Who made China’s revolution?

October 13, 2009

As China celebrates six decades as a supposed "peoples' republic," Dennis Kosuth looks at how the struggle for workers' revolution in China was derailed.

SOON AFTER the founding of the People's Republic of China 60 years ago, the government began the practice of selecting "model workers." These individuals were held up as examples of hard work, modesty and patriotism. One early recipient, Shi Chuanxiang, received this honor because of the many decades he spent removing human waste from public bathrooms. The 1959 image of him shaking hands with then President Liu Shaoqi still appears in many primary school textbooks.

The ranks of the "model workers" this year include several bankers who had, "amidst the deepening and spreading financial crisis...overcame difficulties, strived to maintain growth, protect people's livelihoods, maintain stability and wholly promote socialist political and cultural construction as well as the grand project of constructing the party."

In 1999, there was one U.S.-dollar billionaire in China. By 2006 this elite club had slowly grown to 14, but only three years later this number has ballooned to about 130. Needless to say, these newly rich did not get there by decades of hard work akin to shoveling excrement, but by exploiting those who do.

Mao Zedong giving a speech in 1939
Mao Zedong giving a speech in 1939

According to Peh Shing Huei of Singapore's The Straits Times, "a 2006 study by several Chinese research institutions showed that almost 90 per cent of the country's top leaders in sectors encompassing finance, foreign trade, property development, construction and stock trading were princelings. And about 90 per cent of China's billionaires are the children of high-ranking officials."

How do these facts square with a country that calls itself socialist? What was the nature of the revolution in 1949 that put the Communist Party of China (CPC) into power and has led the country to where it is today?

BEFORE 1949, when Mao Zedong, leader of the revolution, proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic, China was in terrible shape, exploited by Western governments and corporations as well as occupied by Japan. The vast majority of Chinese worked the land under the oppressive rule of ruthless landlords.

Since the first Opium War in 1839--when Britain fought China to expand sales of opium and impose free trade--the influence of foreign exploitation weighed heavily on China. When the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911 in the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, the formation of the Republic of China failed to resolve the national question. China was still divided and dominated by local warlords, who--in conjunction with foreign powers--allowed the country to continue to be exploited by those abroad.

At the conclusion of the First World War, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles allowed Japan to take over German interests in Shandong Province, an area rich in petroleum. This insult provoked students in Beijing to launch the May 4th Movement, whose demands centered on removing foreign powers from China.

In the period following the May 4th Movement, Marxist ideas began to become popular, and in 1921 a small group of activists met from across the country and founded the Communist Party of China (CPC). Representatives from the Communist International (Comintern) were also present at the founding of the CPC, and became an important influence in the direction of the new organization.

What started as a very small organization--with no links to the quickly expanding working class--grew from dozens to nearly a thousand in 1924, and then to 30,000 in the two years that followed. It became an organization concentrated on the costal cities, and overwhelmingly working class. It achieved this size by leading strikes in Shanghai and Hong Kong against foreign companies after British and French troops had shot and killed demonstrators. In those few years the CPC helped to organize 20 percent of the 15 million workers in China into trade unions.

The CPC, however, didn't have a monopoly on the nationalist sentiment that existed in China at the time. Sun Yat-sen and the Guomindang (GMD), also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party, had been established almost a decade prior with the fall of the last dynasty.

While the GMD wanted China free of imperialism, and saw mass struggle as an arena to achieve that goal, it was hesitant to alienate Chinese landowners or capitalists because these elements had a large presence in the organization. So due to its social composition, the GMD was more afraid of workers and peasants rising up than it was of the foreign powers.

The CPC, at the behest of the Comintern, was instructed to join forces with the GMD under the direction of GMD leader Chiang Kai-shek, who took over from Sun Yat-sen in 1925. The GMD, which was larger and more established than the CPC, was even admitted into the Comintern in 1926 as the main revolutionary party in China.

The Comintern, whose founding task was to help spread revolution around the world, was in a desperate situation. Three attempted revolutions in Germany had failed. After the 1917 revolution that put the working class in power in Russia, the civil war that followed had been a deadly drain on the already limited resources of that country. The working class that had made the revolution was radically reduced both in size and social weight. Thus the Russian Revolution, not even 10 years old, was strangled by the fact that it had not spread, and the USSR was increasingly isolated in a sea of capitalist aggressors.

With the Russian working class no longer capable of wielding power, the bureaucracy began to usurp its position--and Joseph Stalin was its leader. For Stalin, the Comintern was no longer a means of internationalizing workers' revolution, but was a wing of the USSR's foreign policy. He believed a liberated China would be a needed ally, and therefore wanted a Chinese revolution fast-tracked to victory. He argued that the CPC-GMD alliance was the means to achieve this.

The one vote against including the GMD into the Comintern was by Leon Trotsky, a central leader of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky argued that putting the CPC under GMD would only bolster the right wing of the struggle, and destroy any possibility of a working class led revolution in China. He wrote to the Comintern in August 1927:

The Guomindang is the party of the liberal bourgeoisie in the period of revolution--the liberal bourgeoisie that draws behind it, deceives, and betrays the workers and the peasants.

The Communist Party, in accordance with your directives, remains throughout all the betrayals within the Guomindang and submits to its bourgeois discipline

The Guomindang as a whole enters into the Comintern and does not submit to its discipline, but merely utilizes the name and the authority of the Comintern to dupe the Chinese workers and peasants.

The Guomindang serves as a shield for the landlord-generals who hold in their grip the soldier-peasants.

Moscow...demands that the agrarian revolution be kept from developing so as not to scare away the landlords in command of the armies. The armies become mutual insurance societies for the landlords, large and small alike.

Trotsky's position was based upon the recent experience in 1917 Russia. In the fight to overthrow the Tsar, the Bolshevik Party never gave up its political autonomy to organize around the principals it stood for. While the Bolsheviks wholeheartedly supported the demands for democracy and the overthrow of the monarchy, they also stood for putting the working class into power. The Bolsheviks were willing to work alongside other forces, such as the peasantry or the middle class, to overthrow the Tsar, but they organized for the political independence of the working class.

While the Bolsheviks initially looked towards what the revolutionary Lenin called the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry," they were always open about their ultimate goal of workers' power. For his part, Trotsky elaborated the theory of permanent revolution, which held that the Russian revolution would go beyond establishing democracy and bring workers to power directly--and that Russian workers could maintain their only rule if socialist revolution spread to the more advanced countries of Western Europe.

Trotsky's perspective was eventually adopted by the Bolsheviks. After the Tsar was dethroned in February 1917, it soon became clear that the bourgeois Provisional Government was unable to meet the needs of the Russian people, or even defend their own government from fascist threat. But because the Bolsheviks had maintained their ability to operate independently throughout the struggle, their slogan of all power to the Soviets--councils of worker representatives--won them a majority in these councils. They were thus able to lead a successful workers' revolution in October 1917.

A DECADE later in China, though, the Russian Communists--as the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves--had a very different perspective. The rising bureaucracy around Stalin was no longer interested in risky ventures like workers' revolution, but rather focused on breaking out of the isolation imposed by Western imperialism. This was Stalin's logic for supporting the GMD, which was confronting some of the same imperial forces.

The USSR, therefore, not only politically backed the GMD, but also gave direct military aid to Chiang. The GMD leader used this aid for an offensive in the summer of 1926 called the Northern Expedition, an effort to defeat the warlords and consolidate the power of the Republic of China. The CPC was instructed to place its own organization on the back burner.

Stalin thought that the Comintern and the CPC could use the GMD as a shortcut to power, and push them aside afterwards. But in the end it was the CPC that was marginalized. In the spring of 1926, Chiang began persecuting CPC members in Canton (known today as Guangzhou). But when the Chinese Communists protested, the Comintern whipped them into line. The CPC, nevertheless, continued to organize in the cities, and led strikes among workers to support the Northern Expedition. Chiang was threatened by this and forbade "all labor disturbances for the duration of the Northern Expedition."

As Chiang approached Shanghai in March of 1927, the workers called a general strike. Some 600,000 responded, and the city was shut down. The GMD army camped outside the city while the local warlord attacked the strike. Chiang then invaded Shanghai, joined forces with the warlord, and a bloodbath followed. Communist organizers were hunted down, rounded up and executed.

In the year that followed, Chiang's anti-communist crusade continued, and his forces killed more than 200,000. What was left of the CPC fled for the countryside, never to again have the influence it once did among rank-and-file workers in the cities. While Chiang pulled the trigger that destroyed the CPC's presence in the urban coastline, it was Stalin and the Comintern who loaded the gun and held it steady. This was one the first of Stalin's many crimes to follow.

FOLLOWING THE massacre in Shanghai, Mao Zedong scraped up what was left of the organization and regrouped in the mountains. Over the next few years he honed his tactics in guerrilla warfare. In 1934 he led a 6,000-mile trek that became known as the Long March. It started in Kiangsi with 100,000, it ended in Shensi with only 8,000 as they fled and battled the GMD army.

Mao's forces stopped in Yanan, a market town in the remote province Shanxi. When the Japanese began the occupation of China in 1937, it became a center of organizing resistance. As historian Maurice Meisner wrote:

By forging bonds of solidarity between peasants from various localities and regions, the Communists created a nationwide resistance movement and imbued it with a sense of national mission that otherwise would have been absent. In large measure, the Communists brought nationalism to the countryside; they did not simply reflect it.

The CPC also won following from the peasantry through land reform. Taking property from landed gentry was popular, but the implementation of this was uneven, and depended on where the CPC had the military strength to enforce the redistribution.

This pattern highlights some of the defining features of Maoism: its orientation to the peasant class, its nationalism and its dependence on military power to gain political power. While the peasantry has a long revolutionary history, there is nothing inherently socialistic about it, as peasants' main concern is farming their own land. And while it is true that political power can grow out of the barrel of a gun, to paraphrase Mao, guns alone cannot bring about socialism.

These features of Maoism were not due to a theoretical framework set out at the founding of the CPC, but were born out of the path that the CPC took over the course of its existence, influenced by both subjective and objective factors.

An additional feature of Maoism is the belief that the key factor in the development of history is human consciousness--that the will of the spirit can overcome material conditions. This is evidenced by several campaigns that Mao undertook around "ideological remolding" and "thought reform," both before and after the revolution.

Putting ideas above material conditions, instead of understanding the deeper relationship between the two, often made revolutionary theory an afterthought to whatever action was needed in the immediate. Understanding Maoism's detachment from Marxism is necessary to understand why he believed that socialism could be achieved on behalf of the working class by a peasant army, instead of through the self-activity of workers--a fundamental tenet of Marxism.

Mao wrote an essay titled, "On New Democracy" in 1940 where he outlines the direction that the revolution in China should take. He argues that the path towards socialism will be in stages, where the first "bourgeois-democratic" revolution will overthrow imperialism and feudalism and "clear the path for the development of capitalism." Afterward, a state will be established under the "joint dictatorship of all the revolutionary classes," which are made up of "the proletariat, the peasantry, the intellectuals, and the other sections of the petty bourgeoisie."

Leaving the theoretical validity of this formulation aside, the fact is that an active proletariat had very little to do with the actual revolution in 1949 or the character of the state established afterwards. Workers did not make up a significant section of the CPC, and played no role in the actual consolidation of state power under the CPC. As Meisner writes, the CPC "entered the cities in 1949 no less as occupiers than as liberators, and for the urban inhabitants who had contributed so little to the revolutionary victory, feelings of sympathy were intermingled with strong feelings of suspicion."

The point about working class self-activity is not made not to denigrate the overall victory over the imperial powers, the landed gentry, and their hangers-on, as represented by the GMD. The 1949 revolution closed the chapter on over a century of humiliation and defeat by foreign powers.

For far too long, one country after another pillaged China's vast human and natural wealth by selling drugs or through good old-fashioned thievery, destroying millions of lives in the process. In the end, the CPC, with limited resources, was the only force successful at leading a national revolution against incredible odds.

This point about the lack of workers' involvement in the revolution must nevertheless be stressed. It's important to be clear as to the difference between a socialist revolution, where workers' self-emancipation is central, and a nationalist revolution, where an ideologically committed army of peasants aligned with urban intellectuals is sufficient.

Socialists certainly support any and all efforts to throw off the yoke of imperialism and the exploitation of feudal lords. But we should not be confused by what China's Maoist revolutionaries call themselves when understanding the nature of the revolution.

Which brings us back to China's billionaire club. Since the late 1970s, the Chinese Communist Party has presided over "market reforms" that have turned the country into a major economic power--thanks to the exploitation of the working class. Today, what is called "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is a capitalist dream come true--a place of cheap labor, docile state-controlled unions, high profits and lavish living for the superrich. All this has come at the expense of the overwhelming majority of Chinese who work in poverty and live under the boot of an oppressive state.

While the working class had little involvement in the revolution that took place 60 years ago, there can be little doubt that the even larger, more experienced and organized working class in China will be the determining factor in the struggles of the future. The people who run the U.S. want us to fear a rising China. We need to understand that China's economic rise has produced an enormous working class whose interests are tied to worker's interests here. It is our job to build solidarity with the workers in China who struggle against the same international capitalist system that we do.

Recent articles

Friday, November 16th

Thursday, November 15th

Wednesday, November 14th

Tuesday, November 13th

Monday, November 12th

Friday, November 9th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives