Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Harry Eastmarsh

China’s Great Leap Backward – A Review

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 9, March-April 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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“The Great Leap Backward.” Charles Bettelheim, Monthly Review, Vol. 30 No. 3 (July August 1978). Also, China Since Mao, Charles Bettelheim and Neil Burton. Monthly Review Press, 1978.

* * *

Charles Bettelheim’s analysis of the situation in China since the death of Mao Zedong is a great advance for the communist movement in analyzing the present conjuncture in China. Bettelheim1 s work is particularly useful in four ways. First, it focuses on the key questions to ask in evaluating the present conjuncture[1]. Second, it helps to realize and demonstrate certain methodological advances which Bettelheim has developed and discussed elsewhere[2]; for example, it demonstrates that changes in leadership and political line can only be understood in relation to the balance of class forces in the social formation being analyzed and that these changes have their sources, as well as limitations, in these class relations, not merely in leadership circles. Third, by realizing these methodological developments, Bettelheim presents a number of crucial insights into the present conjuncture in China, while flushing out other instinctive and non-scientific (i.e. ideological) understandings of that conjuncture. Finally, the manner in which Bettelheim presents his analysis allows us to draw some valuable conclusions for our own party-building movement.

However, while Bettelheim makes these tremendous advances and presents criticisms of the present CCP leadership which cannot be lightly dismissed, his article also has numerous weaknesses, particularly in those spots where he deals with alternatives to the policies which he criticizes.

Consequently, in order to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of this article,) as well as its implications for our party-building movement, this review will be divided into three sections: 1. a summary analysis of the article’s strengths and weaknesses; 2. a more detailed analysis of Bettelheim’s analysis of campaigns as an example of the consequences of his errors; and 3. lessons for our party-building movement.


Schematically, Bettelheim’s presentation might be said to have three parts. First, focusing in on the problem, contrasting the present situation with that during the Cultural Revolution; second, analyzing the theoretical bases of these different lines in recent Chinese history, and third, analyzing how these different theoretical positions have been and are intertwined with the changing class relations in the Chinese social formation.

I will leave the reader on her/his own to review the various empirical differences which Bettelheim points out between the period of the Cultural Revolution and the situation since Mao’s death. What is crucial in this presentation is Bettelheim’s problematic – the way in which he views the changes in China. The key question for him here, as in all of his other works, is that of analyzing the socialist transition as a period in which the direct control of the producers over their various conditions of existence (economic, political, ideological, and theoretical) is increased so as to establish the necessary conditions for the establishment of a communist mode of production. For Bettelheim, the key to understanding this process in China is understanding the short-lived Shanghai Commune of 1967.

According to Bettelheim, the Cultural Revolution was aimed at continuing and deepening the socialist transition, i.e. it was aimed at increasing the direct control of the producers over their conditions of existence at the various levels of the social formation. In contrast to this, he argues that since Mao’s death and the accession of the new leadership, both this line and the theoretical position have been abandoned. Organizationally, this has been evidenced by the substitution of increasingly hierarchical and centralized Party led management for the previously important revolutionary committee[3], by the re-establishment of a dual educational system, etc. Theoretically, it has been abandoned in the most obvious way by the present leadership’s treatment of recent Chinese history and of Mao’s theoretical and ideological legacy. In short, the present leadership treats Mao’s pre and post Cultural Revolution works as if they were works equally applicable to China’s present conjuncture – as if the Cultural Revolution had not been a critical turning point in the development of China’s social formation, as if it had not heralded a new stage in China’s development. By not only blurring this distinction, but by even preferring Mao’s pre-Cultural Revolution works, the leadership reveals a desire to turn the clock back, to apply policies which were appropriate to China in the pre-Cultural Revolution period when material and ideological factors were considerably less developed to the present qualitatively new conjuncture.

The key to understanding the present leadership’s deviation not merely from Mao’s thought, but from Marxism-Leninism itself, is understanding its economist, essentialist and humanist theoretical base; in short, in understanding its economist/humanist problematic (see pp. 46-48. 69ff).[4]

A key to understanding this problematic, Bettelheim argues, can be found in the present leadership’s contention that there is a “socialist essence” to the present dominant relations of production in China’s production process. As a result of this “socialist essence”, practices which might otherwise be seen as capitalist or revisionist, e.g. increasingly centralized management, increasing focus on profit as the key criteria for evaluating production unit performance, short term individual material incentives including incentive bonuses, etc., are held not to threaten the prevailing socialist mode of production. This is claimed to be true because of socialism in the realm of ownership, i.e., in the base, the victory of socialism in the economic sphere has been guaranteed, if perhaps with certain delays and zigzags along the way.

But, as it has been pointed out previously in the Theoretical Review[5], if this argument is true, the present leadership would be unable to account for the alleged capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union. This is especially true since the Chinese leadership continues to argue that Stalin was successful in winning the socialist revolution in the economic base. Although, by criticizing the economic aspect of the present leadership’s problematic, Bettelheim has established the terrain for this more thorough criticism, he does not himself make this latter criticism, perhaps because he continues to share certain aspects of this problematic with them.

None the less, one of the strongest aspects of the article is the manner in which Bettelheim points out the various manifestations of the economist/humanist problematic of the recent leadership. This is done in such a way that the reader can recognize them for what they are: integral parts of a specific problematic which structures the present leadership’s view of the socialist transitions. Thus, the individualist (and humanist) nature of the increased “material incentives” (p.52); the numerous examples of the mechanical dominance given economics over politics; the argument that economic production is an “objective” scientific process “separate” from class struggle (pp.46-49. 67ff, 79-81); and the argument that “the socialist system is superior... because it can create higher labor productivity and make the national economy develop faster than capitalism...”(p.76), are all presented as evidence of an economist/humanist problematic which can be expected to manifest itself in all aspects of the social formation, not as mere isolated errant policies.[6]

Having outlined the differences between the two periods in the Chinese socialist transition, and having laid out the theoretical problematic of the present leadership, Bettelheim goes on to demonstrate how these theoretical positions have been realized in China’s present conjuncture. In his discussion of “The Meaning of ’Revolutionary Line’” (pp.83ff), he sets the basis for the analysis of any particular revolutionary line:

...There can be a more or less considerable gap between the political line of principle proclaimed by the leading bodies of a party and the actual political line. The latter depends fundamentally on the social forces which give it its real content, and whose interests, aspirations and conceptions it materializes.

It is therefore wrong to identify a party’s actual political line with the orientations of a particular leader or leading body. This is not the form assumed by their “directives.” It is the result of an ideological and political intervention in an objective process. It may modify the course taken by this process, but only within limits imposed by the relations of strength between classes, relations on which it exercises an influence which is far from being “sovereign.”[7]

There are two implications of this approach, which Bettelheim demonstrates in his Class Struggles in the USSR, Volumes I and II. On the one hand, if one is to be able to develop an understanding of the relations of class forces, there must be a class analysis on which to base it. Thus, the second implication^ in the absence of class analysis, struggle between classes will be replaced at the ideological level by struggle between personalities, as has been the case not only in the Chinese revolution, but also in the Soviet revolution. A consequence of the absence of a class analysis, combined as it frequently is with a limited diffusion of information to – and theoretical development of the masses, is an indifference among the masses to struggles within the upper levels of leadership, insofar as these struggles are seen as struggles between personalities with few real consequences for the masses, and not as struggles between different class interests with different consequences for their (the direct producers’) relations to their conditions of existence. The implications of this phenomenon, and of Bettelheim’s incomplete analysis of it, will be drawn out in Part II of this review.

None the less, Bettelheim argues successfully that, if the CCP is to be able to develop the appropriate revolutionary theory to continue to guide the Chinese revolution, an up to date class analysis is a prerequisite. But there is no up to date class analysis of China.[8] Not only is there no up to date class analysis of China, but the present leadership has even gone so far as to attack the “four” for proposing a new class analysis.[9]

It is at this point that Bettelheim turns his attention back to the Shanghai Commune in an effort to demonstrate how the class forces operative at that time were decisive in subverting the Cultural Revolution and providing the class and social basis for the present revisionist leadership. While Bettelheim’s approach here is very useful, his actual theoretical product here is one of the most disappointing in the whole article.

Bettelheim argues that the “defeat” of the Shanghai Commune in favor of the more dominated-from-above Revolutionary Committees, supported by Mao, Chang Ch’un ch’iao, Yao Wenyuan and Wanq Hungwen among others, was a consequence of the limits imposed by China’s social formation at the time – limits which even Mao’s tremendous theoretical development, insight and prestige could not overcome. Bettelheim argues that 1. the hierarchical relations in the party and state; 2. the departmentalization of the party and state machinery; and 3. the separation of the party’s local organizations which allowed them only vertical but not horizontal communication; allowed for the continuing domination of the production process by a small group of leaders and specialists, despite the fact that certain of these leaders may have been working towards eliminating just such elitist control. Thus, he argues that the domination of the social formation by such groups effectively blocked the fundamental transformation of the process of reproduction of the social formation as a whole, despite the fact that it allowed certain limited changes in the immediate process of production. That is, relations between leaders and led at the point of production were improved, but the basic nature of the contradiction between leaders and led, itself, i.e. the basic mental/manual division of labor, was not resolved due to the intervention of certain strata of this leadership element. Thus, he argues, the very elements which subverted the Shanghai Commune are the same elements which form the basis of the present revisionist leadership.

However, it is just at this crucial point that Bettelheim’s argument falls short. His rather cavalier equation of cadres, specialists and the intelligentsia with a state bourgeoisie (pp.53,75) defines out of existence the crucial problem of the transition from a strata into a class. Similarly, his simple linkage of hierarchy to a bourgeoisie of a new kind obscures the very process in which bourgeois tendencies are realized or defeated as a result of class struggle; it effectively denies the need for analysis of the process by which class strata with bourgeois tendencies may be transformed into a class. It is just this shortcoming in his analysis which makes Bettelheim’s analysis of the Shanghai Commune unsatisfying and incomplete. What alternatives would he offer to the compromise Mao made with regard to the Shanghai Commune?[10] If Bettelheim is to offer anything more than pat answers that incorrect policies and mass movements “must have been” more based at the mass level, he must begin to provide criteria for distinguishing the various groups that existed in Shanghai at the time of the Commune and for evaluating the transformation of these various strata into classes, as well as for evaluating mass movements themselves.

This very same flaw also limits Bettelheim’s otherwise excellent analysis of the present leadership’s Stalinian policy towards agriculture.(pp.52ff,74ff)[11] With this analysis Bettelheim forces us to ask what are the class bases of the different policies, although he himself does not pose the question directly. I would like to suggest that Mao’s class basis was the poor and lower middle peasantry, and the newer, less experienced and lower income strata of the urban working class, while the class basis of the present leadership is not merely, as Bettelheim suggests, cadres, specialists and intellectuals, but also the large and politically crucial upper strata of the urban working class and the larger, but less politically crucial, upper middle peasant and rich peasant strata. Such an hypothesis would help to explain the present leadership’s policies, which favor not only domination by cadres and specialists, but also urban development at the expense of the rural areas,[12]; the reintroduction of the dual educational policy; the “concessions” to intellectuals,[13] the policy of more and more concentrating decision making at all levels in the hands of experienced Party and state personnel and trained experts.

Thus, although Bettelheim has identified certain policies, practices, theoretical positions and social structures (formations) which help us to develop the problematic necessary to understand the present conjuncture in China, and thereby has assisted our movement; by stopping short of analyzing the very process whereby these tendencies are realized, e.g. how a revisionist tendency is able to execute a seizure of power and when such a revisionist leadership would be able to execute capitalist restoration per se, Bettelheim leaves us not much more advanced than we started. To clarify Bettelheim’s failure here, and to offer the beginning of the next step, the next section of this review will focus on the role of campaigns in China.


Bettelheim’s treatment of campaigns is perhaps the weakest aspect of his article. This can be seen in that many of the other theoretical weaknesses of the article are manifest here. Bettelheim’s treatment of campaigns can be summarized easily: those campaigns which he perceives to have been correct he also perceives to have been widely supported by the masses; those which he perceives to be incorrect, particularly those led by the present leadership, he sees as non-democratic campaigns led from the top down. However, this explanation is not only historically incorrect, in as much as numerous campaigns under the previous leadership were clearly top-down campaigns, but it is also theoretically unsatisfying because it is circular. Therefore, we must look at the dialectical character of campaigns in the Chinese social formation before we can analyze their possibilities and limitations.

Based on numerous reports from China, it is clear that certain campaigns elicit more mass support than others, and that for each campaign, support varies among the various strata. Numerous reports have suggested that there are two general patterns of political behavior in China: campaign behavior and non-campaign behavior. In the latter, decision making tends to be dominated by official leaders, experts, and “informal experts”, e.g. persons with more experience, more education, and more confidence in their abilities to manipulate words and symbols. During campaigns on the other hand, there is a tendency for political roles to be reversed: those with the least access to leadership positions, and with the fewest technical skills and least educational background, tending to play a more dominant role. Thus, to the extent that one judges the participation if these latter strata to be a crucial element in the socialist transition, campaigns can be judged by the degree to which they change long term political participation patterns in this direction.

Theoretically, the process by which a campaign evolves is as follows: Reports are constantly submitted by lower level units to higher level units. These reports are anaylzed to determine the primary contradictions of the social formation at the various levels. When certain contradictions are perceived to require resolution (be they at a national, regional, or provincial level), resolution is frequently attempted by means of a campaign. In this sequence then, a campaign could represent an excellent example of the mass line: a problem is reported by the local levels, although in a rather empirical and scattered form; the Party, as the vanguard of the revolution, is able to systematically and theoretically analyze this series of empirical reports to find the key contradiction; the Party then proposes to the masses a solution to the problem which they have raised, in such a way as to require the masses themselves to be part of the process of resolving this contradiction, e.g. a campaign. This, to the extent that Party leadership has correctly analyzed the contradiction and proposed meaningful methods of handling the contradiction, mass support for the campaign should follow with the consequent changes in political participation patterns.

However, to the extent that the campaign does not reflect the actual needs of the various strata at the local levels, the campaign would elicit neither a significant change in political participation patterns, i.e., people may just go through the motions of participating in the campaign. This was the case, to a large degree, in the Campaign to Criticize Confucius and Lin Piao, which large sectors of the masses perceived as not addressing any real contradictions in their lives. But even the fact that a campaign does recognize certain real problems, and does address them in a way that certain classes or class strata would be likely to support, does not guarantee that the campaign will be successful. The classes or class strata whose interests are challenged by this campaign will act more or less successfully to oppose the campaign. This was the case with certain aspects of the campaign on the dictatorship of the proletariat. One aspect of that campaign was to reduce the income disl parities between leaders and led. Although the intent of the campaign was to reduce the disparities between cadres and non-cadres, because the campaign had to pass through the hands of the cadres themselves before it reached the masses, its content was radically transformed. By the time it reached the masses it had become a campaign to reduce income disparities within the masses, rather than between the masses and the cadres. Thus, the class bases for supporting the campaign were transformed considerably between the time of the design of the campaign and its implementation.

Bettelheim provides us with very little in this line of analyzing the campaigns. Rather, he gives us a much more simplistic and circular from-the-bottom-up/from-the-top-down dichotomy, ignoring the fact that all campaigns at this stage of the socialist transition require both elements. If there were no need for an element of top-down direction, what would be the need for the party? Is not the elimination of the need for a top-down element one of the goals of the socialist transition? Once the previously less enfranchised strata of the working class and the peasantry (excluding the rich peasants) are strong enough to assert their influence at any and all times, wouldn’t a qualitative change already have occurred that would lessen the need for the campaigns? If this is true, is it useful to evaluate the way an individual campaign is run in terms of whether or not it has achieved the goals of a far longer and more complicated socialist transition as a whole? Or is it more useful to evaluate campaigns in terms of the degree to which they tend to prepare those less enfranchised strata of the working class and the peasantry for greater political participation – in terms of the degree to which they tend to eliminate the need for centrally directed campaigns in favor of more immediate control by the producers over their immediate and long term conditions of existence, or to use Bettelheim’s phrase – to the extent that they aid in the transformation of the dictatorship for the proletariat into a dictatorship of the proletariat?

Although I doubt that Bettelheim would disagree with any of the above criticism, it is necessary to demonstrate that one must understand the dialectic of these campaigns, their specific content and the means by which they are implemented if we are to evaluate their possibilities and limitations, rather than just declaring them good or bad, leadership dominated or mass dominated. In short, we must begin to apply Bettelheim’s own recognition of the need to analyze social forces as they struggle in these various campaigns if we are to understand these campaigns, even if Bettelheim himself does not do so.


It is crucial to draw lessons from both China and from Bettelheim’s article if we are not to fall into the trap of theoreticism. The several lessons of Bettelheim’s piece for our movement are clear.

First and foremost, much of our movement shares with the present Chinese leadership a dogmatist/revisionist problematic.[14] Much of our movement is dominated on the one hand by an ideology dominated by dogmatism manifest in the form of simple quotation mongering and/or the mechanistic transplanting of conclusory formulations from the classics into totally different conjunctures; and, on the other hand, by a narrowly empiricist/pragmatist approach to practice. Caught in such a problematic, it is impossible to develop the theoretical bases necessary to correctly guide our political, economic and ideological practices. In short, the need for theory, and the meaning of what theory is, must be recognized and understood by our movement before it will be possible to establish a true dialectic between theory and practice.

The dogmatist trend in the struggle in the realm of ideology – which has for the most part replaced, and thereby hindered, the struggle in the realm of theory – is particularly clear in the recent struggle over political line. Traditionally, the organizations in the new communist movement and the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist tendency have developed “political lines” on every major issue which possibly confronts our movement from without. But this approach has a number of failings: 1. It doesn’t prioritize which issues are key in the present conjuncture: which issues around which there must be unity to build the Party: 2. Because of a lack of theoretical analysis, it is often very schematic in dealing with those issues which it feels impelled to address, regardless of their relevance to the present conjuncture; and 3. It does not deal with the actual conditions which exist within the communist movement which must be resolved in order to build the Party and thus enable the movement to better deal with the problems which do confront us from without. As Bettelheim argues, “the very procedure ... whereby the actual political line is related, first and foremost, to a ’system of ideas’ ... instead of being related explicitly to the social forces which embody the actual political line” is incorrect.[15] This is not to deny that political line is crucial at this time. But, it must be a political line related to our actual social forces - it must be a political line that addresses the issues that we now face, that is, the issues of party-building, the nature of the present conjuncture, and how to address party-building and the key issues around which we must unite in order to build a genuine communist party. We can not be satisfied with a dogmatist idealist political line which seeks to prepare answers to all the issues and problems we will face in the future.

Even if our movement acknowledges the need to build a political line which links theory and practice by using our theoretical tools to develop a line which does relation to our immediate political tasks, i.e. party building, we still face problems similar to those pointed out by Bettelheim. What is the class nature of our forces and our enemies? Without anything more than an instinctual and ideological class analysis of the U.S., how can we begin to analyze the present conditions, the possibilities for expanding our forces and for making class alliances? Are we to leave ourselves to the instinctual “United Front Against Imperialism”, without any real analysis of the possibilities and/or limitations of that “United Front”? The problem of recognizing the need for a class analysis in order to develop a political line is not just distant problem facing the leadership of the CCP and the Chinese people, but is also an immediate one which our movement, too, faces.

As with China and the Soviet Union, the absence of a class analysis has been somewhat symbolic of the more general lack of development of the ability of the mass (of both the cadres and the masses at large) to independently make Marxist-Leninist analyses on their own. This lack of theoretical development has made it virtually impossible for cadres to follow “upper level” leadership struggles, not only in the Soviet Union and China, but also in the U.S. The restriction of democracy within the U.S. communist movement, as well as the Soviet and Chinese movements, has only exacerbated the secrecy and isolation of the leadership from its own cadre and masses.[16] The decision of one third of the leadership of the CPUSA to go underground because of the “imminence of fascism” in the early 1950’s; the secret struggle between the Avakian and Jarvis factions of the RCP, and to a lesser extent, the nonpublic struggle within the leadership of The Guardian between the Jack Smith and Irwin Silber groups are all manifestations of this trend in the U.S. communist movement They all demonstrate not only the inability of the cadres themselves to fully participate in these struggles, but more importantly, the unwillingness of the leadership to either trust the cadres to participate in these struggles, or to train them to do, so. Thus, if we are to avoid the repetition of these problems on a far larger and more serious scale in the future, we must begin to resolve them now. We can not do this merely by guaranteeing the form of internal democracy, but we must also begin to guarantee the actual conditions of existence of this internal democracy – the development of our cadre, not only pragmatically but also theoretically so that they have the capacity to partake in the democratic forms which we must struggle to develop and maintain. Without this theoretical development of our cadre, the democracy can easily be transformed into an empty shell.

Thus, while Bettelheim would have us agree that political line is the main task facing our movement, his article allows us to see more clearly the need for theoretical development – the need for a theoretical understanding of what type of political line it is that we must develop, and the theoretical requirements for developing and putting into practice such a political line. If we forget these lessons, we shall be doomed like others before us to fall back into the dogmatist/revisionist problematic which has tied down the U.S. communist movement for decades.


[1] Here it overlaps with the perspective in “Analyzing China Since Mao’s Death” in Theoretical Review, Vol. I No. 4-6.

[2] For example, On the Transition to Socialism (with Paul Sweezy); The Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China; Economic Calculation and Forms of Property; Class Struggles in the USSR I and II.

[3] See, for example, the relatively defensive article in Peking Review, No. 42, Oct. 20, 1978, entitled “Why Factories Now Do Not Set Up Revolutionary Committees. ”

[4] The explanation of the economist and essentialist aspects of the problematic will be explained in the text. However, it may be necessary here to briefly explain humanism. Humanism is a specific bourgeois deviation within Marxism-Leninism which focusses on the idealist/classless aspects of Marx’s early works, such as the concepts of “alienation” and the “essence of man.” Marx dropped these concepts in his works from The German Ideology on, and instead developed the scientific concepts of modes of production, social formation and forces and relations of production, etc. This definition is from “Primacy of Theory and the Guardian Clubs,” Theoretical Review, Vol. I No. 3, pg. 14. For a further discussion of the economist/humanist problematic, see Grahme Lock’s introduction to Louis Althusser’s Essays in Self-Criticism, (London: New Left Books, 1976.)

[5] “Analyzing China Since Mao’s Death”, Theoretical Review, Vol.1 No. 4-6.

[6] Bettelheim also mentions, among other things, the present leadership’s adherence to the concept that unity is dominant over contradiction (pg. 44), a position Mao attacked as explicitly revisionist in his Critique of Soviet Economics (Moss Roberts, trans., Monthly Review, New York: 1977, chapter 25), and throughout the Cultural Revolution.

[7] Monthly Review, Vol. 30 No. 3, pg. 84

[8] The main class analyses of China are still those made by Mao prior to liberation in 1949 and updated, at Mao’s insistence, during the collectivization campaigns during the mid-1950’s.

[9] This is not to imply, either for Bettelheim or myself, an endorsement of the content or methodology of the “Four’s” class analysis. Rather, it is to suggest that at least they recognized the importance of the issue and, thus, presented a possibility of its being resolved.

[10] In order to better understand the implications of Bettelheim’s shortcoming here, the reader is referred to Victor Nee’s article “Revolution and Bureaucracy: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution”, in Victor Nee and James Peck, China’s Interrupted Revolution (Monthly Review: New York, 1975, pg. 322-414.) Nee points out that the group of mass organizations led by Zhang Chun-qiao, Yao Wen-yuan and Wang Hungwen, and supported by Mao, which supported the Revolutionary Committees were opposed not only from the right, but also from the left by a possibly larger amalgam of mass organizations led by Geng Jinzhang (Keng Chin-chang). With the victory of the groups led by Chang, Yao and Wang, the group led by Geng was labelled “ultra-left” and any serious attempt to analyze its class basis was eliminated. This is evidenced by Nee’s exclusive reliance on the victorious elements for his data.

[11] This policy is obviously in direct contrast to Mao’s agricultural policy. See particularly Mao’s critique of Stalin’s work “On Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR,” in Critique of Soviet Economics, Moss Roberts, trans., (Monthly Review, 1977); see also the remainder of that book and Mao’s various works between 1958 and 1961 available in Miscellany of Mao Tse-tung Thought, Joint Publications Research Service, 61269-1, 61269-2 and Mao Zedong Sexiiang Wansui, 1967, 1969.

[12] For example, the expansion of urban as opposed to rural industry, combined with the low levels of allowed rural-urban migration, would result in a greater proportion of new industrial skills and jobs going to the urban working class, thereby increasing rather than decreasing the differences between the two; the centralization of the ownership and control of the agricultural means of production in the hands of expert personnel in the Ministries, at the expense of the peasants, who use these means of production themselves, would have a similar effect.

[13] These “concessions,” i.e. the position that art and science are independent of politics and thus not subject to Party direction (Peking Review #4-, 1977) are not to be confused with the rectification of the ultra-left excesses against intellectuals and scientists and scientific research committed in the last few years of Mao’s life.

[14] See Bettelheim, pg. 81-83, also Ann Arbor Collective, “Towards a Genuine Communist Party,” for more on the dogmatist/revisionist problematic.

[15] “The Great Leap Backward,” pg. 85.

[16] Naturally, the degree to which democracy both inside and outside the Party has been restricted has varied both between and within the various social formations mentioned above, see Bettelheim, pg. 4-Off and Class Struggles I.

* * *

Appendix – A Short Note on Deng Xiaoping and the Present Line of the CCP

Of late it has been quite common for the Western bourgeois press to lavish praise upon Deng Xiaoping and his cohorts in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for their rejection of Mao’s “disastrous, isolationist and Utopian line” and their introduction of China into the twentieth century. Time magazine has even gone so far as to name Deng its “Man of the Year.”

Although such strong support of a specific tendency within the Communist Party of a foreign country by the US bourgeoisie is cause for questioning that line, it is not necessarily grounds for condemning it out of hand. But it does suggest that an analysis of these policies would be useful.

However, a first glance at certain recent policies (and a first glance is all that is proposed here) suggests that rather than leading China into the twentieth century, the present leadership may well be leading China back into the nineteenth century.

What I mean here by saying “back into the nineteenth century” is the virtual reintroduction of certain political-economic-ideological forms which existed in China’s social formation and in China’s ruling elite at that time. Therefore, a short note on these forms and their development is in order here.

In the nineteenth century, after hundreds of years of virtually complete isolation from the West and from capitalism, China encountered Western capitalism in the form of trade and its accompanying ideological relations along its coastal areas. The first visible climax in this relationship was a military conflict between the Imperial Chinese government and the British (depicted in the Chinese movie “The Opium War” recently released in the US). The war, fought over the issue of whether British merchants had the right to import and sell opium in China against the wishes of the Chinese government (which saw it draining its financial resources and physically debilitating its population) is referred to by the Chinese as the Opium War and by the British as the Free Trade War. Regardless of its name, the Chinese were defeated in the war and forced to cede certain “concessions” to the British. These concessions were not merely the rights to trade and establish factories, but also certain sectors of certain cities actually became foreign “concessions,” in which Britain administered its citizens according to British laws. Following the British example, other capitalist nations began the process of militarily dismembering China and forcing concessions from the Chinese government. However, as foreign domination of the coastal cities, trade, manufacturing and even culture increased, China’s imperial government itself began to perceive the ultimate threat to both its own power base and to China as a nation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the “Self-strengthening Movement” developed within the imperial ruling circles. Its object was to strengthen China sufficiently to rid her of Western imperialism while preserving the Confucian “essence” of China. Analyzing the basis of Western imperialism’s power as its technical and military skills, numerous individuals and factions within the imperial circles advocated full scale Westernization. Others objected, arguing that to become Western to fight the West was losing the battle in that the superiorities of Chinese (i.e. imperial and Confucian) society and culture – that which was being fought for in the first place – would be lost in the process.

Out of this struggle emerged the best known slogan and policy of the period – and a policy which was implemented to a large degree for a period of time – the policy of “Zhong xue wei ti, Xi xue yong,” or “Chinese learning as the essence (ti), Western learning as the tool (yong).” The theoretical basis of this position was that one could graft Western industrial and military technology onto China’s Confucial society without undermining the purity and morality of that society.

In its essence, such a policy is the ultimate antithesis of dialectical and historical materialism in that it argues that the superstructure can be totally immune from a basic transformation of the base. Certainly, this is not a surprising position for a group of nineteenth century imperial politicians. Nor is it surprising that these politicians discovered that the new technical and military factors which they introduced into society played a major role in destroying the very society which they had hoped to preserve and the only social formation in which they might have had a power base.

But it would be surprising for members of a twentieth century Communist Party to adopt such a position. In fact, a preliminary glance at numerous of i the policies adopted in line with foreign exchange seem based much more on such a position than on a Marxist-Leninist understanding of the dialectical relationship between the development of the base and the superstructure.

The basis of the present leadership’s position seems to be that because of China’s “socialist essence” (which means the creation of a socialist base, i.e. the expropriation of private ownership of the means of production), China can adopt what would otherwise be capitalist production relations, e.g. a bilevel educational system based on producing an increasing specialization of the production process, an increasing focus on profit in evaluation of factory management and performance, an increase in individual material incentives in various forms and an increasingly centralized and hierarchical decision making structure (at least for a certain period of time), without threatening the socialist nature of the social formation. Or, as Wang Roshi, deputy editor-in-chief of People’s Daily, put it (virtually paraphrasing the “ti-yong” slogan of the 1890’s) “We should acquire their science but reject their philosophy.”[1a] Although this may be possible, numerous facts suggest that the present leadership sees this process and contradiction as a much simpler process than is the case.

I. Policy: China will import billions of dollars of Western technology, including up to $60 billion from the US in the next year. This will include products, such as planes, as well as complete factories. Some of these factories will initially be foreign owned, but within about 15 years, will end up being completely Chinese owned. Other factories will be established by luring foreign capitalists to establish factories in China with lower labor costs and with the right to determine the skill, age and sexual makeup of the work force.

Present Leadership’s Assumption: This will lead to a rapid development of the most modern forces of production in China which will end up in the hands of the Chinese after a short period of limited exploitation at the hands of the foreign capitalists in order to pay for these means of production.

Other Possible Consequences: If, as the leadership assumes, these factories will be returned to Chinese state ownership within 15 years, then the foreign capitalists, in order to invest in such ventures, must be able to recoup the full cost of their investments plus the average rate of profit that they could “earn” on their capital elsewhere within 15 years. What type of production relations will this require in these factories and in others throughout China to produce such a high rate of surplus value? To what degree will the Chinese educational system have to be transformed to meet the demands of foreign capitalists for certain types of work forces?

In those factories initially completely owned by the Chinese themselves, what type of production relations will be established? How will these relations and the general treatment being accorded foreign capitalists affect the workers’ understanding of socialism as a transition period in which the direct producers increase their knowledge and control of the production process? How will workers influenced by the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward relate to the potential diminution of their role? How will such factors affect the working class’ image of itself as the master of society? What effects will the rights given to the increasing number of foreign capitalists, e.g. better living conditions, priviledged access to certain products (e.g. Coke will initially only be available in major hotels, not to the public), access to a golf course (once banned as a decadent sport) have on the working class’ self-esteem?

What demands will the by then expropriated foreign capitalists be able to make of China 15 years in the future when the factories require modernization and spare parts? What effects would subjecting a large sector of the production process to the demands of the maximization of profit have on the social formation as a whole?[2a]

II. Policy: In order to finance these imports, China would borrow billions of dollars from Western bourgeois financial groups and institutions, ranging from European banking syndicates to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Present Leadership’s Assumption: Such short term funds are necessary for rapid industrialization, and rapid industrialization will produce sufficient wealth to repay these loans without serious consequences.

Other Possible Consequences: With cash reserves of approximately $2 billion and a $60 billion shopping list for this year in the US alone, what type of transformation will China’s social formation require to repay such loans? How much further will this transformation be pushed by the demands of debt service (interest) when the experiences of numerous other non-socialist countries suggest that within 15 years, they are only repaying the interest, not the principle? What direct leverage will this give international capitalist financial circles in China’s production and reproduction processes? What are the indirect consequences of tying China’s economy so directly into the world capitalist system?[3a] What would be the possibilities and consequences of trying to break with this path because it became too encumbering, i.e. what would the consequences of cancelling foreign debts be on China’s internal and external development?

III. Policy: In order to more rapidly develop the forces of production, China’s national bourgeoisie must be reinvigorated. Hence, the policy of reconvening the Chinese People’s Political Conference, an institution for the representation of the patriotic national bourgeoisie, and the recent policy of returning capitalist rights, jobs and property which had been “unconstitutionally” taken from them during the Cultural Revolution.

Present Leadership’s Assumption: The national bourgeoisie can still play a vital role in rapidly developing production. The “socialist essence” of China is now strong enough to withstand the various pressures of these capitalists.

Other Possible Consequences: In the mid-1950’s, after the state takeover of private enterprises, Mao argued that the national bourgeoisie, even left with limited property rights and higher paying managerial jobs, was deprived of its social, economic and ideological power base, “like hair separated from the body,” it had nowhere to go but down. Twenty years later, should this national bourgeoisie still be where it was 20 years before or reconstituted to its earlier level of power which was further undercut during the Cultural (non-dinner party) Revolution? What ideological effect does this deference to the national bourgeoisie have on the working class? Will this tend to influence them to see the durability of capitalism and to orient their lives in that direction? What influences will the individualism and life style of the national bourgeoisie (and the foreign capitalists) have on proletarian ideology, culture and lifestyle in that the bourgeois approach is no longer subjected to such rigorous criticism as before?

IV. Policy: Numerous exchanges of Chinese and Western students are being established in order to increase the control of this crucial technical data and skills by the Chinese themselves and thus provide the technical skill basis for China’s takeover and management of these new forces of production.

Present Leadership’s Assumption: Chinese students studying in advanced capitalist countries will pick up advanced technical skills (yong) while ignoring the philosophy, culture and ideology (ti) of the social formations in which they live for several years. Thus, when they return to China, they will provide useful technical skills.

Other Possible Consequences: Returned foreign students have historically provided leadership to movements seeking to transform their native societies a-long certain of the lines that they have incorporated in their foreign studies. To what extent will Chinese overseas students pick up certain orientations, e.g. individualism, knowledge as “private property” to be used for individual gain, understanding of certain teaching, testing and management techniques, etc. in capitalist universities? To what extent will they be able to integrate themselves back into the society which they left, or will they tend to constitute a strata unto themselves, closer to each other than to the rest of the working class that they left?

V. Policy: At the end of his trip to the US, Deng allegedly gave assurances to Senator “Scoop” Jackson that he would soon publicly announce a policy of “free emigration,” thus satisfying the demand of the Jackson-Varick Amendment that a country must have a policy of “free emigration” to qualify for US credits and most favored nation treatment.

Present Leadership’s Assumption: If you are on the road to buying $60 billion of US goods in one year, you might as well take a short cut by announcing “free emigration” and get a “discount.” Such free emigration will have no deleterious effect on the Chinese social formation.

Other Possible Consequences: The consequences of a “free emigration” policy per se are one thing, but what is the effect of seemingly allowing that policy to be dictated by a right wing Senator within the imperialist US government apparatus? If such a policy is in fact implemented, who will be the most likely to leave China? Historical experience suggests that it may be just such technicians and specialists that the present leadership is relying on to speed up its industrialization, because it is just such people who can “get a better deal” in the West. To what extent would this have the effect of further transforming certain individual technical skills acquired at state financed institutions to “private property”, to be sold to the highest bidder? Given the proportionately higher material bids from materially wealthier countries, will this force the Chinese leadership to further increase the income differentials between specialists and common laborers in order to induce the specialists to remain in the country? What effect would such a development have on the social formation as a whole?

Final Thoughts: What are the consequences of these various policies? What are their theoretical sources and bases? To what extent might they be compared to the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union? Or does the vastness of the level of development of the socialist transition in the two social formations at the times these two sets of policies were put into operation negate the validity of such a comparison? Does this policy represent a return to the ideology of the 1890’s and perhaps even to its material consequences? While these few notes do not provide a basis for a systematic evaluation of this rather offhand analogy, it does tend to suggest that if, with Mao (and the forces associated with him at every level of the social formation) at the lead, the Chinese people stood up, then perhaps with Deng (and the forces associated with him at every level of the social formation) at the lead, the Chinese people will sit down again.


[1a] Beijing Review, #4, 3an. 26, 1979, pg 17.

[2a] See Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR, Vol. II.

[3a] Ibid.