October 2007, Number 10


On the Revolution in China

No honest and reasonably alert visitor to China can fail to be impressed by the remarkable changes in the country and the people. The material advances shown by the new system since so recent a year as 1952 leap to the eye. New factories, mines, oil fields, steelworks, dams, co-operatives, roads, buses, hospitals, schools, cultural palaces, theatres have sprouted virtually overnight. Literacy is almost universal and the language is being reformed. The rise in the general standard of living is equally remarkable. The normal noonday meal even of the unskilled laborer now compares with his rare holiday feast in the old days. Conditions of work have improved out of all recognition. Coalmines in whose unlimbered pits eight or ten famished peasant laborers dropped dead, or were killed by accident every day, have now death rates among the lowest in the world, and are decent places to work in, with excellent automatic machinery for the bulk of the production.

The former, incredible stench and filth have disappeared from the workers’ shuns, once the most dreadful in the whole world, and even the older hutments am free of vermin. But far more remarkable than all these are the changes among the people themselves. The current Chinese standard of honesty would have been astoundingly high in any country, even in pre-war Sweden. Shanghai, once notorious for the incidence of pilfering in spite of the watchful eyes of the foreign concession police, has not had a single petty crime reported for over ten months. After just two years of better living conditions, the children in the new workers’ tenements show what socialism can mean; they are healthier, more cheerful, and rush spontaneously to welcome the stranger without the least trace of shyness or rudeness. The unshakable calm, inner courtesy, love of culture, and fundamental good nature in all strata of Chinese society cannot be written off as ‘national character’ which has nothing to do with the revolution. The relaxed, well-adjusted Chinese of the People’s Republic are not to be found in Hong Kong, or Formosa. Yet the mainland is under constant threat of attack from modern atomic bases scattered from Japan to Formosa, while the other two regions have a perpetual hood of, foreign gold poured into them to make them happy bastions of genuine Western Democracy.

The intelligentsia of Peking also shows a remarkable contrast with those of great cities in other countries. Their enthusiasm and animation, particularly among the younger intellectuals, compares favorably with the lack of interest and rather fearful attitude that seems to characterize their counterparts in New York, and the rather casual, almost inert, and often lackadaisical approach to serious questions on the part of so many Muscovites. They certainly do not manifest the concentrated opportunism, thoroughgoing superficiality, and intolerable brag of the new middle-class Indian. Yet China is by no mesas a paradise. Serious new problems arise on every level, and have to be faced where other countries manage to ignore them or to deny their existence. Under these circumstances, why are the police so much less in evidence in new China than in most other countries, including the USA and the USSR? Why is there no counterpart to the un-American activities committee, no witch-hunting in any form? All criticism is carefully studied and sincerely welcomed if useful. People are now genuinely free to express any political opinion they like, including the belief that capitalism is superior to socialism. If they wish to study the speeches of Chiang Kai-shek, scrupulously accurate versions will be provided so that the reader can judge for himself what Chiang’s ideas of democracy really meant.

This freedom does not extend to certain types of action. The possible lover of “free enterprise” is not free to practice its most rapidly profitable aspects, to indulge in black-marketing, adulteration of goods, opium smuggling, and such unsocial activities. However, former Kuomintang generals are now employed in high and responsible administrative posts, as for example Fu Tso- yi, at present minister of water conservancy, in charge of important projects like the new dam construction in Sanmen gorge. Even Chiang Kaishek will be given a similar position, if he dares to make his peace with his own countrymen. At the same time, those who fought against these two for so many bitter years are found in all ranks of the army, and at all levels of the government, but do not have to be coerced to agree to this strange return.

Their position is not remotely comparable to that of the best resistance fighters in Germany, France and Italy, who see the resurgence of the most hated elements to power, and the recession of the goal for which the anti-fascists had worked so long. Many enterprises function very well under joint state and private ownership. There is no question of surrender to capitalism; yet the capitalists have not been “liquidated” by shooting, but converted into useful citizens.

These features of contemporary Chinese society must be in some way, traceable to the course of its revolution, which we proceed to analyze, in order to explain this extraordinary new civilization.

Ultra-Marxists find that the Chinese revolution had a peasant basis and leadership and not a proletarian; hence, they conclude that the revolution cannot be socialist, or communist. A view that need not be discussed seriously is that it is just one of the periodic upheavals which begin every three centuries or so in China as peasant revolts, to settle down after a change of regime; since the last such change came in 1644, with the Manchus, one was astrologically due now!

Nevertheless, serious arguments are still heard that the Chinese revolution is only a long-overdue reform and modernization of a backward semi-colonial country; that socialism in China is merely a political slogan, very far from realization. This is the main question that will be discussed here: Is the Chinese revolution socialist or has some other description to be found for it? The discussion has to be in the context of a given world situation and the specific situation in the country. The answer will necessarily imply a great deal about imminent or necessary changes in the rest of Asia and other under-developed areas. Some tacit conclusions also follow about other methods of advance to socialism than by armed insurrection.

To avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to define the fundamental terms. By revolution is meant the overthrow of a government by a major group of the governed, by methods regarded as illegal under the system existing before the overthrow. We have to exclude the mere coup d’etat when the group belongs essentially to the same governing class, as happens so often in South America. Changes of this nominal type are symptomatic of a large, passive, unresisting stratum among the governed. In South American countries, the real Americans (strangely called Indians) have hardly begun to figure on the political stage, and their very languages have yet be recognized to the extent of being taught in schools. A genuine revolution, as distinguished from a change of regime, takes place only when the governed will not submit to the old way and the governing classes cannot carry on in the old way. This is the common factor to the American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Sometimes, the overthrow occurs in effect before its formal recognition, in which case the revolution appears a comparatively peaceful transfer of power. This happened in India and a few other British colonies, where local bourgeoisies had developed under British colonial rule, and a became much costlier to suppress their demand for political power than to surrender it on condition that bourgeois property rights were not to be touched. However, the struggle was, even then, regarded as illegal and the attempts to suppress it employed outright violence. Our definition excludes such developments as the Industrial Revolution, and the pseudo-revolutions by foreign intervention.

Socialism is the system where means of production are owned by society as whole, not private persons; and where opportunity and the rewards of labour are equitably proportioned under the slogan “equal pay for equal work”. Communism is a more developed form under which each individual contributes to society according to his ability and receives a share of the social product according to his needs. Both of these imply a high degree of modern, mechanized, co-operative production before there can be more than a redistribution of poverty; but co-operative production is not by itself sufficient, for all factory production is possible only by the highest degree of social co-operation. Similarly, most societies recognize the needs of infants the ill, and the aged even when people in these categories can add little or nothing to the social produce; but that does not suffice to make those societies communist. In the strictest sense of the word, a “pure” socialist revolution is possible only when the productive capacity (surviving after the revolution) suffices for the needs of the whole population on the level that its citizens recognize as equitable. The only country where raw materials, installed machinery, power supply, and available technicians fulfill these conditions today is the USA, which has not had a revolution since 1776, when these conditions did not prevail and socialism was unknown. However, it is clear that the Soviet revolution at least is fundamentally different from the French or the American revolutions. So, let us agree to call a revolution ‘socialist’ when the new regime can, and plans to, progress directly to socialism without the necessity of further violent change in the government. In abstract theory, this would be possible in the USA, while Britain and India have openly proclaimed peaceful transition to socialism as their goal. The main question is whether the class in power wishes it, and tallies its actions with political declarations, or whether the socialist aim (if professed) amounts only to a means of deceiving the electorate, by promises which cannot be fulfilled by the methods adopted.

One of the necessary (though not sufficient) conditions for a revolution to be socialist is that the power thereafter should not be in the hands of a minority class. The reason is simply that such a class cannot logically be expected to usher in a classless society. The Chinese revolution satisfies this condition. However, Marx and his followers had asked for a further condition, namely that the revolution should establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. This conclusion was drawn from the experience of the great French revolution, which had some hope of progressing to socialist liberty, equality, and fraternity as long as Robespierre lasted. It turned into reaction and military dictatorship as soon as the new urban bourgeoisie and their rural counterpart the peasants, had liquidated the privileges of feudal ownership and acquired control over the new forms of property. The further experience of 1848 and of the Paris Commune of 1870-71 did nothing to shake the conclusion. Nor did the Tai Ping rebellion in China, which would only have meant a change of dynasty but for foreign intervention. The Indian revolt of 1857 had nothing to offer but a renewal of feudal power.

The Paris Commune was lost precisely because the peasantry was not drawn into the struggle on the side of the workers. The Russian revolution was completed by the triple alliance of workers, soldiers and peasants. The fundamental contradiction between (the essentially cooperative) modern factory production and the essentially petty-bourgeois peasant production remained. It could not be solved, as in the USA, by methods that led ultimately to the creation of the Dust Bowl, price supports, and wanton destruction or senseless hoarding of “surplus” food by the state. The problem had to be solved quickly in the USSR, and a regular food supply ensured which could not be shaken by famine, epidemics, or foreign intervention.

The solution was found in collectivization of the land, but under the guidance of people not themselves peasants, whose approach was generally doctrinaire, and methods often coercive. The new productive basis withstood the cordon sanitaire and the most deadly armed invasion of World War II. The very existence of the USSR was encouragement to socialist movements throughout the world, while new China could not have progressed so rapidly without – its protection against foreign intervention and its capital aid. However, in conjunction with the antagonistic external pressures, Soviet methods left the aberrant legacy of unhappiness, mistrust, and espionage, twisting of the national character, which has slowly to be cleared out.

The Chinese revolution followed a totally different course. The workers’ commune of Canton was brutally suppressed. Shanghai fell quickly to the Kuomintang forces only because of the great workers’ rising planned and organized by Chou En-lai. The reward was the unparalleled bloodbath of 1927 in which about 50,000 workers and left-wing intellectuals were tortured and put to death by that pillar of Western Democracy Chiang Kaishek whose latest writings bemoan his own naïve trust of communists and his great leniency. Comintern theorists wrote many futile theses about the workers’ revolution. The sole effective action was organized by Mao Tsetung and Chu Deh, on the basis of armed guerilla insurrection with peasant bands. To survive, the center of resistance had to be shifted, by means of the famous Long March, to the extreme hinterland of China, very far from any factory or proletarians. The communists did not enforce cooperative production in the areas under their control. The land was redistributed for petty, small-scale primitive production, and not all the land but only that portion owned by oppressive semi-feudal landlords who had run away from the vengeance of the peasantry. The complete land reform came in 1952.

From 1936-7, the communists actually put the revolution in abeyance to cooperate in a common anti-Japanese front with Chiang. Impartial observers like Stilwell and Evans Carlson have made it clear that they fought the Japanese much more effectively than the Kuomintang. Does all this not smack of reformism, of the will to abandon socialism at the slightest excuse?

Actually the armed insurrection made the political work effective. The poorest peasant and landless agrarian worker had been psychologically conditioned during two thousand years of misrule to being kicked around by official warlord, landlord, and merchant. He now learned that his destiny rested in his own hands. Re-division of landlords’ property united all the peasantry rich and poor, behind the regime. The new leaders lived a life of the utmost simplicity. Taxes were very light, and there was no speculation.

As the Chinese workers were hardly a step removed from the peasants, they backed the communists solidly whenever they had the chance. The united anti-Japanese front drew all patriotic intellectuals and petty bourgeoisie into the struggle, and showed them that no other leadership could be effective. During the course of the struggle, the Red Army performed a feat that exceeds even the Long March in importance. It proved that a guerrilla force starting with the poorest weapons, but correctly based upon the people as a whole, and properly led, could convert itself during the very course of the war into a full-fledged modern army, supplied with weapons and technicians taken over from the far better-equipped opponents. This, in fact, symbolizes the entire course of the Chinese revolution in its uninterrupted advance towards socialism.

The peasant in a capitalist environment has necessarily to be a petty bourgeois, but not necessarily one in an ancient, backward, pre-bourgeois country, which is overpopulated relative to the available food supply. In such a country, it is absolutely futile to wait for a full development of the bourgeois mode, the creation of a large and strong proletariat, then a strong workers’ party, and finally a socialist revolution in our sense of the word. The new bourgeoisie in such a country will fall very far behind the creative role of the first bourgeoisies such as in England. Specifically, China had simultaneously the worst features of the old feudalism on land, imperialist-colonial intervention by foreign powers, and an indigenous fascism based on strong internal monopoly of weakly developed capital. The monopoly, in fact, was of the notorious Four Families (Chiang, Soong, Kung, Chen), who reduced all other private capitalists to their servants and the whole administration to their lackeys. The heaviest profits came directly from bleeding the people, without industrialization.

The essential point is very simple. No revolution … today in a backward country has any chance of effectiveness, or even of survival, unless it is planned and carried out as a socialist revolution. Industrialization is not a prerequisite of socialism in such countries, as so many theorists continue to believe, but the very converse is necessary. The advanced non-socialist countries (taken together) are over-producing, in the sense that their markets lack the purchasing power necessary to absorb the full-capacity product. The existence of cheap (but inefficient) labour and raw materials: in the underdeveloped areas cannot but aggravate this fundamental economic contradiction. Technical advances like automation increases the stress. The strong possibility that the USSR can and will supply capital goods to all backward countries, socialist or not, to develop without the domination of foreign capital also brings the crisis nearer. The only solution is to begin with a socialist revolution so that effective demand rises indefinitely, and planning makes overproduction impossible. One lesson that might be drawn from China is the correct socialist approach to the cult of mere bigness in a backward country. The USSR, with its different historical background, and the urgent need to establish the first base for socialism, without external aid and in the face of a deadly, unremittingly hostile environment, had to industrialize regardless of cost. This meant human cost, in the absence of capital aid, but the viability of socialist production was proved. In China, the same pace of industrialization would have meant intolerable shortage of consumer goods at a time when immediate relief had to be shown from the incredible misery into which the Kuomintang and the Four Families (with US aid) had plunged the country. It would also mean serious unemployment, at least an “excess of manpower”, in the interim period, not to speak of heavy waste of capital assets in short supply. So, their immediate plans are being modified so as to encourage cooperative handicraft production and unmechanized agriculture in tune with basic industrialization. They can utilize the stored experience of the remarkably successful Gung Ho industrial cooperatives set up during the anti-Japanese war in the remotest hinterland. This contrasts with the heavy opposition aroused by even the trifling, slap-dash cooperation announced by the Indian government. Certainly, the Chinese would not set up the Amber Charkha hand-spinning scheme, had they so powerfully developed a textile industry as India and such ample foreign aid. The dam in the gorges of the Yangtze will be bigger than those in most Indian schemes. But in a country that has a monsoon, the essential [point] is to hold the rainwater back as long as possible, to prevent quick erosion of valuable topsoil. That is, flood control and efficient food production in India would be far better served by a hundred thousand, properly coordinated, small dams rather than a few big ones costing more. The Chinese have their own schemes for atomic energy research, but for use, not empty prestige. In India, the money poured out could have been much better utilized in harnessing the decidedly more abundant solar energy, which only blasts the country over eight months or more of the year. All we have achieved so far is a remarkably useless sun-cooker. Both countries have to cope with a dense population and high birth rate, but birth control propaganda catches on quickly in China, because the people know that in old age, they will have comfortable maintenance from their cooperative group, even when there are no children. To plan the population without planning how the population is to make a reasonably decent living is as ridiculous as it is futile. Thus, when one speaks of many different paths leading to socialism, it is necessary to ask, “what sort of socialism?” Germany produced National Socialism under Hitler; the socialist government in France attacked Egypt for the sake of the Suez Canal Company, and did not hesitate to continue the brutal war of colonial repression in Algeria.

The Chinese method had one advantage over all others, including the Russian, in that the confidence of the food producers, with accurate knowledge and full control of the food supply, were assured from the start over an increasingly larger area. The art of genuine persuasion were mastered by the technique developed in the Yenan days, when not more than a third of the local councils and committees were allowed to consist of communist party members. Go-operation has caught on very well, without the least show of force on the part of the state among the peasants. For example, during the lean months at the end of winter, peasant cooperatives about Peking (which have not enough land for the necessary surplus) send many of their members out to work at transport, carpentry, and odd jobs. Till last year, the individual kept 15 out of the average monthly wages of 50 Yuan earned by such labor, and put the rest into the cooperative. Now, without any suggestion from the government, all the money is voluntarily put into the common fund, and each family assigned enough (by the cooperative) for its needs during those three hard months of the year. Contrast this with other countries in Asia. The Indian five-year plan allots about 11% of the total plan budget to heavy industry, and effectively spends less. The rest goes in services, ancillary plant, transport, power supply, irrigation and the like, which does not touch private monopoly in food production (which can be broken only by a tax in kind and efficient grain storage); nor in most consumer goods, nor some very important heavy industry. The Indian state has absolute power and uses it to settle questions like the linguistic division of Bombay state by tear gas and bullets instead of the logical democratic plebiscite and ballot It is openly admitted that this all-powerful state is powerless to collect evaded taxes, to curb inflation, to control food prices, or to raise money by expropriation of the primitive accumulation of moneylender, landlord, and profiteer, in place of sales and consumer taxes. This amounts to a confession that the classes in power have not the least desire for socialism, and will not allow their profits to be touched even if it means the failure of industrialization. The remaining Asian countries, including those in the Middle East, and Turkey have found insurmountable obstacles of every type on the road to industrialization. The moral should be reasonably clear.

Monthly Review

(New York), 1957.

M.N.Roy, writing on ‘Revolution and Counter-revolution In China’ (1946) to justify those actions of his that had led to his expulsion from the Comintern, reached the conclusion that the Chinese revolution did not follow a pattern, which could be approved by Marxists. He said that the “so-called Communist Party of China” preferred to base itself on the village paupers, necessarily inclined towards banditry’. “Having learned from experience, the Communists in China today are communists only in name”. The refusal to learn anything from experience, and the insistence upon keeping the name unsullied by effective action are characteristic of Roy’s type of OM. While accusing the communist leaders in China of “relapse into opportunism which may be justified as clever strategy”, Roy had not discovered the existence of Mao Tse-tung in 1930, and even in 1946 dismissed Chairman Mao’s united national front as another ‘doctrinaire preoccupation.’ The task of the revolution in colonial and semi-colonial countries now (1946) is to establish Radical Democracy’-a task in which Roy himself failed dismally on his return to India while the bourgeois colonial struggle was being fought out and won under the leadership of the Congress, without benefit of Roy. As late as 1951, the CPI portentously reserved final judgment upon the Chinese revolution, on the grounds that the whole affair might turn out to be reformist in character, compared with the purity of the struggle in India.

Other Indians, formerly OM continue to ignore China, and devote their energies to such urgent problems as the woes of Yugoslavia or Hungary. Therefore, it might be of some use to re-examine the content and meaning of a socialist revolution. Otherwise, it is fatally easy to slip into a form of “socialism” which lacks everything except the name. It is to be feared that recent developments in India and frantic appeal for dollar aid imply this trend in the ruling class and its party. It does require a peculiar genius to undercut socialism while supposedly building it by peaceful methods, but the country might be happier if such talent were more innocuously utilized. 