From the introduction to the text by Zheng Chaolin State capitalism (english translation by A. I.)

You kindly advise me  to follow others’ suit.

Though I would love to compromise,

there is a gulf that I can never cross.

Seemingly just inches wide,

actually it reaches for a thousand miles.

It is the gulf between a human and a beast.

Should I drink the sweet and not the bitter cup,

I would disgrace my father and my mother!

And even if I crossed this gulf,

my mind would be forever dissident.

Do you not see some old acquaintances of mine

bending their heads low

and saying yes when so required,

but all to no avail?

Like me, they spent these thirteen years in jail,

hungrily looking upwards at the swan

that wings its way across the sky –

where is the leniency?

Zheng Chaolin, Forever Dissident*

What we present in this volume is, to our knowledge, the first Italian translation of any writing by the Chinese Marxist revolutionary Zheng Chaolin. Born in 1901, Zheng Chaolin was among the founders of the youth section of the Chinese Communist Party in France in 1922. Having survived the Shanghai massacre after the workers’ uprising of April 1927, he joined the Trotskyist minority in the CCP in 1929, being expelled in November of that year together with the historic party leader: Chen Duxiu. Arrested by the Guomindang in 1931 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was released in 1937 with the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Completely isolated, as early as 1937 he adopted an internationalist stance on the war, regarding it as an articulation of the coming inter-imperialist world war, and defending the line of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ against the majority of the Chinese and international Trotskyist movement. From the end of 1941 until the defeat of Japan, he edited the underground Trotskyist magazine The Internationalist. A member, together with Wang Fanxi, of the small grouping called the Internationalist Workers’ Party of China, he translated Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and wrote several books, including The ABC of Permanent Revolution, his own memoirs and an unfinished biography of Chen Duxiu. A ‘heretical’ Trotskyist, inasmuch as he was an ‘orthodox’ Marxist, he committed himself to the analysis of the social nature of the USSR and of Mao’s China, as well as to the search for the causes of the Stalinist counterrevolution; he published his conclusions in 1950, in the clandestine pamphlet State Capitalism[1], in which he developed his substantial, if not formal, theoretical break with the fundamentals of Trotskyism and with the thesis of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’. Arrested by the Maoist regime in 1952 during an anti-Trotskyist raid[2] and imprisoned for a further 27 years (equalling Blanqui’s sad record of 34 years spent in prison), he died in Shanghai in 1998 after a long illness, having remained true to his Marxist and internationalist convictions until the end.

Possibly the only researcher in Italy who has taken an interest – even if only in passing – in Zheng Chaolin is Arturo Peregalli, who wrote in his valuable 1976 study Introduction to the History of China:

… the very few vanguards that remained more or less faithful to the principles of Marxism were taken out of circulation. The Maoist police, between December 1952 and January ’53, arrested many communists in various raids. Among those arrested are: Zheng Chaolin, an old comrade who had participated in the founding of the CCP, who had worked in Paris with Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi around the end of World War I, and who had led the working class in Wuhan in 1926-27. After being arrested by the Guomindang police and sentenced to 15 years in prison (though not served) he was now arrested by Mao’s police. […] These comrades and many others were deported to concentration camps or sentenced to forced labour. Nothing more was heard of their fate. Their only fault was not believing in Maoist socialism.[3]

Indeed, the curtain of disinterest surrounding the theoretical reflections of the Chinese internationalist minorities and Zheng’s very name should not be too surprising. In Italy, at least from the late 1960s onwards, a form of Stalinism ostensibly more radical than the traditional PCI (Italian Communist Party) vestments found in ‘Maoism’ and its collections of maxims and proverbs – banal when not ridiculous – the ‘verb’ of contestation. The ‘cultural revolution’ was very much in fashion. On the other hand, the figure of Zheng Chaolin, and his Marxist approach, were difficult to frame – for the very few who knew him – within the various tendencies that opposed Stalinism from different angles: he was a revolutionary who rejected the thesis of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’, who took an internationalist stance in the course of a war considered by Trotskyism to be one of ‘national liberation’, and who defined the social nature of the USSR and China as ‘state capitalism’; but who, nevertheless, had never ceased to call himself a ‘Trotskyist’. And it is probably his reclaimed belonging to Trotskyism, along with the fact that he was always politically ‘isolated’, that made him ‘accepted’ – albeit with many ‘reservations’ – in the Trotskyist (especially Anglo-Saxon) world.

And yet, it is precisely what makes Zheng’s elaboration difficult to ‘place’ – for many forms of epigonism, fetishistically clinging to the limitations of some great Marxist theorists – that has directed us to study this important representative of Marxism in China, and prompted us to propose his reading to the militant and to the researcher in Italy.

Zheng Chaolin’s path is not unprecedented, especially if we compare it with that of figures such as Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James, Tony Cliff and Grandizo Munis[4], who more or less in the same years[5] (during or shortly after the end of the Second World War), and coming from the same political environments, came to conclusions about state capitalism that are closely akin to those reached by the Chinese revolutionary. And, we think, it is not accidental that, within the international workers’ movement, the small minorities who embraced the theory of state capitalism also stood out for having a consistent internationalist position during the world imperialist war, recognising the latter as such on ‘all fronts’ and rejecting – to varying degrees – the ‘defencism’ of the USSR.

Zheng Chaolin’s essay State Capitalism is certainly not the last word on this subject within the Marxist debate, and it is not in this sense that we intended its publication. Zheng had just begun his studies on this fundamental question, when 27 years in prison precluded his reflection from benefiting from the results of the international theoretical debate. However, if contemporary or slightly subsequent elaborations in other parts of the world have, in some ways, expressed greater clarity and completeness from a Marxist point of view – suffice it to think of the writings of Amadeo Bordiga, and the Italian Communist Left in general – we believe that the limitations of Zheng Chaolin’s reflection do not outweigh its undeniable merits, especially considering the time of the pamphlet’s writing and the context of extreme isolation of Chinese internationalist minorities[6]. Minorities that were subjected to an unimaginable strain, due to the pressure of bourgeois repression, be it nationalist or Maoist: the Guomindang’s systematic state terror destroyed Trotskyist groups in the cities, while the CCP murdered them in the countryside[7], and vilified them nationwide as ‘agents of Japan’. Chinese revolutionaries found themselves between the anvil of the nationalist government and the hammer of an ‘opposition’ organised as a para-State and with its own repressive structures. It was in these precarious conditions that Zheng Chaolin matured his thinking.

Among the undeniable merits of Zheng’s albeit brief text – which allow him to be placed, if not in the front ranks, then at least along the same lines as the more valid Marxist theorists of state capitalism, of the calibre of a Bordiga, a Dunayevskaya or a Tony Cliff —  there is undoubtedly the recognition of the proletarian nature of the October Revolution and the refusal to indulge in simplistic and seemingly radical assessments of this revolution as ‘bourgeois’, which exclusively consider the results of its defeat and which deprive Marxism of the capacity to understand that very defeat, to «understand the reaction» in order to «continue the work of the revolution»[8].

But the importance of Zheng Chaolin’s short essay lies, above all, in its demystification from within of the myth of Chinese ‘socialism’, even before this myth rose to the status of an article of faith among the Stalinists, while Trotskyism raved about ‘bureaucratically deformed workers’ states’. Zheng’s demystification has unfortunately lost none of its relevance even today, as there are still some who claim that China has a ‘communist’ regime based on the fact that its government is run by a party that calls itself ‘communist’ – as if communism were nothing more than just a government policy.

On the other hand, Zheng’s analysis should also give pause for thought to those who, still in 2023, believe that capitalism in China was ‘introduced’ following the economic reforms of the late 1970s, that it ‘returned’ with the introduction of ‘special economic zones’ or that it ‘emerged’ following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

For Zheng Chaolin – and for Marxism – capitalism in China never ‘emerged’, never ‘went away’ and never ‘hid’ in unspecified social depths. Capitalist relations, which arose partly endogenously on the spoils of earlier modes of production, and were largely introduced into China through violent ‘historical collisions’ by the capitalistically developed powers, were not ‘destroyed’ by the Maoist seizure of power in 1949; on the contrary, their diffusion was accelerated, to the extent that backward China was transformed into a great imperialist power.

In Mao Zedong’s ‘socialism’, social classes instead of being eliminated are multiplied (the famous ‘four classes’: workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie, national bourgeoisie), and even contribute equally to its ‘edification’; and today, after the recent 20th CCP Congress in which Xi Jinping promised to work on «building a modern socialist country», China competes on the world market in the export of ‘socialist’ goods and capital, and manifests a growing ‘socialist’ political assertiveness in the imperialist contest.

To be clear: when we speak of Chinese imperialism, we do not mean – as many do – imperialism as an exclusive club, to which one gains access by admission after having attained Lenin’s famous and often misunderstood ‘five features’; the club is rather that of the imperialist powers in a capitalist world, which is imperialist as a whole. Imperialism is a mode of being of capitalism as a world mode of production at a certain stage of its maturation, determined by the law of accumulation.

Only by approaching the question from this point of view is it possible to understand Zheng Chaolin’s internationalist stance during the ‘anti-Japanese resistance’ war and, as early as the 1950s, to provide an adequate explanation in Marxist terms of Mao’s China’s trade with western countries; of China’s strategy of financial loans to ‘third world’ countries at very low or zero interest rates[9]; of Maoist China’s economic and political projection along Korean and Indo-Chinese lines and generally towards South-East Asia well before it rose to the rank of world ‘great power’.

Zheng Chaolin’s short essay provides sufficient elements to understand the subsequent evolution of Chinese capitalism, a capitalism in which over the past 40 years the state sector has gradually – but not unexpectedly – been reduced or transformed into state participation with ‘controlling stakes’ in economic sectors deemed strategic.

The publication of State Capitalism – and of Zheng’s two other articles from the 1980s-1990s, that we include in the appendix to this volume – also has the sense of reaffirming the need to recognise Stalinism as a class enemy and to settle accounts theoretically and politically with it; to revive a debate that today risks falling victim to superficiality, or to an open mystification by intellectuals of dubious credentials – extraneous to the communist left in both the strict and broad sense – engaged in building ‘authorial’ and political careers for themselves by ‘rediscovering’ – to tell the truth rather late – the analysis of Amadeo Bordiga (today that books on the subject seem to have a certain ‘market’), trying to make it compatible with radical-reformist approaches and an at best ‘stunted’ internationalism.

It is not these people who can truly ‘settle accounts with the enemy’, especially if, while proclaiming the solemn ‘closure’ of these accounts, they are busy opening up for petty political purposes new lines of credit to this same enemy – represented by the political remnants of Stalinism, orphaned by their leading State –, especially if it has a certain size and organised presence. An enemy that, by treacherously identifying socialism and ‘state property’, with the emergence of new waves of generalised workers’ struggles may once again represent a strong opportunist threat – such as we are no longer used to conceiving after decades of the liberalist cycle – and against which the acquisitions of Marxism will have to be defended tooth and nail.

Only those who truly settle accounts with the enemy, those who recognise that Stalinism, as a political phenomenon, is not part of the workers’ movement and is in no way reconcilable to a revolutionary class policy, only those who are able to understand that for internationalist communists there is no dialogue with the counter-revolution can hope to interrelate with the Chinese working class with any credibility.

A working class that, after the catastrophe of 1927 and its complete ouster as a political subject from Chinese affairs – which lasted more than twenty years –, raised its head again for the first time in 1953-54, barely four years after the Maoist seizure of power. Initially with spontaneous struggles in the factories of the ‘workers’ state’, in the form of absenteeism, delays, early exits, arbitrary breaks and sick leave; later with sit-down strikes and retaliation against stakhanovists. A working class that took to the streets in 1956-57 in huge demonstrations, in which wages increases and the improvement of living conditions were demanded, going so far as to clash directly with the fierce capital-state repressive apparatus in Shanghai and Guangdong, while

Two workers’ regions, Peking and Manchuria, also begin the struggle. In the mines of the Northeast, workers beat up doctors who refuse to issue compliant sick certificates and the miners stay at the bottom of the shafts refusing to work. The strikers demand improvements, use simple demands such as sink installations as a pretext to stop work, protest against excessively high transport prices, etc.[10]

A working class that in 1966-67, taking advantage of the conflict among bourgeois fractions that came to be known as the ‘cultural revolution’, resumed its struggle. In Shanghai, the dockers went on strike first, shortly followed by all the city factories, which the workers came to occupy and preside over, along with other public and private buildings, demanding wage increases, reduced working hours, social housing and payment of arrears. The response of the ‘communist’ party government was to send about 250 troops of the ‘people’s army’ into the city, to clear the factories and violently re-establish ‘socialist’ order in the workers’ suburbs. All this while the so-called ‘red guards’, who so stunned the Maoists in our country, scabbed the striking workers. In the wake of these workers’ struggles, small classist and anti-capitalist groups were born, such as the Sheng Wu-lien (short for the Committee of the Great Proletarian Revolutionary Alliance of Hunan Province), which, despite some political naivety and theoretical limitations, believed it was necessary for the Chinese working class to found a new revolutionary communist party, which would overthrow «the political power of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie» and destroy «the old state machine» of the ‘red capitalists’ «down to the foundations»[11].

These cycles of struggle, including the workers’ component of the 1989 demonstrations, tie in with the recent struggles of the Chinese proletariat, the most recent of which occurred in November 2022[12], proving that the class struggle in China has never stopped and does not stop manifesting itself.

In 1950 Zheng Chaolin predicted that in China

… the peasants will gradually become proletarian and as the urban proletariat increases in numbers, as its quality of life improves and as it becomes more concentrated, its consciousness will become more defined. Then we will be able to place the question of revolution on a higher historical level. The contradictions will then be more acute and more difficult to mitigate.

Today, part of its prediction has become fact, with the Chinese working class numbering in the hundreds of millions. In many cases, this proletariat expresses today its class demands – often mixed with the ‘democratic’ demands of bourgeois social strata – by raising portraits of the ‘Great Helmsman’, whose legacy is said to be ‘betrayed’ by the current CCP nomenklatura, just as Russian workers up to January 1905 used to petition by raising portraits of the ‘Little Father’. This is neither new nor cause for discouragement. Far from it.

The Chinese proletariat can find in its own traditions of struggle and in the elaboration of Marxist revolutionaries like Zheng Chaolin the lever for a reconstruction of its organised consciousness. The young generations of internationalists in China do not have to start from scratch. There is a red thread that can be knotted again.

In order to regain a ‘clean flag’, they do not need to pass through libertarian communism again, as some have suggested – implicitly assuming that their own specific path constitutes a universal virtuous ‘model’, when in fact this path’s arrival point is anything but exemplary. No. Young internationalists in China must firmly hold the flag that the workers’ movement has been raising for almost 200 years, since the time of Merthyr Tydfil’s workers’ revolt[13]; they must cleanse the red of this flag from the ‘five stars’ that symbolise a false communist party and the ‘harmonious union’ of all social classes… in the exploitation of only one: the working class.

It is not an easy task, but Chinese internationalists will be able to rely on the solidarity and collaboration of those conscious internationalist minorities around the world who will prove capable of linking up with the best expressions of Marxism in China. Especially in the perspective of the political, theoretical and organisational struggle that will be called for against the deep divisions that the crisis of capitalism and the competition between the imperialist powers will fuel within our class in the coming, inevitable world conflagrations.

Circolo internazionalista “coalizione operaia


* This poem was written by Zheng Chaolin in a Maoist prison in 1965, after a visit from his wife, who had been ordered to persuade him to admit his ‘guilt’ and submit to ‘re-education’. From the anthology volume Poets of the Chinese revolution, edited by Gregor Benton and Feng Chongyi, Verso, London, 2019, p. 102.

[1] Or, according to another possible translation, On State Capitalism. The pamphlet, assumed lost for years, was published in Hong Kong under a false name, by a probably fictitious ‘Society for historical and literary studies’.

[2] The raid took place on the night of 22 December 1952. It was nationally coordinated and conducted in several cities almost simultaneously. About a thousand Trotskyists were arrested, together with their relatives and supporters. The arrested relatives were soon released, and some of the prisoners were freed after a brief ‘re-education’ that included an obligation to reveal the ‘crimes’ of the others arrested (and of other people).

[3] A. Peregalli, Introduzione alla storia della Cina, Ceidem, Pistoia, 1976, pp. 54-55.

[4] “A step forward has been taken, and it must be acknowledged, by the Spanish section in Mexico of the Fourth International […]. Munis has perfectly understood the untenability of the anti-Marxist thesis of an economically progressive and politically reactionary social regime, and the inconsistency of an analysis that sees Stalinism as a kind of transitory lump arising on the trunk of a ‘socialist’ productive base: his sharp critique of Soviet planning excludes without possibility of appeal that an extended accumulation based on the appropriation of surplus value by one class, on the separation of producer and means of production, on the law of wages, on the compression, rather than the development, of the consciousness and culture of the worker […] can be considered ‘socialist’.” B. Maffi, Il trotskismo si aggiorna ma…, from Prometeo (Series I), no. 7, June 1947.

[5] See R. Dunayevskaya, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a Capitalist Society, published in the Internal Discussion Bulletin of the Workers Party in March 1941; G. Munis, Los revolucionarios ante Rusia y el stalinismo mundial, 1946; T. Cliff, The Nature of Stalinist Russia, June 1948; C.L.R. James, State capitalism and World revolution, 1950.

[6] When Chinese Trotskyists were not in prison, they were usually cut off from the outside world, due to the war or poor communications.

[7] In the province of Shandong and in the Zhongshan county, province of Guangdong, small groups of Trotskyists from the majority wing, cut off from the political centre in Shanghai because of the war, organised small guerrilla detachments. Those in Shandong were massacred by the CCP, while the Japanese ‘took care’ of those in Zhongshan.

[8] See A. Labriola, In memoria del Manifesto dei comunisti, in Tutti gli scritti filosofici e di teoria dell’educazione, Bompiani, Milano, 2014, digital edition, p. 1078. «Despite their profound insights, the council communists’ analysis […] was fundamentally flawed. Their reading of the Russian revolution was conditioned by what Russia had subsequently become. For them it was impossible to think of the degeneration of a proletarian revolution, and this stemmed from the fact that sometimes it is much easier to conclude that a defeated revolution never existed, than to search for why and how this revolution failed. In short, they threw the baby out with the bathwater.» R. Tacchinardi – A. Peregalli, L’URSS e i teorici del capitalismo di Stato, Piero Lacaita editore, Bari-Roma, 1990, p. 78.

[9] China’s ‘discovery of Africa’ is not a recent thing, considering that between 1959 and 1965 China granted loans totalling 340 million dollars to several African countries. See A. Peregalli, Introduzione alla storia della Cina, Ceidem, Pistoia, 1976, p. 209.

[10] Ibidem, pp. 65-66.

[11] Ibidem, pp. 156-159.

[12] «In early October, Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory (which to date ranks first in the world in terms of the number of iPhones assembled) responded to the rising number of [Covid-19] infections in the city […] by closing its gates and confining the entire workforce inside the factory-building. In the following hours, in order to avoid the lockdown, many workers were seen fleeing secretly, through fields and carrying suitcases. Subsequently, new problems emerged. New workers hired temporarily to avert the lockdown complained about the increasing workload and worsening hygienic conditions. The discontent grew until it exploded on 23 November, when hundreds of employees clashed with security personnel. ‘The evolution of the situation,’ reads an analysis by the Hong Kong-based NGO, China Labour Bulletin, ‘reveals that […] workers have safe and decent working conditions as their main goal’. This indicates that the protests were not so much directed at the Zero Covid policy per se, but at the fact that the security guarantees promised by the national strategy were lacking».

[13] Small town in Wales where the red flag is believed to have been raised for the first time in 1831, during a workers’ revolt.


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