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Red Theory: The achievements of socialism in China

By J. Sykes |
December 24, 2022
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After waging revolution from 1927 to 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed from Tiananmen Gate that “the Chinese people have stood up!” This marked the end of imperialist domination in China and the beginning of socialism in the newly founded People’s Republic of China, led by the Communist Party. The Chinese revolution has continued through socialist construction from then until today, and we would do well to sum up some of its many heroic achievements in order to better understand, from a Marxist-Leninist perspective, the process of socialist revolution and socialist construction.

The achievements of socialism in China during Mao Zedong’s lifetime were tremendous. In 1949, Chinese life expectancy was 38 years. By the 1970s it had risen to 68 years. As John Ross says in his book China’s Great Road, “China’s rate of increase of life expectancy in the three decades after 1949 was the fastest ever recorded in a major country in human history.” China’s current life expectancy has overtaken that of the U.S. and is now 78.2 years.

Literacy also dramatically increased. In 1949, approximately 80 to 90% of China’s population was illiterate. The Communist Party launched a mass literacy and education campaign, and within ten years adult illiteracy fell to 43% and has steadily declined since. By 1979 illiteracy was only 16.4% in the cities and 34.7% in the countryside. Currently, the literacy rate in China is 99.8%, greatly exceeding the U.S. at 79%.

All of this was achieved as a direct result of the socialist system, which avoids the anarchy of production and the chronic cycles of boom and bust. In fact, since 1978, China has had the fastest sustained growth in a major economy in all of human history, with an annual average growth rate of 9.5%. Because China isn’t a capitalist country, the economy isn’t affected by the cyclical crises that are characteristic of and plague the capitalist mode of production.

Among China’s greatest achievements is the elimination of extreme poverty. Over just the past 40 years, the number of people in China living in extreme poverty has fallen by 800 million, accounting for three quarters of total global poverty reduction. This process began in the 1930s, with land reform in the liberated areas at the beginning of the Chinese revolution. This meant the expropriation of the landlords, division of their land among the peasants, and canceling debts. This is how the Communist Party of China (CPC) destroyed feudalism in the countryside.

After taking power in 1949, the CPC expanded land reform from the liberated areas to the entire country, and started setting up agricultural production cooperatives to mechanize agriculture and develop the forces of production throughout the country. The means of production were nationalized. China’s industrial output increased at an average annual rate of 13.5%. By 1977, China’s industrial output was 38 times what it was in 1949 when the revolution took power. 

China has also succeeded in building a harmonious society composed of many different nationalities. The CPC helped to liberate the oppressed nationalities, such as the Tibetan people, from feudalism. The People’s Republic of China constitution and laws grant equality to the country’s nationalities and promotes economic and cultural development. Discrimination is outlawed and Articles 112 through 122 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China detail the rights of the formerly oppressed nationalities to autonomous self-government.

As a result of their vast revolutionary experience, the Chinese communists have also made many great contributions to Marxist-Leninist theory. In the course of the civil war and the war of resistance against Japan, Mao Zedong developed the theory of protracted people’s war, a military strategy of advancing a revolution in stages by surrounding the cities from the countryside, applicable broadly to semi-colonial and semi-feudal countries with a large peasantry like China was.

Mao and his comrades also developed the theory of the United Front and the Mass Line as core strategic methods of organizing and mobilizing the broad masses of the people for revolution. Mao also made important contributions to Marxist philosophy with his essays “On Practice” and “On Contradiction,” among many others. And after Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, the CPC made important contributions to the defense of Marxism-Leninism against revisionism in the polemics of the Great Debate. 

China has been a beacon to oppressed nations and peoples all over the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the United States, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution were a guiding light to the Black liberation movement, especially for groups like the Black Panther Party, which used the Little Red Book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, as a revolutionary handbook. After the Communist Party USA’s abandonment of Marxism-Leninism for revisionism in the 1950s, the young communists who set out to build a new communist party in the 1970s also drew upon the theory and practice of Mao Zedong and the CPC.

In 1985 in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev instituted his liberal reforms, Perestroika and Glasnost, hurling the USSR towards the precipice of capitalist restoration in 1991. Similar counterrevolutionary currents arose in other parts of the socialist world, including China. Many in the USSR and Eastern Europe failed to defeat counterrevolution. Mick Kelly sums up the trajectory that led to a similar situation in China in the 1989 work Continuing the Revolution is Not a Dinner Party: “While the intentions were the best, the ultra-left errors of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1975) slowed the development of socialism in China. Right errors in the post Mao/Hua period then created the material conditions and allowed the political space to open for bourgeois liberalization.” But when right opportunists led by Zhao Ziyang attempted to restore capitalism in China in 1989, the CPC managed to rise to the challenge. They held firm to Marxist-Leninist principles, overcame the crisis, defended socialism and the proletarian dictatorship, and came out stronger on the other side.

The Communist Party of China has proved in practice that it is prepared to avoid the fate of the USSR. As Xi Jinping said in a speech in 2021, “It is easier to breach a fortress from within. In this sense, degeneracy, corruption and betrayal from within the Party have been the gravest threat since its founding. The Party would lose the people’s support if it betrays its political character as a Marxist party and fundamental purpose. Over its century-long journey, our Party has stayed alert to risks of corruption and disintegration, and maintains its progressive and wholesome nature.” In this regard, China has launched a successful anti-corruption campaign to make sure the Party continues to serve the people.

As China develops its productive forces in order to eliminate scarcity and bring common prosperity to the Chinese people, China is also breaking new ground in combining socialist construction with ecological sustainability. In his article, “China is Building a Truly Ecological Civilization,” Carlos Martinez writes that the People’s Republic of China is aggressively pursuing decarbonization, reducing reliance on coal in favor of wind and solar energy. China is also carrying out the largest reforestation project in the world, expanding forest coverage from 12% to 23% from 1980 to 2020. China is able to do this because they have a socialist, planned economy, whereas capitalism can only blindly pursue the highest rate of profit. 

Similarly, as a result of its socialist system, China is able to prioritize public health over profit, as seen by its COVID policy. The United States has had over one million deaths as result of its poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, while, at the time of this writing, China’s has had over 1000 times fewer, relative to its population. 

What China has accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary. From when Mao and his comrades first set out on their Long March, until today, the Chinese revolution has served to teach and inspire revolutionaries all over the world.

As Xi Jinping said at the recent 20th National Congress of the CPC, “Marxism is the fundamental guiding ideology upon which our Party and our country are founded and thrive. Our experience has taught us that, at the fundamental level, we owe the success of our Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics to the fact that Marxism works, particularly when it is adapted to the Chinese context and the needs of our times,” and “…only by applying dialectical and historical materialism can we provide correct answers to the major questions presented by the times and discovered through practice, and can we ensure that Marxism always retains its vigor and vitality.”