Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Since Mao Tse Tung’s demise in 1976 and Deng Xiao Ping’s rise to paramount leader in 1978, China has been transformed in ways that have won open and enthusiastic acclaim by the capitalist world and even (sometimes grudging) admiration by Leftists globally. There is little doubt that the transformation, both for its breadth and rapidity, has been simply astounding. For example, it has taken China about 30 years since 1978 to achieve what it took the developed capitalist world 300 years to do. Of course part of the explanation for this unprecedented pace of change are the factors of modern technology, China’s embrace of capitalism leading to enormous investment by foreign capital, most of it in export industry, and linking manufacturing in China to global supply chains that have transformed capitalism into a worldwide interlinked system.
But while the advocates and supporters of China’s rapid transformation and development to the position of the second largest economy in the world (second only to the US) quote the achievement of lifting 700 million people out of poverty, those on the Left who quote this statistic and others to elevate the Chinese experience to a new model of socialist development, need to reconsider in the light of the history of the socialist road embarked on by China since the 1949 coming to power of the Communist Party of China (CPC). This road has had more than its fair share of twists and turns. While here we can only examine this question in its broad sweep, there is by now a considerable literature (sympathetic and hostile to socialism) to satisfy even the most exacting specialist.
The trajectory of China’s modern history can be traced through the humiliation of being reduced to semi-colonial status by the western powers from the nineteenth century onwards from what was once considered by the Chinese themselves as an empire that was the centre of the world. Resistance to this control by the western powers raged through rebellions, wars and protest movements that eventually fed into the nationalist, bourgeois democratic revolution of 1911 led by Dr Sun Yatsen, which overthrew the monarchy and declared a republic. However, the entrenched feudal system prevented this bourgeois democratic revolution from being carried through thoroughly and consolidated. Despite Dr Sun Yatsen living long enough to oversee an alliance between his nationalist party, the Kuomintang, and the CPC (formed in 1922), this alliance did not last long after his demise in 1925.
By 1927, Dr Sun Yatsen’s successor as head of the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai Shek, turned on his erstwhile allies the CPC and carried out massacres of thousands of communists in Shanghai and elsewhere. The Shanghai massacre, as it came to be known, marked the turn away from the bourgeois democratic revolution’s task of eliminating feudalism. From thereon, Chiang Kai Shek abandoned the Kuomintang’s operations against feudal landowners and directed his army’s fury on eliminating the CPC and its supporters.
Mao Tse Tung had been advocating leading a peasant revolution in China’s concrete conditions and the 1927 turn forced the CPC to ‘abandon’ the cities (or rather, operate in them underground) while the focus of the revolution shifted to guerrilla warfare in the countryside, where the peasantry was mobilised under the leadership of the working class and its revolutionary vanguard, the CPC. After five major ‘encirclement and suppression’ campaigns by the Koumintang army, the CPC was forced to abandon its rural base area in Hunan and embark on the historic Long March (1934-35) to northwestern Shaanxi. Another factor feeding into the decision to embark on the Long March was to position the CPC and its guerrilla army to face and resist the Japanese encroachment on and seizure of Chinese territory starting from northeastern Manchuria since 1931. From its guerrilla base in Yenan, the CPC now under Mao’s undisputed leadership succeeded in turning the tables on Chiang Kai Shek’s obsession with eliminating communism and redirecting national efforts towards organising resistance to the Japanese invaders. The Xian Incident, in which Chiang was ‘arrested’ by some of his own rebellious Generals, forced him to agree to a national united resistance front with the CPC to fight the Japanese. This ‘alliance’ lasted until the end of WWII in 1945 when the Japanese were defeated.
Immediately after the end of WWII, Chiang returned to his first preference of suppressing the communists. However, he was defeated and fled to Taiwan with his forces. The communists declared victory and the People’s Republic of China was born in 1949.
The first task the CPC set itself, according to its programme, was the elimination of feudalism. Land was expropriated from the big landowners and distributed amongst the landless and poor peasantry. Through the stage of forming cooperatives, the system was incrementally revolutionised to form communes by 1958, in which private ownership of the land was abolished in favour of state ownership. The peasants worked in these communes as wage employees, arguably rendering them only a step removed from the urban working class.
Basic, heavy industry was rapidly developed under a regime of centralised economic planning, state ownership of the means of production, and CPC control over the political and cultural life of the country (an orthodox socialist model derived in large part from the experience of the Soviet Union). The Chinese revolutionary regime was not recognised by countries other than the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. In this relative isolation, and given the experience of humiliation by the colonial western powers in the past, not to mention the rich lessons of the revolutionary struggle, Mao emphasised self-reliance. Revolutionary China declared its internationalist solidarity with the revolutionary, national liberation and independence movements of the colonised countries the world over. It came to the help of the Korean revolutionaries in 1950 and stayed the course through the sacrifices of its volunteers in the Korean War until an armistice was signed in 1953 between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (commonly referred to as North Korea) and the western forces led by the US under the fig leaf of the United Nations flag.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev made a secret speech to a closed session of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at its 20th Congress in which he denounced Stalin and the cult of personality. The speech marked the turn for the Soviet Union from fighting against imperialism to ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the developed capitalist world. The implications for socialism in the Soviet Union were to reveal themselves incrementally over time, feeding into its collapse in 1991.
The lessons Mao derived from the Soviet Union’s experience and emerging trend after 1956 set the pace for China’s trajectory. These lessons included the argument that Lenin had clearly indicated that the class struggle was far from over after the conquest of state power by the revolutionaries because the overthrown elite classes (and the Czarist monarchy in the case of Russia) would redouble their efforts to win back power. This was demonstrated by the civil war in the Soviet Union after the October 1917 Revolution in which monarchists and 22 imperialist countries mobilised troops to strangle the revolution in its infancy. However, after a fierce struggle, the counter-revolution was defeated by the Bolsheviks.
But Lenin had also argued that capitalism as a system tended to re-emerge and re-establish itself despite the victory of the revolution, spontaneously, based on lingering private ownership of property and the ideas of the ancient regime. In this respect, he pointed to the class of rich peasants (kulaks) who had to be accorded concessions after the devastating effects of WWI and the immediately following civil war to ward off hunger and starvation as a possible source of the ‘spontaneous’ resurrection of capitalism on the basis of private ownership of land. This ‘threat’ was subsequently (in the 1930s) eliminated by the collectivisation of agriculture under a system of state farms, though not without a struggle against the kulaks.
Mao, on the basis of the emergence of a Kruschevite (revisionist) trend in the Soviet Union even after 39 years of the revolutionary seizure of power, argued that in countries like Russia and China (relatively underdeveloped), once the revolution had consolidated itself, counter-revolutionary capitalist restoration ideas and forces tended to emerge from within the ruling bureaucracy and even the communist party itself. This argument could be embellished by the concept of capitalism not having exhausted its economic potential in such societies when they attempted to build socialism on the ruins of semi-feudal, semi-capitalist foundations. It is no accident then that Mao was thwarted time and again by leaders from within the CPC (e.g. the Great Leap Forward 1958-62, whose flaws provided the ammunition to Mao’s critics inclined towards a bourgeois orientation in the name of ‘pragmatism’ and ‘efficiency’). Mao warned of the emergence of a ‘Kruschev’ from within the top leadership of the CPC. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), this Chinese Kruschev was identified as Liu Shao Chi, the then President of China. But he was not alone. Other leaders similarly criticised included Deng Xiao Ping. The so-called pragmatism of these leaders (especially Deng Xiao Ping) was later to reveal itself as an unabashed embrace of capitalism.
The Cultural Revolution in its political objectives sought to purge the party from top to bottom of revisionist elements now castigated as ‘capitalist roaders’ and eliminate all vestiges of traditional culture and ideas inherited from the past. However, the excesses and ultra-left tendencies that emerged during the Cultural Revolution paved the way for Deng Xiao Ping to assume power after Mao’s death and move China definitively towards an embrace of capitalism. This included reversing the land reforms by dissolving the communes and distributing the land to peasant proprietor families. It also included the incremental privatisation of state owned enterprises (SOEs) and opening up the economy to foreign capital. Western companies jumped at the opportunity and brought finance and modernisation to now predominantly privately owned industry, linking the latter to global supply chains taking advantage of plentiful and cheap labour. Thus China became virtually the workshop of the (capitalist) world, growing at a dizzying pace to become the great power it is today.
The achievement of lifting 700 million people out of poverty is owed to the enormous economic boost that embracing capitalism provided in terms of incomes of the new emerging middle class. Undoubtedly a dramatic improvement, this is an oft-quoted achievement that masks the poverty and misery of those ‘left behind’ in terms of class and region.
The enormous productive potential of early developing capitalism in an economy turning from socialism to its opposite was clearly demonstrated by growth in the double digits over 30 years. The process has continued by leaps and bounds since, propelling China not only into the enviable status of the world’s second largest economy, but also setting into motion the laws of development of capitalism so brilliantly analysed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and so many of their followers and successors. One aspect of these laws is that at a certain stage of development of the productive forces, the domestic market becomes inadequate to absorb the higher level of production of goods and services. Historically, that is when capitalism sought foreign markets. But where the developed capitalist world arrived at this stage and embarked on the conquest of foreign lands (colonialism) and imposing the land grab known as settler colonialism (at the expense of the indigenous populations of far off, recently ‘discovered’ territories), China’s capitalism could not follow this path in the late 20th century. Instead, China’s reliance has been on the other historical tendency of capitalism, i.e. imperialism, which Lenin and subsequent Marxist intellectuals have delineated with penetrating insight.
(To be continued)