What were the ultra-Leftist political errors of Mao? Of primary importance was the erroneous political strategy adopted by Mao in the various moments in which he found himself in the minority in the CCP Central Committee. As we have seen, Mao in 1955 disagreed with the Central Committee majority in regard to the issue of the pace of the collectivization of agriculture. In 1957, Mao advocated the development of medium-sized, light, and rural industry connected to agriculture, in opposition to the Central Committee majority, which favored the Soviet model of emphasis on investment in heavy industry. In 1962 and again in 1965, Mao pronounced against the pragmatic policies of the Liu government, maintaining that they represented a capitalist road that was undermining the socialist society. In the situations of 1955 and 1962, Mao was able to overrule the Central Committee by appealing to provincial and district Party leaders. On both occasions, the Central Committee conceded to the views of the Party leaders and approved Mao’s proposals. In 1957, Mao appealed to non-Party intellectuals, who responded with Rightist critiques, provoking the Central Committee to launch an anti-Rightist campaign against intellectuals. Mao, however, redirected the anti-Rightist campaign against the Party itself, leading to a purge of Rightist Party leaders and enabling Maoists to take control of the Party and implement Mao’s vision. In 1965, Mao appealed to the people, especially students, leading to a purge of Party leaders and members who were allegedly taking the capitalist road, which resulted in a restoration of Mao’s political power and the implementation of some of his egalitarian proposals. (See “The Chinese transition to socialism,” 1/11/2018; “The emergence of Maoism,” 1/18/2018; and “The Cultural Revolution in China,” 1/25/2018).
Mao’s political strategy violated the evolving norms of socialist political practices. In the construction of socialism, when there are strategic disagreements among revolutionary leaders, correct strategies will show themselves as the revolution evolves. Therefore, when revolutionary leaders cannot attain a consensus, the best approach is to develop alternative pilot projects, analyzing the economic results and social consequences of each, establishing the possibility for a scientific foundation for decision-making and for political consensus. In making political appeals outside the political leadership, and especially in appealing to non-Party intellectuals and students, neither of which was well qualified to judge, Mao provoked political conflicts that were a danger to the revolution itself and that led to the unjustifiable public humiliation of targeted persons. In contrast to Mao’s conflictive approach, the necessary road is the seeking of internal consensus within the revolutionary leadership, which constantly strives to teach and unify the people.
Secondly, Mao imposed a pace and level of agricultural collectivization for which there was not an adequate economic base. Lacking an adequate level of industrial support for its cooperative social formation, Chinese agricultural growth in production was low, lagging behind what was necessary and behind industrial growth. Moreover, the total elimination of private agricultural production had the consequence that those peasants most suited by temperament and capacities to individual production were constrained from contributing more to national agricultural production. Seeing these limitations, the Party in the 1980s, without describing the collectivization of the 1950s as a political error, called for the partial reversal of collectivization and for the establishment of new possibilities for individual private farms (see Meisner, 1999:460-69).
Thirdly, Mao’s vision of rural industrial development, with its emphasis on locally oriented industry and on smallness, has many attractive features. However, this is a complex issue. It is not clear if such locally based industry has the productive and technical capacity to drive the modern economic development of a nation as large as China. The best approach is the simultaneous development of both local light industry and large heavy industry, at a pace that does not overreach capital and labor resources, with scientific analysis of the economic and social consequences of both.
Fourthly, Mao encouraged idealistic conceptions, such as a rejection of centralized planning, the abolition of the division of labor, the total elimination of inequality, and a romantic notion of the revolutionary virtues of the poorest peasants. The experience of the Chinese Revolution from 1949 to the present shows that centralized planning by the state, without rigidity and with appropriate space for local autonomy; functional divisions in work; some level of inequality in income, based on merit; and ideological and pedagogical leadership by political leaders are important components in the long-term development of the nation and socialism.
Mao adopted ultra-Leftist positions on issues that are complex, and which of necessity must be politically decided in the challenging context of constructing a socialist society, in which providing for the material needs of the people is a pressing concern. Technicians alone should not decide such complex technical questions, but neither should they be decided through a conflictive ideological battle that undermines possibilities for constructive consensus.
Ultra-Leftist political errors in China had dramatic negative effects on economic development. Production fell and rose in a rhythm that paralleled the rise and fall of ultra-Leftist policies. From 1950-52, following the Agrarian Reform Law of 1950, which took land from landholders and distributed it to individual peasants, agricultural production increased 15% per year. In contrast, from 1952 to 1976, when cooperatives were developed and there were limited possibilities for individual peasant production and sale, agricultural production increased only 2.3% per year, significantly below the projections of the development plans. From 1978 to 1984, agricultural production increased 9% per year, in the context of new policies that removed restrictions on rural markets, set high prices for agricultural goods, promoted rural industries related to agricultural, and favored a return to family farming. As we have seen, as a consequence of the economic and organizational chaos of the Great Leap Forward as well as natural disasters, food shortages emerged in the period 1958 to 1961, and there may have been fifteen to twenty million famine-related deaths (Meisner, 1999:98, 228, 237, 416, 460-69; Díaz, 2010:24).
Similarly, Chinese industry grew at a rate of 16% to 18% between 1952 and 1957, a period characterized by the nationalization of foreign and domestic industry. From 1959 to 1962, with the Great Leap Forward, industrial production declined 40%. With Liu’s pragmatic economic policies of 1962 to 1965, industrial production was stabilized in 1962, and it grew at an average annual rate of 11% from 1963 to 1965. The introduction of differential wage rates in the factories was a factor in facilitating recovery in industrial production, a policy that implied tolerance of a level of inequality among workers, on the basis of merit (Meisner, 1999:113, 253, 264, 266).
The Cuban scholar Julio A. Díaz, who has published in Cuba several books on China and on socialist economies, describes the rise and fall of China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and national income in a form paralleling the zigzag between ultra-Leftist and pragmatic policies. From 1952 to 1957, during the initial transition to socialism, the GDP grew 20% during the five-year period, and national income grew at annual rate of 9%. From 1958 to 1962, during the Great Leap, annual growth of national income was 3%, and agricultural production fell 4%. From 1962-65, with the pragmatic economic policies of Liu, national income grew 15% during the three-year period. With the conflicts of the Cultural Revolution, production fell 14% in 1967 and 5% in 1968. Subsequently, with the turn to order and stability, in which Mao and Zhou cooperated, the GDP grew at 6% per year from 1968 to 1972 (Díaz, 2010:21-27).
To be sure, growth in national production and income is only one factor. Other dimensions must be taken into account in evaluating the quality of a society and the commitment of its political leaders. Such dimensions include the level of equality; access to education, health care, culture, and sport; the development of scientific knowledge tied to the needs of the people and to sustainable development; the protection of the sovereignty of the nation; a foreign policy consistent with universal human values, among others. However, productive growth is an important indicator, especially in a society with a low level of economic development and high levels of poverty. Revolutionary leaders in China and the Third World must give a high priority to economic growth and development, in order to respond to the material needs of the people.
Starting in 1978, China was able to overcome its ultra-Leftism and develop a more pragmatic approach to the construction of a socialist society. We should understand that this was not a turn to capitalism, but a turn to a pragmatic approach, necessary in practical terms for the attainment of revolutionary goals. Two other important socialist projects, Vietnam and Cuba, also have been characterized by flexible and pragmatic leadership, which has avoided ultra-Leftist errors, for the most part. They have not been characterized by ideological rigidity, which insists on applying an idea regardless of material and social conditions; instead, they have opted for a flexible approach in the quest for the practical attainment of socialist and revolutionary goals. As the capitalist world-economy increasingly falls into structural crisis, demonstrating its unsustainability, the pragmatic socialist nations of China, Vietnam, and Cuba increasingly are making evident that pragmatic socialism, adapted to particular conditions in each nation, is the necessary road for humanity.
Díaz Vázquez, Julio Aracelio. 2010. China: ¿Otro Socialismo? (LX aniversario). La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.
Tian Yingkui. 2008. Camino Chino: Concepción científica del desarrollo. Beijing: Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras.