A Chinese Trotskyist during the country’s revolution, Wang Fanxi’s Mao Zedong Thought shines valuable light on the nature of the Chinese state, finds Sean Ledwith

Wang Fanxi, Mao Zedong Thought, ed. and trans. Gregor Benton (Haymarket 2021), viii, 326pp.

In 2018, China’s ruling class officially designated its current economic and political goals as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. Named after the eponymous dominant figure in the Beijing elite, the doctrine is an attempt to legitimate the ever-tightening grip of the Chinese Communist Party on the planet’s most populous country and its second superpower. With a few references to historical materialism and the ideas of Marx and Engels thrown in as window dressing, Xi Jinping Thought is actually nothing more than a shallow pretext for the authoritarian neoliberalism being implemented in a state synonymous with oppressive working conditions, the suppression of democratic freedoms and racist social policy in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

The doctrine makes Xi the third of China’s postrevolutionary leadership to be honoured as the personification of an ideological strategy to guide the country through a particular phase of its modern development. ‘Deng Xiaoping Thought’ in the 1980s legitimated the incremental opening up to global capital that characterised that period along with a growing acceptance by the elite of internal disparities of wealth. The first of these three doctrines is the subject of Mao Zedong Thought by Wang Fanxi, a Chinese revolutionary who participated in the epic struggles of the mid-twentieth century that climaxed with the coming to power of the CCP in 1949.

Wang and the Chinese revolution

Wang was born in Zhejiang province a few years before the downfall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and spent the last years of his life in the rather incongruous setting of Leeds, the consequence of his forced exile from his home country. The reason Wang died thousands of miles from China was that he was an unrepentant supporter of Leon Trotsky and the tradition of working-class self-emancipation associated with the great Russian revolutionary. Wang’s Trotskyist perspective enabled him to perceive the world-historical achievements of the Chinese Revolution in terms of its expulsion of colonial powers and setting the country on the path to industrial modernity; but it also highlighted the crucial limitations of 1949, especially the absences of inner-party democracy in the CCP and proletarian activism in major urban centres.

As Wang puts it with characteristic even-handedness:

‘Mao’s determination was laudable. He was able to put his strong points, and weak points made strong, at the service of the revolution, to which he contributed mightily so, he was still not a great revolutionary strategist. The path he took was an extension of the Chinese tradition of peasant revolt, a pragmatic and unintended choice forced on him by circumstance’ (p.157).

The background to both Wang’s conversion to Trotskyism and Mao’s ascent to power was the failed Chinese revolution of 1927. In that year, the CCP had been instructed by the increasingly Stalinised Comintern to collaborate with the bourgeois nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Guomindang party. The consequence was a calamitous massacre of thousands of CCP activists in Beijing and Guangzhou as Chiang sought exclusive control of the anti-colonialist movement. Wang was lucky to escape to Moscow where he encountered the dissident views of Trotsky, and came to accept the latter’s critique of the emerging bureaucracy in the USSR and its attempt to hold back revolutionary movements in other countries. Wang was impressed by multiple aspects of Trotsky’s alternative to Stalinism:

‘After October, Trotsky showed himself to be wise, capable, meritorious and a literary talent, a head above the other old Bolsheviks and Lenin’s equal. In some fields, especially in the eyes of the people, he surpassed even Lenin. As Lenin’s right-hand man, everyone expected Trotsky to take over when Lenin died’ (p.54).

The authoritarian gloss of today’s CCP with its massively choreographed congresses and parades makes it easy to forget that in the 1920s, China was the cradle of the world’s most dynamic and militant revolutionary movement outside Russia. Even after the eclipse of Trotsky’s role in Moscow, his supporters in China, including Wang, made a heroic but doomed attempt to keep the flame of authentic proletarian self-emancipation alive in the face of overwhelming odds. The triple threat posed by Mao’s Stalinised CCP, Chiang’s Guomindang and Japanese invaders would cumulatively grind Chinese Trotskyism into oblivion, but not before its adherents had developed an incisive critique of the forces contending for power in the country.

In the dark days of the 1930s and beyond, Wang and his fellow revolutionaries looked to the leadership styles of Trotsky and his greatest collaborator for political inspiration. Lenin embraced the cut and thrust of inner-party debates over theory and practice and would never resort to the crass compliance of the CCP in both the Maoist era and today:

‘He was not afraid to let his peers compete with him in ability, learning and hard work. He welcomed the fight, for truth becomes clearer the more it is contested, and nine times out of ten times truth wins; and if truth is on the other side, then one must say so and adjust’ (p.52).

Wang’s critique of Mao

In stark contrast, Mao Zedong cultivated a grotesque personality cult as a means to secure his control of the CCP as it gradually recovered from Chiang’s slaughter in 1927. Gigantic images of ‘The Great Helmsman’ became pervasive in post-1949 China and were supplemented by absurd gimmicks such the staging of hagiographic operas about his life or the spectacle of the elderly Mao swimming in the Yangtse River. Lenin and Trotsky would have scorned such nonsense, as does Wang:

‘For the infallible and the divine are lifeless, whereas human beings who are both right and wrong, particularly those who are less wrong and more right than most, live life to the full … today’s CCP seeks not to establish the content and maturation of Mao’s becoming but to make him a god, to turn a being of flesh and blood into a dead or incorporeal thing and his ideas into myths’ (p.46).

Wang persuasively argues that Mao’s willingness to promote the ridiculous notion that he was essentially infallible, and the fount of revolutionary wisdom, was partly rooted in his youthful unfamiliarity with the key texts of Marxism. Growing up as the son of a peasant in Hunan province in the early years of the twentieth century, Mao’s primary intellectual influences were the philosophy of Confucianism and the archaic Robin Hood-style stories of altruistic Chinese bandits, such as ‘The Water Margin’. From the former, Mao internalised a preference for political hierarchy and an instinct that authority should always be respected. From the latter, he learnt how the discontent of China’s massive peasant class could be channelled into challenges to the status quo.

Any revolutionary should always seek to develop strategies that relate to the specificities of a national culture, argues Wang, and in the context of China’s ancient and predominantly rural civilisation, elements of Confucianism and the swordsmen cycles of stories can be justifiably appropriated. However, without substantive immersion in the works of the founding fathers of Marxism, a revolutionary movement can lack direction towards the overriding objectives of challenging capitalism itself and installing a system of workers’ power in its place.

For reasons partly outside his control, this crucial ingredient of a revolutionary’s skillset was not available to the future Chinese leader:

‘Mao knew only Chinese, and not many Marxist books were translated into Chinese until after the defeat of the revolution of 1925-27, starting around 1930, so he can’t have read much between 1920 and 1930. In any case, people like Mao devoted their time and effort to the revolution, especially after 1927, when the switch to armed struggle left even less time for theory’ (pp.82-3).

The defeat of 1927 fundamentally altered the nature of the CCP. Up to that point, under Lenin and Trotsky’s guidance from the Comintern, the party had focused on building support primarily among the working classes of China’s major urban centres, while also reaching out to the country’s far bigger peasantry. A revolutionary conjunction of these two social forces would have made a Chinese version of October 1917 feasible. The calamity of 1927-precipitated by Stalin – forced the survivors of the CCP, including Mao, to retreat to the countryside to avoid the death squads of the Guomindang. The following decade was characterised by undoubted courage and heroism on the part of the CCP leadership and thousands of its supporters, not least on the legendary Long March of 1934-5.

Losing the revolutionary path

This period, however, was also marked by two tendencies within the organisation that took it away from the revolutionary tradition embodied by Lenin and Trotsky. Firstly, an unavoidable prioritising of military activity in order to endure the relentless assaults of both the Guomindang and Japanese army; and secondly a political and physical detachment from the urban proletariat as the CCP retreated to China’s vast rural hinterland. The combined effect of these reorientations, plus Mao’s personal proclivities discussed above, fatally led Chinese communism away from the template of 1917. In Wang’s words:

‘Mao is not a thinker but a political pragmatist … he first embraced revolutionary goals and then, during long years of revolution, investigated and discussed and learned through struggle, forming his thought thus. Thinking of that sort has its merits but it lacks system, it cannot be consistent, it puts expediency above tactics, and tactics dictate strategy – these are its inevitable consequences’ (p.73).

It would be an exaggeration to suggest the authoritarian and pro-business nature of Xi’s China today is explicable entirely in terms of strategic decisions taken in the 1930s. Wang highlights the Trotskyist critique that any attempt to construct socialism in one country, whether in Russia, China or anywhere else, is doomed to failure by the pressures of the global system. However, Mao’s over-centralised and regimented rise to power goes someway to explaining why the regime that came to power in Beijing in 1949 lacked the democratic credentials of its equivalent in Moscow and Petrograd in 1917.

The slogan that perhaps best encapsulates this hyper-militarised nature of Maoism is ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. As Wang observes, this line is catchy and memorable but it is not an idea that would have appealed to Marx and Engels, or Lenin and Trotsky. For them, the use of force is highly likely to be one aspect of socialist revolution, but only alongside a militant and mobilised mass movement:

‘Violence has a role in revolution but to reduce all revolution to violence is wrong. At its fullest point, class struggle, particularly the struggle for state power, must resort to violence and depend on force but that does not mean that all problems of revolution must be settled by war’ (p.112).

Mao’s slogan, in contrast, reflects how the CCP’s conquest of power in 1949 was based on the military achievements of the Red Army and not on widespread insurrections in the major Chinese cities. In fact, Mao and other senior leaders of the party explicitly discouraged workers’ resistance to the residual Guomindang forces as they approached the big cities. Wang notes that another pre-modern Chinese figure who hugely influenced Mao was the legendary military theorist, Sun Tzu, author of the classic textbook The Art of War. Sun’s axioms such as, ‘avoid the enemy when he is fresh and strike him when he is tired and withdraws’ (p.116) undoubtedly sustained Mao in his guerrilla battles with the Guomindang and Japanese on the road to power, but they are less useful when it comes to the challenges of a workers’ revolution in the modern era.

Anyone wishing to understand why China in the twenty-first century no longer provides an attractive model for most of the left can learn a lot from this volume. The translator, Gregor Benton, should be commended for bringing to light an author whose insights otherwise would be lost to the English-speaking world. No reader could fail to be moved by the courageous if largely forgotten struggles of Chinese Trotskyists ranged against some of the most ruthless forces of the twentieth century. Wang cites one such revolutionary whose defiance in the face of a death sentence was awe-inspiring. Zheng Chaolin was:

‘like a Buddhist priest who had attained the Way and who knew beforehand the date of his achievement of nirvana. Even if we leave aside Zheng Chaolin’s other strengths, his Peter-like spirit of martyrdom alone will ensure him a lasting place in the history of the Revolution’ (p.14).

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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