Mao: The foundation of China today
Since 1982, the collective and sustained judgment of the Communist Party of China has been that Mao Zedong made political errors in formulating and promoting the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, the Party also has judged that Mao’s contributions to the revolution and the nation far outweighed his mistakes. He led the revolution to the taking of power and directed the revolution in power to a transition to socialism, which provided the foundation for the sovereignty of the nation and the modernization of the economy. China today stands on a foundation built by Mao.
The historical context: Mao and the Communist Party of China
In ancient and feudal times, the Chinese empire was one of the largest and most advanced in the world. And during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Chinese economy was advancing in technological development and economically expanding. However, not possessing an imperialist dynamic, the Chinese economy had no stimulus to the modernization of its agriculture and industry comparable to the impact of the European conquest and peripheralization of the world on the modernization of the agriculture and industry of Northwestern Europe (see “The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, 16th century: The origins of the modernization of Northwestern Europe,” May 25, 2021; “The European conquest of Africa and Asia, 1750-1914: History must be understood, not ignored,” May 28, 2021). As a result, the Chinese economy stagnated during the nineteenth. The state became weak, incapable of rejecting the “unequal treaties” demanded by the Western imperialist powers, further reinforcing China’s stagnation and decline.
In the 1890s, with the evident incapacity of the traditional Confucian sociopolitical order to respond effectively to Western commercial and military penetration, many youth of the dominant landlord-gentry class rejected Confucian values and institutions. They were influenced by Western ideas, such as the notion that human progress in the form economic development occurs on a basis of individual initiative. However, they could not escape assumptions and emotions tied traditional Confucian moral values.
The Chinese radical youth of the era were nationalistic, in reaction to the imperialism of Japan and the European colonial powers, which were aggressively threatening China with territorial fragmentation. Their writings and protest activities reflected “a new nationalist commitment to China as a nation-state in a world dominated by predatory imperialist nation-states,” as expressed by Maurice Meisner. They hoped “to build a strong Chinese state and society that could survive and prosper in a hostile international arena.”
Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893, in the town of Shaoshan, in the southern province of Hunan. Mao was the son of a well-to-do peasant who was able to pay for his son’s education, including his board in a secondary school in the provincial capital. Mao took seriously his studies, and he was an avid reader. From 1913 to 1918, at the provincial normal school in a teacher preparation program, his political ideas began to take shape, which he expressed in an essay, “The power of the mind.” He wrote of the need for a strong centralized state, the importance of human will, and the need for Chinese intellectuals to encounter the thought of the West.
It was the period of the New Culture Movement, which was characterized by a total rejection of Confucian values and institutions. Its foremost proponent was Chen Duxiu, an ardent defender of French democracy and culture. The New Culture Movement, however, was isolated from the masses and politically powerless.
In 1917, at the age of 24, Mao was elected student of the year as well as head of the Student Association. He reactivated a night school for workers, and he organized a group of thirteen students in what later would become the Association of Studies of the New People. He was critical of some Confucian principles, but unlike many students and intellectuals of his generation, he did not completely reject Chinese traditions. He sought a synthesis of ancient Chinese customs and Western radicalism. His ideas were full of a patriotic spirit, and he supported a boycott of foreign goods.
Upon his graduation in 1918, Mao relocated to Peking, where he met Chen Duxiu of the New Culture Movement. Chen was a professor at Peking University and editor of an intellectual magazine, New Youth. Chen proposed the total transformation of Chinese culture, basing his projections on a mixture of Western ideas, including liberalism, democratic reformism, and utopian socialism.
Upon returning to Hunan in 1919, Mao participated in the creation of the Association of United Students of Hunan, and he drafted a call to protest the Versailles decision to grant German concessions in China to Japan. He published an article, “The great union of the popular classes,” in which he called for the uniting of workers, peasants, students, professors, women, and rickshaw drivers in support of a progressive agenda that would promote reforms at all levels.
The decision of the Western powers at the 1919 Versailles peace conference to transfer the German concessions in the Chinese province of Shandong to Japan had great political repercussions in China. It provoked an anti-imperialist movement by students, professors, workers, and merchants. Popular demonstrations, strikes, boycotts of foreign goods, and violent confrontations swept the cities of China.
The political turmoil enabled the pro-Western radical intellectuals to overcome their social isolation and political impotence. At the same time, many of the radical intellectuals experienced an intellectual conversion. They no longer looked to the “democracies” of the West as the ideal model; they turned away from Western liberal ideologies, which sanctioned the existing imperialist world order. They looked for guidance to Western socialist ideas and Marxism; articles on Marx and Chinese translations of the works of Marx and Lenin appeared in China from 1919 to 1921. Chinese intellectuals found in Marx a perspective for rejecting both Confucianism and Western imperialism. And they found empowering Lenin’s thought and the example of the Russian Revolution, which provided a basis for a concrete program of political action to propose to the people. The intellectuals were transformed into politically active nationalists, seeking to organize the people and lead them to effective political action.
In late 1919, Chen Duxiu, the leading intellectual of the New Culture Movement, converted to Marxism. In 1920, he and other Chinese Marxists organized small communist groups in the major cities of China. They sought to become a political voice in defense of the needs and interests of peasants and workers and to lead them to new forms of political action. In their conversion to Marxism, they continued to embrace many of the ideas of the disaffected and socially isolated intellectual class from which they emerged, including its anti-imperialist nationalism.
In 1921, Chen and another professor at Peking University, Li Dazhao, established the Communist Party of China, with the assistance of a representative of the newly formed Third Communist International in Moscow. Initially, most of the Chinese Communist Party members were the student followers of Chen and Li; the founding meeting had twelve delegates representing fifty-seven members, mostly students. Mao was among those at the founding meeting, one of two delegates of the province of Hunan. In spite of the assistance and advice of the Communist International, there can be no doubt concerning the Chinese initiative in the process, stimulated by reading Chinese translations of Marx and Lenin. After the founding meeting, Mao dedicated himself to various activities in Hunan: recruitment of Party members; the organizing and directing of an alternative school dedicated to unifying the intellectual and working classes; and the organization of workers, in accordance with the orthodox Marxist emphasis on the working class.
During 1922 and 1923, there was much debate among Chinese communists with respect to a united front with Chinese bourgeois organizations and parties. The Communist International was proposing the strategy, but most Chinese communists, including Mao, were not in agreement, believing instead that they should focus on the organization and education of the popular masses. However, inasmuch as the Communist Party of China at its Second Congress in 1922 voted for affiliation with the Communist International, the Party was obligated to adopt the united front strategy. In spite of his disagreement with the strategy, Mao joined the Nationalist Party of Sun Yatsen, and he was appointed in 1924 to the position of Secretary of the propaganda section of the Nationalist Party.
In 1925, now 32 years of age, Mao returned to his native town of Shaoshan, where he remained for seven months, conversing with residents with respect to local events. During this time, he encouraged the poorest of the local peasants to create an association. This experience led him to his first Marxist heresy. He arrived to the conclusion that, in the context of Chinese conditions, the peasants would play a central role in the revolution, and an agrarian program would have to be pivotal to the revolutionary project. In the early months of 1927, Mao wrote a report describing the peasant movement in Hunan and the revolutionary spontaneity of the peasants.
Mao’s evolving heterodox Marxism resulted from the conditions in China, which were not favorable for a bourgeois revolution or a proletarian revolution as conceived by Marx. Although a modern bourgeoisie had emerged in China as a consequence of Western imperialism, it was small and economically weak. It was primarily a commercial and financial bourgeoisie, and not an industrial bourgeoisie. It was dependent on foreign capitalism, in that it functioned as an intermediary between the Chinese market and foreign capitalist enterprises. Similarly, the proletariat was small. Most workers were employed in small shops, and they lacked proletarian class consciousness.
As developed in practice, Mao’s heterodox Marxism involved an armed struggle that began in the countryside and moved to the cities. It stressed the political education of the peasant soldiers, and a moderate agrarian reform program in territory controlled by the revolution. Radical intellectuals, with commitment to social and economic transformation, were the leaders of the revolutionary process.
Therefore, Mao adapted Marx to Chinese conditions, and he conceived the peasantry as central to the socialist revolution. He recognized that peasants, in spite of their great numbers, were a politically weak class, unable to formulate their grievances and defend their interests. Moreover, their experience was largely limited to the local, so they possessed a provincial outlook. However, the peasantry possessed resentment at the exploitation and abuse of the landlord gentry proprietors. Accordingly, Mao discerned that the peasants possessed a revolutionary spontaneity that could be channeled into effective political action, if they were organized and led by committed activists with revolutionary understanding and consciousness from other social classes.
From 1921 to 1949, the Nationalist Party, first led by Sun Yat-sen and later by Chiang Kai-shek, was the principal competitor of the Chinese Communist Party in attaining the support of the people. The two political forces to some extent shared the same goal of building a strong, modern state that would defend the nation in a hostile international environment dominated by colonialist and imperialist powers. In given political situations, they were allies; and in others, they were in conflict. Their conflict was rooted in the fact that the communists were committed not only to national unity and to national independence, but also to a social transformation that would emancipate the peasants from the landlord class and the workers from the comprador bourgeoisie.
Conditions in China as well as directions from the Communist International led to a formal alliance between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party from 1924 to 1927. The alliance enabled the Communist Party to grow rapidly; its membership expanded from 500 in 1924 to 58,000 in 1927.
The Communist-Nationalist alliance was uneasy, because of fundamental ideological differences. Acting in accordance with this conflict over political goals, the Nationalist Army, led by Chiang Kai-shek, unleashed a bloody repression of the Communist Party and their affiliated workers’ organizations and peasant associations in 1927. The membership of the Communist Party was reduced to 10,000, with its leaders and members scattered and disorganized.
Inasmuch as the Communist Party had been crushed by military force, surviving Party leaders concluded that the revolution had to include a strategy of military struggle. In October 1927, Mao Zedong led the remnants of a defeated military force to a remote mountain area, and a force led by Zhu De joined them in 1928. Through the recruitment of local peasants on the basis of a proposed radical program of land redistribution, the Mao-Zhu army grew in numbers, such that by 1931 it had attained military predominance in the southern part of the Southern province of Jiangxi, where the Chinese Soviet Republic was proclaimed. From 1931 to 1934, the Chinese Soviet Republic implemented a land reform program, and it successfully administered a territory of 15,000 square miles with a population of three million.
The Chinese Soviet Republic was conquered by the Nationalist Army in the fall of 1934, forcing the Communists to abandon their base. In October 1934, Mao led 80,000 men (and 35 women) in a trek to the North, in what later would be celebrated as “the Long March.” Fewer than 10,000 survived the 6,000-mile, yearlong ordeal, which included regular battles with Nationalist troops and warlord armies. But a remnant did reach the northern province of Shaanxi in October 1935, and other forces soon joined it, such that by late 1936 the Red Army numbered 30,000, which, however, was much smaller than Nationalist forces.
From 1935 to 1937, in the interlude between the long march and the Japanese invasion, Mao and his comrades created study groups, gave presentations and lectures, and emitted publications. Mao was actively engaged in reading and critically reflecting on the studied texts, further developing his ideas and insights.
In this period, Mao arrived to the understanding that the unfolding of contradictions involving classes, political parties, and nations is central to the evolution of socialism in a given nation. Therefore, inasmuch as each country has unique contradictions, socialism will have different characteristics is different nations. In 1938, Mao declared:
“A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used…. Consequently, the Sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay.”
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 greatly benefitted the communist cause. The Nationalist Army was forced by the advancing Japanese army to abandon the major cities and retreat to the west; and in the countryside, the landlord gentry class, allied with the nationalist government, fled to the cities. For its part, the occupying Japanese army had control of the cities, but not the countryside. These dynamics gave the Communists, already experienced in working in the villages and skilled at guerrilla warfare, access to vast areas of the countryside.
The surge of popular support for the Communist Party of China during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 to 1945 was based on the Party’s patriotic appeals for national resistance to the Japanese occupying forces. And it was based on its agrarian reform program of rent and tax reductions for tenant farmers as well as partial land redistribution. Meanwhile, the Nationalist government was discredited by its incapacity to effectively resist the Japanese invasion; and by its alliance with the landlord gentry class.
The war with Japan established the basis for an uneasy truce between the Communist Party and the Nationalist government, based on common opposition to Japanese occupation. When the Allied victory in World War II ended the occupation, civil war broke out in China. The Nationalists had four times as many soldiers as the Communists, and the Nationalists possessed superiority in military technology, mostly supplied by the United States.
However, the Communists enjoyed much more popular support. The Nationalist Party, during its period of rule of China from 1927 to 1949, had discredited itself by its collusion with foreign powers; its complicity with a declining and increasingly parasitic landlord gentry; its incapacity to respond to Japanese occupation during World War II; its lack of administrative control over its territory; and its notorious levels of corruption. Meanwhile, the Communists surged in popular support with effective administration of the countryside under its control and with guerrilla resistance to Japanese occupation. These dynamics paved the way for the taking of national political power by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.
The transition to socialism from 1949 to 1978
When Mao Zedong, on October 1, 1949, proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, he declared not a bourgeois republic but a people’s republic, led by the working class and based on a worker-peasant alliance. At that historic moment, China was characterized by an extremely low level of industrial development, a technically backward system of agricultural production, high levels of poverty, and extreme inequality. In response to this situation, the revolutionary government of China initiated programs and measures that were designed to defend the needs and interests of the people, setting aside previous accommodation to bourgeois and foreign interests. Their goals were to establish greater equality in the distribution of property and in income and to increase the general standard of living through economic modernization and development.
In the countryside, the landed gentry was eliminated as a class, and land was distributed to individual peasant proprietors. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1950 confiscated the property of landlords, who had comprised four percent of the population and had owned thirty percent of cultivated land. It also confiscated institutional lands belonging to village shrines and temples, monasteries, churches, and schools; much of which was controlled indirectly by landlords. The confiscated land was distributed to landless and poor peasants. Middle peasants and “rich peasants,” on the other hand, were allowed to keep their lands and to continue renting to tenant farmers and employing labor, to the extent that the land worked by tenants and hired labor did not exceed what the peasant owners cultivated themselves. These measures were designed to promote more equality in land distribution in a form that did not disrupt agricultural production. Although there remained distinctions among poor, middle, and rich peasants, the differences in land holdings and income were relatively small. The measures were conceived as a first step; the full and wholesale collectivization of agriculture was planned, necessary to facilitate more technically advanced forms of agricultural production.
From the 1950 to 1955, the collectivization of agricultural was a voluntary and gradual process with three stages. First, the formation of mutual aid teams of six or more households that would assist each other in work on their individual farms. Secondly, the combination of mutual aid teams into lower cooperatives, which involved the pooling and cooperative farming of land alongside the preservation of individual private plots that each household would continue to own. Thirdly, amalgamation into advanced cooperative farms, with the elimination of privately owned farms. By 1955, sixty-five percent of peasant households had joined mutual aid teams, and fifteen percent had formed lower cooperatives.
In 1955, Mao pushed for an acceleration of the process of collectivization. He encountered resistance from the Central Committee of the Party, which believed that industrialization had not advanced sufficiently, and therefore, in the context of low industrial development, the collectivization of agriculture would not have beneficial effects with respect to production, and it could disrupt production. Mao, however, believed that the peasants possessed a spontaneous and active desire to advance more in the socialist road, and that the formation of cooperatives would stimulate the further development of industry. Mao was able to overrule the Central Committee by appealing to regional and provincial Party leaders. The Party announced the accelerated program proposed by Mao in October 1955. The voluntary formation of cooperatives occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace during late 1955 and 1956, consistent with Mao’s sense of the revolutionary spontaneity of the peasantry. By the spring planting of 1957, 100% of peasant households belonged to advanced cooperatives; and private ownership of land was eliminated, except for small plots for consumption or for a limited private market. Production was not disrupted, and it continued to advance at a slow but steady rate.
Similar decisive steps in the socialist road were taken with respect to industry. Beginning in 1949, the commercial enterprises, banks, and industries of the Chinese comprador bourgeoisie, which was tied and subordinated to foreign capital, were confiscated without compensation and were nationalized. On the other hand, the national bourgeoisie, owners of smaller companies that represented a more autonomous form of capitalist development, were permitted to retain ownership, and they were encouraged to expand under strong state regulation that included the setting of prices and wages and control of trading. Such expanding space for private capital was necessary for increasing production, and it reached culmination in 1952-53. However, after 1953, the state nationalized the enterprises of the national bourgeois private sector, with compensation, such that the national bourgeoisie ceased to exist as a class. Following that date, with both the comprador and national bourgeois classes eliminated, private capital was confined to small-scale enterprises, such as self-employed handicraft workers and petty shopkeepers. The nationalization of industry was effective in promoting rapid industrial growth. Between 1952 and 1957, annual industrial growth was either 16% or 18%, depending on the measures used.
In addition, important steps in the socialist road were taken with respect to the organization of society. Autonomous mass organizations of workers, women, students, and peasants were formed, building upon and transforming preexisting organizations. In addition, resident committees and people’s militias were formed.
Thus, we see that the Chinese revolutionary leaders implemented a transition to socialism within eight years, doing so in stages. In agriculture, they at first took land from the landholders and distributed it to individual peasant households; then they moved to agricultural cooperatives. In industry, they first nationalized the companies of the comprador bourgeoisie, and then they moved to nationalization of those of the national bourgeoisie. At the same time, they developed mass organizations to facilitate that the people would have organized political voice and structures of political participation.
Therefore, the Chinese Revolution from 1949 to 1957 fulfilled its proclaimed goals of socialist transformation and economic modernization. During the period, the Revolution delivered on the promises that it had made to the people: it liquidated the ruling classes in the countryside and in the city; it established agricultural cooperatives and state ownership of industry; it reduced inequalities in land distribution and income; and it formed popular organizations.
However, further steps in protecting the social and economic rights of the people required the general improvement of the standard of living, which would necessitate the further modernization of the economy. As he developed his thoughts on this issue, Mao found himself once again not in agreement with the majority of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The disagreements were over the pace of the formation of agricultural cooperatives, and over the type of industry that ought to be developed. On the one side, the Maoists accused persons in positions of authority of being “capitalist roaders” who sought to take the revolution in a capitalist direction. On the other side, a majority on the Party’s Central Committee believed that Mao and the Maoists were reckless utopians. Utilizing his support among the people, Mao prevailed in implementing his will. But the two projects that he promoted, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, resulted in tragedy, chaos, and division. For further discussion of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, see my commentary of October 5, 2021, “The continuity of the Chinese socialist project.”
Mao Zedong died in 1976, at the age of 82, following a long illness. With the post-1978 emergence of Deng Xiaoping to a position of de facto head of the Party and the state, the Party turned to an evaluation of the legacy of Mao. In a resolution prepared with the participation of four thousand party leaders and theoreticians during a period of fifteen months and emitted by the Party on June 27, 1981, Mao’s leadership of the revolutionary struggle and in the socialist transformation of the first seven years of the People’s Republic were recognized and appreciated. At the same time, the resolution maintained that that from 1957 to 1976, Mao made ultra-Leftist, utopian, and unscientific political errors, which were responsible for the economic disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. The resolution affirmed that Mao’s contributions far outweighed his political errors, taking into account the fact that his leadership of the revolution had liberated the Chinese nation from foreign imperialism and had established the foundation for economic modernization.
Reform and Opening
Central to the vision of the Chinese socialism and the Communist Party of China as well as the understanding of classical European Marxism is the notion that the construction of socialism requires the development of the forces of production, so that the needs of the people could be met. By the late 1970s, it became clear to Party leaders that further development of the productive forces in China would require the implementation of reforms. As I wrote in my October 5, 2021 commentary:
The 1978 turn to reform and opening was made necessary by objective economic and social conditions in China. On the one hand, the achievements from 1949 to 1978 were enormous. China had been unified and liberated from foreign rule. Land had been distributed to peasants; and rural class relations had been transformed, which was accompanied by extensive irrigation of land. Women had been liberated from archaic, feudal cultural constraints. The literacy rate, which had been twenty percent prior to the revolution, had risen to ninety-three percent. And universal health care had been established; life expectancy increased by thirty-one years during the period. The poor in China had secure access to land and housing, so they were much better off than their counterparts in the developing world.
But on the other hand, China in 1978 was still a backward country in many ways. Approximately thirty percent of the rural population lived below the poverty line, dependent on small loans for production and state grants for food. Many did not have access to modern energy and potable water. The per capita income gap between China and the developed world was not narrowing. Although the ascent of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan could be explained by geopolitical factors, and the relative wealth of Hong Kong and Macao can be explained by global economic dynamics, the contrasting socioeconomic situation of China with respect to its East Asian neighbors was undermining the legitimacy of the revolution in the eyes of the Chinese people.
For these reasons, the Party led the people in the forging of a new stage in Chinese socialism, which has had extraordinary progress in the development of the productive forces, which it attained through state-directed investment in key sectors in accordance with a long-range development plan. It was a matter of finding space for domestic and foreign private capital in a state-controlled economy. It was a question of making changes in the house that Mao built, even as it turned to strategies that the great Mao could not accept.
I have discussed the post-1978 reforms in previous commentaries: “The Continuity of the Chinese Socialist Project,” October 5, 2021; “China rises and USA falls: The key is state investment in industrial production,” March 11, 2022; and “China models a new type of socialism: The most advanced example of a new socioeconomic formation,” June 10, 2022.
Mao Zedong is one of the most challenging figures of the twentieth century. His life and revolutionary work leave us with a dilemma: which option is better? On the one hand, full collectivization of agriculture and the emphasis on the development of local rural industry oriented to the needs of the cooperatives and the rural population; and on the other hand, emphasis on the development of large-scale knowledge-intensive industry, capable of competing with the most advanced corporations of the world. China for the past forty years has opted for the latter, and it has become the most important actor on the world stage. This does not preclude renewed attention to the former option, in accordance with the vision of Mao, on the basis of a much stronger productive foundation than existed in Mao’s time.
Some leftist intellectuals and activists indulge in individualist and self-centered declarations that they are Maoists, even though they are far removed from the terrain of struggle in China. I believe that it is best to defer to the collective judgement of that political party that today makes history by leading China to a spectacular economic ascent and to a refoundation of relations among nations. That political party today judges that Mao made an important and necessary contribution in leading the Party to the taking of political power in 1949, and in leading the nation in the transition to socialism and in the establishment of a modern and sovereign nation from 1949 to 1957. But that from 1958 to 1976, Mao made serious ultra-leftist errors in promoting the Great Step Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Humanity should be able to live at peace with the collective judgment of the Communist Party of China that Mao’s contributions greatly outweighed his errors.
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