The Communist Party of China’s triumph in 1949 was an event of momentous importance. It put an end to the century of foreign intervention in China that had begun with the Opium War of 1840, and liberated a quarter of the world’s population from control by capitalism. The cpc’s victory represented an act of revolutionary mobilization and struggle unequalled before or since, and began the transformation of a country that had, for decades, been racked by war, famine, national disunity and the survivals of an archaic agrarian system. Moreover, after some years, the achievements and policies of the Chinese leadership began to have an international resonance. China appeared to offer a point of orientation for revolutionaries elsewhere—particularly for those who were no longer loyal followers of the Soviet Union or who were trying to make the revolution in third-world societies that faced some of the problems encountered in China. The evolution of this relation between China and revolutionary movements outside its boundaries has involved, at times, a bewildering variety of themes—the manner of seizing power, guerrilla tactics, forms of struggle in post-revolutionary societies. It has extended to more specialized matters such as socialist medicine and aesthetics. But at the centre of the relationship have lain two themes that for a time appeared to define the exemplary and effective side of the Chinese revolution. Internally the cpc and Mao himself advocated, with varying intensity, a form of mass political activity and an egalitarianism in a post-revolutionary state unlike that seen anywhere else in the Communist world; while externally, the cpc, after its earlier support for bourgeois régimes in the Bandung period of the mid-1950s, championed a militant anti-imperialism and the rejection of a reformist or peaceful road to socialism. Subsequent events have underlined the need to be cautious about how far these policy statements corresponded to Chinese practice. But there is no doubting how they were received internationally at the time and the positive manner in which many revolutionaries interpreted them.

These two themes—mass revolutionary mobilization at home, militant internationalism abroad—correspond to the two most epochal phases of Chinese politics since 1949: the Cultural Revolution and, before that, the Sino-Soviet dispute. Yet while it was the hope aroused by these periods and their associated policies that so attracted revolutionaries abroad, it is the subsequent fate of these two trends that has so contradicted the assumed meaning of the earlier period and made reexaminations so necessary. 1976 is an apposite year to review this course. It is the year in which Mao and two of his closest comrades, Chou En-lai and Chu Teh, have died. They were the three most prominent members of the Chinese Leadership, the ones who but a year before, in their roles as head of the party, the government and the state, had signed the congratulatory telegram sent to the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon. Their deaths alone would make it a watershed. 1976 also marks the tenth and twentieth anniversaries respectively of the initiation of the two phases just mentioned. It was in June–August 1966 that, after some months of debate on the armed forces, the cpc leadership launched the Cultural Revolution in its full form and with it the Red Guard movement. And it was ten years before that, in April 1956, that the first of two People’s Daily articles concerning ‘The Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ staked out the positions from which the cpc was to conduct the dispute with the Soviet Union in the subsequent seven years.

Yet it is not merely the coincidences of mortality or the convenience of anniversary that make 1976 a suitable retrospective year in which to review Chinese internal politics and foreign policy. There is another more poignant reason, namely that 1976 has seen the most extreme examples yet of the Chinese denial in practice of those very policies which it so militantly propounded before, in words at least. At home, as Mao retired into his terminal illness, the cpc leadership was convulsed by a struggle which led to the dismissal of Teng Hsiao-ping and the appointment, in early April, of Hua Kuo-feng as premier. This transfer was unmistakably confined to the upper leadership, was virulently factional in character and was evidently ill-received by the Chinese masses.footnote1 The mass demonstration in Peking in early April, and its official repression, was testimony to the profound tension which existed between the Government and at least some sections of the population. The developments since Mao’s death have continued this pattern of factional fighting within the leadership, whilst the population have been kept in ignorance and called out only to salute the victors and condemn the defeated, the ‘gang of four’.

Meanwhile abroad the Chinese, who ten and twenty years ago were the champions of colonial revolution and guerrilla war, have denounced the struggle of the Angolan people. The Chinese press has even welcomed the death of Cuban soldiers sent to assist Angola on the grounds that these are the agents of (Soviet social-) imperialism. This foreign policy has been unambiguous and sustained: there can be no doubt that it is carried on with the full consent of the whole cpc leadership and that the latter is well aware of what it is doing.footnote2 As such, it represents a departure from revolutionary principles and adds to the list of previous Chinese betrayals in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Chile. Recent Chinese practices mean that whatever support they still give to revolutionaries in some countries (e.g. Thailand) cannot be taken as a firm commitment. In recent years Chinese foreign policy has exceeded any capitulation to imperialism effected by the Moscow ‘revisionists’. The Soviet leaders have, it is true, degraded the concept of proletarian internationalism, by invoking it to justify their invasion of Czechoslovakia while agreeing, at the meeting of European CP’s in Berlin in June 1976, to cease using it in relations with the Communist Parties of Western Europe. But the Soviet Union has furnished indispensable economic and military support to Cuba, Vietnam, South Yemen and Angola. The Chinese Government has, by contrast, allowed its relations with the most significant anti-imperialist forces to decline precipitately, and in the case of Angola its actions have aligned it with the darkest forces opposing national liberation. Indeed the Chinese leaders have taken to encouraging and celebrating the most belligerent and reactionary imperialist politicians.footnote3

Such reversals necessitate thorough analysis by Marxists: we have to draw the conclusions for revolutionary theory and politics and counter both the smug relief of the right and the apologias of the sinophile left. It is precisely this aim that guides Livio Maitan’s Party, Army and Masses in China, now issued in an English edition that updates and expands the original 1969 Italian version.footnote4 Maitan’s preface argues that up to now writing on China has been dominated by two erroneous approaches: an anti-communist one, which has no understanding of revolutionary theory and politics, and a school of naive enthusiasts who reproduce official Chinese thinking. ‘Very rarely’, Maitan writes, ‘is any attempt made at an independent political assessment of the achievements and contradictions of the revolutionary process.’ His aim is ‘to measure Chinese Communism against its own proclaimed commitment to Marxism and Leninism.’ The book is sub-titled ‘A Marxist Interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and its Aftermath’, and it is a thorough account of events in China since 1965, preceded by a concise summary of events between 1949 and 1965. Because it assesses the statements and policies of the cpc in Marxist terms, it represents a significant break with the two schools mentioned before, and with a third school that has developed as a result of China’s breakthrough on the diplomatic front, that of non-Marxist and often rather right-wing bien-pensant sympathizers. Maitan’s work is a highly original development in the field of writing on China, and the reason for this originality is the very fact that it has an independent grasp of Marxist theory. For the enemies of communism, whatever the Chinese leaders do is Marxism: it is accordingly to be opposed, or, where possible, tamed. For the sympathizers of different kinds, the cpc leadership provides correct guidelines in all situations: Chairman Mao and the masses commune at home, while the two ‘superpowers’ stalk the world outside. Maitan’s orientation is firmer and politically superior to these alternatives.

But Maitan’s is not just a Marxist book, nor just a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ one, if Peking’s supporters are denied exclusive use of this term. Another characteristic of this work is that its author is a leading member of the Fourth International. Party, Army and Masses in China is therefore a book written within the political tradition derived from Trotsky, and as such it exhibits some of the strengths and weaknesses associated with that tradition. Whether or not it is legitimate to speak of a distinct and systematic body of theory and politics called ‘Trotskyism’ is beyond the scope of this discussion. But it is clear that it would be wrong to say that this was a ‘Trotskyist’ book on China for at least two reasons: first, because there is no constitutive analysis by Trotsky of China from which later work could be derived; and secondly, because since 1949 there has been considerable division within the general ambit of the Trotskyist movement about how to interpret the Chinese revolution. Nonetheless, the author’s allegiance to the Trotskyist tradition is evident in his work and is an important part of it. While it accounts for a good deal of his independent and critical discussion of China, it also leads him to some awkward but pertinent problems, that he does not resolve in an adequate manner.

Maitan’s book is divided into three parts. The first five chapters of Part One, ‘The Context: 1949–65’, summarize the main economic and political developments from the establishment of the People’s Republic to the eve of the Cultural Revolution. He describes the Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the establishment of the communes, whilst a chapter on the balance sheet of the first fifteen years identifies what Maitan considers to be the basic problems that were unsolved in the mid-1960s. In economics these related above all to policies on the peasantry, and involved dilemmas that are common to most third-world countries involved in industrialization: ‘the contradiction between the need to finance economic and industrial growth by more effectively expropriating the agricultural surplus and the need to avoid conflict with the peasantry; and the contradiction between the need for material incentives to stimulate middle and poor peasants to produce more and the inevitable growth of private fortunes and inequalities that material incentives give rise to’ (p. 55). The remnants of the old bourgeoisies and some new cadres enjoyed considerable economic and social privileges. Meanwhile, the cpc itself was split by major divisions in the leadership, as was indicated by the fact that the Party Congress had been postponed long past its constitutional deadline.