Key Points from Maurice Meisner ‘Mao’s China and After’ Summary of chapter 21: the legacies of the Maoist era

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Summing up Mao:

Key Points from Maurice Meisner ‘Mao’s China and After’

Summary of chapter 21: the legacies of the Maoist era

CCP came to power in 1949 promising 2 revolutions: A Bourgeois one and in time a Socialist one

The Bourgeois revolution left incomplete by Chiang Kai Shek, was soon accomplished.

Key features of Mao and Mao’s Legacy

  • Ambiguous and contradictory

  • Progressive socio-economic accomplishments followed by retrogressive political characteristics

  • On the one hand Mao created a nation, it established some of the preconditions for socialism and kept alive a vital socialist vision of the future

  • On the other hand, Maoism retained Stalinist methods of bureaucratic political rule, generated its own cults, orthodoxies and dogmas while it suppressed all intellectual and political dissent.

  • Mao looked upon the communist bureaucracy as a great evil but his only solution was to rely on his personal prestige and the force of his own personality

  • Mao created no meaningful institutional safeguards against bureaucratic domination

  • If the Maoist regime was by and large successful in carrying out the bourgeois phase of the revolution it proved incapable of achieving the proclaimed ‘transition to socialism’

  • Long before Mao’s death, Maoism had exhausted its once great creative energies

  • Its method of financing modern industrial developments—essentially the exploitation of the villagers could not have long been sustained without pauperizing the peasants who had given the communists their power.

  • The Cultural revolution failed in its aims leaving behind and politically disillusioned population

  • Disillusionment was followed by cynicism and the population could no longer be inspired by old revolutionary slogans and ideological exhortations

  • The condition of China in the last years of the Maoist era clearly demanded a new course, which Mao could no longer provide.

  • In a sense Maoism sowed the seeds of its own demise.

  • What was Mao Zedong thought was a doctrine forged in the most backward area of the the world’s most backward lands

  • It was under a Maoist banner that the forces of peasant revolt had been organized to carry out the greatest of modern revolutions

  • Having achieved political success, the victorious revolutionaries set out to both modernize and socialize the vast land they had come to rule.

  • As modernizers they had many successes, given the enormity of the task: A modern nation state, establishment of a modern educational system and the beginnings of China’s modern industrial and technological transformation.

However Maoist political methods and ideology continued to reflect many of the features of the backward environment in which the doctrine was born and those methods became increasingly more anachronistic in a modernizing China increasingly populated by new generations and further and further removed from the primitive rural conditions that had moulded the revolution and mentality of its leadersd the Bourgeois Revolution

A modern nation state was established in the 1950’s.

An Agrarian revolution was accomplished with the Land reform Campaign

    • Vast majority liberated from ancient modes of economic exploitation and social oppression

    • Unification of country ( including Tibet and reorganizing to 6 major provinces) created a centralised state

    • Emergence of a national market & abolition of pre-capitalist social relations in the countryside created the conditions of for development of modern productive forces

    • Freed human and material resources and harnessed them to the transformation of a backward and long stagnant economy to a modern industrial one.

In essence, Mao fulfilled Sun Yat Sen’s dream of national unification, independence from forieign imperialism and land to the tiller.

The bourgeois face of Chinese revolution did not resemble any classic Western model of a Capitalist type revolution.

  • Carried out by the Marxist political party proclaiming socialist and communist goals

  • Members of China’s bourgeois did not benefit

  • The Revolution did not even resemble a western version: no flourishing of private property and capitalist development

  • The aim of the Maoist state was to abolish private property

  • The announcement in1953 that the Bourgeois revolution was over and that they would start the transition to Socialist revolution may have been premature but the next two decades of Mao’s career modernization and socialism were pursued in tandem according to the dictates of ‘permanent revolution’

It is believed that Mao tried to reconcile modern industrialism with the ends of socialism.

In the end, Mao far more successful as an economic moderniser than a builder of socialism.

This is a contradictory view: the accusations by historians against Mao are:

Mao sacrificed “modernization” to “ideological purity

Economic development was neglected as Mao embarked on a fruitless quest for a socialist utopia

Post Mao critics dwell less on the accomplishments than on the deficiencies of the era

In defence of Mao:

Mao era one of rapid industrialization

Gross industrial output grew 38 fold during the Mao period

Heavy industry grew 90 fold out of a tiny industrial base that he had inherited ( this was ravahed by years of war: foreign and civil)

Between 1952 and 1977 Chinese industry increased at an annual rate of 11.3%. it is the most rapid pace of development in the history of China’s industrial development ( currently it stands at 7%)

Contribution of industry to China’s net material product increased from 23% to over 50% while the share of agriculture declined from 58% to 34%

This rate of rise industry’s share is a rare historical phenomenon

When Britain industrialised in the 1800’s it was 11%

Matched by 22% for Japan between 1877-1882

Taiwan is similar

China’s production statistics:

1952-56 steel grew from 1.3 m tonnes to 23 million tonnes

Coal from 66 to 448 million tonnes

Electricity 7m 133 billion kilowatt hours

Crude oil from 0 to 28 million tonnes

Chemical Fertiliser


By mid 1970’s China was producing jet airplanes, heavy tractors etc

China was producing nuclear weapons and launched its first satellite in the 1970’s

Industrialization brought significant changes to China

75 % of the population remained in agriculture

Industrial working class grew from 3m in 1952 to 50 million in the 1970’s

20 million involved in transport and communication linked with industry

Created a new technological intelligentsia: Scientists and technicians rose from 50,000 in 1949 to 2.5 million in 1968 and 5 million in 1979. Most were trained during the Mao years

Mao’s blunders were committed in the industrialization drive and the process was marred by ‘irrationalities’ and ‘imbalances’ that Mao’s successors were to diagnose

Great Leap was a monumental blunder and took a heavy human and economic toll.

Slow agricultural growth made a mockery of Mao’s emphasis on developing the countryside

While industry went up at 11% p.a., agriculture only went up at 2.3% p.a., barely keeping pace with rapid population growth which rose at 2% p.a.

Maoist policies solved some social inequities through the Stalinist style industrialization of the early 1950’s

However, by the close of the Mao era Chinese industry suffering the same malaise as the E.European and Soviet economy

Waste, inefficiency, corruption, bureaucratic inertia, low productivity were the 5 deadly sins

Living standards were sacrificed for capital accumulation for investment in heavy industry

These problems confounded by technological backwardness

China’s policy of self-reliance limited access to foreign technology, the Cultural Revolution had devastating effects on higher education, basic research and the morale of the technological intelligentsia which contributed to a grave shortage at the end of the Maoist regime.

Yet it can be argued the Maoist era marks the start of China’s industrial era. The “Sick Man of Asia” emerged at the end of the Maoist era as one of the 6 largest industrial producers in the world

The Maoist economic record though flawed is a record when the basic foundations of modern industrialism were laid

It competes favourably with comparable stages in the industrialization of Japan, Germany Jaapn an Russia

From 1952-1972 the growth per decade was 64%

Significant, because it was done by the Chinese for themselves with meagre resources and little or no support.

USSR aid, was insignificant and paid for in full by the 1960’s

NO investment or foreign loans

Autarky was necessary considering the hostile international environment and also a rigid policy of self reliance

By the 1970’s China could boat of no foreign debt nor internal inflation

However industrial success demanded labour and great sacrifices similar to those is Japan and USSR

The state exploited the people it ruled, especially the peasantry to build a heavy industrial base and to support the growing bureaucracy

The Chinese did benefit from this period of rapid industrialization

Rise in wages but not significant growth for peasants

Increase in educational opportunities through opening of schools

Transformed a largely illiterate population to a literate one

Comprehensive health care system where none existed before ( ‘barefoot doctors’)

Near doubling of the average life expectancy from 35 to 65 years

E.H.Carr ‘ the danger is not that we shall draw a veil over the enormous blots on the record of the Revolution, over its cost in human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name. The danger is that we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, its immense achievements”

Revolutions don't easily lend themselves to balance appraisals

Great social upheavals typically aroused great and unattainable expectations, and whenthose high hopes are dashed long periods of disillusionment and cynicism follow while the actual historical achievements are ignored and forgotten.

Mao is remembered for the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The failures was colossal in scope and took an enormous human toll but it should not be forgotten that the Maoist era is one of the great modernizing epochs in world history and one that brought great social and human benefits to the Chinese people.

Mao as builder of a socialist society:


Did Mao who laid the foundations of China’s industrialization bring about a Socialist re-organization of Chinese society? Did the post Mao era abandon Mao’s ‘transition Socialism’?

BY 1956, the private sector was effectively nationalised

Agriculture had been collectivized

Economies of both the cities and the countryside were under State control

Meisner argues: if state and collective ownership of productive property and payment according to work are the defining features id socialism then it was achieved because in 1956 China was no less Socialist than the USSR

Both countries nationalization and collectivization were accompanied by an intensive drive for industrialization

In China, this industrialization was a means to socialist ends. In both the USSR and China sought to bring industrialization and socialism simultaneously, abandoning Marxist belief that socialism presupposed industrial capitalism. In China this followed more vigorously . Maoism demanded that economic development be accompanied by a permanent process of radical transformations in social relationships and popular consciousness.

The reality: the gap between the city and the countryside increased. Between 1952-1972 Consumption in the countryside increased from 64 to 124 Yuan while in the cities it increased from 148 to 324 Yuan.

The grave flaw in Maoist socialist enterprise was the contradiction between the Communist state and Chinese society. The greater the state control, the state became the economic and political master of the society but it became increasingly isolated from the society it ruled. The bureaucracy grew larger and more alien and the gap between the master and ruler became wider. For this Mao offered no remedies-save for fabricating the cult of a leader who claimed to personally embody the collective will of the people. The cult of Mao Zedong was one of history’s most extreme examples of the alienation of social power fetishized political authority. At the end all monuments to Mao stood as grotesque reminders of a monumental political failure.

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