The origins and degeneration of the Chinese Communist Party
The origins and degeneration of the Chinese Communist Party
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The Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its centenary. From its origins among a handful of activists in an economically underdeveloped country occupied by more advanced capitalist powers, to the hegemonic bureaucracy ruling what is now one of the most powerful imperialist states in world history, the CCP has undergone several transformations.

The following history and analysis of the party, which today is communist in name only, is largely drawn from a new book by Red Flag contributors Tom Bramble and Mick Armstrong, The Fight for Workers' Power: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the 20th Century, published by Interventions. The full text, which contains references not included here, is available from Red Flag Books. One section not drawn from that book is April Holcombe’s contribution on the revolution of 1925-27.

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The birth of Chinese communism

At the beginning of the twentieth century, China was mired in political and economic backwardness. The Qing dynasty, which had ruled since the seventeenth century, was unwilling to modernise the nation for fear of the social forces this would unleash. The big landlords and their retinues dominated the countryside. Big imperial powers occupied “concessions”, colonial trading and manufacturing zones in the coastal and river cities. They controlled China’s foreign trade and plundered its wealth, limiting the ability of Chinese-owned businesses to expand.

Eighty percent of the population were peasants, often living in extreme poverty. Chinese backwardness was brought home vividly to millions in 1895 when the country was routed by Japan after a brief war, resulting in the loss of Taiwan and the payment of an enormous indemnity to the victor. Further humiliation followed, with the suppression of the anti-imperialist Yihetuan Movement (Boxer Rebellion) in Beijing 1900 and the occupation of the capital by imperialist armies.

Following the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, Japan made further inroads, occupying South Manchuria and taking steps to absorb Korea, formerly a Chinese tributary. In 1911, having thoroughly rotted out from within, the Qing dynasty collapsed and was replaced by a republic led by the Nationalist People’s Party, the Guomindang (GMD), under Sun Yat-sen. The new republic was weak and incapable of solving any of the country’s social and economic problems and lacked any serious military forces of its own. Sun was quickly replaced as leader and sent into exile by one of his former allies, Yuan Shikai. After Yuan’s death in 1916, the country disintegrated as warlords fought for power and established rival fiefdoms.

The end of World War One brought further political turmoil. Negotiations at Versailles over the spoils of war provided the spark for revolt. China had anticipated that the resource-rich Shandong province, controlled by Germany before the war and then seized by Japan, would be returned to China. Instead, the Entente rubber-stamped Japan’s annexation of Shandong. Rather than fight, the Chinese government simply accepted the outcome. This, the latest of many humiliations at the hands of foreigners, was too much for politically aware Chinese to bear. On 4 May, and in subsequent days, student demonstrations denouncing the theft of Chinese territory swept the major cities in what became known as the May Fourth Movement. In Shanghai, students were joined by tens of thousands of workers who struck for five days in the city’s textile plants, print shops, metal works, public utilities, shipping concerns, paper mills and tobacco factories. Merchants and business owners grouped in chambers of commerce also supported the movement.

The May Fourth Movement is best understood as an extension of the New Culture Movement that had been taking hold among progressive young Chinese since 1915. This was China’s first mass popular political movement in the cities, as opposed to the peasant revolts of earlier times. Its leading forces included two prominent writers: Chen Duxiu, dean of Peking University, the country’s most prominent centre of teaching and research, and founder of the most influential Chinese journal of the day, New Youth; and Li Dazhao, chief librarian at the University. They argued that China had to break with feudal tradition and embrace modernisation.

The New Culture Movement championed the rights of the downtrodden social classes and women. It saw itself as defending Chinese territorial integrity against onslaughts by the imperialists and their local collaborators. Many of its adherents were influenced by anarchist ideas from Japan and Europe and attempted to escape the crushing conformity of the old social order, particularly its restrictions on women, by setting up communes where adherents could attempt to lead liberated lives.

The May Fourth Movement saw the working class tentatively step onto the Chinese political stage. China had a long tradition of craft guilds, but in 1918 the first unions for factory workers and labourers were formed. The working class was growing rapidly. In 1916, there were nearly one million industrial workers; by 1922, this number had doubled, with foreign-owned workshops and factories blossoming in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and particularly Shanghai, the biggest city of all and home to half the country’s industrial workers, including tens of thousands of women textile workers.

The first wave of mass working-class struggle exploded in January 1922. Thirty thousand Hong Kong seafarers and waterside workers struck for eight weeks for union recognition and higher wages to bring their pay into line with that of Europeans. The strike ended with the bosses granting pay rises of 20 to 30 percent and recognising the union. Over the next five years, China experienced a dramatic acceleration in the tempo of class struggle. Development that took Russian workers three or four decades to experience and learn from, and British workers a full century, was compressed in China into five years.

The May Fourth Movement and Russian Revolution gave a mighty impetus to the formation of a communist party. By 1920, the anarchist-influenced politics that had informed many of the activists in the May Fourth Movement had exhausted itself. The attempt to form communes based on new, liberated ways of living had experienced great difficulties, demonstrating the limits class society imposed on individual solutions. The most radical students and intellectuals were looking for new answers. The emergence of an urban working class pointed to Marxism as an alternative road.

The Russian Revolution, followed by the Bolshevik government’s announcement that it would withdraw Tsarist-era territorial and financial claims on China, enthused students to turn their attention to Marxism. By the end of 1918, Li had established the Marxist Research Society at Peking University, consisting of a dozen students and faculty members who met on campus to study Capital. In the autumn of 1919, Li and Chen published a special issue of their journal on Marxism, in which Li wrote the most serious analysis of class struggle and the workings of capitalism that had yet been published in China. Students and intellectuals across the country who were groping for new ideas seized on this article, which brought Marxism to a new audience, although Li’s Marxism was not yet thoroughly worked out.

The arrival of Comintern agents Grigori Voitinsky and Yang Mingzhai in the spring of 1920 gave the process another nudge. In August 1920, together with Chen, Li and several other emerging figures, they established a branch of the Comintern in China. They used the new Moscow-financed newspaper, Shanghai Chronicle, to disseminate Marxist propaganda. Chen moved to Shanghai and set up the Socialist Youth League, which soon grew to 30 members. The League gathered together the most serious students of their generation, those looking to do more than discuss and debate, but their knowledge of Marxism was meagre, and many were still influenced by anarchism. The intervention in these early years by Comintern emissaries such as Voitinsky and, later, the Dutch Communist Henk Sneevliet was crucial to clarifying the distinctions between anarchism and Marxism. Elsewhere, under the direction of Mao Zedong, a communist group was founded in Hunan, and other groups formed in Hubei and Beijing. Communism also found a following among Chinese students studying in Japan and France, including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, later to become national leaders.

In July 1921, in the absence of the unavailable Li and Chen, and with Voitinsky having left the country, new Comintern representative Henk Sneevliet convened the first Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in Shanghai. Chen was elected secretary-general of the party. The Congress was tiny, bringing together only 12 delegates. Membership of the new party stood at just 50, with another 350 in the more loosely defined youth group.

The party was based on a clear call for workers’ revolution and declared its sympathies with the Comintern. It was still in an embryonic stage, because of its small size and because of continued conflicts within its ranks over what attitude to take to the GMD. Finances were tight. Only at the CCP’s Second Congress in July 1922, held in the aftermath of the Hong Kong seafarers’ strike, was the party founded on a solid basis with the help of Russian financial assistance. Even now, however, it had only 195 members, not including those overseas. They were overwhelmingly students and intellectuals with no experience in the workers’ movement.

The social structure of China bore some similarities to Russia at the time of the big debates among Russian Marxists in the late nineteenth century; however, the country was much more economically backward, the working class was much smaller and politically untested, and China, unlike Russia, was nationally oppressed by the imperialist countries.

The Chinese bourgeoisie was no more revolutionary than the Russian capitalists had been prior to 1917. The fortunes of many of them were tied directly to foreign interests who dominated finance and industry in China.

The peasantry provided an obvious battering ram for any social class interested in challenging the status quo. But the Chinese peasantry would never rise up around the question of “the Chinese nation”, which meant nothing to their daily lives. Land was the crux of the matter and “land to the tillers!” the only demand that meant anything to them. But such a demand was anathema to the capitalists in the cities, many of whom had invested their fortunes in land. “Land to the tillers!” meant ruin for them. Nor could the capitalists call on workers to rise up behind their banner, because the interests of the working class directly challenged their own.

If the capitalists would not lead the fight, the peasantry could not. The Chinese peasants had an even longer and more heroic record than the Russian peasantry of mass struggle against their exploiters. And yet the conclusion to every such struggle was the installation of a new ruler on the imperial throne or defeat at the hands of the incumbent.

Only the working class, capable of transforming social relations, destroying the old state and erecting a new one on its ruins, could release the peasantry from this vicious historical cycle by cancelling their debts and granting them land. The working class had to ally with the peasantry—but also to lead it in struggle against both the imperialists and the domestic exploiters.

Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin had argued for the central role of Russian workers in the fight against the Tsarist autocracy. They could point to the rapid advancement of capitalism in the countryside and cities. They could point particularly to the struggles by factory workers, which took on mass dimensions for the first time in the 1880s and continued thereafter. By the 1890s, Marxists had set up study circles which drew in many workers. Russian Marxists also avidly followed debates in the Second International and were familiar with the chief tendencies in the European workers’ movement.

The problem for young Chinese Marxists was that they could point to no such traditions when their party was founded. The Chinese workers’ movement was virtually non-existent outside the craft guilds, and Marxism was unknown among leading worker militants—the Communist Manifesto was not published in Chinese in its entirety until 1920. The CCP had to build a brand new political tendency in a class that was still in its infancy.

A tragic revolution

The militancy of workers and peasants grew throughout the 1920s, exploding into revolution in 1925-27. Trotsky called the period “the greatest event of modern history after the revolution of 1917 in Russia”. Peasants began to organise into associations to fight the landlords from 1923. “The time is past when workers are but cannon fodder for the bosses”, read one leaflet from May Day 1924. Through the streets of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Shanghai, nearly half a million workers and radical students marched to demand the eight-hour day. “The bosses will not cede but to revolution? Then they shall have it!”

The nationalist movement against foreign rule was increasingly incapable of dealing with the grievances of the mass of the population. While Chinese capitalists preferred to bargain for a slice of British, French and Japanese profits, and ally with warlords ruling fragmented fiefs, workers and peasants lived in a squalor that could not be abolished without an almighty struggle against imperialist domination.

Some Chinese merchants and militarists rallied around the GMD, which wanted an independent, capitalist China under their own rule. But Chinese capitalists were just as hostile to the eight-hour day, trade unions and land reform as their foreign counterparts. The masses could never win their demands if their struggle did not strike an independent, anti-capitalist path to national liberation.

The early Communist International understood the contradictions in the nationalist camp. The GMD could not simply have been ignored. The 1920 Comintern Congress argued for a temporary alliance between the CCP and the GMD, but warned that the former should not give “communist colouring” to or organisationally merge with the latter. The CCP must “under all circumstances uphold the independence of the working-class movement even in its most embryonic form”.

Yet within a few short years, the Comintern began demanding that the CCP merge with the GMD. The time was not ripe for socialism in China, the argument went, so the best the Communists could do was constitute a left wing of the party that could organise the mass movement. Despite the protests of many CCP leaders, the young party complied and joined the GMD as individuals. Revolutionaries tied their hands behind their back just as the revolution came hurtling towards them.

In Shanghai, where foreign capital dominated and GMD influence was weaker, the CCP became the leading force from early 1925. Through the General Labour Union, it organised a strike of 30,000 workers in Japanese-owned mills after a young woman was beaten by a Japanese foreman. This three-week strike, though defeated, resulted in tens of thousands joining CCP-led unions. Upon return to work, thousands of militant workers were victimised by bosses, and on 30 May, police killed twelve workers and students at a protest in the International Settlement. The massacre sparked a general strike. The revolution had begun.

The movement rapidly spread across the country. Under a hail of French and British bullets, which killed 52 workers and students, protests in Guangdong boiled over into a revolutionary uprising. An ironclad boycott of all British goods was declared, and workers led an exodus of 100,000 from Hong Kong. To oversee the blockade of British territories and businesses, a Strikers Delegate Conference was formed. The conference, and the committee of thirteen it elected, became “government number two” in Guangdong. It ran hospitals and schools, organised strike funds, confiscated luxury goods and managed a strikers’ court of justice.

Entry to Hong Kong and Shamian island was blocked by 2,000 armed picketers, whose communications were linked by a string of Communist-initiated peasant associations across the Guangdong coastal countryside. One foreign observer reported: “The boycott is total: no goods, not even foodstuffs. It must be regarded as a war on Hong Kong and Great Britain ... there is no other possible interpretation of the completeness and ruthlessness with which it is carried out”.

There was emerging in Guangdong an embryonic form of workers’ power that could defeat the imperialists. But the non-Communist forces in the GMD were extremely hostile to the demands of workers and peasants. As the revolution unfolded, these divisions came further into the open. In August, the Shanghai strike wave was temporarily but violently suppressed by the GMD right-wing’s scab unions, the Chamber of Commerce and the city’s organised crime syndicates.

By this time, the ruthless General Chiang Kai-shek had taken the reins of the GMD. In March 1926, Chiang had all the leading members of the Communist Party arrested, including the GMD’s Soviet advisers. The strike committee that had defeated the British was dissolved and the unions crushed. This was the loudest signal thus far that the Communists should get out of the GMD and organise workers independently of it. Joseph Stalin, who by this time was destroying the legacy of the revolution in Russia, ensured that the opposite happened.

The Communists agreed not to take any leading posts in the GMD, not to wage any independent propaganda and to contain the workers’ and peasants’ “excesses”. When party members in Shanghai protested and called for an exodus from the GMD, Stalin’s emissary, Borodin, declared that the CCP “should do coolie [submissive labour] service for the Guomindang”. News of Chiang’s coup was hidden from the international Communist movement by the Comintern.

Trotsky was the most vocal critic of the Comintern’s policy. “The first duty of revolutionaries is to help the workers liberate themselves from servile confidence [in the national bourgeoisie]”, he argued in “The Strangled Revolution”. “The work done by the bureaucracy of the Comintern was diametrically opposed to this.” Borodin had spent the previous two years turning the GMD into a professional, disciplined mass organisation. While the Comintern provided the Nationalists with millions of dollars and boatloads of arms, the Communists received just $12,000. Communist activists leading the workers and peasants on the ground were recruiting the masses into the GMD instead of into the CCP.

Before his death in 1924, Lenin had argued that Russia, as the only socialist state, must make “the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism”. But as Russia’s isolation bureaucratised and led to the degeneration of the party apparatus, this logic was inverted in Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country”. Now, Russia’s national interests came first. Whereas a workers’ revolution in China would invoke upheaval and force Russia to throw itself into another struggle against world capitalism, a nationalist, unified China could give Russia a powerful military ally and trading partner along its border. The international revolution was being sacrificed in the interests of a bureaucracy now taking Russia down the road to capitalist restoration.

With the CCP firmly on the leash, the GMD’s army under Chiang embarked on a military campaign to unify all of China. The Northern Expedition attracted the support of the Chinese capitalist class, but also provoked excitement and uprisings across Chinese cities and the countryside. The GMD’s formula for success was a tragedy for the masses. The Communists travelled ahead of the National Revolutionary Army and organised the mass movements to welcome Chiang’s forces. After an area had been “liberated” from foreign and warlord rule, the GMD bloodily suppressed the revolts and the Communists who led them.

“Terror was laid on the provinces like a black whip”, Harold Isaacs wrote in his seminal work The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. “Through town after town, the unions were driven underground.” The Comintern kept this information hidden from the rest of the CCP. Photographs of Chiang Kai-shek—now an honorary member of the Comintern’s executive—were plastered on the covers of German, French and Russian Communist newspapers, which continued to herald him as the heroic leader of the Chinese revolution.

In March 1927, Chiang’s army reached the outskirts of Shanghai. The Communists and the whole working population celebrated and expected their liberation from its entry into the city. Two armed uprisings and mass strikes had already shaken the city. By this time, the Shanghai CCP had 10,000 members, and capitalists of all nationalities were determined to be rid of them. Chiang, cautious that his troops might be sympathetic to the rebellion, held back.

The CCP launched a general strike and armed insurrection on 21 March. The entire working class and poor of Shanghai came onto the streets, some 500,000 to 800,000 people. Delegates met from all unions and a militia of 2,700 workers stormed police stations and military depots to secure arms. The city belonged to the workers, but the CCP, under Stalin’s orders, were waiting to hand it to General Chiang. In fact, Chiang had made secret agreements with the city’s gangs and foreign and Chinese capitalists to prepare a bloody coup against the uprising. As this became increasingly obvious, the CCP argued to fight. “Do not for a moment engage in open battle”, came the reply from Stalin. “Chiang Kai-shek is submitting to discipline.”

The counter-revolution came in the early morning of 12 April. The night before, gangsters had kidnapped Wang Shouhua, a CCP union leader, and buried him alive. Foreign forces and Chiang’s troops bombarded union headquarters, killed the leaders, and murdered strikers in the streets. Workers were taken completely by surprise. Within a few months, up to 5,000 Communists and militants were murdered, and CCP membership collapsed.

The Comintern rose from the bloody foam of Shanghai still clinging to the GMD. The CCP must still maintain loyalty to the GMD’s “left wing”—a faction based in Wuhan under Wang Jingwei. Peasant uprisings were raging through the countryside around Wuhan, uprooting landlord rule and building popular peasant control. Thousands formed an army ready to march on the GMD in Changsha. The CCP ordered the retreat of these forces to maintain the alliance with “the left”. The nationalist army descended on Wuhan, and Wang defected back into Chiang’s arms. Yet another massacre of the CCP and its supporters took place.

But the Comintern still was not done. Stalin and his then ally Nikolai Bukharin tried to save face after this string of catastrophes. With the CCP’s forces in disarray, the party was now told to lead a rebellion against the whole GMD. On Comintern orders, CCP military commanders launched an insurrection in Guangzhou. The Canton Commune lasted just two days before being surrounded and crushed by the Nationalists. Another 6,000 people, and the Chinese revolution, were buried there.

Chiang broke off relations with Russia and the Comintern: he no longer needed them. The Nationalists failed to unify the country, and China remained the prey of imperialist powers for another twenty years. But Chiang imposed an unspeakably brutal military dictatorship across much of the territory; for the Chinese bourgeoisie, that was good enough.

1927-49: party transformation and the seizure of power

Following its defeat by Chiang and the warlords in 1927, the CCP was reduced to a small rump in the cities. The Comintern’s adoption of the adventurist Third Period line in 1928 compounded the party’s urban isolation. At a time when the working class was trying to steady itself after a string of massacres, the CCP Central Committee in Shanghai sought to turn every strike into an offensive against the state. This invited massive police repression. Workers fled the party in fear of their lives. An internal circular of November 1928 admitted: “Unfortunately, our union organisations have been reduced to a minimum, our party units in the cities have been pulverised and isolated. Nowhere in China can we find one solid industrial cell”.

Urban workers, who had in 1926 constituted two-thirds of the party’s membership, now made up less than 2 percent of party membership. Only a shell in the cities and militarily smashed elsewhere, the CCP by 1931 retained a hold only in Mao’s mountain fastness in Jiangxi province. The CCP’s partisan bands had originally been established as the armed wing of a rising mass movement of workers and peasants. With the mass movement destroyed, the CCP’s guerrilla forces in the countryside took on a life of their own and became the centre of the party’s strategy. The working class was relegated to an ancillary.

How did the CCP square the circle, claiming loyalty to working-class revolution while building a party in which the working class was irrelevant? By the expedient of proclaiming the party itself to be the working class.

In November 1931, Mao convened the misleadingly named First All China Soviet Congress in Jiangxi. Misleading because the CCP’s geographic reach was extremely limited at this time and because soviets on the lines of Russia in 1917 existed nowhere in the country. Regardless, the congress declared the formation of the “Chinese Soviet Republic” in Jiangxi, complete with a constitution, a labour law and a land law. The constitution declared the party’s goal of overthrowing imperialism and the GMD. This Soviet Republic, the constitution boasted, was a “state based on the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants”. All power would “belong to the workers, peasants, and Red Army soldiers and the entire toiling population”.

Militarists, bureaucrats, landlords, gentry, village bosses and monks, described as exploiting and counter-revolutionary elements, lost any political rights. All big private landowners, including landlords, village bosses, gentry and militarists were to have their land confiscated without compensation. Land would be distributed among the poor and middle peasants, while “hired farm hands, coolies and toiling labourers” were entitled to equal rights to land allotments.

In practice, the CCP attack on the rich farmers was not nearly as thoroughgoing as party statements suggested. The partisans were too weak to collectivise land ownership and were dependent on rich farmers, who fed them, paid the taxes needed to buy the guns and uniforms and supplied sons and daughters to join their ranks. Similarly, the CCP declared equality for women, but it deferred to the rural gentry hostile to such a notion. The result was that Mao and his followers proclaimed radical transformation in the areas under Communist control but refrained from implementing it.

The CCP’s militaristic turn towards partisan warfare in the early 1930s transformed its internal regime. Bloody purges of factional rivals replaced open debate. At least 12,000 people were killed in purges instigated by Mao and other leaders in Jiangxi in 1931-32.

The “Jiangxi Soviet” came under constant attack by Chiang’s armies. The Communists initially got the better of the Nationalists, but, by the latter half of 1934, the CCP’s “liberated areas” were under threat of annihilation. The Communists were forced to flee, and the “Jiangxi Soviet” collapsed. In October, between 80,000 and 90,000 Red Army partisans left their bases and headed inland with their supporters and family members.

Fighting off pursuing GMD forces and warlord armies, the Red Army suffered terrible casualties in the remote countryside as they marched west and then north towards remote Shaanxi province. Hunger and thirst, extreme weather and inhospitable terrain also took their toll over the course of the 8,000-kilometre, year-long march. When they joined the Communists who had established bases in northern Shaanxi, their numbers were down to just 10,000.

The Long March was significant for the survival of the Red Army. It also enabled Mao to advance his position within the party and the army. During a three-day conference in January 1935, Mao attacked the policies that had led to the fall of the “Jiangxi Soviet”, laying the blame on others for the disaster. His distinctive strategy was to recognise that the party’s strength was in guerrilla fighting, not in a conventional military force fighting fixed field battles against the GMD. His views laid the basis for the CCP to become a purely nationalist party. He won the support of Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, now emerging as the party’s leading military tactician, and decisively sidelined Stalin’s man, Wang Ming.

In December 1936, Mao and the Red Army moved their headquarters in Shaanxi province to the small town of Yan’an. From its Yan’an base, the CCP grew dramatically in the following years because of its support for national resistance and land redistribution.

The CCP boasted of egalitarianism in its Yan’an headquarters, but an elite soon became evident. The leaders were hardly living a life of luxury. The territory was inhospitable, living conditions were extremely sparse, and those working at the Yan’an base were forced to live in caves after Japanese attacks flattened the town. Still, the higher ranked in the party had access to better food and clothing, and many showed little concern for the welfare of the people. It was in Yan’an that the authoritarian nature of inner-party life in the CCP was finally consolidated.

In July 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army stepped up its invasion, aiming to seize the whole country. The country was now divided between the Japanese Imperial Army, which controlled the towns and railway lines in the eastern and most populous half of the country, the GMD forces, who held on in the south-west, and the CCP, which occupied areas of the north-west.

The CCP emerged as a major force during the war against Japanese occupation, growing from 40,000 in 1937 to 490,000 in 1940 and 1.2 million by 1945. The CCP’s armies grew too, from 50,000 in 1937 to one million by 1945 (along with another two million peasants in local guerrilla bands). Yet Japan was driven out of China in 1945 not by Chiang’s Nationalist Army, nor by the Communists, but by the combined impact of US saturation bombing of its cities and Russia’s invasion of Manchuria in early August.

With Japan defeated, the battle for supremacy between the Nationalists and Communists now started again in earnest. The US and Russia initially favoured a coalition government. A few days before Japan’s formal surrender, US ambassador to China, Patrick Hurley, accompanied Mao and Zhou from Yan’an to Chongqing for negotiations with Chiang over a united government to run the country.

Neither Chiang nor Mao, however, had any intention of sharing power. They played along with the coalition negotiations, signed truces, agreed to merge their armies and even sat together in a Political Consultative Conference to prepare for a coalition government; in practice, both sides were preparing for war. In June 1946, full-scale hostilities began. The civil war was not a repeat of the guerrilla war of the 1930s but a series of set-piece battles between the CCP’s renamed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chiang’s Nationalist armies.

Civil wars are decided by politics as much as by military power. The PLA foot soldiers were mostly former peasants who believed that they were fighting for a China free of oppression and foreign domination. The GMD armies were made up of half-starved, unwilling conscripts, kept in line only by terror and led by corrupt and cowardly officers with no confidence in their ability to win. The GMD forces were incapable of holding on in the longer term. From the summer of 1947, hundreds of thousands of Nationalist soldiers switched sides. Others deserted to rejoin their families in their home villages. The number of GMD troops under Chiang’s command fell from four million at the end of the war to an extremely demoralised and disloyal group of 2.2 million in mid-1948. Meanwhile, the PLA had grown to 5.5 million men and women under arms.

Chiang’s support in the cities was also slipping away. The economy was in freefall despite massive US economic aid. Shortages of basic goods and runaway inflation made everyday life unbearable for all but a tiny minority of war profiteers. The gap between rich and poor widened to an unprecedented extent. For the poor, everyday life was a struggle to survive. The middle classes, who had formed the base for the Nationalists during the 1930s, were ruined by inflation. Some switched their allegiances to the Communists in the hope that their victory might restore stability and security. Their student sons and daughters organised waves of protest against the GMD. Chiang cracked down hard, killing and wounding many, driving the student movement to support the CCP. With Chiang’s supporters abandoning him, the PLA met little resistance from the local populace when they entered the cities.

In mid-1948, the Communists advanced on three fronts: the north-east, the Beijing-Tianjin area and east-central China. In November, the PLA seized Shenyang, the biggest city in Manchuria, completing the conquest of what under Japanese rule had become China’s industrial heartland. Tianjin and Beijing fell soon after, and a third offensive culminated in the capture of Chiang’s capital Nanjing in April 1949 and Shanghai in May.

By now, even the GMD’s most loyal supporters and army officers realised that the war was lost. Tens of thousands fled mainland China. On 1 October, with much of the country in PLA hands, Mao presided over a large rally in Tiananmen Square at which he declared the establishment of a new regime: the People’s Republic of China. There was no mention of socialism. Two weeks later, Guangzhou fell to the PLA, the Nationalist Army abandoning the city without a shot being fired. Chiang and his retinue flew to Taiwan and established a US-backed government, claiming sovereignty over the mainland.

China under Communist Party rule

For several decades, socialists from a variety of different political traditions described China as socialist or as advancing towards socialism. Even today, some socialists believe this to be true. They dismiss as Western media lies or exaggerations accounts of massive exploitation of Chinese workers at the hands of local and foreign capitalists; the destruction of the natural environment; the oppression of national minorities; the authoritarian character of the CCP regime; and its alliances with other repugnant regimes. Where they admit the substance of these criticisms, they argue that such practices are justified by imperialist attempts to destroy the supposed socialist motherland.

More common today than open adulation of the CCP is the argument that China was socialist until the 1990s but has since turned capitalist. Supposedly, the advent of foreign investment and multinationals and the privatisation of state enterprises—a process of “opening up” that culminated in China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001—changed the country from socialist to capitalist. This is to mistake form for content. If we adhere to Marx’s conception of socialism as working-class rule, the People’s Republic of China was never socialist. The changes that have taken place since the 1980s, undoubtedly significant, do not alter the fundamental fact that workers do not rule in China and never have.

Mao claimed the state that came into existence in 1949 was a “new democratic state ... under the leadership of the working class (through the Communist Party)”. In fact, the CCP had no organic relationship to the working class in 1949. For a start, it had virtually no working-class members. Of its membership of 4.5 million, 72 percent were poor and middle-poor peasants; 25 percent were rich peasants and members of the urban middle class; and merely 2 percent were workers. While only a minority, rich peasants and landlords held substantial influence in the party. The party was still overwhelmingly a rural party with few forces in the cities. The CCP had just 3,300 members in Beijing, in a population of 1.7 million. Yet Mao made this distinctly non-proletarian party stand in for the working class. This is not Marxism. This is idealism, whereby what the party says it stands for determines its character, not what it is.

The Communists had no intention of leading workers to power. During the war against Japan, the CCP opposed strikes in GMD-run areas and undertook no independent organisation of workers. During the civil war, workers in Shanghai repeatedly struck, but the CCP made no attempt to link their strikes to the struggles of either the peasants or the city’s students. In 1949, when the PLA began to overrun Nationalist-held cities, workers took this as a signal to fight for their rights. But the CCP had neither the intention nor the capacity to foster an uprising among the workers of the cities.

As the PLA marched into the cities, the priority was to ensure that businesses were able to run at a profit, “giving consideration to both public and private interests and benefiting both labour and capital”. The CCP discouraged even simple demands, such as higher wages and food relief. When the PLA marched into Shanghai in May, the Communist soldiers were greeted with a mixture of curiosity and enthusiasm by a population that had grown sick of the misery, chaos and corruption of GMD rule. But there was no expectation that the people themselves might take power. It was a straight switch of master, with PLA commander Chen Yi assuming the post of mayor. Owner of the Shanghai Evening Post Randall Gould observed:

“The changeover was like nothing that had been imagined. We had feared days of lawless disorder. Nothing of the sort occurred. One day the Nationalists, the next day the Communists, while our erstwhile defenders rode down the Yangtze River and over to Formosa. It was as simple as that.”

It was the same in Beijing earlier in the year following the Nationalist surrender; Time magazine reported the scene as 20,000 uniformed PLA troops marched in accompanied by brass bands: “Picked Nationalist soldiers grimly guarded the Reds’ line of march. Beneath pictures of Communist boss Mao Tse-tung ... sound trucks blared: ‘Long live the liberation’. Crowds watched the Reds in silence.”

The new masters of the cities drove out the old from their positions of power, but in other respects tried to maintain the status quo. In Shanghai, Mayor Chen kept the GMD police in their positions and held meetings with senior business leaders to reassure them of Communist support. Encouraged by the PLA’s stance, some foreign businesspeople decided to remain in Shanghai in the hope that new opportunities might open under CCP rule. The US Consul-General noted the response of the US Chamber of Commerce which met on the day after the PLA’s arrival:

“The rejoicing couldn’t have been greater if the city had been liberated by American forces. American and British businessmen were convinced—I can’t think why—that they would do better under the Communists.”

US business executives in Shanghai were to be disappointed, but this was due initially to action by the workers themselves, not the CCP. In the second half of 1949, the number of strikes in the city soared to 3,324, dwarfing the previous record of 280 disputes in 1946. The CCP leaders did their best to put a lid on the outbreak. Mao’s hostility to workers’ self-activity had a clear material basis. The CCP leaders did not want to have to deal with urban workers fighting for their rights and establishing workers’ councils, as they had in the 1920s. Genuine soviets did not fit into Mao’s “New Democracy”. It would be the party that would rule.

Prior to the Russian Revolution, lively and passionate debates characterised the Bolshevik Party, fuelled by the close relationship between the party and the advanced sections of the working class. The CCP could not have been more different. Mao’s 1942-44 Rectification Campaign, with its suppression of dissent and imposition of thought reform, laid the basis for the creation of a leadership cult. “Mao Zedong Thought”, a flexible ideology that could contain multiple contradictory ideas to suit Mao’s needs at any time, was invented, along with the slogan “Long Live Chairman Mao!” By August 1945, every major position in the party lay in Mao’s power, and his writings held the status of sacred texts. What need was there for democracy in a Communist Party which had no orientation to working-class democracy and emancipation?

Whose social interests did the CCP represent? Here, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution has relevance. The 1949 Chinese Revolution demonstrated a real problem with the theory. Trotsky’s argument was that the bourgeoisie in a late-developing country is cowardly and incapable of carrying through the basic national tasks of unification and modernisation. The failure of the Chinese bourgeoisie’s main political representatives, the GMD, to unite and defend the country confirms that argument.

Trotsky also pronounced on the revolutionary incapacity of the peasantry. Again, the Chinese Revolution confirmed this historical fact. Peasants seized land, where they were not beaten back by the GMD or CCP, but they did nothing to form themselves into a government or to cohere themselves into a new ruling class. They were unable to solve the big questions confronting China as a backward country in a world system of capitalist states. Those peasant sons and daughters who joined the Communist guerrillas were declassed as peasants and converted into full-time soldiers by that process, following the orders of whichever class commanded them.

In the situation where the bourgeoisie would not, and the peasantry could not, lead, Trotsky maintained that the working class could step in to lead a revolutionary struggle and liberate the late-developing nations. Such a struggle, Trotsky argued, would inevitably pass over into a struggle for socialism. A state in the hands of the workers could then legislate for land to the peasantry, directly solving the rural question that lay at the heart of Chinese politics for centuries. The problem in China was that the working class did not play a leading role after its historic defeat in 1927. The road to a socialist resolution to China’s crises was, therefore, closed off.

But history does not stop. In the age of imperialism, China could not languish as it did for several centuries before the Opium Wars. Either the nation would be swallowed by more advanced capitalist states, such as Japan or the US, or another class would have to emerge from within China that could break the fetters holding back the nation’s productive forces. The circuit-breaker came in the form of the middle-class intelligentsia from the cities. These intellectuals constituted the leadership of the CCP in the 1930s and 1940s.

They were frustrated by the backward state of the Chinese economy, desperate to break foreign control of the country and keen to impose themselves as leaders of a new nation. They built an army based on the peasantry to smash the GMD and then hoisted themselves into power, creating a new regime based on a Communist Party state apparatus which incorporated significant elements of the old. The permanent revolution that Trotsky envisaged became deflected thereby—and, British Marxist Tony Cliff points out, in a purely nationalist direction. Many in the CCP may have genuinely believed that they were fighting for emancipation of the workers and peasants; but that was not the party leadership’s project.

The Chinese Revolution demonstrated the role urban intellectuals could play in other countries dominated by an old, corrupt ruling class or a weakened colonial power. In countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria and Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s, middle-class social layers felt most keenly the effects of imperialist domination. By virtue of their relative wealth and access to education and international travel, they enjoyed a superior status to the mass of the population. This same access to the scientific and technical world of the imperialist countries also made them acutely aware of how far their nation lagged Europe and North America.

Imperialist domination deprived them of any hope of leading their countries, something that would have been their birthright elsewhere. As an intermediate layer, standing between the propertied capitalists and the propertyless working class, the middle classes were also the natural representatives of the national interest and the most imbued with the idea of national culture”. Their nationalism was at once a rejection of Western imperialism and a desire to emulate its economic development.

The political weight of these intellectual layers depended on the preparedness of the working class to fulfil the destiny that Trotsky had attributed to it. The characteristic of the nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, led by these intellectual layers in military uniform or guerrilla battle dress, was the working class’s failure to pose a proletarian solution to imperialist domination. That was the product of Stalinism, which destroyed the working-class revolutionary alternative in the colonial world or prevented it from ever emerging.

What of China since 1949? The Communist victory achieved the old desire of Chinese nationalism for a strong and independent country that could begin the process of independent economic development. But the state, not the old bourgeoisie, was in control: the CCP came to power as a force in its own right, standing above all the classes of the old society. Yet, the CCP was not free to act as it wished. A competitive and hostile world economy dictated the need for a strong national economy, so industrialisation was the priority.

The main source of funds to drive industry had to come from the workers and peasants—as it had in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. The CCP forced up production targets in industry year after year during the 1950s. Piecework became widespread. Initially, the CCP protected private capitalist interests, but the government changed course in 1953 and nationalised swathes of private industry. Three years later, the CCP introduced collectivisation of land in rural cooperatives. Slowly but surely, China began to adopt the state capitalist model of economic management. This had nothing to do with any transition to socialism. State ownership was necessary to enable the new ruling class to step up the pace of industrialisation in a competitive imperialist world where China lagged.

The changes in the Chinese economy since the early 1990s, far from turning China capitalist, represent the bureaucracy’s attempt to insert China into international circuits of capital accumulation; to capture new markets for state-run businesses; to attract foreign investment and, with it, foreign managerial know-how and advanced technologies; and to rationalise areas of industry where productivity in China lagged international norms, releasing labour and capital to other sectors. No counter-revolution was involved. This economic shift was undertaken in the first instance by party leader Deng Xiaoping, a member of the CCP since 1923, with the backing of most of his colleagues who understood the need for the change of strategy.

One outcome of the economic changes in recent decades has been a shift in the ownership of industry. A bigger share is now in the hands of local and overseas private capitalists. But this has not involved “abandonment of socialism” and the embrace of capitalism, as some on the left argue. The “new economy” is very much a product and a beneficiary of the old. Brand new cities such as Shenzhen, sites of extensive private domestic and foreign investment, depend on state infrastructure developed over decades.

Chinese private businesses that flourish because of international connections depend on loans from China’s state-owned banks. While many state-owned enterprises (SOEs) collapsed in the 1990s because of reduced state subsidies, others have flourished. Forbes lists 75 Chinese SOEs in its top 500 global companies. Whether in the hands of the private sector or of the state, the purpose of Chinese enterprises remains the same: capital accumulation, not the satisfaction of the needs of workers and peasants. Nor do the business owners constitute a separate class in China itching to overthrow the CCP. They are very tightly integrated into the party, and the party leadership has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to bring them to heel when required.

China’s foreign policy has undergone no qualitative change since “opening up” was introduced in 1992. Realpolitik, not any conception of socialist internationalism, has always ruled, despite China’s claims in the 1960s to be a defiant anti-imperialist and principled supporter of national liberation struggles. Following the rupture of relations with Russia in 1960 and US President Nixon’s visit to China in 1971, the guiding principle of Chinese foreign policy for several decades was to undermine Russia. This often involved backing some of the most reactionary Western-backed despotic regimes, ranging from Pakistan’s General Zia, Zaire’s President Mobutu and the Shah of Iran, to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie.

China had been a warm supporter of Chile’s reformist Allende government, but then became the first “communist” country to support coup leader General Pinochet when he seized power in 1973. Today, China lines up with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the reactionary Iranian regime, the racist Sri Lankan government and the Philippines’ authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte.

Until the 1990s, the CCP’s focus was on economic development. China’s transformation from a peripheral, developing economy to the world’s second largest imperialist power is now underpinning a more aggressive international role. China’s nuclear capability, which it has possessed since 1964, further illustrates its distance from anything progressive. Nuclear bombs do not distinguish between the capitalists and the workers of the cities on which they are dropped.

The Chinese government continues to practice neo-colonialism closer to home. It colonised Tibet in 1950 and continues to oppress the region today by encouraging mass migration of Han Chinese. The government does the same in Xinjiang, suppressing local cultural autonomy and detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs.

In 1949, a massive peasant army led by Communists smashed forever the old ruling classes, broke the power of Western imperialism and laid the basis for a new social order. But this was in no sense a socialist revolution. Working-class power in China remains to be won.

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