Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism and Communism Will Be A Far Better World
Growing numbers of people are concerned about the state of the world and the fate of the planet. Do things have to be this way? No, there is a real world alternative: socialism and communism. But people are constantly bombarded with the message that socialism has failed and that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. A whole generation of young people has basically heard nothing else about socialism other than it is a nightmare. This “rewriting of history” has also influenced many progressive intellectuals. The Set the Record Straight Project aims to turn the ideological assault against communism into a two-sided debate on college campuses about communism’s past and communism’s future. Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta is now on a national speaking tour as part of the Set the Record Straight project. His daring speech, “Socialism Is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be A Far Better World,” confronts the lies about communism, analyzes the real experience and breakthroughs of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917-56, and the Chinese revolution of 1949-76, and brings forth Bob Avakian’s vibrant reenvisioning of the communist project. Information on upcoming speaking dates and related materials are available at www.thisiscommunism.org.
Part 1: Introduction
The title of my talk is “Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be A Far Better World.” The theme of my talk is that the way the world is, is not the way it has to be.
There are people in this room hungering for an alternative to this system. Who want to do something meaningful for humanity with their lives. Humanity can move beyond exploitation and social division. It can move towards a classless society and a world of freely associating human beings—communism. This is what proletarian revolution is about. And the first historic steps in building such a society and world were taken by the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century. These revolutions were defeated. But they are rich in lessons and inspiration. And I want to talk about why communism is more relevant than ever.
Yes, what I am saying is controversial. We live in a time when the permanence of capitalism is trumpeted. We are told that the verdict on the 20th century has been delivered: the socialist experiment has failed and can only fail. We are bombarded with the idea that there is no alternative, that capitalism is the natural order of things. We are told that as much as capitalism has problems, any attempts to get rid of it will make things far worse.
It is as though a warning label were affixed to the discourse on human possibility. Danger —anything that fundamentally challenges capitalism is at best a pipe dream and at worst an unworkable utopia imposed from above that will result in nightmare. Caution —the project of making revolution and building an economy and society that promote and serve the common good violates human nature, economic logic, and the very flow of history. Reminder —we have reached the end of history: Western society represents the high point and the end point of human development.
In a thousand different ways, crude and sophisticated, the message is put out that the history of the 20th century is the history of the disaster and horror of socialist revolution and the triumph of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. It’s in the media. It’s reinforced by widely promoted memoirs. It’s taught in the schools. It’s embedded in intellectual discourse.
There’s just one problem. This “conventional wisdom” about communism is not true. It is built on the wholesale distortion of the actual history of socialist revolution. Lies and slanders are repeated endlessly and become accepted as self-evidently true. I have to say it's amazing what passes as intellectual rigor and—sadly—it's amazing what gets over on people who pride themselves on intellectual rigor and honesty. Crude speculation, statistical approximations and evaluation methods that nobody would take seriously if they had been applied in their own professions, reliance on highly subjective memoirs by people with political agendas—these things are somehow acceptable when the subject is communism.
Take this new biography Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday that’s getting a lot of attention. It's stark, raving anticommunist. It makes a statement like this: “there wasn't a school in China where atrocities did not occur.” What's the source of this claim? The authors give none. They just assert it. You wouldn't let this pass as scholarship about other subjects. But if it's the Cultural Revolution, critical thinking gets a waiver.
How many times have you heard it said that Mao was anti-education. But the truth is that Maoist China raised literacy from about 15 percent in 1949 to close to 80 percent in 1976. Facts like these are conveniently ignored, or they get buried under the avalanche of these slanders. You know when the Chinese revolution came to power in 1949, life expectancy in China was 32 years! In 1975, life expectancy had increased to 65 years—a two-fold increase.
We need to set the record straight. In this talk, I am going to confront and refute the distortions about the “first wave” of socialist revolutions. When I speak of a “first wave” of socialist revolutions, I am referring to the experience of the masses of people of the Soviet Union when it was a real socialist society—and that was during the years 1917-56. And I am referring to the experience of the people of China when it was actually socialist—and that was during the years 1949-76. These were the first and inspiring efforts in modern history to build societies free of exploitation and oppression.
I will talk about why these revolutions took place. I will talk about what people set out to do and what difficulties they faced. I will talk about the incredible, earth-shaking things they were able to accomplish. And I want to talk about the “learning curve” of communist revolution. How Mao learned from the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, summed up shortcomings and errors, and opened new paths for going further and doing better in making revolution. We are now at the beginning of a new stage of proletarian revolution. And I will talk about that and about how Bob Avakian is advancing the understanding of the nature of communist revolution in today’s world.
You see, for communists, the truth is not a problem. We can confront and understand reality. And it is on that foundation that a vision of a whole better way for humans to relate to each other on this planet can be developed—based on what is actually possible and necessary at this stage of human history.
There were problems in this “first wave” of socialist revolutions in the 20th century. We are not afraid to look at these problems. But we do have to seek truthful understanding. And even those truths that make us cringe can be a spur to doing better. In contrast, those in whose hands the world is currently entrapped…THEY have every interest in lying: whether about weapons of mass destruction, or about communism.
Why is it important to get at the truth of the Russian and Chinese revolutions? Because at the core of this discussion is the future of humanity.
- We live in a world in which 35,000 children die each and every day of malnutrition and preventable disease.
- We live in a world system in which the three richest Americans control assets exceeding the combined gross domestic product of the 40 poorest countries in the world.
- We live on a planet whose ecobalance is threatened by the blind workings of an economic system that takes profit as its measure and motor of development.
- We live in a society in which 1 of every 8 Black men in their 20s is incarcerated.
The question is: Do we have to live this way? Can you really radically change things? We need to get a vigorous debate going about all of this. The stakes are very high.
But it is a problem if people think they have a basis for an opinion about the desirability or viability of communism when they don’t really know much about it at all. If you want to understand and decide whether communism is relevant, or is an idea whose time has passed into oblivion, first you need to know what it is: its aims and its foundations.
Part 2: Communism and Socialism
So I want to define communism. I want to do this first, since this is the goal toward which socialism is directed.
Imagine a society where people consciously learn about and transform the world...where people are no longer imprisoned by the chains of tradition and ignorance...where people not only coooperatively work to produce the necessities of life, but get into art and culture and science—and have fun doing it...where the scientific outlook and the flight of imagination strengthen and inspire each other...where there is unity and diversity, far-ranging debate, and ideological struggle over the direction and development of society—but no longer stamped by social antagonism...where people interact with each other based on mutual respect, concern, and love for humanity. A world that cares about and takes care of the environment. That is communism.
Communism is a worldwide society—and it is yet to be achieved—in which all classes and class distinctions have been overcome; all systems and relations of exploitation abolished; all oppressive social institutions and relations of social inequality, like racial discrimination and the domination of women by men, put an end to; and oppressive and backward ideas and values cast off. Communism is a world of abundance, where people together hold all of society's resources in common.
Communism also refers to communist ideology. Now often people think that “ideology” means some set of politically motivated ideas that bias everything you look at. No, by communist ideology I mean the comprehensive outlook and scientific method of the proletariat for understanding the actual forces operating in nature and in society. Communist ideology points the way to an historic advance in humanity's ability to understand and transform these natural and social forces. And communist ideology provides a morality that corresponds to the great leap that humanity has already begun to make.
Communism is not some sort of wishful and airy dream or utopia. The development of human society has brought humanity to a historic threshold.
The productive forces of society—not just machinery, equipment, and technology but also people and their knowledge—have developed to a level that can allow humanity to overcome scarcity, to provide for people's basic material needs, and beyond that to have a large surplus left over to devote to the all-around and future development of society.
The productive forces of society are highly socialized. They require thousands and ultimately millions working together to mass-produce the things—whether we are talking about clothing or computers—that are used by people throughout society. And these productive forces are highly interconnected on an international level: raw materials and transistors and machine tools produced in one part of the world enter into the production process in other parts of the world. But these socialized productive forces are privately controlled. A capitalist class of owners appropriates the results of production as private, capitalist property.
This is the fundamental problem in the world. And this is what proletarian revolution solves.
The proletariat is the class that emerges in capitalist society on the basis of these socialized productive forces. The proletariat represents the cooperative labor and cooperative efforts that correspond to the socialized nature of the productive forces. The proletariat has the material basis and occupies the material position to bring about a radically different way of organizing production and society as a whole.
Now what is socialism? Socialism is not a big welfare state that looks after people. It is not the old capitalist economy simply taken over by a state. Socialism is a transition from capitalism to communism, to classless society. Socialism is about the proletariat, in alliance with its allies who make up the great majority of society, consciously transforming the economic structures, social relations, and ideas that perpetuate social and class division. It is about unleashing the creativity and initiative of those who had been on the bottom of society.
The socialist revolution establishes a new system of political rule: the dictatorship of the proletariat. The old exploiting classes and those actively seeking to overturn the new system are controlled and held in check. This system of political rule gives the masses the right and the ability to change the world, to participate in society in an all-around way, to become masters of society. In the U.S. and around the world, we presently live under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie—which in this country comes in the form of democracy. This dictatorship enforces a system that is in the service of capitalists, and rules over the people to allow the flourishing of that system.
The socialist revolution establishes a new economy based on social ownership of the means of production and social planning; on people cooperating to solve problems and to meet social need; and with a whole new set of economic and social priorities.
The dictatorship of the proletariat exercises dictatorship over the capitalists and enforces a system that allows for the freedom from capitalism. The masses and their leadership core have to firmly hold on to that power. But that can't be an end itself. This power has to be used for the good of humanity and to actually create the conditions so that this dictatorship can go out of existence in the future communist society.
These are the basic guiding principles that Lenin took into battle in leading the first proletarian revolution in October 1917.
Part 3: The Bolsheviks Lead a Revolution That Shakes the World
In February 1917, massive strikes and demonstrations by workers in what is today St. Petersburg brought down the Tsar. A liberal coalition government took over—but failed to satisfy the most basic needs and demands of the masses, and continued Russia's participation in the horrific First World War. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks led an armed mass insurrection that swept away the old regime.
John Reed wrote a vivid account of the heroism and excitement of the October Revolution: the organization of railway workers, tense meetings in factories, proclamations and preparations for the uprising, the sailors and battalions of armed workers in Kronstadt spearheading the final assault on key government centers. A new revolutionary government was formed. It immediately issued two stunning decrees: one ending Russia's involvement in World War 1; another empowering peasants to seize the vast landholdings of the tsarist crown, gentry, and church. These measures signaled titanic political and social change for the masses. Their day had come. In late October, when the remnants of the overthrown government launched a last-ditch effort to retake power, thousands and thousands of workers, women and men, poured forth from factories and working class quarters to defend the revolution.
Now, one of the lies about the Bolshevik Revolution—and this is standard fare in the anti-communist literature—is that it was really a manipulative coup by the Bolsheviks. Heres the story line: A political vacuum is created by the disintegration of the old order; Lenin takes power illegally, but succeeds through deceit and authoritarian politics to maintain his position.
Whats wrong with this picture? Basically two things.
First, it paints over the oppressive conditions that impelled millions to rise up. Richard Pipes, a bourgeois expert on the Russian Revolution, says in one his major works, "Those who experienced the Russian Revolution would never see the return of normalcy. The revolution was only the beginning of their sorrows." As though things were just fine before the revolution - without sorrow.
But let's look at the situation before the revolution. In the countryside, where the majority of people lived, wooden plows were still in common use. Superstition and religion exerted a tight grip over daily life. Holy days still set the dates for the sowing of land. Wife beating was rampant. In the cities, epidemic diseases ravaged the populace. An autocracy ruled society, with a vast network of police, jails and surveillance. Minority languages and cultures were suppressed. This was normalcy before the Revolution. And it became more unbearable when Russia entered World War 1. Peasants were forcibly conscripted into the tsarist army and workers turned into cannon fodder.
This story line of a coup by Lenin also blots out that the fact that the revolution was profoundly shaped by the collective action and aspirations of workers and peasants. The revolution developed in an atmosphere of widespread social disaffection, mass resistance, and great intellectual ferment.
And what about Lenin and the vanguard party he led? This party was prepared to act and to lead as no other force in Russian society was. It had grassroots strength and organization in factory committees, in the armed forces, in the soviets (these were illegal, anti-government, representative assemblies of workers contesting for power in the big towns and cities). The Bolshevik program and vision resonated in society. The values and institutions of the old order were widely despised. And the new proletarian power became the basis for new social values as well as revolutionary economic and social relations.
John Reed called his account of October: Ten Days That Shook The World. And it was no exaggeration.
Across war-ravaged Europe, exhausted soldiers, sailors, and workers of the belligerent countries heard that a victorious socialist country had called for peace, for an end to the slaughter—a peace without annexations or conquest. And they were stirred. In Kiel and Hamburg, the rebel sailors of the Germany navy mutinied against orders to continue the war. They raised the red flag and called their new power “councils” (which is what soviet means). And they dreamed of taking the whole country down this road.
At the other end of the world, in Seattle, workers rose up for five days in the 1919 general strike. The local ruling class screamed that this was the start of insurrection, that Seattle was becoming St. Petersburg. And though this strike was far from that, the influence and the model of Russia's revolution was intensely alive in the minds of the workers too. Later that year, the U.S. government sent ammunition to arm the counterrevolution in Russia. When trainloads of this ammunition went through Seattle, the longshore workers refused to load it onto transport ships.
When the Russian revolution erupted, when it took its radical turn in October—when communists (and not merely bourgeois democratic modernizers) emerged as the leadership of a society—the whole world quivered with the newness of it. Old struggles suddenly appeared in a new light. The oppressors took fearful notice; the oppressed had a new gleam. Workers taught themselves to read to catch this news; at small meetings after work they scoured the press and debated the meaning of these strange new words—soviet, socialism—and these strange new names—Lenin, Marx, Stalin. Mao Tsetung said that the salvos fired by the Bolshevik Revolution brought Marxism to China.
You want to know how earthshaking October was? Listen to Winston Churchill, speaking in 1949, more than 30 years after the Bolsheviks came to power: “The failure to strangle Bolshevism at its birth and bring Russia, then prostrate, by one means or another into the general democratic system lies heavy upon us today.”
The historian Eric Hobsbawm makes a very interesting observation. He says that the American Civil War was both the greatest war between 1815 and 1914 and by far the greatest in American history. But the American Civil War did not have a great effect on what happened in other parts of the world. On the other hand, the Bolshevik Revolution stands as an epochal, world-changing phenomenon: for what it meant to the peoples of Russia, for what it meant to the people of the world, for what it meant for the ruling classes and reactionary forces of the world, and for the ways in which it influenced world events.
World capitalism could not proceed as it had before. One-sixth of the globe was now closed off to imperialist exploitation. The imperialists worried about the ideological contamination of the Bolshevik revolution. This was a big factor behind the granting of certain benefits to workers, to buy social peace, in the western capitalist countries.
The imperialists tried to crush the Soviet revolution. They tried to strangle it in its cradle. And they kept coming at it. They applied economic pressure, including the world's first oil embargo. They threatened military attack. They viciously suppressed revolutionary forces in neighboring central and east-central Europe. They built up opposition forces in Soviet society.
Part 4: The Soviet Experiment: The Social Revolution Ushered in by Proletarian Power
From 1917 until the early 1950s, the Soviet Union was either fighting wars, preparing for wars, or dealing with the aftermath of war. No other modern state has endured this kind of perpetual ordeal. And this profoundly conditioned the development of the revolution, the policy choices made by its leadership, and the struggles in society and the struggles within the Party leadership.
It would be nice to be able to build a new society in ideal conditions. But the oppressed and their revolutionary leadership do not get to choose the larger circumstances in which they find themselves. Russia was a backward country. It was only a generation out of serfdom. The Russian Revolution was a mass phenomenon, and it drew support from the peasants. But the fact remained: an urban-based revolution had taken place in a peasant country. The revolution was confronted with the need to win the peasants and extend the revolution to the countryside. It faced backward social movements in society. This was not a polite PTA meeting. This was a society wracked by war; it was a society on a road of transformation where no one had gone before.
By 1918, reactionary political and military forces were mounting a counterrevolution to restore the old order. Seventeen countries, including the United States, which landed troops in Siberia, put together an army of intervention to aid the counterrevolution. The Bolsheviks took over a war economy on the verge of collapse and led the masses to defend and advance the revolution. The revolution achieved victory in the civil war. But this came at great cost—war casualties, disease, and economic dislocation.
The new proletarian state was fighting for its life. A social revolution was fighting for its life.
The anti-communist histories slander the Bolshevik Revolution and the communist project as a primal obsession with power. The codeword is “totalitarianism.” Communists, we are told, seek to establish total control over a docile population. But lets look at what this new class power was actually used for.
The dictatorship of the proletariat was used to overcome the oppression of women. In 1918, a new marriage law turned marriage into a civil ceremony. In the old society, marriage had to be sanctioned by the church. Divorce was made easy to secure. Men were legally stripped of their authority over wives and children. Adultery was dropped as a criminal offense. Women now received equal pay in jobs. Maternity hospital care was provided free. And in 1920, the Soviet Union became the first country in modern Europe to make abortion legal. In the newspapers and schools there was lively debate about sex roles, marriage, and family. Science fiction novels imagined new social relations.
Old oppressive and patriarchal customs were criticized and challenged. In the new republics of Central Asia, women were encouraged and able to cast off the veil that had been forced on them for generations. Rather than being held down by family, church, and the state, women were now empowered to fight for their emancipation. Think about the significance of all this when we look at the state of the world today. No society up to that point had ever tried to transform its gender system so completely.
Overcoming the Oppression of Minority Peoples
This new proletarian power was used to overcome the oppression of minority peoples. The Bolshevik revolution created the worlds first multinational state based on equality of nationalities. The new socialist state recognized the right of self-determination for the former oppressed nations of the old Tsarist empire. In a 1917 decree, all minority nationalities were granted the right to instruction in native languages in all schools and universities.
The determination to address problems was real, as were the measures taken. For instance, many minority nationalities with non-written languages were supplied with alphabets. The Soviet state devoted considerable resources to the mass production of books, journals, newspapers, movies, folk music ensembles, and museums in the minority regions. The nationalities policy called for indigenous leadership in the new national territories—not outside Russian administrators. And party leaders and government, school, and enterprise administrators were trained from among the oppressed nationalities. The Russians had long been the dominant and oppressor nationality. Now Russian territory was being assigned to non-Russian republics; now Russians were asked to learn non-Russian languages. The persecution of the Jews was ended. This spirit of combating national oppression permeated the early Soviet Union. It was one of the defining features of the new society and state.
The new Soviet state launched national educational and health campaigns. No country in the period between World War 1 and World War 2 matched the Soviet Unions increase in the ratio of doctors to population. The literacy rate rose from 30 percent to over 80 percent in 1939.
At the time, where else in the world were things like this happening? Nowhere. But we know what the situation was in the United States. Segregation was the law of the land. Jim Crow was in full effect. When Paul Robeson, the great African-American actor, singer, and radical, first visited the Soviet Union, he was deeply impressed by the revolutions efforts to overcome racial and national prejudice. Ethnic minorities weren't being lynched in the Soviet Union as Black people were right then in the U.S. South. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were two different worlds.
Part 5: The Soviet Experiment: Building the World's First Socialist Economy
After Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin assumed leadership of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The social revolution that I have been describing was inseparable from his leadership. The question had been posed in the mid-1920s. Could you build socialism in the Soviet Union? Could you do this in a society that was economically and culturally backward? Could you do it when the Soviet Union stood alone as a proletarian state and there was no certainty that revolutions would take place in other countries?
Stalin stepped forward and fought for the view that the Soviet Union could and must take the socialist road in these circumstances. Otherwise, the Soviet Union would not be able to survive. It would not be able to aid revolution elsewhere. With this orientation, Stalin led the complex and acute struggles to socialize the ownership of industry and to collectivize agriculture.
What was the economic situation in the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s? Farming as it was conducted could not reliably feed the population. Industry was limited and could not furnish the factories and machines needed to modernize the economy. Russia had been a society where intellectuals were a tiny segment of the population, where only a narrow slice of the population had higher technical and liberal arts education. And, always, there was the looming threat of imperialist attack. These were the real economic and social contradictions faced by real human beings trying to remake society and the world.
And what was the rest of the world like in the 1920s? There was feudalism in most of the world’s countryside. And capitalism was flooding the globe in cruel and unplanned ways.
But now in the Soviet Union, in this one piece of liberated territory, a new proletarian movement had come to power and was going to plan an economy to serve the people. This was outrageous: nobody before had ever said the phrase a socialist “five-year plan.”
Planning an Economy
A socialist revolution creates a new kind of economy. The means of production are no longer the private property of a minority of society. They are placed under society's collective control as expressed through the proletarian state. Economic resources are no longer employed to maximize profit. Rather, they are utilized to meet the fundamental needs and interests of the masses and to serve the world revolution. Social production is no longer carried out without prior plan or social purpose but is now shaped according to consciously adopted aims and coordinated as a whole.
The First Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union was launched in 1928. It focused on iron and steel. Massive new industrial complexes were built from scratch. Tractor plants had a very high priority. Tractors were needed in the countryside. And tractor plants could, in the event of war, be converted to produce tanks. Machine tool production was rapidly expanded so the economy would not have to depend on imports.
The slogan of the First Five-Year Plan was “we are building a new world.” Millions of workers and peasants were fired with this spirit. In factories and villages, people discussed the plan: the difference it would make for their lives—and for the people of the world—that such an economy was being built. They deliberated on what they wanted, what they could make, and what they needed in order to make it.
Local plans were drawn up and submitted to the central planning agencies, to be meshed with the national plan and sent back down to the localities. At factory conferences, people talked about how to reorganize the production process. People volunteered to help build railroads in wilderness areas. They voluntarily worked long shifts. At steel mills, they sang revolutionary songs on the way to work. Never before in history had there been such a mobilization of people to consciously achieve planned economic and social aims.
And let’s ask again: what was happening in the rest of the world? The world capitalist economy was languishing in the Depression of the early 1930s—with levels of unemployment reaching 20 and 50 percent. But the Soviet Union had ended mass unemployment. In fact, there were labor shortages in the Soviet Union…with so much work to be done in building the new society. Industry grew by 20 percent a year, and the Soviet share of total global industrial output rose from less than 2 percent in 1921 to 10 percent in 1939.
In 1929, the Communist Party launched a great drive to collectivize agriculture. The anticommunist story line is that this was another case of “Stalinist totalitarianism.” Stalin, we are told, wanted to consolidate total power—and to do so, he had to crush and starve peasants.
But this is a gross distortion. The reality is that collectivization was a response to the economic and social contradictions in the countryside and to the pressing needs of the revolution. And the real hidden story is that collectivization ignited a genuine mass upheaval of peasants who had been locked into poverty and enslaving social relations.
Let’s look more closely at what collectivization was a response to.
There was a serious problem of whether food could be reliably supplied to the cities, especially with industrialization taking off and the urban population growing rapidly. Also, a major economic and social problem was growing in the countryside. After the Revolution, land was redistributed to peasants. But rich peasants, called kulaks, had been gaining strength in a rural economy marked by small private agriculture. The kulaks had larger land holdings. They owned flourmills. They controlled much of the grain market. They were moneylenders. This was leading to intensifying social and class polarization in the countryside.
There was a real danger of agriculture going back to the conditions that existed before World War 1. And these kulaks were not just innocent proprietors. They had gangs to enforce their rule. They organized against the regime. They rallied other social forces in the countryside.
The response of the revolutionary leadership to this was collectivization. Land and farm implements were turned into collective property. Between 1930 and 1933, 14 million small inefficient peasant holdings were combined into 200,000 collectively owned large farms. The state provided tractors and machinery to these new farms. And the farms were providing grain to the state. This was the basic exchange relation that was established.
Collectivization touched off different social responses. It was welcomed by large numbers of poor peasants. Other sections of peasants didn’t want to go along with it. Collectivization involved coercion against many of these peasants. But collectivization was a huge social movement. Dedicated worker-volunteers from the cities went to the front lines of the struggle against the kulaks. These workers took leading roles in administering new farms.
Farm hands and poor peasants in many areas rose to seize land. Where before they had been cowed and intimidated by the kulaks—now they had the state behind them to take on the kulak gangs. Women, whose lives had been determined by oppressive tradition and patriarchal obligation, became tractor drivers. Traveling libraries were sent to teams in the agricultural fields. In some regions, farms had their own drama circles. Religion, superstition, and mind-numbing tradition were challenged. People lifted their heads and became tuned in to what was happening in society overall. They discussed the national plans and national developments.
The kulaks resisted with a vengeance. The story told by the opponents of socialism is always one-sided. The kulaks were simply “victimized,” they say. But this is a lie. The kulaks killed communists, organized raids against the new collectives, sabotaged harvests, and unleashed gangs that raped women. The kulaks were eventually defeated, many were arrested, many were deported, and many were killed.
But this was not because of a “Stalinist bloodlust.” This was a battle over the future of the countryside. There was a battle over whether industrialization and social transformation could go forward or would be blocked and capitalism restored in the countryside. This was intense class struggle—and state power hung in the balance.
Collectivization is an important part of building a socialist economy. But Mao had serious criticisms of how Stalin approached this. Mao pointed out that collectivization under Stalin took place before the peasants themselves had gained experience in cooperating with each other in working the fields and using tools and it wasn’t based on a firm political and ideological foundation of peasants acting consciously to achieve collective social ownership. Another criticism Mao had was that the state took too much grain from the countryside. This damaged relations between the urban and rural areas. Mao had other criticisms, and Maoist China went about collectivization very differently—and I’ll talk about that later.
But the collectivization drive in the Soviet Union was part of a bold and visionary and pioneering attempt to find a way out and forward from the old system of small private agriculture. It gave hope to the poor in the countryside. And without collectivization, the Soviet Union would not have been able to defeat the Nazis.
Part 6: The Soviet Experiment: World War 2 and Its Aftermath
By the mid-1930s, war clouds were gathering. In 1931, Japan had invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria, which bordered the Soviet Far East. By 1934 in Germany, Hitler had tightened his hold on power, crushed the German Communist Party, and had begun to militarize the economy.
The Soviet revolution was coming to a critical juncture. The danger of imperialist war was growing. How would the Soviet Union prepare economically and militarily, and politically and socially?
By 1934, Stalin and several others in leadership felt it was time to consolidate the political and social gains of the revolution. The new proletarian state was facing extreme and difficult objective conditions. War was looming. There was no prior historical experience for dealing with the magnitude of the situation. Adjustments were called for. But mistakes were made in how this dire necessity was dealt with. On the basis of the transformations in ownership that had gone on, there was a push for greater discipline and stepped-up production in the factories. But the development of the productive forces came to be seen as the guarantee of socialism. Leadership relied less on the conscious activism and initiative of the masses. The radical social and cultural experimentation of the 1920s and early 1930s was reined in – and things got consolidated in a way that strengthened more traditional relations. Socialism in the Soviet Union had to be defended. But the Soviet leadership tended to see the defense of the Soviet Union as being one and the same as the interests of the world revolution without any contradiction – and thus increasingly promoted national patriotism instead of proletarian internationalism.
Stalin and the “Great Purges”
The growing danger of interimperialist war and the likelihood of imperialist assault on the Soviet Union were setting the stage for what Western scholars call the “great purges” in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Few subjects in modern history are so thoroughly distorted. Once again, there is bourgeois story line. We are told that Stalin was drunk with power and sought absolute power—knocking down any and all who disagreed with him.
But the reality of the situation was that the revolution was confronting new pressures and new challenges. And political struggle intensified within the party and government: over domestic and international policy, including international alliances…over the direction of the revolution…over whether the revolution could even hold out.
We’re told that Stalin was paranoid. But in fact there were real enemies of the revolution. There was real subversion. There were backward social movements in society. There was a real German threat. And in 1934, the second-ranking leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, closely associated with Stalin, was assassinated. This was the atmosphere of the times.
In terms of the purges, here I have to state honestly that more research is needed into what exactly was going on in the Soviet Communist Party in the 1930s. But what does seem to be the case is this: as international tensions grew, Stalin and other revolutionary leaders had genuine reason to be concerned about the state of the party and army. There was concern about whether some of the regional party leaders could be depended on to carry out national directives, as society and economy were heading into war.
The revolutionary leadership also had reason to be concerned about the reliability of the high command of the Soviet army. After World War 1, Germany and the Soviet Union had entered into military cooperation agreements. These agreements involved training of officers and transfer of weaponry. There was worry that ties and relationships might have developed between the Soviet military staff and their German counterparts. Could the Soviet generals now be counted on, especially as the Soviet Union was preparing to face off against German imperialism—or would these generals compromise with Germany?
These were some of the circumstances surrounding the purges of top Party and military leaders. Stalin was fighting to defend the revolution. He was not going to allow the Soviet Union to go back to capitalism, or to cave in to imperialism.
But in many ways, Stalin’s understanding of the contradictions and struggles under socialism was flawed. It was marked by mechanical rather than dialectical materialism. And his methods for dealing with the situation had serious problems with adverse consequences.
He relied on purges and police actions to solve problems—rather than mobilizing the masses to take up the burning political and ideological questions on the overall direction of society. Mao was critical of Stalin’s approach and pointed out that Stalin had a tendency to mix up two fundamentally different types of contradictions: the contradiction between the people and the enemy, and contradictions among the people themselves. Repression, which should only have been directed against enemies, was used against people who were not enemies but merely were making mistakes or expressing disagreements with the policy of the government.
Soviet Heroism and the Defeat of Hitler
In June 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. They threw the most modern army in the world and most of their military might against the Soviets. Hitler made it clear to his troops that he expected them to discard every principle of humanity in what was to be a war of extermination.
The Soviets fought with incredible heroism—block to block in Stalingrad, in epic tank battles over frozen wastelands. When the Germans invaded, the fact that the Soviet Union had a planned economy made it possible—and this was just within a few weeks—to dismantle 1,500 big factories and transport them to the eastern regions of the Soviet Union.
Over 20 million Soviets lost their lives in World War 2, basically 1 out of 10 in the population. Despite what we are told about D-Day and the landing of U.S. and British troops at Normandy, the real turning point of World War 2 was the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviets were the main factor and force in Hitler’s defeat. And this would not have been possible without the great determination and sacrifice of the people of the Soviet Union under the leadership of the Communist Party, led by Stalin. This too is one of the great achievements of the Soviet revolution.
The Soviet Union came out of World War 2 militarily victorious. But the revolution was weakened politically and ideologically. Conservative forces and currents had gained strength in the Party, in the government, and in society. After Stalin’s death in 1953, new bourgeois forces within the Communist Party maneuvered to seize power; and in 1956, Khrushchev took over the reins, consolidated the rule of a new capitalist class, and led in systematically restructuring the Soviet Union into a state-capitalist society. This was the end of the first proletarian state.
Putting the Soviet Revolution in Perspective
How do we put the Soviet revolution in perspective? From the sweep of history, the Soviet revolution stands as an earthshaking breakthrough in freeing oppressed humanity. Against great odds, the masses accomplished amazing things. A new world was in the process of being created. And this revolution inspired the oppressed of world. These were the first steps, apart from the short-lived Paris Commune, along the road of emancipation, towards a world free of oppression and exploitation.
But the project of emancipation develops and evolves. Great revolutionary leaders with vision and scientific understanding are able to sum up lessons, develop new understanding, and forge new solutions to the challenge of creating a classless world. Mao Zedong would take the communist project to a whole new place.
Part 7: Mao's Breakthrough—The Revolution Comes to Power
On October 1, 1949 Mao Tsetung spoke to millions assembled in Tiananmen Square in the capital city of Beijing. He had led the Chinese people in 20 years of armed struggle to overthrow their landlord oppressors and to drive out foreign imperialism. At this victory celebration, Mao told the crowd and the world: “The Chinese people have stood up.” The crowd roared. But Mao, while sharing their great joy and sense of victory, also looked beyond the moment. The heroism and sacrifice that had led to this celebration were, he said, “but a beginning...only a brief prologue to a long drama.”
For Mao, the revolution wasn't stopping. It was entering a new stage of socialist transformation of the economy, the creation of new political institutions, and the forging of new values of working for the common good. The ultimate goal was communism, a world without classes. But others within the Party leadership saw the situation very differently. For them, the seizure of power in 1949 basically marked the end of the revolution. As they saw it, the task now was to build China into a modern power. This was part of the complicated and challenging situation faced by Mao and the masses.
The overthrown landlords and capitalists were not reconciled to their fate. Neither were the imperialists who had dominated China.
Less than a year after the communists came to power in China, the U.S. launched war in Korea. They carried the war ever closer to China and threatened to attack China with nuclear weapons. China sent military aid and volunteers to Korea and fought the U.S. to a standstill. But the cost was high. China lost over 200,000 people in the conflict and total casualties ranged as high as 900,000.
The U.S. confronted revolutionary China with a network of military bases in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan along with its Naval Sixth Fleet. For two decades, China was also prevented from carrying on trade with large parts of the world as a result of an economic embargo put into effect by the United States and Western countries. This was the hostile international environment that the revolution faced.
Why There Was a Revolution
A new anti-Mao book has just come out— Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. In typical anti-communist fashion, it claims that the Chinese revolution was the product of Mao's evil machinations. It talks as though things were just fine before the revolution—or that social oppression took care of itself. But let’s look at what China was like before the revolution.
The vast majority of China's people were peasants who worked the land but had little or no land to call their own. They lived under the dominance of landlords who ruled the local economy and people's lives. Peasants desperately scratched out survival. In bad years, they had to eat leaves and bark, and were forced to sell their children. Agriculture was plagued by endless cycles of floods and droughts. China suffered on average one major famine a year and hundreds of thousands died in the famines of 1921 and 1943.
For women, life was a living hell: beatings by husbands, the painful binding of feet, arranged marriages, and young women were forced to be concubines to landlords and warlords.
By practically any measure, the economy was near the bottom of the scale of development. It had little industry. For example, Nanjing had a population of 700,000 and 200,000 people worked as servants, waiters, bar girls, prostitutes, rickshaw drivers and other such trades. Yet there were only 16,000 industrial workers.
In Shanghai's textile mills, young women were locked in at night. People lived crowded together in one-room hovels on the narrow, dark, and dirty side streets and alleys, or on the street itself. An estimated 25,000 dead bodies were collected from the streets each year by municipal sanitation teams. Meanwhile foreign-controlled districts of the city were built up with fancy hotels and nightclubs.
While in pre-revolutionary China there was widespread practice of traditional medicine, it was also the case that in a country of 500 million, there were only 12,000 doctors trained in Western medicine. Four million people died each year from infectious and parasitic diseases. China had 90 million opium addicts.
This is why people made revolution and seized power. And under the leadership of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese revolution immediately set out to change these conditions.
The Revolution Brings Decisive Change
When the communist-led Red Army took control of the big cities, it seized hold of the big banks, factories, and other businesses. It put these productive assets in the service of a new economy. The party led people to reorganize production. Child labor was abolished. The working day was reduced from 12-16 hours to 8 hours.
When the revolutionary army defeated the U.S.-backed Chiang Kai-shek's armies and local landlord forces, the feudal system was quickly overthrown. Overthrowing oppressors had actually begun in the liberated areas during the revolutionary war. Work teams led by the party went into villages, carried on political education, and held meetings with the peasants about their conditions and problems. They encouraged and led the peasants to rise up, to organize themselves, and to seize the land.
After victory in 1949, land reform became law and swept across China like a river bursting a dam. Throughout China, peasants divided up the land, tools, and animals. In a country where women had never been treated as equals, not just the men but women got land.
Women lifted their heads. In 1950, a new marriage law put an end to child and arranged marriages. The new law guaranteed the right to divorce for women as well as men. But for Mao the revolution was about more than new laws. It had to change people's thinking. It had to change the old oppressive social relations and challenge the backward ideas and values that rested on these relations and that were common among the people.
The hysterical anti-Mao biographies say Mao was drunk with power. But what these slanderous accounts are really objecting to is that the revolution overthrew the old power of landlords, big capitalists, and foreign dominators and established a new power. This was a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It empowered the workers and peasants to start to rule society and to suppress old and new exploiters.
We are told that Mao wantonly killed millions of people. But in fact, hundreds of millions were liberated, and untold lives were saved, by the new economic and social system that the Maoist revolution created. The oppressed had been treated throughout history as no more than a pair of laboring hands. Now they had the right and capacity to stand up. And they had the backing of a people's liberation army.
Think about what it would mean in a future society in what is today the U.S. if the oppressed had a state power that served their interests. Instead of the police brutalizing people in the oppressed communities, the state would be aiding people in uprooting the legacy of discrimination. In Maoist China, the former nobodies had the freedom and power to transform economic, political, social and cultural life.
Part 8: Mao's Advance—Breaking with the Soviet Model
Mao Zedong aimed to create a socialist economy based on social cooperation and social ownership:
- An economy that would meet the material and social needs of the people.
- An economy that would solve China's historic problem of endemic hunger, malnutrition, and recurrent famine.
- An economy that would foster mutually supportive relations between industry and agriculture, instead of soaking resources from the countryside.
- An economy that would contribute to reducing and ultimately overcoming the gaps between city and countryside, and regional inequalities.
- An economy that relied on and promoted the collective understanding and the collective mastery of the masses over the processes of production.
- An economy that could stand up to imperialist attack.
Such an economy would not--and could not--be dependent on imperialism for loans or aid, or answer to the demands of the capitalist world market.
The Maoist revolution set out to develop an educational system that would serve the broad needs of the population and contribute to revolutionizing society. It set out to develop a new culture and to combat the old ways of thinking.
All this was led by communist ideology, by the goal of reaching communism: a society without classes and any form of oppression.
A new state power based on the worker-peasant alliance made it possible to move decisively to change the terrible conditions that had existed.
The scourge of opium addiction was wiped out through mass treatment and education. Mass campaigns were launched to clean up the cities. Cholera and other epidemic diseases were eliminated or brought under control. New factories and housing for workers went up. Hospitals and medical schools were constructed. By 1965, China had trained 200,000 regular doctors.
A new countrywide educational system was created. Mass literacy campaigns were launched--and by the end of the 1950s most peasants had acquired a basic reading knowledge.
Breaking with the Soviet Model
These were incredible achievements. But there was struggle within the Communist Party over the path forward. One of the biggest issues was how to develop and modernize the economy.
One section of leaders of the Communist Party advocated a program of rapid industrialization. Their approach was to concentrate resources on big and modern factories and advanced technology. They wanted to build up the urban areas. Development, in their eyes, would then trickle down to the countryside. These leaders said that you needed a big centralized planning apparatus in order to run the economy and that you needed to train vast armies of experts and specialists to staff the new economy and administrative organs. They argued that the way to motivate people and the staff of enterprises was to rely on wide wage differentials and financial incentives.
This program reflected the influence of the Soviet Union, which was very strong in China in the 1950s. But Mao saw problems with this model--both as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and as it was being applied in China in the 1950s. This path of development elevated technique and expertise over the conscious initiative and activism of the masses. He rejected the model of subordinating agriculture to serve urban-based industrialization. And if China was going to be able to withstand imperialist attack and invasion, it had to decentralize industry and not concentrate development in the vulnerable cities and coastal areas.
Mao was striving to forge a different road of economic and social development. Another way of putting this is that after countrywide victory in 1949, Mao was struggling against two legacies. First and foremost, he was struggling against the legacy and continuing pressure and influence of capitalism and Western imperialism. Second, he was breaking with the Soviet developmental legacy.
Part 9: The Great Leap Forward
The Great Leap Forward of 1958-59 was the first bold step by Mao to forge a more liberating road of socialist economic and social development. At the heart of the Great Leap Forward in the countryside was the movement to form communes. They combined economic, social, militia, and administrative activities and became the basic units of proletarian power in China's countryside.
The people's communes came about as a result of a complex and dynamic process of social and economic struggle and transformation and mass upsurge and experimentation.
Early in the history of the revolution, peasants, with the backing of the party, had formed mutual-aid teams to help each other in planting and harvesting. Within a few years of Liberation, they established cooperatives in which they farmed land together and distributed the produce according to how much land, tools, and animals each family had put in, as well as their labor.
By the mid-1950s, peasants had formed higher-level cooperatives. They burnt the deeds to their land because they now worked the land, tools, and animals in common. This was a zigzag process, with different areas moving at a different pace. Some peasants would join and then drop out. But at some stages of this process there were waiting lists of peasants wanting to join up. Many peasants pooled their land and labor, giving up isolated plots and working together to change the physical face of the land. This enabled peasants to use tractors and other machinery in areas that had never before even seen an iron plow.
This was the setting for the Great Leap Forward.
The Birth of the People's Communes
The communes started spontaneously. In Honan province in 1957, peasant cooperatives joined forces with their neighbors to begin a vast project to bring water across a mountain range to irrigate dry plains. The peasants merged their cooperatives and created something new: an economic and political form through which tens of thousands of people built a common life. Mao toured these areas and later gave the name “commune” to describe what was going on.
The Great Leap is often vilified as an irrational utopian experiment. But it made enormous economic and political sense... from the standpoint of liberating people and productive capabilities.
The communes were able to mobilize and organize China's vast reserve of labor power. Irrigation and flood control works, road construction, reforesting, land reclamation, and other projects could now be planned and carried out on a large scale. Fertilizer and cement factories and small hydroelectric power works were built. The communes provided experimental space for teams of experts and peasants to engage in scientific farming and geological prospecting.
The Great Leap Forward brought women out of the household and into the swirl of the battle to create a new society. The communes opened community dining rooms, nurseries, cooperative home repair, and established other forms of social welfare that provided collective solutions for social needs. Women took part in the start-up of new factories and in irrigation projects like the famous Red Flag Canal. “The Iron Women's Brigade” was in the front lines of that project.
Old habits and values were questioned. Ideological struggle was waged against superstition, prejudice, and fatalism, along with feudal customs that still persisted, like arranged marriage. The communes established networks of primary and middle-schools, as well as health facilities.
The Great Leap Forward put the emphasis on the rural areas in order to gradually close the gap between the city and countryside, and between workers and peasants. Small-scale industries took root in the countryside; peasants began to master technology; scientific knowledge was spread. The approach of the Great Leap was a liberating alternative to the process of rural dislocation and massive urban immigration that takes place in the imperialist-dominated Third World.
A self-reliant economy that spread industrial and technical capabilities into the countryside could also stand up better to imperialist attack and invasion and support world revolution.
A Vicious Slander
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: The Unknown Story charge that the Great Leap and the communes were just a cover for slave labor. They allege that 30 million people died because of Mao's policies. Some things need to be said straight up here.
First, as I have explained, the Great Leap Forward was not reckless but guided by coherent policy goals. It tapped the energy and enthusiasm of the peasant masses.
Were there problems? Were there famine deaths? Yes. But the difficulties of those years was a complex phenomenon.
There was a sharp decline in food production in 1959. China had suffered the worst climatic disasters in a century. Floods and drought affected over half of China's agricultural land.
The ideological struggle between revolutionary China and the Soviet Union had been intensifying. Mao denounced the Soviet leadership as revisionist—analyzing that it had gone off the socialist road and was selling out the interests of the world revolution to U.S. imperialism. In response, the Soviets sought to punish China by withdrawing advisors, halting aid, walking off with blueprints to unfinished industrial installations, and leaving the country with a debt burden that had to be repaid. This created additional strains on the economy.
There were also certain policy mistakes by the Maoists. One problem was that in many rural areas too much peasant labor time was spent on nonagricultural projects. This hurt food production. In the euphoric spirit of the times, output levels and capabilities were often exaggerated by local officials. This made it hard to know how much grain there really was and to plan accurately.
Chang and Halliday charge that Mao didn't care about the hardships and suffering and willfully suppressed knowledge of deaths. In fact, investigations were conducted and adjustments were made. The communes were reduced in size, eventually stabilizing at about 15,000 to 25,000 people. The amount of grain to be delivered to the state was lowered. Certain nonagricultural projects were scaled back, so that people could spend more time on food production. Grain was rationed countrywide and emergency grain supplies were sent to regions in distress.
As for the accusation of 30 million deaths—this is an absurd and sensationalistic estimate. It is based on unreliable statistics. It is based on outrageous calculations that compare projected population size with actual population size. In other words, people who weren't even born are added to a total death count.
And the main point is this: By 1970, China was for the first time in its history able to solve its food problem. The new society was able to provide for a minimal diet and food security. This had everything to do with the Great Leap Forward and the formation of communes. It had everything to do with the collective mobilization of people to build irrigation and flood works, to reclaim and improve land, to master new agricultural techniques, and to establish small industries in the countryside. It had everything to do with the spirit of working for the common good promoted by socialist revolution.
Part 10: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China - Not Fanatical Purge, But the Socialist Road vs. the Capitalist Road
Because of the food crisis and industrial dislocations that occurred during the difficult years of the Great Leap Forward, a time when the Soviets had also suddenly withdrawn aid and technical assistance, it was necessary to make certain economic and organizational adjustments. But this gave openings to conservative forces in the Communist Party—who in fact had opposed and even tried to undermine the Great Leap.
By the early 1960s, these conservative forces were gaining ground and strength. They wanted to use profit measures to decide investment priorities. They wanted to consolidate an elite-based educational system. Keep in mind that the higher-educational system in post-1949 China was greatly influenced by the Soviet model of hierarchy, specialization, and recruitment of “better-trained” students. The conservative forces were very much entrenched in the cultural realm. The cultural sphere remained a stronghold of tradition. Opera, a highly popular art form, was still dominated by old feudal themes and characters.
These conservative forces pushed to focus health care resources in the cities at the expense of the countryside. They told workers and peasants to forget politics—leave that to “competent” party leaders—and just keep your nose to the grindstone and think about your livelihoods.
These neo-capitalist forces had a coherent program—and by the mid-1960s they were maneuvering to seize power.
Lies About the Cultural Revolution
Now one of the biggest distortions about the Cultural Revolution is that it was Mao Tsetung's fanatical purge of any and all he disliked. The reactionary book Mao: The Unknown Story argues that Mao was taking sadistic revenge on party leaders who dared to cross him…that the Cultural Revolution was a grand scheme of terror and manipulation. These are gross lies.
First of all, Mao was not inventing enemies. Powerful bourgeois forces were in fact organizing to take power and to set up a system of state capitalism. If you think this is far-fetched or that Mao was paranoid—take a look at China today. Look at how China has become a sweatshop paradise for international capitalism.
Second, the Cultural Revolution was the furthest thing from a purge and mass bloodletting. Mao analyzed that Stalin's purges did not solve the problem of preventing counter-revolution in the Soviet Union. The masses were left passive. They were not for the most part politically and ideologically mobilized. Relying on these kinds of administrative measures does not enable the masses to gain the ability to distinguish between programs and outlooks that would propel society towards communism, and programs and policies that would take society down the road back to capitalism. For Mao the challenge was how to unleash the masses to play their decisive, conscious role in taking society forward.
Mao had been searching for a solution to the problem of the revolution going stale and facing the danger of getting turned back. As he said in 1967, “In the past we waged struggles in rural areas, in factories and the cultural field, and we carried out the socialist education movement. But all this failed to solve the problem because we did not find a form, a method, to arouse the broad masses to expose our dark aspects from below.”1 Mao was grappling with a world historic problem of communist revolution. Bob Avakian puts it this way: “How do you deal with the intensification of attempts to overthrow the rule of the proletariat, while at the same time giving expression to the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be rule by the masses of the people, and this must take concrete and institutionalized form—and that the more this state is strengthened, the more it has to be qualitatively different than all previous forms of state.”2 In other words, how do you prevent counter-revolution in a way that is consistent with the means and goals of communist revolution?
I’ll get to the actual experience of the Cultural Revolution. But first we have to explore some theoretical questions posed by the challenge of continuing the revolution under socialism.
Mao emphasized the importance of theory. He said political and ideological line is decisive. This refers to how we understand the world in order to change it: theoretical understanding of the laws governing the actual motion and development of society and the world, and the policies that reflect that understanding.
Those leaders in the Communist Party who wanted to take China down a capitalist road were developing theory and arguments for their program. Against them stood Mao, who was leading the revolutionary forces and making an historic contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of socialist society. This clash of theoretical perspectives was a crucial part of the class struggle in revolutionary China.
Part 11: Mao on the Contradictions of Socialist Society
Mao Tsetung made a theoretical breakthrough for Marxism. He analyzed that antagonistic classes continue to exist in socialist society. He analyzed that the class struggle—between the proletariat, which rules society, and the bourgeoisie, which is ruled over in socialist society—also continues under socialism.
This is complicated. Youre not mainly dealing with old-style capitalists waving property deeds or stock certificates. Yes, remnants of the old bourgeoisie will still be around in the early years of socialism. And various old-line reactionary political operatives will seek to organize against the new system. But as the revolution progresses and consolidates the socialist economy, you are mainly dealing with a new bourgeoisie. This new bourgeoisie exists within the political, economic, and ideological relations and structures of socialist society.
Politically, its very complicated. It would be easier if this new bourgeoisie went on TV proclaiming to the masses, “Hey, we want to tear down the whole system and exploit you.” No, it organizes and fights for its interests and programs within the institutional framework of socialism and in pseudo-Marxist and pseudo-socialist language.
All this has to do with the very nature of socialist society.
The Inequalities in Socialist Society
Socialism is a great leap forward. I have been talking about the great things it makes possible. But socialism is also a transitional society. It contains the economic, social, and ideological scars of the old society. What do I mean by this?
There are the differences in development between industry and agriculture, and between town and country, and between regions. Very importantly, there is still the division between mental and manual labor—between people who are mainly engaged in intellectual, administrative, and creative activities and those who are mainly working with their hands.
There are still differences in peoples incomes. Money and prices and contracts continue to play a significant role in the economy.
These and other social inequalities, as well the persistence of commodity exchange, must be restricted and ultimately overcome to get to communism. The ways these things influence people's thinking and values must also be ideologically challenged and eventually overcome to get to communism. But this will require a protracted and complex process of revolutionary struggle and transformation.
Mao analyzed that these social differences and commodity relations are the soil out of which new privileged forces and a new bourgeoisie grow in socialist society. And he took this analysis further. He showed that the core of a new bourgeoisie is found within the top reaches of the communist party. Why?
The Vanguard Party as the Focal Point of Contradictions
The communist party is the leading political institution in socialist society and the main directing force of the economy. The masses need revolutionary leadership to carry the struggle forward to revolutionize socialist society. You need vanguard leadership and a proletarian state to lead society and coordinate the economy in the interests of the masses and in the interests of advancing the world revolution. You need a strong proletarian state to stand up to the imperialists who are breathing down your necks.
But here's the rub. There are forces in high positions of leadership in the party and state that push and fight for a bourgeois line. By bourgeois line, I mean an outlook and policies that seek to expand the kinds of inequalities that I have been talking about. I mean an outlook and policies that seek to restrict the initiative of the masses. And these forces in high leadership who push a bourgeois line will be strategically positioned to implement their program: to institute policies and to restructure economic and social relations in a capitalist direction. These “capitalist roaders,” as Mao called them, are also strategically positioned to rally and mobilize sections and forces in society around a program of neo-capitalism.
Some people might ask, “well, why not avoid the problem and just do away with a vanguard party and state?” But that doesnt solve the problem. It just leaves you powerless and even more vulnerable in the face of all the contradictions Im talking about. And the bourgeoisie will come back to power.
So a vanguard party has to lead the revolutionary process forward. But the vanguard party also becomes the focus of the contradictions of socialist society. And the struggle within the party between the socialist road and the capitalist road becomes the focal point of class struggle under socialism.
This was a pathbreaking discovery by Mao.
But Mao was also pioneering the means and methods for dealing with this problem: mobilizing the masses from below to politically strike down the bourgeois power centers within the communist party and to revolutionize the party and institutions of society; and waging ideological struggle to transform people's thinking and understanding. In this way, the socialist revolution digs up the soil that regenerates capitalism.
So with this political and theoretical background, lets look at the Cultural Revolution.
Part 12: The Cultural Revolution in China, A Seismic Eruption of Liberation
It’s August 18, 1966. Mao Tsetung is standing on the same terrace overlooking the same square in Beijing from which he spoke in 1949 upon the victory of the revolution. Only now he is reviewing the first public rally of revolutionary youth. They are called the Red Guards. A million have assembled. They are celebrating because just two weeks earlier Mao had written an extraordinary wall poster entitled “Bombard the Headquarters.”
This was something no revolutionary leader in power, indeed no leader who has ever been in power, had done before in history. Mao was calling on people to challenge oppressive ruling structures: to rise up and overthrow top party and government officials who were trying to take China down the capitalist road. He was calling on people to seize back from below those portions of political power and those portions of the economy, culture, and education that had come under the control of the capitalist roaders.
Mao was launching a revolution within the revolution.
The Red Guards as Catalysts
At the August rally, Mao motions to the crowd and puts on a Red Guard armband. It's a signal of support and encouragement to the revolutionary youth. Mao wants to unleash their questioning and rebellious spirit. And the Red Guards would play a key role in getting the Cultural Revolution going.
You have to understand China at the time. You had this entrenched section of party and administrative leaders who were, as I said earlier, promoting bourgeois policies camouflaged as Marxism. Many peasants and workers assumed that their leaders, if they called themselves communists, must be good. Mao wanted to puncture this willingness to go along with the status quo. He wanted to puncture the arrogance of the capitalist roaders. The fact is that in many factory units and rural areas, people were simply scared to criticize leadership.
Enter the Red Guards.
The Red Guards created a sensation in society. They organized protests and discussions. They criticized officials, high and low. They called out school administrators who acted like big shots. The older generation had gone through revolution in the 1930s and 1940s in the struggle against the Japanese and the U.S.-backed forces of Chiang Kai-shek. Now a new generation was plunging into revolution. The government allowed youth to travel free on the trains. The Red Guards took off to different regions and to the countryside, hiking and clambering aboard army vehicles. They visited villages to meet with peasants—people from whom they had been cut off and taught to look down upon.
The Red Guards were catalysts. They emboldened people to lift their heads, to speak up, and to speak out. Listen to this account from one peasant:
“The Red Guards were very organized. They divided themselves up and visited every household in the village. They read quotations and told us about the Cultural Revolution in Beijing and Shanghai. Never before had we had so many strangers in the village. They asked us about our lives. They wanted to learn from us. They asked us how we are managing things here in the brigade. They entered into discussions with the leading cadres of the brigade and asked about work points [this was the system of payment in the communes]. I got the book of Mao's quotations from them [this was the Red Book]. They distributed it to various households. In the end, we all had it. Those Red Guards meant a lot to us. And we went on reading the quotations after they'd gone. We read and compared those quotations to what was being done here, and came to the conclusion that a lot of things needed changing.” (Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle, China: The Revolution Continued [New York: Vintage, 1972], pp. 106-107)
Mao’s Orientation for the Cultural Revolution
The bourgeoisie hates the Cultural Revolution that took place in China. They talk about it as “thought control.” They paint a picture of crazed Red Guards going on destructive rampages. We are swamped with high-profile studies and memoirs that talk about the Cultural Revolution as violence and retribution. But this was not the fundamental reality of the Cultural Revolution.
First of all, the Cultural Revolution was not a violent free-for-all. The Maoist leadership issued guidance for conducting the Cultural Revolution. One of the main documents, and people should read this, was called the “16- Point Decision.” Here are some excerpts from Mao's instructions:
- “Let the masses educate themselves in the movement and learn to distinguish between right and wrong and between correct and incorrect ways of doing things.”
- “Concentrate all forces to strike at the handful of ultra-reactionary bourgeois rightists. The main target of the present movement is those within the party who are in authority and are taking the capitalist road.”
- “A strict distinction must be made between the two different types of contradictions: those among the people and those between ourselves and the enemy. It is normal for the masses to hold different views. Where there is debate, it should be conducted by reasoning, not by coercion or force”3
This was the orientation. Was there disorder? Yes. Were there excesses and violence? Of course. This was a revolution. But the Maoist revolutionaries tried to keep this movement going in the right direction through all its turmoil: mass debate, mass criticism, and mass political mobilization.
One famous episode illustrates the point. At Tsinghua University, there was considerable factional fighting among students. Eventually it turned violent. In response, the Maoist leadership dispatched a team of unarmed workers to enter the university to help the students sort out and settle their differences.
Part 13: The Cultural Revolution—Complex and Liberating Struggle
One of the major distortions about the Cultural Revolution is that Mao masterminded and manipulated whatever happened. Mao is said to be responsible for every act and struggle that took place. Mao is held responsible for any and all cases of violence. There is a notion that everything issued from a single locus of power and decision-making—from Mao.
Different class and social forces were involved in the Cultural Revolution. There were the genuine Maoists in the party and mass organizations. There were anti-Mao groupings within the party who organized students, workers and peasants. And there were conservative military forces, ultra-left groupings, mass organizations that divided into rebel and conservatives camps, criminal elements, and others. Different social interests and motivations were in play. Some people used the Cultural Revolution to settle personal grievances. Often, the enemies of Mao within the Party who were coming under political attack would resort to the tactic of pretending to uphold Mao and incite factionalism and violence in the name of the Cultural Revolution. They would do this in order to deflect the struggle away from them and to discredit the revolutionary movement. The reality was that the Cultural Revolution was a complicated struggle over which class would rule society: the proletariat, which in alliance with its allies who make up the great majority of society continues the revolution to transform society, or a new bourgeois class.
Yet through the course of this struggle, Mao and the revolutionary leadership were able to lead it in a certain direction: focusing the political struggle against the top capitalist roaders, further revolutionizing society, and empowering the masses.
Think about what was happening. Mao was unleashing hundreds of millions to wrangle and debate over the direction of society, and to take responsibility for the fate of society. Nothing like this has ever happened before in history. In the United States and other bourgeois democracies, political life is defined by voting. Once every four years you participate in a ritual that reinforces the status quo and that leaves you passive. Here in revolutionary China, there was incredible ferment and upheaval—which is a great thing in society. And in this situation things went in all kinds of directions. You had Red Guards that got carried away in their zeal to rid society of bourgeois influences and committed excesses. In this atmosphere, Mao and the revolutionary leaders had to lead the masses to sort things out, to sum up lessons and methods of struggle, and to consolidate gains.
The class struggle in society—whether it would continue on the socialist road, or return to capitalism—was concentrated at the top reaches of the party and the state. In dealing with this, Mao was not trying to grab power for himself, as we are often told. He could have just had all his opponents arrested. But, as I mentioned earlier, he didn’t do that— because that would not have solved the problem of preventing the revolution from being reversed. Mao was willing to risk everything by relying on and politically mobilizing the masses to take up the big questions confronting society. Mao pointed out that the Cultural Revolution was a struggle to overthrow capitalist roaders. But at a deeper level, the Cultural Revolution involved the question of world outlook, of enabling the masses to consciously understand and change the world and themselves.
An Unprecedented Mass Revolutionary Movement
The Cultural Revolution saw great debate and questioning. There were political demonstrations, protest rallies, marches, and mass political meetings. Small newspapers were published. In Beijing alone, there were over 900 newspapers. Countless mimeographed broadsheets were handed out. Materials and facilities for these activities were made available free, including paper, ink, brushes, posters, printing presses, halls for meetings, and public address and sound systems.
The Red Guards helped spread the movement to the proletariat. And as the Cultural Revolution took hold among the workers, it took a new turn. In 1967-68, 40 million workers engaged in intense and complicated mass struggles and upheavals to seize power from entrenched municipal party and city administrations that were hotbeds of conservatism. Through experimentation, debate, and summation, and with Maoist leadership, the masses forged new organs of proletarian political power.
In its scope and intensity, the Cultural Revolution has no parallel in human history. The routine of daily life was blown wide open. People from every social milieu engaged in broad debate.
Peasants were discussing the ways ancient and reactionary Confucian values still influenced their lives. Workers in factories in Shanghai were experimenting with new forms of participatory management.
Nothing and nobody was above criticism. Political, administrative and educational authorities who had become divorced from the people were called to account. No longer could officials be tucked away in offices just barking out instructions. They had to go down and be part of the situation of the workers and peasants.
The Cultural Revolution stirred deep ideological self-examination. Mao said there could be no revolution if it doesn't transform customs, habits, and ways of thinking. Revolution has to bring forward a new ethos, a new way in which people relate to each other. “Serve the people” was a slogan popularized during the Cultural Revolution. This wasn't the same as the bourgeois idea of the charitable acts of the well-off toward the poor. It is about serving the needs of the great majority of society and the cause of communism worldwide. It is about challenging the “me-first” mind-set of capitalism.
What Mao was emphasizing is that you can have a socialist economy—but if you are not promoting the spirit of working for the greater social good, then socialist ownership will be a hollow shell.
I can't emphasize enough the impact the Cultural Revolution had on people outside of China. This was a time of radical and revolutionary upsurge throughout the world. It was a time when the Soviet Union had become a force utterly opposed to proletarian revolution. And here Mao was bringing forth a vision of all-the-way communist revolution.
I can speak personally about the effect the Red Guards had on me as a young high school and college rebel. I wanted to be like them. I also remember how tremendously inspiring it was when Mao issued his famous letter in support of the Black masses who rose up in the U.S. in rebellion in April 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Maoist China was not only supporting revolution throughout the world, but was making revolution again within its own society. For me it was incredible. And it still is…
Part 14: The Cultural Revolution—Accomplishments in Education and Culture
The “master narrative” that guides most contemporary Western studies of the Cultural Revolution, and that is more or less the “official history” put out by the anti-Mao regime in China, is that the Cultural Revolution ushered in a "dark age." The accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution are systematically distorted.
But extraordinary things happened.
Education: Expansion and Innovation
We can start with education. It’s a common charge that Mao was anti-learning and anti-education. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in Mao: The Unknown Story go so far as to say that Mao’s approach to education was to consign the bulk of the population to a fate of “illiterate or semiliterate slave laborers.” Once again, they completely turn reality on its head.
Exhibit 1:Educational resources were vastly expanded in the rural areas.
Between 1965 and 1976, elementary school enrollment increased from 115 million to 150 million, and secondary school enrollment grew from 15 million to 58 million—almost a four-fold increase. Peasants had access to a network of village primary, joint village middle school, and commune high school systems. In mountainous areas, there were traveling classrooms. By 1973, 90 percent of school-age children attended school. Worker and peasant enrollment soared in the universities in the 1970s.
Exhibit 2:Attacking elitism in higher education.
Before the Cultural Revolution, the universities were the province of the sons and daughters of party members and the privileged classes. Children would compete in examinations to enter a hierarchy of increasingly selective college-preparatory schools. China had a long history of a feudal-Confucian educational system that created a small privileged elite, divorced from the common people and productive labor in society.
The Cultural Revolution abolished this system of elite tracking and competitive exams. Upon completing high school, students would live and work in rural areas or take up work in factories. After two or three years, students of any background could then apply to go college. Part of the college admission process involved evaluation and recommendations from young people’s work units.
The old curriculum was overhauled as part of breaking down elitism. Study was combined with productive labor. People took up revolutionary theory and revolutionary politics. The old teaching methods of students being passive receptacles of knowledge, and teachers and instructors being absolute authorities, were criticized.
The Cultural Revolution challenged the bourgeois-elitist idea that education is a ladder for individuals to "get ahead,” or a way to use skills and knowledge to gain advantageous position over others. This was not anti-intellectualism, but rather a question of putting knowledge in the service of the society that was breaking down social inequalities.
Exhibit 3:“Open door” research.
One of the most exciting breakthroughs of the Cultural Revolution was what was called “open door” research. In the countryside, scientific stations were set up close to the fields. Peasants, alongside specialists from the cities, carried out experiments in hybrid grains, conducted studies of insect-life cycles, and other aspects of science in agriculture. This helped the masses come to understand scientific questions and the scientific method; and helped scientists gain a better sense of conditions in society, including in the countryside.
In the cities, leading educational institutions and research institutes developed relationships with factories, neighborhood committees, and other organizations. People came to the laboratories and the laboratories went to the people. And you had innovative arrangements like women from a neighborhood factory producing parts for advanced computers—not as exploited Third World outsourced labor—but in a cooperative relationship with a lab or institute, and learning about the science of it all.
Professionals Going to the Countryside
During the Cultural Revolution, artists, doctors, technical and scientific workers, and all kinds of people were called on to go among the workers and peasants: to apply their skills to the needs of society, to share the lives of the laboring people, to exchange knowledge, and to learn from the basic people.
We are told that going to countryside was a form of punishment against professionals. Well, does that apply to the peasants? Who asked the peasants if they wanted to live in the countryside? The fact is: this policy of sending professionals to the countryside was part of a conscious attempt to break down the lopsidedness of society and to reduce the cultural and resource gaps between town and country.
How was this policy carried out? At the point of a gun? No. First of all, there was an appeal to people's higher interests and aspirations of serving society. Second, ideological struggle was waged. It was made a mass question: what’s more important, that a skilled doctor have the “right” to a privileged life in the city, or that health care be made widely available? Third, there were many people who took this up with enthusiasm and commitment and set examples for others. Finally, there was a degree of coercion. The policy of sending people to the countryside was institutionalized. But not all coercion is bad. For instance, is it wrong for a government to mandate school desegregation, even if some object to it?
Now, as I said, many professionals and youth responded with great enthusiasm to this call to go to the countryside. I would strongly recommend that people take a look at a recent book, Some of Us (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001). It has several essays written by Chinese women, now living in the West, who took part in the Cultural Revolution. They talk about how positive and life-changing this experience was of going to the countryside: how they learned from the peasants, did things they never thought they could, and gained a sense of their strength as women, and how the Cultural Revolution promoted a spirit of critical thinking.
Let’s turn to culture. We’re told that the Cultural Revolution led to a cultural wasteland. But the truth is quite different. There was an explosion of artistic activity among workers and peasants—poetry, painting, music, short stories, and even film. Mass art projects and new kinds of popular and collaborative artistic undertakings spread, including to the countryside and remote areas. Large-scale collective sculptural works, like the Rent Collection Courtyard figures, reached a very high level of artistic expression and revolutionary content.
The Cultural Revolution produced what were called “model revolutionary works.” They were pacesetters which the people all over China could use as models in their development of numerous and artistic works. Model operas and ballets put the masses on stage front and center. They conveyed their lives, and their role in society and history. These model works were of extraordinarily high level, combining traditional Chinese forms with western instruments and techniques. Significantly, strong women figured prominently in the revolutionary operas.
Different Peking Opera companies would tour in the countryside, helping local culture groups to develop and learning from local performances. Let me read from an account by someone talking about how the model revolutionary works and the general spread of revolutionary culture affected his village.
“I witnessed an unprecedented surge of cultural and sports activities in my own home village, Gao Village. The rural villages, for the first time, organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking operas with local language and music. The villagers not only entertained themselves, but also learned how to read and write by getting into the text in plays, and they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love. These activities gave them a sense of discipline and organization, and created a public sphere where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and it has never happened since.”4
PART 15: The Cultural Revolution: Health Care and the Economy
Let’s look at health care during the Cultural Revolution. Let me put it in simple terms. Maoist China, which was not a rich country, was able to create what the U.S. hasn't come close to having: a universal health care system. Health services were provided free or at low cost, and the health care system was guided by principles of cooperation and egalitarianism.
The emphasis in Mao's China was on prevention, hygiene, and other mass, public health measures. During the Cultural Revolution, the focus of health care expenditure and allocation of resources shifted to the countryside, even as overall health care improved in the cities. Even in the country’s remote areas, some medical services were made available.
In the countryside, each commune had a health network, which included a large clinic or hospital, health stations, and medical rooms at the village level. The average yearly cost of medical services for peasants was $1 to $2. One of the most exciting developments of the Cultural Revolution was the “barefoot doctor” movement. These were young peasants and urban youth sent to the countryside who were quickly trained in basic health care and medicine geared to meet local needs and who were capable of treating the most common illnesses. Doctors from the cities would go the rural areas—at any given time, a third of the urban doctors were spending time in the countryside.
And health care improved in the cities as well. By the early 1970s, Shanghai had a lower infant mortality rate than New York City at the time. And as I said at the start of this talk: life expectancy under Mao doubled from 32 years in 1949 to 65 years in 1976.
You hear all these charges about how many deaths Mao was responsible for. But the fact is that tens of millions of lives were actually saved by socialist revolution. Let’s add up all the premature and avoidable deaths caused by malnutrition, poverty, lack of basic medical care, lack of preparedness and institutional ability to respond to natural catastrophes. There's no comparison.
Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner, points out that in 1949 China and India had striking similarities in their social and economic development. But, Sen goes on to say, over the next three decades, “there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality, and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India.” As a result, Sen estimates that close to four million fewer people would have died in India in 1986, if India had had Mao’s health care system and food distribution network.5
Noam Chomsky made an interesting calculation using Sen’s data. There is this anticommunist study called The Black Book of Communism. It talks about what it calls the “colossal failure” of communism and accuses communism of having caused the deaths of 100 million people. Now even if that number were true, which it is not—still, as Chomsky puts it, and let me quote: “in India the democratic capitalist ‘experiment’ since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the ‘colossal, wholly failed…experiment’ of communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone.”6
In terms of the economy: Maoist China scored impressive successes. It achieved rapid development in agriculture, industry, transport, and construction. Industry grew at an annual average rate of 10 percent during the Cultural Revolution, which is high even by capitalist standards. China built a modern industrial base, combining heavy and light industry, without relying on foreign loans or investment. Agriculture grew by some 3 percent a year, keeping pace with population growth. The gap between town and country was narrowed, and the all-around welfare of peasants improved.
And, as I said earlier, by 1970 China was able to produce and distribute the food needed to prevent starvation and malnutrition. This was accomplished through a centralized planning system in which industry was oriented towards serving agriculture; a system of collective agriculture that promoted grassroots mobilization; flood control; steady investment in rural infrastructure, and the equitable distribution of food to peasants and rationing of essential foods so that all people were guaranteed their minimal requirements. This was a radical break with China's past.
In a world where close to a billion people suffer from malnutrition and starvation, the lessons are very profound.
Maoist China took a unique road of economic development. A process of industrialization was taking place that was not at one and the same time a process of chaotic and unplanned urbanization. Conscious efforts were made to restrict the growth and size of cities and to develop small and medium-size cities. Industry was decentralized to overcome regional inequalities. Resources were channeled to poorer regions. There was emphasis on tractor and machine technology appropriate to rural conditions. All this holds very important lessons for today's world.
Socialism is criticized for producing hyper-bureaucratized planning systems. And, yes, that was a danger that had to be recognized and restricted. But in Maoist China, a more flexible approach to planning was able to combine centralized coordination with local initiative and control. Industrial and agricultural enterprises cooperated with each other. Health, environment, and worker safety were concerns of local planning. When natural disasters struck, the proletarian state marshaled resources and mobilized people to act together and carry out coherent plans.
Economic development in Maoist China was based first and foremost on the masses, armed with political understanding of the goals and contradictions of socialist revolution and with a sense of their decisive role in remaking society.
This system of centralized planning guided by socialist principles is a world apart from the capitalist economy. Under capitalism what gets done and how it gets done is guided by profit. Private units of capital, each pursuing its own interests, compete on a huge scale with one another. In this anarchic system, there is and can be no rational, society-wide planning for social need.
And look at the world capitalism produces. I am talking about the intensifying gap between rich and poor… I’m talking about the megacities of the Third World with their rings of squalid shantytowns… I’m talking about vast new zones of exploitation created to serve transnational corporations… I’m talking about the relentless commodification of nature—from the corporate patenting of seeds and natural herbicides to the privatization of water in parched African countries. Maoist China was going in an entirely different direction.
Part 16: The Defeat of Socialism in China and Lessons for the Future
China is No Longer Socialist
China is no longer the society that I have been describing. It is no longer socialist. In 1976, Deng Xiaoping led a coup that overthrew proletarian rule. The capitalist roaders that Mao was leading people to struggle against won out.
The policies of this new capitalist class have led to extreme economic and social polarization. China has been turned into a cheap-labor platform for transnational corporations. Yes, some people in China have gotten very wealthy, and a new middle class is rapidly expanding. But what does all this mean for the broad masses of people? A quick snapshot:
- Factories in special economic zones subject workers to unbearably long hours, substandard food, cramped dorms, abuse of workers by managers.
- Peasants are subjected to exorbitant taxes and non-payment by the state for crops. Local governments in league with developers are involved in massive land grabs. This has sparked waves of protests by peasants.
- 200 million peasant-migrant laborers are roaming the countryside and streaming into cities in search of work, with no guarantee of job or shelter.
- Between 1995 and 2000 alone, 48 million workers were laid off from state enterprises.
- Prostitution is rampant in the cities. There is now a burgeoning world market for unwanted female babies in China.
- The disbanding of the communes in the countryside has led to the collapse of the rural public health care system. This was a major factor in the spread of the SARS epidemic of 2003. The burgeoning sex industry, the rise of intravenous drug use, and the fact that desperate peasants are now selling blood to survive have contributed to an AIDS crisis.
- The introduction of free-market practices in the countryside has meant that rural schools are now being financed by tuition and other charges. The result is that many poor villagers can no longer afford to send their children to school.
- Cities are choking on pollution; industrial wastes are pouring into rivers; forest reserves are being depleted—this is the environmental price of a reckless economic juggernaut in China that is glorified in the West.
Where Mao said, “serve the people,” Deng Xiaoping said, “to get rich is glorious.”
Capitalism has been restored in China.
Building on the First Wave of Socialist Revolutions
The defeat of the Chinese revolution in 1976 marks the end of a stage. The first wave of proletarian revolutions has come to an end. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the first breakthrough in seizing power and using that power to build a new society. The Chinese Revolution, especially the Cultural Revolution, represented a leap beyond the Soviet experience.
Mao Tsetung was searching for a means and method to prevent a new capitalist class from seizing power. He broke new ground in trying to solve this problem. He forged a path of revolutionary transformation that was more liberating, and more consistent with the means and goals of communist revolution, than was the case with the Soviet Union when it was socialist in the years 1917-56. Nonetheless, the proletariat was defeated in China.
There are no socialist countries in the world today. But we are still at a point of societal development where humanity has to move beyond capitalism.
Capitalism is not the end of history. It is actually the chief impediment to realizing the potential for a different world.
That is why we have to learn from this first wave of socialist revolutions. We have to build on the best aspects of the Soviet and especially Maoist experiences. But we also have to criticize things that stand in the way of going forward to communism.
We need a new Marxist-Leninist-Maoist synthesis and understanding. And that is precisely what Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has been bringing forward. I strongly recommend that people explore such works as End of a Stage—Beginning of a New Stage; Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism; Getting Over the Two Great Humps; and the recently published Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy.
Conclusion—Bob Avakian Reenvisions Socialism
Bob Avakian has developed a radical new model of socialist society.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is the form of state power and class rule that enables the proletariat and its allies to take hold of society…to transform society…and to move society forward towards communism: a community of freely associating human beings. You need firm and visionary leadership to guide the complex and challenging struggles to achieve this goal of classless society. You need to hold on to power; you don’t want to allow the capitalists back in to power.
But, as Avakian says, this new power has to be worth holding on to. Socialism has to be a vibrant and exciting place that people would want to live in…and that would open the door to communism. Avakian has addressed different aspects of this challenge in ways that have enlarged the horizons of Marxism. Here I want to highlight some of how Avakian is looking at intellectual ferment and dissent in socialist society.
The Importance of Intellectual Ferment
Under socialism, the masses of people are unleashed to run and transform society towards the goal of communism. This is a society in which you want, and need, to unite and lead broad sections of people to take up the goal of creating a new world. In this regard, Avakian has called attention to the importance of the intellectual, artistic, and scientific spheres in socialist society, and the particular role that intellectuals can play in socialist society.
Intellectuals and intellectual ferment can contribute to the dynamism and wrangling spirit that must characterize socialist society. One of the very positive aspects of intellectual life is the tendency to look at things in new ways and from new angles, to challenge the status quo and hidebound thinking. This needs to be even more the case under socialism. Intellectual and scientific ferment are essential to the search for the truth—to people knowing the world more deeply, so it can be transformed more thoroughly.
The people on the bottom of society have historically been locked out of the realm of “working with ideas.” Bourgeois society creates islands and pockets where a minority can engage in the realm of ideas, while the great majority of humanity is exploited and prevented from pursuing intellectual activity. Socialist society has to transform this situation. It has to put an end to exploitation and enable the masses of people to work with ideas and take up all kinds of questions and participate in society in an all-around way. This was something that the Cultural Revolution addressed very powerfully.
At the same time, Avakian has pointed out that socialist society needs to give scope and space to intellectuals, artists, and scientists. You don’t want to maintain and reproduce the ivory tower relations that exist in capitalist class societies. But you don’t want to stifle and straitjacket intellectuals, either. You want to unite with and lead them.
Here it must be said that there has been a problem in previous socialist societies. There has been a tendency to see intellectual activity that is not directly serving or linked to the agenda of the socialist state at any given time as not that important—or as disruptive of that agenda.
Now in bringing forward this understanding and pointing to these weaknesses, Avakian has been retracing the experience of proletarian revolution in the intellectual and scientific realms.
Lessons of the Lysenko Affair
There is the famous Lysenko affair. Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist in the 1930s who came from a proletarian background. He advocated the theory that acquired characteristics can be inherited. This theory was incompatible with modern biology and genetics. But it was attractive because it held out the promise of the rapid expansion of grain production. And as I have emphasized when I was discussing the Soviet experience, there was a real necessity to solve major economic problems.
Stalin promoted Lysenko and his ideas in a big way. Many of the scientists who criticized Lysenko were from the old guard of academia. And some of them were reactionary politically. And their criticisms got suppressed. The problem was: they were right about the science, and Lysenko was wrong.
Avakian sees this as emblematic of a problem in the international communist movement. There have been tendencies to think that only Marxists have the truth. There have been tendencies to assume that if a person is reactionary politically—then that means that their scientific or intellectual ideas must be suspect or incorrect.
But this is not a Marxist approach to truth. Truth is truth, no matter where it comes from. Reactionaries can have partial truth. Coming from a proletarian background or being committed to Marxism and revolutionary change is not a guarantee that you have truth. Theories have to be judged on a scientific basis.
Marxism needs to be brought into, taken up, and creatively applied in different spheres of inquiry—because Marxism is the most systematic and scientific reflection of material reality in all its changingness. Marxism allows for the richest synthesis of different ideas and insights. Marxism allows things to be summed up in the interests of the masses of people in transforming the world. But Marxism doesn’t substitute for the particular features of individual spheres of knowledge and scientific practice. And Marxists are not always right. Others often have the truth.
So you want to have a dynamic in socialist society where you have this struggle for truth, with all its richness and interplay, where Marxism is being promoted and creatively applied. You want to follow the truth, wherever it leads you. This is essential to getting to communism.
Dissent and People’s Rights
In his reenvisioning of socialism, Bob Avakian has been emphasizing the role of dissent in socialist society. Avakian has said that dissent must not only be allowed but actively fostered, and this includes opposition to the government.
This is something quite new in the understanding of communists. Why is dissent so important? Because it reveals defects and problems in the new society…because it contributes to the critical spirit that must permeate socialist society and advances the search for truth…and because dissent can contribute to struggles to further transform society. You won’t get to communism without this kind of upheaval.
Now what I am discussing is in fact one aspect of democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat. You cannot allow people to organize to overthrow the system. But you don’t want a situation where people are afraid to speak out against the regime and face repression, as happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin. People must feel that they have room to disagree with those in authority. And socialist society must make available the resources and outlets, so people can express these views.
Socialist society is organized to achieve the goal of abolishing all classes and class distinctions; overcoming all systems and relations of exploitation; overcoming all oppressive social institutions and relations, like the oppression of women; and enabling people to cast off all oppressive and enslaving ideas and values.
This goal will be written into the Constitution of socialist society. This Constitution will also institutionalize the right of the great majority of society to speak, to dissent, to strike, to protest, and so forth. But the overthrown ruling class and their political representatives and operatives would not have these rights. And others who are actively working to overthrow the socialist system will have their rights taken away or curtailed in accordance with their crimes in the old society or the new socialist society.
These things cannot be decided arbitrarily in socialist society. They would be approached and decided through constitutionally established and enacted procedures and processes. Reactionary political and ideological views, including those which opposed the socialist system and the policies of the government, would not be suppressed—except where they involved, or were directly part of, attempts to actually organize the overthrow of the socialist system.
Avakian has written that it would be a good thing to allow even reactionaries to publish some books and speak out in socialist society. This would contribute to the process through which the masses of people would come to know the world more fully and be able to sort out more thoroughly what does and does not correspond to reality, and what does and does not correspond to their fundamental interests in abolishing exploitation, oppression, and social inequalities. This is an important way in which the masses will be better able to take part in running society and transforming that society and the world as a whole toward the goal of communism.
The Challenge Before Us
This model of socialist society is encapsulated in what Avakian calls “solid core with a lot of elasticity.” Power has to be held on to, and society has to be moving forward to communism, not back to capitalism. This is the solid core. And in the framework of a society that is overcoming all forms of exploitation, oppression, and inequality—there has to be elasticity: great debate, ferment, experimentation, upheaval, and people striking out in all kinds of creative and diverse directions.
Bob Avakian has been examining the experience of socialist revolution in this critical and challenging way. It is from the perspective of how humanity can get to communism. Avakian has produced a whole body of work. And I encourage people to get into his writings. I think people will be provoked and surprised and inspired when they engage with him.
So let me conclude. I began by talking about the urgency of this moment in world history. Must humanity be condemned to the present cruel order of things? Or is another world possible...a radically and breathtakingly different world? Yes it is. And what does the experience of proletarian revolution of the past 100 years have to do with this? A great deal. I am saying that this first wave of revolution marked a beginning…an historic beginning. There were great accomplishments. But we have to accomplish more. We have to go further and do better.
1. Quoted in the “9th National Party Congress Report,” from 9th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (Documents), Peking: FLP, p. 27.
2. From “Part 11: Life and Death Situations...The Exercise of Power and the Rights of the People,”; in the series “On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship: A Radically Different View of Leading Society.”
3. “Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (Adopted on August 8, 1966), in Important Documents on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1970).
4. Mobo Gao, “Debating the Cultural Revolution,” Critical Asia Studies, 34:3 (2002), pp. 427-28.
5. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 205, 214.
6. Noam Chomsky, “Millennial Visions and Selective Vision, Part One,” Z Magazine (January 10, 2000).
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