Dissent, science, and a healthy world

Part 2 of this review can be found here: https://llco.org/dissent-science-and-a-healthy-world2/

Dissent, science, and a healthy world: comments on Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War Against Nature (2001) Part 1 of 2


Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by Judith Shapiro was published a decade ago. Even though the book is problematic in many ways, the issues that it raises are more important than ever. Since its publication, the ecological crisis caused by global capitalism has only gotten worse. There are only so many resources to go around. Capitalism has created a system where people in the First World get more than their fair share at the expense of people in the Third World, and at the expense of the Earth itself. Capitalism has created a system that not only consigns the vast majority of humanity in the Third World to incredible poverty and oppression, but also a system that is unsustainable ecologically. I once attended a campaign rally many years ago, Elaine Brown, ex-Black Panther Party celebrity and then-current Green Party activist, informed her audience that she sought a system in which everyone, presumably both in the First and Third Worlds, could be millionaires. The proposition, like many idealist fantasies, was met with applause despite the obvious problems such a solution to the world’s problems would entail. How would this super-mall economy of the nouveau riche materialize? Who would toil away to produce the goods? Who would staff the mall? The current system is unsustainable as it is, imagine how unsustainable it would be if First Worldist rhetoric were realized and every human being was somehow magically granted the leisurely, consumerist lifestyle, opportunities and way of life of the American nouveau riche. Even continuing as it has, civilization itself is headed for ecological catastrophe. Not only does capitalism steal the livelihood and dignity of the vast majority in the Third World, but it threatens the future of much of the life on Earth. The Earth weeps. The masses cry out for an alternative. The need for total revolution, for new socialism and Leading Light Communism, has never been greater. The need for Leading Light, the most advanced scientific leadership becomes greater every passing day. Shapiro’s book convincingly shows that the past attempt at an alternative, at socialism, at reaching communism, in China was flawed in important ways. Shapiro shows that errors abounded in the Maoist revolution’s approach to intellectual dissent, green science and to the natural world. According to Shapiro, despite its pseudo-scientific pretense, the Maoist ideal to control, to dominate, to micromanage, almost every aspect of the intellectual and natural world to better serve human interests often ended in disasters that worked against both the interests of humans and the environment. The revolution, says Shapiro, veered to unscientific extremes due to Maoist fanaticism:

“Our story begins not in the physical world but in the political one — with a struggle among human beings. In the summer of 1957, just a few years after the 1949 Communist victory, hundreds of thousands of China’s most distinguished scholars and scientists were criticized, harshly punished, ostracized, and silenced in an ‘Anti-rightist movement.’ By destroying those who sought simply to perform the Chinese intellectual’s traditional duty to speak out in order to assist the country’s leaders to govern better. China deprived itself of authoritative voices that might have cautioned against foolhardy schemes that ultimately destroyed the natural environment. People from many levels of society contributed to the events that will be described in the coming pages. However, as we shall see, Mao played a leading role in launching the Anti-rightist movement, as he did in numerous subsequent decisions that affected China’s environment for the worse.” (21)

Shapiro does not hide her distaste for the Maoist regime. She often fails to distinguish between very different trends within the regime. She lets it be known that she is not a fellow traveler or sympathizer with the Maoist project. She has no love of Maoism or the Cultural Revolution. If Shapiro had to pick a side during the line struggles within the Communist Party in the last decade of Mao’s life, Shapiro would opt for revisionism and capitalism, even Western liberalism. Even so, her criticisms can be a starting place for our own revolutionary self-criticism over errors that occurred in those years. The Maoist history is our own. Their victories are our own, so too are their defeats. It is our burden to provide answers to the masses, to ultimately explain why socialism in China was defeated. These errors, both the demand to micromanage dissent and the natural world, ultimately aided the counter-revolutionaries in China, and also in the Soviet Union. Rather than ignore the kinds of problems Shapiro raises, we should use her work as an opportunity to examine ourselves. We must dissect the past attempts at social transformation in order to learn from our mistakes. We should seek to find value even in hostile critics. We should not be afraid to go where the science leads us. If we are to go further in the next wave of revolution, if we are to move closer to ending all oppression, achieving total liberation, including the liberation of the Earth, actually reaching Leading Light Communism, then we must do better.

The story of two intellectuals

Shapiro’s work focuses on several somewhat famous cases where intellectual debate was silenced, dissent suppressed. The typical story goes like this: Well-meaning intellectual raises serious criticisms of regime-backed dogma. Intellectual is persecuted. Debate is silenced. As a result, disastrous consequences emerged. Shapiro provides cases where the connection between the silencing of dissent and the adoption of bad environmental policy seems clear. However, on closer inspection things are not as simple as Shapiro presents. Shapiro presents two biographies of intellectuals whose warnings were ignored and who paid a high price for their dissent.

The case of Ma Yinchu and the question of population

One important case that Shapiro describes is that of Ma Yinchu. Ma Yinchu was an intellectual with good revolutionary credentials. He obtained his M.A. from Yale University, then went on to earn a joint degree in economics and philosophy at Columbia. Columbia sought to retain him on its faculty, but Ma Yinchu, as a patriot, chose to return to China in 1916 to participate in the great social upheavals. He became chairman of the Economics Department at Beijing University. He also became a banking advisor to his home province of Zhejiang. In 1928, he became chairman of the Economics and Finance Committee of Chiang Kai-shek’s government. He fled with the Guomindang to Chongqing when the Japanese invaded in 1937. There he taught in the economics department of Chongqing and became president of the Commerce Institute. It was in this period that he met Zhou Enlai and grew close to the Communist Party. Eventually, Chiang Kai-shek had Ma Yinchu arrested because he had become critic of the Guomindang. As a result he would spend time in the notorious Xifeng concentration camp in Guizhou. Later, he was moved to Shangrao camp in Jiangxi. Helped by Zhou Enlai and some American associates, he was released. He was wounded in a battle between the Guomindang and the Communists. He began openly calling for the overthrow of the Guomindang in February 1946. He held numerous posts over the years. He was named president of Beijing University in June 1951. That he was the first appointment to the position after the Communist victory speaks to his prestige. He served as East China Administrative Committee vice-chair, Central People’s Government Finance Committee vice-director, Zhejiang University president, China Academy of Sciences, Philosophy and Social Science Division committee member, and the Chinese Demographers’ Association honorary chair. He was often a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. According to Shapiro, he is remembered by students as a free thinker and man of integrity. He is remembered as having spoken in plain, ordinary ways, not in slogans and jargon as was popular with others at the time. (37-39)

It was during the Hundred Flowers movement, a period when the Communist Party relaxed its control of high culture, that Ma Yinchu felt it was time to voice his worries about China’s growing population:

“So many questions that we did not dare to discuss and could not discuss, now can be asked. I want to put the population question before you, in this great flowering springtime, so that everyone has a chance to study and discuss it.” (39)

In 1957, he presented his work New Demography that deeply challenged the status quo. According to Shapiro, the orthodoxy that the Chinese Communists inherited from the Soviets was that there was no population problem. Ma Yinchu rejected this as dogma. (40) Shapiro summarizes Ma Yinchu’s views:

“Ma’s thesis was that a large population and high population growth rates would inevitably slow down China’s development. He advocated frequent census-taking, family planning campaigns, education for population control, later marriage, rewards for small families, administrative measures to discourage big families, and promotion of contraceptive use. He saw population control as a means of alleviating pressure on limited food and raw materials and improving the Chinese people’s lives. He warned of the negative impact of population on capital accumulation, advocating population growth only in accordance with planned development. His emphasis on contraception as the most scientific approach to population control differed sharply from Malthus’ views, as Malthus opposed birth control on grounds that it would encourage indolence and contravene God’s plan. Interestingly, Ma strongly opposed abortion: ‘Most important is to broadly propagandize birth control, and avoid abortion at all costs.’ Also interestingly, and pre-scientifically, in light of subsequent destructive land reclamation projects…, he rejected claims that China’s food pressures could be solved by increasing arable land. He argued that much land not already in use as farmland was mountainous, dry, or occupied by minority groups who had been using it for grazing land for generations — land which, ‘fundamentally cannot be reclaimed.’” (40-41)

Mao at times complimented Ma Yinchu’s nuanced views, which did not run absolutely contrary to his own. On one occasion, Mao stated: “Whether population should be planned is something that can certainly be researched and investigated. Mao Yinchu has spoken very well today.” (42) Regardless, that Ma Yinchu opposed Mao was the popular perception. According to Shapiro, as the anti-rightist campaign unfolded following the Hundred Flowers movement, the issue was reduced to black and white. Argument for population control of any kind was perceived as Malthusian. Everything was reduced to a simple formula:

“‘Malthus advocated population control, Marxists advocated population growth.’ Even middle-school students were taught that Malthus was reactionary for arguing that there was a contradiction between production and population. Such a contradiction was not found in socialism, only capitalism (or other reactionary modes of production — LLCO Editor). Ma Yinchu was accused of being a ‘dangerous Malthusian’ and ‘a lifelong opponent of the Party, socialism, and Marxism-Leninism.’” (40)

In April 1958, Mao stated, “Aside from the leadership of the Communist Party, a population of 600 million people is the decisive factor: with many people, there is much debate, heat is high, and enthusiasm great.” (41-42) It was enough that people saw that Ma Yinchu’s views on population went against that tones of both the Maoist and revisionist wings of the regime. Chen Boda, Mao’s loyal personal secretary and sometimes ghostwriter, suggested Ma Yinchu make a criticism of New Demography in a speech on May 4, 1958. Liu Shaoqi, second in the Party only to Mao at the time, who would later come to lead the revisionists against the Maoists, criticized Ma Yinchu for allegedly seeing man primarily as a consumer, not as a producer. Ma Yinchu was criticized at the national and university level, as well as in major publications. Nationwide denunciations followed. Articles continued to attack Ma Yinchu even into 1959, after the Anti-rightist movement had faded. According to Shapiro, Ma Yinchu acknowledged some of the criticisms made against him, but held to his conclusion that China’s population growth rates were on a disaster course. He stated, “For the sake of truth, if I must sacrifice my own life it would not be wrong.” (42) Kang Sheng, a top Maoist who headed up security, sometimes referred to by writers as “the head of the secret police,” ordered him thoroughly criticized. From mid-December 1959 to mid-January 1960, Beijing University conducted three university-wide criticism sessions and numerous smaller ones. Students and faculty were mobilized to paper the campus with nearly 10,000 “big character posters” against him. Eighty-two more articles were published against him. (41-42) One student recalls the atmosphere:

“We copied what the newspapers said about him, we copied other posters, grabbing up any available scrap of paper. I wrote a poster that said, ‘Chairman Mao says that with many people, enthusiasm is great, but Ma Yinchu claims that people have only mouths, he doesn’t see that every mouth has a pair of hands.’ In the university criticism meeting, every time he tried to defend himself they cut him off. He wasn’t even allowed to speak.” (43)

Such responses are easily refuted. Even if every mouth has a pair of hands, the Earth is not an infinite, magical canvass on which anything can be painted. More hands is not a solution to every problem. There are real limits within which humanity must work. It appears that Ma Yinchu never received a fair hearing. In important ways, Ma Yinchu’s position was different from Malthus’, whom Ma Yinchu criticized. Ma Yinchu stated familiar criticisms of Malthus: He noted that Malthus had made a mistake in comparing ratios of population expansion and food supply. Technological advances were not considered when Malthus argued that population growth would advance geometrically while food supply would increase only arithmetically. Food supply too had increased geometrically. Malthus had also not considered that population growth would be checked as standards of living rose. Ma Yinchu disagreed with Malthus that workers were kept poor mainly because of the relation of population to food supply. Instead, workers were poor because of the capitalist system. Shapiro adds, Ma Yinchu argued that Malthus was cold hearted to rely on the “positive checks” of hunger and war on the population. Ma Yinchu argued Malthus was a reactionary for seeing moral suasion as the only “preventive check” for deterring workers from having more children, while exempting the upper classes from such restraints. Ma Yinchu criticized Malthus’ rejection of contraception. He considered contraception to be the most scientific method of population control. Ma Yinchu would be capped as a Malthusian despite all his efforts to distinguish his position from that of Malthus. On January 4, 1960, Ma Yinchu was forced to resign from Beijing University. His last appearance as a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress was in January 1962. For years after, he toiled away in obscurity at his home, working on his own private research. However, when the Cultural Revolution began, fearing renewed interest in his work, he burned his private research on China’s rural economy. At the age of 98, he was rehabilitated in 1979 as part of the Deng regime’s “rectification of wrong verdicts,” which was a campaign used by the capitalist counterrevolutionaries to discredit the Maoists by showcasing Maoist errors, real and alleged. He was made honorary president of Beijing University. His New Demography was printed and became an environmental classic. He died on May 10, 1982 from natural causes. Near his home city, an exhibition of his work warns viewers about “a harsh lesson of history: ‘Criticize one person, give birth to several million additional people.’” Shapiro concludes: “Ma believed that the Communist Party was China’s best hope, and he sought to use his courage and scholarly rigor in its service. Mao and the Party chose instead to persecute him.” (42-45)

The consequences of failing to address the population issues in China remain today. Had the socialist regime acted earlier, then more humane, preventative methods of population management such as contraception, changes in lifestyle, and positive incentive could have been emphasized over more punitive measures implemented under the post-Maoist, development-oriented, capitalist regime. Post-Maoist China’s one-child policy, applied in 1979, is the most well-known attempt to limit population growth in order to help development. According to this policy, fines and punishments are imposed for those who violate the policy. Estimates on prevented births range from 100 to 400 million. The policy has been criticized for encouraging forced abortions, sterilizations, female infanticide, and underreporting of female births. It is suggested that the policy is behind the current sex imbalance in China. The male-female sex ratio at birth reached 117:100 in 2000 and has remained stable since. * China has a long history of patriarchy. A China, recently capitalist, would allow patriarchy to leave its imprint across society. Aside from social stability, development, profit, etc., there is little motivation for the capitalist regime to return to revolutionary efforts to liberate women. After all, the ruling party wraps itself up in China’s Confucian past, including its traditional, patriarchal, familial norms. Had the socialist regime enacted better policies on the population issue, then they would have had the ability to implement population management that was focused not just on stability and development, but also eliminating oppression. The Maoists would have been better suited to implement population management while seeking to strike blows against patriarchy. Population policies could have been an important place for landing blows against patriarchy, not for re-entrenching patriarchy as it has in post-Maoist China. Maoists placed the liberation of women high on their agenda. It was the Maoists who dared raise the slogan: “Women hold up half the sky!”

The case of Huang Wanli and Sanmenxia Dam

Huang Wanli was born in Shanghai in 1911. He travelled to the United States to study at Cornell then at the University of Iowa. He worked as an engineering aide at the Norris Dam with the Tennessee Valley Authority. He then obtained a doctorate in engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Upon graduation, he made an extensive tour of dams in the United States. Then he returned to China to put his skills as a hydraulic engineer to work. He held a number of positions after returning. He lost some of them after being forced to flee the Japanese. After the Communists seized power, he became chief advisor to the Northeast China General Bureau of Water Resources. In 1953, he became a professor at Qinghua University the Hydraulic Engineering Department. He used his position to do extensive surveys and studies of China’s rivers. (51-52)

Controlling China’s water had been a dream of imperial China that was shared by Mao. At the onset of the Great Leap, there was a big push to control the rivers of China. In the mid-1950s, Huang Wanli became critical of the planned Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River. At a June, 1957 meeting of more than seventy experts, Huang Wanli asserted that the goal of a clear Yellow River is “an attempt to fiddle around with the laws of nature.” (52) Despite pressure from Soviet experts, Huang Wanli would not relent and continued to dissent. He wrote a short, allegorical story The Road Turns Over that was published in a Qinghua University journal. The story criticized sycophants who told the Party what it wanted to hear. Huang Wanli targeted public figures known by his audience. He gave fictional characters similar names and personalities to public figures in real life. Such allegories, where public figures are ridiculed through thinly disguised fictional characters, had a long history in Chinese politics. Shapiro writes, Huang Wanli’s audience grasped that his main point was that China’s political system was deeply flawed, and that those with the knowledge lacked the power to change anything. In addition, Huang Wanli praised the United States and its elections where people could remove leaders. He also mentioned Ma Yinchu. Huang Wanli stated that while China was supposed to have family planning, the supply of contraceptives was erratic because it followed the whims of official attitudes toward population growth. Ma Yinchu’s wisdom was useless because ignorant and spineless leaders controlled the supply of contraceptives. (52-53) It would be this story that ostensibly was the beginning of his trouble.

People’s Daily published a devastating attack on Huang Wanli on June 8, 1957. Next to the story’s text, Mao himself was quoted, “What is this trash?” This signaled the beginning of the Anti-rightist movement. According to Shapiro, ten charges were made against Huang Wanli, they included: the allegation that he had attacked Mao, he admired foreign — probably meaning “reactionary” — countries, harmed the relationship between the Party and masses, propagated bourgeois democracy, complained that intellectuals could not pursue scientific truth in China, and criticized the population policy. Shapiro states that one very concrete charge stood out from the others: his opposition to Sanmenxia Dam. It was this that, according to Shapiro, was at the real root of his troubles. He was criticized at the university. Shapiro reports that he was no longer allowed to teach. His salary was reduced from 289 yuan per month to 207. In addition, he was put to labor at the Mi Yun reservoir construction site. Mao seemingly sympathized with him at times. Mao, who believed in second chances and that people could change, reportedly conveyed a message asking him to make a self-criticism so that the rightist label could be removed. Instead, Huang Wanli restated his opposition to the dam. Why was he the only one to tell the truth, he responded to Mao.


The rightist stigma not only affected Huang Wanli, but his family. His children reportedly had doors closed to them because they were “little rightists,” writes Shapiro. One was banned from representing her class at school. Another was not admitted to the university due to her connection to her father. Huang Wanli’s daughter describes Red Guards appearing at her home to search for the Four Olds. They sought anything that hinted of the old or bourgeois society: (53-55)

“They took everything from the drawers and wardrobes and threw it on the floor in a great pile. They took away our old photo albums and put them in a display of counterrevolutionary items. They took away anything of value, good books, gold and silver, our stamp collections. I don’t know where those things went. They put up a Big Character Poster announcing that the Red Guards had searched the home of Rightist Huang Wanli. We didn’t dare put anything away lest they come again. It was terrifying.” (56)

On another occasion, Red Guards were said to have entered during dinner. They criticized Huang Wanli’s high salary. “They forced my father to stand up and bow his head. They shouted at him and forced him to turn over the money, saying that he was a rightist who did not deserve such a high salary.” (57) Shapiro does not give readers the information that they need to understand these events. Instead, Shapiro is content to allow her readers to simply attribute these events to Mao. There was a popular saying in the opening year of the Cultural Revolution:

“If the father’s a hero, the son’s a good chap;
If the father’s a reactionary, the son’s a bad egg.”

The first wave of Red Guards, who the Maoists would often come to oppose, often came to organize themselves around such ideas, including the blood pedigree theory. This was because earlier Red Guards were organizing in support of their parents in the bureaucracy for the coming political struggles just over the horizon. They were organizing to secure their own political futures as well as their parents’. The Maoists opposed this kind of elitism and unfairness. Both Mao and Lin Biao opposed this kind of identity politics. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, made a public appeal blasting the saying and theory behind it. The Maoists threw their support behind the rebel Red Guards who often came into conflict with those they called “royalists” and “conservatives” that held such ideas and maintained connections to the revisionist elite who sought to limit the scope of the Cultural Revolution by limiting it to academic targets and issues. Given the information at hand, Huang Wanli’s Red Guard critics stood on the other side than the Maoists. All of this, Shapiro allows to be lost on most readers who will merely see Mao as the culprit behind these events even though the Maoists were the ones who sought to steer the mass movements away from limited attacks on academics to attacks on the leadership, away from the academic to the political, away from unfair focus on family and background toward focus on political line and acts, away from the merely economic toward the big picture. Maoists were the ones who criticized those who in the early Cultural Revolution “attacked the many (at the bottom) to defend the few (at the top).” Maoists sought to steer the mass movements toward “overthrowing those in authority taking the capitalist road.” Huang Wanli and his family’s suffering ironically may be more a result of those who later would rehabilitate Huang Wanli who did uphold the blood pedigree line. Shapiro does not herself challenge the oversimplified post-Maoist, the revisionist narrative that lays all or most blame on Mao, the Maoists, “the ultra-left,” etc. Reality is far less tidy than the revisionist paradigm.

In September, 1969, Shapiro reports, Huang Wanli was sent to a May 7th Cadre School in order to undergo reform through political work and labor. Later, he was rehabilitated following Mao’s death. He continued to criticize state plans in his old age. At 62, he criticized a plan to divert water from South China to the North along an eastern route that was to restore the old Grand Canal. Instead, he argued that it was more feasible to create new channels for the upper reaches of river tributaries. (57-58) Huang Wanli reflects on his life:

“I have no regrets about what I did. They knew they were wrong when they criticized me, but they had to go along with the government. There was a notion that the USSR couldn’t be wrong, that it was somehow anti-Communist or counterrevolutionary to disagree with them. The others had no backbone. I was certain there would be trouble, but no one dared agree with me. In fact, it was clear that I was right as early as 1964, two years after the dam was completed. A town was completely flooded because of all the silt. Now they’ve apologized. Mao himself was the main reason that I was labeled a rightist. He thought that through collective will society could raise itself. He didn’t admit that people were basically selfish, even though he himself was so selfish…” (58-59)

Huang Wanli understood, according to Shapiro, that to block the central stream of a river system was in effect a violation of the laws of nature. Shapiro states:

“He foresaw that by holding the Yellow River’s sediment upriver so that the lower reaches would run clear, the mechanisms of the new structure would be clogged. In his view, if a dam on the main waterway were built in the face of these considerations, sluice gates would be required to permit the sediment to pass through. But if this were to be done, the Chinese would have had to break with Soviet gigantism, something they were not willing to do, and the age-old prediction concerning a great leader and a clear river assuredly could not be made to come true. Huang’s arguments were thus met with political disfavor, persecution, and punishment.” (62)

Shapiro reports the Sanmenxia Dam had harsh consequences for more than just Huang Wanli. To make way for the dam, 280,000 farmers from Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Henan were forced to leave the fertile lands of their ancestors. They were resettled in Ningxia and Gansu provinces’ inhospitable lands. Over a million mu, including 750,000 mu of arable land, was flooded, including two county seats, 21 townships, and 253 villages. (61) The Sanmenxia Dam silted up in a few years as Huang Wanli predicted. The sluice gates in the original plan had to be reopened at a cost of 10 million yuan each to permit sediment flow. However, sediments accumulated rapidly into the Wei River tributary. This raised the channel of the inlet so that waters threatened to spill over and flood the densely populated industrial city of Xi’an. Underground water tables rose. This increased salinization and alkalization. Thus production and the local ecology were hurt. The dam was reconfigured in 1962 with a lower pool level, and operations had to be shifted to sediment-flushing and releasing of flood waters. At enormous cost, the dam’s generators had to be removed to another site. Because rising water continued to threaten Xi’an, Mao is said to have told Zhou Enlai, “If nothing works, then just blow up the dam.” The dam was reconstructed again and again. In 1969, Xi’an was flooded again. The dam was near useless for either flood control or electricity generation. Even after the Maoist era, well into the revisionist era, in 2000, political sensibilities could not admit the dam’s failure. It was still hailed as a success, informs Shapiro. (62-63) Because of the fate of Huang Wanli and others, voices of scientific caution did not dare speak out or they were silenced in the face of enthusiasm for water conservancy projects during the Great Leap. There were many ill-considered projects. The Banqiao and Shimantan dams in Henan broke catastrophically in August of 1975. The exact deaths are not known, figures range from 86,000 to 230,000. By 1966, half of the 110 dams built in Henan had collapsed. In 1973, 554 dams collapsed. By 1980, 2,976 dams collapsed, including two larger ones. These failed projects inflicted a huge toll on not only human life, but also the environment. Erosion, siltation, and deforestation caused by such failures have been enormous. (63-64)

Shapiro again allows political confusion to remain. Huang Wanli’s comments are ham-fisted, confused, throwing accusations directed at Maoists together with those better suited for their opponents. Shapiro does little to nothing in teasing out the subtle distinctions between Chinese political factions because it would serve to complicate her narrative, which happens to rely on her reader’s unfamiliarity with the internal politics of the Chinese regime. Criticism of those opposed to Sanmenxia Dam were not limited to Maoists, but also to those revisionists who opposed socialism in China. Even today, as late as 2010, the anti-Maoist, pro-capitalist regime that rules China and “reversed verdicts” of the Maoist era continues to persecute critics of the dam. ** Surely this complicates Huang Wanli’s comments that lay the blame entirely on Mao and socialism. In addition, there was a problem of tailing the Soviet Union, including Soviet gigantism, especially in the earlier years of the revolution. As the revolution advanced into the 1960s, this was less and less an issue thanks to the efforts of the Maoists. As the revolution continued, the Maoists sought to move in a direction very different from the Soviet Union. The Maoists emphasized decentralization, greater ideological training, more spontaneity and input from the masses, reliance on people power over capital, enthusiasm over material incentive, etc. Moving away from gigantic, central industrial projects to more evenly distributed smaller and medium-sized ones was part of the Maoist developmental model. This was all part of breaking with elements of the theory of productive forces that the Soviets failed to overcome. Perhaps the Maoist break failed to affect water policy, but even if this was so, the Maoists were ones pushing for independent, new, creative approaches on the whole. The Maoists were the ones who led the effort to break with the Soviet Union, which came to be seen as both revisionist and capitalist by the Maoists. The Maoists often charged their opponents with tailing and capitulation to Khrushchev or Brezhnev-type revisionism. By the 1960s, it would be more suspect, according to the Maoists, to see the Soviet Union as correct. In Mao’s final years, Mao’s anti-Sovietism reached such a fever that he believed the Soviet Union’s social-imperialism had replaced United States’ imperialism as a bigger enemy. Shapiro does little to shed light on this point. Thus, she allows her reader to lay everything on Mao. Furthermore, Huang Wanli embraces selfishness and condemns the Maoists for seeking a better, collective society. Although being enrolled in a May 7th Care School for political study and to engage in labor alongside workers and peasants may seem like a great injustice in both Huang Wanli’s and Shapiro’s minds, it seems like a good fate for almost anyone, especially someone such as Huang Wanli who holds such disdain for the masses and revolution. To see the fate of studying politics and dirtying one’s hands with the workers and peasants as a great injustice reflects the mentality of the privileged who think they are too good for such things. It reflects a selfish mentality that thinks “others ought get their hands dirty for me, but I am too good to work.” The Communist Party was probably correct in at least some of its assessment of Huang Wanli. Even though he may be correct in some of his criticisms of the Party’s handling of water issues, Huang Wanli, on deeper reflection, is not an entirely sympathetic character. Even so, if Shapiro is correct, Huang Wanli’s criticisms on water issues were correct even if he seems to be a sort of anti-socialist contrarian. Regardless of the messenger, some of the message was true and presumably could have helped policy makers avoid errors. Huang Wanli states, “the Earth will always circle the sun, not the other way around. This will not change because of anything you have to say.” Even though Chinese scientists understood Sanmenxia Dam was not feasible or safe, Shapiro echoes Huang Wanli, it was still launched because politicians did not want to disappoint their leaders. According to Shapiro, “orthodoxy and rigid adherence to the words of Mao fueled the notion that humans had an almost unlimited capacity to remold the natural world.” (58-60)

On individual cases

Coming fully to terms with each individual intellectual, whether their fall was partly or wholly justified or unjustified, is not possible here. It is hard to evaluate the individual cases that Shapiro raises because to do so would require a thorough investigation of the case against each individual, the political context, formal and informal power structures, records that are not available at present, etc. For example, in Shapiro’s narrative, Ma Yinchu falls because his opponents, dogmatic and philistine, perceive him to be what he is not: a Malthusian. Is this the key link in understanding his fall? Maybe yes, maybe no. Imagine a history of the fall of Vice Mayor of Beijing Wu Han who penned Hai Rui Dismissed from Office that only focused on the polemics surrounding the play and ignored the broader political struggle out of which it arose. Imagine a narrative that ignored Wu Han’s political connections with revisionists Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi, the ultimate targets of the attack, as motivating, causal factors. Such a narrative would overemphasize the stated reason for the conflict and underemphasized the unstated, behind the scenes reasons that are often more important. Were there other factors that led to Ma Yinchu becoming a political target? Since he held a prestigious and influential position as head of Beijing University, it stands to reason he was politically connected. Coming from a traditional economics background, having held numerous economic posts, Ma Yinchu may have been closer to more conservative elements within the regime. Shapiro herself describes Ma Yinchu’s long-time friendship with Zhou Enlai who Mao criticized heavily by name at the Nanning Conference in January of 1958. Mao had said that by opposing what they had characterized as “the rash advance” in 1956, they stood “only 50 meters from the rightists.” *** In other words, was Ma Yinchu removed from his posts over his New Demography or was he removed from his post due to his political ties? Was New Demography simply a scapegoat? Was he removed to send a message or warning to others? Was his New Demography unfortunate, collateral damage? Such practices are not uncommon in political struggles in China or other countries. A person can fall from power over one issue; however, his fall may be blamed on another issue. Sometimes the real reasons are obscured. Was he removed for numerous reasons despite the lightning rod nature of the population issue? To solidly connect the dots between the silencing of dissent, the free practice of science, and good environmental policies, it is necessary to further examine the issue, to establish that it was his views on population that led to his demise from public service, that the population issue was not simply an excuse to remove him from office. Such questions are ones that Shapiro does not answer nor does Shapiro explore such possibilities in the case of Ma Yinchu or Huang Wanli. Some of what these individuals endured should be seen as a failing of the system. However, there are still big gaps in our (and Shapiro’s) understanding of the cases.

Intellectuals and leadership

Shapiro points out that the attitude toward intellectuals varied throughout the course of the revolution in China. According to Shapiro, in the earlier phases of the revolution, during the period of New Democracy, intellectuals were generally seen as part of the united front along with peasants, workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and segments of the capitalists. According to Shapiro, as class struggle intensified, especially during pro-leftist and anti-rightist campaigns, especially during Maoist campaigns in the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution years, attitudes toward intellectuals changed amongst the Communist Party and society itself. The Chinese revolution went through many phases. In 1953, the goal of people’s democracy would be replaced by the goal of socialism. (25-26) According to Shapiro, as the class struggle sharpened, so too did the poor treatment of intellectuals. Shapiro claims that despite some opposition from people like Liu Shaoqi, Mao set the tone for how intellectuals were treated. Shapiro’s work is mired at times by the totalitarian paradigm and “great man theory” that places too much emphasis on the role of individual leaders in the historic process. Ultimately, she places the blame at Mao’s feet rather than looking at the process of social transformation itself, as though Mao stood outside the process as some kind of force of nature. Although leadership is extremely important in the revolutionary process, it is not completely independent of the social process itself. Although she notes this at times, her analysis tends to always go back to the role of the leadership, Mao in particular. Shapiro has a somewhat romanticized notion of the traditional intellectual in China as a kind of neutral observer and adviser to those in power:

“The murky status of intellectuals was paralleled over the role of free speech in the new society. Since Confucian times, Chinese intellectuals had understood their role in society as that of friendly critics, helping to inform paternalistic leaders about abuses and suffering at the grass roots, and enduring suffering and exile when their views were not heeded. By the Communists’ years in their Yanan base, periodic repression of writers, artists, and other intellectuals as a prelude for political struggle had been established as a pattern.” (25)

It is true that Chinese intellectuals played important roles in various revolts, especially in the modern period. Intellectuals had played a key role in the May 4th movement of 1919 that so influenced Mao and the formation of the Communist Party. However, not all intellectuals were forward thinking. Traditionally, many intellectuals aligned themselves with reactionary feudal social forces. On the whole, they often served as the technocrats, ideologues, and apologists for a brutally oppressive system. The Communist Party leadership was comprised of intellectuals who had broken from the reactionary tradition. However, the Communist Party was very aware of how deeply engrained feudal, especially Confucian, ideas were in the intellectual strata and in the Chinese culture generally. So ingrained was feudal culture that many rightists and revisionists within the Communist Party would seek to rehabilitate Confucius not only as a nationalist icon and cultural figure, but also the elitist, bureaucratic, authoritarian style of governance associated with Confucianism. Confucianism as an educational model and way of governing was associated with many of the characteristics that both the Maoists and Shapiro critiques. Numerous campaigns were waged by the Maoists to motivate the masses to root out feudal, elitist, patriarchal, bureaucratic traditions. There was also a whole tradition of intellectuals serving foreign, imperial powers. There were good reasons for the deep distrust of traditional intellectuals amongst the masses and the revolutionary intellectuals who served the people. The abuses that Shapiro highlights, while disheartening, need to be seen in context. When she places individual cases of abuses under the microscope, she ends up ignoring the bigger picture.

Forrest for the trees, missing the big picture

Shapiro’s criticism leaves the impression that what she describes was what most intellectuals, and people, endured under the Maoist regime. She leaves the impression that what she concludes about environmental sciences can be concluded about Chinese science and policies in general in those years. However, socialism in China was neither undemocratic on the whole nor was it, whatever the state of environmental sciences, stagnant scientifically. Rather, Chinese society in the socialist period was louder, more unleashed, more expressive, more populist, more egalitarian, more willing to push boundaries than previous societies. Moreover, the Maoist years in China, like the socialist period in the Soviet Union, represent an unprecedented scientific and technological explosion. Maoist theory places great importance in the power of people. Shapiro focuses on individual cases of abuse and bad policy making (in areas related to the environment), but she ignores the overall advance of society under the Maoist regime. Maoists would call her criticism “one finger against the many.” The overall effect of the Maoist movement was to raise the level of society, including its scientific level even if some abuses and bad policies were bound up in the process. Before the revolution, in the early part of the twentieth century, China was in chaos. Semi-feudal, comprador, bureaucrat capitalism was the dominant mode of production. Poverty was everywhere. The majority of Chinese were destitute, impoverished peasants. Slavery was still practiced. Many Chinese lived as European serfs once had. Famines were common. Epidemics swept the country. There was little or no healthcare for the majority of Chinese. Women were treated as property. Women’s feet were often crippled in order to make them more easily controlled by men. Technology stagnated. China was in a dark age imposed, in part, by the imperialists. China’s coast had been carved up by competing imperialist powers who had occupied its ports. The central government was weak. Warlords waged civil war with each other. The imperialists fueled these wars in order to divide and conquer. In 1937, imperial Japan invaded and occupied China. The Chinese communists were attacked on all sides. Imperialists, compradors and feudal warlords ruled through terror. The Maoists began their revolution by seeking to remove the “two mountains” of imperialism and feudalism that weighed on the Chinese masses. Under Maoist leadership, beginning with land reform, the communists moved to deepen and deepen social transformation.


It was on October 1st, 1949 that Mao declared “China has stood up” at Tiananmen. Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China. A quarter of the world’s population was mobilized to build a new world. The Maoist revolution was vast and profound. The Maoist revolution sought to reorganize all of society to root out all oppression and exploitation, to actually reach communism. It was the greatest feminist movement of all time. A quarter of the world’s women stood up to say “we will no longer be property!” Some of the most brutal patriarchal, feudal relations were ended across a quarter of the world. Even with the food crisis during the Great Leap, socialism solved China’s food problem in the long term. China went from a country with regular famines to a country that could feed itself. Life expectancy doubled. The infant-mortality rate declined. China became strong. Like the Soviet Union before it, China went from a backward state to a modern atomic power. A whole new culture was developed. Egalitarianism was promoted. Altruism, “serve the people,” prevailed. New socialist art and culture emerged to replace the old, reactionary art. The window of literacy was opened for nearly a quarter of humanity. Education was opened up to more and more of the population. New schools were established everywhere. The vast majority of workers, peasants, and women who had been excluded now gained opportunities. As a result of the revolution, the doors of education and opportunities were opened. More people became engineers, scientists, artists, writers, etc. than ever before. No doubt excesses occurred that silenced intellectuals, especially traditional ones, but those same revolutionary forces were opening up the intellectual world to more and more people, to a whole new generation made up mostly of those of peasant and worker backgrounds. Whatever excesses that occurred were far outweighed by the gains of the revolution.

Guidance and dissent

For Shapiro, Mao was responsible for a war waged against nature. Silencing dissent, she says, played a key part in this war. Shapiro sees a better alternative in Western-style democracies, political pluralism, and protection of free speech and freedom of inquiry. It is in such settings, she asserts, that informed policies are most likely to emerge. Such freedoms mean that unintended consequences of human activity will be revealed in a more timely manner. Thus there is a connection between the protection of dissent, good science and the protection of nature. (65) This latter claim is one that we agree with. However, protection of dissent, freedom of inquiry, the right to question, etc. need not be exclusively tied to liberal capitalism. Capitalism, even in its politically liberal varieties, has no monopoly on these. Historically, socialism has opened more doors to the vast majority, to the poor, to ordinary workers and peasants. It was during Maoist offensives that criticism and expression was a part of daily life. The revolution sought to make criticism and self-criticism a core part of social life. Lin Biao, voice of the Maoists at the height of the Cultural Revolution, on numerous occasions characterized the Cultural Revolution as a time for “big debates” and “mass democracy.” Just because, as Shapiro documents, environmental science suffered in many ways during the Mao years does not mean that science as a whole suffered a similar fate. Those who had been traditionally excluded now had the opportunity to enter the intellectual world. The opening up of society to the excluded would and did result in social conflict, sometimes very sharp conflict. Surely, many traditional intellectuals did feel squeezed by the revolutionary process. Even so, socialism in both the Soviet Union and China was a time of tremendous scientific advance and development. In both cases, societies marred by feudal backwardness experienced tremendous leaps forward, so much so that the Soviet Union after only a few decades of socialism, emerged from World War 2 as a modern, world power. Similarly, China went from being at the mercy of imperialists and warlords to being a modern country. It took only a few decades for socialism to conquer the atom, both Soviet Union and China became two of the most powerful of the atomic powers. Shapiro rightly criticizes instances where the socialist system erred in its approach to science and the natural world. Similarly, it is correct to criticize the Soviet promotion of Lysenko. However, these errors should be seen within the overall success of the socialist periods.

Real revolutions are messy; they create excesses, abuses, Jacobin explosions. And often these extremes come from the masses themselves, not the leadership necessarily. One of the roles of leadership is to know when to allow upsurges and when to try to reign them in. Even though there will be such elements in any revolution, Leading Light Communists should strive to guide that process toward the revolutionary path away from right and left errors. It is important for us to always strive to better ourselves. To learn, to improve, to criticize and self-criticize is the nature of science. The next wave of revolution, led by Leading Light Communism, will strive to create those conditions in society that allow science to flourish. Even before seizing power, it is important that Leading Light Communists clarify our stance on science, dissent, and the environment.

1. It should be clear that the kind of society that Leading Light Communists seek to create is one that ends all oppression, including oppression of the Earth. Liberation of the Earth is a core part of proletarian politics. There is no liberation of the proletariat if the ecosystem is destroyed. Earth liberation is a central part of revolution.

2. We seek to create a society where the most advanced science is put in the service of total liberation, including liberation of the Earth. To realize this, it is important that we create the conditions for the most advanced science and culture to flourish. We seek to create a scientific, vibrant culture, filled with creativity, expression, dissent, debates, etc.

3. We should give the scientific academy and intellectual world greater space to operate, to experiment, to produce, etc. We will make education available to more people than ever. All of society will be a school to promote scientific thinking in order to end all oppression, including oppression of the Earth. More and more people will be equipped with the tools of science and culture. We will place the power of new technology, especially information technology such as the internet, in the hands of the masses so that the masses have more ability to interact, to express themselves, than ever before. We will have laws protecting freedom of speech, especially in the academy. We should seek to create protections so that intellectuals are not hastily or easily labeled as wreckers, counter-revolutionaries, etc. In the main, such labels should be reserved for only those who truly have the ability to destroy the revolution, to oppress others. Such an approach is more in line with the ultimate target of the Cultural Revolution characterized by Maoists as “those in power taking the capitalist road.” We should seek to institutionalize protections. We should seek to create more due process. We should seek to create a tradition of proletarian, intellectual dissent. Those with criticisms should be given the benefit of the doubt. We must look at criticisms that emerge from scientific and cultural realms not as attacks in the main, but as opportunities to strengthen science in order to reach Leading Light Communism. We want a society where people are not afraid to speak up. We want a society of bold, daring, creative thinkers.

4. It is important to address issues as revolutionary scientists, not simply quash debates with dogma or force. Nor should victory go to whoever has the loudest voice. Those who quash criticism only win a pyrrhic victory. They may have won the battle, but they would lose the war. What gave rise to the debates does not go away simply because one side was silenced. The underlying material issues that gave rise to the debates can become more pressing in time. The regime of the Maoist years, as Shapiro points out, left itself open to be later attacked. The issues were ceded to later revisionists who opportunistically championed them as their own in their campaign against the leftists. The later revisionists use such failures by the Maoists to tarnish the whole revolutionary project, as though such horror stories represented the ordinary state of Chinese science under Mao, and as though the revisionists themselves had not also had a hand in the decisions. Revisionists and opportunists will use whatever they can to discredit the revolution. We should not make their efforts any easier for them.

5. Our revolution should not be afraid of implementing what revolutionary science demands even when such demands seem radical. We should not be afraid to go all out in putting revolutionary science in command. Leading Light Communists are fanatics, fanatics about promoting, advancing science.

Leading Light Communism vs. liberalism

Aspects of Shapiro’s critique are surely true, but she sees only what she wants to see. She focuses on high-profile cases of political repression that affected environmental policy in those years, but she fails to see the real, significant gains made in the lives of nearly a quarter of the world’s population. It is true that excesses occurred, as they do in any great social upheaval. However, she fails to see how the doors of opportunity opened for the common people. High-profile cases of persecution occurred, high-profile dissent quashed with negative consequences. However, for more and more ordinary workers and peasants, the right to dissent, the right to pursue an education, the ability to enter the intellectual world, etc. had never been greater. Shapiro fails to understand that “revolution is not a dinner party.” Revolutions are complex, violent social eruptions filled with Jacobin excesses, but, in the Maoist case, many more Jacobin successes. It is unscientific to judge the Maoist revolution a failure because it falls short of her own ideal, rather than measuring the revolution against what was realistically possible at the time. Nor does Shapiro examine the Maoist revolution against the capitalist alternative, which is destroying the global environment at an unprecedented rate. Western liberalism that Shapiro seems to recommend, even with its culture of intellectual dissent, has not solved the greatest problems facing the global environment. The growing scientific consensus is that the impact of modern life, with its unsustainable consumption, on the environment is devastating, and that time is running out. Even so, that does not mean liberal capitalism will do anything to address the issue at a fundamental level. Shapiro criticizes the Maoist willingness to ruthlessly place politics above all else. However, it is this kind of political willingness to do what it takes, even if it seems fanatical, that can implement the fundamental solutions to the ecological crisis today, solutions that will always remain beyond the capitalist’s horizons. The liberal society that Shapiro favors has neither the ability or political imagination to go beyond capitalism, nor the political willpower to implement what our best science demands. Its sensibilities are too bourgeois. Plus, capitalism is simply not in the business of ending pointless consumption, of putting itself out of business. For the same reason that Shapiro supposes liberalism does not make big mistakes, it is incapable of creating big, fundamental, real, global solutions. And it seems that, as we learn more and more from scientists about the true depth of the environmental crisis, no small bandaid will do the job. Big, global solutions are looking more and more like the only real solutions. The willingness to act in bold, daring ways is part of the solution. The problem is when enthusiasm is directed by anything other than our best, most advanced, revolutionary science. Shapiro fails to see that such enthusiasm need not always be linked to dogmatism. The kind of solutions needed to really solve the environmental crisis are solutions that will only come from the proletariat, those who current society has so failed that they are willing to cast in their lot with a whole new world, those with nothing to lose but their chains led by the most advanced revolutionary science to date, Leading Light Communism.


Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge University Press, USA:1991)
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy
** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanmenxia_Dam
*** http://jessecurtis.blogspot.com/2012/04/great-leap-forward-famine.html

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