The rise and fall

Nevertheless, by the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union was a world power, a fact consolidated by its test firing of a nuclear bomb in 1949 and its launch of the first satellite into space in 1957. At its fullest extent the Soviet Union bordered Finland, West Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece to the West; Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia and China to the South; and the Sea of Japan to the East. By the 1950s its population had reached 200 million.

Meanwhile, also in 1949, following over 20 years of guerrilla warfare against the ruling Nationalist Party (some conducted against the background of Japanese invasion and the Second World War), the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Tse-Tung seized power, establishing the People’s Republic of China. In doing so, Mao put a further 700 million people under communist rule, bringing the total to around 40 per cent of the world’s population. As in Russia, the revolution had been driven by a desire to throw off the “dead weights” of imperialism and feudalism. However in contrast, Mao’s support came from the poorest peasants scratching a living in the countryside, rather than the largely urban workforce that had backed Lenin.

A major factor in Mao’s success was his treatment of the peasants in the areas over which the conflict had raged. Mao was insistent that his soldiers treat the local people with respect, and cause minimum disruption to their lives. By contrast the Nationalists, and indeed the Japanese invaders, commandeered their property and forced them into labour, which only served to increase peasant support for Mao’s cause.

The Communist Party, under the leadership of Mao from 1949 to 1958 and then again from 1966 until his death in 1976, proceeded to subject the Chinese population to a traumatic programme of economic reform and political indoctrination. As with Russia – and indeed much of the world – the country lay devastated by war and starvation was a real danger for much of the population. Mao therefore mobilised the People’s Liberation Army, which had secured his victory, to reconstruct the infrastructure: rebuilding railways, for example, so that rice could reach the major cities.

He also, like Lenin before him, made efforts to redistribute agricultural land to the peasants who, in his case, had put him in power. In order to accomplish this, landlords were put on trial by ‘peasant associations’ made up of their former tenants and supported by the Army. Those found guilty of oppression or cruelty were condemned either to ‘re-education’ or, in extreme cases, to execution. Re-education was a lengthy and psychologically gruelling process that involved learning, debating and accepting the teachings of Mao to the extent that the victim could freely renounce his past and confess to his ‘crimes’. Once re-educated to the satisfaction of the association, the landlord was allowed to cultivate small plots of land alongside his previous tenants. It is thought that some 2 million people were executed during this period, and up to 10 million subjected to re-education (Harvey, 2004, p. 127).

On the industrial side, companies were prohibited from laying off workers and subject to production targets set by the state. This was followed in 1952 by the ‘Five-anti campaign’, introduced to ensure that the people would “not be corrupted by capitalist thinking”. The five ‘antis’ that needed to be stamped out were bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts and supplying state economic information to foreigners. Those in business lived in fear of accusation by a zealous or jealous worker, which would lead to a fine or re-education, or in many cases to summary execution. As in the Soviet Union, the population was encouraged to spy on itself, generating an atmosphere of distrust between neighbours, colleagues, friends and even family members.

Full nationalisation came the following year with the launch of the First Five-Year Plan, modelled on that of Stalin instigated a quarter of a century earlier. In the countryside, there was an attempt to organise farmer smallholdings into larger collectives, often imposed with little regard for existing social structures or local expertise. Peasants were expected to relocate as needed and to sleep in single-sex dormitories while their children were raised separately. Unsurprisingly, the programme proved disruptive and unpopular, and productivity fell.

The Second Five-Year Plan, running from 1958 to 1962, was branded the ‘Great Leap Forward’, intended to turn China into a leading industrial power. Although much was achieved – the machinery in many existing factories was updated with help from the Soviet Union, for example – many of the initiatives proved disastrous. The ‘backyard furnace’ movement was a case in point. Families and small groups of people were encouraged to use small-scale smelters to turn scrap iron and any iron ore that could be found into pig iron or even steel. However most of the metal produced was not usable, while the more zealous went so far as to melt down pots and pans, bicycles and even farm implements. Sheng Hong Er, a steel worker at the time, remembers:

“There was a memorable day in my life during the Great Leap Forward where I made a short trip further down from Wuhan just to check out if there really were as many backyard furnaces as it was reported. I was appalled to see terrible little, black makeshift furnaces with smokes billowing out from the weak fires beneath the furnaces.

“I saw peasants, dressed in clothes blackened by soot, throwing scrap metal into the furnaces and women fanning weakly at the fires, in a desperate attempt to raise the temperature of the furnaces. I knew in my heart that such a furnace and such a fire would never be able to reach the temperature necessary to produce steel of decent quality.

“The ultimate was when I happened to walk pass a peasant dormitory and witnessed a scene where a few peasants were trying to cook with the pots that they made, I assume, from the scrap metal and their nasty little backyard furnace. When the water in the pot started boiling, the whole group of peasants started cheering and got very rowdy. And just at that moment the pot cracked and the boiling water started spewing out of the pot, steam rising, leaving a group of stunned fools in its midst.” (Sheng)

Although he continued to support Mao, Sheng’s correspondence with an English lecturer that he had met while at university led to his arrest in 1968 by Red Guards. He was eventually released on Mao’s death eight years later.

To tackle falling productivity, Mao issued a Charter for Agriculture which, it is alleged, he personally drafted (W.K, 1966, p. 170). Amongst other things the Charter advocated ‘close planting’, based on a Soviet theory suggesting that plants packed closely together would help each other to survive, rather than compete for the available nutrient. In fact, as common sense suggests, close planting reduces the amount of nutrient available to each plant, so reducing productivity. However no-one dared tell Mao that results were anything other than hugely successful. Prior to a tour of the Hubei province, for example, officials ordered special plantings of rice along the route that Mao would take:

“The rice was planted so closely together that electric fans had to be set up around the fields to circulate air in order to prevent the plants from rotting. All of China was a stage, all the people performers in an extravaganza for Mao.” (Li, 1994, p. 278)

As such deceptions continued, the difference between the official size of a harvest, as reported to the appropriate department, and the actual amount of grain collected grew bigger. The proportion of each harvest that had to be handed over to the state usually amounted to around 30 per cent of the total, but as this was based on official figures, by 1959 communities were being faced with demands for 90 per cent or more of the actual harvest. Unable to meet targets that were increasing 10 per cent each year, or admit the discrepancy, officials began to accuse farmers of hoarding grain for their own purposes. As Lu Xianwen, First Secretary of the Xinyang prefecture in central China, stated at a conference that year:

“It is not that there is no food. There is plenty of grain, but 90 per cent of the people have ideological problems.” (Becker, 1996, p. 113)

As a result, peasant families found themselves faced not only with starvation but also with systematic torture and execution for the crime of being ‘right opportunists’. Estimates from within China suggest that some 40 million deaths can be attributed to the policies behind the Great Leap Forward between 1959 and 1961 (Becker, 1996, p. 271). This despite the fact that state granaries were well supplied, and those at the top of the Party eat well.

Partly because of the failure of the Great Leap Forward, and partly as a result of internal disputes over his poor relationship with Soviet leaders, Mao was persuaded to resign as head of government in December 1958, to be replaced by Liu Shaoqi (although Mao remained Chairman of the Party). In 1962, as the Second Five-Year Plan drew to a close, Liu denounced the Great Leap as being responsible for widespread famine (Chang & Halliday, 2005, pp. 568, 579). However Mao was plotting his return to power through two initiatives. On the one hand he instituted a ‘socialist education’ programme aimed primarily at school children, some as young as 12, who had never known anything other than communist rule. These were to become the Red Guards, fired up to eradicate the ‘Four Olds’; namely the traditional customs, culture, habits and ideas of pre-communist China. He also worked with Lin Biao, the general who had led the People’s Liberation Army to victory in 1949, ensuring the support of the armed forces and issuing all soldiers with the famous Little Red Book of Mao’s teachings.

In 1966, Mao and Lin held a mass rally in Tiananmen Square, attended by a million Red Guards who had been transported there with the help of the Army. The rally marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and the end of Liu’s career. The intention was to eradicate ‘revisionist’ thinking, which meant that anyone accused by the Red Guards of supporting either capitalism or the ‘Four Olds’ risked being beaten or even shot. Although the Red Guard was officially disbanded in 1968 in an attempt to curb such excesses, many of its more radical members moved out into the countryside where they continued to pursue the goals of the Cultural Revolution right up until Mao’s death in 1976, despite the efforts of the People’s Liberation Army who had been charged with restoring order. Countless books and works of art were destroyed and museums, shrines and temples ransacked. Teachers were persecuted by their students, as were ‘bourgeois’ writers and artists whose work strayed beyond strict adoration of the Mao regime. Certainly many hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the name of the Revolution, while some sources put the figure as high as three million (Chang & Halliday, 2005, p. 569).

Mao’s death inevitably led to a power struggle within the Party, but by 1978 the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping had assumed power and begun the slow process of economic reform. Despite the atrocities, Mao’s reign had brought some progress. Infant mortality had been cut from 20 per cent in 1949 to around 4 per cent by the 1970s. Agriculture had recovered from the excesses of the Great Leap Forward, and the country could boast a diverse range of industries.

The first report published by the World Bank on China in 1980 estimates that Gross National Product (GNP) had increased by between 2 and 2.5 per cent each year since 1957, while net industrial output had averaged 10.2 per cent growth each year. The report also stated that the World Bank regarded “China’s most remarkable achievement over three decades as making its low-income groups far better off in terms of basic needs compared with their counterparts in most other poor countries.” (Gittings, 2006, p. 100) However Deng recognised that productivity was very low by modern standards, particularly in agriculture. Indeed according to Deng himself, it took nearly 50 Chinese workers to produce as much grain as a single worker in the United States (Harvey, 2004, p. 245).

Central control may have proved effective in helping the Soviet Union and the Republic of China recover from the Second World War. However by the 1970s, both were finding it hard to manage the ever increasing complexities of their respective economies and were falling further and further behind the capitalist West. This was particularly the case in the USSR. Interviewed for Adam Curtis’ 1992 documentary Pandora’s Box, Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk of the USSR Academy of Sciences explained:

“In itself, the idea of planning is not in the least absurd. But when it’s undertaken by the state on a vast scale, and it rules all aspects of life, then it is absurd. Even the KGB was told the quota of arrests to be made and the prisons to be used. The demand for coffins, novels and movies was all planned. Things became increasingly absurd.”  (Pandora’s Box: The Engineer’s Plot (Episode 1), 1992)

As another official put it in the same programme:

“The problem is that industry reacts very slowly to our scientific forecasts. For instance, we decided people wanted platform shoes. By the time the industry got round to increasing production they were out of fashion. Nowadays the Soviet consumer knows that if there is enough of a particular item in the shops, it’s a sure sign it’s out of fashion.”

The situation was summarised in an article by economist Nikolai Shmelev that Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become General Secretary in 1985, is said to have largely agreed with:

“… prolonged attempts to break up the objective laws of economic life, to suppress the age-long natural stimuli for human labour, brought about results quite different from what was intended. Today we have an economy characterised by shortage, imbalances, in many respects unmanageable, and, if we were to be honest, an economy almost unplannable … We have one of the lowest levels of labour productivity of any industrial nation … since through the years of stagnation the working masses have reached a state of almost total disinterestedness in freely committed and honest labour …” (Shmelev, 1987)

Through the policies of Perestroika (‘restructuring’) and Glasnost (‘openness’), which removed the constitutional monopoly of the Communist Party in 1990, Gorbachev oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union. The Thirteenth Five-Year Plan was abandoned after less than a year, and laws passed that legitimised private enterprise. By the end of 1991, almost all of the countries that had been part of the USSR had declared their independence, and the Soviet Union was no more.

The situation in China was not so critical as the Party had already tacitly accepted a degree of decentralisation as the only way to cope with the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward – in much the same was as Lenin had introduced the NEP to the Soviet Union half a century earlier. As early as 1961, the Party had introduced the concept of a ‘household contract’ or ‘household responsibility’ which assigned plots of land to certain Chinese farmers and allowed them to sell any produce that was surplus to state quotas and their own needs. Although these farmers did not own their assigned plots in any formal sense, such policies did not fit well with socialist thinking. However they did work, and indeed saved millions from starvation – a fact that had led Deng to pronounce, “I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat. It’s a good cat so long as it catches mice.” (Li, 1994, p. 376)

Stalin brought the NEP to an end after only seven years with his First Five Year Plan. In China, by contrast, the informal arrangements encouraged by the household contract, and the Town and Village Enterprises that had grown out of the commune-run industries created during the Great Leap Forward, still existed. Simply by allowing them to develop, by opening up select enclaves to foreign investment with his ‘Open Door’ policy, and by relaxing the grip of the State on all but the largest and most capital-intensive industries, Deng became responsible for allowing something that looks awfully like a market economy to develop and flourish in China over the past 30 years.

What is remarkable is not so much that the country now boasts one of the most powerful economies in the world, but that the Chinese Communist Party can describe such policies as ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, and is still rolling out Five-Year Plans (although the Eleventh, running from 2006 to 2010, is described as a ‘Five-Year Guideline’). Justifying his position in 1994, Deng stated:

“The proportion of planning to market forces is not the essential difference between socialism and capitalism. A planned economy is not equivalent to socialism, because there is planning under capitalism too; a market economy is not capitalism, because there are markets under socialism too. Planning and market forces are both ways of controlling economic activity.” (Deng, 1994, p. 361)

There are a number of countries that still brand themselves as such, but to all intents and purposes, and despite the suffering, torture and execution of countless millions of people, the Communist experiment has ended, and in failure.

Why communism failed →