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


Despite its many faults and failings, the Chinese Revolution is second only to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as the greatest event of the 20th century and will have even greater impact on the 21st century. In 1949 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), took power and within a short span of time snuffed out capitalism and landlordism. Hundreds of millions of human beings threw off their humiliating and degrading yoke and entered world history as citizens of an independent country. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China marked a monumental change in world history.

The sweep to victory of the PLA across the Chinese mainland was due to the collapse of apparently well-trained, well-armed, and well-funded Nationalist armies. The speed of the Communist victory stunned the bourgeoisie in Western Europe and the USA. The victorious Chinese Communist Party emerged as the only real power in the land despite its programme of ‘revolution by stages’ and its declared aim of a Popular Front government for a prolonged period with no central planning or state ownership of the key sectors of the economy.

Petty-bourgeois politicians, some claiming to be Marxists, were dazzled and hurried to hail Mao success. This book argues that the victory of the Chinese revolution under the leadership of a Stalinist Party was possible due to the conjuncture of specific and unusual circumstances. American and British imperialisms were unable to intervene directly due to the wave of anti-war sentiment at home and, particularly, amongst the very troops that would have been used against the PLA.

Also of enormous importance was the existence of a mighty workers’ state, the USSR, bordering China, which gave massive military aid to the PLA at a crucial stage in the military struggle against Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Kuo Min Tang (KMT). The bourgeois regime of Chiang was so utterly corrupt and degenerate that it was unable to mobilise any serious resistance to the PLA. At the same time, and possibly most importantly, there was a massive wave of peasant revolts in KMT-controlled territories against starvation, landlordism, and corruption. The Communist Party, as the party of opposition, rode to power on this upsurge.

The Stalinist theory of Socialism in One Country gave the CCP a narrow nationalist outlook. A revolutionary Marxist perspective would have been for China and Russia to have come together in a Socialist Federation with the countries of Eastern Europe to develop an international plan of production using, in a combined and rational manner, the human and material resources of all these countries. Instead the nationalistic outlook of both the Chinese and Soviet bureaucracies eventually brought about the immensely damaging Sino-Soviet conflict as each sought to protect its interests in its own way.

In spite of its shortcomings, the CCP managed to achieve what the effete Chinese bourgeoisie had abysmally failed to do, to create genuine national unity and a modern state. The growth of the Chinese economy after 1949 was spectacular, amply demonstrated by the relative economic development of China and India in the thirty year period after the revolution. In 1950 shortly after India acquired independence, its GDP per person led that of China by 36%. The Indian economy grew by about 7% annually, but by 1980 the GDP per person in China was 12% higher than in India, subsequently bounding even further ahead because China had a centralised, state-owned, planned economy that laid the economic base upon which modern China rests today.

When taking power in 1949, the PLA and CCP were peasant in composition with a petty-bourgeois ideology, and completely isolated from the urban working class. Mao Zedong and the CCP would construct a state in China in the image of Stalinist Russia – a monstrous bureaucratic caricature of a workers’ state. A workers’ state deformed from birth but a workers’ state nevertheless. There were neither Soviets, nor workers’ control, nor real labour unions independent of the State, nor an authentic Marxist leadership. The most elementary conditions for workers’ democracy were lacking right from its very beginning.

Such an event was a new and serious theoretical challenge for revolutionaries. The CCP had come to power espousing the Stalinist theory of stages, with the declared policy of establishing a bourgeois republic; and as part of that process it attempted, for example, to privatise the state-owned “Big Four” banks. Was this the way forward for the colonial revolution, had stagism trumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution?

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had clearly revealed the necessity of taking measures which were objectively socialist to solve the problems of Russia’s democratic revolution. Since then the theory of the permanent revolution is often described as the process whereby revolutions in backward countries have a natural tendency to transcend the bourgeois-democratic phase and turn into socialist revolutions.

Is this what happened in China? If so, what was the process, and what was the nature of the regime between 1949 and the formation of a deformed workers’ state in 1953? This book investigates and answers these questions.

The victory of the CCP resonated around the world and won many young people to Maoism. Closing their eyes to the lack of workers’ democracy in China, they concluded that to be victorious, the Chinese CCP must have broken with Stalinism. Mao was prettified and romanticised, even by sections of the Trotskyist movement: Mao was presented as the Asian version of Fidel Castro, he had freed the CCP from the dominance of Stalin and the Comintern, he was the inspired leader of the Long March, he was responsible for developing the strategy of prolonged rural guerrilla warfare, and he had led the revolution that successfully transformed China. Mao, it seemed, was a new kind of Communist, a poet with an ideology firmly rooted in Chinese history. Was Mao despite his faults, a true revolutionary?

Even leading Marxists behaved as though hypnotised by Mao and serious differences over the causes and significance of Mao’s victory resulted in considerable theoretical confusion. Unfortunately, the confusion did not remain in the realm of theory but became a serious practical problem for revolutionaries when determining what attitude to adopt towards the Maoist groups that mushroomed world-wide during the 1960s and 1970s.

If Maoism could actually make a revolution should Marxists give up the fight for a separate, revolutionary Bolshevik party? Was a Communist Party organised on Maoist lines an adequate instrument for achieving socialism? Was it better to act as a pressure group on existing leaderships, perhaps even merge with these forces? The same question is posed today in other forms: the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), French section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International have long believed the party that would make the socialist revolution in France would be the result of “recomposition” of the left of the labour movement.That in February 2009 the LCR determined to dissolve itself and launch a New Anti-Capitalist Party is simply this argument taken to its logical conclusion.

Popular Frontism was imposed on the world Communist movement by Stalin in the late 1930s, but its acceptance by Mao and the CCP has meant that it is still seen as a possible route to revolution. Today its legacy threatens to undermine the gains of the Venezuelan Revolution with calls from a section of the Bolivarian leadership for peaceful co-existence with the bourgeoisie, capitalists, bankers, and landowners who still control two thirds of the country’s economy. This book assesses whether a Popular Front strategy was necessary for Mao’s victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, or whether it delayed the establishment of the Chinese workers’ state and laid the basis for a later return to capitalism.

The economic growth of China was stupendous but it was from a terribly low level. The outcome of the struggle between Russia, China and the capitalist countries was not determined by the rate of economic growth. Rather, it was determined by the relative total economic power of the two camps as expressed in material accumulation, technique, culture and, above all, the productivity of human labour. From this point of view we see at once the extreme disadvantage of both the Soviet Union and China. Direct military intervention in China in 1949 may have been impossible, but a greater danger remained – the economic pressure of imperialism expressed most clearly in the production of cheap, high quality goods.

The economic achievements in China were made despite the disruption of adventures such as the Great Leap Forward (1959-62), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-68). The Great leap Forward was responsible for a national famine in which as many as 20 million Chinese starved to death. The Cultural Revolution meant a fall of industrial production of about 15% between 1967 and 1968, producing a sharp fall in the living standards of the masses. Nevertheless, the economy recovered swiftly from these two major disruptions thanks to state planning and control.

Initially, although bureaucratic control restricted development, the planned economy rushed ahead. But the more sophisticated the economy became, the more the CCP became a fetter on its development. Within a generation, bureaucratic control had become an absolute brake on the productive forces. With the increasing complexity of the economy it was soon evident that a top-down, bureaucratic command system could not manage every detail. A steady decline in the efficiency of state planning, and a dramatic increase in waste and corruption were observed. This corruption has been a major factor in the internal decay of the CCP, many of whose members had plundered state resources on a vast scale for personal gain.

The CCP leadership twisted and turned, seeking one empiric solution after another to its economic problems. The one consistent feature was the determination of the bureaucracy not to surrender its privileges and positions of power, so one measure they could have taken to solve China’s problems was ruled out – there would be no workers’ democracy or mass participation in politics. The framework in which the changes took place ensured that each individual measure taken became a step towards capitalism.

This book describes how the CCP enacted a series of key decisions that meant a qualitative change in the nature of Chinese society. In the decade 1980-1989 the CCP ended the state monopoly of foreign trade and currency exchange, abolished state planning of the economy so that production for use was replaced by production for profit, and privatised the great bulk of state-owned enterprises retaining only those with strategic importance for the state. The Chinese Communist Party, while retaining the name “Communist” is, in fact, a bourgeois party. The return of capitalism is an inescapable fact and means the task of revolutionaries is a social revolution.

To be meaningful, any analysis of the Chinese Revolution, and Mao’s role in it must face the living facts, whether desirable or undesirable, particularly the decisive influence of the conditions in which a revolution takes place. The specific contribution of Stalinism to the Chinese Revolution, the direction it imposed on events, and the consequences, must be recognised. Events must be seriously evaluated, their causes and effects analysed to obtain a correct understanding of the role of Stalinism in the development of the victorious Third Chinese Revolution, and then the subsequent return of capitalism.

This book addresses important issues for those interested in the processes of revolution and counter-revolution as they happened in China:

  • How could an essentially counter-revolutionary force with an explicitly class collaborationist strategy come to power in a peasant revolution in the era of imperialism?
  • What were the motor factors which pushed the Mao regime, against its own predictions and wishes, to take measures which were objectively socialist and to establish the Chinese workers’ state?
  • The Third Chinese Revolution was a rigorous practical test of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Mao’s theory of uninterrupted revolution by stages. Which theory passed the test?
  • The degeneration of the Chinese People’s Republic to capitalism has been a second rigorous practical test of Trotsky’s analyses. Has his prognosis that without a political revolution to overthrow the regime, a Stalinist bureaucratic state would return to capitalism, been proved correct?

However, in addition to the above this book attempts something else. Before 1949 the peasant woman in China was especially oppressed; isolated in the family home not allowed to speak to any stranger, her feet physically deformed the better to control her, the subject of socially-approved continuous domestic violence, she was often treated no better than a domesticated animal. The Chinese Revolution, to which women made a substantial contribution, made big changes in the lives of Chinese women. This must be recognised and applauded. However, with the return to capitalism many of the gains made by Chinese women have been, and are being, taken away.

The social revolution cannot be achieved without the day-to-day struggle for women’s advancement; this the ABC of women’s liberation. The book will show that from an excellent start, the more the CCP became enmeshed in Popular Frontism the more ready it was to surrender women’s liberation to the interests of the male peasant, who for many centuries considered his wife to be his property and little more than a beast of burden. Today, the CCP, despite its formal declarations, is sacrificing women’s interests the better and faster to entrench capitalism in China.

This book advances the thesis that the policies a regime or political party adopts towards women is a direct measure of its revolutionary commitment. How the activities of the CCP impinged upon the mass of Chinese women is used as a measure of its socialist credentials.