A WORLD TO WIN    #32   (2006)

Chang Chun-chiao (1917-2005)

At the Head of the Masses, In the Enemy’s Dungeons –

An Unrelenting Champion of Communism

This article was first published on 16 May 2005 by A World to Win News Service.

Zhang Chunqiao (formerly spelled Chang Chun-chiao), one of the most outstanding revolutionary leaders of the late twentieth century, has died. He was 88.

Zhang was a leader of the so-called “Gang of Four”, along with Jiang Qing (Chiang Ching), the wife of Mao Zedong. It should really be called “the gang of five”, since they were Mao’s closest followers in the leadership of the Communist Party of China. They were arrested a month after Mao’s death in 1976 as part of a military coup through which Mao’s opponents in the party seized power, put a violent end to the Cultural Revolution Mao led against them, and overthrew socialism.

The official Chinese Xinhua News Agency bulletin issued 10 May said that Zhang died 21 April. His death was kept secret for nearly three weeks, perhaps to lessen the danger that it would occasion a fresh round of pro-Mao disturbances. At the very least, the delay indicates a fearful indecision and contradicts the official idea that his figure had lost all its power.

The “Four” were convicted in 1981 for what China’s People’s Daily now summarises as “the excesses of the Cultural Revolution” and “trying to seize power after the death of Mao”. Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao were sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison), while their co-defendants Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen, who caved in at that trial, received 20-year terms. Jiang died in prison in unclear circumstances in 1991, after 15 years in isolation. Wang was released in 1998 and later died, while Yao, also released nearly a decade ago, is said to be alive. So much secrecy surrounded Zhang’s imprisonment and subsequent location and conditions that until the recent announcement, most of the world thought he had died in 1998. According to the terse Xinhua communiqué, he was released from prison in January of that year “for medical reasons”.

At the trial, Zhang, already reportedly ill with cancer, refused to co-operate in any way with the authorities or even to speak at all, except to reject the indictments. His lethal glare at the judges was unforgettable to all those who saw the television footage, his eyes piercing through a face outlined by a greying but sharply defined, defiantly jutting beard.

Jiang powerfully defended herself and Mao’s line. Zhang’s support for Jiang and contempt for their captors was unmistakable. In response to the accusations, Jiang shot back that there was nothing wrong in overthrowing the party leaders working to take China back to capitalism. Those who were now persecuting her and many thousands of other revolutionaries, she said, were not in a position to complain that they had lost their leadership jobs. Looking back today, it is even more striking that regardless of any “excesses” and mistakes in the Cultural Revolution, the difference between the revolutionary headquarters that led the mass debates and struggles that drew many millions of people into political life during the Mao years and the regime that overthrew this socialism and later carried out the Tienanmen Square massacre to terrorise the people and silence all dissent is like the difference between night and day.

One of the major specific charges against the Four was that they had tried, from Beijing, to organise an armed rebellion in Shanghai against the coup in a bid to rally resistance throughout the country. Zhang had been the party leader there. Although the authorities were able to forestall the attempt in Shanghai, in part because of the vacillation of those who were to spearhead it locally, there was armed resistance in many cities for several months until the army, arrests and executions put an end to it.

The military coup was ostensibly led by Hua Guofeng, who was named Mao’s successor as head of the party while Mao was still alive. But the real head of the counter-revolution was Deng Xiaoping, the leader of “the capitalist-roaders” against whom Mao had aimed the Cultural Revolution. Deng quickly dumped Hua and openly reversed China’s course, taking it overnight from a socialist country where “serve the people” was the basis for all decisions to one guided by the watchword “to get rich is glorious”.

Deng put China fully on the capitalist road to where it is today. Before his coup, China’s working people were increasingly becoming the masters of all society, beginning to be drawn into administering power at every level and deciding the country’s future course, studying, debating and fearlessly criticising those in authority and each other. Afterwards, China’s cities were turned into sweatshops, where twenty-first-century machinery enslaves hundreds of millions of people in nineteenth-century conditions.[3] Despite the hardships, the people are left still unable to ensure the well-being of their families or even to be free of the fear of unemployment – a situation abolished within a few years after the Chinese revolution, more than a half century earlier. Now millions toil their whole lives away not to create the conditions for the emancipation of humankind but to further enrich the capitalists of the imperialist countries and their local subcontractors. The peasants, still the vast majority, fall ever deeper into poverty and humiliation, groaning under the weight of taxes and often robbed of their land. Rural development is gutted as resources are looted from the countryside to develop the cities. Even the middle classes are subject to the tyranny of corporate magnates and party despots and deprived of meaningful lives.

The filthy rich, inside and outside the party, dine and preen in their gleaming skyscrapers overlooking slums, while officials brag to the media about their skills in “beggar management” – making the hungry invisible by sending the police to beat them off the streets. The whole country is awash with newly unleashed diseases and social plagues revived after decades of obliteration, such as drug addiction, prostitution and the killing of female babies.[4]

China took a leap into the future with the 1949 victory of the long revolutionary war to overthrow the representatives of the foreigner powers and the feudal big shots and monopolist businessmen in league with them who had ruled China. Socialism made the factories and other big production units into the property of the people, and over the next decades and with much struggle the peasants developed collective ownership of agriculture. But Mao, studying this experience and that of the Soviet Union before, including what he analysed as the restoration of capitalism after Stalin’s death, saw that socialist ownership was not enough – and it was certainly not guaranteed. In the USSR and already to an alarming degree in China, a new capitalist class, a new bourgeoisie, had arisen within the communist party itself. For them, now that they were in power, the revolution had gone far enough. Mao believed instead that if the revolution did not move forward, it was in great danger from these new would-be overlords.

In 1966, as these two trends locked in battle, Mao blew the struggle out of the confines of the top leadership by calling on party members and the people to “Bombard the headquarters”. This was a call to criticise and overthrow those party leaders trying to take China down the capitalist road, to take the initiative in creating socialist new things that could move society further in a revolutionary direction, and to study Marxism to get a deeper understanding of the difference between Marxism and revisionism so that increasing numbers of people would play a greater role in running the society. Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao were part of the national leadership core of this unprecedented “revolution within the revolution”. While the party was in a perilous condition and some of its leaders had to be overthrown, the complex struggles of the Cultural Revolution needed to be guided and summed up and the party rebuilt in the course of this, or else the triumph of the capitalist-roaders could not be prevented.

Zhang was a Shanghai journalist who had joined the party in the late 1930s. He fought as a guerrilla fighter behind enemy lines in the war against the Japanese occupation. After liberation, he became a party official in that city. In 1967, as the Cultural Revolution surged forward, he led an earthshaking event known as the January Storm. After months of fierce debate to clarify the issues, rebels from Shanghai’s factories, as well as the neighbourhoods and schools, threw out the old city administration, a stronghold of the capitalist-roaders. Led by revolutionary party members, at first they tried to establish the Shanghai Commune. This was based on the model of the 1871 Paris Commune, the first, short-lived working class revolution, where there was no professional army and all officials were elected and subject to immediate recall at any time. Marx called the Paris Commune the world’s first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule of the working class.

Mao hailed this uprising, a turning point in the Cultural Revolution. The working people had stormed onto the political stage. However, after studying the situation, he pointed out that a commune was not a powerful enough way for the proletariat to rule under existing circumstances. Unlike the situation in which Marx envisioned socialism would arise, China was surrounded by an imperialist-dominated world and could not do without a standing army. Likewise, it could not do without a stable government – a dictatorship over those who wanted to overthrow it – and a leading party based on the most advanced class to lead the masses of people in exercising that dictatorship. Otherwise, representatives of the old society would take advantage of the existing inequalities in society, and their connections and privileges and the superior abilities they had developed on that basis, to get back into power.

Mao suggested that the rebels set up something that had already arisen elsewhere in a beginning way, a city-wide three-in-one combination of representatives of the rebel organisations, revolutionary party leaders and People’s Liberation Army. In this way, as Mao later explained, the masses of people, having exposed what Mao called “the dark side” of the party, would “seize power in an all-around way and from below”. By late 1968, revolutionary committees based on similar principles had been set up throughout China.

This was not a magic solution. In fact, after a decade of struggle, the army China couldn’t do without eventually arrested Mao’s followers, and the capitalist-roaders who took over the party put an abrupt end to the revolution and imposed their own dictatorship. Mao’s authority, too, was not enough. He was to warn, not long before he died, that afterwards some people would try to use some of his words to set up a disguised capitalist regime, while others would use different quotations to arouse the people against them. The Maoists understood that there was still much fighting ahead and a lot of work to do.

Zhang became one of the party’s highest leaders as the Cultural Revolution continued and moved through different phases and circumstances. He helped lead the complicated battles that kept the capitalist-roaders out of power while working to dig up the soil – the social conditions remaining from the old society – they were grounded in and drew their strength from. As part of that, on the basis of the study and reflection on Chinese and world experience and the problems at hand under Mao’s leadership, he made major contributions to working out the Maoist understanding of socialism.

In 1975, as the struggle was reaching a new peak, he published On Exercising the All-Around Dictatorship of the Proletariat,[1] a short but dense text that had an explosive political effect. It analysed the contradictory nature of socialism, the way it is characterised by the contention of elements of the old society and the new. Zhang developed Mao’s understanding of socialism as a society in transition. First of all, he wrote, socialist ownership had not been completely attained, especially in the countryside, and it could be easily lost. Secondly, the relations between people in production also had to undergo constant transformation – in other words, working people had to be increasingly drawn into the management of production and, even more importantly, into the administration of the whole society, including deciding the key questions of what production is for and all the major aspects of the aims and organisation of society. Further, the relations of distribution also had to change, so that step-by-step society could begin to leave behind the principle of paying people according to their work. While this principle meant liberation from exploitation it also represented a situation that still perpetuates major and potentially oppressive inequalities, because people do not have equal abilities or needs. Instead, over time society must move toward creating the material and moral conditions for everyone to contribute as much as they can – to fully realise their potential collectively and individually – and receive according to what they need.

Without constant struggle to advance in all the relations between people and not just ownership, and struggle in the realm of culture and ideas against the outlook and habits inherited from the old society, socialist ownership would be turned into a hollow shell within which the old relationships, instead of being gradually overcome, would be perpetuated and brought back with a vengeance.

The most important clash in socialist society is within the party itself, between those promoting ideas and policies representing the interests of a new bourgeoisie, and the representatives of the proletariat, the working class that cannot free itself without revolutionising all relations among people throughout the globe. This becomes concentrated in a struggle between two ideological and political lines within the party, two clashing outlooks and sets of aims, strategies and policies that would take society in opposite directions.

“The class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the class struggle between the different political forces, and the class struggle in the ideological sphere [ideas] between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat will continue to be long and tortuous and at times will even become very acute”, Zhang wrote. “Even when all the landlords and capitalists of the old generation have died, such class struggles will by no means come to a stop, and a bourgeois restoration may still occur if people like Lin Biao come to power.” The reference to people like Lin Biao, a capitalist-roader who had died a few years earlier, was meant very specifically as a warning about Deng Xiaoping. As Mao sharply pointed out the year after this essay appeared, shortly before his own death, “You are making the socialist revolution and yet you don’t know where the bourgeoisie is. It is right in the Communist Party – those in power taking the capitalist road.”

The solution, Zhang wrote, was this: “Historical experience shows us that whether the proletariat can triumph over the bourgeoisie and whether China will turn revisionist, hinges on whether we can persevere in exercising all-around dictatorship over the bourgeoisie in all spheres and at all stages of the revolution.” This means, he said, quoting Marx, continuing step-by-step toward “the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, and to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations.”

“The only way to attain this goal”, he concluded, “is to exercise all-round dictatorship over the bourgeoisie and carry the continued revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat through to the end, until the above-mentioned four alls are banished from the earth so that it will be impossible for the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes to exist or for new ones to arise; we must definitely not call a halt along the path of the transition.”

Much of what this means in terms of concrete political, social and economic policies was spelled out in great detail in a textbook written by a team that Zhang led. Rooted in and developing Mao’s understanding of the contradictions in socialist society, the “Shanghai textbook”[2] is a unique and rich examination of the political economy of socialism. It rescues and applies the Marxist understanding that economics is, in the end, about the relations not between things but between people. The authors addressed their work to “the youth fighting on the front lines in the countryside and factories... To better engage in combat, to become politically fit more quickly, the youth must study some political economy.”

This work is a fine example of what the Cultural Revolution was all about: rousing the masses of people to fight for the highest goals of humanity, advancing the science of Marxism by striving for a better comprehension of what is correct in it and discarding some wrong ideas from the past, finding ways to broadly popularise key points and making a deep understanding the property of as many people from among the masses as possible. It is also a breathtaking example of dialectical materialism – rigorously materialist in its examination of the reasons for the division of people into antagonistic classes and how, concretely, to overcome that division, and no less rigorously dialectical in its understanding of the contradictoriness and motion of all things. In economic terms alone, the Maoist policies were at least as effective in promoting growth as the capitalist policies that replaced them, if not more so. Moreover, growth under socialism moved China in a completely opposite direction, in terms of creating the conditions for human emancipation instead of perpetuating slavery to capital and its representatives.

The Shanghai textbook underwent several editions while its authors struggled to improve their understanding as the back-and-forth political battle with the capitalist-roaders approached a showdown. The new capitalist ruling class banned the book and confiscated all the copies at the printer as soon as they took power.

The amount of abuse – and lies – the Western and Chinese media heaped on Zhang when he died is testament to his revolutionary stature. The accusations against him were sharpest from those who were the targets of the Cultural Revolution. That revolution represents the highest peak humanity has achieved so far. The Maoist evaluation of Zhang’s life and work is based on our understanding of why the Cultural Revolution was absolutely necessary, and of the aims of the dictatorship of the proletariat it served. Those who believe that there is some other path to the emancipation of humanity need to present reasoned arguments and not just slander.

The fact that socialism was overthrown in China does not necessarily prove that this was the result of mistakes. As the Chinese revolutionaries pointed out during this last battle, in past centuries the rising capitalist class staged many revolutions against feudalism and was thrown back again and again until it finally triumphed. For the proletariat, the first revolutionary class in history that does not aim to substitute one exploiting class for another and which cannot succeed until “the four alls are banished from the earth”, the road can only involve twists and turns, victories and defeats, as the world’s people rebel again and again against the chains on humanity’s potential, until they finally shatter them once and for all.

“There is no royal road to science”, the Shanghai textbook quotes Marx, “and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” It goes on, “The revolutionary leaders of the proletariat devoted their entire lives to founding and developing Marxist theory. Following their shining examples and diligently reading works by Marx, Lenin and Chairman Mao, we should struggle to study and master this Marxist theoretical weapon for the socialist revolution and socialist construction, and for the achievement of communism worldwide.”


1. On Exercising the All-Around Dictatorship of the Proletariat was reprinted in A World to Win 1989/14, soon to be available at www.aworldtowin.org. For more on the Cultural Revolution and the issues involved see AWTW 1986/7 and 1993/19.

2. The Shanghai textbook was published in English as Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism, Edited with an Introduction and Afterword by Raymond Lotta, Banner Press, New York, 1995, and is available from AWTW, 27 Old Gloucester St, London WC1N 3XX, UK, for 12£.

3. For instance, among many other similar examples, the National Labor Committee cites the Huffy bicycle factory where 93-hour, 7-day weeks are the norm. (wwwnlcnet.org)

4. There was little female infanticide before the one child per family rule was introduced in 1979. In the 1980s the births of 115-118 boys were reported for every 100 girls. (Sten Johansson and Olga Nygen, “The Missing Girls of China: A New Demographic Account,” Population and Development Review, 17/1 (March 1991), pp 40-41. In 2002, the ratio was more than 116 male births registered for every 100 females, reported John Gittings in the UK Guardian (13 May 2002), although he says this is now due to the abortion of female foetuses as well as the killing of female babies.