China, America, democracy, and workers

maos china and after

So I just got done reading this bad boy.  I have to say, I’m impressed.  It praises the positive sides of the regime and condemns the negative, all while keeping a firm grounding in Marxist theory.  It does a great job untangling the many tangled threads of Maoism, and its many stages and incarnations, as well as its theoretical complexity and its contradictions and errors.  If everyone in China would read this book, there would be a revolution.

Socialism and democracy

My only hope for socialism in China is through democracy.  The CP is completely sold on this capitalist-development-before-socialism assumption, perhaps an economic-determinist overcompensation for Mao’s nutty idealist voluntarism, or perhaps just a great way for these fuckers to get rich.  There is only small impulse towards sustaining state control of the economy within the Party, and a willingness to literally dismiss/gulag Party members who lean that way has already been demonstrated.  Not that state control is even socialism anyway.

Without political liberalization, the kind of theoretical clarity which (1) critiques state bureaucracy as not inherently socialist, and (2) opposes the Communist Party’s wholesale sponsorship of capitalism, will never be given the space to breath it needs to come to prominence.

However my hope for democracy does not come from traditional 1989-style democracy movements.  The glasnost-affected Soviets were willing to cave to that stuff, but the Chinese CP has clearly demonstrated it would rather crack down than back down, and they are kind of high on all this ancient Chinese Emperor glorification to justify it to themselves.  (To be fair, the post-Soviet Russian nationalists probably imagine themselves similarly, just without the pretense of calling themselves Communist.)

Democracy movements alone cannot win in China

Every time there is some classic democracy movement in China, it gets smacked down.  It is usually petit-bourgeois and student-led.  It usually comes at least partially from within the Party itself, which is like China’s version of saying it comes from the bourgeoisie/ruling class.  It lacks the social weight or military force to withstand the regime’s fairly easy ability to assault, jail, expel, and execute dissidents.  At times there have been internal Party objections to this Game of Thrones-level inhumanity, but they have usually been batted down by more hardline factions and subsequently suffered similar fates to the protesters themselves.

This contrasts to the working class of China, who literally charged the military encirclement of Tiananmen Square while the student protesters were pretty helplessly trapped within it.

Of course they were ultimately shot, defeated, and organizers and participants hunted down in greater detail after the Square was cleared.  However contrasting the motives of students and workers is important here.

The students were demanding free speech and democracy, surely good things in themselves, but not necessarily the priority for the workers who got involved.  In fact, the workers had a rather different impulse for getting involved – they were furious with the Deng regime’s economic liberalization and introduction of capitalism into China, which was increasingly throwing their lives into poverty and chaos.

Can these two demands survive without each other?  Not really.  Ideally they would fuse.  However, if we have to give weight to one side, we should give weight to the side with superior social weight, the workers.  Students will make political demands, and find that they need a broader social base to actually attain them, and find it in workers.  Workers will enter the political realm for economic reasons, but then find that they need to take up the cause of democracy in order to defend themselves from the state repression of independent labor organizations.

Both sides certainly have a role to play here, and would go together ideally, but only one side is truly necessary, and contains within itself both the social weight and inherent need to realize democracy.

So if writing public articles for democracy and having public demonstrations for democracy are not the way to go, since in China they are repeatedly repressed without effect of consequence, what other course is open?

Workers and democracy in China

The key is do something that needs to be accomplish also in the USA and Europe: the democracy movement and the workers’ movement need to be fused into the same movement.

Dissident intellectuals or socialists in China might be better off doing the initial steps and reaching out to create a network of underground nuclei for independent workers’ organization, than recurringly publishing articles to the broad public and getting gulaged.  In this way they would actually begin to develop a pro-democracy social base, and without immediately exposing themselves.  Of course as it happens, the Chinese surveillance state pays special attention to this type of organizing, meaning that for now underground dissidents may have to serve more of a propagandistic role of ideologically supporting that type of activity than actually performing it, but people do appreciate when you bear the torch.  At the very least, underground publishing and distribution might be a better idea than open publishing.

Democracy and workerism are directly fused in China, because the Chinese workplace is already fairly institutionalized and surrounded by Marxist vocabulary.  Unions exist, but they are controlled by a Party whose own internal culture is viciously top-down.  Bureaucratic cultural organizations intervene in workers’ daily lives.  Collective workers’ control of the workplace, the Marxist & Soviet original dream, has occasionally appeared in China, and in some places the regime has pretended that this is how a workplace functions even when it is top-down.

Demands for genuine worker-management (fair enough under a “Communist” regime), independent unions, and the free speech to advocate these and other grievances are all democratic demands which can inspire a rebellion that spreads to and democratizes the rest of the society.  But rather than being remote abstract issues advocated by students, they are directly relevant to the lives of workers.

Workers and democracy in the USA

There are American analogues to combining workerism and democracy.  For example, in many places the $15 movement may find it beneficial to utilize or support the creation of ballot initiative measures which allow the city to vote directly on minimum wage laws, allowing the people to bypass unresponsive capitalist politicians.  The more minimum wage is fought for, the more it will be necessary to confront the political structure: many major cities, culturally progressive and home to large concentrations of workers, are the natural home of the $15 movements, but they are blocked from these measures by regressive rural state governments.  Increasing the home rule of cities might be a natural extension of the $15 movement.

Finally it is not enough for socialists to dismiss the USA’s fairly rotten, primitive representative democracy and demand we go straight to workers’ councils (though we should probably bring up workers’ councils more).  There are so many democratic demands to raise.  For one, our first-past-the-post geographic representation system, inherently rigged toward small numbers of parties are horrible pork-spending patronage, should be replaced with European-style parliaments based on proportional representation – ie, national elections where parties get into office according to the percentage of the vote they got, instead of blowing entire votes on offices where only one person will be elected.

Socialists should also intervene electorally themselves.  If they give us a platform we have to use it.  As Lenin said, “Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.”

Finally we can also raise the demand of national-level initiative and referendum, so that the American majority, by and large far more progressive on virtually every issue than the officeholders in Congress, can vote on legislation directly and bypass Congress.  Especially when things like national health services or national minimum wage are at stake, national initiative and referendum are directly workers’ issues.

We might consider opposing that Trans-Pacific Partnership thing, too, speaking of China/America, though this is a fairly advanced demand only familiar to those of us in the know of political inside baseball.  But maybe everything in this article is, and we can build the beginnings of a workerist-democracy movement among people who are opposing the TPP.

The wall of Chinese repression

Velvet revolution is not possible in China.  It may begin velvet, but it will definitely not stay that way.

I’m pretty much going to ignore the shrieking of moralists who say “oh but look at Baltimore, the USA is repressive too!”  Actually in Baltimore, the police frequently backed down against any real shows of resistance.  This is rather different from Tiananmen Square, where the PLA icily gunned down protesters with machine guns by the thousand like Terminator robots.   Let’s be real, we’re talking about qualitatively different things.

The problem in the USA is that the unions suck, are controlled by the (Democratic) Party, and no one has bothered to challenge this substantially yet.  The problem in China is that the unions suck, are controlled by the (Communist) Party – and every time someone tries to challenge this, they end up in jail for 15 years.  It is not the same situation.

This is a major problem if the only hope for regime change and democracy is the workers.  If the workers are effectively blocked by police & military hard power from forming independent labor organizations, what moves do they have?

One would be the classic trolling of the state-controlled unions, which the Russian revolutionaries tried during the brief state experiment in police unionism.  And rumor has it that sometimes these organizations do face spontaneous disruptions where demands are made.  But broadly, they are Party-controlled spaces where it is not even safe to make demands, serving as traps to catch dissidents early.

Only two paths are really open then: the Russian path, and ironically, the Maoist path.


The Russian path is not to hope for open labor organizations, but to undertake underground revolutionary party-building which serves the dual purpose of anti-regime propaganda, and labor agitation.  This way the underground party acts as a coordinating nucleus & institutional memory between the various sporadic and spontaneous labor uprisings (which are happening already), and also as a constant steady torch of dissent instead of individual intellectuals occasionally popping up, publishing criticisms of the regime, and getting sent to gulags.  Eventually sufficient revolutionary opposition occurs that a velvet revolution of general strikes sweeps the regime off its feet and provides the social basis for military resistance, should it be required.

The Maoist path would be to jump straight to military resistance from the start, largely repeating the methods of the 1949 Revolution, but ironically against the regime which caused it.  It is curious to reflect that, after the KMT’s massacre of Communists in the 1920s, the Chinese Communists theoretically could have gone underground and imitated the Russian path, but they opted for guerrilla warfare instead.  There are some base-superstructure arguments that such action cannot bring about a workers’ state because militaries are essentially bureaucratic.  However I think moments in Chinese history, like the voluntary agricultural collectivizations of 1956, or specific moments of the Cultural Revolution, demonstrate that a bureaucracy with the right intentions can empower the workers & people, and overthrow itself – this was probably the original intention, but sadly not the outcome, of the Cultural Revolution itself.  Ultimately, however, the point of this would not be to create a new regime but simply to open up the political space to allow the creative energies of the workers to come forth.  For those horrified by the idea, keep in mind that guerrilla warfare was a major part of how bourgeois democracy started in the USA.

The third path is not one open to Chinese workers, but rather open to American workers in hopes of assisting them.  The fact is, as much as the US government possesses some wicked military hardware, we have a very open political system which is predominated by corporate corruption but will still allow you to publish your views, form organizations, and demonstrate in the streets.  They don’t shoot us by the thousands for political activity.  In fact the whole nation freaked out when they shot only four of us at Kent State.

For this reason we must attempt a socialist velvet revolution in the USA, a luxury the Chinese can likely not afford given their state’s superior willingness to kill its own people (and I know the shrieking moralists will shriek, but you really need to get real about how brutally repressive the PRC can be…yes our government can be brutal too, but not all brutality is created equal).  Sometimes velvet revolutions bleed into other types, obviously something to keep in mind.  If we succeeded in building a politico-economic order that was truly both socialist and democratic, the lies of the CCP would fold before the living reality of our example.  There would be no justification to suppress independent trade unions, if we had them and everything was working fine for us.  There would be no justification to insist on more capitalist development, if we showed that you can have both socialism and development.  There would be no justification for political repression, if our system was radically democratic and open.

The best thing we can do for the Chinese proletariat is to continue grappling with the very real and deep problems affecting the Left in the USA – failures to connect to the working class, issues of democracy, the general inhumanity and inhospitable nature of party-line organizations, fragmentation, and invisibility.

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