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
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
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
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.