As China 1949 shows, the CCP victory of that year enabled the country’s rise to global power status, but it was not a workers’ revolution, argues Sean Ledwith

Graham Hutchings, China 1949: Year of Revolution (Bloomsbury 2021), 336pp.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Chinese Communist Party. From inauspicious beginnings with thirteen delegates meeting in secret in the back room of a Shanghai house, the CCP overcame astonishing odds to rise to state power in the most populous country on earth in less than three decades. By any standards this was an achievement of world-historic proportions. One of the delegates at the 1921 meeting, Mao Zedong, would become the dominant force in the CCP as it endured betrayal, foreign invasion, and near extinction in hostile terrains in the years preceding the stunning takeover of 1949.

Graham Hutchings’ book, China 1949: Year of Revolution, is a gripping account of that seminal moment and provides a compelling and coherent narrative of the key events that preceded Mao’s iconic appearance at the Celestial Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Hutchings cites a contemporary British military observer who identified the monumental scale of the conflict between Mao’s CCP forces and the Nationalist army led by Chiang Kai-shek of the Guomindang (GMD):

‘Never before has a civil war been waged with so many troops over so vast an area. Over 5 million Nationalist and Communist soldiers have been engaged, while the victorious armies in many cases have finished up well over a thousand miles from where they started and have crushed all organised resistance by Nationalist forces on the mainland’ (p.1).

Following the revolution, Mao became a source of inspiration in the 1960s and 70s for some on the left who perceived his regime as a credible alternative to the blighted brand of so-called Marxism-Leninism associated with the USSR. That radical chic began to wear thin as Mao was succeeded by a sequence of Chinese leaders who spoke less about global revolutionary socialism and more about capitalist globalisation.

From revolution to superpower

The state founded by Mao in 1949 now attracts few on the Western left as an ideological alternative to capitalism, but its influence on the economic and geopolitical scale is infinitely greater. The exponential growth of the Chinese economy in this century has turned the country into the primary challenger to US hegemony. Tension between the two superpowers of the twenty-first century now manifests itself in numerous ways, including the treatment of the Uighurs in Xingiang, military sabre-rattling in the East China and South China Seas, and the controversy regarding Huawei’s access to communications systems in the West. The last couple of years have also witnessed an intensification of Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over Hong Kong and Taiwan, two components of ‘Offshore China’ which are essentially unfinished business of the 1940s civil war, as far as the CCP is concerned.

Hutchings’ book provides valuable background for anyone seeking to understand the historical context of these two flashpoints in contemporary global politics. China’s President, Xi Jinping, has made it abundantly clear that he wishes,

‘to go down in history as the man who reunited China. To achieve this in 2021, the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, would be especially gratifying-both for Xi and the Party leadership in Beijing. A large part of Xi’s China Dream, his great scheme for national rejuvenation, would be realised’ (p.278).

In other words, the annexation of Hong Kong and Taiwan, for Xi, are essential goals of contemporary Chinese foreign policy.

Hutchings opens his account with a description of the state of the two rival forces at the beginning of the historic year of 1949:

‘Chiang had been chasing Mao around the countryside for years; it now seemed that Mao might be able to drive Chiang out of China altogether. Mao was destined to enter the ranks of the world’s greatest leaders; Chiang was about to drop out of them’ (p.27).

Origins of the CCP

Readers who want a full account of the Chinese Revolution, however, also need to be acquainted with the events of 1927, which Hutchings obviously does not cover in depth with his explicitly time-limited focus. In that earlier moment, the CCP had been almost wiped out, thanks to the disastrous instruction from the Stalinist-dominated Comintern to cooperate with Chiang’s Nationalist forces. The latter had savagely turned on their supposed Communist allies, perceiving an opportunity to eliminate once and for a rival for leadership of the national-liberation movement.

Tens of thousands of CCP activists were slaughtered at the hands of the GMD and the revolutionary left lost its base of support in the cities for a generation. Hutchings alludes to this critical moment in the history of the CCP:

‘The 1927 coup, purge, massacre or cleansing of the Guomindang ranks, depending on whether one was a victim or proponent, provoked a profound split among the young men and women, the soldiers, activist, peasant leaders, students, writers and intellectuals who constituted China’s revolutionary camp’ (p.35).

It was this devastating blow that led to Mao’s rise to prominence within the party during the 1930s, with his alternative strategy of rebuilding the Chinese left in the countryside. Crucially, this political re-orientation brought with it a downplaying of working-class self-emancipation as the key to revolution, and the emergence of a more top-down style of leadership within the CCP, with Mao as the unquestioned, dominant personality. The military struggle with both the GMD and the forces of Japanese occupation only intensified this centralising tendency in the years preceding the conquest of power in 1949. Shortly before the 1927 catastrophe, CCP membership had been largely proletarian; by the time Mao appeared at the Celestial Gate there was no one in the party leadership who could claim such a background.

No workers’ revolution

The upshot of Mao’s minimal contact with urban working-class struggle was the equally minimal role played by the Chinese proletariat in the events described in the book. Hutchings is alert to this important aspect of the revolution of 1949:

‘despite the importance of the urban working class in the communist scheme of things, and the fact that communist armies were at the city gates, the Party had neither the intention nor the capacity to foster an uprising among Beiping’s relatively small, poorly organised proletariat’ (p.86).

Mao’s rise to power was based on the undoubted courage and tenacity of millions of soldiers in the ranks of his People’s Liberation Army to throw off the yoke of decades of exploitation by Western colonial powers. What it was emphatically not based on, however, was the concept of working-class self-emancipation that was so central to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolshevik takeover that year was the culmination of a rising wave of urban class struggle that saw millions of Russian workers make leaps and bounds in terms of demanding greater participation in the political process.

For Lenin and Trotsky, this was the essential pre-requisite of socialist revolution. For Mao and his acolytes in the CCP leadership, in contrast, proletarian activism in China’s big cities needed to be firmly discouraged in order to facilitate a smooth ascent to power. Any notion of workers’ power, as exemplified in the soviets of 1917, was a million miles away from the CCP vision of a compliant workforce. A trade-union supporter of Mao stated in 1949:

‘Workers should not let themselves be mistaken by the parallels with land reform; there could be no doubt that the redistribution of factory installations would spell ruin for the workers’ (quoted on p.219).

This top-down nature of the 1949 revolution, and its divergence from the rank-and-file driven events of 1917, is crucial to comprehending why Mao, for all his undoubted determination and resilience, is not a revolutionary leader of the same calibre as his predecessors in Russia. The defining images of Mao’s takeover is a huge, stage-managed rally in Tiananmen Square, with hundreds of thousands of supporters displaying their obedience to a single, unchallenged leader. The heady, democratic spirit of the early years of the Russian Revolution, with dynamic and public debates inside the soviets and the Bolshevik Party, does not feature at all in China in 1949. Nor would it in the decades that followed.

The Chinese ruling class

The regime that came into existence at that point went on to facilitate spectacularly the country’s elevation to great power status in our century. As Hutchings notes, however, this achievement was actually based on the suppression of working-class activism and democracy:

‘it was often the national bourgeoisie – businessmen, professionals, students, the urban young in general – who were the most enthusiastic supporters of the new regime. Workers tended to be less keen due to the Party’s insistence that even in New China, profits and production had to take priority’ (p.267).

The primary goal of Mao’s revolution, beneath the veneer of Communist rhetoric, was the consolidation of a home grown elite who could construct the type of strong, industrial state that had proved to be beyond the capability of dynastic or orthodox nationalist politicians in a previous era. As one of his inner circle, Zhu De, put it:

‘Only if we develop our industry and do not let our economy become reliant on foreign countries can we provide a basis for the independence and sovereignty of our nation and guarantee a prosperous life for our people’ (quoted on p.218).

This is the same type of language Stalin, Castro, Kim Il-Sung, and other authoritarian leaders would deploy in their respective countries to justify the crushing of independent working-class activism in the name of supposed socialism.

The flourishing of a super-rich class of billionaires in China today, at the expense of a vast low-wage proletariat, becomes comprehensible once the essentially non-socialist nature of Mao’s revolution is grasped. Many on the contemporary left are still disorientated by the apparently dramatic change in trajectory by the CCP over recent decades; from the revolutionary zeal of the 1960s to the corporate leviathan of the 2020s. In both eras, however, a consistent thread has been the suppression of authentic workers’ democracy in China. Xi Jinping might not wave a little red book like Mao famously did, but both men are united in their politics by a preference for hierarchical control, and the essentially capitalist pursuit of China asserting itself in the global sphere of competitive accumulation.

Imperialist rivalry

That competitive mentality within the new Chinese ruling class revealed itself not long after Mao came to power with ‘the ‘Sino-Soviet split’ in the 1960s. The two Communist powers, on paper, should have been inseparable allies in the face of a hostile capitalist West. The fact that armed forces commanded from Moscow and Beijing became engaged in border skirmishes underlined that the hallowed socialist tradition of internationalism was irrelevant to both states.

Hutchings explains how the seeds of this mutual distrust were sown in the years preceding Mao’s revolution. After World War II, it was apparent to most informed observers that the CCP would ultimately overwhelm the forces of the GMD thanks to the former’s superior military leadership, and whose troops had borne the brunt of the battle against Japanese occupation. Stalin, however, was still wedded to the outdated notion of a popular front between the two parties, even though such collaboration had been grimly sabotaged in the 1927 massacre.

The Russian leader perversely instructed Mao in 1946 to acknowledge Chiang as the country’s sole legitimate ruler, even though the CCP armies were winning gargantuan victories on the battlefield against the dwindling GMD forces (p.48). Stalin’s disastrous advice in the 1920s had almost doomed the CCP, and he was off the mark again two decades later. Hutchings comments: ‘Stalin prioritised the national security of the Soviet Union over supporting revolutions in other countries – unless such upheavals were under his tight control. China was no exception’ (p.73). When Mao visited Moscow in 1950, the atmosphere was hardly one of revolutionary camaraderie: ‘left to his own devices and largely ignored by the Soviet leaders, he too grew frustrated with the behaviour of his international partner’ (p.267).

The rulers of China and Russia were both committed to visions of their respective countries becoming credible contenders on the stage of global power politics, but this was not the same vision that had inspired their revolutionary predecessors in Petrograd and Shanghai in the 1920s. The flame of proletarian self-emancipation had burned brightly in the earlier era, but had been ruthlessly snuffed out by 1950; not least by the two men who begrudgingly shook hands in Moscow.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters