The Chinese Revolution of 1949

For Marxists, the Chinese Revolution was the second greatest event in human history, second only to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Millions of human beings, who had hitherto been the beasts of burden of imperialism, threw off the humiliating yoke of imperialism and capitalism, and entered the stage of world history.

The first Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 was a genuine proletarian revolution. But it was aborted by the false policies of Stalin and Bukharin, who subordinated the Chinese working class to the so-called democratic bourgeoisie under Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party was dissolved into the bourgeois Kuomintang (KMT), and Stalin even invited Chiang Kai-shek to be a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

This disastrous policy led to a catastrophic defeat in 1927 when the "bourgeois democrat" Chiang Kai-shek organized the massacre of the Communists in Shanghai. The smashing of the Chinese working class determined the character of the Chinese Revolution subsequently. The remnants of the Communist Party fled to the countryside, where they began to organize guerrilla war based on the peasantry. This fundamentally changed the course of the Revolution.

Rottenness of bourgeoisie

The Revolution of 1949 succeeded because of the complete blind alley of landlordism and capitalism in China. The bourgeois nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, who seized power in 1927 over the mangled bodies of the workers of Shanghai, had two decades to show what he could do. But in the end, China was as dependent on imperialism as ever, the agrarian problem remained unsolved, and China remained a backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial country. The Chinese bourgeoisie, together with all the other propertied classes, was entangled with imperialism, forming a reactionary bloc opposed to change.

The rottenness of the Chinese bourgeoisie was exposed when the Japanese imperialists invaded Manchuria in 1931. During the struggle to defeat the Japanese invaders, the Chinese Communists offered a united front to the bourgeois-nationalists of the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek. But In reality the level of actual cooperation between Mao’s forces and the KMT during World War II was minimal. The alliance of CPC and KMT was a united front in name only.

China’s struggle against Japan merged with the general conflagration of the Second World War. The Communists assumed the lion’s share of the fighting against the Japanese. The KMT forces were always far more concerned with the fight against the Reds. In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek demanded that the CPC’s New Fourth Army evacuate Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. This led to major clashes between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chiang’s forces and there were several thousand deaths. This signified the end of the so-called united front.

The Second World War ended with the enormous strengthening of US imperialism and of Stalin’s Russia, and the inevitable conflict between them was already evident before the end of the War. On August 9, 1945, Soviet forces launched the impressive Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation to attack the Japanese in Manchuria and along the Chinese-Mongolian border. In a lightning campaign the Soviet army smashed the Japanese army and occupied Manchuria. 700,000 Japanese troops stationed in the region surrendered, and the Red Army conquered Manchukuo, Mengjiang (inner Mongolia), northern Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands.

The rapid defeat of Japan's Kwantung Army by the Red Army is not mentioned by anybody nowadays, but it was a significant factor in Japan’s surrender and the termination of World War II. It was also a significant element in Washington’s calculations in Asia. The US imperialists feared that the Soviet Red Army would march straight through China, and enter Japan itself, just as it had previously advanced through Eastern Europe. Japan finally surrendered to the USA after the US air force dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The main purpose of wiping out these Japanese cities was to show Stalin that the USA now possessed a new and terrifying weapon in its arsenal.

Under the terms of the Japanese unconditional surrender dictated by the United States, Japanese troops were ordered to surrender to Chiang’s troops and not to the Communists in the occupied areas of China. The reason why the Japanese forces in Manchuria surrendered to the Soviet Union was simply that the KMT had no forces there. Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Japanese troops to remain at their post to receive the Kuomintang and not surrender their arms to the Communists.

After the Japanese surrender, US President Truman was very clear about what he described as "using the Japanese to hold off the Communists". In his memoirs he writes "It was perfectly clear to us that if we told the Japanese to lay down their arms immediately and march to the seaboard, the entire country would be taken over by the Communists. We therefore had to take the unusual step of using the enemy as a garrison until we could airlift Chinese National troops to South China and send Marines to guard the seaports".

Stalin and the Chinese Revolution

What was the position of Moscow in all this? Initially the Red Army allowed the PLA to strengthen its positions in Manchuria. But by November 1945, they reversed their stance. Chiang Kai-shek and the US imperialists were terrified at the prospect of a Communist takeover of Manchuria after the Soviet departure. He therefore made a deal with Moscow to delay their withdrawal until he had moved enough of his best-trained men and modern material into the region. KMT troops were then airlifted to the region in United States aircraft. The Russians then allowed them to occupy key cities in North China, while the countryside was left under the control of the CPC.

In reality, Stalin did not trust the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and did not believe that they could succeed in taking power. The Moscow Bureaucracy was more interested in maintaining friendly relations with the government of Chiang Kai-shek than supporting the Chinese Revolution. After the Revolution, Mao complained bitterly that the last foreign ambassador to take leave of Chiang Kai-shek was the Soviet ambassador. Stalin urged Mao to join a coalition government with the Kuomintang, an idea that Mao originally accepted:

“While the war continued, Mao Tse-tung had been demanding that the Nationalists agree to the establishment of a coalition government to replace their one-party rule, and Stalin and Molotov had been saying that the two Chinese sides should get together. On August 14, 1945, the Soviet Union went one step further. It negotiated with Chiang Kai-shek’s government a Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance. Subsequently Stalin advised the Chinese Communists that their insurrection ‘had no prospect’ and that they should join Chiang’s government and dissolve their army.

“On the same day that the Nationalists concluded their treaty with the Soviet Union, Chiang Kai-shek – at the urging of General Hurley – invited Mao Tse-tung to visit Chungking for joint discussions.” (Edward E. Rice, Mao’s Way, p.114, my emphasis, AW)

In the end, as was inevitable, the negotiations broke down and the civil war resumed. The Soviet Union provided quite limited aid to the PLA, whereas the United States assisted the Nationalists with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military supplies and equipment. General Marshall admitted that he knew of no evidence that the PLA were being supplied by the Soviet Union. In fact, the PLA captured a large number of weapons abandoned by the Japanese, including some tanks. Later, large numbers of well trained KMT troops surrendered and joined the PLA, taking their weapons with them. These were mostly produced in the USA.

Mao in 1946 Image public domainMao in 1946 / Image: public domain

The Soviet forces used the time to systematically dismantle Manchuria’s industrial base (worth up to 2 billion dollars), shipping back whole factories to the USSR. The fact is, as we have already seen, that Stalin was skeptical about the prospects for Mao’s success, and was trying to keep on good terms with Chiang Kai-shek, as Schram points out: “The pattern continued to be obscured both by Stalin’s preoccupation with the security of the Soviet state, and by his lack of enthusiasm for a dynamic revolutionary movement which he might not be able to control.” (Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, p.239.)

Thus, the seeds of the Sino-Soviet conflict were already present from the beginning: not an ideological conflict, as has been often claimed, but merely a conflict of interest between two rival bureaucracies, each jealously defending “its” narrow national interests, territory, resources, power and privileges. This narrow nationalism was in complete contrast to the courageous spirit of proletarian internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin stated on more than one occasion that he would be prepared to sacrifice the Russian Revolution if that were necessary to achieve the victory of the socialist revolution in Germany.

If Stalin and Mao had stood on the programme of Leninism, they would have immediately proposed the creation of a Socialist Federation of the Soviet Union and China, which would have been of immense benefit to all the peoples. Instead, their relations were based on narrow national interests and cynical calculations. This eventually led to the monstrous situation where the Russian and Chinese “comrades” conducted a “debate” in the language of rockets and artillery shells over an arbitrary frontier drawn up in the 19th century by a Russian Tsar and the Emperor of China.

USA helps Chiang Kai-shek

The Americans had the ambition of making China a US sphere of influence (in effect a semi-colony) after the War. But after all the sufferings of the Second World War, the American people would not have been prepared to support a new war to subjugate China. More importantly, the American soldiers would not have been prepared to fight such a war. The inability of US imperialism to intervene against the Chinese Revolution was therefore an important element in the equation.

In these conditions the US imperialists were compelled to manoeuvre and intrigue. Washington sent General George C. Marshall to China in 1946, allegedly to arrange negotiations between Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chiang Kai-shek. In practice, however, the aim was to strengthen Chiang by pouring in arms, money and equipment to build up the Nationalist forces in preparation for a new offensive. This manoeuvre did not fool Mao for an instant. He agreed to participate in the negotiations, but continued to prepare for a renewal of hostilities.

Jinzhou in 1948 Image public domainJinzhou in 1948 / Image: public domain

Although US imperialism was unable to intervene in the civil war of 1946-9, Washington gave huge amounts of money, arms and supplies to the Nationalists. The United States assisted the KMT with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new surplus military supplies. However, any of the arms sent by Washington were later used by the Vietnamese against the US army, since, almost all this military hardware was captured by Mao’s forces.

Since the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain in December 1945, the United States has adhered to a "policy of non-interference in China's internal affairs". This was, of course, a farce, just like the previous policy of “non-intervention” in Spain during the Civil War, when the “democracies” boycotted the Spanish Republic, while Hitler and Mussolini poured in arms and men to support Franco.

US imperialism supplied the Kuomintang with bombers, fighter planes, guns, tanks, rocket-launchers, automatic rifles, gasoline bombs, gas projectiles and other weapons for this purpose. In return, the Kuomintang handed over to US imperialism China's sovereign rights over her own territory, waters and air space, allowed it to seize inland navigation rights and special commercial privileges, and seize special privileges in China's domestic and foreign affairs. The US forces were guilty of many atrocities against Chinese people: killing people, beating them up, driving cars over them and raping women, all with impunity.

Agrarian revolution

In July 1946, with the active support of US imperialism, the Kuomintang plunged China into a huge civil war of unprecedented brutality. Chiang Kai-shek launched a counter-revolutionary offensive against the People's Liberation Army. He had made careful preparations, and at that time it had approximately three and a half times as many troops as the PLA; and his material resources were far superior. He had access to modern industries and modern means of communication, which the People's Liberation Army lacked. In theory, he should have had an easy victory.

In the first year of the war (July 1946 - June 1947) the Kuomintang was on the offensive and the PLA was forced onto the defensive. Initially, Chiang’s forces advanced rapidly, occupying many cities and areas controlled by the PLA. The KMT forces achieved what seemed to be a decisive victory when they seized the PLA’s capital of Yenan. This was taken by many observers to signify a decisive defeat for the PLA. But this appraisal was incorrect. In the face of overwhelmingly unfavourable odds, Mao decided to stage a strategic withdrawal. Mao took the decision not to try to defend the big cities with inferior forces, but instead concentrated on the rural areas where he had a solid base among the peasants, and from where he could regroup and concentrate his forces for a counterattack.

What the US imperialists and Chiang Kai-shek failed to realise was that the most effective weapon in the hands of the PLA was not guns and tanks, but propaganda. They promised the landless and starving peasants that by fighting for the PLA they would be able to take farmland from their landlords. In most cases, the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under the control of the PLA long before the cities. This was the origin of Mao’s theory of the countryside “surrounding the cities”.

When Stalin changed the line of the Communist International from the ultra-left policies of the “Third Period” (1928-34) to the opportunist policies of popular frontism, Mao revised his agrarian programme, abandoning the previous radical policy of “land to the tiller” in favour of a more moderate one of rent reduction. He had the idea of winning the support of “progressive landlords” (!). But after 1946 he changed the policy again:

“The agrarian policy followed was more radical than that of the 1937-45 period, which had involved interest and rent reduction rather than immediate land reform, but the tactics were to be gradual and adapted to local conditions. Mao still intended to include the ‘patriotic gentry’ in the ‘very broad united front’ he was determined to maintain. Only after several years of Communist control in a given area would all land be re-distributed; for the moment the reform should not affect more than ten per cent of the population. Mao also caused to be reissued the ‘three rules of discipline’ and the ‘eight points for attention’; these, in one form or another, had expressed for nearly twenty years a respect for the civil population and abstinence from plunder which distinguished the Red Army from all the armies which the Chinese peasantry had seen in the past, and contributed greatly to winning the support of the population.” (Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, p.242.)

In every village the PLA distributed land to the peasants, but they always left a number of plots unoccupied – for the soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. KMT soldiers who were captured were not killed or ill-treated, but fed and given medical care and then given political speeches, which denounced the corrupt and reactionary regime of Chiang Kai-shek. Then the prisoners were sent home to spread the message among the peasants and other soldiers that the PLA was for the distribution of the landlords’ land to the peasants.

By promising land to the peasants, the PLA managed to mobilize huge numbers for use in combat as well as provide logistic support. This proved to be highly effective. Chiang’s army had probably the highest rate of desertion of any army in history. This meant that despite suffering heavy casualties, the PLA was able to keep fighting, with a constant supply of fresh recruits. During the Huaihai Campaign alone they were able to mobilize 5,430,000 peasants to fight against the KMT forces. Stuart Schram points out the dramatic increase in the size of the PLA:

“During 1945 the military forces under the command of the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army had expanded from a total of about half a million to a total of about one million men. The Kuomintang forces were approximately four times that size. By the middle of 1947, after a year of large-scale civil war, the proportion had shifted from one in four to one in two.” (Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, p.242.)

The final offensive

Clausewitz made the celebrated remark that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Politics play a very important role in every war, but this is especially true of a civil war. Although the Americans (as always) maintained the fiction that this was a war between “communism and democracy”, in fact, their Chinese puppet Chiang Kai-shek was a brutal dictator. Probably under pressure from Washington, however, Chiang pretended to introduce a number of “democratic reforms” in order to silence his critics at home and abroad.

He announced a new constitution and a National Assembly, from which the Communists, of course, would be excluded. These “reforms” were immediately denounced as a fraud by Mao. The mass of the population were more concerned with the rampant corruption in government and the political and economic chaos, especially the massive hyperinflation that led to a collapse in living standards. There were mass nationwide student protests against US imperialism.

In the areas controlled by the Nationalist forces, a regime of White terror reigned. Chiang adopted the very same tactic used previously by the Japanese invaders: burn, loot, rape and kill. Millions of men and women, young and old were slaughtered. This earned them the hatred of the population and strengthened support for the PLA.

In theory, the Nationalists still had a big advantage over the PLA. On paper, they enjoyed a clear superiority in both numbers of men and weapons. They controlled a much larger territory and population than their adversaries, and enjoyed considerable international support from the USA and Western Europe. But that was only in theory. The reality on the ground was very different. The Nationalist forces suffered from a lack of morale and rampant corruption that greatly reduced their ability to fight, and their civilian support had collapsed.

The demoralized and undisciplined Nationalist troops were melting away in the face of the irresistible forward march of the People's Liberation Army. They surrendered or fled, leaving their weapons behind. The capture of large numbers of KMT troops provided the PLA with the tanks, heavy artillery, and other combined-arms assets needed to prosecute offensive operations south of the Great Wall. It was able not only to capture the Kuomintang's heavily fortified cities but also to surround and destroy strong formations of Kuomintang crack troops, a hundred thousand or several hundred thousand at a time. By April 1948 they took the city of Luoyang, cutting the KMT army off from Xi'an.

The PLA was able to pass onto the counteroffensive, forcing the Kuomintang to abandon its plan for a general offensive. Having captured large quantities of arms from the enemy, it was able to improve its military potential, forming its own artillery and engineer corps and a mastering the tactics of storming heavily fortified points. Prior to this, it had possessed neither aircraft nor tanks, but once it had formed artillery and an engineer corps superior to those of the Kuomintang army it was able to conduct not only mobile warfare but positional warfare as well. According to Mao’s own estimate:

“[…] each month [the PLA] destroyed an average of some eight brigades of the Kuomintang regular troops (the equivalent of eight present-day divisions).” (Carry the Revolution through to the end, December 30, 1948, Mao, SW, volume IV, p. 299)

The transformation of the military situation was really incredible. The PLA, which for years had been outnumbered, by July-December 1948 finally gained numerical superiority over the Kuomintang forces. These are the figures given by Mao at the time:

“In the first year, 97 brigades, including 46 brigades entirely wiped out; in the second year, 94 brigades, including 50 brigades entirely wiped out; and in the first half of the third year, according to incomplete figures, 147 divisions, including 111 divisions entirely wiped out. In these six months, the number of enemy divisions entirely wiped out was 15 more than the grand total for the previous two years. The enemy front as a whole has completely crumbled. The enemy troops in the Northeast have been entirely wiped out, those in northern China will soon be entirely wiped out, and in eastern China and the Central Plains only a few enemy forces are left. The annihilation of the Kuomintang's main forces north of the Yangtse River greatly facilitates the forthcoming crossing of the Yangtse by the People's Liberation Army and its southward drive to liberate all China. Simultaneously with victory on the military front, the Chinese people have scored tremendous victories on the political and economic fronts. For this reason public opinion the world over, including the entire imperialist press, no longer disputes the certainty of the country-wide victory of the Chinese People's War of Liberation.” (Carry the Revolution through to the end, December 30, 1948, Mao, SW, volume IV, p. 299)

There is no reason not to believe that this estimate is substantially accurate. All the bourgeois historians accept that by this stage, Chiang’s forces were retreating in disarray and that the PLA was rapidly gaining in strength.

The fall of Beiping

By late 1948 the tide had turned. The PLA captured the northern cities of Shenyang and Changchun and seized control of the Northeast after a hard campaign. After a brutal six-month siege of Changchun that resulted in more than 300,000 civilian deaths from starvation, they forced the best-trained KMT troops to surrender. Chiang’s plans for a counter-offensive were now in ruins. The PLA not only recovered most of the territories lost in northeastern China but also extended the battle front into the Kuomintang areas north of the Yangtze and Weishui Rivers. They captured Shihchiachuang, Yuncheng, Szepingkai, Loyang, Yichuan, Paoki, Weihsien, Linfen and Kaifeng.

In 1949 the Chinese People's Liberation Army advanced south of the Yangtze River and the end of the war was already in sight. Some so-called Trotskyists persisted in denying what was obvious. In America, Max Shachtman ridiculed the argument of Cannon who said that Mao was going to capitulate to Chiang Kai-shek. He said: “Yes, Mao wishes to capitulate to Chiang, but he has a problem: he can’t catch up with him!”

By late 1948 the Nationalist position was hopeless. Now that Chiang had his back against the wall, he began to offer peace. Only three years earlier Chiang was boasting that he was going to exterminate the Communists. His troops were following his policy of “loot, burn and kill” with enthusiasm. Now that defeat was staring him in the face, he began to sing the praises of peace. A very surprising transformation!

Behind Chiang’s “peace” strategy stood Washington, backed by the British and French imperialists, all of whom now realized that the war was lost. Having failed to crush the PLA by force, they were hoping to salvage something from the wreckage by political intrigues. But such manoeuvres fooled nobody, and least of all Mao Zedong.

In most cases the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under the PLA’s influence long before the cities — part of the strategy of people's war. In January 1949 Beiping was taken by the PLA without a fight, and its name was changed back to Beijing. Between April and November, other major cities also fell with minimal resistance. On April 21, Mao’s forces crossed the Yangtze River and captured Nanjing, the KMT's capital. Within a short space of time they were driving the disorganized and demoralized remnants of KMT forces southwards in southern China.

In the end, Chiang Kai-shek and approximately two million Nationalist Chinese - predominantly from the former government bureaucrats and businessmen - retreated from mainland China to the island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa). Chiang proclaimed Taipei as the temporary capital of China. Before fleeing, Chiang took the precaution of stripping the national treasury of about US$300 million to fill his own pockets and those of his cronies.

All this culminated on October 1, 1949, with Mao Zedong proclaiming the People's Republic of China. A new page was turned in the history of the world.

The Red Army and the workers

Before the War, Trotsky had pointed out that the decisive question was what would happen when the Red Army entered the towns and cities. A genuine workers’ state would base itself on the working class and its organs of power: the soviets. It would encourage the self-organization of the workers, with real trade unions, independent of the state.

However, the 1949 Revolution in China was carried out in Bonapartist fashion from the top. Instead of basing themselves on the working class to overthrow the bourgeois state, they formed a coalition government composed of various factions of the former Kuomintang government. Far from encouraging the independent movement of the masses, any manifestations of independent action on the part of the workers was repressed.

Mao initially began with a programme that did not go beyond the limits of capitalism. At one point he even had illusions in a deal with the Americans, as Stuart Schramm points out:

“An editorial of the Liberation Daily of 4 July 1944 heaped praise on the American democratic tradition, and compared America’s struggle for democracy and national independence in the eighteenth century, and China’s struggle in the twentieth:

“ ‘Democratic America has already found a companion, and the cause of Sun Yat-sen a successor, in the Chinese Communist Party and the other democratic forces… The work which we Communists are carrying on today is the very same work which was carried on earlier in America by Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; it will certainly obtain, and indeed has already obtained, the sympathy of democratic America.’ ” (Quoted in Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, pp.225-6.)

The language is that of bourgeois democracy, and it flows from Mao’s conception of the Chinese Revolution. Mao balanced between the bourgeoisie and the workers and peasants in order to consolidate the new state and concentrate power into his hands. In the first stages, he did everything to prevent the workers from taking power and crush whatever elements of an independent workers’ movement that had emerged. As in Spain in 1936, Mao did not form a coalition with the bourgeoisie, but with the shadow of the bourgeoisie. But whereas in Spain, the shadow was allowed to take on substance, in China it was snuffed out. When the Red Army entered the cities, they called on workers not to strike or demonstrate. The following eight points formed the basis of their propaganda:

“1) People’s lives and property will be protected. Keep order and don’t listen to rumours. Looting and killing are strictly forbidden.

“2) Chinese individual commercial and industrial property will be protected. Private factories, banks, godowns [warehouses], etc., will not be touched and can continue operating.

“3) Bureaucratic capital, including factories, shops, banks, godowns, railways, post offices, telephone and telegraph installations, power plants, etc., will be taken over by the Liberation Army, although private shares will be respected. Those working in these organizations should work peacefully and wait for the takeover. Rewards will be given to those who protect property and documents; those who strike or who destroy will be punished. Those wishing to continue serving will be employed.

“4) Schools, hospitals, and public institutions will be protected. Students, teachers and all workers should protect their records. Anyone with ability to work will be employed.

“5) Except for a few major war criminals and notorious reactionaries, all Kuomintang officials, police and Pao-Chia workers of the Provincial, Municipal, and Hsien Governments will be pardoned, if they do not offer armed resistance. They should protect their records. Anyone with ability to work will be employed.

“6) As soon as a city is liberated, displaced soldiers should report immediately to the new garrison headquarters, the police bureau, or army authorities. Anyone surrendering his weapons will not be questioned. Those who hide will be punished.

“7) The lives and property of all foreigners will be protected. They must obey the laws of the Liberation Army and Democratic Government. No espionage or illegal actions will be allowed. No war criminals should be sheltered. They will be subject to military or civilian trial for violations.

“8) People in general should protect all public property and keep order.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, pp. 327-8.)

Imitating the model of Stalinist Russia, the Chinese Stalinists turned the trade unions into “a school of production which encourages the productive and positive characteristics of the proletariat.” They abolished the right to strike and instituted compulsory arbitration. All strikes or other actions aimed at defending the interests of the workers were condemned as “leftist adventurism.”

Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the Peoples Republic on 1 October 1949 Image public domainMao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the Peoples Republic on 1 October 1949 / Image: public domain

At first, they did not touch the private enterprises of the capitalists. Only the former property of “bureaucratic capital” was nationalized. But in these enterprises power was invested in a control committee, with the manager of the factory acting as president, and consisting of representatives of the former owners, representatives of the supervisory personnel and representatives of the workers. The workers had only consultative rights, the director retaining the final say in all decisions.

Mao originally had the perspective of fifty or a hundred years of capitalism. He insisted that he would only expropriate “bureaucratic-capital”. But having taken power, Mao very soon realised that the rotten and corrupt Chinese bourgeoisie was incapable of playing any progressive role. Thus, leaning on the working class, he proceeded to nationalise the banks and all large-scale industry and to expropriate the landlords and capitalists. This was not so difficult. As Trotsky remarked, to kill a tiger one needs a shotgun, but to kill a flea, a fingernail is sufficient.

The shadow of the bourgeoisie

Mao’s original idea was to form a coalition government with the representatives of the workers, peasants, the intelligentsia, the national bourgeoisie and even progressive landowners. However, there was a slight problem. The bourgeoisie had fled to Formosa (Taiwan) with Chiang Kai-shek. Formally speaking, this was a popular front government. But there was a fundamental difference between this government and the popular front in Spain in 1936.

The only armed force in China was the PLA, the peasant army controlled by the Chinese Stalinists. Lenin explained that the state, in the last analysis, is armed bodies of men. By 1949 the CPC claimed a membership of 4.5 million, 90% of whom were peasants. Mao was the Party Chairman and really held the reins of power in his hands, although the government was formally headed by his right-hand-man, Zhou En-lai. The army, police and secret police were all in their hands. That is just another way of saying: they held state power. This was their real power base, and this was the decisive element in the equation.

In theory, the government of the People’s Republic was a coalition of different parties. But, with the exception of the CPC, the others were insignificant sects, some of which barely existed except on paper. On May 1, the Chinese Communist Party issued a sweeping appeal for a broad united front against the Nationalists:

“Labouring people of the entire country, unite; ally with the intelligentsia, liberal bourgeoisie, all democratic parties and groups, social luminaries and other patriotic elements; consolidate and expand the united front against imperialist, feudal, and bureaucratic capitalist forces; fight together to destroy Kuomintang reactionaries and build a new China. All democratic parties and groups, people’s organizations, and social luminaries, speedily convene a Political Consultative Conference, discuss and carry out the convoking of a People’s Representative Assembly to establish a Democratic Coalition Government!”

What was the response? A small group of Chinese political refugees in voluntary exile on the island of Hong Kong accepted the offer. Their telegram to Mao Zedong on May 5 pompously proclaimed: “We herein express our response and support to your call, and hope by its realization to meet our national renaissance.”

The telegram was signed by leaders of the Kuomintang Revolutionary Committee (KMTRC), Democratic League, Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party (PWDP), National Salvation Society (NSS), China Democratic Promotion Society (CDPS), San Min Chu I Comrades Association, Kuomintang Democratic Promotion Society (KMTDPS), and Chih Kung Tang.

Doak Barnett comments: “A great many of these people once were respectable members of the Kuomintang, and many held high positions under it, but all of them are now dissidents for either personal or ideological reasons.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, pp.85-6.)

Thus, the mighty Chinese Communist Party formed an alliance, not with the Chinese bourgeoisie but only with its shadow. These “parties” were merely splinter groups in Hong Kong. The names of their leaders were lifted from obscurity to prominence by the gracious permission of the Stalinists. This move led to feverish speculation. There was even one rumour that the top KMTRC leaders, Li Chi-shen and Feng Yü-hsiang (before his death), were to become the political and military chiefs, respectively, with Communist leaders Mao Zedong and Chu Teh in the number two positions!

Such fantastic rumours naturally had no basis in fact. Mao had conquered power, to quote his famous phrase “through the barrel of a gun”. He was not about to hand real power to the Chinese bourgeoisie – and least of all to men who represented nobody but themselves.

“At the moment, representatives from these Hong Kong groups, meeting with the Communists in Harbin, are helping to plan the Communist-sponsored Political Consultative Conference (PCC) that is scheduled for early next year – ‘probably in Peiping, if the military situation permits,’ Li Chi-shen told me recently – to prepare for a ‘People’s Representative Assembly to establish a Democratic Coalition Government.’ The most prominent of these representatives are General Ts’ai T’ing-k’ai (of the KMTRC), Shen Chün-ju, and Chang Po-chün (leaders, respectively, of the NSS and PWDP, but both representing the Democratic League in Harbin). Pro-Communist ‘luminaries’ of many sorts, including Madame Feng Yü-hsiang, have converged on Harbin as these meetings proceed, and more representatives from Hong Kong groups are now en route, probably by ship via North Korea.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, pp.83-4.)

The real situation was very well expressed by A. Doak Barnett, who was an American journalist present in China at the time:

“Before describing each of these groups now operating in Hong Kong, a few generalizations can be made about them, for they have many similarities. To begin with, none is really a political party at the present time, although several aspire to be. They are merely small political groups, each with a few hundred to a few thousand members. Not one of them has a mass following or a strong political organization. And they do not possess armies – a prerequisite for political power in China during recent decades. In short, they have none of the obvious qualifications for successful independent action in the rough and tumble of contemporary Chinese politics. In terms of tangible power, they cannot make a showing.

“All the Hong Kong groups call themselves ‘liberals’, and often they are labeled simply as ‘Chinese democratic groups’. Without doubt, some of them can rightly claim to be liberals (although the word is a difficult one to define), but others are definitely political opportunists. As far as some of their top leaders are concerned, it is difficult to discover basic points of difference distinguishing them from Central Government leaders, except that they are now on the opposite side of the fence in the civil war.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, p.85, my emphasis, AW.)

The new state

Mao consolidated a new state, not as a direct expression of the working class, but by balancing between the classes, and it was through this state that he expropriated the landlords and capitalists. In spite of the distorted manner in which it was achieved, the establishment of a nationalized planned economy was a progressive measure and a huge step forward for China. However, it was not a proletarian revolution in the sense understood by Marx and Lenin. The Chinese Stalinists, acting in the name of the proletariat, carried out the basic economic tasks of the socialist revolution, but the workers in China had been passive throughout the civil war and did not play an independent role in the whole process.

As a result, the Revolution was carried out in a Bonapartist manner, from above, without the participation and democratic control of the workers. The bureaucracy developed a totalitarian one-party dictatorship, modelled on Stalin’s Russia. Given the way the revolution was carried out, and the existence of a mighty Stalinist regime on China’s borders, this outcome was entirely predictable.

Mao used the peasant army as a battering ram to smash the old state. But the peasantry is a class that is least capable of acquiring a socialist consciousness. Of course, in underdeveloped colonial and semi-colonial nations, the peasantry must play a very important role – but it can only be an auxiliary role, subordinated to the revolutionary movement of the workers in the cities.

We should remember that up to the Russian revolution even Lenin denied the possibility of “the victory of the proletarian revolution in a backward country”. Only Trotsky had previously advanced the perspective that the Russian working class could come to power before the proletariat of Western Europe. However, in 1917 that is precisely what happened. The Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, led the workers to power in Russia, which, like China in 1949, was an extremely backward, semi-feudal country. The Russian working class, which was a small minority of society (the majority were peasants), placed itself at the head of society and carried out a classical socialist revolution in October 1917.

Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the proletariat immediately carried out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and then carried on to expropriate the capitalists and established a regime of workers’ democracy. It would have been possible for the Chinese Revolution to have developed on the same lines as the October Revolution in Russia. What was lacking was the subjective factor: the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.

The kind of regime established in China represents a deviation from the classical norm, but in real life, processes do not always conform to the ideal norms. All kinds of distortions and peculiar variants are possible. Ted Grant was the only Marxist theoretician who explained the role of proletarian Bonapartism as a peculiar variant of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. When Mao’s perspective was still that of a long period of capitalism, Ted explained the inevitability of Mao's victory and the establishment of a deformed workers' state. He also predicted in advance that the Chinese bureaucracy would come into conflict with Moscow. (See Reply to David James, Spring 1949).

A giant step forward

The Chinese Revolution was a giant step forward. If it had not succeeded, the country would undoubtedly have been transformed into a semi-colony of US imperialism under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. Instead, in 1949 the Chinese people for the first time achieved full emancipation from foreign rule. The Revolution was a blow to imperialism on a world scale. It gave a tremendous impetus to the revolt of the enslaved colonial peoples. This in itself was sufficient reason to welcome and support it.

But that is not all. It ended in the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism. The abolition of landlordism freed China from the burden of semi-feudal relations and the liquidation of private ownership of industry and the introduction of the state monopoly of foreign trade gave a powerful impetus to the development of Chinese industry. However, the nationalization of the means of production is not yet socialism, although it is the prior condition for it.

The movement towards socialism requires the control, guidance and participation of the proletariat. The uncontrolled rule of a privileged elite is not compatible with genuine socialism. It will produce all sorts of new contradictions. Bureaucratic control signifies corruption, nepotism, waste, mismanagement and chaos, which eventually undermine the gains of a nationalized planned economy. The experience of both Russia and China prove this.

Chen Duxiu 1st General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Image public domainChen Duxiu, 1st General Secretary of the Communist Party of China / Image: public domain

The real reason for the peculiar variants and deformations of the revolution in the ex-colonial countries for a whole period was the delay in the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. But that situation is changing rapidly. All the objective conditions for a socialist revolution are now maturing on a world scale. Only the weakness of the forces of genuine Marxism means that the process will be protracted.

Without the 1949 Chinese Revolution, China would not have been able to make the enormous progress that it has. The workers of the world can point to the colossal advances that China made after the revolution as proof of the potential of a nationalized planned economy. Nowadays it has become fashionable to decry nationalization and planned economy. But the arguments about the alleged superiority of “market economics” are exposed as completely hollow in the light of the present economic crisis, the deepest crisis of world capitalism since 1929.

The achievements of the nationalized planned economy were the basis for the emergence of China as a powerful industrialized nation. It is sufficient to compare China with India to see the difference. Both started out on a similar level in the late 1940s, but China developed at a much faster rate.

However, sixty years after the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism in China, the leading stratum has taken the road back to capitalism. This possibility was implicit in a situation where the bureaucracy had raised itself above society. Starting initially as measures to stimulate economic growth within the planned economy, the bureaucracy has adopted capitalist methods. However, in spite of the growth, the imposition of “market economics” in China does not serve the interests of the Chinese workers and peasants. It is creating new and terrible contradictions both in the towns and villages, which, at a certain point, must lead to a new revolutionary upsurge.

On the basis of experience, the Chinese workers, peasants, students and intellectuals will rediscover the great revolutionary traditions of the past. The new generation will embrace the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Chen Duxiu, the founder of Chinese Communism and its true heir. Napoleon once said of China: “When this giant awakens, the world will tremble.” We echo these words, with an amendment: the giant that is destined to shake the world is none other than the mighty Chinese proletariat. We look forward with impatience to the hour of that awakening.

London, October 1, 2009

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