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International Socialism, September 1977


Tim Potter

Penguin China Readings


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Penguin China Readings
No.1 Imperial China 80p
No.2 Republican China 95p
No.3 Communist China £1.35
No.4 Peoples China £1.95

Dick Wilson
The Long March
Penguin £1.25

THE DEATH of Mao a year ago led to a rapid shift of power at the very top of the Chinese Communist Party. The Gang of Four, the leaders of the Cultural Revolution and close comrades of Mao, have been thrown into prison and expelled from the Communist Party. Teng Hsiao Peng, one of the chief targets of the Cultural revolution and denounced as a ‘capitalist roader’, has been reinstated in the party hierarchy.

These shifts at the top, and the mass support they appeared to receive, have thrown the camp-followers of Maoism into something of a crisis. Their vision of workers’ and peasants’ democracy emerging with the Cultural Revolution has received a major setback. The most prominent European pro-Maoist intellectual, Charles Bettelheim, summed up the issues involved when he resigned from the French-Chinese Friendship Society.

‘If, as I believe, these accusations against the Gang of Four do not correspond to the truth, it is impossible to put any confidence in those leaders who deceive the people while carrying out the elimination of those with whom they are in disagreement, not by clearly stating the basis for such disagreements, but by resorting to slanders.

‘In these conditions, one can only conclude that the fidelity proclaimed to the political line of Mao is a smoke screen designed to camouflage a completely different line.’

Now the defection of Bettelheim may not have much of an impact in Britain where ‘orthodox’ Maoism has been confined to the most lunatic fringes of the left. But in Europe, where many of the major left-wing groups were deeply influenced by the Chinese experience, it is only one event in an extensive re-examination of the Chinese Revolution. Even in Britain, there is more debate about China than at any time since the Cultural Revolution. But this has been held back by the comparative lack of readily accessible and reliable information about China.

Penguin’s decision to re-publish and extend its China Readings is therefore to be welcomed; they are sure to fill real gaps in most people’s knowledge.

The scope of the work is immense. Drawn mainly from original sources, it crams into its 2,000 pages a vast mass of information on the history of China from the oppressive capability of the Chinese empire in the eighteenth century right through to the bitter struggles at the top of the Communist Party after the Cultural Revolution. Many of the excerpts are fascinating, especially those taken from the middle of the nineteenth century when a static and bureaucratised empire crumbled before the attacks of a new imperialism in the West.

The domination of China by Britain and the other Western powers was one of the most sordid chapters in the history of imperialism. The first war between Britain and China centred on the vast amounts of opium being imported into China by the British from India. For almost 100 years the Chinese emperors had been trying to suppress the use of opium, yet in this period British imports increased nearly a hundredfold. After the war, Britain was importing seven tons of opium per day to the addicted Chinese peasantry. The war forced open the Chinese markets to British industry, which, once given a foothold, rapidly developed to dominate the Chinese economy. British motives in this period are well summarised by an active participant in the second British-Chinese war, Lt Col G.J. Wolseley:

‘May its prophylactical effects [of the second war] enable us to trade freely at every post along the great sea board of the empire, and so open out new channels for our commercial enterprise. It has cost us a large sum of money, but unlike many of our expensive European wars we may with justice look forward to a liberal return for what we have expended ... The one great object which we ever had in view there has been freedom of action for our merchants and unrestricted permission to trade with all parts of the empire’.

Western economic domination dragged the Chinese empire into the modern world but its ossified social structure could not take the strain. Revolt after revolt broke out which culminated in the overthrow of the imperial dynasty in 1911, and the birth ten years later of the Chinese Communist Party. However, it is from this point that the books’ limitations gradually become apparent. A collection of extracts only becomes a coherent whole if it is held together by a series of politically consistent introductions. And this the various editors fail to provide us with. Their underlying assumption is that the Chinese Communist Party led a revolution in 1949, which differed only in tactics from the revolutionary process envisaged by Marx and carried through by the Bolsheviks.

But this process has at its heart the leading role of the working class, and in China, the working class were only passive onlookers in the Communist victory.

It was the People’s Liberation Army, as the only socially cohesive institution in a crumbling society, that took power on behalf of the ‘Chinese People’. The Chinese revolution was not a different form of the transition to socialism, it was a different process altogether. Rather it was a struggle for national liberation both politically with the gradual expulsion of foreign imperialism and economically with the struggle for self-sufficiency free from the dictates of the world market. This necessitated the nationalisation of the major means of production if maximum efficiency in production was to be attained and the potential power base of any opposition to the new ruling group was to be destroyed. But for the editors of this work national liberation meant ‘the triumph of Communism in 1949’, and they take the goal of industrialisation to be almost synonymous with socialism.

The tenor of the book and the introductions become increasingly distorted as they move closer to the present day. Thus the working class movement which up till 1927 threatened the whole social structure, and which almost equalled that of Russia in 1917 in strength and militancy, is treated relatively briefly. Its significance in the introduction is seen mainly as a prelude to the taking of the ‘Chinese’ Road to Socialism. Yet the destruction of the most militant sections of the Chinese proletariat, in Shanghai and Canton in 1927, crushed the class central to socialist revolution.

It is when the books deal with post-revolutionary China, however, that the introductions really lose coherence and the balance of the extracts is lost. This is nowhere more vividly shown than in the editors’ treatment of the Cultural Revolution.

For the editors, along with most of those influenced by Maoism, the Cultural Revolution was ‘a great democratic happening’ where ‘an entire stratum of bureaucratic power-holders were swept from society’ in order for ‘society to remain alive and on a progressive course’. It was above all ‘mass politics that characterised the entire Cultural Revolution’.

Now, it is true that literally millions of people participated in the Cultural Revolution but what is entirely neglected is that Mao, after initially summoning the students to revolt in May 1966 against the increasingly closed party bureaucracy, spent the next three years trying to bring the movement under control. The fact was that Mao himself had not foreseen the massive strains in the social fabric of China which erupted after his call to the students. The book hides all this; by relying only on official pronouncements of the Chinese leaders they don’t mention the fact that even by October 1966 Mao was trying to forge a compromise with Liu Shao Chi and Teng Hsiao Peng who – only three months earlier – he had denounced as ‘bourgeois dictators’.

The most critical point of the Cultural Revolution was still to come however, and in their commentary the editors are at their most confused. By January 1967, a virtual general strike paralysed Shanghai, the most radical working class centre. The ‘Shanghai Commune’ was declared, explicitly modelling itself on the Paris Commune, threatening the whole power structure of China. The leadership was forced to react. It abolished the Shanghai Commune even though only four months before the official programme of the Cultural Revolution stressed that ‘it is necessary to introduce a system of general elections like that of the Paris Commune’. They sent in the only social force they could rely on; the People’s Liberation Army. Its role was to force through the compromise between the Party structures and the new forces that Mao had failed to achieve. In effect, it was the beginning of the end of the Cultural Revolution.

But for our editors the reverse was true; ‘A new stage of the Cultural Revolution had arrived – the seizure of power from below’. The suppression of the Commune and the intervention of the Army to stabilise events are described thus: ‘Consolidation of the new revolutionary power proceeded smoothly.’ Now of course with analysis like this the writers are in no position to evaluate the results of the Cultural Revolution or subsequent events; indeed they must feel a bit embarrassed by their predictions.

For instance, they praise the leaders of the Cultural Revolution group stressing their close links with the masses above all in Shanghai. Yet three of these leaders, Chiang Ching, Chang Ch’un-ch’iao and Yao Wen-yuan, have been thrown into prison and denounced as Kuo Min Tang agents to the accompaniment of mass demonstrations against them in Shanghai itself. They label Teng Hsiao Peng as an enemy of Mao but a month ago he was reinstated as number three in the Chinese hierarchy. They say that the Cultural Revolution opened up a new era of mass participation but the present leaders of China have had to use the most absurd slanders to discredit their opponents.

The logical conclusion of their analysis is that a counter-revolution has taken place but one which the masses, if involved at all, supported, and which necessitated no fundamental change in the policies of China. This contradictory position has had to be faced by all the groups who claimed inspiration from the Cultural Revolution. Some have criticised their old positions, others remain trapped in its contradictions.

The way out is to see the Cultural Revolution as a struggle between the old leaders of the CCP and a new group based around the ‘Gang of Four’, led by Mao and having to call on outside forces – initially the students – against the resistance of most of the party leaders. The split in the leadership and the intensity of the struggle meant that the class conflict inherent in Chinese society exploded, threatening the whole structure of power.

In the face of this threat, the leaders were forced into an unstable alliance to protect their mutual positions of privilege. What we have seen since is the gradual re-assertion of power, as the danger of class struggle receded, by the old structures inside the Party. So one by one the newcomers have been thrown out, at all levels of the party, and the old reinstated.

None of these crises change the fundamental nature of the Chinese state; we do not support one section of the Chinese bureaucracy against another. We support the workers’ movement against that group as a whole.

These books cannot stand as a political analysis of the history of China, and in fairness to the editors, they don’t claim it as such. They can only serve as source material for a rigorous analysis of China.

The same thing goes for The Long March, published as a companion volume. As a tribute to human courage and endurance it is superb, a worthy memorial to the heroism of the 100,000 men and women who fought their way for 6,000 miles against overwhelming odds. But it concentrates on the military aspect of the struggle and the clashes within the Party. It too needs to be set in the context of the Chinese revolution as a whole. Hopefully Nigel Harris’s study of Maoism will soon fill the gap left by these books.

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