Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside 1/6

Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside: From Great Leap to Flying Leap to Reversal Part 1/6

At the time of the revolution, China was largely an agrarian society with most of its population living in the countryside. The level of urbanization and industrialization was higher in pre-revolution, pre-1917 Russia than it was in the China of 1949. China’s agricultural production was very backwards. Even before the First World War, Russia had a higher agricultural productivity than China in the 1950s. (1) Yet it was in China that socialism would reach its peak in the twentieth century. It was in China that a quarter of the world’s population embarked on the project of transforming their world into one without oppression. The scale and depth of the Chinese revolution should silence critics who cannot see past their Euro-centrism, critics who stupidly claim that Mao Zedong was simply another “Stalinist bureaucrat.” Ultimately, this great, social experiment was defeated in the 1970s. Yet even a quarter century since its tragic defeat, even those who claim to sympathize with its goals, even those who claim to be Maoists, know little about the actual struggles that animated the Maoist era.

Often narratives of the Cultural Revolution avoid examination of the agricultural issues that drove many of the conflicts of that period. Instead, such narratives focus almost exclusively on the urban side of the Cultural Revolution, forgetting that the majority of China resided in rural areas. In particular, such narratives focus on the clashes over art and culture, the urban mass movements, and the psychological aspects of clashes between the Chinese leadership. Whereas such accounts tie the loss in Maoist power in the early 1960s to the economic crisis surrounding the Great Leap Forward, they fail to examine the clashes over agricultural policies during the Cultural Revolution decade. Thus they leave the story only half told. This is a significant blind spot, since socialism for most of the Chinese population was very much tied to the policies that governed agricultural life. Maoist narratives may give lip service to the importance of class struggle, but their analysis of the fight against capitalism rarely goes beyond the conflicts within the party elite and the, often superficial, rhetoric of that elite. In the worst cases, such narratives are versions of the great-man theory of history criticized by Karl Marx. Such narratives act as though the mode of production was tied to Mao’s heartbeat — so socialism is lost on September 9th, 1976, or, just as bad, October 6th, 1976. (2) Such narratives fail to examine the concrete policies and visions for society that hung in the balance. This failure to deal with class struggle concretely reflects a basic lack of materialism in the historical narrative. Maoists claim with gusto that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the furthest advance toward communism in human history. Yet, at the same time, such Maoists lack basic understanding of what capitalist restoration actually was in the concrete. In 1975, Maoist, and Gang of Four member, Zhang Chunqiao stated that “our proletarian dictatorship is more consolidated than ever, and our socialist cause is thriving.” (3) A concrete examination of the class struggles in agriculture reveal this statement as mere bombast. At the time it was written, Chinese socialism was being reversed since its peak in the Lin Biao years from 1966 to 1970. This reversal is not only represented by China’s well known turn away from global people’s war, and a turn toward the West in foreign policy, the reversal is also reflected in China’s reversal of the Maoist developmental model. This reversal is the restoration of capitalism.

Early Collectivization, 1951 to 1957

The population of China’s countryside tripled from 1650 to 1850, whereas arable land increased, at best, by about 20 per cent. This created a situation where the Chinese countryside was ripe for agricultural revolution. (4) Mao once made the comment that there were three choices available to revolutionaries. Revolutionaries could stand in back of the peasants, tailing them. Revolutionaries could stand in the way, getting run over. Or, they could stand in front, leading. Mao chose the latter. Thus the communist revolution to end all oppression piggybacked on this great upheaval involving nearly a billion peasants, a fourth of humanity; thus proletarian revolution would ride atop peasant, agrarian revolution seeking to uproot the semi-feudal mode of production with all of its cruelties. The Chinese Communist Party described the situation in the following way in “The Central Committee Directive Concerning the Land Problem” on May 4, 1946:

“China’s agrarian system is unjust in the extreme. Speaking of general conditions, landlords and rich peasants who make up less than 10 percent of the rural population hold approximately 70 to 80 percent of the land, cruelly exploiting the peasantry. Farm laborers, poor peasants, middle peasants, and other people, however, who make up over 90 percent of the rural population hold a total of approximately only 20 to 30 percent of the land, toiling throughout the whole year, knowing neither warmth nor full stomach. These grave conditions are the root of our country’s being the victim of aggression, oppression, poverty, backwardness, and the basic obstacles to our country’s democratization, industrialization, independence, unity, strength, and prosperity… In order to change these conditions, it is necessary, on the basis of the demands of the peasantry, to wipe out the agrarian system of feudal and semi-feudal exploitation, and realize the system of ‘land to the tillers.’” (5)

It is this system that would first be uprooted by the revolution. Unlike Trotskyism, anarchism, or other utopian approaches that seek to move to advanced socialism or communism all at once, Maoist revolution proceeds in stages, each stage laying the foundation for the next. The Maoist agrarian revolution would begin with New Democratic policies that sought to move China out of feudalism and semi-feudalism. New Democracy brought bourgeois-democratic rights to the Chinese masses. In agriculture, New Democracy is characterized by “land to the tiller,” a policy that broke feudal control of the countryside. New Democracy is a transitional policy toward socialism. And, socialism is transitional itself, aiming at the ideal of communism, the end of all oppression.

Except in some national minority areas, early 1953 marks the end of the bourgeois-democratic land reform movement. In 1952, cadres reported that 75 percent of all households in the countryside privately farmed. The remainder joined seasonal mutual aid teams with only a small number belonging to permanent mutual aid teams or to experimental cooperatives. Land reform of the previous stage, “land to the tiller,” created a situation where some families had more land than they could work. Other families experienced the opposite situation. Such imbalances led to hiring, renting, and leasing of land. In addition, as soon as land reform was completed, better off peasants began to lend money to poorer peasants. In some cases, debtors had to sell off their land to creditors. A new rural elite was emerging. A wave of peasant migration to the cities raised the rate of urban unemployment. (6) Left to itself, much of the old system of exploitation and oppression would return. As Lenin warned, “small-scale production gives birth to capitalism and the bourgeoisie constantly, daily, hourly, with elemental force, and in vast proportions.” (7)

Preparations were being made in 1953 to move from the bourgeois-democratic to the proletarian-socialist stage of revolution. The former is characterize by “land to the tiller,” the latter by nationalization of private industry, transformation of commerce and handicrafts into cooperatives, and the collectivization of agriculture.

The Party would rely on Mutual Aid Teams at first as the basis for collectivization of agriculture into the future cooperatives. Teams were comprised of mostly poor and lower-middle peasants that had come together during the land reform campaign. This alliance of poor and lower-middle peasants had always been an important part of Chinese socialism. The teams worked according to a rational, systematic schedule. They cultivated fields collectively. They purchased their tools and machines collectively. At the end of 1952, 52 percent of the population was organized into teams.

Initially, in 1951, Lower Level Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives were formed on an experimental and voluntary basis. According to official policy, peasants were free to leave teams and lower level cooperatives. All tools and machines were collectivized, but arable land remained in private hands. Land was pooled and farmed collectively. Members of the lower level cooperatives received a share of profit according to a mixed system. Earnings were fixed at a ratio of 70 percent on the basis of size and value of the arable land brought into the cooperative. Thirty percent was based on work performance. An average of 27 households were combined per cooperative in 1955.

In 1954, in the context of a grain crisis, a major debate emerged within the Party: Should the Party gradually persuade peasants to join the cooperatives or should the Party take action to prevent the rapid revival of a new propertied elite in the villages while at the same time accelerating participation in the cooperatives? Though the majority of the Party supported gradualism, the Maoists, who favored a more rapid pace of collectivization, were able to win out.

Next came the formation of Socialist Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives. Lower level cooperatives were merged into higher level cooperatives. In these, only houses and gardens remained in private hands. Tools, machines, and arable land were turned over to the collective. Remuneration was made on the basis of work performance. By 1955 an average of 156 households were combined per collective. Farming teams within cooperatives would range from twenty to sixty households depending on village size. The cooperatives sought to sever the connection between peasants and the land. This also is true of farm capital and its previous owners. Every household relinquished its claim to land and capital. In these collectives, peasants became de facto agricultural workers. (8) (9) (10) (11) In 1955, only 14 percent of the households were organized in lower level cooperatives and less than one percent in the socialist cooperatives. By 1956 nearly ninety percent participated. (12) By the end of 1956, China had a dual system of property. In the urban economy, state property predominated. Collective property predominated in the countryside. (13)

Collectivization of the population into cooperatives was accompanied by disturbances in the countryside. This was reported in the Chinese press as “unusual irritation” in the villages. Some lower level cadres resisted the collectivization by hiding grain, by procuring more than their villages were entitled to, and by manipulating population figures for their own advantage. Like years later, during the Great Leap Forward, there were transparency problems and deception by certain segments of the Party and state. (14) (15) In addition, there was worry about the restoration of capitalism. Mao stated:

“During the past few years, the influence of forces tending to develop spontaneously toward capitalism has been developing daily in the rural areas; new rich peasants have emerged everywhere, and many prosperous middle peasants and exerting efforts to turn themselves into rich peasants. Many poor peasants, due to their lack of means of production, still remain in poverty, some of them having contracted debts; others selling their land or renting out their land… If this situation is allowed to develop further, there will be increasingly more serious [class] polarization in the rural areas.” (16)

In addition, the Party worried about cadres adopting to peasant ideology. Many cadres in the rural areas mistakenly thought that they should represent the peasants’ desire to get rich. Rather than raising the sights of the peasants toward communism, they tailed the peasants’ shortsighted, immediate interests. The Party stated, “the attitude of some of our comrades to the peasant question still remains at an old stage… allowing capitalism to develop freely in rural areas.” (17)

In a pattern that would later be repeated during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Maoists went forward with revolution, not backward, even in the face of difficulties. Mao’s secretary Li Rui reports of the 1955 to 1956 period:

“The speed of the original development model already dissatisfied [Mao], and he wanted to explore an ‘unusual’ road and speed; that is to say, he wanted to use a different method, to surpass the Soviet Union, to go faster than the Soviet Union.” (18)

In 1955, Maoists sought to address the problems, in part, by increasing the tempo of the revolution and with further, higher collectivization in the countryside. The goal of 1,000,000 cooperative farms to be established by 1957 was increased by 300,000 by Mao. (19) Mao described this as “a raging tidal wave” that “swept away all the demons and ghosts.” Mao stated, “the people are filled with an immense enthusiasm for socialism.” (20) In the tone of his famous Hunan Report, Mao delivered a report in July of 1955 that stated, “Throughout the Chinese countryside a new upsurge in the socialist mass movement is in sight.” Mao went on to state that peasants demonstrated “spontaneous initiative.” There was “an active desire among most peasants to take the socialist road.” (21)

The movement went forward unhindered. In 1956, there was a decline in agricultural production by 10 per cent. This was made up for in 1957 when China for the first time exceeded the output levels for the years 1931 through 1937. (22) Thus China had achieved the highest output since the century began. The collectivization process, mobilizing the population into cooperatives, had taken roughly four years from 1953 to 1957. In the fall of 1957, the rural collective economy was considered consolidated. Collectivization, so far, was a success.

China’s path differed from the Soviet path. In April of 1956, Mao addressed the politburo with a speech entitled “The Ten Great Relationships.” Mao’s vision of development is very different than the Soviet five-year plans. Heavy industry was to continue with its rapid development, but light industry and agriculture were to be the focus of investment. Instead of further growth of the developed and richer coastal areas, resources and development were directed to the less developed and poorer areas of the interior. There would be a shift in emphasis from large-scale urban industrial to medium-scale and small-scale industries in the countryside. Central bureaucratic control would be replaced by relatively autonomous local communities that were to be the main socioeconomic units. Labor-intensive projects were to be favored over capital-intensive ones. Rapid social change was to go hand in hand with rapid economic development. There was a new emphasis on the initiative and the consciousness of the masses. (23)

China’s model yielded different results than the Soviet one. The process of collectivization in China was carried out more smoothly than in the Soviet Union. The relationship between the Chinese Communists and their peasantry was different from their Soviet counterparts. At the time the People’s Republic was declared, the Chinese Communists had a relationship with the peasantry going back decades, this contrasts with the Bolshevik revolutionary experience, which, at first, was mostly an urban phenomenon. The Chinese revolution moved from the countryside to the city. The Bolshevik revolution went from the city to the countryside.

The Communist Party used the methods of the mass movements that were developed and tested during the land reform movement. The Party used a delicate balanced of persuasion and compulsion. On the whole, the post-1949 development of the cooperatives was organized on a voluntary basis. It is inconceivable that such a massive social transformation could have occurred without the support of the vast majority of the peasantry in China. The radical transformation owed much to the traditions of the Chinese Communist Party with its deep roots in the lives of the ordinary Chinese peasant. This is connected to the Party’s use of the mass line as a tool of leadership. The mass line is a way that the Party addresses the, often spontaneous, localized, short-sighted, and disconnected, problems and ideas of the masses. In the process of solving the problem or addressing an issue, the Party leads by example. But, the Party also puts the problems and issues that the masses raise within an ideological framework. The Party ties the localized, short-sighted issues raised by the masses to the larger communist strategy. The flow of information goes, as Mao stated, “from the masses to the masses.” The information returns to the masses through the Party that situates the information in a scientific context. Thus, through this process, the consciousness of the masses is raised. (24) (25) (26)

Even in 1956, Mao was proposing a radical break. Mao was moving away from the Soviet orthodoxy. (27) This collectivization process up to 1957 set the stage for the higher development of socialism. The Chinese masses aspired to approach the ideal of communism. The stage was set for the Great Leap Forward.


1. Jurgen Domes, Socialism in the Chinese Countryside (McGill-Queen’s University Press 1980), p. 20

2. Some of the most superficial work on the Cultural Revolution has been done by organizations claiming to be Maoist. The work of the RIM, especially the RCP USA, is extremely superficial. Such organizations formed, for the most part, after the Cultural Revolution of 1965 to 1969, and after the radical period that lasted to 1970. They formed when the forward motion in China was largely over. They formed in the period when capitalist reversal and opportunism dominated the Chinese Communist Party. So, the narrative they picked up goes little beyond the superficial and, sometimes, falsified narratives in Beijing Review. Their narratives, like their “Maoism,” lack any substance. Their narrative is hype and fluff.

3. Zhang Chunqiao. “On Excercising All-round Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie. (Foreign Language Press 1975) Retreived from:

4. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 4

5. “The Central Committee Directive Concerning the Land Problem,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Mark Selden (Monthly Review Press USA: 1979), p. 215

6. Maurice Meisner. Mao’s China and After (Free Press USA: 1977), p. 141

7. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 146

8. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 13-18

9. Ramon H Myers, “Agricultural Development,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Harold C. Hinton (Westview Press USA: 1979), p. 180-182

10. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 12-13

11. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 141-143

12. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 14

13. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 168

14. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 19

15. Raymond H. Myers, “Agricultural Development,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Harold C. Hinton (Westview Press USA: 1979), p. 148

16. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 143

17. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 144

18. Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge University Press 2001), p. 71

19. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 148

20. Maurice Meisner, 1979, p. 152

21. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 148-149

22. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 15-16

23. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 182

24. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 15-16

25. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 147

26. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 156

27. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 173-174

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