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On the Role of Mao Zedong

William Hinton was the author of the classic study of revolution in a Chinese rural village, Fanshen. His numerous books on China made him one of the great chroniclers of that country’s revolution in the second half of the 20th century. He died on May 15, 2004. See the July-August issue of MR or MR’s Web site for a full appreciation and obituary.
This essay is adapted from a talk given at the 1999 Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City.

In 1995 a foreign reporter interviewed me about Mao. She sought me out as someone who had met the man in person and openly admired him over the years. She asked, “What about all the people he killed? What about all those famine deaths? And what about all the suffering and destruction of people in the Cultural Revolution?” With these questions she lined herself up with the current media line on Mao, the line of conventional wisdom, which is to present him as a monster—Mao, the monster. The usually more enlightened BBC reached a new low that week with their Mao centenary program. It made him out to be not only a monster but also a monstrous lecher far gone into orgies with teenage girls. Such a low level of attack! It cheapened the BBC and should have backfired, but you never can tell these days.

The Mao-the-monster thesis depends on two major charges. The first makes him responsible for all the euphoria and excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the organization of people’s communes, which, so the charges go, led to a collapse of production and finally to famine in China. (Isn’t it indeed strange that this famine was not discovered at the time but only extrapolated backward from censuses taken 20 years later, then spinning the figures to put the worst interpretation on very dubious records.) I do not mean to say that there were no mistakes in policy, no crop failures, and no starvation at all, but the hardships of those years are advertised as the greatest famine in human history, a conclusion that I do not accept.

The second charge blames Mao for the extremes of violence and all the personal tragedies that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Must Mao take the blame for all these phenomena?

I think it is wrong to blame Mao in this wholesale fashion. Such suffering as did result during both these periods arose as a consequence of protracted political warfare. This political warfare, in turn, grew out of the clash between two newly emerged classes—workers and bourgeoisie—over the future direction of China after the victory of 1949. The struggle between them was inevitable and reflected the principal political and social contradiction that arose in China after liberation. Until 1949, the principal contradiction had been between the Chinese people on one side and on the other the feudal style landlords, their offspring the bureaucratic capitalists, and backing them all, the foreign imperialists, especially (from the 1930s onward) the Japanese who set out to conquer China by armed force. The character of the revolution generated by this contradiction was democratic, or as Mao termed it, New Democratic. What then is the New Democratic Revolution? I have written some clarification of this question in my book, The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978–1989 (Monthly Review Press, 1990). It can be summarized as follows:

In the 1930s, Chairman Mao declared that the capitalist road was not open to China in the 20th century. The Chinese revolution against internal feudalism and external imperialism, he said, could not be a democratic revolution of the old type—like the British or the French—a revolution to open the road to capitalism, but must be a democratic revolution of a new type, one that would open the road to socialism. Why? In the first place the imperialist powers would not allow China to carry out any transformation aimed at autonomous capitalist development. Every time any section of the Chinese people rose up to challenge traditional rule the powers intervened, singly or in unison, to suppress the effort by force of arms. This predictable response led Sun Yat-sen to ask, “Why don’t the teachers ever allow the pupils to learn?” He asked this because the Americans were preaching to them about the marvels of capitalism and told them, “you Chinese should develop capitalism,” but every time they tried to develop it the Americans intervened to crush it! The answer was, of course, that the landlord class as a whole and the compradors in business and government served as the main props of imperialist power in China. Hence the Americans used all their financial and military might to support, inspire, foster, and preserve these feudal survivals and their comprador offspring.

In the second place, Mao said, capitalism was not an option because “socialism will not permit it.” By this he meant that without allying with and winning support from all the socialist forces in the world—first of all the Soviet Union and second the working classes and working-class movements of Japan, Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, and other countries and the backing these provided through their own struggles against capitalism and imperialism, the Chinese revolution could not possibly succeed. In the modern era, defined by Mao as an era of wars and revolutions, in which capitalism was unquestionably dying and socialism unquestionably prospering, such an alliance and such support would come only as a response to a Chinese revolution of a new type—a Chinese revolution clearing the ground for working-class power and socialism and not a Chinese revolution clearing the ground for bourgeois class power and capitalism.

Finally, China’s independent national bourgeoisie, the revolutionary sector of the bourgeois class, was weak and vacillating. It could not possibly take on both the Chinese landlords and the imperialists plus their Chinese comprador partners without fully mobilizing both the working class and the peasantry. But mobilizing the working class meant putting certain limits on managerial powers and meeting certain working-class demands—job security, retirement pay, and health care—while mobilizing the peasantry meant carrying out land reform. This could not be done without confiscating the wealth of the landlord class, from which the bourgeoisie had, in the main, arisen and to which it still maintained myriad ties. Furthermore, the confiscation of property and land threatened the foundations of all private property and caused capitalists—much as they desired liberation from feudalism and imperialism—to vacillate. Over and over again, the national bourgeoisie proved incapable of firm national leadership against the people’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Leading the Chinese democratic revolution thus shifted by default to the working class, more numerous by far and older and more experienced than the bourgeoisie, and to the Communist Party that had established itself as spokesman for all the oppressed.

With the Communist Party assuming leadership in the revolution, mobilizing both workers and peasants by the millions and threatening to confiscate not only all the land of the landlords but all the property of the imperialists and their comprador and bureaucratic allies, the first goal of the revolution could hardly be capitalism. Mao projected a new national form, a mixed economy heavily weighted on the side of public and collective ownership with joint state-private and wholly private enterprises of the national capitalists playing a minor supporting role. Hence this led to the concept of a New Democratic Revolution and a New Democratic transitional period and the eventual establishment of a New Democratic state, with a mandate to carry land reform through to the end and to nationalize the wealth (industrial, commercial, and financial) monopolized by the four great bureaucratic families of China and, within certain limits, to help the national capitalists to get on their feet. The great victory of l949 brought all this about as projected. It resolved the old contradiction with feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism backed up by imperialism on the mainland and brought a new contradiction to the fore—the Chinese people versus the bourgeoisie. The character of the revolution from that point on was socialist, even though many New Democratic tasks remained to be completed—such as land reform in the newly liberated areas. So the character of the political struggle had changed.

Now Mao was not responsible for this. It was built into the fabric of Chinese life and into the fabric of the Chinese Communist Party and into all of Chinese politics by the existence of classes—especially the emerging new classes, workers and capitalists—and by the existing economy at its stage of development. The Communist Party, confronted by these contradictions, had developed into two main streams—one an open party governing the liberated areas with Mao Zedong as the primary leader, and the other an underground party growing up primarily in Guomindang dominated cities where Liu Shaoqi was responsible, under the overall leadership of Mao. The party stream under Mao developed into a proletarian headquarters and the stream that Liu led became the core of a bourgeois headquarters all within the overall umbrella of the party itself. That does not mean that everyone on either side was either proletarian or bourgeois. There were many degrees of mixture and admixture.

But the two headquarters, with their contrasting class character, developed out of this history and these circumstances and out of the isolation of the two streams from each other.

The Shanghai bourgeoisie, through the student movement of the 1930s and ’40s contributed heavily to Liu’s forces. After Deng’s reforms began, whenever anyone reached a high post, people always asked, Which branch of the Shanghai Youth league did he or she belong to? The big reform leaders that Deng Xiaoping brought forward, first Hu Yaobang, and then Zhao Ziyang, were both products of the Shanghai Youth League. Of course, there were many Maoists among the league members and there were workers and left-wing intellectuals who identified with the working class in the underground branches of the party. But under Liu’s guidance a bourgeois headquarters emerged nevertheless.

After victory, after the liberation of China in l949, the two streams of the party merged as one organizationally, but they never did merge ideologically. Meanwhile the bourgeois stream received constant reinforcement from the degeneration of once-dedicated cadre under the bombardment of silver bullets that greeted them on assuming office at all levels, silver bullets being the perks and privileges that society or independent capitalists could offer a man or woman in power. Successive rectification movements stemmed this seepage but could not close it off entirely, nor was it easy to screen closet opportunists from among the new recruits to a party suddenly empowered and in a position to allocate the wealth of by far the largest mass of laboring people the world has ever seen.

Mao’s proletarian stream, in order to serve the long-term interests of the workers and peasants, had to struggle for a socialist future and the eventual elimination of class exploitation. That Mao truly had the future interests of the common people in mind in struggling for this goal is demonstrated by the crisis and stagnation now pervading large parts of rural China. This is leading to the proletarianization of scores of millions of peasants chronically underemployed on the ubiquitous noodle strips of soil allocated to them by the family responsibility system.

In sharp contrast, representatives of the bourgeoisie in the party, in order to save a future role for themselves, and to save China as a sphere of operation for the bourgeoisie as a class, had to struggle for, at the very least, a prolonged period of mixed economy with an ever widening role for private entrepreneurs leading to a capitalist future. To weight the dice in this direction Deng’s government redeemed scores of millions of dollars worth of bonds once issued to China’s independent entrepreneurs to compensate for government expropriations, bonds on which interest had been paid for ten years prior to their cancellation in l966. Bond redemptions began around 1980.

Can Mao be blamed for the struggle, this split over policy? No. This struggle was built in and inevitable. Initiatives arising on either side had to be challenged and defeated or at least stalemated by the other side. The contest was bitter, protracted, and hard-fought. Tragedies and casualties on both sides were many. Extreme friction between the two class factions contributed hugely to policy failures. No policy, from either side, could be applied without contest.

From the bourgeois side the bitterness was rooted in an inexorable truth: in the long run, just as the peasants of old China could get along without the landlords, but the landlords could not get along without the peasants who labored; the workers and peasants of revolutionary China could get along without the bourgeoisie, but the bourgeoisie could not get along without the labor of workers and peasants and the surplus value they created. I am not talking here about intellectuals. The working class can win support from and train intellectuals devoted to socialism just as the bourgeoisie can win support from and train intellectuals devoted to capitalism.

To blame Mao, then, for the struggle that ensued and for its outcome is unwarranted, unrealistic, and unhistorical. Mao did what needed to be done given his social base, while Liu did what he had to do given his social base. After a decade of conflict things came to a head in the Cultural Revolution. Mao won some victories early on, but, unfortunately could not consolidate them under the hammer blows of the Liu-Deng counteroffensive reinforced, as it was, by the dead weight, inertia, and tenacity of all the old customs, old habits, old beliefs, and superstitions that made any and all change difficult, not to mention such radical changes as socialist relations of production and a matching socialist superstructure demanded. Mao had the upper hand politically. He was able to speak directly to and mobilize hundreds of millions of peasants and workers. But Liu had the upper hand organizationally because his group, his stream coming from the underground controlled, by virtue of its existing network in l949, the organization of the party nationwide and had the power to appoint, remove, promote, and educate the middle level of cadre throughout the whole country. At the heart of Liu’s educational program lay his tract How To Be A Good Communist. This advocated self-cultivation that would, when conducted according to his directives, enable one not to serve the people better, but to be an obedient tool, and thus win promotion to ever-higher positions in the party. These philistine minions, their careers dependent on Liu, were the shock force of the bourgeoisie in the party, and there was a consistent pattern to the way they operated. In every new situation, when Mao was proposing a socialist solution, they first dragged their feet and tried to slow down the change or disrupt it. At one time, for instance, they dissolved 30,000 village farming cooperatives in one stroke. But when any movement reached a high tide and couldn’t be stopped by foot dragging, then they jumped in, active as could be, and pushed things to extremes that were equally if not more disruptive. From Liu’s headquarters there came always, consistently, in stage after stage of the revolution, a move, a shift from rightist obstruction to leftist destruction. Whether conscious or not this was the pattern. It showed up during land reform as illustrated in my book Fanshen (University of California Press, 1997). It showed up with a vengeance during the anti-rightist movement of 1958. After the shocking events in Hungary in the late 1950s, Mao suggested that there might be as many as 4,000 rightist reactionaries among the intellectuals and academics of China. Deng Xiaoping, later the key figure in China, took charge of handling the rightist problem then and did tremendous damage by targeting 500,000!

The same right-left swing plagued the Socialist Education Movement in 1964. Cadres at the bottom suddenly found themselves under wholesale attack from Liu’s headquarters. In just one county alone, Xiyang in central Shanxi, 40 village level leaders committed suicide. Before that a similar swing showed up during the Great Leap after the bourgeois forces failed to head it off. The way they responded was to push extremes such as blowing the “Communist Wind,” a wind of political excesses that included a gale of gigantism. If a township was good as a single production unit, then a whole county was even better. It included a hurricane of blind directives—if digging one foot deep is good for the soil, digging three feet deep is better. It included an exaggeration wind—if you harvested 100 bushels to the acre, then I harvested 200 bushels to the acre. And a leveling and transferring wind—if you have a tractor that the commune needs send it over, it’s all for the common good. At the height of the euphoria generated by the great crop in the making in 1958, all these winds blew and fanned up severe disruption that coupled with very bad weather in 1959, ’60, and ’61, to produce a shortage of crops, hunger, and even starvation. Mao’s initiatives failed temporarily but they were well conceived.

The inspiration for the Great Leap, the commune form of cooperative federation and the industrial projects such as backyard iron smelting came from the very successful wartime industrial cooperative movement—Indusco. After suitable retrenchment and reorganization China successfully revived much of the original vision. There is a good description of this background for the cooperatives and the commune movement in Jack Gray’s book, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s (Oxford University Press, 1990). During the Cultural Revolution similar extremes arose. After Mao called for power seizures from below, everybody, and especially the capitalist roaders, formed factional support groups to seize power. Unprincipled and often violent free-for-alls ensued which no one, neither Mao nor Liu, could control. And thus the Cultural Revolution, after generating a tremendous storm, wound down without consolidating its goals. However, the movement as a whole was a great creative departure in history. It was not a plot, not a purge, but a mass mobilization whereby people were inspired to intervene, to screen and supervise their cadres and form new popular committees to exercise control at the grassroots and higher.

The whole idea, that the principal contradiction of the times was the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class, expressed itself in the party center, and unless it was resolved in the interest of the working class the socialist revolution would founder. And the whole idea that the method must be to mobilize the common people to seize power from below in order to establish new representative leading bodies, democratically elected organs of power was a breakthrough in history summed up by the phrase “bombard the headquarters.” They constituted, in my opinion, Mao’s greatest contribution to revolutionary theory and practice, lighting the way to progress in our time. Had Mao succeeded, I think there is no doubt we would have today a burgeoning socialist economy and culture in China with enormous prestige among the people. The economic advance might be slower than the current one but it would be much more solid and much more useful as a development model for all third world peoples now living in abysmal poverty and exploitation. Where Mao was particularly prescient was in his exposure of the capitalist road tendency and in making the target of the Cultural Revolution “party people in authority taking the capitalist road.”

Today, after 20 years of Deng’s “reforms” we can clearly see which way China is going and what the result will be. Surely Mao’s diagnosis still stands. Mao’s diagnosis for the whole of China’s revolution was that the capitalist road was not open to the people of China. In a world dominated by powerful imperialists and multinational corporations with enormous strength and global reach, any third world country taking the capitalist road is taking a road that leads to neocolonization. Today, with capitalist methods, one can’t build an independent, self-reliant economy and country, but only a subsidiary economy and country at the mercy of these huge multinational corporations at the top of the heap that set the rules and rule the roost. The Deng (now Zhang) regime is, in essence, already a comprador regime, ready to sell out to the highest bidder China’s most precious land, material, and human resources. For immediate gain the current power holders will do anything, sacrifice any principal, invite in any investors, give away huge chunks of the domestic market, sell any and all resources including long-term use rights to the most valuable urban land, not to mention advertising space on the walls of the Yangtze Gorges, which could stand as a symbol of the whole paradigm. Recently around Beijing a big speculative boom in housing surfaced and some of the best cropland in north China was diverted to build estates for wealthy people. The prices of these houses under construction—they aren’t called houses, actually, they’re called villas—ran from 450,000–1,500,000 U.S. dollars. So far as I know, few if any of them were sold to anyone who wanted to live in one. In the meantime, speculators from Hong Kong and other parts for the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia bought a few hoping to make a bundle by selling them again before the whole scam collapsed.

Will China’s economy emerge from this transition period independent, self-regulating, and responsible to the people of China, or will it succumb to international market pressures, surrender one initiative after another and end up in a passive neocolonial position rocked by huge financial storms over which China has no control? I think the latter is a serious danger and should be confronted now by those responsible for China’s future. Unfortunately, I see no sign that anyone who is in a position to do something about it takes the problem seriously. Corruption reaches right to the top of the government and everybody is too busy trying to get rich quick to worry about the long-term result. Thus, I think Mao’s original prediction, that in a world dominated by powerful imperialist states no capitalist road is open to China, will turn out to be as true today as it was when he formulated it in the 1920s. More and more people from all walks of life will come to appreciate and honor Mao’s life work, his struggle for national liberation and his struggle for socialism. My main point, that severe class struggle was built into the modern, post-liberation history of China, so that no person, no group, no party, and no faction had a free hand to apply socialist policy, and that the tragedies and casualties on all sides resulted from the friction at the interface between new domestic classes as they struggled for hegemony over society, above all inside the Communist Party, will also, I think, stand the test of time.