China in the 1920s was an economically backward country under considerable foreign domination. The 1911 Republican Revolution had a lasting imprint but lacking any indigenous blueprint the radicals derived inspiration from the Bolsheviks and Lenin. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded by Li Dazhao (1888-1927) and Chen Duxiu (18791942) in 1921 in Shanghai with 11 enthusiastic young men who included Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Li was the chief librarian at Beijing University and the first communist to join the Kuomintang.
Chen, the editor of the influential journal New Youth, advocated guild socialism under the influence of John Dewey (1859-1932). Li felt that Marxism lacked ethical perspective as Marx did not stress the fact that good persons could emerge as they learned through mutual aid. The early Chinese Marxists entertained the idea of a glorious future for China. But they were not prepared to follow the rigid periodisation of reaching the ideal as that would a longdrawn process.
In the early 1920s, the CCP supported Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Kuomintang (KMT) which was endorsed by Lenin and Stalin. However, the alliance ran into difficulties with Sun’s death in 1925. Chiang Kai-shek succeeded Sun in 1926. The KMT started the Northern Expedition to drive out the warlords and the Western imperialists who aided them. In 1927, Chiang also attacked the communists ending the fragile alliance. The Comintern representatives in China, Michael Borodin and MN Roy could not salvage the situation for the Marxists.
This bitter experience forced the CCP to be distrustful of bourgeois parties and rely on the revolutionary potential of the working class. However, Mao on returning to Hunan in 1925 began to explore the possibilities of peasants providing the leadership for the impending revolution thus distancing himself from Lenin. In 1934, when the Kuomintang army gained decisive military advantage, they overwhelmed the communists and the latter to avoid annihilation fled to Northern China.
This epic retreat called the Long March was a journey by 100,000 communists covering 6000 miles. Only 35,000 survived. Within the CCP, there was a leadership struggle and Mao gained the top position in 1935, one of total dominance which he enjoyed till his death in 1976. The Kuomintang fighters were better equipped and larger in number as they faced the Japanese onslaught. The Marxists were confined to a remote corner but were more disciplined and led by better generals and that helped them to beat the Kuomintang in the civil war in 1945-49.
Meanwhile in view of the Japanese attack, there was temporary truce between the KMT and CCP. Stalin also encouraged the truce. However, after the defeat of Japan in 1945, the China question assumed importance. The US and Stalin supported the KMT and tried to negotiate a coalition government between Mao and Chiang. Eventually Chiang lost because he could not control the warlords and because his government was also corrupt and repressive. Mao on the contrary was popular.
With the capture of mainland China by the CCP, Chiang fled to Formosa (Taiwan) in 1949. Mao next to Lenin, is rightly credited with the establishment of a new state with a new regime. Among the architects and makers of the twentieth century, he deserves a rightful place. His Marxism was pragmatic as it had its roots in Chinese history and philosophy. Initially a radical, he became a Marxist in 1918. Like Lenin, Mao did not create the Chinese Communist Party but framed its strategies which enabled it to achieve victory and acquire power. Like Stalin, he laid the foundations of a socialist economy, achieved collectivization of agriculture but established a personalized dictatorship.
Mao’s most original contribution to Marxism since 1925 was in recognizing and accepting the revolutionary role of the peasantry whom he looked upon as the vanguard of the revolution. He viewed Chinese capitalism as potentially reactionary and alien. He observed that China had a rich revolutionary tradition and a splendid historical heritage but was sluggish in her economic, political and cultural development. Foreign intervention had led to internal changes within the country.
The Chinese ‘new democratic revolution’ had a dual nature. In its minimum programme it would seek a United Front to overthrow feudal elements, bureaucratic-capitalists, foreign imperialists and consolidate the new democratic revolution that would inevitably lead to a socialist and eventually a communist society. In its minimum programme it would aim for a gradual transformation of the non-proletarian classes in the United Front. Mao was vague about the length of time required for completing the entire process. With regard to the Party organization, Mao adopted the Leninist concept of democratic centralism which envisaged free discussion within the party but strict compliance by all with decisions taken.
In reality within the communist Parties of the former USSR and China there was greater reliance on centralism than democracy. But theoretically at least Mao was more conscious of the need for people’s involvement as he advocated the mass line which meant consultation with local people. Maoism intertwined centralism and democracy with a theory of knowledge following the Leninist perception that the elite would lead and people were to be led. Inheriting a bankrupt economy, the CCP initiated a series of measures to set the house in order. Large capitalist enterprises were nationalised.
The Land Law of June 1950 was adopted guaranteeing each individual at the age of sixteen a minimum land-holding such that a family of five would have about one hectare. Fearing that the peasants would oppose sudden collectivization, and after the Soviet experience, social reforms were gradually enforced. The land of absentee landlords was redistributed to begin with, and subsequently economic differences were narrowed through fiscal measures.
Through the First Five Year Plan (195357) attempts to socialise the economy were initiated beginning with heavy industries and then light industries and retail enterprises, and finally to collectivize farms. The last two measures were stiffly opposed by the majority of peasants and small producers. Stalin died in 1955. Mao was not happy with Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful coexistence and was alarmed at de-Stalinization, as he adored Stalin.
The complete break with the former Soviet Union came in 1957 because of ideological differences and territorial disputes. The de-Stalinization campaign and reforms initiated by Khrushchev led Mao to announce surprise initiatives in political liberalization. He welcomed criticisms of his government and its policies with the view to improve the system. This was called ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend’ which was abruptly terminated following the virulent criticisms that poured in from all quarters.
Needless to say, Mao was not prepared for such a shock. He reversed his stance and stifled all further criticism. He launched the Great Leap Forward for rapid industrialization and the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution as a part of the image building exercise. Both were disastrous failures and millions died in the ensuing famine. It was during the Great Leap Forward campaign that Mao gave full expression to his vision of the socialist future: good material life for all, abolition of distinctions between town and country, mental and physical labour, workers, peasants and the intellectuals and the eventual dissolution of the state. True communism would be built through basic industries and a modern economy.
The Great Leap Forward was intended to be a period of transition from socialism to communism. However, all these were abandoned for there was a steep fall in production and the threat of a famine loomed large. By the mid1960s, backyard industries were abandoned and barrack communes disappeared. The Great Leap Forward also led to a reassertion of the power of the state and party bureaucracies that were targeted during the Cultural Revolution. In the summer of 1959, Mao abandoned the talk of imminence of the transition to communism. He realized that socio-economic transformation would be an arduous process.
He also abandoned talk of overtaking the advanced West in fifteen years. In this admission he showed more maturity than Khrushchev who made an elaborate plan of overtaking the USA in production and reaching full communism by the 1980s. Mao began his indigenous nuclear programme and joined the nuclear club in 1964. In the early 1970s, the US initiated its policy of détente with China officially recognizing it, abandoning nationalist Chiang and accepting Mao’s one China policy. Both Mao and Chou Enlai died in 1976. There was an intense power struggle and the famous Gang of Four were jailed. A new era began with Deng.
(To Be Concluded)
(The writers are, respectively, a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi and Associate Professor in Political Science, Jesus and Mary College)