Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary - What is its place in history?

It is a fact that in 1989 the majority from Beijing to Berlin were in favour of creating a new socialist democracy to be supervised and controlled by the masses, this was not a utopian dream. This idea remains, a now hidden, now open force, capable of gripping the minds of the masses and shaping the future of the planet.

Photo by comacom.When China’s former Premier Zhou Enlai, was asked to comment on the historical significance of the French revolution, he famously replied, ‘it is too early to tell’. Perhaps this is the fate of Tiananmen Square 1989.

The Chinese students revolt signalled a profound crisis in the reproduction of class relations and power within the bureaucratic social system. The ruling bureaucracy and party elite were in paralysis after only a few days of demonstrations, the masses sympathised with the student demands for an end to corruption, for democratic control of the Communist Party, and for a legal system with clearly defined written laws to replace arbitrary bureaucratic power.

“Almost everything fell within its scope: campaigns against corruption, nepotism, inflation, police brutality, bureaucracy, official privilege, media censorship, human rights abuses, cramped student dormitories and the smothering of democratic urges. But to say the demonstrations were to ‘demand democracy’ is an oversimplification.

“The truth is that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system.” (James Kynge, FT 4th June 2009)

Photo by comacom.In late May 1989 the movement spread to the urban masses. Each response by the party leadership to the demands of the protests, revealed an organic incapacity of the bureaucracy to react sensitively and speedily to the genuine concerns of the masses. The party leadership sent the army to crush the movement by force, as power seemed to be slipping out of their hands.

On June 4th 1989 the Peoples’ Liberation Army cleared Tiananmen Square and quelled the protest movement with bullets and tanks. That same day Solidarity won elections in Poland. In November, the East German regime collapsed, this was followed by the Czechoslovak regime a few days later and the Romanian regime by Christmas. At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared. How does one assess the significance of these movements that were heralded by such euphoria and ended in violence, upheaval, chaos and collapse?

For most bourgeois commentators on these events, the formula democracy equals good, is a sufficient criteria of judgement regardless of the consequences for the mass of the people. In democracy any choice is the people’s own choice, and any problems are attributed to the birth pangs of the new ‘freedom’ or are blamed on the ‘remnants’ of the old system.

Photo by sixfoureightynine.Marxists supported the anti-bureaucratic movements in all these countries. We sought to strengthen the planning system, to revitalize it and regenerate socialism. Political revolutions would free society from rule by an ossified bureaucratic apparatus; and replace this with mass democratic and revolutionary power of the working class. Our hope was that these revolutions would come into correspondence with the communist ideal, basing power on the direct control, ideas, aspirations, initiative and inspiration of the masses. Marxists advocated democratic socialist planning and an internationalist revolutionary policy.

Many Chinese communists and their Soviet and East European counterparts argue that the movements of 1989-1991 were ‘counter-revolutionary’ by assessing matters on the basis of results. In China it seems the overwhelming majority not only inside the party but also of the broad masses, believe that the repression of the Beijing Spring saved China and paved the way for rapid modernization and development. Leaning on this economic progress, sections of the ruling elite have shifted away from the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought, towards Confucianism mixed with Adam Smith. This was displayed at the Beijing Olympics where ancient history and a mythology of stability and continuity, replaced the 1949 revolution as the core image China projected to the world.

Photo by sixfoureightynine.Nevertheless the spectre of communism is haunting China’s rulers. Karl Marx identified the working class as the class that will bring about communist revolution. This class is now objectively the most powerful social force in China. Numbering over 456 million it is easily the biggest working class in the world. Communist ideals of egalitarianism, social justice and solidarity are core beliefs of the Chinese workers because they correspond to their direct interests. It is because of this social specific weight of the working class that the Communist Party remains in name a party committed to socialism and Marxism.

Looking back it is clear that in its sweep and scope, the 1989 movement in China and across the Eurasian continent, was one of the greatest social movements in human history. Its outcome in China was the reassertion of bureaucratic power and the continuation of rule over the masses, in the name of the masses.

The ideas and slogans that ‘gripped the minds of the masses’ were in the main both justified and socialistic. They corresponded to the ideals of profound societal reform through anti-bureaucratic political revolution. The Chinese bureaucracy still played a relatively progressive role in developing the nation and thus they were able, not only to crush the movement, but also to reassert their power for a generation.

In Eastern Europe and the USSR the bureaucracy drove the economy into a blind alley, it was this objective condition that provoked a much sharper and more sudden collapse in the authority of the rulers and strengthened the forces of capitalist counter-revolution. However even here matters were not written in stone. A clear and determined revolutionary leadership could have shifted the direction of events in many of these countries. This was revealed in the negative, by the incompetent leadership of the August coup in the USSR in 1991.

Photo by sixfoureightynine.Communists seeking a resolution to this historical knot would do well to look at the international context and formulate their reasoning around the fundamental objective requirement for socialism, internationalism. One successful anti-bureaucratic and democratic socialist movement, whether in China, the Soviet Union, or any country in Eastern Europe, could have ignited a spark that reversed the apparently ‘inevitable path’ towards capitalism. A Eurasian socialist federation on the basis of a unified market and an integrated democratic plan, could have developed their combined economies faster than individual national economies and thus laid the basis for world socialism.

Today Latin America’s revolutionary movements prove that democratic majorities for socialism are attainable, sustainable and exportable. When a leadership is provided by one country, as Venezuela has done recently, the contagion will spread. (Of course here, bourgeois commentators abandon their formula, democracy equals good.)

It is a fact that in 1989 the majority from Beijing to Berlin were in favour of creating a new socialist democracy to be supervised and controlled by the masses, this was not a utopian dream. This idea remains, a now hidden, now open force, capable of gripping the minds of the masses and shaping the future of the planet.

More pictures:
Beijing 4 June 1989 by sixfoureightynine
China May/June 1989 by cromacom