Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mao is back by Samir Amin

PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION OF “THE FUTURE OF MAOISM” (Daanish Books, C-502, Taj Apartments, Gazipur, Delhi-110096; daanishbooks@


The Marxism of the Second International, workerist and Eurocentric, shared with the dominant ideology of the era a linear view of historical progress in which every society must pass first through a stage of capitalist development before being able to aspire to socialism. The idea that the “development” of some societies (the dominant centres) and the “underdevelopment” of others (the dominated peripheries) is an imminent product of the worldwide expansion of capitalism was completely alien.

Understanding the polarization inherent in capitalist globalization is essential for formulating any view about transcending capitalism. This polarization lies behind the possible rallying of large fractions of the popular classes and above all the middle classes (whose development is itself favoured by the position of the centre in the world system) of the dominant countries to social-colonialism. At the same time, it transforms the peripheries into a zone des tempêtes, in a continual natural rebellion against the capitalist world order. Certainly rebellion is not synonymous with revolution, but only with the possibility of revolution. On the other hand, grounds for rejecting the capitalist model are not lacking in the centre of the system, as 1968, among other things, illustrated. Undoubtedly, the formulation of the challenge by the Communist Party of China (CPC), at a given moment, in terms of the country-side encircling the cities, is too extreme to be useful. A global strategy of transition beyond capitalism in the direction of world socialism must articulate the struggles in both the centres and peripheries of the system.

Initially, Lenin kept some distance from the dominant theory of the Second International and successfully led a revolution in the “weak link” (Russia), though always with the conviction that this would be followed by a wave of socialist revolutions in Europe. This was a disappointed hope. Lenin then formulated a view that stressed transforming rebellions in the East into revolutions. The CPC and Mao would systematize this new perspective.

The Russian Revolution had been led by a party firmly entrenched in the working class and radical intelligentsia. Its alliance with the peasantry (represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Party) was naturally vital. The radical agrarian reform that resulted finally satisfied an old dream of the Russian peasantry: to become property owners. But this historical compromise carried the seeds of its own demise: the market produced on its own, as always, growing differentiation within the peasantry (the well-known phenomenon of “kulakization”).

The Chinese Revolution set out from the beginning (or at least from the 1930s) on bases that guaranteed a solid alliance with the poor and middle peasantry. Moreover, the national dimension, the war of resistance against Japanese aggression, also made it possible for the communists to recruit widely from the bourgeois classes that were disappointed by the weaknesses and betrayals of the Kuomintang. The Chinese Revolution consequently produced a new situation, different from that of post-revolutionary Russia. The radical peasant revolution did away with the idea of private property in agrarian land and substituted a guarantee for all peasants of equal access to the land. Up till now this decisive advantage, which is common to no other country except Vietnam, is the major obstacle to a devastating expansion of agrarian capitalism. The debates underway in China revolve, in great part, around this question. But the rallying of numerous bourgeois nationalists to the Communist Party should have an ideological influence that is favourable to supporting the deviations of those whom Mao called “capitalist roaders”.

The post-revolutionary regime in China has to its credit a good many political, cultural, material and economic achievements (industrialization of the country, radicalization of its modern political culture etc.). Maoist China also resolved the “peasant problem” that lay at the centre of the decline of the Empire during two decisive centuries, 1750–1950, as described in my work “The Future of Maoism”. Moreover, Maoist China succeeded in achieving these results by avoiding the most tragic excesses of the Soviet Union: collectivization was not imposed by murderous violence, as was the case with Stalinism; opposition within the Party did not give rise to the institution of terror (Deng Xiaoping was removed, he returned). The objective of relative equality involving not only the distribution of income among peasants and workers but also between them and the ruling strata was pursued tenaciously, with ups and downs. It was formalized in development strategies that clearly contrast with those of the USSR (these choices were formulated in “ten great balances” at the beginning of the 1960s). It was these successes that account for post-Maoist China’s extraordinary growth, beginning in the 1980s. The contrast with India, which has not had a revolution, assumes its full significance here, not only in accounting for the different paths followed during the decades 1950 to 1980 but also for probable future prospects. It is these successes that explain why post-Maoist China, henceforth incorporating its development into the new capitalist globalization has not suffered from destructive shocks similar to those that followed the collapse of the USSR.

The successes of Maoism have not, for all that, definitively settled the question of the long term prospects for socialism. The development strategy of 1950–1980 had exhausted its potential and, among other things, an opening (albeit controlled) was imperative. As the result demonstrated, this involved the risk of reinforcing the tendencies of an evolution in a capitalist direction. Simultaneously, the system of Maoist China combined contradictory tendencies that both strengthened and weakened socialist options.

Conscious of this contradiction, Mao attempted to bend the stick in favour of socialism through the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1974). An appeal went out to “bombard the headquarters” (the Party’s Central Committee), seat of the bourgeois aspirations of the political class. Mao believed that, to undertake this course of correction, he could rely on the youth (who, among other things, greatly inspired the 1968 events in Europe; see jean Luc Godard’s film “La Chinoise”). The result of these events demonstrated the error of this judgment. The Cultural Revolution came to a close; the partisans of the capitalist path were encouraged to go on the offensive.

The struggle between the long and difficult socialist path and the capitalist option is certainly not over for good. The conflict between capitalism and socialism is the “clash of civilizations” of our time. In this struggle, the Chinese people have some significant assets, which are the heritage of the revolution and of Maoism. These assets exist in various spheres of social life. They are forcefully apparent in the peasantry’s defence of state ownership of agricultural land and guaranteed access to it for all.

Maoism contributed decisively to making an accurate assessment of the issues and the challenges represented by global capitalist expansion. It allowed us to bring into focus the challenge of the contrast between the centre and the periphery immanent to the expansion of capitalism, and then to draw all the lessons that’s this implies for the socialist struggle, in the dominant centres as well as the dominated peripheries. These conclusions have been summarized in a wonderful Chinese-style phrase: “Countries want independence, nations want liberation and the people want revolution”. Countries, that is, the ruling classes of countries, when they are something other than lackeys, intermediaries for outside forces, devote themselves to enlarging their space for movement. This enables them to manoeuvre in the world system and raise themselves to the position of active participants in the shaping of the world order. Nations, that is, historical blocs of potentially progressive classes want liberation, development and modernization. People, that is, the dominated and exploited classes, aspire to socialism. The phrase allows us to understand the real world in all its complexity and therefore formulate effective strategies for action. It is part of the viewpoint that it is a long – very long – transition from capitalism to world socialism, which breaks with the short transition concept of the Third International.

The Maoist Solution for the Agrarian Question

The agrarian question lies in the heart of decisive choices in Third World countries. An inclusive pattern of development needs an agrarian radical reform, that is a political strategy based on the access to the soil for all peasants (half of humankind). On the opposite, the solutions proposed by the dominant powers –to accelerate the privatization of arable soil, and its transformation into merchandise – lead to massive rural disintegration. The industrial development of the concerned countries being not able to absorb this overabundant manpower, this one crowds together in shantytowns or risks its life trying to escape in dugouts via the Atlantic Ocean.

Access to land is a question of survival for the three billion peasants of Asia, Africa and Latin America, i.e. nearly half of humanity. No form of development is acceptable if it sacrifices the lot of those human beings. Yet, the capitalist path of development, based on private appropriation of land, which is treated as a commodity similar to others, sacrifices precisely the rural population “surplus” on the altar of increase of the “profitability” of the capital invested in agricultural production (modern equipment and “value” of land). The obvious result of this option is the transformation of the planet into one of slums, from Sao Paulo to Mumbai, from Mexico to Bangkok, from Cairo to Casablanca and Johannesburg.

The people’s alternative – that of socialist oriented development – rests on the judicious principle that land is a basic natural resource, and the property of the peoples, particularly the peasantries living off it. The two great Asian revolutions (China and Vietnam) have confirmed the performance of that principle and thereby avoided the uncontrolled rural exodus which has struck at the rest of the three continents. The pursuit of this alternative implies total respect for that principle at all the stages of the long socialist transition. Certainly, the urbanization accompanying a necessary industrialization (even in specific modalities not confined to the unlimited technological imitation of capitalist models, would require a transfer of rural inhabitants to urban centres. But this should be regulated in accordance with the pace of the absorption capacities of productive urban activities; and the formulas of agricultural management should take this into consideration.

There is no question of keeping the “overpopulated” rural areas in immobilism. There could have been mistakes by thinking that an accelerated collectivization, ahead of technological possibilities and requirements, could overcome the related contradiction. Experience has shown that an access to land, guaranteed to the peasantry as a whole in formulas linking small-scale family production with the market, is conducive to a rapid and big increase of agricultural production, in terms of peasant self-consumption rations and commercialized surpluses alike. Continuation of this progress would certainly require the invention of new forms adapted to every stage of the path of socialist oriented development. But, such forms should never be based on any abandonment of the principle of access to land for all to the benefit of eventual illusions about private appropriation of land.

All societies before modern (capitalist) time were peasant societies. Their production was ruled by various specific systems and logics — but not those which rule capitalism in a market society such as the maximization of the return on capital. Modern capitalist agriculture — encompassing both rich, large-scale family farming and agribusiness corporations — is now engaged in a massive attack on Third World peasant production. The green light for this was given at the November 2001 session of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Doha, Qatar.

Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of return on capital, which is localized almost exclusively in North America, Europe, Australia, and in the Southern Cone of Latin America employs only a few tens of millions of farmers who are no longer peasants. Because of the degree of mechanization and the extensive size of the farms managed by one farmer, their productivity generally ranges between 2 and 4.5 million pounds (1 to 2 million kilograms) of cereals per farmer. In sharp contrast, three billion farmers are engaged in peasant farming. Their farms can be grouped into two distinct sectors, with greatly different scales of production, economic and social characteristics, and levels of efficiency. One sector, able to benefit from the Green Revolution, obtained fertilizers, pesticides, and improved seeds and has some degree of mechanization. The productivity of these peasants ranges between 20,000 and 110,000 pounds (10,000 and 50,000 kilograms) of cereals per year. However, the annual productivity of peasants excluded from new technologies is estimated to be around 2,000 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of cereals per farmer.

Indeed, what would happen if agriculture and food production were treated as any other form of production submitted to the rules of competition? One can imagine that the food brought to market by today’s three billion peasants, after they ensure their own subsistences, would instead be produced by twenty million new modern farmers. The conditions for the success of such an alternative would include the transfer of important pieces of good land to the new agriculturalists (and these lands would have to be taken out of the hands of present peasant societies), capital (to buy supplies and equipment), and access to the consumer markets. Such agriculturalists would indeed compete successfully with the billions of present peasants. But what would happen to those billions of people? Under the circumstances, agreeing to the general principle of competition for agricultural products and foodstuffs, means accepting the elimination of billions of non-competitive producers within the short historic time of a few decades. What will become of these billions of humans beings, the majority of whom are already poorest among the poor, who feed themselves with great difficulty. In fifty years time, industrial development, even in the fanciful hypothesis of a continued growth rate of 7 percent annually, could not absorb even one-third of this reserve.

The major argument presented to legitimate the competition doctrine is that such development did happen in 19th and 20th century Europe and the United States where it produced a modern, wealthy, urban-industrial and post-industrial society with modern agriculture able to feed the nation and even export food. Why should not this pattern be repeated in the contemporary Third World countries? The argument fails to consider two major factors that make the reproduction of the pattern in Third World countries almost impossible. The first is that the European model developed throughout a century and a half along with labour-intensive industrial technologies. Modern technologies use far less labour and the newcomers of the Third World have to adopt them if their industrial exports are to be competitive in global markets. The second is that, during that long transition, Europe benefited from the massive migration of its surplus population to the Americas.

The contention that capitalism has indeed solved the agrarian question in its developed centres has always been accepted by large sections of the Left, an example being Karl Kautsky’s famous book, The Agrarian Question, written before the First World War. Soviet ideology inherited that view and on its basis undertook modernization through the Stalinist collectivization, with poor results. What was always overlooked was that capitalism, while it solved the question in its centres, did it through generating a gigantic agrarian question in the peripheries, which it can only solve through the genocide of half of humankind. Within the Marxist tradition only Maoism understood the magnitude of the challenge. Therefore, those who accused Maoism of a “peasant deviation” show by this very criticism that they lack the analytical capacity to understand imperialist capitalism, which they reduce to an abstract discourse on capitalism in general

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