Tony Cliff

Mao and the Workers

(April 1967)

Source: Speak Out, June 1967, republished from the April 1967 issue of Labour Worker.
Transcribed: Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.
Marked up: Andy Blunden & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I shall deal with two basic questions: first, what role the working class of Shanghai, Peking and other cities played in Mao’s rise to power; secondly, what role the industrial workers played recently during the cultural revolution. The answer to the first question is unambiguous.

The industrial working class played no role whatsoever in the victory of Mao. Even the social composition of the Chinese Communist Party was completely non-working class. Mao’s rise in the party coincided with its transformation from a working-class party. Towards the end of 1926 at least 66% of the members were workers, another 22% intellectuals and only 5% peasants. (R.C. North, Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Elites, Stanford 1962, p. 32.)

By November 1928, the percentage of workers had fallen by more than four-fifths, and an official report admitted that the party “did not have a single healthy party nucleus among the industrial workers.” (H.R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London 1938, p. 333.) The party admitted that workers comprised only 10% of the membership in 1928, 3% in 1929, 2.5% in March 1930, 1.6% in September of the same year, and virtually nothing at the end of it. (Ibid., p. 394) From then until Mao’s final victory, the party had no industrial workers to speak of.

Mao’s conquest of the towns revealed more than anything else the Communist Party’s complete divorce from the industrial working class. Communist leaders did their best to prevent any workers’ uprisings in the towns on the eve of their being taken. Before the fall of Tientsin and Peking, for example, General Lin Piao, commander of the front, issued a proclamation calling on people: “to maintain order and continue in their present occupations. Kuomintang officials or police personnel of provincial, city, county or other level of government institution; district, town, village or pao chia personnel ... are enjoined to remain at their posts ...” (New China News Agency, January 11, 1949.)

At the time of the crossing of the Yangtze River, before the great cities of central and south China, Shanghai, Hankow, Canton, fell to them, Mao and Chu Teh again issued a special proclamation stating among other things: “It is hoped that workers and employees in all trades will continue to work and that business will operate as usual... officials of the Kuomintang central, provincial, Municipal....or county governments of various levels, or delegates of the ‘National Assembly,’ members of the legislative and control yuans or People’s Political Council members, police personnel and heads of pao chia organizations... are to stay at their posts, obey the order of the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Government.” (Ibid., May 3, 1949.)

A few weeks later a New York Times correspondent wrote from Shanghai: “The red troops began putting up posters in Chinese instructing the populace to be calm and assuring them they had nothing to fear.” In Canton: “After their entry the communists made contact with the police station and instructed the officers and men to remain at their posts to keep order.” (South China Morning Post, Oct. 17, 1949.)

The Cultural Revolution, especially in its last few weeks, showed a clear resurgence of industrial mass strikes in China, for the first time since the years of 1925-7. Alas, those strikes have not been in support of Mao, but in opposition to him.

The only source of information regarding recent strikes has boon the official declarations from the Maoist authorities in opposition to them. Hence we cannot be sure of the actual demands of the strikers or the real breadth of the strike movement. But that they have been very widespread is clear from the statements of the authorities themselves, who certainly would have loved to hush them up.

A preliminary remark is necessary. The Maoist press explains the strikes as the work of a “handful of persons in authority within the party who were taking the capitalist road.” This is repeated hundreds of times. It is very doubtful if there is more truth in such an explanation than the one customary in the western capitalist press explaining strikes in the west as the handiwork of a “handful of troublemakers.” In any case, whether the “handful” is small or not, the strikes must have been quite widespread.

The newly established Maoist authorities in Shanghai, the largest city in China, with 7,000,000 people, attacked the former Shanghai Party Committee: “... they are using the question of economic benefits to divert the general orientation of the struggle and to incite one group of people against another, causing breakdowns in factory production and railway and road traffic. They have even incited dockers to stop work, causing difficulties in running . the port and damaging the international prestige of China. They are wasting the state’s money and property, arbitrarily increasing wages and material benefits, and granting all kinds of allowances without limit, stirring people up to take over public buildings by force. We hereby solemnly warn the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee that no schemes aimed at... disrupting production, interrupting communications and increasing wages and material benefits will ever succeed.” (New China News Agency, Shanghai, Jan. 11, 1967.)

Shanghai dockers, it seems, were also badly affected by “economism,” i.e., a desire for higher wages. “Directed by the Shanghai Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, in a number of Shanghai organizations those persons within the party in authority taking the capitalist road have recently attempted to buy off the workers by promotions and wage increases by issuing subsidies and increasing so-called ‘welfare services.’ In this way, they have tried to use money and material benefits to corrupt the militant will of the revolutionary masses ...” (New China News Agency, Jan. 16, 1967.)

“With the help of revolutionary college students, the barbor workers have finally smashed the big conspiracy of the handful of persons within the party in authority taking the capitalist road in the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee to try to buy the workers with wage and welfare increases and got them to leave production, thus creating ‘interruption in the harbor work.’” (Ibid.) Were the students simply scabs? It is difficult to guage from the report.

From Shanghai we are told that “a large number of workers at the Shanghai No. 17 Textile Mill were taken in and deserted their posts.” (New China News Agency, Peking, Jan. 9, 1967.) In the Shanghai Glass-making Machinery Factory, the “handful” “deceived a number of workers, including heads of work teams, technical personnel and other cadres in the basic production units, and incited them to desert their production posts. Some of them hid blueprints and other technical data, left the posts and of course affected production.” (New China News Agency, Shanghai, Jan. 15, 1967.)

In Nanking, in the Urban Transportation Company, Mao supporters “set out to gain control over the company’s finances and stopped paying a bonus which had originally been issued to sap the fighting will of the revolutionary workers.” (New China News Agency, Jan. 14, 1967.) In the Taching Oil Field, the “handful” used material incentives to lure large numbers of workers to leave their production posts.” They were “using state money to sabotage production.” (New China News Agency, Peking, Jan. 15, 1967.)

A letter in The People’s Daily from three workers in Peking No. 1 Lathe Works attacking the “handful,” stated: “They incited and encouraged a part of the working people poisoned and deluded by them to leave their production posts and lodge a complaint at a higher level. At the outset, we of the revolutionary rebel group were in the smallest minority.” (Jen Min Jih Pao, Jan. 11, 1967.) To Mao’s great fortune, the strike was broken.

One of the most interesting things is that throughout the Cultural Revolution, the trade unions and their daily paper, Rung Jen Jih Pao, was not once quoted as playing any role at all. Nor was the Young Communist League. It’s paper, the China Youth Daily, stopped publication on August 20, 1966. Probably it has too many young workers to be of much use in opposing strikes. Instead the Red Guard, made up completely of students, came to the center of the arena. One may also wonder to what extent the mass workers’ strikes, especially in Shanghai, caused Mao to stop the Cultural Revolution in its tracks.

And really, why should the workers identify themselves with the regime so long as there are 26 ranks in the ministries, with the top rank earning 10 times more than the bottom one. (It is true those differences are very much smaller than in Russia, but still ...) After all there are four classes on trains, and while workers, peasants and army privates travel fourth class, factory managers, higher government officials, and all army officers from captain upwards travel first.

Last updated on 30.12.2010