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Ian Birchall

The faded dream

(November 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 7, November 1978, pp. 32–323.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

1978 must be a very bleak year to be a Maoist. China is praised by Margaret Thatcher while being denounced by the Albanian Party of Labour, hitherto its most loyal admirer. Chairman Hua has not only visited the long-reviled revisionist Tito, but has shaken the blood-stained hands of the Shah of Iran. Meanwhile at home the last remnantsof the Cultural Revolution are being mopped up; in an operation cynically described by Economist (9 September) as ‘Bullock-in-reverse’ the revolutionary committees established in the heady days of 1968 are being dissolved into new management committees.

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Things were not always so. Back in the late 1960s the Cultural Revolution was putting millions of people on to the streets (It wasn’t always clear what they were on the streets for, but they were certainly there). In a Britain faced with the familiar combination of an impotent and rightward-moving Labour Government and a temporarily dormant working class, China looked like a beacon of revolutionary hope.

Slogans like ‘Getting rid of the stale and taking in the fresh’ were an inspiration to thousands of youth and students in Western Europe who occupied the Colleges and marched against the Vietnam war.

At the time the International Socialists (predecessors of the Socialist Workers Party) took quite a lot of criticism for their failure to share in the general euphoria about China. We were accused of ‘economism’ (only being interested in narrow trade-union issues) and of expecting the rest of the world to wait for the workers of Europe to wake up. (One critic went so far as to suggest we change our name to ‘national socialists’ because of our failure to recognise the Chinese achievement).

As it happened we were right, as ten years of fading illusions – from Chinese support for American foreign policy to the gaoling of those who originally inspired the Cultural Revolution – have shown. In itself, this is nothing to crow about. If China had been the socialist paradise and the storm centre of world revolution, then we should all have been a lot better off than we are today. And being right wins no prizes for revolutionaries; there are so many sell-outs around that predicting them isn’t exactly difficult.

There would be little credit, say, in having predicted Jack Jones’ capitulation five years before everyone else – unless that prediction was linked to the building of independent organisation that could fight the sell-out.

What does matter is what went wrong and why. I have enormous sympathy with those who are bored to the teeth with the debate about whether Russia/China/Albania/Outer Mongolia is state capitalist or a degenerated workers’ state. Few discussions have produced more metaphysical hair-splitting and historical trivia. But the debate cannot be evaded, for it concerns our very goal and purpose – socialism.

I recall a heated argument with an Egyptian comrade about whether or not socialism existed in his country. Finally he declared: ‘It all depends on what you mean by socialism’. He was right, of course. When we ask ‘Is China socialist?’ the important question is not about China, but about socialism. And if socialism is all about the self-emancipation of the working-class, and the democratic control of society by those who actually do the work, then China is not, and was never under Mao on the road to socialism.

The Chinese working class played little or no part in the Revolution of 1949. The Chinese Communist Party had a very small worker membership (less than 2 per cent) and the military defeat of the Kuomintang took place essentially in the countryside. As the People’s Liberation Army approached the great Southern cities, a proclamation was issued stating ‘it is hoped that workers and employees in all trades will continue to work and that business will operate as usual.’

In general the Chinese working class was very ill-organised at this time; the trade union movement hardly existed as a result of repression by the Kuomintang and the Japanese occupying forces. None the less many workers were encouraged by Mao’s victory into taking strike action; the role of the Communist Party was to get them back to work as quickly as possible.

Why this obsession with the industrial working class? China, after all, is an agricultural country and the vast mass of the population are peasants. True the Chinese working class was only a small part of the population, but this was true also of Russia in 1917, and there the working-class lead was decisive. Moreover, the Chinese working class had waged in the 1920s a series of epic struggles for their self-emancipation.

The Maoist strategy of peasant revolution was a response to the defeat of these struggles. Furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party was not based on the mass involvement of poor peasants; over the years it had changed its line on land reform, and zigzagged between rich and poor peasants.

Traditionally Marxists have argued that working class is the agent of socialism because in its experience of collective production it discovers the need for collective solutions to society’s problems. Every battle by workers, from the smallest picket line to the greatest strike, can be fought and won collectively or not at all. Land can be divided into individual plots, but a factory can only be collectively appropriated.

So if the workers are not the subject of the revolution, whatever collectivisation (nationalisation, etc.) takes place will be geared to the interests of the minority which ends up controlling the state rather than to the emancipation of those who actually work.

So if we look at what happened to Chinese workers after the Revolution of 1949 we shall not be surprised to find that it was productivity rather than workers’ rights which dominated. The right to strike was replaced by compulsory arbitration, backed up by a labour code dealing with absenteeism, lateness, poor workmanship etc. Every worker had to carry a labour-book containing his previous record. Piecework – a traditional capitalist method of maximising exploitation – became widespread. Output norms were raised and emulation drives organised.

The Chinese Communist leaders explicitly denied that China was ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat; the country was said to be in the power of a class alliance. Yet at the same time they denied the need for autonomous organisation by workers. The trade unions were defined as having the following purpose:

“To strengthen the unity of the working class, to consolidate the alliance of workers and peasants, to educate workers to observe consciously the laws and decrees of the State, and labour discipline, to strive for the development of production, for the constant increase in labour productivity, for the fulfilment and overfulfilment of the production plans of the State.”

Behind the rhetoric China remains a deeply unequal society. The Cultural Revolution led to a shake-up among those in positions of authority – that was what it was all about. But it did not lead to any radical change in the relation between classes in Chinese society. Power remained in the hands of a small bureaucratic elite, and as a result the fundamental inequalities – between town and city dwellers, between workers and managers, between skilled and unskilled workers – persisted.

A German journalist who visited a Commune after the Cultural Revolution recounts:

“There are ten categories of payment. A strong man at the height of his power is in the first category, which means he gets ten points for every working day, no matter how much work he actually does. An unmarried woman gets seven; a married woman who has to care for her family gets six and a half.”

When he questioned this he was told:

“But a married woman devotes much of her working energy to her family ... Those are individual chores. Should the collective have to pay for work not done in the service of the collective?” (K. Mehnert, China Today, London 1972, pp. 52–3)

The fact of big differentials between living standards in town and country accounts for the desire of many Chinese country-dwellers (despite the myths of the revolutionary peasantry and the Communes) to move into the towns. The regime cannot permit this, so ‘socialist’ China imposes its own immigration controls with strict police supervision to prevent unauthorised persons entering the cities.

A society based on inequality and population control cannot be a democratic one. There is not, and has never been, any Chinese equivalent to the Soviets or workers’ councils that flourished all too briefly in Russia after the Revolution. The façade of mass participation during the Cultural Revolution disguised the fact that there were no structures for taking effective concrete decisions about how production was organised. Indeed, in 1967 the All-China Trade Union Federation was simply dissolved – hardly an indication of the viability or autonomy of that body.

The Chinese workers and peasants have no say in the real decisions about the society they live in. Top party leaders are purged and disgraced; Lin Piao – named in the draft Party constitution as Mao’s successor – was accused after his death of plotting against Mao. Similar accusations were heaped on the ‘gang of four’.

Now in any workers’ state there could be disputes among political leaders, and even the necessity to remove some leaders. But this would be done politically, with the differences argued openly and publicly, not with grotesque accusations that reveal the Party bosses’ contempt for the masses. Likewise, the Chinese masses were never consulted as to whether they wanted to support the crushing of a left-wing rising in Ceylon, or to welcome Richard Nixon while the bombs were falling on Vietnam.

Many sympathisers with China will admit these points, and yet claim that the Chinese leaders are doing the best they can, given the backward state they started from. Certainly the Chinese economy faces terrible problems, and the responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the imperialist powers – including Britain – who plundered China in the past.

The Chinese Communist Party can take credit for an impressive effort in the direction of modernisation and industrialisation. But this effort can be compared to that of those capitalists who industrialised Europe in the nineteenth century – a historic achievement, but nothing to do with socialism.

As revolutionary socialists in Britain we do not hesitate to demand equal pay for women and an end to immigration controls. To accept that something less is good enough for our brothers and sisters in China is – however unconscious it may be – an acceptance of the logic of imperialism, a willingness to concede that the third-rate it good enough for the Third World. But there is no Third World – there is one world system, and it is rotten ripe for socialism. Together, we and he workers of China can achieve it; a precondition is to rid ourselves of illusions.

* * *

Those interested in pursuing the arguments in this article further should read Nigel Harris’s new book The Mandate of Heaven, Quartet £3.00, a Bookmarx Club choice.

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Last updated: 14 September 2019