What Mao began

Now celebrating its centenary, the Communist Party of China presides over a strange hybrid social formation. Eddie Ford looks at its evolution

As many readers will have noted, July 1 is the official anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao.

Actually, you could argue that the CPC was not properly constituted until it held its first national congress over the week starting July 23 1921 - which was not attended by either Li or Chen (the latter later became close to Leon Trotsky). At the time, the CPC had 57 members, but only two were at the proclamation ceremony of the People’s Republic of China 28 years later - Mao Zedong and Dong Biwu.

But now the CPC now has nearly 92 million members - a phenomenal growth by any assessment. Of course, the CPC is the “leading” party in the PRC, the most populous country in the world, with the second biggest economy and the largest in terms of exports. And, depending on who you want to believe, if you draw a straight line from where we are now into the future, China is ‘destined’ to become the world’s largest economy in terms of gross domestic product in about 10 years or so - some argue that because of exchange rates it has already done so. More seriously, however, it is still considerably behind the US. But, having said that, since 1949 - after a devastating civil war and imperialist invasion - it has gone from one of the poorest countries in the world to now ranking amongst the middle countries with clear ambitions to become an advanced country, using the strength of the state.

The CPC was, of course, influenced by the Bolsheviks, who not only banked on revolution in Germany, but as part of their global strategy sought to encourage national liberation movements everywhere - especially in the east, mainly through the good ministries of the Far Eastern Bureau and the Far Eastern Secretariat of the Communist International. This included, needless to say, British India and also China - where Comintern agents found a ready reception and the CPC was soon growing in leaps and bounds.

The party joined the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Sun Yat-sen and became its left wing. Sun is still regarded as the state founder of the PRC and, indeed, he stated that “our principle of livelihood is a form of communism”. If you go to Tiananmen Square, you will find huge portraits of both Mao and Sun. Suffice to say, in 1927 Sun Yat-sen’s successor, generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, massacred many thousands of communists in Shanghai and proceeded to do the same throughout KMT-controlled China.

As a result of all that, the CPC evolved in a very peculiar direction. Having started life as a thoroughly urban and proletarian party, its cadres were sent out to the countryside. In one of Mao’s early writings - ‘Report on an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan’ (March 1927) - he is basically urging an orientation to the countryside. Of course, the Bolsheviks also had such an orientation - Lenin actually described the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, or peasant revolution, given that the peasantry represented the vast bulk of the population. But it was going to be led by a working class party - which meant that the party did not have the aim of recruiting a mass base in the peasantry. Yes, naturally, it was willing to recruit agricultural workers, but programmatically it was not going to transform the Bolsheviks into a ‘people’s party’ - that was precisely the agenda of the Socialist Revolutionaries. The SRs had a base in the cities, true, but were fundamentally a peasant party.

In other words, the Bolsheviks remained a proletarian party - while the CPC essentially transformed itself into a peasant party, especially with the creation of the Red Army that in due course became the People’s Liberation Army. Now you had a peasant army fighting a combined war against both the Japanese imperialist invaders and - despite Mao’s rhetoric - the KMT. In reality, the KMT was not going to welcome communists as allies - rather they would once again shoot them. Thus Mao fought a classic guerrilla warfare campaign. If you were outnumbered, then you retreated - and retreated and retreated, if necessary, seeing how China is an immensely large country with plenty of places to hide out. Wait for the enemy to over-extend itself, get worn out - then strike.

As history shows, Mao built a red base, which secured him the leadership of the CPC and saw him march into Beijing at the head of the PLA in March 1949 and then proclaim the People’s Republic on October 1. That was clearly a huge global event. It opened up a new chapter in the global politics of the 20th century and, in fact, you can still talk about it reverberating into the 21st century.


So what sort of a party was the CPC in 1949, as opposed to 1921 or 1927? After all, the party had proletarian origins and a cadre educated in some sort of Marxism - albeit of an increasingly Stalinite variety. Yet here was a Communist Party that organised peasants on a mass scale and then used them to surround the cities.

The regime introduced by Mao and his comrades in 1949 was a classic ‘people’s democracy’ - it recognised the continuation of capitalism, peasant agriculture and a multi-party system. Just like the regimes in eastern Europe at the same time, there was a big difference between what the programme said and what the reality was intended to become. To this day, there are eight legal parties in China - including an official party for the bourgeoisie! That is, very much along the lines of countries like the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Poland. In the west, we are constantly told that they were ‘one-party states’ - and in a certain sense they were - but not according to their constitutions, which is worth noting.

Another significant factor is, of course, Mao’s rift with the Soviet Union - which can be principally traced back to the disastrous Great Leap Forward, when Mao attempted to industrialise China at double-quick speed based on small industry - which inevitably led to starvation and chaos, and Mao’s temporary demotion. China also came to object to Khrushchev’s 1956 ‘secret speech’ and to so-called de-Stalinisation. Therefore we had the first wave of ‘anti-revisionist’ communist parties or groups, which should not be confused with later explicitly Maoist organisations. One example is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is an anti-revisionist, anti-Khrushchev party - not a Maoist one.

However, Mao came back big time with the Cultural Revolution - which had the designated aim of uprooting ‘bourgeois culture’. Hence, Shakespeare, Balzac, Pushkin, Beethoven and so forth were, in the name of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, denounced as miserable specimens of “bourgeois degeneration”. The traffic light system was changed, so that red meant ‘go’, not stop - leading to innumerable road accidents and fatalities. Of course, as we all know, Karl Marx had a lifelong admiration for Balzac and Shakespeare, and Lenin loved Beethoven and Pushkin. Perhaps Marx and Lenin were also symbols of bourgeois culture.

Anyway, you could say, so far, so crazy - but then we had the famous 1972 meeting between Mao and Richard Nixon. This was at a time, of course, when many on the left were denouncing Nixon as a fascist because of the Vietnam War, Watergate, ubiquitous secret service surveillance, police brutality against protestors, and all the rest of it (the Communist Party of Cuba commissioned some unfortunate soul to draw a swastika over the ‘x’ every time Nixon’s name was mentioned in its official paper). We all know the results of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s chin-wag with Mao and Chou En-Lai, China’s prime minister. Beijing started to block Soviet aid to Vietnam. Disgustingly, general Pinochet’s 1973 coup against the government of Salvador Allende was welcomed by China. When we had the attacks on the Communist Party of Portugal after the 1975 Carnation Revolution, the Maoists lined up with the far-right counterrevolutionaries. Similarly, in Turkey they aligned themselves with the Grey Wolves - who used machine guns to attack the May Day demonstration in Istanbul attended by over half a million people. There was the same phenomenon again in southern Africa, with Beijing sponsoring anti-communist/anti-Soviet outfits like Unita in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique - all wretched offspring of the Mao-Nixon rapprochement.

But the big change in direction came with Deng Xiaoping. During the Cultural Revolution he had been fiercely denounced as a ‘capitalist roader’ in the company of Khrushchev and was sent into exile in the rural Jiangxi province. But after Mao’s death in September 1976 and the return of Deng to the highest echelons, we had the start of the capitalist road for real. Deng first of all decollectivised the communes, which were broken down into individual units. Deng then moved to encourage capital to come into the country from places like Hong Kong and Macau, mainly from rich Chinese ‘patriots’. The flow of capital allowed the country to take off economically. You no longer had the ‘iron rice bowl’ or secure employment, but wage-labour and wage-slavery. What allowed China to really take off economically was the US and the west permitting it to join the World Trade Organisation in December 11 2001. The deal was that China would allow foreign capital to buy up its top companies and banks. Beijing made the promise - but never delivered. China became the workshop of the world and the second largest economy. Maybe it is too late now for the US and the west to stop the rise of China. Maybe not.


With China, we are presented with an extraordinarily strange hybrid social formation - frankly, I would be hard pressed to tell you what the mode of production is.

Yevgeni Preobrazhensky famously wrote in the mid-1920s about the contradiction in the Soviet Union between what he called the emerging socialist - or communist - mode of production, and the capitalist mode of production (ie, peasant agriculture). Such things are always complex and, in the case of China, mind-meltingly so - not least because of the version of history promulgated by the CPC. That party decided not to go down the road of de-Maoification, akin to what happened in the Soviet Union. Mao was not going to suffer the same fate as JV Stalin, who officially ceased to exist apart from a small plaque on the Kremlin Wall (which you could easily walk past without noticing). Under Khrushchev you could not find a book or pamphlet by Stalin for love or money and the only statues of him were in Georgia.

By contrast, the Chinese version of history still has Mao - he has not been expunged. He is the founder of the PRC, no hiding that fact, and leader from 1949 to 1976. You get a history of continuity, expressed in the official ideology of the CPC today, which is described in its constitution - take a breath - as “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, socialism with Chinese characteristics, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping Thought”.

Is China a different sort of society because of its very long history, stretching back many thousands of years? Well, yes, in some respects. But the idea that the export of capital from China to somewhere like Africa is benign has to be rejected - it has absolutely no commitment to any form of proletarian internationalism, as we have previously seen in this article. Beijing exploits workers, who are a slave class in China - there is no democracy, the working class having no independent representation or organisations.

The one thing you can say with confidence is that China cannot be classified in any reasonable terms as a ‘workers’ state’, deformed or otherwise - unless you want to do grievous injury to the definitions and categories of classical Marxism. On the other hand, describing China as a capitalist country pure and simple is deeply problematic. If you want to look at China and simplify things a little, you could do worse than draw upon some of the writings of Preobrazhensky as a starting guide. That is, to talk about the capitalist mode of production on one side and state organisation on the other. The two are not in automatic correspondence: indeed there is contradiction, even antagonism.