Revolution#141, August 24, 2008
The TRUE Story of Mao Tsetung and the Communist Revolution in China
In the 1960s and 1970s Mao Tsetung was one of the most famous people in the world. He had led the Chinese people, against all odds, to make a revolution. For the many millions who passionately fought for justice and liberation in those days, the Chinese Revolution stood out like a beacon. And Mao himself was most famous for restlessly refusing to stop the revolution halfway—for never settling in, never ceasing to fight for a world without any division into classes, into nations, into oppressor and oppressed. A lot of people—teachers, workers, doctors, scientists, students, and revolutionaries—from many different countries, went to China to witness the socialist society being built under Mao’s leadership. And many returned home, inspired and hopeful about the possibility of a truly liberating society.
In China itself, the masses revered Mao—as leader of the revolutionary vanguard in China, the Communist Party of China, he had led the victory in a 22-year war of liberation against both foreign invaders and domestic reactionaries. Following that epic struggle, he led the people to construct a new society and new lives in socialist China, and to go further in defending the revolution and transforming society during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. But there were those who opposed Mao, right in the leadership of the Communist Party of China. Like Mao, they had come into the revolution, and the Communist Party, burning with anger over China’s treatment by imperialism. Like Mao, they fought in the revolution for liberation. But unlike Mao their sights did not go all the way to communism; in fact, their aims really went no further than building China into a powerful nation. And in the name of building a strong and modern China they adopted programs and policies that essentially reinforced capitalist relations and thinking. After Mao died in 1976, these “capitalist roaders” in the Chinese Communist Party seized power and overthrew socialism and restored capitalism, arresting hundreds of thousands and killing thousands in the process. And even though the Chinese government has continued to call itself socialist and communist, China has been a capitalist country ever since. Mao’s principles—what he stood for—have been gutted, while China’s new rulers have turned Mao into a nationalist icon.
Today two whole generations of people have grown up in the U.S. where in large part what they know about Mao and China is the official storyline of the U.S. ruling class and mainstream media. And what they know, in large part, is ALL WRONG. People are told that Mao was a heartless, “power-hungry dictator,” who committed great crimes against people. But the TRUTH is that Mao Tsetung was a great revolutionary communist who led a quarter of the planet’s people to liberate China out from under the thumb of imperialist oppressors—and then move on to build a socialist, liberating society for over 25 years. Understanding the truth about Mao is important for everyone—the revolution he led was a major milestone in human history and everyone should know the truth about such a revolution and such a figure. For those who truly want to change the world, there is even more at stake—for Mao’s revolutionary thinking and practice form a critical part of the foundation and the point of departure for rebuilding a revolutionary movement today.
This is the TRUE story of Mao Tsetung and the world historic revolution he led in China.
On October 1, 1949, Mao stood in Tiananmen Square in the capital city of Beijing to announce the formation of the People’s Republic of China. He spoke to a crowd of millions and declared: “The Chinese people have stood up!”
Mao had led the Chinese people in 20 years of armed struggle to overthrow their oppressors and drive out foreign imperialism. Now the people had the power to build socialism—as a transitional society with the goal of a communist world free of classes, and all the oppressive relations and ideas that go along with class society.
On this historic day, Mao shared in the people’s joy and celebration, but he also understood, as he had pointed out, that: “The Chinese revolution is great, but the road after revolution will be longer, the work greater and more arduous...”
A New Socialist China
The masses of Chinese people, especially in the countryside, had been subjected to so many horrible things—unending poverty and hunger, tyrannical landlords, women degraded and oppressed in every corner of life, drug addiction, illiteracy, and lack of health care. There had been no way for the masses of people to change any of this. They had been at the mercy of an oppressive economic and social system—and a ruling class that enforced all this.
The new socialist China inherited all the scars from this old society. But now, state power was in the hands of the masses. Now, the people’s efforts to get rid of all the remnants of the old oppressive society would be backed by the state apparatus and the party. And now the people could approach problems in a completely different way.
The new government took immediate measures to confiscate and take over businesses that had been owned by foreign imperialists and big Chinese capitalists and the property of big landowners was seized and divided up among peasants.
New laws were passed outlawing arranged marriages and giving women, as well as men, the right to divorce. Selling children, which had been a common practice because of poverty, was banned, along with child labor. The workday was reduced from 12-16 hours to 8 hours.
Many things were done that immediately and dramatically improved people’s lives—and at the same time, drew them into the whole process of solving societal problems. For example, drugs, gambling and prostitution had been a huge problem. Big-time gangsters, pimps and opium peddlers, many of them connected with the secret police of the old reactionary government, were arrested. Meanwhile opium addicts, former prostitutes and petty criminals were given education, housing, health care and jobs—and the opportunity to become part of the whole process of remaking society.
People’s social and political life was transformed and millions joined peasant associations, workers’ unions, women’s organizations, youth groups, and cultural, scientific, educational and other professional intellectual associations. Such mass organizations gave people a way to make and carry out important decisions in order to transform different spheres of society. In the cities, for example, “urban resident committees” representing hundreds of households helped settle family and neighborhood disputes, dealt with criminal activities and took care of public sanitation, fire prevention, relief for needy families and neighborhood cultural and recreational programs. Mass literacy campaigns were organized in villages, factories and poor neighborhoods.
Peasant associations based on poor and landless peasants were given the responsibility to carry out land reform. This was a radical economic as well as social change—for example women, for the first time, got land. By 1952, almost half of China’s farmable land had been redistributed and 300 million poor and landless peasants had gotten land.
Breakthroughs in Socialist Economics
When the revolution came to power, it immediately faced the question of how to transform society. Some party leaders—people who had marched right alongside Mao in the revolution against feudal landlords, capitalists tied to imperialist interests and foreign domination—now insisted that capitalism should be promoted without restriction. They said agriculture could not move forward until heavy industry was developed. They argued for relying on foreign technology and foreign loans, and maintaining private farming in the countryside. They went along with the dominant view of socialist economic development in the international communist movement, especially with regard to formerly dependent and backward countries, which was that you had to first build up modern productive forces—large factories, heavy machinery, new technology, etc.—and only then could you transform the relationships between people.
But Mao argued they should focus on revolutionizing forms of ownership and distribution and all the ways in which people work with each other to produce things—and on that basis spur the development of more advanced productive forces. In this way, carrying forward revolutionary changes and transformations among the people—starting with redistribution of land, but also efforts to promote collective ways of working together, as well as breaking down backward ideas from centuries of feudalism—could stimulate things like scientific farming techniques, opening up new farm lands, and improving water conservation.
This is an example of Mao’s developing understanding that revolutionizing how people think is critical to the whole process of changing society.
Putting the development of modern industry before the transformation of economic and social relations between people would lead to greater inequality because it would mean concentrating on developing the factories that were already the most advanced—in other words, the ones in the biggest cities. And this would only widen differences and inequalities between the countryside and cities and between poor and better-off areas, instead of restricting them. Instead, Mao argued for a much more dynamic back and forth between leaps in consciousness and leaps in production—what he later concentrated in his famous slogan, “Grasp Revolution, Promote Production.” And, crucially, Mao was able to win the struggle in the party at that time over what line, what approach to take to these fundamental issues.
The whole way Mao tackled and solved this problem gives a picture of what he was like and how he led. This path-breaking approach to building a new socialist economy came from a thorough studying and recasting of the positive and negative experience in building socialism in the Soviet Union, up until that time; investigation, and deep discussion with the masses of people; applying communist principles and method to the concrete situation in China; and on that basis coming up with a new understanding for how to go forward.
In 1951 Mao toured the countryside, talking with peasants and getting a first-hand look at what was going on. The revolution had confiscated land owned by the biggest landowners and distributed it to the poorest farmers with little or no land. But only by developing collective forms of working the land could the peasants not only increase production, but radically transform the ways in which people related to each other.
Mutual aid teams were formed where peasants shared their animals and tools and helped each other work individual plots of land. By 1952, over 40% of the peasants were in such teams. But these were still not large enough to deal with droughts or floods, they couldn’t carry out major technical improvements, and many were dominated by wealthier peasants.
Peasants were experimenting and coming up with creative ways to revolutionize production. And this involved a revolution in ideas and real transformations among the people—like taking on backward Confucian ideas about the subservient role of women, and replacing “me-first thinking” with a “serve the people” attitude.
On their own, some peasants started to form larger cooperatives and Mao keenly followed this, and encouraged it and led the party to mobilize the People’s Liberation Army soldiers to help lead this. By mid-1956, over 90% of peasant households were in such cooperatives.
This was Mao—leading and waging the class struggle in the context of developing a new socialist economy. This was the dynamic between the creative energy of the people under socialism and the role of communist leadership.
Great Leap Forward
Mao’s vision of socialism went beyond just giving people food, clothing and basic rights. He aimed for a revolution that would get rid of the old oppressive economic and social relations. A revolution that would challenge backward ideas and values that rested on and kept oppressive relations going. A revolution in how people think and act.
In 1958, Mao launched a bold new plan for socialist economic development with these goals in mind: The Great Leap Forward. A key element was the unleashing of a nationwide movement to form peasant communes—large collectives of people in the countryside that combined economic, social, cultural, militia and administrative activities.
Today, the Great Leap Forward is vilified as an irrational utopian experiment. But the truth is this was a real advance from the standpoint of developing more liberating economic and social relations.
The communes, which involved 15,000 to 25,000 people, made it possible to carry out big flood control and reforestation projects, build countywide roads or small-scale power plants, set up high schools, etc. Research centers were set up to develop new breeds of wheat, rice and other crops with greater yields. Hillsides were terraced to open up new farming land.
The communes provided people with a new and liberating political, social and cultural life. Finding collective solutions to social needs—instead of leaving each household to fend for itself—made it possible for women to more fully participate in the common cause of creating a new society. Communes organized cooperative home repair, community dining rooms, nurseries, and amateur theater groups.
In the course of these big economic and social transformations, old habits and values, superstition, prejudice and feudal customs were challenged. And the gaps between the city and countryside, and between workers and peasants, were narrowed.
Today people hear that the Great Leap Forward was a disaster—that people starved because of Mao’s policies, that the communes were really a form of slave labor. But this too is a lie.
There was famine during this time and many people died. But the difficulties of these years were a complex phenomenon: In 1959 China suffered extremely adverse climatic conditions of drought and flooding, some of the worst of the century in China. This greatly impacted food production. And the Soviet Union, which had restored capitalism in the mid-1950s, withdrew technical advisors and aid from China.
In addition, the leadership made mistakes. For example, too much time was spent in the rural areas on non-agricultural projects, which hurt food production. Local officials exaggerated reports on output, making it hard to know how much grain there really was and to plan accurately. But Mao, along with the revolutionary leadership of the party, did try to address these problems with new policies. For example, the amount of grain delivered to the state was lowered, some nonagricultural projects were scaled back in order to produce more food, grain was rationed and emergency grain was sent to regions in distress.
The fact is, and it is historically the case that, truly radical, transformative changes in society may cause initial dislocations and difficulties, but in the long run prove to be real breakthroughs. Such change involves breaking with old ways and experimenting with new ones and challenging custom and convention. This was the case with the Great Leap Forward. And the real truth is that by 1970, for the first time in its history, China was able to provide its population of 600 million people with a minimal diet and food security—which had everything to do with the economic, social and political accomplishments during the Great Leap Forward.
Getting Clearer on the Nature of Socialism
When socialism was overturned in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, this was a heartbreaking loss for everyone who dreamed of a better world. This had been the first place to establish a new socialist society and many great things had been accomplished in this first substantial and pathbreaking experience of socialism. (See the website of Set the Record Straight at thisiscommunism.org for documentation of these accomplishments.) So what did it mean that the revolution could be reversed—that capitalism could be restored?
Mao undertook a very deep study of the experience of Soviet society, learning from the positive achievements but also identifying and sharply criticizing mistakes in conception and practice that had maintained or even reinforced inequalities in society and led away from the goal of a classless, communist world. And Mao also took a critical look at the experience of socialist China up to that point.
Clearly, building socialism involved working to get rid of all the “scars” left over from the old oppressive society—a process that couldn’t happen overnight. Building socialism meant continually digging away at and transforming the old economic and social ways of doing things, as well as the old and oppressive ways of thinking that went along with all this.
But Mao was wrestling with and coming to understand something even beyond this. He was struggling to get a new and deeper analysis of the very nature of the socialist transition to communism. And what he was increasingly coming to understand—which up to this point, had not been really understood in the international communist movement—is that the victory of the revolution and the beginning development of socialism does not mean the end of classes and class struggle. As Mao would later put it:
“Socialist society covers a considerably long historical period. In the historical period of socialism, there are still classes, class contradictions and class struggle, there is the struggle between the socialist road and the capitalist road, and there is the danger of capitalist restoration. We must recognize the protracted and complex nature of this struggle.”
Mao looked at the fact that the people who organized and led the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union came from right within the top ranks of the communist party. And he looked around him and saw echoes of the same problem. He saw leaders within the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party who wanted to restore capitalism, just as had been done in the Soviet Union.
Mao restlessly searched for a way to deal with this problem. From looking at the Soviet Union, he saw that just purging such party leaders would not solve the problem. Even if certain individuals didn’t make a comeback, others would come forward representing similar lines, so long as the underlying problems were not correctly identified and struggled against. Mao searched for ways to mobilize the broad masses of people to much more deeply and consciously take up the struggle over the whole direction of society, drawing the distinction between the capitalist road and the socialist road, to criticize party leaders who were taking the capitalist road and try to bring them back to the revolutionary road. He tried many things to unleash the people’s questioning and rebellious spirit, but as he later summed up, up to this point, he and the revolutionary leadership had not yet found the way to mobilize the masses “to criticize our dark side, in an all-around way and from below.”
Sharpening Class Struggle in China
Conservative forces in the party wanted profit measures to decide investment priorities. They promoted an educational system that turned out privileged professional and party elites. They pushed cultural works still dominated by old feudal themes and characters. Their approach towards the workers and peasants was basically “keep your nose to the grindstone, forget about engaging the big questions of how to run and transform all of society and contribute to revolution throughout the world.”
In the context of all this, Mao made what is his greatest contribution: the theory and practice of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In socialist society you need the dictatorship of the proletariat to wage struggle against and defeat bourgeois class forces. Even as socialist society is constantly being revolutionized, remaining inequalities and differences in society will continue to provide the basis for bourgeois, capitalist relations and thinking—and the basis for the capitalist system to make a comeback. And what Mao came to understand is that the bigger danger here was not exploiters and oppressors from the old society—but a new bourgeois class, generated from the very contradictions of socialist society itself and concentrated right in the top levels of the party.
Party leaders, because of their positions of power, controlled resources and made decisions and developed policies that determined the direction of society. So how they exercised power—and with what aims—made all the difference in terms of whether or not society as a whole was going to move forward toward communism or back to capitalism. For example, were party leaders supporting policies that would break down inequalities or strengthen them? Were they working to unleash the conscious initiative of the people in the fight to transform society? This concentrated the class struggle under socialism. And the superstructure of socialist society—laws, art, culture, sports, science, and political institutions—not only reflected these class contradictions, but could and would greatly influence them in one way or the other.
Mao needed to find a way to shake up all of society; a way to revolutionize the party and all the institutions in society; a way to transform people’s thinking and understanding—and fully draw the broad masses of people into the class struggle to keep China on the socialist road.
The Fight to Stay on the Socialist Road
In the summer of 1965, Mao made a journey to the Chingkang Mountains, where in 1927 he had led 800 Red Army soldiers to form the first red base area and initiate the people’s war. This was a dangerous time. The enemies of the revolution who wanted to restore capitalism were gathering their strength and preparing for an all-out fight to seize power. In a poem, “Reascending Chingkangshan,” Mao wrote:
I have long aspired to reach for the clouds
And I again ascend Chingkangshan,
Coming from afar to view our old haunt,
I find new scenes replacing the old...
We can clasp the moon in the Ninth Heaven
And seize turtles deep down in the Five Seas:
We’ll return amid triumphant song and laughter.
Nothing is hard in this world
If you dare to scale the heights.
In May of 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, calling on people to “bombard the headquarters.” He called on the people in their hundreds of millions to rise up and overthrow top party and government officials who were trying to bring capitalism back. This was a revolution within the revolution.
Mao was unleashing hundreds of millions of people to wrangle and debate over the direction of society, and to take responsibility for the fate of society. Mao and the revolutionary leadership in the party fought to help broad ranks of people to identify, criticize, and where necessary overthrow the top capitalist roaders—and seize back portions of state power where capitalist roaders were implementing lines and policies leading away from the goal of communism. This was a process of further revolutionizing society and empowering the masses of people.
The Cultural Revolution and Mao’s leadership of it are probably the most widely distorted and misunderstood period of Chinese history. For decades now, the defenders of capitalism have promoted a whole narrative of lies that vilify Mao and paint the Cultural Revolution as a nightmare. (For a discussion and refutation of common lies about the Cultural Revolution, see: “The Truth About the Cultural Revolution” at revcom.us)
“Socialist New Things” and the Further Transformation of Society
As Mao later explained, the target of the Cultural Revolution was “those persons in authority taking the capitalist road.” But the strategic aim of the struggle was to help the masses transform their world outlook, and through that, to transform the society around them in the further direction of a communist world.
Look at health care. In 1949, China only had 12,000 Western-trained doctors for a country of 500 million. By 1965, there were 200,000. But most of the medical care was still concentrated in the cities. New doctors were encouraged to work at elite urban hospitals, and to focus on making a career for themselves. Meanwhile, most peasants—the vast majority of China’s population—had little or no access to modern medical care. Such an approach to health care could only help to widen inequalities in society and strengthen the influence of capitalist tendencies.
Mao and those who rallied to his line sharply criticized the direction being taken by the Health Ministry, calling for radical transformations. Under his leadership, the focus of health care shifted to the countryside, even as overall health care improved in the cities. One of the most exciting developments of the Cultural Revolution was the “barefoot doctor” movement. Young peasants and urban youth were sent to the countryside and trained in basic health care and medicine geared to meet local needs and treat the most common illnesses. And doctors went to rural areas—at any given time, a third of the urban doctors were in the countryside. Life expectancy during the period of Mao’s leadership doubled from 32 years in 1949 to 65 years in 1976.
In education, leading capitalist roaders were arguing that China needed to focus primary attention on the “best” schools and the “brightest” students in order to build China into a modern country. They argued for ending the practices from the Great Leap Forward period when students spent part of their time growing crops at school for the cafeteria or working in small factories attached to the schools. The revolutionaries sharply criticized this, pointing out that it was impossible to keep moving forward toward communism unless they increasingly broke down the differences between intellectual and physical labor, between experts and the masses of common people.
One result of Mao’s call to transform education was that millions of students waged struggle against elitism in higher education. Before the Cultural Revolution, the universities were the province of the sons and daughters of party members and other privileged forces. Children competed in exams to enter a hierarchy of increasingly selective college-prep schools. For centuries, China’s feudal-Confucian educational system had 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. After completing high school, students went to 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. And part of the college admission process involved evaluations from co-workers and communities of the applicants.
Similar “socialist new things” were brought into being in every section of society as people answered Mao’s call to revolutionize society and revolutionize themselves in the process.
As a crucial part of this, the Party itself began to be revolutionized. A whole section of the party took up this revolutionary line, deepening their understanding of the communist goal and the socialist transition period, and leading transformations in every sphere. New revolutionary leaders came forward from among the masses during this upheaval and ferment, and many joined the Party. And the relations among party cadre and the masses went through waves of revitalization and transformation, raising the consciousness and unleashing the initiative of the masses and fostering a spirit of openness to criticism and self-interrogation among the cadre.
The Loss of Socialist China and Lessons for the Future
Despite these transformations, Mao warned that final victory was far from settled. He pointed out that “it would be quite easy to rig up a capitalist system”—due to the pressures of imperialism, the still remaining “birthmarks” of capitalism (for example, inequalities between city and countryside, the still-remaining differences between mental and manual labor, etc.), and the fact that some powerful forces still in the leadership of the party had not been fully won to the line embodied in the Cultural Revolution and indeed in many cases harbored deep opposition to it.
When Mao died in 1976, the capitalist roaders in the Chinese Communist Party, led by Deng Xiaoping, seized the moment to stage a coup. Hundreds of thousands were arrested, including Mao’s closest comrades, the so-called “gang of four,” which included his wife, Jiang Qing. Thousands more were murdered. Where Mao had said “serve the people,” Deng crowed that “to get rich is glorious.” The coup and the destruction of socialism made China the hell it is today for the vast majority—once again dominated by imperialism, capitalist exploitation and backward feudal oppression, with the attendant extreme economic and social polarization.
The reasons why the capitalist roaders succeeded are complex—involving big international factors and developments—and how these interpenetrated with the class struggle in China. And within this, there were certain mistakes made by Mao and the revolutionaries grouped around him that weakened their ability to fend off the assaults from the capitalist roaders—especially after Mao died.
But the lesson to draw from this is not that socialism is impossible. The revolution did not fail, it was defeated. The fact that capitalist roaders had seized power was not so obvious at the time—not the least because they draped themselves in the words of socialism and Maoism. At this momentous juncture in the international communist movement, Bob Avakian deeply summed up the contributions Mao Tsetung had made to the science and practice of communist revolution. And he analyzed the class character of the new leadership in China and showed in great detail that a counter-revolution against Mao and socialism had taken place. At the same time he pointed to the tasks and challenges before genuine communists throughout the world to correctly sum up the world-historic and unprecedented experience of the Chinese revolution, and the theory Mao developed through the course of leading it, to learn as much as could be learned from that, and to advance further in the world revolutionary process.
Today there are no socialist countries in the world. The loss of socialist China in 1976 marked the end of a stage, of the first wave of proletarian revolution in the world.
Mao Tsetung was a great revolutionary communist who led a quarter of the planet’s people to liberate China out from under the thumb of imperialist oppressors—and then move on to build a liberating, socialist society for over 25 years. Mao led the Chinese people to “spring society into the air,” to radically change the conditions of their lives and change themselves in the process. He searched relentlessly for a way to prevent a new capitalist class from seizing power, and led the people in this fight down to his last breath. Under his leadership, this was the most advanced revolutionary experience in transforming society and transforming the people—the farthest humanity has gone in bringing into being a world free of exploitation and oppression.
Understanding the truth about Mao is important for everyone—the revolution he led was a major milestone in human history and everyone should know the truth about such a revolution and such a figure. And for those who truly want to change the world, there is even more at stake—for Mao’s revolutionary thinking and practice form a critical part of the foundation and a point of departure for rebuilding a revolutionary movement today.
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