Mao Zedong

(1893–1976)
   Chinese Marxism is dominated by the figure of Mao Zedong who was its foremost political leader and theoretician during his lifetime, and remains hugely influential. Born into a peasant family in Hunan province, he was politically active from an early age and was present at the meeting in Shanghai in 1921 that established the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). During the mid-1920s Mao was prominent in the United Front when the Communist Party allied with the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). An early advocate of peasant involvement in revolution, he was head of the peasant institute in Guangzhou in 1925 and active in the “Autumn Harvest” peasant uprising in 1927. When war broke out between the communists and the Kuomintang Mao became chairman (head of state) of the newly formed Chinese Soviet Republic. When the republic was defeated by the KMT in 1934 (despite some success for the communists with their guerrilla warfare tactics), Mao led the communists to safety by undertaking the 5,000-kilometer “Long March.” The Japanese invasion of China led to the renewal of the communist–KMT alliance in 1937 to fight the common enemy. During the war the communists grew in strength, achieving great successes against the Japanese, while the nationalists, undermined by corruption and economic problems in the area they controlled, were gradually pushed to the most southwestern part of China. By 1949 the KMT was defeated and the People’s Republic of China declared with Mao at its head. Made party leader in 1935, he became chair of the party Politburo and Central Committee Secretariat in 1943, state president from 1949 to 1959, and supreme commander of China in 1970. Mao died in Beijing in 1976 at the age of 83, having ruled China for nearly 30 years.
   Mao’s leadership was marked by several distinct periods, policies and upheavals. The first of these was the “New Democracy” period from 1949 to 1953. Viewing China as essentially a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society, the Chinese communists believed there would have to be a period of transition to bring China to the same point as the modern, industrial capitalist countries before a socialist society could be created. New Democracy represented this period of bourgeois- democratic revolution before the socialist revolution. During this New Democracy period private enterprise was encouraged, industrial development prioritized and noncommunist parties permitted.
   The communists claimed the support of a four-class alliance between workers, peasants, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie during this period. The liberal and democratic elements were limited though with the state taking the lead role in the economy and the CCP taking the leading political role. Economically, the New Democracy period gave way to the first five-year plan in 1953. Modeled on the Soviet Union’s economic plans, the first Chinese fiveyear plan focused on heavy industry for development and set strict targets for production output. In 1958 another economic initiative marked a further distinct period in post-revolutionary China’s history, namely the “Great Leap Forward.” This was an attempt to rapidly increase production while moving away from the Soviet five-year plan model. It involved decentralization of economic decision-making, more emphasis on light industry and agriculture, and the creation of communes and small-scale local units of production. An example of this was the attempt to set up backyard furnaces throughout China in place of huge industrial ones. The Great Leap Forward was not a success. It failed to produce sustained increases in production, often saw the quality of goods produced decline and required coercion to implement. It was abandoned in the early 1960s.
   In political and ideological terms the New Democracy period was followed first by the “One Hundred Flowers” period. This campaign began in 1956 after Mao made a speech in which he said, “let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.” Mao wanted to encourage the expression of diverse and even divergent points of view. He encouraged criticism of the Communist Party and greater freedom of expression. After some initial hesitation, a trickle of criticism turned into a torrent critical of the communist regime provoking unrest throughout the country. Mao responded with a speech in which he said that the “poisonous weeds” had to be distinguished from “fragrant flowers,” and the poisonous weeds were subsequently discouraged by labor camps and other coercive measures. Within a year the One Hundred Flowers campaign was over. The most (in)famous ideological campaign followed some 10 years later and was titled the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Begun in 1966 it was ostensibly an attempt to revitalize the CCP, and it involved the mobilization of revolutionary zealots in the form of the Red Guard. The Red Guard was mostly composed of students and its mission was to counter bureaucratic and bourgeois tendencies and to ensure loyalty to Mao. The Red Guard acquired notoriety for its violent and disruptive attacks on anyone or anything it deemed to be bourgeois or bureaucratic, even turning on some party officials (Mao was happy to see those in the party establishment who were against him attacked by the Red Guard). The Red Guard’s excesses provoked rioting and almost wrecked the CCP. Mao and the CCP reasserted control using the army and disbanded the Red Guard. By 1969 the Cultural Revolution was over in all but name.
   As well as dominating communist political practice in China, Mao also dominated communist political theory. The term Maoism is widely used to refer to the adaptation of Marxist theory to Chinese conditions, although in China the official term “Maothought” is used to refer to the application of Marx’s universal principles to the specific circumstances of China; Marxism is the pure theory, Maothought the applied theory. Mao’s thought found expression in his writings such as New Democracy (1940) and The Thoughts of Chairman Mao (the “little red book”).
   Five principal themes of Maothought can be discerned. The first of these concerns Mao’s non-determinist interpretation of historical materialism. Maothought rejects the notion that the economic base of society always determines the superstructure, and instead takes a voluntarist viewpoint that emphasizes consciousness, ideas, moral and political attitudes rather than economic conditions. Contrary to orthodox Marxism Maothought allows for ideas to bring about revolution and largely sees politics as taking precedence over economics, hence the Chinese Marxist slogan “Politics in Command” and the emphasis on ideological campaigns such as the Cultural Revolution. The second key feature of Maothought is a new class analysis that incorporates the idea of class as a state of mind, rather than simply being determined by a person’s relationship to the means of production. Class origins—the class background of your parents and immediate family predecessors—may lead to the persistence of classbased attitudes even making a person a traitor to the revolution. The class analysis in Maothought also gave a central role and importance to the peasantry, and in practice a leading role over the proletariat. The third main theme of Maothought is the view of revolution which gives a key role to the peasantry and to the tactic of guerrilla warfare. In Maothought the countryside encircles the towns and is the starting point for a revolution which will spread to the urban areas. In similar fashion world revolution will begin in the less developed countries that encircle the developed countries, eventually carrying the revolution into the most advanced countries. Maothought also stresses the importance of political, ideological and continual revolution.
   A fourth principal feature of Maothought is the notion of democracy and the “Mass Line,” a notion that builds on the Leninist idea of democratic centralism. The mass line insists on the masses being consulted by the party, with the party line being derived from the idea of the masses. The party turns the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses into a coherent doctrine which is then taken back to the masses and the dialogue continued. In practice the mass line tended to mean the party line and dissent from it by the masses was not tolerated. The final key characteristic of Maothought is the theory of contradictions inspired by dialectical philosophy. Mao identified two particular types of contradiction: principal and secondary; and antagonistic and nonantagonistic. Antagonistic contradictions are those that threaten the socialist revolution and can only be resolved by crushing one side of the contradiction. They include the contradiction between the Chinese and the Japanese imperialists, between the people and the oppressor classes, and between the people and class enemies. Nonantagonistic contradictions are those that exist among the people themselves, but which do not threaten the revolution and can be resolved by peaceful means, for example the contradiction between town and countryside. The notion of principal and secondary contradictions refers to the idea that at any given time there may be several contradictions operating, but one will be more important and need resolving first. For example, the contradiction between the Chinese and Japanese invaders took precedence over the contradiction between the people and the oppressor classes.
   There is some debate as to the legitimacy of Mao’s Marxism given his departures from orthodox Marxism and central ideas of Marx. The issue hinges on the extent to which Marxism may be stretched in its application to Chinese conditions. Some commentators argue that Maoism constitutes a separate ideology from Marxism, and others have characterized it as the Sinification of the Russification of Marxism.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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