Irving Howe on Tiananmen Activism

Tiananmen Square, 1989. Photo: Bob Gannon

MAY 26, 1989 – These have been stirring days. The popular uprising in China, begun by students and then taken up by hundreds of thousands of workers, farmers, and other citizens—who could witness this, however fleetingly, on television or read about it, however skimpily, in the newspapers, without feeling a sense of exhilaration?

What strikes one most of all about these remarkable events is the sudden upsurge of energy and flowering of ingenuity among people without any previous experience in politics, indeed, people who have been held down for decades by a repressive dictatorship. True, there has been “participation” of a soft in t recent politics of China, but a “participation” ranged and manipulated by the ruling Communist
party (which the students, with delightful wit, call “the emperor,” tacitly comparing present-day tyranny with the tyrannies of their country’s past).

Now, the very masses whom so many sophisticated realpolitik analysts had confidently relegated to the role of passivity and docility, either because of absurd notions about “Chinese national character” or theories about modem society, these masses suddenly displayed a spirit of good-natured militancy such as often occurs at the outset of popular revolutions. The mute found their voices.

With remarkable shrewdness and a kind of intuitive skill, the workers of Beijing came to the aid of the students. It was a politics of unity, a gesture of fraternity. They set up roadblocks to halt the army units that the panicky regime had called in from distant provinces. They engaged the bewildered soldiers, many of whom had been told they were coming for “maneuvers.” The workers declared themselves so be brothers and sisters of the soldiers. As if out of nowhere but really from the depths of their historical situation, the workers spoke clearly and simply, without ideological gibberish, in words the peasant- soldiers could grasp. These students, they are our sons and daughters, they are risking their lives for our freedom: How can you think of shooting them down?

The soldiers hesitated. Perhaps some would have attacked the students; perhaps some may yet obey an order to attack—we cannot, at this moment, know. Perhaps some would have attacked the students; perhaps some may yet obey an order to attack—we cannot, at this moment, know. But mostly, the “wall” of massed humanity that was created by the workers protected the students in the central square. It was astonishing, it was wonderful. And the party “emperors” were stunned, disoriented, tom apart by factional disputes as to what to do next— disputes that seem likely to continue and deepen. The students had a ready answer: “Li Peng, resign!”

For decades to come historians will be discussing the question: How much spontaneity was there in this uprising and how much was a consequence of planning and organization? Evidently, whatever prior organization there may have been occurred among the students. One would guess—it’s no more than a guess—that there soon developed a fruitful and brilliantly improvised blend of spontaneity and organization, with the two, at the high points of the uprising, almost indistinguishable. Who directed the thousands to the various blockade points outside the central square? Who arranged for the convoys bringing food to the protestors? Who made the signs? Who found the speakers? (Perhaps they found themselves.)

In any case, whatever the verdict of future historians, it does seem from recent events in the Philippines and now China that the theory of spontaneity put forward by Rosa Luxemburg has gained at least partial vindication. Still another impression remains from these early days of the uprising, and that has to do with the role of stupidity in history—a phenomenon that no political theory has taken sufficiently into account.

The student protests began on a very mild and modest note. They wanted a public discussion with representatives of the government; they wanted the authorities to respond to expressions of popular discontent. Had the government agreed, it seems likely that at least for a time it could have avoided the humiliation it has suffered at the hands of the people. But power not only makes for corruption, it also makes for arrogance and that, in turn, materializes as stupidity. The Communist “emperors” would not yield to a simple popular request, for they had been trained in the repressive dogma of the Leninist-Stalinist “vanguard party” according to which history is the possession of a self-chosen elite, those “professional revolutionaries” now become decrepit and corrupt bureaucrats. Reaction and stupidity are twins.

What we are witnessing is the collapse of the last remnants of Stalinism, remnants clung to by the Communist “emperors” who had themselves dismantled the economic structure left by Mao but feared, understandably, to allow a parallel loosening in politics. And not only is this historic development happening in China. Even in the few countries where the old Stalinist ways survive—Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Rumania—the days of Stalinism are numbered. We have lived to see it—hurrah!

I do not write these few words as an expert on China. I do not know the details of the inner-party struggle—right now, toward the end of May, no one else seems to, either. But no matter. We hope that in later issues we will print more expert analyses. But for now, the great thing is to celebrate the rising of the Chinese people, to speak with admiration about the students and workers of Beijing, to study their suddenly brilliant capacities for political struggle, and to cherish the humane spirit in which they have thus far acted.

The world is alive again.

[JUNE 5, 1989: We mourn the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were massacred in Beijing by the reactionary Communist regime, which the students have rightly called “the emperor.” And we pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and workers in many parts of the country who are continuing the struggle for “the Goddess of Liberty.”—editors]

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