Nigel Harris


The Mandate of Heaven



We have endeavoured to trace the course of the “class politics” of the Chinese Communist party during its period in power. We noted in its earlier history how a decisive change took place in the second half of the 1920s. The ensuing politics were the result of the interaction of the changed aims of the Communist International (a reflex of the changes taking place in the Soviet Union) and the needs of material survival imposed upon the party by operating as partisans in a backward rural area. In those years, a transition was made from Lenin’s conception of an alliance between the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries and the national liberation struggles of Asia, to the national liberation struggles as a complete substitute for the proletariat. The teeth of class war and internationalism were drawn.

Nonetheless, the party retained a tenacity, courage and honesty which, when the Japanese invaded China, enabled it to champion the immediate demands of Chinese national independence, It was thus as a nationalist party, not a working-class party, that it was able to win power. It was in the same vein that it established order and began the reconstruction of the Chinese economy. Its aim – the building of a powerful modern State – remained consistent throughout the years of the People’s Republic, even though from time to time it was compelled by objective circumstances to meet some of the demands of the mass of the population, through whose exploitation the State was built. The Chinese revolution was a spectacular triumph; it represented not only a defeat for the corrupt ruling order of China and its foreign backers, but an opportunity to purge the country of the errors of the past and begin its social transformation. By the act of ending endemic famine, it was a major step forward for mankind.

It is by these criteria that the Chinese Communist party exercises political influence in the mass of the backward countries. There, the legacy of colonial domination continues even though its political forms have changed. But the conditions which made possible the rise of the party to power in the 1930s – the destruction of a workers’ alternative through the emasculation of the Comintern, the withdrawal of workers in the main from independent political action – are changing. The world is entering a new period, and already there is abundant evidence of a reassertion of working-class action. It is not the creation of those who call themselves socialist, but the by-product of a prolonged crisis in world capitalism. If the class struggle revives, the old issues of its relationship to national liberation will reappear.

For the mass of backward countries, only the establishment of an economically independent State can ward off the depredations of Western capitalism. In a similar way, the “Peasant War” aimed to establish, not the common ownership of land, but the equal sharing of land. The Bolsheviks recognized that neither independent States nor the equal sharing of land could ultimately overcome the threat posed by world capitalism. Nonetheless, the workers’ revolt in Russia needed a peasant war to succeed; and, it was argued, the world proletariat needed the struggle for national liberation to succeed. The alliance was not the union of those who agreed on the entirety of each other’s programme, but simply those who agreed on the limited end of the overthrow of the system. The peoples of the backward countries, and the peasants of Russia, had the right to learn their own lessons. They could be compelled to adopt the Bolshevik standpoint only at the cost of the struggle for universal freedom.

Discrimination between the aims of different social forces became lost. National liberation and land reform came to mean socialism itself, not steps along the road towards it.

In the Chinese case, the change – from the aims of international workers’ emancipation in the early 1920s to those of national liberation in the 1930s – was not a “pragmatic” adjustment to a particular Chinese reality. That interpretation takes for granted that the basic reality is the nation, when the nation itself has been identified only by a world order. The change embodied a fundamental shift. Marx was turned on his head, just as he had claimed to put Hegel on his feet. Mao Tse-tung thought is a form of philosophical Idealism, not dialectical materialism. For the self-emancipation of the majority it substitutes a romantic conception of socialism, incapable of realization except through its contradiction, a bureaucratic nationalist State.

The change was not a mistake. It was the result of events, the changes in Russia and China. Mao awaited no theory: he made a revolution, knocking together a rationale as he proceeded, borrowing on the cultural flotsam of the Chinese and Western intelligentsia. He did not fight within the Communist International for an alternative strategy, for he had none. His path to power required the ideological symbols of the October revolution, so he employed the phrases – for example, “the working class” – but emptied of all content. As he bent China’s social reality to his task, so also he bent the “ideology” into a shape appropriate. Men, not ideas, made his world.

The change would “ordinarily” be of no more than pedantic interest. But as the world enters a new period of history, the old issues surface once more. Capitalism can no longer guarantee to meet the modest ambitions of the majority. Indeed, it can no longer keep alive a section of its slaves: famine will become an increasing threat. Workers in many countries have reacted on a scale not seen for decades. The central issue – of universal freedom, of using the massive productivity of the world system to meet the needs of all – again appears.

In such a context, the rhetoric of the Chinese Communist party becomes more than an eccentricity. It becomes a political alternative. But it is one of a peculiar kind, that simultaneously offers world revolution in words, but an accommodation to the world order in fact, achieved through local alliances with existing ruling classes against “social fascism”. It sacrifices class parties to the creation of sects, armed or not. Mao Tse-tung thought plays an objective role, regardless of the subjective intentions of those who adhere to it: the strengthening of a world order, not the creation of an international alternative order.

Mao Tse-tung thought is tested, not by its quotations, but by reality – the reality of Hangchow in 1975 or Bangladesh in 1971. Faced with such a test, Peking invariably defends its interests as a national ruling class. It is, in its own parlance, “reactionary”, defending its place in a world order of national ruling classes, sacrificing the interest of the majority to the maintenance of its own position as a class.

The prospects of working people once more contesting for power against the system are now greater than at any time since the 1920s. Nowhere is this more true than in the oppressed nations, the economically backward countries. But the influence of the Chinese “road to socialism” will again frustrate that revolutionary potential if it is permitted to do so. That would secure the world for imperialism once again. The freedom and, indeed, the feeding of the majority will then have been sacrificed to the safeguarding of the privileged interests of those who command the States of the world.


Last updated on 27.1.2002