I want to call out one of my pet peeves in both left and right-wing circles. Namely, when people say “Mao killed the landlords,” it carries implications that aren’t really true.
There are several reasons for this. First, it’s such a reductive statement that it becomes erroneous. Second, the reason it is so reductive is because it’s originally a right-wing idea to paint Mao as worse than Hitler. So third, when leftists embrace the idea of killing off landlords, they’re embracing a reductive, non-historical state, that was conjured up for the right-wing to use as a boogeyman.
There are a few reasons why the “Mao killed the landlords” narrative is reductive. First, there wasn’t a government policy about executing landlords. The Chinese Communist Party never did anything to execute landlords. Rather, peasants and workers themselves killed their landlord.
Nazi Germany put many resources and much energy into planning and engineering mass killing sites and graves for the Holocaust. In the USSR, the NKVD – the secret police – handled the killing of “counterrevolutionaries” themselves, with secret operations. This was all a matter of government enabled and government enforced policy.
But in Mao’s China, the government didn’t do the killing, or even the planning of killing. However, China under Mao reformed their land use and distribution policies, which then led to power struggles between peasants and landlords. The government then warned that if people don’t adapt to the land reform changes, they were putting themselves at risk.
From there, China didn’t even permit people to kill their landlords. But it also wasn’t illegal to beat them either.
Another thing that people miss is that landlords in China at the time were different from current landlords. We think of landlords as people who apply capitalist enterprise to housing. They have power because they invest capital into a privately-owned housing unit. In other words, landlords operate the same way all capitalists do, but they use our housing units do it.
In China at that point, land ownership was much more similar to feudalism, although China’s economy had been warped by Imperialism and Civil War, so it can’t be neatly compared to a conventional feudal system.
Land ownership in China was long informed by Confucius’s “four categories of the people” – the scholars, the peasants, the crafters, and the traders, in that order. The highest class were the scholars, who, at different points in Chinese history overlapped almost entirely with the wealthy elite, and kept their economic and political power through land ownership.
By around 1000AD (this is a loose date, I’m not a Chinese history expert, and just giving a sketch), the scholar class had even more power than the hereditary aristocrats. Aristocrats controlled the armed forces, but scholars had access to land, and more control over applied politics and economics.
In Imperial China, landlords paid taxes to the Imperial government, in order to own land. The landlord then would tax the peasants who worked on the land they owned. In the European context, this is like a vassal who pays fiefs to an overlord, to then tax the land they own. This type of relation is foundational to a basic feudal economic system.
By Mao’s time, the landlord class was no longer tied to the Confucius scholar class, although the historical ties were still strong and visible. Land ownership was a combination of pseudo-feudal landlords, and capitalist-influenced landlords.
The capitalist style landlords were in cities. These people were the enemies of Mao’s Communist party, but they weren’t as much the victims of the mass killings as the rural landlords.
The rural landlords came out of a tradition of regional warlords, mixed with the Confucius tradition. This made the rural landlords more powerful than landlords in the contemporary capitalist world. They not only owned land like capitalists, but they also extracted the generated wealth like a feudal lord.
Because of this, landlords in China at this time acted like village-mayor bullies, who no longer had the legal right to do so. Landlords fought – physically – to keep their rights. They would hire paramilitary gangs to function as violent police for the peasants. The killings of landlords were often the result of localized conflicts between the peasants and the landlord’s gangs.
The Chinese government’s role in these conflicts was providing protection to the poor peasants, and even the wealthy, non-land owning peasants who may be caught in the crosshairs. But the Chinese government wasn’t killing landlords.
To conclude, I’m not trying to “pick a side” or make an ulterior point. My only “ulterior” motive may be that I do defend Mao, and think he is usually presented in a simplified, misleading way in the west. Ultimately, the point of this piece is to recontextualize and historicize the mass killing of landlords to emphasize how it tangibly happened.
When people talk about Mao’s China and the USSR (and Cuba, and North Korea, and…), they tend to reduce it to a monolithic hivemind. In HBO’s Chernobyl, Soviet Russia in the 80s is the same as 1918 Russia, and they’re all just so brainwashed the whole time! This is the reductive perspective we always get.
Whether you’re communist, or capitalist, there’s always something to learn from dwelling into actual policy of the countries that are subject to fearmongering by Western capitalist states.