The Tiananmen Square debate

July 21, 2009

Dennis Kosuth responds to a critique of his article on the 1989 Tiananmen uprising from a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

MY ARTICLE on the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising in China ("Twenty years after Tiananmen Square") for drew a harsh response from Richard Becker, writing for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL).

Including footnotes, Becker's reply is nearly twice as long as my original article. It is packed, every inch of the way, with denunciations of me and the International Socialist Organization, which publishes

Why should a relatively brief article on Tiananmen provoke such a lengthy and hostile response? It isn't because my article was a sustained attack on PSL--I mentioned the organization once, three paragraphs from the end.

The answer is that what you think about the Tiananmen Square uprising goes to the heart of what you think about socialism.

The American socialist Hal Draper once wrote a brilliant essay titled "The Two Souls of Socialism" that identifies two trends in the socialist movement historically--those who believe socialism can be imposed "from above," in the name of the working class, whether by electing socialists to government office or through a military victory and force of arms; and those who think socialism must be achieved "from below," by the collective action of the working-class majority in overturning capitalism and creating a workers' state based on mass democracy and freedom.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising shook China's rulers
The 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising shook China's rulers

Becker and the PSL have two feet firmly planted in the "socialism from above" camp. Their identification of China with socialism depends, above all else, on the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains in charge. To the PSL, the CCP is, ultimately, the embodiment of socialism, rather than anything to do with the Chinese working class.

Therefore, at those points when the CCP bureaucracy was at odds with the mass of the Chinese working class, the PSL sides with the CCP--even when that means defending indefensible repression and violence by China's state machine.

Ultimately, PSL's socialism from above drives people like Becker to ever greater--and ever more shrill--twists of logic and distortions of fact about Tiananmen Square.

THIS IS clear from the beginning of Becker's response to my article, when he takes offense at my distaste for the Chinese National Anthem--a sign, he says, of my "cultural arrogance, jingoism and apparent ignorance."

Besides being born in Hong Kong, I lived on the mainland as well, where I attended public primary school. Since I actually had to listen to the Chinese National Anthem weekly during the flag-raising ceremony at school, I might have some basis for my personal opinion. Perhaps even a stronger one than Becker has for his.

In fact, in my article, I pointed out that China's anthem, unlike those of other countries, calls on the people to "stand up" and refuse to be slaves. But it's worth mentioning that the author of these lyrics, Tian Han, died in 1968 while in prison for "standing up."

This was during China's Cultural Revolution, which Becker refers to as a period of "debate [and] fierce polemics." Tian Han was on the wrong side of those debates--he was denounced as a "poisonous weed" and charged with opposing the CCP in 1964. He refused to recant and remained in prison until his death at age 70. During this time, the national anthem was changed to "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman," which ends with the line "Mao Zedong Thought is a sun that never sets."

Becker's gripes about me and China's national anthem serve as a jumping-off point for the complaint that I'm hostile to "the Chinese Revolution in its entirety"--back to the 1949 revolution and the victory of Mao's Red Army after the "Long March."

Leaving aside the fact that my article is about a rebellion in China 40 years later, the truth is that the ISO does view the 1949 revolution as a step forward in having driven out the colonial powers and ended the imperialist occupation of China.

But that doesn't mean we have to say China is a socialist society. It's possible to support the Chinese Revolution, but also believe it wasn't a revolution that put the working class in power--which is the ISO's definition of a socialist revolution, and more to the point, Karl Marx's.

The mass of Chinese workers played no role in the 1949 revolution--"socialism" was imposed from above in classic fashion, by the victorious Red Army--and they have never exercised any real authority since then in how China was run. That authority has stayed in the hands of the leaders of the CCP.

Becker spends yet more time on another point in China's history that preceded the Tiananmen revolt--the Cultural Revolution. Though initiated by Mao against other members of the CCP leadership, says Becker, the Cultural Revolution sparked a "truly mass movement--first among young people and later among Chinese workers." He also states that "millions of mainly young Chinese engaged in fierce struggle within the CCP, and against some of its top leaders, including Deng."

This begs a question about the Tiananmen rebellion in 1989. While it wasn't started by a CCP leader to further a faction fight within the bureaucracy, the Tiananmen movement did take root among "millions of mainly young Chinese," and "later among Chinese workers." It engaged in "fierce struggle" against the CCP and "some of its top leaders, including Deng."

So why does Becker hold up one as an example of open debate and free thinking, and the other as something only George Bush Sr. and the CIA could love? What exactly is the PSL's criteria for supporting or opposing a movement from below in a supposedly socialist country? One can only infer that because the Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao--rather than a mass popular movement from below, as in the case of Tiananmen--it has merit to the PSL.

An issue of PSL's Socialism and Liberation magazine that focuses on China characterizes the Cultural Revolution as an "advance and retreat"--with the "old capitalist roaders" ultimately successful at defeating Mao and his allies, some of whom supported a "commune-style state."

So for the PSL, the Cultural Revolution was a mixed bag of positives and negatives--while the right-wingers won, it was at least an example of the freedom to dissent in socialist China. Neither Becker nor the Socialism and Liberation writers mention how, from the end of 1968 until Mao's death in 1976, tens of millions of youth were deported to the countryside to halt the Cultural Revolution--and tens of thousands were simply killed. Nor that Mao himself closed ranks with the rest of the CCP leadership to put an end to the Cultural Revolution, out of fear that society would get out of control.

SOME SELF-described Maoist organizations view Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution as the end of socialism in China. But for the PSL, even this is going too far.

Despite the fact that the "capitalist roaders" have run China without any significant resistance within the leadership since 1976, the PSL still maintains that the CCP should not have been overthrown in 1989. According to PSL leader Brian Becker in Socialism and Liberation, the process of capitalist class relations becoming entrenched in China is "unfinished," and "as long as the [CCP] retains its hold on political power, there is a possibility, however great or small, that this trend can still be reversed."

On this basis, the Tiananmen movement is slandered, and the CCP is defended for crushing the uprising by students and workers--with the same logic that the PSL and its forerunner, the Workers' World Party, used in supporting USSR assaults on Hungary to put down the 1956 revolution and on Czechoslovakia in 1968 against the Prague Spring.

It would have been a step forward for Chinese workers if the 1989 uprising had won more rights. Becker snidely dismisses this suggestion by me as "some rosy, democratic and affluent future where everyone could vote for various millionaire politicians." I wonder if he would make the same argument about Black people in the U.S. who struggled against murderous Jim Crow racism for the right to vote?

Becker views the continued rule of the CCP as more important than the right to free speech, protest or, yes, even voting. He sides with CCP leader Li Peng, who said there were "sufficient human rights" in China--just prior to ordering troops to crush the Tiananmen resistance.

Having the rights to free speech, to protest and to organize independent trade unions isn't the end of the matter, of course. But it is certainly better to have them than to be rounded up in the middle of the night and carted off for talking to your coworkers about working conditions.

When it comes to insisting that few people were killed in the suppression of the Tiananmen protests, Becker quotes selectively from his dependable sources in the U.S. corporate media, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Despite his recognition that the "capitalist roaders" were in charge in China and were developing commercial ties with the U.S., Becker seems unable to comprehend that the U.S. ruling class might have had an interest in downplaying the bloodshed at Tiananmen. There was, after all, money to be made, and after a short period of token protest, the U.S. government and Corporate America got down to the business of making it in China.

No one knows how many people died in the Chinese military's crushing of the Tiananmen revolt. What we can say for sure is that the protesters and ordinary people in Beijing suffered the brunt of the violence--not the Chinese military, as Becker absurdly claims.

Whatever the exact body count, this is a question of which side you're on--the state and its repressive apparatus, or the resistance. The actions of the student and worker protesters of Tiananmen deserve our support, not the Chinese government. No amount of political contortions can excuse being on the wrong side about Tiananmen.

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