Maoist socialism

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By FTN Editorial Team

In this series we will publish weekly cutouts from the book by Kristian Niemietz


By the 1950s, Western intellectuals had fallen out of love with the Soviet Union. But it did not take long for new utopias to fill that void: North Vietnam, Cuba (see Chapter 4), and above all, Maoist China.

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, but during its first decade or so, it attracted little attention from Western intellectuals. Then, in the late 1950s, two things happened.

Firstly, the socialist transformation of the country began in earnest, first with the Great Leap Forward, and later with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward was the government takeover of the commanding heights of the economy – including the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and an attempted industrialisation campaign, comparable to Soviet economic policies in the 1930s. The Cultural Revolution was a programme of purging society of ‘counterrevolutionaries’,‘saboteurs’, and remnants of ‘bourgeois’ traditions, vaguely comparable to Stalin’s Great Terror. Secondly, while China was initially closely aligned with the Soviet Union, the relationship between the two socialist regimes increasingly soured, leading to their eventual fallout, the so-called Sino-Soviet split. Relations became so hostile that for a while, a war between the two former sister states seemed likely. The Sino-Soviet split radically changed perceptions of China in the West. It meant that Chinese socialism was no longer tainted by association with the – now discredited – Soviet model of socialism. It represented the promise of a fresh start, a genuinely novel, independent form of socialism. Maoism came to be seen as an alternative to Western capitalism on the one hand, and the unreal socialism of the Soviet Union on the other hand. The period from, roughly, the beginning of the 1960s to the mid-1970s became the honeymoon period of Maoism. Echoing the pilgrimages to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Western admirers flocked to China in large numbers, and returned full of praise. This was, of course, a period during which millions of alleged ‘saboteurs’ and ‘counterrevolutionaries’ were executed, or worked to death in the Chinese version of the Gulags, the Laogai. The Great Leap Forward led to what may well have been the worst famine in human history. Taken together, Chinese socialism was responsible for about 65 million deaths, according to one estimate.

Unlike in the Soviet case, China’s honeymoon period was not even a period of initial economic success. The closest thing to a counterfactual has to be Taiwan, the former Chinese province which declared independence from mainland China during the socialist revolution. Taiwan did not just avoid the famine and the economic dislocation that the mainland went through. In the 1960s, Taiwan became one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’ (together with Hong Kong, Singapore and, later, South Korea), while mainland China remained a poorhouse. By 1980, Taiwan had become more than ten times as rich as mainland China (IMF 2017). Today, Taiwan’s GDP per capita (PPP) is higher than the UK’s, and virtually identical to Germany’s and Austria’s. The difference between the two is that Taiwan became a magnet for Western investors, while mainland China became a magnet for Western intellectuals.

Mao’s pilgrims

By the time China entered its honeymoon period, many Western intellectuals had given up on economic progress. It had become fashionable to dismiss material prosperity as soulless, morally corrupting and alienating, and to praise ascetic living standards as more ‘authentic’. Thus, Maoism’s lack of economic success did not constitute a problem for its admirers. It was, if anything, an advantage, because it was seen as a deliberate avoidance of the perils of ‘consumerism’. Peter Worsley, a British sociologist and social anthropologist, and one of the founders of the ‘New Left’, wrote (cited in Hollander 1990: 319):

The Chinese […] do not wish to create a consumer society. They have not tried to produce cars, television [sic] or phones on a mass scale, since they do not wish to. Hopefully the boulevards of Peking will never be choked with thousands of private cars.

The American philosopher Corliss Lamont wrote that ‘The Communists […] will not permit the bad by-products of modern technology that had brought pollution and other evils to the United States and other capitalist nations’. In the pilgrims’ eyes, Mao’s China stood for social progress rather than economic progress. Carol Tavris, an American social psychologist, wrote:

It is the certainty of success that dominates the Chinese mood today. Their accomplishments assume dreamlike proportions in the cold light of an American day. They virtually have eliminated many of the social problems that nations are heir to: prostitution, drugs, theft, rape, murder and litter. They have eradicated many […] diseases […] No one starves, no one begs.

Joshua Horn, a British surgeon and member of the Socialist Medical Association, also found ‘a complete absence of beggars, vagrants […] and prostitutes. In the shops, fixed prices, no persuasion, scrupulous honesty and no bartering’. According to John Fairbank, an American historian:

The people seem healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao’s new China […] The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries.

A group of authors from the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars wrote that ‘After Hong Kong – noisy, pushy and crowded – the busy streets of Canton seemed gentle by comparison. […] Everyone looked healthy, no one wore rags, or begged’. Differences in attitudes to economic progress aside, the testimonies of Mao’s pilgrims sound remarkably similar to those of Stalin’s pilgrims. In a ‘blind test’ (i.e. if we blacked out time- and place-specific references), it would be difficult to tell them apart. The main theme is the characterisation of the Chinese economy as an economy run collectively by ‘the people’, and the idea that this economic model produces all-round social harmony. Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, an Italian journalist, writer and later an MP and an MEP, wrote:

There is no trace of alienation in China, nor of those neuroses or that inner disintegration of the individual found in the parts of the world dominated by consumerism. The Chinese world is compact, integrated, an absolute whole. China under M ao Tse-T 

And elsewhere:

[A] people is marching with a light step and with fervour toward the future. This people may be the incarnation of the new civilization of the world. China has made an unprecedented leap into history.

Alberto Jacoviello, another Italian writer and foreign affairs editor of the newspaper l’Unità, agreed:

[T]he most striking observation is the absolute absence of […] alienation […] There is no alienation in China. And […] there is mass political passion such as I have not found in any other part of the world.

Joshua Horn believed that ‘the ending of exploitation has greatly reduced social tensions and insecurity’. Basil Davidson, a British historian, described his impression of Chinese soldiers and railway workers thus:

[T]hey were exceedingly different from any other peasant army I have seen […] they looked like men who had elected to serve. […] The railwaymen […] produced the same kind of effect in me, they looked so sure that they owned their own railways, so determined to make their railways run well.

Norma Lundholm Djerassi, an American poet, saw ‘none of the role-playing and power-pushing I find so unpleasant in my own society. […] To feel none of that here is most refreshing. People are who they are and are happy in their usefulness to society’. While some pilgrims insisted that China was a grassroots democracy run by ‘the workers’ and ‘the peasants’, others ascribed a more active role to Mao Tse-Tung and his entourage. Urie Bronfenbrenner, an American developmental psychologist, explained that ‘To me China seemed a kind of benign monarchy ruled by an emperor priest who has won the complete devotion of his subjects. In short, a religious and highly moralistic society’. Simone de Beauvoir, the French philosopher and social theorist, saw Maoist China as a kind of Platonic republic, run by ‘philosopher kings’:

[L]ife in China today is exceptionally pleasant. […] Plenty of fond dreams are authorized by the idea of a country […] where generals and statesmen are scholars and poets.

Hewlett Johnson, an English priest, Dean of Manchester and later Dean of Canterbury, reported:

It was not hard […] to understand the deep affection men feel for this man […] All men – intellectuals, peasants, merchants – regard Mao as the symbol of their deliverance, the man who […] raised their burdens. The peasant looks at the land he tills: Mao’s gift. The factory worker thinks of a wage of 100 lb. rice instead of 10: Mao’s gift. 

Some of the pilgrims acknowledged the existence of restrictions on individual liberty, but nonetheless maintained that ‘the workers’ and ‘the peasants’ were in control. Arthur Galston, an American scientist and bioethicist, wrote that ‘they are not free to change residence or job, but in spite of that […] the Chinese masses seem to enjoy a greater measure of control over those agencies that directly affect their daily lives than do most Western city workers’. The British historian Basil Davidson described the regime as ‘authoritarian only towards a minority – a minority who are not workers or peasants. […] [T]he truth is that China’s successes are being achieved […] by the voluntary and even enthusiastic effort of most of the people in China’. Simone de Beauvoir argued that police state methods were only a problem in capitalist countries, where the state apparatus acted against the interests of ‘the people’. Since in Maoist China, ‘the people’ were in charge, those methods became a force for good, a legitimate self-defence against saboteurs and counterrevolutionaries:

Urging people to vigilance the government does indeed exhort them to report the counterrevolutionary activities […] but we must not forget that these activities consist in arson, the sabotage of bridges and dikes, in assassinations […] This cooperation with the police seems more shocking to me in our country where law is determined by the interests of a class than where justice is made to correspond to the welfare of the people. 

Peter Townsend, the UK’s leading poverty researcher (who invented the concept of ‘relative poverty’), and Lord Boyd Orr, a Scottish scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, acknowledge that the collectivisation of agriculture was not entirely voluntary. But in their version of events, it was driven by peer pressure rather than the liquidation of dissenters:

Inevitably, of course, there was a good deal of public pressure. […] [W]hen a majority of villagers decided to form a cooperative, the minority probably found it difficult to remain outside.

Others were more hard-nosed. In the can’t-make-anomelette-without-breaking-a-few-eggs tradition, Jean-Paul Sartre said that:

A revolutionary regime must get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it and I see no other means for this than death; it is always possible to get out of a prison; the revolutionaries of 1793 probably didn’t kill enough people.

As with the Soviet Gulags, Chinese Laogai were described as places of rehabilitation, not punishment, where inmates were given the opportunity to perform socially useful work, while being encouraged to think about their mistakes.John Gittings, a British author and The Guardian’s future assistant foreign editor and chief foreign leader-writer, wrote:

[R]eform through labour, which to a Western visitor has something of the flavor of the kibbutz combined with the Marxist weekend school (except that it may last for a couple of years), seemed to be working for the great majority.

Felix Greene, a British–American journalist and documentary maker, found ‘the Chinese doing what we had been trying to get the English authorities to do for years without success. Mainly, of course, to get the stigma, the moral stigma, out of imprisonment’. Bernard Frolic, a professor at the Department of Politics at York University, compared China’s labour camps to an ‘adult Boy Scout Camp, or maybe what the Civilian Conservation Corps was like during the Depression’. Harrison Evans Salisbury, an American writer and a New York Times correspondent, likened them to ‘a combination of a YMCA camp and a Catholic retreat’. Unlike Stalin-mania, Mao-mania was not the preserve of established mainstream intellectuals. Maoist iconography, such as Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, became a fixed feature of the student protests that gripped most Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s. Ironically, one of the world’s most authoritarian and hierarchical societies became the chosen utopia for a protest movement that saw itself as socially liberal, anti-authoritarian and libertine (see Wolin (2010) on Mao-mania in France and Aly (2012) on the similar situation in West Germany).

Just as ironically, the enthusiasm of Western intellectuals for China began to fade when the most murderous period was over (Hollander 1990: 344–46). After Mao’s death, mainstream intellectuals moved on to other causes, and Maoism quickly became the preserve of sectarian fringe groups. By the late 1970s, Maoism had become something of a joke, and the factionalism of Maoist groups was occasionally mocked in popular culture (most famously in Monty Python’s film Life of Brian, which plotted the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ against the ‘Judean People’s Front’). China, meanwhile, gradually moved away from socialist economics. The country’s Economic Freedom score rose from 3.6 (on a scale from 0 to 10) in 1980 to over 4 in the mid-1980s, over 5 in the mid-1990s, and over 6 in the mid2000s. This is still far behind the score of Taiwan, not to mention Hong Kong: China’s economy is still very far away from free-market capitalism. But it is a million miles away from Maoism. The result was a genuine ‘great leap forward’. Since 1980, China’s GDP per capita has increased 50-fold in constant prices. In the early 1980s, Taiwan, the closest thing to a counterfactual, was more than ten times as rich as China. Today, it is ‘only’ three times as rich. In the early 1980s, virtually the whole population of China lived in extreme poverty. Since then, this share has fallen to about one in ten.

Western intellectuals had lavishly heaped praise on China when millions of Chinese people were starving or worked to death in forced labour camps. But when a programme of relative liberalisation lifted millions of people out of poverty, those intellectuals were conspicuous by their silence. Market-based reform programmes, no matter how successful, will never inspire pilgrimages. They may, in a narrow sense, ‘work’. But they will never capture the imagination of Western intellectuals.

Remnants of Maoist apologetics today
Support for Maoism has never completely disappeared. In 1986, some members of the British House of Commons praised Deng Xiaoping’s policy of relative liberalisation, and the subsequent acceleration in the growth of the Chinese economy. Jeremy Corbyn MP countered these claims, insisting that China’s recent improvements, far from being the result of liberalisation, were really a belated vindication of socialism (Hansard 1986):

The conditions enjoyed by people in China now, compared to 1948, are immeasurably better. The country has pulled itself up […] by collectivising its economy, its efforts and its energy. Starvation and poverty are not common in China as they were in 1948. Before the hon. Gentleman lectures the world on the way in which capitalism can improve living standards he should look at some of the countries which had to develop their own economies without the assistance of anybody else. […] [T]he present prosperity in China is based upon a collective economy and not on an individual and market oriented economy.

A lukewarm version of Maoist apologetics survives to this day. In 2010, Benton and Chun (2010) published the book Was Mao Really a Monster?, in which seventeen authors try to ‘set the record straight’ on Maoism. The book does not present itself as a defence of Mao Tse-Tung and his policies, but as merely an exercise in ‘fact checking’. It is, of course, entirely possible that some estimates of the death toll of Maoism are inflated. Most genocidal regimes do not meticulously keep records. But one wonders whether any academic would have gone to such great lengths to show that the death toll of, say, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun may not have been as high as commonly assumed.

The book was referenced favourably by Seumas Milne, who believes that: 

a determined rewriting of history […] has sought to portray 20th-century communist leaders as monsters equal to or surpassing Hitler in their depravity […] The latest contribution was last year’s bestselling biography of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, […] dismissed by China specialists as ‘bad history’ and ‘misleading’.

On a BBC This Week programme in 2008, the MP for Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, argued:

 I suppose some people would judge that on balance, Mao did more good than harm. […] He led his country from feudalism, he helped to defeat the Japanese, and he left his country on the verge […] of the […] great economic success they’re having now.

These are minority views on the left today, but the ease with which such views are tolerated in socialist circles suggests, again, how illusory the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ socialism is.

As before, the short summary of this chapter is not that the Western left, as a whole, was in thrall to Maoism in the 1960s and early 1970s. The above quotes are a selection, not a representative sample. Nor was the tendency to make excuses for dictatorships confined to the left. It is well-known that under the euphemistic label of realpolitik, governments of the political right were often willing to forge alliances with dictatorial regimes, provided they shared a common interest. But it is entirely fair to say that Maoism had its fair share of prominent admirers in the West. Some of the left’s leading thinkers were sympathetic to Maoism. Since the late 1970s, Maoism has been widely associated with eccentric, politically irrelevant fringe groups – but that is only because around that time, mainstream intellectuals had already moved on to other causes, leaving only the eccentrics behind. Before then, Maoism was a mainstream cause.

The claim that Maoist socialism was not ‘real’ socialism is a post-hoc fabrication. It was ‘real’ socialism. Until it was not.