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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 68September 2018

How to be a Good Communist: A review of Liu Shaoqi’s famous work and its relevance today

Liu Shaoqi’s How to be a Good Communist is a book that every Communist should read. Despite being published 79 years ago in the mountainous hinterland of China, the standards, advice and examples provided are timeless and as relevant to Communist parties in developed capitalist countries today as they were to the peasant guerrillas of Liu’s time.

How to be a Good Communist describes the thinking, practice and morals that Communist Party members must embody if the cause of Communism is to be ultimately successful. Liu not only describes these elements but also exposes common shortcomings that members, especially new and inexperienced ones, suffer from; the class origins of these defects; and the correct methods for rectifying these limitations.

These lessons are especially important for the Communist Party of Australia as it goes through a period of growth and attracts well-meaning but inexperienced new comrades.

Liu Shaoqi’s experiences leading up to How to be a Good Communist

Today, both within China and abroad, Liu Shaoqi is best known for his leading positions in the newly founded Peoples’ Republic and as the most high profile victim of the Cultural Revolution. His name is often invoked as a warning about the dangers of ultra- “left” errors. Aside from the role of martyr, Liu Shaoqi is also typically portrayed as a would-be supporter of Opening and Reform and his quotes are often presented out of historical context to suggest that he would have implemented reform and opening policies had he lived. However, these two caricatures do an incredible disservice to a committed Communist who was above all else, a disciplined proletarian educator and organiser.

Compared with most CPC leaders, Liu Shaoqi spent a lot of his time organising industrial workers rather than peasants. As Boorman observes, during the 20s and 30s Liu was a veteran organizer with “years of experience propagandizing and mobilizing miners, factory workers, and students in many parts of China ... .” (Boorman 1963 p.374).

After joining the fledgling Communist Party of China and spending a year at the Soviet Union’s University of the Toilers of the East, Liu was sent to Anyuan to help another leading Party cadre, Li Lisan, organise a strike. The 1922 Anyuan Strike successfully achieved all 13 of its goals, one of which was the official recognition of the union Li Lisan had established. This success was won without a single injury, a feat unheard of at that point in China’s labour struggles (Perry 2012 p.71). Following the strike, Li Lisan was immediately reassigned, leaving Liu Shaoqi in charge. Under Liu’s leadership, Anyuan became the “paramount centre of the Chinese Labour Movement” (Perry 2012 p.78). The union became an “embryonic soviet” that wielded de facto political and cultural control of the region (Perry p.80). During this period, Party membership surged as all manner of worker-controlled and Party-led political, economic and cultural activities took place. In the last six months of 1924 alone, the membership of the Anyuan Party branch grew 350 percent and accounted for 20 percent of the total membership of the CPC (Perry 2012 p.84). It also had the highest proportion of proletarians of any CPC branch (Perry 2012 p.84). The Anyuan experience was so successful that potential Party recruits from across the country were sent there for training and the first regional Party school was established in Anyuan with Liu Shaoqi as its principal (Perry 2012 p.94).

The value of Liu Shaoqi’s leadership can also be seen in the demise of the movement in Anyuan. Just five months after Liu was reassigned, the delicate balancing act of local class forces that he had established was undone by “left” adventurists, leading to the “September Massacre” where government troops assaulted the union and its properties. The union’s schools and cooperatives were seized, seventy staff members were incarcerated, some were killed and the principal/deputy director of the union was executed (Perry 2012 p. 115). Anyuan never recovered but the class conscious students of Liu Shaoqi spread across the Chinese countryside, bringing their revolutionary ideas and methods with them.

Liu Shaoqi continued to play an important role in other labour struggles, including the 1925 Shanghai General Strike, where he was chief of General Affairs of the Communist-led Shanghai General Labour Union (Ku 1979 p.205) and the Canton-Hong Kong Strike which lasted 16 months. In 1927, he became the head of the Central Committee’s Labour Department and then steadily rose through the ranks of the Party, taking on positions of ever greater responsibility. By 1939, when Liu was recalled to the Party Headquarters in Yan’an, he had served as Party Secretary of Fujian province, Party head for Manchuria, been elected to the Central Executive Committee, joined the Long March and then separated off from the main force to organise guerrillas in the enemy controlled territory of North Eastern China. His almost two decades of experience organising workers and peasants wherever the class struggle was fiercest earned him deep insights that he would go on to share with comrades in Yan’an.

In 1939, while in Yan’an, Liu presented two lectures at the Marx-Lenin Institute (Boorman 1963 p.375). Boorman described the focus of the lectures as being “ ... the ‘self-cultivation’ of individual party members as an integral part of ‘building’ and ‘strengthening’ the party” (Boorman 1963 p.375). The content of these two lectures were to be published as the book How to be a Good Communist.

The Content of How to be a Good Communist

The book is divided into the following nine chapters:

  1. Why Communists must undertake self-cultivation
  2. Be worthy pupils of Marx and Lenin
  3. The self-cultivation of Communists and the revolutionary practice of the masses
  4. The unity of theoretical study and ideological self-cultivation
  5. The cause of Communism is the greatest and most arduous undertaking in human history
  6. A party member’s personal interests must be unconditionally subordinated to the interests of the Party
  7. Examples of wrong ideology in the Party
  8. The source of wrong ideology in the Party
  9. Attitudes towards wrong ideology in the Party and towards inner-Party struggle

Although the text is divided into discrete chapters, the main themes of the book are woven throughout its entirety, with each chapter acting to reinforce Liu’s key points. How to be a Good Communist is filled with interesting historical lessons that modern Communists can learn from, however there are a few core messages that permeate the book. Firstly, for Communism to be achieved, a Communist Party requires members who learn from the revolutionary practice they engage in, diligently study Marxism-Leninism, cultivate a proletarian stand and put the interests of the cause above their own personal interests. Liu goes into great detail explaining precisely what he means by all of these terms so I won’t repeat them here.

Liu’s second main idea is that people don’t join the Party as fully fledged Communists who correctly apply and embody all of the above points. He mentioned that recruits may study Marxism but not sincerely. For this example, they may memorise key phrases like dialectical materialism but not understand what it really means or how to apply it, brandishing the term as a magic wand when their views are questioned. Another example is comrades who are still slaves to petty bourgeois individualism. Liu described the actions of these people well when he stated: “Often, in their unprincipled factional struggles they deliberately undermine Party organization and discipline, making unprincipled and sometimes calculated attacks on certain people, while contracting unprincipled friendships to avoid giving offence, to cover up for one another, to sing each other’s praises, etc” (Liu Shaoqi 1939). These are only two of the many kinds of incorrect thinking and practices that Liu lists.

Yet Liu Shaoqi wasn’t content to produce a list of problems; he also explained the class background and causes of these problems. Essentially, he argued that the political and ideological problems described throughout the book, especially in chapter seven, are the result of non-proletarian ideology in the Party. Liu quoted Stalin as saying there are two contributing factors to this infiltration: Firstly, the fact that the working class is not homogenous but is made up of different strata, and secondly the influence of the ruling class’ ideology on the proletariat. While the second point is obvious to any Marxist, after all Marx and Engels did say that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Marx, Engels 2004 p.64), Liu’s first point deserves closer attention.

China was still fundamentally a peasant society however the ranks of the proletariat were growing. Peasants were leaving their homes to become workers in cities and mines while some intellectuals, petty merchants and gentry fell from their privileged status. There was also a stratum of well-off workers that Liu described as the “labour aristocracy” (Liu 1939). As a result, the working class was comprised of various strata that maintained various non-proletarian ideologies, habits and prejudices. The new comers to the proletariat were in Liu’s words “the most favourable soil for all sorts of anarchist, semi-anarchist and “ultra-Left” groups” (Liu 1939) while the labour aristocracy “constitutes the most favourable soil for outright reformists and opportunists” (Liu 1939).

Having described the sources of non-proletarian ideology within the Party, Liu Shaoqi finally discussed how best to overcome these problems and the correct way to struggle against incorrect ideas within the Party. He first recognised that these ideas are inevitable and will continue to be introduced into the Party. Liu stated: “But is it so strange that certain members bring some of the filth of the old society with them into our Party or reflect it there? Is it so strange that a person that has just crawled out of the mud is covered with slime?” (Liu 1939). He further stated that as long as the Party continues to exist within a class society with exploiting class influences, the Party will not be free of ideological “filth”.

With this in mind, Liu Shaoqi accepted that it is not a question of whether conflicts and struggles will exist within the Party but instead of how these contradictions are resolved. Throughout chapter nine, Liu compares harmful attitudes towards inner-Party contradictions and the class background of these errors, with the correct approach to inner-Party struggle. He concludes that comrades must be mentally ready to engage in principled criticism and struggle against incorrect ideas and to punish incorrigible elements that refuse to change their ways. However, he also emphasises that the point of struggle is to strengthen the unity and effectiveness of the Party and to educate members. Liu summarised his position thusly: “Properly combine irreconcilability and clarity in matters of principle with flexibility and patient persuasion in methods of struggle; in the course of prolonged struggles, educate, criticize, temper and remould comrades who have committed errors but who are not incorrigible.” (Liu 1939)

The Significance of How to be a Good Communist

Liu Shaoqi’s speeches at Yan’an were deeply significant given the situation of the CPC at the time. The content of How to be a Good Communist is also highly relevant for Communist parties in the developed capitalist world today. His speeches at the Marx-Lenin Institute were given to a guerrilla army that was mostly composed of non-proletarian elements. The effects of non-class elements and their non-proletarian thinking was immense and it was necessary to forge these comrades into disciplined Marxist-Leninists who could be relied upon to carry China through the Anti-Japanese war, the upcoming Civil war, and to create the Peoples’ Republic.

Communist parties in developed capitalist countries have a far higher proletarian composition than the CPC had in its early days, or in fact even has today. However, just like in Liu’s time, the proletariat as a class is made up of numerous strata which have differing experiences of exploitation and differing levels of consciousness as a result of the particular ways they are exploited and the propaganda from the class enemy. Fewer and fewer Australian workers experience large-scale socialised production in industrial fields like manufacturing. Instead, they are increasingly employed in service sectors, isolated from fellow workers, turned into “contractors” and a range of other changes in the way they experience exploitation. These changes will divide the working class into new strata with differing levels of class consciousness.

The effect of the class enemy’s extremely effective propaganda system can also be seen in the ideological mud that prospective members are steeped in. As education increasingly becomes an industry, which is located as firmly in the base as in the superstructure, it is not reasonable to expect recruits to have acquired critical and analytical skills at school, as these are not required in the new precarious economy. It becomes increasingly incumbent on the Party itself to provide the foundations of philosophical thinking that might have been taken for granted two decades ago. So just like the CPC in 1939, we are also in need of forging our membership comprised of disparate class elements into a disciplined fighting force capable of uniting and leading the working people of Australia.

Conclusion

Liu Shaoqi’s observations in How to be a Good Communist are timeless and relate as much to Communist Parties in developed capitalist countries today as they did to his own Party nearly eighty years ago. Unfortunately, many of the examples of incorrect thinking presented in the book are painfully familiar to modern readers and represent enduring problems facing the Communist movement. To be successful in achieving the greatest cause humanity has ever known, Communists should heed Liu Shaoqi’s advice on the standards they must live up to and the methods for doing so. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Cited Works List

Boorman, Howard L. “How to Be a Good Communist: The Political Ethics of Liu Shao-Ch’i.” Asian Survey, vol. 3, no. 8, Aug. 1963, pp. 372–383. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3023648.

Ku, Hung-Ting. “Urban Mass Movement: The May Thirtieth Movement in Shanghai.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, 1979, pp. 197–216. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/312123.

Liu, Shao Qi. How to Be a Good Communist. Liu Shaoqi Reference Archive, Foreign Languages Press, 1939, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/liu-shaoqi/1939/how-to-be/index.htm.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. International Publishers, 2004.

Perry, Elizabeth J. Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition. University of California Press, 2012.

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