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10-08-2015, 22:44

The Transition to Socialism

Originally, party leaders intended to follow the Leninist formula of delaying the building of a fully socialist society until China had a sufficient industrial base to permit the mechanization of agriculture. In 1953, they launched the nation’s first five-year plan (patterned after earlier Soviet plans), which called for substantial increases in industrial output. Lenin had believed that the lure of mechanization would provide Russian peasants with an incentive to join collective farms, which, because of their greater size, could better afford to purchase expensive farm machinery. But the enormous challenge of providing tractors and reapers for millions of rural villages eventually convinced Mao Zedong and some of his colleagues that it would take years, if not decades, for China’s infant industrial base to meet the burgeoning needs of a modernizing agricultural sector. He therefore decided to change the equation and urged that collectivization be undertaken immediately, in the hope that collective farms would increase food production and release land, labor, and capital for the industrial sector. Accordingly, in 1955 the Chinese government launched a new program to build a socialist society. Beginning in that year, virtually all private farmland was collectivized, although peasant families were allowed to retain small plots for their private use (a Chinese version of the private plots adopted in the Soviet Union). In addition, most industry and commerce were nationalized. Collectivization was achieved without provoking the massive peasant unrest that had taken place in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, perhaps because the Chinese government followed a policy of persuasion rather than compulsion (Mao remarked that Stalin had “drained the pond to catch the fish”) and because the land reform program had already earned the support of millions of rural Chinese. But the hoped-for production increases did not materialize, and in 1958, at Mao’s insistent urging, party leaders approved a more radical program known as the Great Leap Forward. Existing rural collectives, normally the size of a traditional village, were combined into vast “people’s communes,” each containing more than thirty thousand people. These communes were to be responsible for all administrative and economic tasks at the local level. The party’s official slogan promised “Hard work for a few years, happiness for a thousand.”2 Mao hoped this program would mobilize the population for a massive effort to accelerate economic growth and ascend to the final stage of communism before the end of the twentieth century. It is better, he said, to “strike while the iron is hot” and advance the revolution without interruption. Some party members were concerned that this ambitious program would threaten the government’s rural base of support, but Mao argued that Chinese peasants were naturally revolutionary in spirit. The Chinese rural masses, he said, are first of all, poor, and secondly, blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.3 Those words, of course, were socialism and communism. The Great Leap Forward was a disaster. Administrative bottlenecks, bad weather, and peasant resistance to the new system (which, among other things, attempted to eliminate work incentives and destroy the traditional family as the basic unit of Chinese society) combined to drive food production downward, and over the next few years, as many as fifteen million people may have died of starvation. Many peasants were reportedly reduced to eating the bark off trees and in some cases allowing infants to starve. In 1960, the commune experiment was essentially abandoned. Although the commune structure was retained, ownership and management were returned to the collective level. Mao was severely criticized by some of his more pragmatic colleagues (one remarked bitingly that “one cannot reach Heaven in a single step”), provoking him to complain that he had been relegated to the sidelines “like a Buddha on a shelf.”