ZHU JIAMU:Historical materialism is still the guide for studying CPC history

By Zhu Jiamu / 08-01-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Zhu Jiamu, professor,  former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


If studying the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was starting to be taken seriously as an academic endeavor when it was first listed as a research discipline during the Yan'an Rectification Movement in the early 1940s, then it was during the early 1980s, with the drafting of the “Resolution on Several Historical Questions of the CPC since 1949”, that it really took off. Now, with China’s increased international status, CPC history is fast becoming a mainstream focus for historians. Effectively studying the history of the CPC is an interdisciplinary research combining political science and history. Because it is a subject imbued with ideology, and also a subject that has a palpable social impact, it is impossible for scholars to approach the history of the CPC without being affected by certain political and historical preconceptions. Those who appeal to “mutual values” are deluding themselves in a one-side fantasy.


Skeptics have long alleged that the New China’s rapid transition from New Democracy to socialism was premature, suggesting that Mao Zedong pushed the transition forward too early, ultimately delaying China’s development rather than accelerating it. This argument is not in line with the facts and runs counter to historical materialism. A basic respect for facts and a peripheral knowledge of CPC history should be enough to clarify that transforming China from an agrarian society to an industrialized country and starting the socialist revolution after China’s New Democratic Revolution were both part of the CPC’s established policies. In the first two years after founding New China, Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and other leaders had proposed to follow the New Democratic Revolution for a dozen years so as to fully develop a capitalist economy before transforming to socialism. At the time, China’s weak economic and technological foundation did not provide an ideal environment for developing heavy industry. By the time of the first Five-Year Plan in 1953, however, a number of conditions had led China to set developing heavy industry as a priority. Economic conditions had changed. With the restoration of China’s national economy, modernized industries accounted for a much larger portion of economic activity, while state-owned-enterprises accounted for a much larger share of the industrial sector and there was constant demand for more machinery in agricultural production. In addition, concern about potential security threats from imperialism also prompted the prioritization of heavy industry.  At just the right moment, Stalin’s government promised to support China’s First Five-Year Plan by providing aid in equipment manufacture, technology and personnel training. The easing of the Korean War was another factor that made developing heavy industry become possible.


Under the circumstances, Mao Zedong’s “steps and approaches for transforming from New Democracy to socialism have changed from the original assumption” detailed an alternative vision to transforming directly in 10-15 years. The decision was not to rush headlong for socialism, but to adjust to a policy prioritizing heavy industry. Rather than a detour, this was a precious historical opportunity that was essential for China’s rejuvenation. Mao Zedong’s overall map for China’s transformation, which put industrialization as the main body and the “three major transformations” (agriculture, cottage industry, and capitalist industry)  as the wings, reflected this point, as did the fact that only after four and a half Five-Year plans did China establish an independent and relatively complete industrial and national economic system.


Applying historical materialism to historical issues necessitates looking at these issues from their specific historical context. In this same vein, Engels wrote that the application of historical materialism to specific events is “only possible by means of dialectics.” Therefore, in any discussion of the history of the CPC, we should proceed by considering issues within their historical conditions and making comprehensive and fully fleshed out analyses grounded in concrete facts that get to the essence of the issue and connect it to other issues, rather than the sort of abstracted generalizations that result from separating issues from their historical conditions, resulting in biased and underdeveloped evaluations that fail to connect with the existing understanding of other issues. For example, the CPC’s 63-year history since founding of the New China can be divided into two periods of 30 years, taking Reform and Opening up as a demarcation point between the two periods. In the first 30 years, the CPC led the people constructing socialism. It made tremendous achievements, but it also made some errors owing to the “left-ward” deviation within leading ideology. 


Denying deviations and writing off misconduct neither acknowledges the facts, nor is conducive to learning lessons from history; it is even less conducive to uniting the whole party and entire country under the common ideal of socialism with Chinese characteristics. On the other hand, taking a part as the whole, exaggerating faults, and denying that by and large, the CPC made substantial achievements in the first 30 years and regarding that period of history as a series of mistakes or even describing it worse than Old China is going against the facts. These sort of erroneous historical interpretations will cause intellectual confusion, a crisis of beliefs and become weapons for the opposition to attack the party and socialism.


Socialism with Chinese characteristics was launched after the third plenum of the 11th CPC Congress in 1978. It was not founded upon the chaotic mess of Old China that New China confronted in 1949; it was pioneered on the base of a New China that had undergone nearly 30 years of socialist construction in which the party and people had, through painstaking exploration and arduous struggle, gathered precious experience, theoretical preparation and the material foundation necessary. Looking at the urban landscape and public well-being, it may seem as though there was little change in the first 30 years, especially compared to the monumental changes in the next 30 years. However, as with constructing a building, the changes are barely noticeable when laying the base, but if the construction proceeds rapidly and if the building is very tall, it is a sure sign that the foundation is sturdy. We absolutely should not separate events from their historical context. Rather, when considering the periods before and after Reform and Opening up, we should, in the words of President Xi Jinping, regard them as “two interrelated but materially very different periods,” see that “essentially, both involve our party leading the people in the practical exploration of socialism construction,” and recognize that we “cannot use the period after Reform and opening up to oppose the period before or vice versa.”


Historical materialism never denies the roles of heroes in history. However, historical materialism recognizes that history is made by the masses—it is people who decide historical outcomes. The times makes the man; man does not make the times. It is hard to avoid analyzing leaders and outstanding figures when studying the history of the CPC, but any such analysis should proceed from grounding in historical materialism, judging individuality in the context of the universal aspirations of the people and the specific preconditions of the times. The focal point for analysis should be, whether looking at right or wrong, to ascertain the reasons why something is right or wrong, drawing historical lessons and identifying consistent principles for posterity. We should not judge individuals in a historical vacuum, giving them sole credit or complete blame. Particularly for a great man such as Mao Zedong, we should take a more fair, empirical and prudent approach, “seeking truth from facts” so that we may make a factual and appropriate evaluation.  As Deng Xiaoping said, “Leaders are humans not gods.” “When analyzing his flaws and faults, we should certainly acknowledge individual responsibility, but more importantly, we should see the complexity of the history.” There is an ancient saying: “To destroy a country, first destroy its history.” The discursive power of explaining the historical narrative has been the lever of power for which competing classes and political forces vie. Currently, both domestic and foreign forces of opposition are always trying to use history to foment trouble, advocating historical nihilism in attempt to undermine the leadership of the CPC in China. Today’s society has undergone many complex changes. Its economic composition, organization, occupation structure, interest relations and distribution patterns are all becoming more diverse. People’s thought is becoming more independent, more individual and more divergent. The rapid development of internet technology has also been a catalyst for profound changes in the environment of public opinion. All together, these changes have brought unprecedented challenges to Marxism’s position as a guiding ideology. We should realize, however, that this is the moment to further improve and perfect historical materialism, and the moment for historical materialism to play a guiding role in the study of the history of the CPC.


Zhu Jiamu is former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 467, June 26, 2013

Translated by Feng Daimei



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