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The Communist Revolution of China:
A Marxist Revolution?

Charlie Ma


          Communism and Marxism are interchangeable to many, a dangerous misconception. Communal societies have existed for thousands of years, while Marxism was only created during the mid-nineteenth century. Communism is the general communal sharing of property. Marxism is specific to industrial nations, involving the revolutionary overthrow of the pro-capitalist government from the roots by an oppressed proletarian class, leading to the emancipation of the proletariate from the bottom of the social hierarchy, the formation of a single class from the abolition of all classes, and the abolition of private property such that all property becomes public. Marxist theory predicts the proletariat will inevitably seize control of the means of production. Marxism is so specific that a nation could be under Communist rule without following the Marxist doctrine.

          Another common misconception is that all Communist states are the same, a mistake even the US government believed in early stages of the Cold War. Communist nations have their own unique style of Communism. Russia for example, regards itself as the most authentic communist nation, following a Marx-Leninist doctrine, yet it is also a highly stratified nation. A better example of a variation from Marxism is the Communist Revolution of China. Though the idea of a functional communal society was present, numerous deviations from Marxism exist.

          The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, served as the foundation for Marxism, which was aimed at highly industrialized nations like Britain or Germany, and not rural agrarian societies like China. According to Marx, the proletariat is a class who lives as long as they can find work, where work exists only when it is profitable. The proletariate, or the working class, suffered from high unemployment, unsafe work environments, long hours, and unsanitary living conditions. This class was a large problem for Britain or Germany, who both had large populations of workers growing increasingly dissatisfied as revolutionary ideas spread, becoming increasingly organized and enlightened, and swelling in numbers each day. This class concentrated in the cities, which contained a large percentage of the total population.

          China's massive rural population made the small groups of workers seem negligible. Her cities were small, and few factories existed in them. Industrialization for China did not begun until World War I during which trade routes were cut off and production shifted from civil to military. Goods became scarce causing demand to soar, making it profitable to start factories. The overwhelming majority of China's population were composed of peasant farmers. The lack of industrialization created a chain reaction which led to further deviations.

          The difference in size of the proletariate caused another deviation from Marxism. The main revolt did not come from the workers of industrial cities as Marx had envisioned. Instead, it came from the peasant farmers from the rural countryside. Communists had always believed that their revolution would have to be spearheaded by oppressed factory workers in the cities, but Mao showed that the revolutionary base could be established in a region far from the cities and towns. From these peasants Mao recruited members for the C.C.P. and the Chinese Red Army. The Communists originally hoped to create a massive revolt in all the cities to topple capitalism, but each riot was quickly put down by the Nationalist forces. There were not enough urban workers to effectively gain control of the cities.

          In China, virtually all the revolts incited by the Chinese Communist Party were quickly ended. The few successful revolts were aided by the Guomindang which later sided against the Communists. The arrests and executions of Communist leaders were usually enough to stabilize the situation. One example is known as the Nanjing Road incident. When two thousand students distributed leaflets in the International Settlement, hundreds were arrested, others were brutally assaulted. Thirty thousand surrounded the police station the next day. The British police killed five, and injured fifty, leading to the formation of The Workers' General Union. Within half a month, one hundred and fifty thousand were on strike in Shanghai. Even a strike of this magnitude failed. The main reason for the failure was the workers' dependency upon the same market they struck against. This is why the peasants had much more success. Unions did poorly in winning their demands in China. This does not happen in a Marxist revolution. The proletariat would be so strong that they could not be defeated.

          The lack of power in the proletariate class can also be explained by the lack of competition, which is an important ingredient in a Marxist revolution. As the competition increases, the wage decreases, until it will be just enough for subsistence. This will cause the workers to resent the owners whom they work for. The fear of wages dropping even further (caused by high supply of workers and low demand of labor) would provoke the men to unite (to artificially create a low supply of workers and thus a high demand of labor.) This is one of the basis of the union. In the early stages of a Marxist revolution, the workers begin to form trade unions against the bourgeoises to maintain a fair wage, as well as prepare for occasional revolts and riots. The success of the unions will lead to the formation of new unions, as well as the expansion of existing unions until the entire class is united. When the workers rise up again, they would have enough strength to replace the existing system of government. The unions are a key step in the power struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat. Without this step, the workers will not have enough power to make any real change. In China, unions were still weak and unorganized.

          According to Marx, only the most efficient capitalist will survive, the unfit will slip into the proletariat. The competition amongst the capitalists will eventually eliminate all but a few capitalists, creating a large proletariat class. At that stage, the proletariat will be so large and organized that they would easily overthrow their oppressors. In China, the proletariat did not form unions large enough to carry any notable political weight to the current government. "Because the unions were small and weak, ... strikes usually ended in failure. Moreover, there were no labour laws to protect the workers. The warlord government in Peking was indifferent to the plight of industrial workers and had no power to interfere with factories in the treaty ports." Marx did not consider racial differences as the ones which existed in China. Whites were considered superior to Asians, they had their own parks, and other special privileges. Even if the owners do fail, they would not join the proletariat class in China due to the virtue of having white skin. They industrial conditions were not mature enough for a Marxist revolution. The organization of unions were poor, and their numbers were small. The proletariate class has not yet grown to the magnitude Marx was expecting. Any strike while the conditions were still immature could not yield the impact Marx envisioned.

          The Chinese Communists did not want to wait until conditions were ripe. They wanted the revolution to occur as soon it could. The shortage of manpower from within the cities limited any revolution in China to start only in the countryside. Cities are easier to defend against an army because close combat reduces the advantages of military training and organization, excellent weapons and marksmanship are not as important in close range situations, revolutionaries can easily hide amongst civilians, and the revolutionary forces are concentrated which makes them more effective. Rural areas cannot be effectively maintained by civilians because revolutionaries would be spread too thin, and many other factors which would allow an army to easily regain the area and eliminate the perpetrators.

          The most effective alternative was to form a guerrilla army. The Communist Army had to hide in northern China in the rural countryside in order to be safely out of reach of the Nationalist forces. The mountain regions in northern China gave them protection and shelter. From there, they exercised Communism with safety, and slowly spread their revolutionary ideas. There were occasional skirmishes whenever the Nationalists sent an army to fight the Communists, though guerrilla tactics gave the Red Army the edge they needed to win. Hiding in the mountain regions meant they were too far away from any industrial city to have any notable influence there. After World War II ended, the Red Army swelled to approximately two million troops, and became strong enough to take on the Nationalists. The Red Army eventually defeated the Nationalists militarily, and took control of China. This is drastically different from Marx's revolution since it was military might, not political power, that changed the governmental and economical system. Instead of a large scale proletariat revolt which overthrows capitalism, it was a peasant army which defeated the government militarily.

          Marxism does not involve revolutionary peasants. To Marx, the peasants were conservative rather than radicle. "[The peasant] fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history." The revolutionary class in China was not composed entirely of the proletariat. The peasants actually made up of the majority of the revolutionary class. China's revolution can be summed up in terms of the peasant's revolt, for it was the peasants who provided the backbone of the revolution. They supplied the Chinese Red Army with food and shelter, and even enlisting in the army which was composed almost entirely of peasant farmers. They did not try to reverse history as Marx envisioned, but helped to advance the revolution. "Given time the [Chinese] Red Army could turn defeat into final victory. But it had to live off the land and this was possible only if the peasants and the countryfolk accepted and supported them." Without the peasants, it is doubtful any revolution after the Guomindang took power would have been successful at all. Unlike the industrialized nations where peasants were grouped with the capitalistic middle class, Chinese peasants were closer to the proletariat.

          The proletariat and peasant farmers were similar. They were in the bottom strata of an oppressive hierarchy, making up the masses. They were the backbone of the society, and were exploited by the people above them. "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority." The proletariat class to Marx is synonymous to the Chinese serfs. The Communist Revolution of China offered many promising reforms to the poor peasant farmers whom never had much power in the past. Like the proletariat, the peasant class was an immense group which was often neglected. Both the proletariat and the peasants usually lived an unpleasant life. The industrial workers of Europe lived in filthy slums where little attention was paid to their welfare. There was little security. If someone was injured, then they would become unemployed and effectively left to die. Children often fell asleep in front of dangerous machines. The peasant farmers were no better off.

When the peasant is ruined, he has to sell his field and
his hut. If it happens to be a good year, he may just be
able to pay his debts. But no sooner and has the harvest
been brought in than the grain bins are empty again, and
contract in hand and sack on back, he has to go off and
start borrowing again. He has heavier interest to pay,
and soon he has not got enough to eat. If there is a
famine he falls into utter ruin. Families disperse,
parents separate, they seek to become slaves, and no one
will buy them. 

          Though the proletariat and the Chinese farmers had many similarities, this generalization however, does not suffice. Not only is the urban life of a proletariat worker quite different from those of a farmer, they also exist in a very different setting. Most of the farmers owned the plot of land which they worked on. They worked for themselves, their earnings were relative to their effort and skill. Aside from taxes, the farmers owned the harvests, and could do whatever they wanted with it. They had much more freedom than the industrial workers. The proletariat had to work long hours everyday, often with quotas to meet. The proletariat lived in dense cities where the unemployed could gather and discuss revolutionary issues; discontents could exchange ideas with intellectuals easily. The peasant farmers lived in a low density setting where work was endless, and intellectuals were scarce.

          A key distinction between peasants and workers are their relationship to private property. Farmers rely on their private property for wealth, it is essential to them. The proletariate rely on their labour for wealth, property is a luxury to them. They do not need the tools of production as the peasants do. One criticism of Communism which seemed so radical and unheard of was the concept of abolishing private property. Marx was not terribly concerned about this possible problem because of the conditions of the average European, especially from England or Germany. "You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths." This reassurance however, only applied to heavily industrialized nations were the masses consisted almost entirely of the proletariate class, who owned little more than what they wore. In China's case, the nine tenth of the population were peasant farmers instead. The peasants had assorted privately owned property from livestock to machinery to land which not only has economic and utilitarian value, but sentimental value as well. This was why the peasant farmers would be reluctant to give up their private property. It is even more evident here that Marx did not write The Communist Manifesto with a largely agrarian nation like China in mind. The peasants supported Communism because they believed they were going to gain land (from the wealthy), and not lose it. Under Mao, the peasants gradually lost the rights to their property.

          The heart of any Communist revolution is the abolition of private property. The Chinese Communist Party's ultimate goal was same as that of Marx. They believed that under common ownership, use of resources would be more efficient. They did not immediately move the population into communes however. The Communists prepared the people in small steps. "When the Communists had come to power in 1949, they had confiscated farm land and turned it over to the peasants. A few years later the Party organized the peasants into small co-operative farms" The small incremental steps gave the peasants experience. First, individual families gained their own property to work on, instead of working for a landlord. Then, groups of thirty to forty families collectively worked together much like Marx described. The production did not meet the demand so the government decided to "organize still larger agricultural units called communes." During the period known as the "great leap forward", twenty-five thousand communes of approximately five thousand households each were established. "These peasants not only lost their remaining rights in the land but also had to turn over their work animals and farm equipment to the commune." Many people, however, were given small plots of land as a private garden when the government realized even gradual changes were too fast for the peasants.

          Instead of rising with the progress of industry, the modern laborer sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of their own class. Karl Marx uses this to justify the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. One of the aims of Communism is to solve this problem. After the Chinese Communist Revolution, everyone's income was relatively equal. Although "some workers were paid bonuses for producing more than others", this was eventually discouraged by the government. The workers' income was based on the profit of their team so the more efficient teams earned slightly more money. Each individual worker's income is also based on skill, ability, and difficulty. Despite the variations, people of the same type of occupation had similar incomes. Under Communism, instead of sinking deeper, the living conditions in class become similar. Though the end result coincided with Marxism, the beginning is very different.

          The living conditions of the proletariat were indeed deteriorating for the benefit of the other classes. The scenario was different however, with the peasant farmers. The decline in the standard living of peasants was not due to continual exploitation as was the case with the proletariat. The Chinese were fighting Japanese invaders which had a vastly superior military force. They also had to support the ongoing civil war during crisis times like the famine. During the war, tax rates soared to ridicules levels, sometimes over fifty percent. The wartime conditions declined for everyone, not just a single class. The Communist Manifesto was aimed at the working class during peacetime, not during a war. It was only during war that conditions for Chinese farmers steadily worsened. The standard of living was steadily increasing for the peasants before the war. This was also because of the immaturity of industrialization in China. Farmers did not feel the benefits of cheap manufactured goods until early to the mid twentieth century.

          The lack of industrialization invalidated another point under Marxism. The Marxist theory stated that "the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character ... [and] becomes an appendage of the machine." One of the reasons for revolting would be because workers only had collective value and power through the work they provide, worth even less than machines. One worker could replace another, they were both equal and the same. It is horrors like absence of job security, lack of protection against dangerous machines, long work hours (usually over seventy hours a week), and bare subsistence income (just to name a few) which forces the workers to revolt. Conditions were so poor that the life expectancy of the urban industrial worker was thirteen years below those of non-industrialized areas. Unindustrialized, China did not have this problem. Since the horrors of industry were known by relatively few, it made no impact in the rest of China. It simply didn't apply to the peasants. The far majority of the Chinese were farmers who retained individuality both in themselves and their products. Since most Chinese families owned their own plot of land, they did not simply become replaced or fired for an arbitrary reason. Whether due to injury or a depression in the economy, the farmers still held some control. Peasant farmers rarely became discontent for the same reasons the proletariat does. At anytime, the farmers could see the products of their hard work, take what they made, and do as they wish with it That was something the proletariat Marx had in mind could not do. The total absence of direct power within a class which fundamentally holds all the real power is an important catalyst in a revolution. The injustice would have to be corrected. This situation was lacking in a country like China where the proletariat contributed to only a small percentage of the total population.

          China was too different from the European industrial world of Marx to apply completely to The Communist Manifesto. Its large peasant population, and its small class of proletariat differed greatly from the industrial slums Marx was used to. Much of the Chinese not only owned the means of production, but was also far from being the faceless worker Marx described. Though the lack of safety regulations and enforcement was appalling, its effects rarely reached the peasant masses which made up most of China.

          After the revolution took place, one of the fundamental principals of Marxism was not met. There were clearly class distinctions between politicians, and non-politicians. Universities were abolished for the sake of a classless society, yet some remained open. Those universities only allowed admission to the children of high ranking politicians. They're children were also given the best jobs available despite their actual capability. These politicians had many other perks, include cars and a driver when many workers could not even afford a bicycle. On the other end, people who were against the government and how it is run, even if they are Communists, people who were wealthy before the revolution, and their family. They were given the worse jobs at the lowest pay possible to survive. Manual labour was forced upon them regardless of the number of degrees they held, how intelligent or educated they were, or their age. Some people were even executed for refusing to work. Even though China claimed they had a classless society, it was actually far from free of distinctions. People were judged simply by who they were related to.

          The Communist Revolution of China is quite different from Marxism and the outline from The Communist Manifesto. A Marxist revolution relied on the consequences of industry, which China lacked. Chinese Communists liked the idea of communal living with minimal private property, but their actions were different from Marxism, a specific form of Communism. Although the Chinese Communist Revolution's result shared similarities with Marxism, the actual movement had few similarities. Marx could not have imagined that a Communist Revolution would be ended by major military confrontations between armies of millions, nor the implementation of his industrial regime upon an agrarian society. Though the proletariat and peasantry are both of the lower class, their similarities are considerable. The numerous deviations from Marxism can be explained in terms of the immaturity of Chinese industry. Applying a system ahead of its time created the inconsistencies. The Chinese Revolution cannot be an representation of Marxism not only because of the undeveloped industries in China, but also what the government did after the revolution.


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