23/10/2021 by socialistfight
In the course of an email the following two-part commentary was sent by John Minahane (an old school friend of mine, who was a Maoist in Cork about 1970), who had seen my article on China in SF… We publish it because it contributes to the debate.
John has published many books and scholarly articles. His latest effort is to publish the poems of Gofraidh Fionn O Dalaigh, translate them into English on facing pages. He supplies an explanatory Introduction and Notes. Gofraidh Fionn O Dalaigh, from Ballydaly on the present day Cork-Kerry border, is one of Ireland’s greatest poets. This book is unique in recent times, as a sympathetic and respectful presentation of the work of one of the great professional poets who were such a distinctive feature of civilisation in Ireland. Price: £20.00
What Is China Today?
By John Minahane
(1) The maximum credibility and power of socialism as an effective system, and the most efficient international solidarity which for a decade or so could gather into its ranks even China, coincided with the period of rule of Joseph Stalin. Mao respected Stalin, whereas he had no reason to feel the same way about Khrushchev.
Granted, Stalin hadn’t wanted him as leader of China: he had wanted China sorted out as per Yalta, with Chiang Kai-Shek leading the major party in coalition. When Mao came to Moscow and complained to him about this, Stalin told him, “The past is over, and now you’re the winner, and winners don’t get asked embarrassing questions. Winning is very important. Tell me, do you have any demands?” Mao could relate to that.
In theory, after Stalin’s death there needed to be a controlled loosening and democratisation of the system in the Soviet Union. That’s what Nikita Khrushchev thought he was doing. (Including in the Secret Speech, that predictably didn’t stay secret.) He thought it was all a logical process. “As people become richer, they become more democratic,” he explained once.
But it didn’t work out that way because the condemnation of part of the system’s past was immediately interpreted as weakness. And not only by restorationists in Hungary. The Communist Party of China’s first public disagreement with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (still quite cautiously expressed) was on the question of Stalin, in 1956. The CPC agreed that he had made some mistakes, but they wanted something like the “70% good, 30% bad” formula that was afterwards proposed for Mao.
Even after that, if we can take Khrushchev’s memoirs as authentic, Mao could envisage some kind of co-ordinated policy led by the CPSU. Simply that it would have to be something fairly risky and adventurous (in tune with the Great Leap Forward!). Khrushchev thought he was mad. But even when the GLF was called off, the Sino-Soviet conflicts kept getting sharper. Sino-Soviet relations couldn’t stand still; they would either be carried forward by a powerful sense of shared interest, or they would become relations of rival powers.
(2) If China was not going to be the major partner in an internationalist coalition led by the Soviet Union, then it was going to think of itself as a great nation in transformation within a world of great powers. The danger to be avoided at all costs was Chinese weakness, enabling imperial or neo-colonial powers to dismember, exploit and humiliate China as in the past.
You don’t mention the Opium Wars in your document. Great Britain’s Wars for Drugs, possibly the filthiest campaigns in colonial history, fought to enforce the free sale of a harmful drug throughout a great territory for the enrichment of British merchants! Have they ceased to be relevant in modern Chinese history? On the contrary, I believe that those wars, and “the Century of Shame” that they’re part of, are the strongest card in the hand of someone like Xi. He can say: “China led by me is united and strong, and no one will push us around!”
(The same goes for the reputation of Mao, only more so. Mao united China, and under his rule China was seen to be strong — and not least in the Korean War, where he successfully ran the risk of the kind of nuclear obliteration that the mad General MacArthur was yelling for. Whatever judgments are made on the GLF or the Cultural Revolution (and the latter is many-sided, and indeed by banishing them to the wilds to shovel dung it may have given Xi, among others, real leadership potential and saved them from a future of being boring neo-Confucian bureaucrats), neither of these issues will be decisive.
Mao made China strong, therefore he will always get an 80% mark. Deng himself said once, when asked if he agreed with the 70/30 formula, that he would give Mao much more than 70.) When breaking with the CPSU, at first the CPC advocated aggressive confrontation with the US and its allies. When the Vietnam War began, they gave very valuable support to North Vietnam, and Uncle Ho always tried to stay neutral in Sino-Soviet arguments.
But in the late 1960s I think the CPC began to calculate that, first of all, the Vietnamese were going to win, and secondly, in the end they would be a reliable partner of the CPSU (there was Chinese-Vietnamese history behind that too). In fact, the CPSU might soon be the greatest power in the world, and that could be an uncomfortable world for China. The solution was to play great-power politics with the USA. Which they did, decisively and ruthlessly.
At the same time, as you point out, the decisive move of dismantling socialism was not made until a year after this had been done in the (disintegrating) Soviet Union. The CPC did not want to try taking the Cuban course of sustaining the old system. They judged that a move to capitalism was required, the world being as it now was, but they were determined that it would be done with firm CPC control and state cohesion. And of course, Clinton’s globalisation policies brought them immense capitalist opportunities.
People championing “liberal-democracy” as “the only game in town” (Yuval Harari, for example, in Homo Deus) * sometimes say that it’s not clear what the Chinese believe in now — they’re not communist anymore, so what are they? I think that’s a superficial way of seeing it. The Chinese believe in China, they believe in China being too strong to push around. To this day, I believe their enormous army is sustained without any need for a formalised conscription system. As for the foreign devils, the CPC has been good at leading their snouts in an orderly way to the trough. George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation isn’t allowed to function in China, was writing in the Financial Times, bemoaning the fact that hedge fund managers have been so willing to invest there. When trying to come up with an argument that might make the snouts go elsewhere, he sounds a bit desperate.
I would absolutely hate to live in modern China, I don’t want to go there, I want to leave it alone (if it were left enough alone, there would be the best chances of change to a more humane society and culture).
However, a system that can keep China strong, while at the same time being socially sufficiently responsive and alert (e.g., to know when the capitalist hyper-exploitation is becoming unbearable) — that system could have something going for it for a while yet.
GD Footnote from the blurbs
* Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017) examines what might happen to the world when old myths are coupled with new godlike technologies, such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
Humans conquered the world thanks to their unique ability to believe in collective myths about gods, money, equality and freedom – as described in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In Homo Deus, Prof. Harari looks to the future and explores how global power might shift, as the principal force of evolution – natural selection – is replaced by intelligent design.
What will happen to democracy when Google and Facebook come to know our likes and our political preferences better than we know them ourselves? What will happen to the welfare state when computers push humans out of the job market and create a massive new “useless class”?
How might Islam handle genetic engineering? Will Silicon Valley end up producing new religions, rather than just novel gadgets?
As Homo Sapiens becomes Homo Deus, what new destinies will we set for ourselves? As the self-made gods of planet earth, which projects should we undertake, and how will we protect this fragile planet and humankind itself from our own destructive powers? The book Homo Deus gives us a glimpse of the dreams and nightmares that will shape the 21st century.
The author’s previous Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (2015) postulates that homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.
By combining profound insights with a remarkably vivid language, Sapiens acquired cult status among diverse audiences, captivating teenagers as well as university professors, animal rights activists alongside government ministers. 16 Million copies had been sold around the world and the book was translated into 60 languages. https://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens-2/ ▲
Gerry Downing’s comments on John Minahane’s piece
Let me first indicate the areas of agreement. John writes, “The CPC did not want to try taking the Cuban course of sustaining the old system. They judged that a move to capitalism was required, the world being as it now was, but they were determined that it would be done with firm CPC control and state cohesion. And of course, Clinton’s globalisation policies brought them immense capitalist opportunities.”
Denying this obvious truth, as the BT does in their Myth of Capitalist China, is just nonsense. As is denying the source of the wealth of all those billionaires is in the super-exploitation of the hundreds of millions of migrant workers under the Chinese hukou system of apartheid structures.
The title of the BT document is taken from the book by Dexter Roberts, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, which argues the exact opposite by exposing the whole superexploiting fraud – we can see from the two graphs that the urban hukou has both an aristocracy of labour on top and an almost inexhaustible rural hinterland replenishing this system, which is clearly growing, as the graphs show. Capitalism, But Not As We Know It, Gerry. is his understanding.
John’s potted history of the global class struggle and the progressive roles of Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao is the polar opposite to mine and Trotskyism’s understanding. And that is because we maintain the view of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that socialism is not possible in a single country, what was produced under Stalin and Mao were appalling repressive societies and the truth about what happened there is understood in general by workers and they can never agree to concede their democratic rights to regimes like those.
On the other hand, we must not deny the necessity for bold revolutionary initiatives from below to overthrow capitalism, the necessity to suppress the capitalist reaction to a socialist revolution and to impose a workers’ state based on workers’ democracy via workers’ councils, soviets as they were called in Russia. But Stalin’s 1936 dismissal of world revolution as a “tragic-comic misunderstanding” is an explicit rejection of the heritage of the Russian Revolution.
John takes a sensible, matter-of-fact approach of putting himself in President Xi’s shoes and asking what would you do if you were he? Never mind all that nonsense about ‘socialism with Chinese chrematistics’ China was humiliated in the 19th century in the two Opium Wars; the first one in 1839–1842 and the second in 1856–1860.
But two revolutions, Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 Xinhai National Democratic Revolution established the Chinese Republic and the 1949 one when Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China – ‘Mao made China strong’ (JM). She can now stand up for herself after all that humiliation.
I remember first encountering Maoists on a demonstration in Patrick Street in Cork city in 1969 passionately arguing for Mao’s Cultural Revolution. I still have Mao’s Little Red Book I bought on that occasion. There is none of that now in John’s narrative, an objectivist account of how history happened as it inevitably had to happen that way and all the passionate struggles, all the defeats and victories were predestined; independent of leadership’ will and mass consciousness.
We say no, Stalin did not have to triumph and if revolution had triumphed in Germany in 1918-23 then the prospect of world revolution would have been enhanced and revolutionaries would have been inspired to fight on even more determinedly, just as they were first inspired by the storming of the Winter Palace and Trotsky’s Red Army’s victory in the civil war against the Whites and the 14 invading imperialist armies.
As with The Guardian editorial on page 19, which we analyse, a free-flowing space walk in the Harrari footnote which allows philosophical idealists to embrace a “completely fresh perspective”, an unfounded speculation beyond the social relations of capitalism and the repressive relations of so-called communism as practiced by Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, the Kim Il-sung dynastic rulers and Castro. A bit like those anti-vax conspiracy theorists running riot or stuff I have just got from a French comrade whose friend speculates that we are already living in a post-capitalist society, or at least in a new society not envisaged by Marx’s Capital. ▲