What Maoism Has Contributed

This essay was prepared for the June 9-10, 2006 Hong Kong Conference: “The Fortieth Anniversary: Rethinking the Genealogy and Legacy of the Cultural Revolution” sponsored by the China Study Group, Monthly Review, and the Contemporary China Research Center of City University of Hong Kong. It was translated from the French by Shane Mage.

The Second International’s Marxism, proletarian-and-European-centered, shared with the dominant ideology of that period a linear view of history—a view according to which all societies had first to pass through a stage of capitalist development (a stage whose seeds were being planted by colonialism which, by that very fact, was “historically positive”) before being able to aspire to socialism. The idea that the “development” of some (the dominating centers) and the “underdevelopment” of others (the dominated peripheries) were as inseparable as the two faces of a single coin, both being immanent outcomes of capitalism’s worldwide expansion, was completely alien to it.

But the polarization inherent to capitalist globalization—a major fact because of its worldwide social and political importance—challenges whatever vision we may have of how to surpass capitalism. This polarization is at the origin of the possibility for large portions of the working classes and above all of the middle classes of the dominant countries (whose development is itself favored by the position of the centers in the world system) to go over to social-colonialism. At the same time it transforms the peripheries into “storm zones” (according to the Chinese expression) in natural and permanent rebellion against the world capitalist order. Certainly, rebellion is not synonymous to revolution—only to the possibility of the latter. Meanwhile, reasons to reject the capitalist model in the center of the system are not lacking either, as 1968, among other things, has shown. To be sure, the formulation of the challenge advanced at a certain time by the Chinese Communist Party—“the countryside encircles the cities”— is by that very fact too extreme to be useful. A global strategy for transition beyond capitalism toward global socialism has to define the interrelationship between struggles in the centers and the peripheries of the system

At first, Lenin distanced himself somewhat from the dominant theory of the Second International and successfully led the revolution in the “weak link” (Russia), but always believing that this revolution would be followed by a wave of socialist revolutions in Europe. This hope was disappointed; Lenin then moved toward a view that gave more importance to the transformation of Eastern rebellions into revolutions. But it was up to the Chinese Communist Party and Mao to systematize that new perspective.

The Russian Revolution had been led by a Party well rooted in the working class and the radical intelligentsia. Its alliance with the peasantry in uniform (first represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Party) ensued naturally. The consequent radical agrarian reform finally fulfilled the old dream of the Russian peasants: to become landowners. But this historic compromise carried within itself the seeds of its own limits: the “market” was, by its own nature, fated, as always, to produce a growing differentiation within the peasantry (the well-known phenomenon of “kulakization”).

The Chinese Revolution, from its origin (or at least from the 1930’s), unfolded from other bases guaranteeing a solid alliance with the poor and middle peasantry. Meanwhile its national dimension—the war of resistance against Japanese aggression—likewise allowed the front led by the Communists to recruit broadly among the bourgeois classes disappointed by the weaknesses and betrayals of the Kuomintang. The Chinese revolution thus produced a new situation differing from that of post-revolutionary Russia. The radical peasant revolution suppressed the very idea of private property in farmland, and replaced it with a guarantee to all peasants of equal access to farmland. To this very day that decisive advantage, shared by no other country beside Vietnam, constitutes the major obstacle to a devastating expansion of agrarian capitalism. The current discussions in China largely center on this question. I refer the reader to the chapter on China in my book Pour un Monde Multipolaire (Paris, 2005) and my article “Théorie et pratique du projet chinois de socialisme de marché” (Alternatives Sud, vol VIII, N· 1, 2001). But in other respects the going-over of many bourgeois nationalists to the Communist Party would necessarily exert an ideological influence favorable to the support of the deviations of those who Mao termed partisans of the capitalist path (“capitalist-roaders”).

The post-revolutionary regime in China does not merely have to its credit many more-than-significant political, cultural, material and economic accomplishments (industrialization of the country, radicalization of its modern political culture, etc.). Maoist China solved the “peasant problem” that was at the heart of the tragic decline of the Central Empire over two decisive centuries (1750-1950).

I refer here to my book L’avenir du maoïsme (1981), p. 57. What is more, Maoist China reached these results while avoiding the most tragic deviations of the Soviet Union: collectivization was not imposed by murderous violence as was the case with Stalinism, oppositions within the Party did not give rise to the establishment of a Terror (Deng was put aside, he returned…). The aim of an unparalleled relative equality in income distribution both between the peasants and the workers and within each of those classes and between both and the ruling strata was pursued—of course with highs and lows—tenaciously, and was formalized by choices of development strategy contrasting to those of the U.S.S.R. (these choices were formulated in the “ten great relationships” at the start of the 1960’s). It is these successes that account for the later developmental successes of post-Maoist China since 1980. The contrast with India, precisely because India had no revolution, thus has the greatest significance not only in accounting for their different trajectories during the decades from 1950 to 1980 but still for those characterizing diverse probable (and/or possible) perspectives for the future. These successes are the explanation for why post-Maoist China, committing its development thenceforward to its “opening” within the new capitalist globalization, was able to avoid destructive shocks similar to those that followed the collapse if the U.S.S.R.

Just the same, Maoism’s successes did not settle “definitively” (in an “irreversible” fashion) whether China’s long-term perspectives would work out in a way favorable to socialism. First of all, because the development strategy of the 1950-1980 period had exhausted its potential so that, among other things, an opening (even though a controlled one) was indispensable (cf. L’avenir du maoïsme, pp 59-60), an opening which involved, as what ensued showed, the risk of reinforcing tendencies evolving toward capitalism. But also because China’s Maoist system combined contradictory tendencies—toward both the strengthening and weakening of socialist choices.

Aware of this contradiction, Mao tried to bend the stick in favor of socialism by means of a “Cultural Revolution” (from 1966 to 1974). “Bombard the Headquarters” (the Party’s Central Committee), seat of the bourgeois aspirations of the political class holding the dominant positions. Mao thought that, in order to carry out his course correction, he could base himself on the “Youth” (which, in part, broadly inspired the 1968 events in Europe—consider Godard’s movie La Chinoise). The course of events showed the error of this judgment. Once the Cultural Revolution had been left behind, the partisans of the capitalist path were encouraged to go over to the offensive.

The combat between the long and difficult socialist path and the capitalist choice now in operation is certainly not “definitively outlived.” As elsewhere in the world, the conflict between the pursuit of capitalist unfolding and the socialist perspective constitutes the true civilizational conflict of our epoch. But in this conflict the Chinese people hold several major assets inherited from the Revolution and from Maoism. These assets are at work in various domains of social life; they show up forcefully, for instance, in the peasantry’s defense of state property in farmland and of the guarantee that all should have access to farmland.

Maoism has contributed in decisive fashion to ascertaining exactly the stakes in and the challenge represented by globalized capitalist/imperialist expansion. It has allowed us to place in the center of our analysis of this challenge the center/peripheries contrast integral to the expansion, imperialist and polarizing by its very nature, of “really existing” capitalism; and from this to learn all the lessons that this implies for socialist combat both in the dominating centers and the dominated peripheries. These conclusions have been summed up in a fine “Chinese-style” formula: “States want independence, Nations want liberation, and Peoples want revolution.” States—that is, the ruling classes (of all countries in the world whenever they are something other than lackeys, transmission belts for external forces) try to expand their room for manoeuvre in the (capitalist) world system and to lift themselves from the position of passive objects (fated to submit to unilateral adjustment whenever demanded by a dominant imperialism) to that of active subjects participating in the formation of the world order. Nations—that is, historical blocs of potentially progressive classes—want liberation, meaning “development” and “modernization.” Peoples—that is, the dominated and exploited popular classes—aspire to socialism. This formula allows an understanding of the real world in all its complexity, and consequently, the formulation of effective strategies for action. Its place is in a perspective of a long—very long—global transition from capitalism to socialism. As such it breaks with the “short transition” conception of the Third International.