What About the Chinese Workers?

A question I am asked from time to time when talking about Chinese Marxism is: what about the workers?

The short answer is that 700-800 million of them have been lifted out of poverty in the last 40 years – the time of ‘the reform and opening up’ initiated by Deng Xiaoping.

The long answer requires some more detail.

The question with which I began often implies a certain potted narrative: once upon a time, the workers were treated well, with the ‘Iron Rice Bowl’ (not originally a Chinese term) providing full employment and cradle-to-grave support. But then everything was turned on its head with the ‘reform and opening up’. Workers were treated badly, lost their jobs and the communist party morphed into yet another exploiting ruling class.

The problem with this assumed narrative is not so much its mixture of half-truths and distortions, but more its underlying assumptions and deliberate neglect of crucial facts.

To begin with, it assumes a ‘Eurofied’ Marxism, in which the working class is well-developed in the context of an over-ripe capitalist market economy. Marxism is thus supposed to be all about the working class – the proletariat – and a communist revolution will be driven by them.

The catch is that the successful communist revolutions happened in places that did not have a large or well-developed working class. Instead, they had a vast majority of peasants. What was to be done?

The first real effort can be dated back to Engels’s often neglected piece from 1882, ‘The Mark’.  Here he recovers the old practice of subsistence survival economics, in which the land was held in common, reallocated on a regular basis, and in which pasture lands and forests were common land. The trace of all this Engels finds in the German ‘mark’. Crucially, he ends the piece with a call to recover at a whole new dialectical level this version of rural communism. He closes the piece with these words: ‘Think well on it, German peasants. Only the Social-Democrats can help you’ (MECW 24: 456). In other words, the communists are the real friends of the peasants.

Despite this insight, the first successful revolution in Russia struggled to come to terms with the peasants. The revolution happened in the cities, based on the fledgling working class and it was only with significant struggle and not a little disruption (in the 1930s) that the peasants became collective farm workers in the new class formations under socialism.

How is all this relevant for China?

There too the initial communist movement focused on the small number of workers, leading to the failed revolution of early 1927. In reply, it was Mao’s breakthrough to pick up some of the emphases from Engels, Lenin and Stalin and focus on the peasants as the core of the communist movement. With the Nanchang Uprising on 1 August  1927 – the first successful armed insurrection of the Chinese Revolution mounted in response to the Shanghai massacre – Mao had already organised a red base with peasants in the nearby Jinggang mountains. The fabled meeting there between him and Zhu De’s armed force from Nanchang marks the origin of the Red Army.

Let me push this a little further. For Mao and the others, it was not so much a combination of workers and peasants, but the breakthrough that peasants too are workers, rural workers. As a result, the communist movement massively expanded its base.

Even so, this is only a beginning. The initial phase after 1949 relied heavily on the model of the Soviet Union: planned economy; full collectivisation of agriculture; a socialist offensive that would lift China into an industrial superpower (Great Leap Forward and so on). The catch was that Mao’s policies tended to focus on the relations of production, with radical equality for all.

This is all very well, but it is only one half of the equation. The other concerns the means of production. The problem that remained was that the economic condition of the vast majority improved only marginally and at a very slow pace.

It was Deng Xiaoping’s insight that the means of production needed attention, that socialism is as much about improving the socio-economic conditions of the rural and urban workers. Hence the reform and opening up and the transformation into a socialist market economy.

Along the way, mistakes were made and new contradictions arose (as Mao has already foreseen in 1937). These included the breaking up of the inefficient collective conglomerates (more Owenite cooperatives than full communes), some workers losing their jobs, protests by workers against conditions and law-breaking management, the absence for a time of adequate medical care in rural areas, parents leaving children under the care of grandparents in order to work in cities. But the mistakes and contradictions were not insuperable. Workers have been compensated, protests listened to (since they routinely invoke the communist tradition) and managers who break the law punished, all people now covered by medical insurance as well as old-age pension. Above all, a concerted and well-honed effort continues to deal with rural poverty.

All of this brings me to the final point: during the time of the reform and opening up, between 700 and 800 million have been lifted out of poverty. The Chinese prefer the lower figure, since the standard required is higher than international standards.

Not only has this been designated as the greatest human rights achievement in memory, but it is precisely workers – urban and rural – who have been lifted out of poverty.

As they like to say, without the Community Party there would be no new China.


On the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution

Mao Zedong is usually credited with developing a peasant basis for socialist revolutions, thereby breaking with the proletarian emphasis of the Russian Revolution. It may come as a surprise to find that Stalin emphasises again and again the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution. In 1927, Stalin wrote:

What, then, is to be done at this moment? The agrarian revolution in China must be broadened and deepened. Mass workers’ and peasants’ organisations of every kind must be created and strengthened—from trade-union councils and strike committees to peasant associations and peasant revolutionary committees—with a view to converting them, as the revolutionary movement grows and achieves success, into organisational and political bases for the future Soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies (Works, volume 9, p. 242).

To be sure, Stalin did see the agrarian revolution as a phase that would be followed by the leadership of the proletariat in the establishment of soviets. Mao ensured that the agrarian basis would remain the core of the Chinese Revolution.

But did Stalin attempt to dictate the progress of the Chinese Revolution, insisting on ideological and practical conformity? Not so, it seems. He argues strongly against an ‘artificially transplanted “Moscow Sovietisation”’ (p. 233). And he castigates those who ‘sincerely believe that the revolution in China can be directed, so to speak, by telegraph, on the basis of the universally recognised general principles of the Comintern, disregarding the national peculiarities of China’s economy, political system, culture, manners and customs, and traditions (p. 338).

Mao with peasants 02

Mao with peasants 03

How to be a communist and a Christian: On peasant wisdom

A piece of advice on the practical wisdom of peasants:

To illustrate how tactlessly the peasants are approached sometimes, a few words must be said about anti-religious propaganda. Occasionally, some comrades are inclined to regard the peasants as materialist philosophers and to think that it is enough to deliver a lecture on natural science to convince the peasant of the non-existence of God. Often they fail to realise that the peasant looks on God in a practical way, i.e., he is not averse to turning away from God sometimes, but he is often torn by doubt: “Who knows, maybe there is a God after all. Would it not be better to please both the Communists and God, as being safer for my affairs?” He who fails to take this peculiar mentality of the peasant into account totally fails to understand what the relations between Party and non-Party people should be, fails to understand that in matters concerning anti-religious propaganda a careful approach is needed even to the peasant’s prejudices. (Stalin, Works, volume 6, page 323)

Connected is a proverb Stalin liked to quote: It needs thunder to make a peasant cross himself.

Lenin and Stalin 01

Stalin and peasants 01

On Lenin, lice, peasants and freedom: Arthur Ransome on the Russian Revolution

Some of the best materials on the Russian Revolution remain those works written at the time, especially those that capture the mood in a way that all-knowing historians pretend to do afterwards. Arthur Ransome’s two little books, Russia in 1919 and The Crisis in Russia, are great examples. He lived in Petrograd from 1903, so experienced much of it directly. He had access to the inner circles of Bolshevik leadership, attending meetings of the executive committee, interviewing the likes of Lenin, Zinoviev, Sverdlov and so on, and he was part of worker meetings and experienced every day life during the best and worst times.

Translator, folklorist, journalist, Ransome is listed in a Who’s Who at the time as a lover of ‘walking, smoking, fairy tales’. Even more: ‘It is, perhaps, his intimacy with the last named that enables him to distinguish between myth and fact and that makes his activity as an observer and recorder so valuable in a day of bewilderment and betrayal’.

A few snippets:

There was the feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution. There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of my impressions, all the drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of that extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war (Russia in 1919, p. vi-vii, in the midst of the ‘civil’ war, which included 160,000 troops from a dozen countries invading the USSR).

On the train to Moscow:

At last I tried to sleep, but the atmosphere of the carriage, of smoke, babies, stale clothes, and the peculiar smell of the Russian peasantry which no one who has known it can forget, made sleep impossible. But I travelled fairly comfortably, resolutely shutting my ears to the talk … and shifting from one bone to the another as each ached in turn from contact with the plank on which I lay (Russia in 1919, p. 10).

A discussion with Lenin:

More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready at any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes, as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people, his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of those forces. He does not believe that any man could make or stop the revolution which he thinks is inevitable. If the Russian revolution fails, according to him, it fails only temporarily, and because of forces beyond any man’s control. He is consequently free with a freedom no other great man has ever had. It is not so much what he says that inspires confidence in him. It is this sensible freedom, this obvious detachment. With his philosophy he cannot for a moment believe that one man’s mistake might ruin it all. He is, for himself at any rate, the exponent, not the cause, of the events that will be for ever linked with his name (Russia in 1919, p. 56).

This little bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry.

Precautions against typhus:

The car seemed very clean, but, as an additional precaution, we began by rubbing turpentine on our necks and wrists and ankles for the discouragement of lice, now generally known as ‘Semashki’ from the name of Semashko, the Commissar of Public Health, who wages unceasing war for their destruction as the carriers of typhus germs. I rubbed the turpentine so energetically in to my neck that it burnt like a collar of fire, and for a long time I was unable to get to sleep (The Crisis in Russia, p. 26).

Trade unions:

When I was in Moscow in the spring of this year the Russian Trades Unions received a telegram from the Trades Union Congress at Amsterdam, a telegram which admirable illustrated the impossibility of separating judgement of the present position of the Unions from judgements of the Russian revolution as a whole. It encouraged the Unions ‘in their struggle’ and promised support in that struggle. The Communists immediately asked ‘What struggle? Against the capitalist system in Russia which does not exist? Or against capitalist systems outside Russia?’ (The Crisis in Russia, p. 36).