PSL response to ISO on China and Tiananmen

Jun 16, 2009

Chiang's troops execute a communist worker, Shanghai, 1927.

In an article in the ISO’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, dated June 4, 2009, and titled “Twenty Years after Tiananmen Square,” Dennis Kosuth treats the epic Chinese Revolution with extreme hostility and polemicizes against what he calls the PSL’s “twisted thinking”on China. The PSL has consistently promoted united-front action and sought to minimize sectarianism within the left. Since its founding in 2004, the Party for Socialism and Liberation has worked with the International Socialist Organization and many other organizations in the anti-war movement and other struggles. We intend to carry out similar united front activities in the future.

Dennis Kosuth’s “Twenty Years after Tiananmen,” in the Socialist Worker, qualifies, in this writer’s opinion, as the single worst article on the Chinese Revolution from an ostensibly “left” perspective in decades.

What is most striking about Kosuth’s piece is its extraordinary hostility to the Chinese Revolution in its entirety. From the first sentence expressing his distaste for China’s national anthem to the end, the article spews venom. It has nothing good whatsoever to say about an epochal and truly heroic revolutionary process that spanned decades and rescued a quarter of humanity from colonialism, landlordism and starvation. Such an utter lack of positive sentiment toward a truly great revolution is really an expression of fundamental disloyalty to all revolutions.

Kosuth starts with this sentence: “The Chinese national anthem, like for most countries, is militaristic, jingoistic and—unless one is a fan of marching [!]—difficult to listen to.”

Right from the get-go, the writer reveals his own cultural arrogance, jingoism and apparent ignorance. Perhaps he believes that the Chinese Communist Party and Red Army undertook the Long March because Mao Zedong was “a fan of marching.”

The “Long March” was a response to Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-Shek’s “Fifth Extermination Campaign” aimed at completely destroying the Communist Party.1 The party and its Red Army were compelled to retreat deep into China’s interior. The march—which included civilians as well as fighters—lasted for one year and covered 5,000 miles, with numerous major battles fought along the way. Fewer than 10,000 of the 100,000 who started out survived the heroic trek to Yunan, where the CCP was able to reorganize and prepare for the struggle that 14 years later would bring victory. The Long March is rightly viewed, even by many bourgeois historians, as one of the most remarkable feats in history.

Maybe Kosuth just dislikes marches and/or Chinese music.

The culmination of a quarter-century of revolutionary struggle is blandly described as “… the nationalist revolution of 1949, in which … the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was victorious in a civil war over the Nationalist Party.” That’s it. A reader new to the subject would be justified in asking: “If it was simply a ‘nationalist revolution,’ why would it matter if the CCP or the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) won? Why were they even fighting?”

The answers to those questions are nowhere to be found in this article. No mention of the “minor fact” that Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Party was really a pro-imperialist and parasitic instrument of the landlords, bankers and comprador (pro-imperialist) capitalist class, while the CCP was based primarily on the poor peasants and urban workers. The CCP-led forces were the real anti-imperialists—as the party proved—and the revolution was a national liberation struggle. At the same time, it was a social revolution, in that it overthrew the old rulers—both the imperialists and their domestic collaborators.

As one reads Kosuth’s rendition of China’s history it is hard not to draw the conclusion that his political hostility to the revolution is only matched by a profound ignorance of the country’s actual history.

If Chiang’s forces had prevailed, no matter what the name of their party, domination by foreign imperialists, landlords and capitalists would have been perpetuated, with all the attendant social ills.

Before the revolution, the country’s social problems included frequent deadly epidemics, vast illiteracy, widespread opium addiction and prostitution, and painful, disfiguring foot-binding for women. All of these were essentially wiped out in the first decade after the revolution, another remarkable fact that Kosuth fails to mention. Apparently from his point of view, the revolution had no discernible achievements at all; it was instead just one oppressive, exploitative system taking over from another.

The 1949 Chinese revolution was socialist in character

According to Kosuth: “From the beginning, the system established by Mao’s CCP was a state capitalist command economy, not socialism. The party and state bureaucracy made all the important decisions about society, with the aim of accomplishing national economic development along the lines of the Russian model established under Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian rule.”

There are so many problems with this one paragraph it’s hard to know where to start. Was it really the same system “from the beginning” or did it evolve over time? “State capitalist command economy”— what exactly is that besides a contradiction in terms? Were economic decisions made based on maximizing profits and enriching a capitalist class, or on meeting the needs of a society just emerging from a long history of colonial domination and extreme exploitation? Even if one only reads right-wing histories of China, it is clear that the capitalist class was progressively expropriated in the decade that followed 1949.

The unexpected and earth-shaking triumph of the Chinese Revolution ignited a firestorm inside the new center of world imperialism, the United States. While the redbaiting and purging in the labor movement had started two years earlier, McCarthyism went into full swing only after the triumph of the revolution. “Who lost China?” (as if it had rightfully been U.S. property) was the question around which Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist associates launched a new and more intense phase of what became known as “the witchhunt.”

Have Kosuth and the editors of the Socialist Worker asked themselves this question: If it were simply a “nationalist revolution,” as they contend, why did the U.S. ruling class react so violently to the Chinese Revolution? Why was the People’s Republic of China expelled from the U.N. and its seat turned over to the defeated Chiang Kai-Shek clique, now ruling over only Taiwan? Why was China threatened repeatedly with nuclear obliteration by the Pentagon? What did the U.S. ruling class understand about China in 1949 that the Socialist Worker and its forerunners fail to comprehend to this day?

Another quite remarkable passage for someone claiming to favor socialism over the so-called free market is this one:

“By the 1970s, the ruling faction of the Chinese government, led by Deng Xiaoping, steered the country toward ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ This meant unleashing free-market forces in the countryside, where 80 percent of the Chinese population lived, and developing industry in multiple coastal cities through foreign investment, and the use of Western technology and management techniques.”

“In order to further this economic strategy, the government had to educate a homegrown army of technicians, engineers and managers by expanding access to education. As part of this move, it was important to relax the political control of the CCP to some extent. Greater latitude to think and debate freely, especially within educational institutions, was a necessary precondition to economic reform.”

At another point in the article, Kosuth writes, “By the end of the 1980s, increased political freedom resulted in people feeling they could finally air their discontent.”

Again, the blanks caused by Kosuth’s apparent ignorance of Chinese history are filled in with the same hostile clichés and platitudes that are commonplace in the bourgeois media.

Here the writer absurdly suggests that: 1) Prior to the victory of the Deng Xiaoping wing of the CCP in the late 1970s, there was little in the way of technical or other education in China; 2) The introduction of capitalist market reforms in 1978 were positive in that they helped “to relax the political control of the CCP”; and 3) Only thanks to the capitalist market reforms were the Chinese people able to “think and debate freely, especially within educational institutions” and able to “finally air their discontent.”

In reality, the Chinese Revolution from its start in 1949 initiated a mass education campaign that in its scope had few, if any, parallels in human history. That effort alone would be sufficient to salute the validity of the Mao-led revolution. It was not only designed to overcome mass illiteracy, it also trained millions of engineers, technicians, scientists, teachers, doctors, nurses and other skilled workers.

And does Kosuth really think there was no debate, discussion and political struggle in China until the right-wing of the CCP, led by Deng, took over? Perhaps the writers at the American Enterprise Institute can tell their anti-communist constituents this kind of nonsense and get away with such a ludicrous presentation of the Mao-era.

In making this baseless assertion, Kosuth ignores the fact that, a decade before the Deng’s market reforms began, nearly all of China was in turmoil: debate, fierce polemics, student takeovers and workers’ seizures of factories took place during the Cultural Revolution. In the course of the Cultural Revolution, millions of mainly young Chinese engaged in fierce struggle within the CCP and against some of its top leaders, including Deng.

Whether one agrees with the basic tenets of the Cultural Revolution or not, it is patently absurd to pretend as Kosuth does that “open debate” and people “thinking freely” only accompanied the later triumph of Deng’s capitalist market reforms following the defeat of the left inside the CCP in the mid-1970s.

The Cultural Revolution was initiated from the top of society in the form of a call to the masses of young people and workers to fight against those in the government who wanted to open the country to the “capitalist road.” A central slogan at the time was “It is Right to Rebel.” All movements initiated from the top, even the most progressive, have limitations. But the Cultural Revolution stimulated a truly mass movement—first among young people and later among Chinese workers.

In 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, multiple working-class organizations in Shanghai created the short-lived Shanghai Commune modeled on the program of the Paris Commune of 1871.2

These efforts were denounced by all the western media. Normally, the capitalist media loves “dissenters” in countries with socialist governments. But this form of revolutionary dissent, whereby the working class intervenes to try to substitute the commune-style state to replace a bureaucratized workers’ state, was met with utter contempt and hatred by the western corporate-dominated media.

No massacre at Tiananmen

While the Western media condemned China’s Red Guard students who marched under the symbols of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao in the 1960s, the same media could only heap praise and flattery on the Chinese student movement of 1989. The symbol chosen by the students who occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989 was the Statute of Liberty.

Goddess of Democracy, Tiananmen 1989The Tiananmen student protestors were backed by the most right-wing forces inside the leadership of the CCP.

President Bush expressed unequivocal support for these student demonstrators. So did the CIA, the Pentagon and every capitalist media outlet.3 Again, Kosuth and the ISO, too, are their champions. He writes, “At its heart, the Tiananmen struggle was for bourgeois democratic rights—like those in a country like the United Sates, where people have the freedom to vote and protest, even though a small minority holds political power in the interest of the rich. But compared to the CCP dictatorship, such democratic rights would have been a step forward.”

Here Kosuth really reveals himself. He lumps together the imperialist United States with a non-imperialist country, the People’s Republic of China, and says quite clearly that it would be “a step forward” for China to become more like the United States. Really?

The overthrow of the CCP, under the current circumstances, or those in 1989, would not have been a step forward into some rosy, democratic and affluent future where everyone could vote for various millionaire politicians. Maybe Kosuth and the ISO actually believe that this would have been the future of China, if only the pro-Western student leaders had succeeded. But this is a fantasy. China’s march forward would have been hurled backward if the CCP had been overthrown. A “better” communist or socialist party would not have taken its place. Rather the Western imperialist powers would have picked China apart as they did prior to 1949—as a semi-colony ravaged by underdevelopment, starvation and foreign domination.

ISO criticism of PSL

In his concluding paragraphs, Kosuth fires off a shot at the PSL.

“Sadly, some organizations on the left today—like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, for example—continue to this day to make excuses for the CCP’s slaughter at Tiananmen …”

Sadly, some organizations on the left today—like the ISO, for example—continue to this day to use the same imperialist terminology employed by capitalist politicians and media in describing what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The ISO’s bizarre and pathological hatred for the governments of Cuba and China today and the Soviet Union yesterday is well known.4 In their June 4 article, the ISO regurgitates the most extreme right-wing and chauvinistic characterizations of the Chinese government, calling it a “barbaric regime” and labeling the 1989 events the “CCP’s slaughter at Tiananmen.”

When the Chinese government finally cleared the square on June 4, 1989, most of the world was led by western mass media to believe that there had been a terrible massacre of peaceful democracy-loving students. That was the content of screaming headlines and the 24/7 news reports from the corporate media. The U.S. Congress imposed severe economic sanctions on China because of the supposed massacre. The Chinese government’s accounts of the events were dismissed or ridiculed.

But these reports in the Western media were as fictionalized as their account of Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army ended the six-week counterrevolutionary occupation of the center of China’s capital. Although the initial headlines about the “massacre” left their enduring imprint on public consciousness, some of the reporters in Beijing soon made correction—although they never impacted on the political legacy of the events. After its initial reports, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times carried articles repudiating their own earlier claims that a “massacre” or “slaughter” of thousands of unarmed students had taken place.

On June 13, 1989, the New York Times carried a retraction written by Nicholas Kristof from Beijing: “The central scene in the article is of troops beating and machine-gunning unarmed students in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Several witnesses, both Chinese and foreign, say this did not happen. … The great majority left unhurt and were not shot at, the witnesses say.”

In a Jan. 16, 1990, Times article, Kristof quoted Hou Dejian, a Taiwan-based popular singer who was in the square on the night of June 3-4 as saying that “no one was killed in the square that night.” Dejian said that the 3,000 people remaining in the square negotiated with the PLA and decided to withdraw. The same article estimated that 300 people were killed in street-fighting in areas outside of the square on June 3 and 4, many of them PLA troops.

Television news footage showed counterrevolutionary demonstrators firebombing trucks and buses with soldiers inside, many of whom were burned to death. The June 12, 1989, edition of the Wall Street Journal carried an article that read in part: “Aerial pictures of the conflagration and columns of smoke have powerfully bolstered the [Chinese] government’s argument that the troops were victims not executioners.” Newsweek magazine carried photos of burned bodies of PLA soldiers and vehicles the following week.

The correspondent Richard Roth was reporting live for CBS from Tiananmen Square on the evening of June 4, 1989. His coverage was dramatically suspended that night when his live coverage suddenly ended with the sound of gunfire in the background.

On May 30, 2009, Roth made a report for CBS entitled: Tiananmen Square 20 Years Later. He said that that the gunfire resonating in the background when his live coverage dramatically ended on June 4, 1989, was soldiers shooting in the air. His report includes this important piece of information: Roth said he and his CBS camera crew “were captured and confined while the army took back Tiananmen—not by a massacre of the student protestors still inside the square, it turned out, but by a massive show of force that convinced the demonstrators to move out.”

China is not the enemy: Fight imperialism

Why does the ISO completely disregard the reality of what actually happened on June 3-4 at Tiananmen Square? Partly because it wants to continue presenting itself to liberal elements in the movement as the “good socialists.” But there is a deeper reason than simple opportunism.

Chinese boy begs for food, 1946The fall of 1989 saw the overturning of most of the socialist-oriented governments in Eastern Europe, which subsequently led to the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991. These developments resulted in a new world relationship of forces with the United States emerging as the undisputed “lone superpower.” The demise of the Soviet Union gave a green light to Washington for war and sanctions against Iraq and Yugoslavia, tightening the blockade of Cuba, intensified attacks on unions and social programs—the list goes on.

Have Kosuth and the ISO forgotten all of this? Do they not recognize that the victory of the Tiananmen protesters and their supporters inside the CCP (they were politically akin to the Boris Yeltsin-wing of the Soviet communist party) would have made U.S. imperialism’s victory in 1989-91 even more complete? That China would have been reduced to the status of neo-colony to an even greater degree than has happened in Eastern Europe?

No, they haven’t forgotten any of it. On the contrary, the ISO cheered on every counterrevolutionary development of that period, hailing each overthrow as “victory for workers’ democracy.” In the aftermath of 1989-91, when socialist Cuba, a small developing country, lost 85 percent of its trade overnight and was left almost alone in the shadow of U.S. imperialism, the ISO continued its virulent criticism. It never expressed a word of solidarity with Cuba’s heroic resistance.

In other words, during a most critical period in the history of the world’s working class, when U.S. imperialism was in a hyper-offensive mode, the ISO stood firmly on the side of … imperialism! They, along with a number of other “socialist” groups provided a left cover for imperialist counterrevolution.

From the point of view of real socialists, there could be no more “twisted thinking” than that.


1 Communists persecuted

Prior to the Fifth extermination campaign, the anti-communist Chiang Kai-Shek government had launched numerous other efforts to exterminate the left in China.

On April 12, 1927, Chiang carried out a purge of Communists from the Kuomintang in Shanghai and began large-scale massacres. Chiang’s forces turned machine guns on 100,000 workers taking to streets, slaughtering more than 5,000 people. Throughout April 1927 in Shanghai, more than 12,000 people were killed. The killing in Shanghai drove most of the Communists out of the urban cities and into the rural countryside.

The greatest slaughter took place in the countryside. The White Terror in China took millions of lives, most of them in the rural areas. The Chinese Communist Party was virtually extinguished. At the beginning of 1927, the Chinese Communist Party had about 60,000 members. By the end of the year, no more than 10,000 remained.

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2 The Shanghai Commune

The capitalists and their apologists in the petit-bourgeoisie always denounce the Commune—whether it was the one created in Paris in 1871 or Canton in 1927 or Shanghai in 1967—as nothing more than anarchy.

The Western imperialist media—along with the right-wing of the CCP—denounced the Shanghai Commune and the Cultural Revolution as an expression of lunacy, irrational fanaticism and extreme chaos. And there is no doubt that anarchistic currents developed roots inside sectors of the youth and among some workers’ organizations in Shanghai and elsewhere. It is also true that the children of poor workers and peasants were socially elevated. A whole generation of youth from poor peasant and worker families were admitted to the university for the first time, for instance.

Although multiple workers’ organizations initiated the Shanghai Commune in January 1967, it was not a spontaneous event. The various organizations pointed to the 16-point program for the Cultural Revolution that was adopted in August 1966 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Point Nine specifically states that “it is necessary to institute a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees, and delegates to the cultural revolutionary congresses. The list of candidates should be put forward by the revolutionary masses, after full discussion, and the elections should be held after the masses have discussed the lists over and over again.

“The masses are entitled at any time to criticize members of the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates elected to the cultural revolutionary congresses. If these members or delegates prove incompetent, they can be replaced through election or recalled by the masses after discussion.”

The various left-wing factions inside the CCP supported the Commune at first, but it is evident that it was Mao himself who retreated and withdrew support from the Commune.

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3 Speaking of the Tiananmen protests in May 1989, Bush Sr. said, “These students are ours.” In mid-May, the Pentagon began satellite television broadcasts into China. Only military and other government institutions could receive such transmissions at the time. A main focus of these propaganda broadcasts was to promote civil war by constantly repeating false reports that different PLA army units were on the move to supposedly defend the Tiananmen demonstrators or attack other units. The CIA and its accomplices worked feverishly to smuggle telecommunications and other equipment to the demonstrators.

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4 In “The ISO: Where We Stand,” their organization sums up its fundamentally anti-socialist position with these words: “China and Cuba, like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, have nothing to do with socialism. They are state capitalist regimes. We support the struggles of workers in these countries against the bureaucratic ruling class.”

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