Isaac Deutscher 1957

The Doctrine of a Hundred Flowers

Source: New Statesman and Nation, 29 June 1957. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Mao Tse-tung’s address The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People (delivered in February and published in June) represents a most radical repudiation of Stalinism. It is certainly more thoroughgoing than was Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ at the Twentieth Congress. Khrushchev, despite the vehemence of his tone and his macabre exposures, did not go beyond a purely negative condemnation of the personality cult and of Stalin’s ‘errors’ and ‘abuses of power’ – he did not criticise the basic economic and political conceptions of Stalinism. On the contrary, he argued from the supposedly sane and rational Stalinism of the 1920s and early 1930s against the excesses and the insanity of the latter-day orthodoxy. Mao Tse-tung subjects to a critique Stalin’s entire management of the economy and method of government.

With the mandarin’s discretion and tact he makes this critique only by implication and concentrates on developing a positive alternative to Stalinism. He is evidently anxious not to give undue offence to Stalin’s successors in Moscow; and he wishes to spare the Communist movement at home and abroad another shock of the kind that Khrushchev has inflicted on it.

Mao attempts, in effect, to redefine the whole concept of proletarian dictatorship and to restore to it the meaning which Marxists generally gave to it before the onset of the Stalin era. From the doctrinal point of view his ideas are therefore far from original, but this does not lessen their immense political importance. In the USSR, socialism, the totalitarian state and the monolithic party had become identified to such an extent that Communists brought up in the Stalinist school of thought could not even imagine the one without the other. Against this, Mao holds that socialism can and indeed must dissociate itself from the totalitarian state, which is essentially alien to it, and that the Communist Party to be united and effective in action need not at all be ‘monolithic’ in thought. This is what Khrushchev and his colleagues will not admit even now after all they have done to reform and ‘liberalise’ post-Stalin Russia.

The ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ (which is the Chinese euphemism for ‘proletarian dictatorship’), Mao argues, should suppress only the ‘reactionary classes’ and the confirmed counter-revolutionaries; but it must not deny democratic freedoms to workers and peasants and even to the ‘national bourgeoisie’: ‘dictatorship does not apply in the ranks of the people’.

Mao’s appeal, ‘let a hundred flowers blossom; and let a hundred schools of thought contend’, has already been turned by sheer repetition into a cliché and a slogan. However, Mao restores some freshness to it when he argues against those Communists who ask anxiously how to tell the flower from the weed and how to distinguish which of the hundred schools of thought contribute to the growth of socialism and which obstruct it. Mao replies that Communists must be tolerant and take risks. They must even let the weeds grow, for in politics and in spiritual life the distinction between weed and flower is not at all clear.

As if paraphrasing a great English agnostic, Mao reminds his followers that it is the customary fate of new truth to begin as heresy; and, citing appropriately Marxism as an example, he pleads that the party should allow any heresy, as distinct from the obviously counter-revolutionary attitude, the chance and the time to prove itself; and that it should, in any case, beware lest the Marxist truth itself ends in superstition. (Here Mao argues exactly as Trotsky did nearly 35 years earlier!)

In the arts, for instance, he does not proclaim ‘Socialist Realism’, officially still sacrosanct in Moscow, as the obligatory creed of the Communist writer and painter – he does not even mention it. Moreover, Mao states emphatically that in philosophy and even in politics Marxism should not claim a monopoly for itself. After, as before, the revolution Marxism must struggle for its ascendancy in open contest with other ideologies, and it cannot do so unless it allows those other ideologies freedom of expression. Mao remains as convinced as ever that Marxism ‘formulates correctly the laws of historic development'; but precisely because of this, he holds, it cannot and does not claim to be above those laws.

How does Mao apply these principles to the more severe regions of economics and practical politics? Here, too, he acknowledges as legitimate a diversity of social interests and conflicts of interests within the framework of a socialist regime. In somewhat scholastic style, in rudimentary Hegelian terms mixed with truisms borrowed from Lao Tsu, he speaks about the various categories of ‘contradictions’ and lists three of these: 1) the ‘antagonistic’, that is irreconcilable, conflicts; 2) the ‘non-antagonistic’ ones which lend themselves naturally to conciliation and accommodation; and 3) the intermediate type of conflict which prudent Communist policy can mitigate and resolve peacefully, while a blundering policy may aggravate such conflicts and give them an explosive character.

Only the struggle between revolution and unmistakable counter-revolution, says Mao, is irreconcilable; and he goes on to proclaim that the era of this struggle is definitely over for China. Ordinary class struggle will continue; but it should be conducted in an evolutionary and reformist manner, not in violent, revolutionary forms. The divergent or conflicting claims of the working class, the peasantry, the bureaucracy and the ‘national bourgeoisie’ can and should be settled through mutual compromise in the process of socialist construction.

In effect, Mao proclaims China’s NEP, or rather he proclaims that the Chinese NEP – China has known no War Communism – is established ‘seriously and for long’, as Lenin once said of Russia’s NEP. The basic ideas of Mao’s NEP are indeed the same as Lenin’s, although there are important new features in the application. The main principle is that the ‘construction of socialism’ should proceed within the framework of a mixed economy, in which the ‘socialist sector’ should expand by transforming ‘peacefully’ and gradually absorbing the ‘private sector’, not by destroying or suppressing it violently as it was done in Russia.

One may read into Mao’s words a retrospective criticism of the Stalinist abolition of the NEP, of forcible collectivisation and of the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’, which now appear to him as colossal errors through which Stalin needlessly aggravated ‘non-antagonistic’ conflicts in Soviet society, and turned these into bloody convulsions and war à outrance. Whether this is or is not what Mao has intended to say about Stalin’s ‘second revolution’ of 1929-32, he leaves us with no doubt that he envisages no such ‘second revolution’ for China, where it would be an unmitigated calamity.

Although Mao preaches now for China the ‘inevitability of gradualness’, his variety of NEP is incomparably more leftish than that which was in operation in Russia, under Stalin’s and Bukharin’s direction from 1924 to 1929. He does not destroy or expropriate the Chinese bourgeoisie, but he buys up its property cautiously, by degrees, yet relentlessly, in a manner not very different from that in which the large capitalist concern absorbs small family businesses. The Chinese state is already a major shareholder in all ‘capitalist’ enterprises. The private owner receives interest on his capital, or a share in profits, in addition to the salary he gets as a state employee. The bourgeoisie is thus spared the shock of sudden unsettlement and social degradation and is given time to adjust itself to new conditions; while the state benefits by using the bourgeoisie’s managerial experience and skill, which were largely wasted in Russia.

Similarly, the collectivisation of farming is progressing by slow degrees and subtle transitions; and confiscation of property and the use of coercion are avoided. The present cooperatives, which already embrace the bulk of the peasantry, are based mainly on the pooling of labour – the pooling of land, implements and cattle is planned to take place at later stages; and the process is to be drawn out over many years. In this way the Chinese Communists hope gradually to form in the peasantry the habits of collectivist work, to condition its mind for new economic forms, and to avoid exasperating the peasants and driving them to revolt.

Stalin, it will be remembered, switched from one extreme, that of appeasing and pampering the kulaks, to the opposite extreme of ‘liquidating’ them. Mao seems anxious to avoid any of these extremes. The outcome of the Chinese collectivisation cannot yet be taken, and is not taken by Mao himself, for granted; but, by avoiding the ‘rightist’ errors of the Russian NEP, Mao’s party may indeed be in a better position than Stalin’s was to avoid a cataclysmic collision with the peasantry. In any case, the Leninist idea of a transition to socialism through NEP is given its first practical and gigantic trial in China; in Lenin’s own country it was never applied.

Mao makes his most striking departure from Stalinism in labour policy. Bluntly, without hedging, he declares that the workers have the right to strike, and that incitement to strike must not be punished in any way. If workers have grievances and down tools, the fault, as a rule, lies with the bureaucracy; and in so far as strikes help to keep the bureaucracy in its place, they may even be welcome. Here, too, Mao’s reasoning links up with that of Lenin, who expressed the same view more subtly when he said that ‘the workers are bound in duty to defend their state, but they should also defend themselves against their state’.

If workers, peasants and other social groups are to be free to exercise their pressures upon the state, it follows that the state must, in its economic policy, give greater weight to consumer interests than it has given hitherto. Mao says, in effect, that China need not rely as much as Russia did on forced saving to provide her with the sinews of investment; and that a better balance must be maintained between light and heavy industry. If, as a result, industrialisation does not proceed at break-neck speed, it will develop on a sounder basis, with less waste, and less suffering to the people. Mao also spurns the edifying lie on which Stalinism lived and he insists with great emphasis that there is no paradise around the corner and that it must take China ‘many decades’ before she catches up with the advanced countries.

When the Russian Communists introduced NEP, the act was described as an attempt to steer the revolution ‘down a steep hill, with brakes on’. This description may be applied with even better reason to what is going on in the Communist world at present. De-Stalinisation is indeed for all Communist parties a descent with brakes on, only that some of these parties have to go down very steep hills, while others move on gentler slopes.

Mao’s is a relatively mild slope; and he has so far handled his brakes more skilfully and with a more even temper than Khrushchev, who has rushed down one or two stretches of his very steep hill with no brakes on. Mao’s attitude reflects, of course, certain peculiarities of the Chinese revolution.

Communist China has not been an ‘isolated and besieged fortress’ as was Bolshevik Russia in the course of three decades; and Soviet assistance has smoothed China’s progress. Consequently, only seven years after the revolution, the Chinese economy, which started from a lower level than the Russian, appears to have achieved an advance comparable to that which Russia achieved only after 11 or 12 years of Bolshevik rule.

In part this was due to a big difference in the fortunes of the two regimes. The Bolsheviks first seized power and then had to fight civil wars and resist foreign intervention. The Chinese Communists, on the contrary, fought their civil war before they seized power; and so once they took office they were more or less free to turn to constructive economic tasks. This difference has had important political consequences. Any nation driven by misery and despair to make a revolution looks forward hopefully and impatiently to the fruits of revolution; and it judges its new rulers according to whether these fruits are forthcoming or not. They cannot be forthcoming if civil war develops after the revolution. In 1924-25, seven years after they had seized power, the Bolsheviks still faced the nation they ruled – empty-handed; while the Chinese Communists can already take pride in having improved the people’s lot. Consequently, China has experienced little of the social and political tensions, of the disillusionment of the masses, and of their estrangement from the Communist rulers which were characteristic of post-revolutionary Russia and to which the Bolshevik leaders reacted with an obsession of fear and insecurity, with an acute distrust of the people and a determination to crush all opposition and to set up a totalitarian state.

Mao and his colleagues appear to be more or less free from such obsession and distrust. Their system of government, for all the terror that has gone into its making, has never had the massive, mechanical and nightmarish oppressiveness of Stalinism. Their party has not been shaken and torn by any internal conflict as dramatic and bitter as the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky which was already at its height seven years after the revolution and resulted in the party’s mental paralysis and moral degradation. (The Chinese party, on the other hand, has never enjoyed the inner-party democracy which was characteristic of early Bolshevism.)

Thus for a variety of reasons the Chinese have not moved in the totalitarian direction even half the way the Russians have gone. This makes it easier for them to withdraw now, to change direction, and to strive for a non-totalitarian Communist regime. This is not to say that they are ready to withdraw all the way, for they are beset by the dilemma which is inherent in any single-party system. The dilemma is this: if various social interests are to be allowed scope for exercising pressure, and if diversity of opinion is to be tolerated and even encouraged, will this not result in the breakdown of the single-party system, in which most Communists still see a condition of the revolution’s survival, and in the emergence of several parties?

It is curious to note how Mao wrestles with this problem. He first refers to some people in China who have already, under the influence of the remote Hungarian rising, asked ‘for the adoption of the two-party system of the West, where one party is in office and the other out of office’. He rejects this demand quite categorically. Yet, as the Chinese Communist regime is not nominally a single-party system, for it has allowed various non-Communist parties to lead a shadowy existence, Mao goes on to argue that the middle classes should be allowed political expression and that ‘the democratic parties of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie should be allowed to exist’ side by side with the Communist Party ‘for a long time to come'; they should even ‘supervise’ the Communist Party as the latter ‘supervises’ them. However, in no circumstances must the ‘bourgeois parties’ behave like an opposition striving for office.

It would probably be wrong to say that all this is sheer hypocrisy and make-believe, and that Mao is merely interested in using puppet-parties as a façade. What he really wants – and this is true of Gomulka as well – is a half-way house between the single-party system and a multi-party set-up. He would like the non-Communist parties to act as real and even vigorous pressure groups, but not as the alternative government. The trouble, from the Communist viewpoint, is that such parties, half-real and half-puppet, tend to assume blood and flesh and to become virtual pretenders to power at moments of crisis, when the Communist Party seems to lose or only to loosen its grip. Both Mao and Gomulka have already found themselves compelled to address stern warnings to their non-Communist or bourgeois parties.

Let us now try to foreshadow briefly the impact which Mao’s pronouncement is likely to have on the USSR and other Communist countries. Mao’s statement has come at a most inopportune moment to those in Moscow who have since the Hungarian revolt exerted themselves to curb, and to reverse in part, the process of de-Stalinisation. Pravda has nevertheless had no choice but to publish Mao’s address in full. It is now avidly read, scrutinised and pondered by many millions of Soviet citizens who draw from it their own conclusions.

There is not a shadow of doubt that Mao’s words are giving a new and powerful impulse to de-Stalinisation. He has come to the rescue of the intellectual opposition in Russia, especially the writers and historians who are at present under strong attack for the heresies they have voiced. They will turn his words into their battle-cry, especially the words about the flowers and the weeds, about the harm of hot-house protection for Marxism and the advantages of tolerating heresy.

More important than the repercussions in intellectual circles may be the impression which Mao makes on the Soviet working class. For nearly 35 years Soviet workers have been told that to strike under a socialist regime is a counter-revolutionary crime. Masses of workers have spent many years in concentration camps not even for striking, but for ordinary absenteeism and still lesser offences. Now Mao tells the Russians that the worker has a right to strike, that if he downs tools not he but the bureaucrat must be blamed and that strike agitation should go unpunished. All this is political dynamite for Russia. ‘Why should we’, Soviet workers will ask, ‘be deprived, 40 years after the revolution, of the rights which the Chinese enjoy after seven years? Are we now the coolies? Nor are the workers likely to miss the significance of Mao’s incidental remarks directed against too wide discrepancies in wages and salaries, or to miss the quasi-egalitarian tenor of his strictures at the bureaucracy.

To sum up, Mao’s speech will hardly stun and confuse minds in the Communist world as Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ did; but it contributes solidly to the winding up of the Stalinist orthodoxy and method of government.