A short history of Maoism

Submitted by Matthew on 13 March, 2013 - 10:58

The following article by Mike Kyriazopoulos was originally written for an internal discussion in the Workers’ Party of New Zealand (now Fightback Aotearoa/NZ).

Fightback has its origins, in part, in a Maoist-influenced tendency.


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grew out of the anti-imperialist May 4th movement against the ruinous Versailles Treaty, which was founded by Chen Tu-hsiu in 1919.

One of the most pressing questions for the CCP, founded in 1921, was how to relate to the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), who ran the government of the fledgling republic.

Lenin had insisted that: “The Communist International [CI] must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.”

Initially, this was the policy that guided the CCP, establishing trade unions and organising strikes in alliance with other organisations, all the while maintaining their political independence. But once Stalin was in control of the CI, its only concern became defending “socialism in one country” — Russia.

Stalin identified a bloc of four classes oppressed by imperialism in China: the proletariat, the peasantry, the urban petty-bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie. The last class, he said, was counterposed to the comprador bourgeoisie, the economic and political agency of foreign capital.

Trotsky countered that the comprador and national bourgeoisies were far closer to each other than the bourgeoisie was to the masses of workers and peasants. While the national bourgeoisie became the dominant class for the Stalinists, Trotsky insisted that the proletariat should be in the driving seat.

Hence, when there was an upsurge in class struggle in 1925-26, with the emergence of the Hong Kong-Canton Strike Committee and Hunan peasant association, it was the Trotskyists, but not the Stalinists, who raised the call for soviets.

In September 1926, Trotsky urged: “The CCP must now... fight for direct independent leadership of the awakened working class.”

By March 1927, a workers’ government had been established in Shanghai. The workers, confused by the CCP’s line, initially welcomed the KMT forces into the city. On 12 April, the KMT began massacring Communists and workers and set about crushing the unions. Stalin belatedly called for armed uprisings long after revolution had been engulfed by counter-revolution — which meant only further massacres of revolutionaries.

The failure of the Stalinists’ policy meant that Trotsky’s ideas were popular with Chinese militants wherever they were exposed to them. During the anti-Trotskyist purges, the Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow was shut down because “An informer testified in court that all the students of the university were Trotskyists.”

Of the “bloc of four classes”, the Stalinists claimed that only the peasantry now remained. As Xiang Chung-fa, General Secretary of the CCP elected July 1928, put it: “We lost tens of thousands of workers; never mind, as a compensation we got millions, even tens of millions of peasants.”

Mao was not drawn to Communism out of any kind of identification of the underdog. He set out his ideas on morality in an essay in the winter of 1917-18:

“I do not agree that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others... Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me... People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people... People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations.”

In the same essay, Mao went on to praise the virtues of war and death.

Mao attended the founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921, and was soon tasked with organising miners on the Hunan-Jiangxi border. A few months previously in a letter to a friend, Mao had expressed the opinion that “I think labourers in China do not really suffer poor physical conditions. Only scholars suffer.” He quit after a few days, telling the Party leadership that he had come “to his wits’ end” with “organising workers.” As a result, Mao was dropped from the Second Party congress in July 1922.

In January 1923, Stalin signed a CI order to give full backing to the Nationalist KMT. The CCP leadership opposed joining the KMT, describing its leader Sun Yat-sen as “lying” and “unscrupulous”. At the Third Congress in June 1923, CI envoy Maring found that the only supporter of the policy was Mao. He “was so pessimistic”, Maring reported, “that he saw the only salvation of China in the intervention by Russia”, telling the congress “that the revolution had to be brought into China from the north by the Russian army.”

However, Mao’s enthusiasm for the KMT did not go down well with the CCP who expelled him from the Central Committee for being “opportunistic” and “right wing”, and excluded him from the next party congress. Meanwhile, Mao progressed through the ranks of the KMT.

By the time KMT leader Chiang Kai-Shek had broken with the Communists in April 1927, Stalin had control of the Kremlin and was personally dictating policy on China.

Stalin had Chen Duxiu dismissed as Party chief, and Mao was promoted to the Politburo. Mao then proceeded to build up his own force, starting with 600 men retreating to the Jinggang mountains, from where they conducted looting raids on local villages. A party inspector reported that 15 months after the arrival of Mao’s army, the countryside was devastated: “Because even petty bourgeois, rich peasants and small pedlars were all treated as enemies, and ...no attention was paid to construction or to the economic crisis, the countryside is totally bankrupt, and is collapsing by the day.”

Mao’s dictatorial methods were causing increasing concern within the CCP, whose army representatives voted to depose him from its leadership in June 1929. Mao was only able to reverse his fortunes once the opportunity to do Moscow’s bidding arose again, during the “Manchurian Railway Crisis” a few months later.

The original Bolshevik policy was that Russia would give up its substantial extraterritorial concessions in China, but Stalin reneged on this. When the Russians seized 1,500km of railways cutting through northeast China, they wanted the CCP to create some diversionary military pressure. Chen opposed this, declaring that such a stance “only makes people assume that we dance to the tune of roubles.” Mao, on the other hand, enthusiastically followed Moscow’s line, earning him praise in the Soviet press, and saving his political career.

Mao’s next move was to take over the Red Army in Jiangxi. He had thousands of peasants and Communists denounced as nationalist spies in order to justify a brutal purge to consolidate his power. His atrocities provoked a mutiny. The rebels appealed to the party HQ in Shanghai, saying Mao was not a Bolshevik, and his ambition was to “become Party Emperor.” But Chou En-lai in Shanghai backed Mao, giving him the signal to torture and execute the mutineers.

Following the terror, Mao proclaimed his first “Red” state with its capital in Ruijin in November 1931. He proceeded to build a totalitarian bureaucracy by squeezing the peasants and purging “class enemies”, who provided an army of slave labourers. Around 700,000 people died as a result of terror and suicide.

After years of fighting the KMT, the CCP entered a period of rapprochement with the nationalists in 1937. Chiang legalised the CCP and appointed a Communist mole as head of the nationalists’ propaganda department, who set to work sanitising Mao’s image. Chiang assigned territory around Yenan to Mao with a population of about two million.

When war broke out between China and Japan, the flow of Russian arms tilted the balance in favour of Mao and against Chiang, and there was a proliferation of “Red Bases”.

The Stalin-Hitler pact of August 1939 opened up the prospect that Russia might do a similar deal with Japan, agreeing to carve up China in the same way as Poland. When the journalist Edgar Snow put this scenario to Mao, he replied: “It is quite within the possibilities of Leninism.” Similarly, when Russia seized eastern Finland in early 1940, Mao issued a secret directive claiming that Moscow’s annexation “guarantees the victory of the world and the Chinese revolution.”

The war with Japan led to a massive increase in CCP membership, especially among educated youth disenchanted with the KMT. Many of them came to Yenan, where Mao set about conditioning them into mass uniformity. Individuals were told to supply a list of all their family and social connections, and Mao’s cult of personality was ratcheted up.

A critic, Wang Shi-wei, emerged as the champion of the young volunteers, denouncing the institutionalised privilege at the top of the Yenan regime and proclaiming: “Justice must be established in the Party.” Mao had him condemned as a “Trotskyite”, imprisoned and later executed.

This initiated a reign of terror devised by Mao’s deputy, Kang Sheng, who had learned the dark arts of Stalinist purging at the Moscow show trials. Mao decreed that 1% (later inflated to 10%) of the young volunteers were KMT spies. Thousands were publicly denounced, tortured, imprisoned, executed and driven to suicide.

Yenan’s peasants were taxed extortionately, whilst they were suffering from hyperinflation. Grain tax sustained the burgeoning bureaucracy, as did the profits from the 30,000 acres of opium fields planted by the regime.

On 9 August 1945, Russia invaded China in accordance with the inter-imperialist carve up agreed at Yalta. Mao was ecstatic proclaiming “Who is our leader? It is Stalin... Every member of our Chinese Communist Party is Stalin’s pupil.”

In Manchuria, the greatest and most modern industrial development in Asia, Russia went on a looting spree, behaving like conquerers. In the south of China, the KMT regime was mired in corruption, dependent on military and police power, the landlord class and US support. Its bureaucratic state capitalism had ended up becoming a brake on capitalist development. As the regime disintegrated, the CCP, alienated from the cities for 20 years, instructed workers to remain passive and “prepare themselves for the arrival of the liberation armies” from the countryside.

By the beginning of 1949, the cities were about to fall to the CCP. In the countryside, they had introduced land reform on a conservative bureaucratic basis, with Mao advocating that in old areas under CCP control: “Neither the liberal bourgeoisie nor the industry and commerce operated by landlords and rich peasants can be infringed upon: special attention must be given to non-encroachment on middle peasants, independent labourers, professional people and new-type rich peasants.”

Atrocities were also committed under the banner of “land reform”. Kang Sheng encouraged violence against “landlords” and “kulaks”, but the criteria for determining who fitted the categories was “how they are liked by the masses”.

A contemporary account stated:

“Nowhere in the countryside have CP armies been met by self-liberated peasants who have risen against their oppressors and taken the power. ...the peasants continue their daily round of toil while the armies manoeuvre and battle around them...The CP seeks an alliance with the compradores in order to ease its takeover. ‘All privately operated factories, stores, banks, warehouses, vessels, wharves, farms; pastures, etc., will be protected.’ .... To the workers the proclamation gives the following instructions: ‘It is hoped that workers and employees in all trades will continue work and that businesses will operate as usual.’”

On 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed. Law was replaced by party committees, media subject to total state censorship, and from July 1951 a registration system meant that most people were indefinitely tied to their job and place of residence. In October 1950 Mao launched a nationwide “campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries”. As regards KMT supporters, Mao said: “We don’t kill a single one of those big Chiang Kai-sheks. What we kill are small Chiang Kai-sheks.”

Russian experts were brought in to advise Mao on setting up his own gulag archipelago. Mao’s “anti-corruption campaign” designed to consolidate his state power set quotas for executions. While the regime promoted the slogan “Serve the People”, Mao himself lived extravagantly, having more than 50 estates built for him over his reign, dining on gourmet food and maintaining a coterie of women for entertainment and sex.

Mao intended to convert China into a nuclear armed superpower, although this plan was concealed to all but Mao’s inner circle. Mao’s overriding ambition was to obtain nuclear technology and know-how from the USSR. To this end, he went to extraordinary lengths, including prolonging the Korean War and provoking crises in the Taiwan Strait. He wanted to convince Russia that it needed a nuclear armed ally against the West.

Mao faced resistance to both requisitioning and forced collectivisation, which amounted to slave driving. Mao set a quota of 1.5 million “counter-revolutionaries” to be arrested over the next five years. As starvation ravaged the countryside, Mao instructed: “Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel.” As the size of rations was reduced in the cities, Mao told the Politburo: “This is a war on food producers — as well as on food consumers.” At the same time Mao bolstered the dictatorship in East Germany that had just crushed a workers’ uprising in 1953 by offering 50 million roubles’ worth of food aid.

In November 1957, Mao addressed a world communist summit in Moscow. His speech shocked even some of the hardened Stalinist participants:

“Let’s contemplate this, how many people would die if war breaks out. There are 2.7 billion people in the world. One third could be lost; or, a little more, it could be half... I say that, taking the extreme situation, half dies, half lives, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.... People say that poverty is bad, but in fact poverty is good. The poorer people are, the more revolutionary they are. It is dreadful to imagine a time when everyone will be rich.”

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and the subsequent Hungarian uprising, gave Mao cause to think about how to deal with potential dissent within his regime.

His solution was the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, a deliberate trap for liberalising intellectuals. The permitted dissent was kept rigidly fragmented, to prevent any generalised revolt. The repression that followed was swift and brutal. One People’s Daily headline stated: “Rebuke the rubbish that ‘peasants’ lives are hard’!”

Mao made it clear that there would be no let-up in the totalitarian regime, boasting that he had urged Khrushchev to send the tanks into Budapest. He denied any link between Marxism and humanism: “In the early stage of development of their thought Marx and Engels were indeed somewhat influenced by humanist ideas. …But when they formulated the materialist conception of history and discovered the class struggle as the motive force of social development, they immediately got rid of this influence.”

The Superpower Programme was vastly accelerated with the launch of the “Great Leap Forward” in May 1958.

Between 1958 and 1961, 37.7 million people died from famine and overwork in the greatest famine in recorded human history. In 1958-9, the regime exported seven million tons of grain. 10 million kg of grain was converted into ethyl alcohol for missile tests. The cost of China’s nuclear bomb, eventually detonated in 1964, has been estimated at $4.1 billion (in 1957 prices), enough to have bought wheat to provide an extra 300 calories a day for the entire population during the famine, which would have saved every life that was lost.

The original CCP manifesto included self-determination for national minorities such as the Tibetans. But in 1950 Stalin had advised Mao: “The Tibetans need to be subdued... all the border territories should be populated by Chinese.” In 1959, faced with a rebellion by Tibet, Mao responded with massive food requisitioning, atrocities and cultural annihilation.

The situation in China was getting so desperate that Mao faced the prospect of rebellion in his own ranks. Liu Shao-chi, his number two, criticised the “Great Leap” in front of a conference of 7,000 top officials in January 1962. When it became clear that Liu had the support of the delegates, Mao agreed to a reduction in requisitioning, costly arms programmes were cancelled and overseas aid slashed. Mao scapegoated the massive failures on lowly officials.

Internationally, Mao sought to build a Beijing-Jakarta axis to rival the Moscow-Warsaw axis. But in September 1965, an attempted coup against military leaders in Indonesia failed disastrously. Hundreds of thousands of Communists and sympathisers were slaughtered by General Suharto. The Indonesian Communist Party had followed the same class collaborationist line as the CCP had done with the KMT — and paid far more dearly for it.

As soon as the famine was over, Mao started plotting a Great Purge. He told his inner circle: “We need a policy of ‘keep people stupid’.”

In April 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched, under the direction of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and Kang Sheng. Mao’s personality cult reached fever pitch — the Little Red Book was recited daily and 4.8 billion Mao badges and 1.2 billion Mao portraits were produced. China was turned into a cultural desert — schools were closed for a year and Red Guard groups (led by the children of high officials) assailed teachers, writers and artists, and participated in state plunder.

Red Guards were given licence to attack virtually anything from “Hong Kong haircuts” to the “bourgeois-feudal reactionary music of Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich.” The regime issued spine-chilling edicts, condemning: “workers concerned only with love and romance, pandering to low tastes, claiming that ‘love’ and ‘death’ are eternal themes. All such bourgeois revisionist trash must be resolutely opposed.”

But the Cultural Revolution threatened to escape Mao’s control. Proletarian and peasant masses went out on unprecedented strikes and fought pitched battles against Red Guards. A notice in Fuzhou warned that: “A handful of freaks and monsters have cheated the misled members of the worker Red Guard units and some worker masses to put forward many wage, welfare and other economic demands to the leadership and administrative departments of the units.”

There was a significant rebellion in Wuhan, followed by bloody faction fighting. Mao solved the crisis by rusticating the youth and instituting state terror. He purged the top leadership of his regime — Liu Shao-chi and Deng Xiaoping were denounced as “capitalist roaders”, and the purged positions were replaced by appointees drawn from the army.

As Raya Dunayevskaya noted, Maoism was the application of the theory of “socialism in one country” to a technologically backward country in a world divided between two industrialised superpowers. Because of this situation, and because the regime had “no perspective of world revolution ‘in our time’, [it felt] compelled to drive the masses all the harder. Under private capitalism this was known as primitive accumulation; under state capitalism, calling itself Communism, it is called, internally, ‘fighting self-interest’, and, externally, ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Thought Lights Up the Whole World.’”

As such, Maoism belongs to humanity’s reactionary past, not its socialist future.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.