen, representing a section of the bourgeois intelligentsia influenced by Western ideas. But the Chinese bourgeoisie feared the peasantry as much as they desired an end to imperialist domination. Isaacs elaborates:

In the earlier classic bourgeois revolutions of the West, the nascent capitalist class had been able to win and consolidate power by terminating feudal relations on the land. But in China this class was too closely identified with these relations to lead the impoverished peasantry out of its difficulties.

The Chinese bourgeoisie was therefore too weak to establish a centralized state under its own control. Regional, communal and ethnic divisions also helped fragment the Chinese bourgeoisie. The pursuit of sectional interests allowed warlords to keep their own armies with which they controlled certain territories and plundered others. By making temporary alliances with each other and individual imperialist powers, the warlords ensured the continued division of China.

The Guomindang , a nationalist party of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, was founded in 1911. It was led by Sun Yat Sen and based itself on his three principles: nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood. But its influence in its initial years–which was slight–reflected the weak position of the Chinese bourgeoisie.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the Russian Revolution in 1917 gave rise to forces that would fundamentally change China–namely, a rapid and significant expansion of industry, and consequently, the emergence of an urban working class as a social force in Chinese society.

The Chinese working class, numbering at the time little more than 11 million (just over three million were industrial workers), quickly established itself as a force in China. The first trade unions were formed in 1918. By 1926, three million Chinese workers were organized into trade unions.

The war also gave birth to a mass anti-imperialist movement, after Germany’s holdings in China were transferred to Japan. The agitation against the Versailles Treaty–known as the May 4th movement–very quickly drew thousands into its ranks. A number of intellectuals active in the May 4th Movement, like Chen Tu Hsiu, later were instrumental in forming the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

The Russian Revolution was a powerful example and inspiration for both the newly-formed nationalist movement and the workers’ movement. Not only had the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar, but the new state renounced any claims on Chinese territory and promised to return any part seized by the Tzarist empire. The new Soviet government pledged solidarity and support to all movements of oppressed peoples in their struggle for independence and self determination.

The Guomindang began to grow as a result of the nationalist movement. One of its leaders, Chiang Kaishek, saw himself as a Garibaldi or Ataturk who was destined to lead a united China to victory and independence. But he had no social weight. He was therefore willing, for a time, to be in a formal coalition with the CCP and to accept help from Russia while he built up his own forces. The interaction of three forces–the nationalist movement, the CCP and the Communist International–would decisively shape events.

The Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party began as a small group of intellectuals but over the space of a few years grew into a mass workers’ party.

The founding convention of the CCP held in Shanghai in 1921 was attended by 12 delegates representing a total membership of 57. At the second congress the same number of delegates spoke for 123 members. There were still no more than 900 Party members in the whole of China at the beginning of 1925. It is a testament to the scale of the crisis facing Chinese society that by 1926 the CCP’s membership topped 57,000.

The political basis of the CCP was the line of the Communist International, to which the new party immediately applied for affiliation.

The manifesto of the CCP’s Second Congress made clear that the new party had an orientation to the workers’ movement:

The proletariat’s support of the democratic revolution is not (equivalent to) its surrender to the capitalists.

The CCP is the party of the proletariat. Its aims are to organize the proletariat and to struggle for (the establishment of) the dictatorship of the workers and peasants, the abolition of private property, and the gradual attainment of a Communist society…

…the working class must not become the appendage of the petty bourgeoisie within this democratic united front, but must fight for their own class interests.

This perspective echoed those of the Second Congress of the Communist International. In 1920, the Second World Congress of the Comintern adopted a set of "Theses on the National and Colonial Questions." They were meant to define the general approach that parties like the CCP would adopt in building their organizations. The theses made a sharp distinction between imperialist and colonized countries, calling for revolutionaries to support every genuine struggle for national liberation and against imperialism. But Lenin was careful to point out that this did not mean revolutionaries subordinating themselves to nationalist forces:

A resolute struggle must be waged against the attempt to clothe the revolutionary liberation movements in the backward countries, which are not communist, in communist clothes…

The Communist International has the duty of supporting the revolutionary movement in the colonies and backward countries only with the object of rallying the constituent elements of the future proletarian parties…

The Communist International should collaborate provisionally with the revolutionary movement of the colonies and backward countries, and even form an alliance with it, but it must not amalgamate with it; it must unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is only in an embryo stage.

On the advice of the Dutch Communist Maring, the Comintern’s representative in China, the CCP entered the Guomindang in 1922. The aim at first was not to subordinate the CCP to the Guomindang, but to operate as an independent force inside it. Wrote Maring, "The form of Guomindang organization was loose and the possibility existed of advancing our ideas in the nationalist movement and of developing a revolutionary anti-imperialist movement."

Maring recalls that when he went back to Moscow in September of 1922, "It became clear to me that they were more interested there in military affairs than in propaganda… [T]wo lines, two centers of gravitation [were forming], the center of Russian interest and the center of the revolution."

With the arrival of Borodin, the new Comintern representative, "The work shifted to a new tack. What happened later is clear," recalls Maring, "Presented with the chance to develop a real mass movement and real mass organizations, the Communists became the tools of the Guomindang leaders." Borodin ordered the CCP to dissolve itself into the Guomindang and accept its leadership uncritically.

In Russia, the failure of the European revolutions and the isolation of Russia had led to the disintegration of workers’ power and the beginning of the development of a bureaucracy committed not to workers’ power, but the survival of the Russian state against foreign rivals. The chief beneficiary of this was Stalin, general secretary of the Party. The Comintern, formed in 1919 as a means to spread workers’ revolution internationally, degenerated through the 1920s into an arm of Russian foreign policy. Its policy in China was one of the first manifestations of its degeneration.

Stalin–along with Nicolai Bukharin–were the architects of this new line. Because China was nationally oppressed by imperialism, it was argued, national unity of the workers, peasants and the bourgeoisie was imperative. Since the coming revolution was a bourgeois revolution and the Guomindang was the party of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, the CCP should maintain unity with the Guomindang at all costs. The new "theory" of class collaboration was called by Stalin the "Bloc of Four Classes." At the Third Congress in 1923 Mao Zedong was first elected to the Party’s Central Committee. An article he wrote immediately after the Congress enthusiastically endorsed the new Comintern line:

The present political problem in China is none other than the problem of the national revolution… The merchants, workers, peasants, students, and teachers should all come forward to take on the responsibility for a portion of the revolutionary war…We know that the politics of semi-colonial China is characterized by the fact that the militarists and the foreign powers have banded together to impose a twofold oppression on the whole country. The people of the whole country naturally suffer profoundly under this kind of dual oppression. Nevertheless the merchants are the ones who feel these sufferings most acutely and most urgently. (emphasis added)

The Guomindang was admitted into the Comintern as an associate party, and the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), amid great fanfare, made Chiang Kaishek an honorary member in 1926. The Comintern leaders fawned over him. In January 1926 the Presidium of the Fourteenth Party Conference of the Soviet Communist Party sent the following telegram to the presidium of the Second Congress of the Guomindang:

To our Party has fallen the proud and historical role of leading the first victorious proletarian revolution in the world…We are convinced that the Guomindang will succeed in playing the same role in the east, and thereby destroying the foundation of the rule of imperialists in Asia.

Lenin’s admonition that revolutionaries ally with, but not subordinate themselves to, bourgeois nationalists was reversed. The Guomindang was transformed from a bourgeois nationalist party into a "revolutionary bloc"–at least on paper! This "model"–the "bloc of four classes"–was in fact borrowed from the Guomindang.

Stalin’s "model" had nothing to do with Bolshevism. The Russian revolutionaries–led by Lenin and Trotsky–had argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and cowardly to lead the struggle against Tzarism. Only the Russian working class, organized independently of the Russian bourgeoisie–who feared the working class more than it chafed under the yoke of Tzarism–could lead the fight, with the support of a rebellious peasantry. It was on this basis that the Bolshevik Party was able to lead the revolution, which overthrew the Tzar and established workers power. The parallels with China, with its bourgeoisie too weak to unite, tied by a thousand threads to imperialism, were striking. "What does this mean anyway–bloc of four classes?" asked Trotsky:

Have you ever encountered this expression in Marxist literature before? If the bourgeoisie leads the oppressed masses of the people under the bourgeois banner and takes hold of state power through its leadership, then this is no bloc but the political exploitation of the oppressed masses by the bourgeoisie.

And this was more than a matter of semantics. The logic of the situation was clear–the bourgeoisie would capitulate to the imperialists. Far from being a "revolutionary bloc," the Guomindang would in the end play a counterrevolutionary role. Trotsky noted that:

The Chinese bourgeoisie is sufficiently realistic and acquainted intimately enough with the nature of world imperialism to understand that a really serious struggle against the latter requires such an upheaval of the masses as would primarily become a menace to the bourgeoisie itself…

Chiang understood this well. He repaid the Comintern for its material and political support by launching his first anti-communist coup on March 20, 1926 in Canton. He barred Communists from all posts at the Guomindang headquarters, banned criticisms of Sun Yat Sen’s politics, and demanded that the CCP central committee submit a list of all Party members who had joined the Guomindang. Under protest, the leadership of the CCP submitted to Russian pressure and obliged. When stories of the coup began appearing in China and in the international press, the Comintern issued vehement denials.

Claiming that a Communist coup was being organized against him, Chiang consolidated all power into his hands. Chiang’s claims of a CCP coup were a complete fabrication. But that didn’t prevent Ch’en Tu-hsiu, general secretary of the CCP, from calling Chiang Kaishek "one of the pillars of the national revolutionary movement," arguing that any Party member advocating the overthrow of Chiang should be "shot."

If anything, relations between Chiang Kaishek and Borodin, Russia’s agent in China, only got more cordial. In Borodin’s view, "The present period is one in which communists should do coolie service for the Guomindang."

In July 1926, Chiang launched the Northern Expedition–a military campaign aimed to conquer Central and North China. The expedition was aided by Russian arms, Russian advisers and a vast propaganda effort organized by the CCP. The Northern Expedition coincided with and helped encourage a nationwide mass revolutionary movement. Writes Harold Isaacs:

The northern and central provinces were astir with risings against Chang Tso-lin’s administration and the corrupt warlords who supported it. The urban workers were the most active element in the political movement. The Communist Party stood at the head of the trade unions, which had sprung into being overnight and found enthusiastic mass support in liberated cities and towns. All along the route of Chiang Kaishek’s advance the peasantry welcomed his troops and, counting on their support, rose against warlord, landlords and usurers, ready to dispossess them.

Chiang set about suppressing the rebellion. On July 29, he declared martial law in Canton. Three days later an order was issued "forbidding all labor disturbances for the duration of the Northern Expedition."

The Comintern leaders not only held their course but tried to defend it theoretically. According to Bukharin:

The present stage of the Chinese revolution is characterized by the fact that the forces of the revolution are already organized into a state power with a regular, disciplined army…The advance of the armies, their brilliant victories…are a special form of the revolutionary process.

The only problem, however, was that "this special form of the revolutionary process" wouldn’t conform to Stalin and Bukharin’s prescriptions. As the CCP delegate to the Seventh Plenum of the ECCI in November 1926 put it, there was a danger that the CCP had "sacrificed the interests of the workers and peasants" in safeguarding the alliance with the Guomindang at all cost. As the movement continued to grow in leaps and bounds, the CCP found itself trying to dampen its scope and aims.

Chiang Crushes the Revolution

A week before Chiang’s Northern Expedition marched into Shanghai, Stalin proclaimed:

Chiang Kaishek is submitting to discipline…Chiang Kaishek has perhaps no sympathy for the revolution but he is leading the army and cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists…So they [the Guomindang’s right wing] have to be utilized to the end, squeezed out like a lemon, and then flung away.

As it turned out, the Communist Party was squeezed out and flung away.

On March 21, 1927 the workers of Shanghai took over the city and opened it up to Chiang’s forces. The Shanghai General Labor Union issued the call for a general strike. Six hundred thousand workers responded to the call–effectively paralyzing the city–and prepared to welcome Chiang’s forces into the city. But Chiang had different plans. He held back his advance some 25 miles outside the city, thereby allowing warlord Sun Ch’uan-fang’s thugs to begin an assault on the mass movement. Rumors abounded that Chiang had decided to throw in his lot with the reactionary warlords against the communists. Though Chiang’s intentions were clear, the ECCI ignored all the evidence. As late as March 30, the official bulletin of the ECCI in Moscow declared: "A split in the Guomindang and hostilities between the Shanghai proletariat and the revolutionary soldiers are absolutely excluded right now."

When Chiang entered Shanghai, he immediately joined forces with the warlords and unleashed a reign of terror. Thousands of trade unionists were executed.

Even then, Stalin insisted that the CCP remain loyal to the Guomindang–although now it was the "left wing" of the Guomindang under the leadership of Wang Chin-wei who seceded from Chiang and set up a competing government (with communist participation) in Wuhan. The tragic course of events was predictable. A few months later, in July 1927, the "left Guomindang of Wang Chin-wei," which Stalin had described as playing "approximately the same role" as the 1905 soviets, broke with the CCP and made peace with Chiang.

As Jean Chesnaux describes it:

The unions were dissolved, strikes were banned, the peasant unions were liquidated, the Communists were hunted down, and military workers were fired. A few weak attempts at retaliation were immediately crushed. A new chapter had begun.

Incredibly, after Shanghai the Comintern insisted even more doggedly that the CCP maintain the same course, insisting that the CCP "curb the agrarian movement" in order to placate the Guomindang leadership.

When it became impossible to conceal the scale of the defeat– as the Comintern once again tried to do–Stalin and Bukharin switched tacks. In what was an early rehearsal for the Comintern’s ultraleft Third Period, a policy of putschism was imposed on a dazed and disoriented Party leadership. Indeed, the Comintern absolved itself of any responsibility for events in China, choosing instead to scapegoat individual members of the CCP’s leadership. In August 1927, a special conference of the CCP was convened, where several top leaders were denounced and purged for restraining the workers and peasants and "retreating" in order to maintain the alliance with the Guomindang "left."

Having led the CCP down a blind alley, the Comintern now conspired to bury it. A series of hastily-planned uprisings were carried out. They failed miserably, thousands of CCP members cut down in the process, and in their aftermath the CCP virtually disappeared from the cities. The Chinese revolution was led into a horrible defeat by Stalin and the Comintern. An estimated 230,000 people lost their lives over the year that Chiang established his power.

The Chinese workers’ movement had developed with astonishing speed. Though they constituted a small proportion of Chinese society, their concentrated power in China’s main cities placed them in a unique position as the spearhead of the Chinese revolution. Their struggles had been at the center of the revolution of 1925 to 1927. Now, decimated and defeated, they were abandoned by the CCP for the countryside.

The Shift to the Countryside

The initial turn to the countryside was not a result of a conscious political choice, but rather the result of a series of defeats and disasters. After an abortive rising in Chiangsa, Mao retreated with a force of a thousand into the mountains, later linking up with two other surviving bands to make up a rag-tag force of about 10,000. Poorly-armed, the CCP remnants were continually encircled and attacked by Guomindang forces, causing them to move several times. Yet they managed to establish several bases, including a major one in Jiangxi province. Then in 1934, surrounded and in danger of annihilation by Chiang’s forces, the CCP embarked on a retreat in what has become known as "The Long March." Hounded by the Guomindang all along the way, Mao’s "Red Army" was forced deeper and deeper into the hinterland, finally settling in Shaanxi. Fifty thousand died along the way in a trek that covered over 5,000 miles.

Mao’s understanding of events–and solution to the problem–was almost entirely military. The CCP had suffered a military defeat at the hands of Chiang Kaishek and could only regroup if they established bases outside of the cities. The stress was no longer on workers’ social power and class struggle, but on military power:

Every Communist must grasp the truth, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. Yet, having guns, we can create Party organizations, as witness the powerful Party organizations which the Eighth Route Army has created in northern China… Everything in Yenan has been created by having guns. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun.

Who needs workers, let alone theory, when one wields the All-Powerful Barrel of the Gun? The idea that weapons and a Red Army are subordinated to the struggle for workers’ power was completely abandoned, along with workers’ themselves. The transformation of the CCP from a party seeking to lead the working class to power into nationalist guerrilla bands seeking to unify China and free it from foreign domination had begun.

Of all the ideas jettisoned from the old CCP, it’s important to note that Stalin’s "bloc of four classes" was not one of them. The CCP would express different views to those of the Guomindang, but they were formally agreed that their aim was national liberation. Workers’ power and socialism became decorative rather than operational. After the Third Period was dropped and alliances with "progressive" bourgeoisies became the Comintern’s line, criticism of Chiang gave way again to adulation. Thus, Wang Ming, the Chinese representative of the Comintern who had only recently denounced Chiang, stated in 1934: "We Chinese Communists openly declare that we support the Guomindang and the Nanking Government [Chiang’s government] and will fight shoulder to shoulder with them against Japanese imperialism."

Praise for the butcher of Shanghai went from the comical to the absurd: Chin Po-Ku, Party leader in the mid-thirties, said:

China needs Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek’s leadership more urgently than ever today when the national crisis has reached a life and death stage. His remaining in office and his valuable services to the Chinese nation are essential and imperative in the struggle leading to final victory.

This new line was mirrored in the Party’s social program; Mao drew out the consequences of this policy:

We have already adopted a decision not to confiscate the land of the rich peasantry, and if they come to us to fight Japan, not to refuse to unite with them. We are not confiscating the property and the factories of the big and small Chinese merchants and capitalists. We protect their enterprises and help them to expand so that the materials supply in the Soviet districts necessary for the anti-Japanese campaign may be augmented in this way.

The Red Army’s recovery from the Long March was astounding. At first relatively small and hounded by the Guomindang, the CCP was able over a period of years to build a mass army numbering in the hundreds of thousands. They built upon the growing hatred among peasants of the Japanese invaders and upon the utter bankruptcy of Chiang, whose forces offered only token resistance to Japanese imperialism. Indeed, the Guomindang preferred plundering China’s wealth to fighting Japanese advances. Moreover, though they did not overthrow the landlords, the CCP, wherever it controlled territory, reduced land rents and put a stop to the arbitrary brutality of the warlords. At the end of the Second World War, the formal alliance between the CCP and the Guomindang dissolved into all-out civil war. Over a period of five years, Mao’s armies defeated the disorganized and completely corrupted forces of Chiang Kaishek and seized control of China.

The New Regime

The proclamation of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949 crowned one of the greatest nationalist revolutions in history. But what kind of revolution was it and what did it have to do with socialism?

Most obviously, it was not a workers’ revolution. The retreat of the communists into a series of rural bases was accompanied by a dramatic fall in the urban membership of the Party–in particular its working-class membership. In 1935, the Long March reduced the number of partisans from 300,000 to 30,000. The proportion of workers in the Party fell from 66 percent in 1926 to 2.5 percent in March, 1930, to 1.6 percent in September of that year, and dropped even more by the end of the year. The number of industrial workers continued to remain negligible right up to the conquest of power.

When the Guomindang banned strikes in 1937, a Communist Party spokesperson told an interviewer that the Party was "fully satisfied" with the government’s conduct of the war.

The working class played only a passive role in the victory. Indeed, as Mao’s army crossed the Yangtze River on its way to the southern cities, he issued a proclamation expressing the hope that "workers and employees in all trades will continue to work and that business will operate as usual."

Nor can the Chinese revolution be characterized as a "peasant revolution"–not in any real sense. The leadership of the CCP was drawn, primarily, from the urban classes, particularly intellectuals. The peasants who did join the People’s Liberation Army–after several years of guerrilla war–could no longer be regarded as expressing peasant interests. They had become professional soldiers. The struggle was not a class struggle but rather a military one.

Capitalism as a social system was not the primary target. Mao’s 1945 On Coalition Government made this clear.

The national bourgeoisie at the present stage is of great importance…To counter imperialist oppression and to raise her backward economy to a higher level, China must utilize all the factors of urban and rural capitalism that are beneficial and not harmful to the national economy and the people’s livelihood and we must unite with the national bourgeoisie in common struggle.

Another CCP leader, Zhou Enlai, denounced egalitarianism as a

petty bourgeois outlook which encourages backwardness and hinders progress. It has nothing in common with Marxism, and a socialist system. It dampens down the enthusiasm of workers and employees in acquiring technical skills and raising productivity.

The revolution placed in power a party committed not to socialism, but to using its control of the state as a lever to develop China’s economy. With the first Five-Year Plan in 1953, the Chinese state attempted to launch a program similar to Stalin’s industrialization of Russia–starting from a much lower base.

With income per head three to four times less than that of Russia in 1928, the new plan required a policy of extreme hardship–of intensive exploitation–for the mass of the population. The plan accorded a whopping 55 percent of investment to heavy industry. But to implement such an ambitious plan, the Party had to have control of the economy. Over time, in a piecemeal way, the Party nationalized and placed sections of the economy under its control, absorbing into its ranks the former owners and directors of the private enterprises it nationalized. This was not socialist nationalization conducted by workers themselves, but the absorption of the old, private bourgeoisie into a new, bureaucratic state-capitalist class.

The Great Leap Forward

The CCP’s efforts to emulate Russia’s plan could not succeed because the industrial base from which China was starting was far lower. Investment for heavy industry required siphoning off an enormous surplus from agriculture–a process that in China caused a decline in agricultural production. It was clear by the end of the first Five-Year Plan that the economy’s growth rate had begun to slow down. The social consequences of trying to squeeze workers and peasants even more were becoming obvious to Party leaders. The Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress in 1958 acknowledged the "need to increase consumption, otherwise there would be a serious contradiction between the Party and the masses which would lead to unforgivable errors." But Mao would have none of it. After an inspection trip around the country, Mao wrote:

During this trip, I have witnessed the tremendous energy of the masses. On this foundation it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever…There are still a few comrades who are unwilling to undertake a large scale mass movement in the industrial sphere. They call the mass movement on the industrial front "irregular" and disparage it as "a rural style of work" and a "guerrilla habit." This is obviously incorrect!

This was the old adage "where’s there a will, there’s a way" gone berserk.

Mao effectively pre-empted the second Five-Year Plan by launching a frenetic economic drive in 1958 which became known as "The Great Leap Forward."

The whole basis of the Great Leap Forward was to jump-start the economy through a massive effort to mobilize the human resources of the entire country. Circumventing China’s large steelworks, thousands of backyard foundries were set up throughout the countryside. The aim was to overcome China’s economic and industrial underdevelopment. Fantastic targets were set and the Party cadres were instructed to exhort the masses to meet the targets.

At first, the grotesque character of the Great Leap Forward was offset by the excellent harvest of 1958 and by the fact that if Mao could ask for outlandish targets, the local cadres could just as easily report outlandish results. Thus, the output of steel, which was 5.3 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 11 million tons in 1958 and was planned to reach 18 million in 1959. The grain output which was 175 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 375 million tons in 1958, and was planned to reach 500 million in 1959. The Central Committee solemnly endorsed this farce and planned for more. Zhou Enlai repeated and supported these fantastic figures and announced that the targets laid in the second Five-Year Plan (1958-1962) had been reached in the plan’s first year!

The grand deception that was being foisted on China’s workers and peasants even intoxicated those at the top. In their book, Tell the World, Liu Binyan, Ruan Ming and Xu Gang tell an anecdote which is exemplary of the whole process:

One day, Bo Yibo was swimming with Mao. Mao asked him what the production of iron and steel would be for the next year. Instead of replying, Bo Yibo told Mao that he was going to effect a turn in the water; Mao misunderstood him and thought that he had said "double."

A little later, at a Party meeting, Bo Yibo heard Mao announce that the national production of iron and steel would double the next year.

But despite Mao’s fantasies, objective reality could not be willed away in a collective act of faith. Each new method of production introduced to raise production, each innovation, instead led to a disaster. Thus, the backyard furnaces, designed to expand steel output, in fact deprived the modern steel mills of iron ore and coal–and produced an iron of too poor a quality to be refined.

The whole project could simply be dismissed as pathetic stupidity–were it not for the fact that it had a profound negative effect on China’s workers and peasants. Writes Simon Leys:

Not only did the movement fail to achieve the exhilarating aims it had set for itself, but the entire Chinese economy was plunged into chaos when the construction effort met paralysis and breakdown. Natural catastrophes followed to complete the disaster. The population, exhausted by the frenzied and fruitless efforts enforced upon it, began to experience famine.

Graphic details of the subsequent famine were provided in the official press only a few years ago, confirming what was already known through the testimonies of countless eyewitnesses. As early as 1961, China News Analysis reported some of these stories by Chinese travelers from all parts of China:

All spoke of food shortage and hunger; swollen bellies, lack of protein and liver diseases were common. Many babies were stillborn because of their mothers’ deficient nutrition…In Shenyang the newspaper reported cannibalism. Desperate mothers strangled children who cried for food.

It is now estimated that anywhere between 30 and 50 million people died in the famines that resulted from the "Great Leap Forward."

The image of the frugal Mao leading a "people’s republic" is as outlandish as the targets set during the Great Leap Forward. According to Mao’s personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, a banquet was held for Mao’s birthday in 1959. While millions starved, the Party served

the finest, most expensive delicacies Chinese cuisine can offer. And as so many of my countrymen starved, I sat…celebrating the sixty-sixth birthday of the absent emperor Mao…

It was a paradise, free from restraint, subject only to the whim of Mao and the guilt that gnawed those of us whose consciences remained intact.

The disasters brought on by the Great Leap Forward produced revolts against the regime by workers and peasants, but also produced revolts within the Party bureaucracy itself. Mao was forced to retreat. Replying to an attack on the Great Leap Forward by Peng Teh-huai, Minister of Defense, Mao confessed the error of his ways. Effectively, he cut his losses and saved himself to fight for another day. At the Lushan Plenum of the Central Committee in August, 1959, Mao took the lead in attacking Mao–offsetting some of attacks leveled on him by his opponents:

Coal and iron cannot walk by themselves; they need vehicles to transport them. This I did not foresee. I and the Premier did not concern ourselves with this point. You could say that we were ignorant of it…I am a complete outsider when it comes to economic construction, and I understand nothing about industrial planning…But comrades, in 1958 and 1959 the main responsibility was mine, and you should take me to task…Who was responsible for the idea of the mass smelting of steel? I say it was me…With this, we rushed into a great catastrophe, and ninety million people went into battle…The chaos caused was on a grand scale, and I take responsibility. Comrades, you must all analyze your own responsibility. If you have to shit, shit! If you have to fart, fart. You will feel much better for it.

Mao agreed to step aside at the Second National People’s Congress in April 1959 and stepped down as head of state–complaining bitterly that he was being treated like a "dead man at his own funeral." The dispute was formally settled, but the cracks in the ruling bureaucracy could not be permanently papered over.

Unfortunately, this was not the last "great catastrophe" Mao would engineer. Simon Leys writes:

Three themes in Mao’s thinking give us a clue to the philosophy of the Great Leap Forward. (1) China’s strength lies in her poverty: China is a ‘blank page’ lying open to Mao’s inspiration so that he may paint upon it the unspoken poem of his revolution. (2) Revolutionary fervor alone can and must effectively overcome material obstacles and so transform matter (the primacy of ‘red’ over expert.) (3) The villager’s gift for improvisation and native ‘make-do and mend’ (t’u fang-fa) can and must effectively replace the scientific, technical and industrial means.

These themes would be repeated, ad nauseum, during the "Great Cultural Revolution"–Mao’s fight to regain power.

Stalin and Mao

Not long after the death of Stalin in 1956, Russia and China severed diplomatic ties. The Sino-Soviet split in 1960 produced splits in the Communist Parties internationally. For many radicals in the 1960s, Mao was seen as a more radical alternative to Soviet-style communism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Insofar as Mao had any allegiances to Russia, it was to Stalin. This is certainly not because Stalin helped the Red Army’s march to power. Quite the contrary. During the war, Stalin took pains to belittle and deride the Chinese Communists, telling Harriman, the U.S. ambassador, on June 10, 1944: "The Chinese communists are not real communists. They are ‘margarine communists’."

It was only when the victory of the Peoples Liberation Army was certain, that Russia changed it line. Mao could forgive Stalin for this–after all, he understood the need to appease–in this case not the national, but the international–bourgeoisie.

What tied the two dictators together went much deeper. In Mao’s China, Tony Cliff writes:

The basic facts of the Stalinist regime are the subordination of consumption to the needs of quick capital accumulation, the bureaucratic management of industry, the limitation of workers’ legal rights, the enforced "collectivization" of agriculture, the differentiation of society into privileged and pariahs and the totalitarian police dictatorship. All these traits are to be found in Mao’s China…

Stalin and Mao were both elevated as supreme leaders to the status of all-seeing, infallible demi-gods. But whereas Stalin "tried to pull Russia up by her bootstraps industrially-militarily," writes Cliff, "Mao tries to do the same thing without boots and without straps." Consequently, the cult of personality around Mao as a leader capable of all things reached even greater heights. Superhuman feats were attributed to him, like swimming nearly 14 kilometers in the Yangtze river in just over an hour, faster than the world record!

Mao’s writings were treated as holy writ, his pictures and statues placed in every nook and cranny of China. Poems and songs were written comparing him to the rising sun. One example, from commanders and privates in the People’s Liberation Army, will suffice:

Respected and beloved Chairman Mao, if all the trees in the world were pens and all its waters ink we still could not say enough about your love and concern for our upbringing. You are our greatest teacher, leader, supreme commander and helmsman.

The Cultural Revolution

"The Cultural Revolution," writes Simon Leys in The Chairman’s New Clothes,

had nothing revolutionary about it except the name and nothing cultural about it except the initial tactical pretext. It was a power struggle waged at the top between a handful of men and behind the smokescreen of a fictitious mass movement. As things turned out, the disorder unleashed by this power struggle created a genuinely revolutionary mass current, which developed spontaneously at the grass roots in the form of army mutinies and workers’ strikes on a vast scale. These had not been prescribed in the program, and they were crushed pitilessly.

Burned by the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, the ruling bureaucracy eased Mao from control over the day-to-day running of the state, and relegated him to a figurehead with little power. The disasters of collectivized production were gradually replaced by private landholding in the countryside and economic incentives like piecework and greater managerial control in productive enterprises.

Mao counterattacked to regain his leading position in the Party and the state. In January 1965, he produced a document which launched the "Great Cultural Revolution." The document argues:

There is a sharp class struggle, with the enemies of socialism seeking to take advantage of a "peaceful evolution" to restore capitalism. The class struggle is reflected in the Party, where various levers of command have been corrupted or usurped.

It is a question of rectifying and purging those who, bearing the authority of the Party, have taken the capitalist road–some of them are very highly placed, and beneath their mask have changed their real nature.

Mao had tremendous prestige, but little real power. For Mao to regain power, he had to attack sections of the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy paid lip-service to his ideas and then effectively sabotaged them. Mao needed to create a counterforce where he had none. Unable to find an instrument within the bureaucracy itself, Mao resorted to looking outside of the Party apparatus to a force which he thought he personally could control. Unorganized youth and students became that force, whom he urged to form Red Guard detachments and destroy his adversaries.

On August 18, 1966, a million Red Guards arrived in paramilitary formation to hear Defense Minister Lin Biao, Mao’s "closest comrade-in-arms" explain the big-character poster "Bombard The Headquarters."

The Headquarters, they found, were those of the Communist Party, where they would find "persons in authority taking the road back to capitalism." China’s 11 million students were urged to go out, seek and destroy. To speed up the process, Mao shut down much of China’s educational system in 1966. For several years, China’s school and universities ceased functioning altogether. Mass meetings, show trials, processions and street fighting became a regular feature of life. Bands of young people ransacked homes in search of proof of bourgeois ideology, destroyed historical monuments as "feudal remnants" and burnt "bourgeois" books.

In the beginning Mao was elated with the activities of the Red Guards. But by August and September, it was clear that things were moving in a direction not anticipated by Mao. Workers and Red Guards clashed, and a series of directives were issued by Mao ordering workers to stay at work. A collapse in production and a descent into social chaos were clearly results of the campaign. Moreover, the anti-capitalist slogans and cries for equality raised by the Red Guards were taken seriously by thousands of ordinary people. The "Great Cultural Revolution" threatened to unleash a real revolution. Mao tried to beat a hasty retreat by softening some of the attacks on individual Party leaders, and on the Party itself.

Once more, Mao apologized for his mistakes: "I myself had not foreseen that as soon as the Beijing University poster was broadcast, the whole country would be thrown into turmoil…Since it was I who caused the havoc, it is understandable if you have bitter words for me."

But the apology didn’t end the revolt. Again, Leys:

The smoldering discontent that had accumulated over the years just beneath the surface, unseen by Mao, now flared up. At the turn of the year, Shanghai workers exploded in a rash of strikes and agitation that were echoed around the country. They raised quite different issues and not at all "cultural," issues of wages, conditions, and the right to independent trade unions, all the issues of the "economism" that Mao had denounced for years. This time, Mao did not retreat defensively. In the third week of January, the army was ordered to take over the administration of the country. The army was to take control of factories, villages, institutions of finance and commerce, of learning, Party organs, administrative and mass organizations.

One commentator describes the mushrooming of the "self-organization of workers" which "spread like a plague all over China."

What had begun with the organization of "contract workers" (seasonal workers employed on a temporary basis) in 1966, spread to the whole working class in the following years. In some places, autonomy and indirect control of the work-group level was temporarily transformed into autonomy at the factory level. It took the army two years–from 1968 to 1970–to clear the way for the return of the Party to the factories.

All through the 1970s there have been outbursts of trouble, very often with roots in the factional struggles of the Cultural Revolution.

Those who had actually believed Mao’s rhetoric about revolution, about the importance of the youth revolt, were in for a rude shock. In July 1968 he told the four main Red Guard leaders: "I am the black hand that suppressed the Red Guards." State repression was intensified.

By 1969 the regime had successfully regained the upper hand. The need for restoring stability was paramount. Armed clashes with Russia in that year placed the question of defense–and therefore of economic development–back at the center of the bureaucracy’s priorities.

The End of the Road for Mao

The main preoccupation of China’s leaders in the period after the Cultural Revolution was to strengthen the central state apparatus over the main institutions of Chinese society, reverse the massive drop in production and repair the economy, reestablish the Party’s authority and mend China’s diplomatic fences. This served to temporarily cement all factions within the bureaucracy around the need to reestablish order. Despite the various splits and feuds at the top, all involved understood the need to defend their positions from the threat from below.

There was a sharp retreat from the slogans and aims of the Cultural Revolution. By 1981, the Resolution on CPC History published by the Party officially characterizes the Cultural Revolution as responsible for "the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state, the people since the founding of the People’s Republic of China."

The Party no longer pushed "Bombard The Headquarters" but "It is the Party that exercises leadership in everything." By 1970, the economy had resumed its growth under the slogan "Grasp revolution and promote production." A new diplomatic initiative was launched in 1971 when Beijing invited the Vietnam War criminal Richard Nixon to visit China in February, 1972. In the countryside, private plots for peasants were no longer denounced but praised. Thousands of Party cadres were rehabilitated including some of the principal Party leaders ousted during the Cultural Revolution–like Deng Xiaoping. Indeed, all of the elements that were later to become known as Deng Xiaoping’s "reforms" were launched during this period–even if more limited and tentative. The direction of the central leaders of the Party–especially Mao and Zhou Enlai–was clearly set out.

The history of the 1970s is largely punctuated by big purges and shakeups in the bureaucracy, this time against those who had risen to prominence during the Cultural Revolution. This was not a smooth process, but one which moved in fits and starts. Overall, it represented a departure from the extreme voluntarism of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Simon Leys, once again, summarizes it very well:

In Maoist sailing, each lurch of the boat meant spilling half of the crew overboard: in the end, after having been repeatedly thrown in the water and fished out, then thrown in again and fished out, the wretched cadres, exhausted and terrified, just kept hanging on for dear life to the slippery ideological bulwarks without daring a single move, or attempting the slightest initiative. This state of paralysis, uncertainty and fear, so damaging to the basic functioning of government, further confirmed the new leadership in its determination to eradicate the last active remnants of Maoism, while on the other hand confining the doctrine itself to a safe and prophylactic isolation of a glass showcase in a holy museum.

In August 1970, Chen Boda, Mao’s personal secretary for 30 years, a man slavishly devoted to Mao who acted only as his shadow, who was rewarded for his loyalty by being promoted to number four in the hierarchy (after Mao, Lin Biao, and Zhou Enlai), was suddenly accused of being a "sham Marxist and political swindler." But this was only the beginning. Two and a half years later Lin Biao, a leading military figure in the Party for more than 40 years, Mao’s chief supporter as head of the PLA in the Cultural Revolution, and the Vice Chairman of the Party, was exposed as a fraud. He was no longer Mao’s "close comrade-in-arms," but a "bourgeois careerist, conspirator, counter-revolutionary double dealer, renegade and traitor" and his upholding of Mao’s Thought had now become "trash [representing] the wishes not only of the toppled landlord and bourgeois classes for restoration but also of the new bourgeois elements in socialist society."

Lin Biao’s downfall was accompanied with the glorious reinstatement of Deng Xiaoping, who for years had been vilified and pilloried by hundreds of millions of militants. Forever the pragmatist, Mao knew that Deng, an old-timer with roots in the Party, was the only one capable of running the state and disciplining the People’s Liberation Army–whose role had greatly expanded in running the country since 1969.

In August 1973, at the Tenth Party Congress, Deng Xiaoping was formally rehabilitated and he became deputy prime minister–effectively heir to Zhou Enlai. But his path to power was blocked by a powerful group of leaders of the Cultural Revolution which included Mao’s spouse, Jiang Qing. The "Gang of Four"–Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyan, Wang Hongwen–as they were known, made a bid for power while Mao was still alive but unable to supervise the project he had begun. They were able to manipulate the removal of Deng from his posts in the Party and were under the illusion they could reverse the whole course of development since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Deng and his cohorts were denounced in 1976 as "leaders of the Party linked to the bourgeoisie of our society, as well as landowners, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and badly re-educated bourgeois right wingers."

Their illusions were quickly shattered. The death in 1976 of three of the most central leaders of the CCP–Zhu De, Zhou Enlai and Mao–gave the central leadership of the Party the opportunity to silence the Gang of Four without fear of Mao’s intervention. Months later, at the Eleventh Congress, Deng was made Vice Chairman of the Party–as well as Vice Premier, Chief of Staff of the PLA, and Vice Chairman of the Military Affairs Commission. The Gang of Four was, conveniently, denounced as "typical representatives in our Party of landowners, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, as well as other old and new bourgeois elements."

Deng continued, but with increased vigor and no opposition, the program that had been launched almost a decade earlier. He informed the 11th Party Congress that there be "less empty talk and more hard work." In January of 1979, he assured the U.S. that the "honeymoon would last for a long time." "There is much in common between us on matters of global strategy," he said, and "the antihegemonies principle is our greatest common point politically."

The Cultural Revolution had finally been buried. As a recent ‘Letter from the Central Organs to the Party, Army, and People’ put it, when Deng took over in December 1978, "China was faced with a very grim situation and extremely arduous tasks. It was imperative to break away from the calamities caused by the ‘Great Cultural Revolution.’"

Calamities indeed there were. And there was clearly a break with the "Great Cultural Revolution." But this break was not a sign of a fundamental transformation of class relations in China. Rather it was another path by which the aims of China’s ruling class could be most effectively be met. Workers in China are as much out of power today as they were under Mao. Socialists should not in any way give credence to the idea that socialism in any form existed or exists now in China.

The mythology spun by market-apologists–which include many disillusioned Maoists–must also be rejected. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 was not an aberration on the road to democracy. But that is the subject of the next article.

Special sidebars:

Deng and Mao

The mainstream media has downplayed Deng’s role in the Tiananmen Square massacre and highlighted his skill at transforming China into a market economy. Most commentators treat Deng’s policies as representing a sharp break from the politics of other CCP leaders, especially Mao.

The problem with this view is that it forgets that Deng–who became a member of the party in 1924–shared an outlook that united him with Mao and other party leaders more than it divided them. Depending on what period is selected, Mao and Deng can be shown to have the identical view on China’s future. The official ideology which has them representing the "proletarian" and "capitalist" interests respectively reflects not class struggle but the clashes within the same class of bureaucrats. The different fractures and struggles in China’s top leadership represented the falling out–and often different strategies–for achieving the same ends. By the early 1970s, Deng’s "reforms" were known as Mao and Zhou’s reforms.

The most frequently mentioned saying of Deng, "It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice," is interpreted as meaning that it didn’t matter whether or not China was socialist or capitalist. But this is only accepting the meaning given this phrase when Mao wanted to get rid of Deng. The real discussion was much more limited. Deng’s full statement reads as follows:

For the time being, the most important thing is to increase food production. In so far as individual enterprises can further this production they are a good thing. It is not important whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice...The best form of production is that which, within the framework of local conditions, is most likely to restore and develop production.

Deng and several other leaders of the CCP became irritated at Mao’s habit of acting independently of the bureaucracy. It became more than an irritation after Mao launched the Great Leap Forward that set back the economy by a decade. Deng’s approach was to try and curb Mao and concentrate power among the party leadership.

Mao couterattacked and ousted Deng for a time. But after the chaos created by the Cultural Revolution, Mao brought Deng–a tried and tested organization man–back to restore the authority and prestige of the Party.

The Tiananman Square massacre was not an aberration. Deng always repressed dissent that threatened him and tolerated that which served his purposes. He organized the inner-party "rectification" campaign in 1937; ran the "anti-rightist" campaign in 1957; shut down the Democracy Wall protest in 1978; launched the "anti-spiritual" campaign of 1983; directed another purge in 1983-86 and expelled leading dissident intellectuals in 1987. Like Mao, Deng died with blood on his hands.


China’s Foreign Policy

If the Maoist rhetoric served to foster illusions about the character of the regime in China, the foreign policy it pursued should have dispelled any doubts about its character.

Until the break with Moscow in 1960, China’s foreign policy mirrored that of the USSR. So, for example, after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution by Russian tanks, the Chinese press came out in full support of Moscow. The editorial of November 5, 1956 in the People’s Daily, under the heading "Celebrate the Great victory of the Hungarian People," says, "The joyful news has arrived that the Hungarian people. . .with the support of the Soviet armed forces have overthrown the reactionary Nagy government which betrayed the Hungarian people and the Hungarian nation."

Stalinist orthodoxy was combined with Third World nationalism. The underdeveloped countries, according to Mao, had become "the storm centers of world revolution. . .undermining the foundations of the rule of imperialism . . .[so that] the whole cause of the international proletarian revolution hinges on the outcome of the revolutionary struggles of the people of those areas, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the world’s population."

The break with Russia and a series of foreign policy failures in the early 1960s forced the bureaucracy to shift. The Chinese line, exalting the revolution and preaching "fraternal" obligations between Communist Parties, was received coolly by other Communist Parties–with the exception of Albania. Alliances with nationalist governments fell flat, largely because China’s Indonesia policy failed miserably. Sukarno’s foreign policy had suited China, and he had also called on the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to cooperate with the "national bourgeoisie" in the framework of an anti-imperialist front. This course, however, left the PKI virtually defenseless when the right began an all-out assault to wipe it out. The fall of Sukarno and the resulting disaster for the PKI ended China’s hopes of creating a new Third World UN.

The political direction that Chinese foreign policy took during the Cultural Revolution was an extension of the previous attempts to develop a ‘third alternative.’ According to Lin Biao, in 1965 the world situation was similar to that of guerrilla struggle in China:

Taking the entire globe, if North America and Europe can be called "the cities of the world," then Asia, Africa and Latin America continued the "rural areas of the world"...In a sense, the contemporary world revolution also presents a picture of the encirclement of the cities by the rural areas. In the final analysis, the whole cause of the world revolution hinges on the revolutionary struggles of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples who make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population.

A doctrine of self-sufficiency was now preached–revolutionaries of each country were to stand on their own two feet. In practical terms, moral support became the only kind of solidarity to be expected from the Maoist regime.

But this was still better than what was to follow. In the late 1960s, Zhou Enlai’s became the dominant voice in foreign policy. The winding down of the Cultural Revolution and the 1969 attack by the Soviet Union resulted in an abrupt change of line. The USSR was now China’s "Number One Enemy," and the regime set out to make friends with anyone it could–including yesterday’s "Number One" enemies. Foreign Minister Chen Yi’s remark in 1965, "Peaceful coexistence with U.S. imperialism, which is pushing ahead its policies of aggression and war, is out of the question," was quickly buried. A shift in U.S. policy toward China in 1971 strengthened this development. By 1973, the U.S. was no longer the enemy, but on the contrary, became a friend.

Talk of "storm centers of revolution" disappeared. The Chinese government made not a sound over the massacres of the population of Bangladesh, and left-wing opposition in that country was discouraged. The Ceylon (Sri Lankan) government’s liquidation of the left was applauded. In the Sudan, China supported General Nimeiry’s government when it crushed the pro-Soviet Sudanese Communist Party and hanged its members. After the September 1973 military coup in Chile, which overthrew Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, the first country to expel the ambassador of Allende’s fallen government was China. China supported Pakistan’s military dictatorship against leftist rebels. President Nixon was wined and dined in Beijing just after the mining of Haiphong in North Vietnam by the U.S. In Angola, China supported the CIA and the South Africa-backed FNLA. In Europe, China supported the strengthening of NATO as a counterforce to the Eastern Bloc. When the fascist Spanish dictator Franco died, Chinese party leader Zhu De was sent to his funeral. Zhu shared the experience with Chile’s Pinochet and Bolivia’s General Banzer–the only heads of state from Latin America who attended.

A broad range of intellectuals had become enamored with the Cultural Revolution. The French philosopher Louis Althusser was, according to Perry Anderson, the most

prominent and influential Marxist thinker to invest much of his hope for a democratic communism in the Maoist project...But the wave of sympathy and admiration for the Cultural Revolution swept up a very broad range of socialist intellectuals, not to speak of student militants: affecting in different degrees and different ways Dutschke and Enzensberger in Germany; Poulantzas, Glucksmann and Kristeva in France; Rossanda and Arrighi in Italy; Sweezy and Magdoff in the USA; Robinson and Caldwell in Britain.

Many of these intellectuals had replaced one Stalinist–Stalin–with another–Mao. Thousands of people looked to China as an alternative to Western capitalism. But the verbal extremism used by the Chinese bureaucracy began to lose its appeal. The gap between what China did and who it leant support to and its professed aims was getting too wide. The result was mass disillusionment among a whole layer of people who had become radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Thoughts of Chairman Mao

One of the enduring myths about Mao is that he began to see through the bankruptcy of the Comintern’s policy in China as early as the mid-1920s and began to formulate an alternative strategy. The mythmakers argue that Mao stressed the revolutionary role of the peasantry in countries where the working class was a tiny fraction of the population. In short, argue his admirers, Mao adapted Marx and Lenin to fit conditions in China–and by extension other countries like it.

But this is pure fantasy. One of the chief characteristics of Chinese Stalinism was its anti-intellectualism, its systematic ostracism and persecution of intellectuals and its break with Marxism. Stalinism in Russia of course shared these qualities. But Stalin was forced to justify himself by some reference to orthodoxy–to some distorted Marxism. Mao had no such obligation. What is startling is not the originality of Mao Zedong Thought, but how banal, parochial and vulgar his thinking is. This is immediately apparent on even the most cursory reading of Mao’s writings and speeches. Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume study of the main currents of Marxism concludes:

Maoism, especially the theoretical writings of Mao himself, appear in fact extremely primitive and clumsy and sometimes even childish; in comparison, even Stalin gives the impression of a powerful theorist... Maoism in its final shape is a radical peasant Utopia in which Marxist phraseology is much in evidence but whose dominant values are completely alien to Marxism… His two philosophical essays are a popular and simplified exposition of what he had read in Stalin and Lenin, plus some political conclusions adapted to the needs of the moment; to put it mildly, much good will is needed to perceive any deep theoretical significance in these texts.

Even more stunning, therefore, is the fact that Mao’s pronouncements have assumed the status of political thought and philosophy among many so-called revolutionaries and Marxists.

Millions of copies of Mao’s "Little Red Book"–a short collection of homilies and quotes taken from different articles and speeches of Mao–were produced and sold all over the world. At one time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Maoist groups were dominant both in Europe and the U.S. For many, Mao had made a critical contribution to Marxism.

Mao rose to prominence in the party not because of his "Thoughts" but in spite of them–he had very few of a Marxist variety and had little attachment to the working class.

Mao spoke of the divisions in society as being between "bad gentry" and "good gentry," "corrupt officials" and "honest officials," rather than peasants against landlords, officials and the gentry. Likewise he spoke of a "new democratic order," not of a social revolution.

Guerrilla war, and not peasant revolution, was elevated into a theory. The "Red" Army, and not the poor peasants, became the new all-encompassing reality–political as well as military, philosophic as well as economic. The CCP as armed force might or might not win support from the peasantry when it took over an area and introduced agriculture reform. But with or without the peasant’s backing, its military control of the area gave the party state power over the peasantry.

Mao’s "contribution" was to elevate the immediate tactical necessity into a general truth. For Mao, theory became an afterthought–a convenient means to justify particular actions and tactics. Since the revolution was not to be the conscious act of a class, but fundamentally a military struggle, theory was a luxury, not a necessity. There was no longer a necessary connection between theory and practice.

What Mao had concluded theoretically from the trials of the People’s Liberation Army is that with the proper amount of effort anything is possible. Turning Marx on his head, Mao thus declares:

Men are not the slaves of objective reality. Provided only that man’s consciousness be in conformity with the objective law of the development of things, the subjective activity of the popular masses can manifest itself in full measure, overcome all difficulties, create the necessary conditions, and carry forward the revolution. In this sense, the subjective creates the objective.

Socialism is no longer tied to the question of economic development, but to sheer will power. The approach was summed up in Mao’s astonishing description of the Chinese people as subjects to be molded by the party.

Apart from their other characteristics, China’s 600 million people have two remarkable peculiarities: they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful paintings can be painted on it.

For Mao, class becomes a question of mood, of thought, of allegiance to Mao and to the Party: Mao uses the terms "proletariat," "peasant," "capitalist," in a similarly loose fashion. The terms do not refer to objective categories, to different relationships to the means of production, but to political attitudes, degrees of support for the Communist Party (which is itself the "proletariat").

Mao’s extreme voluntarism is the most shockingly expressed in his view of nuclear annihilation:

If the imperialists should insist on launching a third world war, it is certain that several hundred million more will turn to socialism. Then there will not be much room left in the world for the imperialists, while it is quite likely that the whole structure of imperialism will utterly collapse.

Small price to pay!

Though Mao clumsily used some of the rhetoric of Marxism filtered through the prism of Stalinism, his thought is miles away from Marxism. Nationalism, not Marxism, was the main strand in Mao’s thought. Mao and the CCP did exactly what Lenin had warned against in 1920: painted nationalism in communist colors.


Several books and articles were used liberally in writing this article. Several were published in International Socialism Journal [old series], a journal published by the ISO’s sister group in Britain. These are:

"Marxism: Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism," by Nigel Harris, International Socialism 26

"Crisis in China," by Tony Cliff, International Socialism 29 (reprinted in ISJ 61)

"Wither China," by Tony Cliff, International Socialism 37

"China" by Nigel Harris, International Socialism 78

"Chou Enlai, Obituary," by Nigel Harris, International Socialism 85

"Mao and Marx," by Nigel Harris, International Socialism 89

"Mao Zedong," by Nigel Harris, International Socialism 92

Several books deserve to be read:

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, by Harold Isaacs

Mao’s China, by Ygael Gluckstein

The Mandate of Heaven, by Nigel Harris

Marxism and Freedom, by Raya Dunayefskaya

The Chairman’s New Clothes, by Simon Leys

Broken Images, by Simon Leys

Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys

Problems of the Chinese Revolution, by Leon Trotsky

The Road to Tiananmen Square, by Charlie Hore

Simon Leys is one of the most informed and astute–not to mention extremely talented and humorous–writers on China. His books are unfortunately out of print. Anyone wanting a sampling should get his article in the New York Review of Books, October 11, 1990. "The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page."

Back to top