Mao’s Block of Four Classes: Lessons About Revolutionary Alliance

[From Kasama Project]

by Mike Ely

I think we should discuss how revolutionary alliances contribute to victory in a country… how we conceive of these alliances, and how we determine what they can be.

Mao’s Block of Four Classes has become controversial — because it is a concrete example of a revolutionary alliance and yet it seems to affront all kinds of workerist assumptions.

So it is a timely subject and it is a necessary one for two reasons:

First: No broad alliances means no revolution. Broad alliances that are not (ultimately) led by revolutionary forces also means no revolution.

Second: there are political conceptions that (basically) assert that class analysis negates the need for alliance. That socialist revolution is “workers power” and therefore you just need workers. So there is a “class against class” assumption — where we (the workers) gather over here (under our identity banner), and the pro-capitalist forces gather over there (under their various banners of white and American identity) and then we go at it.

The mediations between classes, politics and power

May_30th_Movement_Propaganda_PosterWhat broad alliances are needed? Well, on one level Marxism describes them in class terms (and we will discuss, for example, the worker-peasant alliance — and its differences with a “worker only” view of socialist change). But in practice, that class nature is not expressed in explicit ways — alliances are around goals (expelling the Japanese, ending World War 1, seizing land for the landless, transforming a socialist wage system in communist ways, etc.) In other words, revolution requires broad alliances around the goals and ideas of the particular revolution — in each country, time and phase of the process.

And while the underlying contradictions of a revolutionary change are rooted in structures of class and national oppression — the alliances themselves are not reducible to those structures. The alliances have to be built on the textured and shifting terrain of real politics, real events, real conjunctures.

And so, while we use class analysis to identify potential allies and likely enemies of a revolution — the actual alliances we form may not correspond to those potentials, they may prove to be surprisingly different because of specific factors that emerge (for example 1930s Europe and its political landscape was radically changed when the Nazis started overrunning all the countries.)

Back story

For various reasons, Mao’s 1940-50s “block of four classes” forms a significant point where this is argued out today. And that is because it is very distant, and because few people know anything about it, and so some political forces can distort this very revolutionary conception — and portray its a capitalist, and “class collaborationist,” and a proof of the confused nature of Maoist communism.

So I think I’d like to excavate this Block of Four Classes (a vision of a broad revolutionary alliance under communist leadership) and discuss why it emerged, and how it was key to the victory of the 20th century’s second great socialist revolution.

(I have discussed this question of communist leadership — and its meaning in class analysis — in a previous essay “Where’s the Proletariat in the Long March” and I won’t repeat those arguments here.

The block of four classes in China as a valuable (and quite successful) part of the Chinese communist strategy for socialism. This was an alliance developed by mao over the 1940s, that led to the seizure of power in China (1949) and formed a basis for the emerging Peoples Republic of that socialist country for its first years (essentially over with the completion of the anti-feudal agrarian revolution). The national bourgeois never emerged as a target of the revolution (though some were exposed as corrupt and profiteering during the Korean war), and were generally expropriated as the socialist economy developed.

I mention this because the block of four classes is a way that some forces currently attack Mao (and Maoism) — while giving themselves a kind of left cover… i.e. they claim that Mao’s strategy served the capitalists, even though (in actual historical fact) it was the road by which capitalism was overthrown. (And it is worth saying that Mao’s view of the worker-peasant alliance was attacked in his time too — by people, including the early Comintern under Russian leadership, who assumed that China needed to adopt their own workerist assumptions and their approaches-as-model, and that communists needed to focus on the small industrial worker concentrations in urban areas the way the Bolsheviks had, etc.)

There is a rather simple argument curerntly raised (that many will be familiar with).

It says:

Our enemy is the capitalist class. So therefore any strategic alliance with any section of the capitalist class is reactionary. The block of four classes (in china) envisioned at least an occasional alliance with a stratum known as the “national bourgeoisie”. So therefore, by simple logic, the Maoist strategy was (on the surface by definition) class collaborationist and non revolutionary.

Tidy, right. And you can embrace this thesis (if you choose), without knowing anything (zip!) about the Chinese revolution, or China’s class structure, or any history. It is an argument based on an axiomatic assumption and then derivative deductions.

I’m always suspicious of arguments that proceed by deductive logic, and show so few signs of concrete analysis — My assumption: any argument where you can embrace a dismissive verdict without grappling with complex and contradictory problems is probably a false and superficial argument.

In some ways, it is an argument against learning from this great revolution — because you can dismiss it (using this method) without any historical investigation or class analysis. It is like the guy at the traffic accident saying “Move along folks, nothing to see here.”

The alliance developed by Mao and the Communist Party of China over quite a period of practice and experimentation, envisioned a worker-peasant alliance (led by the communists), as the core of a larger “block of four classes” (again led by the communist party and resting on the worker-peasant alliance). The four classes seen as potential allies in the initial revolutionary seizure and exercise of power were: the working class, the rural peasantry, the broad (and generally impoverished) middle classes, and that lower section of capitalist owners of production called “the national bourgeoisie.”

In one typical attack on this strategy on RevLeft, a commentator called Goalkeeper crystalizes this argument in its most simple “I mean, what could be more capitalist than insisting on the inclusion of capitalists in the revolution?”

So…. ok… let me break this down.

Communists: their targets and alliances

First, over the last century and more, the capitalists have not been the only (and sometimes not the main) target of revolution. There are other oppressors, and often workers and peasants (and communists) lived in countries where capitalism was not simply the only or dominant form of class oppression.

So, in situations were feudalism or slavery were major forms of oppression, and in situations were sections of the bourgeoisie were in revolutionary opposition to feudalism and slavery — it was common for communists (starting with Marx and Engels obviously) to envision revolutionary alliances with sections of the early (and often radical) capitalist class.

You don’t have to look far for this… but one place to look is Marx’s writings on the American Civil War, and the actions of early American communists in that Civil War. And clearly, Marx envisioned the communists and workers fighting in close alliance with the capitalist Union government, and in particularly in alliance with the Radical Republicans, and in general alliance with Lincoln, Grant etc. Early German communists living in the U.S. often joined the Union army and several became prominent officers etc.

Now to use that historic example to answer the rather mechanical argument: When Karl Marx suggests an alliance with the Northern capitalists in the civil war, is he being pro-capitalist and class collaborationist? Is that view of an alliance (against slavery) a reactionary and capitalist idea?

The answer is no.

First, the dynamics of this world are not simple. It is not as if we only have workers (over here) and capitalists (over there). And so we can know (without investigation or thought) what is right and wrong by infantile logical deductions about “collaboration.”

Now for Marx, the American Civil War was a great revolutionary project against slavery, which (in his view) would make the possibility of SOCIALIST and COMMUNIST revolution much more likely. He saw events going in stages, with nodal points, and believed that if the early communist movement did not throw itself into the struggle against slavery (meaning into a war that was obviously and perhaps inevitably under the leadership of the northern capitalists) that it was not possible to envision the overthrow of capitalism (including of those northern capitalists themselves). Welcome to the complexity (the dialectics) of actual history and real revolutions.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels talk (in an early 1848 kind of way) about how some of those things play out.

First, they point out that lower sections of the capitalists are sometimes (themselves) ruined by the larger dynamics of capitalism:

“Further, as we have already seen, entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence. These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.

“Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”

Now this was a very early formulation by Marx, written long before any socialist movement was capable of leading a broad revolutionary movement under its own banners. So it is more in the realm of speculation than summation.

I raise it here not as some schematic formula we should adopt or as a prediction we should assume is prophetic. I raise it  merely to point out that communists have, generally and historically, been open to common cause with sections of people with some wealth and privilege who are not visibly oppressed.

And that has to do with the objective objective class interests of such people– which give them (at times) the political potential and impulse to make common cause with the far more deep-going communist project that has its greatest potential among the most oppressed.

The Syndicalist counter-example

There emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, a kind of workerist socialism, that saw the socialist revolution in a trade unionist (syndicalist) way — i.e. that the workers would organize unions, and those unions would take over society, and so the organizations of workers would become the structure of a future political decision-making.

And this kind of syndicalism sought to draw its presentation  from a kind of working class identity politics: where the consciousness of being workers, and the desire for a militant defense of working class immediate interests was extended and morphed into the public image of the moment.

Perhaps the most famous U.S. example of that revolutionary current was the Industrial Workers of the World whose preamble starts:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”

There are several things to say about this statement (and syndicalist statements like it).

First it is quite radical, and quite sharply opposed to capitalism. It envisions a revolution and it calls for a totally different new order. (And in that sense, communists have always had deep sympathy for the IWW and their ideas — and many early communists came out of the IWW, as it faded after World War 1 under the pressure of events and under its own contradictions).

Second, this presents an image of the world where there are really only two classes. There is no sense of alliance here. And this was a movement rooted in mill town and western mining camps — where there often seemed to be only two classes. But in reality (then and now) there are many more classes that need to be factored in. For example, in 1905 when the IWW was on the rise, the U.S. South was a vast region of bitter oppression for African American farmers (forced into the semi-slavery of Jim Crow sharecropping). These farmers were a key potential ally of the struggle — but were essentially ignored by the narrow politics of syndicalism, and by the complex prejudices and lack of knowledge that many industrial workers and radicals had about Black people.

Third: The idea that the workers and capitalists never have anything in common seems very radical, but as I mentioned above in regard to Marx, it does not understand the more complex contradictions of a world were (for many people) the struggle for liberation includes a massive component of anti-feudal and anti-colonial struggle (where there are potential allies in non-working classes for various historical reasons).

In other words, the syndicalism of the IWW (embodied in their “class against class” assumptions about the revolution) is both ahistorical and non-Marxist. It was the expression of an important working class revolutionary movement — but their impoverished view of politics and alliance was part of their weakness (that led to their demise).

Lenin, for example, wrote powerfully on these matters — most famously in regard to supporting the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland (where the socialist revolution adopted a national coloration, not a simple workerist one).

Lenin wrote:

“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution.

“So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch.””

The ideas expressed here need to be thought through carefully, especially when people raise naive and simplistic notions about what a revolutionary movement looks like, and dismisses in a simplistic way the possibility of all kinds of different allies.

Back to the example of China

Let me get to the historical example: that is raised by today’s workerist/syndicalist opponents of Maoism: i.e. China in the 1930s.

Mao gave a sophisticated analysis of the enemies that the people were suffering under. He described the three mountains:

1) Feudal landlords and warlords and feudal relations generally (an oppression that required agrarian revolution tied to a countrywide overthrow of power)
2) Bureaucrat capitalism (in which the central state of China became the center of huge corrupt concentrations of wealth, and the core of a nascent class of big capitalism — exemplified by Chiang Kaishek) and
3) foreign imperialism — originally the “concessions” to many foreign capitalists (like Hong Kong to britain or Macau to Portugal). But, by the mid 1930s, the invasion and occupation by japan had emerged as the main form of this “third mountain.”

So Mao (making a concrete analysis of an actual country) discussed (and experimented with) forms of alliance that could overthrow those three mountains.

At its core, he saw (and built) a worker-peasant alliance under communist leadership. By relying on that core alliance, he made conditions better for continuing the revolution — past its first stages, into socialist revolution and beyond it into communist revolution.

The American civil war was a classic bourgeois revolution — where there were alliances with workers and enslaved farmers (i.e. kidnapped Africans), but where the overall revolutionary alliance was firmly under the leadership of the northern capitalists.

In Mao’s practice, the core alliance was workers and peasants, and the leadership of that alliance developed under the communists (and was embodied in the complex fight by the communists to maintain independence and initiative and their own clear politics even while engaging in decades of complex alliance and common work with non-communist forces).

Now what other forces were possible to ally with the worker peasant forces against the “three mountains”?

Well, it turns out (in the concrete conditions of China) that there was a lower level of merchants and small factory owners that were quite radical: they were militantly against feudalism, often filled with hatred against the landlords and warlords, and also militantly opposed to the foreign domination of China.

In other words there was a section of small capitalists who hoped to modernize and liberate china by defeating feudalism and foreign imperialism. They were generally not communist (as a stratum), but at times they were quite close to the revolutionary movement. (At some other times they were not close, and much of the time, as a stratum, they were split in their loyalties.)

In other words, i’m saying that there was a lower stratum of the small, weak, buffeted merchant and artisan/factory-owning class in China that was pro-revolution — and Mao (correctly) suggested including them in the alliance.

What did it mean to include them in the alliance? Well, it meant mobilizing them for the fighting (first of all) — having them give money, having them join the army, making their lives and property not be a target of the revolution, urging them to take a strong political stand against feudalism and imperialism.

And (in fact) the communists succeeded in spliting the KMT (the Kuomintang — the Nationalist Party, that started as a quite revolutionary antifeudal party with national bourgeois leadership and a strong communist wing, and that then suffered an anticommunist and pro-imperialist coup under Chiang Kaishek in the late 1920s). The Chinese Communist Party took the battered left wing of the KMT (often forming its base areas from their remnants — including the graduates of the famous Wampoa military academy of revolutionary military cadre) — and sought (in a protracted way) to win over forces from the left-wing of the KMT (and its various, diverse armies). This involved a complex process of “unity and struggle) with that stratum called “the national bourgeosie.” This was a major accomplishment (and I imagine the revolution would not have been possible without its success.)

Some questions that gives rise to:

1) Why would a national bourgeoisie support a communist led revolution? Well, because they were more opposed to feudalism and imperialism than they were to the goals of the communist revolution (which included the creation of a modern non-corrupt national state, the destruction of feudalism in agriculture, the building of a militant army defeating foreign abusers, etc.) The antifeudal and antiimperialist revolution corresponded to the class interests of that stratum (known as the national bourgeoisie).

2) How can you have socialist revolution if you have some capitalist allies?

In fact, the vast bulk of china’s capitalist property were owned by imperialists and “bureaucrat capitalists” and owning class figures allied with the Japanese and other foreign imperialists. When the revolution won in 1948, when the “block of four classes” achieved its “new democratic” victory, the communist revolutionaries nationalized the defeated classes, and started to create the first socialist economy. My understanding is that this nationalization involved around 80% of China’s small industrial capacity.

In other words, while the national bourgeoise was relatively numerous (though, obviously not ocmpared to the peasants), they were very poor. Most of their “factories” were extended artisan shops (with a few employees, like a modern drycleaning or car repair shop). And they had a lot to gain by a unified national market, the elimination of massive state corruption, ending the internal warfare of warlords, and ending the state-backed domination of foreign exploiters and their chinese lackeys.

In other words, the victory of the bloc of four classes WAS the beginning of the socialist revolution, and it created an important beginning core of socialist ownership in the economy. (Though all of industry was weak and ruined in china and it would take a long time to build up a larger socialist state economy with integrated heavy industry and production of consumer goods etc. on a modern scale.)

In other words, the new democratic revolution (and its phrase of “bloc of four classes” under the leadership of the communist forces) WAS the form that socialist revolution triumphed in China. And the state which emerged in China in 1949 was a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. So there is contradiction and even irony here: The opening stage of the victorious revolution was an political overthrow aimed at the three mountains — imperialism (both U.S. and Japan mainly), bureaucrat capitalism (represented by the brutal KMT dictatorship and its armies), and feudalism (which was targeted in the earrh-shaking agrarian revolution that followed the seizure of power).

On a theoretical level: Some people translate “dictatorship of the proletariat” to mean “rule by workers” (as if the workers and the WORKERS ALONE have any political say in the new society). That would be a strange, and undialectical (and impossible) way to proceed. In fact, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has always rested on broader class alliances (for obvious reasons) — including in both china and russia resting mainly on the core alliance of workers and peasants. And when possible, it has been supportant to have broader alliances (with the many classes needed to help build socialism — including intellectuals, scientists, professors, cultural workers, and more).

The dictatorship of the proletariat is not the rule of the workers OVER EVERYONE ELSE, but it is the nature of a transition period and means that a broad revolutionary alliance of people are the base of a transformation that is being led in a communist direction (in waves, and through all kinds of mediation of political representation and alliance).

And more, in this case the first target of that dictatorship of the proletariat were social tasks that (historically, in Europe at least) had been part of the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century (land reform, formation of a coherent national market and state, ending the feudal sale of women, etc.) So it was a case of the revolutionary communist movement initiating the socialist revolution by mobilizing people broadly to carry out “bourgeois democratic tasks.” This was not a “bourgeois revolution” in either the sense that it was led by the bourgeoisie, or in the sense that it established capitalism. That is why Mao called it “New Democracy” — it was the first stage of a socialist revolution, under the specific conditions of a semifeudal and occupied China. And the initial seizure of power was the immediate opening of the socialist phase (the creation of new socialist economic relations, the orientation of the country along socialist lines internationally, the start of political work for the next sociailst leaps and more0.

In China, this New Democratic revolution (and its various alliances) were the form of the communist revolution (at that stage) — where the main enemies were the feudalists, bureaucrat capitalists and foreign imperialists — and where (for example) the exansion of a modern economy, the liberation of the people, the establishment of a liberated independent nation-state, the creation of radical new antifeudal and early socialist culture etc was in the very very broad interests of the people.

Later, after 1949, the main contradiction in society became the socialist revolution and the defeat and overthrow of forces within China who wanted to make china into a capitalist (not socialist) country. But even here, interestingly and ironically, the target of this was not the domestic “national bourgeoisie” (who were always a weak class, and always had great trouble making its own independent political programmatic bid for power.) In the unfolding socialist revolution (1949-1976), the main source of capitalist restoration and reaction proved to be (as Mao put it) “Those in power taking the capitalist road” — i.e. the main capitalist forces emerged (not from the fading and largely compliant national bourgeoisie) but from forces within the party whose program can be seen by the capitalist restoration carried out by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death.

So, i’m saying that the criticism of “bloc of four classes” rests on a very primitive and false (and very non-Marxist) argument about “class collaboration” — that envisions a kind of simplistic workerist world where “we are for the workers, and we are against anything that has the label capitalist.” In fact, in places with high degrees of feudalism in the world (or other forms like slavery), there have at times (not alway, but at times) been sections of radicalized and modernizing small capitalists who have proven to be possible allies (not automatic allies, but possible allies.)

Final point: what is the relevance of this method to the U.S. today?

Well, in the U.S. there is only one “main enemy” (there are not three mountains in the same way as in 1930s China): the dominant U.S. capitalist ruling class (embodied in huge corporations, huge blocks of banking capital, huge military structures, state financial institutions and more).

Our main enemy rests on a system that has complex forms of oppression (patriarchy, vicious racist oppressions of many peoples, the colonial domination of Puerto Rico and other countries, and more). But there are no sections of that class that can be seen as “possible strategic allies” of a future socialist revolution — and their expropriation (as a class) is a central goal of any conceivable liberation in the U.S.

So, obviously, the U.S. is not a country with semifeudal remnants, or a set of anti-feudal or anti-foreign-occupier tasks alongside our socialist/communist tasks.

But even here, revolution does not take the form of some naive or workerists “class against class” — where the workers (metaphysically) form one side and the capitalists form the other.

Revolution is mediated by politics, and the class alliances of any revolution are also mediated by politics.

Any alliance for revolution in the U.S. would involve a broader alliance that extended beyond the most oppressed sections of the working class.

Generally it is said (by Maoists and by Mao) that the core alliance in the U.S. would be between the socialist movement among the multinational working people, and the national liberation struggles among racially and nationally oppressed peoples (African American people, Native people, chicano and Mexicano people, immigrant groups, Hawiian people, the Puerto Rican people).

That is a complex alliance, and it is not just an alliance of workers.

And beyond that core alliance:

Further there are section of the larger middles classes in the U.S. whose objective interests are on the side of socialism, and who are important and potential allies of any communist/socialist project. This includes potentially the upper classes of oppressed nationalities who often find themselves in a middle position (paid at times to suppress or befuddly the Black lower classes, but also themselves grappling with infuriating forms of oppression and denial) — all of which is accentuated when (for example) a virulent white racist/nationalist current bangs on the doors of power and policy (as has happened pretty continually in recent history).

Finally, there are sections of the people who will (almost inevitably) be part of the reactionary, counterrevolutionary pole of any future conflict (including the Klan and Ted NUgent varieties — some of which are, by class, in the working class).

So while the “block of four classes” is a vision of a class alliance that emerged from a semifeudal and very backward and foreign dominated country in the 1940s (i.e. long ago and under very different conditiosn) — what we can learn from that method is how to envision broad revolutionary alliances (and potential alliances) under our conditions (where the revolution and its immediate goals will look quite different).

Understanding that a stratum or grouping is a potential ally doesn’t mean they are always an ally. Sometimes Mao was able to ally with sections of the national bourgeosie, sometimes they swung against him and the communists. But there was value in seeking (carefuly and skillfully) to sheer the national bourgeoisie AWAY from the bureaucrat capitalsits (i.e. split the Nationalist party into left and right), and win them over to the anti-Japanese war (that then turned into the revolutionary seizure of power.

Mao’s “block of four classes” is often attacked — in a rather simplistic, mechanical, uninformed and workerist way — as if it is “capitalist” to have alliances, and as if “we are workers, you are not” is the way communists think (on the textured terrain of real politics) — this is about the complexities of the communist road and the socialist revolution, and the particularities that defy schematic thinking.

I hope I have touched on some of the issues. And I hope we can engage the questions that are likely come up.

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