Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

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Mao, China and Class Struggle (reprinted from the Guardian)


First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 6, No. 28, July 22-28,1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official resolution on the late Chairman Mao Zedong and the cultural revolution is a mixture of correct and incorrect criticisms, in our view, reflecting the continuing struggle between two lines that has characterized the party’s history.

One of those lines – represented by the forces in power today who follow the leadership of Vice Chairman Deng Xiao-ping – clearly prevailed, but the long-awaited verdict was also the product of compromise, indicating that the legacy of Mao and his ideological and political contributions still have currency among the people and to a degree within the party.

The resolution was the result of a nearly 5-year struggle carried out by Deng and his forces since Mao died in October 1976. This crusade started with the arrest of the so-called “gang of four” (Mao’s closest associates in the party leadership) and ended with the replacement of CCP Chairman Hua Guofeng by Deng’s longtime protege, Hu Yaobang. Hua had earlier been replaced as prime minister by another Deng supporter, Zhao Ziyang.

While sharply criticized, Mao was also highly praised in the party document, which was released June 30 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the CCP’s founding.

“Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist,” the resolution stated. “It is true that he made gross mistakes during the cultural revolution, but if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”

This overall estimate, coupled with the fact that Hua was not removed from the CCP’s leading Politburo, suggests that the Deng forces did not wish to jeopardize their position by moving too strongly against Mao and his hand-picked successor for fear of the impact this would have among the people and within the party. This was a smart decision.

At the same time, Deng, Hu and Zhao are firmly in power and are pursuing many policies that sharply contradict Mao’s “activities as a whole,” not just his proclaimed errors during the cultural revolution.

Mao’s ’Errors’

The party document had nothing but support for Mao in the period up to the latter 1950s. At that point, it is said, he developed ultra-“left” views which became rampant during the 1966-76 cultural revolution.

During the late 1950s, the resolution said, Mao’s “theoretical and practical mistakes concerning class struggle in a socialist society became increasingly furious, his personal arbitrariness gradually undermined democratic centralism in party life and the personality cult grew graver.” This led to the cultural revolution, which the party now describes as “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the state and the people” since liberation.

Mao’s biggest error, the resolution implies, was his theory on the continuing revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat and the campaign launched to rid the party of revisionists in power, particularly the late Liu Shaoqi and Deng. “The cultural revolution was defined as a struggle against the revisionist line or the capitalist road,” the resolution said. “There were no grounds at all for this definition. It led to the confusing of right and wrong on a series of important theories and policies.”

Even during the period of his shortcomings, the resolution said, Mao made positive contributions, including his foreign policy (about which we disagree), emphasis on study, restoration of purged officials and his own criticism of ultra-“leftism,” among others.

The Guardian does not have the space in this Viewpoint to put forward its full view of Mao and his era (though we hope to do so in future), but following are some thoughts about the CCP resolution:

We agree with the CCP that Mao’s “contributions.. .far outweigh his mistakes.” We also agree that he made errors during the cultural revolution, but believe that on the whole this extraordinary political upheaval was a positive phenomenon and that most of the shortcomings concerned the methods employed in carrying out the cultural revolution, not the theories upon which it was based.

Cultural Revolution Correct

In our view, the cultural revolution was a generally sound mechanism for waging the struggle for socialism after the assumption of state power by the working class. It was an application of the correct theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat, principally by mobilizing the masses of people to rise up against revisionism within the party and the state apparatus. The 1966-76 manifestation, however, was seriously flawed by ultra-“leftism,” thus failing in its objective strengthening the power of the masses. Indeed, the errors of ultra-“leftist” dogmatism enhanced the development of a more advanced form of revisionism, as evidenced by certain developments in China today.

The cultural revolution was based upon one of Mao’s greatest contributions to Marxism-Leninism – the idea of the continuing class struggle under socialism. Lenin took note of this problem but did not live long enough to devote much attention to it. Further developed and expanded, the idea that the proletariat must continue the revolution in its new phase because classes and class struggle still exist after the socialist transformation of the ownership of the means of production became one of Mao’s foremost political preoccupations.

It’s no coincidence that the Deng leadership picked the late 1950s as the period when Mao went “wrong” and concentrated on the cultural revolution in defining his errors. These are the times he broke most sharply with Soviet theories of socialist development.

In the first years after liberation, China followed the Soviet model with its emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of light industry and risked alienation of the peasantry in the process. Mao convinced the party to abandon this model in the late 1950s. Likewise, Mao also challenged the prevailing (and largely Soviet inspired) idea that following the transfer of power, the most important task of communists is to develop the productive forces. Mao argued that the most important task was the development of ideological consciousness and social participation by the masses, in the process creating conditions for the fullest development of the productive forces.

In addition, Mao held that the class struggle which continues under socialism was not only against the remnants of the old ruling class, but also against the continuingly persuasive ideas of this class and, most importantly, against what he termed the newly engendered bourgeoisie, by which was meant managerial and bureaucratic elites at the decision-making levels of party and state.

Masses Mobilized For Struggle

The struggle between the Mao group and Liu and his followers (who basically adhered to the Soviet development model, advanced the theory of productive forces and subscribed to class struggle only in its most limited application) set the stage for the cultural revolution.

Mao’s method of conducting the struggle against this “revisionist headquarters” and its theories was to organize a campaign from below involving the mobilization of the masses against “those party persons in power taking the capitalist road.”

Although the cultural revolution officially continued for 10 years, it had largely run its course by the end of the 1960s. The Mao group, now in command, began to take measures against the ultra-“left” excesses of the earlier period (including Deng, for instance) were returned to power, in keeping with Mao’s policy of stressing rehabilitation rather than punishment.

By 1975, some of the policies which led Mao to initiate the cultural revolution were again being advocated. Once again, Deng was promoting the Liu line of productive forces, subordination of class struggle to production, reliance on material incentives and introduction of certain capitalist-type market mechanisms which would have compromised China’s march toward socialism. After Premier Zhou Enlai died in early 1976, Deng was purged a second time because he was in a position to replace the late premier. Hua Guofeng, a party middle force on the fringe of the Mao group, was chosen Zhou’s successor in a compromise move. A few months later, Mao died and Deng began his comeback.

The cultural revolution scored many accomplishments: It stopped, for a time, the policy advocated by party rightists which would have taken China down the revisionist Soviet road. It mobilized the masses in an intense, nationwide ideological struggle to determine the future course of Chinese socialism. It correctly stressed the need for politics (class struggle) in command without neglecting production (“grasp revolution, promote production”). It fought to restrict bourgeois right, prevent the development of small governing elites, reduce differences between mental and manual work, between town and countryside, between industry and agriculture.

Mao devised the cultural revolution because he did not believe the Liu-Deng policies would lead to the classless society which is the objective of the long-range transition period from socialism to communism. Mass participation and the elimination of class distinctions based on trimming the power of the leading elites (or the new bourgeoisie, as he called them) was seen as the correct method and the cultural revolution was a preliminary embodiment of this idea.

Ultra-“leftism” undid many of the good aspects of the cultural revolution. Serious mistakes were made in elevating elements of the struggle that were contradictions among the people into contradictions between the people and the class enemy, thus violating Mao’s own seminal contributions on the question of contradiction. The notion of socialist legality was severely threatened as a result. Terms such as bourgeoisie in reference to political opponents were scientifically incorrect and led to bad practices and persecution.

In addition, Mao permitted the development of an unseemly cult of personality around himself. The slogan “politics in command” was so dogmatically interpreted that it hampered production, education and the development of science and technology. Voluntarism, that is, attempting to move too quickly toward communism when objective and subjective conditions were not ripe, was a characteristic of the period, as was idealism, dogmatism and elitism on the part of the leading group. These policies contributed to the political instability in China and a degree of disillusionment among the masses.

Another big shortcoming of the period, though the current CCP leaders regard it as a virtue, was the development in the mid-1970s of the class-collaborationist “Three World Theory,” which calls for a tacit alliance with U.S. imperialism to aim the main blow internationally at the USSR. During the early part of the cultural revolution, China was sharply critical of the USSR while regarding the U.S. as the main enemy. Over the years, however, Mao came to identify the Soviet Union, quite mistakenly, as a capitalist country and ultimately as the principal enemy. In our view, even if the CCP left eventually regains power (and the pendulum is still swinging), China cannot be restored to the front ranks of the world revolutionary movement unless it abandons this bankrupt thesis.

Don’t Forget Class Struggle

There were undoubtedly more errors committed in the cultural revolution. And, of course, it failed. Our point isn’t that the cultural revolution was without very serious errors but that the basic ideas behind it contained many important positive aspects that Marxist-Leninists will dismiss only at their own peril.

If it was correct to launch the cultural revolution against revisionism in power, it was also correct to struggle against ultra-“leftism” in power. Confronted with the need to clothe, shelter and feed a billion people, it was essential to develop a better balance between class struggle and production and between ideology and theory on the one hand and practice on the other.

Unfortunately, in attempting to correct these imbalances, the CCP under Deng’s leadership has tilted much too far in the direction of subordinating class struggle to production and ideology and theory to practice. Indeed, practice is now said to be the sole criteria for determining truth, a pragmatic error of the first order when separated from the class struggle, ideology and theory.

There are many unanswered questions concerning the correct road toward socialism and communism. No one set of ideas, including Chairman Mao’s, have solved the problem. But Mao’s contributions, including many of the ideas that formed the basis of the cultural revolution, constitute an important part of the solution needed in the development of a classless society.