BOOK REVIEW: Which Way for China?


Maurice Meisner, ”The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry Into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994.” New York: Hill and Wang, 1996. 544 pp. $30.

The year 1996 witnessed the publication of two books that sought to give a Marxist analysis of Chinese society today, Robert Weil’s “Red Cat, White Cat,” which was reviewed in the April 1998 Socialist Action, and Maurice Meisner’s “The Deng Xiaoping Era.” Weil is a Maoist sympathizer; Meisner may be characterized as a left social democrat.

Both basically agree in their perception of the great accomplishments of the Chinese revolution, their recognition of the disasters that accompanied these accomplishments under Mao (although Weil is much more defensive concerning them), and their presentation of the Deng era as one of rapid industrial growth occurring in the midst of widespread popular dissatisfaction and social instability.

The two books complement each other, each offering valuable information not given in the other. Their analytical accounts in good part are consonant with each other despite the political differences between the two authors.

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Meisner’s book, which is almost twice as long as Weil’s, has greater depth of scholarship, having a wider range of sources. Unlike Weil, Meisner, who is the author of many books on Chinese history and politics, is able to read Chinese.

Meisner’s chief weakness is that he does not perceive the Chinese revolution as part of an uneven process of world socialist revolution. He does not recognize how revolution in one country can stimulate the revolutionary movement elsewhere, and the failure of revolution in capitalist countries stimulate the growth of counterrevolution in postrevolutionary societies — with the final victory of socialism possible only after a socialist revolution in a number of advanced capitalist countries.

Meisner has a rigidly deterministic view of socialist revolution, in which it can only come about after a country has experienced a prolonged period of capitalism.

It is as if an obstetrician at a childbirth were to say, “Stop! This baby is premature. Premature babies face grave dangers. Let us wait until it is more fully developed.”

Meisner would have benefited from a reading of Michael Lowy’s “The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development,” which analyzes recent world history, including the Chinese revolution, in accordance with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Neither Lowy nor Trotsky are listed in his nine-page bibliography.

Stalinist program of “stages”

Meisner approves of Mao’s early concept of “New Democracy,” during which there would be a prolonged period of “national capitalism” after a revolution in China, and is puzzled as to why Mao abandoned it after the revolution indeed took place. This concept of necessary stages is a Stalinist one but is derived from the social democrat Kautsky, who regarded the Bolshevik revolution as premature.

Lowy, however, cites an article written by Ernest Mandel in 1950 in which he stated: “The [Communist Party] … wanted a pause before the stage of struggle against the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, but the launching of land reform in the south made this struggle an immediate priority. … The whole logic of the situation imposed the conclusions of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution.”

In addition to the impulsion of the class struggle by the poor peasants, the threat of American capitalism represented by MacArthur’s “march to the Yalu” during the Korean War was no doubt also an important factor in the speeding up the process.

Another error of Meisner is his deriving the bureaucratic authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist party from Lenin’s concept of a centralized party and from what he calls the “Leninist single-party system.” In reality, Lenin’s Bolshevik party was characterized by an extremely vigorous internal democracy, and the idea of a one-party system was foreign to Lenin’s thought despite its identification with Lenin as a result of Stalinist falsification eagerly seized upon by capitalist propaganda.

He formed a coalition government with the Left Social Revolutionaries after the October Revolution and hailed the Hungarian revolutionists in 1919 for uniting all socialist parties in the government. It was only when the revolution was in dire peril during the civil war that the Bolshevik government outlawed other parties, but Lenin regarded this as a temporary, necessary evil, not a desirable system.

The bureaucratic authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist party was the product of its acceptance of Stalinist doctrine. Contributing factors were its militarization in commanding a peasant army and China’s situation as a beleagured backward country.

The great value of Meisner’s book is his refutation of the notion, presented as axiomatic in the capitalist media, that capitalism will bring democracy to China.

Meisner regards China as already having an “essentially capitalist mode of production,” although, he says, it is a capitalism of a “peculiarly bureaucratic kind” and is “not fully developed.” But Meisner demonstrates that since, as he says, “the coercion of the market is enforced by a repressive state apparatus,” the market needs this apparatus and will not free society from it.

Yet Meisner’s analysis is incomplete. It does not take into account the fact that China’s nationalized property and its state monopoly of foreign trade, although eroded, still remain for now as a bulwark against the full restoration of capitalism.

The Democracy Movement

The best part of Meisner’s book is the more than 70 pages in which he describes in vivid detail the Democracy Movement of 1989 and the Tianenmen Square repression.

The Democracy Movement is generally portrayed as one of idealistic young students yearning for American-style democracy. But Meisner, using numerous eyewitness accounts, shows how incomplete and superficial this depiction is.

At its height the Democracy Movement, which had begun as a student movement, became a huge mass outpouring in which at least one million and perhaps more than two million people rallied in defiance of the regime, most of them marching with their work units, each work unit carrying its own banner. All occupations were represented, but outstanding were the hundreds of thousands of workers from the factories.

The students wanted only freedom from Communist Party controls. As one American observer, Orville Schell, said, “They just wanted the government to acknowledge” that they had “something to contribute.” They had many criticisms but did not have “inappeasable resentments toward the leadership.”

For workers democracy meant freedom from the tightening work rules under the control of an officialdom whose market policy was bringing inflation and job insecurity.

Illegal labor unions, newly organized, protested against the bureaucratic use of power to gain wealth. As one of their declarations stated, naming specifically Deng and the other leading figures of the party: “These ‘people’s public servants’ have used the blood and sweat of the people to build palatial retreats; … to buy foreign luxury vehicles; and to go abroad on pleasure trips.”

Although the populace of Beijing was inspired by the heroism and self- sacrifice of the students occupying Tianenmen Square and came out in their defense in a tremendous show of unity, “democracy” was an amorphous term whose meaning was not always exactly the same.

Less mentioned in foreign new stories than the famous “Goddess of Liberty” figure modelled on the Statue of Liberty constructed by the students is the fact that at the meeting at which it was displayed, the huge crowd, 100,000 strong, joined in singing “The Internationale,” mightily proclaiming that justice was thundering condemnation of the system.

A Chinese participant, quoting a line from “The Internationale” from the French version not known to Americans, contrasted this rally with that in Tianenmen Square during the Cultural Revolution: “Two decades ago it was all about ‘the great liberator, Chairman Mao’; today it is ‘t’Jo Saviour from on high elivers!” The working class was announcing that only the working class itself can bring about its own emancipation.

It was the popular participation in the demonstrations that caused the party leaders to conclude that the movement had to be crushed by the army.

The casualties were not so much in the Square, where the crowd had been greatly depleted in the face of the threatened attack, as in the outlying working-class neighborhoods through which the army had to pass to reach the Square: “It was in these residential areas, far from the cameras and minds of foreign news correspondents, that the greatest slaughters took place.”

Following the Beijing Massacre, angry demonstrations were held in dozens of cities across China. It is estimated that over 40,000 people were arrested, thousands jailed, many of them beaten and tortured, and hundreds executed. “Most of those arrested, and virtually all who were executed, were workers.”

In the years since, rapid industrial growth has been accompanied by unevenness of income gains, loss of job security, and the erosion of welfare provisions. Worker resistance was growing as of 1994, as indicated by numerous reports of showdowns, demonstrations, and other such “incidents.”

“It is likely,” Meisner concludes, “that movements of resistance to the Chinese Communist dictatorship will assume both a socialist and a democratic character. Any viable movement for democratic socialist change must ultimately be rooted in the proletariat. For China is now an industrialized country, no longer a predominantly agrarian land.”

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