This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Today, 1 October, marks the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader, Mao Zedong, proclaiming the People’s Republic of China. Below, we republish a book review by Peter Taaffe (first published in The Socialist newspaper, 14 July 2005) that examines the Chinese revolution and Mao.
In reality this book – Mao The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday – is an attempt to discredit the Chinese revolution and, by association, the ideas of socialism.
The defeated Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 – led by the immortal workers of Shanghai and Canton – represents one of the most magnificent movements in the history of the international working class.
The successful Chinese Revolution of 1944-49, as far as socialists and Marxists are concerned, is the second greatest event in human history, after the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, led by the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky.
Five hundred million Chinese workers and peasants, kept at the level of pack animals by landlordism and capitalism, their country dismembered into imperialist “spheres of influence”, shook off this yoke and finally stepped onto the scene of world history.
Mao Zedong was the leader of the Red Army that presided over the “third” revolution of 1944-49. He was, by his own admission, a “Stalinist”, and constructed not a democratic workers’ state along the lines of Russia in 1917-23 but a regime similar to that existing in Stalinist Russia at the time.
However, it was relatively progressive because landlordism and capitalism were eliminated and the beginnings of a planned economy were put into place, although power was in the hands of a one-party, totalitarian regime.
Mao Zedong (unlike Stalin who played no key role in the Russian Revolution) showed initiative and daring in leading the forces of the Red Army, defeating the capitalist nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) and taking power. His role and the kind of forces that Mao represented are worthy of an all-sided analysis from which young people and workers today could benefit in the struggle for socialism.
This book, unfortunately, does not provide that. It is not the ‘unknown story’ as it claims. Marxists have thoroughly analysed this many times in the past. It has many new facts on the blunders of Mao, both before and after the revolution, and the terrible price which the Chinese people have been forced to pay through the establishment of a Stalinist regime rather than a democratic workers’ state. But there is no explanation of why Mao and the Chinese Revolution triumphed.
The figure of Mao himself almost from the outset is pictured as fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. He displays all his later “dictatorial” tendencies – selfishness, lack of sympathy for peasants and many other undesirable traits.
The authors claim that 70 million people died in peacetime because of Mao. But like thousands of others, Mao was drawn towards communism by the example of the Russian revolution.
The rise of Mao and the forces of the Red Army was directly linked to the defeat of the 1925-27 revolution caused by the policies of Stalin. This led to the complete decimation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its base amongst the working class and in the cities and forced their retreat into the countryside.
The Long March
In October 1934, the Red Army began what became known as the “Long March”. The authors claim that Mao was, in fact, “carried” on the Long March and that Chiang Kai-shek, the military dictator of China at that stage, “allowed” Mao to escape for his own military and strategic reasons. If this is the case – and this is not yet established as a fact – then Chiang Kai-shek completely miscalculated, because Mao and the Red Army were to be his downfall 15 years later!
What would happen if this Red Army, victorious in the countryside, entered the cities? It could, said Trotsky, come into collision with the working class and maybe fuse with the capitalist class, resulting in classical capitalist development.
This didn’t happen because of the discrediting of landlordism and capitalism. None of this is explained by Halliday or Chang. They seem, in the phraseology that they use, to excuse the bankruptcy of Chinese capitalism and its political expression, “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.
The Red Army did show hostility to any independent movement of the working class in the cities, warning that strikes would be suppressed. Mao also looked towards Moscow for his model state: “In June 1949 Mao sent Liu Shao-chi to Russia to learn about the Soviet model in detail… A Stalinist state was being constructed even before Mao had formally assumed power.” Private businesses were not immediately touched, however, nationalisation coming a little later – “collectivisation of agriculture was not carried out until the mid-1950s,” say the authors.
There was not the outright corruption at the beginning in China, as was the case in Stalinist Russia, partly because of the very low living standards in China.
However, the book is littered with examples of the buildings and palaces, the special compounds, which Mao and the bureaucracy cornered for themselves. Such was his fear, “Sometimes even Mao’s train drove into his villa – or strictly speaking, into the front garden… In many places, an exclusive underground tunnel ran all the way from the villa to the local military airport… Throughout his reign, he lived in his own country as if in a war zone.”
Like all Stalinist regimes, with arbitrary power exercised from above, Mao’s policies were subjected to the same zigzags as Stalin’s. Because of the size of the country, they were exercised on a monumental scale with colossal negative consequences. This undermined the advantages of a plan of production. As in Russia, forced collectivisation was carried through and a form of forced labour was implemented.
The arbitrary and dictatorial methods of Mao resulted, according to the authors, in at least 22 million people dying in the 1950s. A similar calamity resulted from the “Great Leap Forward”, a mad dash for growth involving “backyard furnaces” and the squeezing of the population.
This was compounded by Mao’s attempt to establish superpower status through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. This book reveals that there is nothing new in George W. Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes. President John F Kennedy, the great US ‘liberal’, contemplated a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the sites where China was building these weapons!
A significant section of the book deals with the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao mobilised 22 million Red Rebels against the wing of the bureaucracy represented by then Chinese President Liu Shao-chi, who had effectively demoted Mao following the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward.
The purpose of this pseudo-‘revolution’ was to restore Mao back to power and also to cut down the swollen privileges of the bureaucracy. But, by going outside the bureaucratic elite, Mao unleashed dangerous forces which could threaten the bureaucracy itself.
Some went much further than Mao, demanding greater democracy and a challenge to the bureaucrats’ rule. This is detailed well in this book. It also shows that, despite Mao’s call for “revolution”, he feared an independent movement of the working class, as happened in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956.
Mao’s death led to the re-emergence of Deng Xiaoping who had been purged in the Cultural Revolution. He initiated the first steps which have resulted in the re-emergence of Chinese capitalism, the dominant trend in China today.
The publication of this book is organically linked to this process. It has received glowing accolades in all the journals of capitalism and is top of the best sellers list for hardback non-fiction in British bookshops. This is part of an ideological offensive by capitalism to destroy not just the legacy of Maoism but also the idea of the planned economy and socialism.
It is ironic that one of the authors, Jon Halliday, was linked to the journal New Left Review, which, at the height of Maoist fervour in the past, adopted an uncritical approach towards the Mao phenomenon. Halliday defended the dictatorial regime of Kim Il-sung in North Korea. Now, ex-Maoists, safely ensconced in positions within capitalism, are lining up to heap praise on the book.
Like Solzhenitsyn in Russia, who wrote excellent fictional denunciations of Stalinism, Wild Swans by Jung Chang was in a similar vein against Chinese Stalinism.
Solzhenitsyn went on to write The Gulag Archipelago, denouncing the slave camps of Stalin and the purge trials but without mentioning that the central accused were Trotsky and the Trotskyists. His book was used to discredit not just Stalinism but also the ideas of genuine democratic marxism and socialism.
Unfortunately, this new book fulfils the same function in relation to China. The capitalists worldwide are eager to use the crimes of Stalinism to discredit socialism and the idea of a planned economy and speed up the process of the transition of capitalism in China, opening up the prospect of huge markets and profits for them.
However, the present increasingly capitalist regime in China stubbornly adheres to Mao’s dictum applied to Stalin but now applied by the Chinese rulers to him: “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”. Posters and statues of Mao dominate Tiananmen Square. This is done in order to facilitate the “smooth” transition to capitalism while maintaining some of the elements of Mao’s repressive state.
They are not likely to welcome this book but nor can socialists and Marxists, particularly when, in the first few pages, it states: “Unlike most founding dictators – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – Mao did not inspire a passionate following”. To bracket Lenin with the butchers of the Italian and German workers, let alone Mao, is an abomination.
If readers plough through the almost 700 pages of this book, it should be with a critical eye. The working class today will never return to the ideas of Stalinism but will increasingly reject the unrestricted capitalist future planned for the Chinese people by those who will greet this book uncritically.