Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside 3/6

Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside: From Great Leap to Flying Leap Part 3 of 6glf02


“There is nothing worse than a stagnant pond.” – Mao Zedong

The Great Leap Forward (roughly 1957-1962), as originally conceived, was the first attempt at a distinct Maoist path to socialism and communism. The Cultural Revolution, especially, the early years through the Flying Leap (roughly 1966-1971), was the second attempt. The path between these two points was a twisted one. This history is one of life-and-death struggle, capitalist roaders versus Maoists,  capitalism versus socialism and communism. The Great Leap was to be the original vehicle to make the Maoist vision a reality. This radical reorganization of society and collectivization of life would be made possible through the people’s communes. The battle between the revisionists and the Maoists in the crisis years of the Great Leap would largely be a battle over the viability of the communes, the collective economy and the Maoist approach in general, but especially in the countryside. The Maoists sought to preserve their economic approach that emphasized class struggle, social experiment, mass mobilization, higher levels of collectivization of life, egalitarianism, decentralization and the transition to communism. By contrast, the revisionists sought to revise and ultimately abandon the communes in favor of de-collectivization, privatization, markets, material incentives, promotion of the peasant household, and, ultimately, full-blown capitalism. The battle between these two roads would reach its height during the Cultural Revolution, roughly a decade after the beginning of the Great Leap. The factions that contended for power during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s emerged and congealed as factions during the Great Leap a decade earlier. These antagonistic groups would struggle for power against one another in one form or another until Mao’s death, almost two decades later. The struggle by Maoists to prevent counter-revolution during the Cultural Revolution years was, in many ways, a repeat of confrontations that had occurred amidst the Great Leap. The struggles surrounding the Great Leap set the stage for everything that followed. It is impossible to understand the Cultural Revolution, which could be called Maoism 2.0, without understanding Maoism 1.0, the Great Leap.

Maoism 1.0, again

When the communists took power in China, they inherited a country destroyed by hundreds of years of imperialism and civil war. China was a country beset by regular famine, extreme poverty, illiteracy, gender oppression and extreme suffering. China was  stunted, underdeveloped, semi-feudal. Its people forced to endure the worst aspects of feudalism and comprador capitalism. China’s defeat to the British in the Opium Wars (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860), allowed the Western imperialists to create, at bayonet point, a country of addicts. Such was the land the communists inherited. The Communist Party sought to solve China’s problems by charting a new, radical course. The revolution was protracted and involved decades of war. There were many twists and turns. Eventually the red flag flew over most of mainland China. Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st, 1949. Mao stood at the balcony of Tiananmen Gate outside Beijing’s Forbidden City and announced that “China has stood up.” A quarter of the world’s population, under communist leadership, aimed to take hold of their own destiny and build a better world.

During the first years of the new regime, China remained in the period of what Mao called “New Democracy” that had begun in the liberated areas during the civil wars and war against Japan. In the New Democratic period, the communists united China’s popular classes, including segments of the patriotic, national bourgeoisie with a programme of national unity, moderate reform and development to remove the fetters of underdevelopment imposed by imperialism, the fetters of both feudalism and comprador capitalism. This moderate course, which had broad support within the population as a whole, including support amongst some of China’s national bourgeoisie, was, however, only temporary. It was merely a means to a more radical goal for the communists, not an end in itself. New Democracy would soon be surpassed by socialism, and, then an attempt to jump further toward communism.

The economy that Mao inherited was an agrarian one with little industrial production outside of a few cities like Shanghai. The vast majority of China’s population was situated within the agricultural economy. Most of the Chinese people experienced the revolution as it intersected with their daily lives in the countryside. In the early revolutionary period, in the New Democratic phase, land reform had mainly meant the breaking up of feudal holdings and the redistribution of land to the tiller. Mao  commented on China’s long history of peasant revolution. These revolutions had resulted in redistribution of feudal holdings. Yet they ended up only reproducing inequalities, not advancing to communism. These revolutions did not stick. After all, as Lenin wrote, “small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a mass scale.” (1) In other words, proletarian revolution must set its sights much higher than land to the tiller and democratic rights. Such are merely early steps. Revolution is about changing the mode of production itself, not just distribution of land. The revolution’s long term goals are socialism, then finally, the ending of all oppression everywhere; the final goal is communism. A key aspect of socialism is the end of private production altogether. Along with this, socialist revolution seeks to socialize all production, including all land. Except in some national minority areas, early 1953 roughly marks the end of the bourgeois-democratic land reform movement. The following years mark the beginnings of socialism in the Chinese countryside. Mutual aid teams formed the basis of the first steps toward collectivization. Later, production was collectivized into lower-level cooperatives, then higher-level cooperatives into Socialist Agricultural Producer Collectives. (2)  By the end of 1956, China had a dual system of non-private property. In the urban economy, state property predominated. Collective property predominated in the countryside.  (3) Around 1957 or 1958, China embarked upon the Great Leap, an attempt to reach a higher level of socialism, to advance further toward communism. The Great Leap would quietly be phased out from 1962 to 1963.

Even though Maoists upheld the socialist experience of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, the Great Leap was a very different from the Soviet model which lasted from 1917 until the 1950s. The Great Leap must be understood, in part, as a criticism of the Soviet model. During the 1950s, the Soviet regime restored capitalism. However, during the socialist period, the Soviets aspired to a monolithic, static and stable, top-down, rational, centralized system. Their ideal eliminated the anarchy of production that exists under capitalism through a regime of total, monolithic administration. Their answer to what Marx called capitalism’s “anarchy of production” was the ideal central planner. It was part of the zeitgeist of Soviet-era socialism, and even continues to this day among many revisionists. Such a vision of socialism was, in some respects, shared by both Stalin and the revisionist Trotsky. Socialism as a well-oiled machine that produces plenty is a reoccurring idea that Maoists saw as flawed, stifling and incomplete. Mao criticized Soviet model, even under Stalin, as too static and inflexible. The Maoist model should be understood as a critique of the Theory of Productive Forces and its overemphasis on technology:

“Stalin emphasized only technology, technical cadre. He wanted nothing but technology, nothing but cadre; no politics, no masses.” (4)

“My view is that the last of the three appended letters [appendices to Stalin’s pamphlet] is entirely wrong. It expresses a deep uneasiness, a belief that the peasantry cannot be trusted to release agricultural machinery but would hang on to it. On the one hand Stalin says that the means of production belong to state ownership. On the other, he says that the peasants cannot afford them. The fact is that he is deceiving himself. The state controlled the peasantry very, very tightly, inflexibly. For the two transitions Stalin failed to find the proper ways and means, a vexing matter for him. [The “two transitions” are 1) from collective ownership (such as in the People’s Communes) to ownership by the whole people (state ownership, with the peasants transformed into farm workers); and 2) from a socialist distribution system (“to each according to his work”) to a communist distribution system (“to each according to his need”). —Ed.]” (5)

“Stalin’s book [Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR] from first to last says nothing about the superstructure. It is not concerned with people; it considers things, not people. Does the kind of supply system for consumer goods help spur economic development or not? He should have touched on this at the least. Is it better to have commodity production or is it better not to? Everyone has to study this. Stalin’s point of view in his last letter [appendix to his pamphlet] is almost altogether wrong. The basic error is mistrust of the peasants.” (6)

“We cannot go on consolidating [a social system] for all time, otherwise we will make inflexible the ideology reflecting this system and render people incapable of adjusting their thoughts to new changes.” (7)

The Soviet ideal, metaphysical in Mao’s view, was a kind of static technocracy, a well-oiled machine, that served the proletariat. Mao once commented that there is nothing worse than a stagnant pond. The Maoist model was one that understood the importance of forward momentum, dynamism, creativity, local initiative, people power, input from the bottom. Part of the Maoist model was that power was decentralized, transferred from the central state to the people’s communes. Through the creation of the people’s communes, the Great Leap sought to serve as a bridge to a higher level of socialism, and ultimately, communism. A Resolution Adopted by the Eighth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1958 describes the people’s communes:

“The people’s commune is the basic unit of socialist social structure of our country, combining industry, agriculture, trade, education, and military affairs; at the same time it is the basic organization of socialist state power. Marxist-Leninist theory and the initial experience of the people’s communes in our country enable us to foresee now that the people’s communes will quicken the tempo of our socialist construction and constitute the best form for realizing, in our country, the following two transitions.

Firstly, the transition from collective ownership to ownership of the whole people by the whole people of the countryside; and,

Secondly, the transition from socialist to communist society. It can also be foreseen that in the future communist society , the people’s commune will remain the basic unit of our social structure.” (8)

People’s communes were to be the instrument to collectivize all of society. Both work and social life was to be radically transformed as China marched forward toward ever higher levels of socialism and communism. Inequalities of class society were to be addressed by the people’s communes. People’s communes sought to eliminate the difference between town and countryside, between peasants and workers, between mental and manual labor, and even abolish many of the state’s domestic functions. Thus the people’s communes were to set the stage for the withering away of the state. On the ground, the Maoist model implied a more vibrant, colorful, active, participatory mass life, than the Soviet one. This conception of socialist development is one where the human factor has priority over the technological one, a theme that would reoccur throughout the Maoist period as one of Lin Biao’s “Four Firsts.”  This is not to discount the productive forces altogether, but, rather, to relegate them to a subordinate position overall. Lin Biao, a top Maoist spokesperson, described revolution as a train on two tracks, class struggle and development of the productive forces. The train does not go forward on one track alone. (9)

The Maoist model is one that suited China’s situation, a situation shared by much of the Third World.   According to the Maoist outlook, people power can make up for lack of capital in development. If it is one thing China had, it was people, even if China lacked technology and industrialization. The Great Leap was to be made by unleashing the creative energy of roughly a quarter of humanity through revolutionary politics and class war. All of China was mobilized to remove the fetters on the productive forces, to make the Maoist vision a reality.

In the opening year of the Great Leap, A Resolution Adopted by the Eighth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party described the people’s commune movement:

“In 1958, a new social organization appeared, fresh as the morning sun, above the broad horizon of east Asia. This was the large-scale people’s commune in the rural areas of our country which combines industry, agriculture, trade, education, and military affairs and in which government and commune management are integrated. Since their first appearance, the people’s communes with their immense vitality have attracted widespread attention.

The movement to set up people’s communes has grown very rapidly. Within a few months starting in the summer of 1958, all of the more than 740,000 agriculture producers’ cooperatives in the country, in response to the enthusiastic demand to the mass of peasants, reorganized themselves into over 26,000 people’s communes. Over 120 million households, or more than 99 percent of all China’s households of various nationalities, have joined the people’s communes… Although the rural people’s communes were established only a short while ago, the mass of peasants are already conscious of the obvious benefits they have brought them. Labor power and the means of production can, on a larger scale then before, be managed and deployed in a unified way to ensure that they are used still more rationally and effectively, and consequently to facilitate the development of production. Under the unified leadership of the commune, industry, agriculture (including farming, forestry, animal husbandry, side-occupations, and fisheries), trade, education, and military affairs have been closely coordinated and developed rapidly. In particular, thousands and tens of thousands of small factories have mushroomed in he rural areas. To meet the pressing demands of the masses, the communes have set up large number of community dining rooms, nurseries, kindergartens, ‘homes of respect for the aged, and other institutions for collective welfare, which have, in particular, completely emancipated women from thousands of years of kitchen drudgery and brought broad smiles to their faces…”  (10)

Mao was excited over the early successes. After hearing about the movement in Chaya Hill, Henan, Mao said the movement was an “extraordinary event.” Mao:

“Lots of rural cooperatives have been united to form one big people’s commune. The commune will be the bridge linking socialism to communism.” (11)

“French workers created the Paris commune when they seized power. Our farmers have created the people’s commune as a political and economic organization in the march toward communism. The people’s commune is great!” (12)

People’s communes varied in form. The most common was the rural commune that included about 5,000 households and was mostly identical to a hsiang. However, larger communes had upwards of 238 villages in twenty hsiang with 64,640 households and 314,444 people. (13)

The Maoist line at the outset of the Great Leap was known as the Three Red Banners:

1. the general line of socialist construction, simultaneous development of industry and agriculture using both modern and traditional methods.

2. the Great Leap Forward to “catch up and surpass” the per capita production of heavy industry of Great Britain within fifteen years, by 1972.

3. the People’s Communes, large rural collectives that were to become the basic unit of society to develop all aspects of society toward communism. (14)

Until the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap was the biggest social experiment of the twentieth century. In 1958, the onset of the Great Leap, Mao expressed, in a utopian, optimistic tone, the brave vision of transforming all of humanity:

“Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are ‘poor and blank.’ This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the most beautiful and freshest pictures can be painted.” (15)

The Great Leap embraced the Maoist principle that a bad thing can be transformed into a good thing. To this end, the social backwardness of China’s countryside was not necessarily a disadvantage. China had a vast countryside of people waiting to be unleashed. This spirit of people power was  captured in a folk song from the time:

“We smile all over our faces as we sing,
Determined to carry out the General Line;
Work hard, work steadily, and work harder still,
Taking the lead in every job you do.
The wonderful future before us
Makes us happy even in dreams.” (16)

The Maoist world was always already in motion. The Great Leap, as the name implies, was to be the continuation of the revolution, a revolution within the revolution. Maoism held that revolution must continue its forward momentum or be defeated. Maoists often describe the movement of revolution as wave-like or battle-like, in military terms. Mao states, “[R]evolutions are like battles. After a victory, we must at once put forward a new task.” “[R]evolutions come one after another.” Thus is was important to “strike while the iron is hot.”  (17) For the Maoists, the time was right.  The Maoist tone and outlook  are different than the Soviet’s.  An anonymous 72-line poem, A People’s Commune is Really Grand captured the spirit of the times:

“Now Chairman Mao’s sent out the call:
Communes are best for one and all;
Best for the state and every one;
With giant strides ahead we run!

Strengthen collective ownership,
Put others first–don’t make a slip!
For once our collective spirit’s high,
We’ll win at anything we try.

Support the communes, I declare,
Division of the work is fair:
For old and young, for me and you,
There will be fitting work to do.

So well the people’s commune run,
A better life will soon be won;
Old, white-haired crones grow young once more,
And infants skip about the floor.” (18)

Written after the Great Leap, in 1963, Mao’s poem Reply to Comrade Guo Moruo nonetheless expresses the spirit of Maoism and the times:

“o many deeds cry out to be done,
And always urgently;
The world rolls on,
Time presses.
Ten thousand years are too long,
Seize the day, seize the hour!
The Four Seas are rising, clouds and waters raging,
The Five Continents are rocking, wind and thunder roaring.
Our force is irresistible,
Away with all pests!” (19)

Revolutions never happen under the idealized conditions imagined by the those upholding versions of the Theory of Productive Forces. This is one reason that Antonio Gramsci called 1917 a revolt against Marx’s Capital, for example. Maoism, today  Leading Light communism, understood that revolutions are always born in a storm of imperfect circumstances; there is no perfect circumstance for revolution. Maoism, today, Leading Light Communism, unleashes its power precisely in the chaos of  the world, a step or steps away from the imagined or regulative ideal. People power fills gaps. A countryside that is “poor and blank” provides an opening for ideological intervention. True Maoism, today Leading Light Communism, is the Marxism of a world that is always already messy. Maoists do not wait around forever, waiting for a perfect, cosmic moment that never comes where objective and subjective align perfectly, astrologically. True revolutionary science is the Marxism of the world, not the heavens.

The Great Leap, as originally conceived by Mao and Maoist theorists like Chen Boda, can be described as the first attempt by the Maoists to a jump society to a qualitatively higher level of socialism, then “the transition to communism.” (20)  The Great Leap can be seen as Maoism 1.0. However, this attempt was beset by difficulties.

Maoism 1.0 to reversal and compromise

The Great Leap ran into difficulties due to a number of factors: bad weather, human error and errors of political line, class struggle, imperialist sabotage and encirclement. The extent of the problems and their origins is still hotly debated. The problems were so great that they led to a political crisis at the heights of political power in the Chinese Communist Party. Reacting to the early difficulties of the Great Leap, as early as the spring of 1958, Defense Minister Peng Duhuai, who represented the right and revisionist wing of the Party, began his struggle against the Maoist push. In the winter of 1958, Peng Duhuai toured Kansu and Hunan. In March and April of 1959, he toured Kiangsi, Anhui, Hopei, and Hunan again. He gathered evidence that alleged that the people’s commune of Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace, had reported drastically inflated production figures. He also gathered evidence that the people’s commune of Hsushui in Hopei, a model commune that had been praised by the Party leadership, had collapsed.  After returning from a trip to the Soviet Union in mid-June of 1959, Peng Duhuai echoed similar criticisms being made at the time by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of the Maoist model. It would be only a month or so later that the Soviet Union openly denounced Mao’s path. In Poland on July 18th, Nikita Khrushchev denounced the communes, saying that the Maoists “do not properly understand what communism is or how it is to be built.” In the standard police narrative of Chinese politics, Peng Duhuai would later be accused of plotting with the Soviets, among other things. (21) (22)

It was in the summer of 1959 at the Lushan resort in Jiangxi that the conflict between Peng Duhuai and Mao climaxed. The Party leadership had gathered to review its investigations of the people’s communes and to discuss the need to further consolidate the agricultural collectives. The confrontation between Peng Duhuai and Mao reached its height at the Eighth Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee that convened during the first half of August. Peng Duhuai made his attack along with Politburo members Lin Po-ch’u and Chen Yun; Politburo alternate Chan Wen-t’ien; CC member Wang Chia-hsiang, CC member and Chief of General Staff General Huang K’e-ch’eng; the director of the PLA’s Political Department, CC member and General T’an Cheng; the director of the PLA’s general Logistics Department General and CC alternate Hung Hsueh-chih. Peng Duhuai, at the behest of this rightist group, criticized the Great Leap, especially the people’s communes. The thrust of his criticism was that the Maoist path was ultra-left, adventurist and utopian. He put forward his ideas in an open letter to Mao on July 13th, 1959. Peng Duhuai wrote:

“Petty-bourgeois fanaticism makes us commit ‘leftist’ mistakes… We forgot the mass-line and the method of seeking truth in the facts… In our method of thinking we often confused strategic planning with concrete measures, long-term policy with immediate steps, the whole with a part and the large collective with a small collective… To ‘put politics in command’ is in no way a substitute for economic principles and even less a substitute for concrete measures in the field of economics.” (23)

Peng Duhuai ended by calling on Mao to take a good look at the reality on the ground and unite the Party once more. Mao had been under fire for some time. He was complaining of being treated like a “dead ancestor” that year. Mao had come under heavy criticism and Liu Shaoqi’s star was rising; Liu Shaoqi had been formerly appointed president of the People’s Republic. Even under renewed criticism, Mao held firm to the Maoist path, at least for now. Mao drew a line in the sand between himself and his critics, even threatening to leave the Party and lead another revolution.

“If we deserve to perish, then I will leave. Then I will go to the countryside and lead the peasants in the overthrow of the government. Should the PLA not follow, I will find a Red Army.” (24) (25)

Although Mao made a self-criticism, Mao’s critics blinked. Mao’s threat was successful in gaining him support for the time being. Mao reportedly stated:

“Peng Duhuai and his supporters do not have the ideological preparation necessary for proletarian socialist revolution. They are bourgeois democrats who made their way into our party by pretending to be followers of Marxism.” (26)

Mao successfully had Peng Duhuai denounced as part of an anti-Party clique. Mao still said that there was mass “enthusiasm for communism.” However, even though Mao was able to label many of the critics as part of an the anti-Party clique,  Mao was forced to bend, to compromise on policy. Mao stepped back and adopted a nuanced view, that the Great Leap and people’s communes had been more positive than negative on the whole. In addition, a resolution of the Eighth Plenum on the policy of the Three Red Banners continued to lavish praise on the people’s communes. However, in reality, key aspects of the people’s communes were being revised. Drastic changes in the structure of the people’s communes were implemented. Centralization was reestablished and a some steps back to the Soviet model were made. Even though Peng Duhuai lost the battle, his line would, ultimately, ascend within the Party and the Maoist line would weaken. Over the next few years, the people’s communes would become unrecognizable and would lose power.  And lower level entities, eventually the peasant households, will gain from de-collectivization, setting the structural basis for restoration of counter-revolution. (27) (28)

As part of the fallout from the Mao-Peng Duhuai struggle, a compromise was reached where militarization of the workforce was abolished. The compromise that was reached abandoned nearly all efforts to collectivize everyday life. The powers of the communes were restricted to the administration of schools, workshops, transportation equipment, machine pools and seedlings. People’s communes were restricted to only issuing general instructions for the cultivation plan of the production brigades. (29)

Production brigades were now to be the center of the rural economy. The brigades were often identical to the old Agricultural Producer Cooperatives that had been the highest level of the rural collective economy from the early to mid-1950s. Thus a de-collectivization had occurred.  The brigades now had to give the production guarantee. Thus they managed their own books and had the right to distribute profits. No longer was communism spoken of as if it was around the corner.  For example, Minister of Agriculture Liao Lu-yen’s statement in 1959 put off social revolution into the distant future:

“At present, the means of production belong in the hands of the comparatively smaller production brigade. Only if there are  — after a certain period — conditions in a more advanced and better balanced economic development, can property be placed in the hands of the larger unit, which is the People’s Communes. Only thus will we arrive at the stage of ownership by the whole people.” (30)

By the autumn of 1959, the crisis grew to greater proportions. The Lushan Plenum revised the production figures from 1958 downward to better reflect reality. Record bad weather in 1960 only added to the problems. At the end of the year, 55 percent of the land in use was afflicted by natural catastrophes. Human error often exacerbated the problems. Imperialist encirclement and embargo also weakened China’s ability to carry out socialist construction. In addition, due to the conflict, the Soviets began to withdraw aid from China. This created a huge, extra burden on the Chinese economy. Industrial projects were halted.  Agricultural production fell drastically. The crisis years, 1960 and the two years that followed, are sometimes been referred to as “the three bitter years.”

As a result of the crisis, provincial leaders from 1959 onward began throwing their support behind those who continued to push for revision of the Three Banners Policy and, especially, a revision of the  people’s communes. The two main leaders that represented the revision line were Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who echoed Peng Duhuai’s earlier criticisms. (31) The shift toward revision and backtracking was not without resistance from the Maoists. There was a brief attempt by the Maoists to revitalize urban communes, but that was finally abandoned in the end of 1960 and beginning of 1961. The line that the problems were a result of too little collectivization and moving too slowly has been often associated with Chen Boda, Mao’s personal secretary, head of the Marxist-Leninist institute, and editor of the Party’s theory journal, Red Flag. Later, Chen Boda would be the nominal head of the Cultural Revolution Group charged with directing the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1969. Chen Boda characterized the Maoist line as a Jacobin one, one that was not afraid to embrace extremes as part of the revolutionary process. An article appeared in April of 1960 in Red Flag, the Party’s theoretical journal. It demanded an expansion of collectivization in the midst of the crises. It demanded the expansion of the mess halls in rural communes. Yet by the end of 1960, only one meal a day was being served and only one-third of the commune members were reported to attend the collective meals. In addition, old people’s homes were closed down through 1961. Child services were also reduced. Nursery and kindergarden services were reduced significantly. Many years later, after his fall in 1970, Chen Boda’s line would be criticized as stirring up a “wind of communization” for his role as one of the main architects of the Maoist developmental model, his role in the Great Leap and, also for, his role in the Cultural Revolution by both the left and right, although his left critics were never able to articulate a programme other than the basic Maoist one that he helped pioneer.

Further de-collectivization had occurred. The restructured communes did not resemble the original people’s communes of 1958. In some places, the smaller production team was now being referred to as the production brigade.  Thus, in places, the clock had been turned back prior to the collectivization efforts of the early 1950s. Private plots of land were handed out. Previously, this land had been relinquished when the Socialist APCS became people’s communes. Teams now owned arable land, large livestock, tools, seedlings and part of the machinery pools. The teams gave the production guarantee, drew up production plans, and payment of wages and premiums. The communist principle “to each according to his need” was no longer the goal. It was during the summer of 1961 when, for the first time, the idea that the people’s commune should be the basic unit for the transition to communism was openly rejected. (32)

“The development of the transition must be divided into the two periods of socialism and communism. The period of socialism again must be divided into the two periods of the socialistic collective property and socialistic property of the whole people. The period of collective property itself must be divided into the two periods of the basic property of the production brigades and the basic property of the commune. In the present phase, the People’s Commune has just been developed from the Advanced Level APC. It cannot yet go beyond the stage of collective ownership by the commune. Even less can it change very quickly into the property of the whole period.”   (33)

It was in 1961 and 1962 that the revision of the Maoist approach solidified. The Liu Shaoqi-Deng Xiaoping line emerged as a unified programme during the debates of 1961 through 1962 over the “Working Regulations for Rural People’s Communes” and development in the villages. It was Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping with the majority of the civilian Party machine behind them who led the charge against the mobilization approach of 1958 championed by the Maoists. The Liu Shaoqi-Deng Xiaoping approach advocated:

1. They advocated de-collectivization. The rural collective economy was to be dismantled and replaced by elevating the traditional rural household. At the very minimum, the production team would  be the basic production unit. This opposed the Maoist idea of making the production brigade or the people’s commune the basic unit.

2. They rejected politics in command. They abandoned the Maoist emphasis on politics and people power. They rejected the Maoist idea that the human factor can be a kind of substitute for capital investments in a significant way.  Human power could only make-up for a lack of capital to a very limited degree.

3. They rejected the Maoist emphasis on moral incentive, class struggle, social experiment, and mass mobilizations. Material incentives would be introduced to generate popular support and motivate people instead. This set the stage for reversion back to capitalism. By contrast, the Maoists wanted to, ultimately, rely more and more on moral incentives as they move toward communism, which was to be governed by the distribution principle: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The free-supply system, advocated by Maoists like Chen Boda and, also Zhang Chunqiao, that was introduced in some people’s communes, was abandoned and not aspired to any longer.

4. They switched up developmental priorities. Agriculture and auxiliary industries (fertilizers, agricultural machinery, pumping equipment, etc.) now had priority over heavy industries and consumer-goods industries.

5. A return to more Soviet-style and market approaches was advocated. Decentralization of all sectors of the economy at the provincial level was advocated. This was in opposition to Mao’s concept of a decentralized planning and administration of agriculture and local industries at the level of the people’s communes, combined with centralization of modern industry. (34) (35)

The Liu Shaoqi-Deng Xiaoping group justified their position by appeals to reality and the practical. They had a reductionist view that made the subjective an epiphenomenon of the objective; the super-structure is caused by the economic base, but does not itself significantly affect the economic base. They asserted that consciousness tails economic realities and can only be changed through changing the economy. They de-emphasized the subjective factor significantly. They emphasized “objective conditions” over “line,” “priority of policy,” and “politics in command.” Even so, the “Working Regulations” that emerged from this debate still employed some Maoist concepts and rhetoric on the surface. (36)

After all the revisions, the people’s communes became unrecognizable. The term “people’s commune” was still retained. The term now only applied to the former hsiang and the lowest unit of public administration. The revised communes now average 1,700 households, much smaller than they had been. The unity of administration and direction of production was eliminated. Private property more and more was introduced. Collectivization of life was no longer aspired to. Patriarchy re-asserts itself as the peasant household ascends in importance in the economy. Once again, the family takes center stage as the proper place for individual life, and also work to a lesser degree. Remuneration for work is mainly or even exclusively based on a capitalist conception of “achievement.” Further, de-collectivization occurs. The production team becomes the main economic unit. It alone deciding all questions of planning and management of agricultural production. Communes are relegated to an advisory role. The “Working Regulations” further eliminated services. They do not mention commune management of kindergartens, secondary schools, hospitals, day nurseries or old people’s homes.

Production brigades, averaging 175-180 households, now instructed and supervised production, financial organization and administration. The brigades levied taxes on the teams. Brigades oversaw  irrigation work and amelioration projects. Ideological and political work was part of their function also. They administered aspects of security, cultural projects, education, and public health. They  were responsible for mid-sized machinery and tools. Forest and mountainous areas were transferred to them.

Production teams, averaging between 15 and 25 households, were now the basic accounting unit in the revised commune. They are responsible for profit and loss. They organize production. They employed the labor force. They distributed profits. The teams were to be guaranteed a special sovereignty that will remain unchanged for “thirty years,” according to the new “Working Regulations.” This assurance to the teams can be seen as a further undermining of higher structures, as a further attempt at de-collectivization. By not giving similar assurances to the communes or brigades, there is a tacit assumption that these higher level structures can be allowed to pass from the scene sometime in the future. Property of the teams include: all land, large livestock, middle-sized and smaller agricultural machinery and tools, waters and seeds. Teams were to draw up their own plans for cultivation, crop rotation etc. Teams were to plan and establish workshops to process agricultural products and produce handicraft.  They were to plan and establish cattle breeding stations, transportation and granaries. According to the “Working Regulations,” as many aspects of production as possible, previously the responsibility of the communes or brigades, should be transferred to the teams. There was an overall shift downward, away from the upward collectivization of the original people’s communes.

The idea that communes are a step toward communism was abandoned along with communist and egalitarian distribution principles. The “Working Regulations” state twice that egalitarianism should be prevented. With the “Working Regulations,” the teams are now responsible for distribution of the surplus. Distribution was to now  follow work-norms set by the teams and converted into a system of work points that individuals earned. After deductions, a share was distributed to individual households.

The private economy is expanded. Commune members were to individually purchase their tools, including middle-sized tools like ploughs. Teams could rent out tools to individuals. This was an important step in reversing the collective ownership of the means of production that is so central to socialism. Later, private land and private side-line work was for the first time identified as “a necessary addition to the socialist economy.” (37) Sideline production by individual families is expanded and protected. Even though nominal assurance is given that the collective economy will not be effected,  sideline production is increased to 5 to 7 percent of arable land currently used. In addition to this, peasants can also obtain more private land in mountainous, barren or unused areas. Private cultivation is not suppose to not exceed 10 percent total, but the rules state it should never exceed 15 percent. Thus, a certain amount of latitude over 10 percent is implied. The private sector also includes the raising of pigs, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and other small livestock. Home and family  industries, such as sewing, embroidering and weaving, are included in the private sector. Collecting herbs, fishing, cultivating silkworms and bee-keeping are included. The planting of certain trees for wood and fruit was to be part of the private sector. All the income generated from these areas were to be collected by the individual. From the summer of 1961, free markets mushroomed all over China. Peasants could now sell their goods at market prices. 40,000 markets were already in existence. An estimated quarter of all agricultural produce changed hands in these markets. Industrial development was cutback and there was more a focus on agriculture. Mass deportations, some estimations as high as 50 million,  occurred from the city to the countryside in the early 1960s. (38) (39) (40)

What is perhaps most significant is that the new structure created the basis for the full reversal of the collective economy. According to the “Working Regulations,” teams could be further divided up into working groups that “contract work on allocated pieces of land during certain seasons or the whole year on the basis of agreements with the production team.” In reality, this provision lays the basis for the return to the traditional family household as the center of the rural economy. In fact, a few years after the fall of the last top Maoists, the household began to ascend rapidly in importance on a large scale in 1979 in Szechuan and Guizhou. (41)

The debate had so shifted that in January of 1962, Liu Shaoqi began defending Peng Duhuai as merely a “right deviationist.” Thus Liu Shaoqi downplayed what Maoists had identified as revisionism. Liu Shaoqi stated that “right deviationists” were not to blame for the failures of the people’s communes. Rather, the blame should be placed on ultra-leftists,  a codeword for Maoists:

“I advise you, comrades, not to be questionable leftists… Let’s not become such leftists who lose touch with reality and who become adventurers. Such leftists will not develop true and permanent enthusiasm… Leftists of this sort not only deserve no respect; they should be criticized.” (42)

Echoing the earlier criticism by Peng Duhuai, the Liu Shaoqi-Deng Xiaoping group concluded that the problems were not mainly due to natural disaster, but mainly to human error. They stated that “traditional style of the Party” had been abandoned during the Great Leap. This last claim would be repeated by the revisionists in the late-1970s and 1980s to describe the  Maoist practice during the Cultural Revolution. By contrast Hua Guofeng, a centrist and Mao loyalist, attributed 70 percent of the problem to natural disasters and 30 percent to human error. Lin Biao maintained the most left position. In an important speech, Lin Biao claimed the problems resulted from the failure to follow Mao Zedong Thought. Mao is reported to have been impressed with Lin Biao’s analysis, which he called “perceptive,” “clear and direct.” He was also impressed with Hua Guofeng, who was “honest.” (43)

The wind was with the revisionists. Liu Shaoqi now called openly for renewed individual production. Liu Shaoqi called for the production guaranteed to be assigned all the way down to the rural household. All new workshops in what was left of the communes, if they did not make profit, were to be shut down. The number of free markets were to be increased. And, a national grain procurement organization would offer higher prices for grain to the peasants. Such measures, including the extension of private plots, were introduced as supposed emergency measures. Liu Shaoqi now sought support for his measures from within the “right deviationists,” who had been reprimanded at Lushan alongside Peng Duhuai. With Liu Shaoqi’s help, Peng Duhuai and his anti-Party clique were on the way back from political oblivion. Peng Duhuai was being prepared to resume a leading Party position once again. (44) (45)

At this time, the economic crisis reached its peak. Peasant resistance had developed into open conflict, reportedly even violent outbreaks in parts of China, especially the South and South West. Revolts reportedly broke out in Hunan and Xinjiang. (46) GMD commandos and agents were infiltrating China stirring up resistance. Enthusiasm for the Great Leap vanished in the Chinese media. In its place were calls for a moderate, “step-by-step” approach. The Maoist vision had all but vanished, even from official propaganda.

In June 1962, Red Flag revealed that the production guarantee had officially shifted from the brigades to the teams, the teams were also made the unit of account. “A storm of individual production” spread. Thirty percent the grain crop in 1962 was reportedly done on private land. Free markets spread like wildfire. In this context, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping introduced further revisions. They summarized their proposals as “three freedoms, one guarantee.” This meant: 1. increase in private land, 2. expansion of  free family side-line occupations, 3. increase in the number of markets for free trade. With the one guarantee referred to shifting the production guarantee to the individual rural household. Theirs was a de facto program of full de-collectivization and a reversal of socialist construction.

Moves toward the liquidation of collective life, of public living, had  happened. Now, it was followed by moves to liquidate collective production. There was a move toward the restoration of individual ownership of private property such as houses, furniture, consumer goods, small farm tools and the return to small private plots and ownership of some livestock and animals. This all but did away with all the Maoist concepts of 1958. However, this provoked a backlash from Maoists. In September, 1962, At the Tenth Plenum of the Eighth CC, the Maoists prevented the liquidation of what remained of the collective economy in the villages. (47) (48) At a “Central Work Conference,” in response to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping’s programme, Mao began loudly criticizing revisionism. Mao said that it was time to “reinforce the collective economy.” He said “class struggle was intensifying continuously.” And, Mao stated that the “restoration of capitalism had to be prevented.” Once again, Mao drew a line in the sand. The end result was a compromise. Even though the production guarantee was not assigned to the individual rural household, a near total revision of the 1958 system had taken place. (49) Although the revisionists had laid the basis for the complete reversal of socialism, the Maoists temporarily halted the slide. In addition, the Maoists were able to topple Minister of Defense Peng Duhuai, the early critic of the Maoist line. Mao successfully had Lin Biao, a leftist and staunch Maoist, installed as the new Defense Minister. Marx once described the state as “armed bodies of men.” Having the military under Maoist control would be a key factor halting the slide toward capitalism. Having the military under Maoist control would be a key factor launching a new socialist offensive, the Cultural Revolution, a decade later. Without the Maoist control of the military, at least at the central level, it is unlikely the mass movements of the Cultural Revolution could have occurred. Although the revisionists had made important gains on the economic front, the Maoists had won an important institutional victory. The Maoists now controlled the gun. No side could claim total victory.  It was a result of these struggles that Maoists began saying there were “two roads” open, a capitalist one and a communist one. They began talking about the bourgeoisie within the party. (50) Because of the defeats, Mao withdrew from public life to an extent. However, the stage was set for the next round. The stage was set for the Cultural Revolution, the next great Maoist offensive.


1. Chang Chun-Chiao. On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie.

2. Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside: From Great Leap to Flying Leap to Reversal Part 1 of 6. Monkey Smashes Heaven

3. Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside: From Great Leap to Flying Leap Part 2 of 6.  Monkey Smashes Heaven

4. Mao Tse-tung. Concerning Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. November: 1958

5. Mao, ibid.

6. Mao, ibid.

7. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After (The Free Press, Third Edition USA: 1997), pp. 214-217

8. Jacobs, Dan N.  and Baerwald, Hans H. Chinese Communism (Harper and Row 1983), pp. 113-114

9. Lin Piao. March Ahead Under The Red Flag Of The Party’s General Line and Mao Tse-Tung’s Military Thinking (Foreign Language Press,  Peking: 1959)

10. Jacobs, Dan N. and Baerwald, Hans H., pp. 110-112

11 Dr. Li Zhisui. The Priviate Life of Chairman Mao (Random House, First Edition, New York: 1994), pp. 263-264

12. Dr. Li Zhisui, p. 269

13. Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside: From Great Leap to Flying Leap Part 2 of 6.  Monkey Smashes Heaven

14. Jurgen Domes, Socialism in the Chinese Countryside (McGill-Queen’s University Press 1980), p. 24

15. The Red Sun Lights The Road Forward For Tachai (Foreign Language Press. Peking: 1969)

16. Chinese Literature, February 2, 1959  p. 108

17. Meisner, Maurice, Mao’s China and After (The Free Press, Third Edition USA: 1997), pp. 214-217

18. Chinese Literature, February 2, 1959  p. 109

19. Mao Tsetung, Reply to Comrade Kuo Mo-Jo

20. Meisner, p. 214

21. Domes, p. 42

22. Meisner, p. 231

23. Domes, pp. 43-44

24. Domes, pp. 43-44

25. Meisner, pp. 230-232

26. Li, p. 320

27. Meisner, pp. 230-232

28. Domes, pp. 43-44

29. Meisner, p. 229

30. Domes, pp. 44-47

31. Domes, pp. 44-47

32. Domes, pp. 47-51

33. Domes, p. 51

34. Domes, pp. 49-50

35. Li, pp. 274-276

36. Domes, pp. 49-50

37. Domes, p. 51

38. Domes, pp. 55-60

39. Barrass, Gordon. “Measures of Economic Planning,” The Chinese Model edited by Klatt, Werner. (Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong: 1965), p. 80

40. Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums (Verso, New York, USA: 2007), p. 58

41. Domes, pp. 55-60

42. Domes, p. 51

43. Li, pp. 387-388

44. Domes, p. 52

45. Li, p. 391

46. Barrass, p. 80

47. Meisner, p. 229

48. Domes, pp. 52-54

49. Domes, p. 54

50. Meisner, p. 232-234

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