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Nigel Harris

China as a ‘Deformed Workers State’?

On Livio Maitan’s Party, Army and Masses in China [1]

(September 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.91, September 1976, pp.30-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As early as 1936, he (Lu Hsun) pointed out the dangerous tendencies of the criminal Trotskyites. Now the clarity and correctness of his judgement have been proved beyond doubt by the facts – the obvious fact that the Trotskyite faction has turned into a traitorous organisation subsidised by Japanese special agents.
(Mao Tse-tung, 19 October 1939 [2])

Livio Maitan has been a leading member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) for many years, that is, of an organisation which claims to represent the essence of ‘criminal Trotskyism’. Given the very important writings of Trotsky himself on China, of Harold Isaacs and contributors to the Fourth International journal, New International, in the Thirties, a book that continued this powerful critique up to the present would be of major importance.

There would be a number of problems, not least Trotsky’s argument that it was impossible for the Chinese Communist Party to attain power without recreating its base in the working class (destroyed in 1927-28). China was and still is very poor; the material basis for the self-emancipation of the majority, socialism, does not exist on an isolated national basis. Lenin argued that the transition to socialism therefore depended upon creating first a relationship between the victorious Chinese workers’ regime and the Chinese peasantry and second, ‘the Soviet governments (of several advanced powers) coming to their aid with all the means at their disposal’. [3] Trotsky spelt out the implication:

To believe that without the victory of the proletariat in the most advanced capitalist countries and prior to this victory, China is capable with her own forces of ‘skipping over the capitalist stage’ is to trample under foot the ABC of Marxism;

or again,

it must be made clear to the vanguard of the Chinese proletariat that China has no prerequisites whatever economically for an independent transition to socialism (April 3, 1927). [4]

However, the Chinese working class did not become reunited with the Communist Party. The party had scarcely any worker members, had no serious programme for workers, and maintained no units of the party in the main working class areas of China before the People’s Liberation Army conquered power. It certainly carried support from sections of the peasantry, but there was no proletarian revolution in the most advanced capitalist countries which could then bring massive aid to the new regime.

If Mao is right, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky are wrong, and massively so. The working class is not the decisive element in a socialist revolution – no workers need be involved at all. Nor are they needed to begin ‘building socialism’, that is, a state planned industrialisation. Nor is the help of foreign advanced countries needed – all the prerequisites for the transition exist within China’s boundaries. Some people dodge the issue, of course, by shifting the scenery round – the ‘working class’ become the Chinese Communist Party or the army, or that master of disguises, the intelligentsia, or the passive rural poor, drummed up to play a walk on part in the historical drama. Whatever the answer, clearly the self-emancipation of the majority is no longer possible; they are emancipated by proxy, by a minority that knows how history works; and internationalism is not integral to the task but a pious afterthought.

However, despite the clarity with which Trotsky presented his position, Maitan evades all the key issues. He has written a very rum book since, without answering some of these questions, there does not seem to be much point in yet another dreary resumé of modern Chinese history. So far as the key questions are concerned, Maitan follows the standard Stalinist method of sliding over them, of asserting rather than arguing, proving or demonstrating. In the breach, a few firm ‘undoubtedlys’ or ‘unquestionablys’ can disarm the incredulous:

The triumphs of a socialist revolution in China was undoubtedly one of the decisive events of human history (p.7, my stress)


Unquestionably, the Chinese example shows that a socialist revolution makes a decisive break with the underdeveloped and dependent development which afflicts the countries of the capitalist ‘Third World’ (p.289, my stress).

Does it? How and why? With so much confusion on the Left, surely the least Maitan could have done was to try and clarify rather than just go with the tide. If China has made ‘a decisive break’, why is this so? Because its leaders are cleverer than other folk? Because they cunningly nationalised everything (as have done in part all the ruling classes of the backward countries)? Whence come these cunning ideas, and what is the material basis which sustains them? On Maitan’s case, it seems, material backwardness plays no role after all when the authorities have the right ideas – and clearly then dialectical materialism is just as the bourgeoisie always said, bullshit.

Maitan uses terms with supreme casualness, an unusual characteristic for one who comes from such a discriminating Talmudic tradition. Consider this example of the light fantastic – ‘the state engaged in primitive accumulation’ p.24) – as if it were a waltz or a marriage ceremony. Can he really be using the concept Marx employed to identify the most barbarous phase of capitalism? He does not explain, and carefully avoids the core of the concept – a savage intensification of exploitation, for then he would have to say whether there was exploitation in China or not, and that raises a whirlwind of disturbing phantoms.

Only briefly does Maitan tackle the ‘class character’ of the Chinese revolution, and it provides a good example of his ambiguous and evasive style. The revolution was basically propelled, he says, by a peasant movement. The Chinese peasantry, quite unlike its European counterpart, co-operated, forced into collaboration by its dependence upon large scale irrigation works (a familiar thesis, but one for which he provides no evidence). As a result, the Chinese peasants supported collectivisation. Maitan is almost as bland as Peking itself on the question of ‘peasant support’; again, he finds no need to demonstrate it. But Marx still tugs at his sleeve, so he quickly qualifies – there was not even a primitive division of labour in Chinese agriculture, the only possible basis for collective organisation. Then, he throws caution to the wind – ‘In twentieth century China, the destitute peasants and landless labourers sustained a socialist revolution’. ‘Sustained’? As peasants ‘sustain’ landlords? Or what? And what is the evidence that these two social groups played either an important or any distinct role in the Chinese revolution? None is provided. Maitan draws back quickly lest he slips straight into Mao’s self-idolatry – the revolution ‘could, in a different way and for different ends, also raise itself ‘above society’ (as Louis Napoleon did in relationship to the French peasantry – NH) and impose upon them (the two lowest rural strata – NH) advanced forms of collective ownership’ (p.36). Does he mean the Chinese Communist Party is really Louis Napoleon, and must therefore be opposed? How can the core of socialism, self-emancipation by the majority, be imposed from above? Surely that is Blanquism? Maitan divulges no explanations; all subsides in a fog; we are not meant to take the labels seriously.

THE central trouble is that Maitan has no theoretical framework adequate for analysing China. There is no scientific basis for his account. Notwithstanding the heaps of facts he interlards his narrative with, the book is invertebrate. For science, he substitutes ideological preferences, without explaining at all why the reader should accept his curious tastes. China is apparently not governed by any material necessities, although, as Maitan describes, it is very poor.

The problem appears to be that, since the party agreed with Stalin, it therefore has things wrong with it. But they did nationalise everything, swear at the United States, and the party was derived from 1917, so China must have something good, or at least, ‘responsive to mass pressure from below’. When Maitan approves of something, he conjures up ‘mass pressure’ as the source; when he disapproves it is because of a bad ideological influence. Thus, the north Chinese peasants were the agency of a ‘triumphant socialist revolution ... However, this is not to say that China was not profoundly affected by the Stalinist model’ (p.9) Was it profoundly affected? By what? Did Stalin have a’model’ and what was it a model of? Are there no material necessities sustaining whatever this ‘model’ is? Maitan does not tell us. He criticises official attacks on rebels:

By falling back on the language of ideological terrorism, the leading groups and strata showed their authoritarianism, sectarian intolerance and set hostility towards any movement from below. (p.141)

What is this ‘falling back’? Some superficial moral backsliding? Regardless of the style of authority, were they wrong? If they led a socialist revolution, how can they slide into error in this way? Sometimes, it seems, Maitan shares with Mao a belief in original sin and persistent wickedness.

Maitan’s main criticism of the Chinese leadership is that there is not enough ‘democracy’. But if it is a ‘socialist’ society (Maitan dodges this issue, although seems on balance to believe it is), a Maoist might argue, why does this lack of adherence to outdated bourgeois norms matter at all? Maitan does not explain, indeed, how socialism can exist without freedom. Mass self-emancipation must mean majority rule. The only other sort of ‘socialism’ is Stalinism, state dictatorship, which is no socialism at all. Yet it seems that this is what Maitan accepts, and, as a result, comes precious close to mainstream American liberalism – China’s regime is good and socialist, but it is a pity there’s not more democracy.

If there is any theme to the book it is the search for democracy. He finds it popping up all over the place, but somehow it never quite wins through. The peasant associations during the land reform programme, he asserts (as usual, without evidence), ‘created favourable conditions for establishing and sustaining genuinely democratic institutions of revolutionary power’, but unfortunately, when the People’s Liberation Army took power, ‘no attempt was made to begin the work of setting up institutions of popular power.’ (p.20) So the army needs to ‘set up’ mass control? Why should it do so? Because

Revolutionary democracy based on Soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers would have provided the best guarantee for the future course of the revolution. (pp.20-21)

But is the army interested in doing this? The ‘Soviets’, pulled out of Maitan’s hat without explanation, might just as well have contested power with the army, and so destroyed the ‘socialist’ revolution!

The contradictions gather thickly about Maitan’s pen. Consider his startling balance sheet of the Great Leap Forward (pp.48-49) when he simultaneously lists among the successes of the commune movement, ‘setting up truly democratic forms at the lower level’, along with its ‘negative features’, ‘the brusque lack of regard for the aspirations of the peasants’! You can, it seems, have your cake and eat it both democracy at the base, and a disregard for the aspirations of the base. The same problem recurs; we find ‘there were real possibilities for people at lower levels to make democratic choices’, but there were no elections, everything was directed by the leadership, and

It is true that there were no democratic channels within the Party which wielded total power through which the rank and file could express its will or translate that will into reality. (p.64)

So what kind of choices could people make? Maitan docs nol distinguish between consultation and control, participation and democracy, so of course, all is a fog. He does not say why democracy matters except to imply things would be nicer with a little of it.

Unlike the people Maitan claims as his tradition, he has no commitment to the working class of China. He pays very little attention to it – it is just another piece of furniture in the Chinese scene. Consider his astonishing comment on the regime’s argument before 1949 against favouring ‘one sidedly’ workers (rather than favouring workers and capitalists equally):

No doubt (!) it was necessary at this time to restrain the purely economic demands of the workers in the liberated areas but that did not necessitate dampening down their political aspirations. (p.21)

That is, provided the important issue (wages) is tied up, the workers should be allowed to chatter ‘politics’. But this is not Trotsky, nor Lenin, nor Marx. This is Joseph Stalin and the Popular Front! In similar fashion, he mentions casually that ‘forms of contract labour existed in the co-operatives’ (p.55) but without comment, without showing that contract labour continues right up to the present and in both cities and countryside, and is one of the most barbarous methods of exploitation. That is just a grubby worker interest, beneath the lofty concerns of our ‘revolutionary’.

Without any sense of the necessities governing China, Maitan can understand nothing. He transmits the false consciousness of the Maoists. Consider his account of the nationalisations of private industry in the 1950s. He does not examine the detail to determine the reasons, but offers – as if it were the motive of the government – ‘private capitalism directly exploited sections of the working class, imposing anti-democratic management methods which in the long run would have created conflict between government and masses.’ (p.28) As always, his explanation raises more questions than it answers. Are workers in the state sector exploited (especially, under ‘primitive accumulation’)? Is management simply a matter of trying to be ‘democratic’, or impelled to behave in particular ways by the structure of necessities facing it? Does the regime care, provided output rises and there are no revolts? In any case, the explanation entirely misses the point. The regime took control of the private sector in order to appropriate its profits, its equipment, its skilled labour force, and hold down wages (which were being bid up by private employers, drawing away skilled labour from the state sector). But Maitan must have his ideological jam: nationalisation ‘once more (when did it do it before?) confirmed the class nature of the party’. (p.28) But what was the class nature of the party? The Maoists have scrapped the notion that state ownership is the criterion of socialism, but the USFI holds firm.

By no criterion, then, is Maitan a Trotskyist if that has anything to do with the politics of Trotsky. He is an unhappy Stalinist. The doctrine of socialism in one country, in all but words, underlies this book. The USFI, if this book is an accurate reflection of its views, would like to play to the Chinese Communist Party the role that Tribune plays in the Labour Party. The politics of Trotsky can only be a vulgar embarrassment for the USFI. The old man, passionate and razor sharp, rooted in a solidly materialist indictment of Stalinism and its Maoist offspring, is nowhere discussed by Maitan. Not even a nominal effort is made to square the circle, to clean the theoretical lumberroom. Trotsky is unceremoniously shunted into a footnote on historical sources, where he can neither bark nor bite. Furthermore, he is last in the list (after Snow, Belden, Deutscher, Selden, Brandt, Djilas, Dedijer, p.350). He does not even have icon status.

What does ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ mean today in the hands of the USFI? Sitting on the fence, having your cake and eating it, ambiguity and vague reformism. The ambiguity is staggering. Consider Maitan’s dithering over the Cultural Revolution – ‘not a revolutionary break, but rather an admittedly (to whom are we admitting? – NH) profound movement of reorganisation and reform, or rather an unprejudiced (? – NH) attempt at self-reform’ (p.144). What on earth is it about? Who is doing what to whom and why? All the cloudiness of Maoism itself, attempting to justify a particular ruling order, is faithfully reproduced.

China is different relative to the USFI than Russia. Communist parties outside the Eastern bloc do not usually regard the Soviet Union as the ‘fatherland of socialism’, but, while strongly critical of those details which catch Western middle class opinion, retain a conception of socialism very similar to Moscow’s. Few Communists today have the theoretical acuity to rationalise this ambivalent attitude. But the USFI, having properly sterilised Trotsky, does. The Communist parties need the concept of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ as they have never done before, which is one reason for the popularity in intellectual circles, of a kind ot ‘right-wing’ respectable Trotskyism. But the Maoists are not yet knocking China, and do not want a theory of ambiguity. On the contrary. Maitan’s criticisms can only infuriate them. Perhaps that is why his criticisms are so mild and unrelated to his main account.

New Left Books, the publishers, call this book ‘an independent Marxist evaluation’. In what sense is it Marxist? It is not grounded in any scientific analysis of the material and social reality of China, the division of labour or the class, relationships. Indeed, there are no real necessities operating in the country, apparently. It is entirely national in preoccupation, as if all the problems of China could be solved in its national boundaries. Of course, it is ‘left-wing’ in the loose sense of being concerned with radical postures. But it is in no way ‘independent’. It takes its entire basic orientation from Maoism, while continually inserting ‘But ...’

Much of the book is low level chronology, which depends upon events to move it rather than an argument or theory. Superficial Pekinology rubs shoulders with what USFI cadres call ‘impressionism’. There are serious omissions (the 1956 Wage Reform, for example) and what appear to be straight factual errors – for example, his wildly inaccurate account of differentials (p.55); or such oddities as ‘profit is not used as a regulator’ (p.353) when it clearly is; or ‘More generally, the exchange economy has started to wither away’ (p.354), which is just silly, although half protected by the ‘has started’. He uses Maoist terminology without explanation – for example, ‘Khrushchevite revisionism’ pops up, without inverted comas or justification; are the Russians more revisionist than the Chinese? Like the Maoists, Maitan is much preoccupied not with what the regime does, but the style in which it does it – ‘essentially paternalistic and authoritarian’. (p.244)

At the end, Maitan asserts quite arbitrarily that the condition of China breaking out of its contradictions is that it be ‘organically’ linked to a supranational building of socialism and must introduce ‘democracy’. Two bits of flotsam washed up on the tide, all that is left of the vision of the struggle for international proletarian freedom. Because it has never been explained why these two elements are important (indeed, the first is ruled out by the description of China as ‘building socialism’), they seem to be sentimental quirks. The accommodation to Stalinism has gone too far to scramble back again at the last moment.

Maitan is no worse – and often better – than much of the liberal scholarship on China. But since he comes from a tradition so much better than liberal scholarship, and one he proclaims, there has to be a different criterion. Trotsky had the resources of scorn required to deal with Maitan’s immersion in liberal Stalinism, so uncannily similar to Shactman’s assimilation of straight anti-Communism. Mao has nothing to fear from the USFI; it lost its teeth somewhere in the Forties.


1. Maitan, Party, Army and Masses in China, New Left Books, £8.00.

2. Included in Jerome Ch’en (Editor), Mao Papers, London 1970, p.14.

3. Speech, 2nd Congress, Communist International, Collected Works, 31, p.244.

4. Reprinted as Changing relations in the Chinese revolution, New International, March 1938, p.87.

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