China: From "Revisionism" to "Fundamentalism"

The ultimate program of the Chinese Communist Party was to build a communist society in China. The Party not only required its members to steadfastly uphold communist ideals but also used that ideology to educate all Chinese.

In the actual practice of constructing communism, however, these ideals suffered the repeated assaults of reality. In the mid-1950s, a divergence of opinion began to emerge among the CCP’s top leaders: should they adhere to communism in its purest form, or make revisions based on actual conditions? Should socialism be constructed rapidly, or more progressively in line with practical circumstances?

The resolution of the CCP’s Eighth National Congress in 1956 was in fact a concession of ideals to reality, but Mao used the totalitarian system and class struggle to overturn that resolution and accelerate China’s progress toward communism, thereby bringing about the Great Famine.

Following the Great Famine, the CCP could be viewed as consisting of roughly two factions: the “pragmatists,” who had retreated from communist ideals to doing what reality required, and the “idealists,” who persisted with political struggle to push forward the realization of communist ideals.

This is, of course, a simplistic demarcation. The pragmatists sometimes felt conflicted when dealing practically with concrete matters required them to go against their ideals; likewise, the idealists often ran up against a cold reality, and in defending their ideals were prone to assume a crisis of class struggle and attack from hostile forces. When the idealists brought about economic chaos, it was left to the pragmatists to salvage the situation. In the process, the pragmatists departed even further from their ideals, causing the idealists to regard them as even more of a threat.

The most powerful weapon Mao could wield against the pragmatists was criticizing revisionism, as he did when class struggle was resurrected during the tenth plenum of the Eighth National Party Congress. “Revisionism” was first used in a pejorative sense by Lenin, when the Second International criticized Russia’s October Revolution and the system that had arisen from it.

Criticizing revisionism served Mao as a weapon in domestic political infighting, but was also related to his ambitions to assume leadership of the international communist movement. Success in the Korean War, the establishment of an industrial foundation through the First Five-Year Plan, and China’s contribution to the “satisfactory resolution” of the uprisings in Poland and Hungary had all raised the status of the CCP and Mao personally in the socialist camp, and it was in the frame of mind of an international leader that Mao made his second trip to Moscow in November 1957.

At a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, Mao’s speech aroused a standing ovation from the audience. After the conference, Mao acted like a co-host, lobbying the leaders of the Eastern European parties and busily reconciling conflicts between them and the Soviet Communist Party. If the Soviet Union had been the undisputed leader of the socialist camp in the past, Mao now appeared to have risen to an equal footing with Khrushchev.

Khrushchev’s wholesale criticism of Stalin in 1956 both gladdened and worried Mao. Toppling Stalin from his pedestal raised Mao’s own status within the international communist movement, but the challenge to Stalin’s prestige also threatened Mao, who was the Stalin of China. Mao therefore maintained that Stalin’s “merits outweighed his demerits,” and castigated Khrushchev for tossing away the “daggers of Leninism and Stalinism,” which would undermine Chinese socialism.

Just as Mao began dreaming of attaining the leadership of the international communist movement, Khrushchev proposed a peaceful competition with the capitalist world and suggested that the Soviet Union would outstrip the United States in fifteen years. This was when Mao jumped in with China’s new goal: “In fifteen years, we can catch up with or surpass the United Kingdom.” Some scholars therefore believe that both international and domestic factors caused Mao to embark on the Great Leap Forward, as he strove for leadership of the international communist movement.

Soviet skepticism, ridicule, and criticism toward China’s Great Leap Forward and People’s Communes spurred Mao’s propaganda campaign against Moscow, in particular the concepts of “peaceful coexistence” and “peaceful transition.”

These strident criticisms of the Soviet government and Khrushchev did not pass unnoticed; in June 1960, Khrushchev responded by openly criticizing CCP policies. From this point forward, “Soviet revisionism” became part of everyday language in China, equated with “Right-opportunism.” Mao labeled both Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi revisionists, and in the early 1960s made “countering and preventing revisionism” one of the Party’s chief political tasks.

This campaign against revisionism reached its height when a Central Committee leading group headed by Deng Xiaoping spent the months from September 1963 to March 1964 writing nine essays criticizing “Khrushchev revisionism.” These “Nine Critiques” were published in People’s Daily and Red Flag, as well as being read out in a strident and bellicose tone over the Central People’s Broadcasting Station to impress them on every Chinese mind.

The “Nine Critiques” pushed the CCP’s line even farther left into a Marxist fundamentalism that began to be practiced in China in 1958. After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution practiced this fundamentalism even more fanatically.

At the same time, Marxist fundamentalism was being widely adopted in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, one of the “great achievements” of Mao’s exported revolution. Mao once expressed his complete satisfaction with his star pupil, telling Pol Pot, “You’ve done well. You’ve managed to do things that we wanted but were unable to do.” Mao did not know at this time that Cambodia was to lose a quarter of its population under the rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (known to the outside world as the Khmer Rouge).

Following the Great Leap Forward, the struggle between China’s “idealists” and “pragmatists” was repeated again and again, leaving behind ever deeper scars. As the struggle intensified, it ultimately led to the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution took the stand of the idealists to an extreme — and toward destruction. By the end of the twentieth century, the banner of communism had lost all the glory of its former days, both in China and across the world. The pragmatists salvaged the situation after Mao’s death by pushing China onto the road of reform and opening.

Reform brought unprecedented development of China’s economy, but at the same time intensified the crisis of faith: the majority of Chinese people, and even many within the CCP, no longer believed in communism. Even so, the rulers dared not call communist ideals into question, because abandoning the flag of communism meant losing their own legitimacy. The only way out was to relegate communism to the distant future.

By abandoning attempts to mold the country’s future and individual behavior through the forcible imposition of ideals, leaders could focus on facing reality as effective managers of society. This could be considered progress, but a ruling clique serving as society’s managers should have its powers conferred, and limited, by the people, and the assessment of its managerial effectiveness should be based on practical experience, not on a priori criteria.

This conferment and assessment of managerial authority can only be expressed through the people’s ballots in a democratic system. The other alternative is to replace communist ideals with preservation of the CCP’s leadership status as the highest goal. This is extremely dangerous, because a regime that takes as its highest priority the preservation of the interests of the ruling clique will never gain popular respect and can have no long-term future. Judging from the political practice and developmental direction after Deng Xiaoping, China should be moving toward a democratic system and not one of this latter type.

We cannot be too optimistic, however. Gustave Le Bon once said:

A long time is necessary for ideas to establish themselves in the minds of crowds, but just as long a time is needed for them to be eradicated. For this reason crowds, as far as ideas are concerned, are always several generations behind learned men and philosophers. All statesmen are well aware to-day of the admixture of error contained in the fundamental ideas I referred to a short while back, but as the influence of these ideas is still very powerful, they are obliged to govern in accordance with principles in the truth of which they have ceased to believe.

That is why it will take a very long time for a modern democratic system to be established in China.

We must not wait passively for that eventuality, however; each and every one of us should use all available resources to push for democracy. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that the transformation of a political system cannot be too radical or hasty. Over the past 100 years, the Chinese have suffered too much from radicalism, and they have learned a profound lesson. Radical methods can cause society to spin out of control. An overnight imposition of democracy combined with the radical actions of anarchists could cause a weak regime to lose its ability to control society and allow the emergence of a new dictator — because autocracy is the most effective means of restoring order out of chaos. Those members of the public who find anarchy intolerable will welcome a dictator as a savior. In that way, the very people who are most radical and hasty in their opposition to autocracy may be the very ones who facilitate the rise of a new autocratic power.

Excerpt from the final chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. 608 pp. softcover, to be published in November by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian


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