The Chinese Communist Party 1937-49 – The Unfolding of Historical Necessity: China’s Great Revolution – Part Ten

To most people’s ears, the name ‘People’s Republic of China’ is invested with intransigent Marxist dogma, to the extent that right wing journalists and politicians mockingly referred to councils run by the British far left as being ‘The People’s Republic of ...’. But far from motivations of the Marxist ‘dogma’ of irreconcilable class struggle, this name was carefully chosen by the CCP as an anti-Marxist blurring of class distinctions. It is the consummate expression of the CCP’s bonapartist methods of coming to power, that is to say, its establishment of power through the balancing and playing off of the various classes in society.

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It was confirmed in this announcement, on 1 October 1949, consistent with the prior calls for ‘coalition government’ and ‘New Democracy’, that the new regime would be not be a workers’ government, but a ‘people’s’ one in which all who were not ‘reactionary’ would seemingly have their interests represented - including the ‘national’ bourgeoisie. The very name of the country was made vague as an expression of this triumphant bonapartism which wanted to pour cold water on the ambitions of each and every individual class. Just so long as it was defined as a ‘democracy for the ‘people’’, the government, who held unparalleled military power, had a ready made excuse to limit the democratic expression of the working class as its own class (since this would violate the fictitious democratic unity of all the classes).

Indeed, classing those to be excluded vaguely as the ‘reactionaries’, as opposed to the bourgeoisie, was tremendously advantageous for the new power, for “it is quite conceivable that an industrial worker, who proves obdurate in clinging to incorrect opinions, my turn out to be a tool of reaction. It is also conceivable that a former ‘bureaucratic capitalist’ who zealously and conscientiously clings to the Party line, may become a genuine representative of the ‘people’.” (Brandt, Schwartz & Fairbank, A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, p 448).

The People’s Republic of China as Initially Bourgeois Bonapartist

If we were to look at the first couple of years of CCP rule in isolation, they could be defined as bourgeois bonapartist - that is, a regime in which the bourgeoisie has been politically but not economically expropriated, indeed one in which private capitalist property is protected by the state.

The new regime nationalised only what it defined as ‘bureaucratic’ or reactionary capital - key and monopolistic industries such as finance, transport and communication, much of which had been state controlled under the Guomindang anyway. In its first year

“the CCP assiduously conciliated the bourgeoisie, landlords, and rich peasants; and pulled toward itself all kinds of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians and military men, including some of the Kuomintang bureaucrats and agents, in an attempt to disintegrate the enemy and strengthen its own power. But the regime did its best to suppress the activities of the workers and peasants. Cases were often heard of workers being arrested or even killed on account of protests and strikes.” (Peng Shuzi, The Causes of the Victory of the Chinese Communist Party over Chiang Kai-Shek, and the CCP’s Perspectives)

As with any regime aiming to placate or balance itself on the capitalist class, it had to over-tax and burden the working class and peasantry to finance itself and keep the system working for business owners - otherwise there would be no point in not expropriating capitalism as a whole. And despite its claims to protecting and incorporating only progressive, ‘national’ capitalists, the new regime actually assured the “protection to the properties of all foreigners in China” (quoted in Peng, op cit.). This was short lived however because of the blockades on China now enacted by the imperialists, leading to the CCP expropriating their properties. Such is the objective and international logic of the class struggle.

Why did the Chinese Communist Party, having finally wrested power away from the corrupt representatives of the bourgeoisie, proceed to protect their interests? One reason is that, having come to power without any prior urban base and organised working class, the party was utterly alien to industry and lacked any organised, conscious movement and structure with which to replace bourgeois structures. “The Communist Party’s policy concerning industrial economy and trade was much more conservative than their land policy...the Party lacked the urban experience to take it over...Party committees and cadres received instruction to protect industrialists and tradesmen” (Guillermaz, A History of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-49, p345 pp432-3). Harrison makes a similar point, “How could Communists master China’s intractable urban problems in view of the Party’s inadequate urban experience?...By 1956, still only 14% of Party members were of proletarian origin, 11.7% were intellectuals, and 69.1% were peasants...The army would have to bear much of the burden in ‘taking over and administering the large cities” (Harrison, The Long March to Power, p430).

The Party instructed its members that “private industrial capitalism must continue to develop within the framework fixed by the state”, and told its leaders that they must “learn to restore their production and to get to know techniques of production” (Guillermaz, op cit, p438). Evidently, the party had no real urban base, no workers familiar with production ready to lead the occupation and running of factories under workers’ control, nor had they any intention of handing economic control over to workers, who for them would have represented a dangerous and unknown quantity likely to go too far in challenging the monopoly of power by the CCP leadership. Consequently, they had to retain the same bourgeois managers and, where possible, the same ownership structures to keep the economy going - at least until their own bureaucrats had learnt the necessary tricks of the trade, sealed off from influence by the workers below them.

This is demonstrated explicitly in a resolution of the CCP’s Central Committee in March 1949: “the Party must do its utmost to learn how to lead the urban population to struggle successfully, and to learn how to administer and build up the cities. In leading the struggle of the urban population, the Party must rely on the working class, rally the other labouring masses, win over the intelligentsia, and win over as many as possible of the petty bourgeoisie and liberal bourgeoisie and their representative personages who can cooperate with the CCP... the Plenum called on all Party comrades to devote all their energy to learning the techniques and management of industrial production; and to learn commercial, banking, and other work closely related to production.”

The way in which the CCP came to power created an enormous contradiction between the formal political rights granted to workers by the new state apparatus and the actual concentration of power vested in the new state apparatus. Chinese workers did (and continue to) have a lot of rights in the new constitution - on paper. In reality, all strikes and independent workers’ organisations were prohibited.

In a bourgeois republic the right to form trade unions, for instance, is always limited by the demands of capital. However this does not prevent workers from forming trade unions and contesting in their elections in relative freedom, nor does it deny the ability of trade unions to influence political parties. This is because in a bourgeois democracy political freedoms are granted to better enable the free movement of capital and the legal buying and selling of politicians in parliament via such instruments as the ‘free’ bourgeois press. Within that system, workers inevitably find a certain amount of space in which to organise themselves, and consequently the trade unions are more or less independent of the state apparatus.

But the CCP’s regime - and that of the Guomindang before it - was not molded and perfected in the interests of a wealthy bourgeoisie, but was an expression of the inability of capital to run China. Although the manner of coming to power via a peasant army emblazoned with the hammer and sickle was highly unusual, in this sense it was classically bonapartist - that it was the ‘armed bodies of men’ that constitute the state, free from the control and influence of all classes. Having played no part in its coming to power, and violently suppressed by the twin evils of the Japanese occupation and the Guomindang, the working class’ political rights were not concrete expressions of its organised power but ceremonial medals granted it by the new regime. The new, modern, progressive constitution enacted by the CCP was largely a propaganda tool in its maneuvers to cement and stabilise its unquestioned authority over society.

In the vast expanse of their rural heartland the CCP at this time gave a freer hand to the peasantry precisely because of the latter’s inherent political weakness as a class. Superficially it appears that it is here we find the truly revolutionary Mao, for he “urged the peasants to rise and kill not merely one or two, but a goodly number of landlords” to carry through the land reform. And yet despite this seeming radicalism, the economic transformation of which the landlord killings were the political methods were “exceedingly moderate” with only the land of the biggest landlords being redistributed - who constituted an insignificant minority (Schram, Mao Tse-tung, p259). Furthermore the peasants were not allowed to expropriate landlords’ land themselves.

It was not actually until later in the 1950s that Mao’s forced collectivisation and the radical transformation of the countryside took place. As with much else, the economic changes in the countryside were limited for the first few years. The brutality of the methods encouraged by Mao in this instance were political measures used to cow what remained of the old ruling class and to establish the untrammelled authority of the new regime, gaining a little revolutionary credibility in the process from a class who unlike the workers could pose no threat themselves.

The Expropriation of the Bourgeoisie

By 1949 the Stalinised parties of the by now defunct Communist International had picked up an impressive catalogue of capitulations to capitalism, not least of which was in China in the 1920s. This history, combined with the vague, compromising and bureaucratically issued programme for power it put forward, convinced many - from US imperialists to leaders of the Trotskyist movement - to conclude that Mao’s regime was to be merely a more effective form of bourgeois bonapartism than that of Chiang Kai Shek.

Such people had failed to grasp just the peculiar internal dynamics of China’s revolution. Chiang, despite being a burden and liability for the the capitalist class, was nevertheless brought to power in the pay of Shanghai financiers in a battle against the working class and Communist Party; the logic of his rule was therefore naturally to preserve capitalism - with a bias to his cronies of course.

Mao’s CCP, on the other hand, had risen to power in struggle against this tendency which was so fused with the capitalist class as a whole. Despite repeated attempts to negotiate compromises with the Guomindang and capitalists, the CCP had never really made any breakthroughs and remained completely independent from China’s capitalists. Having fought in the countryside for twenty two years, the CCP had forged in violent struggle an extremely disciplined, close-knit and self-sufficient political-military instrument of power. Therefore, once it had utilised the excuse of the need to develop capitalism to pacify the workers, the CCP had no need for the capitalists as a source of power.

Mixed with this internal strength of the CCP was the international strength of Stalinism in this key turning point in world history. The Soviet Union, unlike in the mid twenties, was no longer an international weakling withdrawn into itself to build ‘socialism in one country’, but a world superpower that had almost single-handedly defeated fascism and expanded into half of Europe. Bonapartism, that historical tendency of the state to free itself from the control of any one class by exploiting the weaknesses of all classes, was now given a new means of expression - the ability to lean on the working class and the Soviet Union as a prop and shield against imperialism. Mao himself made this explicit in a speech in the middle of 1949, “without exception, the Chinese people either lean to the side of imperialism or to the side of socialism...Not only in China but also in the world, without exception, one either leans to the side of imperialism or to the side of socialism” (Mao Zedong, On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship).

After having spent years ‘leaning’ to the side of the Chinese bourgeoisie and US imperialism, Mao now found that the Soviet Union and its ‘socialism’ was strong enough a support to lean on. What remained of the Chinese bourgeoisie was by the early 1950s no longer strong enough to lean upon (nor would it tolerate being leant upon by ‘Communists’) and found its property nationalised. Ultimately it was a question of which class - both in China and internationally - presented a stronger prop for the CCP to lean upon.

Indeed this tendency - for the state to expropriate the bourgeoisie owing to the latter’s extreme economic and political weakness in China - was visible before the CCP’s ascent to power, and can be seen in many other countries in 20th Century history. Ted Grant analysed these tendency in his theory of the Colonial Revolution, which was crucial to understanding the post WWII world. Not only did Chiang Kai Shek’s government itself, despite being based on the corrupt comprador bourgeois class, nationalise key industries, but Yan Xishan, warlord governor of Shanxi and at one time touted as future President of China, found himself obliged to take over the running of the economy from the local capitalists and landlords and implement social programmes in order to modernise his province (Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist Takeover, pp167-70). This he did despite being a reactionary warlord.

The Flight of the Bourgeoisie

Above all the real objective significance of the CCP’s revolutionary victory is not to be found in its own programme, which as we have been at pains to point out was vague, compromising and contradictory, but in the unavoidably violent and uncompromising method of its taking of power. The objective incompatibility of Chiang’s bourgeois regime with the rule of the CCP is encapsulated best in Chiang Kai Shek’s flight from mainland China to set up a new government safe for himself, his cronies, what remained of the Chinese capitalists and US imperialism. That Chinese capitalism fled its vast homeland and licked its wounds on a comparatively tiny island protected by the US Navy is a fitting symbol for its failed, stillborn character.

A key factor in the establishment of a revolutionary CCP regime which expropriated capitalism was always the total inability of China’s bourgeoisie to take society forwards. So narrow and corrupt was its economic basis that they could never tolerate a democratic field of struggle against the Communist Party and thus always had to resort to the crudest means of suppression.

By 1949, those methods had exhausted themselves, and there was nothing for this jealous class to do but to flee China, taking as much of its loot as it could carry, to Taiwan. The ‘blame’ for this can only be put at the bourgeoisie’s door. In Western Europe, the capitalist classes had long pursued a tactic of accommodating the leaders of the working class, buying them off with small concessions instead of engaging them in a life-and-death struggle (for the most part). One could hardly accuse the Communists of revolutionary intransigence within China, for as we have seen, under Stalin’s guidance the CCP had spent the greater portion of its active life in seeking out compromises with the bourgeoisie where there were none to be had. Thus, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie after 1949 has to be seen not as a consequence of a bold revolutionary programme, but of the irreconcilability, despite the CCP’s compromising intentions, of the Chinese capitalists with anything associated with the working class and socialism.

History moves forward with a necessary logic in spite of, or rather because of, the mutually contradictory actions of countless individuals, parties and classes whose motivations are more often than not contrary to the actual historical developments that can and must take place. It is precisely because of the partial, confused and clashing actions of society’s actors that the historical outcome is necessarily other than what any one group usually foresaw, as Engels pointed out.

The Chinese revolution represents perhaps the clearest example of the objective outcomes expressing their necessity not through the conscious will of the victorious party but in the intractable struggle they found themselves obliged to wage. The revolution of the 1920s showed that the capitalists were incapable of leading a democratic revolution; the conclusion the CCP should have drawn was that they needed to lead the urban working class to the conquest of power instead.

They did not draw this conclusion, and yet the real danger of socialist revolution which this Party embodied drove the leader of China’s degenerate bourgeoisie to violently suppress the CCP. The sheer ferocity of this fight for survival - imposed onto the CCP against its perspectives - hammered into the party an incredible discipline and military determination. Whereas in the western European countries, the relatively gentlemanly conditions of the class struggle up to 1914 produced loose, ill-disciplined and middle-class leaderships of the working class, who baulked at the decisive revolutionary moments, in China a fiercely determined and disciplined leadership and party were forged not by conscious design but by the logic of the class struggle which exerted itself in spite of and through the peculiar distortions of Stalin’s two-stage perspectives.

Additionally, such a party, well-armed and experienced in fighting, represented a terrifying prospect for the discredited bourgeoisie. Whereas almost all workers’ parties in the world have had an acute consciousness of their weakness in face of the armed bourgeois state, and almost always have capitulated to that fearful strength, uniquely in China by 1949 it was the other way around - the ‘workers party’ represented a much more formidable fighting force than the bourgeoisie’s apparatus of oppression, and in fact had already beaten the latter in battle. Consequently, the CCP was peculiarly free from the typical servile fear of the ruling class and was highly resolute, and the bourgeoisie was unusually demoralised and unsure of itself. The truth was that the CCP was not a workers party at all, but a peasant army that captured a crumbling state.

There are other very important factors which enabled the surprising victory of the CCP. Along with the unprecedented weakness of the Chinese capitalists, we also find at this juncture in history the inability of US imperialism to intervene in its usual manner. It was exhausted in fighting the Japanese and could not expend more blood and treasure defending the hopeless ally that was Chiang Kai Shek. It could not afford to bankroll his regime in the way it did smaller and more developed countries like those of Europe after WWII. It therefore made a tactical decision to abandon Chiang and his class to their fate.

Even more important in molding the historical events was Japan’s vicious invasion of China, which exacerbated and exposed the traitorous character of China’s ruling class and gave the CCP a lifeline by distracting the Guomindang. However, as fortunate as this world historical episode was for the CCP, it cannot be seen as a pure accident, for the general carnage of WWII represented the death agony of capitalism in its highest stage of imperialism. All over the world, the all-out destruction of this war had revolutionary implications and led to the expansion of Stalinism not just in China but also into Eastern Europe, Korea and Vietnam.

As already explained, we also have the unique factor of the sudden strength and viability of the Soviet Union as a model to inspire leaders around the world of an alternative to US hegemony and a way to build a modern country. In the civil war with the Guomindang, the CCP received small but decisive military aid from the USSR in Manchuria.

One other factor which may have contributed, in a negative form, to the victory of the CCP in China, is China’s remarkable cultural unity. Without doubt one of the most common elements in failed revolutions throughout the world is the successful manipulation of racial, religious and cultural sectarianism to divide the working class. The partition of India - a country of similar size and economic development to China - at around the same time as the Chinese revolution is the clearest case in point of the derailment of a potential revolution through manipulation of sectarianism.

This factor is almost entirely absent from the narrative of the entire Chinese revolution - that is, from 1911 to 1949. In spite of China’s slipping into local warlordism in that time, the ruling class never managed to find a racist or sectarian ledge to cling to in its struggle against the CCP. This can only be owing to China’s long history of continuous political unity and the overwhelming preponderance of the Han Chinese in the composition of this nation. The rare absence of this factor can only have helped swell the currents moving in favour of socialist revolution in China.


We began our series of articles on the history of the CCP by claiming that

“The Chinese revolution of 1949 (preceded by a botched revolution in 1925-7 in which the newly formed CCP played a key role) stands as one of the greatest proofs of the proposition that, in the final analysis, it is the development of the means of production which determines the political superstructure of a society. For despite the heavy weight of the Stalin led Communist International (Comintern) on the burgeoning Chinese revolution, which artificially imposed onto the CCP a false political line conjured up to suit the interests and prejudices of the Russian bureaucracy rather than the needs of the Chinese revolution, the victory of the Chinese revolution could only be delayed. Although it is true that the peculiar course of development that the CCP subsequently undertook under erroneous direction from Stalin, that is heavy bureaucratisation and the abandoning of the working class for the peasantry, profoundly altered the social and economic history of China, nevertheless the underlying and unavoidable trend, visible since the 1840s, of the economic development of China under pressure from imperialism, creating a powerful working class capable of expropriating capitalism, asserted itself in spite of and through the political mistakes of the Comintern in Russia. Such were the contradictions of capitalism in China that all the political errors and meddling from Stalin could not hold back the course of history.”

Historical materialism is a dialectical theory; it does not reduce all to pure economic forces, but sees all sides of historical development as part of an integrated whole; each side, whether economic, political or cultural, is inseparable from the totality and is defined by it. The wrong ideas of Stalin did divert history so to speak. They flowed from the peculiar development of the USSR and were thus in a sense alien to or in contradiction with the development of China. Does this disprove the law-governed, economically determined development of Chinese society as explained by Marxism?

For sure the process of China’s revolution was altered and complicated by the narrow interests of Stalin. But we mustn’t stop at that statement, but must follow it through - what then happened after the ‘abortion’ of 1927? Did the bourgeois regime reside in its success thanks to Stalin, did it sit comfortably due to the ‘historically inevitable’ proletarian revolution having been botched?

Far from it. Political mistakes - i.e. acts that conflict with the inner necessity of historical development - do indeed happen and yes, influence reality. But because they are mistakes, they conflict with reality, reality does not develop as they want, but takes its revenge. After all an idea is defined as wrong or mistaken by nothing other than the real effect it has, by the fact that the effect is other than what was intended - but the effect is no less real for that.

Historical necessity is not something external to society but is merely the summation of the overall trends of the totality of society; thus mistakes represent the particularity of one part in contradiction with the totality. The part can influence and change the whole, since it is a real part of it, but we must bear in mind that it cannot do so without itself being profoundly altered by the whole of which it is a dependent part, and also that the change will be determined not only by the mistaken ideas of the political actors but also by the lawful characteristics of the society on which they are acting.

Time and again the Chinese Communist Party pursued a course contrary to historical materialism, in other words it attempted to lead society by allying opposing classes. And what resulted? Those actions caused developments which forced the hands of the Stalinists in ways they did not foresee. To grasp historical necessity we have to see the sum total of the process from beginning to end, how all the mistakes and short sighted actions produced an aggregate of results in one direction and not another.

And we must comprehend the necessity of the mistakes also. Nothing is purely random. Thus the mistakes were themselves merely particular products of historical development and they do add up in a certain way. The mistake of their policy had a certain character not totally unique to China - that is to say, they were opportunist mistakes representing a capitulation of the revolutionary party to the ruling class. They produced a predictable dictatorial reaction from the regime, just as we have seen in other countries where the revolution is led by compromisers who fail to take power. And the very repression of the ruling class, in the first place a response to revolution, was not able to erase the forces that gave rise to revolution but in the end only invited a new wave of revolution and the ruling class’ own exhaustion and collapse.

Now, nearly 70 years after this titanic historical event, China stands on the brink of a similar revolutionary process. The regime is corrupt, inequality is rampant, and economic forces have thrown together hundreds of millions into a cauldron of proletarian exploitation. The city has taken its revenge on the countryside which in 1949 surrounded it and militarily defeated it. This time there will be no peasant army with its bureaucratic officer caste dictating the revolution. Nothing will be able to stop the eight hundred million strong army of the proletariat when it finally stands straight to complete its unfinished business of 1927 and 1949 and seizes political and economic power for itself