Philip Short's Mao: A Life - Commentary & Analysis. By: Thomas Riggins (12/16)Read Now
CHAPTER 13 "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
This chapter begins with Short telling us that "Economics were not Mao's strong point." This would lead to lots of problems. Short indicates that economic policies were based on political considerations. This looks a lot like Bush II and his view that he could make his own reality! Nevertheless, economic and political considerations are not mutually exclusive.
Short gives two examples of his assertion. The New Democracy writings (capitalism encouraged, mixed economy, plus cooperatives and self-sufficiency for the Red Army) were predicated on the political needs of the united front and the struggle against Japan. Short points out that Mao insisted, in 1951's takeover of Tibet, that the Red Army produce its own food. The political motivation was not to provoke the Tibetans into rebellion. Why are these considerations indicative of economics not being a strong point?
Historically, the Chinese had come to not trust other countries and to be self-sufficient on the local and provincial levels as well as nationally. Mao realized his weakness in economic theory, as well as the CPC's, and Short quotes him as saying, on the eve of victory, "We shall have to master what we do not know. We must learn to do economic work from all who know how, no matter who they are ... We must acknowledge our ignorance, and not pretend to know what we do not know." Well, I take it back, this is completely unlike Bush II.
The Chinese turned to the Soviets for guidance, following the model of Five Year plans based on heavy industry. One big difference between Mao and Stalin , however, was in the collectivization of agriculture. Instead of forced collectivization of the peasants, Mao followed a program of a slower voluntary method. At least in the beginning.
In 1953 Mao thought socialism would be achieved by 1968 in the urban areas and by 1971 in the countryside. Happy optimist. Now the Chinese see it as sometime in the 21st century! Capitalists were still around in 1953. They had a role to play in the transition and were permitted to keep 25% of their profits. They are still around today and bigger than ever (but under state supervision).
Here, in the early period, the seeds of all the disruptions of the later years were sown, according to Short. In 1951 Bo Yibo, 1908-2007(finance minister) and Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) were against rapid collectivization. Gao Gang, 1905-1954 (PB and in charge of Manchuria) argued for rapid collectivization (Mao agreed) to check what Gao called the "spontaneous tendency of the peasants towards capitalism."
Mao came out against Bo and "right-opportunist deviations" , maintaining that "the question of the socialist road versus the capitalist road must be clarified." But what about the need for detours when the road becomes too rough and needs some repairs, or hasn't been laid down properly? What of the tension between objective reality and the desire for a quick transition to socialist institutions?
Mao also had too much power. He had been given the power "to overrule the rest of the Secretariat [of the PB]" back in 1943 as an emergency measure in the war with the GMD and against the Japanese. Now, after the revolution "he was arrogating to himself blanket authority over everything: his colleagues were allowed to do nothing without his explicit accord."
Collectivization problems developed in 1953. In the countryside the peasants were, as Short says, rushed into co-ops, the poor and the better off alike, socialism was seen as everyone "eating out of one big pot." The idea of sharing had not caught on. The well-off peasants killed their animals rather than share with the poor peasants [shades of Soviet collectivization!].
Then in 1954 floods ruined the summer harvest, food riots broke out (as the Party was still collecting the same quota as if nothing had happened). The riots woke Mao up. In January 1955 he instituted a two steps forward one step back policy which he called a "three-word scripture: 'Stop, contract, develop.'"
A few months later Mao and the CPC thought it was time to ramp up collectivization again. Mao thought "peasant resistance," Short writes, "had been overstated." The problem was, Short quotes Mao: "The peasants want freedom, but we want socialism."
An interesting quote, but Short makes it very difficult to check it out. He has zillions of footnotes and references (and no bibliography-- a shocking omission that devalues the usefulness of the book). This quote is sourced by "Teiwes and Sun, p. 42." The quote comes from their book on agriculture in China. But so what? Where did they get it from? Is it from an official record, gossip, someone's memoirs? Some of Short's "Mao quotes" have to be taken on faith. I think Short is an honest scholar, but his bourgeois perspective may induce him to accept as real "Mao quotes" some that come from less than 100% reliable sources. I will use [SW] if the quote comes from the Selected Works.
In any event, Deng Zihui, 1896-1972 (who was in charge of the collectivization efforts) thought it too soon to ramp up the movement again. He thought that Mao didn't think that all the material conditions for running such a big movement had to be in place before launching it. You launch a co-op movement with the peasants you have and not with the peasants you want.
By December 1956, 97% of the peasants were in collectives. Mao had pushed through the socialization of agriculture, originally planned to have been completed in 1971, way ahead of schedule. Would this be a Pyrrhic victory? We shall see. We should note, however, this "success" had the consequence that "Mao, and other leaders" now believed that "given the will to succeed, material conditions need not be decisive." Is Bush II a Maoist?
Now it was time to get rid of the capitalists in the cities. The mixed economy, supposed to last into the 1960s, was to be replaced by "socialism." "Our aim," Mao said, "is to exterminate capitalism, obliterate it from the face of the earth and make it a thing of the past [SW]." Easier said than done. The China of today is, perhaps, the result of this rush to skip over historically necessary stages.
By January 1956 the private urban economy had been "converted to joint state-private ownership." Now even more advanced goals were to be achieved. As Short says, "another gravity-defying leap forward" was in the making. Well, anyone can make a great leap but can they land where they want to?
1956 also saw Khrushchev's revelations of the crimes of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. This is not the place to rehash this, but I will go over how the Chinese reacted to the revelations. Mao was of two minds over the criticism of Stalin. In one sense, he said, it "destroyed myths, and opened boxes. This brings liberation ... [allowing people to] speak their minds and to be able to think about issues." But Stalin was not 100% wrong in all the things he did. He was "a great Marxist, [a] good and honest revolutionary" who had made some major mistakes.
An editorial in the People's Daily is quoted by Short: " Whatever the mistakes ... the dictatorship of the proletariat is, for the popular masses, always far superior to ... the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie ... Some people consider that Stalin was wrong in everything: this is a grave misconception ... We should view Stalin from an historical standpoint, make a proper and all-round analysis to see where he was right and where he was wrong and draw useful lessons therefrom. Both the things he did right and the things he did wrong were phenomena of the international communist movement and bore the imprint of the times."
The relationship between the USSR and China had changed. Mao now saw a relationship of equality developing. Khrushchev and the new leadership didn't have the star power of Stalin-- they were a "neophyte Soviet leadership." The problem was that the Soviets still treated the Chinese as second class communists and acted the "elder brother" to the CPC. This would bring, Short says, "Beijing and Moscow, before the decade was out, to the point of no return."
1956 also saw problems for the USSR in Poland and Hungary. There were riots in Poland and Wladyslaw Gomulka (1905-1982) became the communist leader over the objections of the Soviets. Worse, from their point of view, Imre Nagy (1896-1958) became the leader in Hungary. The Chinese supported Poland because they thought each country had a right to develop communism in its own way. But when Hungary decided to leave the Warsaw Pact, the Chinese supported Russian intervention because they viewed Hungary as counterrevolutionary. "The mess the Soviet leaders had made in their own European backyard," Short writes, "further lowered them in Mao's estimation."
I hate giving big long quotes, but this is an important statement about the happenings of 1956 which Mao gave to the CPC Central Committee in November of that year. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, so we must ask if subsequent events prove Mao's analysis correct (not to say that he is not subject to an "et tu Mao?". Short quotes him as follows:
"I think there are two 'swords': one is Lenin and the other Stalin. The sword of Stalin has now been discarded by the Russians ... We Chinese have not thrown it away. First we protect Stalin, and second, at the same time we criticize his mistakes ...
"As for the sword of Lenin, has it not also been discarded to a certain extent by some Soviet leaders? In my view, it has been discarded to a considerable extent. Is the October Revolution still valid? ... Khrushchev's report at the 20th Congress of the CPSU says it is possible to seize state power by the parliamentary road, that is to say, it is no longer necessary for all countries to learn from the October Revolution. Once this gate is opened, by and large Leninism is thrown away ...
"How much capital do [the Russians] have? Just Lenin and Stalin. Now [they] have abandoned Stalin and practically all of Lenin as well-- with Lenin's feet gone, or perhaps with only his head left, or with one of his hands cut off. We on our part stick to studying Marxism-Leninism and learning from the October Revolution. [SW]" Where would one find those swords today in China?
In January 1957 Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) visited Moscow. Short reports that four areas of disagreement became apparent between the Russians and the Chinese. They were:
1.) Over the role of Stalin. The Chinese thought he was 70% good and 30% bad. The Russians were much more negative (they should know). I note that this 70/30 split is how Mao is evaluated in the China of today.
2.) The Chinese rejected the "parliamentary road to socialism." One notes that as of 2007 the only countries in the world governed by communist parties are those in which revolutions took place. While not conclusive, it does suggest that the Chinese may have had a point. However, the Chinese were the first, almost, to say each party should be free to find its own path with respect to its own national conditions.
3.) The Chinese rejected the concept of "peaceful coexistence." The Chinese position was (People's Daily editorial)-- "The imperialists are always bent on destroying us. Therefore we must never forget ... class struggle on a world scale." Are Chinese policies today the product of amnesia or are they simply inscrutable?
4.) A philosophical problem! The Russians did not like Mao's use of the dialectical concept of "contradiction." Although contradiction was at the heart of the dialectical process, Stalin had rejected it and Soviet thinkers had avoided it [this was part of his 30% bad]. The Russians wanted one line for the world communist movement. The official announcement at the conclusions of the talks with Zhou read (with Russian insistence): "There have not been and are no essential contradictions ... in the relations between socialist states. Even if in the past there were shortcomings they are now being rectified and eliminated." Imry Nagy was certainly "eliminated." (hanged).
The Chinese nevertheless still believed in contradictions. Short quotes a People's Daily editorial published only a month before Zhou's trip to Moscow. There are "contradictions in socialist countries between different sections of the people, between comrades within the Communist Party, [and] between the government and the people" and "contradictions between socialist countries, [and] contradictions between Communist Parties." The Russians and the Chinese were living in different worlds.
Another problem the CPC faced in the early 50s was how to handle "counterrevolutionary elements" inside the country. In a famous essay of 1957 by Mao "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People" he argued that people should be free to criticize the party and that education and discussion should be used to defend the party's ideas not "crude methods." After all, as Short points out, there were 12 million proletarians in China vs. 550 million petty bourgeoisie (peasants, small traders, shopkeepers, students, etc.) There were bound to be a lot of confused and even hostile ideas.
This essay came in the middle of a campaign launched in 1956 that is known by the title "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." There were two reasons for this campaign. First, there was a dearth of scientists, engineers and other creative thinkers which was holding up development. Mao didn't want to discourage new ideas that might help the revolution. Second, the anti-Stalin reaction in the USSR led the CPC to give up blindly following the Soviet model. Chinese intellectuals were to be free to experiment. At least that was Mao's intention at first.
Mao also thought that the reason for the disturbances in Eastern Europe was the fact that "bureaucratism" had led to a contradiction between the communist parties and the people. Also the parties had failed to get rid of the leftover counter-revolutionaries. Mao thought the counter- revolutionaries were under control in China but that bureaucratism and alienation from the masses were not under control. How could the party fulfill the wishes and needs of the masses if the masses feared to speak up?
So, Mao thought that "in China workers should be allowed to strike because 'this will be helpful in solving contradictions among the state, the factory directors and the masses', and students should be allowed to demonstrate. 'They are just contradictions, that's all. The world is full of contradictions.'" The 100 Flowers movement had two components or goals: making the party and the people closer and letting the people feel free to bring up their frustrations with the CPC.
Mao got a lot of flack from conservative elements in the party, especially from the PLA, over these ideas. The conservatives thought counter- revolutionary elements would make a comeback and run amuck. Mao rejected this criticism.
The intellectuals, however, were in no mood to trust Mao. They had been burned too many times before. And they were right. Mao really had two positions. People should speak up and be given the freedom to do so, but ultimately they must see their errors and come around to the views of the CPC.
"To Mao's dialectical mind." Short says, " these were just two sides of the same coin. 'In a unity of opposites,' he explained, 'there is always one aspect that is primary and another secondary.' The problem was, with Mao, which was which could change." The velvet glove was simply a better method than the stick. The Soviets knew only the stick and now they were having big problems in Eastern Europe. Their denial of contradiction would ultimately prove fatal.
The quotes from Mao, provided by Short, are positively democratic in spirit and any communist leader, even today, could stand behind them. "In the past we fought the enemy along with the people. Now, since the enemy is no longer there ... only the people and we remain. If they don't argue with us when they have grievances, who can they argue with? ... If we ... do not allow [this], our nation will be sapped of its vitality ... We must brace ourselves and let them ... The Communist Party has to let itself be scolded for a while." I believe if this had been the attitude in the USSR and Eastern Europe the Soviet bloc would still be in existence. The lack of this attitude also keeps small CPs from becoming mass parties.
"The 'Hundred Flowers'," Short writes, "was the most ambitious attempt ever undertaken in any communist country [Cuba excepted, tr] to combine a totalitarian system with democratic checks and balances." It turned into a fiasco due to the paranoia of Mao and the CPC.
Mao was startled to find that many people were alienated from the party in the same manner as he said the people in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, in Poland had become. The gist of the complaints was that the CPC had become "a new bureaucratic class which monopolised power and privilege and had alienated itself from the masses." It was not the "masses", however, making the criticisms. It was mostly the intellectuals and the better educated.
Mao changed from seeing blooming flowers, as Short notes, to seeing noxious weeds. The CPC now thought a Rightist counter-revolution must be at work and that a purge was needed. In the end 520,000 people were sent off to prison and labor camps. These people were being punished "solely for their ideas." The victims were "hundreds of thousands of loyal citizens who had taken the Party at its word."
Short says it was a "tragedy" because Mao really "did want the intellectuals to 'think for themselves.'" He really wanted, in his own words, "the creation of a political environment where there will be both centralism and democracy, both discipline and freedom, both unity of purpose and personal ease of mind and liveliness."
The problem was that Mao was so sure of his thought and way of viewing Marxism that he could not believe, after people were given such a great amount of freedom, that they would not end up agreeing with the party. If they didn't it must be for sinister reasons.
At least there was no physical violence and shootings (this time). Mao wanted to overcome those extremes from the days before the CPC had state power. After the fact he realized he had overreacted to the 'Hundred Flowers' and said he was "confused by false appearances." But the damage was done. "The very people whom Mao needed most to build the strong, new China he had been dreaming of since his youth had been definitively alienated."
After the failure of the 'Hundred Flowers', Short reports that Mao reverted to the idea of mass mobilization as the way to advance, and this gave rise to the "Little Leap Forward" in early 1956. The Little Leap failed because the targets were set too high. Mao had to retrench, but in the fall of 1957 he was ready to try again.
Mao decided that economics should take a backrest to politics. This was a big mistake and very un-Marxist as it meant taking a formation in the superstructure as more primary that what was going on in the base. This was actually a form of Idealism.
This was a time of unbridled optimism. The Russians were saying that they would overtake the US in fifteen years [fat chance] and Mao proclaimed that "I think we can [say] that we have left the Western world behind us ... I say that we have left them behind us once and for all."
In January of 1958 Mao put forth the theory of "uninterrupted revolution." He thought, according to Short, that socialism was already constructed in China ["collectivisation of the means of production"] and now it was time for a political, ideological and technological leap forward. Unfortunately, Mao's idealism came to the fore. He said "When we study a problem we must subdue the [facts] by [adopting] a viewpoint, and activate the affair at hand with politics." This is a little too much like Bush II’s people saying we can make our own reality!
It was on this basis that the Great Leap Forward was officially launched in 1958. Short points out that modern science, as understood in the West, had no tradition in China and was a recent import. And Mao "freely admitted" he did not know anything about it or about modern technology based upon it. He had a triumph of the will attitude. "In a country," Short says, "with a tradition of scientific and industrial expertise, the targets advanced in the Great Leap would have been dismissed as the idle dreams they were."
But a people, a nation, has to learn by doing. The risk for Marxism in China is, too many non or un-Marxist attempts to skip stages and leap into the "communist" future could lead to a disbelief in Marxism itself because of the failures of its incorrect applications.
Short quotes an article Mao wrote two years before the Great Leap Forward to show his mental state at the time. "China's 600 million people have two remarkable peculiarities; they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it."
Short calls this hubris, thinking 600 million people could be molded "like putty." He is not far wrong, I fear, and as he points out, catastrophe "was not long in coming."
Meanwhile relations with the Russians were turning sour. In 1957 Khrushchev offered to help the Chinese develop nuclear weapons and even to give them "a sample atom bomb." However, Mao's attitude towards nuclear war was not reassuring. In case of such a war he speculated that even if half of humanity was destroyed the half that was left would beat imperialism "and the whole world would become socialist." Not a very politic speculation.
Mao made these comments at the Conference of World Communist Parties (Moscow, November 1957) attended by representatives from over 60 countries. Short says the Soviets began to have second thoughts about giving Mao the bomb. But, he says, "the technology agreement had been signed."
Another big problem was that the Chinese were still only a few years away from their revolutionary victory and were still hot to press on with world revolutionary activities against US imperialism and its allies. The Russians were trying to prevent nuclear war and promote peaceful coexistence under the impression socialist economic development would eventually out strip the West. To Mao, Short writes, "this was a betrayal of the international communist movement and the revolutionary cause it was pledged to promote." Nevertheless, outward amity was maintained. The world was as yet unaware of the deepening fissure.
By 1959 problems with the Great Leap Forward were impossible to ignore. The grain harvest was faltering. The Chinese peasants had been building backyard furnaces to make pig iron for steel to overtake the West. This movement was forsaken as most of the product was worthless. The peasants resented being pushed too much and found life in the communes too restrictive. Mao had to admit, "Just as a child plays with fire ... and knows pain only when it is burnt so, in economic construction, we declared war on nature, like an inexperienced child, unfamiliar with strategy and tactics." Well, live and learn.
In 1959 Khrushchev also told Mao that the Soviets were going to renege on the nuclear agreement. No bomb for Mao. Later that year he went to Beijing for the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic. It was also to make a last ditch effort to patch up the alliance.
He did not succeed. The Chinese thought the Russians put their own national interests first and the interests of the world communist movement second. They certainly didn't seem to care about the national desires of their Chinese comrades. Khrushchev felt the same about the Chinese. This was a clash of civilizations! "The basis," Short says, "for a fraternal relationship simply no longer existed." World imperialism, led by the U.S., could only cheer.
The split became more public in 1960. The Russians pushed peaceful coexistence, the Chinese rejected it. "As long as imperialism existed," Shorts says the People's Daily editorialized in April (Lenin's 90th birthday), "wars would occur; peaceful competition was a fraud, perpetrated by 'the old revisionists and their modern counterparts.'" Khrushchev for his part called Mao "an ultra-Leftist, an ultra-dogmatist and a left revisionist." So take that!
The Russians then withdrew all their aid from the Chinese, and took out all their technical experts so that "Factories were left half-built; blueprints torn up [really vile, so the Chinese could not help themselves on their own]; [and]research projects abandoned." This was really hostile and uncalled for on the part of the Soviets.
This was particularly bad timing as the Great Leap Forward was tanking and natural disasters were piling up on the Chinese. The Russians, Short writes, "inflicted enormous economic damage at a time when China was least able to deal with it." Meanwhile more than one third of China's cultivated land was suffering under "the worst drought for a century." Then floods wiped out half as much again of cultivated land. About half of the cultivated land was out of service. Nature and the Great Leap together brought about famine. "It was the worst human disaster ever to befall China." There was cannibalism and the peasants swapped children before eating them-- "to avoid eating their own."
Between 1959 and 1961 25 million people, according to Short, starved to death, a little over 4% of the population. Short says it was the worst ever, but the Taiping Rebellion does seem to have been worse in terms of the percentage of people killed. and if the natural disasters are taken into account, the Great Leap Forward runs neck to neck with the great 1870 famine under the Qing Dynasty. At any rate the CPC policies were off the wall and shows what can happen when you ignore science and think that political will power can substitute for economic reality.
A costly lesson indeed. Mao, short says, "set aside once and for all the idea of making China a great economic power, never to concern himself with it again."
NEXT UP: CHAPTER 14 "Musings on Immortality"
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
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