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The Meaning of Tiananmen Square


Alexander Cockburn was born on the 6th of June in 1941. Today would have been his 73rd birthday, always a festive time in Petrolia. In honor of Alex’s birthday (and the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests), we’re running one of his most trenchant columns from the June 12th, 1989 edition of The Nation. –JSC

Transfixed by a million people in Tiananmen Square, the press seems unfazed by the fact that though some students plainly want capitalist democracy, others sing “The Internationale.” Workers carry pictures of Mao. But then, these journalists don’t seem to notice very much. How come, if Deng Xiaoping has been the most hated man in China, we had to wait for a million people to tell us the news?

Speaking as one who has stood in a crowd of a million people-the demonstration in favor of a nuclear freeze, held on June 12, 1982, in New York’s Central Park-I don’t recall the press here getting quite as excited at the turnout. Some millions are more millionish than others.

I hope Deng goes down and his whole crowd with him. They promoted market relations within an authoritarian state, which is fascism. At least Gorbachev is going at it the other way round.

The past decade has spelled long-term misfortune most Chinese peasants and workers. Thatcherization in the countryside has led, as William Hinton observed in the Monthly Review  for March, to a dispersal of social assets so great that “it is doubtful if, in the history of the world, any privileged group acquired more for less.” The privileged in this case are those-mostly party functionaries urged to the pillage by the leadership-best positioned to loot the public economy.

So far as urban workers are concerned, Jim Petras points out in a fine article in the May/June issue of Against the Current (7012 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI 48210) that they are losing the social benefits of communism and getting little in return, beyond “market discipline,” linkage of wages to profits a contract system hailing back to feudal times.

If 1905 in St. Petersburg, or 1968 in Paris, or 1986 in Manila taught us anything, it is that real political change takes more fuel than mass good will. Undesirable classes do not liquidate themselves voluntarily; vested power is not overwhelmed by yellow roses. “People power” can change the nature of the government but not the nature of the state, because although a mass of citizens can stop an army, as the second entry of the Little Red Book says, “To make a revolution, you need a revolutionary party.” And there is no revolutionary party for those Chinese students to turn to.

The word “democracy” always needs footnotes. There was recently a “democratic” mayoral election in Angeles. About 20 percent of the eligible voters turned out, and the winner was a man, Tom Bradley, who in the recent portion of his long stay in City Hall has mostly represented the causes of real estate (local, Canadian, Japanese), in whose interest tens of thousands of the city’s poorest people are about to be flung from their homes.

As Petras concluded, “The class lines are being drawn in the East [i.e., China] between the managerial supporters of the market and working-class defenders of democratic collectivism. It is time for those on the left in the West to also define themselves, because historical experience is demonstrating that one cannot be for both the market and ~ socialism.”

Maybe you can have some market mechanisms within socialism that would make it work better, but that’s not what the Chinese “reforms” have been all about. They’re about restoring capitalism. I buy Petras’s point.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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