Great things have been happening in China during the past three years, where the masses have been taking part in struggles to decide the future of the socialist revolution in their country. An established Communist Party and government structure has been shaken and in places replaced in popular rebellions from below and from the left that have enjoyed the support and encouragement of the Party’s Central Committee and are intended to strengthen socialism. New forms of government are being hammered out, and the running of every factory, rural production brigade, school, army unit, government office and every other organization have been the subject of political controversy and conflict. All this is new and exciting, but also confusing. Moreover, the whole process has been abused and obfuscated by its enemies abroad. The Chinese themselves, determined to avoid foreign intervention, have limited the information leaving the country. But enough is available, from eye-witness accounts such as John Collier’s (nlr 48 and 50) to Chinese news releases and papers, to make a provisional analysis possible.

It may be a cliché to say that the Chinese revolution has been a very long-drawn-out, complex and painful process, but it is a fact to be remembered. Early nineteenth century Chinese society was held in a social order based on agrarian landlord exploitation. It was a system whose resilience had enabled its ruling class to keep control for about two millenia despite economic change and the rise and fall of dynasties. Natural catastrophe and man-made disaster sometimes led to peasant rebellion, but the essentially localized resistance was always finally crushed by the landlord state that could organize repression on a nationwide scale. In the conditions of land-hunger that prevailed in 19th-century China each famine widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. At various times in these two thousand years merchants and manufacturers had flourished, particularly in the later centuries, but the landlord bureaucracy was able to keep them in their place by a combination of repressive measures and inducements to buy their way into the charmed circle and become land-owning officials themselves. The cities were centres of reaction and consumption; for most of the handicraft industry and large-scale manufacturing, as for resistance to the established order, one had to look to the countryside.

This structure could be adapted to a dynasty of conquest sweeping in from the frontiers and taking over the system with a few modifications. What it could not absorb was the impact of western imperialism, which from the middle of the 19th century onwards forced the country open for capitalist exploitation, at first through trade on the terms it dictated after the notorious Opium Wars (1840–60) and by the end of the century through investment. With opium the West bought Bibles and the new bourgeois ideologies. The social implications of Protestant Christianity helped to form the outlook of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1851–64), a revolutionary movement that posed a more serious threat to the old order than any earlier peasant-based rebellion; it could only be put down at the cost of some thirty million lives. But instead of supporting the Taipings, the West helped the old order to crush them. The pattern was to become familiar: the West’s intervention threw the old system of oppression off balance and made its ultimate survival impossible, while at the same time providing the ruling classes with men and the means to force its opponents to pay a colossal price for trying to overthrow it. There is no room here to list all the other risings of the 19th century that rocked various parts of the country and were drowned in seas of blood, or the wars in which the Western powers, later joined by Japan, forced further concessions from their occasionally awkward protégés.

At the end of the last century and the beginning of this, a new capitalist Chinese society began to develop from the coastal enclaves of foreign power. Chinese and foreign factories sprang up in cities that, while extracting wealth from the countryside as their traditional counterparts had done, also created it. The fundamental contradiction between feeder and fed now divided the coastal cities as it had always divided the villages; and the new exploited class, the industrial proletariat, was concentrated, unlike the peasants. Moreover the spread of railways and other modern methods of transport and communication made coordinated, nationwide resistance a practical possibility. Another social group, the students, responded to the new Westernized education that military necessity forced on the authorities by rejecting the old society in whole or in part. Many worshipped and hated the West at the same time. For some the October Revolution showed a way out.

When a few of the students and intellectuals started to transmit the new ideas to the workers a revolutionary force, headed by a Communist Party born only in 1921, was created. The overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 had altered some of the superstructure of society, but the republican farce that had been played since then had done nothing for the mass of the people. Warlord, imperialists and landlords plundered the country with greater rapacity than ever. In the mid 1920s there seemed a chance that the revolutionary upsurge involving workers, peasants, soldiers, students and even those bourgeois elements who were in competition with imperialism might sweep away these evils in months or a few years. The dream was shattered when in 1927 the right wing of the coalition destroyed with great bloodshed the workers’ and peasants’ organizations, including the CP, and established a Kuomintang dictatorship to whose flag most of the Chinese bourgeoisie rallied, even if they had misgivings about some of its methods. Revolutionary struggle had very limited support from them (with important exceptions, notably the students who demanded resistance to Japan) over the next ten years; though during and after the war against Japan their role was more positive. The main fight for freedom from feudal and imperialist exploitation was left to the poorer peasants in the more backward areas of the countryside, organized by Mao Tse-tung and other communists who had the intelligence to build up revolutionary strength where the enemy was weakest. The working class as a political force never fully recovered from the shattering blows of 1927 and afterwards.