The Chinese Revolution of 1949 – Part Two

In 1949 the People’s Liberation Army, in spite of huge military aid supplied to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, took power and within a short span of time proceeded to snuff out capitalism and landlordism. The Marxists wholeheartedly supported the revolution, but they also warned that because the working class did not play the leading role, what would emerge would be a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state.

The fall of Beiping

By late 1948 the tide had turned. The PLA captured the northern cities of Shenyang and Changchun and seized control of the Northeast after a hard campaign. After a brutal six-month siege of Changchun that resulted in more than 300,000 civilian deaths from starvation, they forced the best-trained KMT troops to surrender. Chiang’s plans for a counter-offensive were now in ruins. The PLA not only recovered most of the territories lost in northeastern China but also extended the battle front into the Kuomintang areas north of the Yangtze and Weishui Rivers. They captured Shihchiachuang, Yuncheng, Szepingkai, Loyang, Yichuan, Paoki, Weihsien, Linfen and Kaifeng.

In 1949 the Chinese People's Liberation Army advanced south of the Yangtze River and the end of the war was already in sight. Some so-called Trotskyists persisted in denying what was obvious. In America, Max Shachtman ridiculed the argument of Cannon who said that Mao was going to capitulate to Chiang Kai-shek. He said: “Yes, Mao wishes to capitulate to Chiang, but he has a problem: he can’t catch up with him!”

By late 1948 the Nationalist position was hopeless. Now that Chiang had his back against the wall, he began to offer peace. Only three years earlier Chiang was boasting that he was going to exterminate the Communists. His troops were following his policy of “loot, burn and kill” with enthusiasm. Now that defeat was staring him in the face, he began to sing the praises of peace. A very surprising transformation!

Behind Chiang’s “peace” strategy stood Washington, backed by the British and French imperialists, all of whom now realized that the war was lost. Having failed to crush the PLA by force, they were hoping to salvage something from the wreckage by political intrigues. But such manoeuvres fooled nobody, and least of all Mao Zedong.

In most cases the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under the PLA’s influence long before the cities — part of the strategy of people's war. In January 1949 Beiping was taken by the PLA without a fight, and its name was changed back to Beijing. Between April and November, other major cities also fell with minimal resistance. On April 21, Mao’s forces crossed the Yangtze River and captured Nanjing, the KMT's capital. Within a short space of time they were driving the disorganized and demoralized remnants of KMT forces southwards in southern China.

In the end, Chiang Kai-shek and approximately two million Nationalist Chinese - predominantly from the former government bureaucrats and businessmen - retreated from mainland China to the island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa). Chiang proclaimed Taipei as the temporary capital of China. Before fleeing, Chiang took the precaution of stripping the national treasury of about US$300 million to fill his own pockets and those of his cronies.

All this culminated on October 1, 1949, with Mao Zedong proclaiming the People's Republic of China. A new page was turned in the history of the world.

The Red Army and the workers

Before the War, Trotsky had pointed out that the decisive question was what would happen when the Red Army entered the towns and cities. A genuine workers’ state would base itself on the working class and its organs of power: the soviets. It would encourage the self-organization of the workers, with real trade unions, independent of the state.

Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949.Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949. However, the 1949 Revolution in China was carried out in Bonapartist fashion from the top. Instead of basing themselves on the working class to overthrow the bourgeois state, they formed a coalition government composed of various factions of the former Kuomintang government. Far from encouraging the independent movement of the masses, any manifestations of independent action on the part of the workers was repressed.

Mao initially began with a programme that did not go beyond the limits of capitalism. At one point he even had illusions in a deal with the Americans, as Stuart Schramm points out:

“An editorial of the Liberation Daily of 4 July 1944 heaped praise on the American democratic tradition, and compared America’s struggle for democracy and national independence in the eighteenth century, and China’s struggle in the twentieth:

“ ‘Democratic America has already found a companion, and the cause of Sun Yat-sen a successor, in the Chinese Communist Party and the other democratic forces… The work which we Communists are carrying on today is the very same work which was carried on earlier in America by Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; it will certainly obtain, and indeed has already obtained, the sympathy of democratic America.’ ” (Quoted in Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, pp.225-6.)

The language is that of bourgeois democracy, and it flows from Mao’s conception of the Chinese Revolution. Mao balanced between the bourgeoisie and the workers and peasants in order to consolidate the new state and concentrate power into his hands. In the first stages, he did everything to prevent the workers from taking power and crush whatever elements of an independent workers’ movement that had emerged. As in Spain in 1936, Mao did not form a coalition with the bourgeoisie, but with the shadow of the bourgeoisie. But whereas in Spain, the shadow was allowed to take on substance, in China it was snuffed out. When the Red Army entered the cities, they called on workers not to strike or demonstrate. The following eight points formed the basis of their propaganda:

“1) People’s lives and property will be protected. Keep order and don’t listen to rumours. Looting and killing are strictly forbidden.

“2) Chinese individual commercial and industrial property will be protected. Private factories, banks, godowns [warehouses], etc., will not be touched and can continue operating.

“3) Bureaucratic capital, including factories, shops, banks, godowns, railways, post offices, telephone and telegraph installations, power plants, etc., will be taken over by the Liberation Army, although private shares will be respected. Those working in these organizations should work peacefully and wait for the takeover. Rewards will be given to those who protect property and documents; those who strike or who destroy will be punished. Those wishing to continue serving will be employed.

“4) Schools, hospitals, and public institutions will be protected. Students, teachers and all workers should protect their records. Anyone with ability to work will be employed.

“5) Except for a few major war criminals and notorious reactionaries, all Kuomintang officials, police and Pao-Chia workers of the Provincial, Municipal, and Hsien Governments will be pardoned, if they do not offer armed resistance. They should protect their records. Anyone with ability to work will be employed.

“6) As soon as a city is liberated, displaced soldiers should report immediately to the new garrison headquarters, the police bureau, or army authorities. Anyone surrendering his weapons will not be questioned. Those who hide will be punished.

“7) The lives and property of all foreigners will be protected. They must obey the laws of the Liberation Army and Democratic Government. No espionage or illegal actions will be allowed. No war criminals should be sheltered. They will be subject to military or civilian trial for violations.

“8) People in general should protect all public property and keep order.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, pp. 327-8.)

Imitating the model of Stalinist Russia, the Chinese Stalinists turned the trade unions into “a school of production which encourages the productive and positive characteristics of the proletariat.” They abolished the right to strike and instituted compulsory arbitration. All strikes or other actions aimed at defending the interests of the workers were condemned as “leftist adventurism.”

At first, they did not touch the private enterprises of the capitalists. Only the former property of “bureaucratic capital” was nationalized. But in these enterprises power was invested in a control committee, with the manager of the factory acting as president, and consisting of representatives of the former owners, representatives of the supervisory personnel and representatives of the workers. The workers had only consultative rights, the director retaining the final say in all decisions.

Mao originally had the perspective of fifty or a hundred years of capitalism. He insisted that he would only expropriate “bureaucratic-capital”. But having taken power, Mao very soon realised that the rotten and corrupt Chinese bourgeoisie was incapable of playing any progressive role. Thus, leaning on the working class, he proceeded to nationalise the banks and all large-scale industry and to expropriate the landlords and capitalists. This was not so difficult. As Trotsky remarked, to kill a tiger one needs a shotgun, but to kill a flea, a fingernail is sufficient.

The shadow of the bourgeoisie

Mao’s original idea was to form a coalition government with the representatives of the workers, peasants, the intelligentsia, the national bourgeoisie and even progressive landowners. However, there was a slight problem. The bourgeoisie had fled to Formosa (Taiwan) with Chiang Kai-shek. Formally speaking, this was a popular front government. But there was a fundamental difference between this government and the popular front in Spain in 1936.

PLA soldiers at Jinzhou, northeastern China, 1948PLA soldiers at Jinzhou, northeastern China, 1948 The only armed force in China was the PLA, the peasant army controlled by the Chinese Stalinists. Lenin explained that the state, in the last analysis, is armed bodies of men. By 1949 the CPC claimed a membership of 4.5 million, 90% of whom were peasants. Mao was the Party Chairman and really held the reins of power in his hands, although the government was formally headed by his right-hand-man, Zhou En-lai. The army, police and secret police were all in their hands. That is just another way of saying: they held state power. This was their real power base, and this was the decisive element in the equation.

In theory, the government of the People’s Republic was a coalition of different parties. But, with the exception of the CPC, the others were insignificant sects, some of which barely existed except on paper. On May 1, the Chinese Communist Party issued a sweeping appeal for a broad united front against the Nationalists:

“Labouring people of the entire country, unite; ally with the intelligentsia, liberal bourgeoisie, all democratic parties and groups, social luminaries and other patriotic elements; consolidate and expand the united front against imperialist, feudal, and bureaucratic capitalist forces; fight together to destroy Kuomintang reactionaries and build a new China. All democratic parties and groups, people’s organizations, and social luminaries, speedily convene a Political Consultative Conference, discuss and carry out the convoking of a People’s Representative Assembly to establish a Democratic Coalition Government!”

What was the response? A small group of Chinese political refugees in voluntary exile on the island of Hong Kong accepted the offer. Their telegram to Mao Zedong on May 5 pompously proclaimed: “We herein express our response and support to your call, and hope by its realization to meet our national renaissance.”

The telegram was signed by leaders of the Kuomintang Revolutionary Committee (KMTRC), Democratic League, Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party (PWDP), National Salvation Society (NSS), China Democratic Promotion Society (CDPS), San Min Chu I Comrades Association, Kuomintang Democratic Promotion Society (KMTDPS), and Chih Kung Tang.

Doak Barnett comments: “A great many of these people once were respectable members of the Kuomintang, and many held high positions under it, but all of them are now dissidents for either personal or ideological reasons.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, pp.85-6.)

Thus, the mighty Chinese Communist Party formed an alliance, not with the Chinese bourgeoisie but only with its shadow. These “parties” were merely splinter groups in Hong Kong. The names of their leaders were lifted from obscurity to prominence by the gracious permission of the Stalinists. This move led to feverish speculation. There was even one rumour that the top KMTRC leaders, Li Chi-shen and Feng Yü-hsiang (before his death), were to become the political and military chiefs, respectively, with Communist leaders Mao Zedong and Chu Teh in the number two positions!

Such fantastic rumours naturally had no basis in fact. Mao had conquered power, to quote his famous phrase “through the barrel of a gun”. He was not about to hand real power to the Chinese bourgeoisie – and least of all to men who represented nobody but themselves.

“At the moment, representatives from these Hong Kong groups, meeting with the Communists in Harbin, are helping to plan the Communist-sponsored Political Consultative Conference (PCC) that is scheduled for early next year – ‘probably in Peiping, if the military situation permits,’ Li Chi-shen told me recently – to prepare for a ‘People’s Representative Assembly to establish a Democratic Coalition Government.’ The most prominent of these representatives are General Ts’ai T’ing-k’ai (of the KMTRC), Shen Chün-ju, and Chang Po-chün (leaders, respectively, of the NSS and PWDP, but both representing the Democratic League in Harbin). Pro-Communist ‘luminaries’ of many sorts, including Madame Feng Yü-hsiang, have converged on Harbin as these meetings proceed, and more representatives from Hong Kong groups are now en route, probably by ship via North Korea.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, pp.83-4.)

The real situation was very well expressed by A. Doak Barnett, who was an American journalist present in China at the time:

“Before describing each of these groups now operating in Hong Kong, a few generalizations can be made about them, for they have many similarities. To begin with, none is really a political party at the present time, although several aspire to be. They are merely small political groups, each with a few hundred to a few thousand members. Not one of them has a mass following or a strong political organization. And they do not possess armies – a prerequisite for political power in China during recent decades. In short, they have none of the obvious qualifications for successful independent action in the rough and tumble of contemporary Chinese politics. In terms of tangible power, they cannot make a showing.

“All the Hong Kong groups call themselves ‘liberals’, and often they are labeled simply as ‘Chinese democratic groups’. Without doubt, some of them can rightly claim to be liberals (although the word is a difficult one to define), but others are definitely political opportunists. As far as some of their top leaders are concerned, it is difficult to discover basic points of difference distinguishing them from Central Government leaders, except that they are now on the opposite side of the fence in the civil war.” (A. Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist takeover, p.85, my emphasis, AW.)

The new state

Mao consolidated a new state, not as a direct expression of the working class, but by balancing between the classes, and it was through this state that he expropriated the landlords and capitalists. In spite of the distorted manner in which it was achieved, the establishment of a nationalized planned economy was a progressive measure and a huge step forward for China. However, it was not a proletarian revolution in the sense understood by Marx and Lenin. The Chinese Stalinists, acting in the name of the proletariat, carried out the basic economic tasks of the socialist revolution, but the workers in China had been passive throughout the civil war and did not play an independent role in the whole process.

As a result, the Revolution was carried out in a Bonapartist manner, from above, without the participation and democratic control of the workers. The bureaucracy developed a totalitarian one-party dictatorship, modelled on Stalin’s Russia. Given the way the revolution was carried out, and the existence of a mighty Stalinist regime on China’s borders, this outcome was entirely predictable.

Mao used the peasant army as a battering ram to smash the old state. But the peasantry is a class that is least capable of acquiring a socialist consciousness. Of course, in underdeveloped colonial and semi-colonial nations, the peasantry must play a very important role – but it can only be an auxiliary role, subordinated to the revolutionary movement of the workers in the cities.

We should remember that up to the Russian revolution even Lenin denied the possibility of “the victory of the proletarian revolution in a backward country”. Only Trotsky had previously advanced the perspective that the Russian working class could come to power before the proletariat of Western Europe. However, in 1917 that is precisely what happened. The Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, led the workers to power in Russia, which, like China in 1949, was an extremely backward, semi-feudal country. The Russian working class, which was a small minority of society (the majority were peasants), placed itself at the head of society and carried out a classical socialist revolution in October 1917.

Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the proletariat immediately carried out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and then carried on to expropriate the capitalists and established a regime of workers’ democracy. It would have been possible for the Chinese Revolution to have developed on the same lines as the October Revolution in Russia. What was lacking was the subjective factor: the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.

The kind of regime established in China represents a deviation from the classical norm, but in real life, processes do not always conform to the ideal norms. All kinds of distortions and peculiar variants are possible. Ted Grant was the only Marxist theoretician who explained the role of proletarian Bonapartism as a peculiar variant of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. When Mao’s perspective was still that of a long period of capitalism, Ted explained the inevitability of Mao's victory and the establishment of a deformed workers' state. He also predicted in advance that the Chinese bureaucracy would come into conflict with Moscow. (See Reply to David James, Spring 1949).

A giant step forward

The Chinese Revolution was a giant step forward. If it had not succeeded, the country would undoubtedly have been transformed into a semi-colony of US imperialism under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. Instead, in 1949 the Chinese people for the first time achieved full emancipation from foreign rule. The Revolution was a blow to imperialism on a world scale. It gave a tremendous impetus to the revolt of the enslaved colonial peoples. This in itself was sufficient reason to welcome and support it.

Chen Duxiu, 1st General Secretary of the Communist Party of ChinaChen Duxiu, 1st General Secretary of the Communist Party of China But that is not all. It ended in the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism. The abolition of landlordism freed China from the burden of semi-feudal relations and the liquidation of private ownership of industry and the introduction of the state monopoly of foreign trade gave a powerful impetus to the development of Chinese industry. However, the nationalization of the means of production is not yet socialism, although it is the prior condition for it.

The movement towards socialism requires the control, guidance and participation of the proletariat. The uncontrolled rule of a privileged elite is not compatible with genuine socialism. It will produce all sorts of new contradictions. Bureaucratic control signifies corruption, nepotism, waste, mismanagement and chaos, which eventually undermine the gains of a nationalized planned economy. The experience of both Russia and China prove this.

The real reason for the peculiar variants and deformations of the revolution in the ex-colonial countries for a whole period was the delay in the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. But that situation is changing rapidly. All the objective conditions for a socialist revolution are now maturing on a world scale. Only the weakness of the forces of genuine Marxism means that the process will be protracted.

Without the 1949 Chinese Revolution, China would not have been able to make the enormous progress that it has. The workers of the world can point to the colossal advances that China made after the revolution as proof of the potential of a nationalized planned economy. Nowadays it has become fashionable to decry nationalization and planned economy. But the arguments about the alleged superiority of “market economics” are exposed as completely hollow in the light of the present economic crisis, the deepest crisis of world capitalism since 1929.

The achievements of the nationalized planned economy were the basis for the emergence of China as a powerful industrialized nation. It is sufficient to compare China with India to see the difference. Both started out on a similar level in the late 1940s, but China developed at a much faster rate.

However, sixty years after the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism in China, the leading stratum has taken the road back to capitalism. This possibility was implicit in a situation where the bureaucracy had raised itself above society. Starting initially as measures to stimulate economic growth within the planned economy, the bureaucracy has adopted capitalist methods. However, in spite of the growth, the imposition of “market economics” in China does not serve the interests of the Chinese workers and peasants. It is creating new and terrible contradictions both in the towns and villages, which, at a certain point, must lead to a new revolutionary upsurge.

On the basis of experience, the Chinese workers, peasants, students and intellectuals will rediscover the great revolutionary traditions of the past. The new generation will embrace the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Chen Duxiu, the founder of Chinese Communism and its true heir. Napoleon once said of China: “When this giant awakens, the world will tremble.” We echo these words, with an amendment: the giant that is destined to shake the world is none other than the mighty Chinese proletariat. We look forward with impatience to the hour of that awakening.

London, October 1, 2009


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