Mao Zedong

One of the great myths concerning socialist collectivisation of agriculture is that it produced ‘man-made’ famines, since it is supposedly less ‘efficient’. This story is perpetrated by friend and foe alike.

Example 1: The famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union, which is supposed to have been ‘man-made’.

Let me set the context. During the ‘socialist offensive’ of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union, a massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation took place.

The Soviet Union did not have access to and did not want to use capitalist modes of accumulating funds, namely, colonial expansion (dispossession of others) and international loans. So the industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. In order to generate such accumulation, the government set higher prices for the increasing abundance of manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, albeit with fluctuations depending on seasonal shortages and in light of the constant efforts at speculation. This tensions of this ‘scissors’ method of generating revenue for further industrialisation generated obvious problems, but these were exacerbated by a famine in 1927-28, requiring enforced requisitions of grain in response to some peasants withholding agricultural produce for speculation (Withholding of grain for the sake of raising prices was an old practice, appearing not only during the NEP of the mid-1920s, but also much earlier). Obviously, something had to be done, since the ‘scissors’ method could not continue – it was always conceived as a temporary measure.

Another persistent problem was that traditional Russian farming methods were inadequate in light of new developments and a rising population. I mean not the subsistence survival agriculture practised in many parts of the world for millennia, but the practice of landlords extracting food necessary for survival by farmers. In fact, rural famines were endemic to Russian life. In more recent memory, famine hit in 1890-91, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had taken place in the context of widespread famine, which added to socio-economic chaos. Famines also blighted 1918-20 and were exacerbated during 1920-21.

So the process of collectivisation was at one level an effort to deal with endemic famine.

Many of course will point to the famine of 1932-33, with some even suggesting it was a deliberate policy of ‘genocide’ focused on the Ukraine (the ‘Holodomur’). But the famine also affected Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Enough research has been done to show that the famine was the result of significant weather conditions (drought), low harvest, international blockade, and the profound turmoil and frequent violence of the 1930s.

Were there famines later? Yes. One could argue that the food shortage during the siege of Leningrad was a famine, but the reasons are obvious here. And after the devastation of war and the effort to defeat Hitler, a famine took place after a drought in 1947. Most importantly, despite the drought cycle, no further famines were experienced.

Obviously, collectivisation had a distinct result in dealing with the endemic problem of famines. Why? Collectivisation enabled mechanisation and increase in the amount of land under cultivation, so much so that in 1932 many farmers worked harder to ensure greater crop yield and overcome the famine by the next year.

Example 2: The Chinese famine of 1959-61, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, is also described as ‘man-made’, a result of the ‘foolhardy’ effort at collectivisation.

Once again, famine was endemic to Chinese agriculture (see Losurdo’s War and Revolution, pp. 271-72). Restricting ourselves to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famines occurred in 1810-11, 1846, 1849, 1876-79 (9-13 million died), 1896-97, 1907, 1911, 1920-21 (again in northern China), 1928-30 (3 million people died), 1936 (5 million), 1940-41 (2-3 million). In famine was a persistent problem.

If we add the semi-colonisation of China, invasions, insurrections, along with droughts, the deaths in China between 1850 and 1950 were by far the highest in the world.

Again, something obviously had to be done. Having seen the long-term success of the collectivisation in the Soviet Union in overcoming the persistent cycle of famine, collectivisation was also undertaken in China.

The problem now was not only the devastation of decades of civil war and Japanese occupation, but a deliberate policy of economic warfare and strangulation by the Truman regime. This included schematic bombing from Taiwan of any industrial facilities built on the eastern seaboard. The deliberate aim was to keep the new communist country below subsistence level so as to produce a catastrophic economic situation, if not disaster and collapse.

We need to add Mao’s impatience. Seeing the dire situation of the country in light of economic devastation and US policy, he sought to leap over stages of development in order to escape from the desperate trap. Again, the US regimes made the most of situation, seeking to exacerbate the situation and cause widespread devastation. By the early 1960s, the Kennedy regime, looking back on the famine of 1959-61, gloated that they succeeded in retarding Chinese economic development by decades.

Were there famines after this time in China? Again, no. The long history of endemic famine and the tragic lesson of 1959-61 meant that China has managed to put famine behind it.

In preparation for the MOOC on Chinese Marxism, I had  a Chines film crew over October and November of last year. We filmed in Beijing, but especially at the major sites of the Chinese Revolution: Shaoshan, Ruijin and Yan’an. I was even able to sit at the desk in Mao’s room in both Ruijin and Yan’an, where the seeds of modern China were sown.









I am finally working through the many photographs from the ‘red tour’ filming from last November (for the MOOC), and came across these from Ruijin, where the first soviet was established in the early 1930s. This is also where the absolutely crucial Ruijin ethos was developed: make sure that people have adequate food, clothing and shelter, give them security and they will become revolutionaries.

These photos were taken in Ruijin, Jiangxi province. Clearly, the Marxist tradition follows through:





This always gives me a thrill, breaking into new areas for publishing ideas. Earlier, the People’s Daily in China published an article on the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. A few days ago, Chinese Social Sciences Today published an article called ‘Contradiction: The Key to Understanding the Sinification of Marxism’. It has now appeared on a number of websites in China (here, here, here and here). This is a short version of my paper to be delivered at the Chinese Marxism conference here at Renmin University, 22-23 April. In case you don’t read Chinese, here is a translation (with some able editing by a comrade, Zang Fengyu):

In 1938, Mao Zedong proposed the “sinification of Marxism,” by which he meant “making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities.” In 1982, Deng Xiaoping pointed out: “we must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Most foreign scholars do not fully understand these claims. I think the Marxist theory of contradiction is the key to understanding the problem.

The internal contradictions of socialism in China have multiple levels of expression. Mao Zedong pointed out in his article that conflicts are manifold, but there is a dominant contradiction in comparison with other contradictions. This key to contradictions is that people should be the main concern. In order better to understand the conflicts, especially in terms of economic, scientific, intellectual and political contradictions, one should continue to develop the theory, and constantly return to seek real improvement in the theory. It is very important to determine at any time the principal contradiction and decide the best way to solve this contradiction in terms the development of this theory.

Mao Zedong’s critical analysis indicates that at all stages of socialism and even communism stage there is ongoing conflict. This suggests that the contradiction between productive forces and production relations in Socialist conditions continues to exist. In fact, in Mao Zedong’s view, “socialist society grows more united and consolidated through the ceaseless process of correctly handling and resolving contradictions.” These contradictions are not antagonistic, but should be resolved through intervention and adjustment.

So, how are contradictions this manifested in a socialist society with Chinese characteristics? First, contradictions still exist between the forces and relations of production. As the forces move ahead, the relations of production may drag behind and therefore need constant readjustment. As the old contradictions are resolved, new ones will arise that require yet further reform and adjustment. Sometimes changes in relations of production can influence the forces or production in moving forward. Further, in China today there is a continued presence of some traditional assumptions about social relations. Many of these have been adjusted in light of the development of productive forces, others have found new expression in light of the rapid changes in production, while others become a drag on further development. The result is that China has a unique conjunction of traditional and very modern social assumptions. As a result, traditional and modern assumptions in China is a unique combination.

Perhaps today, the principal contradiction in Chinese society is a complex dialectical relationship. At a theoretical level one should expect that the contradictions of former modes of production are not resolved in a new mode of production. Instead, the old contradictions reappear in new ways, making the new situation even more complex. Traditionally, Marxism has spoken of the “narrative” of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the “Asiatic mode of production,” which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

A new theoretical approach argues that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. Socialism has the potential to absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. However, if you want to liberate productive forces, it is necessary to use the mechanisms of capitalism – technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture, so that they can be further improved.

The author believes that China’s rise on the world stage is the result of many factors: its omnipresent influence around the world; ongoing negotiations; foreign contributions in response to challenges in the China; and especially the cultural persistence of Marxism in China. To this end, and to persist in seeking truth from facts, the truth “is” materialism and the “facts” come from the Socialist economic, political and scientific experiments and construction of practice.

The interpretation of socialism with Chinese characteristics show us the direction of, and also provides a starting point for, further research. For example, maintaining diversity in the Marxist tradition is important. While Marxism may have core principles, they are applied and developed in various ways among different communities. This can also be seen as the dialectic of the universal and particular: universal in order to prevent the degradation of Marxism as a hodgepodge of some irrelevant views; and particular in order to resist outside control and dogmatic understandings of Marxism.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasizes China’s unique historical situation, works according to China’s national conditions, and is creative and flexible in the use of Marxism. This history includes the entire period of revolution, construction and reform. Marxism is needed to emancipate the mind and keep pace with socialism with Chinese characteristics. In this way, Marxism can become a fresh and lively tradition, inclusive of new ideas and concepts. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is inclusive: it involves not only economics and politics, but also all aspects of people’s lives, including culture and Socialist democracy. Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasizes peaceful socialist modernization, which is different from capitalism, which relies on the modern history of colonialism and exploitation of the oppressed.

Chinese traditional culture and the relationship with Marxism is one of the factors that influences the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics. To talk about Chinese culture now means that one does so in terms of socialist characteristics. But first we need to rethink traditions. Perhaps we can say that, in a certain sense, ancient traditions and realities seem to be unchanging, but in historical terms tradition involves constant changes and remodelling. Without experience and constant reinterpretation in each era, without adjustments in each generation, tradition is no longer “traditional.” Of course, the premise of every reinterpretation is to restore traditional thoughts, and these are usually understood to be the same thoughts. However, in the process of continuously reinterpreting the tradition, in reading texts again in different circumstances, people gain new insights. The relationship between Marxism and the traditions of the past should follow the dialectic of the old and the new. I think that using this Marxist dialectical approach in relation to traditions has driven Chinese cultural development.


The first is called ‘Stalin, Affirmative Action and the Pentecost of Language‘, and the second, ‘Why a Marxist Entrepreneur is not a Contradiction in China‘.

The great bunch at Materializmi Dialektik have published the latest issue of Crisis and Critique. An added pleasure is that my article on Confucius and Chairman Mao appears here as well, close on the heels of Slavoj Žižek.

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