views updated May 21 2018


Maoism is not a term that is easy to define. While it is common sense that Maoism refers to the vision, ideology, and political viewpoint of Mao Zedong (18931976), it is difficult to pinpoint the specific contents and basic features of Mao's conceptual world in the context of the evolving course of the Chinese Communist revolution. Despite Mao's adoption of Marxist-Leninist terminology, his ways of thinking had been deeply penetrated by Chinese thought and culture. In the People's Republic of China, it is "Mao Zedong Thought," instead of Maoism, that designates Mao's ideas, strategies, and policies. During the post-Mao era, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, in an effort to legitimize the Chinese Communist state, emphasized that Mao Zedong Thought included only those of Mao's ideas and theories that had stood the test of practice, and that the "scientific system of Mao Zedong Thought" was the product of the collective wisdom of the Party leadership, rather than Mao's sole creation. Beyond China, many radical revolutionary movements and organizations have professed loyalty to a variety of self-proclaimed versions of Maoism, even long after Mao's death.

Essential Features

This essay takes Mao's own expressions of his thoughts as the basis for defining Maoism. While the contributions of Mao's CCP comrades are acknowledged, they are not regarded as an integral part of Maoism if Mao himself did not accept or adopt them. In identifying the basic features of Maoism, moreover, it is essential to test them against the development of Mao's thoughts as a historical process. Indeed, unless Mao's own changing ideas are carefully examined, it is impossible to grasp the essence and basic features of Maoism.

Maoism as utopian vision.

At its core, Maoism is first and foremost a utopian vision. Throughout Mao's political career, he fought for the ideal of universal justice and equality "all under heaven." This vision derived at one level from Mao's Sinification of Karl Marx's concept of a communist society, yet it was also compatible with the age-old Confucian ideal of a "society of great harmony." Despite the vision's central position in Mao's conceptual realm, Mao was never able to define clearly the path and the means by which it would be turned into reality. The extraordinary ambiguity of Maoism as a utopian vision provided, on the one hand, space for Mao and his comrades to develop the CCP's ideology, strategies, and policies given the changing requirements of the Chinese revolution, and, on the other, created serious internal tensions in the Maoist systemespecially when Mao's ideals proved unable to stand the test of people's lived experience.

Maoism as political ideology.

Maoism is also a political ideology, representing Mao's theories and methodologies about how China and the world should be transformed in revolutionary ways. Three important features distinguished Mao's concept of revolution from other revolutionary theories in the tradition of Marxism-Leninism.

First, Mao's perception of revolution was characterized by a unique notion of permanentness in time and unlimitedness in space. In particular, Mao persistently emphasized the necessity of "continuing the revolution" after the CCP seized power in 1949. However, Mao's notion of permanent revolution was by no means a simple repetition or minor alteration of earlier formulations by Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky. While adopting such Marxist discourse as the "law of historical development" to justify his revolution, Mao often used the Chinese term tianxia ("all under heaven") to define the space in which the revolution should occur. The tianxia concept had its historical/cultural origin in the long development of Chinese civilizationimplying that the Chinese way of life was the most superior in the known universe. Used in connection with tianxia was the Chinese word geming a term that in modern times would be adopted to represent the concept "revolution." The original meaning of geming was that violent means must be used to deprive a ruler of heaven's mandate to rule. In employing tianxia to define the space in which geming should occur, Mao, in a China-centered manner, at once attached the qualities of permanentness and unlimitedness to his perceived revolution.

Second, Mao's perception of revolution reflected the profoundly voluntaristic belief that human consciousness, rather than the material conditions of society, would determine the orientation of historical development. For Mao, an essential condition for a revolution was the consciousness and will on the part of the "great masses" to carry out revolutionary changes. In the final analysis, whether a revolution should be judged a success or a failure depended on whether it had created a new order in the hearts and minds of the people.

Third, and closely connected with the above two features, the Maoist notion of revolution put greater emphasis on destruction than on construction. Indeed, Maoism proved more ready to deal with tasks of destroying the "old" than to cope with missions of constructing the "new." Mao believed firmly that "no construction happens without destruction; only when destruction is under way does the process of construction begin." Not surprisingly, Mao's revolution was one of the most violent and destructive in history, not only during the stage of "seizing political power," but in the stage of "continuous revolution" as well.

Maoism as revolutionary strategies and tactics.

Maoism also represents a series of strategies and tactics concerning how to make, enhance, and sustain the revolution. Mao certainly was a theorist and a man of ideas; but he also viewed himself as a practitioner and a man of action.

The central mission of Maoist revolutionary strategies concerned mass mobilization. In particular, Mao emphasized the importance of taking the peasants as the main force of the Chinese revolution. This clearly distinguished Maoism from the urban, working-classcentered mobilization strategies favored by orthodox Marxism-Leninism. Yet Mao's dependence on peasants drove him into a fundamental dilemma in furthering his "continuous revolution" after 1949. While adhering to the populist belief that the peasants' spontaneous "revolutionary initiatives" represented a natural source of the "revolution after revolution," Mao was simultaneously obsessed by the "petty bourgeois tendency" of the peasants in practical life. When the "socialist planning economy," which made industrial development the top priority, encountered resistance from the peasants, Mao argued that "a serious question is how to educate the peasants."

In Mao's own summary of his revolutionary strategies, he highlighted armed struggle, united front, and the Party's leadership role as the three keys that led the Chinese revolution toward victory. A firm believer in the idea that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" (Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 224), Mao invested great energy in developing strategies and tactics for waging revolutionary wars with both domestic and international aims. He summarized the basic principle of guerrilla war as "when the enemy advances we retreat to avoid him, when the enemy stops we harass him, when the enemy is tired we attack him, and when the enemy retreats we chase after him" (Mao Zedong wenji, vol. 1, p. 56). He also emphasized the importance of "making everyone a soldier" in waging a "people's war." The "united front" strategy was designed to "unite with all of those who can be united" in order to fight against the primary and most dangerous enemy. The adoption of this strategy in international affairs was often influenced by the traditional Chinese concept of "checking one barbarian by borrowing strength from another." In emphasizing the importance of the Party's leadership role, Mao originally embraced Lenin's "democratic centralism." However, with the deepening of his revolution he increasingly obscured the distinction between his own leadership role and that of the Party. Consequently, in his later years Mao openly celebrated the "correct personality cult," making enhancement of the cult of himself a crucial condition for the ongoing revolution.

In practice, Mao often interwove his ideas and plans with the discourse of revolutionary nationalism. Constantly appealing to the Chinese people's "victim mentality"which was unique in the sense that it reflected the sharp contrast between the Chinese people's collective memory of their nation's glorious past and their perception of its experience of humiliation in modern timesMao found a powerful source that continuously rendered help to legitimize his programs of transforming China and the world.

The above features of Maoism, to be sure, both persisted and evolved over the course of Mao's long career. In order to achieve a genuine understanding of these features, therefore, it is essential to undertake a historical review of the shaping of Mao's worldview, as well as of the development of Mao's thought.

Shaping of Mao's Revolutionary Worldview

Mao was born into a peasant family at Shaoshan village in Hunan Province on 26 December 1893. During his childhood Mao demonstrated a rebellious and challenge-oriented character, as reflected in his frequently conflicted relationship with his father. In his early education at the village school, he read Confucian classics (which laid the foundation of his life-long habit of using Chinese classics as a reference for strategy and policy making). But he devoted his heart and soul only to the tales of rebelling peasants fighting against the exploitative and corrupt bureaucracy (as in the popular novel Water Margin by Shi Nai-an). At the age of seventeen, he left home to pursue further study in Changsha, Hunan's provincial capital, where he was further exposed to the rebellion-oriented cultural environment of Hunan province. All of this helped shape Mao's belief that "rebellion is by nature legitimate."

Turning to Marxism-Leninism.

When Mao encountered the world beyond his home village, he saw a China that had been sinking into an ever-deepening national crisis in the face of incursions by the Western powers and Japan. Like many of his contemporaries, Mao was eager to find ways to save China and make the country strong. But he was never simply a nationalist. In search of means to save China, he not only pursued insights from China's own rich intellectual tradition, but also exposed himself to knowledge from the West, demonstrating a keen interest in such Western concepts as liberalism, democratic reformism, anarchism, and individualism. With the emergence of the iconoclastic "New Culture Movement" in the mid-1910s, Mao became increasingly critical of the Chinese past, contending that without thoroughly transforming Chinese culture no political and social reform could succeed. Yet he did not view wholesale Westernization as China's salvation. Unlike those of his contemporaries who traveled to Europe and Japan in order to "seek truth," Mao believed firmly that the key to solving the problems facing China must be sought in China itself.

In the wake of the anti-imperialist "May Fourth Movement" and under the influence of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, Mao experienced the decisive intellectual turn toward Marxism-Leninism in 19191920. With only a vague understanding of such terms as "class struggle" and "proletarian dictatorship," Mao emphasized the "people's great unity" as a necessary condition for bringing about fundamental transformations "all under heaven." Taking the creation of universal justice and equality as a core mission, Mao envisioned that his revolution would have to be carried out and completed by a "new human being" (xinmin ), and that China would have to be transformed at the same time that the rest of the world was being transformed. With those ideas in mind, Mao became a founding member of the CCP in 1921.

Development of Mao's Thought to 1949

Until 1927, Mao did not rate as an outstanding leader of the CCP, and he made no original theoretical contribution to the Chinese revolution. In 19261927, Mao wrote a "Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan," which represented a first step in his designation of peasants as the main force of the Chinese revolution. At the time, however, the report had little impact on the CCP's overall strategies.

Creating a rural-centered pattern of Communist revolution.

The CCP's setbacks following Jiang Jieshi's (Chiang Kai-shek; 18871975) bloody counterrevolutionary coup in April 1927 released Mao from the confines of old doctrines. In order to escape the purge by the Nationalist government, Mao moved to the countryside, where he organized the Red Army and waged a violent "Land Revolution." Challenging the notion that a Communist revolution would have to be carried out by urban proletarians, Mao found the necessity and possibilitywithin the Chinese contextof creating a rural-centered pattern of Communist revolution. Supporting this idea lay both pragmatism and romanticism. On the one hand, Mao sensed that China's conditions precluded an urban-centered Communist revolution; on the other, he perceived that China's backwardness made it easier for a revolution carried out by the peasantsthe most oppressed and, therefore, the most revolutionary group in societyto succeed.

From the beginning this Maoist pattern of revolution encountered skepticism from many CCP leaders as well as from the Comintern in Moscow. Not until the mid-and late 1930s, when the Red Army had lost its base areas in southern China and barely survived the Long March, did Mao's military genius and political wisdom come to be recognized by his comrades. Following the outbreak of the Anti-Japanese War (19371945), Mao, in the caves of Yan'an, found both the need and the time for theoretical elaboration.

The Yan'an years: theoretical buildup.

In Maoism's development, the Yan'an years (19371946) represented a crucial stage. In the early Yan'an period, Mao wrote some of his most significant works, including "On Practice" and "On Contradiction." Examining the relationship between theory and practice, Mao emphasized that the former must always be tested by the latter. For Mao, this meant that Marxism should not be treated as "empty abstraction," but should be "imbued with Chinese characteristics" and "used in accordance with Chinese peculiarities." In discussing "contradiction," Mao highlighted the importance of catching the "principal contradiction" and, even more importantly, "the principal aspect of the principal contradiction." In this manner Mao virtually challenged the Marxist orthodoxy of historical materialism. He argued that, although the economic foundation generally determined the superstructure (such as politics, ideology, and culture), in specific situationsespecially when the development of the economic foundation was hindered by the superstructure"political and cultural transformations become the principal aspect of the principal contradiction." This voluntarism in Mao's conceptual world cohered with his belief that a Communist revolution in China need not be restricted by the country's backward social and economic conditions.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mao developed a more comprehensive design for the Chinese revolution, contending that it would develop in two stages: first a "new democratic revolution" and second a "socialist revolution." The mission of the first stage was to overthrow the reactionary old regime and establish a Communist-led government that would unify all patriotic social classes. The second stage of the revolution would transform state and society, resulting in China's transition to a socialist and later communist society. Mao emphasized that, without the first stage, the second stage would be impossible; and without the second stage, the first stage would be meaningless. By introducing the concept of a "new democratic revolution," Mao created broader maneuvering space for the CCP to adapt its strategies and policies to the practical situation in China. In the meantime, he made it clear that his revolution was already setting China on the path toward socialism and, eventually, communism.

The Yan'an years: making of the Yan'an Way.

The Yan'an years also witnessed Maoism's further development as the CCP's dominant ideology. The "Rectification Movement" occupied a central position in this process. The movement allowed Mao to purge his opponents within the Party leadership, as well as to consolidate the CCP's independence from Moscow's control. As a result, the Mao cult entered the CCP's mainstream discourse. In 1945, the Party's constitution formally designated Mao Zedong Thought as its official ideology.

At a deeper level, the Rectification Movement offered a proving ground for Mao's grand plans of transforming Party members into "new human beings." Through carefully designed procedures of "criticism and self-criticism," Party cadres were requiredeven forcedto expose and eliminate the "small-self" in their innermost world. These procedures, reinforced by the egalitarian environment in Yan'an during the years of war and revolution, created the myth of the "Yan'an Way"that the "revolutionary spirit" inspired by Mao had played and would continue to play a decisive role in enabling the Party to overcome all kinds of difficulties in order to achieve its goals.

The CCP's experience in the 1940s further solidified Maoism as the Party's dominant ideology. China's victory over Japan in 1945 was accompanied by the Party's winning political influence and military strength unprecedented in its history. In the late 1940s the CCP successfully carried out a revolutionary civil war against the Nationalist government, defeating a seemingly much stronger enemy within three short years. Mao could then claim that the path toward victory had been paved by the "Yan'an Way."

Development of Mao's Thought after 1949

When the CCP seized power in 1949, Mao announced to the whole world that "we the Chinese people have stood up." Yet he also emphasized that this was merely "the completion of the first step in the long march of the Chinese revolution," and that carrying out the "revolution after the revolution" represented an even more fundamental and challenging mission. How to prevent the revolution from losing momentum emerged as Mao's primary concern.

Mao's "post-revolution anxiety."

In the mid-1950s, as the nationwide "socialist transformation" (nationalizing industry and commerce and collectivizing agriculture) neared completion, Mao sensed that many of the Party's cadres were becoming less enthusiastic about furthering the revolution. After the failure of the "Great Leap Forward" in 19581959, Mao realized that his revolution was losing crucial "inner support" even among the party elite. In the last decade of his life, when he pushed China into the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," Mao found that a majority of the CCP elite were unableor unwillingto follow the development of his thinking. Mao was preoccupied by a pivotal challenge: how could he bring about transformations "all under heaven"? Facing him was a paradox deeply rooted in the challenge itself: he had to find the means for transforming the "old" world from the very "old" world that was yet to be transformed. This profound "post-revolution anxiety" played a crucial role in shaping Maoism's post-1949 development.

In search of a Chinese model of socialism.

A major theoretical challenge facing Mao after 1949 was a question that he had previously had little time and opportunity to contemplate: What is socialism, and how could one build socialism in China? In Mao's initial search for answers, he paid special attention to the "Stalin model"the only existing model of building socialism from which he could learn.

With completion of land reforms and elimination of the gentry-landlord class in 1953, Mao and the CCP immediately followed the "Stalin model" for carrying out "transition to socialism." By 1956, a highly centralized system of "planning economy" had emerged following the introduction of the First Five-Year Plan. The CCP's Eighth Congress announced in September 1956 that, with the Communist state now possessing the major means of production, class struggle no longer figured as the principle contradiction in Chinese society. Therefore, China had entered the stage of socialist construction.

While many Party cadres were excited about this "great victory of socialism," Mao sensed a decline in revolutionary vigor among his comrades. In order to create new momentum for the continuous revolution, as well as to pursue China's central position in the international Communist movement, he was determined to go beyond the "Stalin model" and to push for a more aggressive and unconventional model of socialism. In the wake of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's (18941971) de-Stalinization campaign and the Hungarian revolution of October 1956, Mao introduced his theory that "class struggle exists in a socialist society." He contended that the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat continued in the sphere of the superstructure even after the economic foundation had been transformed. This formed the context in which Mao turned the "Letting One Hundred Flowers Blossom" campaign into the "Anti-Rightist" movement in the summer of 1957, in which more than 300,000 intellectuals were branded as "class enemies." He also brought this "ideological struggle" to the Party leadership itself and criticized Zhou Enlai (18981976) for his opposition to "rash advance in socialist construction." Still with no clear definition of socialism, Mao was ready to launch in China the most radical experiments in the name of socialism and communism.

The Great Leap Forward.

The year 1958, which witnessed the dramatic "Great Leap Forward," was pivotal in Maoism's development. Early in the year, Mao formally introduced the thesis of "one revolution after another being carried out uninterruptedly." In explaining why China should and must be elevated rapidly to a higher stage of social development, Mao referred to two basic conditions: the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses and the backwardness of the Chinese economy. Revealing again the voluntarism and romanticism at the root of his conceptual world, Mao proclaimed: "China's 600 million people have two remarkable characteristics: poor and blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. The newest and most beautiful picture can be painted on a blank sheet with no blotches on it" (Jianguo vilai Mao Zedong wengao, vol. 7, pp. 177178).

In the summer of 1958, Mao and the CCP leadership announced that "the realization of a Communist society in China is not far away." For the purpose of rapidly increasing China's industrial and agricultural production, Mao and the Party mobilized millions and millions of ordinary Chinese to make steel in "backyard furnaces," and to work on miscellaneous construction and irrigation projects. What excited Mao most was that tens of thousands of "people's communes" were founded throughout the country. In Mao's vision, these communes, by combining "economic, cultural, political, and military affairs" into one entity, and by practicing "compensation according to need" through a public dining system, opened the door to a communist society. At one point, Mao even raised the question of abolishing the "bourgeois right," arguing that it was time to eliminate the inequality caused by the practice of "compensation according to work."

In order to enhance popular support for his extraordinary mass mobilization efforts, Mao ordered the Chinese Communist artillery forces to bombard the Nationalist-controlled Jinmen islands in the heyday of the Great Leap Forward. Although this caused a serious international crisis between China and the United States, Mao was unafraid, arguing that international tension had a "good side of it" as it could "bring about the awakening of many people" and was therefore beneficial to the revolution.

Mao's utopian expectations collapsed with the failure of the Great Leap Forward, which caused one of the worst human tragedies in twentieth-century history. It is estimated that 20 to 30 million people starved to death in a nationwide famine during the 19591961 period. For the first time in Communist China's history, the myth of Mao's "eternal correctness" was called into question.

The great Sino-Soviet polemic debate.

The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Forward resulted in a major setback in Mao's political career. With Mao relegated to the "second line" in 19601962, the CCP leadership adopted more moderate and flexible policies designed for economic recovery and social stability. However, Mao never intended to abandon the theory and practice of continuous revolution. When the Chinese economy began to recover in 1962, Mao called upon the Party "never to forget class struggle." This time, he was determined to turn the party and state that he himself had created and ruled into the target of his revolution.

Within this context the great Sino-Soviet debate erupted in the early 1960s. In the mid-1950s, Mao had already charged that Khrushchev, with his de-Stalinization efforts, risked discarding the banners of both Stalin and Lenin. Mao had further criticized Khrushchev's strategy of "peaceful coexistence," claiming that it obscured the fundamental distinction between revolution and counterrevolution, between communism and capitalism. Meanwhile, Mao also contended that Moscow had long carried out a policy of "great power chauvinism" toward China, characterizing Moscow as a threat to Chinese sovereignty and independence. Thus Mao effectively linked his challenge to Moscow's leading position in international communism to the theme of safeguarding China's national security interests. During the Sino-Soviet polemic of the 1960s, Mao further asserted that socialism in the Soviet Union had been gradually eroded by an emerging "bureaucratic capitalist class." With such "capitalist roaders" as Khrushchev controlling the party and state, he concluded, capitalism had been restored in Soviet society. In elaborating these "lessons of the Soviet Union," Mao emphasized that China also faced the danger of "restoration of capitalism" if its own "capitalist roaders" were not exposed and rooted out. With Mao's push, China's domestic politics and social life were again rapidly radicalized along with the escalation of the Sino-Soviet debate.

The Cultural Revolution.

Mao's efforts to instill a new social order in people's hearts and minds reached new heights when the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" began in the summer of 1966. Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution for two interrelated purposes. First, he hoped that it would allow him to find new means of promoting the transformation of China's party, state, and society in accordance with his ideals. Second, he sought to use it instrumentally to enhance his much weakened authority and reputation. Both in real life and in Mao's conceptual realm, those two purposes were interwovenfor Mao believed that his preeminent leadership would best guarantee the success of his revolution.

By carrying out the Cultural Revolution, Mao easily achieved the second goal, making his power and authority absolute during the Cultural Revolution years. But the Cultural Revolution failed to bring him any closer to achieving the first goal. Although the mass movement released by the Cultural Revolution destroyed Mao's opponents and, for a period, the "old" party-state control system, it proved unable to create the new form of state power that Mao so much desired for creating a new society. When the mass practice of "fight self, criticize revisionism" turned into superficial "ritual procedures," and when Mao acted to restore and enhance the state's harsh control over society, millions of ordinary Chinese developed a profound "crisis of faith." Consequently, the economic stagnation and political cruelty prevailing in China made the people disillusioned with the ultimate benefits of Mao's ideals and plans. By Mao's own standard, the legitimacy of his continuous revolution was called into serious question as it failed the test of ordinary people's lived experience.

In the last years of his life, it became evident that Mao's revolutionary enterprise had lost the people's inner support. Even Mao himself realized this. To the visiting American journalist Edgar Snow he lamented that he was "a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella."

Maoism Buried in Post-Mao China

Mao died on 9 September 1976. China has since experienced a profound derevolutionization process. The post-Mao CCP leadership discarded the Mao cult, contending that while in a general sense Mao remained a great Marxist-Leninist, he had committed mistakes throughout his career. In particular, the Party repudiated the Cultural Revolution and abandoned Mao's theory and practice of continuous revolution. Following the pragmatic "cat theory""white cat, black cat, so long as it catches rats, it is a good cat"Deng Xiaoping (19051997) unleashed in the late 1970s a new "age of reform and opening to the outside world." Deng's gradual introduction of a "market-oriented socialist economy" brought about phenomenal economic growth in China, but it also created new divisions between rich and poor within Chinese society. Maoist egalitarianism was undermined both as an ideal and a social reality. As a result, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist regime was further called into serious question.

Against this background, the post-Mao CCP leadership has made strenuous efforts to redefine the essence of Maoism. While claiming that Mao Zedong Thought was not merely Mao's creation but, rather, the contribution of the Party leadership's collective wisdom, the CCP discarded Mao's ideal of transforming China into a land of universal justice and equality, and abandoned Mao's practice of striving for revolutionary changes "all under heaven." In the meantime, Mao's legacy has been represented primarily in nationalistic and patriotic terms. The greatest achievements of Mao's revolution, according to the post-Mao CCP leadership, lay in the fact that it unified China, industrialized the country, and revived its greatness in world affairs. Maoism as a utopian vision, a revolutionary ideology, and a revolutionary way of transforming China and the world has effectively disappeared in post-Mao China's official discourse.

Maoism beyond China

Maoism was never exclusively a Chinese phenomenon. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Chinese Communist revolution achieved nationwide victory, Communist parties in such Asian regions and countries as Indochina, Malaya, and Burma claimed to take Mao Zedong Thought as the ideological guide for their own revolutions. In the 1960s, following the great Sino-Soviet debate, the international Communist movement was divided. Some parties (such as the Albanian Labor Party) and many deviating factions within the Communist parties of different nations advocated Maoism, claiming it to be the "third milestone" in the development of Marxism-Leninism. In most cases, those parties and factions embraced the Maoist doctrines of conducting violent revolution as the only legitimate way to overthrow capitalism's national and global dominance. They also became the CCP's allies in the "anti-revisionist struggle" against Moscow.

This situation changed drastically with the Chinese-American rapprochement in the early 1970s and, especially, after Mao's death in 1976. Mao's decision to improve relations with the "U.S. imperialists" offended many "Maoist" parties and factions elsewhere, causing them (such as Albania) to denounce Mao's China as an example of "neo-revisionism."

The post-Mao CCP leadership's virtual abandonment of Maoism further alienated China from the remaining Maoist parties and factions abroad. When the Khmer Rouge waged a war of survival in Cambodia's jungle, China supported it not because of its Maoist ideology, but because it played an important role in checking Vietnam, China's main enemy in Southeast Asia at that time. As for such Maoist revolutionary movements as the Shining Path in Peru and the Maoist guerrillas in Nepal, Beijing offered no support and paid little attention.

Does Maoism have a future? As a revolutionary ideology, Maoism has long withered in China. With the decline of such "Maoist" movements as Peru's Shining Path, it is difficult for Maoism beyond China to attract large numbers of devotees. But it seems premature to say that Mao's ideas have forever lost their influence. Some Maoist strategiessuch as those concerning mass mobilization and armed strugglewill remain attractive to revolutionaries of generations to come. In a deeper sense, Maoism's most lasting legacy lies, perhaps, in its utopian visionone concerning the necessity and possibility of achieving universal justice and equality in human society. The vision's beauty exists in its ambiguity. Because it was never clearly definable in practical political terms, the vision may have continuing appeal as long as injustice and inequality persist in human lifein China, and in other parts of the world as well.

See also Historical and Dialectical Materialism ; Marxism .


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Chen Jian


views updated May 09 2018



Maoism is an influential revolutionary ideology of the twentieth century. The term Maoism, despite its originating from the name of the Peoples Republic of Chinas former leader Mao Zedong, is used primarily outside of mainland China. The Communist Party of China (CPC) uses Mao Zedong Thought as its official ideology. Although Maoism is only a derivation of Marxism and Leninism, its impact has been worldwide. Maoism continues to inspire international Maoists everywhereespecially in Asia and Latin Americaeven as the Chinese have been moving increasingly away from it.

The crux of Maoism is a belief that Marxism and Leninism can be adapted to suit the conditions of developing countries in their struggle against capitalism and imperialism. According to Karl Marx, a Communist revolution will be organized by advanced productive forces, such as industrial workers, and is possible only in an advanced capitalist society. Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, however, believed that rural revolutions in a traditional society can become a stepping-stone for an advanced social revolution, and peasants can be allies of the industrial workers and thus should play a pivotal role in erecting socialism and communism. During the lengthy military struggle in the rural areas of China, Mao formulated his theory of New Democratic Revolution.

Maos theory of revolution is based on the guerrilla war strategy, a disciplined Leninist party, and the united front. First of all, Mao believed that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. He and his comrades developed the strategy of rural-based guerrilla warfare and fought the nationalist government in the countryside for two decades. This strategy provided a practical solution for a smaller and weaker revolutionary force to defeat a much stronger and powerful state power. During World War II (19391945), Mao further extended his theory into the strategy of the protracted peoples war, designed to mobilize a total, yet prolonged, war to figuratively bleed the Japanese invaders to death.

Second, Mao emphasized the importance of a disciplined, elitist political party with absolute control over a revolutionary army. He developed doctrines such as democratic centralism, mass line, and criticism and self-criticism. All of these doctrines have become operational principles of the CPC. Finally, while stressing the need for the leadership of the CPC, Mao embraced a corporatist strategy to extend the party control to other political parties and groups. His theory of united front appears to raise the status of many smaller parties from opposition to collaborative and participating parties, yet it denies these parties the right to become competitors with the CPC, and thus lays the groundwork for the corporatist party-state after 1949. For all these contributions, the CPC formally adopted Mao Zedong Thought as its official doctrine in the Seventh Party Congress of the CPC held in Yanan in 1945.

In his early revolutionary career, Mao was a populist practitioner of Marxism rather than a dogmatic follower. Maos success in using his military strategy to seize political power in a big country such as China established Maos charismatic legitimacy in China and throughout the developing world. In his later life, however, Mao became an ardent defender of Marxism after the death of Joseph Stalin. In his fight against the so-called revisionists, such as the Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, Mao apparently became more dogmatic. He defended Stalin and was unremitting in his emphasis on the theory of a continued revolution under proletarian dictatorship. Mao and his supporters believed that an important task of the revolution was to carry out the proletarian dictatorship and class struggle against old and new bourgeoisie.

Maoism also contains some utopian elements. Mao believed that industrialization and modernization could go hand in hand with socialist transformation. The ambitious Great Leap Forward program (launched in 1958) tried unrealistically to speed up the industrialization process, but suffered a major setback. Nevertheless, this did not stop Mao from launching another major political campaign, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (19661976), to crush leaders who are taking the capitalist road, and to transform political, social, and cultural superstructures that were considered to be unfitting with a socialist economy. Maos quotation books (such as what became known in English as The Little Red Book) became a spiritual guide for the millions of young students (Red Guards) who waged a war on the establishment. The subsequent chaos was eventually put to an end after Maos death in 1976.

Although Mao Zedong Thought continues to be upheld as the CPCs official ideology, the radical and utopian elements have been discredited and revised. Worldwide, Maoism is still influential. The Maoist International Movement in the United States still supports a Maoist world revolution, and the Revolutionary Internationalism Movement continues to believe that the strategy of peoples war is an effective means of Marxist revolution.

SEE ALSO Chinese Revolution; Communism; Guerrilla Warfare; Imperialism; Khrushchev, Nikita; Leninism; Little Red Book; Mao Zedong; Marxism; Revolution; Socialism; Stalin, Joseph; Utopianism


Alexander, Robert J. 2001. Maoism in the Developed World. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Schram, Stuart R. 1969. The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger.

Spence, Jonathan D. 1999. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking.

Baogang Guo


views updated May 29 2018

Maoism The theory and policies identified with the Chinese revolutionary communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976). Mao's relationship to Marxism is disputed, since many commentators deny either that he made any novel contributions to social theory, or that his writings were distinctively Marxist. He is principally associated with an heretical theory of socialist revolution (see REBELLION, REVOLUTION) which accords primacy to the role of the revolutionary peasantry— hardly surprisingly, given the economically backward circumstances of China in the 1920s, when Mao set out on his political career. Although Marxists continue to dispute vigorously both his relationship to Soviet Marxism, and the practical consequences of his policies on Chinese economic development (especially the effects of the notorious ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1966–7
), his significance for sociology is limited by the impenetrability of much of his philosophical (as opposed to his political and strategic) writing–a weakness exemplified, for example, in his essays ‘On Practice’ and ‘On Contradiction’ (1937)

At various times during the Cold War period, neo-Marxist sociologists turned to Maoist China in the hope of finding a socialist state that was less wedded to doctrinaire Marxism than was the Soviet Union, and as a result there are several excellent (though somewhat idealized) ethnographies of life in Maoist China that have achieved almost classic status (including J. Myrdal's Report From a Chinese Village, 1965, and China: The Revolution Continued, 1970; and W. Hinton's Fanshen, 1966). However, students would be well advised to balance these with a reading of a more sceptical account, such as Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye's oral history of contemporary China (Chinese Lives, 1986).


views updated May 17 2018

Mao·ism / ˈmouˌizəm/ • n. the communist doctrines of Mao Zedong as formerly practiced in China, having as a central idea permanent revolution and stressing the importance of the peasantry, of small-scale industry, and of agricultural collectivization.DERIVATIVES: Mao·ist n. & adj.