No Great Wall: on the continuities of the Chinese Revolution

By Carlos Martinez

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was formed in July 1921. From that time up to the present day, it has led the Chinese Revolution – a revolution to eliminate feudalism, to regain China’s national sovereignty, to end foreign domination of China, to build socialism, to create a better life for the Chinese people, and to contribute to a peaceful and prosperous future for humanity.

Some of these goals have already been achieved; others are ongoing. Thus the Chinese Revolution is a continuing process, and its basic political orientation remains the same.

Feudalism was dismantled in CPC-controlled territories from the early 1930s onwards, and throughout the country in the period immediately following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Similarly, warlord rule was ended and a unified China essentially established in 1949; Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and Macao in 1999. Only Taiwan continues to be governed separately and to serve foreign interests. And yet in a world system still principally defined by US hegemony, the imperialist threat remains – and is intensifying with the development of a US-led hybrid war against China. Therefore the project of protecting China’s sovereignty and resisting imperialism continues. Similarly, the path to socialism is constantly evolving.

In the course of trying to build socialism in a vast semi-colonial, semi-feudal country, mistakes have certainly been made. The collected works of Marx and Lenin bubble over with profound ideas, but they contain no templates or formulae. Chinese Marxists have had to continuously engage in “concrete analysis of concrete conditions”,1 applying and developing socialist theory, creatively adapting it to an ever-changing material reality. In their foreword to Agnes Smedley’s biography of Zhu De, The Great Road, Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy wrote that the Chinese communists, “in the midst of their struggle for survival … have proceeded to evolve a more flexible and sophisticated theory which enriched Marxism by reflecting and absorbing the stubborn realities of the Chinese scene.”2

As Liu Shaoqi, a prominent CPC leader until his denunciation during the Cultural Revolution, explained: “because of the distinctive peculiarities in China’s social and historical development and her backwardness in science, it is a unique and difficult task to apply Marxism systematically to China and to transform it from its European form into a Chinese form… Many of these problems have never been solved or raised by the world’s Marxists, for here in China the main section of the masses are not workers but peasants, and the fight is directed against foreign imperialist oppression and medieval survivals, and not against domestic capitalism.”3

This article argues that, while the Chinese Revolution has taken numerous twists and turns, and while the CPC leadership has adopted different strategies at different times, there is a common thread running through modern Chinese history: of the CPC dedicating itself to navigating a path to socialism, development and independence, improving the lot of the Chinese people, and contributing to a peaceful and prosperous future for humanity.

Historical background

The CPC was formed in response to a clear need for revolutionary leadership. The 1911 bourgeois revolution that had finally overthrown the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China had come to a dead end, owing to the manoeuvring of the imperialist powers and their comprador agents. Most of the country was run by warlords. The feudal economy remained in place and the bulk of the population remained permanently on the brink of starvation, indebted to landlords. The various imperialist powers maintained their footholds, with Britain, the US, Japan and Germany competing for control of China’s land and resources.

Young people in particular were searching for a path forward. “Youth organisations and study circles sprang up in great profusion”, writes Israel Epstein,4 including the New People’s Study Society in Hunan, led by a certain Mao Zedong. A turning point came on 4 May 1919, when the students of Beijing marched on the government buildings in protest at the Treaty of Versailles, which legalised the Japanese seizure of Shandong province and rejected China’s demands for the abolition of foreign spheres of influence and the withdrawal of foreign troops. The demonstrations caught the imagination of students, workers and radical intellectuals throughout the country. “The May 4 Movement was a climactic point of the Chinese revolution. It took place after, and was one of the results of, the October Revolution in Russia.”5 Han Suyin described the May 4 Movement as “a leap of consciousness, a radicalisation, which would determine the course of history.”6

The CPC, formed two years later, was the first organisation to put forward the slogan ‘Down with imperialism’, recognising that China’s weakness and backwardness were inherently bound up with foreign domination. Some relatively forward-thinking elements of the emerging capitalist class had hoped that the US or Japan might help China to establish itself as a modern capitalist power, but the communists recognised that this reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of imperialism. The major capitalist powers were compelled by the nature of their economic system to compete for control of China – a country offering an abundance of land, people, natural resources, and geostrategic advantage. Japan, the US, Britain, Germany and others wouldn’t hesitate to support feudal warlords where it suited their interests; nor would they hesitate to suppress the Chinese people’s desire for independence and progress. The CPC’s anti-imperialist position quickly won it the support of a significant section of the population.

Soon after its formation, at its Third Congress in 1923, the CPC pushed for a united front with the Guomindang (GMD)7, a revolutionary nationalist party set up by Sun Yat-sen in 1912 (the veteran politician and doctor Sun was elected as provisional president of the Republic of China following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty). The idea of the united front was to construct an anti-imperialist alliance incorporating workers, peasants, intellectuals and the patriotic elements of the capitalist class, with a view to decisively ending feudalism, uniting the country under a single central government, and driving out the imperialist powers. Denied recognition or support by the West, the GMD was in the process of orienting towards the recently-formed Soviet Union, which had already demonstrated itself to be a supporter of Chinese sovereignty (the Bolsheviks had indicated their support for Sun Yat-sen as early as 19128 and, once in power, renounced all privileges in China granted to the tsarist regime). Recognising that the CPC would be more effective in mobilising the masses of the working class and peasantry, the GMD agreed to the CPC’s proposal, and the CPC leadership took joint membership of both organisations.

This first united front started to fracture after the death in 1925 of Sun Yat-sen. The GMD’s right wing gained the ascendancy under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek (who would later go on to become the highly authoritarian leader of Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975). Chiang “believed that communism was inhuman and that, unless defeated, it would mean oppression for the Chinese people and the destruction of their traditional culture.”9 Fearing that the communists were gaining too much popular support, Chiang orchestrated a coup against them, in collaboration with the various foreign powers that had recognised in Chiang a potential partner in the pursuit of an ‘acceptable’ political conjuncture in China.

When, in April 1927, Shanghai was liberated from warlord control as the result of an insurrection of the local working class (led primarily by CPC forces), Chiang’s forces won control of the city by means of a massacre of its liberators, killing an estimated 5,000 people. This marked the start of a several-year campaign of mass killings by Chiang’s forces against communists and progressive workers. With CPC members formally ejected from the GMD and the united front dismantled, Chiang Kai-shek set up a new regime in Nanjing, under which “communism became a crime punishable by death.”10 The government focused its efforts not on resisting imperialism or uniting the country but on suppressing communists. Facing something close to physical annihilation, the membership of the CPC fell from 58,000 at the start of 1927 to 10,000 by the end of the year.

These disastrous events led the communists to a strategic reorientation. It was clear that a united front policy focused on the major urban centres was no longer a viable option. Meanwhile, “as every schoolboy knows, 80 per cent of China’s population are peasants,”11 and, as William Hinton writes in the preface to his classic account Fanshen, “without understanding the land question one cannot understand the Revolution in China.”12 The CPC was moving towards the development of a rural-based revolutionary movement.

Following a failed uprising in his native Hunan, Mao Zedong fled with his forces into the Jinggang mountains, in the border region of Jiangxi and Hunan provinces. This became the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army and the site of the first liberated territory. The Jiangxi Soviet expanded over the course of several years to incorporate parts of seven counties and a population of more than half a million.

Han Suyin notes that Mao Zedong “was the first in the party who abandoned the city orientation and devised a major strategy born from China’s reality.” The working class were a growing force, but constituted less than one percent of the population. “Mao saw that setting up rural bases, dedicated to the liberation of the peasantry from the oppression of landlordism, was the only way in which revolution would succeed.”13 Not only was the mass of the peasantry against feudal exploitation, but it could also understand the connection between foreign domination and domestic poverty. The period of foreign aggression from 1840 had led to wars and instability, much of the burden of which fell on the peasantry, which was expected to provide soldiers and sustenance. Any agricultural surplus from good harvest years was redirected to the state (or local warlord), leaving grain reserves empty and thus contributing to vast famines.

The CPC and Red Army grew in strength and experience during this time. Chiang Kai-shek’s obsessive focus on eliminating communism led Mao and his comrades to develop a theory of guerrilla warfare that would prove decisive in the CPC’s rise to power. However, China was rendered vulnerable to attack by Chiang’s pacification programme. Even when the Japanese occupied Manchuria in September 1931, siphoning Manchukuo off as an ‘independent’ puppet state a year later, Chiang’s clearly stated policy was: “Internal pacification first, before external resistance”.

Between 1929 and 1934, Chiang’s forces led a series of brutal encirclement campaigns in an attempt to bury the Jiangxi Soviet. After suffering a series of defeats at the hands of a highly motivated and skilled Red Army, the Guomindang mobilised warlord armies from around the country, organising a force of more than a million troops. The communists had no choice but to abandon the liberated territory and break the siege. This process became the Long March: the extraordinary year-long retreat to the North-West, covering over 9,000 kilometres and ending with the establishment of a revolutionary base area in Shaanxi. This area would serve as the centre of the CPC’s operations until shortly before the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In the liberated territories, the communists led the creation of a new political economy in the countryside that – along with their determined struggle against Japanese militarism – would earn them the support of the broad masses of the peasantry. In his classic account Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow paints a vivid picture of life in the red base areas: “Land was redistributed and taxes were lightened. Collective enterprise was established on a wide scale… Unemployment, opium, prostitution, child slavery, and compulsory marriage were reported to be eliminated, and the living conditions of the workers and poor peasants in the peaceful areas greatly improved. Mass education made much progress in the stabilised soviets. In some counties the Reds attained a higher degree of literacy among the populace in three or four years than had been achieved anywhere else in rural China after centuries.”14

Opium production was ended and replaced by food agriculture. Antiquated feudal practices such as foot-binding, infanticide and the keeping of slave girls were prohibited. Peng Dehuai, one of the top Red Army leaders and later the Defence Minister of the PRC, commented on the decisive importance of the CPC’s progressive and popular policies in the liberated areas:

> “Only by implanting itself deeply in the hearts of the people, only by fulfilling the demands of the masses, only by consolidating a base in the peasant soviets, and only by sheltering in the shadow of the masses, can partisan warfare bring revolutionary victory… Tactics are important, but we could not exist if the majority of the people did not support us.”15

By the mid 1930s, the Japanese armed forces were consolidating and expanding their occupation of Northeast China, aided and abetted by the Western powers, who were motivated by the idea of cooperating with Japan to attack the Soviet Union. Chiang Kai-shek’s position was becoming untenable. He granted concession after concession to the Japanese, but he could no longer justify his refusal to defend China’s national sovereignty. In July 1937, Japanese forces marched out of their puppet state of Manchukuo, going on to occupy Beijing and Shanghai.

In this context, more progressive elements within the GMD took the initiative, detaining Chiang in the northwestern city of Xi’an and forcing him to agree to cooperate with the CPC against Japanese occupation. Thus was formed the Second United Front. The red base at Yan’an (Shaanxi) was recognised as a provincial government and the CPC was legalised; the Red Army was re-designated as the Eighth Route Army.

New Democracy

In the period of the Second United Front, the CPC won enormous prestige for its leadership of the national defence efforts and for its commitment to improving the lives of the population in the territories under its control. Yan’an became a pole of attraction for revolutionary and progressive youth throughout the country. British academic Graham Hutchings writes that “Yan’an seemed to stand for a new type of society. Visitors, foreign and Chinese, found it brimming with purpose, equality and hope. Many students and intellectuals chose to leave areas under the control of a central government they felt lacked a sense of justice, as well as the will to confront the national enemy, for life in the border regions and the communist or ‘progressive’ camp.”16

It was increasingly clear that the communists were the most cohesive, committed and competent political force in China; the only political party with the potential to restore China’s sovereignty, unity and dignity. Mao and the CPC leadership took the time to theorise the type of society they were trying to build; what the substance of their revolution was. The results of these debates and discussions are synthesised in Mao’s 1940 pamphlet On New Democracy, which describes the Chinese Revolution as necessarily having two stages: “first of New Democracy and then of socialism.”17

New Democracy was not to be a socialist society, but a “democratic republic under the joint dictatorship of all anti-imperialist and anti-feudal people led by the proletariat.” Extending a friendly hand to patriotic non-communist forces, Mao invoked the spirit of Sun Yat-sen, calling for “a republic of the genuinely revolutionary new Three People’s Principles with their Three Great Policies.” (The Three People’s Principles were – approximately – nationalism, people’s government, and social welfare; the Three Great Policies were alliance with the Soviet Union, alliance with the CPC, and support for the workers and peasants).

The key elements of this stage of the revolution were to defeat imperialism and to establish independence, as an essential step on the road to the longer-term goal of building socialism. How long would this stage last? It would “need quite a long time and cannot be accomplished overnight. We are not utopians and cannot divorce ourselves from the actual conditions confronting us.”18

Such a society would not be a dictatorship of the proletariat; that is, the working class would not exercise exclusive political control. Rather, political power would be shared by all the anti-imperialist classes: the working class, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie (ie those elements of the capitalist class that stood against foreign domination).

In economic terms, New Democracy would include elements of both socialism and capitalism. “The state enterprises will be of a socialist character and will constitute the leading force in the whole national economy, but the republic will neither confiscate capitalist private property in general nor forbid the development of such capitalist production as does not ‘dominate the livelihood of the people’, for China’s economy is still very backward.” Land reform would be carried out, and the activities of private capital would be subjected to heavy regulation.

In conversation with Edgar Snow, Mao envisaged China taking its place within an ever-more globalised world – perhaps anticipating the ‘opening up’ of four decades later: “When China really wins her independence, then legitimate foreign trading interests will enjoy more opportunities than ever before. The power of production and consumption of 450 million people is not a matter that can remain the exclusive interest of the Chinese, but one that must engage the many nations. Our millions of people, once really emancipated, with their great latent productive possibilities freed for creative activity in every field, can help improve the economy as well as raise the cultural level of the whole world.”19

Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the CPC and GMD attempted to negotiate a post-war government alliance. However, the agreement forged in Chongqing in October 1945 fell apart as Chiang’s forces continued their military attacks on the CPC-controlled areas. A bitter four-year civil war ensued, resulting in the communists’ victory, Chiang Kai-shek’s flight to Taiwan, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The newly-installed government, led by the CPC, attempted to build the type of society described in On New Democracy. Its governance was based on the Common Programme – an interim constitution drawn up by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (a united front body created by the CPC), with 662 delegates representing 45 different organisations. The Common Programme did not call for the immediate establishment of a socialist society, and it promised to encourage private business. As Mao had written earlier in the year, “our present policy is to regulate capitalism and not to destroy it.”20 Patriotic capitalists were invited to participate in government.

The most important immediate economic change was the comprehensive dismantling of feudalism: the abolition of the rural class system and the distribution of land to the peasantry (a process already well underway in the areas under CPC control). Land reform resulted in a large agricultural surplus which, along with Soviet support, created the conditions for a rapid state-led industrialisation. Hutchings notes that “dramatic improvements in life expectancy and literacy rates and increases in living standards accompanied the appearance of factories, roads, railways and bridges across the country.”21 Along with this came an unprecedented shift in the status of women, who had suffered every oppression and indignity under feudalism. Via a system of “barefoot doctors”, basic medical care was made available to the peasantry. “As a consequence, fertility rose, infant mortality declined, life expectancy began to climb, and the population stabilised and then grew for the first time since the Japanese invasion of 1937.”22

The New Democracy period only lasted a few years. By 1954, the government was promoting collectivisation in the countryside and shifting private production into state hands. By the time of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, there was no more talk of a slow and cautious road to socialism; the plan now was to “surpass Britain and catch up to America” within 15 years.

The reasons for moving on from New Democracy are complex and contested, and reflect a shifting global political environment. The CPC had envisaged – or at least hoped for – mutually beneficial relations with the West, as is hinted at in the quote above that “legitimate foreign trading interests will enjoy more opportunities than ever before”. However, by the time of the founding of the PRC, the Cold War was already in full swing. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, and with the outbreak of civil war between the communists and the nationalists, the US came down on the side of the latter, on the basis that Chiang understood the civil war to be “an integral part of the worldwide conflict between communism and capitalism”23 and was resolutely on the side of capitalism.

The US made its hostility to the People’s Republic manifestly clear from early on. The US involvement in the Korean War, starting in June 1950, was to no small degree connected to “the West’s determination … to ‘contain’ revolutionary China.”24 The genocidal force directed against the Korean people – including the repeated threat of nuclear warfare – was also a warning to China’s communists (although the warning was returned with interest, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese volunteers joined hands with their Korean brothers and sisters, rapidly pushing the US-led troops back to the 38th parallel and forcing an effective stalemate). Soon after the arrival of US troops in Korea, US President Truman announced that his government would act to prevent Taiwan’s incorporation into the PRC, since this would constitute “a threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.”25 Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy into the Taiwan Strait in order to prevent China from occupying it (such, incidentally, are the imperialist origins of the notion of Taiwanese independence). Along with these acts of physical aggression, the US imposed a total embargo on China, depriving the country of various important materials required for reconstruction.

The dangerously hostile external environment made New Democracy less viable. There are parallels here with the Soviet abandonment of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1929. Much like New Democracy, the NEP had consisted of a mixed economy, with private business encouraged in order to increase production and enhance productivity. Introduced in 1921, the NEP proved highly successful, allowing the Soviet Union to recover economically from war whilst minimising internal class conflict. By the end of the decade, however, new external dangers were emerging and it became clear to the Soviet leadership that the imperialist powers were starting to mobilise for war. From 1929 the Soviet economy shifted to something like a wartime basis, with near-total centralisation, total state ownership of industry, collectivisation of agriculture, and a major focus on heavy industry and military production.

Similarly in China in the mid-1950s, the shifting regional situation contributed to an economic and political shift. Beyond that, there was undoubtedly a subjective factor of the CPC leadership wanting to accelerate the journey to socialism – to “accomplish socialist industrialisation and socialist transformation in fifteen years or a little longer”, as Mao put it in 1953.26 With the death of Stalin in March 1953 and the gradual deterioration of relations between the CPC and the new Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev, the Chinese came to feel that the Soviets were abandoning the path of revolutionary struggle and that responsibility for blazing a trail in the construction of socialism had fallen to China. To move from a position of economic and scientific backwardness to becoming an advanced socialist power would require nothing less than a great leap.

Mao as monster?

To this day, the most popular method for casually denigrating the People’s Republic of China and the record of the CPC is to cite the alleged crimes of Mao Zedong who, from the early 1930s until his death in 1976, was generally recognised as the top leader of the Chinese Revolution. If the CPC was so dedicated to improving the lot of the Chinese people, why did it engage in such disastrous campaigns as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?

The Great Leap Forward, launched in 1958, was an ambitious programme designed to achieve rapid industrialisation and collectivisation; to fast-track the construction of socialism and allow China to make a final break with centuries-old underdevelopment and poverty; in Mao’s words, to “close the gap between China and the US within five years, and to ultimately surpass the US within seven years”.27 In its economic strategy, it represented “a rejection of plodding Soviet-style urban industrialisation,”28 reflecting the early stages of the Sino-Soviet split. The Chinese were worried that the Khrushchev leadership in Moscow was narrowly focused on the avoidance of conflict with the imperialist powers, and that its support to China and the other socialist countries would be sacrificed at the altar of ‘peaceful coexistence’. Hence China would have to rely on its own resources.

For all its shortcomings, the core of the GLF was pithily described by Indian Marxist Vijay Prashad as an “attempt to bring small-scale industry to rural areas.”29 Mao considered the countryside would once again become the “true source for revolutionary social transformation” and “the main arena where the struggle to achieve socialism and communism will be determined.”30 Agricultural collectivisation was fast-tracked, and there was a broad appeal to the revolutionary spirit of the masses. Ji Chaozhu (at the time an interpreter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later China’s ambassador to the UK (1987-91)) notes in his memoirs: “The peasants were left with small plots of their own, for subsistence farming only. All other activity was for the communal good, to be shared equally. Cadres were to join the peasants in the fields, factories, and construction sites. Even Mao made an appearance at a dam-building project to have his picture taken with a shovel in hand.”31

The GLF was not overall a success. Liu Mingfu writes that “the Great Leap Forward did not realise the goal of surpassing the UK and US. It actually brought China’s economy to a standstill and then recession. It caused a large number of unnatural deaths and pushed China’s global share of GDP from 5.46% in 1957 to 4.01% in 1962, lower than its share of 4.59% in 1950.”32

The disruption to the basic economic structure of society combined with the sudden withdrawal of Soviet experts in 1960 and a series of terrible droughts and floods to produce poor harvests. Meanwhile, with millions of peasants drafted into the cities to work in factories, “no one was available to reap and to thresh.”33 The historian Alexander Pantsov writes that the “battle for steel had diverted the Chinese leadership’s attention from the grain problem, and the task of harvesting rice and other grain had fallen on the shoulders of women, old men, and children… A shortage of grain developed, and Mao gave the command to decrease the pace of the Great Leap.”34 Ji Chaozhu observes that “malnutrition leading to edema was common in many areas, and deaths among the rural population increased.”35

Certain of the GLF’s goals were achieved – most notably the irrigation of arable land. However, it didn’t achieve its overall objective, and the disruption it caused contributed to a deepening of poverty and malnutrition. It was called off in 1962. It remains a highly controversial topic in Chinese history. For anticommunists, the GLF provides incontrovertible proof of the monstrous, murderous nature of the CPC – and Mao Zedong in particular. Western bourgeois historians seem to have settled on a figure of 30 million for the estimated number of lives lost in famine resulting from the Great Leap. On the basis of a rigorous statistical analysis, Indian economist Utsa Patnaik concludes that China’s death rate rose from 12 per thousand in 1958 (a historically low figure resulting from land reform and the extension of basic medical services throughout the country) to a peak of 25.4 per thousand in 1960. “If we take the remarkably low death rate of 12 per thousand that China had achieved by 1958 as the benchmark, and calculate the deaths in excess of this over the period 1959 to 1961, it totals 11.5 million. This is the maximal estimate of possible ‘famine deaths.’”36

Patnaik observes that even the peak death rate in 1960 “was little different from India’s 24.8 death rate in the same year, which was considered quite normal and attracted no criticism.” This is an important point. Malnutrition was at that time a scourge throughout the developing world (sadly it remains so in some parts of the planet). China’s history is rife with terrible famines, including in 1907, 1928 and 1942. It is only in the modern era, under the leadership of precisely that ‘monstrous’ CPC, that malnutrition has become a thing of the past in China.

In other words, the failure of the GLF has been cynically manipulated by bourgeois academics to denigrate the entire history of the Chinese Revolution. The GLF was not some outrageous crime against humanity; it was a legitimate attempt to accelerate the building of a prosperous and advanced socialist society. It turned out not to be successful and was therefore dropped.

In the aftermath of the GLF, Mao’s more radical wing of the CPC leadership became somewhat marginalised, and the initiative fell to those wanting to prioritise social stability and economic growth over ongoing class struggle. Principal among these were Liu Shaoqi (head of state of the PRC, widely considered to be Mao’s successor) and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping. Liu, Deng, Chen Yun and Zhou Enlai put forward the concept of the Four Modernisations (in agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology) which would come to constitute a cornerstone of post-Mao economic policy.

In the years that followed, Mao and a group of his close comrades began to worry that the deprioritisation of class struggle reflected an anti-revolutionary ‘revisionist’ trend that could ultimately lead to capitalist restoration. As Mao saw it, revisionist elements were able to rely on the support of the intelligentsia – particularly teachers and academics – who, themselves coming largely from non-working class backgrounds, were promoting capitalist and feudal values among young people. It was necessary to “exterminate the roots of revisionism” and “struggle against those in power in the party who were taking the capitalist road.”37

The Cultural Revolution started in 1966 as a mass movement of university and school students, incited and encouraged by Mao and others on the left of the leadership. Student groups formed in Beijing calling themselves Red Guards and taking up Mao’s call to “thoroughly criticise and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art”.38 The students produced ‘big-character posters’ (dazibao) setting out their analysis against, and making their demands of, anti-revolutionary bourgeois elements in authority. Mao was enthusiastic, writing the students in support of their initiative: “I will give enthusiastic support to all who take an attitude similar to yours in the Cultural Revolution movement.”39 He produced his own dazibao calling on the revolutionary masses to “Bombard the Headquarters” – that is, to rise up against the reformers and “bourgeois elements” in the party.

These developments were synthesised by the CPC Central Committee, which in August 1966 adopted its Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. “Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do the exact opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticise and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic ‘authorities’ and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”40

Thus the aims of the Cultural Revolution were to stimulate a mass struggle against the supposedly revisionist and capitalist restorationist elements in the party; to put a stop to the hegemony of bourgeois ideas in the realms of education and culture; and to entrench a new culture – socialist, collectivist, modern. The Cultural Revolution also marked a further escalation of the Sino-Soviet split, as the revisionist illness was considered to have a Soviet etiology (Liu Shaoqi, previously considered as Mao’s successor and now the principal target of the radicals, was labelled China’s Khrushchev). Li Mingjiang notes that, “throughout the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union was systematically demonised. Sino-Soviet hostilities reached an unprecedented level, as exemplified by Mao’s designation of Moscow as China’s primary enemy.”41

Han Suyin describes the chaotic atmosphere of the early days of the Cultural Revolution: “Extensive democracy. Great criticism. Wall posters everywhere. Absolute freedom to travel. Freedom to form revolutionary exchanges. These were the rights and freedoms given to the Red Guards, and no wonder it went to their heads and very soon became total licence.” In August 1966, “the simmering Cultural Revolution exploded in a maelstrom of violence… Mao had not reckoned that he would lose control of the havoc he had launched.”42

There was widespread disruption. Universities were closed. “Red Guards occupied and ransacked the Foreign Ministry, while most ambassadors were recalled to Beijing for political education. The British embassy was attacked, and the Soviet embassy was laid under siege by youthful Maoists for several months.”43

Many of those accused by the Cultural Revolution Group (CRG, a body of the CPC initially reporting to the Politburo Standing Committee but becoming the de facto centre of power) suffered horrible fates. Posters appeared with the slogan “Down with Liu Shaoqi! Down with Deng Xiaoping! Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought.” Liu’s books were burned in Tiananmen Square – “they were declared to be poisonous weeds, yet they had been a mainstay of the theoretical construct which in Yen’an in 1945-47 had brought Mao to power.”44 He was expelled from all positions and arrested. “Liu had been repeatedly tortured and interrogated, confined to an unheated cell, and denied medical care. He died in November 1969, his remains surreptitiously cremated under a false name. His death was kept from his wife for three years, and from the public for a decade.”45

Peng Dehuai, former Defence Minister and the leader of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army’s operations in the Korean War, had been forced into retirement in 1959 after criticising the Great Leap Forward. Jiang Qing – Mao’s wife, and a leading figure in the CRG – sent Red Guards to Sichuan, where Peng was living. “A band of thugs burst into his house, seized him, and brought him to the capital, where he was thrown into prison. Peng was tortured and beaten more than a hundred times, his ribs were broken, his face maimed, and his lungs damaged. He was repeatedly dragged to criticism and struggle meetings.”46 He died in a prison hospital in 1974.

Even Premier Zhou Enlai, unfailingly loyal in spite of his quiet horror at the CRG’s extremism, didn’t escape unscathed: in November 1966, according to Han Suyin, he had a heart attack after 22 hours of being surrounded and shouted at by Red Guards.

Although Mao had only intended it to last for a few months, the Cultural Revolution only came to its conclusion shortly before Mao’s death in 1976, albeit with varying intensity – realising that the situation was getting out of control, in 1967 Mao called on the army to help establish order and re-organise production. However, the Cultural Revolution flared up again with the ascendancy of the ‘Gang of Four’ from 1972.

Historians in the capitalist countries tend to present the Cultural Revolution in the most facile and vacuous terms. To them, it was simply the quintessential example of Mao’s obsessive love of violence and power; just another episode in the long story of communist authoritarianism. But psychopathology is rarely the principal driving force of history. In reality, the Cultural Revolution was a radical mass movement; millions of young people were inspired by the idea of moving faster towards socialism, of putting an end to feudal traditions, of creating a more egalitarian society, of fighting bureaucracy, of preventing the emergence of a capitalist class, of empowering workers and peasants, of making their contribution to a global socialist revolution, of building a proud socialist culture unfettered by thousands of years of Confucian tradition. They wanted a fast track to a socialist future. They were inspired by Mao and his allies, who were in turn inspired by them.

Such a movement can get out of control easily enough, and it did. Mao can’t be considered culpable for every excess, every act of violence, every absurd statement (indeed he intervened at several points to rein it in), but he was broadly supportive of the movement and ultimately did the most to further its aims. Mao had enormous personal influence – not solely powers granted by the party or state constitutions, but an authority that came from being the chief architect of a revolutionary process that had transformed hundreds of millions of people’s lives for the better. He was as Lenin was to the Soviet people, as Fidel Castro remains to the Cuban people. Even when he made mistakes, these mistakes were liable to be embraced by millions of people. Han Suyin comments that “Mao was prone to making contradictory remarks, but each remark had the force of an edict.”47

The Cultural Revolution is now widely understood in China to have been misguided. It was “the most severe setback … suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.”48 The political assumptions of the movement – that the party was becoming dominated by counter-revolutionaries and capitalist-roaders; that the capitalist-roaders in the party would have to be overthrown by the masses; that continuous revolution would be required in order to stay on the road to socialism – were explicitly rejected by the post-Mao leadership of the CPC, which pointed out that “the ‘capitalist-roaders’ overthrown … were leading cadres of Party and government organisations at all levels, who formed the core force of the socialist cause.”49 Historian Rebecca Karl posits that this post-Mao leadership in fact benefitted from the Cultural Revolution, in the sense that it became “the saviour of China from chaos.”50

Unquestionably the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution impeded the country’s development and brought awful tragedy to a significant number of people. What so many historians operating in a capitalist framework fail to understand is why, in spite of the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution, Mao is still revered in China. For the Chinese people, the bottom line is that his errors were “the errors of a great proletarian revolutionary.”51

It was the CPC, led by Mao and on the basis of a political strategy principally devised by him, that China was liberated from foreign rule; that the country was unified; that feudalism was dismantled; that land was distributed to the peasants; that the country was industrialised; that a path to women’s liberation was forged. British academic John Ross points out that, “in the 27 years between the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, life expectancy in China increased by 31 years – or over a year per chronological year… China’s rate of increase of life expectancy in the three decades after 1949 was the fastest ever recorded in a major country in human history.”52

The excesses and errors associated with the last years of Mao’s life have to contextualised within this overall picture of unprecedented, transformative progress for the Chinese people. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was less than 20 percent. By the time Mao died, it was around 93 percent. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so up to 1949. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up that was accessible to the masses of the people. Land was irrigated. Famine became a thing of the past. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty and developed the means to defend itself from imperialist attack.

Hence the Mao as monster narrative has little resonance in China. As Deng Xiaoping himself put it, “without Mao’s outstanding leadership, the Chinese revolution would still not have triumphed even today. In that case, the people of all our nationalities would still be suffering under the reactionary rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism.”53 Furthermore, even the mistakes were not the product of the deranged imagination of a tyrant but, rather, creative attempts to respond to an incredibly complex and evolving set of circumstances. They were errors carried out in the cause of exploring a path to socialism – a historically novel process inevitably involving risk and experimentation.

Reform and opening up: the great betrayal?

From 1978, the post-Mao Chinese leadership embarked on a process of ‘reform and opening up’ – gradually introducing market mechanisms to the economy, allowing elements of private property, and encouraging investment from the capitalist world. This programme of socialism with Chinese characteristics posited that, while China had established a socialist society, it would remain for some time in the primary stage of socialism, during which period it was necessary to develop a socialist market economy – combining planning, the development of a mixed economy and the profit motive – with a view to maximising the development of the productive forces.

Deng Xiaoping, who had been one of the most prominent targets of the Cultural Revolution and who had risen to become de facto leader of the CPC from 1978, theorised reform and opening up in the following terms: “Marxism attaches utmost importance to developing the productive forces… [The advance towards communism] calls for highly developed productive forces and an overwhelming abundance of material wealth. Therefore, the fundamental task for the socialist stage is to develop the productive forces. The superiority of the socialist system is demonstrated, in the final analysis, by faster and greater development of those forces than under the capitalist system. As they develop, the people’s material and cultural life will constantly improve… Socialism means eliminating poverty. Pauperism is not socialism, still less communism.”54

Was this the moment the CPC gave up on its commitment to Marxism? Such is the belief of many. For supporters of capitalism, the idea that China ‘ascended’ to capitalism from 1978 onwards is a validation of their own ideology; China was socialist and poor, and then became capitalist and rich. This view is near-universal among mainstream economists. Even the well-known Keynesian Jeffrey Sachs, who is both politically progressive and friendly towards China, considers that the key turning point in Chinese history was not 1949 but 1978: “After nearly 140 years of economic and social strife, marked by foreign incursions, domestic rebellions, civil wars, and internal policy blunders of historic dimensions, China settled down after 1978 to stable, open, market-based production and trade.”55

On the other hand, for many on the left (particularly in the West), 1978 marked a turning point in the wrong direction – away from socialism, away from the cause of the working class and peasantry. The introduction of private profit, the decollectivisation of agriculture, the appearance of multinational companies and the rise of Western influence: these added up to a historic betrayal and an end to the Chinese Revolution.

The consensus view within the CPC is that socialism with Chinese characteristics is a strategy aimed at strengthening socialism, improving the lives of the Chinese people, and consolidating China’s sovereignty. Although China had taken incredible steps forward since 1949, China in 1978 remained backward in many ways. The bulk of the population lived a very precarious existence, many without access to modern energy and safe water. China’s per capita income was $210. Food production, and consequently average food consumption, was insufficient. “An estimated 30 percent of rural residents, about 250 million, lived below the poverty line, relying on small loans for production and state grants for food.”56 The low per capita income figure is deceptive in the sense that the poor in China had secure access to land and housing – by which measure they were doing much better than most of their counterparts in the developing world; nonetheless the vast majority were genuinely poor.

Meanwhile the capitalist world was making major advances in science and technology, and the gap in living standards between China and its neighbours was growing sufficiently wide as to threaten the legitimacy of the CPC government. Chinese economist Justin Yifu Lin notes that, at the time of the founding of the PRC, there was only a relatively small per capita income gap between China and its East Asian neighbours. “But by 1978 Japan had basically caught up with the United States, and South Korea and Taiwan, China, had narrowed the income gap with developed countries. China, although boasting a complete industrial system, an atomic bomb, and a man-made satellite, had a standard of living a far cry from that of the developed world.”57

In Guangdong, the southern province bordering Hong Kong, many were fleeing because, in the words of Hua Guofeng (Mao’s chosen successor as head of the CPC), “Hong Kong and Macao were wealthy and the PRC was poor.” The leadership simply decided to “change the situation and make the PRC wealthy.”58

Opening up to foreign capital, learning from foreign technology, and integrating into the global market would allow for a faster development of the productive forces. Export manufacturing would allow China to build up sufficient hard currency to acquire technology from rich countries and improve productivity. Foreign capital would be attracted by China’s virtually limitless pool of literate and diligent workers.

All this was highly unorthodox compared to the experience of the socialist world up to that point (with some partial exceptions, such as Yugoslavia and Hungary). Deng Xiaoping’s strong belief was that, unless the government delivered on a significant improvement in people’s standard of living, the entire socialist project would lose its legitimacy and therefore be in peril. Assessing that China was around 20 years behind the advanced countries in science and technology, he stated: “When a backward country is trying to build socialism, it is natural that during the long initial period its productive forces will not be up to the level of those in developed capitalist countries and that it will not be able to eliminate poverty completely. Accordingly, in building socialism we must do all we can to develop the productive forces and gradually eliminate poverty, constantly raising the people’s living standards… If we don’t do everything possible to increase production, how can we expand the economy? How can we demonstrate the superiority of socialism and communism? We have been making revolution for several decades and have been building socialism for more than three. Nevertheless, by 1978 the average monthly salary for our workers was still only 45 yuan, and most of our rural areas were still mired in poverty. Can this be called the superiority of socialism?”59

Interestingly, this sentiment contains echoes of Mao in 1949: “If we are ignorant in production, cannot grasp production work quickly … so as to improve the livelihood of workers first and then that of other ordinary people, we shall certainly not be able to maintain our political power: we shall lose our position and we shall fail.”60

Marx wrote in volume 3 of Capital that “the development of the productive forces of social labour is capital’s historic mission and justification. For that very reason, it unwittingly creates the material conditions for a higher form of production.”61 The vision of the CPC leadership was to replace “unwittingly” with “purposefully”: using capital, within strict limits and under heavy regulation, to bring China into the modern world.

Rather than selling out to capitalism, reform and opening up is better understood as a return to the policies of the New Democracy period. The CPC has always been adamant that what China is building is socialism, not capitalism – “it is for the realisation of communism that we have struggled for so many years… It was for the realisation of this ideal that countless people laid down their lives.”62 The basic guiding ideology of the CPC has not changed in its century of existence, as was summed up succinctly by Xi Jinping: “Both history and reality have shown us that only socialism can save China and only socialism with Chinese characteristics can bring development to China.”63

In borrowing certain techniques and mechanisms from capitalism, China is following a logic devised by the Bolsheviks during the New Economic Policy, using markets and investment to stimulate economic activity, whilst maintaining Communist Party rule and refusing to allow the capitalist class to dominate political power. As Lenin put it in 1921: “We must not be afraid of the growth of the petty bourgeoisie and small capital. What we must fear is protracted starvation, want and food shortage, which create the danger that the working class will be utterly exhausted and will give way to petty-bourgeois vacillation and despair. This is a much more terrible prospect.”64

Modern China has gone much further than the NEP, in the sense that private property is not limited to “the petty bourgeoisie and small capital”; there are some extremely wealthy individuals and companies controlling vast sums of capital. And yet their political status is essentially the same as it was in the early days of the PRC; their existence as a class is predicated on their acceptance of the overall socialist programme and trajectory of the country. As long as they are helping China to develop, they are tolerated. Even in 1957, with socialist construction in full swing, Mao considered that “the contradiction between the working class and the national bourgeoisie comes under the category of contradictions among the people… In the concrete conditions of China, this antagonistic contradiction between the two classes, if properly handled, can be transformed into a non-antagonistic one and be resolved by peaceful methods.”65

The reform strategy has been undeniably successful in terms of alleviating poverty and modernising the country. Economist Arthur Kroeber notes that workers’ wages have increased continuously, pointing out that, in 1994, a Chinese factory worker could expect to earn a quarter of what their counterpart in Thailand was earning; just 14 years later, the Chinese worker was earning 25 percent more than the Thai worker.66 Jude Woodward writes that per capita income in China doubled in the decade from 1980, “whereas it took Britain six decades to achieve the same after the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century and America five decades after the Civil War.”67

The combination of planning and ever-rising productivity has created a vast surplus, which has been used partly to “orchestrate a massive, sustained programme of infrastructure construction, including roads, railways, ports, airports, dams, electricity generation and distribution facilities, telecommunications, water and sewage systems, and housing, on a proportional scale far exceeding that of comparable developing countries, such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”68

The fundamental difference between the Chinese system and capitalism is that, with capital in control, it would not be possible to prioritise the needs of the working class and peasantry; China would not have been able to achieve the largest-scale poverty alleviation in history. Deng understood this: “Ours is an economically backward country with a population of one billion. If we took the capitalist road, a small number of people in certain areas would quickly grow rich, and a new bourgeoisie would emerge along with a number of millionaires — all of these people amounting to less than one per cent of the population — while the overwhelming majority of the people would remain in poverty, scarcely able to feed and clothe themselves. Only the socialist system can eradicate poverty.”69

In adapting its strategy in accordance with new realities and a sober assessment of the past, the CPC was following the same principle it had always stood for: to seek truth from facts and to develop a reciprocal relationship between theory and practice. In Mao’s words, “the only yardstick of truth is the revolutionary practice of millions of people.”70 The CPC’s experience in practice was that “having a totally planned economy hampers the development of the productive forces to a certain extent.”71 Its leaders therefore conjectured that a combination of planning and markets would “liberate the productive forces and speed up economic growth.” This hypothesis has been proven correct by material reality. As John Ross puts it, “China’s extraordinary success during reform and opening up was based on adherence to Marxist theory and is the largest possible scale vindication of the Marxism in the framework of which reform and opening up was developed.”72

No Great Wall

Reform and opening up wasn’t purely a correction of earlier mistakes; it was also a response to changing objective circumstances; specifically, a more favourable international environment resulting from the restoration of China’s seat at the United Nations (1971) and the rapprochement between China and the US. Thomas Orlik, chief economist at Bloomberg Economics, correctly observes that, “when Deng Xiaoping launched the reform and opening process, friendly relations with the United States provided the crucial underpinning. The path for Chinese goods to enter global markets was open.”73 So too was the door for foreign capital, technology, and expertise to enter China – first from Hong Kong and Japan, then the West. Zhou Enlai reportedly commented at the time of then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s historic visit to Beijing in 1971 that “only America can help China to modernise.”74 Even allowing for Zhou’s legendary diplomatic eloquence, this statement nevertheless contains an important kernel of truth.

Mao and Zhou had seen engagement with the US as a way to break China’s isolation. The US leadership saw engagement with China as a way to perpetuate and exacerbate the division between China and the Soviet Union. (Everyone was triangulating; for its part, the Soviet leadership was hoping to work with the US to undermine and destabilise China.75) Regardless of the complex set of intentions, one key outcome of the US-China rapprochement in the early 1970s was that a favourable external environment was created in which a policy of ‘opening up’ could feasibly be pursued.

Deng was also not the first to recognise that the productive forces were undergoing historic changes in the West and that China would have to catch up. Zhou Enlai noted that “new developments in science are bringing humanity to a new technological and industrial revolution… we must conquer these new heights in science to reach advanced world standards.”76 Indeed it was Zhou that first conceptualised the Four Modernisations that Deng made the cornerstone of his strategy. Zhou talked in January 1975 – during his last major speech – of the urgent need to take advantage of the more peaceful and stable international context and “accomplish the comprehensive modernisation of agriculture, industry, national defence and science and technology before the end of the century, so that our national economy will be advancing in the front ranks of the world.”77

The economic take-off of the post-1978 period “would not have been possible without the economic, political and social foundations that had been built up in the preceding period”, in the words of the late Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin.78 Even with the disruption caused by the Cultural Revolution, the early period of socialist construction achieved “progress on a scale which old China could not achieve in hundreds or even thousands of years.”79 This is widely understood within China. Prominent economist Hu Angang writes that, by 1978, all children received an education, adult illiteracy had fallen from 80 percent to 33 percent, and basic healthcare was available to everyone. Industry had been built up from almost nothing. Meanwhile, “China succeeded in feeding one-fifth of the world’s population with only 7 percent of the world’s arable land and 6.5 percent of its water. China’s pre-1978 social and economic development cannot be underestimated.”80 This can be usefully compared with the same time period in India, which following independence from the British Empire in 1947 was in a similarly parlous state, with a life expectancy of 32. At the end of the pre-reform period in China, ie 1978, India’s life expectancy had increased to 55, while China’s had increased to 67. As John Ross elucidates, “this sharply growing difference was not because India had a bad record – as an increase of 22 years in life expectancy over a 31-year period graphically shows. It is simply that China’s performance was sensational – life expectancy increasing by 32 years in a 29-year chronological period.”81

Xi Jinping has observed that, although the two major phases of the People’s Republic of China are different in many ways, “they are by no means separated from or opposed to each other. We should neither negate the pre-reform phase in comparison with the post-reform phase, nor the converse.”82

The two major phases are both consistent with the CPC’s guiding philosophy and raison d’être. Both have played an invaluable role in China’s continuing transformation from a divided, war-torn, backward and phenomenally poor country in which “approximately one of every three children died within the first year of birth”83 to a unified, peaceful, advanced and increasingly prosperous country which is blazing a trail towards a more developed socialism.

In each stage of its existence, the CPC has sought to creatively apply and develop Marxism according to the prevailing concrete circumstances; always seeking to safeguard China’s sovereignty, maintain peace, and build prosperity for the masses of the people. Through many twists and turns, this has been a constant of a hundred years of Chinese Revolution.


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The above article was originally posted here on Invent the Future