Was Mao a monster?

To mark the 130st anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong, we publish below an extract from the No Great Wall: on the continuities of the Chinese Revolution chapter of Carlos Martinez’s book The East is Still Red – Chinese Socialism in the 21st Century, assessing Mao’s political legacy and focusing in particular on some of the most controversial episodes associated with his leadership.

The extract seeks to provide a detailed and balanced analysis of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and to explain why the bulk of the Chinese population continues to revere Mao and why, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, “the Communist Party of China and the people of China will always look to him like a symbol — a very precious treasure.”

The fundamental reason is that, more than any other individual, Mao Zedong symbolises and is responsible for China’s liberation and the building of Chinese socialism. Carlos writes:

The excesses and errors associated with the last years of Mao’s life have to be contextualised within this overall picture of unprecedented, transformative progress for the Chinese people. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was less than 20 percent. By the time Mao died, it was around 93 percent. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so up to 1949. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up that was accessible to the masses of the people. Land was irrigated. Famine became a thing of the past. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty and developed the means to defend itself from imperialist attack.

To this day, the most popular method for casually denigrating the People’s Republic of China and the record of the CPC is to cite the alleged crimes of Mao Zedong who, from the early 1930s until his death in 1976, was generally recognised as the top leader of the Chinese Revolution. If the CPC was so dedicated to improving the lot of the Chinese people, why did it engage in such disastrous campaigns as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?

Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward, launched in 1958, was an ambitious programme designed to achieve rapid industrialisation and collectivisation; to fast-track the construction of socialism and allow China to make a final break with centuries-old underdevelopment and poverty; in Mao’s words, to “close the gap between China and the US within five years, and to ultimately surpass the US within seven years”.[1] In its economic strategy, it represented “a rejection of plodding Soviet-style urban industrialisation,”[2] reflecting the early stages of the Sino-Soviet split. The Chinese were worried that the Khrushchev leadership in Moscow was narrowly focused on the avoidance of conflict with the imperialist powers, and that its support to China and the other socialist countries would be sacrificed at the altar of ‘peaceful coexistence’. Hence China would have to rely on its own resources.

For all its shortcomings, the core of the GLF was pithily described by Indian Marxist Vijay Prashad as an “attempt to bring small-scale industry to rural areas.”[3] Mao considered the countryside would once again become the “true source for revolutionary social transformation” and “the main arena where the struggle to achieve socialism and communism will be determined.”[4] Agricultural collectivisation was fast-tracked, and there was a broad appeal to the revolutionary spirit of the masses. Ji Chaozhu (at the time an interpreter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later China’s ambassador to the UK (1987-91)) notes in his memoirs: “The peasants were left with small plots of their own, for subsistence farming only. All other activity was for the communal good, to be shared equally. Cadres were to join the peasants in the fields, factories, and construction sites. Even Mao made an appearance at a dam-building project to have his picture taken with a shovel in hand.”[5]

The GLF was not overall a success. Liu Mingfu writes that “the Great Leap Forward did not realise the goal of surpassing the UK and US. It actually brought China’s economy to a standstill and then recession. It caused a large number of unnatural deaths and pushed China’s global share of GDP from 5.46% in 1957 to 4.01% in 1962, lower than its share of 4.59% in 1950.”[6]

The disruption to the basic economic structure of society combined with the sudden withdrawal of Soviet experts in 1960 and a series of terrible droughts and floods to produce poor harvests. Meanwhile, with millions of peasants drafted into the cities to work in factories, “no one was available to reap and to thresh.”[7] The historian Alexander Pantsov opines that the “battle for steel had diverted the Chinese leadership’s attention from the grain problem, and the task of harvesting rice and other grain had fallen on the shoulders of women, old men, and children… A shortage of grain developed, and Mao gave the command to decrease the pace of the Great Leap.”[8] Ji Chaozhu observes that “malnutrition leading to edema was common in many areas, and deaths among the rural population increased.”[9]

Certain of the GLF’s goals were achieved – most notably the irrigation of arable land. However, it didn’t achieve its overall objective, and the disruption it caused contributed to a deepening of poverty and malnutrition. It was called off in 1962. It remains a highly controversial topic in Chinese history. For anticommunists, the GLF provides incontrovertible proof of the monstrous, murderous nature of the CPC – and Mao Zedong in particular. Western bourgeois historians seem to have settled on a figure of 30 million for the estimated number of lives lost in famine resulting from the Great Leap. On the basis of a rigorous statistical analysis, Indian economist Utsa Patnaik concludes that China’s death rate rose from 12 per thousand in 1958 (a historically low figure resulting from land reform and the extension of basic medical services throughout the country) to a peak of 25.4 per thousand in 1960. “If we take the remarkably low death rate of 12 per thousand that China had achieved by 1958 as the benchmark, and calculate the deaths in excess of this over the period 1959 to 1961, it totals 11.5 million. This is the maximal estimate of possible ‘famine deaths.’”[10]

Patnaik observes that even the peak death rate in 1960 “was little different from India’s 24.8 death rate in the same year, which was considered quite normal and attracted no criticism.” This is an important point. Malnutrition was at that time a scourge throughout the developing world (sadly it remains so in some parts of the planet). China’s history is rife with terrible famines, including in 1907, 1928 and 1942. It is only in the modern era, under the leadership of precisely that ‘monstrous’ CPC, that malnutrition has become a thing of the past in China.

In other words, the failure of the GLF has been cynically manipulated by bourgeois academics to denigrate the entire history of the Chinese Revolution. The GLF was not some outrageous crime against humanity; it was a legitimate attempt to accelerate the building of a prosperous and advanced socialist society. It turned out not to be successful and was therefore dropped.

Cultural Revolution

In the aftermath of the GLF, Mao’s more radical wing of the CPC leadership became somewhat marginalised, and the initiative fell to those wanting to prioritise social stability and economic growth over ongoing class struggle. Principal among these were Liu Shaoqi (head of state of the PRC, widely considered to be Mao’s successor) and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping. Liu, Deng, Chen Yun and Zhou Enlai put forward the concept of the Four Modernisations (in agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology) which would come to constitute a cornerstone of post-Mao economic policy.

In the years that followed, Mao and a group of his close comrades began to worry that the deprioritisation of class struggle reflected an anti-revolutionary ‘revisionist’ trend that could ultimately lead to capitalist restoration. As Mao saw it, revisionist elements were able to rely on the support of the intelligentsia – particularly teachers and academics – who, themselves coming largely from non-working class backgrounds, were promoting capitalist and feudal values among young people. It was necessary to “exterminate the roots of revisionism” and “struggle against those in power in the party who were taking the capitalist road.”[11]

The Cultural Revolution started in 1966 as a mass movement of university and school students, incited and encouraged by Mao and others on the left of the leadership. Student groups formed in Beijing calling themselves Red Guards and taking up Mao’s call to “thoroughly criticise and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art”.[12] The students produced ‘big-character posters’ (dazibao) setting out their analysis against, and making their demands of, anti-revolutionary bourgeois elements in authority. Mao was enthusiastic, writing the students in support of their initiative: “I will give enthusiastic support to all who take an attitude similar to yours in the Cultural Revolution movement.”[13] He produced his own dazibao calling on the revolutionary masses to “Bombard the Headquarters” – that is, to rise up against the reformers and “bourgeois elements” in the party.

These developments were synthesised by the CPC Central Committee, which in August 1966 adopted its Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. “Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do the exact opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticise and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic ‘authorities’ and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”[14]

Thus the aims of the Cultural Revolution were to stimulate a mass struggle against the supposedly revisionist and capitalist restorationist elements in the party; to put a stop to the hegemony of bourgeois ideas in the realms of education and culture; and to entrench a new culture – socialist, collectivist, modern. The Cultural Revolution also marked a further escalation of the Sino-Soviet split, as the revisionist illness was considered to have a Soviet etiology (Liu Shaoqi, previously considered as Mao’s successor and now the principal target of the radicals, was labelled China’s Khrushchev). Li Mingjiang notes that, “throughout the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union was systematically demonised. Sino-Soviet hostilities reached an unprecedented level, as exemplified by Mao’s designation of Moscow as China’s primary enemy.”[15]

Han Suyin describes the chaotic atmosphere of the early days of the Cultural Revolution: “Extensive democracy. Great criticism. Wall posters everywhere. Absolute freedom to travel. Freedom to form revolutionary exchanges. These were the rights and freedoms given to the Red Guards, and no wonder it went to their heads and very soon became total licence.” In August 1966, “the simmering Cultural Revolution exploded in a maelstrom of violence… Mao had not reckoned that he would lose control of the havoc he had launched.”[16]

There was widespread disruption. Universities were closed. “Red Guards occupied and ransacked the Foreign Ministry, while most ambassadors were recalled to Beijing for political education. The British embassy was attacked, and the Soviet embassy was laid under siege by youthful Maoists for several months.”[17]

Many of those accused by the Cultural Revolution Group (CRG, a body of the CPC initially reporting to the Politburo Standing Committee but becoming the de facto centre of power) suffered horrible fates. Posters appeared with the slogan “Down with Liu Shaoqi! Down with Deng Xiaoping! Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought.” Liu’s books were burned in Tiananmen Square – “they were declared to be poisonous weeds, yet they had been a mainstay of the theoretical construct which in Yen’an in 1945-47 had brought Mao to power.”[18] He was expelled from all positions and arrested. “Liu had been repeatedly tortured and interrogated, confined to an unheated cell, and denied medical care. He died in November 1969, his remains surreptitiously cremated under a false name. His death was kept from his wife for three years, and from the public for a decade.”[19]

Peng Dehuai, former Defence Minister and the leader of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army’s operations in the Korean War, had been forced into retirement in 1959 after criticising the Great Leap Forward. Jiang Qing – Mao’s wife, and a leading figure in the CRG – sent Red Guards to Sichuan, where Peng was living. “A band of thugs burst into his house, seized him, and brought him to the capital, where he was thrown into prison. Peng was tortured and beaten more than a hundred times, his ribs were broken, his face maimed, and his lungs damaged. He was repeatedly dragged to criticism and struggle meetings.”[20] He died in a prison hospital in 1974.

Even Premier Zhou Enlai, unfailingly loyal in spite of his quiet horror at the CRG’s extremism, didn’t escape unscathed: in November 1966, according to Han Suyin, he had a heart attack after 22 hours of being surrounded and shouted at by Red Guards.

Although Mao had intended it to last for just a few months, the Cultural Revolution continued until shortly before Mao’s death in 1976, albeit with varying intensity: realising that the situation was getting out of control, in 1967 Mao called on the army to help establish order and re-organise production. However, the Cultural Revolution flared up again with the ascendancy of the ‘Gang of Four’ from 1972.

Historians in the capitalist countries tend to present the Cultural Revolution in the most facile and vacuous terms. To them, it was simply the quintessential example of Mao’s obsessive love of violence and power; just another episode in the long story of communist authoritarianism. But psychopathology is rarely the principal driving force of history. In reality, the Cultural Revolution was a radical mass movement; millions of young people were inspired by the idea of moving faster towards socialism, of putting an end to feudal traditions, of creating a more egalitarian society, of fighting bureaucracy, of preventing the emergence of a capitalist class, of empowering workers and peasants, of making their contribution to a global socialist revolution, of building a proud socialist culture unfettered by thousands of years of Confucian tradition. They wanted a fast track to a socialist future. They were inspired by Mao and his allies, who were in turn inspired by them.

Such a movement can get out of control easily enough, and it did. Mao can’t be considered culpable for every excess, every act of violence, every absurd statement (indeed he intervened at several points to rein it in), but he was broadly supportive of the movement and ultimately did the most to further its aims. Mao had enormous personal influence – not solely powers granted by the party or state constitutions, but an authority that came from being the chief architect of a revolutionary process that had transformed hundreds of millions of people’s lives for the better. He was as Lenin was to the Soviet people, as Fidel Castro remains to the Cuban people. Even when he made mistakes, these mistakes were liable to be embraced by millions of people. Han Suyin comments that “Mao was prone to making contradictory remarks, but each remark had the force of an edict.”[21]

Legacy of the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution is now widely understood in China to have been largely misguided. It was “the most severe setback … suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.”[22] The political assumptions of the movement – that the party was becoming dominated by counter-revolutionaries and capitalist-roaders; that the capitalist-roaders in the party would have to be overthrown by the masses; that continuous revolution would be required in order to stay on the road to socialism – were explicitly rejected by the post-Mao leadership of the CPC, which pointed out that “the ‘capitalist-roaders’ overthrown … were leading cadres of Party and government organisations at all levels, who formed the core force of the socialist cause.”[23]

Historian Rebecca Karl posits that this post-Mao leadership in fact benefitted from the Cultural Revolution, in the sense that this leadership came to be seen as “the saviour of China from chaos.”[24]

Perhaps the Cultural Revolution had a more directly useful outcome. Its principal aim was, after all, to prevent the ideological decay that was taking place in the Soviet Union at the time – an ideological decay that made a major contribution towards the Soviet people’s loss of confidence in the socialist project and, ultimately, the end of Soviet socialism.[25] Indeed it can be argued that the Cultural Revolution set the parameters of how far Reform and Opening Up could go; it laid the ground for Deng Xiaoping’s Four Cardinal Principles, which the CPC continues to observe today: 1) We must keep to the socialist road; 2) We must uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) We must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party; 4) We must uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.[26]

Australian academic Roland Boer poses the question of why the CPC leadership felt it important to identify and emphasise the Four Cardinal Principles at that point, at the start of the economic reform program: “Deng identifies the ‘rightist’ deviation as their target. The Reform and Opening Up may be seen by some as a path to capitalism and bourgeois liberalisation, and thus an abandonment of Marxism-Leninism.”[27] As such, the Four Cardinal Principles and the Cultural Revolution share some common ground in terms of their basic motivation.

German political economist Isabella M Weber also makes an interesting point that “the disruption of social order during the Cultural Revolution” was a crucial factor in the development of a new generation of young intellectuals with a close understanding of the needs of peasantry and the situation in the countryside.

“A cohort of young intellectuals (born 1940–1960) who were ‘sent up to the mountains and to the countryside’ during the Cultural Revolution emerged as influential reform economists in the course of agricultural reform. Like the veteran revolutionaries before them, their intellectual and political formation was intimately connected to the agrarian question, to China’s peasant majority, and to their struggle for material well-being. These young and old intellectuals with close ties to the countryside formed an unusual alliance that proved critical for China’s reform… As a historical irony, these Cultural Revolution campaigns also established new links between the urban and rural spheres that became instrumental for the breakthrough in the early years of reform.”[28]

Nonetheless, the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution impeded the country’s development and brought awful tragedy to a significant number of people. What so many historians operating in a capitalist framework fail to understand is why, in spite of the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution, Mao is still revered in China. For the Chinese people, the bottom line is that his errors were “the errors of a great proletarian revolutionary.”[29]

The errors of a great proletarian revolutionary

It was the CPC, led by Mao and on the basis of a political strategy principally devised by him, that China was liberated from foreign rule; that the country was unified; that feudalism was dismantled; that land was distributed to the peasants; that the country was industrialised; that a path to women’s liberation was forged. British economist John Ross points out that, “in the 27 years between the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, life expectancy in China increased by 31 years – or over a year per chronological year… China’s rate of increase of life expectancy in the three decades after 1949 was the fastest ever recorded in a major country in human history.”[30]

The excesses and errors associated with the last years of Mao’s life have to contextualised within this overall picture of unprecedented, transformative progress for the Chinese people. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was less than 20 percent. By the time Mao died, it was around 93 percent. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so up to 1949. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up that was accessible to the masses of the people. Land was irrigated. Famine became a thing of the past. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty and developed the means to defend itself from imperialist attack.

Hence the Mao as monster narrative has little resonance in China. As Deng Xiaoping himself put it, “without Mao’s outstanding leadership, the Chinese revolution would still not have triumphed even today. In that case, the people of all our nationalities would still be suffering under the reactionary rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism.”[31] Furthermore, even the mistakes were not the product of the deranged imagination of a tyrant but, rather, creative attempts to respond to an incredibly complex and evolving set of circumstances. They were errors carried out in the cause of exploring a path to socialism – a historically novel process inevitably involving risk and experimentation.

[1]                  Cited in Li Mingjiang. Mao’s China and the Sino-Soviet Split: Ideological Dilemma. Routledge Contemporary China Series 79. London ; New York: Routledge, 2012, p55.

[2]                 Rebecca E Karl. China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History. London ; New York: Verso, 2020, p129

[3]                 Vijay Prashad. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London ; New York: Verso, 2012, p199.

[4]                 Karl, op cit, p129

[5]                 Ji Chaozhu. The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life inside China’s Foreign Ministry. New York: Random House, 2008, p195.

[6]                 Liu Mingfu. The China Dream: Great Power Thinking & Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era. New York, NY: CN Times Books, 2015, p18.

[7]                 Han, op cit, p271

[8]                 Alexander Pantsov and Steven I Levine. Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, p196

[9]                 Ji, op cit, p212

[10]               Utsa Patnaik 2011, Revisiting Alleged 30 Million Famine Deaths during China’s Great Leap, MR Online, accessed 24 January 2023, <https://mronline.org/2011/06/26/revisiting-alleged-30-million-famine-deaths-during-chinas-great-leap/>.

[11]                Cited in Pantsov and Levine, op cit, p234

[12]               Circular of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (16 May 1966), Marxist Internet Archive, accessed 24 January 2023, <https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/cc_gpcr.htm>.

[13]               Mao Zedong 1966, A Letter To The Red Guards Of Tsinghua University Middle School, Marxist Internet Archive, accessed 24 January 2023, <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-9/mswv9_60.htm>.

[14]               Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (8 August 1966), Marxist Internet Archive, accessed 24 January 2023, <https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-33g.htm>.

[15]               Li, op cit, p134

[16]               Han, op cit, p327

[17]               Odd Arne Westad. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. 1st pbk. ed. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p163

[18]               Han, op cit, p253

[19]               Ji, op cit, p333

[20]              Alexander Pantsov and Steven I. Levine. Mao: The Real Story. First Simon&Schuster paperback edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013, p518

[21]               Han, op cit, p387

[22]              Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (27 June 1981), Marxist Internet Archive, accessed 24 January 2023, <https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm>.

[23]              ibid

[24]              Karl, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World, op cit, p119

[25]              This theme is discussed at length in my book The End of the Beginning: Lessons of the Soviet Collapse. New Delhi: Leftword Books, 2019.

[26]              Deng Xiaoping 1979, Uphold the four cardinal principles, China Daily, accessed 26 January 2023, <https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/19thcpcnationalcongress/2010-10/15/content_29714546.htm>

[27]              Roland Boer. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Guide for Foreigners. Singapore: Springer, 2021, p108

[28]              Isabella Weber. How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform Debate. Routledge Studies on the Chinese Economy. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, N.Y: Routledge, 2021, p154

[29]              Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (27 June 1981), op cit

[30]              John Ross 2019, 70 years of China’s social miracle, Socialist Economic Bulletin, accessed 24 January 2023, <https://www.socialisteconomicbulletin.net/2019/09/70-years-of-chinas-social-miracle/>.

[31]               Deng Xiaoping 1978, Emancipate the mind, seek truth from facts and unite as one in looking to the future, China Daily, accessed 24 January 2023, <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/19thcpcnationalcongress/2010-10/15/content_29714549.htm>.

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