In the countryside, the landed gentry was liquidated as a class, and land was distributed to individual peasant proprietors. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1950 confiscated the property of landlords, who had comprised four percent of the population and had owned thirty percent of cultivated land. It also confiscated institutional lands belonging to village shrines and temples, monasteries, churches, and schools; much of which was controlled indirectly by landlords. The confiscated land was distributed to landless and poor peasants. Middle peasants and “rich peasants,” on the other hand, were allowed to keep their lands and to continue renting to tenant farmers and employing labor, to the extent that the land worked by tenants and hired labor did not exceed what the peasant owners cultivated themselves. These measures were designed to promote more equality in land distribution in a form that did not disrupt agricultural production. Although they left distinctions among poor, middle, and rich peasants, the differences in land holdings and income were relatively small. The measures were conceived as a first step; the full and wholesale collectivization of agriculture was planned, necessary to facilitate more technically advanced forms of agricultural production (Meisner, 1999:90-101, 129-31, 146-47).
From the 1950 to 1955, the collectivization of agricultural was a voluntary and gradual process with three stages. First, the formation of mutual aid teams of six or more households that would assist each other in work on their individual farms. Secondly, the combination of mutual aid teams into lower cooperatives, which involved the pooling and cooperative farming of land alongside the preservation of individual private plots that each household would continue to own. Thirdly, amalgamation into advanced cooperative farms, with the elimination of privately owned farms. By 1955, sixty-five percent of peasant households had joined mutual aid teams, and fifteen percent had formed lower cooperatives (Meisner, 1999:129-32, 134).
In 1955, Mao pushed for an acceleration of the process of collectivization. He encountered resistance from the Central Committee of the Party, which believed that industrialization had not advanced sufficiently, and therefore, in the context of low industrial development, the collectivization of agriculture would not have beneficial effects with respect to production, and it could disrupt production. Mao, however, believed that the peasants possessed a spontaneous and active desire to advance more in the socialist road, and that the formation of cooperatives would stimulate the further development of industry. Mao was able to overrule the Central Committee by appealing to regional and provincial Party leaders. The Party announced the accelerated program proposed by Mao in October 1955. The voluntary formation of cooperatives occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace during late 1955 and 1956, consistent with Mao’s sense of the revolutionary spontaneity of the peasantry. By the spring planting of 1957, 100% of peasant households belonged to advanced cooperatives; and private ownership of land was eliminated, except for small plots for consumption or for a limited private market. Production was not disrupted, and it continued to advance at a slow but steady rate (Meisner, 1999:135-48).
Similar decisive steps in the socialist road were taken with respect to industry. Beginning in 1949, the commercial enterprises, banks, and industries of the Chinese comprador bourgeoisie, which was tied and subordinated to foreign capital, were confiscated without compensation and were nationalized. On the other hand, the national bourgeoisie, owners of smaller companies that represented a more autonomous form of capitalist development, were permitted to retain ownership, and they were encouraged to expand under strong state regulation that included the setting of prices and wages and control of trading. Such expanding space for private capital was necessary for increasing production, and it reached culmination in 1952-53. However, after 1953, the state nationalized the enterprises of the national bourgeois private sector, with compensation, such that the national bourgeoisie ceased to exist as a class. Following that date, with both the comprador and national bourgeois classes* eliminated, private capital was confined to small-scale enterprises, such as self-employed handicraft workers and petty shopkeepers. The nationalization of industry was effective in promoting rapid industrial growth. Between 1952 and 1957, annual industrial growth was either 16% or 18%, depending on the measures used (Meisner, 1999:83-85, 113).
In addition, important steps in the socialist road were taken with respect to the organization of society. Autonomous mass organizations of workers, women, students, and peasants were formed, building upon and transforming preexisting organizations. In addition, resident committees and people’s militias were formed (Meisner, 1999:63, 80, 84, 96, 267).
Looking at the Chinese revolutionary organization of society from the vantage point of the premises of representative democracy, Meisner views the mass organizations as a mechanism of control from above by the Party and the state. He writes, “These organizations were in essence arms of the neutralized state apparatus, dominated by the same Party that controlled the national government” (1999:80). However, if were we to look at Chinese revolutionary social organizations from the vantage point of the premises of socialism, we would see that they are consistent with basic socialist concepts, which envision the replacement of representative democracy with alternative structures of popular democracy. In popular democracy, mass organizations are formed in order to enable the various sectors of the people to formulate their interests; they constitute an important mechanism for the expression of popular will. The workers’ organizations, for example, participate in the management of the state-owned companies. In socialist political theory, mass organizations complement the work of the Party, which is formed by a vanguard from the people; and the state, which is under the direction of assemblies of popular power, indirectly elected by the people.
In a manner similar to the Chinese socialist revolution, the Cuban revolution also expanded and created mass organizations following its triumph in 1959. In Cuba today, the mass organizations are central to Cuban civil society. The leaders of the mass organizations of workers, students, women, and neighborhoods, elected by their members, have a prominent presence in Cuban public discourse. The great majority of the elected leaders of mass organizations are members of the Cuban Communist Party, of which fifteen percent of the people are members. Inasmuch as members are selected by the Party on the basis of their good qualities as citizens and revolutionaries, Party members tend to be committed, disciplined, and hardworking, and the Party itself has been at the vanguard of the struggle to defend sovereignty of the nation and the social gains that benefit the people. As a result, the people hold the Party and its members in high regard, and the election of its members to leadership in mass organizations is a logical outcome of such respect. The prestige of the Cuban Communist Party is a dimension of the political reality of Cuba. (For more on the Cuban political process, see The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution, Pp. 130-42).
The enemies of the Cuban revolution say that the mass organizations are controlled by the Party, inasmuch as the great majority of the leaders of the mass organizations are Party members. But this counterrevolutionary claim converts the people’s high regard of the Party into a sinister anti-democratic phenomenon. The mass organizations elect their own leaders, who may or may not be Party members, depending on the results of the election. Although the members of the mass organizations freely elect a leadership comprised mostly of Party members, the mass organizations are legally and constitutionally independent of the Party and of the government, and neither the Party nor the state leadership directs the mass organizations.
As independent organizations, the mass organizations call upon the Party, the government, and the people with respect to their issues of concern. If a political reality were to emerge in which one or more of the mass organizations were to acquire an interest in a direction different from that of the Party and/or the government, the structures of popular participation are in place to facilitate the expression and mobilization of popular will. But this would be a surprising development, since the Party and the government have systemic structures for taking into account the perspectives of the mass organizations on an ongoing basis. This is why Cuban socialism is dynamic and constantly evolving. The mass organizations are an integral part of a process of communication from the bottom-up as well as from the top-down. Such two-way communication involving the organizations of the people functions as a dimension of popular democracy, which has been designed as a socialist alternative to bourgeois representative democracy.
The Cuban experience of mass organizations provides me with a perspective from which I read Meisner. From such a vantage point, I see that Meisner does not tell us how the leaders of the mass organizations in China are selected, elected, or determined. He leaves this issue aside, referring to Party control of mass organizations in an ambiguous and loose sense. It seems to me that “Party control” of the mass organizations, in the loose sense in which Meisner describes it, does not necessarily mean any more than the support of the people, through their mass organizations, of the Party as the vanguard of their revolution. In the socialist concept of democracy, the development of mass organizations are integral to the expanding of structures of popular participation, and they constitute an important dimension of the transition to socialism, for socialism includes the substitution of structures of representative democracy with those of popular democracy.
Thus, we can see that the Chinese revolutionary leaders implemented a transition to socialism within eight years, doing so in stages. In agriculture, they at first took land from the landholders and distributed it to individual peasant households; then they moved to agricultural cooperatives. In industry, they first nationalized the companies of the comprador bourgeoisie, and then they moved to nationalization of those of the national bourgeoisie. At the same time, they developed mass organizations to facilitate that the people would have organized political voice and structures of political participation.
When the Chinese Revolution triumphed on October 1, 1949, it proclaimed its twin goals of socialist transformation and economic modernization. During the subsequent eight years, it delivered on the promises that it made to the people: it liquidated the ruling classes in the countryside and in the city; it established agricultural cooperatives and state ownership of industry; it reduced inequalities in land distribution and income; and it formed popular organizations. Subsequently, its leadership became divided over how to balance the twin goals of socialist transformation and economic modernization. On the one side, the Maoists accused persons in positions of authority of being “capitalist roaders” who sought to take the revolution in a capitalist direction. On the other side, a majority on the Party’s Central Committee believed that Mao and the Maoists were reckless utopians. Establishing the social and political context of the conflict was the bureaucratization of the revolution, which we will explore in the next post.
* On the distinction between the comprador bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie, see (Mao, 2009:133-35).
Mao Zedong. 2009. Collected Writings of Chairman Mao, Volume One: Politics and Tactics. Edited by Shawn Conners, Translated by Foreign Language Press, Peking. El Paso, Texas: El Paso Norte Press, Special Edition Books.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.