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Maoism vs. Communism: A Debate


A lively new polemic is unfolding on de interwebz. This debate is a struggle between those who are for and those who are against the real movement that abolishes existing conditions, a struggle between two types of kittehs: de pro-rev kittehs and de leftist recuperator kittehs.

Red Litterbox, 19 October 2012

Below are some excerpts from an ongoing debate about the nature of Maoism and Mao-era Chinese “socialism” in relation to the communist movement and the concept of “communization,” in response to Loren Goldner’s new article “Notes Toward a Critique of Maoism.” Main texts:

(1) Loren Goldner, “Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism,” Insurgent Notes #7, October 15, 2012

(2) NPC, “The Historical Failures of Maoism,” Red Spark, October 17

(3) Husunzi, comment on Libcom, October 19, reposted on Red Spark as “Some Detailed Measurements on the Redness of the Earth


(1) Goldner:

The following was written at the request of a west coast comrade after he attended the August 2012 “Everything for Everyone” conference in Seattle, at which many members of the “soft Maoist” Kasama current were present. It is a bare-bones history of Maoism which does not bring to bear a full “left communist” viewpoint, leaving out for the example the sharp debates on possible alliances with the “nationalist bourgeoisie” in the colonial and semi-colonial world at the first three congresses of the Communist International. It was written primarily to provide a critical-historical background on Maoism for a young generation of militants who might be just discovering it.

Maoism was part of a broader movement in the twentieth century of what might be called “bourgeois revolutions with red flags,” as in Vietnam or North Korea.

To understand this, it is important to see that Maoism was one important result of the defeat of the world revolutionary wave in 30 countries (including China itself) which occurred in the years after World War I. The major defeat was in Germany (1918–1921), followed by the defeat of the Russian Revolution (1921 and thereafter), culminating in Stalinism.

Maoism is a variant of Stalinism.

(2) NPC:

… Most of what Goldner points out here is, however, more or less historically correct (though he is very selective in which facts to present).  The vast majority of what the CCP did in China after taking power was precisely industrialization/militarization justified in the language of Stalinism (though Goldner’s critique of agricultural collectivization seems to be entirely misinformed). [1]  Mao, though briefly the face of two (failed) movements which included processes of rapid communization (The Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution), was far more often simply a helmsman for the new bourgeois government.  This duality cannot be ignored—from either position.  The supposed “counterrevolution” which succeeded Mao actually took place under his own authority (when the red army was called in to crush authentic communist uprisings in the Cultural Revolution), though it may have contradicted his own earlier call for those uprisings….

Though I am not a Maoist, I am a partisan of the authentic communization processes that took place in China, particularly the Shanghai Commune and other communist experiments in cities such as Wuhan—but also with sympathy for the experiments in communal agriculture that happened in the interim between world wars and during the first stages of the Great Leap (though I have no sympathy for the accompanying countryside industrial production that plunged the nation into famine), all experiments which bore similarities to the agricultural communization that took place across Spain in the summer of 1936.

(3) Husunzi:

… For now I’ll just direct people to my 2010 article “A Commune in Sichuan?” – a review of the book “Red Earth” where I reflected on some of these questions in relation to more recent scholarship (and my own interviews with peasants who lived through the Mao era), and came up with some different answers than those in either Goldner’s piece or NPC’s response. It’s way too long, so you might want to skip down to the conclusion, “What Could Have Been Done Differently…?”

Also see this Libcom thread where I argue that Mao-era China was not “capitalist” but something we might call “developmental proto-capitalism” (or simply “socialism”) since the law of value was operating only indirectly via the “law of development” driven by military competition with properly capitalist states such as the US (In “A Commune in Sichuan” I refine this and talk about other factors…)

Here are some notes I wrote after reading Goldner’s article and NPC’s response:

(1) not really “capitalist” (see above)

(2) Peasantry – not necessarily “non-revolutionary,” examples: many pre-capitalist peasant rebellions in Europe and China, including communistic tendencies as in the German Peasants War, the Diggers, and also in capitalist contexts – 1917 Russia and Ukraine, 1936 Spain, the Zapatistas – in all cases some peasants took active role in collectivizing land, forming federations of co-ops, etc., not simply fighting for bourgeois measures.

(3) Great Leap Forward – more complicated (see “Commune in Sichuan”)

(4) The “Cultural Revolution” didn’t really “wreck” the economy – and that is why it was not a rev! The strikes and unrest of 1966 to 1967 did lead to a slowing of economic growth – which is why Mao et al suppressed it and called for “promoting production (while) grasping revolution,” and rejecting the workers’ concerns as “economistic.”

(5) Agricultural productivity DID increase (especially per unit land, but also per labor-hour – especially when “modern scientific inputs” finally became available in the 1970s) – see figures from my article. And if there had been no increase in productivity, how could it be considered “bourgeois rev” – an unsuccessful bourgeois rev?

(6) ‘There was no “counter-revolution,” still less a transformation of the previously existing social relations of production.’ I agree there was no “counter-revolution,” but I would say there was a transformation – namely a privatization of bureaucratic power, the commoditization of labor-power (in the Mao era workers and peasants were more not really free to choose their own jobs), marketization of social relations (in the Mao era money couldn’t buy much – you got necessities such as housing in kind or with ration tickets from your “work unit”; or if you were a peasant you produced things for yourself – after 1958 through the mediation of the “commune” or “production team”). But it is true that most of the new capitalists that emerged from this transformation were the relatives and cronies of the same Mao-era bureaucrats…

In response to NPC’s critique of Goldner:

I don’t think any “communization” occurred during the Mao era. During the GLF and in the “people’s commune” system in general I think it’s more helpful to say that some “communistic” elements emerged but were warped by their subordination to a system whose primary function was surplus-value extraction. In the CR the situation was different: whereas the communistic elements of the GLF/people’s commune system I think mainly came from the actual desire for something like communism shared by both some peasants and some party leaders (wrongly believed to go hand in hand with a rapid increase in “development of the forces of production” and increased extraction of surplus-value), in the CR the most communistic tendencies were mainly not intended by the central maoist leaders – it was more a matter of proletarians (and to some extent peasants) taking advantage of the opportunity to push their own “economistic” demands that threatened the system (mainly through strikes), and inspired a small amount of “ultra-left” theory that pointed toward something like communization. LG seems confused here to say the CR “wrecked the economy” – this seems to repeat the narrative shared by Dengists and liberals. One thing Yiching emphasizes is how the central maoist leaders used the need to restore economic growth as an excuse to put workers back to work and supress street fighting, etc. – the slogan (from the original 16 points) was “promote production (while) embracing revolution.” I suspect LG is able to make this mistake b/c of his own productivism (and what Théorie Commuiste calls “programmatism”) – he thinks of communist rev as involving a continuation of economic growth under workers control, rather than the destruction of the economy as such.

But here I also disagree with NPC, in that I think the closest the CR got to communization was these two rudimentary elements: (1) strikes and disruption of the economy (especially the shanghai general strike in december 1966), and (2) the mere ideas being proposed by groups like shengwulian, but not acted upon (they didn’t get a chance to act on them, and it may have already been too late anyway). Yiching basically argues that the “shanghai commune” was already a compromise between the striking workers and the maoist leaders who wanted to restore order. Yes it was later also suppressed and reorganized into a “3-in-1 revolutionary committee” where the party and military had more control over it, but the “commune” itself was already the first step toward recuperation.

Later there were things like weapons seizures in Wuhan, but my understanding is that this was mainly about factional struggles among the various rebel groups that had “seized power” (with military backing – so it was really just the spectacle of power). They wanted weapons so they could more effectively kill the other faction leaders and hold onto the illusion of power themselves, not so they could transform the system. In other words, most of this was about political rev (coup d’etat) not social rev.

I recently talked to a former CR rebel in Chongqing and he re-emphasized this to me, since already at that time he was beginning to critique the other rebels (including his own faction) for not recognizing the diff between political and social rev, but he said no one agreed with him. Much later he learned about the ultra-left currents and basically agreed with them (although he became a liberal – as did most of the ultra-leftists).

(3.1) NPC’s response:

… We do, however, appear to disagree on what is meant by communization (not a surprise, as the term [.pdf] has become something of a catch-all recently).  I probably fall more on the side of a Tiqqunist reading of communization, which allows for its use in situations that are short of the outright final communist revolution, though I have little sympathy for the alternativism that is often read in(to) Tiqqun

(3.2) My rejoinder:

I’m following the sense of communization developed by Dauvé et al – basically another name for communist revolution (the replacement of all forms of property, classes, the state, etc., with the “free association of producers” with common access to the means for production and their products) – but with a clear recognition that there can be no separation between the means and ends of this transformation, no “transitional society” as conventional Marxists conceive “socialism,” since historically and logically such transitional systems – involving the concentration of alienated power supposed to defend the revolution – develop into new systems of oppression (which do not whither away on their own), and as islands struggling to stay afloat in a sea of capitalism, themselves degenerate (or “develop”) into part of the capitalist system. So “communization” refers to the communist revolution conceived as an immediate process of transformation from capitalism to communism – “immediate” meaning not that the process will be completed in a day, but that there will be nothing in between the destruction of capitalist relations and the creation of communist relations. In that sense, communization has never occurred, but we could talk about whether it was beginning to occur.

And that’s what I meant by saying that in the CR there were those two communist tendencies: (1) general strikes and unrest, and (2) theoretical production like that of shengwulian. My point is just that the “shanghai commune” was not really comparable to the paris commune, say – it was more of a compromise and didn’t seem to have that much radical potential. And I think most of what the rebels did consisted of factional struggles for power, with little potential of promoting social revolution. As for the GLF and the people’s commune system, I think those included communistic elements, but at best in the sense that a kibbutz or hippie commune contain communistic elements (but actually less so, since the Chinese “communes” were so clearly subservient to a system of state extraction of surplus value…) – again not comparable to the paris commune or the spanish situation in 1936. And yes I think Spain was undergoing the beginning of communization. On the other hand, I do think you’re right to say the Spanish agricultural collectives are comparable to the Chinese agricultural collectives – I think organizationally speaking they were much more similar than anyone I’m aware of has acknowledged (certainly not anarchists). But I think a big difference was the role the Chinese collectives played in value extraction and “development.” (Not to say the Spanish collectives might have been forced to play such a role if things had continued further…)

I agree that Maoism is not a form of Stalinism, but something different albeit heavily influenced by Stalinism. The real Stalinists were Liu, Deng, et al. – Stalinist productivism points more clearly toward marketization, once the state achieves a certain “level of development.” I believe Mao and his followers actually saw their main goal as communism, but they conflated that with the incompatible goals of state-building and rapid industrialization, etc., and the latter trumped the former – as you note in your response…

(3.3) NPC:

Yes, I certainly agree that the direct attacks on party power (aside from petty factional confrontations), the mass strikes (attacks directly on “the economy” and “production” as such) are where the situation is closest to communization–I would say that it was a communization process which was aborted, but the issue here is that whenever communization is aborted it appears after the fact to have always been aborted before it even began, since communization is a reflexive category which is both the actual process of building communism as well as the reference to a communist ends.  The process of communization begins immediately but it takes time to complete, so what happens when that process is cut short? When that communist ends has been cut off, the circuit is more or less broken and rather than communist motion towards communism, you instead find simply a dead momentum moving in no particular direction.  That doesn’t make those moments less moments of communization though.  If they had occurred in exactly the same fashion, for example, but some third element came into play afterwards–maybe the Shengwulian document gaining some new radical appeal or something, which actually pushed the situation into the full-fledged real communist revolution–then these moments would, in fact, be authentic moments of communization in sequence with a larger movement, with absolutely no change in their historic content, only in what succeeded them–they have the correct characteristics, but their context was, like I said, aborted.This is where I’m adding a lot of Badiou and Zizek to the theory–particularly the notion of fidelity.  Because if you posit that a communist revolution could actually happen at some time in the future, and that communist history (in Badiou’s very broad sense of it) will then have been punctuated by these earlier “events” of communization–from the large ones, like the Paris Commune, to the small ones that occurred throughout China at different scales (you’re right that the Shanghai Commune and Paris Commune are not at all comparable)–you then have a situation in which these moments are recuperated into that process of communism, separated by abrupt discontinuity, but nonetheless communist.  The future revolution is the seal of revolution’s historic failures and the guarantee of the communism at the heart of authentic moments of revolt against myriad pre-communist forms of living.

I think the communist duty is to have fidelity to these moments of communization, even aborted ones.  We have to understand the failures, absolutely and in detail.  But we should not judge communism by its failures alone (as does the There Is No Alternative to Capitalism mantra of the dark ’90s)–we have to judge the communist content of something not simply by what happened but also by what could have happened–if communist revolution had happened, would these things have been elements of it or impediments to it?  That’s the criterion on which I am judging whether or not something was authentic communization.  Most of what happened in China wasn’t, in content or hypothetical context.

On a more detailed note, I do question how much land (during the commune period), in the most basic sense, was still having surplus value extracted from it.  Clearly agriculture was still dominated by the value-form–but land itself was no longer priced, traded or usuried upon by the state.  This is a difficult thing to speculate about, I guess, since land and agricultural production on land capable of it are basically synonymous for most of chinese history–and in fact “productive” land itself was frequently just another name for the components recycled from human wastage (the upkeep of soil-power which complements the necessary upkeep of labor-power performed by child-rearing, food, etc.).  But think of the temple where they raised the pigs in Endicott’s acount–that land was not bought, no one asked the state’s permission in using it, it became the physical space on which a socialist/state-capitailst (whatever you want to call it) form of value extraction occured, but, unlike in capitalism (or most other forms of socialism) the land itself was (briefly) not owned by state, collective, pig farmer or capitalist. Nor was it owned by the pigs…

(3.4) Husunzi:

The nature of land tenure under the “people’s commune” is an interesting and complicated question – I’ll have to think about it (maybe other readers can help out here). My knee-jerk reaction is to say that, under the most common system of collectivization (vs. the various forms of household contracting), land was de facto owned by “the pigs” – i.e. the party-state, since the local officials (leaders of team, brigade, and commune) were basically subservient to higher levels of party-state authority – even when their peasant constituency exercised some democratic control over them (there was a continual tension between the formality of peasant democratic control over local officials and their ultimate need to obey their bureaucratic superiors).

However, your comment seems to imply that land produces surplus-value. You write “I do question how much land… was still having surplus value extracted from it.” I know you’re familiar with the basic marxian premise that the only source of surplus-value is living human labor, so what are you referring to here?

Following the marxian framework, I discuss in “Commune in Sichuan” some of the discourse about how the mao-era “socialist” state extracted surplus-value from peasants (including both the state’s own discourse – it made no secret of this – as well as academic literature), adding my own elaboration of this theory. In short, the main mechanism was the “price scissors,” where the state (following preobrazhensky’s theory and stalin’s practice) set the prices of agricultural prices low and industrial products high, and required peasants to sell a certain amount of ag products to the state (and hand over a certain amount in taxes), so that there was a systematic transfer of value from peasants to the state, which used this value as capital for industrialization. The other two main mechanisms were “accumulation by dispossession” (mainly land grabs for building roads, canals, mines, etc.) and corvee (forcing peasants to build the roads, canals, etc.), usually with no more compensation than food rations. The role of the latter two in extraction are a little unclear because some of these “capital construction projects” were for collective and public goods that technically belonged to the peasants and benefited them to some extent. However, part of this benefit was about increasing agricultural production, which increased state extraction, while also increasing peasant income and living standards to some extent (although Endicott’s book, for example, shows that the “value of the peasant work day” didn’t increase at this time despite increased productivity, simply because the state didn’t increase the grain procurement price until like 1978). In any case, much of this collective and public property was later privatized and auctioned off to the highest bidder, or otherwise used for the private gain of local elite, so it ultimately became another means for expropriation and transfer of value from the peasants….

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