Seas are rising, Clouds and Waters Raging
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Begins, Maoist China from 1958 to May 16, 1966
by Leading Light Commander PF
Maoist Aspirations and the Great Leap Forward
To understand the Cultural Revolution, it is necessary to understand the Great Leap Forward. All the power struggles, ideological and practical advances of the Cultural Revolution have their origin in the earlier Great Leap. The Cultural Revolution is the second great effort by the Maoists to advance Chinese society to higher levels of socialism. If the Cultural Revolution is Maoism 2.0, the Great Leap is Maoism 1.0. The Great Leap Forward lasted roughly from 1957 through 1961. The Great Leap years are filled with contradiction. The Great Leap, like the Communist Party of China itself, had different tendencies within it, both communist and capitalist, Maoist and revisionist. The Great Leap began when spontaneous collectivization movements in 1957 arose in the Chinese countryside. These were seized on by the Mao, despite opposition, to launch a national effort to push China’s revolution forward, especially in the economic realm. The Maoist approach to development sought to improve the Soviet socialist experiment. In some ways, the Maoist approach broke radically with earlier models. In other ways, despite their rhetoric, the Maoists failed to deliver. They sometimes fell into the same problems as their predecessors in the Soviet Union. What is important though is the scientific impulse to recognize the failures of the past, to try something new to advance revolution even further. Even if their aspirations did not always live up to reality, even if there were deep problems, there is much to learn in their example, even if we too must go beyond the past, beyond Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Leading Light Communism is the future, not the past.
Walk on Two Legs, People Power, Strike While the Iron is Hot
The Great Leap economic policy was to “walk on two legs.” This meant that unlike the Soviet Union’s industrialization under Stalin’s Five Year Plan, which had favored heavy industry at the expense of light industry, the Chinese would favor both heavy and light industry. Lighter industry relied more on the human factor than heavier industry. And Maoists posit that people power, especially with China’s vast population, can make up for lack of capital. Geographic decentralization is also associated with lighter industry. Probably the most famous case of this geographic decentralization and focus on light industry was the failed effort to make steel in “backyard furnaces.” Even though this effort was a well-known failure, other efforts to move away from over relying on highly centralized production with giant plants to geographically decentralized medium and small plants were successful. (1) (2) This novel economic approach also advanced the more far-reaching goals of revolution. For example, in China, the cities had historically been centers of power, where surpluses were channeled to be turned into domestic luxury consumption or exports to imperialist powers. Thus, even though the countryside was the source of much of China’s wealth, the countryside occupied an unequal position in the power structure relative to the city. One of the many political dimensions to the Maoist model of economic development was that it sought to overcome the contradiction between city and countryside by evening-out production between them, by trying to make power and importance more equal. Thus the Maoist policy sought to change the economic infrastructure inherited from China’s feudal and colonial past. The Maoist model did not just seek to increase production, but also to further revolutionary aims.
The Maoist policy differed from the Soviet policy in other ways. The Soviet industrialization demanded great sacrifice on behalf of the people with the promise that austerity and discipline now will be rewarded later. So, consumption was cut so that more of the economic surplus could go to industrial investment, which promised to deliver a greater standard of living in the future. By contrast, the Maoist focus “both legs” went hand-in-hand with a more balanced attitude toward consumption. The Maoist strategy thus provided a more gradualist approach toward collectivization than what had occurred, albeit out of necessity, under Stalin. Maintaining this balance made it easier to preserve the worker-peasant alliance through development and collectivization. The Soviet focus on heavy industry was born of necessity. Stalin had correctly predicted that the Soviets must industrialize or be buried by the imperialists. World War 2 was around the corner. The Maoists had been dealt a better hand that afforded them the opportunity to focus on both, to walk on both legs. Thus the Chinese Communist Party, with its gradualism and focus on maintaining more balanced levels of consumption, did not sacrifice its relationship with the peasantry through the transition into higher levels of socialism. The Chinese could rely more on mass line to push the population forward. By contrast, the Soviets had to use more commandist methods. Although this alliance with the peasantry was weakened during the periods of crisis and failure, generally speaking, China’s peasantry continued to have great trust in the Party.
China’s vast peasantry was key to the Maoist approach. The Maoists inherited a China that was economically backward. Prior to taking power, Mao had said “two mountains” weighed on the back of China: feudalism and imperialism. China’s previous economic regime was a kind of maldevelopment where the global system of capitalism-imperialism merged with local feudalism to better exploit and control the population and resources. Mao called this “semi-feudalism.” In order to overcome this backwardness, an approach was designed to fit the realities of China. 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. The vast population of China was a great ocean of people power and creativity that had been dammed by colonial and feudal institutions. China had a vast countryside of people waiting to be unleashed:
“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 freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.” (3)
“The masses have boundless creative power. They can organize themselves and concentrate on places and branches of work where they can give full play to their energy; they can concentrate on production in breadth and depth and create more and more undertakings for their own well-being.” (4)
The Maoists had always emphasized that people were the ultimate source of strength. The Maoists would now unleash a great flood of people power to overcome China’s lack of capital and development. This wave of people power was supposed to propel China forward in a great leap. The activity of the masses — disciplined mass mobilizations, militarization of society, agitation and propaganda campaigns, anti-rightist campaigns, cultural campaigns, greater education — was to unleash economic development and raise the level of society in all areas. The masses, led by the communists, would complete the revolution from feudalism and comprador capitalism to New Democracy, socialism, and ultimately, communism.
This optimism toward the ability of the masses is expressed in the Maoist declarations that “the masses make history” and that “the masses are the real heroes.” Probably the most famous expression of Maoist confidence in the people is Mao’s parable “The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains,” written earlier in 1945:
“[W]e must also arouse the political consciousness of the entire people so that they may willingly and gladly fight together with us for victory. We should fire the whole people with the conviction that China belongs not to the reactionaries but to the Chinese people. There is an ancient Chinese fable called “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains’. It tells of an old man who lived in northern China long, long ago and was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. He called his sons, and hoe in hand they began to dig up these mountains with great determination. Another graybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, ‘How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up those two huge mountains.’ The Foolish Old Man replied, “When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them away?” Having refuted the Wise Old Man’s wrong view, he went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. God was moved by this, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs. Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. The Chinese Communist Party has long made up its mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we, too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these two mountains be cleared away?” (5)
This spirit of people power was captured in a folk song from the time of the Great Leap:
“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.” (6)
The masses could accomplish anything:
“Of all things in the world, people are the most precious. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, as long as there are people, every kind of miracle can be performed.” (7)
Maoist cosmology is one that emphasizes motion. Mao was reported to have said there is nothing worse than a stagnant pond. Such is the Maoist doctrine of continuous revolution. The Great Leap, as the name implies, was to be the continuation of the revolution, a revolution within the revolution. A revolution must continue its forward momentum or be defeated. Maoists often describe the movement of revolution in military terms, as wave-like or battle-like. Mao states, “revolutions are like battles. After a victory, we must at once put forward a new task.” “[R]evolutions come one after another.” If the time was right, one must take advantage of circumstance, not become stagnant. Thus the Maoists thought it was important to “strike while the iron is hot.” (8) The enthusiasm for collectivization on the ground in the countryside obliged Mao to move. In 1957, it was now or never.
The Maoist tone and outlook are different than that of the Soviets. An anonymous 72-line poem, “A People’s Commune is Really Grand” captured the spirit of the Great Leap:
“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.” (9)
Even though it was written shortly after the Great Leap, Mao’s 1963 poem “Reply to Comrade Guo Moruo” nonetheless expresses the optimism and spirit of the times:
“So many deeds cry out to be done,
And always urgently;
The world rolls on,
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.
Away with all pests!
Our force is irresistible. !” (10)
Revolutions never happen under the idealized conditions where there is a guarantee of success. Revolutions are never a smooth progression from the height of one mode of production to the beginning of another. This is one reason that Antonio Gramsci called 1917 a revolt against Marx’s Capital. Things turned out much differently than Marx expected. “You work with what you got” is an American saying. Revolutions are always born in a storm of imperfect circumstances; there is no perfect set of circumstances for revolution. Making revolution about weighing probabilities. Mao bet that masses could overcome the difficulties before them. Those to Mao’s right warned that China was not ready. Revolutionary science, revolutionary ideology, unleashes its power precisely in the chaos of the world, a step or steps away from the imagined or regulative ideal of success. People power fills gaps. A countryside that is “poor and blank” provides an opening for ideological intervention, allowing for the subjective to pick up the slack for lack of perfect objective conditions. Leading Light Communism, like Maoism before, is the Marxism of a world that is always already messy. Maoists did 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.
People’s Communes of the Great Leap, a brief overview
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 jump society to a qualitatively higher level of socialism as part of the “transition to communism.” (11) The Maoist policies of the Great Leap sought to achieve this through a program of massive collectivization. They sought to reorganize all of society into massive People’s Communes. The formation of the People’s Communes was the merger of collective farms into larger entities. When the first People’s Commune formed semi-spontaneously in Henan in 1957, Mao proclaimed that “this is an extraordinary event.” Mao declared his approval for the term: “The term ‘People’s Commune’ is great!” (12) Maoist Chen Boda wrote, “at the present stage, our task is to build socialism… [However] the primary purpose of building the People’s Communes is the acceleration of the speed of socialist construction.” The Central Committee proclaimed “We actively use the form of the People’s Commune to explore the practical road of reaching communism.” (13) (14) The Maoists sought to move away from the strict, centralist and bureaucratic “top-down” approach of the Soviet Union. Instead the People’s Communes were to be the basic unity of society. The Maoists pushed upward from the village level and downward from the central state level. They collectivized upward, but decentralized at the same time. They pushed for more horizontal organization than their Soviet counterparts of the Stalin era.
Basically, four new types of collectives came into being at the beginning of the Great Leap:
“(1) The most widespread type was the rural Commune, which on an average included a little less than 5,000 households and was mostly identical to the xiang. (Example, the Leta Commune in Qingfeng hsien, Honan, developed from 22 APCs and consisting of 4,746 households with 22, 568 members ad more than 11.250 acres of arable land. A total of 53 villages belonged to it, in which 561 workshops as well as 22 cattle-breeding stations were run. There were old people’s homes, 22 kindergartens, and 108 mess halls.)
(2) Urban Communes established on the basis of a city district. (Example: the West-Taikang Commune in Chengchou, Honan, consisting of 10,618 households with 37,432 members, living in 60 streets. There were 54 small factories and workshops on the Commune. It maintained three elementary schools, a vocational school, 49 mess-halls and 107 kindergartens, but no old people’s homes.)
(3) Urban Communes with some agriculture, established on the basis of a large factory. (Example: the Commune of the textile-machinery factory in Changzhou, Honan, consisting — apart from 10,559 peasants in suburban districts who were responsible for the food supply — of staff and workers of the factory and their relatives, altogether more than 30,000 people. It maintained several elementary schools, two secondary schools, and a number of vocational education institutions, in addition to mess halls, kindergartens, old people’s homes, community rooms, a cinema and hospital.)
(4) The large rural Commune, which was for some time considered to be the final objective of the Commune movement, but which, in practice developed in only very few cases. (Example: the Commune of Xushui county in Hunan which comprised 283 villages in twenty xiang with 64,640 households and 314,444 people. Its militarily organized ‘work army’ consisted of 65,181 men and 52,622 women. About 135,000 acres of arable land were available. The Commune maintained 2,400 workshops of different sizes, 1,498 mess-halls, 374 kindergartens and 75 day nurseries. Furthermore, there was an undisclosed number of schools, club houses, a few cinemas and a theatre.)” (15)
These forms would not remain static, however. The Communes would go through several structural readjustments over the period of the Great Leap through the Cultural Revolution. After the failures of the Great Leap, the Communes would be de-emphasized. However, later, during the Cultural Revolution they would be revived, but with some important differences.
The Maoists pushed social experiment through the People’s Communes. The Chinese masses, workers, peasants, students, women, and youth participated in politics as never before. As part of this, Maoists promoted disciplined mass mobilizations and ideological campaigns. A spirit of altruism, of sacrifice, of “serve the people,” was promoted. Leaders were encouraged to have more contact with the people, working beside them as never before. Maoists promoted more contact between higher leaders and the grassroots, including “mass airing of views and debates.”
Daily life was collectivized and militarized. Meals were now prepared in collective kitchens. Communities ate together in dining halls. This, along with nurseries and retirement homes, freed women so that they too could partake collective life and militarization. Women and youth increased their participation in the revolutionary upsurge as a result. (16) (17) Each morning, peasants lined up in military style to march to the fields. The construction of socialism was described in martial terms. Mao would say, “A real spirit of communism comes when you raise a giant people’s army.” (18) (19) On July 1, 1958, Chen Boda published an article in Red Flag, the Party’s theory journal. The article sought to encourage workers and farmers to become armed militia as part of the People’s Communes. Mao toured the countryside in Hebei, Shandong and Henan praising the formation of battalions an platoons. Thus, it was through the People’s Communes that new models of defense were pioneered, that gender barriers were broken, that human life became diversified in some important ways, that the line between citizen and soldier became even more blurred. (20) (21)
Another social experiment began in 1958, Maoist implemented the free supply system, an attempt to eliminate money and make available goods to people at no cost and on a limited basis. Many Communes did away with money. On August 23, 1958, Mao poured scorn on the system of material incentive under Stalin:
“With a surplus of grain we can implement the supply system… The socialism we are building right now nurtures the sprouts of communism, bringing free food to all: If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years’ time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!” (22)
Just as they had sought to eliminate the distinction between city and countryside, they sought to eliminate other traditional distinctions:
“[D]ifferences between workers and peasants, between town and country as well as between mental and manual work — the remnants of old society that cannot but be retained during the socialist period — will gradually disappear; the remnants of unequal bourgeois rights which reflect these differences will also gradually disappear.” (23)
Just as the policy of “walking on two legs” sought to help overcome the contradiction between town and country, so too did other practices. The communists aimed to eliminate distinctions by industrializing the rural Communes and by greening, by moving agricultural production to, cities. Education and social services were moved to the rural areas. New-style universities were promoted so that “a new kind of all-round worker, educated and technically skilled, goes to the farms.” (24) Maoists also sought to eliminate the contradiction between mental and manual work, between leadership and led, between “red” and “expert,” and other oppressive divisions among the people. They encouraged the masses to elevate themselves, through education and experience, to make themselves capable of maximal self-rule. Workers were to become leaders, scientists, soldiers, writers, artists. Leaders, scientists, writers, artists were to be workers. Leaders, cadre, intellectuals and artists were made to work alongside the masses. The idea is simple: to get one’s hands dirty alongside the people makes one less likely to become corrupt, less inclined to lord power over one’s fellow toilers. (25) (26) (27) (28)
Multi-Dimensional or One-Dimensional Humanity
The view that socialism was a rational machine was popular amongst earlier revolutionaries. Such a view informed Soviet conceptions of socialism, for example. Along with this was the conception that society should be homogeneous and that everyone should be a happy cog in the machine. This outlook is associated with the Theory of Productive Forces, a theory that would later be identified as counter revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese had inherited this view to an extent. To a certain extent, this can be seen in the elevation of revolutionary martyrs like Lei Feng, who was called “the screw that never rusts.” (29) However, at the same time, the Maoists began to break from this kind of machine ideal. Another conception of humanity existed that was in line with Karl Marx’s original conception of communism in which people were realized realized many talents. Marx’s concept did not reduce the ideal experience down to the experience of the toiler:
“And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.” (30)
A Chinese poem from 1963, just after the Great Leap, similarly celebrates the diversity of human experience:
“We workers can sing,
we workers can dance…
We can wield a hoe.
We will learn to dance, act and sing,
With the aid of the Party we’ll grow.” (31)
Mix ideals contended side by side, usually not in open conflict. What was beginning was a process whereby the communists, with their radical vision, were taking society beyond the narrow limits of economism and productionism of past socialism. In their people-powered, egalitarian, decentralized, self-sufficient communal experiments, the Maoists sought a vision of society and humanity began to break with “society as machine.” The Maoist media would come to publish articles with titles such as “Discrediting the Theory of ‘Docile Tools’” at the height of the Cultural Revolution. (32) Such an image is very different than the one-dimensional, technocratic, docile societies that Herbert Marcuse criticized in both the Western and Soviet bloc. The Maoist model, imperfect and confused as it was, aspired to put communism front and center again. The Maoists would come to revitalized the international communist movement on an elevated, scientific, more inspiring basis. However, the Great Leap did not turn out as expected. Best laid plans.
- Wheelwright, E. L. and McFarlane, Bruce. The Chinese Road to Socialism: Economics of Cultural Revolution. Monthly Review Press. USA:1971
- Hinton, William. Turning Point in China. Monthly Review Press. USA: 1972
- The Red Sun Lights the Road Forward For Tachai. Foreign Language Press. Beijing, China: 1969 p. 66
- ibid. p. 88
- Mao Tse-tung. “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_26.htm
- Wu Wen-tao. “A Visit into the Old Soviet Areas” Chinese Literature Vol 2. Foreign Language Press. China: February, 1959 p. 108
- The Red Sun Lights the Road Forward For Tachai. Foreign Language Press. Beijing, China: 1969 p. 81
- Meisner, Maurice, Mao’s China and After. The Free Press, Third Edition. USA: 1999 pp. 214-217
- Wu Wen-tao. “A Visit into the Old Soviet Areas” Chinese Literature Vol 2. Foreign Language Press. China: February, 1959 p. 109
- Mao Tse-tung. “Reply to Comrade Kuo Mo-Jo” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/poems/poems34.htm
- Meisner, Maurice, Mao’s China and After. The Free Press, Third Edition. USA: 1999 p. 214
- Dikotter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. Walker Publishing Company, New York, USA: 2010 p. 47
- Joseph, William A. The Critique of Ultra-Leftism in China 1958 – 1981. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California: 1984 pp. 84-85
- “Resolution Of The Central Committee Of The Chinese Communist Party On The Establishment Of People’s Communes In The Rural Areas (August 29, 1958)” People’s Communes In China Foreign Language Press Beijing, China: 1958 p. 1
- Domes, Jurgen. Socialism in the Chinese Countryside. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Canada: 1980 p. 29-30
- “Greet The Upsurge In Forming People’s Communes Editorial Hongqi no. 7, September 1, 1958)” People’s Communes In China. Foreign Language Press Peking: 1958 pp. 9-11
- “Tentative Regulations (Draft) Of The Weihsing (Sputnik) People’s Commune (August 7, 19580 People’s Communes In China. Foreign Language Press Peking: 1958 p. 62
- Domes, Jurgen. Socialism in the Chinese Countryside. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Canada: 1980 p. 26
- Dikotter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. Walker Publishing Company, New York, USA: 2010 pp. 48-51
- Domes, Jurgen. Socialism in the Chinese Countryside. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Canada: 1980 p. 26
- Dikotter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. Walker Publishing Company, New York, USA: 2010 pp. 48-51
- ibid. pp. 48-49
- “Greet The Upsurge In Forming People’s Communes Editorial Hongqi no. 7, September 1, 1958)” People’s Communes In China. Foreign Language Press Peking: 1958 pp. 12-13
- “New-Style University” Beijing Review no. 11. March 12, 1965 p. 30
- Kao Cheng-sheng “New-Type Urban-Rural Relations In China” Beijing Review no. 13. March 29, 1963 pp. 19-23
- Hsu Ching-hsien “Training Worker-Writers” Beijing Review no. 18. May 4, 1965 pp. 20-22
- “What Agricultural Scientists Envisage” Beijing Review no. 18. May 4, 1965 pp. 22-35
- “Hold High The Red Flag Of People’s Communes And March On” Renmin Ribao Editorial, September 3, 1958
- Marx, Karl. The German Ideology http://english.illinoisstate.edu/strickland/495/etexts/german2b.html
- “We Workers Can Sing, We Workers Can Dance…” Beijing Review no. 18. May 3, 1963 p. 26
- Myrdal, Jan and Kessle, Gun China: The Revolution Continued. Pelican Books: 1973 p. 11