The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Trial of the Gang of Four - Does It Symbolize a Break with Maoism?

Dec 31, 1980

The trial of the Gang of Four in China finally began in November, 4 years after they were originally arrested. At the time of this writing, the outcome of the trial isn’t known.

But what we do know is that the Gang of Four lost a struggle of power that followed the death of Mao Zedong. The result is the current trial. They, along with several generals who were associated with Lin Biao, were accused of responsibility for the “excesses of the Cultural Revolution”, for “10 years of economic sabotage”, for plotting a rebellion, and for various other crimes against the state.

The death penalty has been threatened, against Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, and Zhang Chunqia.

Mao Is Also on Trial

In addition to the Gang of Four and the generals, there is also someone else on trial. And this is Mao Zedong himself. Even though Mao is not alive nor on the witness stand, the accusations against the Gang of Four are implicitly attacks against Mao.

When the new Chinese leadership says that during the Cultural Revolution over 34,000 people were unjustly murdered and that hundreds of thousands more were harassed and even tortured, they are attacking Mao by implication. Mao was the leader of China during all of this period.

When the Chinese government now portrays Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, as a cunning actress who charmed and manipulated Mao in order to use him during the Cultural Revolution, they are also saying much about Mao. Again by implication, they are saying that Mao, the Great Helmsman, must have been a senile old man during the last 10 years of his life.

This trial is the clearest expression yet of the current leadership’s attempt to undercut the role that Mao had played in China. They are destroying Mao as an idol, without ever directly counterposing themselves to him.

But why is the new Chinese leadership doing this? Are they doing it because there is a real break between the policies of the present leadership and those of Mao?

There are a number of aspects of Deng’s policy which are presented as representing a break with Maoism. For example, it is said that Deng Xiaoping has declared that there is no longer a class struggle within China. He has said that technical competence is more important than political criteria in relation to the economy. He has proposed that the daily decisions on production now be made by factory managers rather than by party cadre.

In terms of the foreign policy of China, Deng has traveled to the United States and established formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. government. And now he looks to U.S. imperialism, the former enemy, to help with economic development. Foreign businesses are now encouraged both to trade and to do business in China. Deng has also called on the former Chinese capitalists who live outside of China today to invest their money back in China.

In other parts of the world, we have seen China aligning itself openly with the U.S. In the Middle East, China supported the Shah of Iran against the political revolution that overthrew him. In Africa, China sided with French imperialism in Zaire. And in Southeast Asia, we saw Chinese troops move into Viet Nam, within a month after Deng’s visit to the U.S.

But There Is No Break from Maoism

While it is true that the diplomatic relationship between China and the U.S. was formally established after Mao’s death, the really significant changes in this relationship began under Mao. Nixon made his first visit to China in 1972 to discuss with Mao himself.

Mao often put China on the same side as U.S. imperialism or the friends of U.S. imperialism. The Indonesian government murdered hundreds of thousands of Communists in 1965. Yet even after this butchery, Mao continued to have friendly relations with the Indonesian government. During the civil war in Angola, it was Mao who supported the nationalist tendency that was supported by U.S. imperialism. In Chile, Mao quickly recognized the CIA-backed government of Pinochet after it came to power by murdering Allende, and while it was carrying out its attacks against the working class and the left-wing parties.

So on the level of international relations and of foreign policy the new government has not broken with Maoism.

With domestic policy as well, there really is no break. It is true that today in China some of the policies are different than those of the Cultural Revolution. But it is a mistake to equate Maoism with only this period. Mao was the leader of China from 1949 until his death in 1976. And during these years there were a number of different policies all under Mao’s control.

Domestic policies varied a number of times. For example, individual capitalist ownership was allowed for a number of years under Mao’s rule. When this was no longer allowed, many of the capitalists were invited to stay on as managers or salaried technicians. And as late as 1966, Mao’s government still officially acknowledged making payments of fixed interest to former capitalists.

Even if these policies varied under Mao during the different periods, the goal of all these policies was the same–and this goal was shared by Deng and Hua as well.

Despite their claims to be communists, and despite their anti-imperialist rhetoric, never has the leadership of China had an internationalist goal. Never have they had a policy that would aim at the destruction of imperialism. From the very beginning until this day, the Chinese leadership has had only a nationalist goal.

The aim of the Chinese leadership has always been to develop an independent China, free from the domination of imperialism. They fought to throw imperialism out of China, and they have been ready to fight to keep imperialism out. But as far as what imperialism did in the rest of the world, as long as it didn’t impinge upon China, the nationalist leadership didn’t attack imperialism. In fact, they have even joined imperialism in other parts of the world. Time and time again, they showed they were ready to sacrifice the interests of others in hopes of promoting their own national interests.

The Attitudes of U.S. Imperialism toward Mao’s China

U.S. imperialism, however, was not willing at the beginning to accept the goals of the Chinese Revolution. At the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, the U.S. had entered the period of the Cold War. The aim of the U.S. government was to prevent any country from leaving its own orbit and passing to the Russian camp.

But this is exactly what the Chinese Revolution did. And this was a threat to the interests of imperialism in the world. It was not Mao who proposed to break relations with imperialism; it was the U.S. government which severed all connections. Right from the beginning, U.S. imperialism continually threatened to attack China. It threatened militarily during the Korean War, as well as with the build-up of the Taiwanese military forces.

Politically and economically, U.S. imperialism also tried to isolate China from the rest of the world. It refused all trade, loans or investment. And it pressured other countries around the world to do the same. Only the Soviet Union provided China with aid. But in 1960, the Russian bureaucracy parted ways with the Chinese regime. Because it thought it had the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the U.S. government, the U.S.S.R. withdrew all of its assistance to China.

At this point, China found itself virtually cut off from the rest of the world, without any access to trade, to machinery and technology. China was isolated in a hostile world, a world dominated by imperialism. And to make matters even more threatening, in the early 1960s the U.S. military was increasing its activities in Viet Nam. In 1965, U.S. planes bombed North Viet Nam, right off the border of China.

Mao had led a revolution to establish the political independence of China. He was not about to sit back and watch imperialism march back in. So in the mid-1960s, the Chinese government under Mao’s direction, prepared to fight against this perceived new threat from imperialism. This was the period of the Cultural Revolution. It was the period of the mass mobilization of literally millions of people. And it was the period of a more militant anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Mao initiated and directed this mobilization. It was the students who were mobilized into the Red Guard. Their youthful idealism was used to set a moral example of sacrifice. But, in fact, the Red Guard, backed up by the army, was also used to enforce austerity on the population.

In the face of this threat from imperialism, Mao insisted on a complete unity behind his government. No opposition was tolerated. If any section of the population opposed the austerity which was demanded, if any section raised demands on the government, they were met with force.

China made it through this period without having to fight off an actual military attack. Thanks to the will and the determination of the Vietnamese people who were fighting for their independence, the U.S. army bogged down as early as 1968. An attack on China was much less likely.

As the threat from U.S. imperialism began to ease up, it was Mao himself who began to wind down the mobilizations of the Cultural Revolution.

It Is U.S. Policy that Has Changed

Today China no longer faces an impending military threat from imperialism. Today China is no longer isolated from the world. For its own reasons following the Viet Nam War, U.S. imperialism has changed its policy toward China.

As noted before, it was Mao himself who responded and invited Nixon for discussions in 1972. And it was also Mao himself who stopped the Cultural Revolution, as well. Today, under the new leadership in China, we have seen only a continuation of the changes begun under Mao.

The changes in China today, in comparison to the period of the Cultural Revolution, have nothing to do with a change in the leadership. Rather, they are the result of the change in the attitude of U.S. imperialism towards China, and the fact that the response to this change has had more time to develop.

If Mao were still alive today, there is no reason to expect that the situation in China would be any different than it is under the current leadership of Deng Xiaoping. And if U.S. imperialism changes its attitude toward China tomorrow, there is no reason to expect that the existing set of policies in China wouldn’t be reversed once again, just as they were before, under Mao.

There is no break between the new leaders of China and Maoism.

So Why the Trial?

If there is no break from Maoism, if there is no real difference between the new leadership and Mao, then why is Mao being attacked, even implicitly? What is the purpose of this trial?

First of all, the trial is taking place in order decisively to eliminate the Gang of Four. This is the usual practice in this kind of regime. After opponents are defeated, they are decisively crushed.

But in addition, there is another reason for the trial. In a regime like the Chinese one which has no framework even for a formal democracy, there isn’t the possibility for a free and open discussion to take decisions because such a discussion always has the possibility of spilling outside the state apparatus. For that reason, we usually see one person who acts as an arbiter within the state apparatus; someone who can resolve disputes so that there is not a continual situation of crisis within the state apparatus. And this person must be someone who commands an unchallenged authority.

In China, Mao was such an arbiter. But now he is dead. So the Chinese regime needs to find a replacement for him. It is hard to know who will end up playing this role. But no matter who it is, they must be considered to be above all others–including above the heritage of Mao.

This is why Deng or anyone who aspires to be a successor to Mao needs to destroy the idolization of Mao. They can not let another authority remain which could be used against them. They can not allow someone else to use Mao in the future, claiming that he is the true disciple of Mao and therefore has more legitimacy to replace Mao.

This de-idolization of Mao takes place cautiously. The idolization of Mao was built up over 30 years in the eyes of the population. Moreover, Deng and the others are implicated because of their long association with Mao. If they attack him in a wholesale manner, they would be attacking themselves as well. Even if Deng criticizes Mao for certain policies, such as those of the Cultural Revolution, he leaves Mao’s image remain. From time to time, it can be useful for Deng to refer back to Mao.

But eventually the new leadership needs to establish its own legitimacy, without having to refer to Mao. And even when they propose to have the same policies that Mao had, even when they keep the same goal as Mao had, they prefer to do so in their own name.

The Dead End of Nationalism

For over 30 years now, China has had the goal to secure its independence through a strong industrialized economy. Many different attempts have been made towards industrialization.

It must be said that before the revolution in China in 1949, there was widespread famine and disease. Today that has changed. Even those most hostile to China can’t point to any starvation such as still exists in India, for example.

But compared to industrialized countries like Japan or the United States, China remains far, far behind. China remains as an underdeveloped country. China is producing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, it is true. But it also remains a country where some 17 per cent of the villages do not even have roads.

Today, China has still not been able to solve even its food problems. In 1954, the Chinese government estimated that 85 per cent of the population was involved in agriculture. The latest statistics from the Chinese government estimate that in 1979 between 75 and 80 per cent of the population was still involved with the production of food.

To give a comparison, less than 15 per cent of the population of France is involved with agriculture. In the United States, the figure is around 3 per cent. These figures show how far China is from being an industrialized country.

The goal of the Chinese revolution for a real national independence based on economic development has not been reached. Nor can it be. This is not a question of Mao or Deng, or of this or that policy for economic development. The real problem is that there is no way for an underdeveloped country to significantly industrialize in a world dominated by imperialism.

Today the world is an integrated whole. Within this world, imperialism controls the capital, the plants, the machinery, technology, and scientific knowledge. Imperialism uses this control to dominate the underdeveloped nations. It can do this by military force, but also by economic means.

Imperialism controls the world market. It can freeze a country out, as it did with China for over 20 years. When there is trade, it is done on imperialism’s terms, at prices which it sets based on the technology it possesses. All of this means that the underdeveloped countries either are plundered by imperialism or are forced to trade long hours worth of labor for something that a machine produced in minutes. In relationship to imperialism, they end up falling further and further behind.

The Maoists expressed the desire of the peoples of China to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. But as long as imperialism’s control over the rest of the world remains–a control which the Maoists don’t call into question–these aspirations can not be realized.