When news broke following October 1st, 1949 that the Chinese Communist Party defeated the ‘Nationalist’ troops and had established the People’s Republic of China, reactions of elation, horror or skepticism ensued. Few however could predict the political struggles which would erupt over the next 20 years, eventually spilling into public life in what was known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Beyond the monolithic facade which Western analysts often interpreted interaction between and within Communist Parties, lie the curation of an array of political and social lines that often conflicted with each other. 1
It is simple and easy to rest the responsibility of history at the foot of a few individuals. Certainly, leftists within the CP did so themselves through continuous remarks of veneration for Mao and others. While acknowledging the unevenness of influence even within socialist societies, this essay will focus on the explicit foreign and domestic political lines of left-wing members of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as speculate on the contradictions displayed by leftist power-holders themselves. Particularly, the highlighted class and geo-political elements of socialist foreign policy; the critique of the rise and empowerment of the “New Bourgeoisie” within a nominally socialist or Marxist state; and the implementation of the personality cult around Mao (and other methods promoting uncritical thinking and initiative) will act as central discussion points from which to further delve into the meaning of radical politics in revolutionary China.
Within China, foreign policy was hinged on the logical rhetoric of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ which was already the official doctrine of the Soviet Union. As well, it was punctuated by and developed through the pre and post-liberation experience of China. As well, one of the primary features of leftist foreign policy in China was its stance towards the USSR.
Early on during the life of the People’s Republic of China, favorable relations were established with the Soviet Union. Before the CCP had defeated the Koumintang, it received considerable aid and support from the CPSU and USSR. Prior to this, a political struggle within the Soviet Union had pitted Stalin against Trotsky and included questions revolving around revolutionary foreign policy. Trotsky, ultimately loosing both the power struggle and political legitimacy, argued for a policy which focused on Europe, colonial centers and urban organizing. 2 Stalin, who ultimately came to power over both ‘left’ and more centrist members of opposition in the CPSU, argued for a policy which stressed the significance of anti-colonial struggles and a broader policy of support for such. 3 This latter policy was to the benefit of Chinese Communist Party and Chinese revolutionaries, something that was acknowledged and appreciated by Chinese leftists following the establishment of the PRC. 4
Following the death of Stalin in 1956 and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, during which Khruschev renounced many of the Stalin-era policies including the “cult of individual,” the initial reaction by the Chinese Communist Party was one of general agreement and to include a number of their own critiques of Stalin. 5 Months later, following the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the CCP offered a more measured assessment of Stalin while defending the Soviet Union and socialism in general. 6
Over the next years, following the adoption by the Soviet Union of a policy and rhetoric of “peaceful co-existence” between the Socialist and Western Bloc countries, and especially following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Chinese officials became more critical of the leadership of the CPSU within the International Communist Movement (ICM) and by 1963 were airing such grievance publicly. The main early critique of the Russian Communist leadership by the Chinese leftists hinged around the former’s foreign policy.
In implicit criticism, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party instructed its Soviet and international Communist comrades:
“The socialist countries and the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed peoples and nations support and assist each other.
“The national liberation movements of Asia, Africa and Latin America and the revolutionary movements of the people in the capitalist countries are a strong support to the socialist countries. It is completely wrong to deny this.
“The only attitude for the socialist countries to adopt towards the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed peoples and nations is one of warm sympathy and active support; they must not adopt a perfunctory attitude, or one of national selfishness or of great-power chauvinism.[…]
“Certain persons have one-sidely exaggerated the role of peaceful competition between socialist and imperialist countries in their attempt to substitute peaceful competition for the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed peoples and nations. According to their preaching, it would seem that imperialism will automatically collapse in the course of this peaceful competition and that the only thing the oppressed peoples and nations have to do is to wait quietly for the advent of this day.[…]
“Moreover, certain persons have concocted the strange tale that China and some other socialist countries want ‘to unleash wars’ and to spread socialism by ‘wars between states.’… To put it bluntly, the purpose of those who repeat these slanders is to hide the fact that they are opposed to revolutions by the oppressed peoples and nations of the world and opposed to others supporting such revolutions.” 7
Among the top questions on the minds of CCP officials was how should Communist-led countries should relate to each other in what was seen as a common struggle against imperialism. Prior to 1965, the CCP has discussed four main contradictions shaping the world and through which Communists would struggle against capital. 8 By 1965, a shift in policy and rhetoric occurred. Now, according the the Chinese Communists, the main contradiction shaping the world lie between imperialism and oppressed nations.
In the text, Long Live the Victory of People’s War!, Lin Biao (who at the time occupied the ranks of Minister of Defense, Vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the CCP and Vice-Premier of the State Council and who was a prominent leftist within the CCP) stated:
“Taking the entire globe, if North America and Western Europe can be called ‘the cities of the world,’ then Asia, Africa and Latin America constitute the ‘rural areas of the world.’ Since World War II, the proletarian revolutionary movement has for various reasons been temporarily held back in the North American and West European countries, while the people’s revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America has been growing vigorously. In a sense, the contemporary world revolution also presents a picture of the encirclement of cities by the rural areas. In the final analysis, the whole cause of world revolution hinges on the revolutionary struggles of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples who make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. The socialist countries should regard it as their duty to support the people’s revolutionary struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” 9
While the document explicitly labeled US imperialism as the primary enemy, such a line of argument was also used to criticize the Soviet Union. In the same text, Lin states:
“The Khruschev revisionists have come to the rescue of US imperialism just when it is most panic striken and helpless in its efforts to cope with people’s war. Working hand in glove with the US imperialists, they are doing their utmost to spread all kinds of arguments against people’s war and, wherever they can, they are scheming to undermine it by overt and covert means….”
“They submit to the nuclear blackmail of the US imperialists and are afraid that, if the oppressed peoples and nations rise up to fight people’s war or the people of the socialist countries repulse US imperialist aggression, US imperialism will become incensed, they themselves will become involved and their fond dream of Soviet-US co-operation to dominate the world will be spoiled.” 10
“The essence of the general line of the Khruschev revisionists is nothing other than the demand that all the oppressed peoples and nations and all the countries which have won independence should lay down their arms place themselves at the mercy of the US imperialists and their lackeys who are armed to the teeth.” 11
The closing remarks on the USSR in Lin’s essay stated:
“To win the struggle against US imperialism and carry out people’s wars to victory, the Marxist-Leninists and revolutionary people throughout the world must resolutely oppose Khruschev revisionism.” 12
Whereas in first half of the 1960’s was marked by the Sino-Soviet split, until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, most of Beijing’s critiques revolved around the Soviet’s lacking or conditional support for Third World people’s wars or otherwise conciliatory attitude towards US imperialism. Within the context of struggles around domestic policies and the power struggle that resulted, China’s view of the Soviet leadership began to take on new dimensions: the Soviet Union’s “revisionist” leadership had taken the Soviet Union off the path of socialism and communism and onto the path of capitalism. This interpretation was used as a lightening rod which could draw attention to the potential for similar development in China. For CCP leftists, the path of development in the post-Stalin Soviet Union was held up as negative model of what all socialist states should avoid. 13
Throughout the Cultural Revolution, China viewed the Soviet Union with increasing hostility, in no small part due to its own national interest. However, by 1970, the CCP began to view the struggle between “revisionist” and proletarian policy lines as an increasingly central issue, and the Soviet Union’s leadership was declared to be a primary enemy of the world’s people. This shift in foreign policy fundamentally ended the anti-imperialist policies previous in place, and began a period of friendly US-Chinese relations. The shift in policy was also coincided with the fall of Lin Biao, his mysterious death and posthumous criticism by Chinese media, the Gang of Four and others.
While there were numerous struggles within the CCP over policy prior to the Sino-Soviet split, this event more than others was a catalyst for heightened struggle within China.
Prior to the Cultural Revolution, Chinese officials, in line with standard Marxist-Leninist thinking, maintained that within socialist societies leftover bourgeois and feudal elements remained and would continue to struggle to regain their former power. 14 Following the split with the CPSU and the heightening of struggle within China over the path of domestic development, leftists in China began to craft a new idea regarding class struggle in socialist countries. According to Chinese leftists, inequalities and privilege originating both from the old society and those accrued under socialism spontaneously engendered the creation of a new bourgeoisie. This new bourgeoisie would attempt to cement their privilege into a new system of capitalism. As had supposedly happen in the Soviet Union, such a change could occur peacefully, if such new bourgeoisie elements were allowed to seize the reigns of power in a socialist society: particularly the leadership of the CP. The way to combat such a tendency, leftists assumed, was to carry out struggle both in the realm of the base (i.e., social and material circumstances of productive life) and the super-structure (i.e., cultural and institutions which overlay the base). These were the lessons that China’s leftists drew from their experience and knowledge of the Soviet Union. These same lessons would be applied to concurrent struggles within China. 15
This theoretical break from previous Marxism would have significant impact on Marxist theories regarding socialist revolution. Its application however was mismanaged according to the necessity of those leading the struggle against the ‘bourgeois right.’ Particularly, while there were significant efforts to alter the base of China’s economy in a way that promoted greater equality and fraternity, in the main struggle was carried out in the cultural and ideological realms and often with commandist methods. Too often, individuals were attacked while the system which engendered such privilege was left intact. As well, cult-like thinking was engendered amongst the masses, which left them unprepared for the twists of class struggle.
Despite its failure, the Cultural Revolution represents a major experiential contribution in the history of revolutionary struggle. 16 Whereas previous post-revolutionary states have used formalism or terror to resolve power struggles amongst leading factions, these means were closed off to Mao and the left. 17 Unlike struggles within socialist countries before or since, Mao and other leftists sought to appeal to and mobilize those outside the CP and the state. This action was not without its reasoning: the struggle against ‘revisionism’ was one that affected and should be waged to the entire people. It was appropriate therefore to involve the entire masses directly in this struggle. While these ideas were new and significant, apparent by the dawn of the Cultural Revolution were additional fatal shortcomings of China’s revolutionary left. 18
The Cult of Personality, Triumphalism and other problems of China’s left
Political veneration of Mao was carried out early after the establishment of the PRC. Mao’s genius, leftists stated, was in his application of Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” China. The strategy and tactics of people’s war, in part developed under Mao’s leadership during China’s revolution, was said to be of universal significance for similar “colonial” and “semi-colonial” countries, and hence of universal significance for the “entire world struggle.” Mao’s thought was announced by Chinese leftists to be the further development of Marxism-Leninism in this regard. 19
The further development of the culture of near-religious veneration of Mao had its specific purposes and origins. First, Mao’s writing was often simple and clear, as well as insightful. Insofar as there was a sole authoritative voice on China’s revolutionary struggle, Mao was it. Furthermore, as French post-Maoist Alain Badiou has suggested, Mao was the representation of the Communist Party within the Communist Party. That is to say, insofar as the CP was seen as the leading force of revolution inside Chinese society, it was only natural that the CP itself have a leading force: Mao himself. 20
Going further, Mao’s writing could be used by China’s leftists as a counterweight to the more moderate tone of other leaders. Case in point, The Quotations of Mao Zedong, otherwise known as the ‘Red Book,’ was assembled by Lin Biao for use in political education first inside the military and then with the population at large. The text, full of socialist morality, served as alternative model in education compared to Lui Shaoqi’s ‘How To Be A Good Communist.’ In short, by institutionalizing and popularizing adulation of Mao himself, Chinese leftists were able to circumvent the state and party machinery in implementing policy and programs.
However, the development of the cult of personality around Mao, which by 1966 has already begun to reach its climax, had drawbacks that became apparent soon after Mao withdrew from leftist positions. 21 With Mao in charge, leftists lost a significant amount of control over China’s domestic and foreign policy following 1969. Often, ‘Mao’s Thought’ was either itself contradictory, or it was increasingly in conflict Mao’s own actions and policies. The notion that Mao was firmly rooted in the leftist camp was incorrect. The left’s sponsorship of the cult around Mao inevitably made the former impotent following latter’s defection. Moreover, it had intellectually crippled the masses of China, who increasingly responded to events after 1969 (notably, the mysterious disappearance and denouncement of Lin) with confusion and disillusionment.
Another problematic aspect featured by China’s left was its frequent tinge of triumphalism. The idea that socialism was on the rise and that China was on the leading, ascendant side of history was prominent in the rhetoric utilized by China’s left. This triumphalism, like the development of the cult of personality, was a common feature in Marxism-Leninism at the time but taken to new heights by Chinese leftists.
Examples of such triumphalism can be found throughout Long Live the Victory of People’s War. “Ours is the epoch in which world capitalism and imperialism are heading for their doom and socialism and communism are marching to victory,” announced the leftist text.
Within the context of the period, as the US was tying itself into armed conflicts in Vietnam and elsewhere, the optimism on the behalf of the Chinese leftists was at least partially understandable. Yet, such historical determinism was and is a radical break with Marxism, which held no single track of historical development and which had stressed a subjective role. Insofar as this subjective role was acknowledged within CCP rhetoric, it came implicitly in the form of voluntarism (i.e. waging class struggle as a moral imperative) that was promoted within China during the Cultural Revolution. This combination, historical determinism on one hand and voluntarism and moralism on the other, was a break with the standard Marxian interpretation based on the struggle between classes for power. Instead of promoting the critical inquisition into handling and resolving conflicts both within and without China, China’s moral and historical supremacy was assumed as correct.
Similar to the leftists interpretation which heightened the prestige of Mao, another problematic aspect of their program was the recurring attacks on a relatively few numbers of individuals. During the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi was first allegorically criticized in the media as “China’s Khruschev,” then openly with the same label. Deng Xiaoping received a similar treatment. While both received harsh treatment as a result, the foundations of bourgeois privilege (in large part the Communist Party itself: that element of power that leftists sought to retain so as to hold onto) were largely left unchecked, and capitalist policies were making a comeback by the early and mid 1970’s. 22
Following the liberation of China, leftists were able to make significant contributions in Marxist analysis and critique. In foreign policy, China’s Communist left sought to export their model of people’s wars, defended of the right of self-determination for nations oppressed by imperialism and promoted a global united front against US-led imperialism. In domestic policy, China’s leftists noted the development of a new bourgeoisie created from the inequalities within socialism and sought to combat this trend. These ideas were hugely significant in the course of China’s post-revolution experience and hold continuing relevance for the struggle against oppression. Yet, China’s leftists ultimately failed, both to maintain a revolutionary foreign policy and to prevent the restoration of capitalism inside China. Though there are myriad of reasons for this, two were no doubt the inclusion of ‘great man theories’ and triumphalism into their political culture. 23 China’s leftists and their struggles are part of the history of peoples’ struggles against oppression, and offer interesting look into the workings of post-revolutionary, Communist-led states. Both in their own analysis of events and their failure throughout them, China’s leftists offer important lessons in the experience of people’s struggles.
1 This is an interesting point that could be made: that within ‘liberal democracies’ there may be dozens of parties carrying out the charade of contention and opposition whilst in a single party state there may be a wider array of differing viewpoints struggling against each other.
2 It could be said, that within the pantheon of Marxist figureheads, Trotsky stands as a proto-First World chauvinist. His line and political advocacy discounted the peasantry and anti-colonial struggle as major social forces during the period, instead emphasizing with undue faith the struggles within ‘advanced capitalist countries,’ i.e. imperialist centers. For an interesting commentary and look into the comparative views between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in regards to anti-colonial struggles, see:
Lewin, Moshe. Lenin’s last struggle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Print.
3 It could certainly be argued that while Stalin, as leader of the Soviet Union, was a powerful supporter of anti-colonial struggles, he was prone to use such as bargaining chips with Western imperialism to gain concession favorable to Soviet state interests. These charges were later leveled against Khruschev by the CCP.
Stalin, Joseph. Stalin on China. Westport: Hyperion Press, Inc. 1977. p 80-103
5 On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Editorial Department of Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily). April 5th, 1956. The Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Peking: Foreign Language Press. 1961. Third Ed.
6 More on the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Editorial Department of Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily). December 29th, 1956. The Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Peking: Foreign Language Press. 1961. Third Ed.
8 These contradictions were: between “the socialist camp and the imperialist camp”; between the “proletariat and bourgeoisie in capitalist countries”; between “oppressed nations and imperialism”; and, “among imperialist countries and among monopoly capitalist countries.”
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement. Peking: Foreign Language Press. 1963. p 6.
13 In doing adopting this analysis, CCP leftists added a fifth contradiction to those shaping world development: that between proletariat and new bourgeoisie in post revolutionary and nominally socialist countries.
Van Ness, Peter. Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy. Berkley: Uni. of California Press. 1973. p. 213.
14 Report to the Second Plenary of the Seventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Marxist Internet Archive. 1949. <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_58.htm>
16 Without sounding too much like the official rhetoric contained in CCP publications, I believe it is safe to say that any Marxist who has not incorporated the lessons of China, including the necessity to struggle against the development of a ‘new bourgeoisie,’ is a Marxist in only the most minimal sense.
17 For those who scandalize Mao which descriptions of unchecked political power, it is interesting to note that Mao simply didn’t have Liu or Deng murdered or subject to an official show trial as was typical for fallen leaders in the Soviet Union.
18 According to the official narrative of the Chinese state, the Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966-1976. For analysis purposes, I consider the Cultural Revolution to have begun as early as 1965 (or earlier if one includes its prelude: the Socialist Education Movement) and to have effectively ended by 1967-8, after which Mao and other leftists moved to the position of reconstituting the CCP as still the sole leading institution of Chinese society, thereby weakening the fundamental elements of their program. A similar analysis is presented by Alain Badiou:
Badiou, Alain. “The Cultural Revolution.” Positions Winter 2005: 481-515. Print.
22 There is a clear dichotomy between the rhetoric of ‘bourgeois elements which have wormed their way into the party’ and an analysis which looks at how unequal power engenders further divisions in power. The former could be said to be part of a ‘police narrative,’ which is simple to resolve (find the bourgeois elements and neutralize them) yet isn’t inclined towards addressing the real problem. The latter is more significant, yet not as easy to construct a mass program around (even within nominally socialist countries).
23 It should be noted that Chinese leftists failed in large part because material conditions did not permit their successful. The level of proletarian struggle was relative premature throughout the world, and beside progressive sections of oppressed nations and youth, First World populations were largely co-opted into the top of the imperialist power structure.