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The Chinese revolution: was it necessary? Was it Successful? Is it still going on?

As we were waiting on the steps of Widener Library for the class picture, I overheard one classmate say to another:

"Good to see you, Joe. What have you been doing these fifty years?"

"If you want it in one sentence," Joe responded, "I've been trying to stay out of trouble."

I couldn't help thinking to myself, "That certainly is not the story of my life. I've spent the last fifty years getting into trouble."

The difference arises, perhaps, from a difference in goals. I have spent my life trying to change the world, while Joe, who is a retired naval officer, spent his on status quo patrol.

Since I never got a chance to speak at the panel yesterday on such questions as what has meant the most to me, I want to take this opportunity to answer that question. What has meant the most to me is the world outlook of Marxism. I began to study Marxism in 1943, while still a conscientious objector in a labor camp in New Hampshire. Marxist analysis convinced me to volunteer for army service then and has motivated the whole of my life since.

Edgar Snow, who was not a Marxist, introduced me to Marxism through his objective reporting on the Chinese Revolution. Thereafter Mao Zedong and the Chinese people served as my main teachers. Other sources of Marxist enlightenment included Harvard, where Paul Sweezy produced his marvelous book, The Theory of Capitalist Development.

I was born too late to experience the Russian Revolution, but grew up in time to participate directly in the revolutionary transformation of China, the greatest social upheaval of all time, at least in terms of numbers. It has been an experience to savor and renew, again and again. I would not exchange it for any other.

As the century unwinds toward a surprise ending that leaves capitalism in charge both East and West, China included, I see no cause to change my mind. The Marxist world outlook encompasses the possibility that Marxists could fail, in practice, to create in this century superior societies free of class exploitation--stable, productive, and above all democratic--truly democratic, not simply monopoly capitalist power networks with democratic trimmings. But clearly we have so far witnessed only one early round in a protracted global upheaval. As long as capitalism dominates the world, Marxism will thrive as the system's most cogent challenge. Once socialism takes root as a viable alternative, Marxism will bloom, an indispensable guide to social renewal.

Now, since that is what this panel was all about, a brief comment on the world situation.

Everyone is talking about the New World Order, as if we were in for a prolonged period of peace, stability, and international harmony. In regard to such a prospect, I am a doubter. As the saying goes, "I'm from Missouri."

Someone, I wish I could remember who, recently wrote that 1990 was a turning-point year, the year when the decades-old postwar era came to an end and a new prewar era began.

This is a shocker, but it deserves serious study.

What is rising in the world is rivalry among the three capitalist blocs now taking shape--an American bloc (North, Central, and South) dominated by the United States, a European bloc dominated by Germany, and an Asian bloc dominated by Japan.

What really creates instability in the relations among these blocs is that some powers, particularly the United States and Great Britain, are declining economically, while other powers, such as Germany and Japan, are rising. The great paradox is that the rising powers, so strong economically, are weak militarily, while the declining powers, still so strong militarily, are weak economically. Such a situation cannot long endure. The rising powers, mobilizing their respective blocs, will sooner or later redress the military balance, create armed power commensurate with their economic status, and then proceed to challenge the declining powers for hegemony in the world.

In modern times the source of war on a world scale has always been imperialist rivalry. Now that the socialist bloc has disintegrated, conflicts between contending imperialist powers will inevitably come to the fore and dominate international relations, as they have so often in the past. We face a classic prewar situation, wherein the imperialist powers jockey for position prior to slugging it out. As the jockeying escalates, extraordinary efforts will be required to avert a third world war. Perhaps only revolution in one bloc or another can transform the overall balance in time to forestall Armageddon.

In regard to China, my primary sphere of interest, a few basic questions can serve as an outline for the subjects I want to cover: (1) Was the Chinese Revolution necessary? (2) Was the Chinese Revolution successful? (3) Is the Chinese Revolution still going on? (4) Can so-called reform save China? (5) What is next on the agenda of history?

As to the first question--Was the Chinese Revolution necessary?--the answer has to be an unequivocal "Yes."

It seems strange even to ask the question, but there are groups, revisionist groups, on the world stage and, yes, on the mainland of China as well, who doubt the historical necessity for the revolution that has so dominated East Asia in this century. China, they say, would have developed more rapidly, more smoothly, and more soundly had there been no revolution at all.

This is nonsense.

Old China was a basket case. One need only look at the weakness of China when confronted by Japanese invasion: Some 450 million people rich in resources, rich in history, rich in cultural tradition, yet nevertheless so mired in semifeudal, semicolonial stagnation that they could not ward off the attack of a nation of 70 million. Had there been no revolution in progress, had there been no Communist Party, no United Front, no Eighth Route Army rallying the people for resistance, China would have lost the last vestiges of independence and ceased, for an indefinite period, to function as a nation.

The root of this national weakness was an agrarian (landlord-tenant) system that perpetuated poverty, stifled initiative, and diverted wealth into conspicuous consumption on the one hand and underground hoards on the other. Starved for capital, the economy foundered. Only the massive expropriation of landed wealth and its distribution to the working poor, plus the transfer of billions of dollars' worth of hoarded wealth into productive investment finally unleashed the creative potential of China's peasant millions. This in turn triggered development in every sphere. Without revolution--a thoroughgoing, universal land revolution--no comparable development could possibly have taken place.

(2) Was the Chinese Revolution successful?

This question has to be answered in two parts because there were two revolutions, or two revolutionary stages, and the results were different in each case.

The first revolution, or the first stage of the revolution, which Marxists have called "democratic," had as its domestic goal the breakup of the feudal system, especially the agrarian system, and as its international goal the liberation of China from imperialist intervention and control. The antifeudal component was the Asian equivalent of the great European revolutions on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, which broke the power of the aristocrats and distributed their lands. The anti-imperialist component had as its forerunner the national liberation struggles of such countries as the United States, Ireland, Poland, Serbia, and Greece. China's democratic revolution, coming so late in this long series, united an extraordinarily large majority of the Chinese people--men and women of all classes and all walks of life, even including large numbers of landlords--under one banner, and it won a decisive victory in 1949 both militarily and politically, by which I mean the revolutionary forces won the battles, won the war, and won the hearts and minds of the people.

Judging this revolutionary stage on the basis of how well it accomplished its goals, I give it, however, only an 80 percent mark.

Revolution did thoroughly liberate the Chinese mainland from imperialism, but it did not thoroughly uproot feudal institutions from mainland society. Even though peasants, under Communist leadership, did divide all the land of the landlords, wipe out landlordism as a social institution, and transform landlords, as individuals, into laboring people so that they ceased to exist as an exploiting class, revolutionary leaders and followers failed to transform other bastions of feudalism that had enormous negative influence on future development.

The most important of these bastions was the centralized bureaucratic state, that supreme creation of Chinese history, which though rooted in and nourished by the landlord-gentry system at the grassroots, attained through the centuries a self-generating, virtually autonomous life of its own. Revolutionary forces uprooted the Imperial Court in 1911, but the bureaucratic state revived and thrived under Chiang Kaishek. When the Communists overthrew Chiang, they broke up his administration but quickly reconstructed a traditional hierarchical apparatus of their own.

While many truly revolutionary cadres moved into high office after 1949, they presided over a vast unreconstructed holdover staff, without whose cooperation no one could govern China, especially the country's great cities. The Communist Party very early began a movement for the ideological reconstruction of all functionaries, with emphasis on the holdovers. But who would, in the end, reconstruct whom was always in doubt, especially since the party, in this new period, split internally over fundamental development issues, and the cities, with their economic, social, and political complexity, rapidly expanded their relative influence on the national scene.

In time the whole state, buffeted by conflicts that tended to cancel out contending forces, reverted to a form not easily distinguished from the vast, hierarchical formations of the imperial past. In the absence of any large accumulations of individual wealth, power congealed, as it had for centuries, around government office alone. Office holders, installed as underlings in "one-man speaking halls" (units manned and administered from the top down), found that loyalty and conformity, not skill or zeal, opened the road to promotion. Thus feudalism, Chinese style, reasserted its ancient hold on "all under heaven."

The second revolution, or the second stage of the revolution, was defined as socialist. The target: capitalist exploiters and the capitalist system of production. The state confiscated bureaucratic capital (the holdings of the Chiang clique), then bought out independent national capitalists with interest-bearing bonds, converting their holdings into state property. The state simultaneously led the peasants and most small entrepreneurs to pool their property for collective production. Thus it created from multiple modes two basic forms of productive property: public (owned by various levels of government) and collective (owned by individuals associated in cooperatives of various kinds). Personal property--including housing, house furnishings, articles of daily use, small tools for crafts, and the like--remained personal, thus providing a basis for a very limited private economy.

To this stage of revolution I award a mark of 60 percent. This is high when compared to the marks awarded by experts in China and abroad who uphold conventional wisdom. To all intents and purposes, they have written off socialist construction altogether as a left deviation and a failure.

The socialist period had some extraordinary achievements and also some disturbing failures.

On the whole, collective agriculture worked. Food production rose year after and stayed ahead of the fast-rising population, at least by a small margin (exception: the disaster years 1960-1962). Cooperation promoted capital accumulation and stimulated diversity. Many villages developed small industries, handicraft enterprises, livestock, forestry, and fishery projects that brought prosperity. Equally important in the long run, cooperation provided the social and economic basis for mobilizing scores of millions of peasants during the slack season each year for capital construction projects. Their efforts provided the infrastructure--the dams, the irrigation systems, the drainage networks, the hill terraces, the reclaimed wetlands, the manmade river-bank lands, the windbreaks, and the dune-stabilization measures--that ensured high and stable yields over vast areas. This infrastructure, suffering now from neglect and abuse, still serves as the indispensable foundation of modern Chinese agriculture. Without the sweat and toil of two and a half decades of collective effort, the responsibility system of today could not aspire to any stable level of yields.

In terms of gross product, China now leads the world on the agricultural front. With 27 percent of the world's population but only 6 percent of the world's arable land, it is the premier producer of grain, meat, cotton, and edible oil. In per capita terms, of course, China still lags behind. Nevertheless, the achievements over forty-two years are remarkable.

What requires emphasis is this: all forty-two years have to be counted, not just the last twelve. The production levels of today have their roots in the land reform of the late 1940s and early 1950s that gave land to every tiller; in the collectiivization of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that created scale and developed rural infrastructure; and in the industrialization of four decades that supplied the increasing level of manufactured inputs essential to high, stable yields.

Since many crucial inputs--fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, and the like--came on stream just as the privatization of farming got underway, and since the government matched this unprecedented material support with substantial price rises for farm products, it is difficult to assess how much of recent progress is due to technical measures and price incentives and how much to reorganization. I suspect that the collective system, if equally favored, would have shown equal if not superior results.

On the industrial front, the achievements since the victory of the revolution in 1949 are no less remarkable. Sixty million tons of steel, 138 million tons of oil, 1 billion tons of coal, ocean-going ships, supertankers, trucks, cars and buses, aeroplanes, space rockets, atomic bombs--the list of things, low-tech and high, now produced in China is long, very long. The figures for industrial growth, up at least fifty times in the forty years since 1952, the postwar recovery years, are impressive. Once again, all the years have to be counted.

Outstanding among the industrial achievements of the early decades was the creation of widely scattered industrial bases throughout the hinterland, bringing large-scale modern production to hitherto undeveloped regions. Mao's policy was to make every region self-reliant in the main and to develop to their full capacity all regional resources and all regional talents. Deng has reversed this policy. Planners now talk of developing the coast first, on the theory that prosperity will trickle inland and westward in due course. Have they studied why, in Italy, prosperity trickles south so slowly?

A further great industrial achievement of the collective period was the development of small industries scattered through the countryside. Where conditions favored diversification, prosperous brigades invested accumulation funds in nonfarm enterprises of all kinds. This "leave the land but don't leave the village" trend has continued at an accelerated pace since the "reform." Collective joint-stock companies and individually owned units coexist side by side. Village-based industrialization is narrowing the gap between urban and rural life in all spheres.

Why then give the period of socialist revolution a mark of only 60 percent?

Because the achievements were very uneven. In the countryside, for every village that prospered, another village stagnated, while still a third made indifferent progress. Many factors contributed to this mixed record, but the most important was inadequate grassroots leadership. Where a village had a capable, honest, and committed party secretary, and best of all a party branch to match, it tended to forge ahead. Where a village had indifferent, or venal, leadership, it tended to fall behind. In the end it was the stagnation of the badly led lower third of villages that gave the liquidators the excuse to dismantle the whole system.

Uneven development also plagued industry. Although overall achievements were impressive, there were many weak spots. There were many poorly managed units, many places where, over the years, worker productivity fell rather than rose, and many factories that habitually lost money and required state subsidies to keep going.

All these shortcomings of the socialist revolution, both agricultural and industrial, tie into the crucial failure of the democratic revolution, in the aftermath of total victory, to dismantle the centralized bureaucratic state and replace it with something more modern. It was a foregone conclusion that such a state, with authority radiating only from the top down and with functionaries more interested in maintaining themselves in power than in successfully accomplishing any work, would find building socialism a nettlesome and virtually impossible task.

In the Cultural Revolution, Mao mobilized millions of citizens to confront powerholders, particularly capitalist roaders, to overthrow the traditional hierarchy from below, and to build a new government structure, starting with revolutionary committees composed of citizens, cadres, and soldiers. But every effort in this direction generated a counter-effort from the establishment under attack. Core functionaries were able to delay, divert, misdirect, or carry to absurd extremes every initiative from Mao's side. Far from creating a new, more democratic form of government, the movement bogged down in unprincipled power struggles that exhausted everyone and led nowhere. The failure of the Cultural Revolution laid the groundwork for a great reversal of policy in all fields.

(3) Is the Chinese Revolution still going on?

Here the answer has to be "No."

Every revolution has its Thermidor, that moment when the right takes over from the left, when innovators yield to conservators, when revolution gives way to restoration. China's Thermidor occurred in late 1978 when the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee, dominated by Deng Xiaoping and other survivors of the Liu Shaochi clique, switched policies and began the "reform." This marked a shift from working-class power to bourgeois power, from working-class politics to bourgeois politics, from the socialist road to the capitalist road. At the meeting China changed color, and from that time on new leaders began dismantling both the socialist economic base and the socialist superstructure that the Chinese people had built with such effort over thirty years.

But, you may ask, isn't the Communist Party still in power?

True. But it is not the same party that set out to build socialism in 1949. More accurately, the party is not led by the same people who set out to build socialism in 1949.

The Communist Party of China has never been monolithic. The democratic revolution united all progressive forces--workers and peasants in vast numbers, but also many national bourgeoisies (capitalists not linked or beholden to the bureaucrats and compradors who dominated the Kuomintang) and most intellectuals, even those whose orientation was heavily bourgeois. These latter groups and classes rallied in support of the Communist Party and many of them, as individuals, joined the party. In a period of grave crisis, of national war followed by civil war, Mao was able to forge a consensus on the question of driving imperialist overlords from China and expropriating the land of feudal landlords in the countryside. But as soon as these tasks were accomplished, the consensus that made victory possible broke down.

To understand where the fault lines lay one must review a little history.

Mao defined the first stage of China's revolution as new democratic, to distinguish it from the old democratic revolutions that overthrew feudal domination in Europe and brought various national bourgeoisies to power. This new was necessary, Mao said, because in the twentieth century the underdeveloped countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were dominated by imperialist powers that tolerated no revolutions at all, whether democratic or socialist, bourgeois or proletarian. History showed that China's national bourgeoisie, though anti-imperialist, was weak, vacillating, and so fearful of popular revolt that it dared not mobilize, not to speak of arm the peasant masses who alone had the strength to counter foreign aggression.

Internally, therefore, revolutionary leadership devolved by default on the Communist Party. Internationally, the revolution gained support only from the Soviet Union, then striving to build socialism, and the left wing of the worldwide workers' movement. Given this alignment, smashing imperialist intervention in China and overthrowing domestic feudalism could hardly clear the way for capitalism. With victory, the working class, not the bourgeoisie, would come to power. Under Communist leadership the workers, in alliance with peasants and progressive intellectuals, would proceed to build, not capitalism, but socialism. Furthermore, only such a prospect could inspire hundreds of millions to make the sacrifices so necessary for victory. The Chinese people would not commit themselves to any protracted struggle aimed at substituting one master for another, at replacing landlords with capitalists.

As things turned out, although almost all Communists gave lip service to this concept, a large group of senior leaders, centered on Liu Shaochi and Deng Xiaoping, never really agreed with it. This group advocated a long period of mixed "new democratic" economy, during which everything would be done to encourage the vigorious growth of private capitalism alongside state, cooperative, and mixed (state-private) ventures. Meanwhile the peasants, on their newly acquired private plots, would settle down with their hoes as individual tillers, each responsible for his or her own profit or loss.

"When every peasant has a mule, a cart, and a plow, it will be time to talk about socialism," said Liu Shaochi.

Thus the party split into two groups, each with its own agenda, and a long struggle broke out to determine which group and which agenda would eventually win out. The capitalist forces, confronted with socialist transformations on every front, opposed, dragged their feet, distorted policy, and diverted efforts to slow things down. When this didn't work, they pushed collective forms and mass movements to frenzied extremes, so discrediting and weakening them that they were threatened with disintegration from within. A regular pattern of right-wing obstruction alternating with ultra-left wrecking made it very hard for those building socialism to consolidate any new set of production relations, any new social structure, or any new ideology. For thirty years after 1949, those who were trying to create, develop, and consolidate socialism faced fierce opposition from those who wanted to block, undermine, and crippled it in order to pursue a capitalist alternative.

Throughout the years, of course, the builders also made many mistakes which the opposition was able to seize upon to embarrass and confound them. What should be stressed in any realistic analysis, however, is that at no time did Mao and his supporters have a free hand to take initiatives, deepen and consolidate them, learn from mistakes, and move forward. Every step had to overcome not only the inertia of custom and tradition but also the determined opposition of a large, powerful, and cleverly led faction of the party itself. "Never forget class struggle" was no idle Maoist slogan. Intense struggle between social classes over basic policy permeated the whole period. That struggle continues to this day.

As long as Mao lived, however, the socialist forces and the socialist effort predominated--most of the time. After Mao's death came the deluge. The balance of forces tipped in favor of the opposition. Deng pulled off a military coup that toppled Hua Kuofeng, Mao's successor, then presided over a great reversal.

(4) Can so-called reform save China?


As China, under Deng's leadership, moves toward free market regulation, opens to outside investment, and ties ever more closely into the world economy, it will inevitably suffer:

(1) Heavy international debt--leading to debt peonage similar to that of Nigeria or Brazil. The external debt is already $50 billion and growing.

(2) Chronic inflation, as money is issued to cover debt, subsidies, and deficits.

(3) Uneven development, as enclaves on the coast take off while vast stretches of the interior stagnate.

(4) Endemic corruption, as millions, driven by the imperatives of the new market economy, strive to prosper at their neighbors' expense. Those with the most power will lead the way, turning comprador to enrich themselves and selling out China in the process.

(5) Cultural regressio and moral decline as Western culture penetrates and dominates one sphere after another: public media first, then literature, the arts, education, and science.

(6) Rapid polarization as the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful while the vast majority of erstwhile shareholding peasants lose all equity in the means of production and move into the market with nothing to sell but their labor power.

(7) Real problems in gaining and maintaining a market share for exports to the West and Japan, as competition stiffens, recession deepens, depression engulfs one country after another, and world rivalries sharpen.

The window of opportunity created by the United States' Asian wars and a seemingly inexhaustible arms-driven U.S. market is no longer wide open to developing Asian economies. Furthermore, under the best of circumstances China is much too big to be another Asian tiger parlaying exports to the West into a prime source of development funds. The inal result of China's current opening to the world market and growing dependence on world finance is most likely to be a new semicolonial status, one that puts China in a passive position, at the mercy of its creditors and of every adverse trend in the world economy. It can hardly lead to an autonomous, self-generating, stable economy capable of providing a reasonable level of prosperity for all the Chinese people.

Before the victory of the revolution in 1949 China was a semifeudal semicolonial comprador capitalist country.

Now China is rapidly returning to a semifeudal semicolonial comprador capitalist status.

This is a tragedy.

(5) What does the future hold?

History, however, has not come to an end. The Chinese are an energetic, dynamic, creative people. They have a long revolutionary history and large reserves of revolutionary consciousness and motivation. New waves of rebellion and revolution will come. In France, after the Thermidor, came 1848, and after 1848, 1870. Events in our era move ever more quickly. One can say with confidence: "The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution."

William Hinton, an American farmer, has written widely on Chinese development since the revolution. His most recent book is The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989 (Monthly Review Press, 1990).
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Author:Hinton, William
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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