From Revolution to Capitalist Restoration: 100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party

This July marked the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party. A hundred years on, the CCP bureaucracy today is a far cry from the revolutionary workers’ party born out of the aspirations of international socialist revolution.
  • Sou Mi | 
  • August 5, 2021
Image: Bloomberg; AFP/Getty Images

July marked the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party. From 12 delegates from seven regions representing 50 members at the first party congress on July 23, 1921, the CCP now boasts over 95 million members a hundred years later. Founded in the midst of China’s own struggle against feudalism and imperialism, the emergence of the CCP was a historic turning point in the fight for national revolution. Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, young revolutionaries like Chen Duxiu saw how the working class in an economically backward country had overthrown a stifling czarist regime and capitalism with it, and used those lessons to carve a path for the radicalizing masses. Today, these revolutionary origins of the CCP are a far cry from the one-party bureaucracy that governs China as it fights to eke out a place in the global capitalist order.

At the centenary celebrations in July, party president Xi Jingping said that “only socialism with Chinese characteristics could develop China.” This “socialism,” however, has not been much of socialism at all: this development has come on the back of the introduction of market forces and liberalization of the Chinese economy, squandering the gains of the revolution in favor of capitalist restoration, in which multinational companies take advantage of China’s cheap labor and poor working conditions to maximize profits.

Today, China is the world’s second-largest economy and the world’s main industrial producer and exporter, and it is in deep competition with the United States, where both the Democrats and the Republicans are united in trying to contain China’s growth with both economic and military means.

The evolution of Chinese capitalism is based on the conquests of the 1949 revolution, which not only defeated imperialism but also led to a national unification that, although incomplete, gave sovereignty to the Chinese state after centuries. The development of modern China is closely tied to the development of the CCP. To understand China today, it is essential that we take a look at the path taken by the CCP in the last century.

The Road to the First Party Congress

The CCP was formed in the midst of China’s protracted struggle for liberation from feudalism and imperialism. Just 10 years earlier, a revolutionary process had ended the rule of the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. But this new political leadership was ineffective in overthrowing imperialism and unable to unite the different provinces under its rule, eventually ending in a military dictatorship. The bourgeois leaders of this new republic, including the bourgeois nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), sought diplomatic agreements with both the British and Japanese governments to broker peace. It was an affirmation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, wherein the national bourgeoisie, especially in backward countries, were incapable of delivering on the democratic demands of the masses and would become agents of imperialism. This situation was made more acute after the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WW I ceded German possessions in China to Japan, resulting in the May Fourth movement of 1919, in which students protested Japanese imperialism and their government’s weak response.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the Bolsheviks had successfully led the working class to overthrow both capitalism and the czarist regime. Interest in Marxism spread across China, especially after the Bolshevik government gave up czarist privileges in China. The leaders and intellectuals of the May Fourth movement were increasingly realizing that, as in Russia, it was impossible to defeat feudalism and imperialism without throwing off the yoke of capitalism and fighting for socialism. It was as Trotsky had posited in the Permanent Revolution: “The democratic tasks of the backward bourgeois nations lead directly, in our epoch, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that the dictatorship of the proletariat puts socialist tasks on the order of the day.” The national bourgeoisie had shown itself incapable of fulfilling basic democratic tasks — tasks that could be completed only by the proletariat in its struggle for socialism. As in Russia, there was an increasing common sense that the fight for national liberation had to necessarily take up the fight against their own bourgeoisie, which aligned with imperialism. Among these burgeoning Marxists were Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, two leading figures in the popular New Culture Movement. Duxiu’s newspaper, the New Youth, which was the mouthpiece of the New Culture movement, now increasingly became the newspaper that helped spread Marxism among the radicalizing Chinese masses.

In his speech celebrating the centenary, Xi noted that the revolution was necessary for the building of the Chinese nation. But the formation of the CCP is, in fact, based on internationalism and is a huge testament to the Comintern’s early efforts to spread socialist revolution across the globe. The interest in the Russian Revolution in China was accompanied by the intervention of the Third International, which had set up a Shanghai Revolutionary Bureau and whose members made contact with prominent intellectuals like Duxiu and Dazhao with the goal to form a party in China.

On July 23, 1921, 12 delegates representing 50 members came together for the first day of the first party congress. Neither Li nor Chen could attend, but Chen sent a representative in his stead. Among the resolutions was not just the formation of the communist party as a branch of the Communist International, but the Congress also resolved to struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat, ruling out any alliance with the bourgeois nationalist party, the KMT.

The Popular Front and the Betrayals of Stalinism

The decades-long degeneration of the CCP that followed was not a foregone conclusion. Instead, the development of the CCP over the following years is but a story of the betrayals of Stalinism. Led by the Comintern, which was increasingly subordinated to Stalin’s influence, the CCP soon moved away from its founding resolutions.

In 1922, the CCP had helped establish an anti-imperialist united front with the KMT, sharing in the struggle against imperialist oppression with the bourgeois nationalist party but maintaining its own organization and banners and building a class-independent pole of attraction among the toiling masses. Yet, just a year later the CCP dissolved itself into the ranks of the KMT under the direction of a strengthening Stalinist bureaucracy in the Comintern. To further the so-called United Front, the leader of the KMT, Sun Yat-sen, demanded that the CCP dissolve its organization and that its members enter the ranks of the KMT as individuals, therefore submitting to their ideas and discipline. When this question was discussed within the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in early 1923, Stalin and Bukharin — who were fast transforming the Comintern from an international for socialist revolution to an instrument of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy — played an active role to push for this dissolution of the CCP. They did so by relying on a farcical interpretation of the 1922 resolution in order to maintain their alliance with the KMT. To this motion, Trotsky was the only opposing vote. The Central Committee of the CCP fought back against this capitulation, realizing that the party would lose its class independence were it to do so. Under the threat of Comintern discipline, however, the Central Committee reluctantly agreed. Although the members of the CCP had far less experience than their counterparts from the Comintern, they showed far more revolutionary instincts. The Comintern bureaucracy, now under the iron rule of Stalin and Bukharin, and committed to the theory of a two-stage revolution — according to which there would first be a bourgeois revolution led by the national bourgeoisie to address democratic demands (and to which leadership communists had to subordinate themselves), followed by a socialist revolution at some unknown point in the future — had not only assigned the KMT the leading role in the upcoming revolutionary processes, but had also completely crippled their Chinese comrades while strengthening the KMT apparatus in the following years by providing them essential military funding.

The next few years were characterized by this struggle. While Chinese communists worked hard to organize the working class, the Comintern continued to support the KMT as the leadership the Chinese masses needed to fight imperialism. From 1925 to 1926, in the face of increasing imperialist aggression, communists led workers — largely organized in factories under foreign ownership — to strike. As the strike wave grew, the working class, large sectors of it led by communists, increased in strength and class consciousness, which threatened the KMT’s hegemony. In the meantime, the Comintern had not only recognized the KMT as an honorary member organization in 1926, but was also directing the communists to stop workers from forming soviets in order to preserve its alliance with the KMT. This developed alongside the Comintern’s own abandonment of socialist internationalism and adaptations to Stalin and Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country,” wherein, given the failure of world revolution so far, especially the crushing defeats of the German revolutions of 1919 and especially 1923, they had declared that the tasks of socialists would first be to defend the new Soviet state at all costs, even if it meant striking alliances with sectors of the bourgeoisie to maintain “peace.” In China, that meant seeking the alliance of the much larger KMT, even if it was to the detriment to the growth of the communist movement in the country. As the strike wave spread across China and the struggle between the KMT and the communists inched closer to its logical end, Trotsky started actively campaigning for the communists to leave the KMT, especially as they were being placed under increasing restrictions, almost anticipating the events that would follow.

By subordinating the communists to the demands and discipline of the KMT, Stalin essentially tied their hands, leading to a crippling defeat during the Second Chinese Revolution of 1927, a defeat that would forever change the course of the development of socialism in China. In April 1927, thousands of workers in Shanghai launched a general strike against Japanese imperialism and formed their own bodies of self-organization. The then general of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek, fearing the growing influence of communists, ordered the bloody massacre of workers and CCP members. In the period that followed, known as the period of White Terror, communists as well as workers and peasants who sympathized with them were hunted down across the country, detained, executed, or disappeared. Caught red-faced, the Stalinist bureaucracy then forced the Chinese communists to take more adventurist steps, all of which the KMT ruthlessly crushed. These defeats essentially shaped the development of the CCP; never again would the party have such a mass influence among the working class.

In the aftermath, prominent leaders like Duxiu drew necessary conclusions from this experience and, looking for answers, turned to Trotsky’s writings and formed the Chinese Left Opposition as a section of the Fourth International. Those who remained in the CCP, however, retreated to the countryside and joined Mao Zedong, who concluded that it was the peasantry and not the proletariat that would be the revolutionary subject of the inevitable revolution — a theory that would have far-reaching consequences not just for the CCP but for all of world socialism for generations to come.

Mao and the Chinese Revolution

Over the next two decades, Mao steered the CCP toward orienting to the countryside and built a Red Army with peasant guerrillas, beginning a long period of struggle with not only the KMT but also imperialism. The proletarian vanguard was directed by Maoist leaders to retreat to the countryside and help build the ranks of the guerrilla army. This turn on the question of the revolutionary subject had far-reaching consequences, because it subordinated the self-organization of the working class to that of building a military force that was geared toward defeating the enemy at all costs. Workers’ democracy was substituted with the party bureaucracy, which, to maintain “discipline” within a multiclass peasant army, became the sole decision-making body.

Shortly after the conclusion of WWII, in 1949, Mao’s Red Army, now dubbed the People’s Liberation Army, ousted both imperialism and the KMT and established the People’s Republic of China. But it is essential to contextualize this victory in order to better understand what came after. 

After the events of 1927, although he was preparing for armed struggle, Mao essentially had the same theoretical framework as Stalin: to Mao, the upcoming Chinese revolution, was one against imperialism and feudalism, not against capitalism, and lesser still, for socialism. Given that the task wasn’t socialist revolution, to Mao, as with Stalin, the agents of this revolution were not only workers and peasants but also the national bourgeoisie and landowners who were willing to join the struggle against Japanese imperialism. This pushed Mao to look for alliances with the KMT which lasted until the civil war in 1946-49. Despite the defeats of Stalin’s popular front strategy — not only in China a few years earlier but also in revolutionary movements across Europe — Mao’s CCP continued to make opportunist alliances with the national bourgeoisie, most notably forming another Popular Front with KMT during the so-called Second United Front in 1937 to defeat the Japanese. The alliance with the KMT and the CCP’s military strategy reflected Mao’s theory of forming the bloc of four classes, which consisted of workers, peasants, the petite bourgeoisie, and most notably, the national bourgeoisie. Mao believed that this alliance among classes was necessary to defeat imperialist aggression. By partnering with the national bourgeoisie and forming the Anti-Japanese United Front, Mao abandoned the agitation for agrarian reform with which he had united the peasant masses because it attacked the interests of the KMT generals, many of whom were big landowners. The “main contradiction,” Mao said, was with Japanese imperialism. But the “contradiction” with the national bourgeoisie and the old feudal order  which formed the material basis of the oppression of the Chinese masses — was relegated to a secondary plane. While Mao believed that the question of national liberation would seamlessly unite these classes under the leadership of the party, he failed to see that as long as capitalist relations were preserved, there would be no way to resolve the conflict between classes, which would eventually come to a head.

This ultimate break with the KMT was forced in 1947 when Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT, determined to wipe out the threat of the CCP, launched a military action against them. It was this act of aggression that finally provoked Mao to break with the KMT, calling for its defeat and for the building of a new China. In breaking this alliance, the CCP also called for extensive land reform in the entire Chinese territory, not just those territories under its control. This sparked a huge movement among the peasant masses, who forcibly seized and redistributed lands, killing their landlords and forcing Mao to implement a program of land expropriation and redistribution.

This program was further expanded in 1950, under the threat of imperialist aggression. The Korean War of 1950, spearheaded by the U.S., had brought imperialism once again to China’s doorstep. The remainder of the national bourgeoisie, which was pushed out to Taiwan by Mao’s victory just a year earlier, saw allies in U.S. imperialism, believing they could defeat Mao and regain their interests in China. This alliance finally forced Mao to break with any illusions in the national bourgeoisie and to expand the expropriation and socialization of all private property in China. Yet, while Mao’s victory had successfully pushed out the KMT and its capitalist allies and had also squashed capitalist modes of production within China, it had not prepared the working class to seize political power, which now lay squarely with the CCP bureaucracy led by Mao.

The Chinese Revolution had made great gains in defeating feudalism and capitalism. It had decisively defeated imperialist aggression. In the years after, the CCP made important advances in fulfilling democratic demands to keep with the aspirations of the revolutionary masses, and it established a socialized, planned economy, which included the nationalization of banks and industry. Yet, it wasn’t the self-organized working class, but the CCP bureaucracy that held all political and administrative power and would shape the future of the new Chinese state, leading to the formation of a deformed workers’ state.

Following the image of Stalin’s socialism in one country, which played a hegemonic role in world socialism, the CCP bureaucracy made no efforts to promote the self-organization of the working class either at home or abroad. Instead, it increasingly acquiesced to world capitalism in order to maintain peace — peace that eventually came at the cost of crushing revolutionary processes across the world, like in Hungary in 1956, squandering the gains of the revolution, and, as in the Soviet Union, paving the way for capitalist restoration.

The Path to Capitalist Restoration

After the 1949 revolution, Mao and the CCP created a bureaucracy that was modeled on Stalin’s Russia, but in a country that was much more economically backward and isolated. To generate growth, the CCP turned to the huge agriculture sector, generating revenue for industrial growth by buying grain from peasants for lower prices and selling them back at higher ones. As Esteban Mercantante writes, in the decades that followed, the Communist Party was able to extract and concentrate rural surplus and directed it toward urban industrial growth through a process of rural collectivization and price scissors. This resulted in high growth rates until the mid-1970s, when the momentum generated by a centralized, planned economy plateaued, paving the way for the restoration of capitalism, accelerated especially in the regime of Deng Xiaoping.

Many on the Left today argue that the blame for China’s degeneration lies not with Mao but with Deng. Yet, the seeds of such a process had already been sown during Mao’s regime. The siphoning of surplus from agriculture to industrial production led agricultural production to decline. To jump-start the economy, the CCP bureaucracy implemented the Great Leap Forward, a five-year economic plan geared toward collectivizing land and socializing production. Consumed by the task of increasing production at all costs, the CCP regime imposed this again, not with the incentivization of the self-organization of the working class and their mutual cooperation with the peasant masses, but harshly with its bureaucratic apparatus, leading to more food shortages and a devastating famine.

The failure of the Great Leap Forward led to massive revolts across the country among workers and peasants, as well as within the ranks of the party bureaucracy — one that could only be contained by sidelining Mao and reversing the measures. The tensions were further heightened by the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s after the death of Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev to power in the Soviet Union. After Khrushchev openly denounced Stalin and his policies and began a period of reforms, Mao and other members of the CCP opposed these changes. In 1963, the CCP started denouncing Khrushchev openly, accusing him of revisionism. As tensions with the Soviet Union increased, China faced worsening social and economic problems. In the context of the ongoing Cold War, the CCP forged an alliance with U.S. imperialism that would form the basis for capitalist restoration in China. In 1972, Mao established relations with President Richard Nixon, which was one of the first steps toward normalizing relations with world capitalism. This was underway while, at home, Mao aggressively implemented the Cultural Revolution — a huge movement aimed to purge the last remnants of capitalism and traditionalist elements from Chinese society and impose Mao Zedong Thought as the dominant ideology. The Cultural Revolution mobilized massive numbers of youth to conduct violent purges of any of Mao’s detractors on both the Right and the Left. The resultant death toll is estimated to be anywhere from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions. Thus, while Mao and the CCP courted capitalist allies to help China break out of its social, economic, and geopolitical crisis, they ruthlessly disciplined the masses at home.

The opening of ties with foreign capital began under Mao reached its natural fruition during the era of Deng Xiaoping. After rising to power in 1978 after Mao’s death, Deng launched sweeping reforms that opened the path to the liberalization of the Chinese economy. These included the decollectivization of agriculture, wherein rural land under collective ownership of village communities was redistributed to individual households and paved the way for the expansion of private enterprise. In 1989, the Tiananmen uprising marked a crucial moment in this process of capitalist restoration. Contrary to both bourgeois historians and the CCP bureaucracy’s narratives, the Tiananmen uprising wasn’t simply an uprising of intellectuals and youth fighting for more “democracy.” Rather, it was a movement in which the working class rose up and formed bodies of self-organization to fight against the CCP bureaucracy’s increasing pro capitalist measures, rising inequality, and the bureaucracy’s undemocratic rule. Deng’s ruthless massacre of the Tiananmen uprising, which was one of the biggest uprisings against the party bureaucracy, shifted the balance of power in favor of the party’s right wing, which accelerated other pro-market reforms. In the decades since, China’s economy implemented an export-oriented industrialization, which was paid almost entirely by foreign capital. “With its gigantic availability of labor power, which transnational capital could put to use by paying low wages,” Mercantante writes, “China played a central role in so-called productive internationalization, in which many industries were relocated from the imperialist countries to the dependent economies and production was subdivided into several partial processes taking place in different countries.” The slowdown of this growth after the 2008 economic crisis further pushed China to compete with world capital and penetrate new countries commercially. This has been accompanied with infrastructural development outside its territories, like the Belt and Road Initiative.

Today, although much of its essential industries like banking are still nationalized and controlled by the CCP bureaucracy, private and foreign capital have been the biggest motors of foreign trade driving China’s economy. This export-oriented capitalist development advanced alongside the deindustrialization of imperialist countries. China’s large workforce and, consequently, low wages was the key to “global labor arbitrage,” in which production from developed countries was relocated to dependent countries, integrating China into the supply chains of world capitalism.

Conclusion

China’s economic development has not only led to a mammoth development of industry and infrastructure, but it has also increased the ranks of its working class and advanced the social conditions for sectors of the working class. In the process of capitalist restoration, however, China has also become one of the most unequal societies. While capitalist restoration has enriched and now fosters the creation of a new Chinese bourgeoisie that can sustain capitalist development, the conditions of the working class have become more dire. A large part of the working class, while still registered as employed in the rural sector, are in fact migrant workers who travel to urban sectors to work in industry for six months or more every year. These workers, who when working represent a third of the labor force, have no access to any of the social benefits that are available to their urban counterparts and are essentially second-class citizens. This elimination of social benefits and guarantee of employment led to the creation of a competitive labor market that forms the basis of capitalism.

A hundred years ago, the CCP was formed in the midst of huge movements among the Chinese masses against imperialism and the inability of their own bourgeois leadership to fight back against imperialist aggression. Today, as China attempts to make its place in the world capitalist order, the fight against imperialism that formed the basis of the 1949 revolution remains unresolved. Now, in fact, this question becomes more acute, as China makes its way into new markets globally and the world capitalist race is defined by competition with the United States.

The CCP’s strategy of “peaceful coexistence” was possible only as long as China remained unthreatening to the global capitalist order and provided it with a cheap labor force on which it could maximize its profits. Now, as China’s growth is beginning to rival that of the U.S. — which is still economically and militarily far ahead ofits closest competitors — it increasingly finds itself in an escalating trade war with the U.S. that is backed by the bipartisan U.S. regime. The trade war that was escalated by the Trump administration, has only continued and been deepened by the Biden administration, which is now seeking allies in Europe and Asia to form a front against China while also increasing U.S. military influence in the South China Sea.

The CCP’s response to this has only been to deepen this race by further integrating itself into world capitalism. Its fight against U.S. aggression has largely relied on military and foreign policy instead of the strengthening of the working class both at home and abroad to fight back against imperialism. At home, the Chinese bourgeoisie today is no longer a class enemy but an ally who is welcomed with open arms in the party’s ranks. The CCP, whose ranks now boast 40 percent of China’s capitalists, including billionaires like Jack Ma, exerts a conservative influence on the Chinese working class, which it disciplines heavily. Today, the CCP is a far cry from that of its early days, when it was founded with the help of the Comintern with the perspective of spreading the socialist revolution across the world. Instead, for decades now, it has relied on nationalism to maintain legitimacy among the masses. It is a sentiment that echoed in Xi Jinping’s centennial speech, which made a call for national unity and renewed faith in the CCP’s leadership as the only way to fight China’s enemies.

The CCP’s degeneration, shaped by the betrayals of Stalinism and the consequent restoration of capitalism, only further deepen the necessity of a permanent revolution. As I have argued, Trotsky and his thesis of permanent revolution had outlined how economically backward countries that are subjected to imperialist oppression and that have a weaker national bourgeoisie can accomplish democratic tasks only through a socialist revolution led by the self-organized working class. To fight back against global capitalist hegemony, it was necessary that such a revolution would spread and be only a part of the fight for international socialist revolution. This has been neither the program nor the strategy of the CCP. Unlike what bourgeois propaganda would have us believe, the solutions for the Chinese masses don’t lie in more capitalism.

Today, to check the deteriorating conditions and intercapitalist disputes between China and the U.S., the working class must take a leading role. As André Barbieri outlines, there have been over 400 strikes in the last six months, showing the emergence of a new subjectivity formed within a pandemic in which workers have been forced to work for the interests of capitalist production. This follows years of hyperexploitation, division, and the overworking of the toiling masses.

To fight back against imperialist aggression spearheaded by the U.S. as well as to solve the deep social and economic questions that still plague them, the vast working class and radical youth in China need to reject the misleadership of the CCP bureaucracy, which heeds them toward reactionary nationalism and capitalism with imperialist aspirations, and instead return to the founding principles of socialist internationalism. The strength of the Chinese working class, as is true for the working class the world over, lies in its self-organization and ability to fight together as a class, not just domestically, but internationally, to win. The path toward socialism can be forged only by the working class building its own political tool and leadership, independent of both its own bourgeoisie and imperialism — one neither the CCP bureaucracy nor Maoism have any answer for.

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Sou Mi

Sou Mi

Sou Mi is an activist based in New York City.

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