1949 was a genuine revolution, in which a millions-strong peasant army overthrew the old ruling classes, broke the power of Western imperialism and laid the basis for a new social order. But it was in no sense a socialist revolution.
For Marx, as for Lenin, socialism was necessarily the self- emancipation of the working class. In 1949 Chinese workers played no part at all in the victory of the CCP; by the time the Red Armies reached the main cities, the decisive battles of the revolution had been won. And as the Red Armies took over the cities, the workers were merely passive spectators. “Liberation” was brought to them from outside.
This was not because Chinese workers were incapable of fighting. The years from 1945 to 1949 saw a steadily rising wave of struggles in most cities, as the working class battled to defend their living standards against hyper-inflation. The cities went quiet on explicit instructions from the CCP. As the Red Armies neared the cities of south-east China in the summer of 1949, they sent ahead of them orders that “... workers and employees in all trades will continue to work and that business will operate as normal.”  They further insisted that all those responsible for running the old state machine must stay in their posts, in order to ensure a smooth transition of power.
This policy was no accident, but a necessary consequence of the struggle waged by the CCP. For the revolution was above all a nationalist one: the aim was to build a strong and independent national economy. Armed revolution was required to overthrow the old ruling classes (who had proved incapable of defending China’s national interests) but it was to be strictly controlled from above.
Leon Trotsky had argued, in developing his theory of Permanent Revolution, that in countries such as China the decisive tasks of the national revolution – breaking the power of imperialism and of the landlords – could not be carried out by the national bourgeoisie. This was both because of their myriad social and economic ties as a class to the landlords; and, more important, because the potential power of workers’ and peasants’ struggles was a greater threat to the bourgeoisie than was imperialism. The experience of 1927 had decisively confirmed his argument.
Trotsky went on to insist that the peasantry as a class were incapable of leading such a struggle, though they would of necessity play a major role in it. Their conditions of life led them inevitably to look to individual rather than collective solutions. The peasantry could indeed be won to the revolution, but only by a force from outside the villages. Leadership had to come from an urban class – and that could only be the working class.
Therefore, Trotsky argued, the success of the national revolution was only possible through a struggle led by the urban workers. This meant that the national and the socialist revolutions would be fused into a single process.
The events of 1949 proved Trotsky right on every point except the last two – the most important parts of his analysis. For they rested on the assumption that the working class was at all times a consciously revolutionary force. Yet the massacres of 1927 had crushed the revolutionary spirit in the cities of China. Nonetheless, in the absence of a revolutionary working class the potential for revolution remained. A section of the urban intelligentsia had proved capable of filling the vacuum of leadership, building an armed mass movement of peasants under their strict control. The “permanent revolution”, which Trotsky had envisaged, with working-class leadership, leading on towards socialism, now became deflected in a purely nationalist direction.
The desire of Chinese nationalism for an independent national economy which could begin to compete with the world economy was realised – but the decisive agency of change would be the new state. Its leaders had come to power as a force in their own right, standing above all the classes of the old society. Yet they could not act simply as they wished. The existence of a competitive and hostile world economy had dictated the need for a strong national economy, and the necessity of competing with that world economy thus decided the new state’s economic priorities.
This meant above all the accumulation of capital from China’s meagre resources to begin the task of constructing an industrial base, a process which created a ruling class of top bureaucrats, factory managers, military leaders and so on, drawn overwhelmingly from the top ranks of the CCP. They were bound together as a class both by their control over the priorities of the economy, and by their inevitably antagonistic relationship to the working class and the peasantry. For if accumulation was the central goal, then the fulfilment of basic human needs clearly had to be subordinated to it. Thus 25 per cent of national output went into capital accumulation in the mid-1950s, rising over 30 per cent in the early 1960s.  The overwhelming majority of this went into spending on heavy industry and arms. At the same time, living standards rose by only 2 per cent a year in the early 1950s, and dropped severely between 1959 and 1961.
Mao had argued prophetically in June 1949 that “Our present policy is to regulate capitalism, not to destroy it.”  As the state gradually moved to take over private capital in the early 1950s (often keeping on the old owners as factory managers), bureaucratic state capitalism simply replaced private capitalism.
Initially the pattern of industrialisation in China was closely modelled on that carried out by Stalin in the USSR in the 1930s – in particular the all-embracing Five-Year Plan which controlled all aspects of economic development. But while China’s First Five-Year Plan did develop the economy, it did not do this fast enough for the ruling class. The boom in the world economy meant that although the Chinese economy grew quite fast by comparison with the years before 1949, by comparison with the competition it was falling further behind.
This led the CCP to change course. The pace of economic growth had to be increased sharply, and in the absence of extra capital to invest, this could be done only by greatly intensifying the exploitation of workers and peasants. This was the imperative for the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-60. Grossly inflated targets were set for both industrial and agricultural production, and “mass campaigns” were set in motion to enforce the new targets and work disciplines. Factory managers dragooned their workers into trying to achieve these targets by abolishing meal-breaks, instituting 18 or 24-hour shifts and abandoning all safe working practices. When none of these worked, they simply lied about their output figures, causing further havoc as other factories’ targets were further raised to make use of these (mythical) increases in production.
In the cities the Great Leap soon collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Workers could be forced once or twice to work an 18-hour shift – but it could not become the normal working day. Machinery run at twice its normal speeds simply wore out twice as fast. And the imbalances between different sectors of industry meant that much of the real increase in output was simply wasted, as it could not be used.
If the Great Leap in the cities was a fiasco, in the countryside it was a disaster. In 1952 an all-encompassing land reform had redistributed land from rich peasants and landlords to the poorer peasants, giving most peasant families enough land to live on. Since then the state had moved cautiously to introduce various forms of collective working in order to push up production without increasing investment. Progress had been for the most part slow and wary, as the state sought to gain peasant consent for each stage in order to avoid disrupting production. In 1956 the process was even slowed down, as it became clear that peasant resistance was increasing.
But in 1958 caution was thrown to the winds with the creation of the “People’s Communes”, new economic structures for the countryside covering on average 25,000 people. The land was forcibly collectivised, and the peasants organised into large-scale work teams to meet the production targets set by the state. Primitive communal kitchens and nurseries were set up, not to free women from the drudgery of housework, but to force them into full-time work. Thousands of small-scale rural factories were set up, using such capital as the commune managed to accumulate, in order to reduce even further the need for state investment in the countryside.
The factories were inevitably a drain on the economy – the “back-yard steel furnaces” set up in thousands of villages used more industrial-grade steel than they produced. But the worst effects were felt on the land itself. Peasants responded to the loss of their land by refusing to work, or doing as little as possible. Commune officials used every means to hand to meet the impossibly high state targets, and when they failed resorted to lying on a grand scale. The 1958 grain harvest, originally claimed to be 375 million tonnes, in fact turned out to be only 250 million tonnes.
1958 was a good year. The next three were not. By 1961 mass starvation had returned to large parts of north China, there had been armed rebellions in at least two provinces, and some 20,000 people had fled from the western province of Xinjiang to the USSR. The dislocation in the villages could not be overcome as easily as it could be in the cities. Far from expanding the economy as Mao had hoped, the Great Leap cost something like a decade of economic growth.
1961 also saw the start of the Sino-Soviet split. Later claimed by Mao as part of a world-wide struggle between “revisionism” and “genuine Marxism”, it had its real roots in the different ambitions of the two ruling classes. While the USSR had provided China with much-needed technology and technicians for industrial development, the price asked in return was high. The Soviet bureaucracy wanted to treat China as it then treated, its satellites in Eastern Europe – as a source of surplus value to be absorbed into the Russian economy. The ruling classes of Eastern Europe had little choice about this at the time – their own power had been built with Russian tanks, and the invasion of Hungary in 1956 ensured they didn’t forget this.
Mao, in contrast, came to power not only independent of Stalin but in spite of his efforts. Stalin never believed that Mao’s Red Armies could conquer power; in 1944 he dismissed them in talks with the American ambassador to Russia as “margarine Communists”. Right up to Mao’s victory in 1949 the USSR had remained a supporter of the Guomindang. And at the end of the Second World War Russian armies had looted the heavy industry of north-east China as war reparations’ from Japanese imperialism (Stalin declared war on Japan nine days before the Japanese surrender!).
The tension between the two ruling classes of the USSR and China diminished during the early 1950s, as the CCP needed Russian technology and investment too much to worry about the price. But when increased Russian demands coincided with a reduction in the amount of investment and aid given to China, the CCP had an independent power base from which to defy the Russians.
Though Mao was undoubtedly the main mover behind the 1961 split, he had by that time lost effective control over the running of the Chinese economy. The disasters of the “Great Leap” had originally been blamed on the local officials who had carried the policy out, but in 1959, at an expanded meeting of the CCP central committee, Mao took the blame and relinquished most of his official positions. Isolated inside the ruling class, he probably did so to avoid a public split. But the effect of the move was to deepen his isolation.
Economic policy swung sharply in the opposite direction. Though most communes remained in place as administrative structures, control over agricultural production returned to village level. Targets were cut sharply, and private plots were encouraged to increase production. By 1962 the private grain harvest in at least three provinces was larger than that from the collective fields, and large differences in income between rich and poor peasants were starting to reappear.
In the cities a similar liberalisation took place. Productivity bonuses and piecework were reintroduced into the factories, and factory managers were given greater control over their operations. Private markets started to reappear, and foreign trade was stepped up. This was not a fundamentally different strategy from that pursued by Mao, as was later claimed; rather it was a necessary response to the devastation caused by the “Great Leap”.
But while this new policy eased the immediate problems of the economy, it did nothing to solve the deeper dilemmas facing the ruling class. Far from catching up with the advanced economies, the Chinese economy was falling even further behind. At the same time, the Sino-Soviet split meant that the external military threat was greatly increased. Mao’s enemies inside the ruling class had managed to neutralise him by turning him into a ceremonial figurehead; but they had no alternative strategy for the Chinese economy.
7. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Permanent Revolution (London 1983) p.9.
8. Martin King Whyte and William L Parish, Urban life in Contemporary China (Chicago 1984) pp.35-6.
9. Mao, Selected Works, vol.4, p.421.
Last updated on 25.3.2001