Part 06: The Chinese Communist Party and Marxism

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 22, 2016

Chapter 17: Modern Capitalism and the Bourgeois Revolution

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 22, 2016

At the risk of repetition, let us summarize the argument. On the evidence presented, it is reasonable to conclude that the Chinese Communist party does not embody the class interests of either the workers or the peasants of China. By no criterion can the People’s Republic be seen as a “Workers State”, although at various times the régime has claimed to embody the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. In 1978, as in 1949, the most important role of the workers of China was not the leadership of the country but as the primary source of the surplus which sustains the State and national accumulation. The mass of the peasants have been permitted to retain a larger share of their very much smaller product; but again, by no stretch of the imagination can they be seen as collectively directing the Chinese State. The reality is concealed by the party’s consistent confusion of popular consultation with majority control, of mass support with mass initiative, of popular participation with democracy, of the emancipation of the State and “the productive forces” with the self-emancipation of the majority.

On the other hand, when the Communists came to power, they did not embody the aims of the other two classes identified by the party – the capitalists and landlords. The new State demonstrated this when, having secured power, it eliminated both of them. The concessions to private business in the early years were not forced out of the State, but awarded to achieve increased production. The State was not a Buonapartist clique, balancing between classes. It had its own independent power, far greater than that of landlord and capitalist. It eliminated them in part to tighten its control of the other two classes for its own independent purpose – national accumulation.

In sum, then, it seems Marxism is wrong, invalid in the light of Chinese experience. Parties do not embody the interests of particular social classes, themselves the products of the social division of labour rooted in the material foundations of society. The State does not necessarily embody a particular class (or survive only temporarily by playing one class off against another). The Chinese Communist party has consistently claimed to represent the national interest, over and above all “sectional claims”, whether of workers, peasants, capitalists or landlords. The party’s definition of “national interest” included benefits for the exploited (and, indeed, for the exploiters), but they did not include the abolition of exploitation, the “wage system”, nor the right of the exploited to fashion directly the new State. The rhetoric of the régime suggested the reverse but, in essence, the claims of the Chinese State are not dissimilar to the claims of Western capitalist regimes to “represent the people”. Clearly, Marx’s slogan, “the emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the act of the working classes themselves”, was false in China. [1] It was equally false during the Cultural Revolution, launched and terminated by the party leadership, and in no way changing the structure of power (although it changed, even if temporarily, the position of some of the cadres). In 1949 the party did the emancipating’ on behalf of the Chinese “nation”. In the Cultural Revolution, if there was “emancipation”, it was largely the result of actions by Mao and his Cultural Revolution group.

If the party represents the “national interest”, how is it distinguished from ordinary bourgeois parties that make the same claim? Marxists have hitherto understood that the parties of the bourgeoisie always present the interests of the ruling class as the “national interest”. But if the Chinese Communist party’s claims are correct, there is a “national interest” different from the interests of the constituent classes of a country. Then the critique of bourgeois parties becomes uncertain. In bourgeois democracy, the right of a party to claim to represent the “national interest” in theory turns on its willingness to submit to elections to parliament, in competition with other parties; a majority vote supposedly vindicates what the winning party says the “national interest” is. Not even that exists in China to validate the claims of the Communist party.

Clearly, Marxism is incapable of a coherent account of the Chinese revolution and of the People’s Republic. The theoretical assumptions contradict the known reality. A “non-class” force, representing the national interest, came to power in an isolated backward country (that is, before capitalism had created the material prerequisites for socialism). On the basis of its own independent consciousness, the Communist party then began to construct socialism. The material basis of China was apparently not a decisive obstacle to the socialist transformation. Charles Bettelheim, a distinguished defender of the Chinese order, puts it in this way: “What has happened in China demonstrates in effect that ‘the low stage of development of the productive forces’, is not an obstacle to the socialist transformation of social relations and does not have the necessary result, arising from the process of primitive accumulation, of aggravating social inequality, etc.” [2] Provided only that there exists a “proletarian party armed with revolutionary theory and playing a direct role”, socialism can be built. In sum, the party can both conceive and implement a strategy to achieve socialism, independent of the society of which it is a product. The problem can only be resolved if we reconsider the context in which Chinese development has occurred.

(i) Modern Capitalism and the State

Competition between capitalists concentrates capital in a few hands and production in a few large-scale plants and in a few geographical areas. By Lenin’s time, sectors of national production were already dominated by a few large companies, “monopoly capital”. The maintenance of monopoly required the State to exclude or restrict competition from foreign rivals. The State became a major factor, working in alliance with the corporate giants, and negotiating with other States over the conditions of competition in the world market.

Competition was intensified in the world market as a result of the “colonization” of each domestic market by the State. Thus, the centralization of capital was even further accelerated. Slump and war compelled each national bourgeoisie to subordinate its private activities to State direction as the condition of its own survival. Indeed, in time of war, the State converted itself into the board of directors of one gigantic national conglomerate, all the efforts of which were directed against the external enemy.

The Change sapped the system’s juridical foundations in private property. The mass of shareholders became passive pensioners of the system, not its directors. The State replaced them in many respects. [3] Ownership became decisive for wielding power only when it was massive; the professional managers in private companies depended upon the favour of the largest institutional owners of stock, not their own holdings. In the public sector, even these considerations did not apply. Indeed, the boundaries between public and private became so blurred as scarcely to exist – the State financed “private” activities; taxes on business profits Contributed to financing the State; businessmen directed segments of the public sector, and civil servants moved into private business. The growth of capitalism produced the steady attrition of the majority of those people previously identified as “capitalists”.

The institutional transformation in no way changed the central drive, accumulation as a condition of survival. But the survival at stake was not now simply that of the individual private capitalist, but of the collective capital of a national ruling class, competing with other ruling classes. The extension of the State to encompass all domestic activities in no way changed matters, as Engels long ago pointed out: “The modern State, whatever its form, is an essentially capitalist machine; it is the State of the capitalists, the ideal collective body for all capitalists. The more productive forces it takes over, the more it becomes the real collective body of all the capitalists, the more citizens it exploits. The workers remain wage earners, proletariafls. The capitalist relationship is not abolished; it is rather pushed to an extreme.” [4]

This “statification” of the national parts of the world system was accelerated by the conditions of slump in the interwar years and the Second World War. It was an empirical response; few people endeavoured to lay out a plan for the reorganization of the advanced capitalist countries, to defend a particular country against its rivals. [5] The processes were only indirectly acknowledged in the bourgeois theories of society. Supposedly, the slow transformation was merely a marginal amendment to the idealization of nineteenth-century capitalism presented in the founding theories. Nonetheless, the process was general, whether, as in Britain and France, without major political upheaval; in the United States through the instrument of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme; or in Germany through Nazism or Japan through its new order. [6] Almost every country stumbled in the same direction.

The State reorganized society to a greater or lesser degree on the model of its own instrument of power, the army. The militarization of Germany, the imposition of what was supposedly strict hierarchy, the direction of labour, the elimination of dissent as treason, the destruction of trade unions and political parties, all were designed to make every citizen a soldier. The largest private businessmen were guaranteed their profits provided they accepted the State’s direction that all national efforts should be organized to compete abroad and not at home. [7]

Sections of the ruling class fought the trend fiercely. Those that would fail to inherit in the new order had to oppose it as the condition of their survival. Keynes might threaten the rentier with “euthanasia”, but something much slower was required to achieve orderly change; in practice, too many people, like Keynes himself, made a little something on the stock exchange, for the rentier to be completely wiped out. He survived the war, and even managed to make a modest, albeit carefully controlled, revival in the conditions of post-war boom. It required a radical break with old capitalism, a “dialectical leap”, to achieve the right State structure. While private capitalism might evolve towards State capitalism, it could not reach it without a new social foundation; the old social relations of production impeded even the limited rationalization involved in State capitalism.

The demands of the Second World War accelerated the trend, which continued after the war although at a slower pace. By contrast with the interwar years, a long-term boom – quite unexpected for the ruling classes of the advanced countries – pushed the world economy into unprecedented growth from 1948. The elaborate State controls were dissolved under the acid of a revival in private capitalism; autarchy faded before a new “liberalization”. But the State did not entirely relinquish its position in the civil economy. In the military sphere, in the face of greater rivalries than ever before, expansion reached new records in the effort to maintain a permanent preparation for war.

For those of the advanced countries in relative decline – in the 1960s, Britain and Italy-the role of the State in the civil economy continued to increase despite the boom. In Britain, “centralization” proceeded with particular speed. In 1909, fifteen per cent of manufacturing net output was produced by the 100 largest firms; by 1930, twenty-five per cent; and by 1970, forty-five per cent. In the 1950s, under a supposedly pro-private-business government, the State employed nearly a quarter of the total labour force (a share which had risen to 29.1 per cent by 1975), invested forty per cent of gross national investment and took forty per cent of the gross national product (a share which had risen on one method of calculation to fifty-nine per cent by 1976; on another, fifty-two per cent). Between 1890 and 1955, the State’s share of the gross national product had risen from four to thirty-seven per cent, a forty-seven-fold increase in money terms (and ten-fold in real terms).

The State had an even more important role in promoting future growth. In Britain, roughly three-quarters of research expenditure in the key technological industries (atomic energy, aircraft, electronics) has been advanced by the State in the past twenty years. In the United States, of the projected national expenditure on research and development for 1976-7 of US $38 billion, $21 billion was provided by the federal government (half of it for defence projects); while some two-thirds of academic research was financed by the State.

What can we infer about the nature of the system from these trends? First, that the most advanced productive forces had broken out of the shell of private ownership. Whatever the institutional forms – whether the State or some combination of the State and large private corporations – ownership per se was not a decisive question. The mass of private owners had become simple parasites, living off the proceeds of production as pensioners, but without any role or power to influence the process. Of course, the rentiers’ loss was the gain of the largest owners; their power now drew together vast concentrations of capital.

Under the impact of world economic growth, the productive forces had broken out of the old mould in a different way. The largest private companies had in part escaped from the State itself. In Europe, the national ruling classes were obliged to try to recapture them by creating a “common market”, by setting up the political framework for a vastly increased scale of concentration, the standards of which were determined by the United States, a much larger unit than any single European State. That still did not snare the multinational corporations in conditions of boom; their activities encompassed the globe, using States as stepping stones in a world contest.

However, in neither case – whether the EEC or the multinationals – were such institutions able to mobilize the physical force required to defend their position in conditions of slump. Physical force remained the monopoly of the national State. The return of slump or long-term stagnation could thus produce both the disintegration of the Common Market, paralysed by the competing interests of its constituent national ruling classes (that is, assuming the most powerful of these, the West German, did not use physical force to subordinate its erstwhile partners), and the retreat of the multinationals behind the boundaries of national State protection. The tendency to the internationalization of the world’s means of production conflicts directly with the political form of the social relations of production: the national State.

Much of the orthodox Left remained unable to draw the political conclusions. They remained preoccupied with the private nature of ownership. Indeed, for some, the decline of private ownership was seen as a step towards socialism. Yet it was capitalism itself which impelled State direction, ownership, financing and planning, the conditions of survival in the new phase of competition. European Social Democracy became one of the forces pressing for statification, for the strengthening of the national State against the declining segments of private capital.

Nationalization without workers’ control, without a change in the balance of class power, represented no more than a rationalization of capitalism, a fortification of the position of the existing ruling class. Indeed, in so far as the future of the “productive forces” was embodied in an international economy, this strengthening of the national State was essentially “reactionary”. The key question – what happened to the wages system? – remained unasked. State planning had no automatic working-class character; it distinguished modern capitalism and the corporate managers from nineteenth-century capitalism and its mass of small capitalists, but in itself it did not advance the interests of workers. Indeed, nationalization and planning, without a change in class power, were the bourgeoisie’s methods of increasing exploitation to compete more effectively with its foreign rivals. Only in the sense that, with increased centralization of power, the system became more vulnerable to attack, could such changes be seen as an advance for workers, and then the advance depended upon there being a revolutionary workers’ movement to make the attack.

(ii) The Bourgeois Revolution

If the capitalist class was in decay, how could the capitalists seize power in relatively backward countries and perform its “historical tasks”: the accumulation of capital and the socialization of the labour force? In Tsarist Russia, the native employers were not a popular class of small local businessmen, rooted in the cities, towns and villages. Industrial development had been undertaken not by Russian capitalists but by the Tsarist State as the condition of its military survival. The Tsars undertook the development of the Donetz coal basin (later under private operation), the steel and engineering industries, built the trans-Siberian railway, expanded ports and telecommunications, all to defend the imperial frontiers. Private business was heavily concentrated in foreign hands. Thus, the class of indigenous private employers was tiny when the Russian working class was already large. The employers, even had they wished, could not have led all the classes of Russia against the Tsar.

By the 1890s, most European Marxists recognized that the bourgeoisie could no longer lead the majority. Furthermore, Russian employers would not dare to make the attempt lest they unleash the proletariat which would overwhelm both the Russian State and the employers together. The first Social Democratic manifesto of 1898 put it this way: “The further east one goes [in Europe], the weaker, meaner and more cowardly in the political sense becomes the bourgeoisie.”

Yet Tsarist Russia was among the most advanced of the backward countries and, though dominated by foreign capital, at least had sufficient political independence to rank as imperialist. What of the other backward countries? There, the entrenched position of the great concentrations of world capital, backed often by direct political control through colonialism, meant that the bourgeois revolution was impossible unless it also established the political independence of the country concerned. Quite often, as in Russia, the native capitalists were anxious to secure a monopoly position, to exclude the competition of the advanced concentrations of foreign capital. They were thus drawn to oppose foreign domination. Yet simultaneously, their weakness made them materially dependent upon foreign capital – they were economic extensions of the great world concentrations rather than indigenous growths. For the same reason, even in conditions of political independence (such as existed in Latin America), private business was incapable of repeating what the European capitalists had done in the nineteenth century, building independent capitalist economies; in special cases, a dependent development was possible, but in most cases not even that.

The confidence of the private employers also varied with their fortunes in the market. When the world system boomed, there were far greater chances of undertaking the political tasks (but less need to do so). In the interwar years of slump, the opportunities evaporated from fear that any political change would lead to disaster. The private employers in most backward countries could not create a bourgeois republic. Even in industrialized Germany, at an earlier stage, the private employers could not overthrow the Kaiser, let alone establish a stable republic. It took German workers to destroy the old imperial order, but then the highest achievement of the German bourgeoisie was the Weimar Republic, founded upon counter-revolution, tottering from one crisis to another, speared at every stage by the intransigent vengeance of its victorious neighbours, and finally tumbling helplessly into Nazism. In Japan in the 1920s, a similar exercise in weak bourgeois rule effectively became fascism under the impact of world slump. Now the barbarities of war became the only method of safeguarding the old order. In backward Italy, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Portugal and finally Spain, fascism became the sole means available to ensure, if not progress, at least the survival of the ruling class. In China, it was ij comparable order under Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Yet even then, the territory of China could not be unified under the national government, nor could Nanking provide serious opposition to the depredations of Japan.

Such régimes emerged from defensive reactions to world crisis. But they went halfway to meet the needs of national survival, to securing national independence and the bourgeois revolution. They could go only halfway because of the decay of the world capitalist class, its dominant economic position and yet its social shallowness in the backward countries. The material basis for an effective national class of private employers had disappeared. The bourgeois revolution had become an archaic concept.

The growth of the great concentrations of capital in the hands of the industrialized powers and the resulting decay of capitalists in both advanced and backward countries made the tasks of the bourgeois revolution contradictory; the accumulation of capital, national independence and the socialization of the labour force became mutually inconsistent. Some of the backward countries opted for the first, some for the second; almost none were able to achieve the third. For those who opted for national independence, it became not, as in the case of the United States, a means of popular emancipation but the simple precondition of national survival.

In the twentieth century, the programme of popular freedom has all but disappeared in the face of the changed preconditions of some measure of national independence. The masses are offered improved welfare as a substitute for freedom. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang in China, or Nehru in India, the lineal descendants of Garibaldi, to a greater or lesser extent accommodated to the changed conditions in their demand for “socialism” – a system in which the State assumed the dominant directing position in the economy. Most of the backward countries entering independence in our own times – Nasser’s Egypt, l~ekn Bella’s Algeria, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Nkrumah’s Ghana – have adopted strikingly similar formulae. But in terms of actual State power – as opposed to popular welfare – even the declared right-wing regimes, like Brazil, are drawn in the same direction.

The bourgeois revolution was founded upon the demand for the freedom of the majority. That demand fused the perceptions of different classes in a common social transformation, culminating in the conquest of the old State. But in the twentieth century, the material requirements of State power, of surviving against the now much stronger dominant powers, rule out the possibility of popular freedom. The revolutionaries of national independence have substituted “social reform”, a clumsy accommodation to the contradictory interests of different classes. Even so, many of the leaders were still frightened of the possibility of unleashing a popular revolution. They went only halfway to meet the need of the time, to the “mixed economy” or “democratic socialism” (which means an increase in State power while protecting private capitalism).

However, without a popular revolution, a “peasant war”, how were the revolutionaries to come to power? Only through the army or a comparably disciplined instrument, a mass party. If such instruments could be rendered independent of the interests of existing classes, there was no need to demand liberty. At the moment when history required it, a model was created.


1. Address and Provisional Rules of the Workingmen’s International Association (the First International), 1864, in SW II, London, n.d., p.442.

2. Charles Bettelheim, Les luttes de classe en URSS, 1ere periode, 1917-1922, Paris, 1974, p.40.

3. In the case of Britain, tax as a proportion of net company income increased between 1938 and 1956 from 14 to 39%; dividends and interest payments as a proportion of net company income fell between 1912 and 1949-50 from 67 to 23% – cited by Michael Kidron, Imperialism: Highest Stage But One, in International Socialism 9, Summer 1962, and reprinted, Capitalism and Theory, London, 1974, p.129.

4. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, op. cit., p.180.

5. The nearest equivalent to such a conscious plan in Britain was Harold Macmillan’s The Middle Way: A Study of the Problem of Economic and Social Progress in a Free and Democratic Society, London, 1938.

6. For what is still the best outline of some of these tendencies, see Robert A. Brady, Business as a system of power, New York, 1943.

7. In the case of British Conservatives, this is examined in Chapters 3 and 4 of my Competition and the Corporate Society: British Conservatives, the State and Industry 1945-1964, London, 1972, pp.48-74. On the situation in the United States, see E.W. Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly, Princeton, 1966.


Chapter 18: The Soviet Union and the Rise of a New Class

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 22, 2016

The Marxists were supposedly engaged in a quite different undertaking – not the creation of a national bourgeoisie to withstand the impact of the advanced concentrations of capital, but the destruction of the bourgeoisie in the countries controlling the advanced concentrations of capital; not the tasks of national capital accumulation and the socialization of the labour force, but the creation of an international planned economy, founded upon the abolition of the wages system; not national liberation but the dissolution of the national State.

In Tsarist Russia, the two contradictory tasks, the national bourgeois revolution and the international proletarian revolution, coincided. By European standards, Tsarist Russia was backward, its working class small, and its private industry dominated by foreign interests. The material conditions permitted only a bourgeois revolution. Yet Russia’s bourgeoisie was far too weak to undertake the task. According to the Bolsheviks, the only class which could overthrow the Tsar was the working class, provided the historic allies of the bourgeoisie, the peasantry, simultaneously seized the land and so destroyed the material basis of the aristocracy, the social foundation of Tsarism. The Workers would in due course be ousted from power by a new alliance of the propertied, the land-owning peasants and the capitalists – unless Russia’s bourgeois revolution proved the signal for the European proletarian revolution. Then the beleaguered Russian proletariat would receive the political and material help of advanced societies to placate the Russsian peasantry and ensure the survival of the workers’ State.

The Bolsheviks were not at all concerned with the “national liberation” of Russia. On the contrary, they identified this as the demand of the petty bourgeoisie, the “revolutionary chauvinists”. For the Bolsheviks, the aim was the dissolution of the Russian State in an “international Soviet Republic”. The new international workers’ party, the Communist International, declared that it would “fight by all available means, including armed struggle, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet Republic as a transitional stage to the complete abolition of the State”. Thus, the growing contradiction between the political structure of the world, a set of competing national States, and the unified international economic structure, embodied in the domination of Tsarist Russia by foreign capital, would be resolved by creating an international Republic.

The perspective failed. There was no German revolution, and the movements in other countries, substantial though they were, did not approach even the German level. There were massive defeats for the European working classes. As a result, the Bolsheviks entered a quite new situation. Two mutually exclusive sets of tasks faced them:

to secure the survival of Russia as an independent national entity in a world dominated by the advanced concentrations of capital. For that, the Bolsheviks had to build the material basis of national independence, an independent economy. The historic tasks of the bourgeoisie, the accumulation of capital (by appropriating the surplus product of workers and peasants) and the socialization of the labour force (through the systematic transfer of workers from low productivity agriculture to high productivity industry) had to be accomplished.
to persist in the original task and subordinate the Russian economy to that of building an international working-class movement, the social foundation of an international republic; in this way, Russia’s working class could escape, break out of the backward Russian ghetto and the disciplines backwardness threatened to impose on their ambitions to freedom.

In the years following Lenin’s death, the leadership evaded a choice between fulfilling the tasks of a Russian national bourgeoisie or those of a world working class; or rather, the effect of the faction fight within the leadership and the temporary necessities of surviving in power prevented any clear choice. The régime stumbled between domestic needs of great urgency – for grain, for the rehabilitation and expansion of industry, for modern armed forces – and demands from abroad, for help in Germany, Bulgaria, China and Britain.

It was the peculiar historical task of Stalin and his followers to end the stalemate, to transmit the imperatives of national survival, imposed on Russia by the world economy, into the Communist party and the Soviet State. They were pushed – by the external threat of war and the internal threat of a catastrophic fall in the grain supply – into a choice, and they chose with increasing determination to transform backward Russia so that it was equipped to compete with, rather than overturn through revolution, the advanced concentrations of capital of the world economy. It was impossible to postpone the choice indefinitely. If Russia did not industrialize, the régime would sooner or later lose its basis of power and be overthrown through some combination of internal revolt and external threat. What of the other set of tasks? The prospects in Germany as the Nazis moved to power opened up again the possibility of revolution, but only if the Communists had been prepared, contrary to the tactics of the “Third Period”, to collaborate with the Social Democrats. In France, the potential independent force that was smothered in the Popular Front was another basis for breaking Russia’s isolation. In Spain, the civil war need not have been lost if Stalin had not been so obsessed with driving Britain and France into the arms of Nazi Germany. But by then, these were empty hypotheses; history now seemed to have a “necessary” character that flattened out all choice; the “necessity” was in fact no more than the subordination of the world movement to the tasks of Russia’s industrialization.

The party and its politics were not at all appropriate to the tasks the leadership chose. Its ranks of hardened cadres had fought, not to build “national socialism”, but to win a world. The old cadres had to be purged, and a new mass membership inducted. Waves of new recruits flowed into the party in the 1920s to tilt the balance. The leadership of 1920 was transformed by 1930, and that of 1930 had been decimated by 1939. By 1939, only 1.3 per cent of the members dated their membership from 1917, and 8.3 per cent from 1920. At the 18th Congress (1939) seventy per cent of the membership had joined since 1929.

The politics of the party had also to be transformed, its concepts rendered opaque and confusing, a confusion through which only the party leadership could be relied upon to guide the members. Now “democratic centralism” was not a method of unifying one tendency in the working-class movement, but the principle of an authoritarian State. Now the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant not the Russian working class holding power, but the Communist party exercising a monopoly. Now the “class struggle” became, not a conflict between workers and capitalists, but the collision of different national orders, the Russian and the American. Now “building socialism” meant “the accumulation of capital”, emancipation “submission to the Russian State”.

Stalin’s success in mobilizing the Russian State for accumulation demonstrated that the new Communist party represented neither workers nor peasants, since these two classes were the primary victims of rising rates of exploitation. The party “represented” no class. On the contrary, it endeavoured to constitute itself as a class, whose material basis lay in its collective control of the means of production through its mastery of the State. In the history of industrial societies it was a novel phenomenon (although not new in relationship to many pre-industrial societies) that the hierarchy of a party should become a class, that its individual members should have no right of ownership over the means of production, no juridical right of inheritance (although its children in fact inherited power), no right to profit. The originality of the Russian solution to the problem of national independence was impelled by the decay of the world capitalist class; there was now no private capitalist solution to the problem of national backwardness.

Ironically, the Soviet Union carried to an extreme degree the trends of advanced capitalism, the statification of the economy, the militarization of society. In institutional terms, the Russian State leapt to a “more advanced” stage than that achieved by the advanced concentrations of capital themselves, the creation of a gigantic national conglomerate under one board of directors, the Russian government. The Soviet Union could accomplish its innovation to this degree only because it had, in 1917, swept away all the old social forces of the past phase of Russian national development, the forces which, in the advanced countries, held back the drift to State capitalism.

Could the Soviet Union have accomplished the accumulation of capital while maintaining the advance to popular emancipation? This is clearly an absurd proposition. The accumulation of capital in conditions of national backwardness imposes a division of labour independently of the wishes of the participants, the more so, the more urgent the need to accumulate – in Russia’s case, in order to “catch up” with its foreign rivals. October 1917 was not premature for the agenda of world working-class revolution, for the working classes already formed a majority of the population in the advanced countries; but it was premature for backward Russia in isolation. Regardless of the aspirations of the new State, its behaviour would be shaped by the historically appropriate task – accumulation. Marx describes just such a process: “If the proletariat destroys the political rule of the bourgeoisie, that will only be a temporary victory, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in 1794, so long as in the course of history, in its ‘movement’, the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production ... Men do not build themselves a new world out of the fruits of the earth, as vulgar superstition believes, but out of the historical accomplishments of their declining civilization. They must, in the course of their development, begin by themselves producing the material conditions of a new society, and no effort of mind or will can free them from this destiny.” [8]

For more than a generation, the most advanced sections of the working class in the advanced countries were tied politically to the needs of accumulation in the Soviet Union, unwilling to recognize that the new Russian ruling class in no way embodied the aspirations of 1917. It was the authority of the October revolution, the ambition of world working-class power, which sanctioned Stalin’s betrayal of that ambition. It permitted the Russian State to bend each workers’ movement it controlled to the needs of its foreign policy, to the territorial defence of the Soviet Union as a national power. Invariably that meant Russia stressed the weakness of the workers’ movement, its incapacity to rely on its own independent power, its need therefore to depend on the local bourgeoisie. At every crisis, the Soviet Union compelled its supporters to collaborate with the local ruling class against what Russia saw as its main enemy. Whether it was the United Front in China in 1927, the Popular Front in France in 1935 and during the civil war in Spain, the Popular Unity in Chile, the “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy in Italy today, or the absurd call of the British Communist party in 1945 for a coalition government with the Conservative party [9], the working-class movement was persistently sacrificed to the defence of that “bulwark of socialism”, the Soviet Union.

The consistency of the record betrayed a strategic political position. Many years before, Rosa Luxemburg had confronted the same argument as Stalin’s in the writings of Bernstein. She concluded that the argument that the working class was too weak to take power was, in reality, “nothing more than a general opposition to the aspirations of the proletariat to possess itself of State power”. [10] The general opposition flowed from the particular opposition of the Russian State to working-class power in Russia and to the conditions of “instability” that jeopardized its own existence.

None of this was of any significance to those struggling for national independence in the mass of backward countries. They were impressed rather more by the heroic repudiation of the control of the advanced Centres of capital. Russia was anti-imperialist because it was dedicated to achieving equality with the leading centres. It was anti-capitalist because – to undertake accumulation – it utilized the State, not private businessmen with their manifold links with foreign capital. It was, at least according to propaganda, as rationally planned as the small firm was supposed to be in the early phases of accumulation. It seemed to have imposed a pattern of austere equality on Russia, eliminating the sordid extravagance of monopoly capital, ending the waste and duplication of the search for private profit. In the 1930s when the whole advanced bloc was smitten by a crisis some saw as fatal, Russia seemed be the only embodiment of the pristine virtues of capitalism – discipline, order, energy and drive. Above all it was successful; it transformed Russia from a backward peasant society, from the muzhik world, to an advanced industrial power that could lob missiles into space and challenge the imperialists of the world, all within a quarter of a century.

The fact that the price of this remarkable progress was the barbarous exploitation of the Russian working class did not trouble ruling classes, actual or potential. It was the “model” of a “new civilization”, an “experiment” in Utopian social organization: the dogmas of planning exercised fascination over those who aspired to form new independent ruling classes. For many of those struggling for independence, it was the discipline of a mass party, the instruments of dictatorship, and Stalin’s version of “democratic centralism”, that excited admiration. Socialism became not a society of collective self-emancipation but a “model of economic development”.

The irony would have struck Marx forcefully – that the institutions of proletarian emancipation were converted by material backwardness into the mechanisms of intensified proletarian exploitation. The State which Marx and Lenin identified as the primary instrument of class rule had become supposedly the very essence of classlessness.

However, the abstract lessons of Soviet development are of no value in tackling national accumulation – and so securing national independence – unless there are social forces available and willing to implement the programme. Marxists had argued that in the final analysis only two classes dominated modern capitalism, workers and employers. The private capitalists in backward countries would not collectively undertake a process, no matter how much it was objectively required, which involved their own liquidation. Workers similarly would have no interest in creating a system for their own increased exploitation. There was thus apparently no force with sufficient autonomy to identify the needs of national survival and carry them out in the face of the opposition of the existing classes.

Social formations

The four classes identified by the Communist party and the Comintern in Kuomintang China did not exhaust the class spectrum. Indeed, by Marx’s broad criteria, there were only three – capitalists, workers and “petite bourgeoisie”. For Marx, “petite bourgeoisie” covered a vast heterogeneous group – peasant small-holders and their landless dependants, shopkeepers, independent artisans, small businessmen in the cities, small-town merchants and capitalists. They had in common only an interest in the defence of small property or, in the case of the landless, an aspiration to own small property. It was a social position which stimulated an equal hostility to the large property owners and the demands of the concentrated propertyless, the working class. It was, for Marx, a doomed class. As capitalism developed, big business, through the logic of the market, would expropriate urban and rural small owners, driving the majority into the ranks of the proletariat. Nonetheless, before that occurred, political alternatives would be presented by this class, ones essentially reactionary – opposition to advanced capitalism and in defence of pre-capitalist, or at least early-capitalist, society.

Because the petite bourgeoisie was opposed to the growth of capitalism in the interests of its own survival, it could come to champion a number of demands of workers. This was particularly true in the approach to a bourgeois revolution. It was in this light that Marx warned workers in Germany, still at that time a backward country, to draw a sharp line between their class interests and those of the “democratic petite bourgeoisie”. Since what he had to say is of much relevance to our theme, his words are quoted at some length:

As far as the workers are concerned, it remains certain above all that [after the revolution] they are to remain wage workers as before; the democratic petty bourgeoisie only desire better wages and a secure existence for the workers and hope to achieve this through partial employment by the State and through charity measures, in short, they hope to bribe the workers by more or less concealed alms and to break their revolutionary force by making their position tolerable for the moment ...

While the democratic petty bourgeoisie wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible and with the achievement of most of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered State power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians ...

At the present moment, when the democratic petty bourgeoisie are everywhere oppressed, they preach, in general, unity and reconciliation to the proletariat; they offer their hand and strive for the establishment of a large opposition party which will embrace all shades of opinion in the Democratic Party, i.e. they strive to involve the workers in a party organization in which general Social Democratic phrases predominate behind which their special interests are concealed and in which the particular demands of the proletariat may not be brought forward for the sake of beloved peace. Such a union would turn out solely to their benefit and altogether to the disadvantage of the proletariat ...

As soon as the victory has been decided, [the democratic petty bourgeoisie will] take possession of it for themselves, call upon the workers to maintain tranquillity and return to their work, guard against so-called excesses and exclude the proletariat from the fruits of victory ... [11]

The passage has an uncanny relevance to the ascent to power of the Chinese Communist party, even down to its opposition to “excesses”. But it is not applicable directly since, for Marx, the “democratic petty bourgeoisie” remained wedded to private property, even if they might make temporary concessions on the question of State ownership to induce worker support with the offer of public employment. The Chinese Communists were not at all wedded to the private ownership of the means of production.

The growth of large-scale concentrations of capital and of the State accompanied the attrition of the small owners of capital, and it was this that created the potential for a new social stratum. In the absence of workers’ control, large-scale production and control produces bureaucracy, the layered hierarchy of managerial supervision, public or private. Furthermore, the maintenance of labour productivity at very high and rising levels required the creation of vast new sectors of “white collar” employment – teachers, health and medical workers, technical and research staff. In the twentieth century, this stratum of employment has grown much more rapidly than manual occupations. In the period since the Second World War, most industrial countries have witnessed a relative decline in the proportion of the workforce in the strongholds of the old labour movement. The solitary master clerk with a handful of writers in the medium-sized business of a century ago has swollen into vast “mass-production” clerical grades, symbolized in the tower blocks of central ministries and giant companies.

By its work, this new stratum is often collectively organized in large-scale units, unlike the petite bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. Above all, it is propertyless; it has no more realistic opportunity to own part of the means of production than the manual working class. Objectively, it has nothing to sell but its labour power, although in some cases it has greater access to the control of part of the means of production. Objectively, such a stratum is part of the working class, but whether its members subjectively feel this depends upon the existence of a clear-cut working class alternative. Without that alternative, such a stratum is ambivalent, drawn towards, not private ownership, but the control of the means of production, an expansion in the role of the State, in its own employment and promotion. There is no difficulty in it being anti-capitalist, hostile to private ownership, but, on its own, it adopts the frontiers of the existing State as its own; it is nationalist.

Late Tsarist Russia represents a transitional phase between the nineteenth-century picture and the present. On the one hand, there was a majority “petty bourgeoisie” of the type Marx would have recognized – rural small-holders, merchants etc. On the other, the massive Tsarist bureaucracy represented a force far more powerful than anything comparable in Germany sixty years earlier. Before the revolution, the Bolsheviks had no need to distinguish the two. Together, they represented a force liable to pull the party towards compromise with national power and capitalism. Lenin identified the contradictory quality of the old petty bourgeoisie with characteristic ruthlessness: “The petty bourgeoisie, i.e. the vast mass of the barely awakened population of Russia, is groping blindly in the wake of the bourgeoisie, a captive to nationalist prejudices on the one hand, prodded into the revolution by the unparalleled horror and misery of war, the high cost of living, impoverishment, ruin and starvation, but on the other, glancing backward at every step towards the idea of the defence of the fatherland, towards the idea of Russia’s state integrity, or towards the idea of small peasant prosperity to be achieved through a victory over Tsarism and over Germany, but without a victory over capitalism.” [12]

Indeed, he identified the accommodation of the party leadership to the Provisional Government in the spring of 1917 as an accommodation to the interests of the petty bourgeoisie.

The failure of the revolution abroad, the destruction of the Russian working class in the civil war, and finally the urgent need for industrialization and rearmament in the late 1920s were the basis of Stalin’s transformation. The State was mobilized for accumulation, the needs of which impelled those who commanded the State, the bureaucratic petty bourgeoisie, to liquidate small rural property. The historical clash which filled the minds of the Left, between the nationalist private capitalists and the internationalist workers, was refracted into a much narrower contest, between the small property owners (the “NEPmen” and kulaks) and the bureaucratic stratum, between small capitalism and State capitalism.

Sustained industrialization appeared to validate the change. In Asia, the appeals of Communism attracted the same stratum, the propertyless middle class. The struggle to establish an independent State, to exclude foreigners from the competition for jobs in the civil service, loomed larger than talk of the small working classes emancipating the majority. Indeed, in its finished form, Stalinism was the most coherent expression of the most radical elements of the propertyless urban middle classes.

Stalinism could only secure a popular following in peculiar circumstances. First, it required that the working class proper present no political alternative; the transformation of the Comintern ensured that. Second, that the private employers, dominated by the giant concentrations of capital abroad, did not provide an alternative nationalist political focus (in general, private capitalism was far too weak to do this). Third, that the old petty bourgeoisie, the small property owners, were too weak or disunited to offer an alternative. In the majority of cases, the bureaucratic middle class could not mobilize sufficient independent power to establish its own unchallenged leadership. It was obliged to make concessions to entrenched interests, land, capital and small business, to prevent revolution. Thus it mortgaged its future power.

India provides an example of this loose coalition. Congress combined the interests of the old petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the pre-eminent position of Gandhi. But it also gained support from Indian capitalists and landlords. Alongside these forces, the Congress Socialist party and, outside Congress, the Communist party competed to embody the interests of the bureaucratic middle class. The role of Pandit Nehru was to balance these competing forces, apparently in rhetoric leaning towards the bureaucratic class, but in behaviour never deviating from the central line laid down by Gandhi. From the 1930s, the debate in Congress was on the surface between “socialism” and “capitalism”, but in practice it was between the majority segment of the petite bourgeoisie and the bureaucratic minority. [13]

Egypt provides a different case. There was no lack of government bureaucracy there; the overwhelming majority of educated Egyptians were employed by the State, and some forty-six per cent of government expenditure was allocated to salaries before Nasser came to power. The drive to “emancipate the State” and thereby expel and keep at bay foreign powers (primarily the British) which had historically frustrated all domestic attempts to sustain accumulation, came from within the bureaucracy itself and, in particular, from its military section. Nasser was able to accomplish considerable changes in ownership, to go some way to creating a statified economy, before the combined effects of the war with Israel and the contracting world opportunities for accumulation closed in on the Egyptian economy.

Neither India nor Egypt escaped the logic of backwardness. The new State capitalists developed as much a taste for high consumption as the private capitalists had, absorbing an increasing part of the surplus through corruption. They were compelled in conditions of relative stagnation to reach a new accommodation with both the old entrenched classes at home and the dominant foreign powers abroad. They had no instrument of power, extending throughout the society, obedient to the imperatives of accumulation; Congress was tied by the existing social structure; military power in Egypt remained the prerogative of the old officer corps. Neither could raise the question of self-emancipation and create a popular force. The workers, lacking any class alternative, traded their political loyalty for “alms” as Marx described it, measures of labour legislation and welfare for the minority of workers in large plants.

How does this discussion relate to China? The “switching of the points” of history from the aspirations of 1917 to those of 1789 (as reshaped by capitalism in the twentieth century) afflicted the Communist party at just the moment when it found itself leading a genuine working-class movement, between 1925 and 1927. There was no time to make a smooth adjustment. The contradiction between the interests of the new Russian ruling class and those of the Chinese working class wrecked the party, uprooting it from the traditions of the October revolution. It was re-created, slowly and painfully, but only in isolation from the class it claimed to be leading. The task of the partisans would have been insupportable if they had been encumbered with the interests of an urban working-class movement. The partisans were no more rooted in the peasants of the localities in which they operated, although they were dependent upon them for food supplies and manpower. The party was independent of the entrenched classes of China, the embodiment of a future national ruling class appropriate to the demands of national survival today. The experience of the Soviet Union in the 1930s illustrated that, if the Chinese Communists could only secure power, they could create an independent State. But it was a very long process, a “protracted struggle”, because the party insisted upon its independence, insisted on not leading the independent initiative of the exploited of China lest that jeopardize its own party freedom. Indeed, without the Japanese invasion, there is no certainty that it would have come to power at all.

From the mid-1930s the leadership of the party oriented itself on the interests of the “majority”, what Mao called the “middle class”. His attitude to it is in striking contrast to that of Marx to the “democratic petite bourgeoisie” in Germany or that of Lenin to the Russian petite bourgeoisie: “Chinese society is a society with two small heads and a large body; the proletariat and the big landlords and capitalists are minorities; and the broadest group is the middle class. If the policy of any political party does not look after the interests of the middle class, if the middle class does not gain its proper place ... affairs cannot be well-managed.” [14] The party was oriented in this direction, but not subordinated. On the contrary, the orientation secured that it did not compromise its independence.

Once in power, the party showed its ability to eliminate its erstwhile allies, the landlords, “patriotic gentry” and capitalists, and to limit the activities of small property owners. Its main task – to accelerate accumulation – was triumphantly accomplished in the early years.

But China was more backward than Russia, and needed more time for development. It was not possible to eliminate the small property owners without jeopardizing the security of the State. Each acceleration in the pace of accumulation prompted counteraction from both workers and peasants. The régime went into reverse, permitting the reappearance of the “rich peasant” economy, the old unregenerate small-holder. Indeed, in the rural areas the boundary between party and rich peasants tended to disappear. Then the party leadership, in alarm at the disintegration of its power, was compelled to purge or at least chastise the rural cadres, to try to reopen the gap between the bureaucratic and small propertied middle classes.

Throughout the shifts and zigzags of policy as the régime tried to propel China towards industrialization, none of the factions of the party challenged the need for rapid accumulation. The so-called “Left” was distinguished by being ruthlessly devoted to accumulation, to the highest possible rate of exploitation. So far as Chinese workers were concerned, none of the factions raised the question of the “abolition of the wages system”, except as rhetorical play, much as Stalin promised one day “the withering away of the State”.

Could this be seen as, in reality, “building socialism”? Only by ignoring the material reality, and seeing only the ideology.

If Marxism is valid, if human thought is the product of material circumstances, Mao Tse-tung thought could not but reflect the material necessities of China, rather than independently reshaping China. It is claimed that Mao Tse-tung thought is no more than a contingent adjustment to Chinese circumstances, a “Sinification of Marxism”. Yet if this is so, the materialist determination of thought must be false. The next chapter examines this question.


8. Die moralisierende Kritik und die kritisierende Moral, Deutsch-Brüsseler Zeitung, 28 October-2 November 1847, in Karl Marx. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, edited by I.B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel, London, 1963, pp.244-5. Stress in original.

9. The Daily Worker was calling, in April 1945, for the Labour Party to “form a National Government, inviting others, including Tories like Churchill and Eden, to participate”; no doubt they had in mind Stalin’s wish to exploit the peasant’s old nag of Chiang Kai-shek – cf. above, Chapter 2 (5).

10. Social Reform or Revolution?, 1900, translated and published by the Young Socialists, Colombo, 1966, p.56; Luxemburg’s stress.

11. Address of the Central Council to the Communist League, 1850, in SW II, pp.161-8.

12. CW 21, p.380; Lenin’s stress.

13. Examined in my India: A first approximation, II, International Socialism 18, Autumn 1964; cf. also India-China, op. cit., Part I.

14. 22 December 1941, Address to the Shensi-Kansu-Ninghsia Border Region Assembly, in Mao’s China: Party Reform Documents, op. cit., pp.247-8.


Chapter 19: Mao Tse-tung Thought

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 22, 2016

It is the mark of both religion and bourgeois thought that they deal in abstract principles, applicable independently of time and place. Marxism is by contrast historically specific. It offers principles covering all societies solely in terms of methods of analysis. In Russia, the different tactics of different phases of Bolshevik history became translated in Stalin’s time into general principles, as if they were all equally applicable at any given moment; the selection of the principles and their interpretation remained the prerogative of the leadership (which took care to purge the historical record, to rewrite or reinterpret episodes that might be embarrassing).

This was the “Marxism” the Chinese party embraced. Given the standards of the Comintern, whatever the party did had to be described in terms of the orthodoxy, with appropriate quotations from the sacred literature. As a result, the originality of much of what the party did is not reflected in its “theory”, and its “theory” provides little understanding of its practice. Practice is entirely determined by tactics – the tactics of the United Front, of armed struggle, of military conflict – and has no link with the claimed intellectual foundations. We can see the line between on the one hand Lenin’s Imperialism and State and Revolution and Marx’s Capital and, on the other, the specific tactics pursued immediately after the October revolution. No such sequence occurs in Mao’s work. We do not need his modest foray into philosophy to understand party actions, and these works did not guide Mao’s tactical responses; they offered a convenient rationalization after the event.

Why was a theory important for Marxists? Because a particular class was identified as the self-conscious agency of revolution. Capitalism was dynamic, continually changing itself, the working class and all relationships – today’s truth became tomorrow’s falsehood. Only through an account of the present position of a changing society, how it is changing, and its relationship to the rest of the world, does it become possible to identify the immediate interests of a class embracing millions of people, to predict how those interests are changing, and how they relate to the final aim of working-class power. Such an exercise is never final nor foolproof, but it is necessary in order to identify what should be done in a context where there are many alternatives being offered simultaneously, some of them appearing very like workers’ programmes. The analysis makes possible a preliminary programme in which the interests of workers as they see them at that moment can be fused to the final aim; practice may show the identification to be wrong, “lessons are learned”, the programme adjusted and theory corrected. Science and struggle are interrelated, shaping each other.

However if a party does not base itself upon the working class, such concerns are irrelevant. It is not necessary to outline a perspective nor to draw lessons in order to correct it. Failures can be attributed not to flawed analysis (since none was prepared), but to poor morale or ideological deviation. The failure to draw lessons is one of the signs that the relationship between theory and practice has been broken. We have seen the most glaring examples of this in the Comintern’s attitude to China between 1925 and 1927. In 1927, Bukharin, leader of the Comintern and expressing the views of the Soviet Communist party, marked the change to the “Third Period” with a wildly inaccurate assessment: “The period has also foreshadowed anew the greatest historical catastrophe. Between labour and capital, between the imperialist countries and the Soviet Union, there is about to be a tremendous struggle ... a defiant resistance on worldwide scale by the oppressed masses of the people and the colonial areas. Such a great struggle is unprecedented in the history of mankind.” [15] Now most predictions are borne out (with a bit of skilful window-dressing) if we extend the time period long enough. The Second World War and the victory of the anti-colonial struggles would then vindicate Bukharin’s prophecy. But he did not intend his prediction in that way. His prediction was the basis for immediate tactics of insurrection in the years 1927-31. In that light, he was wrong on all counts. Yet no one within the Comintern raised the question of this mistake for it was no longer possible to learn from it. The Comintern’s perspectives were no longer grounded in a public analysis of the objective situation; they were a verbal reflex of the tactics pursued by the Russian leadership for purposes that could not be divulged lest they destroy the illusion of an international working-class movement. Analysis was now a decoration added after the tactics had been decided upon, or, in some cases, even carried out.

In China, the basis of the party’s power was its independent military forces and territory. As a result, the leadership was preoccupied with the tactics of survival against a militarily superior enemy. The programme deteriorated into public relations work among a heterogeneous population, instead of galvanizing a class into independent action which would discipline the party through its experience. Mao had no need to undertake the sort of theoretical work which Lenin accomplished. His survival did not depend on understanding China and the world, only on understanding the military potential of the districts in which the Red Army operated.

This experience, in conjunction with what was learned from Russia, is the origin of the peculiar elitism in the party’s attitude. The people become no more than the water in which the Communist fish swim. “Without a people’s army, the people have nothing.” It is the source of the Idealism apparent in Mao Tse-tung thought – morale, élan, consciousness, so vital for the small partisan bands, are the decisive historical factors, not the contradiction between the productive forces and the social relations of production: “men are not the slaves of objective reality. Provided only that man’s consciousness be in conformity with the objective law of the development of things, the subjective activity of the popular masses can manifest itself in full measure, overcome all difficulties, create the necessary conditions, and carry forward the revolution. In this sense, the subjective creates the objective.” [16] The “objective law” apparently lacks all necessity, because if it were necessary, it would be impossible not to act in conformity with it. In any case, what is it? Since no acknowledgement is made (as it is in Marx) that the degree of necessity varies with the degree of development of the material forces, we are left with an abstract principle – regardless of material circumstances, the subjective can “create” the objective, the exact opposite of Marx’s contention.

Mao pursued this logic to its conclusion – propaganda and education, methods of changing consciousness, not the material forces of production, are the key factors in revolution and economic development: “First and foremost, create public opinion and seize power. Then resolve the question of ownership. Later, develop the productive forces to a large extent. This in general is the rule.” [17] But how are the educators to be educated? How does the “correct Marxist-Leninist leadership” itself acquire its consciousness, so making itself independent of the society concerned, and how does it prevent that consciousness from reflecting the material reality of society?

If Marx turned Hegel on his head, Stalin and Mao reversed Marx’s posture. There are paradoxical results. Lenin understood that it was easier for a minority to secure a following in a backward society than in an advanced one, easier to manipulate a dispersed peasantry than a concentrated working class; but backwardness meant also that the material base for a socialist society did not exist, so that socialism could not be achieved in an isolated Russia. But Mao reverses this: “Lenin said: ‘The more backward the country, the more difficult its transition from capitalism to socialism. Now it seems that this way of speaking is incorrect.’ As a matter of fact, the more backward the economy, the easier, not the more difficult, the transition from capitalism to socialism. The poorer they are, the more people want revolution. After the revolution has borne fruit, boosting mechanization further should present no serious problems. The important question is remoulding of the people.” [18] Whereas for Lenin, the materialist, material backwardness was the most threatening obstacle to the realization of freedom, for Mao, the backwardness of consciousness made all things possible.

If objective reality is open to any changes consciousness determines, there is no necessary division of labour, determined by the degree of backwardness. The great differences within society – Mao’s Three Differences – can be overcome if consciousness can be moulded appropriately. Compare Engels’ assessment of class differences and the possibility of ending them: “Only at a certain level of development of the productive forces of society, and even very high level for our modern conditions, does it become possible to raise production to such an extent that the abolition of class distinctions can be real progress, can be lasting without bringing about stagnation or even a decline in the mode of social production. But the productive forces have reached this level of development only in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie therefore, in this respect, is just as necessary a precondition of the socialist revolution as the proletariat itself. Hence a man who will say that this revolution can be more easily carried out in a country, because although it has no proletariat, it has no bourgeoisie either, only proves that he has still to learn the ABC of socialism.” [19]

In the Cultural Revolution, Mao at no stage measured the aim, the abolition of the Three Great Differences, against the material conditions of China, nor would he have even seen the need to do so.

The division of labour, in Marx’s writings, is impelled and sustained by the nature of production, and in turn provides the basis for objective social classes. But in Mao’s work, the word “classes” confuses class, strata, occupation, political attitudes, all dissolving into “the people”: “Workers, peasants, urban petit bourgeois elements, patriotic intellectuals, patriotic capitalists, and other patriots, comprise more than 95% of the whole country’s population. Under our people’s democratic dictatorship, all of these come under the classification of the people.” [20]

Mao uses the terms “proletariat”, “peasant”, “capitalist” in a similarly loose fashion. The terms do not refer to objective categories, to different relationships to the means of production, but to political attitudes, degrees of support for the Communist party (which is itself the “proletariat”). Consider his casual identification of the class character of the Chinese State, and compare Lenin’s careful description of the Russian State (“a workers’ State with bureaucratic distortions”): “To practise democracy among the people and to practise dictatorship over the enemies, these two aspects are inseparable. When these two aspects are combined, this is then proletarian dictatorship, or it may be called people’s dictatorship.” [21] The class character of the State is not determined by its relationship to class any more than the party’s class character is; it is determined by the method of describing what it does. Thus, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” can arrive in 1956, ending the “New Democracy”, somehow disappear along the way, and then become the prize in the Cultural Revolution (this time, arriving in the new constitution). Nothing happened in terms of the structure of class power, even if, by 1956, the juridical forms had been changed (i.e. private capitalism had been abolished, and agriculture co-operativized). The use of the terms was so careless it was clearly a matter of no great importance.

If classes are no longer defined by their relationship to the means of production, class struggle is not what participants in the production process do. Left to themselves, the producers are capable only of “selfish, sectional” attitudes; given to “excesses”, to “economism”. Only the party can see their “long-term interests”, for ultimately only the party and, in a faction fight, only Mao’s following is the proletariat. Class struggle is what the party does – whether in the revolution or, afterwards, in a purge. We have already noted an example of this in Mao’s 1963 observation: “We have not had a class struggle for ten years. We had one in 1952 and one in 1957, but these were just in the administrative organs and in the schools.” [22] Class struggle is something you “have”, like a bath or a drink – or a hobby: “Man’s social practice is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits.” [23] Since the workers cannot be won until after the revolution, the proletariat must be something other than workers; the class struggle in the Marxist sense (between workers and employers, poor peasants and landlords) is not the basis of the seizure of State power, it is at best a side issue. The main role of workers before the victory of the party is to volunteer to work in the Liberated Areas, to send supplies, to leave the workplace (where the class struggle in Marx’s sense takes place). The party needs no organic link with workers; workers do not need to play a specific role in the party; the party does not need a programme embodying the class interests of workers – it needs only military manpower and production to support it. This was the source of the party’s programme for mild social reform before 1949. The party reserved the expropriation of capitalists or landlords not for structural change of Chinese society, but as a punishment for the “unpatriotic”.

Because there is no objective basis for classes and class struggle in Mao’s writing, the essence of the ideas of “necessity” and “contradiction” disappears. Contradictions are now no more than problems the government must overcome. In Marx, contradictions can be understood, but cannot be resolved without entirely transforming the production base from which the contradictions flow. But in Mao’s case, workers, if left to themselves, become selfish because they get more money than peasants, so they have to be educated out of a situation where they might “contradict” the long-term aims of the proletariat (alias the party). Mao, the legislator, ordains what is to be “done about” contradictions: “The contradiction between exploiter and exploited, which exists between the national bourgeoisie and the working class, is an antagonistic one. But, in the concrete conditions existing in China today, such an antagonistic contradiction, if properly handled, can be transformed into a non-antagonistic one and resolved in a peaceful way.” [24] Where classes exist without class struggle, and class struggle without classes, everything, even contradictions, are negotiable, a matter of the right public relations.

In party history, the past is not the result of the collisions in the material basis of Chinese society and how the party related to them, it is an account of the struggle between the correct line (source unspecified) and ideological deviations. The deviations are vaguely attributed to alien social forces, but the attribution is only an embellishment, not an explanation. The Kuomintang loses any specificity – at one time, respected ally (“authentic national revolutionary bourgeoisie”), at another, main enemy (“counter-revolutionary, comprador bourgeoisie”), and yet again, an ally (“learning lessons”). Apparently, only an erratic moral turpitude in Chiang Kai-shek separates the phases. The Kuomintang is the bourgeoisie when the alliance is secure, so its behaviour indicates what the “bourgeoisie” believes, just as the Communist party’s actions indicate what the “proletariat” believes: the scrabble of political fragments has completely eliminated the social structure.

Just as the Communist party cannot explain why it exists, what its foundation in the peculiar material reality of China is, so it cannot explain the source of its “ideology” which is what supposedly distinguishes it (since its class character does not distinguish it). Mao’s innocence in this respect is charming; he justifies Marxism in the following fashion: “Since the feudal class has a feudal doctrine, the bourgeoisie a capitalist doctrine, the Buddhists Buddhism, the Christians Christianity and the peasants polytheism, and since in recent years some people have also advocated Kemalism, fascism, vitalism, the ‘doctrine of distribution according to labour’ and what not, why then cannot the proletariat have its communism?” [25] After all, if other people have their eccentric notions it is only fair that we should have ours! In general, Mao does not seek to explain or justify his tactics; he decrees them, embellishing his account with such concepts as will put his proposals beyond dispute. Consider his account of the difference between Russian and Chinese revolutionary experience: “the Chinese bourgeoisie differs from the bourgeoisie of old Tsarist Russia. Since Tsarist Russia was a military-feudal imperialism which carried on aggression against other countries, the Russian bourgeoisie was entirely lacking in revolutionary quality. There, the task of the proletariat was to oppose the bourgeoisie, not to unite with it. But China’s national bourgeoisie has a revolutionary quality at certain periods and to a certain degree, because China is a colonial and semi-colonial country which is a victim of aggression. Here, the task of the proletariat is to form a united front with the national bourgeoisie against imperialism and the bureaucrat and warlord governments without overlooking its revolutionary quality.” [26] The case does not stand serious examination. The terms, “military-feudal imperialism”, “colonial and semi-colonial” are there to block further examination, to seal off the case from questions as to why the Russian bourgeoisie showed this curiously different response to the Chinese. We are not meant to take the history seriously, only the tactical line. The history is false – the Russian bourgeoisie was possibly more “revolutionary” than the Chinese – in the 1870’s and in 1905. It could equally be argued that the Chinese bourgeoisie was weaker than the Russian and therefore more dependent upon foreign interests and easier to eliminate; it was more necessary to do so since, because of its relative weakness, it was more easily used as the tool of foreign powers.

In sum, Mao Tse-tung thought is a return to pre-Marxist doctrines of socialism and to philosophical Idealism. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word – the correct Marxist-Leninist line – was with the Communist party, or, in certain circumstances, with Mao alone. The elite, defined both by its possession of the Word and its exemplary spiritual character, will emancipate the majority, lift them and enlighten them. All the problems are in the area of doctrine, arising from those who misinterpret or neglect the doctrine and thereby become the prey of other alien forces. Mao does not refashion Marxism, he merely uses the terminology to express something quite different, something which contradicts it. As a result, Mao Tse-tung thought can scarcely even count as a form of “revisionism” since it does not “revise”, it ignores.

Pre-Marxist Socialism

Some of the key ideas of Mao Tse-tung thought take up much older themes than those of Marxism (indeed, Marx and Engels spent much time in refuting some of these ideas). Mao did not copy the pre-Marxists; there was no opportunity for him to acquire a knowledge of them; but a comparable material context reproduced similar ideas, especially given the loose theoretical approach of the Chinese party.

The sans-culottes, some of the most radical participants in the French revolution, argued for some of the same things as the Red Guards. They also aspired to equality of consumption without understanding the relationship of income to the organization of production. They also had no real sense of class divisions based upon the process of production. The People – “a word which is neither defined nor analysed; it is as if the nation in its entirety had been moulded into one mythical person” – was identified not by a position within an objective social structure, but by an attitude of patriotism: “Failing to define their place in society as a working population, the sans-culottes had no clear and precise idea of the nature of labour itself. They did not appreciate that it had a social function of its own; they only considered it in relationship to property.” To be a patriot, a republican, was not to occupy an objective class position, but to exhibit the right political responses and live, at least in externals, with austerity and humility: “The sans-culottes could not endure pride or disdain, since these feelings were thought to be typically aristocratic and contrary to the spirit of fraternity which should reign among citizens equal in rights ... such personal defects are frequently mentioned in the reports justifying the arrest of suspects.” Expropriation of property was a punishment for moral failure, not a method of changing the structure of society regardless of the moral status of the propertied. Furthermore, the sans-culottes never relinquished hope that the propertied might join the cause, regardless of what they owned: “the frustration and resentment revealed by the sans-culottes at their failure to convert these citizens [the rich] for the revolutionary cause only emphasizes their sincere desire for unity, and their inability to grasp the true nature of class differences: insouciants were arrested not so much on account of their social standing, but as a result of their political behaviour ... Their search for unity, transcending class barriers, underlines the utopian aspect of their political and social aspirations.” [27]

The economic interests and political aspirations of the revolutionaries diverged. In the winter of 1793-4, when the Revolutionary government failed to keep Paris adequately supplied with grain, there were strikes for increased wages. The local committees of the revolution declared such action illegal; in China, strikes against the abolition of overtime pay were “economist”. The artisans could not, according to the régime, know their own true interests.

However, there are important differences between France in the late eighteenth century and present-day China. Then the pressure of the world was trivial in comparison to its unremitting influence today. The revolutionaries could afford, even if only briefly, the most extreme demands for freedom in all matters. No mass party encompassed France, balancing, as the Communist party in the Cultural Revolution, between the contradictory demands of defending State power and winning mass loyalty. The revolutionary leaders in France had less ability to control the movement, so that the revolution was much more given to “excesses”. In the Terror, the guillotine cut swathes through the rich to feed and clothe the poor, establishing an image of revolution to disturb the sleep of the rich of Europe for decades to come. Some of the militants urged that the guillotine should not just stand on every street corner, it should accompany the army as it went about the countryside to persuade the farmers to sell their grain. In the autumn of 1793 the National Convention decreed that “all that part [of Lyons] that was inhabited by the rich shall be demolished; only the houses of the poor and the homes of good patriots, those who have been murdered or outlawed (by the federalists) shall be left standing”. [28]

The leadership of the revolution – as in China – endeavoured to rouse and sustain support by helping the poor, but did not encourage them to help themselves, let alone run society. In France, when the only organized and armed force, the State, asserted itself, the sans-culottes were wiped out. The mass organizations, the Section Assemblies, were converted into the paid agents of the government. In the same way, the mass organizations of China in 1966-7 were absorbed into Revolutionary Committees, the backbone of which was the PLA, and then finally taken over by the rehabilitated party.

Through much of the nineteenth century, what Marx called “Utopian Socialism” repeated themes which recur in contemporary China – the hostility to the cities (usually by members of the urban middle class), the demand that the urban working class should return to the land, forming self-sufficient agrarian-industrial communities which, it was thought, would prevent the growth of hierarchical organization, bureaucracy and a specialized division of labour, and ensure all-round educational development in manual labour. Marx regarded such ideas as fantasies, forms of reactionary opposition to the necessary centralization of capital and the development of a specialized division of labour, without which abundance would never occur and so the possibility of socialism. As Lenin put it: “The separation of town from country, their opposition and the exploitation of the countryside by the town ... [are] universal concomitants of developing capitalism ... Only sentimental romantics can bewail this. Scientific theory, on the contrary, points to the progressive aspect given to this contradiction by large-scale industrial capital.” [29] For Marx, one advantage of capitalism was that it “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life”.

Equality could not be based for very long on a common sharing of poverty, a moral ideal of ascetic self-denial; only upon the full development of the means of production, ensuring all had access to abundance. For those however whose income is not in doubt, it becomes possible to play with ideas of socialism without troubling about the material base.

The Utopians were speculative, and while in some areas influential – for example, through Ebenezer Howard, on the traditions of town planning, and conceptions of garden cities and New Towns – they in no way deflected the development of capitalism. The same is true in China. While Mao was clearly excited during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, years of warfare and struggle grounded his final views in the bedrock of reality – the supreme need for accumulation. That determined the approach of tolerating the real inequality of income generated by the need for accumulation while sporadically attacking the symptoms of inequality. Utopian socialism was the decorative form of the process, not its essence.

Marxism did not, then, remain intact in an isolated backward China. It could only have done so if linked to an international class which sustained the theory. Confined to China and even there isolated from its claimed foundation, Chinese workers, it could not fail to become “false consciousness”, an ideological rationale concealing purposes other than those expressed in the rhetoric. It was fortunate, for Marxism in its original form would have been an insuperable obstacle to achieving what the party aimed for – a new and powerful Chinese State. Through the trappings of Marxistj argon, the essentials of nineteenth-century radical nationalism reappeared to justify the role of a new class.

The Chinese revolution was not “betrayed”. The Communists in the 1930s did not propose the self-emancipation of the working class (or indeed of the peasantry). Mao did not set out with the aims of 1917, but with the target of national liberation. In the Comintern’s original scheme, national liberation forces were to ally with the main force, the European proletariat, just as the Russian workers were to lead the peasants. The interests of each were different – for national liberation and an international workers’ republic on the one hand; for nationalized property and small peasant private property on the other. Yet without an alliance, each force would lose. By Mao’s time, the distinction between national and international liberation had been entirely lost; indeed, the first had entirely swallowed the second.

Nonetheless, national liberation was a great step forward for China, even if it was entirely different from the aims of the 1917 Russian revolution. Stalin’s transformation of the purpose of the Russian Communist party, by contrast, was a major retreat from the ambitions of 1917. National independence was the precondition for the survival of China as a national society. Given the real alternatives in the 1930s in China, given the Comintern’s destruction of any serious world workers’ alternative, there was little option. Mao settled for the twentieth century’s version of the “bourgeois revolution”, for the “emancipation of the productive forces”.

The story is not done. For the survival of the Chinese Communist party now depends upon securing that continued process of accelerating capital accumulation which will build the material base appropriate to China’s national independence. The effectiveness of the party depends upon its ability to transmit to China the imperatives of the present stage of the world’s means of production, and to organize the Chinese people in the form most appropriate. Forty years ago, in the Soviet Union, with world capitalism in disarray around it, that meant full State ownership of the means of production, planning and the militarizaton of society – a far cry from what was appropriate in France in the late eighteenth century. The People’s Republic has gone a considerable way to achieving as close a parallel as it can to this in the cities; the importance of the PLA as the model for Chinese society is much greater, indeed, than the Red Army was in the Soviet Union. But China’s vast countryside remains outside, uncolonized. Accumulation has proceeded rapidly, but whereas in Russia this led to a steady decline in the rural and agricultural proportion of the population (although it still remains high by the standards of the industrialized countries), in China it has had in this respect only a slight effect. Accumulation is possible, but it does not now produce “the socialization of the labour force”.

It appears that State ownership by itself is no longer enough to combat the power of the advanced concentrations of capital. The terms on which the competition are waged have changed. Indeed, it now seems that the aim of an independent developed national economy has become utopian; the material basis for China’s national independence can be no more than an industrial enclave.

In conditions of world growth, the problem is concealed. The backward countries, including China, were swept along, albeit at a relatively declining pace. But now, as the system enters stagnation, it becomes apparent that national power is the obstacle to the further growth of an international means of production, to feeding the mass of the world’s population. The condition of China’s national survival becomes an international revolution.


15. The Chinese revolution and the tasks of the Chinese Communists, Communist International (Political report to the 6th Congress of the CCP), Part I, translated in Chinese Studies in History, Summer 1970, III/4, p.268.

16. Wu Chiang, cited by S.R. Schram, The Political Thought, op. cit., p.80.

17. Miscellany II, p.269; see also: “Our revolution began with making propaganda for Marxism-Leninism. This was to create a new public opinion to push the revolution ahead. In the course of the revolution, only after the backward superstructure was overthrown was it possible to put an end to the old relations of production” – 1961-2 in Miscellany II, p.259.

18. Ibid., p.259; compare Che Guevara’s argument: “It is more difficult to prepare guerilla bands in those countries that have undergone a concentration of population in great centres and have a more developed light and medium industry, even though not anything like effective industrialization. The ideological influence of the cities inhibits guerilla struggles” – Cuba: An Exceptional Case?, Monthly Review, July-August 1961.

19. On social relations in Russia, SW II, pp. 46-7.

20. January 1962, in Mao Unrehearsed, p.169.

21. Ibid., p.167.

22. May 1963, in Miscellany II, p.33.

23. SW I, p.296.

24. On the correct handling of contradictions among the people, Peking, 1964, p.4.

25. On new democracy, 1940, in SW II, pp.361-2.

26. Ibid., p.348.

27. All citations from: Albert Soboul, The Parisian sans-culottes and the French Revolution, Oxford, 1964, p.5.

28. Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787-1799, vol.2, London, 1974, p.342.

29. A characterization of economic romanticism, in CW 2, p.229.