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Workers Hammer No. 207

Summer 2009


Charter 08: programme for "democratic" counterrevolution

Defend the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state!

For workers political revolution!

The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 933, 27 March 2009, adapted to Workers Hammer style.

In December, a document titled Charter 08 appeared on the internet in China. Signed by some 300 individuals, largely intellectuals and academics, it has since garnered another 8000 signatories. An English translation was quickly circulated abroad and then published in the New York Review of Books (15 January). The capitalist media in the US and elsewhere has heaped praise on Charter 08. An editorial in the London Financial Times (7 January) saluted it as “a powerfully written affirmation of universal human rights”. A Washington Post editorial (30 January) called it China’s “new democracy movement”.

Charter 08 is an explicit programme for capitalist counterrevolution in the Chinese deformed workers state, wrapped in the envelope of “democracy”. Its initiators seek to emulate the imperialist-backed “human rights” dissidents in Eastern Europe who spearheaded the counterrevolutions in the former Soviet bloc in 1989-92. The Charter calls for “free elections” as a political mechanism for capitalist-restorationist parties to attain governmental power. It demands the privatisation of the collectivised core of the Chinese economy — the state-owned enterprises — as well as the land. In short, this is a programme to reverse the social gains of the 1949 Revolution that, if realised, would plunge China back into imperialist subjugation and exploitation.

Charter 08 retrospectively supports the imperialist-backed Guomindang (Nationalist Party) of Chiang Kai-shek against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the civil war of the late 1940s: “Victory over Japan in 1945 offered one more chance for China to move toward modern government, but the Communist defeat of the Nationalists in the civil war thrust the nation into the abyss of totalitarianism.”

The 1949 Chinese Revolution was a progressive social revolution of world-historic significance. Hundreds of millions of peasants rose up and seized the land on which their forebears had been exploited from time immemorial. The creation of a centrally planned, collectivised economy laid the basis for enormous social progress. The revolution enabled women to advance by magnitudes over their previous miserable status rooted in the old Confucian order in such practices as forced marriage and concubinage. A nation that had been ravaged and divided by foreign powers was unified and freed from imperialist subjugation.

However, the Revolution was deformed from its inception under the rule of Mao Zedong’s CCP regime, a nationalist bureaucratic caste resting atop the workers state. Unlike the Russian October Revolution of 1917, which was carried out by a class-conscious proletariat guided by the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky, the Chinese Revolution was the result of peasant guerrilla war led by Mao’s Stalinist-nationalist forces. Patterned after the Stalinist bureaucracy that had usurped power in the USSR, Mao and his successors, including today’s Hu Jintao regime, have preached the profoundly anti-Marxist notion that socialism — a classless, egalitarian society based on material abundance — could be built in a single country. In practice, “socialism in one country” has meant accommodation to world imperialism and opposition to the perspective of international workers revolution that is essential for the advance to socialism.

As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defence of China against imperialism and counterrevolution. In answer to the aspirations of the Chinese workers and rural toilers for democratic rights and a government that represents their needs and interests, we stand for proletarian political revolution to oust the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy and establish a government based on elected workers and peasants councils and committed to revolutionary proletarian internationalism. This perspective, premised on defence of the gains of the Revolution, is diametrically opposed to the counterrevolutionary machinations of outfits like Charter 08.

“Human rights” and “democracy” in the service of counterrevolution

Charter 08 takes its name from Charter 77, a document put out by dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1977. This and similar groups were encouraged and promoted by the “human rights” campaign launched by then US Democratic president Jimmy Carter as a way of politically undermining the Soviet Union and its East European bloc partners. It is, as they say, no accident that Vaclav Havel, a leading figure in Charter 77, later played a central role in the imperialist-backed counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989-90.

Far more openly than Havel & Co in 1977, the group around Charter 08 brandishes the watchwords of “human rights” and “democracy” to attack the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist rule. The Charter states: “Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?” Concretely, it demands: “We must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolize power and must guarantee principles of free and fair competition among political parties.”

There is no such thing as a classless “democracy”. Western-type parliamentary government elected through universal suffrage is a disguised political form of the dictatorship of the capitalist class. In such a system the working class is politically reduced to atomised individuals. The bourgeoisie can effectively manipulate the electorate through its control of the media, the education system and the other institutions shaping public opinion. In all capitalist “democracies”, government officials are bought and paid for by the banks and large corporations. As Lenin explained in his 1918 polemic The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky: “Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed people at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the ‘democracy’ of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage-slaves.”

While the demand for pure “democracy” might play a certain role in mobilising the forces of counterrevolution in China, their victory would not bring a stable bourgeois parliamentary-type regime. Rather China would be subjugated and perhaps torn apart by American, West European and Japanese imperialism, transformed into a giant sweatshop.

The People’s Republic of China is a bureaucratically deformed expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The class rule of the capitalists has been smashed and the economy collectivised, but the proletariat is deprived of direct political power. What is needed is a fight for proletarian democracy. The workers and rural toilers need their own class-based governing institutions, the soviets (the Russian term for councils), which would be open to all parties defending the workers state.

Charter 08 pushes “free market” capitalism

Charter 08’s call for capitalist restoration is unambiguous:

“We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets.... We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner.”

It’s more than a little ironic that this demand for “free market” capitalism is being raised at the very moment when the destructive irrationality of the capitalist system — the anarchy of the market — is more evident than at any time in the past several decades. World capitalism is in the throes of a deepening financial/economic crisis centred in the imperialist countries of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Desperate to stanch the bleeding, the governments of these countries are nationalising banks, subsidising key industries and engaging in other forms of state intervention in the economy. At the same time, many US politicians, especially around the Democratic Obama administration, have been pushing an increasingly protectionist stance against China.

One might think the authors of Charter 08 had taken their neo-liberal economic programme of privatising industry and commerce from editorials in the Wall Street Journal or London Economist of two or three years ago. Actually the roots of their ideas are probably closer to home. Despite Charter 08’s hostility to the CCP regime, in a sense it has taken the CCP leaders’ doctrine of “market socialism” to its logical conclusion. For decades, the Beijing Stalinists have extolled market mechanisms and competition as superior to centralised planning and management. They have wielded the whip of the market in an attempt to resolve the problem of stagnant productivity inherent to the bureaucratic commandism that prevailed under Mao. Their claim has been that China can become a great power by integrating into the world capitalist market via foreign investment and the export of cheap manufactured goods to the US and Western Europe. But now that economic strategy has been derailed — spectacularly — by the global capitalist economic crisis.

The dominant weight of the state-owned enterprises and banks has prevented China from being dragged into the kind of deep economic crisis that is ravaging most capitalist countries. Nonetheless, major sectors of its economy have been hard hit. In Guangdong province, the centre of China’s export industry, shipments plummeted over 50 per cent in the first two months of this year. Already over 20 million migrant workers have been laid off, mainly from factories owned by foreign and offshore Chinese capitalists that produce consumer goods for export.

This has precipitated an upsurge of defensive labour struggle that has seen angry workers, demanding back pay or severance pay, fighting pitched battles with the police. The CCP regime has responded with a mixture of repression, cash handouts to some of the newly unemployed and the reversal of some of its privatisation measures. “So much for capitalism”, headlined the Economist (5 March) in an article on China’s latest economic moves, which noted ruefully that the “opening up” of China’s economy appears to be going “into reverse”.

Anti-Communist social democrats laud Charter 08

It is to be expected that leading organs of Western bourgeois opinion would praise Charter 08. But so do a number of groups claiming to be socialist, indeed Trotskyist. In reality, these groups reject Trotskyism in favour of a programme of “democratic” capitalist counterrevolution.

A recent article by the Hong Kong-based October Review group, linked to the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat (USec), supports Charter 08 without the slightest criticism (“The State of Human Rights in China”, 31 December 2008). Saluting “the efforts of the people for democracy and human rights”, the article has not a single reference to capitalism, socialism or the working class!

For its part, the British-based Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) led by Peter Taaffe writes:

“This manifesto, now with over 7,000 signatures, calls for an end to one-party rule and for basic civil liberties — things that socialists also fight for (many ‘charter 08’ signatories, however, are liberals who favour a faster pace of capitalist ‘economic reform’).”

—, 16 January

While chiding Charter 08 for its economic proposals, the CWI positively identifies with its calls for “democracy”. This is nothing new for the Taaffeites, who have backed all manner of anti-Communist forces in the degenerated/deformed workers states. In the final tumultuous years of the USSR, they supported the capitalist-restorationist “democratic” camp of Boris Yeltsin. In August 1991, Yeltsin, openly backed by then US president George Bush Sr, staged a successful countercoup against the remnants of the disintegrating Kremlin oligarchy. The Taaffeites joined Yeltsin’s reactionary rabble on the Moscow barricades. In sharp contrast, our comrades in Moscow distributed a leaflet in the tens of thousands with the urgent call: “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” Capitalist counterrevolution brought mass unemployment, falling life expectancy and social degradation to the peoples of the former USSR and Eastern Europe, while emboldening the imperialist exploiters in attacking working people and minorities.

Today, the CWI publicises the work of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB). While masquerading as a workers organisation championing “independent trade unions”, the CLB is a counterrevolutionary group with direct connections to US imperialism. Its leader Han Dongfang has long had a programme on the CIA’s Radio Free Asia and is vice-chair of the World Movement for Democracy, an outfit founded and run by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a notorious CIA front. Han has been called the “Chinese Lech Walesa”, after the leader of Poland’s Solidarność . In the 1980s, Solidarność , the only “union” supported by Reagan, Thatcher and the Vatican, led the drive to bring capitalist exploitation in “democratic” guise back to the Soviet bloc, with full support from the Taaffeites and the USec.

Like Charter 08’s demand for “free elections”, calls for “free trade unions” on the Solidarność model are a reactionary trap for the working class. The struggle for unions free of bureaucratic control, important for China’s embattled working people, must be based on defence of the workers state that issued from the 1949 Revolution. This struggle, as well as the fight for the right of assembly and freedom of the press, will unfold as part of the fight for soviet democracy, for the formation of workers councils opposing the bureaucratic parasites and suppressing counterrevolutionary elements.

Witting tools of US imperialism

Charter 08’s leaders are not naive ingénues; many among them also have open associations with US imperialism. Liu Xiaobo, one of the Charter’s main organisers, is president of the US-based “Independent Chinese PEN Center”, which receives regular NED funding. Two other prominent Charter spokesmen, Li Baiguang and Teng Biao, were given the NED’s “Democracy Award” at a ceremony in Washington last year. To date, the CCP regime appears to have treated these pro-imperialist dissidents with untypically mild repression. While taking steps to block the Charter from the internet, it has arrested only one Charter spokesman, Liu Xiaobo, while briefly detaining others or putting them under surveillance. This is in contrast to the severe repression that has been inflicted on leaders of workers strikes and other protests.

While sharply opposing Charter 08’s politics, we do not at this time support the repression of its initiators and signers. These right-wing ideologues are clearly not leading a movement that threatens the existence of the Chinese workers state, as was the case with Polish Solidarność by the fall of 1981. At that time, we wrote: “The threat of a counterrevolutionary thrust for power is now posed in Poland. That threat must be crushed at all costs and by any means necessary” (“Stop Solidarity’s Counterrevolution!” Workers Vanguard no 289, 25 September 1981). When the Stalinists moved to suppress Solidarność in December 1981, we supported this. At the same time, we indicted the bureaucracy for its nationalism, economic mismanagement and decades of capitulation to the Catholic church and other pro-capitalist forces, which drove workers from the historically socialist-minded proletariat of Poland into the arms of reaction.

With their hosannas to the “free markets” that are wreaking havoc around the globe, the right-wing intellectuals of Charter 08 are highly unlikely to gain any traction among China’s working people, for whom the “magic of the market” has meant savage exploitation and growing unemployment. Three decades ago, even as it promoted bourgeois “democracy”, Charter 77 did not call for the restoration of a capitalist economy because at the time such a demand would have repelled most Czechoslovak intellectuals, not to speak of the workers.

The programme of “democratic” counterrevolution pushed by the likes of Charter 08 must be defeated politically — and that is something that the nationalist CCP bureaucracy is manifestly incapable of doing. In meting out repression, the Stalinist rulers do not differentiate between counterrevolutionaries and those who politically oppose bureaucratic rule from the standpoint of the historic interests of the proletariat. After the smashing of capitalist class rule in 1949, hundreds of Chinese Trotskyists who fought in defence of the Revolution were rounded up and thrown in prison or shot. Following the worker and student upheavals centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, the regime executed workers. We oppose the institution of capital punishment on principle, in China — where thousands are executed each year — no less than in capitalist countries.

The US group known as the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL) makes correct criticisms of Charter 08 in its 10 February internet posting, “The Truth Behind China’s Charter 08 Manifesto — Liberal Language Cloaks Counterrevolutionary Aims”. But the PSL looks to the Stalinist bureaucracy as the key barrier to counterrevolution: “The CCP government, in spite all of its contradictions, remains the most important obstacle to the return of China to its previous state of semi-colonial slavery.” While criticising the CCP leaders’ “market reforms”, the PSL hopes that Hu Jintao & Co will see the light and return to the “socialist road”

“Faced with an intensified imperialist offensive, the CCP leadership could change course, turning to the working class for support and reinstituting socialist measures.

“However unlikely, the path to a renewal or strengthening of socialist methods is possible as long as the CCP retains its hold on state power.”

The PSL contrasts the CCP’s “market reforms” to “the path followed by the Communist Party during the Mao era”. However, Mao-style national “self-sufficiency” (economic autarky) and the market-oriented policies of later CCP leaders were both ways by which the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy sought to “peacefully coexist” with world imperialism in different periods and different international contexts. Under Mao, this was expressed in China’s grotesque alliance with US imperialism against the Soviet Union.

In reality, the continued rule of the CCP undermines defence of proletarian state power in China. Thanks to the regime’s policies, a sizable class of capitalist entrepreneurs with links to the offshore bourgeoisie in Hong Kong and Taiwan has emerged on the mainland, though they are still prevented from organising politically and vying for power. Many CCP officials have financial and familial ties to such entrepreneurs. Contrary to the PSL’s claims, the bureaucracy continues to preserve state property not out of a subjective identification with socialism but, as Trotsky wrote in The Revolution Betrayed (1936), “only to the extent that it fears the proletariat” — ie, to protect its privileged position as a parasitic caste atop the workers state. Sooner or later, by one political path or another, the Stalinist regime will bring China to the brink of capitalist counterrevolution, posing pointblank the fate of the most populous country on earth.

It is instructive to look back at the social and political dynamics of counterrevolution in the Russian core of the former USSR. This was not led by anti-Communist dissident intellectuals analogous to China’s Charter 08 but by major elements derived from the decomposing nomenklatura, the Soviet bureaucratic elite. A few years before Boris Yeltsin took power and announced the dissolution of the USSR, he was a senior leader in the Kremlin. There are today more than a few potential Yeltsins in the leading bodies of the CCP. At the same time, the Chinese Stalinists have learned something from the counterrevolution in the ex-USSR. Seeking to forestall such developments in China, the CCP leaders have pursued policies of perestroika (market-oriented “reforms”) without a hint of glasnost (political democratisation).

For proletarian political revolution!

In The Revolution Betrayed, his classic analysis of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky emphasised: “Under a nationalised economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative — conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.” The CCP regime’s policies and practices create a climate in which some of the proponents of “democratic” counterrevolution could gain a hearing, at least among a layer of intellectuals, peasants and even some workers. At the same time, the increasing antagonism between the bureaucracy and China’s toiling masses is also preparing the ground for a proletarian political revolution to oust the parasitic ruling Stalinists.

The potential for a pro-socialist workers uprising was shown in the May-June 1989 Tiananmen upheaval. In its article on Charter 08, the PSL endorses the line of the Chinese Stalinists on these events, calling them “a counterrevolutionary effort painted in the West as a ‘struggle for democracy’”. In reality, protests that began among students opposing corruption and seeking political liberalisation were joined by masses of Chinese workers, driven into action by their own grievances against the impact of the regime’s market measures, especially high inflation.

Workers assemblies and motorised flying squads were thrown up, pointing to the potential for the emergence of authentic worker, soldier and peasant councils. The entry into struggle of the working class terrified the CCP rulers, who eventually unleashed fierce repression. But the bureaucracy, including the officer corps of the military, began to fracture under the impact of the proletarian upsurge. The first army units that were mobilised refused to act in the face of enormous popular support for the protests among Beijing’s working people. Other more regime-loyal army units had to be brought in to carry out the massacre of June 1989, which was overwhelmingly targeted at workers rather than students. This was an incipient proletarian political revolution, drowned in blood by the Stalinist bureaucracy (see “The Spectre of Tiananmen and Working-Class Struggle in China Today”, Workers Vanguard nos 836 and 837, 12 and 26 November 2004).

The crucial missing element, during the Tiananmen events as well as today, is an authentic Bolshevik — ie, Leninist-Trotskyist — party to rally the working masses around the banner of workers democracy and communist internationalism. Such a party would be forged in political combat not only with currents emerging out of the decomposing Stalinist bureaucracy but also with the anti-Communist purveyors of Western-type “democracy”, including some who will doubtless posture far to the left of the Charter 08 group.

The survival and advancement of China’s revolutionary gains hinges on the fight for socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Japan, North America and Western Europe, the only road towards the all-round modernisation of China as part of an international planned economy. A proletarian political revolution producing a China of worker and peasant councils would be a beacon for the oppressed working masses of Asia and the entire world, dealing a deathblow to the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” propaganda, lifting up the downtrodden masses of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and inspiring the workers in the imperialist heartlands. This, ultimately, is the only perspective that can defeat the siren call of “democracy” pushed by imperialist-backed outfits as well as fake “socialists” who are enemies of the gains of the Chinese Revolution.


Workers Hammer No. 207

WH 207

Summer 2009


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