From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: China’s youth revolt vs. Mao’s legacy

June 26, 2019

From the July-August 2019 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Published in the Feb. 27, 1987, issue of News & Letters under the title, “Whither China?” this article anticipated the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement in a way that sheds light on today’s realities. It does so by tracing the youth and labor revolt in 1980s China as well as the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party’s maneuvers in politics and ideology.

The December 1986 month-long student demonstrations in China brought into the open the present turmoil, but they were neither the cause nor the consequence of what is bringing the crisis to a climax. Behind the infighting within the Communist Party leadership trying to shift the blame for the present crisis from itself to the rank and file, there is a great deal more involved than either finding scapegoats, or the “West’s” dogmatic and vulgar glibness about economic “reforms” and political “democracy.”

Clearly, in one respect, it is a question of the succession to Deng Xiaoping which will be on the agenda in the fall when the Thirteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is held. But even that is only a partial answer, for it is not a question of who will follow Deng, but what will follow any successor. To avoid the answer to that type of burning question, Mao Zedong had called the near-civil war of the 1971 Lin Biao affair “the great disorder under Heaven.”

Raya Dunayevskaya

There is no doubt that that had been the most serious crisis since winning power, and that the crisis came not from the outside or from capitalist elements within the country, but from within the ruling Communist Party leadership, from the very one Mao had constitutionally designated as his successor (“closest comrade in arms”).

A whole decade has passed since Mao’s death. The disasters of his final decade called the Cultural Revolution have been halted. Yet the “new” world stage he set in motion by rolling the red carpet out for Richard Nixon in 1971 is exactly what happens to national questions in a global world when two nuclear behemoths are struggling for single world mastery and you do not unfold a truly independent challenge.


The Youth have always had a very special role in the Chinese revolutionary movements, and none more important than the 1960s (to which we will return). But to fully understand the ongoing demonstrations in 1986-87, we have to turn to the demonstrations the year before, to the final quarter of 1985. The demonstrations in China in 1985 were not on any youth problems; they were a challenge to Deng’s new policy on Japan. The students read Prime Minister Nakasone’s militaristic visit to the shrine where World War II officers lay buried as signifying the same retrogressionist move as Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, which produced the same type of outcry against this so-called conciliationism with the Nazi-Japanese militarist past. It was a direct challenge to Deng’s deviationism, not only on Japan but globally, and not only on “foreign affairs” but nationally, from the labor/capital relationship at work (witness the steel workers’ strikes) as well as reflecting the continuing restlessness in the People’s Liberation Army.

That the CCP leadership understood that’s what the students were doing could be seen as early as Oct. 9, 1985, when the Japanese Foreign Minister, Shintaro Abe, arrived in Beijing to discuss the new Peace and Friendship Treaty that had been signed between China and Japan. The Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng agreed with him that relations between China and Japan were now on an even keel, but nevertheless reminded the Japanese Foreign Minister of all the difficulties that there have been between the two countries.

Indeed, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reported that “Li obliquely blamed” the Japanese government for having caused certain “unstable elements in their relationship.” Since clearly the student demonstrations against Japan continued, it certainly cannot be considered an accident that the CCP official at that moment confirmed that “rapprochement talks were going on between it and the Japanese Communist Party.”[1]

At the same time there were contradictory reports (more or less deliberately contradictory), so that the reader didn’t know which one set the direction for the year. Was it, for example, a fact, denied by China, that it and the U.S. engaged in joint naval maneuvers, or was it a fact that China itself was undergoing great technological and militaristic developments in the Pacific? (See nos. 106 and 107 of the Quarterly Chronicle and Documentation Sections of the China Quarterly.)


To fully understand what 1987 has in store for China in light of what has been developing in the objective situation on one hand and the wrestling with the Mao legacy on the other, we have to turn to 1983. The significance of 1983 rests on the fact that it was both the Marx Centenary Year and the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the CCP.

What is of more immediate importance is Mao Zedong Thought. On Nov. 27, 1981, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party finally passed a resolution entitled, “Mao Zedong’s Historical Role and Mao Zedong Thought.” To prove that though Mao had made “gross mistakes in the ‘Cultural Revolution’…his merits are primary and his errors secondary,” they summarized Mao’s Thought as follows: “Mao made a theoretical synthesis of China’s unique experience in its protracted revolution in accordance with the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism…many outstanding leaders of our party made important contributions to the formation and development of Mao Zedong Thought and they are synthesized in the scientific work of comrade Mao.”

Cover of ‘Whither China’, manifesto of the Sheng
Wulien, 1968.

By 1983 there was a great deal more than just the continuation of Mao’s Collected Works. The question was what is that collectivity that produced Mao Zedong Thought? They have now issued the Selected Works of the present-day recognized leaders—Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Deng. Deng is the only one living, the one with the power, the one who is bringing about the most challenges to his own rule. The first who had to fall as these demonstrations reached a climax was his protege, Hu Yaobang.[2]

Let’s never forget that youth have a very special role in China in the 20th century. Back in the mid-1960s they even thought that they could use the Cultural Revolution as a point of departure, not just for democracy, but, as they put it, for having a real Paris Commune type of government. That is to say, a communal non-state form of government.[3]

The Western commentators rushed all too fast to compare the 1986-87 demonstrations to the movement of Democracy Wall in 1979-80. There is no doubt that it was closer to it in time than to 1968, when youth unfurled an altogether new demand in Sheng Wulien’s “Whither China?” manifesto that called China the centerpoint of world revolution precisely because it was the point of greatest world contradiction. But the placards for democracy that the 1986-87 demonstrators carried were not just for Democracy Wall, but covered the labor struggles, the arts struggle, the really massive, ongoing opposition to the regime for altogether new human relations.


Once, however, the gates were opened to a “collectivity,” it was not just a question of Mao or Mao’s successors, but the Marx Centenary, and that meant Marx’s Humanism. That brought back the old theoretician-propagandist Chou Yang, who in 1957 had unleashed the theoretical fight against Marx’s 1844 Humanist Essays; in 1983 he announced that he now welcomed them but he perverted them “to include even bourgeois Humanism.” At this point, the issue is muddled enough not to know which side of the fighting Chou is on—with the so-called “hardliners” who consider themselves true Marxists, or “reformers” who want to shift from Sinification of Marxism to rejection of it.[4]

What has happened objectively? The foreign affairs and the theoretical disputes are not the only crises. What is the determinant is the crises at home on the production lines, the poor living conditions and unemployment of the masses, as well as the restlessness in the “technologically reorganized” Army, while seeing the emergence of a new kind of profiteer. This is most evident in the five so-called special economic zones. Recently The New York Times reported one such area, Shenyang, the industrial capital of Manchuria, which is evidently so high on “reform” that it emboldened one manager to announce that he had cut the workforce at his factory from 1,000 to 800, adding, “I’ve still got 200 people too many.”[5]

The 1986 demonstrations only brought to the front the myriad crises that have been boiling up throughout the 1980s as China tried to catch its breath from Mao’s last disastrous decade. But China has found that once again it is facing the two nuclear behemoths and it dare not go to build an independent path. Has Deng, as well as “hardliners” and “softliners,” given up hope that there is an independent Third World that would lead to independence from both Russia and the U.S.?

Integral to that is the international question: where to globally? Had one merely to choose between U.S. and Russia? Was Russia really enemy number one, so that Reagan could consider China his card? The latest thing that China was very quick about denying was the Kyodo news account that China and the U.S. were participating in joint naval maneuvers. China said: absolutely no; they were just “exchanging greetings.” Somebody’s head will roll. Will it be Deng’s?

Feb. 10, 1987

[1].  See the Quarterly Chronicle and Documentation Section of the China Quarterly, no. 105, March 1986. Indeed, the Documentation Sections of the magazine from the whole period of Oct. 1985 through Sept. 1986 are important both for military affairs and foreign affairs, with Japan on the one hand and Russia on the other, as well as actual economic developments in the country.

[2].  After Hu refused Deng’s order to expel Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang and Fang Lizhi from the party for supporting the December 1986 student protests, Deng and allies forced Hu to resign in January 1987. See also “Millions in Hong Kong challenge Xi’s global ambition,” p. 11. —Editor

[3].  For Sheng Wulien documents see Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao, p. 176. A 1982 edition has a new point of departure in its Introduction with my answer to Prof. George Armstrong Kelly’s critique in his Hegel’s Retreat from Eleusis (Princeton University Press, 1978).

[4].  This is not the place to work out Mao Zedong Thought as he tried transforming his substitution of guerrilla warfare for proletarian revolution into a new universal. First was the Great Leap Forward. This was followed by the challenge to Russia as head of the international Communist movement. By the mid-1960s we were witness to the great disasters which Mao called the Cultural Revolution (1966-71), which was the Great Substitution for Marx’s revolution-in-permanence. See the two chapters “The Challenge of Mao Tse-tung” and “Cultural Revolution or Maoist Reaction?” in my Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today (1982 ed.), and as well “Post-Mao China: What Now?” in my New Essays (News and Letters, 1977).

[5].  See The New York Times, Jan. 30, 1987.

Read the chapters of Marxist-Humanist books that China still bans in the Chinese editions

Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao

“The Thought of Mao Zedong”:
In our age of state-capitalism, revolution and counter-revolution are so interlocked that…Mao’s “revolutionary fervor” continues to be the academician’s preoccupation, so much so that they do not see the retrogressionism inherent in “The Thought of Mao Zedong”…acceptance of state-capitalism as the state of development the world has reached.


Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today

“Cultural Revolution or Maoist Reaction?”

“The Challenge of Mao Zedong”:
There is no doubt that some progress was made, if the measure of progress is not the way in which people live, but the way industry is developed. The nonviability of state-capitalism as a “new” social order is proven by the same laws of development as that of private capitalism, that is to say, the compulsion to exploit the masses at home and to carry on wars abroad.

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