The Maoist regime began not in 1949, with the declaration of the People’s Republic of China, but twenty years earlier, with the defeat of the Chinese working class movement at the hands of Chiang Kai Shek.
Masses of communist workers were slaughtered by the White Terror. After the Canton uprising of December 1927, the Chinese working class remained prostrate under the heel of Chiang. But it was still alive and capable of reviving – at least until the full-scale Japanese invasion of 1937 crushed political life in the cities.
What happened to the Chinese working class was partly determined by the actions of its political vanguard, the Chinese Communist Party. In 1927 and after that party suffered, so to speak, a three-way split.
There was the “faction” of the massacred; the faction which eventually became Trotskyist through studying the catastrophe; and the Stalinist faction which eventually came under the sole leadership of Mao.
The Trotskyist faction remained in the cities, took as its historical precedent the policy of the Russian revolutionaries after the defeat of the 1905-7 revolution, and continued to try to organise in the proletariat. In the aftermath of the defeat, it was inevitably slow work, conducted under continuing White Terror.
The Maoist faction took another road. They went into the countryside and organised their own armies. There was little effective central state power in China; in some areas there was not even any effective local state power. The Maoists conquered a succession of territories, forming a sort of itinerant state until the mid-30s, after which they held territory continuously.
After the breakdown of the moribund empire in 1911, China had been plagued for over a decade by the rule of the so called “warlords” – militarists who were local kings in their areas. Chiang Kai Shek overcame the warlords, doing deals with some of them, and forcibly united China in 1928 — just at the point where the Stalinists effectively created the most powerful of the warlord forces, a force that would eventually destroy Chiang Kai Shek.
That is the essence of it – Stalinist warlordism. For in 1927, when Chiang Kai Shek turned on the communist workers, there was more to it than the state’s butchers being turned on the people. There was a split in Chiang’s own apparatus.
Many of the communists, and future Stalinists, had positions in Chiang’s army. General Chu Teh created the first communist army by leading a revolt of one of Chiang’s units in August 1927.
The Whampoa Military Academy, where after 1922 Chiang’s Guomindang officers were trained, had been run by instructors from the USSR, and communist officers had also been trained there.
The Mao/Chu Teh group was not short of trained military personnel. They based themselves on the peasantry in some of the most backward areas of China, organised and fomented rebellion, recruited many tens of thousands of peasants into their “Communist Party”, and built up their own military apparatus, creating a local state power counterposed to Chiang’s state.
The party gradually ceased to be a political selection, and became more or less identical with the cadres of the Maoist army. The Chinese Communist Party did not cease to have some presence in the towns; nor did it abjure organising the working class. But more and more it withdrew from the towns, until by the mid-30s it had no influence or implantation in the towns worth speaking of.
Because of the weakness of the central state, the poor communications and transport, and the vast distances, the Maoist “warlords” could resist the central state’s drives against them. Chiang, who saw the Maoists for the threat they proved to be, hammered away at them for years without success until, in 1934, they were driven to make the year-long Long March from their base in Kiangsi north-west to Yenan.
The Stalinists suffered tremendous casualties, but they survived and, in 1935, the itinerant Maoist state established itself in Yenan, close to the USSR border. Soon Chinese Stalinism took the essential shape it would have in 1949.
The party/ army ruled over perhaps 80 million people, in backward conditions. They mobilised and organised the peasants. Until 1937 they organised peasant class struggle against the landlords; but the Maoist military machine retained the power to do what Mao would describe as manipulating “the contradictions among the people”.
The Maoist crypto-state was organised on the model of Stalin’s USSR. They replicated Stalin’s purges of “Trotskyists”, and proudly called their own political police the “GPU”, after Stalin’s.
But so far, this was no more than an enlarged piece of warlordism, with a durability given to it by the revolutionary aspirations of its core and the important distinction of treating the peasants as human beings, albeit human beings subordinated to the Maoist apparatus
The Maoists were walled off in a very backward part of China, which had no cities and was poor in resources. Their prospects of conquering all China were not very good. The political situation had to change fundamentally before their prospects would change.
Chiang Kai Shek’s Guomindang regime nominally controlled all of China except the “Red” areas by 1928. The GMD had begun as an ineffective and loose bourgeois-liberal electoral alliance. In 1922 it was reorganised on pseudo-”Bolshevik” party lines with the help of Communist International (CI) experts. It became a centralised, hierarchical party — and one with its own army and its own officers’ training academy, initially staffed by experts from the USSR.
The GMD was associated with the Communist International, and Chiang Kai Shek was elected an honorary member of the presidium of Stalin’s CI! It was a bourgeois party, but a party of a backward and very weak bourgeoisie – moreover, a bourgeoisie tied to the landlords even more closely than the Russian bourgeoisie had been by 1917 – and a bourgeois party organised as a militarised ‘combat organisation’.
It was a bourgeois political movement capable of a high degree of independence from the bourgeoisie. This was very important for what happened to the GMD and to the Chinese bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie did not like the GMD, and nor did the imperialist powers which had control of large parts of cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Chiang’s treacherous massacre of his communist allies in 1927 changed all that. He made his peace with the imperialists and with the remaining unconquered warlords, and the GMD settled down to rule China
What might at the beginning have been a movement whose core members were motivated by ideals higher than getting rich, degenerated rapidly into a corrupt bureaucratic apparatus for plundering China. Chiang Kai Shek himself was reputed to be comparatively honest, but his wife was a member of the rich, plundering, capitalist Soong family.
Despite the corruption, the GMD police state – as it soon became — was a formidable power. Then the Japanese intervened.
They invaded Manchuria in 1931, and set up a puppet kingdom there called Manchukuo. In 1937 they invaded the rest of China, and quickly controlled over half the country, including the cities. This was the test for Chiang.
He failed it spectacularly. A national war of defence and liberation, to prevent the enslavement of China, was the burning necessity. It was endorsed and advocated by everyone from the Chinese bourgeoisie to the Stalinists and Trotskyists.
Though the GMD regime was still a formidable force against the Chinese opposition, it was almost helpless before the Japanese onslaught, unable to mobilise and organise the people, Chiang seemed more concerned to prosecute his ten-year old war against the Chinese Stalinists than to defend China. Chiang was increasingly discredited.
In 1935 the Stalinists had made the turn towards Popular Front politics made by the Communist Parties everywhere. Now they called for a national front against the Japanese. This became an increasingly popular demand as the Japanese cut through China. It found echoes within Chiang’s own army and party.
On the border with the Stalinist-held territories, the GMD officers made a private truce with the Stalinists. Chiang came to put a stop to it and was made prisoner by his own officers, who were now working closely with the Stalinists. After consulting Stalin in Moscow, the Maoists decided to release Chiang on condition that he agreed to an anti-Japanese alliance with the CP’s “state”. He agreed, and the second ‘United Front’ period, 1937-46, began.
The Stalinists made huge concessions — on paper. They would accept Chiang as head of state, subordinate their army to his high command, dissolve the rural “soviets”, and cease being hostile to the landlords. But in fact they made few concessions in substance. They retained their own armies and their own control of those armies, whatever was said. In effect it was an alliance of states, with the Stalinist state keeping its de facto sovereignty.
The initial result was to stiffen the resistance to the Japanese. But the corrupt GMD increasingly tried to get out of the firing line by way of local accommodations with the Japanese. The CP increased in power, strength, and credibility with layers of the people of China, and the GMD was weakened, discredited, and rendered more decrepit as a ruling force.
Even the bourgeoisie was alienated. The GMD now used the state, which it “owned”, to pillage and expropriate sections of
the bourgeoisie, going far beyond the previous corruption.
Backed by the USA, which had advisers in China, and indeed had soldiers there during World War two and until 1946, the bourgeoisie organised the “Democratic League” in an attempt to regain direct power. But the Democratic League was smashed up by the GMD police state, and its leaders driven into exile in Hong Kong. Most of the bourgeoisie had been eliminated as a political force.
The decrepit GMD “party-state”, hated by intellectuals, bourgeois, peasants and workers alike, faced the vigorous Maoist “party-state”, whose standing was high with large sections of all those classes and which organised the peasants as its base everywhere it went.
The Maoists took much of the credit for the Chinese resistance to Japan, and they said (sincerely or otherwise) that they wanted to continue the alliance with Chiang after Japan surrendered to the US and Britain in 1945.
Chiang launched a new civil war in 1946, throwing million-strong well-armed armies against the numerically inferior forces of the Stalinists. But his regime was even more rotten now than it had been before 1937, when it had failed to destroy a much weaker Stalinist movement.
Whole armies went over to the Stalinists, taking their equipment with them. In 1948 the Stalinists occupied major cities, returning there in force for the first time in 20 years. In 1949 the GMD regime, led by Chiang, fled to Taiwan. where it ruled for decades. In October Mao declared the People’s Republic of China.
Symbolically, Mao’s armies surrounded the cities and conquered them. Even Chiang Kai Shek had used working-class risings to capture cities like Shanghai in the 20s. Not Mao. The workers were strictly told to stay at work and not to strike or take any action against the employers.
Symbolic too was what the Maoists did to the grave of the first secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu.
Chen had carried out Stalin’s disastrous policy in 1925-7 against his own judgement, observing CI discipline, and then had been scapegoated for the catastrophe. He became a Trotskyist, was jailed by the GMD, and died in 1942. The triumphant Stalinists overturned and destroyed his gravestone.
Chinese Stalinism came, so to speak, out of the mountains and the wildernesses fully formed and able to take control of society. It had its model of society – Stalin’s USSR. It camouflaged its rule by including remnants of the bourgeoisie in its governments. For seven or eight years it allowed the bourgeoisie to flourish as they had long ceased to flourish under Chiang, and then bought the capitalists out, giving them managerial jobs and 7% p.a. on their capital. The Chinese state was still paying this 7% until 1969, and resumed paying in the 1980s.
For 20 years, through many tortuous manoeuvres and zig-zags, the Maoist leaders had been fighting tenaciously to overthrow the old order. (The pseudo Trotskyist argument that the Maoists were forced to take power by “the pressure of the masses” is utterly baseless). The Maoists had also, in that time, been shaping, augmenting, steeling and perfecting the instrument of rule of a new class of state bureaucrats.
The resulting socio-economic formation was characterised — in many ways like the ancient Chinese empire — by the preponderance of the gigantic state machine and its political control over the economy. Through that military-political control over the economy, it was able over decades to engage in wild experiments in “social engineering”, completely outside the control of the masses who bore the cost of it in their lives and, for millions of them, in the loss of their lives.
But, though the elite could crudely control the people and the economy, they could not at will escape China’s backwardness and paucity of natural resources. Their attempts to do so by seeking economic miracles only added to the difficulties. The latest zig-zag, towards market economics, has provoked new convulsions, which are far from over.
On 6 July 1989 there was a general strike in Beijing.
There were strikes in other cities in 1989, and have been many strikes since. Workers have organised independent trade unions — and suffered terrible repression.
The Stalinist troops surrounded Beijing in 1989, as in 1949. Then the cities were passive or welcoming. In 1989 the cities became vibrant and alive, rejecting the Stalinist state power. As if by a miracle, the Chinese nation came back to autonomous life. The iron tombstone of the Stalinist regime has lost its power to hold it in stillness.
The regime had no authority in Beijing in 1989, nor in many other cities. Probably the regime still retained support in the countryside. The farmers had had a serious degree of self-determination restored to them in the previous ten years. They had had the benefits of a radical land reform carried out by the Deng regime, and many of them had known far greater prosperity than in a generation.
Whereas Russian Stalinism rose on the grave of the October 1917 workers’ revolution, the Chinese Stalinists led a revolution. As a result of that the Maoist regime had great credit with the people, despite its bungling and its repression. It was a powerful nationalist force which had restored self-determination to the Chinese people and unified China. It was a regime whose members were not individually corrupt, though the ruling elite was a privileged class.
That credit has been eroded over the last decades. Individual corruption has eaten into the party and the state machine. A process comparable to the degeneration and corruption which rotted the GMD has progressed very far in the Chinese Stalinist polity over the last decades. The old Jacobin egalitarian ethos which Maoism provided for the masses (though the elite did very well for themselves behind closed doors) has given way to a new ethos of self-enrichment.
The reappearance on the political stage of the Chinese proletariat is the right time to draw a balance sheet on those socialists who, for many years, accepted the present butchers of the Chinese workers as the protagonists in the Chinese workers’ revolution.
In the 1940s, the survival of Stalin’s system in the USSR and the expansion of Stalin’s empire into Central Europe, together with the creation of autonomous state-monopoly systems by revolutionary Stalinists in Yugoslavia and China, threw the Trotskyist movement into an immense and prolonged crisis. Incoherently still hanging on to the working-class socialist programme of Trotsky, the Trotskyists responded to the survival and expansion of Stalinism by saying that it was the spread of world revolution across the globe in a “deformed” way.
The argument had echoes from a century earlier. In 1850-1 the Communist League, for which Karl Marx and Fried rich Engels had written the Communist Manifesto in 1847, was convulsed by a division which led finally to a bitter split.
The division was about the European revolutionary movements of 1848-9 and the conclusions to be drawn from their defeat.
Marx declared: “We tell the workers: If you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war. Now they are told [by the opposing faction in the Communist League]: We must come to power immediately or we might as well go to sleep.
“The word ‘proletariat’ has been reduced to a mere phrase, like the word ‘people’ was by the democrats. To make this phrase a reality one would have to declare the entire petty bourgeoisie to be proletarians, i.e. de facto represent the petty bourgeoisie and not the proletariat.
“In place of actual revolutionary development one would have to adopt the revolutionary phrase”.
Willich and Schapper, Marx’s opponents in the Communist League, insisted that immediate revolution was still on the agenda. In somewhat the same way, the Trotskyists of the late ‘40s responded to the defeats of the working class East and West by asserting that it was still the epoch of revolution. Anti capitalist and anti-imperialist revolutions were being made; so they had to be working-class revolutions, even though they had not been made by the working class and they “seemed” very far from any of the old ideas of socialist revolution.
For China, the Trotskyists were led by this sort of reasoning to identify the Stalinist “Communist” Party as the agency (for now, and in a deformed way) of the working-class socialist revolution. The Maoists had made a revolution; it must be the socialist revolution they had made, albeit in a deformed way,
If Stalin had dug the grave of the Russian Revolution, Mao had led the Chinese Revolution to victory, though unfortunately he had bureaucratic tendencies. All that Marxists could do if they were not going to be “normative sectarians” was face the facts and offer advice and friendly criticism to those who were actually leading the revolution. They wrote letters to the Central Committee of Mao’s party which, as late as 1960, began “Dear Comrades...”
Working-class democracy would of course have been better than Mao’s bureaucratism, it was said, but that was for the future. Indeed, the cunning of the World Revolution would ensure its development in the future. Trotskyists could and should help along the work of World Revolution; but they could not counterpose themselves to the real revolutionary process by calling on the Chinese workers to fight to overthrow Mao, or advocating a new workers’ revolution. Even a call for the sort of supplementary (“political”) revolution which Trotsky had called for in the USSR after 1933 (and which the post-Trotsky Trotskyists continued to advocate for the USSR) would be sectarian for China.
For nearly 20 years after Mao conquered all of mainland China in 1949, the mainstream Trotskyists, led by Ernest Mandel and Michel Pablo (Raptis), refused to accept that the Chinese working class would have to act independently to overthrow the oppressive Stalinist state.
The Maoists were — for now — the agency of the real revolutionary process. Mandel and Pablo gave immense political and moral credit to them.
When the Maoists organised the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958-60 – and tens of millions starved to death in the consequent economic chaos – the Pablo-Mandel press published self-evidently impossible statistics and balance sheets from the Chinese government as proof of the wonders such a progressive regime could do.
In 1959 the Chinese government brutally took full control of Tibet, which had been brought back under loose Chinese jurisdiction in 1950 after half a century of de facto independence. The Trotskyists backed the invasion as a progressive extension of the Chinese revolution.
The Chinese working class has reappeared on the political scene, to confront the Stalinist butchers who rule China. That sheds a cold light on the would-be socialist politics that, for a prolonged period, accepted those Stalinists as the agency of socialist revolution in place of the proletariat.
Like a grotesque parody of the Willich-Schapper faction, the mainstream Trotskyists in the late 40s and early 50s refused to recognise the scale of the defeats suffered by the working class at the hands of both the capitalists and the Stalinists.
They maintained their belief in the proletarian revolution by accepting something completely different as representing that revolution — in a deformed way, and for the time being.
Willich ended up as an officer in Abraham Lincoln’s Union army during the US Civil War (Marx also supported Lincoln, of course); but it is not recorded that Willich or Schapper or their friends justified their “perspectives” by gross and quixotic delusions about the world around them as the Mandel-Pablo current did and do.
There were deep reasons, of course, for the confusion which led so far astray people who were sincerely devoted to the international proletariat and who did their best to uphold some of the ideas of revolutionary socialism.
Those are outside the scope of this article. But the reappearance of the Chinese proletariat is the right time to draw a balance on the nonsense which has passed for Trotskyism for so many years.
• This is taken from an article in Workers’ Liberty 12-13 (1989), omitting the current affairs comment on 1989 and its immediate background, and amended very slightly (tenses, etc.).