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Mao Tse-tung

Nigel Harris et al.

Mao Tse-tung


IN transforming China, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party transformed themselves. They moved from the inheritance of 1917 – the emancipation of the world through the international self-emancipation of the working class to be achieved through the abolition of classes, exploitation and the national State – to the inheritance of 1789, the emancipation of onr State to create a new unified ruling class which could undertake the heavy tasks of primitive capital accumulation on an isolated national basis. But in terms of the real alternatives available in the 1930s and 40s, in China, Mao’s actual perspective was a gigantic step forward for China.

To make this transition demanded not just the abandonment of the perspective of 1917 and the early Congresses of the Communist International, it required the reduction of the language of Marxism to an opaque false consciousness. Mao created a new concept, ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’ to explain the continued class struggle in People’s China. The disguise led some of the best elements of the Communist parties into a reconciliation with the aims of China’s new ruling class. But, in the end, Marx was right. It is material forces which shape the practice of classes, not some independent ‘ideology’, inserted from who knows where. Communist parties, pro-Moscow or ‘Marxist-Leninist’ are no less subject to the materialistic laws of history than other folk.

The world of today is not that of 1789. Then, primitive accumulation, bloody and savage as it was, was easy by comparison to contemporary conditions. The bourgeoisie was able to claim to embody the aspirations of the whole of society. Today, it is not so. The world is one capitalist system, dominated by the enormous concentrations of capital in the group of advanced imperialist powers. Not only is China far poorer than the France of the late eighteenth century, impoverished by more than a century’s domination by imperialism, but the tasks today are spectacularly greater. Soviet Russia and Japan were the last two competitors to climb aboard the ‘economically developed’ status before the imperialists hauled up the ladder. Now accumulation on a scale sufficient to transform whole national societies is blocked. The condition of China’s national economic development is breaking the stranglehold of the advanced, unlocking the accumulated capital of the advanced powers. The national reformist strategy of China is withering in the face of objective factors.

If the world economy continued to expand for the next half century, China’s leadership could indeed build a powerful industrial sector in the midst of rural China. Mao’s death could mark the end of the heroic period, for the regime cannot afford to undertake the dangerous exercises of Great Leaps Forward and Cultural Revolutions without even more severely jeopardising social stability. But stability need not jeopardise steady capital accumulation. However, the world economy faces no such prospects. The storm signals are hoisted. Increasing fluctuations and long term stagnation seem the likely results of advanced capitalism’s inability to restore the long-run rate of profit. Already the political results are emerging. Above all, the political reappearance of the world working class after its long withdrawal. The politics of rebellion, whether in advanced capitalism, the bureaucratic capitalist sector or the intermediate economically backward sector, rapidly increase with each fluctuation in world capitalism.

With Mao’s death, the epoch of Mao Tse-tung thought and its parent, Stalinism, is also drawing to a close. If the political alternative can be built, then the twentieth century’s version of the bourgeois revolution, the bureaucratic State capitalist revolution, will no longer be able to operate as a substitute for proletarian internationalism. The political form of the social relations of production, the national State, is an increasing fetter on the means of production, international in scale. The objective factors are indeed over ripe for the breaking of those fetters. The key question is the subjective factor, the politics in the heads of the revolutionaries.

For China’s ruling class, the period ahead is dangerous and difficult, as it is for all the world’s ruling classes. Mao’s last heirloom – the decimation of the senior leadership of the party – will not help his successors to pilot their way through the stormy seas. But they cannot opt to be an island. The Russian army sits on their northern border, and the obverse of increasing world economic instability is increasing political instability and threats of war. For accumulation to proceed, China needs must import both industrial, raw materials, equipment and technology. That again forces participation, forces China’s internal situation to be synchronized with the world order. The events of 1966-7 indicate that the Chinese working class is no passive plaything in the hands of the regime. The dangers and difficulties will force it again into action, groping outwards to reunite with the world working class.

In the coming stresses, China’s ruling class will operate increasingly as a reactionary force, in defence of the existing world order of national ruling classes. That order is the basis of its own power and privileges. Already, the first signs of instability have shown this – in Bangladesh, Ceylon, Chile and many other places. [1] Those occasions were not ‘mistakes’. They flowed from the interests of defending a national ruling class against any revolt, at home or abroad. The politics of Mao Tse-tung Thought thus become in contemporary conditions the politics of defending China’s ruling class.

Many of those who, faced with the stark alternative of Russia or China, opted for Mao, will, under the impact of the convulsions ahead come to reflect once again on the questions. They might remember the words of William Morris, written in the youth of Marxism, words which might stand as one of the epitaphs of Chairman Mao:

‘Men fight and lose that battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out to be not what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name’.


1. Cf. China and World Revolution, ISJ 78, May 1975.

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Last updated: 20.1.2008