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China after the 1949 revolution: the benefits of the planned economy stifled by bureaucracy
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Chinese revolution. In the second of a series of articles marking that event, Tom Baldwin looks at the period following the declaration of the People's Republic of China
The Chinese revolution of 1944-49 freed millions of people from the yoke of capitalism and imperialism in the most populous country on earth. Yet the society which replaced it was not truly socialist. From the outset it was, in the language of Marxism, a "deformed workers' state", modelled on Stalinist Russia, although with its own features.
Steps were taken to collectivise agriculture, nationalise private companies and to plan the economy. However, this plan was not under the democratic control of workers. Instead, society was run from the top down by a dictatorial, bureaucratic clique in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), headed by Mao Zedong.
This meant policy was driven by the whims of the bureaucracy, and sometimes subject to sharp changes as a result of splits and power struggles within the ruling group.
Despite these huge distortions, the planned economy was still able to prove its superiority to the capitalist market by delivering rapid development and improvements in the lives of the masses.
During the 1950s the economy grew by 10% annually with industrial production growing twice as fast. These gains meant that the Chinese revolution, like the Russian revolution before it, was looked to internationally, especially by national liberation movements in colonial countries.
However, given the bureaucratic, forcible nature of the way these changes were implemented, they also came at great human cost.
One example of the sudden and brutal changes of direction from the regime was the Hundred Flowers movement and its aftermath. Beginning in late 1956, this was launched by Mao in an attempt to placate frustration with the bureaucracy.
Quoting a poem - "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend" - he encouraged constructive criticism of the regime. At its height millions of letters were being sent to CCP offices and public discussions of the problems facing China took place.
The policy was then halted in July 1957 and thrown into abrupt reverse. The 'anti-rightist movement' which followed saw purges within the CCP and repression of dissidents. Many of these were persecuted for the criticisms they had previously been encouraged to make.
Internationalism, spreading the revolution and building a world socialist plan of production are vital to genuine Marxists. However, the Stalinist bureaucracies feared the prospect of revolutions elsewhere stirring up the people against them.
This self-preservation at the expense of the world working class was summed up in Stalin's theory of 'socialism in one country'. Nationalism is in the DNA of Stalinism, in both its Soviet and Chinese forms.
That nationalist rivalry meant that from the late 1950s the bureaucracies in Moscow and Beijing became increasingly hostile to one another.
Prior to this the USSR had been an ally, providing assistance after the revolution. This is despite the fact that the Stalinist so-called 'Communist International' had encouraged the CCP not to take power and to subordinate the Chinese revolution to capitalist forces.
The Sino-Soviet split meant China and the Soviet Union were without the enormous advantages genuine cooperation could have produced. This increased the pressure on the bureaucracy around Mao to try and force the development of the economy.
The dangers of bureaucratic misrule of the planned economy were illustrated vividly with the failure of the Great Leap Forward. This was announced in 1958 as a mad dash toward industrialisation. Workers and peasants were even encouraged to set up back-yard furnaces for steel production.
The policy failed to deliver the desired industrial growth but instead meant the neglect of agriculture. This resulted in a famine in which tens of millions died of hunger.
One consequence of this catastrophe was the effective demotion of Mao by others within the regime. In response he launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, mobilising 22 million 'Red Guards' against opponents in the CCP.
Under the guise of deepening the revolution and cutting down the privileges of the bureaucracy, young people in particular were whipped up into a frenzy of activity.
They were directed to destroy 'the Four Olds' - old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Irreplaceable cultural and historical artefacts were destroyed, a method completely alien to the real traditions of Marxism. Hundreds of thousands of workers and youth died as a result of this power struggle.
By appealing to forces outside of the bureaucracy, in order to conduct a fight within, the Mao wing had unleashed forces that risked running beyond its control.
While Mao had called for a cultural 'revolution', the whole bureaucracy feared genuine revolution, an independent movement of the working class which could threaten its rule and institute workers' democracy. Mao eventually used the army and the militia to violently suppress the Red Guard.
The death of Mao in 1976 again changed the balance of forces within the bureaucracy. The 'Gang of Four' were CCP leaders which had come to prominence during the Cultural Revolution, headed by Jiang Qing, Mao's last wife.
Following Mao's death, they were denounced as counter-revolutionaries, removed from power and charged with treason. This allowed Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged in the Cultural Revolution, to become the most prominent figure within the CCP regime.
Deng initiated the first steps which resulted in the re-emergence of Chinese capitalism, the dominant trend in China today (see next week's Socialist).
The history of Mao's China demonstrates the power of the planned economy but also the crimes of Stalinist dictatorships. It is a lesson to workers that in order to harness the full potential of the socialist plan and avoid the danger of capitalist restoration, bureaucratic trends must be resisted at every stage.
The Socialist Party follows in the tradition of Leon Trotsky, a key leader of the Russian revolution, who spent the latter part of his life fighting against Stalin's dictatorship. Trotskyism enshrines the need for workers' democracy and internationalism as vital to the programme for socialist revolution.
Read the first article in our series... 'Chinese revolution of 1944-49: The second greatest event in human history' at socialistparty.org.uk
- The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by Harold Isaacs, £21 (the definitive Marxist account of the 1925-27 revolution)
- Leon Trotsky on China - £26
- The Third International after Lenin - by Leon Trotsky, £5.95
- Prophets Unarmed, Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution - £49
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In The Socialist 16 October 2019:
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