[Book] China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution

Establishing the Chinese Workers’ State

12.1 Introduction

The abnormal and contradictory conditions in which the PRC found itself after the civil war were the product of exceptional historical circumstances. It was not possible to find a previous regime in history analogous to it. To Marxists, right from the start, it was clear that the New Democracy contained huge contradictions and would be short-lived. It was a highly precarious regime and at the time only the most farsighted were convinced it could move forward to a clean sweep of capitalism’s remnants and not find itself, willy-nilly on the path of capitulation to imperialism.

12.2 First Five Year Plan (1953-57)

In its early years, for historic, political and geographic reasons, the New Democracy was economically heavily dependent on the Soviet Union and its East European allies who gave very real support in the form of US$300 million in credit over five years at 1% interest, 12,300 technical experts to work in China, and taking some 14,000 Chinese students and 38,000 apprentices for training. Volumes of technical information that would have cost billions of US$ on the world market were freely given, and joint design teams worked on all major and important projects.

Those at the work face across many different Government Ministries exerted huge pressure for a comprehensive, planned, state-controlled economy as the best and most rational way forward for China to overcome her mind-boggling problems. An important goal for the First Five Year Plan (1st FYP) was to expand and integrate the separate economies that had developed in China largely due to the Sino-Japanese War: the heavy industries of Manchuria, the light industries, textiles and consumer goods of the coastal regions, and the huge agrarian areas of inland China. For the latter a special effort was needed to repair canals and drainage systems destroyed by the Imperial Japanese and KMT armies.[1]

After the outbreak of the Korean War, the new regime’s economic and military dependence on the Soviet Union deepened. Over 1952-53 the Soviet Union continued to work closely with the PRC especially in detailing the final drafts of the 1st FYP, which had a Russian-style emphasis on heavy industry. The increased control over society and the economy required to wage the Korean War successfully had created a dynamic which inevitably led first to the Party agreeing a “general line for transition to socialism” in June 1953, and then to its public pronouncement.

The signing of the Korean Armistice in 1953 meant a big reduction in military expenditure and the release of resources for accelerated economic expansion. A State Planning Commission determined production targets and material allocation. The distribution of key commodities was controlled according to a central plan, not market forces. Products were distributed to achieve state planning objectives, not private profit.

The introduction of the 1st FYP eliminated the contradiction between the declared and actual policies of the CCP, it extended state control to all significant areas of the economy and meant the co-ordination of the different sectors within an overall plan. As part of the “high tide of socialist transformation”, joint private-state enterprises were, in essence, nationalised, private retailers were merged into co-operative teams, and private markets in rural areas were banned. It is from the launch of the 1st FYP in October 1953, that revolutionary Marxists date the bureaucratically-deformed workers’ state in China.

The private sector of the Chinese economy was marginalised, eliminated as a significant source of production or employment, and by the end of 1956 all private industry had been nationalised or absorbed into joint enterprises. Importantly, by the end of 1956, foreign trade was fully under state control.[2]

In 1954, Zhou Enlai declared that the 1st FYP was not only to “free the productive forces of our country from the oppression of imperialism, feudalism, bureaucratic capitalism … and the shackles of capitalism” but also to remove “the limitations of small-scale production.”[3] The 1st FYP emulated the Soviet model with high rates of investment in capital intensive, large-scale industrial projects to lay the primary foundations for China’s socialist industrialisation, with agriculture providing the major source of funds.

Surprisingly, the 1st FYP was not formally approved by the National People’s Congress until 30 July 1955. This was followed in September 1955 by the publication of a report on the fulfilment of the annual plan for 1954.[4] The two-year delay in publication was due to the unexpectedly poor performance of agriculture and the need to come to a decision on how to deal with it.

In terms of overall economic growth, the 1st FYP was a stunning success. Despite the best efforts of imperialism to sabotage the plan, wages rose by a third in real terms, life expectancy rose from about 36 years in 1949 to 57 years in 1957, the proportion of children attending primary school doubled to 50%, the quality and quantity of urban housing improved significantly, and the rights of women were extended and protected in law, exemplified by the abolition of the binding of women’s feet. Famine appeared to be a thing of the past.[5]

Discussions began on the tasks to be undertaken in the 2nd FYP. Mao argued for an increase in the rate at which the state was acquiring privately-owned small-scale handicraft establishments and an even higher rate of industrial development. There followed a coded exchange of views in the press (e.g. People’s Daily) in which the State Planning Commission countered Mao by arguing for a 2nd FYP which avoided excessive investment in heavy industry and attempted a more balanced development including light industry and agriculture. The Chairman of the State Planning Commission, Kao Kang, committed suicide in August 1954 after having been purged, apparently for daring to voice his opposition to Mao. However, Kang must have had considerable support on the CC because the debate was not resolved until Mao by-passed the CC and launched the Great Leap Forward (GLF) in the spring of 1958.[6]

In September 1956, at its Eighth Party Congress, in a report given by Liu Shaoqi, the CCP declared the People’s Republic of China to be a proletarian dictatorship. There had been esoteric discussions by CCP theoreticians on ‘bourgeois rights’: whether distribution on the basis of to each according to his work was a socialist or capitalist principle. The very same topic had been discussed in the Soviet Union when in 1936, the draft of a new Soviet Constitution had been published, see Section 3.6, above. In Russia the formula had been intended to justify the extraction of the maximum labour from the workers and peasants while preserving privileges and luxuries for the Party tops. The Chinese Stalinists came to the same conclusion as their predecessors, and for the same reasons, convincing themselves that this undoubted capitalist principle was socialist, and the CCP declared China a workers’ state.[7]

One reason the CCP had delayed declaring the PRC a proletarian dictatorship was to avoid embarrassing itself. One of Mao’s supposed original and major contributions to Marxism had been the theory of the New Democracy which would last for decades and flow painlessly through to socialism. Instead, it had lasted just four years, and was consigned to the dustbin of history under the watchful eye of the PLA and an aggressive mass movement. The changes in CCP policy clearly showed that under the pressure of objective events it had been forced to take “practical measures” that when carried out, left China “standing with one foot in socialism.”[8]

12.2.1 The Peasants and the Five Year Plan

During preparatory discussions of the 1st FYP it was soon realised that the necessary investment to expand heavy industry would require an increase in agricultural production, prevention of hoarding of raw materials and an end to leakages into private consumption. There was also the need to take control of foodstuffs to ensure an adequate supply of food to the towns to feed the huge influx of peasants who would be the new industrial workers. In 1949 the city population had been 49 million, by 1956 it was nearly 100 million, and by 1961 had reached 130 million. This would necessitate urban rationing of grain and a state monopoly of trade in agricultural commodities.

As the need for agricultural produce increased, the relatively well-off farmers (the major producers of food) began to flex their political muscles, demanding greater economic autonomy. But the government was now looking in a different direction and responded by replacing the all-inclusive Village Associations with committees of selected poor and middle peasants, a reversal of the processes carried out in the liberated areas, particularly in south China, in 1947-48.[9]

It was understood by all Party tops that the 1st FYP would require wide-ranging changes for the peasantry but differences were emerging on what they should be. The division had first surfaced in July 1951 when the Party leadership in Shanxi proposed an accelerated pace towards co-operatives. This was openly criticised by Liu Shaoqi at Party meetings where Liu emphasised the “four big freedoms”: freedom for peasants to engage in trade, to hire labour, to rent land, and to make loans and charge interest. Mao had the more radical approach and by January 1953 was proposing the elimination of private ownership of the land as part of the general move against bourgeois property. However, Liu supported by Zhou Enlai, fought a rear guard action for a more gradual approach to industrialisation and a slower rate of change in the countryside.[10] The differences within the CC reached such a level that Mao sent a letter to the State Council in which he mounted (without naming names) a concentrated attack on efforts to maintain private property in the countryside.[11]

Measures to extract as much surplus as possible to fund industrialisation were announced. In August 1953, grain rationing was introduced in an attempt to limit personal consumption and ration cards (or ‘coupons’) were issued by local authorities, the smallest being for only 5 grams of rice or wheat. More importantly, the government moved to take control of the grain trade from the village level upwards which meant peasants would no longer buy or sell grain on the open market, but only from and to the state. Publically, these moves were promoted as necessary to obtain food to feed the poorest peasants and those in areas hit by natural disasters but were, in effect, an increase in agricultural tax. This monopoly was soon extended to include cotton and cotton cloth, and oil-bearing crops.[12]

To improve the efficiency of farming, and increase government access to agricultural products, the CCP encouraged peasants to organise themselves into ‘state guided’ Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives (APCs). The peasantry had experienced the benefits of mutual-aid teams which had gone well with little recorded dissent because any extra work produced more for the peasants themselves. A directive was issued by the CC of the CCP in October 1953 proposing a move from mutual aid teams to village level co-operatives (Lower Stage APCs), in which the peasants pooled not only equipment but also their land and received a return in proportion to their input. Mao may have described these as “semi-socialist”, but they were based firmly on private ownership of the land and piecework payments. The CC proposed 20% of all peasant households be incorporated into APCs by the end of 1957.

The CC saw co-operatives as a cure-all for its agrarian problems: the poorest would be better off, there would be a greater surplus to be taken for industrial investment, and the resurgence of landholding and growth of usury would be ended. By the end of 1953 some 4,000 viable co-operatives existed.[13] A typical size was 30-50 households with small fruit and vegetable plots allowed for private use. At first most peasants really did join voluntarily because regulated co-operation meant that all team members had to carry out their fair share of the work and, in the end, this benefitted everyone. Once the projects reached a certain size or the co-operation was sufficiently complex it became the norm to hire “an intellectual” to keep records.[14]

With recovery from the devastation of the civil war there had been big increases in agricultural output during 1951 and 1952. This was a once-and-for-all increase and could not be sustained but it led to over-optimistic targets being introduced. Even with the introduction of co-operatives, the rate of increase in grain production was a modest 2% for 1953 and 1954, compared to a target of 9%. This was a serious problem for the industrial development of China. Agriculture directly supplied about 80% of raw materials for the manufacture of light industrial products, and taxes on agricultural produce supplied much of the investment for heavy industry.[15] It was clear that an agricultural economy based on near-subsistence farming produced too little surplus to fund the desired industrial development.

By the end of 1954 over 50,000 Lower Stage APCs were operating and by the end of 1955 the claimed number of such co-operatives was nearly two million, containing more than 70 million rural households.[16]

By 31 July 1955, Mao Zedong was strongly advocating an acceleration in agricultural policy and in his report to the CC, he enthusiastically called for a “high tide of social transformation in the countryside”, and ridiculed the conservatives as “women with bound feet”. After painting a picture of the masses “running” to form co-operatives he called for the inclusion of the whole of the peasantry in Higher Stage APCs by 1960; land was to be owned by the village and not individuals, all peasants worked for wages with no additional return from their input of property, tools or land. Mao saw this development as being “of a socialist nature”, because agricultural production was part of a state plan in which the great majority of industry was nationalised and there was a state monopoly of key agricultural produce.[17]

Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xioping, and Deng Zihui (Minister of Agriculture) argued for a more prudent policy, based on genuinely voluntary membership, to be completed by 1967, and may even have had the support of a majority on the Politburo.[18] Mao simply by-passed their objections and over the head of the Politburo, called an enlarged plenum of the CC for October 1955 and packed it with lower ranking Party officials; municipal, provincial, and regional secretaries who had previously declared themselves supporters of his line, and who outnumbered full members by about 10 to 1. The plenum strongly endorsed Mao’s proposals and agreed that co-operativisation be effectively completed in 1957.[19]

The speed at which co-operatives were created reflected not the wishes of the peasants but the desire of party cadres to please their superiors. Mao’s target was met; by the end of 1957 nearly 95% of peasant households were enrolled in Higher Stage APCs. However, in too many cases the cadres with responsibility for establishing the co-operatives behaved in rude, arbitrary, harsh and even violent ways to meet and surpass their targets. As the number of co-operatives expanded, and to accelerate the pace, some peasants were coerced: join or lose your fishpond or fruit trees or have credit withheld. This was possible because the peasants remembered the Three-Antis and Five-Antis Campaigns and the moves took place during yet another campaign to suppress traitors and counter-revolutionaries.[20]

The Lower Stage APCs had generally been welcomed but middle and rich peasants often opposed the transition to the Higher Stage because it meant they received a smaller share of the crops. In many areas the changes required coercion through mass struggle actions to force so-called counter-revolutionary peasants into acceptance. The result was a serious decline in grain production by up to one third in some co-operatives. Local cadres, who owed their positions to Beijing, saved face by not reporting the real situation. This meant state procurement levels were not reduced to match the actual harvest, and peasants went hungry. Inevitably there was resentment, general unrest and even riots in some rural areas which were suppressed under the campaign against counter-revolutionaries. Many who voiced dissent were sent to border regions for hard labour to reform their thinking.[21]

Numerous peasants sought to solve their problems by fleeing to the towns which meant fewer hands to plant and harvest the crops and an increase in the food needed for the cities. The regime responded by introducing residence permits and movement passes, making it difficult for peasants to leave their villages. Factory managers were prevented from hiring rural workers, ‘non-productive’ workers were sent into the countryside to increase the labour available for the rural ‘production front’. The government fixed the volume of output of firms, the number of workers, and the total wage bill, while banks were instructed to exercise tighter controls over each firm’s finances. Just after defining itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the government introduced severe wage controls which kept the lowest urban wage rate close to rural earnings to reduce costs but also, and more importantly, to dissuade peasants from moving to the cities.

On 9 August 1957, the CC of the CCP, concerned at the low level of rural productivity and the threat this posed to industrialisation, issued a directive calling for CCP cadres to go into the countryside, take part in the peasants’ daily work, and mobilise them for greater productivity. This movement, coupled with extremely good weather, produced an exceptional harvest in 1958. On Mao’s insistence, the grain harvest was reported as a record 375 million metric tons. The CC was aware that this figure was due as much to cadres exaggerating performance to curry favour, as good weather and hard work. So much exaggeration went on that the announcement of a record harvest was a political decision not a statistical measure, but one which would have catastrophic consequences.[22]

12.3 The New Democracy – a Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Government?

The date usually chosen to mark China’s transition to a deformed workers’ state is the launch of the 1st FYP in 1953. So what was the nature of the transitional regime between 1949 and 1953? The reality of the Chinese Revolution was that the proletariat did not play a leading role as a class. Instead, this role was assumed by the peasantry. A Stalinist party stood at the head of the revolutionary forces. Not only that, but Stalinism was quite consciously cultivated by the new regime. How to explain these contradictions and determine what lessons should be drawn, and what they might mean for the future?

In Russia, the October Revolution broke the power of the bourgeoisie with a mass rising of the urban proletariat supported by the peasantry. Leading the revolution was the revolutionary Marxist party of Lenin and Trotsky which had gained majority support for its policies in virtually every urban Soviet. The power of the state after the Revolution was in the hands of the proletariat in the form of the factory-based Red Guards, in their great majority loyal to the Bolsheviks, and the direction and dynamic of events were such that the regime was clearly a proletarian dictatorship, though it was popularly known as a “workers’ and peasants’ government”.

From October 1917, Lenin consistently referred to the October Revolution as a socialist revolution with a workers’ and peasants’ government resting on the dictatorship of the proletariat even though there had not, at that stage, been a fundamental change in property relations.[23] The short duration of the transitional regime between the October Revolution (when the proletariat took power) and the workers’ state (when the industry was extensively nationalised, in the summer of 1918) was imposed on the Bolsheviks by the need to defend the new state against imperialist threats. Left to their own devices, the Bolsheviks would have delayed the nationalisations. For Russia, the workers’ state was nationalised property, monopoly of foreign trade, state planning, destruction of the Tsarist state machine (though Lenin recognised that would take a long time to fully root out), and the dictatorship of the proletariat (since the power of the state must remain with the proletariat until the state withers away).

During and after the Russian Revolution, the term workers’ and peasants’ government was widely used by the Bolsheviks in two mutually exclusive ways.

Case 1: “This formula, ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’, first appeared in the agitation of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and was definitely accepted after the October Revolution. In the final instance it represented nothing more than the popular designation for the already established dictatorship of the proletariat. The significance of this designation comes mainly from the fact that it underscored the idea of an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry upon which the Soviet power rests.”[24] In this sense the workers’ and peasants’ government represented the transitional regime between the proletarian revolution and the resulting workers’ state.

Case 2: “From April to September 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded that the SRs and the Mensheviks break with the liberal bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands … If the Mensheviks and the SRs had actually broken with the Cadets (liberals) and with foreign imperialism, then the workers’ and peasants’ government created by them could only have hastened and facilitated the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[25]

In the latter case the workers’ and peasants’ government was definitely not the dictatorship of the proletariat. It would have been a petty-bourgeois government led by reformist parties. But the call for the SRs and Mensheviks to form a workers’ and peasants’ government, the call for the Mensheviks and SRs to take power, was intended to expose their reluctance to do so before the masses. This had tremendous educational value and was a significant contribution in assisting the creation of a Bolshevik government – a workers’ and peasants’ government that would have simultaneously been the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In 1922 at the last World Congress which Lenin attended, the Thesis on Tactics accepted the possibility that as the result of class struggles the power of the state could pass into the hands of a workers’ and peasants’ government, but declared that such a government did not represent the dictatorship of the proletariat, was not an inevitable transitional stage, but could become an important launch pad for the fight for that dictatorship. However, under the conditions that existed in 1922, it would not establish a genuine workers’ state; only a revolutionary Communist party, rooted in the working class on a mass scale could achieve that.[26]

That is where matters rested until the Transitional Programme founding document of the Fourth International was published. We have presented the following quote earlier, but it is the key to understanding the process that took place in China and deserves a second reading:

“… one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie. In any case one thing is not to be doubted: even if this highly improbable variant somewhere at some time becomes a reality and the ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’ in the above-mentioned sense is established in fact, it would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.”[27]

It has been claimed that Joe Hansen, one of Trotsky’s aides, was responsible for suggesting this form of words for the Transitional Programme. True or not, after WWII Hansen studied the process which Lenin and Trotsky had only touched on, petty-bourgeois parties coming to power in revolutionary situations and overthrowing bourgeois political and economic power. However, Hansen took account of a new feature, also observed by Ted Grant: that with imperialism temporarily “impotent” the process could be carried through to the creation of a workers’ state, as happened in China.

Hansen married the theoretical considerations of the 4th Congress, a petty-bourgeois party taking power in a revolutionary struggle, with the observed fact that such regimes did progress to a workers’ state (e.g. China and Cuba), though some could regress (e.g. Algeria). All real processes take time so there would be an interval between the overthrow of bourgeois military and political power, and the decisive expropriation of bourgeois economic power. This period which could last for months or even years, was not the dictatorship of the proletariat it was a transitional regime; a form of workers’ and farmers’ government.[28]

Lenin and Trotsky had both emphasised the necessity of the mobilisation of the masses to break the power of the bourgeoisie.[29] Without the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses there can be no anti-capitalist revolution. The mass mobilisations which break the power of the bourgeoisie can force, in completely exceptional circumstances such as occurred at the end of World War II, even petty-bourgeois leaderships to accomplish the transition to a workers’ state. That is, in the so-called backward countries of Asia, Africa, and South America a leadership determined to better the conditions of the working masses could break with the bourgeoisie. The creation of the deformed workers’ state in China showed that real life rarely conforms to the ideal; instead distortions and variants are the norm.[30]

In Cuba it took some eighteen months from January 1959 before Cuba became a workers’ state with the sweeping nationalisations that took place in the autumn of 1960. This was a process in which the 26 July Movement progressively shed its links with the bourgeoisie, took control of foreign trade, introduced a planned economy, expropriated the lands of the US sugar companies, and established friendly relations with the then Soviet bloc. All this took place in the public domain.

In China the matter was not so clear cut because as the regime stumbled from one empiric response to the next, being bureaucratic it attempted to save face by covering up the differences between its stated goals and actual events. The original aim of the Mao regime had been to preserve capitalism but as with Cuba, this goal gradually evaporated under the pressure of events.

In China there was no Bolshevik Party to lead the revolution. Instead a petty-bourgeois Stalinist Party was carried to power. The most obvious place to start any Marxist analysis was the 4th World Congress of the Communist International which had classified such a regime as a workers’ and peasants’ government not a dictatorship of the proletariat. However, the norms set out in 1922 would have to be adapted to meet the very different circumstances applying after WWII.

The New Democracy claimed to be a coalition government of four classes (workers, peasants, the petty-bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie) and it was clear that the social basis of the regime was the petty-bourgeoisie, in its majority, the peasantry. While the national bourgeoisie did not have a decisive role in government, the constitution and the laws of the regime protected private ownership of production and sought to develop a non-socialist, New Democratic economy.

The first consideration must be that a revolutionary mass mobilisation had destroyed the power of the bourgeoisie, and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government was a clear and striking confirmation of the Theory of the Permanent Revolution; that in colonial and semi-colonial countries there is a natural tendency to transcend the bourgeois democratic phase and progress more or less directly to a workers’ state, even if deformed.

However, in China the new government did not accept such an analysis, stood in the way of such a development, and called instead for an ongoing alliance with the national bourgeoisie, giving it an economic weight its social position did not deserve. The PRC proclaimed protected status for private industry including imperialist interests, and equal benefits for labour and capital.

Nonetheless, the New Democracy began life with direct control over a far greater proportion of the economy than the Bolsheviks had, even in 1918. Its initial measures were to assist the construction of a national capitalism with key sectors of the economy such as banking, largely under the control of the same people who had served the KMT (despite the liberated areas having established their own central, Chinan, bank). Reality negated these moves; to solve the most pressing and immediate problems, the direction in which CCP cadres were moving was towards greater state control and a national plan. But this process took time, for example it would take three years (end of 1952) before the CCP leadership reluctantly issued instructions to bring all important banks formally under the central control of the People’s Bank of China.

After WWII many advanced countries, e.g. Britain, brought key basic industries such as coal mining, steel, and the railways under state control to provide the investment and co-ordination necessary to modernise them and keep British capitalism competitive in the world market. Nationalisation by itself does not make a country a workers’ state. However, the problems facing China were on a qualitatively greater scale both in extent (a population twenty times that of the UK) and depth (the Chinese were starting with a country shattered by war, its most advanced industries destroyed and essential irrigation systems devastated). From overcoming hunger and starvation to establishing national unity, from controlling hyper-inflation to re-creating industry, the tasks were so overwhelming and so inter-related that they could be accomplished only through co-ordinated state planning and directed investment. These pressures pushed the CCP to take measures which were socialist in principle, in the direction of developing a state with one foot firmly in socialism.

What was in question was the outcome of the conflict between the stated programme of the CCP and the natural progression of events which everywhere were flowing past the limits set by Mao. In 1927 such a conflict had been resolved in favour of the bourgeoisie; what would be the outcome this time?

From the Marxist point of view, it is not possible to have a party in which two (or more) classes have equal weight: in 1925-27 the KMT had been hailed as a multi-class party but its true nature soon emerged. Nor is it possible to have a two-class state – though it is possible to have two-class governments. In China the so-called People’s Democratic Dictatorship was a military dictatorship with the peasantry as its main base. Peng Shuzi, veteran Chinese Trotskyist, argued that “in the last analysis, in view of its fundamental stand for the preservation of bourgeois property relations, it was a bourgeois regime.”[31] In reaching this conclusion, Peng had failed to follow his own advice to take actual property relations as more decisive than the statements of party leaders.

12.4 Proletarian Peasantry and Revolutionary Stalinism?

This book has shown how the specific circumstances existing on an international and national scale enabled the Stalinist CCP to take power – both state and governmental power – at the head of a peasant army. Today we have access to material which allows us to plot the course of events and demonstrate that the pressures on the CCP hierarchy to create a nation state, to feed the Chinese people and to maintain its authority and privileges, pushed it in the direction of a (deformed) workers’ state.

Citing the events in their historical context allows us, today, to readily answer the apparent contradictions between certain long-held theoretical postulates and the actual course of events. Before about 1949 there had never been any serious dispute over the following:

  • The peasantry as a class could not lead a social revolution through to a successful conclusion; this could be achieved only by the proletariat.
  • The proletariat could do this only with the leadership of a revolutionary Marxist Party.
  • Stalinism does not represent revolutionary Marxism; in essence it was, and is, counter-revolutionary.

At the time, the clash between these postulates and actual events posed serious questions for socialists. Unfortunately, the bizarre answers provided by many, even within the world Trotskyist movement, were based on a-priori schema, impressions and wishful thinking which substituted for a Marxist analysis. However, all had the same aim, to prettify Maoism and present it as a genuinely revolutionary force – desperately cuddling up to the Maoists and trying to shortcut the hard work necessary to build the revolutionary Marxist Party. The political vitality of the CCP and PLA was often overestimated and the degree of disintegration of the KMT underestimated. Failing to recognise that the CCP had filled a vacuum left by the collapse of the KMT too often led to the conclusion that the CCP was truly revolutionary and that, possibly, the Chinese peasantry could have acquired a proletarian consciousness.

The latter point was posed as a two-part question; How was it possible for petty-bourgeoisie forces to undertake an armed struggle of over twenty years duration? This argument, advanced by leading figures on the left, showed an ignorance of the history of the Chinese peasantry and their remarkable ability to form huge armies which overthrew governments and set up new regimes. The Taiping rebellion lasted fourteen years (1850-1864), established control over some 30 million people in southern China and was overthrown only when imperialist armies intervened. The simultaneous Nien rebellion lasted 17 years and conquered substantial areas in northern China. We have already quoted Marx on this and seen that he never suggested a socialist or working-class content in these rebellions or doubted that a petty-bourgeois leadership could mount such impressive and lengthy struggles. The duration of the struggle and the taking of power by a peasant army posed no challenge for Marxists.

This led to the second part of the question: If a deformed workers’ state existed in China after October 1953 and the regime was based on the peasantry, did that mean the class nature of the peasant armies which had fought a long civil war under Stalinist leadership had undergone a qualitative change? Had the character of the Chinese peasantry been mis-judged? Perhaps Chinese peasants had achieved a proletarian or even socialist consciousness because the armed struggle they had fought was against not only the KMT but its imperialist backers.

The position of the CCP was clear and simple, peasants and intellectuals who joined the Party changed their original class character and became “Marxist-Leninist fighters of the proletariat.”[32] After the creation of a (deformed) workers’ state many on the left toyed with the idea that there may be something in this claptrap.

Lenin considered the existence of a democratic, centralist, Marxist party an essential requirement for a revolutionary victory. If that were true, some argued, could the CCP really have degenerated into a peasant party in the 1930s? Was the flow of workers from the towns into the Soviets sufficient to maintain the CCP’s revolutionary and proletarian character? Others posed the alternative that the CCP could have changed back into a proletarian organisation after taking power in 1949.

After the defeat of the second Chinese Revolution, from about 1930, the CCP gave up building an urban workers’ movement and turned its face toward the countryside. It threw its whole strength into creating peasant Soviets and as it absorbed ever greater numbers of peasants its composition became almost exclusively peasant. The tiny stream of workers from the cities was not enough to maintain either the party’s working class composition or outlook. Living with peasants, working with peasants, fighting alongside peasants with the perspective of peasant guerrilla warfare for an extended period, Party cadres even those from the factories, assimilated a peasant, that is petty-bourgeois, outlook.

More importantly, the ideology and actions of the CCP were petty-bourgeois; the logical extension and continuation of the political line contained in Mao’s 1927 Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan. The key elements in the CCP programme, the bloc of four classes and the New Democracy were petty-bourgeois, class collaborationist strategies. The Three People’s Principles in the CCP programme, of which Mao appeared very proud, were taken directly from the programme of the KMT and were written by Sun Yat-sen.[33] In this way Mao Zedong confirmed the CCP as a petty-bourgeois party not only because of its peasant composition but also because of its petty-bourgeois programme.

An important factor in confirming the petty-bourgeois nature of the CCP was that it did not attempt to mobilise the urban masses into revolutionary action during the PLA’s rapid advance southwards, choosing instead to rely solely on peasant armies to conquer power.[34]

At the time it took power, the CCP claimed about 3.5 million members of which not more than 5% were workers. It is true that from June 1950, after entering the cities and taking power, the Party temporarily suspended its recruitment of peasants and made a big effort to recruit workers. But a political party cannot change its composition in 24 hours, especially when, as in the case of the CCP, it had an almost exclusively peasant base. By 1951, 6.3% of CCP members were workers; in 1952, 7.2%; in 1956, 14% – that is 1.5 million workers out of 11 million members.[35]

It can be pondered whether these membership figures are a serious indicator of the re-proletarianisation of the CCP. We are talking of one member in seven who, as new recruits, would have had little or no weight at Party meetings. Grant pointed out that even when the CCP prioritised the recruitment of workers they did so in a Bonapartist manner, workers were recruited and unionised not to give them control over their working lives and Party policy, but the better to control them.[36]

Another line of argument was that Stalinism was the dominant ideology of the Russian workers state so could the Stalinist nature of the CCP have given it a proletarian character? The argument that the CCP could not be Stalinist and petty-bourgeois at the same time identifies Stalinism with the workers’ state. But Trotskyists have always argued that Stalinism stood in contradiction to the workers’ state, that it was a cancerous counter-revolutionary growth.

In the Russian Revolution only the bourgeoisie and the big landholders were expropriated. The peasantry, sectors of the urban petty-bourgeoisie and even some of the technical intelligentsia remained property holders. The Soviet proletariat existed as a class quite distinct from these elements. As the Stalinist regime progressed, the Soviet bureaucracy became ever more petty-bourgeois in its composition and almost entirely petty-bourgeois in its spirit, a parasitic growth concerned primarily with its own privileges.[37] The ideology and methods which this bureaucratic caste generated to preserve itself and its privileges were in essence counter-revolutionary and were fully absorbed by the CCP so that by 1949 they were an integral part of its practices and ideology.

Of course, capitalist restoration in Russia (of which Trotsky had warned in 1936 – that as the Stalinist bureaucrats in the USSR increasingly adopted bourgeois norms of distribution for their own benefit they were preparing a capitalist restoration) brought this discussion to an end and buried any idea that Stalinism was revolutionary. Yes, the bureaucracy had defended the nationalized property relations but in its own peculiar way – its privileged position came first. It was a considerable error not to see that the privileges of the bureaucracy must eventually conflict with nationalised property relations.[38]

To avoid mistaking the appearance for reality it is necessary to analyse the development of the Third Chinese Revolution via historical materialism which sees the process in China as part of the developments that brought the second generation of workers states into the world in its historical and international context (in addition to China there was North Korea, North Vietnam, and Eastern Europe). Any consideration of the events in China must always bear in mind four major consequences of WWII: (a) the weakening of world capitalism both as a whole and in its constituent parts (though this was short-lived), (b) the victory of the Soviet Union, (c) the resulting temporary strengthening of Stalinism, and (d) an upsurge of revolutionary struggles on a colossal scale in both the imperialist centres and the colonial areas.

12.5 Summary

In China, October 1953 was a defining moment; the CCP introduced the 1st FYP for economic construction and industrialisation and proclaimed the beginning of the transition to socialism. The CCP finally rejected the concept of the New Democracy in favour of a policy of what was euphemistically termed state and private co-operation – the final seizure of bourgeois property and the creation of the Chinese (deformed) workers’ state.

If we were to distil the revolutionary experience of China it could be expressed in the following passage from the Transitional Program:

“Colonial and semi-colonial countries are backward countries by their very essence. But backward countries are part of a world dominated by imperialism. Their development, therefore, has a combined character: the most primitive economic forms are combined with the last word in capitalist technique and culture. In like manner are defined the political strivings of the proletariat of backward countries: the struggle for the most elementary achievements of national independence and bourgeois democracy is combined with the socialist struggle against world imperialism. Democratic slogans, transitional demands and the problems of the socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in this struggle, but stem directly from one another.”[39]


[1] Lardy, R. Chinese Economic Planning, Sharpe, Inc., 1978.

[2] Lardy, N. Foreign Trade and Economic Reform in China, Univ. of Cambridge, 1992, p16-17.

[3] Zhou Enlai, Report of the Work of the Government, 23 September, 1954, FLPH.

[4] Shabad, T. Communist China’s Five Year Plan, Far Eastern Survey, Dec., 1955 24(12)189-191.

[5] Twitchett, D. and Fairbank, J. (eds) Cambridge History of China, CUP, 1987, Vol.14, p156.

[6] Ibid. p184.

[7] Kerry, T. The Mao Myth Pathfinder Press, 1977, p49.

[8] Lenin, V. Speech in Favour of the Resolution on the Current Situation, April 1917, CW 24:308.

[9] Peng Shu-tse, The CCP in Power, Monad Press, 1980, p162-166.

[10] Pantsov, A. and Levine, S. Mao, Simon & Schuster, 2012, p403-404.

[11] Mao Zedong, Refute Right Deviationist Views, 15 June 1953, w.m.org.

[12] Selden, M. The Political Economy of Chinese Development, East Gate Books, 1993, p127-130.

[13] Twitchett, and Fairbank, Op. cit. p166.

[14] Li, H. Village China Under Socialism and Reform, Stanford U.P., 2009, p25.

[15] Twitchett, and Fairbank, Op. cit. p162.

[16] Chatham House, From Land Reform to Communes in China, The World Today, 1959, 15(3)124-13.

[17] Mao Zedong, On the Cooperative Transformation of Agriculture, www.marxists.org.

[18] Twitchett, and Fairbank, Op. cit. p168.

[19] Pantsov and Levine, Op. cit., p418-420.

[20] Fairbank, J. The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985, Harper Perennial, 1987.

[21] Bernstein, T. Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959-1960, The China Quarterly, No. 186, 2006, p421-445.

[22] Twitchett, and Fairbank, Op. cit., p366 & 379.

[23] Roberts, J. Lenin, Trotsky and the Theory of the Permanent Revolution, Wellred Books, 2007, p156-158.

[24] Trotsky, L. Transitional Programme, 1938, www.marxists.org.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Riddell, J. The Comintern’s Unknown Decision on Workers’ Governments, 14 Aug. 2011, John Riddell.wordpress.com.

[27] Trotsky, Transitional Programme, Op. cit.

[28] Hansen, J. The Problem of Eastern Europe, w.m.org.

[29] Trotsky, L. History of the Russian Revolution, Preface w.m.org.

[30] Woods, A. The Chinese Revolution of 1949, 1 Oct 2009, w.m.com.

[31] Peng Shuzi, The Causes of the Victory of the CCP over Chiang Kai-shek, Feb. 1952, w.m.org.

[32] Hinton, W. Fanshen, Pelican 1972, p210.

[33] Mao Zedong, On New Democracy, 1940, FLPH, p362, www.marxists.org.

[34] Grant, T. The Unbroken Thread, Fortress books, 1989, p282-289.

[35] Rousset, P. The Chinese Revolution, International Institute for Research and Education Number 3.

[36] Grant, Op. cit., 1989, p282-289.

[37] Hansen. J. The Problem of Eastern Europe, Feb. 1950, w.m.org.

[38] Trotsky, L. The Revolution Betrayed, w.m.org.

[39] Trotsky, Transitional Programme, Op. cit.