Tiananmen Square: Which side are you on?

June 17, 2009

Todd Chretien asks how the Party of Socialism and Liberation could support China's Stalinist ruling class in its crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

TWENTY YEARS ago this month, the Chinese government cracked down on student and worker protests in Tiananmen Square. While socialists and revolutionaries of all stripes around the world defended the protesters, the forerunners of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) sided with the tanks--and not for the first time.

The PSL still defends the Chinese government's Tiananmen Square massacre today--in the name of socialism.

PSL was formed recently after splitting with its co-thinkers in the Workers World Party (WWP). The WWP was founded a half century before, with the key issue being support for the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, when tanks and troops of the former USSR invaded to smash a workers' uprising against Stalinism.

Again in 1968, when workers and students in then-Czechoslovakia joined the international revolt, alongside their brothers and sisters from Mexico City to Paris to Chicago, Sam Marcy (a founder and long-time leader of WWP who died in 1998, and whose ideas PSL today claims as its ideological basis) argued, "We support the Warsaw Pact [Russian] intervention under present circumstances."

Aftermath of the June 4 crackdown on protesters in Beijing
Aftermath of the June 4 crackdown on protesters in Beijing

The WWP supported the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and it backed the 1981 Polish military coup against the Solidarnosc labor movement, which Marcy characterized as "counterrevolutionary." Thus, the PSL's enthusiasm for the repression carried out by the Chinese ruling bureaucracy in 1989 is not an aberration, but a consistent application of its theory of socialism.

Today, interest in socialist ideas is growing in the U.S., owing to the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. But it remains true that most people aren't familiar with the history of the socialist movement. The word can be given almost any content, depending on who you ask--Stalinism, Barack Obama's policies, Swedish social democracy, etc.

So while all radicals should celebrate the rebirth of socialism's popularity, we must also take the time to discuss exactly what it is and how to get it.


IT IS in this context that two recent PSL restatements of support for the Tiananmen massacre must be examined.

The PSL is a small, but dedicated and active force on the American left, and the organization stands on the right side of many issues: from opposing U.S. intervention abroad, to supporting immigrant rights, to defending same-sex marriage. The International Socialist Organization has worked with the PSL in many coalitions and movements, and will continue to do so, just as we work alongside liberals, anarchists, feminists and activists who hold many different ideas.

What else to read

Ahmed Shawki’s "China: From Mao to Deng" from the International Socialist Review looks at the rise of Mao and the development of China up to the death of Deng Ziaoping--and shows that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" had nothing to do with the socialism of Karl Marx.

Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, a collection of essays by Anthony Arnove, Peter Binns, Chris Harman, Ahmed Shawki and others shows that Stalin’s dictatorship was not the inevitable outcome of the Russian Revolution, but a reversal of everything it stood for.

For an introduction to the ideas of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the leading opponent of Stalinism, read Duncan Hallas' Trotsky's Marxism and Other Essays.

However, we also believe that raising and clarifying debates on the left is in the interest of strengthening the fight for social justice and a better world. The PSL and the ISO have a fundamental disagreement over the nature of socialism and how to achieve it--and so we have radically different reactions to the bloody repression in Tiananmen Square.

The first PSL statement examined here, published June 4, 2009, is a blow-by-blow defense of the Chinese government's repression written by the PSL's Yenica Cortes:

During this time, the Tiananmen demonstration was becoming a focal point for general discontent. Workers joined the protests in limited numbers, raising demands against corruption, inflation and unemployment generated by the capitalist-oriented reforms. These demands, however, were demagogically tolerated by the counter-revolutionary thrust of the student leaders and their supporters within the [Chinese Communist Party, or CPC].

After weeks of unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with the protest leaders, including visits by senior leaders to the square itself, the CPC leadership declared martial law on May 20. By this time, the number of students in the square was diminishing, with many of those who had traveled to Beijing from other parts of the country returning to their homes.

The student leaders who remained in the square were pushing for a harder line with the government. On May 28, Chai Ling, who many of the students acknowledged as the "commander-in-chief" of the Tiananmen demonstrations, stated that the student leadership's goal was to provoke the Communist Party into attacking the demonstrators.

"I feel so sad," Chai sobbed to U.S. reporter Philip Cunningham. "How can I tell [the students in the Square] that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly? Only when the Square is awash in blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they be really united."

The bloodshed Chai and her fellow leaders hoped for did in fact take place. But it did not have the intended impact.

On June 2, unarmed People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops were called in to regain control of the square. Students left the square to confront the troops in the streets leading to the square. Some of the unarmed troops were taken hostage.

On June 3, the soldiers were issued arms--"though under orders to avoid violence," as reported in a June 5 article in the Wall Street Journal. On June 4, however, demonstrators resorted to violent attacks on soldiers as protesters grabbed hold of army equipment and seized weapons.

The Chinese government denounced the attacks as counterrevolutionary and ordered the People's Liberation Army to retake the square. Although there were clashes with troops in the streets leading up to the square, most students left the square peacefully before the PLA troops arrived to establish order. The Chinese government reported that some 300 people, both students and PLA soldiers, had been killed in the clashes outside the square.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Todd Chretien at Socialism 2009 in Chicago and San Francisco, speaking on "Lenin's State and Revolution" and "Introduction to the International Socialist Organization." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!



HERE IS the ISO's analysis of the Tiananmen crackdown, written by Ahmed Shawki in 1997 in an article for the International Socialist Review:

The student protest began--in many ways despite some of the efforts of student leaders--to give confidence to others to fight. Maurice Meisner recounts: "Workers not only marched by the hundreds of thousands in the massive demonstrations in the capital on May 17-18; they also established their own organizations. The Beijing Workers' Union was organized in April, and the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Union was founded in mid-May."

But it was the massive participation of factory workers in protests on May 17 and subsequently that alarmed party leaders. The fear of a "Polish revolt" had haunted them for a decade--and is what finally prompted them to crack down.

The regime declared martial law, and on May 19 began moving thousands of as-yet-unarmed troops into Beijing. Alerted by protesting students, massive numbers of Beijing residents came out into the streets to block the army's entrance into the city, immobilizing many army units in a sea of people. On May 21, a million Beijing residents demonstrated against martial law. Many ordinary soldiers were shaken, but the army did not disintegrate. In a matter of days, the regime was able to arm and position tens of thousands of loyal troops for a planned crackdown.

Spring 1989 in Beijing was reminiscent of Poland in 1981 on the eve of martial law when "almost no one believed that Polish soldiers could be used against Polish workers." But this belief among Beijing residents, like that held by many Solidarity activists in Poland in 1981, proved equally misplaced.

As the participation of non-student groups increased, Deng was able to convince those party leaders who hesitated to use force that a crackdown was necessary. The regime--led by Deng Xiaoping and other party veterans--moved the troops into action on June 4. Hundreds were killed in the military crackdown as Beijing citizens fought pitched battles at makeshift barricades set up to stop the army's advance on Tiananmen Square.

The Tiananmen Square demonstrations showed how deep was the hatred for the regime. This was a tremendous mass movement, but it had serious weaknesses, not the least the elitism of the student activists. According to one historian, workers "were not, for example, permitted to use student facilities to publicize their call for a general strike; and they were repeatedly reminded that the protest movement was under the control of students, not workers." The movement was also unable to draw in Chinese peasants, an enormous part of the population.

In the end, the regime was able to crack down before workers were able to gather their forces and organize effectively in the factories and workplaces, though they participated in large numbers in street demonstrations. Tiananmen was not the end, but the beginning, of future, even more explosive, social unrest in China.

The contrast is clear. Cortes' analysis for the PSL is characterized by: (1) a downplaying of the participation of millions of workers in the Tiananmen movement; (2) sympathy for the ruling party's attempt to co-opt the movement and outright support for the military during its suppression of it; and (3) characterization of student leaders as "counter-revolutionary" as an excuse for why the government was correct to ignore the workers' legitimate demands and suppress their protests.

In contrast, Shawki's views for the ISO are characterized by: (1) a recognition of the genuine mass activity of the oppressed and exploited masses of workers and students; (2) sympathy for the Chinese students and workers, and hostility to the ruling party; and (3) a critique of some of the students' elitist ideas and an argument that the workers needed to better organize themselves in order to extend and continue the fight.


THESE SHARPLY contrasting points of view are based on a disagreement about the class nature of China. The PSL believes that the 1949 revolution in China created a "workers' state"--and that China remains one today.

"It is indisputable that the basic trend toward more entrenched capitalist class relations has only deepened since 1978," PSL leader Brian Becker has written. "This process is, however, unfinished. As long as the Communist Party of China retains its hold on political power, there is a possibility, however great or small, that this trend can still be reversed.

Following this line of thought, PSL leader Richard Becker wrote an article published June 15 that criticizes a SocialistWorker.org article by Dennis Kosuth ("Twenty years after Tiananmen Square")--which Becker calls "the single worst article on the Chinese Revolution from an ostensibly 'left' perspective."

I'm very happy that Becker responded in print because it means that PSL's ideas can be examined in detail.

First, however, it is necessary to dispense with Becker's method of debate, which is unfortunately limited to the old rhetorical trick of assigning positions to your opponent that they do not hold, and then tearing them down.

For instance, Becker attributes to Kosuth "extraordinary hostility to the Chinese Revolution in its entirety." He bases this sweeping claim on Kosuth's statement that the Chinese national anthem is "difficult to listen to" (from a musical point of view).

However, Kosuth goes on to point out that, unlike most national anthems, the Chinese one begins with the words, "Arise, all who refuse to be slaves." He explains that those lyrics were the "product of the nationalist revolution of 1949," and he goes on to describe the scene in 1949 as "Mao Zedong, leader of the CCP, addressed tens of thousands in Tiananmen Square, announcing the creation of a 'People's Republic' free from imperialist occupation."

Nevertheless, Becker continues his attack on Kosuth's supposed "hostility" to the revolution, ascribing to him "cultural arrogance, jingoism and apparent ignorance" because Kosuth does not describe in detail the "heroic revolutionary process that spanned decades" leading up to 1949.

There's just one problem with Becker's overheated reaction. Kosuth's article was not about the history of China leading up to 1949. Instead, Kosuth concentrates on explaining the decades leading up to 1989. Now, Becker is free to argue that Kosuth ought to have written a different article, but he is not free to make up false claims about the ISO based on what he wishes SocialistWorker.org had written about.

In fact, Becker knows perfectly well that the ISO recognizes the victory of Mao's Red Army over Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist forces as a triumph over imperialism, like the victory of Castro's rebel army against Batista in Cuba.


ASIDE FROM Becker's distortions, there are some real disagreements at stake in what he writes criticizing Kosuth. They deserve to be taken up point by point.

The Outcome of the 1949 Revolution

There isn't enough space here to explain all the details of the debate over what replaced the vestiges of Chinese feudalism and colonial domination after 1949. However, the debate is not, as Becker claims the ISO maintains, whether "the revolution had no discernible achievements at all." Of course, there were many important changes as a result of 1949, as Becker details, and as Ahmed Shawki points out as well in his ISR article.

The real debate is whether or not the Chinese working class came to power and developed a socialist political system ("The 1949 Chinese revolution was socialist in character," as Becker writes)--or whether the Chinese Communist Party took power on behalf of and ruling over the working class and peasantry, and embarked on a nationalist economic path to break free from colonial domination, while replacing free market exploitation with state exploitation of the masses (as the ISO maintains).

To briefly state this case, the ISO argues that the 1949 revolution, which primarily took the form of a long military campaign led by Mao and the Red Army, succeeded in expelling the old U.S., British and Japanese colonial interests, while dividing up the land of the powerful rural gentry and nationalizing the property of the weak urban capitalists.

This was a blow against imperialism. But land reform and nationalization in China was accomplished via military and party decree. The Chinese working class never had power as the new rulers of China. Judged from Karl Marx's point of view that socialism is the "self-emancipation of the working class," Chinese workers never achieved political power.

Moreover, China's new rulers weren't implementing socialism, but a form of state-led economic development, where power and privilege remained in the hands of an elite bureaucracy. In direct opposition to the PSL's belief that the Chinese Communist Party stands as a barrier against capitalism, the ISO argues that the CCP (and the state it rules) functions as the agent of exploitation.

In recent decades, the Chinese party-state apparatus has opened the Chinese economy to the world, and has become a favorite place for Corporate America to do business. But the class relations of Chinese society have remained the same. The ISO argues that China, like Russia after Stalin came to power, is an example of state capitalism, and that it uses the mask of socialism to obscure its real nature.

Becker doesn't offer any proof of his assertion that China is socialist, other than to reference the Shangai Commune created by workers in 1967 in opposition to the ruling bureaucracy.

Now, this is a strange sort of proof. Leaving aside an assessment of this political event itself, Becker cannot argue that state created in 1949 was "socialist in character" with one breath, and then hail the efforts of workers to organize against that same state with a program "modeled on the Paris Commune" with the next. After all, the workers in Paris were striving to overthrow capitalist rule!

In his ISR article, Shawki exhaustively explains the history of the Chinese economy and class struggle, so there is no reason to go any further here. But one other point should be made.

Becker is at pains to point to China's anti-imperialism, but he remains silent on actions taken by the same ruling class that were demonstrably imperialist--for instance, China's oppressive rule in Tibet, or, perhaps even more starkly, China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam, the country that suffered the most from American imperialism in the second half of the 20th century.

Why would "socialist China" invade Vietnam only four years after that country finally defeated the United States? I would suggest that members of PSL ask themselves a simple question: in the name of exactly what socialist principle did the "socialist" regime they are defending with such vigor invade Vietnam?

The Enemy of My Enemy Is...

Becker's next evidence that China must be socialist, and that Kosuth "and the editors of Socialist Worker" are "ignorant of Chinese history," is based on the United States' hostility to China during the Cold War. This is the faulty "enemy of my enemy must be... socialist" line of reasoning that is easily dispelled. For example, the United States today is threatening Iran in much the same way it used to threaten China. Does that make Iran socialist? Of course not.

There is a long history of different capitalist countries being at each other's throats, as well as struggles of former colonies to break free from their imperial masters. These confrontations are important to understand, but they don't automatically make all the enemies of the United States socialist or even progressive.

The Collapse of Stalinism

The remainder of Becker's piece is mostly a restatement of PSL's support for the official Chinese government's version of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

However, there is one other argument that deserves discussion. In asserting that the ISO's opposition to Stalinism is based on "opportunism"--another loaded charge that is at odds with the ISO's history, as Becker knows well, even if he disagrees with us politically--he lays bare a crucial argument for those who want to understand PSL's theory of socialism. Becker writes:

The fall of 1989 saw the overturning of most of the socialist-oriented governments in Eastern Europe, which subsequently led to the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991. These developments resulted in a new world relationship of forces with the United States emerging as the undisputed "lone superpower." The demise of the Soviet Union gave a green light to Washington for war and sanctions against Iraq and Yugoslavia, tightening the blockade of Cuba, intensified attacks on unions and social programs--the list goes on.

Have Kosuth and the ISO forgotten all of this? Do they not recognize that the victory of the Tiananmen protesters and their supporters inside the CCP would have made U.S. imperialism's victory in 1989-91 even more complete?

The first thing to say about this telling statement is that it turns out the CCP's victory over the students and working class in 1989 led it to create an ever-closer capitalist bond with the United States that has greatly aided American imperialism--for example, with the Chinese government currently serving as the chief purchaser of U.S. government debt.

So the question is: How exactly has the "victory" over the Tiananmen Square protesters hurt American imperialism?

But it is important to consider the other "victories for U.S. imperialism" that Becker identifies in this statement--the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and in Russia itself by 1991. In this view, the regimes that came to power under Stalin in the USSR and under the Stalinist satellites in Eastern Europe represent a legitimate version of socialism. That model was later extended to China and many other countries.

There are a large variety of different circumstances and different national characteristics that mark each of these events (Stalin came to power by smashing the Russian Revolution; Ho Chi Minh and Castro had to defeat U.S. imperialism). But the unifying characteristic of these nations was that the working class did not hold power.


IT IS worth pointing out that there are many other anti-Stalinist socialists who, like the PSL, characterize (now or in the past) China as some sort of "workers' state"--while at the same time agreeing with the ISO that the students and workers in Tiananmen were 100 percent right to protest, and the Chinese Communist Party was 100 percent wrong to suppress them. These Trotskyist currents, such as the Fourth International, also opposed the Stalinist repression in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981.

This doesn't mean that the difference of opinion between the ISO and the Fourth International about the nature of Stalinism is irrelevant. However, it does mean that we've stood on the same side of the barricades against Stalinism.

On the other hand, the PSL, despite its formal origins in the anti-Stalinist socialist movement, has stood on the side of the bureaucrats' tanks in too many instances, precisely because they see the Stalinist regimes as the embodiment of socialism.

The regimes are the active agents, while the Russian, Chinese and Cuban working class are passive. Thus, positive change in these countries can only be initiated by the rulers. As Becker writes, "The overthrow of the CCP, under the current circumstances, or those in 1989, would not have been a step forward." In effect, the PSL's regime theory of socialism extends Becker's "current circumstances" backward to Stalin's coming to power, and forward into the distant future.

The ISO, by contrast, upholds Karl Marx's idea that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. Socialism is the direct, democratic rule of workers, who produce for society's needs, rather than the wealth and power of bankers or Stalinist bureaucrats. Socialism can be only achieved through revolutionary struggle from below, not through invasions of tanks and troops.

This debate that gets to the very heart of what socialism is--and how we organize to fight for it.

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