Modern China

Mao Tse-tung


   While the Communist Party underwent a series of conflicts over ideology and practice, after the Long March, Chinese Communism would be synonymous with Maoism, the political philosophy of Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976). For the most part, Maoism does not seriously depart from Leninist and even Stalinist ideas. It is, however, uniquely adapted to the Chinese situation and Chinese traditions.

   Mao was born of a peasant family that was more or less prosperous. He was converted to Marxism in 1918 when he served as a librarian in Beijing University. He then actively set about his revolutionary career by becoming a labor organizer. He was one of the twelve Chinese who attended the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 under the guidance of the Comintern, or Communist Internatiional, which in turn was directed by Soviet Russia. In 1925, he began to consider the potential of organizing the peasantry and concentrated all his efforts on rural China. This new tactic eventually split him off from mainstream Chinese communists but provided the seeds for his rise to power in the late 1930's and 1940's.

   For the most part, Mao accepted in spirit the Three People's Principles of Sun Yat-sen, particularly the third, the principle of social and economic equality. This latter principle became the chief ideological difference between Mao and other Chinese Communists. For the most part, Mao accepted the general outline of Sun's socialist principle which involved nationalizing all land and equally distributing it to landowners and peasants alike. The orthodox members of the CCP, however, demanded that landowners and capitalists be completely deprived of their lands and that the nationalized lands be unequally distributed to the poor. For the CCP communists, Mao was an "egalitarian."

   Mao's most important departure from mainstream communist thought was his belief in the peasantry and a peasant uprising. At the foundation of Marxist thought is the belief that the final class struggle will be between laborers and capitalists. Before this happens there must occur a bourgeois revolution in which landlordism is replaced by capitalism. Although the Marxist revolution in Russia was largely a peasant revolution, Russian Marxists still believed that a true communist revolution would originate from and concern workers rather than peasants. Mao, on the other hand, believed that the situation in China demanded a peasant revolution, and he aggressively sought peasant recruits and soldiers. His focus on the peasantry wasn't simply practical; ideologically, he believed that the peasants should be the center of the revolution and the government built from that revolution.:
Without the poor peasants it would never have been possible to bring about in the countryside the present state of revolution, to overthrow the local bullies and bad gentry, or to complete the democratic revolution. Being the most revolutionary, the poor peasants have won the leadership in the peasant association. . . . This leadership of the poor peasants is absolutely necessary. Without the poor peasants there can be no revolution. To reject them is to reject the revolution. To attack them is to attack the revolution. Their general direction of the revolution has never been wrong. 1
   As with the New Culture movement, Mao believed that all vestiges of Chinese traditional culture needed to be overturned. These included hsiao , or filial piety, Confucianism, monarchism, ancestor worship, religion, and the authority of elders. He saw the Chinese as dominated by three separate institutions: the state, the clan and family, and the system of gods and spirits (theocratic authority). Women, for their part, were dominated by all three of these institutions and were also dominated by men. These "four authorities"—political authority, clan authority, theocratic authority, and the authority of the husband—had to be all dismantled in order for China to enter a truly egalitarian and communist stage. Mao believed that the peasant were, by the very nature of their lives, the most free of clan, theocratic, and patriarchal authority; this was one further argument why the Chinese revolution needed to be a peasant revolution.

   Central to Mao's theory of the state was what he called "New Democracy." The New Democracy involved a graduated series of congresses from the local to the national level, but its cornerstone was centralization. Mao himself referred to "New Democracy" as "democratic centralism." Democratic centralism is an essence a dictatorship—"a dictatorship of all revolutionary classes," in Mao's words—power would be concentrated in the hands of a few in order to guarantee that all class interests are represented. In other words, the centralization of authority was meant to guarantee that all levels of society are represented rather than the interests of the majority, which is the case in a "bourgeois" democracy. Economically, New Democracy involved the nationalization of banks and industry as well as the redistribution of land from wealthy landowners to the poor peasants. When Mao came to power over mainland China in 1949, he renamed New Democracy to the People's Democratic Dictatorship. The principle behind the People's Democratic Dictatorship was to guarantee that reactionary or counter-revolutionary voices would not have a say in government or have the ability to sway the opinions of the people. The centralization of authority, as outlined above, would guarantee that the will of the people would be carried out by the government.

   Mao's communism was, except for his emphasis on peasant revolution, fairly in the mainstream of Marxism and Leninism. In his early years, he read very little of the classic Marxist texts; this lack of reading served him badly in party conflicts when his opponents could always "out-Marx" him, you might say. Following the Long March, he studied the texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, and his writings on communism for the most part don't depart from the main tenets of Marxism and Leninism. In particular, Mao subscribed to the fundamental Marxist doctrine that theory and practice could not be separated. The true basis of knowledge, according to Marx, is social reality and social action. Any theory devoid of social action is no knowledge; any social devoid of theory is mindless. This tenet, at the core of the Soviet experience, also became the core of Maoist communism.

Endnotes





1 Quoted in de Bary, Chan, Watson, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York, 1960), page 871.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-9-97