Top Menu

Red Guards and students

The struggle for actually building socialist society

An Interview with Fred Engst

The following interview with Fred Engst was conducted by Onurcan Ülker (bios beneath interview) on April 7, 2017 in Beijing. It was originally published by Research Unit for Political Economy (RUPE) on January 19, 2018 under the same title. The present version has been edited and reformatted. As the RUPE editors noted in their original introduction, the Engst interview “provides very significant insights into the building of socialism in China on the basis of both direct experience and deep reflection.” Indeed, like other correctives we have published, Engst also strongly contradicts critiques of Mao that have become dominant. We were particularly impressed with the section, “The real ‘Chinese miracle’ was socialism,” in which Engst argues persuasively against the claim that economic growth was feeble in comparison to Post-Mao Era. With straightforward statistical comparison and a clear critique of the use of “retro-computed GDP” by contemporary scholars, Engst shows that “The economic base built in Mao’s era laid the foundation for a sovereign capitalist development.” —Eds.

Onurcan Ülker: Could you please start with introducing yourself?

Fred Engst (Yang Heping): I was born in Beijing in 1952 and raised in China’s ancient capital, Xi’an. I came back to Beijing when our family got transferred in 1966, before the Cultural Revolution started. I spent first twenty some years of my life in China—mostly in Xi’an—and the last eight years of that time was in Beijing during the peak of the Cultural Revolution; but Beijing was not as chaotic as other places at that time. After the middle school, I spent five years working in a factory together with my classmates. Some other classmates of mine went to the countryside and I also wanted to go with them, but I was not allowed because I was a foreigner. Later, after I tried, my brother and sister were able to go. Then I went to the U.S. in 1974 and spent another thirty some years there. But I came back often: I spent the whole year here in 1988 right before the events in Beijing in 1989. Then I spent another year, 2000, to teach here. In between, I also came back quite often to see my parents and my classmates. In the end, I decided to move back to China in 2007. Since then I’ve been teaching and doing my research here. My lifelong pursuit is understanding politics and economics of Mao’s period. In this sense, I can say it has been most fruitful in last ten years.

The real question: How to build a new, socialist society?

OÜ: So, you spent quite a lot of time in Maoist China. Western critics of Maoism usually accuse it of over-politicizing the people and therefore, consistently undermining stability and institutionalization. How was the daily life of ordinary people in Maoist China? Did the so-called “over-politicization” of masses really create a sort of chaos?

FE: Well, that is a loaded question. It comes down to: do you justify the oppression or do you try to overcome the oppression? In other words, the problem is: do you want to overthrow the old oppressors to become a new oppressor or completely eliminate the system of oppression?

There were those people in the revolutionary ranks who opposed to feudalism, comprador capitalism and imperialism; but they did not really oppose the system of oppression per se. So, once the revolutionaries became the rulers, a new problem emerged: Would they rule in the name of the people together with the people or would they simply become new oppressors? How to prevent revolutionaries to become new oppressors was the real issue.

In its first seven years from 1949 to 1956, Mao’s China underwent a very successful transformation of the agriculture into collectives; per capita income of the farmers steadily rose. And also they successfully transformed entrepreneur industries into state-owned or joint venture enterprises. So basically, they were able to complete the transformation from a capitalist, semi-feudal society to a socialist one. But then, immediately, some other questions arose when the people in factories, cities, and provinces started to face some issues. Workers and students were going on strike over some bureaucratic handling of contradictions. There is a famous example: Army wanted to build an airport in Henan province without taking care of the livelihood of the peasants in the village. They just tried to bulldoze over everything to build the airport, and peasants had no way but to resist and blockade the way. This example is mentioned in Volume 5 of Mao’s Selected Works.

OÜ: Mao directly accuses Deng Xiaoping for this…

FE: Yes, it was Deng Xiaoping who did it. There were a lot of examples like that. So the question here is: how do you overcome day-to-day, inevitable contradictions between the managers and the managed in the factory? How do you organize production? There are many different opinions, different ideas about what to do. So, what are the people in leadership to do? Do they apply the mass line, listen to people, find a solution, get into consensus or just ride roughshod over the people? These questions are mainly about how to democratize the production process.

By 1956 it became very apparent that in socialist period there were two very distinct type of contradictions: On the one hand, old landlords and capitalists were not happy with losing their control over the land and enterprises, and they wanted to overthrow socialism. On the other hand, there was another set of contradictions regarding the nitty-gritty of how to run day-to-day production process. How do you manage a school or a farm? How do you handle the conflict between the managed and the managers? What is the limit of the authority of the managers? These were what was then called “contradictions among the people.” Because sides of these contradictions did not have the opposite goals; they had the same goal but they just differed in terms of how to approach it. How to run a factory better and more efficiently? How to make China overcome its poverty and its backwardness? How to turn it into an industrialized nation? These were contradictions among the people. How would you handle them?

It had become apparent by 1956 that new bureaucrats, people in the leadership were trying to ride roughshod over the people. So Mao started the Hundred Flowers Campaign to criticize the people in the leadership and to rectify the Party. And that’s how, to borrow an English phrase, “the shit hit the fan.” The people who opposed the old oppressors rather than the system of oppression itself during the Revolution, the people who wanted to become new rulers felt very threatened by this rectification campaign. What they wanted was instead to redirect the attack at anybody criticizing them.

I think this is what sounds “chaotic” to some people. They ask why didn’t Chinese just manage the things in a “normal” way—“normal” in the sense that the term is used by those in power, those who rule! Why did they have all these political upheavals in China?

Actually, what they question is why China didn’t just go back to the old method. Why, they didn’t just let the managers in the factories become bosses and hold the line? Why did they choose to criticize these people and try to change their approaches? In fact, these people were reluctant to change their minds. They felt threatened when they faced criticism. Being targeted made them very uncomfortable. That’s exactly why the Party elite turned the rectification campaign into the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” in 1957. This was a total one-hundred-eighty-degree change. I also wrote articles about that.

I think that is the key to understand Mao’s last twenty years. How were these conflicts resolved? The first way was “to cure the disease to save the patient.” This was also the method used during the Yan’an Rectification Movement in early 1940s. It was mainly aimed at resolving the conflicts through rectification campaigns. In this sense, Big Character Posters and mass meetings were treated as the main tools to target the Party leadership. The second way was targeting the bottom, the outside of the Party through nit-picking. This method was based on manipulating the people, telling them who the enemy was, and stirring them up to attack those who had been accused of being “reactionaries.” Here, the aim was not “to cure the disease to save the patient,” but rather to knock the opposite side down. This was the methodology of the Anti-Rightist Campaign as well.

So the question you raised has to be seen through this conflict: how to build a new socialist society? In absence of that, the things that happened during Mao era just look crazy. I hope this answer addresses your question.

OÜ: So how was this was reflected in daily lives of ordinary people?

FE: Well, people were very directly affected. Take a factory for example. How do the people in the leadership, manager of a workshop go about running the production process? If the production falls behind, what do we do? The capitalist way is simple: they just implement carrot-and-stick strategies: “If you don’t work hard, I’ll fire you”; “if you work hard, I’ll give you some extra bonuses”; or “I’m the boss, just listen to me. I hire you for your muscle, not for your brain,” etc. This is the capitalist approach. But if the working class is the master of society, how do you manage the production process? If there is a problem with production, what do we do? We need to hold meetings to discuss what is going on and find solutions. If the working class is the master of this society, it is in the workers’ interest to overcome the problem in the production process. If they overcome these difficulties, they’ll understand that the working class has tremendous ability to solve their problems. Seeing what they do is actually in their own interest unleashes creativity of the people enormously. How the People’s Liberation Army with just “millets and rifles” could be able to defeat the Japanese and the Nationalists? Thanks to a firm belief in a common goal; a belief in overthrowing the oppression.

The same rule applies to daily work at a factory. So, if the leadership always blames the workers for inefficiency in production and do not try to understand what is the root cause of the problem, then workers will normally feel disenfranchised. If the workers feel disenfranchised, if they feel powerless, then they will slack. They will not show initiatives. When they see a problem, for instance, when they see the break-down of a machine, they will not care. They will think that this is not their problem. But if they have the feeling of belonging, if they have right to criticize the leadership, if they are able to make suggestions about what to do and these suggestions are taken seriously, if they really feel they are the masters of their destiny, then their ability to overcome difficulties will improve enormously.

We have some opposite examples in this sense. Dazhai was a model developed by Mao. I’m very familiar with this example: I have been to Dazhai many times and also stayed there for six months. I worked with peasants there and visited neighboring places. In Dazhai, you could just see how a strong leadership mobilized the peasants, and led to discussions about how to transform backward agricultural practices by hard labor—without expecting any foreign investment or demanding machinery—can make a huge difference. That’s a big story in itself. In contrast, there is also the example of Xiaogangcun Village promoted by Deng after the Reform. There were eighteen families in that village who were bickering all the time. When your family became the head of the work team, you were trying to embezzle the collective wealth. I was fighting against you to undercut your ability and power. When the next elections came, I was replacing you as the head of the collective. This time, I was the one trying to embezzle and you were the one fighting against my power. Change of roles… Of course, a collective cannot sustain that way. After the Reform, Deng Xiaoping set Xiaogangcun as a “model” as if Chinese never experienced small, petite peasants’ economy for thousands of years! This is so ridiculous!

So, that is the contrast…

When the working class is in power

OÜ: You’ve just addressed the fundamental difference between the capitalist approach and Mao’s socialist approach to the problem of how to increase production. I think this difference is deeply rooted in the theory of knowledge. Epistemological foundations of the Maoist approach, which assumes labouring people possess the knowledge of social reality particularly since they directly take part in production process, and the capitalist approach, which advocates permanent reproduction of the distinction between intellectual and manual labor, are totally different. I imagine this unique epistemological stance of Maoism is also what led to the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement. Educated youths were sent down to the countryside or workplaces to learn from the real masters of the knowledge, i.e. workers and peasants. You also participated in manual labor at that time. What did you learn from your experiences? Do you really think that Mao’s approach was valid?

FE: Yes, of course. But the main thing is: In capitalism, the goal of production is different. For example, the improvement in farming equipment is not usually made by engineers sitting in the office and designing machines. It is quite often the farmers who find faults in the machinery. U.S. farmers, for example, have little workshops in their farms. They modify the machinery there. Machine dealers come in, see it, steal the idea and perfect it. But knowledge, of course, comes from practice; that is the source of all ideas. Capitalist intellectuals and engineers can refine that knowledge, and of course, workers in the factory without formal education may not be able to theorize it that well. But in the last analysis, the accumulated practices of workers is the primary source of knowledge.

That’s exactly why Mao advocated intellectualization of workers and participation of intellectuals in manual work. Combining these two was very important. Yes, a theory of knowledge is one aspect of this. But my own work experience in the U.S. and in China during Mao’s period showed me that the most striking point is the goal of production. In the US, we, as workers, try not to make any technological improvement suggestions for the management in fear of losing our jobs. I mean, you can make a suggestion that can make production very efficient and just because of this someone may lose his job. So workers quite often sabotage the machinery and the production process, because they are not on the same side with the managers; when push comes to the shove, they are on the opposite side. Capitalists always say “we’re all in the same boat.” Of course, if company goes bankrupt workers will lose their jobs, their wages. From that perspective, yes, we’re “in the same boat!” But you know what: we’re going to lose our jobs first before capitalists lose their money. When they say “we’re bankrupt” it means they don’t have excess, but they can still survive.

In Mao’s China, however, the goal of production was totally different. Leaders could not dock your wage or fire you. Workers could just yell back if the manager asked him to do something that he thought was not right. I mean, of course, there were some discipline measures, but the perception was people in a workplace were doing things together. Leaders were in charge of giving directions for what to do, but these directions had to be reasonable for workers. If a leader was just sitting in the office, sipping his tea, reading his newspaper and telling workers what to do, you could just tell him: “Walk out there and come here! Work with us!” Workers had a right to do so. Who would become the leader was also subject to workers’ approval. Not in the sense of electoral politics maybe, but if workers demanded to replace the leader and if their demand was not accepted by the management, they could go on strike or slowdown. So anybody wanted to be effective had to get the consent from the workers. Again: Here, the key was that leaders could not fire the workers or dock their pay. So if I want to lead you, I cannot force you. I can only lead you by consent and reason. That’s the basic difference between capitalist mode of production and socialism! This, of course, was a source of motivation for people to contribute to the improvement of production process. I remember workers making many suggestions. People had very different opinions of how to handle the things. Sometimes, like during the Cultural Revolution, two factions became so antagonistic to each other that they even went into armed conflict in some places. But that’s another story, anyway.

Some people say, in Mao’s era, the working class was never in power. I reject this. The fact that there were factional fights and a degree of armed conflict precisely demonstrates that the working class was in power. Without the working class being in power, it would not be possible for grassroots organizations to fight over how to run a factory. Yes, factional fighting is not good, and it was the most devastating thing for the working class. But it also proves that in Mao’s era the working class was in power. That’s the irony of history.

OÜ: Did you directly observe factional struggles when you worked in your factory?

FE: Not in my factory, no. But we heard many stories about violent fights. When I went to a coal mine at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, there were arguments. There was no fistfight maybe, but conservative factions defending the mine leadership and rebel factions criticizing it were all writing big character posters, holding demonstrations, organizing rallies… We went to a lot of rallies too.

In Mao’s China, the working class was the master of society. So, when there is a lot of different opinions among workers, how are you gonna resolve that? This was the key issue. Today, people always talk about “democracy.” In many cases, that is a lie! Active, day-to-day democracy was exercised in Mao’s China! For heaven’s sake, tell me: People were getting into arguments, even getting into fistfights to defend what they think was right! If this is not the working class in power, tell me what it is?

Town and country, mental and manual labor

OÜ: So, how did your experiences in Maoist China shape your opinions about the relationship between intellectual labor and manual labor?

FE: There’s a lot to talk about, but actually, I’m more influenced by my parents [Erwin Engst and Joan Hinton], who were also influenced by their parents. My grandmother [Carmelita Hinton], who founded the Putney School, laid so much stress on hands-on learning. They had a farm at the school, students had to milk the cows and feed them; they also had to do sports, go to the wilderness and survive there, and so on. This was very much the “hands-on” approach and my mother also received this kind of education. My father was a dairy farmer and he was also very much into using hands.

But people have very elitist views in China. Intellectuals feel superior and workers feels inferior. Workers always come to heel before people who have more education, more knowledge, more authority… When my parents came to China, they looked down very much on those nose-in-the-air intellectuals here. I’m influenced by that a lot. So, I can say that it is a combination of my upbringing in Mao’s China and my parents’ influence that I have this kind of views today.

OÜ: Today, not only in the West but also in Chinese academia educated youth who were placed in political campaigns and sent to the countryside or factories in the Maoist era are often called the “lost generation,” the people who sacrificed their lives solely because of a power struggle at the top that actually had nothing to do with themselves. What do you think about this opinion?

FE: Well, apparently, I do not agree with that. First of all, it was not only about a power struggle. Rather, it was about how to build socialism as I mentioned before. “Power struggles” may take place between the rulers, the oppressors. And of course, at that time, there were a lot of power struggles among the capitalist roaders in China as well. So, what took place during Mao’s period was a combination of the power struggles among those people who wanted to take the capitalist road, and the real struggle between the working class and the capitalist class about which road was to be taken.

As regards to your question about the “sent-down” youth, actually, I can say it is very controversial. What I find is people who condemn the decision to send the youth to the countryside routinely ignore a basic fact of Chinese society, which is that the majority of the population are peasants. In fact, sent-down youth were somewhat privileged youth in the cities at that time. What I mean by the term “privileged” is that people in cities enjoyed much more than the people in the countryside. And this was an inevitable outcome of the necessary process of industrialization—necessary in the sense that China was a very backward, poor country. The question was: how do you industrialize? You needed to have some kind of primitive capital accumulation. China could not achieve this the way the British had previously, by enclosing the farmland and kicking out the farmers. Or it could not simply exploit other countries to accumulate capital. So, how was China going to generate enough capital to start the process of industrialization when the great majority of population were peasants? By early 1950s, more than 80 percent of Chinese population was still rural.

All China could do was either tax the farmers, because they constituted the majority of the population, or go through a process of “unequal exchange” of industrial products for agricultural products. Taxation would be very expensive and hard to maintain. So the state decided to rely on the exchange between the industrial products whose price is higher than its real cost and the agricultural products whose price is lower than its actual cost as a mechanism through which it could accumulate capital for industrialization. For that to be successful, and to prevent merchant from filling their pockets by exploiting the “scissors gap” between the prices of industrial products and agricultural products, China instituted a monopoly of agricultural products. This grain buying monopoly, at the same time, also required a residence permit system. Urban residents would get their supply of grain at low cost and this would enable industrial workers to survive at lower wages. The grain would be bought from the peasants at a low price, and industrial products (including clothes or light industries like thermos bottles, flashlights, washbasins etc.) would be sold to farmers at high price. So, in this system the initial industrialization necessarily required this kind of unequal exchange.

This enabled, for example, the product of one year’s labor by a textile worker to be exchanged with the product of one years’ labor by dozen or even a hundred farmers in China. The reason for that was simple: to industrialize, you need to have mines, steel, production machinery, buildings and so on. Farmers do not need any of these things. To mine the coal, to mine the iron ore, to smelt it into iron, to make machinery, to build a sewing machine or textile machine to make clothes, etc. A very long chain of industrial build-up must occur—and the workers filling those jobs need to eat. Where does the food comes from? The peasants! So, this is how the unequal exchange started the industrial process; this was the main reason.

Actually, this was also in the long-term interest of peasants. Because future peasants would not need to stay in small farms. Industrialization would break them free from all that heavy, back-breaking labor. They would instead use tractors. But to use tractors, you need to have steel. To have steel, you need to have iron ore and coal. These are not things that peasants, farmers can buy initially. But collectivization enabled peasants to buy machines. And it also made supplying grain to the city easier. So this was the backbone of the “hùkǒu” or residence permit system.

But we should keep the unity of opposites in mind. Everything has two sides. Chinese has a great word for what I want to say: “Wúnài” (无奈), which literally means “the best of the worst possible situation” or “the best option in absence of a better alternative.” Yes, unequal exchange was the best alternative for China to accumulate capital at that time. But it also had a side-effect: Because of this system, people in the cities felt that their labor was worth more than the labor of peasants. Of course, that was not true; “unequal exchange” was just an outcome of the monopolization of grain by the state. But consequently, people in the cities started to feel that they were superior. They had guaranteed food; they had guaranteed clothing at cheap prices, etc. And peasants could not arbitrarily move to the city because of the grain rationing. When you came to city, you’d have no grain, you could not live. Grain was only guaranteed to the urban population of the city. If you decided to move to the city, you had to bring your own grain from the countryside. Capitalist liberals say, this is a restriction on people’s freedom of movement. Actually, you can see how that “freedom” works in all the slums in Latin America, India and other economically underdeveloped countries! People are free to move there!

The negative aspect of this system was that the city had more advanced educational facilities and medical facilities, and much greater access to art, literature, etc. The life of city people was improving much faster than the life of the people in the countryside. This division was a feature of old capitalist society and it was maintained in socialist society. The rift between the countryside and the city was not only enormous but also widening. What could be done about that?

So sending the youth to the countryside was meaningful. Why? First, it enabled the people in the city to somewhat pay back to peasants. They brought their knowledge, their expertise to the countryside. And making urban youth see the countryside also gave them a clear message: “Don’t think the privilege you have in the city is your natural right. You have to think about how the peasants, the majority of people live in this country!” That was the backbone of China. Well, you may say it was not the most efficient way, but it doesn’t really matter. In any case, it was a way for city people to pay back to peasants for what they gained from their privileged position.

At the beginning, most of the youths also supported that policy. They knew the hardships; they all went through it. They felt that it was their duty to help in the countryside. Unfortunately, many things happened at the same time. The scissors gap, in fact, was able to be narrowed substantially by the 1960s, after “three difficult years” [1959–61]. (And for the rest of the ‘60s with the exception of 1966–67, the first years of the Cultural Revolution.) The industrial price should be lowered and the agricultural price should be raised. But the country was in a deadlock. There was a struggle about the future of China. Many things were not able to be taken care of. So, they should have, on the one hand, sent the youth to the countryside, and on the other hand narrowed the scissors gap. But there were so many things to worry about at the same time and they chose to grasp the main contradiction.

When Deng came to power, he destroyed the policy of sending youth to the countryside. Today, what people say is Deng cancelled the policy because the youth rebelled. But the reason why the youth rebelled is a topic that very few people actually study to my knowledge. During Mao’s period the youth had not rebelled against this policy. They rebelled in 1977, after Deng created the examination system. All the elite people left the countryside to go to the colleges. Just imagine the youths in the countryside working together with farmers. They all of a sudden started to feel like: “Oh, I see! I’m supposed to stay in the countryside all my life, but you can leave!” That was what broke the will and consensus of the youth; what destroyed the core motivation behind the policy.

OÜ: This fact is not mentioned in “scar literature,” either…

FE: Yes, that’s my point! I totally with the perspective of the youth. When everyone was together, everything was fine. But when it became apparent that some were “more equal than others,” understandably they rebelled.

OÜ: So many former sent-down youths have written about their experience in the countryside in memoirs. Yet they rarely criticize this policy change that took place after Mao passed away. They choose to target Mao-era policies and especially the Down to the Countryside campaign as a whole.

FE: Yes. However, I do not see any documentation about a youth rebellion against this policy prior to Deng’s coming to power. Well, of course, there were some hardships; there were some difficulties. There was a backdoor movement in 1975, and it was a kind of predecessor to the movement against Down to the Countryside policy in 1977. When I met with people from Shanghai condemning this policy of sending the youth to the countryside, I just asked them simple questions: “Why do you think you have the security of hùkǒu in Shanghai? What are you doing for majority of peasants in the countryside that make it possible?” They just said: “That’s not my problem!” On an individual basis, these youths felt they were being mistreated. However, most people, even those who condemn the Down to the Countryside policy, have an unforgettable experience with that life. They had a hard time staying in the countryside, but they still feel nostalgia for those days. Most of them say: “We want to go back to our youth; we want to go back to that life.” Yet, I don’t see any literature glorifying those kinds of experiences of people who went to the factory to work in a capitalist society. For example, in American literature, you cannot see young workers talking about how great of a time they have in the factory. I also worked in a U.S. factory for a dozen years the experience nothing like what I had in Mao’s China.

So the key these people miss is the reason why they reminisce about the experience even though they are against the policy: commonality. The feeling of being equal, of being together in solidarity. The shared experience of being oppressed in a factory is not something most people want to relive. But no matter how hard you work, a shared experience of working together to build something, to build a “new China” deserves to be remembered. In America, you can only see this kind of glorification of the past among the U.S. Army. When the people in Marines, Green Berets leave, they usually have fun memories about their past experience. Because you have a kind of band in the Army; you do something together. Of course, in this case, it is for imperialism. However, from psychological point of view, service in the Army gives you the sense of togetherness. That is something you don’t see while working in a factory in capitalist society.

The real “Chinese miracle” was socialism

OÜ: In post-Mao era, socialism was somehow reduced to economic development or simply GDP growth in Chinese official discourse. As we know, for Mao, socialism was much more than that. What he had in mind as gradual transition to classless society was also a process of establishing direct democracy of the toilers. So my question is: was this really the case in Maoist China?

FE: Of course. Defenders of Mao-era policies can dwell on the democratic aspect of them. But we should not fail to counter the total misconception of the capitalists who say economic growth is faster in the post-Mao era. That is utterly untrue! In the last few months, I looked through data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBSC) to compare the growth rates. Yes, GDP is one measurement. But instead of using GDP, I measured grain production, cloth production, railroad transportation, power generation, coal production and some other basic components of economic growth. To my astonishment, other than cloth production and the GDP figure the speed of industrial development during Mao’s era was much higher than the development during Deng’s era. The truth is GDP was non-existent during Mao’s era and was fabricated by later officials. Also, in Mao’s era, service sector was not counted!

In Mao’s era, we had dormitories, cafeteria, nursery, libraries, trade school and so on in a factory. All these things are not counted as a part of GDP. But when you break them up, they all start to contribute to GDP. So, when this fact is taken into consideration, it can be seen that even during the supposedly “chaotic” last ten years of Mao’s era, the speed of development was faster than or at least equal to the speed of development in post-Mao era. Here are the facts (see Table 1).

Table 1. Growth rate of the basic components of economic growth in China

PeriodSteelCoalElectricFreightAutoHigh School EnrollmentGrainClothGDP
Mao’s Era (1952-1976)10.16.913.26.722.017.32.53.35.8
Cultural Revolution

(1966-1976)

8.18.711.17.316.533.17.02.86.0
Post-Mao Era (1977-2015)9.65.38.83.714.32.54.15.914.9

In my analysis, I did not use potentially misleading measures like “gross output.” I just looked at how much cloth was produced, how much steel was produced, how much power was generated, etc. These kinds of measures run no risk being double-counted. I also excluded data for 1949–1951 to account for the devastation caused by the Revolution—a necessary period of recovery for Mao. So, I took data from 1952 to 1976, and then compared that with Deng’s period and beyond. Results are astonishing. While talking about Mao’s period, most people just say the people were sacrificed. This is empty talk, nothing more. Only by making people the masters of society can you have such rapid economic development!

Compared to other economically underdeveloped countries like India or Brazil, the recent economic development of China under capitalism is also very fast. This cannot be denied. That’s why people keep talking about the “Chinese miracle” today. But the thing is economic development under socialism is faster. Note a simple fact in the history: after Soviets crushed the reactionaries in the Civil War, from 1921 to 1941, Russia went from a backward industrial society on the outskirts of Europe to a highly industrialized super-power. A span of twenty years immediately after a devastating war. Compared to the Soviet Union, what happened to China in the last 40 years was nothing. Like in the Soviet Union, socialism achieved a remarkable economic success in Mao’s China. So it is a fallacy that the economic growth was sacrificed during Mao’s period to make people feel better. This is not true.

Moreover, in Mao’s China not only the development of production was much faster in the post-Mao era, but also people had gained the belief that they were the masters of society. That was the very reason for the 1989 crackdown. People went out into the street in massive numbers to protest because they thought the government belonged to them. This was the spirit of the Cultural Revolution! However, this very basic fact about the uprising has been totally ignored by the mainstream scholars.

The socialist legacy

OÜ: Actually, many other developing countries also went under a market-oriented reform process especially from mid-1970s. But today, we only talk about the “China model” as a “success story”; all other “models” promoted by international financial institutions in the past have already collapsed. What is the main reason of this? Do you think the claim of mainstream economists—that post-Mao economic development in China is proof of the superiority of the market economy over the so-called “command economy”—makes sense? Could the relative success of the market-oriented transformation in China ever have been achieved without the independent heavy-industrial basis established during Maoist era?

FE: It is so interesting. Mainstream economists are so clueless about development. The reason that most Third World countries have hard time developing is because imperialism. Imperialists, multinationals trample over any development effort that could challenge their monopoly power in Third World countries. The only reason that China was able to rise is because in the era of imperialism it maintained its sovereignty. The economic base built in Mao’s era laid the foundation for a sovereign capitalist development. That is the main reason! Even today, look around the world, which country does not have foreign troops? Which country has sovereignty in military, politics and economics? Only Russia and China. India, maybe, has just a little bit. Without understanding the logic of economic development in the imperialist era, you will remain clueless about why China could be able to develop.

So basically, it is the irony of history: to develop on a capitalist basis, a Third World country needs socialism first. Mao once said, “Only socialism can save China.” We can add now: “Only socialism can save capitalism in the Third World.” If you want to develop capitalism in a Third World country in the era of imperialism, you can do that only by breaking with imperialism and having a sovereign economic development. Only then, can you build a coherent, national economic base strong enough to emerge back to world economy.

OÜ: This sounds like what Samir Amin calls “delinking.”

FE: That’s right. You need to delink to have an indigenous economic development. The only possible way to do that is to have socialism first. By opening up in 1949, China would not be different from the Philippines today. And it would not be much better than India. India’s economy is supposed to grow, but it has no maintaining power. China’s relative economic success after Reform, compared to other Third World countries, is because it has sovereignty. It has an industrial base. It decides the sectors in which multinationals are allowed to operate. In some sectors such as energy, transportation and finance, the Chinese government does not allow multinationals at all; and in other sectors, such as automotive, it only allows them as part of a joint venture. Foreign companies do not want to be in a joint venture; they clearly prefer solely-owned subsidiaries. But China says: “Well, that is the condition. Take it or leave it. If you want to come in, you gotta have a joint venture.”

But if the Chinese started joint ventures in 1949, what could they do? They didn’t have anything! However, by the time I left China in 1974, every province in the country was able to make trucks. Their quality was not that good; they had to send a technician for every truck they sold to fix. But still, they had trucks! When you have it, you can improve it. If you don’t have trucks, then you have nothing to work on. So, with every province having truck building industry, when multinational companies came in, they were asked to have joint ventures. Chinese said: “Well, I can make the frame; I can make the tires; I can build the seats. But I need your engine; I need your transmission. Your engine and transmission are better than mine. Anything else I can do; I can even do better.” That’s how a joint venture works.

So, having a coherent, indigenous, all-around economic base is the key for China to re-emerge in the capitalist world and become a rising industrial power. In absence of this, neoliberal policies destroy Third World countries. The Philippines was probably adopted neoliberal policies more fervently than any other country. Today, it has nothing to show for it. Nothing! It is so sad. They cannot even make a pair of pliers, or a nail. They can only make the most primitive stuff. What they have in the market are all products of multinationals or cheap imports from China.

OÜ: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what you say is China still enjoys a sort of sovereignty thanks to the legacy of Mao era. So, how do you evaluate the role of foreign direct investments (FDIs) in today’s China? Because FDIs have long been considered as an important driving force of China’s rapid GDP growth in post-Mao era.

FE: I think this view is really far-fetched. I mean, the reality is far from that. FDI does play some role in China, but I think it is overplayed by most scholars. What China actually does is steal technology. China taxes significant advantage of its ability to pirating technologies. The reason China has been developing much faster than other Third World countries is because it uses the strength of its sovereign base—in economics, politics, and the military—to narrow the technology gap and innovate rapidly. You can do a leap forward; you can take the shortcut. Instead of starting with the landlines, you can go straight to mobile. Instead of starting with the VCRs, you can go straight to VCD or DVD recorders. Even the Chinese film industry totally depends on pirating Hollywood movies today.

Let me clarify my point with examples: McDonald’s, for example, came in. Chinese learned from that. Today, Chinese fast-food industry kicks the ass of McDonald’s. Or FedEx came in. Now, it has already been beaten by Chinese express delivery companies. The examples can be multiplied. But the thing is, what makes these possible is that you have sovereign control over the key sectors of your country.

OÜ: How about domestic contradictions, for instance, contradictions stemming from the commodification of labor in post-Mao China? Do the living and working conditions of China’s new working class, especially migrant workers, pose a threat to the sustainability of this economic model?

FE: Here, there is also another tremendous gain from Mao’s era that scholars often tend to overlook. They just don’t know what is the key to cheap labor in China. They say, it is because the size of the labor force. Or they say, it is because population structure has a lot more young people in China. But we have that in other Third World countries too. How come China enjoys cheap labor, but others having very cheap labor cannot even exploit it? It is very ironic. Mainstream scholars and news media in the West are not coherent in explaining this fact.

It had long been a puzzle for me too until I went to the Philippines. I went there three times, talked to people there, tried to understand the social reality of that country. When I contrasted the Philippines with China, I saw what differentiates China is the legacy of land reform. Land reform gave each Chinese peasant a piece of land. This is the key to cheap labor in China. If you compare the official minimum wage in China and the official minimum wage in, for example, the Philippines today (I don’t know much about India), you cannot see a huge difference. A lot of people in the Philippines live on this minimum wage and they live in poverty. But Chinese workers with more or less the same wage are much better off. Why is that? Mainly because in places like the Philippines, landless peasants are forced out of the countryside, they come to the cities, start to live on the minimum wage, and that wage has to support the whole family. Care of the young, care of the old, all depend on this wage. But the families of Chinese migrant workers, farmers who come to city to make a living do not totally count on their wage. They have land back home. Raising youth and caring for the old in the countryside have almost zero cost. So, it comes to the point that if the process of working class reproduction is carried out in the countryside, the cost is reduced substantially. But if you move to an urban center as a landless peasant, the expenses of housing, schooling of the youth, caring for the old and so on are much higher. In the Chinese countryside, people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s still work their fields and gardens. They’re self-sufficient. They have their own house, their own land. Even if they are not able to work, they have cell phones. They call up somebody to plant, plough or harvest their land. They just manage a little bit. So old people are not a burden for young people. That is the key to understand cheap labor in China. And what made this possible is the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Without this basis, China would not have this kind of cheap labor. That is what capitalist scholars fail to understand (or avoid mentioning).

Today, the reason why labor costs are rising in China is precisely because urbanization. Local governments and real estate speculators have been forcing farmers off of the land, so they can build industrial areas. And once you force the farmers off of the land to the urban settings, their wage has to be higher than before to make it possible for them to survive. So the urbanization drive by the government is increasing the cost of labor in China today. This is the irony of capitalism. That’s why I feel like only Marxism can understand capitalism. Capitalist scholars, capitalist economists don’t understand it.

Social services in Socialist China

OÜ: Let’s go back to our previous topic. In Maoist China, almost all basic social services were provided for free or a symbolic fee thanks to the iron rice bowl system in urban centers and the people’s commune system in the countryside. However, today, this policy is also criticized by some pro-Reform and mainstream scholars who claim the quality of these services was incredibly low at that time. How was the quality of social services in Maoist China? Did they really improve living standards of Chinese people?

FE: To make a small correction, not everything was free. You had to be an urban resident; some services were not provided to farmers. Some of them were free, but you had to pay a low fee for some of them. Housing was not totally free, for example. You had to pay a symbolic rent. Education was more or less free. You just had to pay for your books, but the price was very minimal. That’s one reason why retro-computed GDP was low in Mao’s period. If a service is free, it is not counted in the GDP. There is no commodity exchange here.

Yes, maybe the quality was not as high as today. But if you measure by what was possible, the gains of this system were tremendous. For example, in the countryside, they established the system called “barefoot doctors.” This was recognized worldwide as a successful social service.

OÜ: Even the WHO of the United Nations recommended it to the rest of the Third World…

FE: Yes, that’s incredible! Of course the quality of the service provided by barefoot doctors was not as high as the quality of the service provided by the hospital. But at that time, hospitals were inaccessible for most of the people. Given this fact, condemning the poor quality of barefoot doctors is simply ridiculous! You have to look at what was available. We have to ask people who say the quality of barefoot doctors was poor: what was the alternative to this system? China was a poor country in the process of industrialization. We never say we were rich in Mao’s period. We actually say we were tightening our belts, so that we did not feel hungry. It was a poor country after all. So, this charge against Mao’s China is totally unfounded!

The policies of Mao’s era really made a difference. Life expectancy grew enormously in China. This growth is the fastest not only in Third World countries, but also in the world. To my astonishment, even during the worst period of Mao’s era, I mean during “three difficult years,” the highest death rate was 2.5 percent. That was comparable to the “normal” of India!

To condemn Mao’s era, you have to tell so many lies. That’s incredible! In natural sciences, in physics, in chemistry, we have labs to test. People can be objective. In the social sciences, it is easier to twist the truth. We are all, inevitably, biased as our interests influence what we see but that does not mean we cannot be objective and set out our biases openly. Unfortunately, apologists for capital like Milton Friedman are driven entirely by ideology. For example, I am astonished by the way Friedman developed a passion for “Asian Tigers” to show that the capitalism is superior to socialism. He could only do so by totally ignoring the Soviet experience. He simply selected examples to support his viewpoint.

The “three years of difficulty” and the inner-party struggle

OÜ: Here, another question comes to the fore: As you also implicitly mentioned, Western mainstream academia has long been accusing Mao of being a bloody dictator who voluntarily massacred millions of Chinese in order to achieve his utopian goals. To prove this claim, they usually refer to the “great famine” which followed the Great Leap Forward. What do you think about this claim? Was Mao really that “utopian”?

FE: I don’t know what they mean by “utopian.” When you don’t believe somebody, you just call him “crazy” or “utopian.” There is no objective criterion for this. How do you define “utopian”? To them, Marxism is “utopian” to begin with. So, that’s just their label.

“Mao massacred the people.” This claim is totally contrary to the reality. There are so many examples. In the inner-party struggle, Mao did not want anybody to be executed—contrary to intent or desire of so many others. Mao was one of the few people who insisted on the idea that “you can lock people up, but don’t execute them. Because if you make a mistake, there’s no going back.” Mainstream scholars also tend to attribute all the deaths that occurred during the Revolution, for example, to Mao. If any people died during the socialist period it was because Mao killed them. Such claims are endlessly repeated and they are ridiculous. In fact, you cannot point to any direct order by Mao to kill somebody in the party, or in secret assassinations.

If there is one period in which Mao’s policies could be blamed it would be the “three years of difficulty.” At that time, the reason people died was starvation. But if you go deep enough, you’ll find out that is precisely why Mao labelled some people as “capitalist roaders.” Mao warned people about these kinds of disasters way before they happened. That was a part of the intense struggle between capitalism and socialism in China. Capitalists don’t care how many people die as long as they defend their interests. Just like Trump. He recklessly orders bombardment of Syria entirely for imperialist purposes. They slaughter, they do everything in the name of “democracy” and “freedom.” You had these sorts of people in the Party, in the leadership. They did not care how many people died as long as they defended their rank, their position. “Three difficult years” came about precisely because of those people who wanted to go to capitalist road.

First, in early 1950s, they were against collectivization. After the success of collectivization, this time, they wanted to push it forward. That was the reason behind the “communist wind” or “exaggeration wind.” Why did they pushed for it? I don’t have a lot of evidence, but my hunch is that it is precisely because in big collectives you can collect the grain from the peasants easier. We’re still talking about the process of industrialization. If you want to collect the grain from the peasants, it is so hard in the model of individual family agriculture. But once you collectivize, then you can take the grain easier. That’s why they pushed for “communist wind.” Because they saw that this was an easier way to grab the peasants’ excess. They did not care whether peasants starved to death. This is where the flip-flop comes in.

OÜ: Today, it is no longer addressed in official historiography, but actually Liu Shaoqi, Deng, Peng Zhen, Tao Zhu… all these people also wholeheartedly supported and stirred up this “communist wind,” right?

FE: Exactly. They were the ones pushing for it, and Mao was the one criticizing them. But Mao was in the minority. That these people had no consideration for the welfare of the peasants themselves after collectivization scared Mao. You cannot understand “communist wind” outside of the context of industrialization.

Also there was another coincidence: Construction of 156 industrial projects with Soviet aid to China. When these 156 projects were set up, they required a lot of workers, which means they needed a lot of grain to feed these workers. So whichever province or region could extract more grain from the peasants earned respect from Party leadership for their support of China’s further industrialization. Because all these projects were going on; a massive amount of grain was needed to sustain the workers. So if your province could get more grain to the centre, you were the man! That explains this drive.

For example, people in Henan and Anhui boosted how much grain they could get. In 1958, everybody really got a lot of grain. It was a bumper harvest. But in 1959, natural disasters happened in Henan and Anhui. So grain production actually went down. Yet the local leaders did not want to admit any shortage; rather, they wanted to cover it up. They insisted that peasants refused to give half of the grain they had. Guess who wrote that notorious letter to the Central Committee about peasants hiding grain in 1959? Zhao Ziyang! If a peasant hides the grain, what do you do? There are two approaches: The capitalist roaders’ approach says: “No matter what happens, we should just go and get it!” Mao’s approach says: “Wow, why are these peasants hiding their grain? That means we have antagonized them. We cannot have this big commune as level of accounting.” That’s why Mao said, “wait, we have to lower accounting units.” That’s why he pushed for a three-level ownership system. The basic unit was the production team. Then we had brigade level, and then commune level. The grain that farmers produce was divided by the production team. There was a dozen or a few dozen families in each production team. When you work hard, you could get more grain from your immediate neighbors’ collective work. It was more direct. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, etc., all these people rather liked the commune level. They preferred a simpler, larger scale option, which was to go to the commune and grab all the grain that was produced. Mao, actually, warned them. He said, “If you do this, you’ll starve people!” We have memos to prove that.

After Zhao Ziyang’s report many officials went to the countryside to try to figure out where peasants were hiding their grain: they shouted at the peasants, bullied and threatened them, and beat them. They took the feed grain, seeds and everything from the peasants by force. That’s what caused the “famine.” As the famine spread people started to flee away from the affected area. Malicious local officials chased these people back to their villages to cover up what was going on. And if anybody wrote a letter to the Central Committee, they just held onto it. In a village, for example, there were only four Party members left. They wrote a letter with their blood. They just wanted to send it outside the Henan province. When the centre came down trying to find out what happened, they saw that the situation was terrible, even worse than what they thought. They tried to ship the grain right away to solve the problem. And the leader in Henan province, for example, rounded up all brigade leaders, tens of thousands people, and accused them of being “criminals.” He laid the blame on the local people… This is fascism. These people were calling themselves “communist,” but they were fascists, pure and simple, wearing the coat of “communist.” What they wanted was just to save their rank, their position in the Party. They didn’t care how many people died. That’s what imperialism does all the time. For their profit, they would fight to the end.

After this, Mao realized how deep-rooted these people were in the Party. After the “three difficult years,” guess what they proposed as a solution to overcome the difficulties? Decollectivization! In early 1950s, they had fought against collectivization. Then, they developed the “communist wind” policy. After the disaster of famine, they were proposing privatization, decollectivization once again! That is what “capitalist roader” is! This made Mao understand that the capitalists were in the Party. They blamed Mao for the deaths, especially for those in Sichuan. But the Sichuan famine had not been caused by lack of grain. Rather, Sichuan had had a bumper harvest. Deng Xiaoping is from Sichuan. Some people in China say that it was he who had ordered Li Jingquan, then the head of the Sichuan Party Committee, to ship the grain out. Li Jingquan had warned him: “If you get move that much grain out of Sichuan, the peasants will starve.” They say that Deng Xiaoping had pretty much said, “I rather prefer people in Sichuan die rather than in Beijing!” The policies that these people made caused tremendous hardships in 1960–61. To cover their asses, they let the people in Sichuan starve! After seeing what Deng was capable of 1989, I can believe this. This is the truth about the famine. The places where people died most were the places where, in 1958, production had been boosted most. They were not the places hardest hit by natural disasters. Actually, natural disasters affected some other provinces, some other places worse. But people did not starve there.

The place I was raised was in Shaanxi province. Some places there were also hit very hard by disasters. But we did not have famine. Of course, there was malnutrition. There was not enough to eat. I experienced that. I remember seeing people from Henan coming to Xi’an, to the farm where I grew up. Only years later did we hear the story: All the provincial leaders of Shaanxi who went to Beijing heard reports of exaggerated numbers about how much grain they could give to the center from other provinces. They were told they had boosted their production and nearly doubled their output, leaving them with surpluses of 10 to 20 percent or more. In fact, in Shaanxi, we maybe had only 2 to 5 percent improvement in grain production. The situation looked terrible! What should we do? So those guys came back home, called up people, told them that “Everybody else is so ahead! We’re so behind! We should get a move on!” Even under such great pressure, they only reported about a 10% increase. That’s how Shaanxi avoide famine.

Why didn’t the people revolt against capitalist restoration?

OÜ: You’ve mentioned the struggle between capitalist roaders and the revolutionaries during Maoist era. Mao’s method to combat against the rightist line in the Party was to mobilize the popular masses to topple the bureaucratic elite; and to encourage them to take part in policy making and implementation at all levels. However, the laboring masses did not resist on a broad enough scale to defend Mao-era policies, especially in the early stages of Reform and Opening Up, at least to our knowledge. No popular revolt took place to counter the campaigns against the so-called “Gang of Four” or other leftists, during which hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and purged. How do you explain this contradiction?

FE: Well, when Deng came to power, of course, they didn’t say “we’re against socialism.” So, this probably confused people minds. But I think you cannot say there was no massive resistance. How do you explain the 1989 events then? That was the very demonstration that people were against the new ruling class in the making. Even though the leaders in the frontline were the students advocating the “Western democracy,” most of the people supporting the students were workers and peasants, and the reason that they participated was not to support the abstract notion of democracy per se. I know it, because I was in Beijing in 1988. Once, when I was waiting on the bus to go to the farm, I heard people complaining about almost everything going on in China at that time. They said: “These goddamn students, if they raise something related to us, I’ll go for it!” So, it was not an abstract “democracy” what made these people rise up. They rose up against corruption and inflation. They felt outrage at a few rich who were taking advantage of what they created in China. Scholars quite often cover this phenomenon only superficially. But you have to analyze the fundamental reasons behind it. You have to ask: “why people were upset?”

The other question: Why people didn’t take up arms and defend against the so called “Gang of Four”? I think even if they didn’t, this does not prove that they failed to defend socialism. When the “Gang of Four” were arrested, what was the charge initially? The charge was that these four were against the Cultural Revolution but they were intriguing against Mao. So, just by looking at what was going on at the top, of course, it was impossible to understand the whole picture. Even to me, what was happening remained unclear for a considerable time. Well, I’m always the very last one to see the truth—it took me almost twenty years before I suddenly realize what happened in 1976. I hadn’t realized before that it was a coup d’état.

OÜ: So, can we assume that, at that time, socialist roaders in the Party did not have organic or close ties with the masses.

FE: I wouldn’t say that. I think putting labels is somewhat a metaphysical way of analyzing things. In an article I wrote, I analyzed what made the Cultural Revolution fail eventually. What I suggest there is, the main reason was immaturity of the working class. They could not overcome contradictions between themselves. They could not avert factional fights.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the problem was how to wake the masses rise up. After the masses rose up, overcoming factionalism became the key issue. The immaturity of the working class was demonstrated most vividly by the conservatives who did not hesitate to use arms to suppress the rebels who criticized the leader. When you use arms to suppress the others who criticize the leader, you give up your own right to criticize. That is what I call “immaturity of working class.” The working class was divided. The capitalist roaders were united. The number of cards that revolutionary leaders could play were getting fewer and fewer. So they got backed into a corner.

OÜ: As far as we know, after the coup in 1976 many working-class leaders and worker-activists of the Cultural Revolution were also detained and sentenced. But there is no evidence that even this event—the arrest of their colleagues—set workers in motion. What was the main reason of this?

FE: Because, as I said, capitalist roaders did not show their true character right away. These people were among the smartest politicians in the world. They did not want to show their true nature to the masses. At the beginning, people did not realize that what they were doing was restoring capitalism. This is the fundamental difference between Marxism and revisionism: No revisionist openly says: “I am against Marxism!” They always have little tricks. They often say: “There is a new situation, so we need a new approach.” And this sounds very reasonable to most of the people!

When they started the Reform in China, first, they tried a little bit in the city. The resistance of the working class was enormous. So they couldn’t carry out the reform in the city. Then, they proceeded to go to the countryside. The countryside proved to be the weak link. At first, they said: “Well, those villagers who are scattered far in the mountains live in poverty. Why do we force them into collective? Let’s decollectivize that place!” This seemed reasonable. So, they started to decollectivize the land bit by bit, and within only a few years they had decollectivized the whole thing. So by time you realized, you had already lost your power. They controlled the army, they controlled the government, they controlled the propaganda machine, etc. They had everything they needed.

But the working class, after the Cultural Revolution, was itself divided. Fractionalization was only one thing. Their objective was unclear. They did not really understand what “capitalist road” and “socialist road” meant. They were easily being swayed by sly talking. Capitalist roaders said, “Look, in Mao’s era your wages never increased. We’re gonna give you more wages!” And Deng just started printing more and more money. Everybody was happy; they were getting money. In the end, they found out about inflation, but it was too late! Capitalist roaders bought off the peasants, bought off the workers, and bought off the intellectuals—temporarily, until they consolidated their power. Then, they knew who among the Party members were actually Maoists. Then they just kicked them out, or isolated and marginalized them. Very smart! They were seasoned strategists! There is a phrase in Chinese: “Cook the frog by slowly raising the temperature.” By the time it realizes the water is too hot, it can no longer get out. Too late.

OÜ: Let’s elaborate more on the reasons why the Cultural Revolution failed eventually. Would you agree with the view that the Maoist conceptualization of “social class” was a little bit blurred and this uncertainty restrained revolutionaries from identifying their friends and foes properly?

FE: Yes, but why is that? If people use a classical Marxist framework to analyze the class, they cannot easily understand class struggle under socialism. Because legally and in practice, the means of production are not privately owned. The leaders cannot pass their wealth to their children. Even if they try to transfer their wealth, this is insecure and illegal. Even today, China’s “state-capitalist conglomerates”—the best translation I can think of for the term, “guóyǒu zīchǎn” (国有资产)—is not owned by individuals. That’s why they call it “gōngyǒu” (公有) [publicly owned].

When we define “class” under socialism, I think it is more important to focus on who has decision making power and how that power is exercised. Capitalists care primarily about their power to dictate events, not their titles. For Bill Gates or Rockefeller, for example, their ability to shape the world or make decisions based on their worldview matters. A capitalist class under socialism also strives to call the shots. Neither is interested in accounting for the opinions of others. This is the essence, the DNA of capitalism.

People who apply a classical framework think having a capitalist society that arose from feudal society is the sole criterion to measure capitalism. But the ancestry of capitalists within a socialist society—a society which is still in the process of becoming capitalist—is very different. That’s why it looks different. Let me explain how people with a metaphysical way of looking at things approach this question. If you look at maggots and earthworms, they all seemingly belong to the same non-flying species. And flies and hummingbirds both seemingly belong to the flying species. Here, we’re just looking at whether they’re able to fly or not. Yes, flying is a big difference but maggot and fly are the same species. So, you cannot just say: “Oh! Flies—or capitalists—came from the feudal society. But look at maggots, they cannot even fly. How come they can be capitalists?” This is ridiculous! If you wait, maggots will, of course, become flies. So, capitalists in socialist society are in the “maggot stage.” They constitute the nucleus of the capitalist class in the “fly stage.”

The political legacy of Mao

OÜ: The last question: What is the legacy of Maoism in general and Cultural Revolution in particular more than 40 years after Mao Zedong passed away?

FE: Mao’s legacy… That’s incredible. When the people in the world, anywhere, rose up to overthrow the old system, they all faced the same issue: how to prevent revolutionaries from becoming new oppressors? Without understanding Mao’s period, especially the Cultural Revolution, without understanding how Mao attempted to overcome this problem, the same cycle of revolution and counterrevolution will continue.

After the Paris Commune, Marx summarized its lessons. He said the proletariat cannot only be concerned with taking power; it must smashing the old machinery of state and build a new one. But even Marx was unclear about the specific role of the working class after it gains power. The time was not right. Lenin, after dozens years of pondering, finally realized that only if the working class forms a highly disciplined vanguard party capable of mobilizing an overwhelming segment of the working class, can it overcome capitalists who are able to dominate the society economically, politically, militarily and culturally. A Communist Party was formed four years after the October Revolution, and only two years after the Chinese rose up in 1919 during the May 4th movement. They did not have to wonder how to do that. So Lenin’s contribution shortened the Chinese Revolution by many, many years. The contribution of the Cultural Revolution is the same. Next time, in the future, when the working class rises up and takes power, it will not start from the beginning. They will know how to prevent the same mistakes that the other revolutionaries have made; namely, how to prevent the development of a system of bureaucratic privileges, and how to insist on mass supervision over the vanguard party.

The relationship between the vanguard party and mass supervision is a big contradiction in socialism. You cannot simply go around it. All socialist theories other than Mao have failed to deal with this problem so far. Some, like Stalin, neglected the mass supervision and only stressed the importance of the party. Or social democrats stressed the democratic aspect and totally neglected the need for a vanguard party. Neither one works. That’s the dialectics. And Mao tried to figure out how to reconcile these two things. But by the time he realized, it was a little bit too late. Capitalist roaders had already become very strong in China. It took five or six years (from 1957 to 1962) for Mao to identify the capitalist roaders.

We have to understand: Revolutionaries can only identify capitalist roaders when they start to stroll around. You could not think about capitalist roaders during Marx’s time. Lenin also had very little time to investigate this issue. Stalin had a chance, but he missed it. He really screwed up. Stalin, as a leader, “might be a bastard, but he was our bastard.” I mean, Stalin made a lot of terrible mistakes. Capitalist roaders were right under his nose. He just banished, killed, executed, but this did not solve the problem. However, Stalin was in the service of working class power; he was not trying to bring about a capitalist restoration. So he made mistakes just like a lot of cadres in the Communist Party of China. These were, what I call, “unconscious capitalist roaders.” We have to distinguish between conscious and unconscious capitalist roaders. Some people just had a bad style of work. Some people were temperamental; some people tended to be bossy, etc. These people did not intentionally take to capitalist road, but their perception of Marxist dialectics was weak. Therefore, they could not supress capitalist restoration. Stalin was very clear: he did not trust other people, did not follow the mass line. Consequently, he just depended on himself, his own instincts. When he thought somebody was bad, he just killed, physically removed that person. Eventually, he could not solve the problem. Without mobilizing the masses, you can only seek solutions from within the bureaucracy. This top-down method necessarily reproduces bureaucratic rule.

I think Trotskyist criticisms of Stalin also miss the target. Trotskyists totally misunderstand the real problem. Their solution is, like social democrats, neglecting the need for a vanguard party. They keep on talking about democracy in the sense of “workers’ congress” etc. But they do not mention what to do when workers have different opinions. In my arguments with Trotskyists in China, I always come upon this problem.

OÜ: Really? Is there a Trotskyist movement in China today?

FE: Yes, there is. I mean, they were not strong before, but in last few years Trotskyism has become more widespread here. Probably because the Trotskyist critique of bureaucracy sort of—I mean just sort of—explains China. So that’s a further ground for them to gain attention. They just hate bureaucracy. But Chinese Trotskyists have a very difficult time understanding the Cultural Revolution. They just totally ignore it.

Regarding the legacy of Maoism… This is a hard question. I think it crystallizes in the experience of the Cultural Revolution. All the other catch phrases like “mass line” are not sufficient to explain the contribution of Mao. First of all, Maoism is a continuation of Marxism and Leninism. It is not a departure from them. Secondly, it is the understanding of class and class struggle in a socialist society. It carried Marxism-Leninism forward to resolve certain class contradictions and antagonisms under socialism. Socialism is a long historical period, and during this period class and class struggle will continue to exist. Capitalism can come back any time. And this really happened in China. What I say is also against a version of “Maoism.” Some people think in today’s China it is not capitalists but revisionists who are in power; so what we need to do is wage an inner-party struggle to defeat them. But in fact, today China is an industrialized capitalist country where the capitalist class is in power.

I think the question of “What is the legacy of Maoism?” is like the question of “What is the legacy of Marxism?” That’s a huge thing, a very difficult to put in a short phrase. Some people summarize Marxism as “dialectical materialism.” Some people summarize it as “class struggle.” Some say it is “dictatorship of proletariat.” Lenin summarized it as “a combination of German philosophy, French socialism, and British political economy.” So, there are a lot of different ways to summarize. The thing is, Marxism continues—so to will Mao’s legacy.

OÜ: To narrow down, actually, what I really wanted to ask was why people in the world who want to build socialism for the 21st century should take Mao’s contributions to Marxism into consideration, almost half a century after he died?

FE: It is a must! What Mao studied and pioneered to overcome was a thing that anybody, anywhere who fights for revolution has to face. Specifics might differ, but the question is: “how to handle inner-party struggle?” He has a whole theory and a whole practice about it. He says, “practice Marxism, not revisionism.” He says, “be open and above board, not scheme.” He says, “to unite, not divide.” He says, “be open to criticism and self-criticism.” These are all about the struggle in the revolutionary ranks, the contradictions among the people. Mao’s remarks are very important for revolutionaries to understand how to overcome factionalism and how to unite together. Uniting is not to silence your opinion; it is to achieve a consensus. All of these things were theorized even before the Cultural Revolution.

So, Mao contributed in many areas. And his contributions are different from a scholar’s who just thinks about the world. Well, some people think that Marx was like that, but actually he was also a social activist. He modified his theory after each step; he also did not just study for the sake of studying. Likewise, Mao contributed not only in theory but also in revolutionary practice. Anybody who dismisses Mao shows more ignorance than knowledge. I haven’t found any serious scholars who criticize Mao based on any real understanding of concrete situations.

Some people dismiss Mao because of the “Three Worlds Theory” and that kind of stuff. I can see their point. But they have to understand Mao was also exploring, and what he said looked very real at that time. The Soviet Union was really a huge threat—not only for China. Before the implosion of the Soviet Union, nobody in the world could predict what would happen. Mao always believed that a theory can be recognized only if it is proven by practice. At early stages, you may have many hypotheses. Mao was always working on new ways of understanding. He did not take dogmatic view. For example, at the beginning of the Great Leap, he also supported communal kitchens in the collectives. But after a few years of practice, he gave up that idea. This tells me that Mao was trying to figure out what the rise of Soviet Union meant for the world. Marx could not analyze capitalist roaders or imperialism, right? Just like that… Of course, Mao could not have a full understanding of the nature of the Soviet Union before it collapsed. He just tried his best to analyze. If, then, people carried his theory to extremes, that is something else. I don’t think Mao, at any moment, thought “we have to drop everything else because the Soviet Union is the main threat.” Even during the height of Anti-Japanese War, Mao united with Chiang Kai-shek, but refused to give up independence. It was for the same reason. If anybody took Mao’s theory in a mechanical way, a non-dialectical way, it is not his fault.

OÜ: In fact, the attempt to carry the “Three Worlds Theory” to its logical conclusion started after Mao passed away, specifically in 1977.

FE: Well, Deng pushed it to extremes and tried to realign everything. Even if the Soviet Union was social-imperialist, the rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union was something that the peoples of the world could take advantage of. Just like the time Mao first established the Red Army. At that time, he took advantage of the rivalries between warlords. That’s how you survive. Once the U.S. attained unilateral power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became free to do anything. But still, I think if you don’t apply the “Three Worlds Theory” in a mechanical-dogmatic way, it reflects more or less what happened in those days. In hindsight, Mao may have been overly worried about the danger of the Soviet Union, because he was not able to the see fragility of that regime. You can’t blame Mao for that, can you? Nobody was able to see predict what the Soviet Union had. People, of course, make mistakes. Marx made mistakes, Lenin made mistakes, Stalin made too many mistakes, etc. Marx and Engels made so many predictions that did not come true. But holding these against them is ridiculous.

OÜ: Don’t you find it ironic that Deng, who pushed the “Three Worlds Theory” to extremes as you said, later announced the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute was nonsensical in many respects when he met Gorbachev to normalize relations between the two countries in 1989?

FE: Yes, sure. Because he was a pragmatist just like Trump. Trump can say an outrageous thing one day and then contradict what he uttered the next day. It is all about how to do what you want to do. That’s bourgeois politics.

OÜ: Thank you so much for sharing your time and knowledge. It was very enlightening.

FE: You’re welcome.


Fred Engst (Chinese name: Yáng Hépíng [阳和平]) was born in Beijing in 1952 and grew up in the years after the founding of the People’s Republic. His American parents, Erwin (Sid) Engst (a dairy farmer) and Joan Hinton (a nuclear physicist), had arrived in China after the Second World War to participate in the country’s new democratic revolution and socialist construction. He was a “Red Guard” during the Cultural Revolution, and later was a factory worker for five years before moving to the U.S. in 1974. He continued to work in various factories for a dozen years more, while studying in college part time. He earned an economics Ph.D. in 1997. By 2007, he returned to China to pursue his research interests, which include the socialist economy and the Cultural Revolution, among others. Today, he teaches economics at a university in Beijing and often gives lectures to college students in China on various topics such as “Where is Happiness—Why Two Americans Stayed in Mao’s China,” “The History of the New Republic—A Story of How the Revolutionaries Become the New Rulers,” “The Rise of China and its Implications,” etc. He published a number of articles on the problems of socialist transition in Chinese and English.

Onurcan Ülker was born and grew up in Turkey. He developed interest in Marxism and social movements at an early age. He received his Bachelor’s degree in political science from the Middle East Technical University and obtained his first master’s degree from the same department. He did another master’s in China Studies at Peking University as a Yenching scholar. He currently continues to study Chinese at National Cheng Kung University as scholarship-holder of the Taiwan MoE. He has earlier worked as a research assistant, researcher and teaching assistant. Some of his translations and articles, particularly on revolutionary and post-revolutionary China, have appeared in various Turkish journals. His translation of “Remembering Socialist China, 1949–1976” (Aspects of India’s Economy, No.59&60, 2014) is soon to be published by Patika Kitap in Turkish.

Comments are closed.