Turning its back on revolution

Eddie Ford examines the implications of Deng Xiaoping’s death and the history of the Communist Party of China

China waved farewell last week to another symbol of its revolutionary past. With the death of Deng Xiaoping, veteran of the Long March, the memory of the 1949 revolution becomes further diminished. The next generation of party/state bureaucrats will be apparatchiks who have ‘inherited’ the revolution, not participated in it.

In many respects Deng was the personification of two eras of modern Chinese history: the revolutionary and post-revolutionary state. Born in 1904, he joined the Chinese Socialist Youth League in 1920, which became a branch of the Communist Party of China after it was formed in July 1921, becoming a full member in 1924. He organised Red Army detachments after 1929 and took part in the Long March (1934-35), which saved the CPC from physical annihilation at the hands of the nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek. He commanded the Second Field Amy during the revolutionary civil war (1946-49) and became a close supporter of Mao Zedong. He survived the Cultural Revolution and eventually became the architect of ‘market Leninism’ and “paramount leader” of the CPC, even if his only ‘official’ position at his death was as secretary of the Chinese Bridge Association.

Curiously, for a man who dedicated his entire life to the building of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and who was for many the ‘butcher of Tiananmen Square’, he has received numerous accolades from the representatives of western capitalism. The Economist described him as “one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century, a man who set under way the biggest improvement in the living standards and personal freedoms of the largest number of people in all of human history” (February 22).

Following the memorial service, the CPC looks set to get the display it wanted - party, state, people and nation united in grief for the death of the ‘red emperor’, a term highly in vogue amongst the bourgeois press. No public criticisms of Deng have emerged from this ‘official’ gloom, except for highly oblique comments on Deng’s successors in fringe ‘Maoist’ publications like Zhongliu (Mainstream). Just to be on the safe side though, martial law has been declared in Tiananmen Square - which has previously been the site of politically charged mourning.

Of course, it is not too difficult to identify the reason for the west’s distinct friendliness towards Deng. Since 1978 - when in December the Third Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPC officially rehabilitated Deng from his status as instigator of the “counterrevolutionary affair” at Tiananmen Square in 1976 - Deng has been single-mindedly committed to economic ‘modernisation’ and ‘liberalisation’. His economic strategy is encapsulated by the slogan, ‘To get rich is glorious’- which has, in some respects, almost become official state ideology. Deng’s sweeping reforms and the general opening up of China to the world market has resulted in massive economic growth, which has averaged about nine percent a year, transforming it from ‘basket case’ to ‘boomtown’ in the eyes of the capitalist world. Foreign capital, inevitably, has flowed into China, with direct foreign investment resting at an average of $35 billion. Since 1994 inflation has been kept low at under five percent, and its share of world exports now stands at just over 2.5% - a drop in the world imperialist ocean, perhaps, but an enormous leap since the days of Mao, and China’s share will almost certainly expand further.

The party/state elite in China is certainly enriching itself, even if it is in a most inglorious manner. The web of nepotism and corruption envelops all of China and chokes the very political air itself. The introduction and acceleration of capitalist social relations has seen elements of the bureaucracy, particularly their ‘sons and daughters’, struggle to transform themselves into a bourgeois ruling class, as opposed to a bureaucratic caste - a phenomenon common to all the ex-‘socialist’ states in Eastern Europe. There is now a blurring of distinctions between ‘free enterprise’ and state control. The army has especially benefited from this economic meltdown, with at least 20,000 army companies now in operation.

In other words, in China we are seeing the creation of a proto-bourgeoisie, whose power over political resources is matched by its power over economic ones - often gained through the direct appropriation of state assets.

The fate of Chinese ‘official communism’ is, without doubt, a grim and depressing one. Under the banner of the ‘Four Basic Principles’ which Deng always claimed allegiance to - “the socialist road; the people’s democratic dictatorship; the leadership of the party; and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought” - the peasants and workers of China are being opened up to pitiless capitalistic exploitation and political oppression.

“In its scope,” wrote the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, the Chinese revolution “is the greatest of all revolutions in history” (‘Maoism - its origins and outlook’, in Marxism, war and revolutions: essays from four decades London 1984, p182). Yet the Chinese revolution is destined to reach its miserable apotheosis in the hands of the post-Deng leaders. Exactly how this came to be is a complex and difficult question, but one that has to be addressed by communists over the coming period.

Deng Xiaoping, along with Mao Zedong, belonged to that generation of Chinese revolutionaries who looked to the October Revolution, and the subsequent world communist movement, for their inspiration. However, the model that Deng and his companions increasingly turned towards, and adopted, was the theory and practices of the rising Stalinite bureaucracy and ‘official communism’ in general, even if it did end up clashing with its mentors. Not that this prevented Deng, a senior member of China’s delegation to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, from being greatly affronted by Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of the crimes of JV Stalin.

It was virtually inevitable that the Bolshevism produced by the revolutionary movement in China would be on a lower, more primitive level. This cannot be purely ascribed to the subjective weaknesses and defects of revolutionaries like Deng and Mao. The first Chinese translation of the Communist manifesto did not appear until 1920. I was only then that Mao, for one, at the age of 27, read it for the first time. Socialist/Marxist literature was almost entirely absent from China prior to 1917. Unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the communist cadre in China did not have the shoulders of previous generations of revolutionaries, and of many decades of intense theoretical debate, to stand upon. It was born in a monolithic and bureaucratic centralist mould, without the air of European philosophy and socialism to breathe on.

Deutscher argues, with some force:

“Lacking any native Marxist ancestry, Chinese communism descends straight from Bolshevism. Mao stands on Lenin’s shoulders ... In a sense, China had to ‘jump over’ the pre-Bolshevik phase of Marxism in order to be able to respond to Marxism at all” (ibid p182)

This lack of “native Marxist ancestry” led the CPC to be dependent on the Soviet bureaucracy and the Stalinised Comintern. The latter, under the stewardship of NI Bukharin, urged the CPC to align itself with the reactionary nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), actually taking out membership. At the Fifth Congress of Comintern in 1924 the KMT was characterised as a “sympathising party”, leading Trotsky to damn Bukharin, Stalin and others as “the theoreticians of class collaboration in China” (see The Third International after Lenin New York 1974, p164). Despite every disaster and setback, Bukharin insisted that the revolutionary movement in China should seek out the ‘left wing’ of the KMT, in order to squeeze the Chinese revolution into the Menshevik/Stalinite paradigm of the so-called bourgeois democratic revolution, which had to come before the socialist revolution. It was at this point that Mao imbibed the ideas of ‘national socialism’, and Deng Xiaoping himself in 1926 ran a military training school in Xi’an for the nationalist general, Feng Yuxiang.

When the nationalist generals like Yuxiang used their no doubt excellent, CPC-initiated military training in 1927 to butcher the CPC cadre in Shanghai and other urban centres, this had dramatic consequences for the evolution of Chinese communism. The post-1927 period saw the CPC transform its entire world outlook and, importantly, its social base. With its proletarian heart ripped out by the criminal advice of Bukharin and the Comintern, and the White Terror of the KMT, the CPC under the growing hegemony of Mao turned its gaze towards the peasants and the endless country expanse.

The Long March, however heroic, reinforced the increasingly de-proletarianised world outlook of Mao and his comrades, who now aimed at surrounding the cities. It is open to debate whether the Long March and the flight to the countryside at this time was a correct tactic, but when it became a programmatic strategy it is not an exaggeration to say that Mao and Deng became in effect petty bourgeois revolutionaries rather than proletarian ones.

The CPC turned its back on the working class, dismissed out of hand the prospect of any revolutionary revival in the countryside and banked on the ‘agrarian revolution’, in a utopian Narodnik schema alien to Marxism/communism. It flowed from this that Mao substituted, in essence, a military strategy for a political one - ie, the military conquest of the cities by the Peoples Liberation Army. Logically, war replaced revolution and, of course, the Soviet Union replaced the working class as the vehicle for liberation (it should be noted that Deng was responsible after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 for pushing the quintessentially Maoist notion that the revolutionary forces of the third world were in effect peasant armies surrounding the bourgeois ‘cities’ of industrialised nations).

Chinese ‘official communism’, a non-proletarian ‘communism’, remained captive to this utopian and ‘agrarian’ ideology, which de facto abandoned scientific socialism and Marxism. During the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s Mao attempted to collectivise the country in a purely voluntarstic fashion from below - hoping to imitate Stalin who did it from above in the 1930s. Inevitably, it led to disaster and famine, as the ‘leap forward’ degenerated into planless anarchy.

The Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 - despite the degree of genuine self-activity involved - had nothing to do with the proletariat, ideologically or sociologically, representing a political revolution carried out by one section (Mao and the Red Army) of the bureaucracy against another section of the bureaucracy (Chou En-lai and the Party/state bureaucracy). It was a petty bourgeois programme for ‘instant communism’ and in its culmination a form of madness directed against humanity, which created turmoil and misery for untold millions. It was “an unwitting confession of how little Maoism has now to offer China” (Deutscher ibid p216).

Obscenely, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution became the model of ‘communism’ for the genocidal forces of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea, and is still - in some shape or form - the inspiration for groups like the Shining Path in Peru.

Deng, traumatised by the Cultural Revolution, declared war on this legacy of petty bourgeois utopianism - precisely in order to pursue a petty bourgeois orientation towards capitalism instead. His smashing up of the communes led to the creation of a surplus labour force, who could be paid ‘medieval’ wages. The massive capital accumulation in the ‘special economic zones’ in southern China and the pouring of the peasants into the cities has added enormous numbers to this surplus labour force.

For the first time, the working class is being constituted under real capitalist social relations, not the formal green shoots which existed pre-1949. Thanks to Deng’s ‘economic miracle’, workers are being completely separated from the means of production and are evolving into freely exploited workers, not the worker-slaves they were under Mao.

The formation of a working class - sociologically - creates the potential for it to be a political class. Given the quasi-feudal levels of exploitation in the ‘special economic zones’- and the desperate misery of the masses elsewhere (who, you can guarantee will not have benefited from the fabled 9- 10% economic growth rate) the likelihood of labour unrest is great. Out of these fertile conditions, the workers can put China back onto the track of world socialism.

Ted Heath, as part of his paen to Deng and “Chinese socialism”, declared that China is “too big for democracy”. So he hopes and desires. A truly democratic China, one which was casting off the stultifying and parasitical clutches of the Communist Party of China and its brand of ‘market Leninism’ would symbolise an awesome threat and challenge to international capitalism and imperialism - as Heath perfectly realises. Unlike India of course, which has no problems being the ‘world’s biggest democracy’ for Heath and co.

The new working class of China must now finish the proletarian revolution so rudely aborted by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and the Comintern in the 1 920s and 1930s. A revolution guided by a scientific programme for world revolution, not for the building of ‘socialism’ within the confines of the Chinese border.