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International Socialism, Winter 1978/79


Tim Potter

China – revisionism in power? II


From International Socialism, 2:3, Winter 1978/79.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The document from the OCT is to be warmly welcomed. They are quite correct when they claim that the Chinese leaders’ policies have ‘become counter-revolutionary on a global scale’, that the ‘theory of the three worlds’ must lead to ‘the abandoning of any concept of class’, and so on. Above all they are right to locate Mao’s errors in terms of his failure to destroy the ‘Stalinist framework’, particularly the theory of ‘socialism in one country’; and they correctly conclude in support of any struggles by the masses against the Chinese leadership.

But at the same time certain misconceptions, certain myths of a golden age of the Cultural Revolution, remain. For the OCT see the Cultural Revolution as being the highpoint of a continuing class struggle within all sections of Chinese society. After it, the dictatorship of the proletariat emerged strengthened. The present liquidation of the leaders and traditions of the Cultural Revolution is simultaneously the liquidation of the dictatorship of the proletariat itself. The result of this is the creation of a form of state capitalism in China. According to the OCT, today we are witnessing a decisive change in the class nature of the Chinese state; from the dictatorship of the proletariat to ‘a long period of state capitalism’.

Now we have witnessed such a change-over before: in the Stalinist liquidation of the Russian Revolution during the 1920’s. There were three key aspects in this process before the dictatorship of the proletariat could give way to a form of state capitalism. The first was the destruction of the Russian working class during the Civil War as the leading class in the new Soviet state. Second, the form of working class democracy, the Soviets, had to wither and die. Thirdly, the social force which had replaced the working class as the defender of the revolution, the Bolshevik party had to be become heavily bureaucratised and flooded with factory managers, bureaucrats and old Tsarist officers.

Has such a change taken place in China over the last ten years? On all available evidence, the answer must be no. The democratic institutions of the Chinese working class have not been destroyed – for the simple reason that they have never existed in the new Chinese state. The Soviets in the Russian Revolution were, at one and the same time, the expression of the self-activity of the working class, the alternative to the provisional government and the basis of the new state – the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Chinese revolution had no similar structures to overthrow the decaying Kuo Min Tang state. Its overthrow came about through the superiority of the People’s Liberation Army, unsupervised by the mass of workers and peasants.

It was only after four years in power that any semblance of mass organisation was created to add legitimacy to the new regime. But the National People’s Congress has never exerted any real popular control over the government. Indeed during the Cultural Revolution, when according to the OCT, the dictatorship of the proletariat was being strengthened, the NPC did not even meet. From 1964 to 1975, there wasn’t a single meeting. Yet in Marxist tradition the very essence of dictatorship of the proletariat is the national direction of the state by the mass of the exploited. There was clearly no control over the state from this quarter, yet the Cultural Revolution created no new structures to replace it.

Neither did the party act as a substitute for working class democracy as it attempted to do in the USSR from 1920 to 1925. The Chinese Communist Party has always been dominated internally by a rigid military structure determined by its twenty year long military campaign against the KMT and Japanese imperialism. Again throughout the period of the Cultural Revolution, from 1958 to 1969 there were no meetings of the Party Congress.

There is no doubt at all that the Cultural Revolution did give rise to a massive upswing in the activity and participation of the masses and the rank-and-file, from the flowering of the Peking wall posters to the huge strikes of Cantonese workers. Just as in the ‘Prague Spring’; whole sections of students and workers, encouraged by one section of the party bureaucracy, moved against the entrenched supporters of the other section. And very often this mass activity reached proportions that were dangerous to the very structure over which Mao himself presided. But having said this, two very important questions need to be answered: did the Cultural Revolution lead to any significant gains for the working class?, and was there even one section of the party that supported the autonomous self-activity of the proletariat and the forms of struggle that it might throw up? Both these questions must be answered with an unqualified ‘no’.

Thus throughout the period of the Cultural Revolution there were no national structures which could allow the masses any control over the process. Yet this is the very hall-mark of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Nor were there any unofficial bodies created which could undertake that role. It is true that Mao in his 16 Points, the document which formed the programme of the Cultural Revolution, called for “a system of elections like that in the Paris Commune”, for Marx the first living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But in January 1967, when sections of the Shanghai workers and students attempted to do precisely that, the reaction of Mao was to send in the army to put an end to such schemes.

Other institutions were created during the Cultural Revolution but none of them made any pretence to being a national organisation through which the masses could exercise their dictatorship. One of these, the Red Guards, has been the most spectacular casualty of the new leaders’ policies. But it is well-known that they have played no real role in political life since Mao himself boasted ten years ago that “I am the black hand that suppressed the Red Guards”.

Nor did the Cultural Revolution lead to the creation of workers’ control inside the factories and thus give them economic power over the determination of state policy. The revolutionary committees which again have just been abolished by the Hua-Teng leadership were not organs of class power; rather, as Bettelheim stated, each one was “an administrative body under the leadership of the factory party committee and is in charge of the implementation of established policy”. That is they were consultative committees charged with administering a policy laid down by the undemocratic structures of party and state.

Our key criticism of the OCT’s document is therefore that it is illogical and unmarxist to say that the Cultural Revolution strengthened the dictatorship of the proletariat since the working class had little or no say, either at a national or local level in the running of the state, party or means of production. Indeed Mao consistently tried to keep the proletariat from taking an “active part in the Cultural Revolution. Throughout the summer of 1966 he instructed that “The workers, peasants and soldiers should not interfere with the students’ great Cultural Revolution”. So we are faced with a paradox; a dictatorship of the proletariat where there are no state structures for the proletariat to exercise its dictatorship!

This explains why the ‘gang of four’ were beaten so decisively by the present Chinese rulers. Far from them being “spokespersons of the great revolutionary upsurge of the 1960’s” when any manifestations of popular support occurred, be they the Tienamin Square riots in April or the mass rallies in Shanghai in October 1976, they were directed against the ‘gang of four’. They failed because there were no real gains from the Cultural Revolution for the vast mass of the population whether on an economic or political level. Any support they may have had in 1968 had shrunk to a level which could easily be handled by the present rulers.

The principal result of the Cultural Revolution was not “the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat” since there was no real accretion of power by the working class. Rather it was to graft a new set of leaders, principally in the army around Lin Piao, and secondly in the area of propaganda around the gang of four, on to the old ruling group which had been battered by the Cultural Revolution but certainly not destroyed by it. Since then there have been a series of clashes within the bureaucracy between the new and old. The purging of Lin Piao, of Teng in April 1976 and of the gang of four have been the high points in this struggle. The masses of China, however, have not been involved in any of this; their role has been simply to applaud after the decisions have been taken.

According to the OCT, this struggle in the bureaucracy had a fundamental nature; between those who were moving towards a state capitalist society and those who wished to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet there is very little evidence that this, in fact, was the case. Most issues that were in dispute were either marginal to the key question of socialism or state capitalism or totally symbolic. Thus key debates centred around such things as the writings of Confucius or whether overtime pay was allowable in the factories. Never did they centre around workers’ control in the factories or the overall direction of the economy.

The Chinese leadership, whether ‘right’ or ‘left’, share a certain basic orientation – the OCT say as much when they concede that the ‘left’ have not fundamentally broken with Stalinism. Any disagreements have taken place within this ideological framework and not moved outside it. This can be seen most clearly through an examination of China’s’ foreign policy.

The key theory of Stalinism is that of ‘socialism in one country’. It was the application of this theory to the USSR of the 1920’s that led to the destruction of all the gains of the Russian Revolution. That same theory has always been accepted by all sections of the Chinese leadership whether ‘left’ or ‘right’. For Lenin, the Russian Revolution could only succeed if the revolution spread to the advanced countries of the west, and that led the Bolsheviks to the formation of the Third International as the instrument of the world revolution. The Chinese leaders have rejected this strategy and have never attempted to set up a new grouping of revolutionary parties even after the break with the USSR.

Instead they have opted for the only alternative to international revolution; ‘national security’. This involves the attempt to industrialise the country to the status of an independent, modern world power without the threat of outside interference. Foreign policy is thus a direct result of internal policy: all considerations of revolutionary politics must be sacrificed for the smooth progress of industrialisation.

This explains why, in 1968, when Russian troops began to threaten on China’s northern borders, the Maoist leadership immediately began to look for outside support to counter the Russian threat. From 1969 onwards, Chinese-American talks got underway leading to the triumphant visit of Nixon to Peking in 1971.

This was the key shift in Chinese foreign policy and it has been developed by both wings within the leadership. The reason for this is that they have both followed the same course of ‘national independence’ as their major objective.

This over-riding demand for national independence stems from the attempt to industrialise using only the resources of the country surrounded by a hostile capitalist world. For China to industrialise relying only on its own resources means raising the necessary capital from within its own borders. But given that China is still so poor, that capital has to be raised from the tiny surplus generated by a desperately needy working class and peasantry. Standards of living have to be kept very low, the production of consumer goods curtailed and maximum inputs directed into capital goods.

The figures involved are truly enormous – in 1960 Mao claimed that the rate of accumulation of capital could be maintained at over 39%. The Chinese revolution inaugurated a gigantic undertaking – the industrialisation of the world’s most populous country under conditions of generalised want. Despite the enormous achievements of the Chinese regime since 1949 such a high rate of capital accumulation must lead to discontent when the basic necessities of life are in such short supply.

To say that this can be overcome through rigorous ideological exhortation is to deny the fundamental thesis of Marxism that social reality conditions consciousness. Indeed one can see the constant demands for an improved standard of living coming from the working class every time a split in the leadership has allowed working class demands to be heard.

The only alternative strategy, the Leninist notion of internationalism, has never been a part of any section of the leadership’s strategy. Neither ‘right’ or ‘left’ have broken with Stalinism. Both share the same objectives, both when in power were subjected to the same constraints. Thus there is no clear division between periods of left-wing policies when the ‘left’ were in power and right-wing policies when the ‘right’ were in power. Thus imports from the west were expanded greatly in 1970 and 1973 when the ‘left’ were in power and were cut back in 1974 and 1976 when the ‘right’ were in control.

The differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ have been determined principally by the positions that the two opposing groups held after the Cultural Revolution. The left’ concentrated mainly on ideological incentives because that was where it had its strongest base within the apparatus. But its objectives were the same as the right – the extraction of the maximum surplus from the working class and peasantry. The ‘right’ used more traditional methods, the re-introduction of incentive schemes, of overtime pay, of piece work. But its aims were the same as the ‘left’.

Our thesis, therefore, is that the distinction between left and right that the OCT attempt to make within the leadership is misleading. Neither wing can be seen as an ally of the working class; neither wing could introduce a system of working class democracy; neither wing could lead to socialism. Both were constrained by their shared theory and objective circumstances to exploit the working class in order to maximise capital accumulation. Both used the state in the role of the traditional function of the capitalist class; the accumulation of capital. In that sense, China has been imprisoned by the logic of the development of state-capitalism since 1949. Our duty remains the same today as it was before, during and after the Cultural Revolution; that is first to defend China from the attacks of imperialism whether from Russia or the west but most importantly, to defend its working class against their rulers.

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Last updated on 18.4.2012