China and independent working-class politics

Submitted by Anon on 30 September, 2001 - 3:14 Author: Paul Hampton
May Fourth movement protest

The May Fourth movement launched the Chinese upheavals of the 1920s - and the original, pre-Stalinist, revolutionary Chinese Communism

This article argues that a renewed socialism for the 21st century will be based on independent working class politics. It uses the “Third Camp” as a formula for summing up this essential element for Marxist history and for current intervention in the class struggle. China represents a fertile example in both these respects.

In 1925-27 the Chinese working class lost a revolutionary opportunity because it was subordinated to bourgeois nationalism by Stalin’s Comintern; in 1949 the working class was absent because of the terrible defeat it suffered at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek. Mao’s Communists were able to establish a Stalinist state and brutally exploit the working class in the aftermath of their bureaucratic revolution, and more recently to turn China towards capitalism. However, Chinese workers have consistently fought for their interests, and, despite some disastrous defeats, now have an unprecedented social weight in the country. The conclusion is that great class battles lie ahead, and that the Chinese working class will become the decisive social force in these struggles if it learns the lessons of its own history.

There is a huge task ahead of renewing socialism, cleansing it of Stalinist excrescences and sharpening its meaning in the context of 21st century global capitalism. Yet previous decades are not without their signposts, nor are the seeds of hope absent from the present. The world we live in is still defined by the existence of classes, grounded in exploitation, and contested through class struggle. This basic analysis of reality not only provides the motivation to change the world, but also implies the social agent with both the power and the interest to carry out such a wholesale transformation: the working class. For the renewal of socialism, we can do little better than to start with Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself”.

Implicit in the definition of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class is the fight on all three fronts of the class struggle. It requires the working class to organise collectively at the point of production, where it has potential economic power, through its own trade unions and stewards’ committees. It requires a political fight for working class representation, through the formation of a political party which intervenes in all kinds of campaigns and against all kinds of oppression, and in bourgeois-democratic politics. And it requires an unceasing struggle on the “ideological front”, to combat the “ruling ideas of the epoch” and to carve out the programme, strategy and tactics to take this organised working class movement from its present state to the point where it can make its own revolution and take power into its own hands. On all fronts it implies democratic forms of organisation, the free exchange of ideas, and the means to thrash out alternative perspectives in order to take the next practical steps towards liberation.

One of the most fertile approaches to this conception of socialism is the idea of the “third camp”. I take the third camp to mean consistently independent working class politics, the necessary line of march which the working class must take if it is to free itself. The third camp provides a convenient lens through which to understand earlier working class struggles: socialism from below implies the necessity of a history from below. But this is not merely virtual history from a working-class point of view, it is a history of the actual possibilities inherent in past struggles and the alternatives which workers actually faced as they fought for their interests. Similarly the third camp is not idle speculation in the present. Current politics demand to know which side are you on, and the third camp is a warning of the dangers of the lesser evil and an immediate reminder that “my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend”. Ultimately it is a perspective of transforming the existing labour movement, but the third camp does not have to wait forlornly until the socialist forces are neatly assembled. As some protagonists put it in 1939:

“The forces of the third camp are already at hand — scattered, demoralised, without program or perspective. The problem is to bring them together, to infuse them with morale, to supply them with a program and perspective. To argue that these forces are small and insignificant has no political meaning, for the argument could apply both ways (if they are insignificant, they can no more ‘defend’ than they can ‘defeat’). Political meaning is contained only in the line upon which we expect the vanguard to come together and along which we urge them to act.” (Abern et al, quoted in Matgamna, 1998: 557).(1)

The past 80 years of Chinese history provide one of the best examples of the meaning of the third camp. Trotsky used the term to define his outlook during the great Chinese revolution (1925-27), when the emerging working class had the possibility of seizing power in it own interests, only to suffer a catastrophic defeat. The third camp was also a tool for understanding why the working class was absent during the 1949 revolution, and how the Maoist party-army created a Stalinist state which persists to this day. Finally the third camp helps us to understand the class struggles during the Maoist period, and following the immense economic transformation since 1978, the potential which the huge Chinese working class now has to finally consummate its own revolution.

How did the independent working class movement develop?

China in 1919 was ripe for revolution. For two thousand years it was ruled by successive dynasties organised around a state bureaucracy. Still overwhelmingly a peasant country, it had stagnated for centuries until its last emperor, the five year old Pu Yi, was displaced and a republic created in 1911. After 1840 China suffered the indignity of ceding tracts of land such as Hong Kong to the European powers as “foreign concessions”, and having opium foisted on its population, so that the British could better procure their tea. Imperial domination was summed up by the sign in the Shanghai municipal park which read, “No dogs or Chinese allowed”.

The European overlords brought with them the misery of capitalist development. The process of industrialisation was heralded by the spread of modern rice processing factories and by the cotton mills. The working class grew rapidly — from 650,000 in 1915 to 1.5 million in the early 1920s. It was concentrated in the major cities: for example, in Shanghai in 1923, 57 factories employed between 500 and 1000 workers and another 49 employed over 1000 workers. Nevertheless the working class remained a small minority in the country as a whole. Its conditions of work were barbaric. As one observer described it:

“Some of the match factories and carpet factories, the ceramics and glass works, and the old-style silk and cotton factories could well have served an inspiration for even Dante’s description of the infernal regions. Pale, sickly creatures move around there in almost total darkness, amidst indescribable filth, and breathing an atmosphere that is insupportable to anyone coming in from outside. At ten o’clock at night, or sometimes even later, they are still at work, and the feeble light of a few oil lamps lends the factories a still more sinister aspect. A few breaks are taken to snatch some food while still at work, or to eat a meal in a courtyard covered with excrement and filth of all kinds. When the time to stop work finally comes, these miserable creatures doss down in any place they can find — the lucky ones on bales of waste material or in the attics if there are any, and the rest on the workshop floor, like chained dogs.” (Chesneaux, 1968: 86).

The revolution of 1911 had briefly brought Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) to the presidency, but he was deposed by warlords and China carved up still further by civil war. However this ferment found an echo within a layer of intellectuals, who looked to western ideas such as science and democracy as the answer to China’s problems. Most prominent was the May Fourth Movement, a kind of Chinese Enlightenment, which was sparked off by student demonstrations in Beijing in 1919 against the decision to transfer Germany’s concessionary rights to Japan at the Paris Peace Conference. New periodicals sprouted up, the best being New Youth, edited by Chen Duxiu, then professor at Beijing University.

Out of this upsurge developed a labour movement, and a vanguard party. Inspired by the Russian revolution, small study circles of intellectuals, including socialists, anarchists and university teachers, came together to form the new organisation. In September 1920, New Youth became a communist paper, and The Communist was launched as an educational journal. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in July 1921; Chen Duxiu was elected General Secretary, and Henk Sneevliet (Maring) represented the Communist International (Comintern). Although it is true that in its early years the CCP was financed almost entirely by the Comintern, it was not an artificial creation. Rather the existing movement was redirected towards forming a new party. (Saich, 1991: 61-62), (Dirlik, 1989: 193-195).

What could the CCP do? The communists helped to build the trade unions, modelled on the Shanghai Mechanical Workers Union, which they had established in 1920, and militants inspired a strike against the British-American Tobacco company in Shanghai in 1921. However there remained the burning questions of China’s situation — the absence of a democratic republic, the weight of imperial oppression, and the necessity of land reform. In 1920 Lenin counselled that, “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with the bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is in its most embryonic form.” (1966: 149-150).

Where was this bourgeois-nationalist movement in China? Sneevliet put his faith with the Guomindang, characterising it as an amalgam of four different groups — the intelligentsia, emigrants, soldiers and workers, and therefore argued that the CCP should join it without becoming completely submerged. The Guomindang had been central to the Hong Kong seamen’s strike in January-March 1922, in which 120,000 workers came out, winning a great victory. According to Sneevliet it had led the strike and recruited hundreds of militants, whereas the CCP had done very little. (Saich, 1991: 100, 106). Sun Yat-sen would only allow Chinese communists to join as individual members, but the new tactic was pushed through in August 1922. The CCP had just 123 members. Its leadership, including Chen Duxiu, voiced their unhappiness, but Sneevliet evoked Comintern discipline to pressurise them to agree. In fact asking CCP members to join the Guomindang as individuals was something of a dead issue at this point, as the Guomindang was then in a state of disarray because a warlord had just driven Sun Yat-sen out of Guangzhou. (Feigon, 1983: 172-173).

Events in China reinforced the new policy. By January 1923 Sun Yat-sen had retaken Guangzhou and returned to the city in triumph to re-establish his government there. However the most telling event was the repression of the Beijing-Hankou railworkers strike in February 1923. At Jiangan, the chair of the branch — Lin Xiangqian — was told three times to order a return to work and, when he refused, was beheaded and his head displayed on a bamboo pole. (Chesneaux, 1968: 209). The positions of the Communist Party and the Guomindang were reversed, with the Guomindang now in the ascendant. This finally persuaded Chen Duxiu and most of the other Chinese communists that the working class movement was too weak and that they should enter the Guomindang. Following the line of the Comintern, the CCP resolved that, “The Guomindang should be the central force of the national revolution and should assume its leadership“. Leading members of the Communist Party were initiated into the Guomindang and they held a minority of places on its executive. The Russians helped to rebuild the Guomindang, with Borodin arriving as an adviser to Sun Yat-sen in 1923, and the Whampoa Military Academy was established to train its officers with Russian help.

Why was the working class defeated in the revolution 1925-27?

After the victorious Hong Kong strike in January-March 1922 the Chinese labour movement grew rapidly. The CCP helped organise unions and played a major role in the founding of the first National Congress of Labour which met on 1 May 1922 with delegates representing 300,000 workers. Despite the murderous repression, the workers remained unbowed. On May Day 1924, 200,000 workers in Guangzhou and 100,000 in Shanghai marched for an eight-hour day. By May 1925, at the second National Congress of Labour, the trade unions announced a membership of 540,000. (Rousset, 1987: 8, 10). At this point strikes over wages spread through Japanese textile mills in Shanghai. Strikers were killed on the picket line, and thousands marched in protest. At a demonstration on 30 May, 1925, British police fired into a demonstration, killing 10 and wounding countless others. The Shanghai General Union, led by the CCP, organised a general strike two days later in all foreign owned companies. Over 160,000 workers were out by mid-June, and the strike began to spread to Chinese owned businesses. On 23 June, British and French troops shot at a demonstration in Guangzhou, killing 52 and injuring over a hundred. A general strike was called in Hong Kong, run by a Strikers Delegate Congress of over 800 delegates (out of around 50,000 strikers).

As Chesneaux put it, “The responsibilities of the strike committee went far beyond the normal field of activities dealing with a work stoppage. During the summer of 1925 the committee became, in fact, a kind of workers’ government — and indeed the name applied to it by both its friends and its enemies was ‘Government No. 2’” (1968: 292-293). The strike committee extended its activities to Guangzhou, and the strike lasted nearly 16 months. During that time, British power in China was virtually paralysed and the Guomindang was able to declare itself the national government. Plainly the situation had changed. In 1923 the CCP had 300 members and reached only 1000 in the spring 1925. Yet by November 1925 it had grown to 10,000 members. When the third National Congress of Labour met in May 1926 the trade unions announced a membership of 1,240,000 — by April 1927 the figure was 2.8 million. (Rousset, 1987: 11). Although the combined activity of the Comintern and Soviet diplomacy had contributed to the parallel growth of the CCP and Guomindang, they were now on a collision course.

What was the outcome of this revolutionary situation? On 20 March 1926 Chiang Kai-shek, who became leader of the Guomindang after Sun Yat-sen’s death, ordered a surprise attack on a revolutionary naval unit headed by Communists in Guangzhou. The political advisers attached to this unit were arrested, along with the Soviet advisers. Chiang became master of the city, eliminating his opponents within the Guomindang. He fixed limits on CCP influence within the party. The CCP responded with timidity, accepting Chiang’s conditions. In July 1926 Chiang launched the Northern expedition, aiming to drive out the warlords and unify the country under his command. Meanwhile the peasant war reached an apex. In 1926, the first National Congress of the Peasant Movement met, claiming one million members. In July 1926 the CCP set up a Peasant Department, with Mao Zedong as its head; by 1927 the party influenced approximately ten million peasants. Yet the CCP continued to denounce and hold back the peasants in Central China from rioting, pillaging and massacring landlords. In October 1926 Chiang’s army ended the Guangzhou-Hong Kong strike and boycott. Only after Wang Jingwei set up an alternative Guomindang government in Wuhan did the Communists break with Chiang and instead supported the “left-wing” of the Guomindang.

The revolution was still in the ascendant. In November 1926 the Guomindang government moved from Guangzhou to Wuhan. The British were forced to abandon their concessions in this region. Chesneaux explained that, “the unions of Hubei and Hunan were, in fact, becoming a ‘workers’ government’ to an even greater extent than those of Guangzhou had been during the Hong Kong strike and boycott.” (1968: 325). They controlled large amounts of money, organised armed pickets — effectively a workers’ militia paid for by the factories through the unions. The CCP grew to 30,000 members in July 1926 and 58,000 by the spring of 1927. At the time of the Northern Expedition the CCP organised 1.2 million workers and 800,000 peasants, especially through its influence in the nationalist Fourth Army. (Bianco, 1971: 55-56). In Shanghai in March 1927, workers greeted the incoming armies of the Guomindang as liberating heroes, rising magnificently with nearly 800,000 out on strike. Workers militias effectively controlled the city, and new trade unions sprang up. An insurrection in Shanghai handed over power to the general trade union and the Communists. Chiang’s response on 12 April, 1927 was to orchestrate the massacre of the Shanghai working class, crush the trade unions, the peasant associations and the Communist Party. Victor Serge summed up the cataclysm:

“What has happened? This: on March 21-22, a working class insurrection, headed by the trade unions and few handfuls of courageous Communist militants, took Shanghai, China’s real industrial and commercial capital, after a bitter street battle against the troops of the northern reaction. The proletariat carried out this exploit under the muzzles of English, French, American, Japanese and Italian cannon (not to mention the rest). Less than a month later, on April 13-14, the Generalissimo commanding the revolutionary-nationalist armies of the Guomindang had this proletariat treacherously disarmed and machine-gunned, defeated and strangled in a single night by his official allies. And this grievous blow —foreseen and announced for many weeks by the bourgeois press of every country — was a sad, frightful surprise for the working class militants and Communists of all countries.”(1994: 63).

In April-May 1927 the CCP held its fifth congress in Wuhan. Chen Duxiu’s supporters were largely removed from the central committee and the CCP further assimilated into the Guomindang. After Chiang’s massacre, the CCP, on the orders of Borodin, switched its allegiance to the “Left Guomindang” led by Wang Jingwei. Two Communists joined the Wuhan government, as ministers for labour and for agriculture, and were promptly sent into the countryside to suppress the insurrectionary peasants. Chen Duxiu resigned as General Secretary of the CCP, scapegoated for the defeats of the party. On 19 July 1927 the so-called left-wing of the Guomindang expelled the CCP and reunited with Chiang. Borodin fled China, just as the party he had so successfully reorganised along “Bolshevik” (in reality Stalinist) lines, finally triumphed. The CCP called for a general strike, but hardly a factory came out in support. Even for Zheng Chaolin, the workers by now looked on the CCP as a second Guomindang rather than their own party. (Benton, 1997: 130).

But the Chinese revolution had a final, cruel epilogue. The strategy of subordination to the Guomindang had obviously failed and the workers’ had lost the initiative. Instead the Communists were ordered to organise a series of urban and rural insurrections, known as the Autumn Harvest risings. This culminated in the disastrous ‘Canton insurrection’, in which the CCP were ordered to take over Guangzhou by military force. Although Communist leaders in the city warned that an uprising was out of the question, the order was enforced by two of Comintern emissaries, who organised the uprising and used the Russian consulate as the insurgents’ headquarters. (Bianco, 1971: 69). Not surprisingly, the putsch was isolated from the working class and easily put down. But it finally severed the link between the Communists and the working class. An estimated 38,000 Communists were liquidated. (Rousset, 1987: 12).

What conclusions can be drawn from this defeat?

“But it is precisely why I believe you have made an error... where you say that in China, ‘two camps that are bitterly hostile to one another have come into being: in one are the imperialists and militarists and certain layers of the Chinese bourgeoisie; and on the other are the workers, artisans, petty bourgeoisie, students, intelligentsia and certain groups from the middle bourgeoisie with a nationalist orientation...’ In fact, there are three camps in China — the reactionaries, the liberal bourgeoisie and the proletariat — fighting for hegemony over the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry. We know how complex and contradictory the course of the revolution is, especially in such a huge and — to an overwhelming extent — backward country like China. The revolution can still pass through a series of ebbs and flows. What we must safeguard in the course of the revolution is above all the independent party of the proletariat that is constantly evaluating the revolution from the point of view of three camps, and is capable of fighting for the hegemony in the third camp and, by so doing, in the entire revolution.” Leon Trotsky, [1927].(2) (My emphasis)

The betrayal of the Chinese revolution was a major issue of disagreement between Stalin, who after 1923 consolidated his leadership of the USSR and over the Comintern, and the Left Opposition led by Trotsky. At its root were different conceptions of the revolutionary potential of the Chinese working class, with Stalin subordinating the Communist Party to the needs of Soviet diplomacy, whereas Trotsky perceived the need for further socialist revolutions, as part of his celebrated theory of permanent revolution.

The first disagreement concerned the nature of the Guomindang. Stalin, interpreting Sneevliet, argued the Guomindang was a “bloc of four classes”, or a workers and peasants’ party, whereas Trotsky saw it as a straightforward bourgeois formation.(3) While Trotsky did not reject an alliance between the Chinese Communists and the Guomindang, he was alarmed at the form it took. However Stalin enforced his analysis within the Comintern, which meant the vanguard of the Chinese proletariat was not merely allied, but actively subordinated to the nationalists. This was well summed up by Comintern representatives in March 1926: “The present period is one in which the Communists should do coolie service for the Guomindang.” (Duxiu, 1976: 601). In fact, following Stalin’s policy during this period, the Comintern seemed to replace the working class with the peasantry as the main revolutionary protagonist in backward countries.

Yet within the Comintern, and the Chinese Communist Party, there were early voices who concurred with Trotsky rather than Stalin. As Zheng Chaolin explained, “[In 1924] Peng Shuzhi brought back an article from Moscow titled Who Leads the Chinese National Revolution? He said that after the achievement of the national revolution, we would still need to carry out ‘our own’ revolution. But he also said that the revolution that is ‘not our own’ would ‘automatically’ come under the leadership of the proletariat. This theory of the proletariat constituting the natural leadership of the national revolution was to the exact taste of the Chinese comrades and became the guiding theory in the Party during those few years.” (Benton, 1997: 110). In fact on at least five occasions Chen Duxiu advocated a change of policy instead of the “united front from within”. (Feigon 1983: 176). The root of Stalin’s errors was his analysis of events in China as a struggle between two camps, essentially the imperialist powers and warlords on one side, and the nationalists on the other, with the socialist revolution put off to some distant point in the future. This was particularly damaging when a revolutionary situation developed in 1925, and the forces of counter-revolution gathered around the Guomindang. The centrality of the working class — the third camp perspective which Trotsky articulated in 1927 was well explained at the time by Victor Serge:

“China has almost five million industrial or craft workers (120,000 railway men, 420,000 miners, 300,000 textile workers and 200,000 metal workers). Working class centres such as Shanghai, Hankou and the mines of Hainan are strong strategic positions for the proletariat. All the recent epoch-making events of the Chinese Revolution are those of working class action. The boycott of Hongkong kept up for 16 months is the work of the Guangzhou workers (the Cantonese bourgeoisie, helped by the National government, has lifted it). The great Shanghai strikes of 1925 marked the take-off point of the revolution. The taking of the British concession in Hankou by proletarians is the greatest victory of the ‘Northern Campaign’. Then followed the admirable exploit that was the seizure of Shanghai by the workers’ insurrection...” (1994: 78).

In March 1926, the Guomindang was admitted to the Communist International as a sympathising party and Chiang made an honourary member, with only Trotsky voting against. When Chiang organised his coup later the same month, the news was suppressed in the USSR and the Comintern press glowed with pride at the “revolutionary government” (Isaacs, 1938: 125). In April 1926 Trotsky appealed to the Politburo for a change of line and in September he formally moved for the CCP to withdraw from the Guomindang. (Evans and Block, 1976: 116). Trotsky called for soviets in China at the Politburo in March 1927, before Chiang’s bloody coup. He would seek to salvage the situation for the Chinese party at the Comintern in May 1927, his articles for the Soviet press having been rejected. He was not to know until long afterwards that Chen Duxiu and his supporters were struggling for precisely the same independent orientation, only to be thwarted by the Comintern.(4)

In October 1926 Stalin sent a telegram which urged the Chinese Communists to moderate the peasant movement in order to preserve the alliance with the Guomindang. When the CCP requested 5,000 rifles to advance the peasant struggle they were denied by Borodin. The Comintern still upheld the alliance even though the nationalist government imposed compulsory arbitration in strikes and the unions remained illegal in “liberated” areas. The Communists pledged not to criticise Sun Yat-sen — indeed its “daily” paper only appeared irregularly as a weekly. As late as April 1927, Stalin boasted that the Guomindang would be “utilised to the end, squeezed like a lemon and then thrown away”. (Isaacs, 1938:185). In fact it was Chiang who tossed away the Communists. Even as he did so, Comintern agents were still ordering Shanghai and other workers to surrender their arms to him. Max Shachtman summed up the tragedy of Chinese revolution:

“Victory lay within reach of the hand for the Chinese workers and peasants, but something unprecedented in history took place: the leadership, clothed in all the formal authority of the Russian revolution and the Communist International, stood in the way like a solid wall. Stalin and Bukharin prohibited the proletariat from taking power. In the Chinese revolution the epigones played to the end, and with tragic results, the role which Lenin’s struggle in the Bolshevik party in April-May 1917 prevented them from playing in the Russian revolution.“ (1974: 34).

Trotsky’s third camp analysis upheld the independent role of the working class but was flexible enough to incorporate tactics towards both the bourgeois Guomindang and an alliance with the peasantry. (It would prove flexible enough to address the Japanese invasion in 1937 too.) Trotsky responded concretely to the reality of the situation as it developed, posing tasks for the Communist Party so that it could play its historic role as the vanguard of the working class. It is impossible to judge in hindsight whether, if the communists had followed Trotsky’s directives, they would have inevitably led the working class to power. But all the objective prerequisites for a successful seizure of power were present by 1927, except for the necessary leadership to consummate the process.

Only a few hundred supporters of Trotsky, from within the CCP and from amongst the returning students from Moscow, drew the lessons from this disaster and retained a commitment to the working class in China. Among them were Chen Duxiu, Peng Shuzhi and Zheng Chaolin, leading figures from the leadership of the Communist Party. According to Wang Fanxi, by late 1927 Chen had already come into contact with some of Trotsky’s ideas from students returning from Moscow. (Feigon 1983: 199). By the middle of 1929 Chen Duxiu had organised an opposition group and Liu Renjing had made direct contact with Trotsky. On 1 May 1931 the unification of the Chinese Left Opposition (CLO) took place, with 438 members. If the prospects were bright after unification, why did the Chinese Opposition fail to make an impact? Remaining in cities, they were decimated by Guomindang and later CCP repression. Benton argues that the disciplinary measures of the CCP, together with its relative affluence compared to the CLO (the CCP received $400,000 a month from the USSR) were significant, but the main reason was Guomindang repression. Chen and Peng were arrested in October 1932 (1996: 109-113). Benton also argued that they were unable to develop a strategy for the new opportunities which opened up after the Japanese invasion in 1937. Although the were some Trotskyist-led guerrillas, including some 2000 in Shandong, they were destroyed by the CCP. (Fanxi, 1991: 214). Nevertheless they held up the banner of authentic Marxism in a period of terrible defeat for the working class, and despite their size, offered a way out of this impasse for the Chinese proletariat.

Why was the working class absent in the 1949 revolution?

“Yet the proletariat played a negligible role in the last and decisive phase of the revolution. Neither major strikes nor urban uprisings paved the way for the Red Army as they had 20 years earlier for Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai. There were very few workers in the triumphant Red Army; it was composed essentially of peasants and officered by other peasants and intellectuals.” Bianco (1971: 83-84).

At the end of 1926, two thirds of CCP members were workers, a quarter were intellectuals and 5% peasants. Yet by 1928 only 10% were workers, just 3% by 1929 and virtually none by 1930. In 1928 the CCP “did not have a single healthy party nucleus among industrial workers”. (Isaacs, 1938: 333, 394); what remained of the vanguard was dissipated into the countryside. Mao established his first revolutionary base in October 1927 with 1,000 men. Within three years this peasant army numbered 65,000 and in November 1931, the “Chinese Soviet Republic” was founded in the south Kiangsi area, covering a population of 2.5 million by 1932. (Bianco, 1971: 64-65). When the second congress of “soviets” met in January 1934, there were only eight urban workers out of 821 delegates. During the Long March, out of 90-100,000 who set out, only 7-8,000 arrived with Mao in Shensi a year later, with perhaps with only 30,000 eventually reaching northwestern China, further separating the party from the working class centres and entrenching the peasant composition of the party-army. (Rousset, 1986: 3). In short the Chinese Communist Party was a completely different entity from the one built and smashed in the 1920s.

Nevertheless, the consolidation of the Communist party-state after 1935 under Mao’s undisputed leadership proved to be a crucial turning point. The Guomindang was unable to threaten the existence of the party, and the Japanese invasion offered the opportunity to incorporate more territory under its control. (The invasion also further dispersed the working class on the eastern seaboard.) When Japan surrendered in 1945, there were 19 Communist base areas. In 1937 there were 80,000 men in the Red Army; in 1945 there were 900,000 soldiers, and Mao claimed a militia force of 2.2 million men. In 1937 the CCP governed 1.5 million peasants in desolate Shensi; in 1945 there were 90 million peasants under Communist control. In 1945 the party had 1.2 million members, controlled about 10% of Chinese territory and was a serious contender for power. (Bianco, 1971: 150). Yet in Shanghai the CCP apparently had only 800 worker-activists in 1948. It had succeeded in creating a social force capable of ruling; the tragedy was that this force had nothing to do with working class self-emancipation. However they came to power, the Chinese Communists certainly did not do so in the manner of the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917.(5)

Regarding the kind of revolution possible if the working class was unable to take power, Victor Serge offered an interesting interpretation. Quoting the Soviet sinologist Ivine, he argued that over the last 2,000 years China had experienced five great peasant rebellions, all led by vast secret associations of poor peasants against the big landowners, the usurers, the feudal lords and the state bureaucracy; all of them ending in the more or less complete expropriation of the rich classes; after which the process of concentration of wealth and the pauperisation of the small cultivator began again, until the next peasant uprising. He believed that the “history of China provided a spectacle of the tragic repetition of an economic process that for 20 centuries until our own day has only undergone minor modifications... Precise information seems to indicate that we are on the eve of a peasant movement comparable with the greatest ones of the past. Will the former cycle of revolutions be repeated once again? That is the question.” (Serge, 1994: 85-86). This was an important insight, but I think it overlooks the fundamentally modern character of the Chinese revolution, and the unique role of the Communists in crafting their own path to power (which Serge could not have foreseen in 1927).

Trotsky himself drew attention to these possibilities in his article The Peasant War in China, (1932), but he also posed the question of what would occur when the “Red Armies” encountered the working class, suggesting the likelihood of conflict. Comparing them with the Social Revolutionary armies during the civil war he foresaw disaster for the working class if the peasantry became the foot-soldiers of another social force. He wrote: “In old China every victorious peasant revolution was concluded by the creation of a new dynasty... Under present conditions the peasant war by itself, without direct leadership of the proletarian vanguard, can pass only on the power to a new bourgeois clique... And this would signify in turn a new massacre of the workers with the weapons of ‘democratic dictatorship’.” (Evans and Block, 1976: 527-528, 530). He even speculated that the CCP and the Chinese Left Opposition might come to represent different class bases, although at this time he did not conceive of the Communist apparatus in Russia or abroad as an autonomous force. Yet Trotsky’s prognosis contained more than a germ of truth, and he provided further insight on this Stalinist variant only days before his assassination in 1940:

“The predominating type among the present ‘Communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.” (Breitman, 1973: 350-351). (My emphasis)

Why was the working class absent? It was not primarily due to a weak social base — 1925-27 had shown that — nor was it simply down to an economic crisis. The catastrophic defeat suffered in 1927 must be considered one of the principal causes of the workers’ absence in 1949. The reasons were again essentially political — the repression by the Guomindang, the disorganisation of workers into sham unions, together with the shattering of the vanguard for a generation. Quite simply, and despite the best efforts of the Chinese Trotskyists, the third camp of the working class was crushed beneath the juggernauts of the Guomindang and the Communists.(6)

Why was a Stalinist state established in China after 1949?

“Any political party or state apparatus which enslaves the working class is, in this day and age, from a proletarian, socialist, revolutionary point of view, fundamentally and completely reactionary. Therefore the CCP and the state apparatus which it has set up are also reactionary. Yet at the same time we must recognise the following facts: They have overthrown the Kuomintang [Guomindang] government, which represents foreign imperialism and the native bourgeoisie and landlord class; they are wiping out the anachronistic agrarian relationships in China’s farming villages; they have dealt a mighty blow to the foreign imperialist powers led by the United States. All of these actions, from the point of view of Chinese nationalism and democracy, have an undeniably progressive character. The difficulty is this: how and why can a fundamentally reactionary political party and government perform objectively progressive acts?” Wang Fanxi, (1951: 102).

The only real attempts to develop and extend Trotsky’s analysis at the time were the articles by Jack Rader, under the pseudonym of Jack Brad, in the pages of Labor Action and the New International, and Chinese Trotskyists like Wang Fanxi. Rader’s articles were a model of clarity and accuracy in their prognoses of the situation. Unable to seriously influence workers’ in China, these articles at least pointed to a different outcome than either a Guomindang or Communist Party victory, and thus upheld the third camp banner of Marxism, which championed the independence of the working class.

Rader acknowledged that the CCP had established a peasant base, but given its separation from the working class it had become in composition and outlook a rural party. It had even developed an ideology in which the peasantry was given leadership in the Chinese revolution, acting through the organisation of the Communist Party. But from a Marxist perspective, “Nowhere in modern history has a national revolution been led by a party based on the peasantry. The unique Chinese experience is possible because of that unifying ingredient which is absent in the peasantry as a class [i.e., the Communist Party]. With its discipline, ideology, leadership and indefatigable organisational labors it creates cohesion and gives unified direction.” (1949a: 50).

The answer lay in the transformation of the party. Echoing Trotsky’s final verdict on other communist parties, Rader argued that, “Since 1927 Stalinism has not been a political party in China but an armed camp, an embryo state. Party members and leaders were equivalent to state officials. Sometimes the fortunes of the state party were low indeed, as after the Long March when it was reduced to 40,000. In those days, and even today, not only were and are party and state identical, but the two are coefficients of the army’s power and are identical with it too.” (1949a: 50) Since the founding of the Chinese “Soviets” in the South, there has existed a special GPU or political police. (1949b: 4). As such the Chinese Communist Party was a Stalinist party, with identical aims to its Russian parent and would seek power in order to create its own system of class exploitation:

“The Chinese Communist Party is aiming at a monopoly of political power. All compromises with coalitions, with propertied classes in city and village will not alter this basic fact. They will permit the city bourgeoisie to retain their factories and mercantile establishments (provided they do not encroach on big industry and big commerce which will be nationalised). But they will not permit then to organise political parties to represent these interests. They will support the village tukhoa (kulak), but at the same time insist that he accept the party as his sole defender. They will form unions and workers will be forced to join, but any party that arises to speak for the workers outside of officially created organisations will be dealt with as counter-revolutionary.” (1949b: 4)

Rader defined the seizure of power by the CCP as a “bureaucratic revolution”, in which the working class did not play an active role. He contrasted this revolution with others in modern history, in which, “a rainbow variety of ideologies has had to struggle for support and position of hegemony... This was the source of the enormous release of energy and the dramatically democratic nature of the revolutionary process. Millions, emerging on the stage of history, become politically literate overnight, developing unforeseen talents, assuming new roles and carving out a new historic path.” In China he argued that the opposite had occurred: “The CP is marching to victory over a road which is a political desert. No contenders are in the field against it and no other political movement allied with it. The military character of its conquest is a consequence of this reality. We are witnessing the classical form of bureaucratic-collectivist revolution, the pre-condition for which is the prostration of the great urban social classes which have been the prime movers of history since the Renaissance.” (1949c).

He cited examples of CCP directives for the newly conquered cities requesting that: “‘All law-abiding enemy functionaries, personnel of economic and educational organs and policemen should not be taken prisoner or arrested. They must be given duties and remain at their original posts under orders of definite organs and personnel, to watch over their original organs.” (China Digest, August 13, 1948, 1949a: 52). At the outset of the conquest of the Yangtze valley, an eight point proclamation, “hoped that workers and employers in all trades will continue work and that businesses will operate as usual”. Even in Shanghai, where great unrest was caused by the inflation, where a great strike wave had occurred and the Guomindang’s power had ebbed, the workers remained non-political, not even organised as a class grouping.” (1949c).

But he did not fail to note the significance of what was occurring, even if the revolution was being led by the mortal enemies of the working class. For the first time a Stalinist state of continental proportions had been established outside of Russia and on the basis of its own conquest of power. An historic event had occurred:

“The conquest of all China by Stalinism is an event of world history whose full significance will unfold with time. If Stalinism can organise effectively this continent and begin its industrialisation, it may well be one of the turning points of history. A powerful social force, albeit a force of counter-revolutionary Stalinism, is sweeping aside the three millennia-old incubus of decay and stagnation. China is being torn from her antiquated roots and thrust into the modern world maelstrom. The tragedy of the Stalinist victory lies in this: that this gigantic event takes place under the aegis of a totalitarian rather than liberating leadership, one which will tie China to the Russian despotism in world politics as in domestic economic construction.” (1949c).

What could working class socialists do in this situation? Rader argued that the working class was not yet completely permeated by Stalinism and could still be imbued with political independence. The CP was primarily an agrarian party and an independent proletariat could eventually organise its own organs, take power in the rich coastal cities, and organise an independent democratic movement which could call the peasants to revolutionary action. He thought workers should call for immediate arming of all the people in fighting units of their own, with their own elected officers. They could organise under the programme of ousting the capitalists regardless of party; for social and political democracy, not a new one-party regime; for maximum freedom to organise, without CP direction; against the CP doctrine of revolution by “stages”; for the restoration of revolutionary leadership of the workers; and for full freedom of speech and press. (1949a: 54).

The major problem for the CCP was how to create a new national ruling class around the party as a core by recruiting from many sections of the population, especially the young intellectuals. Rader denounced the Consultative Conference they set up, counterposing to it “democratic assemblies of freely elected delegates”. He also defended the right of Formosans to self-determination, noting that Chiang had massacred 20,000 in 1947, and that if the CCP were victorious, they would establish a new tyranny. He called on the Chinese masses to fight against all imperialism and its agents, American and Russian. Most of all, “The workers of China need a party of their own. That is the beginning of a program.” (1949a: 54) 6

A similar balance sheet was offered by Wang Fanxi inside China at the time. He showed that a third camp perspective, if not the forces to coalesce around it, was still alive in China, when he wrote: “In judging and estimating the nature of a movement, a political party, or a state, for the proletarian revolutionist there is one unchanging standard: What is its relation to the working class, that is, to the only revolutionary class in the modern world? For us there can be no more decisive standard than that, nor can there be any other point of departure.” (1951: 100). Wang argued that the CCP had not improved the position of the working class, while economically it had lowered their standard of living. In reality, like the Guomindang, the Communists enslaved the Chinese working class. For Wang it was the 20 year absence of the working class from the political stage which determined what he called “the peasant aspect, the capitalist nature and the bureaucratic-collectivist direction of Chinese Stalinism”. Although Wang’s views did not completely coincide with Rader, and he later revised his analysis, his early assessment still has great merit. The tragedy was that he found it increasingly difficult to correspond from his virtual prison on Macau, and of his few hundred co-thinkers on the mainland, almost all were imprisoned after 1952. 7

What was the social nature of China after 1949?

One of the yawning gaps in the development of a third camp perspective is an extension of the analysis pioneered by Rader and Wang to the whole Maoist period, and to the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy’s subsequent turn towards capitalism under Deng. The rightful starting point is Marx’s method for differentiating class societies, “the specific economic form in which surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of rulers and ruled”. (Marx, 1977: 791). After 1949, the Communist party-army used its military victory to smash what remained of the old bourgeois state, organised around the Bonapartist Guomindang, and its monopoly of violence to create a new state. In essence this was an expansion of the “Soviet” established in 1931, over a larger territory, although the CCP sought to incorporate others who had allied with it in the so-called “united front” against the Japanese and the Guomindang.

This new state proceeded to expropriate the landlords and the capitalists, to nationalise the means of production and to establish a new form of exploitation, on the blueprint of the USSR, creating a new ruling class around the Communist Party. The mode of surplus extraction was direct and collective. Through the nationalisation of industry and the collectivisation of agriculture, the new ruling class could control the means of production, and set the tempo for industrial expansion through its five year plans, first instituted in 1953. The amount of necessary labour workers and peasants had to perform to reproduce themselves (i.e. to produce the means of consumption) was directly managed through a system of subsidies and rationing, whilst the state could appropriate their surplus labour essentially as tribute directly from the factories and farms. That such a bureaucratic-command system was bound to malfunction does not negate the fact that the CCP was the “sole master of the surplus product”.

By 1956, 97% of rural households worked in co-operatives and 88% on collective farms; in the same year 68% of factories had been nationalised and the remainder transformed into joint state-private enterprises. According to Mao, China had 12 million industrial workers out of a population of 600 million in 1957. As Cheng and Selden argue, the hukou system of population registration was crucial to the social relations established by the party-state, in particular the restrictions on labour migration and the channelling of the agricultural surplus product to the cities. Hukou registration determined their identity, citizenship and proof of official status. (1997: 24, 32). Although it had antecedents in the ancient baojia system of mutual surveillance and the Soviet passbook system, the hukou was a unique, contemporary phenomenon. It divided the cities from the countryside, where peasants were expected to live self-sufficiently, and regulated the supply of labour to the cities. Introduced after 1953, the hukou privileged those who lived in urban areas, with the state taking on direct responsibility for their well being and exploitation. This was carried out principally by the danwei (work units) system; without it workers lost their eligibility for food, clothing, housing, employment, education, marriage and army enlistment.

In the cities, the mechanism for regulating workers’ means of consumption (the so-called “iron rice-bowl”) was the danwei. After 1958 work units took responsibility for the provision of housing, food, healthcare and pensions, replacing the earlier form of registration based on the family unit. Between 1953-56 private home ownership was largely eliminated in urban areas and the state established a monopoly over urban housing. At the same time, state control over food was established, and food rationing introduced for grain and clothing in 1955, features which were to remain for over thirty years. Stalinism with Chinese characteristics lacked capitalist markets: its symbolic rents, low prices and notional wages did not correspond with the proportions of social labour employed. The outward appearance of this system were the coupons for sugar, rice, soup and cigarettes and the queues in the cities which were still a visible part of life a decade ago.

The Great Leap Forward sparked rapid urbanisation between 1958-60. Some 38 million people left their villages; even in the state sector employment rose by 21 million in 1958 alone. The urban population rocketed from 15% to 20% of the population, as rural Chinese temporarily burst the fetters of the hukou system. But as Michael Harrington observed astutely at the time, “Yes, Chinese Communism industrializes — but at enormous cost and through enormous waste”. (1958: 100). The principal cause was the terrible starvation unleashed by the forced collectivisation of agriculture, the forced extraction of the agricultural surplus by the state, now known as the “great leap famine”, responsible for perhaps 20 million deaths in the space of four years. Grouping peasants into large agricultural communes, and into production brigades, creating mess halls for food and indoctrination, the regime did away with the old relations in the countryside, and resisted the creation of household responsibility which peasants developed to avoid the crisis. (Yang; 1997: 282-4). Yet within the space of two years, some 20 million workers were laid off and sent back to the countryside. (Cheng and Selden, 1997: 44). Thereafter people were forced to reside in the place of their birth, except for women who might live at their husband’s domicile. It is not surprising that Mao is remembered by ordinary Chinese for his slogan, “in order to have construction, you must first have destruction”.

China’s limited industrialisation for 30 years after the revolution was hardly analogous to the primitive accumulation of capital which ushered in the modern epoch in Europe. The system bound workers and peasants to the means of production, indeed millions simply lived and died in their place of birth and with their tools. It did not create a capitalist class but rather a Behemoth state which arbitrarily drove the exploitation of the direct producers with only limited success. By the 1970s, the system was simply unable to generate the surplus necessary to carry out the transformation of the Chinese economy. The chronic malfunctioning of the system was built into its very nature; in competition with capitalism it was bound to fail.

As if to illustrate its perversity, the Chinese bureaucracy had recourse to the most primitive forms of exploitation, just as Stalin did in the thirties. A huge pool of slave labour, encarcerated in over a thousand labour camps by the 1970s, served both as an economic resource for the state and a chilling reminder of the costs of opposition. China lurched from the great leap famine through the cultural revolution with its barely formed system unable to satisfy its ruling class, let alone the needs of workers and peasants. And with workers’ democracy ruled out by the nature of their rule, the only place for the CCP to go was the market.8

How has China developed towards capitalism since 1978?

Within two years of Mao’s death, China under Deng Xioping began to lurch towards capitalism under the guise of a “socialist market economy”. Deng’s change of direction with slogans like “it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice”, might be rationalised as gradualism, but in fact the aperture unleashed a wave of class struggle in the countryside. Believing they now had the chance to make money, peasants broke out of their “communes” to produce for profit, going beyond the intentions of the CCP in embracing household responsibility. This process has transformed the countryside, with 200 million clambering out of absolute poverty (defined as $1000 per year) releasing labour for the township enterprises which now generate 40% of China’s industrial output. Signalling the collapse of the old communes, 800 million now effectively stand outside of the old system of exploitation, but only to exchange it for the bondage of the market place.

Over the past twenty years China has undergone the most rapid industrialisation yet seen in human history. In the words of Paul Theroux, “Yesterday’s paddy field is tomorrows high rise, and a thousand factories bloom”. Twenty years ago Shenzhen near Hong Kong was merely a rural hamlet; today it is a super-city with four harbours. Suzhou Industrial Park near Shanghai, known as ‘Little Singapore’, is currently under construction after foreign investment of $20bn and will soon house 600,000 people. Shanghai itself is once more Asia’s largest city, its polluted skyline dotted with high-rise towers, its rivers spanned by new bridges and its new roads teetering on top of the old, all built with the new money. While there is still a red star over China, capitalism is rapidly engulfing the firmament.

The Chinese government boasts of its virility in the language of economic growth statistics. The United States took 47 years between 1839-86 to double its per capita income, whereas China has managed the same feat between 1978-87, and again from 1987-96. China is now the world’s largest producer of grain, meat, cotton and peanuts, as well as steel, coal, cement, fertiliser and TV sets. Already one of the largest economies in the world, it is expected to rival the US as the largest on the planet within two generations. The harbinger of capitalism has been the foreign investment of the Chinese diaspora, especially from Taiwan and the newly integrated Hong Kong. The prosperity of the eastern seaboard has created a labour market and thus undermined the danwei; market wage rates and prices have replaced state rationing and new housing is either sold or rented at exorbitant cost to tenants.

According to Sargeson, terms such as exploited (boxue) and class (jieji) and wage labourer (dagong) are now commonplace in workers discourse about their working lives. Presently, millions of Chinese workers fit Marx’s description of the proletariat which was formed in Europe in the early stages of industrialisation. In 1979 there were 49 million workers employed in industry, commerce, transport and services which were not state-owned; by 1995 this figure had increased to 167 million, or 60% of China’s non-agricultural workforce. (1999: 3-4). On this broad definition, the Chinese working class now numbers over 270 million people.

One of the signs of the development of capitalism in China is the dramatic decline of state-owned firms. In 1978, state-owned enterprises produced three-quarters of China’s total output. In 1995 this had fallen to approximately one-third, less than was produced by collectively owned rural firms. Overseas investment, ostensibly from companies registered in Hong Kong and Macau, means that over 20% of China’s exports earnings now come from foreign-invested enterprises, and private firms employ approximately 56 million people. (Sargeson, 1999: 27-29). Another is this huge increase in the number of contract and temporary workers. The party-state has simplified hiring and firing practices, eliminated life-long employment in state firms and supported performance-related pay. Because of continued political domination by the CCP, these reforms have resulted in a proliferation of rent-seeking and entrepreneurial activity on the part of government officials. In this bastard-capitalism, connections to the bureaucracy facilitate business activity, with all the implied corruption and nepotism.

To facilitate labour mobility and the operation of a labour market, the government has approved temporary residence permits and the transfer of personnel dossiers. In 1990 only 12% of the urban workforce were on temporary contracts; within six years this figure rose to 41%. Some estimates indicate that one-third of the adult work-force, or approximately 200 million people, were surplus to agricultural requirements and were underemployed or unemployed. Even a decade ago there were 70-80 million migrant rural workers in China’s towns and cities. (Sargeson, 1999:31-34) Youth, mainly women, work in the new factories as little more than modern indentured labour. Two-thirds of the population still live in the countryside, and 300 million people still subsist on less than $1 a day. Last year 20 million workers were sacked or indefinitely sent home, yet the government quotes a figure of 3% for unemployment.

Conditions in the new economic zones recall the description of factories nearly a century ago. One survey found a factory in Shenzhen with 521 separate punishments for workers’ infringement of workplace regulations. Prohibitions on using the toilet, drinking and talking during working hours, go together with draconian piece-rate systems and the use of electronic prods by supervisors. Even in state-owned firms, where workers had been relatively privileged, authoritarian management, long working days, productivity pay and harsh discipline have become the norm. Workers do not have the right to strike, unless their workplace is unsafe. Independent unions are prohibited, and leaders liable to imprisonment. Even official union membership is rare among workers in private business. Despite the 1995 national labour law, which was supposed to regulate conditions for the (40 hour) working week, minimum wages and safety are ignored with impunity. (Sargeson, 1999: 40-41).

The period since 1978 is far closer to the era of the primitive accumulation of capital, in the manner as Marx described it: the creation of a class of capitalists and a class of proletarians. (Holmstrom and Smith, 2000: 2, 15). Allowing for the obvious differences between feudalism and Stalinist collectivism, what has happened over the past twenty years in China does look uncannily like the process of separating the direct producers from the bondage of the old social relations in town and country (i.e., the hukou, danwei, etc.), and subjecting them to tyranny of the labour market. On the other hand, this period has also witnessed the emergence of a rapacious capitalist class, out of a section of the old bureaucracy that has acted in collusion with overseas capital. The incorporation of Hong Kong and the tension between China and Taiwan are significant in this respect. It also implies that huge explosions are ahead as these social forces come into conflict.

How has the working class struggled under CCP rule?

Recent academic research has challenged the commonly-held myth that Chinese workers basically supported the Maoist regime. Numerous times since 1949 the working class has risen up in major acts of protest, and working-class dissent over the past fifty years has been the most heavily repressed by the Communist Party. There is little doubt that the last half-century of Chinese history has been characterised by uninterrupted class struggle, sometimes open, sometimes hidden.

Sheehan’s research confirms that the working class was “relatively passive” when the CCP took power. (1998: 26). The right to strike was included in the constitution, but workers were told they no longer needed to use these old methods of struggle. A sign of caution towards the new regime was that workers did not dismantle the old Guomindang “unions”, preferring these organisations to nothing at all. Although workers’ congresses were established in factories, they became rubber stamp bodies for factory management committees, with party cadres and factory directors making the crucial decisions. The official trade unions preached the doctrine of increasing production and labour discipline. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) defined their tasks as, “To ensure and consolidate labour discipline, correctly organise labour, fully and rationally use working hours, raise labour productivity and turn out quality products”. (Harrington, 1958: 91). The nationalisation of industry tended to reduce the democracy and participation of the workers, and former capitalists received interest payments and sometimes posts in these new joint enterprises, which was resented by workers.

The working class is often written out of accounts of the Hundred Flowers protests, yet workers talked of “creating another Hungarian incident” (Sheehan, 1998: 48). Workers’ complaints included high fares and rents, sick pay and the abolition of end of year bonuses and allowances. The unofficial Guangzhou dock strike in the spring of 1957 involved half the workforce. Workers formed autonomous unions, sometimes called “redress grievance societies” and adopted a “waged-labour mentality”. Workers continued to complain that party cadres had special sanatoria and canteens, and some denounced the party as a new ruling class. Research by Perry reveals that in the spring 1957, there were major labour disturbances in Shanghai, including more than two-hundred walk-outs, one hundred organised show-downs and over 700 less serious disturbances. By comparison in 1919 there were 56 strikes, 175 in 1925, and 280 strikes in 1946. Only the last six months of Guomindang rule witnessed more strikes, when the numbers rocketed to over three thousand. (Perry, 1997: 234, 254). These figures are one more illustration that far from being a golden age, this period was one of fundamental social cleavages.

Perry does not deny the role of Mao in encouraging protests during this period, but puts the causes down to economic restructuring. Some 90% of strikes took place in the newly formed joint-ownership enterprises, the majority of them in small workplaces with less than one hundred workers. These changes had affected workers’ real incomes, and led to disparities in welfare assistance, housing subsidies, bonuses and job security in favour of workers in state-owned companies. They were generally not about wage differentials. (Perry, 1997: 240). Some workers resented the loss of worker supervision which had been introduced over the previous decade, and many strikes involved apprentices livid about changes to the length of their tutelage. About one-fifth of the industrial action involved the whole factory, although usually less than half the workers took part. The focus of dissent was usually factory management, but also included the official unions and party cadres. But this movement was crushed, and the official union purged of sympathetic elements.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-69), workers took advantage of divisions within the CCP to push the movement in directions in which it was not intend to go. Some ex-Red Guards, such as Shengwulian, developed a critique of the regime using Maoist verbiage. Workers complained of the increased use of temporary and contract labour, and the keeping of dossiers on them at work. The army was sent in to restore order in some factories and rebel workers’ federations were suppressed. In 1974, big character posters attacked cadres’ privileges and characterised the bureaucracy as a ruling class. Workers again formed independent unions, and in Hangzhou 30,000 troops were used against strikes. Over one million demonstrated in Beijing in 1976 to oppose the Gang of Four. Although workers tended to side with Deng against the old Maoists, they soon became critical of his reforms, which removed the “iron ricebowl” of job security whilst retaining the “iron armchair” for party cadres.

The Democracy Wall movement between 1978-81 published journals and explicitly addressed the question of whether the workers really were the “leading class” and “masters of the enterprise”, as official propaganda stated. Again rebels characterised the party as a new ruling class — the journal Spray discussed exploitation under public ownership. (Sheehan, 1998: 163). Wang Xizhe raised ideas of direct democracy, modelled on the Paris Commune and Russia in 1917. In the background was the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland, from which workers drew great inspiration, stimulating demands for independent unions at the Taiyuan steel works, and in Shanghai. The fear of a “Polish crisis” led to the suppression of the movement and a number of nominal freedoms were stripped from the constitution, including the removal of the right to strike in 1982. The new journals too were suppressed on the grounds that they had not registered with the authorities; the authorities of course had no intention of accepting a free workers’ press. The CCP was quite explicit about its fear of a link up between dissident publishing efforts and the self-organisation of workers. (Sheehan, 1998: 193).

The reasons for protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 also deserve elaboration from a third camp perspective. Workers had lost confidence in the government after a decade of reforms. A survey by the official trade unions (ACFTU) in 1988 found that less than 10% of workers thought the unions spoke up for workers or solved their problems. Around 25% said unions only collected dues and organised recreation and 70% said the workers’ congress was not effective. (Sheehan, 1998: 202). The ACFTU estimated that the majority of incomes had fallen by 25-30%, with many workers reduced to subsistence. Workers resented the growth of contract labour in the state sector, worsening health and safety at work, a punitive style of management and corruption.

During the Tiananmen protests students did not generally seek working class support, confining the workers’ headquarters to the far side of the square until the end of May. Students were increasingly pulled towards the internal power games of the elite, and held back general strike calls at the end of May. The Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation began organising in April, before announcing itself on May 18. Workers’ federations spread across many major cities, and although they involved perhaps 150 hard-core activists, they had registered 20,000 workers, including in state-run factories such as Shougang (Capital Iron and Steel) and Yanshan Petrochemicals. Workers denounced the regime of Deng and Li Peng as “this twentieth century Bastille, the last stronghold of Stalinism”. (Sheehan, 1998: 214-215).

The working class became the major force in the democracy movement prior to its brutal suppression. The shootings in Beijing prompted great heroism on the part of the workers there, and the creation of new organisations in places like Guangzhou. The number of strikes and the dip in production figures measure the extent of workers’ involvement. Whilst the regime claimed workers remained aloof, the workers’ organisations suffered the fiercest attacks in the press, and workers the severest repression in the crackdown. Internal documents from the official unions admit to the political nature of the Tiananmen protests. In 1991 the Ministry of State Security investigated fourteen underground workers’ organisations, with between 20 and 300 members, two modelled explicitly on Solidarnosc. In 1994 campaigns for the right to strike and the formation of independent unions were set up.

Perry concluded her study of the 1957 Shanghai strike wave by arguing that it was the fragmentation of Chinese workers that was the key to their militancy. The image of the danwei as co-opting the proletariat and thus diluting protest is only part of the picture, since these workers were only a minority of the industrial labour force. In 1957 it was those excluded from the benefits of reform who took the lead. By way of a contrast, she argues that the state-employed workers on permanent contracts, who stand to lose most by the re-introduction of capitalism after 1978, are most likely to rebel. (1997: 250-254). The heartlands of the new unemployment in the north-east have recently witnessed an increase in strikes, sit-ins, petitions and factory occupations. What is certain is that neither Stalinism nor capitalism eliminated the basic economic contradictions which drive the class struggle.

Conclusion: what are the prospects for the third camp in China today?

Out of 50 years of economic development has mushroomed a 200-million strong working class, a force of tremendous revolutionary potential, a fact well known to the CCP leaders who have maintained it in an atomised state without the capacity to form its own legal organisations. Yet the Tiananmen demonstrations shook the totalitarian state to its foundations. As capitalism continues to seep into the pores of Chinese Stalinism, the Communist Party continues to lose its grip on the people it oppresses. What the working class lacks compared with its heroic forebears is the necessary organisation and consciousness.

The situation is highly fluid. The CCP is still in power. According to Harry Wu it still has 15-20 million people in labour camps. The army itself owns 20,000 companies and the state still controls hundreds of thousands of firms. At its last congress in 1997, the CCP rejected privatisation of the largest enterprises, whilst agreeing to sell off some of the smallest with a new shareholding arrangements (effectively forced lending). The banking system is insolvent with $600bn of loans outstanding — its economists breathed a sigh of relief when China avoided the “Asian flu” financial crisis two years ago. Also, the signs are that after playing catch-up, the phenomenal growth rates of the past two decades are now slowing down.

The Communist party-state is squeezed by the transformation of the countryside and by capitalists from within, and the pressures of the global market from without. Whether the CCP will introduce full-blown capitalism itself, or be swept away by the forces it has unleashed, remains an open question. Undoubted revolutionary possibilities are ahead. Therefore in the current situation, third camp socialists have to do everything possible to help the Chinese working class play an independent role, to exploit the loosening of the hukou and turmoil created by the introduction of the market to fight for their own interests. The death of Stalinism in China would be fitting epitaph to the recent anniversary celebrations, but not if it is replaced simply by the chaotic, bastard-capitalism which Russia has endured over the past decade. Far better for the Chinese working class to rediscover the militant tradition of its youth, when it stood on the threshold of its own revolution, a tradition that has not been snuffed out despite eighty years of brutal domination.


1. Abern, Bern, Burnham and Shachtman, [1939], “What is at issue in the dispute on the Russian question? A statement of the position of the minority”, in Matgamna, (1998). The term “third camp” is usually associated with the Workers’ Party and its successors, but I want to argue that the concept was (and still is) relevant beyond the Cold War dichotomy of Stalinism and capitalism. Clearly there are different nuances and interpretations of the third camp, but I find Trotsky’s version a most powerful analytical tool.

2. Trotsky, Leon [1927] “Letter to Alsky”, in Evans and Block, (1976).

3. Trotsky described Sun Yat-sen’s ideas as bourgeois as early as 1924, Trotsky (1973: 8).

4. For Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin see, Lauscher, Hans (1994), ‘Trotsky and the Guomindang’, Revolutionary History, 5: 3. See also Trotsky, Leon [1926] “The Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang”, and the rejected article, “Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution”, [1927] in Evans and Block, (1976). Victor Serge played a leading role in the Left Opposition’s work on China during this period.

5. Trotsky’s articles on the Sino-Japanese war are also in Evans and Block, (1976). Dissent from these views, especially after 1941 are found in Fanxi, (1991: 204-245), Benton (1996: 78-90), Benton, (1997: 254) and in Shachtman (1942), ‘China in the World War’, New International.

6. A version of Rader’s principal article (1949a) was reprinted in Workers’ Liberty 58 (1999), as “Where did Chinese Stalinism come from?”. Rader also predicted that a conflict between Russian and Chinese Stalinism — both nationalistic — was inevitable, although he did not believe it would occur immediately. (1949c).

7. “Appeal for Protests against Mao Terror”, Labor Action, October 26, 1953. Wang Fanxi discusses the evolution of his own thinking in his memoirs (1991: 255-273). His views on the 1925-27 events, originally an introduction to Trotsky’s writings on China published in German, were reprinted in Workers’ Liberty 12/13 (1989), as “Trotskyism vs Stalinism in the Chinese Revolution”. By the late fifties, Wang came to endorse the mainstream “Trotskyist” interpretation (albeit critically), that China had become a “deformed workers’ state” after 1949. Nevertheless I believe his early analysis remains a more significant contribution to the understanding of this period in Chinese history.

8. Does this argument imply a “peaceful road” to capitalism? Only in the sense that Lenin defined the Prussian road to capitalism, i.e., that after the failure of the German bourgeoisie to make a revolution in 1848, the Junker state laid the basis for the development of German capitalism. It certainly does not imply an unwinding of the film of reformism backwards — China never had a socialist revolution, so there never was a “workers’ state” to be overthrown peacefully.


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