A long and winding road: Marking 100 years of the Communist Party of China

Massive celebrations are being held across China July 1 to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Communist Party of China. The handful of visionary leaders who came together in 1921 to form the CPC soon saw their organization grow to become the leading force representing the revolutionary struggle of the Chinese people to be free of oppression and imperialist rule. The anti-China, anti-working class corporate media outlets in the United States and other western countries are using this occasion to slander the Communist Party and the Chinese Revolution. But around the world many are taking this moment to reflect on the historic accomplishments of the party.

Resistance in the ‘Century of Humiliation

For a thousand years China was the most populous, the wealthiest, and most technologically sophisticated place on Earth. Traders and adventurers from the rest of Asia, from Europe and Africa, and later from the Americas, came to China seeking their fortunes in the products of Chinese farms and workshops — from silk, cotton and tea to ceramics, metal-works and paper. Travelers like Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo brought news of the power and prosperity of China to readers in the West and Islamic world, further fueling the desire for the wealth of Asia. By the 16th century, Europeans began to come to China in a steady stream, not as conquerors or colonizers, but as profit-seeking participants in a global economic system with China as its key driver.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the long-established relations between Europe and China began to change rapidly. The Industrial Revolution gave the British and later other Western powers the ability to produce manufactured goods in great volume at low prices, and the military capacity to impose their domination on other peoples across the planet. European capitalism reconfigured global relations into a division of labor within which the colonies provided raw materials and served as outlets for industrial products forged in the factories of England, Germany, France, or the United States.

China became a top target of the imperialist drive to dominate and exploit the labor and resources of the world. First through the massive drug trade in opium of the early 19th century, then through the Opium War of 1839-42, Britain subordinated China to its capitalist quest for profits. This ushered in what in China is referred to as the Century of Humiliation. In the course of this, China’s domestic economy was wrecked and its people were subjected to the racist oppression of the combined forces of the imperialist powers.

The old dynastic system proved totally incapable of defending the country, and in 1912 the last emperor abdicated. But efforts to create a bourgeois democratic republic foundered, and the country fell into an anarchy of warlord domains. Meanwhile, the country was facing new threats from Japan, a rising imperialist power following the steps of its Western mentors.

Many Chinese began to search for ways to transform and modernize their country. The New Culture Movement rejected many aspects of China’s traditional political culture, and sought to bring literacy and education to the masses. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 inspired Chinese activists, and many took up the study of the writings of Marx and Engels, along with Lenin. Reading groups sprang up around the country, and began a process of coordination and cooperation in the hopes of finding a path to China’s revolutionary transformation.

In 1919, the victorious powers in World War I betrayed China at the Versailles Peace Conference. They handed the former German concession at Qingdao over to Japan rather than returning it to Chinese sovereignty. Demonstrations broke out in Beijing on May 4 that grew into a nationwide protest and boycott of Japanese goods. The May 4th Movement was a turning point as the bankruptcy of Western capitalist democracy was exposed.

The communist movement in China is born

Thus, at the beginning of the 1920s, the stage was set for the launch of a great revolutionary movement in China. Drawing on the inspiration of the Bolshevik Revolution, and deploying the theoretical tools of Marxism, Chinese activists sought to create a political organization that could lead the anti-imperialist struggle and chart a path to a new economic and social order for the people. The Bolsheviks, fighting a civil war in Russia for the survival of their own revolution, sent assistance to the Chinese via the newly established Communist International, also known as the Third International or Comintern. Advisors from the International worked with the reading groups and other activists with the goal of establishing a Communist Party in and for the Chinese revolution.

This objective was fulfilled 100 years ago when the decision was made to hold a first Congress of the Communist Party of China. Though the Congress opened on July 23, July 1 has come to be celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of the party, a date that roughly accords with the call to local units to send delegates to attend the inaugural gathering.

Only 12 members were present at these initial sessions, held in two phases. The first was in a quiet residential block in Shanghai — today the Museum of the First Congress of the CPC. After several days of meetings, the group moved to a houseboat on a lake near Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, for security reasons. The 12 delegates represented a total membership of only about 55, but that number grew dramatically in the months and years following the party’s founding.

The history of China over the century since the CPC’s founding has been largely shaped by the revolutionary struggle the party has led. It was not a simple or straightforward process, and there were twists and turns along the way as the course of political affairs navigated the challenges and opportunities of the times. The Party had to deal with the successes and the failures of theory and practice.

The initial focus on an alliance with the bourgeois Nationalist Party was betrayed by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1927. The CPC grappled with the difficulties of adapting their revolutionary goals to the realities of Chinese circumstances. But by the early 1930s, a strategy was developed of relying on the masses of rural workers, the poor peasants and day laborers of what Mao Zedong came to call the agricultural proletariat. They would be the main force of the revolution, working in alliance with the small urban industrial working class.

The CPC and Red Army established revolutionary base areas in different remote parts of the country, where they could work to develop policies of land reform, economic development, and social policy in preparation for their ultimate victory. They constantly fought the extermination campaigns aimed at them by the Nationalist Party government. They had to abandon the Jiangxi base area in the south in 1934 to undertake the Long March. The Long March was an epic journey that brought the Party leadership to its new headquarters at Yan’an, in northern Shaanxi province. It became the center of the revolution until 1945.

The War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression saw another period of tactical alliance with the Nationalists, but when Japan surrendered in August 1945 the revolutionary struggle resumed. Through the Civil War from 1945 to 1949, the corrupt and dysfunctional Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were defeated and fled to the island of Taiwan. The People’s Republic was proclaimed in Beijing on October 1, 1949.

Building a socialist society

Since the victory of the revolution, the Communist Party has been the guiding force in the development of the People’s Republic. It led the campaign of Land Reform which destroyed the lingering power of the old landlord class in the countryside and created the basis to begin the building of a modern industrial economy. It brought in the Marriage Law of 1950, which abolished arranged marriages and became the basis for a society of gender equality. The party oversaw the processes of economic development over the following decades. During this time, there were serious divisions over policy and procedure, and intense clashes over how best to pursue to goals of socialist development.

There was a major reorientation in policy with the transition from the leadership of Mao Zedong after his death in 1976 and the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as the guiding force from 1979 until his death in 1997. The party undertook the policies of reform and opening in order to accelerate the rate of growth and raise the material standards of living for the masses. These have remained the guiding ideas into the present moment.

The history of the Communist Party of China is one of revolutionary struggle, of victories and defeats, of successes and failures, of correct choices and of errors of judgment. It is a process of economic and social transformation which is still underway. The ultimate outcome and the efficacy of the course chosen by the party’s leadership remain to be seen. But the work of building better lives for the peoples of China has been the mission of the party from its inception.

There have been great achievements: Life expectancy has been dramatically extended; infant mortality dramatically reduced. There is universal literary and educational opportunity. Public health is seen as a human right, not a profit-generating commodity. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty.

Much work remains to be done, and many challenges need to be faced. But the centennial of the founding of the CPC is a moment for reflection and, indeed, celebration. The historic achievements of the Communist Party stand as testament to the possibility of the revolutionary transformation of the world.

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