THE LEGACY OF MAO AND THE PARTY-STATE
by Wang Ruoshui
National Endowment for the Humanities China Conference, Colorado College, June 5,1993
The China scholars here have been discussing Communist China as a party-state. Inthis essay, I would like to say something about the role that Mao's doctrine of the stateplayed in the building of the Chinese party-state.
The party-state model stands in opposition to the political ideals of Chineseintellectuals who, since the May 4th movement of 1919, advocated democracy forChina. But if this is indeed the case, then why did they choose communism?
Contrary to western opinion which holds that communism is equal to totalitarianiam,Chineseintellectuals had a different opinion about communism. It is noteworthy that a leadingprotagonist of the May 4th movement, Chen Duxiu, who proposed inviting"Mr. Democracy" to China, later became one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). From itsvery beginning, the CCP saw itself as the son and the heir ofthe legacy of the May 4th movement.
In September 1935, the Chinese Communist Party made the decision to establish ademocratic republic. In May 1937, on the eve of the anti-Japanese war, Mao appealed fordemocratic reform on two fronts: first, he called for an end to the one-party dictatorship ofthe KMT and to build a democratic united government; and second, he called for guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. Fromthat time on the Chinese Communist Party repeatedly criticized the KMT for its autocraticrule. The CCP guaranteed that it would carry out radical democratization in the red areas.After the beginning of the anti-Japanese war, thousands of young Chinese intellectuals wentto Yan'an to join the Communist Party. What had attracted them, in addition to theCCPs anti-Japanese stance, was the CCP's call for democracy. During thewar, Yan'an was known as the holy land for democracy.
After the end of the anti-Japanese war in the late 1940s there was a great movementfor democratization of the KMT-ruled areas. Thousands and thousands of students went tothe streets crying: "We want freedom! We want democracy!" These movements weresupported and led by the CCP. Many students, including myself, secretly joined the CCP.The struggle to overthrow the KMT government was called a "democratic revolution" by the CCP. We all believed that a free, democratic, and prosperous new China wouldsoon be born.
But the CCP's promises turned into bubbles, quickly to be burst. Why? How wasit possible that a ideal for a democratic republic turned into a party-state? How were webetrayed?
Theoretically, the CCP never abandoned the slogan of democracy, but it distinguishedbetween two kinds of democracy -- one was the western-style democracy that Mao believed was out-of-date bourgeois democracy. According to Mao's thinking, this democracy would be annihilated together withwestern imperialism. From the late 1940s into the 1950s, Mao launched several campaigns tocriticize western values and western ideas, including ideas of freedom and democracy. In1957 many intellectuals who were accused of being influenced by western democracy werelabelled rigthists -- a reactionary label.
The second kind of democracy that Mao advocated for China was what he termed "newdemocracy" or "people's democracy" and "socialist democracy."This kind of democracy consists of the organizational principle of "democratic centralism."
Originally, "democratic centralism" had been the principle of party organizationestablished by Lenin. At first, it was called "centralism," but later Lenin added the prefix "democratic" to distinguish it from"bureaucratic centralism." However, the emphasis was still placed on"centralism." Lenin held that since the party was under the surveillance of the czar'spolice, it was unrealistic to implement free discussions and free elections within theparty organization. Instead, the party had to exercise iron discipline and a high degree ofunity. For that time, Lenin indeed was correct. But afterwards, he applied the same principle to the Third Iinternational and Stalin applied it to the Soviet Union. This caused many seriousproblems.
Mao had his own explanations for democratic centralism. He claimed that China needed not only democracy, but the unity of democracy and centralism. In his famous speech on"Contradictions among the People" in 1957, he said:"Within the ranks of the people, weadopt the system of democratic centralism. It is stipulated in our constitution thatcitizens of the People's Bepublic of China enjoy the freedom of speech, press, assembly,association, procession, demonstration, religious belief, and so on. Our constitutionalso provides that the system of democratic centralism must be practiced in stateorgans...." Mao also boasted:"This socialist democracy of ours is a democracy of thebroadest kind that cannot be found in any bourgeois state."
"But," Mao went on,"this freedom is freedom under leadership, and thisdemocracy is democracy under centralized guidence. In no way does it represent a state ofanarchy."
Oddly enough, for Mao democracy meant free discussion and free expression of opinion.That is all. That is why he thought democracy alone was not enough and it was necessary to also add centralism. The people were not able to make decisions by themselves. The masses weredivided into classes, or into three groups -- the progressive group, the backward group, andthe intermediate group. Not all of their opinions are correct. Therefore, after the stageof democracy, the next stage is "centralism."
What does centralism mean? Mao said, it is to centralize the "correct" ideasand on this basis to seek unity of thought and action. So the crucial issue is: Who isresponsible for the task of centralization? Who is the final judge of right or wrong? It isthe party leaders and Mao. You may express different opinions, but only the party has thefinal say. This principle is in total opposition to that of majority-rule. But Mao calledthis democratic centralism. After the party makes its decisions, all the party membersmust obey them.
In one respect, this is not coercive -- you may have discussions, the party members may discuss the party documents and express differing opinions. But the conclusion ispreordained. The entire aim of the discussion is to reach agreement with the party.Democracy is only the means, while unity is the aim. If your opinion is different from that of the party, you must be wrong and you must be willing to submit a self-criticism. If you do not submit a good self-criticism, you will receive "help" from your comrades, that is, they will criticize you. This is the experience of the Yan'anrectification. It became a model to be emulated in the future. In his above-memtioned speech, Maosaid, "In 1942, we adopted this method to resolve the contradictions insidethe Communist Party." He condensed this method into the"unity-criticism-unity" formula, and introduced this method to the whole nation.He said: "We extended the use of this method to outside of the party. Our current task isprecisely to continue to extend this method within the entire ranks of the people and to makestill better use of it, requiring all the factories, cooperatives, shops, schools, organs,and organizations, in short, all of the 600 million people, to employ it to resolve the internal contradictions."
One may say that it is not appropriate to extend a principle of party organization to thewhole nation, since the whole nation should not be identified as a party. It may be necessaryfor a revolutionary party to practice iron discipline and a high degree of unity, but wecannot make the same demand on the people. But we can discover Mao's reasoning in his"Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art," in which he says that theproletariat must mould the world in its own image. This implies that the wholesociety should follow the model of the party. Here we have a party-state with Chinesecharacteristics.
At first appearance, this seems like a mild policy. All the people have civil rights. But, first, this is a freedom of "under the leadership," or "the unityof freedom and discipline," as Mao put it. Who has the right to stipulatediscipline? The party and party leaders, but their goal is always to limit the people'srights. Second, these rights of freedom are only given to the "people," not tothe enemy. Who belongs to the category of the people, and who belongs to the category ofthe enemy? This depends on your political attitude -- your attitude to the party and tosocialism. It is not based on law. This distinction is very arbitrary. Once you expressdiffering opinions, you are immediately regarded as the enemy and you are no longer entitled to these rights. This was the case during the Anti-rightist campaign of 1957, during the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1976, and during the 1989 crackdoown.
The CCP does not always refuse the democratic principle of majority rule. According toMao and the party constitution, "the minority must submit to the majority" is one principle of democratic centralism, but it is rarely applied, and when it is applied, itis usually formal and superficial, as in the case of the People's Congress. The other three principles are: 1.) the individual must submit to the organization, 2.) the lower levels mustsubmit to the higher levels, and 3.) the party as a whole must submit to the CentralCommittee. These are always practiced. Once, in about 1982, I asked at a party meeting:"But to whom should the Central Committee submit?" This question irritated theparty conservatives very much.
In Mao's China, every individual was assigned to a unit. It was a hierarchical pyramidat the top of which was the party leader. The party organization assigned you a job,housing, medical care, and opportunities for your children's education. As Mao put it: "We are taking care of the entire population of 600 million throughout thecountry." In this way, the party forced you to be dependent on it. Without the party you could not survive. You could not choose your job freely. You could not transfer to another unitwithout the permission of your leader. If you were allowed to transfer, yourpersonal archive would go with you. The archive was a record of your personal politicalbehavior and the comments of your leader. This would decide your future in the next unit.The party endowed you with all your means of survival, so it had the right to control youand you had the responsibility to submit to it. This is a partriarchical and paternalparty-state.
The majority of the Chinese population is of peasant background, as are the partymembers. They welcomed an enlightened ruler. Mao was a charismatic leader with greatprestige, so the entire nation deeply, even blindly, trusted him; the people were willing toentrust in him their own fates, rather than taking their destinies into their own hands. Oncethe people were fed from an "iron rice bowl," they preferred security rather thanfreedom. I think this is what Erich Fromm refers to as "Escape from Freedom."
Although Deng Xiaoping virtually de-maoified China after 1978, with respect to theparty-state Deng still adheres to this legacy of Mao. However, the party can no longerafford to support the entire nation. More and more people must achieve their personal well-being on their own. The party no longer is successful in using the method of criticism inpolitical campaigns to intimidate the people. In Mao's era, everyone followed thecriticism of the party. If you were criticized, you would be ostracized by your colleaguesand friends. But now anyone who is criticized by the officials becomes more famous and receivesmore sympathy from the people. If a book is criticized, it soon becomes a best-seller. Theparty cadres are so corrupt that they do not criticize others for fear of being criticizedthemselves. Mao's methods of criticism and self-criticism are no longer effective. China isundergoing a transition from a party-state to a plural society. This transformation isunstoppable. The centrally-controlled economy, which has been the foundation of the party-state,is declining. With the development of a market economy and the emergence of a civil societyand independent individuals the party-state will eventually disintegrate.