Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Communist League of Britain

Internal Discussion document on socialist transition: “China–Continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat”

First distributed: 1991.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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For revolutionaries throughout the world, the Cultural Revolution resurrected the debate on the problems of the transition to socialism, China was regarded by many, already encouraged by its polemic against Soviet politics under Khrushchev, as an alternative to the failed Soviet experiment, The theoretical legacy of the last years of Mao’s life has been treated as the culmination of his theoretical activity. The political label most associated with Mao’s writings on the problems of socialist transition is continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For the decade of the Cultural Revolution, continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat was the political touchstone, the mantra of true communist spirit. The unifying concern that attracted the antirevisionist communist and the young militant to Mao’s theses was the explanation it provided of the degeneration within individual CPs and in particular, inside the CPSU. More than that, Mao’s challenging writings offered both an explanation and a remedy: the appropriateness of the specific form of remedy chosen in China was rarely questioned by Western Maoists. It was promoted as a means of averting degeneration in the revolutionary process.

The arrest of the Gang of Four, the negative assessment of the Cultural Revolution and the shift in focus to the developmental economics of the Four Modernisations was taken by some as proof of a counter-revolutionary coup having taken place in China following Mao’s death in September 1976.

Those who held fast to the ideas of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat argued that the arrest and trial of the Four were thinly veiled attacks on Mao and Mao Zedong Thought. The American supporters of the Four, in the title of a collection defending their position, asserted that AND MAO MAKES FIVE.[1]

One of their misconceptions was that they viewed Mao’s reassessment of the process of socialist transition, which involved an attempt to reconceptualise the nature of class format1on and class struggle in socialist societies, as constituting a fully developed theory. In hindsight, the theoretical confusion which afflicted the reconstructed international communist movement was due, in part to the failure to develop the ideas traced out in Mao’s speeches at the beginning of the Sixties. Within China the ritualisation of politics, the creation of a Mao Cult and the degeneration into warring factions – all features that found a manifestation in the worst elements of the young ML movement in Britain –obscured and delayed the significant study of Mao’s initial observations.

The Soviet Union, in the teeth of capitalist opposition, was a Society which had achieved industrialisation and collectivization, apparently providing a general model for the course of revolutionary transformation. But Chinese communists, once in power, came to question the validity of that model for the building of socialism in China.

“The Soviet Union of Today is Our Tomorrow”, was a Chinese slogan of the 1950s which captured the spirit in which Soviet models were copied. By the mid-50s disenchantment with the model led to a consensus in the majority of the CPC leadership on same of the criticisms which Mao began to raise about the dangers of unthinkingly copying the Soviet model.

These early criticisms were implicit in Mao’s speeches, On the Ten Major Relationships, and On Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People. Where Mao opened up political cleavages within the CPC leadership was with his concern to link opposition to the Soviet developmental model to his own corrective prescription. Then those who had supported Mao in his criticism refrained from giving whole-hearted support to what he proposed as a preventative cure. Many commentators have observed that Mao’s recommendations hark back to the policies and methods of the pre-liberation Yenan years.

James Peck’s introduction to Mao’s criticism of aspects, of Soviet political economy, published in the West as A Critique of Soviet Economics, pointed out that:

The distinctive features of the Yenan Model were well known: self-reliance, decentralisation, antagonism to bureaucratism and elitism, Collective aims and discipline, non-material incentives, and the participation of the masses in all aspects of social and economic activity. Development was comprehensive, designed to bring up all sectors, not just a chosen path.[2]

Whether the specific features of wartime conditions ’and the relatively “small” rural aspects of that model could be’ successfully transplanted to the economic development of the nation was immaterial. The heart of the argument for Mao was whether the creative role of the politically mobilised masses and issue campaigns were viewed as anachronistic. What was taken as the essence of the Yenan Model was the central importance of subjective motivation of the participants.

As Mao correctly pointed out:

Socialist transformation is a two-fold task, one is to transform the system and the other to transform man. The system embraces not only ownership, it also includes the superstructure, primarily the state apparatus and ideology:[3]

Mao’s writings subjected to criticism the Soviet model of industrialization and, what Mao saw as Stalin’s subordination of the transformation of social relations to the development of the productive forces. This position was to surface as a sustained attack on the theory of productive forces throughout the Cultural Revolution.[4]

Mao charged that mechanical materialism replaced dialectical materialism and that vulgar evolutionism opposed revolutionary dialectics in the Soviet Union and in the politics of the man labelled ’China’s Khrushchev’ – Liu Shao Chi. The Soviet preoccupation with technology and expertise, the emphasise on material incentives and bureaucratic central planning detracted from the objective, vital for Mao, of preparing to move onto further stages of socialist transformation before the’ current stage had been fully consolidated, Mao saw human beings and consciousness as the crucial element of the productive forces, his crit1cism demanded the transformation of the superstructure (in order to develop the productive forces) a process that could only be rooted, in revolutionary struggle and mass participation.

Mao’s perception of what constituted the main threat to the dictatorship of the proletariat shifted from the social base of the old bourgeoisie to a newly emergent social stratum with a bourgeois ideology centred in the Party/State apparatus.

What emerged from the Cultural Revolution on was the theory of new bourgeois class forces which thrived on the inequalities of Chinese society. In seeking ways of stabilising, protecting and raising their status in society they threatened the process of socialist transformation. Their rise to power would mean the restoration (or in China’s case establishment) of a capitalist system.

The danger posed by the relegation of the struggle to refashion one’s worldview was linked to Mao’s understanding of events in the Soviet Union. There revisionists comprised a distinctive social strata whose predilections for bourgeois values, arising from their power and status in a socialist society was such that they became a substitute for the old capitalists as class struggle continued under the conditions of developing socialism.

It is a theoretical misconception to assume, as did the Statement of the Conference of 81 Communist Parties in 1960, that “there are no objective causes in the nature of the socialist system for contradictions and conflicts between peoples and states belonging to it.” In looking anew at the experience of socialist transition in light of the policies enacted under Khrushchev, and the events in Poland and Hungary, as well as China during the period of the Great Leap Forward, Mao began to develop his ideas concerning class struggle in socialist societies.

At the Beidaihe Work Conference of August 1962, Mao had concluded, in the light of both Soviet and Chinese experience in socialist construction, that antagonistic contradiction may well increase and intensify during the course of building socialism.

Mao increasingly viewed conflicts over development goals and priorities in terms of a struggle between two roads. Thus he warned “the danger of a capitalist restoration remains”.

The consideration that is implied in the position of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat is that socialist transformation was viewed as a process that carried within it the potential for its own reversal. He correctly acted on the assumption that state ownership was an insufficient condition for the achievement of socialism and that there was no Marxist doctrine of irreversibility in relation to successful revolutionary seizures of power. What had happened elsewhere could happen in China. Mao is reported to have told the French author, Andre Malraux that “Humanity left to its own devices does not necessarily reestablish capitalism... but it does reestablish inequality. The forces tending towards the creation of new classes are powerful.”[5]

Mao’s reassessment of the characteristics of a socialist society contained the notion of a fairly long socialist stage fraught with “classes, class contradictions, class struggle... (and) the struggle between the road of socialism and the road of capitalism.”[6]

His contention that the contradiction between the proletariat and ’new’ bourgeoisie was the principal contradiction under socialism led him to issue the call “never to forget class struggle”.

By 1962, Mao had developed the belief that class struggle under socialism was not simply due to the persistence of remnant classes and imperialist machinations but arose from the generation of new classes within a socialist system. The problem it posed was that without an adequate theoretical understanding which specified the structural basis of antagonism, a theory which made concrete a generative view of class, then one could designate anyone as a class enemy solely on a subjective evaluation of personal behaviour and tastes. During the Cultural Revolution, instead of discussing the structural factors which facilitated bourgeois behaviour, what happened was that wholesale condemnation of people (said to be diehard reactionaries) failed to address the notion that the very vanguard of the revolution could constitute its most serious obstacle.

If the Party had been corroded by a “mere handful of capitalist-roaders”, how did one decided when the Party’s leadership was heading in the wrong direction? Could such a decision be made through the Party’s democratic centralist structures, and, if not from where did the authority come to disrupt and violate party norms? Which of the Party members were diehard capitalist-roaders? Who was redeemable? As Bill Brugger observed:

Once Mao had decided that elements of a new bourgeoisie might develop in the Party structure itself, then the only kind of rectification movement he would promote would be the open kind.[7]

This was the minority position within the leadership of the CPC, Mao was to use his symbolic authority as the embodiment of the revolution to act upon this proposition: Acting upon his threat at the stormy 1959 Lushan meeting to “take to the hills” and lead a rebellion, Mao went outside of the CPC arousing an army of students and young people to “Bombard the Headquarters” – i.e. the party and state apparatus.

A political cleavage between Mao and the overwhelming majority of the Party leadership arose at the end of the 1950s, essentially over the assessment of the Great Leap Forward. Peng Dehuai’s criticisms of the Great Leap Forward, and Mao’s arbitrary reaction at Lushan in August 1959 foresaw the polarization of the leadership over policy development. Before this time differences within the CPC were often ones of emphasis, not of principles, differences over tactics to implement the strategic line.

Mao maintained that the concept of the Great Leap Forward had been correct but that its implementation hampered its success. Critics argued that it was not the implementation of the policy but the policy itself which was responsible for its failures, that the methods of nationwide mass mobilization, the legacy of the Yenan years, were no longer relevant given the imperatives of modern economic, development.

The policies and methods used during the years of retrenchment and consolidation of the early sixties were seen by Mao has confirming a withering away of revolutionary values. Mao, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, went outside the Party’s apparatus to campaign for his ideological hegemony, having failed to get what he wanted with the Party’s consent.

Following the publication of Volume 4 of Mao’s Selected Works in 1960, the Peoples’ Liberation Army was granted an unprecedented mandate to promote Mao Zedong Thought among, not only the army, but the civilian population. The most popular and respected model in Chinese society undertook the campaign to spread the “Little Red Book” of quotations from Mao’s writings.

In reference to the Socialist Education Movement initiated in 1963 with the assent of the party, many of whose leaders saw it as a concession to Mao, but within definite limits, Mao declared “The main target of the present movement is those people in the Party taking the capitalist road.”[8] In conjunction with the Four Clean Movement, criticism of corrupt politics and decadent habits of cadres in the countryside was carried out by provincial-level appointed work teams that welcomed popular support and participation in the investigation and evaluation of cadres. This was a very public rectification movement that mobilised mass criticism. This movement merged into the general maelstrom of the Cultural Revolution, officially launched with the publication of ’The Sixteen Points’.

The ideological beacon for the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. The theses emerged in piecemeal fashion, and remained rather bald (often appearing as instructions) lacking systematic elucidation. The position of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat could be gleaned from a number of incomplete sources: these included the critical notes Mao drew up in the late 1950s while studying Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, Mao’s speech at the Tenth Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee in September 1962 and the reports found in the Red Guard collection entitled Mao TseTung Ssu-hsiang wan-sui (Long Live Mao TseTung’s Thought) dating from 1967-69.

The positions associated with the theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat were popularise by the compendium of quotations from Mao that appeared in Peking Review 26 September 1969 [Chairman Mao on continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat], having been summarised earlier in the November 10,1967 issue of Peking Review [Advance Along the Road Opened Up by the October Socialist Revolution].

Although never set out as a series of integrated arguments and analysis, Mao’s remarks were taken to be a theory which underlined general positions on the process of political development in socialist Society such as t he persistence of classes and class struggle, with the resultant protraction of the socialist stage and the necessity of periodic intense struggles of the Cultural Revolution type.

This perspective was underpinned by the belief that revolutionaries may, in the process of managing the post-liberation political and economic bureaucracies, became so corrupt and degenerate as to assume a role analogous to that of the overthrown class enemy.

The proposed therapeutic solution to the problem of corruption and abuse by those in power rested on an essential practice -that of supervision from below. It represented a movement away from the consultative process of the early sixties to the more turbulent mass criticism of the late sixties. The crude assessment was that the politicisation of society would bring about benefits that would offset the social costs incurred.

Supervision from below would serve two functions: (1) by the act of political education through the integration of theory and practice the young would be imbued with a set of values, skills and theories and dedication that would permit them to perform as legitimate political heirs. The mass movement would cultivate revolutionary successors and critical awareness (2) by the act of political mobilisation the conditions for corruption and abuse to thrive would be rectified. John Bryan Starr suggests that:

if it is possible to pinpoint a single quality which Mao regarded as epitomising the bourgeoisie and bourgeois society, that quality is self-seeking individualism.[9]

To launch such a socially destabilising campaign at the time of escalating US aggression in Vietnam was evidence of Mao’s resolve to tackle the danger of revisionism. To consolidate the socialist system, selflessness was demanded amidst a regime of scarcity. In a storm of, subjectivist ethicalism, designed (as the 16 Points stated) to touch the very soul of the people, the central problem remained state power. The Chinese media argued that what was required was the elimination of the consciousness and motivation of the old society and the establishment of socialist consciousness and motivation in accordance with the new socialist economic base. In an article entitled “Learn to Serve the People”, the People’s Daily of December 1, 1966 put it in terms close to altruism:

Strive not, for reputation or gain, fear no hardship, have no fear of death, do nothing for self-interest, but always work for others have total devotion to revolution and the people, wholeheartedly serve the Chinese people and the people of the world.

Emulation campaigns, such as “Learn from Lei Feng”, offered the ideal model, the moral foundation for what verged on a community of saints. There was very little distinction made between what was expected of revolutionaries as members of a vanguard party and what should be advocated for the masses whom they serve. The advice contained in the December 1st article would be expected of communist party members but how appropriate is it to raise the consciousness of those outside of the vanguard organisation? There is the need to differentiate between social norms encouraged in society as distinct from those within the party: to serve the people was a measure of communist dedication. But amidst the propaganda, the anarchism and factionalism of complex struggle belied the advice to struggle by reason. Some of the intensity and complications of those struggles were related in William Hinton’s account of the Cultural Revolution at Beijing’s Tsinghua University The Hundred Day War. [10]


It was a decade earlier, in 1955, which first saw the appearance of a theme (“right opportunists in the party, working hand-in-glove with the forces of capitalism”) which was to crystallise into the conception of the capitalist roader who was the proclaimed target of the Cultural Revolution. The cautionary words that capitalist-roaders were “a mere handful” were rendered meaningless by the general violation of Party discipline and the widening out of the target of attack in the Cultural Revolution.

In the inner-party disputes in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, as Mao saw it, conflicts within the party were reaching the point where they entailed different class interests. “Rightwing opportunism in China should be renamed” he said in 1962, “It should be called Chinese Revisionism. “[11] For Mao the battle against modern revisionism had its beginnings in the rectification of incorrect rightist tendencies, and in reaction to criticism of “leftist rashness and impetuosity”.

At the 8th Party Congress in November 1956, Mao had warned the Party: “There are several hundred thousand cadres at the level of the county Party committee and above who hold the destiny of the country in their hands. If they fail to do a good job, alienate themselves from the masses and do not live plainly and work hard, the workers, peasants and students will have good reason to disapprove of them. We must watch lest we foster the bureaucratic style of work and grow into an aristocratic stratum divorced from the people. The masses will have good reason to remove from office whoever practises bureaucracy, makes no effort to solve their problems, scolds them, tyrannizes over them and never tries to make amends. I say it is fine to remove such fellows, and they ought to be removed.[12]

Mao set forth nine manifestations of the continuing class struggle in China in his 1963 “Draft Resolution on Some Problems in the Current Rural Work”. Of the nine, five involved activities of the overthrown reactionary classes, and three referred to economic activities such as speculation, profiteering, exploitation of labour and usury. The last included, among other groups, “degenerates” within political and economic organisation who, by their actions, had become “apart of the new bourgeoisie or their ally”.

Developing from the abuse of power, a political category antagonistic towards socialist transformation – the capitalist roaders – emerged. Inner party controversies over policy were described as reflections inside the party of the class struggle in society.

Bourgeois commentators have often presented the Cultural Revolution as a means by which Mao set out to achieve the ‘reconquest’ of the Party organisation, saying that it was a “struggle for power” in which Mao resorted to outside forces – an uneasy alliance of army and students/youths to enforce his directives. But it was not a struggle for personal power. Mao did not simply assert his ’authority: the mass criticism initiated in the Cultural Revolution reflected the concern to cultivate revolutionary successors. Mao did not seek, nor did he obtain, arbitrary power. He sought the implementation of his priorities for China’s development. The Cultural Revolution was not simply an ad hoc reaction to unfavourable power relations.

In Mao’s notes on Soviet political economy he stated:

The transition from socialism to communism is a revolution. The transition of one stage of communism to another is a revolution Also there are technical revolutions and cultural revolutions.

Communism is bound to go through many stages. It will also have many revolutions.

The view of movement towards a communist society involving a series of stages was present in many of Mao’s writings [e.g. Talk at Chengdu (March 20 1958) and Talks on Questions of Philosophy (August 18 1964)]. It suggested a developmental pattern of alternating periods of consolidation and campaigns. Mao acted on the observation of Engels [in Ludwig Feuerbach] that,

In nature there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting upon one another. In the history of society, on the other hand, the actors are all endowed with consciousness, men are acting with deliberation or passion, working towards definite goals, nothing happens without a conscious purpose, without an intended aim.

To avoid what he perceived as the dangers of revisionism in China, Mao unleashed the passionate idealism of youth. The idolatry that arose negated the political objective. The attitude expressed in Lin Biao’s speeches, that “Every sentence of Chairman Mao’s works is truth, one single sentence of his surpasses ten thousand of ours”, reflected the empty rhetoric, and a kind of religious fanaticism and worship, of an individual that replaced the politics of investigation and analysis of facts. As Mao’s standpoint was characterised as the ’proletarian line’, opposition to it, even dissent from it was categorised as ’bourgeois’ and ’counter-revolutionary’. Mao regarded his own standpoint as unassailable and asserted it accordingly. The Mao Cult was regarded as a means to secure ideological loyalty and ideological transformation: “to solve the problem of world outlook, it is a question of eradicating the roots of revisionism” stated Mao on May 1 1967.

How far Mao’s expressed desire to temper and educate China’s post revolutionary generation in two-line struggle was achieved must be measured against the disillusionment and alienation it fostered in Party-People relations. Whatever the admonitions against physical liquidation of opponents, factional warfare plagued China as Mao ignited a mass movement he had difficulties directing.

“Nobody – not even I – expected that all the provinces and cities would be thrown into confusion” Mao said in a talk on October 24 1966. The next day, Mao stated, “I myself had not forseen that as soon as the Peking University poster was broadcast, the whole country would be thrown into turmoil.”[13]

The attention paid to developments by Marxist-Leninists elsewhere in both China and the USSR was part of an attempt of come to terms with the revolutionary process. The degeneration of the October Revolution was a complex social process little understood by the young ML movement although it identified the symptoms very readily. To gain an understanding of that process has been one of the central and distinctive political concerns of the ML movement, Mao’s critique of Soviet revisionism reaffirmed the view that socialist advance had to consist of much more than matters of formal ownership and increased productivity. Socialist development implied the reshaping of economic institutions and production relationships to reflect the dominance of people engaged in productive activity. Economic development is a class specific process but the problems pertaining to development of the productive forces, and particularly to the standards of living were shunted to the margins of discussion.

Mao was not the first to ask to what extent were the forms reflective of the substance of mastery by working people, but he had the authority of revolutionary achievement and activity. His questions arose from a concern about the right means of comprehensive development; he asked: at what cost and to whom?

In asking what jeopardised the transition to socialism the Maoist critique asserted that it was t he behaviour of those who operated the administrative apparatus, not the structure of the apparatus, that was at fault.

It was not mere chance that a leading slogan of the Cultural Revolution was “Fight Revisionism! Fight Self!” It emphasised the ideological aspect, the subjective element in resisting embougeoisement. In the polemic against the Soviet revisionists there was the beginning of an attempt to explain why a new oppressive class could be depicted as rising in a socialist society. If property relations are a contributory cause for the formation of classes, then opposition to another class is the cause for the coalescence of the class and the formation of class consciousness and self-identity.

An important distinction has been made by Marxist-Leninists between: people’s class origin (even current status), which is primarily a matter of their relationship to the means of production, and their class stand, which determines where they position themselves in the social revolutionary process.

One’s class stand must be determined by political and ideological criteria. As Chou-Enlai, son of a mandarin, is reported to have said upon meeting Khrushchev, son of a peasant, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, “We have something in common: we are both traitors to our class.”

In 1949 Mao expressed a common concern of the CPC:

It has been proven that the enemy cannot conquer us by force of arms. However, the flattery of the bourgeoisie may conquer the weak-willed in our ranks. There may be some communists, who were not conquered by enemies with guns and were worthy of the name of heroes for standing up to these enemies, but who cannot withstand sugar-coated bullets; they will be defeated by sugar-coated bullets.[14]

Chinese warnings on the threshold of state power did not originate from the fear that a stratum of party activists would degenerate when faced with the tasks of post-war reconstruction in the cities. The concern was with individual failings. The assumption of state posts, traditionally associated with wealth and privilege, raised the danger that “some communists” (admittedly that would number thousands in the Chinese context) would be seduced or corrupted by the imperatives of administrating the state machinery.

The Chinese argument during the polemic of the Sixties provided a multicausual argument for the social base of capitalist restoration without tackling how the new bourgeoisie in the making had established, and reproduced itself during Stalin’s tenure of leadership. The 1964 article “On Khrushchev’s Phoney Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World” contains the most complete Chinese analysis of the new bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union:

its corrupting effects in the political, economic, ideological and cultural and educational fields, the existence of spontaneous capitalist tendencies among urban and rural small producers, and the influence of the remaining bourgeois rights and the force of habit of the old society all constantly breed political degenerates in the ranks of the working class and party and government organizations, new bourgeois elements and embezzlers and grafters in state enterprises owned by the whole people, and bourgeois intellectuals in the cultural and educational institutions and intellectual circles.

What partly shaped Mao’s political concern was an understanding of how socialism lost first to Tito’s revisionism in Yugoslav and then to Khrushchev’s in the USSR. However, it should be recognised that the CPC’s early criticisms of Yugoslav revisionism simply involved following the Cominform line. During the initial phase of the CPC’s polemic with the CPSU, when it was handled by criticism ostensibly aimed at other parties, China targeted Yugoslavia in order to criticise the CPSU, and it seems that it was only in this context that Mao deepened his own criticisms of Yugoslav revisionism. It seemed that revisionism that is counter-revolution was bred at the heart of socialist power, amongst the leaders of the party.

The position attributed to Mao was the advice that:

You are making the socialist revolution, and yet you don’t know where the bourgeoisie is. It is right in the communist party those in power taking the capitalist road.[15]

A prior warning on how to prevent the restoration of capitalism, given during the Sino-Soviet Polemic of the early 1960s, stated:

We can prevent the restoration of capitalism so long as there is a correct leadership and a correct understanding of the problem.[16]

The problem this raises is that of subjectivism: a case in point is the Albanian characterisation of China from 1977 onwards that denied what it had been saying for decades, and China’s treatment of Yugoslavia, which was the first socialist state (as early as 1948) which was said to have reverted to capitalism, but with improvements in diplomatic relations was elevated to the status of socialist. Without, understanding what constitutes revisionism, then it involves little more that characterising a country’s social system by whether we approve of what is going on there.

Romania always seemed to have been regarded as ’socialist’ more on the basis of the refusal to toe the Soviet line on international issues than on that of its internal structure and politics.

The whole experience raised questions on the role of the state in the transition to socialism, especially as the state is strengthened through the intensification of economic and political authority in its hand.

The statist tendencies to monopolise and abuse power were not challenged by the practices of t he Cultural Revolution. In a sense the focus on political and ideological questions, often abstracted from either the material constraints on social transformation or economic concerns, dominated the propagandist approach of the Cultural Revolution.

The ethical approach de-emphasized individual material incentives; and competitive individualistic values were seen as antithetical to socialism. During the Cultural Revolution, consciousness raising through control of the cultural life of society became bound up to the manipulative, hierarchical determinatives of the Gang of Four and their associates. They assumed responsibility for determining what was “correct” thought, which ideas would be publically admissible.

Far from raising consciousness, the diet of “political education” came to bore and be rejected by most of the masses as stereotyped propaganda with little relationship to their needs. Far from stimulating worker participation and political activism, mass meetings took on the character of resented routine as continuous campaigns taxed and tired its participants.

In the early days of the Cultural Revolution, the overthrow of individual bureaucrats for holding the wrong ideas characterised mass mobilisation. What this achieved was to perpetuated social and economic administrative decision making by an administrative hierarchy staffed by the deputies of those overthrown.

The notion that the inherited transmission and dominance of old ideas coupled with disposal over substantial perquisites and power raises the possibility of the re-entrenchment of an exploiting class relationships based on the control of an all-encompassing state apparatus is a valuable contribution to our understanding of socialist transformation of society.

The institutionalization of the revolution contains danger of succumbing to the legacy of monopolisation and the offensive of existing imperialism. How it is to be avoided remains a fundamental concern amidst the priority of building socialism.

The Cultural Revolution offered no solution to the systematic problems of the role of the state in socialist transition, to problems of bureaucracy and privilege, other than to repeat the exercise every ten years or so unlikely to help the consolidation of the material basis for socialism.

The reliance on individual cultivation and socially accepted norms of behaviour meant that the focus was on changing the behaviour of those within the bureaucracies through increased revolutionary vigilance, and by a selfdisciplining: they would feel morally and politically committed to keep “to the proletarian revolutionary line”.

There were policies, there were rapid changes, but there were no concrete alternatives offered, and particularly no sense that principles of organisation, once articulated, could be tested, challenged and revised. To challenge these principles by pointing out their short-comings in practice would be to challenge the genius of Mao and his correct followers in the factories to challenge continuing the revolution, to espouse revisionism.[17]

An initial sympathiser of the Post-Mao orientation, Mark Seldon, remarked of China:

We can observe a certain continuity between its current priorities its search for unity in the service of modernization, effective modes of cooperation, and expanded democratic rights – and those of earlier periods of revolutionary change. Perhaps the most persistent element of all has been the drive to defeat the legacy of poverty, to achieve a common prosperity that will lay the material foundations for an advanced socialist society.[18]

The call “Grasp Revolution, Promote Production” took a back seat in the perceptions and concerns of sympathetic Westerners on the left compared to the spectacle of shrill denunciation of revisionism and capitalist roaders. There was a disparity between the image of a socialist paradise and the real China anchored in the Third World with nearly a quarter of the world’s population to provide for. In the Post-76 period, when confronted with their illusions, too often their altered perceptions found expression in a cynical posture towards China’s own prospects and those of socialism in general.

It was a self-inflicted wound: the ’participant-observer’ frequently based conclusions not on the interaction of theory tested in practice, but on the mere interpretation of official pronouncements: They lacked proletarian scepticism. The criticism from a Left position reproduced the abandonment of dialectical materialism of earlier practice in the abstract treatment of socialism as a transition process. The recognition that socialism in the contemporary world had “birthmarks” that could only be eliminated within a long historical perspective has largely absent.

A few decades is but a historical instant in which to make judgements on the viability of a social system: witness the centuries required for the development of capitalism on a world scale and its still uneven penetration and performance. But in a hasty judgement, anchored in an assumption that while Mao lived socialism was guaranteed, many in the West argued within months of his death that China had aborted its transition to socialism.

The narrow orthodoxy of those associated with the Gang of Four effectively rejected consideration that social change is bound to involve a certain amount of trial and error, that it necessitates the critical evaluation of experience and learning from mistakes in assessing different mechanisms to ensure socialist transition. They made an instant judgement:

On October 6th (1976) the Four were placed under arrest. And so a temporary end was brought to the era of Mao and proletarian rule in China.[19]

If the death of one man and the arrest of four other people could end ’proletarian rule’ in a country, then it must have been a fragile thing indeed – and after ten years of mobilization against this eventuality too! They used the notion of preserving intact the gains of the Cultural Revolution to oppose the critical summing up of experience. They judge that the absence of vocal popular mobilisation and intense conflict meant revolutionary torpor and the monopolization of power by an entrenched counter-revolutionary bureaucracy. The Cultural Revolution was dogmatically seen as an integrated whole, and reexamination of it or opposition to it was automatically counterrevolutionary.

What is skimmed over is that the Four had a vested interest in preserving negative effects of the Cultural revolution, wielding arbitrary power and constant turbulence. The damage done in one-sidedly stressing ’red’ and denigrating the training of a generation of socialist ’experts’ was seen in the counterpoising of construction of the material base of socialist society to the tasks of political transformation.

The Chinese experience during the Cultural revolution shows that, what it is essential to place politics in command during the entire process of socialist transformation, and it was correct to oppose development models which did not stress the key role of human consciousness, to neglect the creation of a stronger material base and the steady raising of the people’s living standards tended ultimately to detract from the realisation of the political goals, as they appeared to become emptier and emptier.

A valid perspective from the Cultural Revolution remains the notion that socialism is not essentially a quantitative practice, more concerned with calculating and striving for greater output, gross national product, expenditure etc, than with the actual social relations of production and distribution. Both exist in harness: transformation and developments of social relations of production necessitate innovation and improvement. The task of “revolutionising the instruments of production” has to be carried out within a Marxist framework.

What precisely is meant by class struggle in a post revolutionary Society has not been satisfactory defined. Given the premises of orthodox socialist political theory questions of relative power and privileges were treated as part of the problematic of bureaucracy rather than class -classes being entirely defined and circumscribed by the property system. Therefore the emphasis on work-style and measures to control excesses and inculcate in the bureaucrats a greater sense of social responsibility.

As Karl Marx observed, it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. However, if the managerial stratum is perceived as an incipient ruling class, then the object is not making it more socially responsible but of asserting control over it, to eliminate its influence as workers and peasants assume responsibility for the functions which are carried out by the administrators of the institutions of the post-revolutionary Society.

The starting point for any investigation into class contradictions and class struggle in emergent socialist states is contained in Marx’s comment in a letter of March 5, 1852 to J. Weydemeyer:

What I did that was new was to prove (1) that the existence of classes is bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat (3) that this dictatorship Itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

There is always the danger of projecting the momentary view into the indefinite future. Reassessing our political commitments and understanding in the light of a changing reality is demanded by dialectical materialism. It is demanded if we are to be indispensable to the recreation of a revolutionary movement in this country.


The dramatic policy reversals that began after Mao’s death highlight the issues of the transition to socialism and socialist development. There is a need for a wide raging reassessment pertaining to the theory and practice of the revolutionary change and development that has occurred in the post Mao period, but here are a few preliminary remarks on the subject.

There have been drastic changes in the substance of Party policies and the methods of leadership within Chinese society. The programs initiated by Mao since the late 1950s have been drastically reversed. It is as if Mao’s long dominance in Chinese policy formation has left only a negative impact. Economic rationality and the use of the market as an instrument for achieving Socialist goals was the centred economic theme of the 1980s in China.

For Mao, the alternative to the command economy based on executive orders was not the market, but rather social mobilisation using “mass line” methods of leadership. This is as far removed from deemphasising political criteria governing daily activities of possible. Some Western Marxist commentators have suggested that Maoist theories never could offer a coherent alternative because they preclude as revisionist the only possible mechanism – markets and profits through which genuine decentralisation, with increased local participation and control, could be effected.

It is implicit in the present modernizing attempt that certain phenomena historically associated with capitalism’ will emerge in China. When Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci asked Deng Xiaoping; in October 1980 whether he thought “capitalism is not all that bad”, Deng replied, “We must distinguish what is capitalism. Capitalism is superior to feudalism.” The Chinese leadership ’has made it clear that it regards the obstructive remnants of the past in today’s China as relics of FEUDALISM rather than capitalism. In this assessment the quasi-feudal practices from the Cultural Revolution loom large.

The post-Mao leadership had to face the fact that the system had enabled Lin Biao to become a “chosen successor”and recognise that the operation of clique politics had become powerful precisely because Mao had need of them. The initial emphases on the need for socialist legality offered a brake upon the exercise of arbitrary power.

The perspective of a long transitional stage promoted in China reinforces this view as it alters the view of the transitional character of socialism as a steady moving away from capitalist forms and values. It contains the notion that for a long time socialism in China will increasingly resemble capitalism in its socio-economic development as a supposed corrective to an over precipitate rush to social ownership and egalitarianism.

The CPC was prepared to relinquish a portion of the state’s economic power and accept the incorporation of foreign capital. This gave rise to manifold contradictions both economic and social, not least the danger of growing economic dependence on forces hostile to the revolutionary project. How to handle the integration into the world system, dominated by imperialism, that is inevitably entailed in such a modernizing strategy, required more political authority than the Party could draw on.

Evocation of this past, of the miseries of the old pre-1949 China, was an unsatisfactory standard of comparison to make for those whose aspirations, and appreciations, were directed towards western society and its values. Some concern had been expressed that the market may generate its own goals by creating a mode of consciousness inconsistent with the socialist vision, but this was only superficially endorsed for pragmatic reason in the aftermath of the June 4 killings.

August 1990


[1] ed. Lotta R. And Mao Makes Five: Mao Tsetung’s Last Great Battle. Banner Press (Chicago 1978)

[2] Mao Tsetung. A Critique of Soviet Economics. Monthly Review Press 1977

[3] Mao Zedong Selected Works 5: 450

[4] The Essence of the Theory of the Productive Forces is to Oppose Proletarian Revolution. Peking Review September 19th 1969.

[5] Atlantic Monthly Oct. 1968: 119

[6] Peking Review 23 June 1967: 28

[7] Brugger B. China: Radicalism to Revisionism 1979: 18

[8] quoted in RED FLAG May 20 1967

[9] Starr J. Continuing the Revolution: the Political Thought of Mao. Princeton University 1979: 228

[10] Hinton W. The Hundred Day War: the Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University. Monthly Review Press 1973.

[11] ed. Schram, Mao Tse-Tung Unrehearsed: Talks & Letters, 1956-71 Penguin 1974: 192

[12]Mao Zedong Selected Works 5:345

[13] ed. Schram, Mao Tse-Tung Unrehearsed: Talks & Letters, 1956-71 Penguin 1974:

[14] Mao Zedong Selected Works 4: 361

[15] Peking Review June 25 1976

[16] The Polemic On the General Line of the International Communist Movement Red Star Press (London 1976: 470)

[17] Seldon & Lippit (eds) The Transition to Socialism in China. Croom Helm 1982: 235

[18] Monthly Review :31(October 1979):32

[19] ed. Lotta R. And Mao Makes Five: Mao Tsetung’s Last Great Battle. Banner Press (Chicago 1978: 43