China under Mao: The Great Leap Forward
The question mark placed over the nature of the Chinese Communist Party after the success of the Chinese Revolution – was it a political obstacle to the independent mobilisation of the working class or an alternative instrument for realising socialism – was fully removed by subsequent events. This Chapter presents an analysis of the Great Leap Forward (GLF), Mao’s disastrous attempt at collectivisation of the peasantry which unambiguously confirmed the Stalinist core of the CCP.
Two factors gave Mao’s leadership very different characteristics from those of Stalin’s. In Russia, Stalin was a usurper, he had been a “grey shadow” playing a minor role in the October Revolution, his faction had gained power by deceit and deception, and retained it only by murder on a mass scale. Mao’s situation was very different. He was accepted within the CCP as a natural leader, though Moscow’s backing had been important in accelerating his promotion. The second major difference was that the CCP came to power when the world revolution was on the rise, whereas the Stalin regime was a reflection of the defeats of the proletarian masses in the 1920s and 30s.
With the revolution moving forward, Mao as undisputed leader, could allow genuine discussion on practical issues in both the Politburo and Central Committee of the CCP. If Mao did lose a vote on a matter he considered important, then with the powers vested in him as Chairman, he could call an enlarged meeting of the CC and pack it with his supporters. Such an arrangement had numerous very positive advantages for Mao, not least was his being kept aware of alternative lines of thought developing within the Party. However, it was not until the regime ran into severe difficulties as a result of obvious mis-assessments on Mao’s part that serious differences arose within the Politburo.
13.2 Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom
Communist parties throughout the world were strongly affected when, in 1956, Khrushchev exposed and denounced many of Stalin’s crimes. The impact on the CCP was particularly severe and at the 8th Congress, held in September 1956, a resolution from the Politburo, moved by Liu Shaoqi (ranked second in the political hierarchy) proposed revising the Party constitution to remove the sentence, “The CCP takes the theories of Marxism-Leninism and the combined principles derived from the practical experience of the Chinese revolution – the ideas of Mao Zedong – as the guiding principles of all its work.” In its place the Congress stressed collective leadership. It is not known whether Liu took pleasure in this announcement, given that Mao, the previous October, had squashed the more prudent policy towards co-operativisation advocated by Liu and most of the Politburo, using his authority as Chairman to call an enlarged plenum of the CC and pack it with his supporters (see Section 12.2.1).
Whatever its declared intention, the resolution was a criticism of Mao, but the groundswell against the cult of the individual was sufficiently strong for Mao not to openly resist the revision of the Party statutes. For this downgrading of Mao, Liu would be hounded to his death during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
A succession of revolts in Eastern Europe, particularly East Germany in 1953, and Hungary in 1956, had an echo within the CCP and, especially, amongst the radical youth. Against the advice of Liu and others, Mao attempted to spike the development of a critical current by encouraging dissidents to speak out, and in February 1957 he announced to the Supreme State Conference: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” The ferocity and extent of the flood of revelations and criticisms of the privileges of the bureaucracy and its arbitrary behaviour was a severe jolt. By the end of the summer the Hundred Flowers Movement had been brought to an end. Some 50,000 leftists were thrown out of the Party, expelled from schools and colleges, sacked, arrested, sent to labour camps, and forced to recant. The masses assessed the Hundred Flowers Movement as a cruel trick, a trap to identify and eliminate dissidents.
The bureaucracy interpreted the criticisms not as a call for it to change its ways but as a reflection of the strength of the hold which capitalist ideas still had on intellectuals and students. The episode was viewed as a mis-assessment by Mao, weakened confidence in his judgment, gave greater confidence to the more cautious members of the Politburo and made them more wary of his decisions.
A Stalinist regime is inherently dictatorial and does not self-reform, at least not in a democratic direction. Faced with the possibility of a threat to Party rule, Mao did an about-face formally launching a counter-attack in the summer of 1958 as an Anti-Rightist Campaign with the declared aim of refuting the criticisms made of the Party. Over the next period there was a vociferous anti-rightist, anti-intellectual drive which some see as marking Mao’s abandonment of intellectuals, experts and professionals on the grounds of their having insufficient revolutionary consciousness. This fed into the programme for economic development as “politics in command”; loyalty to the Party, not professional competence determined the outcome of technical discussions. In the coming period this idealistic, non-materialist approach would grow and be immensely damaging for the Chinese people.
13.3 The Great Leap Forward and the People’s Communes 1958-1962
The PRC was a Bonapartist regime, a bureaucratic dictatorship based on the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army that denied democratic rights to the worker-peasant masses. Stalin had demonstrated with his U-turn from pandering to the rich peasants to enforced collectivisation, that such regimes can change from opportunism to adventurism very quickly. This would be confirmed in China with Mao’s compulsory collectivisation of the peasantry.
Special attention is given here to the agricultural communes because many on the political left, especially certain petty-bourgeois circles and intellectuals, naively accepted the communes at face value and praised them extravagantly as a major step towards socialism, the emancipation of women, and industrialisation of China. Livio Maitan (see Section 10.5) was one such. Swept along on an impressionist tide, Maitan listed among the successes of the commune movement: “real possibilities for people at lower levels to make democratic choices.”
As the 1st FYP drew to a close, disagreements arose within the Politburo over the speed and direction of economic development. Capital investment in heavy industry was seen as key to developing a modern society, and the produce from agriculture as providing the necessary funds. But little was being invested to improve agricultural productivity and it was clear that if things continued as they were, the rate of growth of heavy industry would have to slow considerably. One side argued that peasants would not produce more without material incentives, an approach which meant at least temporarily, reducing the rate of investment in heavy industry. This was in line with the promises made by the regime that collectivisation of agriculture would be delayed until there was a powerful industrial sector which would provide the tens of thousands of tractors, harvesters, and other necessary machines. However, Mao idealistically argued that the peasants could be persuaded to increase output to fund industrialisation through exhortation, mass mobilisations, and communalisation under the direction of the Party.
Forced collectivisation in the USSR had been an anti-Marxist programme carried out against the wishes of the peasantry. Stalinist officials plunged into collectivisation to put an end to the threat to the regime posed by the rich peasants’ stranglehold on food production. There was no preparation and little thought on how to minimise peasant opposition and smooth the transition. Administrative incompetence linked to an undemocratic and fundamentally hostile stance toward the peasants magnified the consequences of the severe drought of the spring and summer of 1931 and resulted in the 1932-33 famine and the death from starvation of 3% of the population.
The GLF of 1958 was just such a Stalinist adventure – an attempt to fund an over-ambitious industrial programme. It aimed to overcome the limitations imposed by backwardness through the forced mobilisation of tens of millions of peasants. It was believed that this would be sufficient to overcome the technical, engineering, economic, social and political problems faced by Chinese society. This anti-Marxist voluntarism was the basis of the communes.
The GLF called for increased extraction of resources from the peasants and, as in Stalin’s case, the amount extracted by the state was based on a refusal by the centre to accept that a serious shortfall in production had occurred, and also on fear at the periphery of reporting the disastrous conditions that actually existed. The extraordinary mismanagement of the GLF and the famine that resulted was an outcome for which Mao Zedong and his associates were responsible. When the dust had settled it turned out that much the same proportion of the population had died of hunger in China 1960-62 as in the USSR between 1931-33. Then, just as in 1933 Stalin had retreated and re-introduced private plots for the peasants at the expense of the collective farms, so the Chinese leaders retreated from the policies of the GLF and re-introduced private plots. In both cases private farming and hostility to the regime would make a significant contribution to capitalist restoration.
Mao launched a course of action whereby a campaigning spirit was supposed to be enough to conquer objective reality. Mao’s approach to the communes was, as the CCP itself would later put it: “a subjectivist misinterpretation of the historical dialectic … not founded on an accurate perception of material reality or on sufficient synthesis of revolutionary experience.”
At the time Mao, imbued with the petty bourgeois theory of socialism in one country, expressed his perception of material reality as:
“Why can’t 600 million ‘paupers’ create a prosperous and strong socialist country … by their own efforts? … Provided they take their destiny into their own hands … and energetically tackle problems instead of evading them, they can overcome any difficulty on earth.”
Intellectuals were expected to perform in a similar manner: the eminent writer Pa Chin was pledged to write one long novel, three medium length novels and complete a number of translations per year – and all in a manner to arouse enthusiasm for Party policies.
Let us remind ourselves of Marxist method and theory as expressed by Engels and Lenin in regard to the peasantry. It is an axiom of Marxist political economy that large-scale production is superior to small scale production. Marxists have always maintained that individual peasant farming must give way to agricultural collectives. Only as individual, scattered, small-scale peasant economy is superseded by co-operative ownership can the peasant become part of an integrated highly productive socialist economy. The superiority of large-scale farming was undoubtedly the most powerful objective argument in favour of the communes and this had been stated by Li Fuchun, Chairman of the State Planning Commission in July 1955: “Socialism cannot be built on a small peasant economy; it must have … large scale collective farming.”
But this economic principle must be considered in a political context: the participation of the peasants in large-scale units or collectives must be voluntary. If the ‘political principle’ is ignored, then collectivisation can do more damage, much more damage than good to the work of socialist construction.
Engels combined these economic and political principles when he wrote:
“… when we are in possession of state power we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to co-operative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the offer of social assistance for this purpose. And then of course we shall have ample means of showing to the small peasant prospective advantages that must be obvious to him ….”
Lenin took Engels’ strategy and applied it to the reality of the Russian Revolution. He was clear that only after re-organising the whole of industry on large-scale collective lines and on a modern technological basis would the towns be able to provide sufficient technical and social assistance to the backward and scattered rural populations to enable them to raise the productivity of agricultural and of farm labour so that in their own interests they would adopt large-scale collective mechanised agriculture.
Lenin repeatedly stated very clearly that it was absolutely forbidden to use compulsive measures against the peasants; they had to be convinced by practical example. He did not limit this policy to predominantly rural countries but also considered them applicable to the advanced capitalist countries.
Trotsky summarised Engels’ and Lenin’s principles for collectivisation in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International:
“The program for the nationalisation of the land, the collectivisation of agriculture, should be so drawn that from its very basis it should exclude the possibility of expropriation of small farmers and their compulsory collectivisation. The farmer will remain owner of his plot of land as long as he himself believes it possible or necessary.”
The relationship between the Chinese Communists and the peasants was supposed to be one of mutual support and co-operation; after all, the Chinese Revolution was based on the peasantry. During the civil war, and before, the Communists had secured the mass support of the peasants and had established extensive rural organisations. The Party leaders were committed to improving peasant well-being, and until at least 1957 the CCP’s economic policies were relatively restrained when procuring agricultural resources to feed industry.
However, resources for investment in industry could only come from agriculture but small scale agriculture provided very little surplus. The Politburo agreed a plan to merge Higher Stage co-operatives into much larger units, and in April 1958 the name “people’s commune” was adopted for these giant complexes.
Such a proposal had many benefits in the eyes of the Politburo. In a period of transition, greater Party control was required and with a large number of small co-operatives this was difficult. By combining them into larger, more centralised units, the local cadres were better able to exert their authority. Large communes made it easier to collect taxes, to control the price paid for agricultural products, and to force the peasants to pay the high prices demanded for industrial products. The cadres would be better placed to stop the hoarding of grain, impose stricter rationing, and expropriate more produce for the state.
The communes were seen as a convenient instrument for maximising the surplus labour extracted from the peasants. By optimising the division of labour by, for example, establishing communal dining halls and nurseries to free women from the drudgery of home life to work in the fields, it was claimed that the number of working hands would be increased by one-third. Supposedly this would free large numbers of peasants to be shifted from area to area and from job to job, according to needs and requirements.
However, there was growing tension within the Politburo between Mao and those who argued for more gradual progress. Mao’s public statements became increasingly adventurist, following Stalin who, at the 17th Congress of the Russian Party, had declared the part played by objective conditions had been reduced to a minimum while the role of the Party had become decisive; that failures rested “not on ‘objective’ conditions, but on ourselves, and on ourselves alone.”
In China the greater part of farming was done by extremely primitive means, most of it relying on human labour alone. But the communes were to be on a grand scale – averaging about 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) with 5,000 households. There was an obvious contradiction between such extraordinarily large farms and the low technique used to work them.
Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese peasants had a high level of productivity fine-tuned over centuries to match the given conditions including the planting of specialised crops suited to local ground and climate. Productivity could be improved only by the general application of modern techniques (tractors, chemical fertilisers, electrification, etc.). Without these resources there would be no increase in productivity; however, production could be increased by lengthened working hours and increasing the number of peasants labouring in the fields. But such measures would not overcome the backwardness of the agrarian techniques; they would simply make more peasants work longer and harder.
Such an approach could only increase peasant opposition to the communes, and ran the risk of reducing their productivity. The CCP’s policy toward the communes thus had a much greater compulsory element than its policy toward the co-operatives. CCP propaganda had it that the Chinese communes were formed with the enthusiastic support of the peasant masses; the mass exodus of peasants into the towns gave the lie to that.
The first of the people’s communes was set up in Weixing, southern Hunan in April 1958. This project which combined 27 co-operatives with 43,000 people was announced as an experiment. However, had it really been an experiment, its performance would have been monitored and assessed before launching communes nationwide; that such an assessment was not made demonstrates beyond any doubt the adventurist and bureaucratic character of the programme.
At the beginning of August 1958, Mao visited the commune and, without consulting the Politburo, launched a national campaign mobilising the CCP rank and file to establish people’s communes everywhere. The communes were described as self-supporting units “for the all-round development of agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, handicrafts and fishery, as well as for the all-round combination of economic, political, cultural and military affairs where industry, agriculture, trade, education and military affairs merge into one.” Even in the largest communes such a perspective was nonsense. In the era of the international division of labour, commune production would only be weakened if the workforce were dissipated into unnecessary and uneconomic activities that were a drain on the main business of agricultural production.
The communes were formed on the basis of geographic proximity by amalgamating adjoining co-operatives, and so tended to be traditional marketing areas surrounding the village or market town containing the local administrative centre. The commune subsumed the functions of local government, with the result that the local CCP cadres naturally stepped into the leading roles within the communes.
Within about two months, 500 million peasants were organised into communes! How, in such a short time, could the peasants be fully appraised as to what was being proposed let alone give their informed consent? Everything was decided by decree and the commune movement as a whole was compulsory in character with Party cadres, who had full control over local economic, social and political matters, acting more to intimidate the peasants than convince them. The agricultural work cycle being years, prompts the question of how in two months could a commune demonstrate its superiority over the co-operatives it replaced either as a means of increasing production or of improving living standards?
Red Flag, the monthly theoretical journal of the CCP, painted a rosy picture of the benefits to be gained from the commune system. The August 1958 issue stated: “The People’s Communes are the best form for the transition from collective ownership to ownership by the people as a whole. It contains the first shoots of communism … such as the communal kitchens, nurseries and sewing facilities to emancipate women from the household.” Unfortunately, these first shoots of communism were rooted in the very essence of capitalism – the piecework wage system. Members were promised food, clothing, housing, child-birth care, education, medical treatment, weddings, funerals and even, in some places, haircuts, though nowhere was the quality mentioned.
Such a picture may have convinced the Young Communist League members posted to areas where the communes were to be formed, but to believe that the vast majority of peasants were convinced to hand over their land, tools, animals and even personal property such as pots and pans in just eight weeks is ridiculous.
The weather in 1958 had been good, and the harvest of near record proportions. For their own reasons, Mao and the CCP leaders ascribed the marvellous harvest as due to the communes as a superior form of socio-economic organisation. In fact, the great increase in farm production in 1958 was not an achievement of the communes. The communes only began to spread in the early autumn of 1958. Wheat had been harvested in the middle of June, the early rice crop between July and August, while cotton, raised in the summer, was ripe for harvest by the time the communes were established. Thus the communes, at best, harvested crops planted and tended by the co-operatives.
13.3.1 Back-yard Steel Production
The continuing US trade embargo (it did not end until 1971) meant that iron and steel for construction and other purposes was in very short supply; it was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain iron and steel for anything but the most important projects. Mao, refusing to slow down the development of heavy industry, called on the communes to set up various kinds of industry, including the production of iron and steel for local use using micro-scale blast furnaces. With responsibility for the construction and operation of blast furnaces, CCP cadres were given tasks for which they had neither experience nor knowledge.
Up until 1957, the strategy of the Ministry for the Metallurgical Industries had been for a network of 14 modern small and medium-sized metallurgical plants that would be quick to build, take advantage of local occurrences of raw materials, and reduce the pressure on China’s weak transport system. This strategy was assessed by western experts as having serious environmental drawbacks (smoke emissions) but would have attained the declared production targets.
During 1957 the Anti-Rightist Campaign, an integral part of which was criticism of intellectuals and experts became strident. With “politics in command”, engineers and economists who warned of likely problems resulting from Party policies were demoted or fired. Expert advice was rejected and the building and operating of micro-scale open-hearth blast furnaces became an additional burden on the communes, imposing on the peasants much back-breaking labour over and above that spent in the fields.
Some regions of China such as Sichuan and Hunan had long experience in blast furnace operation which had traditionally supplied local needs, but these were few and far between. In September 1958, Mao Zedong visited a small traditional style steelworks in Anhui and was greatly impressed, calling for a mass campaign for steel production. “Everyone, everyone, should produce iron and steel.”
By the end of 1958 as many as 600,000 micro steelworks are said to have been built, involving up to 90 million people. Most of these were blast furnaces of traditional design hurriedly built and operated by inexperienced local craftspeople such as the village blacksmiths. Nothing was spared in the drive for building materials; even the stone marking the spot where Mao’s parents were buried was taken. However, traditional blast furnaces are not simple. Efficient operation required experience which could be gained only through a long apprenticeship.
The planning of communes had been hurried and considerations of economic geography had been largely omitted. Thus, for example, a commune in Fukien province was expected to construct an iron smelting plant with an annual capacity of 2,000 tons but the area had neither iron ore nor limestone. This particular commune had only 1,700 hectares (about 4,000 acres) of farm land, and intensive farming of rice and vegetables was needed to feed the population of over 40,000, but the commune was instructed to set aside nearly 70 hectares of arable land for cotton to meet the clothing needs of the commune members despite never having grown cotton because the natural conditions were unfavourable.
In such circumstances pots and pans were seized as a valuable source of raw material for the commune furnaces. Cadres argued that families would no longer need cooking utensils since they were to eat in mess halls. Richard Crossman, Labour Minister for Health and Social Services 1968-70, toured China at this time and witnessed the absurdities:
“In a corner I spotted five old ladies sitting in a circle and asked what they were doing. ‘That,’ I was told, ‘is the ball-bearing section’. Sure enough, a thin iron rod had been cut into slices a centimetre thick, and each old lady was rounding a slice with a pestle and mortar, while a couple of boys were polishing the finished article.”
This was happening across China, the drive to diversify but simultaneously increase production meant the quality of products was generally quite appalling. For example, it is reported that to meet targets, coal miners were loading their trucks with rubble.
By the end of the year it was claimed that over 11 million tons of steel had been produced. Mao, safeguarded from reality by the bureaucracy he had done so much to create, was delighted. In truth, the small blast furnaces which he had urged the peasants to build were a massive failure; almost all of the steel produced was of such poor quality as to be useless. The Chinese propaganda magazines of the time were wildly enthusiastic about the mass campaign, but the photographs which accompanied the glowing reports told a very different story; in the West only the technically illiterate were convinced.
As the utter failure of the commune blast furnaces became apparent and the consequential serious imbalances were being felt across the economy, the steel target for 1959 was progressively reduced from 30 million tonnes, to 20 million, to 13 million and eventually to 12 million. An editorial in the Peking Daily (20 January 1959) instructed that where “it is too costly to carry out steel and iron production communes should quickly discontinue operations and divert their labour power to other fields of work.” The waste of human and material resources had been colossal and just at a time when they were most needed elsewhere.
Many millions of peasants had been dispatched to work on steel production at the expense of the harvest. Fortunately, the weather was good and the harvest was excellent, but the harvesting had to be undertaken mainly by old people and children with consequent delays and shortcomings. Because cadres seized produce to meet the state procurement quotas as a priority, food shortages and queues appeared in the cities despite the spectacular harvest.
The bureaucracy was convinced that the grain harvest for 1958 had been exceptionally good due to communalisation so the improvement could be expected to be maintained. One consequence was that the land allocated to grain crops was substantially reduced for the 1959 harvest, and other crops such as cotton increased. This was done despite the need to feed the big increase in the non-rural workforce resulting from the huge expansion of coal mining, electricity generating, chemical, and metallurgical plants.
13.4 Lushan Conference and the 1959 Campaign against Rightist Opportunism
In July 1959, the CC met for the now-famous Lushan Conference. There was a sharp debate following criticisms of the GLF made by Peng Dehuai (Peng Te-huai) who reflected the criticisms of the people’s communes made by the peasants, describing them as “the result of the subjective wishes of a few people and did not reflect the desires of the peasant masses”, in effect challenging the very basis of the GLF. Mao categorised this as a “programme of right opportunism”. Peng Dehuai was immediately replaced as defence minister by Lin Piao (a Mao protégé) and those who had supported him were dismissed from their posts and disappeared from public life.
After Lushan, in the autumn and winter of 1959, the Party leadership launched an extremely harsh Anti-Rightist Campaign led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p’ing, General Secretary of the Party) and Peng Zhen (mayor of Beijing). This campaign, which Mao relentlessly promoted into the spring of 1960, was unleashed to defend the communes and silence their critics. A carrot and stick approach was used: those who expressed doubts about the GLF were weeded out of the Party and cadres who favoured a more cautious approach were publicly condemned. But minor concessions were made; communes were instructed to assure adequate food rations to everyone and members were to receive cash wages for the work they had performed. These concessions were calculated as being sufficient to mollify the peasants so that the expansion of the communes could continue. The underlying assumption was that the communes would accelerate the increase in agricultural production.
The supremacy of the commune system appeared unassailable. However, in 1959 China was hit by a series of natural calamities but given the Campaign against Rightist Opportunism, local cadres dared not report reality, and almost without exception they reported that agricultural targets were exceeded. In fact, the harvest would be little short of a disaster with much effort still being wasted on the useless blast furnaces.
During 1959 a drought gripped northwest China while torrential rains caused severe flooding in the south. Famine threatened Anhui, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces and by early 1960 there was no hiding the fact that the poor harvest was reaching the proportions of a national disaster. The weather in 1960 was even worse. First a terrible drought gripped the entire country. This was followed by extensive floods and typhoons. The grain harvest shrank to less than 150 million tonnes. The resulting famine was possibly the worst in China’s long history. Just as Moscow had refused to accept the extent of the 1931-33 catastrophe and pressed forward with its procurement plans, so too did Beijing. Terrible distortions can be produced when everything depends on a bureaucratic central command, and this famine – in which as many as 20 million people died – was an extreme form.
The harvest of 1960 was a disaster but the consequences were greatly exacerbated by attempting to maintain industrial growth through levels of state procurement that were based on grossly exaggerated reports. The government showed beyond any doubt that it was not only the weather which was responsible for the increasing difficulties in agriculture; organisational and technical problems were also to blame and may have played a more significant role.
In the communes, hungry and starving peasants were making their own criticisms, directing them not just at unspecified ‘higher levels’ but at Mao Zedong himself. The leadership of the CCP could no longer cover up the scope of the disaster, reality had caught up. The communes, instead of overcoming grain shortages, compelled China to import massive quantities of grain from Canada and Australia between 1960 and 1963. In July 1960, Zhou Enlai attempted to place the blame for the problems encountered onto local cadres, who it now appeared, had acted without authorisation and exceeded their authority.
In self-defence, Mao Zedong promoted the Anti-Rightist Campaign: “at present the main danger comes from right deviationist thinking, which has been growing among some cadres”, and Party committees “at all levels must resolutely criticize and overcome such thinking.”
Mao took the Anti-Rightist Campaign into the communes on the grounds that most of the problems would be resolved if Party members provided a more direct and firmer leadership. Party cadres were instructed “to go deep among the masses”, i.e. to spend less time in their offices and re-integrate with the work teams of the communes to provide more direct supervision, supress dissent, and increase agricultural production. This was an attempt by Beijing to re-affirm its control over a Party apparatus badly damaged and disoriented by the extent of the failure of the GLF.
However, after the disastrous harvest it was necessary to restore food supplies as soon as possible. The basis for this was a return to greater material incentives for the peasants. In November 1960, the Politburo through Zhou Enlai, drafted emergency measures for restructuring agricultural policy: the Twelve Articles on People’s Communes. Appearances would be maintained, but in all important respects there was a return to the Higher Stage APCs. The authority of the central commune administration was severely curtailed: production units were given the right to plant and work according to the soil conditions of their land, and draft animals and farm implements were now owned, kept and used by production brigades as and how they saw fit.
As had happened in the USSR, there was restoration of personal ownership of land and livestock and the revival of free markets. A contract system was introduced whereby individual households were given land on the promise they delivered a set quota of the harvest to the state and paid certain charges to the commune (limited to about 10%). It was the death knell of the commune system. Peasants were free to sell the produce from their private plots (pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and other livestock) and resuscitate family handicrafts (household weaving, bee keeping, fishing, hunting and foraging). The detested communal kitchens and nurseries were mostly abolished.
The very basis of the GLF had imploded and the daily life of the peasants returned to previous patterns of agricultural activity. By midsummer 1961, about 5% of land was being farmed privately. One year later between 20% and 30% had been returned to the peasants – sufficient to overcome the food crisis. In March, 1962, with private markets and private cultivation close to full restoration, Zhou Enlai announced that the Party expected private handicrafts to continue for a long time. Obscure phrases were found to suggest that these changes were foreseen and planned.
By the end of 1962, the private harvests in some provinces were greater than those of the communes, by the beginning of 1963 agricultural production was restored almost to the level before the launch of the communes, and by 1964 in at least Kweichow and Szechuan, there was more private than communal land. Mao’s standing was so badly damaged by the catastrophic failure of his voluntarist approach that he was forced to stay silent until early July 1962 when he called a meeting of loyalists intending to put a stop to the contract system which he saw as restoring private ownership of the land, and halt once and for all the activities of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
In a series of meetings between mid-July and the end of August 1962, Mao raged against the Liu-Deng current and labelled the contract system “bourgeois” giving rise to corruption, speculation, thievery, and the return of usury. Lui and Deng were, in effect, being accused of counter-revolutionary activities. Mao was gathering his forces and preparing to purge them.
13.5 Working, Living, and Dying on the Communes
The purpose of the communes was to increase production to accumulate as rapidly as possible the capital needed for China’s industrialisation and, of course, to meet the cost of the huge bureaucratic apparatus. Living conditions for the majority of peasants deteriorated. Working hours and intensity of labour were increased; wages were continually in arrears; women released from family duties were put to work with the same intensity as men (a twelve to fourteen-hour day in the fields) while retaining responsibility for housework and child care; food supplied in the communal kitchens was neither sufficient nor of good quality; under such conditions the health of the peasants deteriorated and they were frequently ill while medicines were in extremely short supply. While as many as 75% of women participated in agricultural production, there were approved child care places for only 5% of children.
Generally, commune managers simply transmitted instructions from above. People who had one kind of skill were often sent to jobs requiring an entirely different kind of skill – peasants who spent a lifetime in farming were assigned to smelt iron. Those who were familiar with the lay of the land and soil conditions in one area were sent to work in other areas where they were strangers both to the area and to the agricultural conditions. Peasant teams could be freely transferred to other duties, even to other communes, a practice which allowed for huge irrigation and construction projects but could detract from the harvests. Too often when a production brigade was sent to a different place to work – sometimes for up to six months – their payment and/or compensation for the time expended would be lost in some bureaucratic muddle. For many young women, however, these absences from the claustrophobic discipline of the home were welcomed and living side-by-side with young men, much preferred.
Peasants were further demotivated because too many orders were given which flew in the face of reality, such as the setting of wholly unrealistic production targets compelling peasants to do exhausting labour after which the grain would be seized and taken from them. Finally, there were the special privileges given to cadres who, for example, received extra food during the periods of severe shortage.
The intensification and exploitation of the peasants to the utmost inevitably aroused resentment and resistance and contributed significantly to the magnitude of agricultural failures of 1959 and 1960. Constant supervision and tight control became absolute necessities, which was why the communes were from the start organised with a militia style discipline euphemistically called “living the collective way” or more exactly “working as if fighting a battle.”
13.5.1 Famine in the Communes
Famine was a hallmark of the GLF, rural death rates leapt from 11 to more than 28 per 1,000 people/year in 1960. Population growth rate in Henan, for example, went into reverse and dropped from +22.8% in 1958 to – 4.3% in 1961. Only in 1980 did the CCP admit that at least 20 million people had starved to death during the great famine.
The famine was due to the combination of severe natural disaster and, possibly more importantly, the bureaucratic system itself. The bureaucracy had reduced the area of land sown with grain and insisted that a vast amount of unnecessary work be carried out on the blast furnaces, but a third and important factor was the Anti-Rightist Campaign which scared lower level bureaucrats into exaggerating the harvest to please their superiors. In late August and September, Mao himself, uncritically accepted boastful provincial reports that state grain purchases had been fully met and accomplished in record time. Mao ordered the publication and distribution of these falsehoods with his accompanying observations containing a blistering attack on ‘rightists’, further increasing the pressure on lower rank cadres. Grain procurement by the state based on these false figures played a major causal role in the famine.
The “Wind of Exaggeration” was a hallmark of the GLF and was due to the intense pressures exerted by the higher echelons on rural cadres. The Anti-Rightist Campaign vehemently criticised rightist, conservative, and ‘capitalist’ thinking, and pressurised cadres into competitive target-setting. Commune leaders vied with one another to promise incredible yields. The targets could escalate into the ridiculous – thousands and ten thousands of catties per mu (1000 catties/mu = 2500 kg/hectare).
Bernstein quotes the following exchange from a post-Mao short story, The Black Flag which claimed to report actual events when a Commune Party secretary refused to go along with promises by neighbouring communes to attain impossible yields of between 30,000 and 60,000 kg/hectare:
“Secretary Mi [the county party secretary] bellowed over the loudspeaker, ‘Well, Ding Jingzhong [the commune secretary], have you lost your tongue? You haven’t said anything’. Everybody turned to Ding who, flushed and tense, was fidgeting, tearing up bits of paper … Ding spoke calmly into the microphone: ‘Our commune has discussed our plan. We’ll try to produce 800 catties per mu (2000 kg/hectare) this year’. To achieve this would require a lot of hard work from everyone. But it seemed as if no one understood this. The loudspeaker went dead. After a long while, Secretary Mi said at last, ‘Attention. Have you all heard him?’ Angry voices screeched out from the loudspeaker, ‘Yes. We did’. Secretary Mi again. ‘What shall we do? Are they leaping forward or going backward? Are they sabotaging us on purpose?’ There was more clamour. ‘They are sabotaging us. We’ll have it out with them. We’ll give them hell!’ When one of Ding’s supporters backs him up, Sun, the commune secretary’s assistant, exclaims: ‘That man isn’t one of the masses. He is a big rightist, an extreme rightist!’. In the end, just as debased coins drive out the good, the stalwart hero was purged.”
Despite initial evidence of famine in parts of the country the government persisted through 1960 in trying to maintain industrial growth. But agricultural output in 1960 was considerably less than that for 1959, and industry’s efforts collapsed due to the shortage of raw materials and lack of foodstuffs. In the middle of the year the sudden withdrawal of Soviet assistance greatly exacerbated the problems. The government was forced to curb the expansion of heavy industry and increase its assistance to light industry, handicrafts, family commercial activities, and agriculture. Mao called for the bureaucracy to moderate its pressures on the peasants but despite the scale of the disasters resulting from the GLF, he never accepted the underlying problems as systemic, and never renounced the voluntarist, anti-Marxist ideas that underlay the GLF.
13.5.2 Women in the Communes
Prior to the GLF, the CCP had allowed traditional, patriarchal relations to continue in the villages and even developed institutions that reinforced them. The land reforms undertaken by the PRC had given the poor and middle peasants redistributed land, and reduced rents and taxes so that with the continuation of a patriarchal family structure they became, de facto, the patriarchs of their own family small-holdings. When these farms were combined into mutual aid teams, Lower and Higher Stage APCs, in the mid-1950s, the process was on the basis of existing structures and pre-existing male kinship groups (women married out of their natal villages and so tended to be isolated individuals), which enabled the traditional family and patriarchal structures to persist. Women’s participation in agricultural labour may have expanded considerably, but they were brought into the production process under conditions that increased their value as chattels but did not give them greater control over their own lives or even over the fruits of their labour.
We find in the propaganda supporting the Communes, statements to the effect that: “The communes have ploughed up and pulverized the crust of outworn social and family relations” and the communes “have accelerated the liberation of women from domestic slavery (and) opened up new avenues of cultural development.” These claims refer to the liberation of women from the bonds of the feudal or patriarchal family. The question is “Did the communes actually achieve either kind of liberation for women”?
We must not forget the hugely positive and progressive moves introduced by the CCP which benefitted Chinese women. From 1927 in the Soviets and liberated areas, and after 1949 in the entire country, women were recognised as: having equal status in law with men, the right of inheritance, equal rights in education, freedom to participate in social and political spheres, equal pay for equal work, and freedom in marriage and divorce (except for the wives of soldiers). There is no doubt that the PRC made an important contribution towards the liberation of Chinese women even though this legal equality was far from being realised in the rural areas. Did the communes add anything of significance?
A great many women participated in political activities both through the CCP and in women’s organisations such as the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), and in all kinds of social movements such as land reform and agricultural co-operatives. All this was accomplished a few years before the establishment of the Communes and was not the result of them.
For women, the first year of the GLF was full of promise. In the spring there was a literacy drive amongst both women and men and, it is claimed, practically all women between the ages of 16-25 had learned to read and write. Importantly, they were also talking to people outside their immediate family and outside the home. It was claimed that immense opportunities had opened for women in steel making (true) and driving tractors (highly unlikely), but at the cost of a dramatically increased daily workload for most women. The ACWF and Party leadership did instruct rural cadres to provide special care to women who were pregnant by, for example, allocating them lighter work. Communes were also warned to restrict the kinds of work performed and the number of days worked by pregnant, postnatal, and menstruating women, but these tended to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. In some particularly active communes, lower rank women cadres organised sewing and washing circles, and organised women to staff homes for the elderly and the newly-established reproductive health centres.
At the launch of the communes, it was announced that a major goal was to free women for productive labour and so housework would, supposedly, be socialised through mess halls, nurseries, and communal laundries. In 1959, People’s Daily claimed that nearly 100% of rural women were engaged in agriculture or other productive labour in the communes. At the same time, women’s participation in public and political affairs was to be encouraged: women’s federations were to assist in training women so that a woman director or deputy could be appointed in every co-operative, and a woman chief or deputy chief found in every production squad. Women members, women deputy chiefs, women technicians, and women book-keepers were to be increased and promoted every year in the management committees and control committees of the co-operatives.
An important innovation was that the commune paid wages directly to people who had earned them (regardless of age or sex). This broke with the tradition of giving the money to the head of the family, or a woman’s husband, and struck a blow at the patriarchal system even if the woman immediately handed her wages to the head of the household. The number of women gainfully employed increased but when the women joined the labour force they found that they were allocated labour intensive, less-skilled jobs, and that pay rates were higher for the jobs done by men on the basis of: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’. It is now claimed that Party cadres deliberately set pay rates for ‘women’s work’ (no matter what its character, how demanding intellectually or physically) at lower levels than ‘men’s work’.
Cadre abuse of villagers was well-known in the Maoist era and collectivisation of land, labour, and tools in the mid-1950s had substantially increased the power of the local cadres. The Anti-Rightist Campaign following the 1957 Hundred Flowers Movement, enabled some over-zealous cadres to act as local tyrants during the initial phase of the GLF. To maximise participation of women in the workforce, dining halls and nurseries were built and villagers were pressurised into giving up cooking at home and placing their children in the nursery. But the cafeterias and child care were often inadequate with the result that women had to work long hours in the fields and then again at home just to keep up with their allotted tasks.
The CCP forcibly replaced family life with collective life under unfavourable material and cultural conditions in a way that brought misery to many peasant women. The commune movement became a compulsory forced march and this was reflected in the commune kitchens. Cadres compelled everybody to eat in the canteens and, in extreme cases the peasants were forced to dismantle the stoves in their homes so there was no hot water or warmth for the children, the aged and the sick. No rations were issued to individuals, but the canteens were of poor quality and the food was inadequate. In many cases there were no covered canteens and the peasants ate in the open or took meals home on rainy and cold days. But quite shamelessly the cadres ate in their own small, separate mess halls!
The situation in the nurseries was, if anything, worse. Little thought had been given to the cost of establishing and running the nurseries. Soon after the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua they attempted to introduce nurseries but found “the cost of construction, equipment and maintenance very high” which had seriously limited the number of nurseries they could provide. In China it meant many children were crowded into makeshift small rooms with no nursery equipment under the charge of old people, invariably illiterate or women whose feet had been bound. How could such children be well cared for? Mothers labouring in fields some distance from their homes were unable to breastfeed their babies and came home to a distraught, dirty and famished child. We can only imagine the mental anguish of these women; the common saying was: “mothers may be in the field, but their minds are back home.”
What was the situation of the women liberated from domestic slavery to participate in social production? In many communes ‘equality with men’ meant 12 and 14 hour shifts on farms, dams, highways, mines and factories. Many pregnant women suffered from sleep deprivation, miscarriages and illnesses, certainly in late 1957 and 1958. Children also were injured and even died during the busiest periods of the year because adequate supervision was unavailable. The main aim of the communes was not the thoroughgoing liberation of women but the mobilisation of maximum labour power for agriculture, and it was this that pushed women in the rural areas out of their homes to supply needed labour. From domestic slavery, women were thrown into social slavery, often driven by women cadres.
By 1960 it was clear that the commune was not going to be the road to equality for women. During the GLF, the Anti-Rightist Campaign had meant expertise had been down-graded, often in favour of brute strength and the latter was rewarded by higher pay grades. The social labour most often performed by women – such as in the commune kitchens – was further degraded by being used as a punishment for ‘bad elements’ who had broken some rule or other. Party theoreticians explained this by saying gender equality was postponed until women could perform the same labour as men, i.e., when physical labour was replaced by machinery. The struggle for gender equality was seen as enabling women to do men’s work, rather than questioning the supposed superiority of men’s work and gender stereotyping.
The commune was presented as a massive attack on the feudal family, as offering women new roles of greater status and income (but still lower than those of men), with socialisation of certain aspects of housework. However, by 1960 the Chinese press was filled with articles aimed not at promoting socialised housework but at allaying fears that family life was being destroyed. A torrent of theoretical works on the necessity of the family even in a communist society was produced to allay popular (male) apprehension and resentment of women’s progress.
The retreat from the GLF, and increasing unemployment levels, meant a new and extremely conservative line concerning women. Once again women were exhorted to return to keep home for their menfolk and children. The model woman was no longer a Stakhanovite worker but the housewife who patched clothes to make them last a decade, and Party journals contained articles such as “How to Choose a Husband”. The result was a massive resurgence in arranged marriages, bride prices, and wedding feasts.
With the failure of the Hundred Flowers Movement and the growth of anti-intellectualism, the focus of women’s policy shifted from achieving equality and liberation from patriarchal oppression to an acceptance that women’s emancipation would be achieved only through loyalty to the regime’s scheme for building a socialist China. Accordingly, it was claimed that the groundwork for liberation already existed in law and so women were told to turn their energies to work to build a socialist China. The Chinese leadership now encouraged women to balance housework and productive labour, with the emphasis on the former.
The communes did give rise to great hopes for the liberation of women, and initially there were important, progressive moves such as the literacy campaign, such as the shift to more individual rights within the communes (e.g. wage payments to individuals). And these did raise the status of women in rural China. But the bureaucratic and adventurist nature of the project meant it was bound to fail and in the end took women backwards. The subsequent shift to the contract system returned power to the household and enhanced the authority of fathers and husbands over daughters and wives. The canteens and nurseries may have been hated but their disappearance was a symbol of the increase in women’s domestic duties. The contract system has remained in place up to today though there have been a number of modifications and adjustments, most of which have further reduced the authority of women as landowners. For example, the Chinese government since 2009 has been re-interpreting the Marriage and Divorce Laws so that a woman who cannot produce a land deed in her own name, loses everything on divorce. The problem for the woman is that the deed was likely handed to her husband and remained in the possession of his family, to disappear when she needed it most. Because China has no central land registry the deeds to a property are crucially important. In many cases the women found themselves robbed of the land that should have been theirs.
Subsequently, this practice crept into the cities, and due to family and social pressures it is now customary, even when the woman makes the major contribution, for a dwelling to be registered in the man’s name alone. The 1950 Marriage Law gave the woman equal rights but in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that the property belonged to the person named on the deeds. Even in those 25% of (urban) cases where the couple share the cost and both names appear on the deeds, the man’s name comes first, he being considered the “primary loan recipient” with the greater stake in the property.
13.5.3 Democracy in the Communes
The CCP’s view of Party democracy was derived from Russia of the 1930s so that outside of the Politburo and CC, Mao was projected as the undisputed leader. In 1962, possibly reflecting the situation within the Politburo, Mao defined democratic centralism as the Party carrying out his instructions whether correct or incorrect except in the exceptional circumstances where “everyone disagrees with me.”
Outside the leadership, the best that Party members could hope for was that when an issue arose, the leaders consulted the cadres and listened to their views before reaching a decision. The same applied to the relationship between Party members and non-members. The latter were to be encouraged to attend commune meetings and give their views, but only to ensure that oppositionists were exposed and to fine-tune ‘the line’ so that it was carried through more effectively. At no level were the officials of the Party or state freely elected, subject to recall, or paid an average wage. The bureaucracy of the Chinese state was appointed, worked in secret, and was privileged by income and status.
The election of the Commune Councils followed the same general pattern. The village head or Commune Party Secretary (often these would be the same person who would have been selected by the Party hierarchy and, at best, approved by the branch) would propose a list of candidates, invariably dominated by Party cadres. The peasants, having gone through the procedure many times were familiar with this kind of election and knew full well that their only right was to approve, not oppose, the list of candidates. The administration of the communes was a violation of democracy, everything being decided by bureaucratic edict with the consequence that the peasants became ever more alienated and politically passive. Manning, in her visit to Chinese villages, appears to confirm that posts of, e.g., team leaders were preferentially allocated to relatives of local Party leaders and that many of these people recalled the GLF as a “happy” time! Manning also reveals that ordinary peasants were still bitter forty years later, charging these leaders with stealing rice from the village store during the famine, for abusing and beating peasants to maintain a discipline that ensured privileges for the local Party tops (which included interest free loans from the Commune which were never paid back).
The cadres had to faithfully implement Party directives (whether popular or not, feasible or otherwise) and take the blame if Party policies failed. The dilemma for cadres and a genuine test of their innovative skills, was their ability to follow the instructions given in the People’s Daily that cadres could “neither alter the resolutions of the Party committee without asking for instructions” nor “observe the rules to the letter without regard to the actual situation”. Creative, flexible, resourceful bureaucrats were required; rigid, inflexible bureaucrats could be ejected from the Party.
Assigned to their posts rather than elected by commune members, secure on the state payroll rather than receiving wages agreed with the peasants, cadres had little personal or material interest in peasant attitudes and concerns or in optimising the use of local resources. As state employees, their rewards came from faithfully executing central policy. In such circumstances the ethic of serving the people and genuine popular supervision of Commune personnel could not be sustained and serious distortions in Commune performance resulted.
The reality of the GLF and the communes offered incontrovertible evidence of the bureaucratic and Stalinist nature of the CCP. But there are none so blind as those that will not see: Rousset, after the event when he had the facts to hand, continued to offer a half-hearted defence of the communes – they were initiated with the best of intentions but the CCP had bitten off more than it could chew and after “an initial success” intolerable burdens on the administration resulted in chaos and failure.
The real lessons of the communes are very different, the most important being that workers’ democracy was needed in China not least because it could have saved the Chinese people from the waste, suffering and famine caused by the GLF and the communes. A centralised bureaucracy cannot determine every aspect of production, terrible distortions and inefficiencies are inevitably produced. A centrally planned economy can only work efficiently if there are checks at every level by the workers involved. Workers’ democracy, workers’ control, and workers’ management are essential for determining the optimum goals and the efficient functioning of any proletarian regime. The workers, who are also the consumers, have a material interest in making sure that the plan works efficiently at all levels. Bureaucrats are only interested in meeting their quotas regardless of quality of output – so that they will get their bonuses and retain their positions.
The GLF and the communes had demonstrated that the bureaucracy was not a necessary social layer in the development of the Chinese economy and it soon became a hindrance. This was clear confirmation of Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy published as In Defence of Marxism written in October 1939. Trotsky explained that the Soviet bureaucracy had no historical purpose. It was born out of the degeneration of the Soviet Union under conditions of extreme backwardness and isolation. He argued that the idea that the Stalinist regime in Russia would eventually reach socialism was mistaken and that without a political revolution to remove the bureaucracy a backslide to capitalism was quite possible, and the longer the bureaucracy lasted the more likely that would be.
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