The Old in the New–the New Through the Old

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Adolfo Gilly

THE CHINESE STUDENT rebellion of the Spring of 1989 brought into crisis at least four great transformations initiated, determined or provoked by the Chinese revolution and state.

1. The beginnings of the transition from a traditional agrarian society to a modern industrial society and the incipient transformation of a growing sector of the peasantry into a wage labor force in industry, trade, the state bureaucracy and the army.

2. The dissolution of the rural communes since 1978 and the reestablishment of the familiar exploitation of peasant allotments, with the subsequent wide- scale expansion of peasant markets, internal social differentiation in the villages, increase in commodity relations in the country, and growing migration of peasants in search of work in the cities.

3. The restructuring of the industrial and commercial sectors of the economy, leading to changes in previous labor relations and conditions and to new arenas for conflict with the workers.

4. The development of a stratum of young intellectuals, born after the revolution, which has either emerged from the universities and the expansion of education or is part of the educational system itself. The students appear as the collective representation and the most dynamic sector of this intellectual stratum.

The dynamism of these four transformations contrasts with the relative immobility instilled into the political regime by the existence of the one-party state and an imposed, uniform official ideology.

The first three of these transformations, although supported and even demanded by important sectors of state and society, tend to increase individual and family insecurity, in the same way as the wage-labor regime creates a realm of individual insecurity.

In addition, these three transformations stimulate the growth of an enormous underground or informal economy, whose members are involved in an ubiquitous process of original accumulation. This process ties these people, both to the generalized corruption created by the bureaucratic economy and to the pro-capitalist ideologies nourished by the objective conditions of that underground economy and the world market.

The growth of the new intellectual stratum, as dynamic as the other three, constitutes a channel for relative social mobility and promotes the security and independence of opinion vis-a-vis both the traditional society of the peasant village and the official state ideology. The first two transformations tend to send individuals to this sector and to strengthen it But the third, the restructuring of the economy, implies reduced and more selective government expenditures for the university and the educational system. This blocks the resources necessary for the growth of this sector and the expectations of students and intellectuals.

This is what generates the protest of a modern, dynamic and independent social sector that is convinced of its rights, and allows for the conversion of this sector into a receiver, spokesperson and representative of all the accumulated protests of the remaining social sectors affected by these transformations.

In assuming this function, the students recover a role of the traditional intelligentsia and of the village teachers and educated people. This can narrow the separation that normally exists in China between those who have the privilege of study and the urban workers and peasants. On the other hand, given that a large part of the students come from families of government functionaries, they also become the receptors and trans-millers of the divisions and crises in the ranks of the bureaucracy.


THE CHINESE REVOLUTION, in its specific development under the Maoist leadership, did not inherit proletarian traditions. It was an immense rebellion and national and peasant war headed by the intellectuals of the Chinese Communist Party. All in all, the ideology and practice of Mao and his party corresponds much more to Russian revolutionary populism than to Marxist socialism.

The leadership of the Chinese postrevolutionary state also inherited the administrative traditions of the imperial bureaucracy. These traditions were entrenched not only in the old rulers swept away by the revolution, but also, necessarily, in the dominated who made that revolution. These old relations are fractured or altered in the course of a revolution or a revolutionary war. But they develop again, even if modified, when the postrevolutionary regime stabilizes itself. Two hundred years of revolutions do not register a single exception to that rule.

This does not imply a denial that changes occurred at a deep level—slower than the abrupt revolutionary changes in politics—and even less a fatalistic denial of the significance that state policies, political structure and leadership can have in retarding or accelerating these changes. Such a denial would mean a mechanical suppression of the realm of politics.

The paternalistic vision of socialism natural to the intelligentsia of agrarian society (for instance, the Maoist ideology) tends to see in the state and the single party—not in society—the focus and the active agent of revolutionary change. In this way, the intelligentsia repeats and preserves for its own ends some of the traditions and customs of the old society.

Even an immense revolution like that of 1949, which completely transformed the country, is not sufficient to uproot at a single blow the relations of personal dependence prevailing in the vast Chinese countryside (where 80% of the population still resides), because this dependence is inscribed in the customs and habits of social relations.

The traditional networks of mutual dependence—family relations, clientele, village, region, language and local customs—are recycled and reappear in the new regime They cannot be suppressed by decree nor substituted from one day to the next by a universal system of equivalents, which will only be created, in the long run, by the extension of the market and of exchange value.

Even when the central unity of the state is achieved, the regional economic decentralization and control of local chiefs continues to be extensive and dominant The Chinese central state would not be in a condition to rule the country if it had ignored this reality and had not taken it into account through mediations, concessions and negotiations.

The local chiefs of the army and the party inherit and assume these conditions, especially in a country where the new state emerged not from an urban uprising but from a revolutionary peasant war conducted by military leaders with many regional bases.

As the single party in the central as well as in the local and regional powers, the Communist Party appears as the institution which embodies and unifies the military state from an administrative, military, economic and ideological standpoint Its ideology has, as an ideology of that state, a single and indispensable function for the solidity of the regime.

It can be compared, by way of example, with the manner in which the Catholic Church acted in the vast Spanish colonial state: even the last village in Latin America has a small or big Catholic temple. In the same manner, even the last village in China has a material, ideological and political symbol of the central power and national unity, a local of the Chinese Communist Party. Just as the Catholic Church inherited and had to assimilate the old modes of subordination and worship of the old gods, the local of the party, as an institution, symbol and representation of the power of the state, also inherits the old modes of governing and of being governed, the specific traditional polity of that society.

This mechanism cannot but continue to reproduce itself, although in a more sophisticated and disguised form, at the highest levels of the government, party and army, as was indeed denounced by the students in their documents and program. A democratic socialist regime would certainly counterbalance and weaken these inherited tendencies. Bureaucratic rule, on the contrary, cannot but adopt and reinforce them for their own particularistic purposes.


WITH ITS ECONOMIC restructuring, but also with its state and military policies, the leading bureaucracy of the Chinese state has established bridges and convergences with those sectors of the city and countryside interested in original (“primitive”) accumulation, with the civil and military intellectual strata also attracted by the perspective of participating in that accumulation, with the world market and the international financial system, and with the armies and intelligence services of various capitalist countries, the United States and South Africa among them.

As important as these links and the pressures of the world capitalist market over the Chinese economy in the process of restructuration maybe, it is still the case that the juridical basis of the state established since 1949 abolished the private ownership of the means of production and the conditions for the transformation of that kind of accumulation into capital.

In China, as in any other postcapitalist state, it is not sufficient to have the politics of the leadership, the accumulation of individual private riches, or the presence of localized foreign investments resulting from specific concessions from the state, to reestablish those conditions. For that it would be necessary to change the juridical foundations of the state through a thorough social and political counterrevolution.

Nothing in the program, dynamic or the organizational forms of the Chinese student movement pointed, even indirectly, toward such a restoration. Their democratic demands, on the contrary, were objectively directed against the methods and governmental forms of bureaucratic domination.

Because of their position in society and their previously accumulated experiences, the students were able to raise the banner of the democratic demands of the whole society and knew how to react as they did, demonstrating tactical and organizational skill.

Nevertheless, the social sector that was directly, profoundly and structurally affected by the very nature of the restructuring—because it was above all directed against them—were the wage workers. As in all places, although with distinctive features according to the country and their respective regimes, what the bureaucratic or capitalist restructuring of the economy substantially puts in question are the rights of the wage workers, their historic gains in the economy, legal system, politics, union organization, culture and, at the bottom, power relations at the point of production.

Wage earners, in the broadest sense of the term (not only industrial workers), are the hard nucleus of resistance to restructuring and of any perspective for a democratic reorganization of society, on the basis of labor solidarity.

But it’s one thing to say that workers have this objective position in society, and quite another to expect or announce in each crisis that a workers’ leadership will present itself or that it will be the only leadership capable of finding a way out of the crisis. The latter proposition eliminates all the transitions in consciousness and all historic, national, social and cultural determinations that mediate between what is possible and what becomes reality in each period of a given society.

With their concrete mobilization, and while trying to use the contradictions, divisions and crisis within the bureaucracy itself, the Chinese students presented before their country and the world the prerequisite for the autonomous organization of the workers’ resistance with their own program in postcapitalist society. That requirement is political democracy; the end of the one-party state regime; individual liberties and guarantees; the right to organize without restrictions; the recognition of social and political organizations independent of the state and its party; a war on corruption, privileges, nepotism, and against all the vices and clientelistic relationships of the old society reproduced by the politics and economics of the bureaucracy.


IT IS NECESSARY to place the historic crisis of the Chinese Spring of 1989 in the context of vast changes taking place in the world economy and politics, particularly in the postrevolutionary societies and states.

The crisis implies a national and international restructuring of the relations among the different capitals, among the different sectors and branches of the economy, among nations and among classes. For labor, this restructuring entails a generalized offensive of capital against the gains and the level of organization previously reached by the workers.

This restructuration of capital, of the economy and of the consequent political relations in each national society, has been facilitated and accelerated by the microelectronic revolution in information and communications. No country escapes these determinations because no country is outside the unified world economy.

The long postwar economic expansion, the crisis since the second half of the seventies and the microelectronic revolution have accelerated the internationalization of capital and of productive processes, the internationalization of the circulation of commodities (including the labor force) and the extension of wage relationships. This is the most powerful historical sequence of dissolution and destruction that the traditional relationships of personal dependence have suffered until the present.

These relationships are nevertheless still predominant among the majority of human beings. This is even more so if we take into account their persistence in traditions, customs, and individual and collective psychology, and consequently in political relationships—which usually lag behind economic transformations—through which social and economic determination is exercised, negotiated or mediated.


THIS HISTORICAL SEQUENCE has been greatly extended and deepened by the anticapitalist revolutions that have taken place in predominantly agrarian countries with entrenched traditional relationships of personal dependence—Russia, Yugoslavia. Albania.

China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba. These revolutions have partially or totally accomplished some of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution: agrarian reform, national independence, unification of the state. At the political level, however, they have not established a republican system of individual rights and guarantees protected by judges independent from the political power holders.

The states developed by the anticapitalist revolutions have undertaken, in the above mentioned cases, the tasks of economic industrialization, that is, the tasks of accumulation. But given state ownership of the means of production they have realized them as state tasks, not as tasks of capital and capitalist competition.

Therefore, the state had to assume directly and without mediations a function which, under capitalism, belongs to the bourgeoisie: the disciplining of the labor force to insure its productivity under the wage relationship. Under the leadership and policies of the state bureaucracy this disciplining has been carried out with methods no less brutal than those employed by capitalism.

It is the state—and not the bourgeoisie—that presents itself as the counterpart or antagonist of wage earners in the struggle over the price of labor (in any form that this price may express itself). The state inevitably occupies the place of capital (which does not mean to say that this state can be assimilated to capital).

Therefore, the dispute over wages between the state and the workers assumes, along with political dimensions corresponding to the relationship between state and society, the characteristics appropriate to the struggle between capital and labor This must be so unless we assume—as is not the case—that in the postcapitalist states the labor force is no longer a commodity and the wage relationship has ceased to be a commodity relationship.

This continuous incorporation of workers to the wage relationship, tearing them away from the closed economic conditions of self-subsistence, has constituted one of the most formidable historic enlargements of the market and of commodity relations in those countries, even if the state is the purchaser of labor power, and therefore other political considerations, partly different from those of capital, are added to the determination of its price.

This state has an intrinsic ambivalence. On one hand, it extracts (exploits) the surplus product from its workers. On the other hand, it competes in the world market, directly or indirectly, as a “national enterprise” (one capital against other capitals). Since the direction of the enterprise is in the hands of the state bureaucracy, property and effective use are separated: the juridical property continues to belong to society but the effective control belongs to the bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, as administrator and effective user of the “national enterprise,” assumes the functions of capital vis-a-vis the labor force at the national level and vis-a-vis capitalism at the international level.


THE POSTCAPITAUST STATES have continued to tear away an enormous and growing human mass from the precapitalist economic relationships built into the relations of personal dependence. For those who suffer that transformation, that is, the labor force brought under the wage relationship, this change has always appeared as despoliation and violence, and they have always attempted to resist it by clinging to the old ties and traditional relations of solidarity.

Capitalism utilizes state and economic coercion and violence to overcome this resistance. The historic failure of the postcapitalist states is that they have not been able to avoid that violence (as postulated by the revolutionary Russian populists). Neither have they found a way of transforming, instead of exterminating, the traditional solidarities of the oppressed under the ancien regime, whose support has been indispensable for all known revolutions, into the modern solidarity of labor, the only possible foundation of socialism.

This type of postcapitalist state has implied a mode of domination, politically exercised by the state bureaucracy, which has established (or reestablished) a fusion of the economic and political realms, as in traditional societies or the anciens regimes. It has done so in the name of the “workers” and of “socialism.” Thus the bureaucracy, hiding its identity behind the undifferentiated sociological category of “workers,” burdens the workers and socialism, before society and history, with the responsibility for its methods of rule.

“Socialism” becomes then synonymous to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” However, the reality experienced by those suffering under it, in the first place the proletariat and the peasantry, is the economic and political dictatorship of the state, its administrators and those using the state for their own benefit This lack of separation (or incomplete separation) between economics and politics implies for this type of state (for this mode of domination) a peculiarly fragile condition: A social crisis with roots in the economy devolves without mediations into a political crisis, and each important political crisis threatens in its turn to become a state crisis (a crisis of domination).


THE CAPITALIST RESTRUCTURING in the advanced countries has up until now weakened—not defeated or destroyed—the positions and gains accomplished by wage labor against capital. The welfare state, as a point of transitory equilibrium (“social pact,” in the objective sense of the term) reached between the 1930s and 1950s, has been diluted or restricted. Capital has been able to impose a new national and international competition among the wage earners themselves.

The number of wage earners has increased worldwide. But the incorporation of new sectors without previous experience as wage workers creates a transitory weakening of political comprehension and organizational capacity in relation to the new total number of workers. There is also a related provisional increase of intraclass competition and a parallel provisional weakening of solidarity among the wage earners.

We are at a classic and perhaps prolonged point of transition and transformation from which will arise new global relations, in a similar manner in which those established under the welfare states developed out of the crisis of the 1930s and out of the revolutions and two world wars that took place between 1917 and 1945.

At each one of these historic points the concrete expressions of the previously reached solidarity (mutual aid societies, craft unions, industrial unions, confederations, political parties, contractual or legal stipulations protective of the previous form of labor relations, etc.) are weakened, even while there is a qualitative broadening of the basis for the appearance of new organizational forms expressing the solidarity of the new wage workers.

But to achieve these new forms it is necessary once again to pass through the weakening, and sometimes the destruction, of the earlier organizational structures. The necessary social-historical process that allows the new forces of accumulated labor to acquire self-consciousness begins in struggles against the consequences of restructuring. It culminates in the reorganization of the old and new wage workers for new economic gains and social and political rights of labor.

In the semi-industrialized capitalist countries the crisis has promoted such vast and important economic and political transformations as those in South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, India, Iran, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico. Particularly in those Latin American countries with a long tradition of working-class organization, the crisis, rupture or fall of the welfare state has produced enormously diverse political variations.


THE WORLD ECONOMY has been defined as a global system of capitalist, precapitalist and postcapitalist economies, unified by the capitalist world market. Consequently, the transformation is worldwide and is regulated by the competition among the diverse national economies. The universal measure of that competition in the world market, as a general system of commodity relations ruled by the law of value is, in the last analysis, provided by the productivity of labor.

We have then from above, the internationalization of capital and of the productive processes and a deepening of the market by the microelectronic revolution; and from below, the extension and widening of the wage relationship. Everything that is precapitalist, or secluded from, or stagnated in the world economy tends, in this process, to lose strength, to retreat As in all processes, there are countertendencies, but the former tendency is predominant and colors the epoch.

Within this vast global process, it is necessary to locate the succession of combined political and economic crisis in the postcapitalist countries.


THE STATE MONOPOLY of foreign trade has never separated the postcapitalist countries from the world economy it has acted as a filter or defensive barrier. But the growth of the economies of those countries, together with the reduction of their precapitalist economic spaces and the permanent extension of wage relations, have qualitatively increased their interrelationship with the capitalist world market

In the regime of wage labor, productivity is a function of the relationship between the proprietors of the means of production (capital or state) and the sellers of labor power, the modern wage-labor force. Then, the competition for productivity tends to express itself as a competition for a greater extraction of the surplus product of the workers. This requires a certain disciplining of the labor force, through laws and state coercion, education, ideology, the market (occupation and remuneration), and the organization of work (including its objectified forms in the technologies) in production and in society. This last necessity is the one, for example, that Lenin expressed in his preoccupations with the introduction of Taylorist methods in the Soviet Union.

There is an interdependent relationship between the capitalist welfare states and the postcapitalist state regimes. In both an objective “social pact” is established (a particular point of transitory equilibrium) between wage labor and the proprietor of the means of production (capital or state).

The specific form taken by each welfare state is of course a result of the economy, politics, history, legal system and class relations in each country. But the generalization of that state form in the capitalist countries, as a way out of the crises of the thirties and the war of the forties, is a global result of these processes universalized through the market and competition, as well as a result of the historic and moral gains generally attained by wage labor, in spite of their broadly different levels within those countries and societies. The post-capitalist states did not escape this general rule.
Moreover, the appearance of these postcapitalist states was a determining factor in the birth of the welfare states and the ability of this state form (as an objective “social pact”) to develop in the capitalist states. The welfare state, besides being a capitalist exit from the crisis, was also a response to the anticapitalist revolutions.

In this manner, the “social pact” as a point of equilibrium in a given period tends to be as global as the world market with infinite variations and levels within each national, political, social and cultural framework.


SINCE THE MID-SEVENTIES the combined offensive of capital and the state has questioned and partially broken this equilibrium in the industrialized and semi-industrialized countries. There is a crisis and a thinning (not a disappearance) of the relation of forces crystallized in the welfare states, against labor.
The retreat of labor in advanced capitalist countries has undoubtedly weakened the position of wage earners throughout the world economy. The repercussions are of varying intensities and forms in each national economy. That is, the relative weakening of the strongest sections of the working class has left the weaker sectors at the national level (women, youth, old people, immigrants, unemployed) as well as the international level (workers of the semi-industrialized or the agrarian countries) more exposed to the blow of restructuring.

Moreover, the internationalization of capital and of the productive processes and the acceleration of the lat ter due to new technologies, allows capital, much more than in the past, to search for a cheap labor force wherever it can find it In this fashion, the exploitation of the workers and the competition among them is internationalized.

This internationalizing pressure in search of markets—among them, the cheap labor-force market—is occurring within the framework of the world restructuring of capitalism, and across the borders and economies of the postcapitalist countries. In order to respond to the demands of the world market, the bureaucracies of the postcapitalist countries must then, using the state, break the preexisting “social pact” with the wage workers and, through that, with the whole of society—as in their own fashion Thatcher in Great Britain, Carter and Reagan in the United States, the military in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, or De La Madrid and Salinas in Mexico have done.

The state’s rupture of the pre-existing “social pact” is experienced by workers in all countries as an aggression against their rights and gains. The resistance expresses or organizes itself in various ways, according to the relationship with the state—the source of the restructuring aggression—and the wage workers’ degree of organizational independence.

In the postcapitalist states the rights and legal gains of the workers form part of the very structure of the state, of its constitutional foundations even before its legal norms.

As a consequence, the restructuring aggression is seen or experienced by the workers as a rupture in the founding pacts of the state. This helps to explain the gravity and depth of the crisis of the economic and political transformations that these countries are going through.

The Soviet bureaucracy has tried to combine the restructuration of the economy (and the search for a new disciplining of the labor force) or perestroika, with political reforms or glasnost The glasnost or the beginning of political reforms can be seen, in this context, as a more adequate political framework in which it is possible on the one hand to open the indispensable spaces for intellectual and scientific creation, and on the other hand, to find the mechanisms for an eventual consensus to negotiate with the workers a new “pact,” without endangering the political regime and the mode of domination proper to the bureaucracy.

The Chinese bureaucracy responded to the same exigencies by introducing in a violent overturn, over a much more agrarian and traditional and less industrialized society than the Soviet, economic restructuring, market mechanisms, and the entry of foreign capital, without leaving a real space (except in passing declarations later retracted) for a process of political reform with a role similar to that played by glasnost.

In other words, it carried forward a perestroika without a glasnost The result has been a succession of crises in recent years at the top of the Chinese political bureaucracy, a growing antagonism between the bureaucracy and society, and a series of divisions inside the bureaucracy particularly its middle levels (from which families come a great part of the students who rebelled between April and June of 1989 in Beijing and other cities).


THESE COMBINED CRISES resulted, through the student rebellion of the Spring of 1989, in what could be considered a crisis of domination, the gravest of the political crises that can shake a country and a national state. The response of the state was the Tiananmen massacre.

Born as an expression of dissent within the regime’s legitimacy (the movement originally began as a revindication of a leading figure of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang), the mobilization of the students made them the flag bearers of all the discontents of society: the peasants because of the low prices for their products and the abuses of the state as a purchaser, the workers because of low salaries, the effects of restructuring inside and outside the enterprises, and the abuses of the state as a boss; the intellectuals because of the drop in their incomes and the absence of freedom of thought, investigation and expression; the middle levels of the bureaucracy affected by restructuration and displaced by the ascending sectors; the unemployed, marginal people in the big cities and peasant migrants who cannot find either a place to stay or stable employment; and the whole of society affected by inflation and offended by extreme privilege, private enrichment and the blatant nepotism of the high echelons of the party, government and army bureaucracies.

Nevertheless, after the mobilizations of the Chinese Spring and its bloody crushing after June 4, one should not underestimate the legitimacy that the Chinese Communist Party and its regime may still hold among deep and vast strata of society. It is that legitimacy that the appearance of the old leaders, veterans of the Long March and the 1949 Liberation, were appealing to, in support of the repressive measures ordered by Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng.

Under this leadership the Chinese people overthrew capitalism, the feudal lords and warlords, expelled the Japanese invader, defeated the Chiang Kai-shek armies supported by the United States, unified China into a single state and eliminated all foreign concessions, occupations and mortgages of its territory. It raised national pride when China became an important world power, and when land was conquered by the peasants for individual or collective possession. Itex tended education and medical attention throughout the country, built public works unprecedented in recent times, developed backward regions and promoted industrialization.

This leadership presents itself before Chinese society as an enlightened despotism that realized, in a single revolutionary epoch, what was accomplished by the American Revolution in 1776, the French in 1789 and the Russian in 1917.

None of the above is sufficient to endorse or justify the dictatorship, the privileges and the crimes—the last one being the repression initiated on June 4, 1989—of these leaders. But it is impossible to ignore it if one wants to understand the reserves of legitimacy that these leaders may still conserve and the political forms that the coming struggles for the democratic revolution in the Chinese state and society may take.

The violent suppression of the movement has not resolved the crisis. But it has prevented, for the moment, the movement’s ability to express itself independently. Hence the possibility that the movement may find an expression through the only political channels allowed, the party and the army. Future attempts at independent activity will be preceded by crises and divisions inside the bureaucracy and the army. Conceivably, as one of the bureaucratic currents creates bridges towards the world market and capitalism, another current may echo, even if indirectly, the pressures and demands of wage workers, intellectuals, students, and other sectors for democratization. It is even possible that bureaucratic elements interested in restructuring may finally conclude (as they did before) that this economic restructuring is not viable without a minimum degree of democratic concessions.


THE CRISIS, the economic restructuring, and the student rebellion and its bloody suppression, have opened a period of prolonged instability in the Chinese state and society. This Chinese crisis is in tune with the crises and turmoil that the other postcapitalist societies are also experiencing.

In these experiences a new program for the oppressed, exploited and dispossessed of those societies, a perspective for democratic and socialist revolution linked to the mobilizations and the new demands of the workers and society that in the rest of the world suffer the effects and live the consequences of the restructuring and the destructions of capitalism, will be shaping up and taking organizational forms.

The unifying links will include at least four interconnected levels: the universal demands of labor and its old and new solidarities; democracy and self-government in society; ecology and nuclear disarmament; liberties and equalities (sexual, racial, national, social). These links will reach a concrete expression in the struggles through which these demands will be taking an objective form in each country, striking roots in the experience and consciousness of society. This is themes-sage conveyed by the echo, sympathy and commotion with which the whole world received the democratic rebeilion of the Chinese students.

September-October 1989, ATC 22