Revolution#137, July 27, 2008
WHEN CHINA WAS SOCIALIST
The Chinese revolution of 1949-76 was an historic breakthrough for world humanity. The revolution came to power in 1949, following more than twenty years of armed struggle led by Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Communist Party. This was a struggle against a decaying and oppressive semifeudal system, against bureaucrat capitalism with close ties to foreign capital, and against the imperialist powers that dominated China.
Before 1949, China was overwhelmingly a country of impoverished peasants desperately eking out a living. China was a society in which arranged marriage, the barbarous practice of female footbinding, and the killing off of “useless” female infants were commonplace in the countryside. In a city like Shanghai, 25,000 bodies were collected off the streets each year. This was a country in which four million people died annually of infectious diseases, in which 60 million people were addicted to opium.
The Chinese revolution quickly tackled and solved these problems. A socialist economy based on genuine socialist state ownership and planning made it possible to orient production and allocate resources toward meeting the most pressing needs of those who had previously been on the bottom of society. But this was not some welfare state: it was a revolution led by a communist party to put an end to all exploitation and oppression and one that relied on mobilizing the conscious activism of hundreds of millions to change society, to change themselves, and to promote the world revolution.
Land reform led to peasant cooperatives and then, in 1958, to the people’s communes. By 1970, China solved its historic food problem, doing so on the basis of a self-reliant economy in which industry was supporting agriculture. Economic development in Maoist China was consciously guided by the goal of overcoming the great gaps between town and country, industry and agriculture, and mental and manual labor.
A mass-based health care system combined modern and traditional medicine. In the countryside, a generation of “barefoot doctors”—young peasants and urban youth—became a key link in a rural health infrastructure of village clinics and township medical centers, and mass preventive health campaigns. Life expectancy in China doubled from 32 years in 1949 to 65 years in 1976.
But it was the Cultural Revolution that stands as the Chinese revolution’s greatest achievement…and Mao’s greatest contribution to the theory and practice of communist revolution. This was a “revolution within the revolution” to prevent the seizure of power by a new capitalist class headquartered within the Communist Party—and to further revolutionize society towards classless, communist society.
In major cities throughout the country, workers led by the Maoist forces in the Party waged intense struggles against conservative power holders and carried out mass power seizures leading to the creation of new institutional forms of governance. During the Cultural Revolution, the educational system was transformed; new forms of collective management were forged in the factories; the ethos of “serve the people” was spread; leaders and administrators at all levels of society were subjected to mass criticism. Peasants were debating big issues of politics and taking up science and culture.
But, ultimately, the more powerful neo-capitalist forces were able to defeat the revolution. Mao predicted that if the capitalist-roaders came to power, they would set out quickly to restore capitalism and collaborate with imperialism. His enemies branded Mao as paranoid. He was actually quite prescient.*
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