Class Conflict in Chinese Socialism, by Richard Curt Kraus, traces the evolution of the concept of “class struggle” in China in the period from around the mid 1950s until Mao’s death in 1976. After Mao, the Chinese Communist Party moved rapidly away from class struggle as a motivating force, for reasons that will soon become clear.

For a bit of background, recall that the Chinese Communist Party was victorious in the revolution and civil war that preceded and followed the Japanese occupation of China. By 1949 the new government was established, with rapid consolidation of power, elimination of enemies, and establishment of socialism in the countryside and the cities. By 1957 nearly all agriculture was collectivized, and nearly all enterprises and commerce were state-run. Socialism had been well and truly established. By the early spring of 1957 Liu Shauqi was able to declare that “the class struggle between the main classes inside the country has been in the main concluded.” Mao, at around the same time, had a somewhat different view: “the proletariat seeks to transform the world according to its own world outlook, and so does the bourgeoisie”, and so “the class struggle … will continue to be long and tortuous.”

Nonetheless, Mao was open to cooperation with the intelligentsia and renewed political participation by the former bourgeoisie, as a way to promote socialist democracy, and to avoid the kind of uprising that had recently taken place in Hungary. And so he supported the Hundred Flowers movement - an invitation to offer criticism and suggestions for improvements to the new socialist society. Many of Mao’s colleagues opposed this idea, seeing it as dangerous to stability and party control.

Within four months Mao changed his mind about the Hundred Flowers movement, and instigated repression and reprisals against thousands of intellectuals and workers who had naïvely believed that Hundred Flowers signaled a more open and democratic direction.

The rapid successes of socialism in the period 1949-1956 were accompanied by an undeniable backwardness and material shortages - not because of socialism, but because of the generally undeveloped state of the Chinese economy, as well as the effects of years of Japanese occupation and civil war. The first five year plan had provided only modest gains in industrialization, and no benefits at all for overall agricultural productivity. To address this, Mao backed the concept of a Great Leap Forward, in which economic progress would take place not through aggressive capital formation but through the combined efforts of 800 million Chinese people. Every courtyard would be turned into a mini steel mill, and quotas would be enforced. The intensity of agricultural production would be increased, with ever larger collectives, communal dining rooms and dormitories, and impossible work hours.

The results were disastrous. The backyard steel furnaces succeeded only in transforming useful objects into iron of such low quality as to be unusable, while wasting vast quantities of fuel. The Communist Party bureacrats sent to the countryside to oversee the huge new ¨People´s Communes¨ had no understanding of agriculture and forced destructive practices to be applied, resulting in massive food shortages throughout the country. By 1959 famine was widespread, leading not only to death by starvation but also to terrible cruelties inflicted by party cadres on the peasantry.

So in the space of a year Mao had made two terrible misjudgements: his support for Hundred Flowers not only was opposed by other top party leaders, but revealed that a great deal of hostility to socialism remained latent among the intelligentsia. And his conception of the Great Leap Forward was disastrous for the country, with deadly consequences persisting until 1960, a year after it had been discontinued.

It is with this backdrop that Mao gained renewed interest in “class struggle” beginning in 1960. The use of quotes around that term is deliberate: Mao’s new conception of class struggle was far removed from its ordinary Marxist definition in which class is defined by relationship to the means of production. That definition no longer made any sense in socialist China.

So why, then, did Mao seek to revive the idea of class struggle, and how did he do it?

It might be that the response to Hundred Flowers convinced Mao that the former bourgeoisie were still a danger, and that despite having been stripped of their ownership of the means of production, they still presented a danger to the new socialist society.

A more cynical view, and one that better fits the timeline, is that Mao needed a way to deflect the well-deserved criticism of the Great Leap; criticism that needn’t mention Mao by name, since it was well understood that he was the principal architect of that disaster. An example was the harsh criticism of the Great Leap offered by minister of defense Peng Dehuai at the Lushan conference in the summer of 1959. When under attack, Mao reverted to the tactics that had served him (and the party) so well during the long struggle to overthrow the old order: class conflict. But now it was necessary to redefine “class” so as to include Mao’s political enemies, while still using the terminology of class struggle to legitimate Mao’s position and to condemn his critics.

Since this is ostensibly a note on Kraus’ book, I should note that Kraus does not advance this more cynical view, but merely supplies the background and timeline, without speculating about Mao’s motives.

Before moving on, I will note that Kraus does not discuss the effects of the Great Leap Forward. That’s fine: it isn’t the focus of his book. But I think it is important to understand just how disastrous the policy decision was. The Chinese government puts the number of deaths from famine at 20 million. To this day it claims that the famine was due to adverse weather conditions, but fails to explain why weather conditions so severe in China from border to border somehow failed to have much or any adverse impact on agriculture in any of the countries surrounding China. A conundrum, indeed. Other sources, in particular Frank Dikötter and Jisheng Yang, put the death toll much higher, at more than 40 million. Those estimates are based on examination of Chinese government records archives that were briefly available following a new archives law, some of which have since been sealed. They also document terrible abuses resulting both from the mass starvation as well as the impossible work quotas.

In any event, beginning in 1960 Mao undertook a study of the theory of class struggle in socialist society. Given that Mao had decided in advance that class struggle must and would continue, there were essentially three possible avenues to its definition:

  1. Define class in terms of hereditary background: the former landowners and capitalists, and their children, and grandchildren, represented the enemy class.
  2. Define class in terms of the actually existing strata in socialist society, emphasizing that power and money accruing to the new bueaucracy put the bureacrats in a class conflict with ordinary workers and peasants.
  3. Define class in terms of behavior: the most important specific measure being loyalty to the Party and to Mao thought (I´m not making that up).

Mao, and his followers and critics, explored each of these options over the coming 16 years, until Mao’s death in 1976.

Mao mostly rejected option #1, though he found it useful at times to invoke family background when attacking various of his enemies. But overall Mao believed in the power of people to change, noting, for example, that if family background were a barrier to being considered a revolutionary, then none of Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Stalin would have qualified (and he could have added himself to that list).

Pursuing option #2 would have been dangerous: the Party relied for its effectiveness on loyal bureacratic cadres, and of course the bueaucracy extended to the very top of both the Party and state apparati, so any attempt to foment class struggle against the bueaucracy would have been suppressed at once. Nonetheless, it appears that Mao was worried about the ascendancy of the bueaucracy and predicted, quite accurately it turns out, that they could become a new bourgeoisie.

In the end, Mao leaned most toward the definition of class in behavioral terms. This is nonsensical, of course, in that it strips the term ¨class¨ of any measurable content. But it is a most convenient approach when one is in the position to define bad-class behavior as behavior that opposes Mao thought and the (current, malleable) Party line.

In the event, Mao’s newly renewed focus on class struggle was taken up and deployed (destructively) in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966 and continuing for a decade. Mao hoped to use the cultural revolution as a way of neutralizing his political enemies on the right and strengthening the notion of continuous revolution as a way of maintaining socialist momentum and preventing complacency and conservative views among an entrenched elite.

Things quickly got out of hand. The Red Guards, high school and college students and young workers mostly, had little interest in understanding the subtle and often changing details of Mao’s class analysis, and used their newly acquired power to harass, intimidate, and persecute enemies of their choosing: often children of former landlords and capitalists, and intellectuals. This was predictable. Since 1949 the socialist state had assigned to every Chinese person a class designation with something like 40 gradations, based almost entirely on family background, So the fact that the Red Guards used family background as a proxy for class friend or enemy should have surprised nobody. And there had been a pronounced anti-intellectual strain in the Chinese Communist Party since the beginning: most intellectuals came from the ranks of the bourgeoisie or their hangers-on, and the Party seems to have extrapolated a general mistrust of intellectuals as a result.

So by the time the cultural revolution had done its work, the details of Mao’s class analysis was mostly irrelevant. It was left to Mao’s successors to pick up the pieces and move on, and away from the emphasis on class struggle.

Despite my obvious cynicism about Mao’s motives, in retrospect he was not wrong to attempt to analyze the contradictions within socialist society. If actually existing and nominally socialist societies are an indication, it seems that the accumulation of power and wealth in a few hands is not a feature unique to capitalism. If the goal in a socialist society is to survive until enough abundance can be created to allow a transition to a genuinely communist society, then serious and sustained attention has to be paid to the power and wealth structures created in that ¨tranistional¨ socialist stage.