The Chinese revolution of 1949 was one of the most momentous events of this century. The old order, dominated by warlords, police terror and the rivalries of Western and Japanese imperialists, was overthrown by a millions-strong peasant army. For a quarter of the human race, the way seemed open to eradicate the roots of poverty, misery and famine, and build a better society. “The Chinese people have stood up”, declared Mao Zedong at the official founding of People’s China – and millions around the world believed him.
The impact of the Chinese experience was to be even stronger in the political explosion of the late 1960s. As students and workers across the industrialised world moved into battle against their ruling classes, many socialists looked to China for inspiration. Mao’s opposition to both American and Russian imperialism, and his declared support for national liberation movements, seemed to put him on their side of the barricades. And the Cultural Revolution seemed proof that a socialist society could save itself from bureaucracy through a constant process of struggle.
Few socialists today look to China for inspiration. The illusions of “Maoism” have been shattered by Mao’s successors, who have systematically ditched everything that was distinctive about Mao’s strategy for economic development. “Self-reliance” has gone, to be replaced by “market socialism”. The Cultural Revolution is now – rightly – described as a major disaster. And China’s new rulers have admitted that the economy can only be modernised by its integration into the world economy. China has become part of the world system it once seemed to want to overthrow.
Yet at bottom Mao and his successors shared the same aim – to build a powerful economy which could compete with the rest of the world. The needs and aspirations of Chinese workers and peasants have always been subordinated to that aim. The “socialist” nature of the Chinese state was a myth from its very start.
Last updated on 25.3.2001