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

Japan’s ‘prompt and utter destruction’ not in China but from nuclear blasts at home produced a surreal situation within China. In the chaos and desperation of WWII the capitalist states fought one another with such ferocity that capitalism itself was under threat. In Europe the Nazis’ actions produced an alliance of US and British imperialism with the Soviet Union, ultimately leading to the destruction of capitalism in Eastern and even parts of Central Europe.

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Japan’s reckless imperialism fatally weakened the chief executor of the communists in mainland Asia, that is, the Guomindang. The situation was too critical for the US to prepare an effective strategy to prop up its Chinese ally, and thus at times it even proposed backing the CCP as a better fighter of Japan. The defeat of Japan suddenly revealed the changed balance of forces both within China and globally. In truth its invasion had rescued the CCP from probable annihilation and had over time strengthened the CCP militarily. Now Japan’s withdrawal gave the CCP an arena to finally engage the Guomindang in a combat it stood a chance of winning.

New Democracy - An Exclusively ‘Minimum’ Programme

Such a dramatic transformation made the CCP’s perspectives untenable. Since 1937 they had suppressed internal and external calls for a revolutionary break with the Guomindang under the pretext that Japan’s invasion was so oppressive of all China that it transformed the Chinese bourgeoisie into an unavoidable ally. The reality, as we have seen, was quite the opposite, and surely the swift culmination of Japanese hostilities would, by their own criteria, require a more revolutionary, anti-Guomindang and anti-capitalist programme from the CCP? Surely now it was freed to campaign for what its members really wanted?

On the contrary. The explicit programme around which the CCP was organising remained the same ‘theory’ of ‘New Democracy’ Mao had first described around 1940, which was essentially one of collaboration with the bourgeoisie and the Guomindang. After the Sino-Japanese war this perspective served as a ‘minimum programme’, an immediate set of bourgeois democratic demands to rally the masses against the Guomindang dictatorship - but not against the Guomindang or bourgeoisie in themselves. It is roughly analogous to Lenin’s slogan of the ‘Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry’, which was a deliberately vague and ‘algebraic’ concept which Lenin abandoned as the clarifications of the actual struggle in Russia made such imprecision in programme unsustainable.

The sharp dividing line between the immediate bourgeois-democratic goals of the CCP and its long term aim of achieving Chinese socialism, such that the CCP would struggle for the former without pushing for its transformation into the latter, is made clear by Mao himself on the eve of Japan’s defeat. Outlining his perspectives for the CCP in the post-Japan era in April 1945, Mao enunciated a range of progressive bourgeois democratic demands, such as the end of Guomindang dictatorship (but not its government), freedom of speech, aid and rehabilitation for anti-Japanese soldiers and their families, punishment of corrupt officials, agrarian reform, progressive income tax etc.

Listing demands when in opposition is however the easy part. The question is - how, on what economic basis and with what class forces, will these demands be realised? Prior to the Japanese invasion Trotsky had proposed that Marxists in China raise what are strictly bourgeois democratic demands in order to rally the masses against the immediate oppression of Chiang’s dictatorship. However, he added that “in the process of agitating for this slogan, it will obviously be necessary to explain to the masses that it is doubtful if such an assembly will be convened, and even if it were, it would be powerless so long as the material power remains in the hands of the Guomindang generals. From this flows the possibility of broaching in a new manner the slogan of the arming of workers and peasants”. “But by itself the democratic character of these tasks does not at all determine as yet what classes, and in which combination, will solve these problems.” (Trotsky, The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress).

How, then, did the CCP answer this most pressing of questions: from which class and by what means political freedom could be won? In reality the programme was not a popular spearhead and means to rally the masses against the Guomindang, but a means to promote the CCP’s leadership in its negotiations with the Guomindang for freedoms for itself and the possibility of power sharing. It never explained to the masses that the likelihood of such democratic reform was extremely slim without a mass workers’ movement and that such a movement would be compelled to fight for socialist demands by its class nature. It left the exact form of government and economy extremely vague and abstract, constantly calling for a ‘coalition government’ (with who?), which would manage a state that would be “not one ‘monopolised by a few’, but a New Democratic state ‘owned by the ordinary people’” (Mao, On Coalition Government, April 1945).

A Coalition with the Shadow of the Bourgeoisie

KMT armyThe call for coalition government was in itself particularly abstract and baffling - unless we accept that the aim of the CCP’s New Democracy slogans were not to raise the masses to their feet in order to conquer power, but to dampen such mass impulses and manoeuvre the Party through the maze of negotiations and horse-trading that is bourgeois politics. It was baffling because coalitions are surely never political ends in themselves, but unavoidable compromises in the quest to place one’s programme in power. They therefore assume not only a relatively equal balance of political forces, but also a certain commonality of interests among the parties forming the coalition.

But ever since 1911 posed the question of transforming China into a modern and free nation, all illusions in a gentlemanly, negotiated institution of bourgeois political freedoms had, or should have been, exploded. Since the 1920s there were only two serious parties vying for power, and for all their faults represented conflicting class interests - the despotic bourgeois Guomindang and the CCP. In proposing a coalition government with bourgeois forces, the CCP was not only betraying the interests of the masses, but it was also unreal in that no viable parties existed with which to form such a coalition other than the Guomindang, hence the demand’s character as merely a means with which to negotiate with the Guomindang.

Eastman describes the non-Guomindang bourgeois parties found in the rubber stamp parliament The People’s Political Council as having no real relationship to the bourgeoisie (despite being liberal parties), as they were composed of foreign-educated intellectuals with no power base. The largest of them, the China Youth Party, could muster 30,000 members; none had anything approaching a “mass following. They were essentially congeries of intellectuals, highly elitist in outlook” (Eastman, Nationalist China During the Sino-Japanese War 1937-35 in The Cambridge History of China, p602).  Discussing the same groups, Doak Barnett, who spent much time travelling around China and interviewing various politicians just before the CCP ascended to power, said that “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 organisation...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.”

He adds that “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”. These ‘opposition’ leaders were not only indistinguishable in principle from the Guomindang dictatorship but were also “virtually unknown, even to many people within their own country” (Doak Barnett, China on the Eve of Communist Takeover, p85).

Eastman explains that their weakness in the face of the Guomindang (and CCP) was such that “when council members became captious and even formed a political party, [the Guomindang] responded with customary ill grace. Publication of the federation [of non-Guomindang liberal parties] was suppressed by the censors, and its activities were constantly harassed by the secret police...outspoken members of the federation lost their membership [of the People’s Political Council], and a reapportionment of the members assured the Guomindang a dominant majority” (Eastman, op cit. p603).

When faced with such repression, these parties did not lead a mass campaign, backed by their progressive bourgeois funders, for democratic freedoms. If they had, one could understand something of the CCP’s programme for a coalition democratic government - such a slogan would be used to win influence from this wider campaign. Even then, they would have to fill that with socialist content to win those in this hypothetical campaign to the CCP. But such a campaign was never formed because there was no democratic bourgeoisie, and these parties were pygmies.

Rather than launch an anti-Chiang campaign, they engaged in attempts at behind-the-scenes coups, which for them had the merit of excluding any participation and enthusiasm of the masses, who would bring to the table their own demands. Such attempts were doomed because behind them stood nothing more than, in the words of the American consul at the time, “a heterogeneous group of feudal barons and radicals, idealists and practical politicians” (quoted in Eastman, op cit., p608).

These were the political parties the CCP was proposing a vaguely defined coalition with. Given the completely unrealistic nature of such a coalition and the CCP’s vast strength vis-a-vis these other parties, it is clear that the reason this was put forward by the CCP was as a means to avoid mobilising the masses for a revolutionary conquest of power. The CCP wanted to dampen any such expectations and sweep to power on a purely military basis. It would do so with a ready made excuse for not giving the working class and peasantry actual political and economic power, by saying ‘we’re not ready for workers’ control, workers’ soviets and nationalisation, first we need a New Democracy coalition to create democratic capitalism. Be patient’.

The Economic Relations of ‘New Democracy’

mao1942Taking Mao at his word, it is very difficult to say what the economic and class characteristics of ‘New Democracy’ were to be, for he himself does not seem to know. When he first outlined the theory, he stated that “the first step, i.e. the first stage of the revolution, is certainly not meant to, and certainly cannot, build up a capitalist society under the dictatorship of the Chinese bourgeoisie” (Mao, On the New Democracy, January 1940). One would think therefore that it is to be a workers’ government building socialism and expropriating capitalism, but in the next sentence he states that it “is meant to set up a new democratic society [on what economic basis?] of the joint dictatorship of all revolutionary classes.’ But Marxism has long explained that there is only one revolutionary class under capitalism, the working class. Moreover, if it is not to be a ‘capitalist society’ as he says, how were any section of the bourgeoisie supposed to participate in this coalition government?!

The governmental form, apparently taking inspiration from Lenin, was to be ‘democratic centralism’ - but ‘of the joint dictatorship of several revolutionary classes’. Nowhere is a description given of exactly which classes these are, how they are defined, what their interests are, and what they will get out of and contribute to this government. Instead Mao was wont to find the distinction only in the abstract terms of ‘progressive’ (or revolutionary) and ‘reactionary’. Thus, all ‘reactionaries’ were to be excluded, and ‘progressives’ included. No further definition or justification is given for these terms, other than the occasional point that reactionaries are those associated with ‘bureaucratic capital’, but exactly what this is and why ‘non-bureaucratic capital’ is so different and has more in common with the proletariat than its bureaucratic cousin is never explained.

Mao argues that “in such a republic as that mentioned above, our economy must be the economy of the new democracy, just as the politics is the politics of the new democracy”. This is a circular definition if ever there was one! Surely the politics of the ‘new democracy’ are defined by their economic basis, but all we find out about that is that it is of ‘new democracy’. In an equally empty statement, Mao defines “the culture of the new democracy” as “the proletarian-led anti-imperialist and anti-feudal culture of the masses” (Ibid).

In attempting a further elaboration, the only concrete proposals given are those that were formulated by the Guomindang in 1924, when it called for the nationalisation of the big banks and industries because they “manipulate the livelihood of the people”. Instead of criticising this thoroughly unscientific programme, which the Guomindang failed to carry out precisely because it based itself on capitalism as a whole, Mao simply approves it along with the general and highly subjective criterion contained therein, stating that the New Democracy “will not forbid the development of capitalist production that ‘cannot manipulate the people’s livelihood’” (Ibid). This is a very fortuitous criterion of course, because it is so subjective that any party can define it however they wish.

These ideas were continued well into the civil war with the Guomindang. Again, instead of calling for a constituent assembly as a means of opposing the masses to the dictatorship, whilst pointing out the limitations of democracy under capitalism, the Party called for such a parliament as a means to bring all the classes together into a sort of gentlemanly discussion to solve China’s problems, “indubitably, what China urgently needs is the establishment, through uniting all political parties and groups and non-partisan leaders, of a democratic, provisional coalition government, so that democratic reforms may be instituted...to establish a regular democratic government, of a similar coalition nature, embracing more broadly all parties and groups...this government will then lead the liberated people of the entire nation to build an independent, free, democratic, unified, prosperous, and strong nation” (Mao, On Coalition Government, April 1945, our emphasis).

Later on Mao clarifies a few points regarding the relations between capital and labour in the New Democracy, “Under the New Democratic system of government, a policy of readjusting the relations between capital and labour will be adopted. On the one hand, the interests of the workers will be protected. An 8- to 10-hour-day system, according to varying circumstances, will be adopted...On the other hand, reasonable profits of state, private, and co-operative enterprises will be guaranteed. In general, this will enable both labour and capital to work jointly for the development of industrial production” (Ibid).

Elsewhere in the same document Mao explains that “private capitalist economy...must be given facilities for extensive development, if the state, the people, and the forward development of our society are to be benefitted.”

New Democracy as a means to discourage the working class

Just as we mentioned at the end of Part III, the demands of the CCP were frequently formulated purely on the basis of what was expedient for the CCP. Thus in 1942, as discussed in Part III, they demanded political freedoms from the Guomindang - but for the CCP, not society. And here we consistently find demands for coalition government and the maintenance of capitalism, but formulated with no analysis of the objective conditions in Chinese society nor the nature of the coalition parties. The extremely abstract character of these demands, their being directed at the ruling class and not as demands to raise the workers to their feet, all heavily imply they were formulated merely to aid the CCP in its conquest of power independently of the movement of the masses, and not because they particularly believed in the need for, say, capitalism or a coalition.

Brandt, Schwarz and Fairbank point out that New Democracy did not “contain any essential theoretical novelty”, and taken at its own word made little sense, “it fails to reflect the striking developments which had actually occurred within the Chinese Communist movement. While the theory of New Democracy is basically similar to the theories used to justify the first CCP-KMT alliance of 1923-7, the realities which it supposedly reflects are entirely different. In 1940 the CCP already possessed its own territorial base, its own armed force, and its own growing mass peasant base. It confronted the Guomindang as an independent force with its own effective sources of power” ( Brandt, Schwartz & Fairbank, A Documentary History of Chinese Communism , p262).

Evidently the theory was advanced to lower awareness of the strength of the CCP’s position so that their inching closer to power did not inspire a mass movement of strikes and protests to finish off the Guomindang. It wanted to install itself in power with no pressure from below, no growth of independent workers’ organisations with whose demands it would have to contend,

“During this same period [i.e. after 1945] the CCP’s military strength and its political influence among the masses were growing rapidly. The workers’ struggles, the ferment of resentment and rebellion among the peasants, and widespread demonstrations by the students, accompanied by the corruption and insecurity of Chiang’s regime and the strengthening of the CCP, plainly created a prerevolutionary situation.

If the CCP had then been able to stay in step with the situation, that is, to accept the “pressure of the masses,” it would have raised slogans for the overthrow of the Chiang Kai-shek government (i.e., the slogan for the seizure of power). It would have joined this slogan to other demands for democratic reforms, especially the demand for agrarian revolution. And it would have been able to swiftly transform this prerevolutionary situation, to carry through the insurrection, and thereby arrive at the conquest of power in the most propitious way.

Unfortunately, however, the fundamental political line adopted by the CCP in this period was quite different. Contrary to what it should have done—mobilize the masses in the struggle for power under the slogans of overthrowing Chiang’s government and agrarian reform—it kowtowed to Chiang Kai-shek and pleaded for the establishment of a “coalition government.” (For this purpose Mao flew to Chongqing to negotiate directly with Chiang, and even openly expressed his support to the latter in mass meetings.) The CCP tried its best to pull together the politicians of the upper layers of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in order to proceed with peace talks under the sponsorship of American imperialism.

As for the workers’ economic struggles, not only did the CCP not offer any positive lead to transform them into political struggles, which was quite possible at that time, but on the contrary, in order to effect a “united front” with the “national bourgeoisie,” it persuaded the working masses not to go to “extremes” in their conflicts. Moreover, it dealt obsequiously with the leaders of the “yellow trade unions” in order to check the “excessive” demands of the workers.” (Peng, The Causes of the Victory of the Chinese Communist Party over Chiang Kai-Shek, and the CCP’s Perspectives)

Mao’s defenders may say that the slogan of ‘New Democracy’ bore fruit in practice, i.e. the policy was sufficient to complete the revolution. But the point is that they did so in spite of, in contradiction with, these assertions. The CCP at all moments following 1945 dominated the Guomindang opposition and its 'progressive bourgeois' ally was a phantom. So what, they may say? It worked nevertheless. The problem was that in lowering the masses’ consciousness of the realities of the revolution, they ensured that mass participation was secondary and suppressed. They did the opposite then of what a Bolshevik organisation must do, which is to raise the self-confidence of the working class.