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Mao Tse-tung

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Mao Tse-tung

Mao and the People’s Republic

The triumphs of the new State are well-known, and need not be repeated in detail here. At every stage, and particularly in the 1950s when the triumphs were most spectacular, Mao was the leading figure in the formulation of national policy. Much later, in the Cultural Revolution, devotees of the Chairman, quite misunderstanding his role, tried to suggest that Mao was somehow not responsible in those years for anything except the Great Leap Forward. The First Five Year Plan, the policy towards private business, or the retreat of 1959-63, were not Mao’s responsibility. The object is to exonerate the hero from responsibility for what suddenly became the nasty bits of history, and pin them on a scapegoat (in this case, the luckless Liu Shao-ch’i). Up to the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese leadership was well-known for its homogeneity, its lack of major splits and divisions (there had been only two splits in the leadership since 1949). Mao was enthusiastic about the first Plan, and Liu Shao-ch’i about the Great Leap Forward. Mao, although retiring as Chairman of the Republic in 1959, retained all his Party posts, and led the way in the retreats of 1959. There is not a shred of evidence to support the myth of Mao being in and out of power; in spite of his penchant, like Stalin’s, for rewriting the record. The ‘two lines’, Mao and the capitalist roaders, was cooked up in 1966-67 to justify very short-term tactical needs.

With remarkable speed, the new regime restored the shattered economy – between 1949 and 1952, industrial output expanded by 27 per cent per year. Simultaneously, it cleared the country of all opposition, whether of the gangster-petty warlord-Kuomintang variety, or peasant rebels and worker militants. At the same time, it intervened in Korea and effectively blocked the challenge of the United States; it also extended assistance to the Vietminh forces in Vietnam. Finally, it undertook the central measure of its ‘conservative revolution’, controlled agrarian reform, a carefully regulated redistribution of land, extending over a number of years. Simultaneously, the Government moved into the reunification of holdings in what were known as Mutual Aid Teams and ‘lower level’ co-operatives.

From 1952, the first Five Year Plan was designed to gear up the whole economy to a massive drive at accumulation. There was a vast expansion of output, based upon controlled consumption and increased work and productivity, but with declining effects in terms of jobs.

Private capitalism played an important role in the first stages. The Government promised – and delivered – a high profit level; this averaged 29 per cent in 1951 and 31 per cent in 1953. [1] However, the private sector threatened to grow faster than the public, bidding up the prices of raw materials, sustaining a black market, and attracting away from the State sector, skilled workers (a higher profit rate meant it could pay higher wages, so jeopardising the whole State wage structure). In the interests of retaining control, the Government moved towards absorbing the private sector, each stage being governed by the need to maintain the expansion of national production [2] and the willingness of the capitalists to accept generous compensation terms (including guaranteed interest payments on their capital for their lifetime) and work as State managers. There were difficulties, but Mao particularly praised the contribution of big businessmen, mentioning playfully in one of his speeches to them that the workers did not understand how important big business was, would accuse the Chairman of ‘Right deviation’:

‘The workers will say we are making it too advantageous for the capitalists. In their opinion, they (interest payments) should be cancelled immediately.’ [3]

The workers had other reasons to complain at the singularly generous treatment accorded private business. For they were subject at the same time to sustained speed-up, draconian labour discipline, and tight control of wages in the State sector. The consolation was that for the first time for many years, jobs were expanding and employment was stable. Nevertheless, the high absentee rate, go-slows and strikes indicated in 1955-56 that Chinese workers had not become passive cardboard figures in Mao’s private drama. The peasants also took counteraction to protect their grain and food stocks against State depredations.

By 1956, city unemployment was becoming severe. The changes on the countryside had produced a flow of people into the cities far in excess of the number of jobs being created. On the land itself, there was also much unemployment – Chou En-lai in early 1956 estimated that China’s agricultural output required 30,000 million 8-hour labour days to produce, but there was on offer, 45,000 million from the rural labour force. [4] The problems directly affected the rate of accumulation and the capacity of the regime to sustain it at the high levels of the first Plan. That in its turn affected ‘he very power of China – as Mao put it,

‘China’s economy is backward and China is materially weak. This is why we have been unable to take much initiative; we are spiritually weak. We must make a spurt (forward in production).’ [5]

The first response was a radical tightening in controls – food rationing, controls on movement, residence controls, financial controls over State managers’ hiring rights. The second was the Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap (started early in 1958) was a gigantic effort to mobilise the population to expand output, increase accumulation and employment. It was a blockbuster to burst through all the obstacles that seemed to crowd in on the regime in the closing years of the first Plan. That is, contrary to the interpretation of Mao’s devotees, it was an effort to intensify the direction of the first Plan, not do something different. It included a reorganisation of the rural population in gigantic Communes to organise massive labour schemes (on irrigation, drainage and construction work), appropriate a larger share of rural produce and develop rural industry (the ‘backyard furnaces’ etc). In the cities, there was an unprecedented increase in the tempo of industry.

As the Leap progressed, Mao’s ambitions soared – there were no objective barriers to China’s development if the will was there:

‘With eleven million tons of steel next year (1959), and seventeen million the year after, the world will be shaken. If we can reach 40 million tons in five years, we may possibly catch up with Great Britain in seven years.’ [6]

By December, he had revised his targets upwards, speaking of 60 million tons in three years’ time [7], and he even confessed later that he had hoped for 100-120 million tons by 1962. [8] In the mid-1970s, China produced around 25 million tons, still a very respectable performance in comparison with many other countries.

The Great Leap crumbled against the obdurate backwardness of the country. Each innovation became its opposite. The rationed food supply system to Commune canteens, which was aimed simultaneously to lower the wage bill and permit housewives to be directed into agricultural work (while their menfolk were moved into rural industrial work), led to a major increase in the demand for foodstuffs, especially as the cadres were appropriating the output of private agriculture. Backyard furnaces, designed to expand steel output, in fact robbed the modern steel mills of iron ore and coal to produce an iron of a quality too poor to be refined.

Stalin had perfected the art of setting the cadres impossible tasks, and then deploring their ‘excesses’ in trying to achieve them and blaming them for all failures. Mao has generally followed a similar approach. In early 1959, he began deploring their excesses of the cadres [9], and denouncing their forcible seizure of peasant private produce. [10] He led the way in reversing policy – ‘We have to restore the primary (private) market in rural areas’ [11], to end the dominant role of the Commune authority and restore the local cadres for ‘there is now semi-anarchism’. [12] After all the spectacular rhetoric about the Communes, Mao now was prepared to write them off:

‘We were prepared for the collapse of half of them, and if 70 per cent collapsed, there would still be 30 per cent left. If they must collapse, let them.’ [13]

All the claims for 1958’s output were now revised dramatically downwards as it became clear that they were the result of cadre terror rather than a serious count. The steel target for 1959 was cut to 13 million tons.

However, unlike Stalin, Mao, within the secret confines of the Party, did not disguise the scale of the defeat, nor his own responsibility:

‘In 1958 and 1959,’ he said to the Lushan Plenum in July 1959, ‘the main responsibility was mine, and you should take me to task ... Who was responsible for the idea of the mass smelting of steel? I say it was me ... With this we rushed into a great catastrophe.’ [14]

‘The chaos caused was on a grand scale, and I take responsibility. Comrades, you must all analyse your own responsibility. If you have to shit, shit! If you have to fart, fart! You will all feel much better for it.’ [15]

Of course, to acknowledge responsibility was partly to draw the sting of criticism. Very few of the listeners dared accept the invitation to take Mao ‘to task’. The Chairman retired from his State post (Chairman of the Republic), but retained all his key positions in the Party. The proposal of retirement had been announced in 1958, and does not seem, on the present evidence, to have been a penalty for the failures of the Great Leap.

The Retreat

Mao was a master of conceding in order to fight another day. In the Great Leap, the Chinese people had defeated his ambition. Now he swung into reverse. Private cultivation and markets were restored; cadre control in the factories was relaxed, and the wage incentives were returned (but also the factory labour force was drastically cut). Two successive years of very severe agricultural disaster, and the sudden withdrawal of all Russian assistance (1960), drove the economy into slump.

Some of the first results were an extraordinary blossoming of petty capitalism and private agriculture. One report from Yunnan province says that by 1962 the private grain harvest was larger than the public, and there was more land under private cultivation. [16] In agricultural sidelines, in trade and petty handicrafts, the ‘rich peasant’ economy reappeared with surprising speed. Corruption similarly flourished in the lower levels of the Party. [17]

In 1962, Mao personally launched the Socialist Education Movement to rectify the rural party, to tackle, not the structure which produced these results, but the cadres who ‘indulge in idleness and hate work, eat too much and own too much, strive for status, act like officials, put on bureaucratic airs, pay no heed to the plight of the people, care nothing about the interests of the State’. [18]

Such forces, Lenin identified in Russia as the cultural remnants of a pre-capitalist society, of ‘Asiatic barbarism’. But in China, Mao identified them as the re-emergence of ‘capitalism’, but not as an objective system, rather as a set of psychological attributes. A third of the party, he said, was in the hands of the ‘enemy’:

‘At present, you can buy a Party branch secretary for a few packs of cigarettes, not to mention marrying a daughter to him.’ [19]

Mao was cautious in tackling the problem, since it could jeopardise the power of the party in the rural areas, unlike the man in charge of the campaign, Liu Shao-ch’i who seems to have favoured a much more ruthless purge. [20] Nevertheless, the disagreements were tactical and not apparently of major significance until later events led to them being described in a much more dramatic way.

The Cultural Revolution

In late 1965, Mao began a campaign to reform the cultural and educational work of the party and the educational system. He found considerable resistance to the campaign (he was compelled to launch it from Shanghai rather than Peking), and, to force the pace, closed both the schools and institutions of higher education. The explosion of revolt which followed when the students went onto the streets is now well known. The students swept through the country, attacking a host of targets well outside the terms of reference of the campaign. Their initiative at first elated Mao as had the first months of the Great Leap Forward:

‘Nieh Yuan-tzu’s big character poster of the 25th of May (1966) is the declaration of the Paris Commune of the ‘sixties of the twentieth century; its significance far surpasses that of the Paris Commune.’ [21]


‘The present Cultural Revolution is a heaven-and-earth shaking event. Can we, dare we, cross the pass into socialism ...?’ [22]

But by September, matters were changing. Workers had beaten up some of the student Red Guards, and a series of directives were issued by Mao insisting that the workers stay at work and not interfere. Such was the ‘leadership of the working class’. [23] Furthermore, Mao’s hints that Liu Shao-ch’i, his official heir since 1945, and Teng Hsiao-p’ing (General Secretary of the Party) were the leaders of the resistance to the Cultural Revolution had produced a furore of attacks upon them which Mao could not control. He began to draw back:

‘We should allow Liu and Teng to make a revolution and reform themselves.’ [24]


‘We shouldn’t condemn Liu Shao-ch’i out of hand. If they have made mistakes they can change, can’t they? When they have changed, it will be all right. Let them pull themselves together and throw themselves courageously into their work.’ [25]

As in 1959, he apologised for his mistakes:

‘I myself had not forseen that as soon as the Peking University poster was broadcast, the whole country would be thrown into a turmoil ... Since it was I who caused the havoc, it is understandable if you have some bitter words for me.’ [26]

It was too late, too late to save Liu and Teng – their sacrifice became necessary to protect the social order – and too late to protect the Red Guard virus becoming a plague. The smouldering discontents that had lain beneath the surface, unseen by Mao, now flared up. At the turn of the year, Shanghai workers exploded in a rash of strikes and agitation that were echoed round the country. They raised quite different issues and not at all ‘cultural’, issues of wages, conditions, and the right to independent trade unions, all the issues of the ‘economism’ that Mao had denounced for years. This time, Mao did not retreat defensively. In the third week of January, the army was ordered to take over the administration of the country. The aim was to force the ‘new forces’ into yoke with the rehabilitated cadres of the Party, under the firm direction of the army (what became known as the Revolutionary Committees).

It was not easy. There were numerous advances and retreats by Mao and his followers before he finally got the students back to school and university, and the workers firmly back in the factories. The Cultural Revolution had ignited the beginnings of a real revolution. Now Mao decided to make the best of a bad job:

‘We must believe that more than 90 per cent of our cadres are good or comparatively good.’ [27]

His former inspiration, the Red Guards, were now troublemakers. In July 1968, he told the four main Red Guard leaders, lest they have any illusions:

‘I am the black hand that suppressed the Red Guards.’ [28]

And, lest they cheat him, he insisted on tape recording his words:

‘Otherwise you might just quote what you please on your return. If you do so, I will just release the recording.’ [29]

By 1969, the revolution had been strangled. The US war in Vietnam had not disturbed its course, but in 1969, there were open armed clashes between Chinese and Russian troops on China’s northern border. The need for stability was urgent. The Ninth Party Congress (only the second since Mao had come to power) ratified the decimation of the Government, the removal of the main leadership of the Party, and appointed as Mao’s new chosen successor, Minister of Defence Lin Piao. It was not very long before Lin (along with the main leadership of all the armed forces) was accused of attempting to murder Mao (1971). Chou En-lai, by default, inherited in the last tired years of Mao’s decline. Yet even then, Chou’s appointed successor, the rehabilitated Teng Hsiao-p’ing (‘second in command of the capitalist readers’) could not be allowed to inherit.

Since 1969 we have no access to Mao’s writings and speeches. It is not clear therefore whether he played a decisive role in recent events. The destruction of Liu Shao-ch’i broke the carefully maintained traditions of the Party, and once broken, they could not apparently be restored. Palace intrigue and coups and countercoups became the norm. The inner conflicts of the bureaucracy are important, not because there is serious evidence of different strategic political positions – both sides defend the rule of the bureaucracy – but because leadership instability is itself an index of the objective problems facing China’s ruling class, and has implications for the development of the class struggle outside the purview of the bureaucracy.

At the end of a very long and full life, Mao leaves a China fundamentally transformed, a China scarcely recognisable as the same country that existed in the 1920s. His capacities – of ruthlessness, audacity and tenacity, not circumscribed by any loyalties except to the building of a strong national State – were remarkable by any standard. They were the abilities of the great nationalist revolutionaries of the past, but enhanced by the spectacular obstacles to achieving power. The Long March to power was long indeed, requiring exceptional persistence and patience. But it would not have been possible without the destruction of proletarian nationalism in Russia.


1. Cf. The Development of State Capitalism in China’s Economy, Work Bulletin, State Statistical Bureau Peking, 29 October 1956, cited by Ygael Gluckstein, Mao’s China, London 1957, p.198.

2. See on this, Mao, Miscellany, II, p.254.

3. 1956, Miscellany I, p.143.

4. Edgar Snow, Red China Today: The Other Side of the River, p.426.

5. ibid., p.141.

6. 18 May 1958, Miscellany I, p.122.

7. 1958, in Mao Papers, p.63.

8. ibid., p.144.

9. February 1959, for example, Miscellany I, p.160.

10. Cf. Mao Unrehearsed, p.135.

11. Miscellany I, p.183.

12. Miscellany I, p.184.

13. July 1959, Miscellany, I, p.142.

14. Mao Unrehearsed, pp.142-3.

15. ibid., p.146.

16. Wheelwright and MacFarlane, The Chinese Road to Socialism, London 1973, p.70.

17. For the evidence from one locality, cf. C.S. Chen (ed.), Rural communes in Lien-chiang County, Fukien Province, Documents, 1962-63, Stanford 1969.

18. Red Flag, 13-14, 1963, p.11.

19. August 1964, Mao Unrehearsed, p.212.

20. The documentation for this is included in Richard Baum’s Prelude to Revolution: Mao, the Party and the Peasant Question, 1962-66, New York 1975.

21. July 1966, in Mao Papers, p.24.

22. July 1966, Mao Unrehearsed, p.254.

23. Cf. Mao Papers, pp.36 and 130.

24. ibid., p.267.

25. ibid., pp.268 and 274.

26. ibid., p.271.

27. 13 May 1968, in Mao Papers, p.154.

28. Miscellany II, p.480.

29. Cited by Roderick McFarquhar, The Times, 5 September 1973.

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