As nearly everyone knows, Mao Zedong was a leader of the Chinese Revolution and chairman of the Chinese Communist party. Like Stalin, he is often portrayed as a power-mad dictator who deliberately murdered and repressed millions of his own people. A quick look at evidence outside of mainstream academia (That is, bourgeois propaganda), reveal these claims to be either exaggerated or completely falsified.
First, there is the question of the Great Leap Forward, which many have dubbed the biggest famine in history. It is also claimed to be a deliberate result of Mao’s policies. The typical number is somewhere around 45 million, though estimates vary greatly . This is a blatant lie. Firstly, much of the evidence, such as that found in The Chinese Quarterly edited by Roderick McFarquhar, comes from sources that received funding from the CIA . Given that this is an imperialist agency with a strong incentive to undermine communist movements, it is safe to say that we can discard it. The CIA has spent billions of dollars attempting to undermine leftist governments all over the world. Trusting them to report on socialism in an unbiased way is ludicrous.
More objective studies reach very different conclusions than those funded by imperialists. As Chinese scholar Carl Riskin states, “In general, it appears that the indications of hunger and hardship did not approach the kind of qualitative evidence of mass famine that have accompanied other famines of comparable (If not equal) scale, including earlier famines in China” . This is corroborated by the writing of Felix Greene. He traveled through areas of China in 1960 and wrote about it in the book China: A Curtain of Ignorance. He says that food rationing was very tight but that he did not witness mass starvation, nor did any of the eyewitnesses that he spoke to there .
Further, many of the sources cited by Joseph Becker in his famous book Hungry Ghosts did not appear until the 1990s. The stories of cannibalism and starvation contained therein rely heavily on an unofficial collection of Mao’s speeches and a document smuggled out of the country by a dissident called Thirty Years in the Countryside. Becker makes no attempt to explain why these sources ought to be trusted and even discusses the possibility that the papers might be forgeries. Many of his eyewitness accounts, collected in the 1990s came from peasants who he admits were coached by the Deng Xioping government (which has denounced Mao) . He also cites journals that were released by the U.S. State Department in 1966 regarding the famine. As the British newspaper Telegraph states, “They have been in American hands for some time, although nobody will disclose how they were acquired” . No anticommunist historian has been able to cite any evidence that appeared at the actual time of the Great Leap Forward. All of this should lead one to conclude that while famine certainly occurred, it was largely due to natural causes and was not as horrible as we have been lead to believe.
It is also worth noting that famines were common in China prior to the communist seizure of power. John Leighton Stuart, the US ambassador to China from 1946-49 claimed that roughly seven million people starved to death in China per year during his tenure. Famines were a fixture in China prior to the Great Leap Forward, so there is nothing about communism that makes famines more likely. In fact, there was never a famine in China after the Great Leap Forward. This is a testament to the power of socialist economic policy .
So if Mao did not kill millions in the Great Leap Forward, what did he do? His policies were far from disastrous. They improved millions of lives and laid the groundwork necessary for China to become the superpower it is today. Even the anticommunist historian Nicholas Kristoff has to admit that Mao had some incredible successes. He writes, “Land reform in China…helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today….Mao’s assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon” . In spite of unprecedented loss from famines, China’s population never went down during the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later .
Prior to the revolution, life expectancy was around 35 years. By the time Mao died in 1976, it had almost doubled to 67 years . Literacy followed a similar course. The pre-revolution literacy rate was around 20 percent, compared to 93 percent after Mao’s death . Mao helped China’s population growth out of stagnation, with population reaching 900 million by the time he passed on . Much of this is due to the fact that a high-quality universal healthcare system was instituted, and production of food increased due to cooperative farming and irrigation . This healthcare system led to a medical remedy for malaria, a disease that decimated China prior to his rule . Healthcare was not merely availible, but leauges better than it was prior to the revolution. In a very material sense, Mao improved the lives of the Chinese people.
Mao’s programs did not cause famines, but rather ended them. Agricultural production did decrease in five years between 1949-1978 due to “natural calamities and mistakes in the work,” as Mao himself admitted  However, he states that during 1949-1978 the per hectare yield of land sown with food crops increased by 145.9% and total food production rose 169.6%. During this period China’s population grew by 77.7%. On these figures, China’s per capita food production grew from 204 kilograms to 328 kilograms in the period in question .
Even according to figures released by the Deng Xiaoping government, industrial production increased by 11.2% per year from 1952-1976 (by 10% a year during the ‘catastrophe’ of the Cultural Revolution). In 1952 industry was 36% of gross value of national output in China. By 1975 industry was 72% and agriculture was 28%. It is quite obvious that Mao’s socialist economic policies were a great boon to the people of China. They paved the way for the rapid development of China after his death . All of this was summed by Maurice Meisner, a vocal critic of Mao, when he said that Mao’s victory and subsequent socio-economic developments “Must be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century…few events have done more to better the lives of more people” . William Hinton, in his book Away With All Pests, wrote that, “In China there is no inflation,” due to economic planning . These unparalleled economic achievements are ignored in favor of outright lies regarding Mao. These will be further discussed below.
I would be remiss not to mention the Communes that sprung up thanks to Mao. One of the more salient examples is the Chengguan Commune. To quote Some Facts About China,
“That the collective economy of the entire Cheng Kuan commune is thriving can be seen in other aspects of its economy. The commune operates more than a dozen enterprises, including a plant for manufacturing and repairing farm machinery, a brickyard, a lime kiln, a nursery for mulberry saplings and a veterinary station. The brigades under the commune also have their own small and medium-sized enterprises. The Bright Star brigade to which Chiao Li belongs operates four electric irrigation and drainage stations, a shop for processing farm and sideline produce, a cultivation station equipped with three tractors and eight cable-operated plows, and a forest farm.
Each of the three levels—commune, brigade and team—manages and distributes its own income and enjoys the profit or bears the losses itself. While economic undertakings run by the commune and brigades are relatively few at present, these contribute much to developing the economy of the teams and improving the life of the commune members. Like the other production teams, Chiao Li manages its own land, livestock and the use of its small and medium farm tools in a unified way for collective production. The members’ main source of income is from the team.
The team has its own public accumulation fund which is used to cover expenditures that benefit its members collectively. They have, therefore, a direct interest in the proportion set aside for this fund.” These Communes organized schools, kitchens, farms, and factories. Many of these necessities were available on the basis of need. They worked so well that the Communist Party revised its plan to achieve communism. Mao originally planned the transition to take one hundred years, but many in the Party noticed the performance of the communes and wanted to change it to ten” .
The Communes were also very democratic. In Some Facts About China, the Maoist International Movement also writes,
“The people’s commune is run on the principle of democratic centralism. The representative assemblies of the production team, the production brigade and the commune are the organs of power at these levels. Representatives are elected after thorough discussions by the members. Every member has the right to vote and be elected. Between sessions of the representative assembles, work is carried out by a permanent body. (In the production team it is called a leading group and in the brigade and commune, a revolutionary committee.) These permanent leading bodies are also elected by the members.
Before the start of every production year, these leading groups at each level draw up production plans based on the targets set by the state, the actual conditions in each unit and the members’ needs. Unified planning gives due consideration to each of these at each level. The drafts are given to the members for full discussion, then revised according to suggestions and finalized. The figures on expenditures and distribution are made public each year. The join in discussions, approve plans and other matters, and criticize and supervise the way they are carried out, are the rights of all commune members. These rights are protected by law. In addition to these democratic rights in the political and economic spheres, every commune member has the right to work, reset and education and to share in social welfare. Every member able to work has the right to take part in productive labor. Men and women get the same pay for the same work. When work is assigned, the special physical problems of women are given due consideration.
Time for work and rest are arranged according to local farming customs and vary with the seasons. Proper reset is guaranteed. Commune members give their first attention to fulfilling collective targets. In their spare time they can work at the small private plots allotted to them by the production team, raise a little poultry or a few head of stock, or do handicrafts. Members can do what they like with products from this labor” .
This system of democracy extended to China’s factories as well as the rural areas. According to an article published in 1965 in the Peking Review,
“The staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important means of broadening democracy and getting the masses of staff and workers to take part in management and to supervise the work of the administration. Comrade Teng Hsiao-ping has said: “The staff and workers’ representatives conference under the leadership of the Communist Party committee is a good means of broadening democracy in the enterprises, of recruiting workers and staff to take part in the management and of overcoming bureaucracy. It is an effective method of correctly handling contradictions among the people.” The conference helps integrate centralized leadership with the bringing into play of the initiative of the masses of staff and workers, thus simultaneously strengthening the centralized leadership from top to bottom and providing supervision by the masses from below. This results in continuously improving administrative work and ensuring the overall fulfilment of state plans.
In state-owned industrial enterprises, the staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important form through which the staff and workers all participate in management. The conference may hear and discuss the director’s report on the work of the enterprise, examine and discuss production, financial, technological and wage plans as well as major measures to realize them, check regularly on the implementation of these plans and put forward proposals. It may examine and discuss the use of the enterprise’s bonus, welfare, medical, labour protection and trade union funds as well as other funds allotted for the livelihood and welfare of the staff and workers. On condition that the directives and orders issued by higher authorities are not violated, the conference may adopt resolutions on the expenditure of the above funds and charge the administrative or other departments concerned to carry them out. It may criticize any of the leaders of the enterprise and, when necessary, make proposals to the higher administrative authorities for punishing or dismissing those leaders who seriously neglect their duties and behave badly. Should there be disagreement with the decisions of the higher administrative authorities, the conference may put forward its own proposals, but if the higher authorities insist on the original decisions after due study, it must carry them through accordingly.
This is why the staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important means of developing democracy and getting the masses of staff and workers to participate in management throughout the factory. Through this conference, the Party’s principles and policies can be better implemented among the masses, the relations between the interests of the state and those of the staff and workers of the enterprise in question can be correctly handled, those between the administration on the one hand and the trade union organization and the masses of the staff and workers on the other can be correctly adjusted; and at the same time the socialist consciousness of the staff and workers and their sense of responsibility as masters in their own house can be raised, the masses’ supervision over administrative work strengthened, and the improvement of management promoted.
The staff and workers’ representatives conference is convened regularly and presided over by the trade union. When the conference is not in session, its routine work is done by the trade union under the leadership of the enterprise’s Party committee and with the active support and coordination of the enterprise’s administration” .
It is obvious from this that worker’s rights under Mao were far more advanced than they were in the United States at the time, and poverty was on a minute level. The economic organization of Mao’s China was far more democratic than it is in capitalist countries. Corporations are in fact quite similar to what anticommunists believe Mao’s China was: a top-down system in which a small group of owners holds all the power. Socialism, on the other hand, is a system based on the collective rule of the working class. Workplaces are focused around meeting human needs and improving the lives of the masses rather than generating profit. Mao’s China is a superb example of this.
Mao also helped women make unprecedented strides towards social equality, according to the document Women in Mao’s China. Before he rose to power, women were expected to be completely subservient to their husbands, and arranged marriages were common. Families would often pay dowries, meaning that women were viewed as little more than commodities. Mao changed this. He refused to go through with his own arranged marriage in protest against this culture and encouraged women to take key position in the party. He also granted them the right to vote, having famously said that, “Women hold up half the heavens” .
Many Black Panthers and other civil rights activists supported the Chinese Revolution on the basis that it improved the lives of black people around the world. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, Black Panther leader Elaine Brown visited Beijing in 1970 and was “pleasantly surprised with the way the revolution improved people’s lives” . China made numerous steps towards national and collective liberation, which was recognized by many American activists at the time. The achievements of China in the social arena cannot be understated.
China’s support of socialism around the world should also be mentioned. Mao’s theories of the People’s War helped influence and strengthen liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Bolivia, and parts of Latin America. It is in part because of Mao that global imperialism is under such severe threat. Were it not for him, Western hegemony would be even greater than it currently is, and the repressive right-wing government of India would not be challenged by the Naxalites, a guerrilla group which also aids the poor .
Contrary to popular belief, Mao was not a totalitarian, in philosophy or in deed. He did not treat his ideas as infallible. He understood the need for creative problem solving and discussion in revolutionary activity. In Oppose Book Worship, he writes that,
“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship” .
It is clear from this statement that he did not regard his writings-or anyone else’s-as infailiable. He did not object to critiscism, but rather encouraged it on the basis that it improved the practice of revolutionaries.
He was also vehemently anti-bureaucracy, writing that, “The task of combating bureaucracy…should arouse the attention of our leading bodies at all levels,” and, “the struggle against bureaucracy, corruption, and waste should be stressed as much as the struggle to suppress counterrevolutionaries” . As Mobo Gabo (a peasant who grew up during the Cultural Revolution) writes in Mao and the Cultural Revolution: The Battle for China’s Past, “There is documented evidence [that] it was Mao who called on the Chinese youth to rebel against the authorities, who provoked them not to be obedient and not to follow their leaders blindly” . Criticism of Party leaders was encouraged, not suppressed. Dongping Han writes in The Unknown Cultural Revolution,
“During the Cultural Revolution, big character posters more than made up for the absence of a free press. Writers of the big character posters did not need to please any editors, and no reputation was required to put one out. This forum was tailored to the needs of ordinary farmers, workers, and others for participation in the political life of their units.”
“[M]ass associations debated with one another and with Party leaders-in public.”
Jiao Chuanfa, an ordinary worker…said that the ability to speak publicly was empowering” .
This, coupled with the aforementioned grassroots economic democracy, suggests that Mao was not in fact a totalitarian. Rather, he was a man of the people. Criticism of the leaders was open and direct, involving not just an elite body of elected representatives, but the people themselves. This represents a marked different from the United States or Europe, wherein only the press (themselves wealthy elites) are granted direct audience with officials.
Many would assert that Mao’s China could not have been democratic because all of Mao’s political opponents were executed. Like the propaganda around the Great Leap Forward, this is false. It is true that Mao took responsibility for 800,000 deaths, but he did not do so because these people crossed him personally. Rather, those who were executed came from bourgeois class backgrounds. They were landlords, nationalist generals, and so on. These were massively popular executions based on the will of the people. The executions followed people’s trials against the most hated landlords and pro-Japanese traitors who had terrorized the peasants during World War Two and its aftermath. 800,000 is indeed a large number of people, but it came after a hundred years of invasion, civil war, and occupation. During this period, 22 million people died of starvation . In this context, executions are completely understandable and, I would contend, commendable.
In fact, Mao believed that the people went too far in exacting vengeance for decades of imperialist murder. He called for fewer executions going forward and explicitly ordered the Cultural Revolution to be nonviolent. Central Committee Party directives stated,”debates should be conducted by reasoning, not by coercion or force,” and “as regards scientists, technicians and ordinary members of the working staff, as long as they are patriotic, work energetically, are not against the Party and socialism and maintain no illicit relations with any foreign country, we should continue to apply the policy of unity-criticism-unity” . Mao was not a bloodthirsty dictator. Rather, he viewed violence as an abhorrent but necessary consequence of revolution. Given the aforementioned civil war and the contradictory class interests of the landlords, this can only be described as correct. Those who carried out illegal killings were dealt with harshly, as they would be in any society. Song Binbin, a non-party member who murdered her high school teacher (the first instance of this in Chinese history) was forced to flee the US. In sharp contrast to the fundamentally peaceful character of the Chinese socialist state, she was embraced as a political refugee by the United States . With all of this in mind, it is unsurprising that the brunt of the violence in the Cultural Revolution came from people who were politically opposed to Mao .
Although there were executions, they were based on the popular will of the masses, rather than the whims of the elite. As such, the existence of violence in the Mao era is insufficient evidence to characterize it as undemocratic. It is also not a compelling reason to characterize Maoism or socialism as inherently violent.
Many of Mao’s own enemies survived being expelled from the Party. Both Deng Xiaoping and President Xi’s father survived re-education camps and continued serving their country. Xi Jinping himself admits that the level of violence during this period is exaggerated. He says,
“People who have little understanding of power, those who have been far away from it, tend to regard these things as mysterious and novel. But I look past these superficial things: the power and the flowers and the glory and the applause…I understand politics on a deeper level” .
Even the victims of Mao’s violence admit that it was necessary due to the exigences of the revolution. It was not carried out because Mao had a psychopathic lust for power, but rather because the people were attempting to build a new society. As we have seen, this new society was a good deal freer than the capitalist “democracies” detractors love to uphold.
As further evidence that Mao was not a totalitarian or an elitist, we need only look at educational norms during the Cultural Revolution. Don Pinghan writes,
“Rebels questioned the Party’s authority and its educational policies and demanded fundamental changes in education.”
“The Cultural Revolution destroyed the supreme authority teachers had over students…Students…wrote big character posters to air their grievances against their teachers at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution”.
If Mao wanted to exercise absolute power over his people, why did he encourage critical thinking and rebellion among students? Why did he go out of his way to destroy systems that would have encouraged subservience to authority? The idea that he was an authoritarian elitist crumbles in light of this evidence. He made every effort to empower the people.
There is much ado about intellectuals and educated youth being “sent down to the countryside” to engage in hard labor. It is assumed that this was done because Mao hated intelligent people and wanted to see them suffer. In actuality, Pinghan writes,
Educated youth ‘suffered’ only from an urban perspective and to a large extent only from hindsight. From the perspectives of the rural residents, the educated youth had a good life. They did not have to work as hard as the local farmers and they had state and family subsidies. They would frequently go back to visit their parents in the cities (Leung 1994) and they had money to spend and wore fashionable clothes. They would bring food in tin cans that the rural people had never seen (Seybolt 1996). They had the privilege of being allowed to violate local rules and customs, and sometimes behaved waywardly by stealing fruit and vegetables and killing chickens raised by villagers for their own benefits. For most rural people, the educated youth were the envy of their life and were respected (Davies 2002). Finally, those educated youths whose family backgrounds were of ‘class enemies’ actually enjoyed a period of relief [during the Cultural Revolution] because the rural people respected them all without bothering about the class line .
We can see from this that sending the youth to the countryside served a specific purpose: it was meant to decrease the gap between urban and rural mentalities, thereby reducing the amount of necessary violent conflict. Mao did not reeducate the educated because he was violent, but because he was striving for peace.
Many academics hold the position that Mao was deeply concerned with the welfare of the people. Historian Lee Fangion describes Mao as “earthy,” meaning that he remained closely connected with the Chinese people and their struggle . Australian historian Ross Teriel noted that Mao was a ‘son of the soil,’ and, “Unsophisticated in origins” . While some have described Mao as ‘lazy,’ those who worked with him disputed the accuracy of this characterization . Mobo Gao even proves that Mao stopped eating meat in solidarity with peasants during the Great Leap Forward, further identifying him as a hero of the people .
Mao improved the lives of many in China, granting them liberation from poverty, serfdom, and patriarchy. Why, then, are those in the West so intent on slandering Mao and minimizing his achievements? It is because he represented a credible alternative to capitalism, the system that allowed them to become rich off the backs of other’s labor. They have a direct economic incentive to misrepresent Mao. This is why it is important to defend him and the society he helped create, as I have done here. Doing so helps to strike a blow against capitalism and furthers the struggle for the emancipation of the working class.
- C. Riskin. ‘Seven Questions About the Chinese Famine of 1959-61’ China Economic Review, vol 9, no.2. 1998, p121.
- M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191
- Daily Telegraph 06/08/63.
- Guo Shutian ‘China’s Food Supply and Demand Situation and International Trade’ in Can China Feed Itself? Chinese Scholars on China’s Food Issue. Beijing Foreign Languages Press 2004.
- The Unkown Cultural Revolution
- see J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, P. Newman (eds) Problems of the Planned Economy, Macmillan Reference Books 1990
- M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191. Op. Cit.
- see this
- Chairman Mao Talks to the People (NY: Pantheon, 1974) 77-8
- Associated Press,; Ann Arbor News, 10/1/89, B9.
- Chairman Mao Talks to the People (NY: Pantheon, 1974) 281
- Chinese Times, 2000
- The Unknown Cultural Revolution, op. cit.
- Feigon, Lee (2002). Mao: A Reinterpretation. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 26
- Terrill, Ross (1980). Mao: A Biography. Simon and Schuster. 480
- DeBorja, Q.M. and Xu L. Dong, eds. (1996). Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies and Random House’s Memoirs of Mao’s Physician. New York: China Study Group. p. 48.
- The Battle for China’s Past, op. cit.