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Ideology in China’s Political Development

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Political Science 208

Fall 2008

Mao Zedong Thought

-- adapted from William A. Joseph, “Ideology in China’s Political Development” [DRAFT] in Politics in China: An Introduction, edited by William A. Joseph (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2009-10).
The Chinese Communist Party first formally proclaimed “Mao Zedong Thought” as its guiding ideology in the party constitution of 1945, which was promulgated in Yan’an towards the end of World War II and before the resumption of the civil war. The process of enshrining and giving official primacy to Mao’s theories had begun a couple of years before. The Rectification Campaign of 1942 had eliminated Mao’s major opponents, and in the spring of 1943, he was elected Chairman of the party, a position he held literally until his last breath on September 9, 1976.

It was a conscious decision of the party leadership in 1945 to use the term “Mao Zedong Thought” (Mao Zedong sixiang) as the designation for Mao’s contribution to communist ideology.i They could have chosen – and did consider – other terms, including what would be translated as “Maoism” (Mao Zedong zhuyi), but that particular rendition had a foreign connotation, as in the Chinese translation for “Marxism-Leninism” (Makesi zhuyi, Liening zhuyi). “Mao Zedong Thought” was chosen as an unmistakable statement that Mao’s thinking was neither derivative of nor subordinate to Marxism-Leninism, but embodied the successful “Sinification” of Marxism-Leninism. “Sinification” refers to the process by which ‘something’ absorbs (and is absorbed by) Chinese culture and history. In 1931, Mao had cited adapting the European ideology of Marxism-Leninism to China’s particular situation as a critical step in the revolutionary process.

After the founding of the People’s Republic, the relationship of Mao Zedong Thought to Marxism-Leninism—to say nothing of the “true” meaning of Mao Zedong Thought – would become a matter of both spirited ideological contention and ferocious, even violent political struggles within the Chinese Communist Party. But the general formulation that Mao Zedong Thought is the integration of the “universal truth” of Marxism-Leninism with the “concrete practice” of the Chinese revolution became the CCP’s standard formulation early in the Maoist era and remains so today. The “universal truth” of Marxism refers to class struggle as the key to understanding the development of human history and the ‘inevitable’ downfall of capitalism and the triumph of socialism-communism. For Leninism, it is the theory of the building of a vanguard proletarian party to lead the revolution and the nation. It is Mao’s adaptation and enrichment of these “universal truths” to Chinese circumstances that form the essence of Mao Zedong Thought. As Schurmann put it, Marxism-Leninism is the “pure ideology” part of Chinese Communism, while Mao Zedeong Thought is the “practical ideology.”ii

There has been a very vigorous academic debate among China scholars about the extent to which Mao Zedong Thought is based Marxism-Leninism. One side argues that the core of Maoism is faithful to the fundamental the principles of that ideology. The other side concludes that Mao’s Thought, while employing communist terminology and rhetoric, deviates so severely from Marxism-Leninism that should be considered as an entirely different school of political thought, one more deeply influenced by other sources, such as Chinese philosophy and culture. Some see Mao Zedong Thought as an innovative amalgamation of Marxist-Leninist and Chinese characteristics. Others see it as an utter betrayal or perversion of Marxist ideas. Then there are those who portray Mao as having no ideology or guiding principles other than the pursuit of personal power at any cost.iii

What are the distinguishing features of Mao Zedong Thought, which is still often referred to outside of China as “Maoism.” and how has it influenced China’s political development?

The Role of the Peasant Class in the Revolution

First, and most fundamentally, what is distinctive about Maoist Marxism is its insistence on the peasants as a leading force in China’s revolution. As noted above, Marx saw socialism and communism as the result of a proletarian revolution that would take root in and spring from the factories and cities of advanced industrial capitalist societies. Marx had little positive to say about peasants and rural society. He regarded the peasantry as among the most exploited classes in capitalist society, but one that history had passed by on its march towards industrialization and urbanization—and socialism. He once called the peasantry “a class of barbarians standing halfway outside of society, a class combining all the crudeness of primitive forms of society with the anguish and misery of civilized countries” and compared peasant society to “a sack of potatoes” iv because of its lack of cohesion and class consciousness, both of which he saw as prerequisites for revolutionary action. The Communist Manifesto actually applauds capitalism for having “subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”v

Lenin was somewhat more optimistic about the revolutionary potential of the peasantry in Russia. He thought rural dwellers – particularly the poorest peasants – could be a valuable ally of the proletariat in seizing power. But, like Marx, he was skeptical that they could see beyond their desire for “freedom and land” to the ultimate goals of socialism, including the abolition of private

Mao went quite a bit further by identifying the peasantry as a playing a leading role in bringing the revolutionary movement to power, concluding from his own investigations in his home province of Hunan in early 1927 that

In a very short time, in China's central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly. vii

He went on to make the case that the poorest peasants, which he estimated at 70 percent of the rural population, were “the most revolutionary group” and the “the vanguard in the overthrow of the feudal forces,” by which he meant the landlord class that had dominated rural society for millennia. He then put the center of gravity of China’s struggle squarely in the countryside by claiming that to “overthrow these feudal forces is the real objective of the national revolution.” Mao’s rural strategy of “surrounding the cities from the countryside” became the dominant approach of the CCP after Chiang Kai-shek’s attacks against the party in the late 1920s drove them out of the urban areas into the countryside and then forced them to undertake the Long March to the hinterlands of Ya’nan in the mid-1930s.

China scholars have reached very different conclusions, and argued with great intensity, about whether Mao’s views of the role of the peasantry in China’s revolution – and the undisputed reliance of the movement led by him on the peasants—constitute a profound break with “orthodox” Marxism or merely an adjustment in strategy to accommodate circumstances that left him and the communist party no real choice. There is no dispute that Mao exhibited a certain kind of political genius in recognizing that peasants would, out of necessity, be the leading force in the struggle to gain power. But he never abandoned the Marxist assumption that the industrial proletariat was the leading class and the peasants a subordinate partner in the revolutionary coalition whose ultimate goal was to bring socialism and modernization to China. Nevertheless, Maoism is a distinctive variant of Marxism in the degree to which it puts a positive emphasis on the rural factor in influencing the revolution both before and after the acquisition of power.

After the founding of the People’s Republic, Mao, at many times and in various ways,

continued to express and act on his ideological view that the peasantry had a special role in bringing about revolutionary change. The most dramatic – and ultimately tragic – example was his decision to launch the Great Leap Forward in 1958. In essence, the purpose of the Leap was to recalibrate China’s approach to building socialism away from the Soviet-style five-year plan model with it strong urban bias to a strategy of economic development that would “walk on two legs” in benefiting both city and countryside and promoting both industry and agriculture. Furthermore, the vanguard of the Leap into communism would again be the peasants and its most revolutionary thrust would be in the rural areas with the founding of the radically egalitarian people’s communes. It was also among the peasantry that the Leap took its most terrible toll of the 20-30 million who perished because of famine, illness, and mistreatment.viii The Cultural Revolution, although it was to be a “great proletarian” movement and was a largely urban phenomenon in its first phases, had roots in Mao’s concerns in the early 1960s about the growing inequality and cadre corruption in the rural areas that had resulted from the polices sponsored by Liu Shaoqi and especially Deng Xiaoping to promote recovery from the ravages of the GLF. And when the Chairman became disenchanted with factionalism and violence of the Red Guards in the initial years of the Cultural Revolution, he sent more than 20 million of them “down to the countryside and up to the mountains” where they could be reeducated by the peasants about what it really meant to make revolution.

To a certain extent, Mao was ambivalent about the role of the peasantry in the building of socialism. He retained a somewhat utopian view about the revolutionary enthusiasm of the rural folk and the political purity of the countryside. He was also skeptical about the corrupting influences of city life. But his vision of the socialist (and communist) future was not a pastoral one. He wanted the rural areas to modernize with the goal of overcoming what he called the “Three Great Differences” between industry and agriculture, town and country, mental and manual labor. Like Marx and Lenin, he believed that the ultimate objective of seizing political power and building socialism was to unleash the productive forces and usher in an era of modernization that would lead to unprecedented bounty. But Mao Zedong Thought does ascribe to the rural peasants a much more vital role as a revolutionary force in achieving those ends.

Leninist Populism—or Populist Leninism

The Leninist theory of revolution that is based on the assumption that the masses cannot lead the revolution on their own, but must be mobilized and directed by a vanguard communist party. Mao was, at bottom, a good Leninist, but in a way that was tempered by a deep populist streak. “Populism” is an approach to politics (one could say, a kind of ideology) that claims to represent the interests of ordinary people particularly against predatory elites whose own wealth and power depends on a status quo that disadvantages the vast majority. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as pitting "a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.”ix One of Mao’s first important political essays, written while he just beginning to learn about Marxism-Leninism, was called, “The Great Union of the Popular Masses” (1919). This essay resounds with populist themes in its call to action against all the woes that plagued China in the tumultuous decade after the fall of the Qing dynasty. “The decadence of the state, the sufferings of humanity, and the darkness of society have all reached an extreme,” he wrote:

Where is the method of improvement and reform? Education, industrialization, strenuous efforts, rapid progress, destruction and construction are, to be sure, all right, but there is a basic method for carrying out all these undertakings, which is that of the great union of the popular masses. If we look at the course of history as a whole, we find that all the movements which have occurred throughout history, of whatever type they may be, have all without exception resulted from the union of a certain number of people. A greater movement requires a greater union, and the greatest movement requires the greatest union.x

Mao rails time and again against “the union of powerful people” who have caused the abject misery of humankind. The essay calls only for “reform and resistance,” not revolution, and the perspective is clearly one in which the heretofore powerless masses will, on their own, undertake the struggle for justice.

Once he was a committed Marxist-Leninist, Mao’s faith in the masses was tempered, if not tamed, by his belief in the Chinese Communist Party as the vanguard of the revolution, and, in both thought and action, he often seemed torn between the two poles of populism and Leninism. During his ascent to power he reminded his communist colleagues that the party had to “be concerned with the well-being of the masses” if they were to win them over to their side, and if they failed in that task, they would fail in making revolution. The party had to think of the masses as more than foot soldiers in the revolution, but as a kind of partner in a mutual cause. The people wouldn’t be swayed to join the cause by abstract ideological appeals. Rather, “if we want to win,” he said in 1934,

We must lead the peasants' struggle for land and distribute the land to them, heighten their labor enthusiasm and increase agricultural production, safeguard the interests of the workers, establish co-operatives, develop trade with outside areas, and solve the problems facing the masses-- food, shelter and clothing, fuel, rice, cooking oil and salt, sickness and hygiene, and marriage. In short, all the practical problems in the masses' everyday life should claim our attention. If we attend to these problems, solve them and satisfy the needs of the masses, we shall really become organizers of the well-being of the masses, and they will truly rally round us and give us their warm support. Comrades, will we then be able to arouse them to take part in the revolutionary war? Yes, indeed we will!xi

The enemy – at that time defined as “imperialism and the Kuomintang”-- may have superior weaponry and shield itself in “iron bastions,” but if the revolutionary forces have the people on their side, then the CCP had nothing to fear and victory was assured:

What is a true bastion of iron? It is the masses, the millions upon millions of people who genuinely and sincerely support the revolution. That is the real iron bastion which no force can smash, no force whatsoever. The counter-revolution cannot smash us; on the contrary, we shall smash it. Rallying millions upon millions of people round the revolutionary government and expanding our revolutionary war we shall wipe out all counter-revolution and take over the whole of China.xii

The populist impulse of Maoism often asserted itself after 1949. In the Hundred Flowers Movement (1956-57), Mao called on the people to criticize the party’s shortcomings, particularly “bureaucratism” (being out of touch with the masses) of its first years of rule. At the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), which was in large measure a turn from an elite-centered model of socialist development to a radically populist one, the Chairman exclaimed that the “most outstanding thing” about China’s people was that, for the most part, they were “poor and blank.” This gave them “the desire for changes, the desire for action and the desire for revolution.” Furthermore, he said, “On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”xiii And in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-69) Mao literally unleashed the masses to attack authority in all its personal and institutional manifestations, including the party. That each of these episodes resulted in catastrophes that took a terrible toll on the Chinese people and ended not only with a firm reassertion of Leninist authority reflects both the perils of Maoist populism and Mao’s deep ambivalence about giving power to the people.

The Mass Line

The tension between populism and Leninism in Mao’s thought can be clearly seen in his theory of leadership, which is called the “mass line” Both the theory and practice of the mass line took shape during the years that the CCP spent in rural base areas from Jinggangshan (1927-1929) to Yan’an (1935-45). It is method of leadership – or “workstyle” – emphasizing that those with authority (“cadres”) must always remain in close touch with those they lead. It rejects both leaderless, spontaneous action by the masses and leadership that is aloof or divorced from the masses:

However active the leading group may be, its activity will amount to fruitless effort by a handful of people unless combined with the activity of the masses. On the other hand, if the masses alone are active without a strong leading group to organize their activity properly, such activity cannot be sustained for long, or carried forward in the right direction, or raised to a high level. xiv

Leaders have to talk and listen to the people, spend time among them, not live at a level too high above them, share their weal and woe, and avoid arrogance of any kind. In making decisions, cadres have to put into practice the key concept of “From the masses, to the masses.”

This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time.xv

This is an approach to leadership that certainly does not cede all power to the people. Leaders are meant to exercise authority and expect compliance. But such authority is rooted in the masses, not in a liberal democratic sense that the leaders are ultimately accountable to the people: they aren’t. According to the Leninist system of democratic centralism, cadres are responsible to higher levels in the party’s pyramidal chain of command. But the mass line is distinctive in that does give more emphasis and life to the democratic vein in democratic centralism than does orthodox Leninism, if democratic is understood as connection and consultation by the leaders with the led.

The mass line was the essence of proper cadre “workstyle,” and deviation from it was one of the deadly sins of Maoism. Tendencies towards elitism, bureaucratism, commandism and other manifestations of a deviant workstyle were always to be guarded against in a vanguard party, but they became a central and abiding concern to Mao after the CCP had come to power. On the eve of the communist victory in 1949, he warned in a speech to the party leadership that “With victory, certain moods may grow within the Party -- arrogance, the airs of a self-styled hero, inertia and unwillingness to make progress, love of pleasure and distaste for continued hard living.” He worried that “There may be some Communists, who were not conquered by enemies with guns and were worthy of the name of heroes for standing up to these enemies, but who cannot withstand sugar-coated bullets; they will be defeated by sugar-coated bullets” in the form of the prestige, privileges, and perquisites that power brings. If the party was achieve its goal of building a new socialist China, then cadres had “to remain modest, prudent and free from arrogance and rashness in their style of work…[and] preserve the style of plain living and hard struggle” that had won them to support of the masses during the civil war.xvi

In the early years following the establishment of the People’s Republic, Mao came to believe that his warnings had been ignored. The Three-Anti Campaign was launched in 1951, in large part, to target cadre abuses of the mass line. The ideological restlessness that Mao exhibited throughout the remainder of his life derived from his worries – ultimately his obsession – that China was in dire danger of veering off the socialist road to communism and might well wind up, instead, in the clutches of capitalism. The only safeguard against this was if the vanguard party remained true to its mission, and that was only possible if its leaders stayed loyal and attuned to the people through the mass line.

One of the policy innovations of the post-Red Guard stage of the Cultural Revolution was the so-called “May 7th Cadre Schools,” which were designed, in part, to reinforce the mass line. The name of these “schools” was derived from the “May 7th Directive” of 1966, which was a letter from Chairman Mao (to Lin Biao) that called on the army to be a “big school” in which soldiers engaged in labor and studied politics as well as fulfilling their military duties. Applied to government and party cadres, this Directive led to hundreds of thousands of officials being dispatched from the relative comfort of their urban offices on a rotational basis to work and live among the masses, mostly in rural communes, while also engaging in political study and self-criticism. The May 7th schools were an artifact of the short-lived period in which the radical ideas of the Cultural Revolution were actually put into practice, and, in practice, the reality of the policy fell far short of its ideals. Cadres, in fact, were often housed in barracks at some distance from peasant households and worked on separate plots of land (the peasants didn’t want the soft-handed city slickers mucking up their crops). Nevertheless, at least the idea of the May 7th schools embodied the centrality of the mass line leadership in Mao Zedong Thought.


Voluntarism means a belief that human will (“volition”) can be decisive in bringing about major historical changes. It express supreme faith in the power of subjective factors such as commitment, faith, determination, and perseverance to overcome objective conditions or obstacles that stand in the way of solving a problem or achieving a goal. Voluntarism also has a collective aspect in that it sees the power of human will magnified when people work together for a common cause. Many Mao scholars see voluntarism as one of the defining characteristics of Mao Zedong Thought and as a recurring theme in both his writings and political actions.

This voluntarist element in Maoism is also frequently cited as one of the main points separating it from orthodox Marxism, which puts more emphasis on the limits that objective circumstances, notably economic circumstances, place on the scope of human will and activity. For this reason, Marxism is often said to be based on “economic determinism,” meaning that it is the economic structure (and the class system that derives from it) of any given time that determines politics, culture, philosophy and nearly every other aspect of human society. The juxtaposition of Mao’s voluntarism with Marx’s “economic determinism” can be overstated: Marx did not discount altogether the role of human consciousness and action in shaping important events, and Mao was always a faithful Marxist in the centrality he accorded to the forces of production. Nevertheless, any discussion of Mao Zedong Thought and its impact on Chinese politics has to take account of its strong voluntarist thread.

The essay of Mao’s that is most voluntarist in its message is “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains.” This comes from a speech that Mao gave in June 1945 at a national congress of the CCP. World War II was approaching its end and the likelihood that the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist would resume was certainly on the minds of those attending this meeting. In order to rally his comrades for the struggles ahead, Mao inserted into his speech an ancient Chinese fable. It tells the story of an old man who decided to dig away two huge mountains that were blocking his house (perhaps from access to the nearest market?). When a neighbor calls him foolish, the old man says that if he keeps digging, along with his sons, and their sons, and so on, they will eventually be able to remove the mountains since they weren’t getting any bigger. Mao brought the fable up to the present by saying that it was the two big mountains of imperialism and feudalism that” lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people.” The CCP, he said, was committed to digging them up. “We must persevere and work unceasingly,” he noted, and if we “stand up and dig together” with the Chinese people, “why can't these two mountains be cleared away?”xvii

Mao’s invocation of this fable at that critical moment of the Chinese revolution was meant to be a clarion call to party members to keep their faith in their mission and themselves despite the “objective” fact that they would soon be fighting an army much larger, better armed, and supported by the United States. There are also elements of Mao’s populist Leninism in his telling of the fable: it is combination of the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party standing up and digging together than will ensure victory.

Mao’s voluntarism is sometimes said to reflect a kind of peasant utopianism with roots in his fascination with the fabled heroism of characters from ancient Chinese novels. But it can also be traced to the series of seemingly miraculous successes that he and the CCP had during their rise to power: the escape from Chiang’s anti-communist ‘White Terror” and extermination campaigns of the late 1920s to mid-1930s; their survival of the Long March of 1934-35; and their ability not only to survive, but also to thrive in Yan’an while fighting both the Nationalists and the Japanese. The lessons that Mao drew from these experiences could certainly have been a voluntarist one, bolstered by the triumphs of the early years of CCP, such as in the land reform campaign and particularly by fighting the U.S. to a stalemate in the Korean War.

This voluntarist streak in Maoism played out most clearly in the Great Leap Forward, in which the Chairman took the lead in a movement that proclaimed China would achieve economic miracles and reach the ranks of the advanced industrial nations in a decade or less. And how would it do this despite the fact any “objective” assessment of the technology and resources available to China at that time would say such a claim was foolish? By relying on the will power and labor power of Chinese people under the leadership of the CCP. It was during the Leap that the slogan, “The spirit of the Foolish Old Man is the spirit that will transform China” first became popular. Mao’s “Foolish Old Man” speech of 1945 became one of his “Three Constantly Read Articles” that were emphasized and often memorized during the Cultural Revolution.xviii

Even some of Mao’s poetry (yes! He was a poet, and not a bad one according to many critics) have lines and stanzas that carry a voluntarist message, particularly some written on the eve of the Cultural Revolution when he was pondering his odds of launching an ideological crusade against much of the party-state establishment. Consider the following excerpts:

From 1963:

So many deeds cry out to be done,

And always urgently;

The world rolls on,

Time presses.

Ten thousand years are too long,

Seize the day, seize the hour!

The Four Seas are rising, clouds and water raging,

The Five Continents are rocking, wind and thunder roaring.

Our force is irresistible,

Away with all pests!xix

From 1965:

Wind and thunder are stirring,

Flags and banners are flying

Wherever men live.

Thirty-eight years are fled

With a mere snap of the fingers.

We can clasp the moon in the Ninth Heaven

And seize turtles deep down in the Five Seas:

Nothing is hard in this world

If you dare to scale the heights.xx


Stuart Schram, one of the foremost scholars of Mao Zedong Thought, has called the “theory of contradictions” the “philosophical core” of Mao’s thinking.xxi It is also one of the more complex aspects of his ideology and one that is not easily illustrated by references to fables, poems, or slogans. In fact, the two major essays in which Mao deals most centrally with this topic, “On Contradiction” (1937) and “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (1957), are among his longest and densest writings. Mao’s ideas about contradictions root his ideology firmly in Marxism-Leninism, while at the same time – rather contradictorily – reflecting one of his most important theoretical innovations, and one that had profound consequences for Chinese politics.

Mao wrote in his 1937 essay that “contradiction exists in the process of development of all things” and that “contradiction exists universally and in all processes, whether in the simple or in the complex forms of motion, whether in objective phenomena or ideological phenomena.”xxii What did he mean by “contradiction”? As Mao uses it, a contradiction refers to things that are closely connected, but still fundamentally different from each other, or that “contradict each other.” It isn’t just the difference, but the connection that makes for a contradiction. It is the continuous interaction among the aspects of contradiction that causes the development of everything– of life, nature, knowledge, culture, society. This view of the centrality of contradictions comes from an approach to philosophy called “dialectics,” which dates back to ancient Greece and which was adapted by Marx as the heart of his understanding of history. For Marxists, including Mao, the most important contradiction is that between classes, particularly between exploiting and exploited classes, which itself reflects contradictions in the process of economic development.

Mao, again building on Marxism-Leninism, made the distinction between two kinds of contradictions in society, non-antagonistic and antagonistic. Non-antagonistic contradictions are those in which the opposing parts have some common ground despite their differences, which may, in fact, be quite big. In such cases, the contradictions can be resolved through discussion, debate, learning, and other non-violent means. Mao often pointed to the contradictions between rural peasants and urban workers as part of the revolutionary movements as an example of a non-antagonistic contradiction: both classes wanted the same fundamental thing – to overthrow their exploiters and have a “better” life– but because of their vastly different circumstances, they are bound to have differences about both the means and ends of the revolution. There could even be – in fact, given the law of contradictions, there had to be – contradictions within the communist party itself, but these were also non-antagonistic, for example, over whether the CCP should follow an urban or rural strategy of revolution to reach the common goal of winning national power.

Mao also referred to non-antagonistic contradictions as “contradictions among the people,” the “people” being a broad yet vague category that included all those who were on the side of the revolution. Antagonistic contradictions, on the other hand, are between the people and their “enemy,” for example, between poor peasants and the landlords who exploit them. There is no common ground for compromise or room for debate. Such contradictions can only be resolved through class struggle, which requires force to defeat and suppress the enemy. Mao noted that if left unresolved non-antagonistic contradictions could fester and eventually turn antagonistic. Therefore one of the primary tasks of a communist party leadership was to differentiate between types of contradiction, decide which were the most important to tackle at any given point in time, and use the correct methods in handling them.

Up to this point, Mao’s views on contradictions is pretty standard Marxist-Leninist fare. But he went much farther in both theory and practice beginning in the mid-1950s. Toward the end of his 1937 essay, Mao approvingly quoted Lenin as follows: "’Antagonism and contradiction are not at all one and the same. Under socialism, the first will disappear, the second will remain.’ That is to say, antagonism is one form, but not the only form, of the struggle of opposites; the formula of antagonism cannot be arbitrarily applied everywhere.”xxiii In other words, once the communist party had consolidated power and established a socialist system – including the end of private property and exploiting classes – there would still be contradictions but they would be non-antagonistic contradictions “among the people” since the economic (material) basis of antagonism would have been eliminated.

Chairman Mao changed his mind about the validity of Lenin’s conclusion, largely as a result of what happened following his call in 1956 “To let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Mao launched the Hundred Flowers movement in order to shake up the party-state bureaucracy a bit by inviting the “people” to express their thoughts about progress and problems in the first years of the PRC. Because he thought China was well into the transition to socialism, he expected constructive criticism and suggestions – or what he called “fragrant flowers”- to be forthcoming; but he was taken aback by the storm of condemnation of the CCP and even of himself that the movement unleashed. He concluded that these were not a reflection of non-antagonistic contradictions among the people in China’s socialist society, but of “poisonous weeds” – antagonistic contradictions—in the form of bourgeois ideas that had to be rooted out by force before they could destroy the revolution. To that end, Mao implemented the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, which turned into political witch-hunt for class enemies (‘rightists’).

Mao’s conclusion that antagonistic contradictions do not disappear with the advent of socialism, but remain a mortal threat to the revolution requiring eternal vigilance, was not only an ideological twist on Marxism-Leninism, but also a major turning point in Chinese politics. It would preoccupy his for the rest of his life. Such ideas about contradictions – seemingly abstract, philosophical musings on what makes the world go round—in fact, help us to understand why Mao Zedong became such a restless revolutionary and why his use of power, once he had it, led to such radicalism and violence.

Class Struggle

By definition, an ideology has to have internal consistency or logic; in other words the pieces have to fit together to form a coherent view of the world and guide to action. If the theory of contradiction is the core of Mao’s ideology, a number of other ideas flow directly from that core. Perhaps none is more crucial in the whole construct of Mao Zedong Thought than the idea of “class struggle.” As noted earlier, the most fundamental link between Marxism and Maoism is the class analysis approach to understanding society. But Mao Zedong Thought takes Marxist class analysis in a much more radical direction.

Traditional Marxism suggest that after the proletarian revolution against capitalism had succeeded and socialism firmly established, there would no longer be class struggle because private property and exploiter classes would have been eliminated.

This wasn’t how Mao came to think about and see socialism. As discussed above, from the mid-1950s on, Mao was centrally concerned with the persistence even under socialism of the most important of all antagonistic contradictions: class struggle, most especially that between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

In 1953, Mao was already fretting about the corrosive influence of “bourgeois ideas inside the party.”xxiv His thoughts about the nature of class struggle in socialist society evolved over the next decade, reflecting his experience of the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the readjustment period of the early 1960s. Mao’s decision to purge defense minister Peng Dehuai as a “right opportunist” for expressing his opinion at the Lushan Plenum that the Great Leap should be slowed down after the first signs of famine became apparent in mid-1959 was particularly significant because it injected the specter of class struggle within the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. With the deepening of his dissatisfaction with the direction in which China was headed during the post-Leap recovery, and, importantly, and the hardening of his conclusions about the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev (see sidebar: “The Ideological Implication of the Sino-Soviet Split”), Mao’s rhetoric about the persistence of class struggle escalated and became more urgent.

At a crucial party meeting in September 1962, Mao said, “We can now affirm that classes do exist in socialist countries and that class struggle undoubtedly exists” and told his comrades that “We must raise our vigilance…from now on we must talk about this every year, every month, every day….” Yet he still cautioned them to “take care that the class struggle does not interfere with our work.xxv By July 1964, such caution had been discarded. Now he proclaimed to his nephew, Mao Yuanxin, who would become one his uncle’s most ardent radical supporters, that “Everywhere there is class struggle, everywhere there are counter-revolutionary elements,” “We…have cases where political power is in the grip of the bourgeoisie”… No matter what guise they have been transformed into, we must now clean them all out.”xxvi When the Cultural Revolution was launched in full force in May 1966, its targets were those “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and all spheres of culture.”xxvii

The ways in which Mao acted on his views about class struggle in socialist society and within the communist party had momentous consequences for Chinese politics. Those views also reflect a number of important points where Mao Zedong Thought is at ideological odds with or at least is a radical elaboration of central elements of Marxism-Leninism:
(1) Maoist conclusion that a “bourgeoisie” could emerge within socialist society when, in fact, there was no material basis for a capitalist class since no property was privately owned and no one worked for an owner of a private business. For Mao, class no longer depended on a person’s or group’s relations to the means of production, but was more a matter of ideas, values, goals, behavior, particularly the way in which they exercised authority over others.xxviii The new bourgeoisie were those who no longer supported the revolution, but worked to enrich or empower themselves. Anyone could fall victim to the bourgeois ideology of selfishness and individualism – even poor peasants, or factory workers, and leaders of the communist party.
(2) Likewise, in the Maoist view, the term “proletariat” no longer applied only to industrial workers, but to all those—be they farmers, intellectuals, cadres – who are committed to the revolution in both thought and practice. Thus, the formal name of the Cultural Revolution was the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” the goal of which was to rid China of all manifestations of bourgeois ideology and replace it will a truly proletarian culture that all of the people would embrace. “Proletarian” was, for Mao, more an ideological standpoint than an description of specific economic class.
(3) Mao warned that, if left unchallenged, the new bourgeoisie would eventually change China from “red” to “white” – or from socialist to capitalist. This leads to another of Mao’s ideological innovations: the idea that socialism, once established, can degenerate and even retrogress back to capitalism. That was, in his view, exactly what had had happened in the Soviet Union, and what the Cultural Revolution was designed to prevent from happening in China. The notion that such ideological retrogression was possible is contrary to more conventional Marxism, which saw history as inevitably and irreversibly moving only in one direction towards socialism and communism.

Permanent Revolution”

Another component of Mao Zedong Thought that logically derives from his theory of contradiction and is related to his views on class struggle under socialism is his notion of “permanent revolution.” This is also another aspect of Maoism that many scholars argue distinguishes it from mainstream Marxism. In Mao’s view, the process of revolution doesn’t stop when the communist party seizes power, and “continuing the revolution” doesn’t just mean putting into place new institutions and policies that reflect the goals of the revolution. For Mao, permanent revolution meant there would have to be revolutions within the revolution if human society is going to continue to make progress. At the outset of the Great Leap Forward, Mao declared,

I stand for the theory of permanent revolution…. In making revolution one must strike while the iron is hot — one revolution must follow another, the revolution must continually advance. The Hunanese often say, ‘Straw sandals have no pattern — they shape themselves in the making.’

If the hot iron of revolution is left to cool off, it would harden and become an obstacle to change rather than its instrument. Mao’s reference to the saying from Hunan (his native province) about straw sandals meant that although the purpose of the revolution (to build socialism and reach communism) is clear – as is the purpose of sandals (to protect the feet), the actual process of achieving their purpose must be custom made to fit the circumstances (or the feet of the wearer). The revolution that worked at one historical moment will not fit the next so the revolution must be continually remade.xxix

Much of Mao’s rule can be seen as an application of his theory of permanent revolution: the full steam ahead, don’t stop to consolidate, approach to collectivization of agriculture culminating in the formation of the radically egalitarian people’s communes in 1958; and the all out class warfare against the representatives of the bourgeoisie in the Cultural Revolution.

But, in theory, Mao went even further. Not only would permanent revolution be a feature of socialist society, but it would even continue on into the era of communism: “Will there be revolutions in the future when all imperialists in the world are overthrown and all classes eliminated? ... In my view, there will still be a need for revolution. The social system will still need to be changed and the term ‘revolution’ will still be in use.”xxx In 1962, he had written, “The transition from socialism to communism is revolutionary…The transition from one stage of communism to another is also…Communism will surely have to pass through many stages and many revolutions.”xxxi

Mao concedes that revolutions in the communist era “will not be of the same nature as those in the era of class struggle.”xxxii How could they since communism is, by definition, a classless society? But there would be scientific, technological, cultural revolutions – and even, he suggests, the need to “overthrow” many aspects of communist society when they impede further progress. Communism will be an era of “uninterrupted development” that will be the new form of permanent revolution.xxxiii

In a very un-Marxist mode, Mao several times mused that communism would not be the ultimate destination of human social development. He didn’t speculate on what might lie beyond communism, but said that it, too, at some point “would come to an end.” Even as he was preparing in March 1958 to launch China on the Great Leap Forward with the goal of reaching communism as its objective, Mao noted that “There is nothing in the world that does not arise, development, and disappear. Monkeys turned into humans; humankind arose; in the end, the whole human race will disappear, it will turn into something else; at that time the earth itself will also cease to exist. The earth must certainly be extinguished, the sun too will grow cold. . . . All things must have a beginning and an end.”xxxiv

Seek truth from facts”

It may seem rather strange that a revolutionary best known for his utopian ideas and radical polices would also have a pragmatic side. But that is very much the case with Mao Zedong. Mao’s pragmatism was a key part of his ideological guide to action.

One of his most important essays is called “On Practice,” written in 1939, explores at great length Mao’s understanding of the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge (epistemology), or how it is that human beings come learn about the world around them and determine truth from falsehood. Mao adamantly reaffirms that “social practice alone is the criterion of the truth” and that only by constant reengagement with concrete reality can a person claim to have true knowledge of anything. As he colorfully put it, “If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself.” He goes on to say, “If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.”xxxv Not only was this one of his guiding principles in developing his revolutionary strategy (including guerrilla warfare), but in the mid-1960s, it would become part of his rationale for the Cultural Revolution. One of Mao’s goals for that movement was to give the youth of China, born after Liberation and accustomed to a relatively easy life, an opportunity to “taste” revolution so that they would become a worthy “generation of revolutionary successors” to the Maoist cause.

Mao was of course a strong believer in Lenin’s point that “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”xxxvi But the only way to develop a correct theory was on the basis of practice, and the only way to make sure that it continued to be correct was to constantly subject it to practice, and, if need be, adjust the theory so that it more correctly reflects reality. Marxism, Mao said,

emphasizes the importance of theory precisely and only because it can guide action. If we have a correct theory but merely prate about it, pigeonhole it and do not put it into practice, then that theory, however good, is of no significance. Knowledge begins with practice, and theoretical knowledge is acquired through practice and must then return to practice.xxxvii

Or, in another context, he pronounced simply that “No investigation, no right to speak!”xxxviii In stressing the importance of practice, experience, and investigation, Mao was arguing against those in the party leadership who approached any problem with an absolutely fixed theory and refused to bend even if it wasn’t working or proved counterproductive. Such people were called “dogmatists” because they treated their interpretation of Marxism-Leninism as “dogma,” or as absolutely authoritative and not to be disputed or diverged from under any circumstances. He was also refuting the “empiricists” in the party who thought theory was of no great importance in guiding practice but only looked to their own experiences and the empirical facts of the immediate situation in deciding policy.

How then, according to Mao, can one strike the right balance between theory and practice? Not surprisingly, the right balance comes from the contradiction between the two—the unity of opposites that is the source of the development of all things. During the period of the civil and anti-Japanese wars (1927-49), Mao seems to come down on the side of practice being the most decisive factor. In two essays, written in the 1940s, he uses the phrase “seek truth from facts” (shi shi qiu shi) as a capsule summary of how communists are supposed to evaluate the correctness of their theories, and that phrase was adopted as the motto for the school to train party leaders in Yan’an.xxxix He does say that communists must be “guided by the general principles of Marxism-Leninism” when deciding what conclusions to draw from the facts.”xl But in “On Practice,” he makes the rather bold statement that “Marxism-Leninism has in no way exhausted truth but ceaselessly opens up roads to the knowledge of truth in the course of practice.” xli This quote from Mao and the slogan “seek truth from facts,” not surprisingly, were cited extensively during the early Deng Xiaoping era as guiding principles for the reform era.

One key source of Mao’s success in the struggle for national power was his willingness to modify policies, such as land reform in the communist base areas, that weren’t working even if that meant adjusting the way in which ideology was applied. Frederick Teiwes discusses the “two broad tendencies” of Mao’s approach to policy: “the ‘revolutionary romantic’ and the pragmatic.” In his view, it was pragmatism that characterized most of Mao’s career as a revolutionary, but that after the Hundred Flowers and particularly with the on-set of the Great Leap Forward, the romanticism took over. But, even on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, the pragmatic Mao wrote: “Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone.xlii One could say that the latter Mao lost touch with his own good advice to “seek truth from facts” as he became more isolated and detached from reality – in fact as will be discussed below, that is exactly what his successors, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, did say about him.

i Raymond F. Wylie, The emergence of Maoism : Mao Tse-tung, Ch'en Po-ta, and the search for Chinese theory, 1935-1945. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980.

ii Schurmann, Ideology and Organization, p.

iii See, for example, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story.

iv Capital, Vol. III, Part VI, Chapter 47 and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852)

v The Communist Manifesto

vi “The Proletariat and the Peasantry” (1905)

vii “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement In Hunan” (March 1927).

viii Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr., Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

ix Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p.3.

x “The Great Union of the Popular Masses,” as cited in Stuart R. Schram, ßThe China Quarterly, No. 49, (Jan. - Mar., 1972), pp. 76-8.

xi “Be Concerned With the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work,” (January 27, 1934).

xii “Be Concerned With the Well-Being of the Masses,”

xiii "Introducing a Co-operative" (April 15, 1958)

xiv “Some Questions Concerning Methods Of Leadership.”

xv “Some Questions Concerning Methods Of Leadership.”

xvi “Report To The Second Plenary Session Of The Seventh Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China,” March 5, 1949.

xvii “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains,” [note angel]

xviii Besides “The Foolish Old Man,” the other two constantly read articles were “Serve the People,” in which Mao lauds the sacrifice for the revolutionary cause of a common soldier, “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” in which Mao cites praises a Canadian doctor who came to China to aid the revolution (and died there) as a example of proletarian internationalism.

xix “Reply to Comrade Kuo Mo-Jo” (1963)

xx “Reascending Chingkangshan” (1965)

xxi Stuart R. Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-tung. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. ?.

xxii “On Contradiction” (August 1937)

xxiii “On Contradiction”

xxiv “Combat Bourgeois Ideas In The Party” (August 12, 1953)

xxv “Speech At The Tenth Plenum Of The Eighth Central Committee” (September 24,1962)

xxvi “Talk with Mao Yuan-hsin” (July 5, 1964.)

xxvii “May 16 Circular (1966)”

xxviii Cite Shurmann article; and Djilas.

xxix Stuart R. Schram, “Mao Tse-tung and the Theory of the Permanent Revolution, 1958-69,” China Quarterly 46 (1971), pp. 221-244.

xxx Cited in Jerome Chen via Nick Young.

xxxi “Critique of Soviet Economy” (1962)

xxxii Cited in Jerome Chen via Nick Young.

xxxiii Nick Knight in China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives, p. 76.

xxxiv Cited in Nick Knight, 254-55.

xxxv “On Practice” (1939)

xxxvi V. I. Lenin, "What Is to Be Done?", Collected Works, Eng. ed., FLPH, Moscow, 1961, Vol. V, p. 369.

xxxvii “On Practice” (?)

xxxviii “Oppose Book Worship” (May 1930)]

xxxix See Deng Xiaoping, “Hold High The Banner Of Mao Zedong Thought And Adhere To The Principle Of Seeking Truth From Facts,” September 16, 1978.

xl "Reform Our Study" (May 1941), Selected Works, Vol. III, pp. 22-23.

xli “On Practice”

xlii “Where do correct ideas come from?” (May 1963)

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