|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine
The roots of Chinese Stalinism
This October sees the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, following the victory of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party over the nationalist Kuomintang. But while modelled on Stalin’s Russia, the new regime had its own, independent genealogy. PER-ÅKE WESTERLUND looks at how the Chinese variant came into being.
OVER THE LAST few years, capitalists from all over the globe have rushed to China to grab a bite of the super-profits being offered by the ‘Communist’ regime. This is in sharp contrast to the revolution 60 years ago, when imperialism and capitalism were thrown out of the country. The capitalists today want to play down the fact that the twentieth century was a century of mass struggle, of wars and revolution in China. To counter the capitalist propaganda, class-conscious workers and youth need to study and rediscover the lessons of the 1949 revolution and the regime it established.
Two basic factors made the first half of the last century a period of revolution and counter-revolution globally. The fundamental, objective, factor was the extreme impasse and crisis of the capitalist system, which led to major class battles as well as two world wars. The other reason was the victorious Russian revolution of 1917, due to the crucial subjective role of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik party at the head of the working class. In China, this helped create conditions in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could take power just 28 years after it was founded.
The first Chinese revolution took place in 1911, when the collapsing Manchu dynasty was replaced by a republic, which two years later became a military dictatorship. As late as 1820, the millennium-old empire accounted for 30% of world GDP. But in the second half of the 19th century, it could no longer withstand the pressure from world capitalism. Imperialist powers like Japan, England, Russia, France and Germany conquered slices of China in their global race for strategic positions, cheap colonial labour, and sources of raw materials.
The Russian revolution gave an enormous impetus to mass struggle and radicalisation internationally. The new Communist International (Comintern), in contrast to the old social democratic parties, raised the prospect of colonial revolutions, with workers in the advanced capitalist countries struggling side by side with the oppressed workers and poor in the colonies. In China, the 4th May movement of 1919, involving mainly students, attacked imperialist interests and ancient traditions, including Confucianism. Another radicalising factor was the widespread disappointment with the outcome of the 1911 revolution. All major issues – land reform, imperialist exploitation, the unification of China – remained unresolved. The nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), turned to the Russian revolution for support and inspiration. As in India in the same period, the development of the working class marked the arrival of a new leading force in the struggle.
In Russia in the 1920s, however, Joseph Stalin’s conservative officialdom began to consolidate its power. Its rise was based on the defeats of the working class internationally, particularly in Germany; a temporary stabilisation of capitalism; the underdevelopment of Russia, reinforced by the ravages of the world war; and imperialist military intervention after the revolution. At this stage, Stalin’s policies, including his advice to the young sections of the Comintern, were not yet a conscious betrayal, but reflected his complete lack of understanding of the Russian revolution itself.
This was in sharp contrast to Trotsky, who co-led the 1917 revolution with Lenin. Trotsky organised the Left Opposition of the Russian Communist Party, and defended Marxism in the debates and struggles over developments in the Soviet Union and internationally. One of the most important of these debates in the 1920s concerned the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, in many respects a classic workers’ revolution, which was crushed by a bloody counter-revolution. As a result of that defeat, Stalin’s nationalist and conservative faction could declare victory over the Left Opposition. Trotsky was expelled from the party and deported to Alma Ata in Central Asia.
The 1925-27 revolution
STALIN’S LINE IN the events of 1925-27 was that the leading role in the revolution belonged to the KMT, representing the Chinese bourgeoisie. Stalin’s priority, encapsulated in the ‘theory’ of socialism in one country, was to stabilise the situation in Russia – not least the position of his own ruling group – rather than to spread the revolution to other countries. Stalin believed that a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the KMT was on the agenda in China. On this basis, the CCP merged its forces into the KMT in what was termed an ‘alliance from within’ and the leader of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek, was invited to Moscow to attend meetings of the Comintern. Given the increasing tempo of the class struggle, the CCP grew quickly (from 300 members in 1923 to 58,000 in 1927) and in 1926 Mao Zedong from the CCP – the most enthusiastic supporter of the CCP-KMT alliance – was elected as an alternate member of the KMT’s executive committee. The KMT received generous financial backing, arms and military training from Stalin.
Trotsky agreed that the tasks of the bourgeois revolution were the immediate focus in China, particularly the land question. The richest 10% owned 70% of cultivated land. But he also pointed out that in China the landowners were to a large degree the bourgeoisie of the cities. The poor peasants’ struggle for land was therefore a struggle against the bourgeoisie and, inevitably, the KMT. The peasantry as a class is unable to conduct an independent struggle to victory, and therefore it was the responsibility of the working class to lead this revolution. In order to develop China, the imperialist monopolies also had to be confiscated, which further underlined the divergent interests of the workers and the KMT.
Basing himself on the experience of the Russian revolution, Trotsky showed that the bourgeoisie would be unable to carry out any of the necessary reforms and that the workers, with the support of the peasants, could take power. This would not in itself create the conditions for socialism, but it would give a huge impulse to the world revolution needed to develop the conditions for socialism.
The Chinese working class was the major force in the revolution of 1925-27, with occupations and mass strikes. The struggle was directed against conditions of super-exploitation, not least in enterprises owned by foreign capitalists. This alarmed the KMT leadership, which in 1925 relied on British troops to attack the workers. Massive peasant actions to occupy the land took their cue from the workers. On all the central questions of the revolution the interests of the KMT were diametrically opposed to the needs of the masses. Stalin and the bureaucracy in Moscow, however, ridiculed Trotsky’s warnings about the counter-revolutionary character of the KMT. Instead of Trotsky’s advice to the CCP to fight for an independent workers’ leadership of the struggle, the party was totally subservient to the KMT.
In March 1926, Chiang Kai-shek’s troops massacred striking workers in Canton and established a military dictatorship. But the news of this atrocity was suppressed within the Comintern – the KMT had earlier in March become a ‘sympathising section’ of the Comintern. In April 1927, unarmed workers in a general strike in Shanghai were attacked by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops. Prior to this, 800,000 workers in armed uprisings and strikes had taken control of the city. But the CCP had agreed to Chiang’s order to send away troops loyal to the workers. Thousands of communists were killed in what marked the victory of the counter-revolution. In June the same year, the breakaway ‘Left KMT’ – to which Stalin and the CCP now transferred their illusions – perpetrated a similar massacre in Wuhan. In total, 35,000 CCP members were killed in 1927. On the bones of this defeat for the working class, the KMT, financed by the capitalists and armed by imperialism, formed a government in Nanjing.
The imprint of defeat
THE BLOODY OUTCOME of this failed revolution would shape events in China right up to the revolution of 1949. After the Shanghai massacre, Stalin pretended that nothing had happened, and appealed for new armed uprisings. In order to disguise the catastrophic reality, he ordered a futile uprising in Canton to coincide with the opening of the Communist Party congress in the Soviet Union in December 1927 – the Congress that expelled Trotsky and the Left Opposition. All 6,000 workers captured from this ‘Canton commune’ were killed. Not until the summer of 1928 did the Comintern acknowledge defeat in China, putting the blame onto the shoulders of the CCP leaders, mainly Chen Tu-hsiu, who had since 1926 opposed the merger with the KMT and later became a leader of the Left Opposition.
The remaining CCP leaders from then on turned their backs on the cities and the working class. Despite continued rhetoric about an alliance of workers and peasants, their entire emphasis was now on the peasantry and the countryside. Class struggle against capitalism gave way to the building of a peasant army, the Red Army. The CCP now argued that the KMT dictatorship made it impossible to organise among the urban working class. From 1927-33, the CCP became increasingly independent from the Soviet Union. Stalin had no desire to be reminded of the defeat, and the CCP received "surprisingly little assistance" from Russia, observed the US journalist Edgar Snow, who met Mao Zedong and the CCP leaders many times in the 1930s. As for the CCP, Mao stated already in 1931 that "foreign models must be dispensed with".
This was not a decisive break with Stalinism, however, rather the first step towards a national variant of it. The CCP retained the key ingredients: nationalism, a ‘two-stages’ theory of the revolution, popular frontism (alliances with capitalist parties), and a regime of bureaucratic centralism inside the party.
When the debate over ‘socialism in one country’ started in 1924, Trotsky had predicted the national degeneration of the international communist movement if this ‘theory’ was adopted. To remain cloaked in the authority of the Russian revolution, Mao never formally broke with Stalin or Moscow’s ‘Marxism’ before 1949. As Snow pointed out, the Russian revolution and the Soviet Union "probably made a deeper impression on the Chinese people than the combined influence of all the Christian missionaries".
In the 1930s, the CCP’s new line was to build a ‘soviet’ in the Jiangxi region. Rather than a real soviet – a democratic council of action – this was an area controlled by a CCP-led army of peasants and ex-peasants. As it developed, it had its own ‘universities’, a print shop with 800 workers, a theatre, etc. The poor peasants were given land and their often large debts were cancelled. This episode – the running of a mini-state – would provide invaluable administrative experience for many of the upper strata of CCP leaders when they came to power two decades later.
The KMT first tried to starve the Jiangxi soviet out of existence, then to exterminate it militarily. The first assault, with up to 200,000 soldiers, was humiliatingly defeated by the Red Army. Only on the fifth attempt, in 1933, with one million troops, did the KMT finally overcome the Red Army. In total, one million died in the Jiangxi soviet.
As Trotsky had predicted, the KMT was incapable of fulfilling the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. Chiang Kai-shek returned land to the landowners after defeating the Jiangxi soviet. He was unable to unite the nation, leaving warlords ruling many regions. The economic role of the state was to enrich the KMT leaders and to waste half the state budget on military expenditure.
Despite its nationalist rhetoric, the KMT offered no real opposition to imperialism. Capitalism in China in those days was dominated by imperialism (the US, Britain, France and others), with long working hours, military discipline in the workplace, underpaid female labour, and high accident rates. In 1936, 40% of coastal and river cargo moved under the British flag. Half the railways operated under imperialist control. In September 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and established the Manchukuo puppet regime. Imperialism in China was openly racist, using apartheid-type rules against the Chinese. Capitalist commentators who dismiss the revolution of 1949 as an aberration – implying capitalism is the natural order of things – never spell out the facts about capitalist China in the 1930s.
Following the defeat in Jiangxi, in October 1934 the CCP leadership embarked on the famous ‘Long March’. This was 370 days of retreat, a 10,000 km march with a "skirmish every day, a full-scale battle every two weeks", according to Lucien Bianco. Of 90-100,000 participants, only 7-8,000 survived and arrived in Yanan in the Shaanxi province. The incredible heroism of the Long March established Mao Zedong’s leadership of the CCP and the Red Army over various rivals sponsored by Stalin and the Comintern. The new ‘soviet’ in Yanan immediately began to re-distribute land and thereby replenish the forces of the Red Army.
War with Japan
1935 MARKED A turning point for the world’s Communist Parties, when the Comintern congress declared popular frontism to be its new line. Stalin ordered the CPs to form alliances with the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ against fascism. In China, this meant the CCP allying itself with the KMT against Japan. The model for this new ‘united front’ with the KMT, it was argued, was the Popular Front in Spain. This was accepted by the CCP leaders. Mao publicly stated that "without cooperation with the KMT our forces will be insufficient". In August 1935, a CCP manifesto demanded a union of all ‘patriotic’ parties in China. From this point on, anti-imperialism and nationalism dominated CCP propaganda.
Mao’s perspective was that the task of the revolution "is not immediately socialism, but the struggle for national independence". In contrast to Spain, however, Mao kept control of his own armed force and maintained the political independence of the CCP. Subordination to the KMT in 1927, and the resultant massacres, was too harsh an experience.
Nevertheless, the Stalinist positions of the CCP led to numerous missed opportunities. In December 1936, a mutiny verging on civil war erupted in the KMT camp. Chang Hsueh-liang, a general in the KMT at the head of 170,000 soldiers, took Chiang Kai-shek prisoner. The demands of the mutiny were similar to those of the CCP: for land reform and a more aggressive struggle against imperialism.
But Chiang was saved by the intervention of the CCP. Stalin panicked and begged Chang to spare Chiang’s life. Stalin, who regarded Chiang Kai-shek as the only viable leader of China, threatened to break with the CCP if they did not insist on his release. Leading CCP member Chou En-lai was to play a key role in securing Chiang’s release, in return for new negotiations between the CCP and KMT, a condition which Chiang naturally accepted.
These negotiations took on a more serious character in 1937, when Japan started an all-out war to occupy China. The KMT showed itself incapable of organising resistance to Japan. The KMT deputy leader (and former Left KMT leader), Wang Ching-wei, even deserted to head the Japanese occupation government in Nanjing set up in 1940. But as with any imperialist occupation, Japan encountered enormous problems trying to control China. Its policy of ‘annihilating Communists’, and the ‘three alls’ (burn all, kill all, loot all), of course, stirred further resistance.
The KMT in 1937 had four conditions for an alliance with the CCP: dissolve the Red Army; dissolve the soviet republic in Shaanxi and other regions; stop all communist propaganda; and abandon the class struggle.
The CCP accepted this in words. The ‘soviets’ were re-designated ‘special regions’, and the Red Army became the ‘national revolutionary army’. An all-China assembly was convened in May-June 1937, adorned with portraits of Marx, Stalin, Mao and Chiang Kai-shek!
In practice, those concessions meant little. More serious was the fact that CCP troops no longer stood for the confiscation of the landlords’ land and abandoned their anti-KMT propaganda. But Mao did not follow Stalin’s orders to totally surrender to Chiang. CCP military units did not surrender arms and did not return already confiscated land. This preserved its base of support in the ‘special regions’. In reality, the CCP was an alternative state apparatus.
Mao stated that the "CCP maintains its own programme and its own policies". This was directed both at the KMT and, indirectly, at Stalin. Mao’s position was that ‘final victory’ over imperialism was possible only with the ‘workers and peasants’ (read: his army) in the lead. This would result in controlled capitalism, followed by state capitalism and thereafter an economy modelled on the Soviet Union. In this way, Mao struck a balance between acceding to Moscow’s orders and what he regarded as China’s national interest. In fact, he actually out-Stalined Stalin in disguising his departure from real Marxism and, in Mao’s case, even from Stalin’s positions.
Nationalism formed a big element of both Stalinism and its Maoist offshoot. In 1943, the year Stalin abolished the Comintern, a CCP leader, Liu Shao Chi, stated that Mao had "created a Chinese or Asian form of Marxism". Already in 1936, Mao told Snow: "We are definitely not struggling for a liberated China in order to hand it to Moscow".
From 1937 onwards, war supplies were sent from the Soviet Union to the KMT, not the CCP. This did not stop Chiang from viewing the CCP as his main enemy. The KMT army held back from major clashes with the Japanese and on several occasions attacked CCP units. In 1940, just such an attack failed and CCP troops defeated the KMT units. In yet other instances, Mao refused orders to attack Japan’s main force, which would have resulted in the needless sacrifice of his own troops.
Stalin’s entire emphasis – the survival of his own regime, devoid of any revolutionary methods – was a constant brake on Chinese events. In April 1941, Russia signed a non-aggression treaty with Japan. The CCP made no criticism and was formally bound by this agreement not to attack Japanese forces. But three months later, when Germany invaded Russia, the CCP was ordered by Moscow to resume the fight against Japan.
The collapse of Kuomintang rule
STALIN’S AIM BY the end of world war two was to continue the post-1941 alliance with US imperialism. In 1944, Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, told US emissary general Hurley, "Russia does not support the Chinese Communist Party, does not want fighting or civil war in China, aims for harmonious contacts..." (Fernando Claudin, The Crisis in the Communist Movement).
When the war ended, Chiang Kai-shek received power in China from the US army. His troops were airlifted to cities and the Japanese were ordered by General MacArthur to surrender to Chiang rather than Mao’s forces. At the end of the war, Russia had occupied Manchuria. Upon Japan’s capitulation, Stalin’s army dismantled factories and transported them to Russia. Control of Manchuria’s most important city, Mukden, was given to the KMT.
However, the CCP had by then established its control over the rural areas in Manchuria. To maintain the appearance of support for the CCP, Stalin had to leave arms with the CCP, who were again instructed to ally with the KMT.
On 14 August 1945, a ‘treaty of friendship and alliance between China and the Soviet Union’ was signed between the KMT and Moscow. On the basis of Stalin withholding support from the CCP, Russia was even promised the return of former military bases it lost to the Japanese in the war of 1904-05.
The US and the Soviet Union jointly pushed for negotiations between the CCP and the KMT. In 1945 Mao wrote the document, On Coalition Government, as a basis for negotiations. In contrast to Stalin’s instructions, Mao had no intention of surrendering to the KMT.
World war two had changed world relations dramatically. Imperialism had been severely weakened, while Stalinism was stronger then ever. Imperialism was forced to concede Eastern Europe to Stalin’s sphere of influence. But in other parts of the world, the capitalists and their politicians had to rely on Stalin to hold the revolution in check.
US imperialism was withdrawing troops from the war and did not relish a new outbreak of fighting in Asia. Its plan, to which Stalin agreed, was to integrate the CCP leaders into the KMT regime. This approach was working in France and Italy, where the threat of revolution had been neutralised, assisted by the participation in bourgeois coalition governments of the Communist Parties, which had led the struggle against fascism. The KMT, meanwhile, preferred the example of Greece where, with Stalin’s acceptance, Communist-led troops had been militarily defeated by Britain and domestic counter-revolutionary troops.
The CCP, however, accepted none of these models, realising they would end in a new 1927. By 1946, it was clear that no deal could be reached, and in June the second civil war started. The CCP formed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with 910,000 soldiers.
At the start, Chiang enjoyed a crushing military superiority. He had 500 airplanes with US pilots, while the CCP had no planes. Chiang also had tanks – again, the PLA had none – and thousands of US advisers and technicians. In total, US imperialism gave six billion dollars in aid to the KMT in the period 1946-49. In other words, the KMT’s defeat in the war cannot be attributed to military reasons. Their army also kept winning, until the summer of 1947.
Politically, however, everything spoke against the KMT. CCP troops were renowned for their role in the war against Japan. Now the masses saw the KMT undo all the social gains in those areas which they re-occupied from the CCP. The KMT government was also correctly held responsible for the great famine of 1942-43, in which two million died. It was also tainted by the rampant corruption, speculation and hyperinflation which gripped China after the war.
In its first year, the PLA avoided battles, while spreading the agrarian revolution in the countryside. On the basis of land reform, the PLA recruited 1.6 million new soldiers in Manchuria alone. Support for the CCP in the ‘liberated areas’ was massive because of the land reform and the general revolutionary change in conditions. In 1947, this laid the basis for a turning point in the civil war – Mao’s peasant guerrilla army started to confront the forces of the KMT.
The KMT collapsed in the face of the social revolution that ran parallel with the war. Mass desertions took place and entire military units disintegrated. There was an enormous power vacuum in the country. Imperialism had been forced to retreat, and not even the US could seriously consider an invasion. There was no capitalist party able to show a way out, to unify the country or solve the land question. The KMT was a spent force.
Consolidating the CCP’s power
IN THE RUSSIAN revolution, the working class took power and carried through the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, combining this with the tasks of the socialist revolution. In China, the only force seriously aiming for power was the PLA. From 1947, it took control of Manchuria and Central China, and won arms from the KMT in the process. By the beginning of 1949 it controlled Beijing; by the spring the KMT capital, Nanjing, and Shanghai. By the autumn, Canton was in CCP hands. Ironically, the Soviet ambassador had fled to Canton with the KMT. On 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was born.
It was a peasant army that took power. In contrast to the Russian revolution, there were no democratic workers’ councils, no soviets, for discussion and the organisation of the revolution. There were important strikes in 1947 and early 1948, marking the beginnings of a re-emergence of the working class but, with the entry of the PLA into the cities, strikes were repressed.
Whatever theories Mao launched – he spoke about a ‘new democratic stage’ between KMT rule and ‘socialism’ – he was compelled to go further in order to stay in power. An alliance with the bourgeoisie or imperialism was impossible. But there was a model to hand in the form of Stalin’s Russia. While the Russian revolution had suffered a bureaucratic degeneration, the People’s Republic was bureaucratically distorted from the beginning. Mao’s regime carried through land reform and abolished capitalism as a means to hold power and develop the country. China’s economy, after 25 years of war, was in a catastrophic state. Industrial production was only 57% of the 1936 level, 75% in agriculture. Only 10% of the population had undergone any formal education.
In December 1949, negotiations between Stalin and Mao resulted in a treaty and China was promised some limited assistance from Russia. In return, Mao had to agree to propaganda to the effect that Stalin had participated at every stage of the Chinese revolution, corrected mistakes, etc. The fact that Stalin as late as 1948 had agued that the CCP should dissolve its army was not to be mentioned.
The Korean war, which broke out in June 1950, compelled Mao to quicken the pace of the social transformation in China, partly by raising the spectre of imperialist intervention but also because it stiffened the resistance of the remnants of the old feudal gentry. That year, the re-distribution of large estates began. In 1954 private farms were transformed into cooperatives, which by 1957 covered 97% of agriculture land. In 1952, the nationalisation of private companies started, and a year later the first five-year plan was launched. The Korean war also acted to cement Mao’s alliance with the Soviet Union, against the common enemy of US imperialism.
Together these changes laid the basis for a rapid development of the Chinese economy and society, despite the bureaucratic deformation of the revolution with its attendant problems of corruption, waste and mismanagement. The economy grew by 10% a year in the 1950s and industrial production by 20%. The revolution and the impressive economic results gave a strong impetus to revolutions and guerrilla wars in other parts of the colonial world, such as Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere.
The nationalist rivalry which is inherent within Stalinism later led to the break between Moscow and Mao’s regime. The Russian bureaucracy in its attempt to reach an accommodation with imperialism enraged Beijing by, for example, playing down the issue of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Taiwan – then recognised by the imperialists, the UN, etc, as the ‘official’ Chinese government. Mao, in turn, enraged Moscow by refusing to toe the line over issues like China’s conflict with the Indian government – regarded as ‘progressive’ by Moscow – which led to a border war in 1962. These conflicts underlined the fundamentally national character of Stalinism – the ruling elite’s narrow defence of its own power, prestige and privileges.
This meant that China and the Soviet Union were never able to utilise the enormous advantages genuine cooperation could have produced. Failing this, Mao made several desperate attempts to force the pace of development in Chinese society. These bureaucratic adventures – the ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the late 1950s, and the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 1960s – all ended in disaster.
Eventually, the line of ‘splendid isolation’ was thrown out by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, who instead embarked – hesitantly at first – on the capitalist road. Again, this was accepted gradually and pragmatically by the CCP as its only way to stay in power. However, as the 20th century history of China indicates, the conditions created by capitalism and imperialism will be challenged by new revolutionary struggles. The consciousness and organisation of the working class is already moving in this direction.