Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolution

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Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Photo: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

This article is excerpted from an assessment of Mao Zedong as a history-maker on the occasion of his birth centenary, December 24, 1993, written by Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea and published in the January 14, 1994, issue.

DECEMBER 26 marks a full 100 years since the birth of Chairman Mao – as he will perhaps always be known. Anniversaries are ritually celebrated in China as they are in most other countries. But Mao Zedong’s centenary will be celebrated in a restrained and markedly low-key manner. The apprehension is that it may provide the occasion for opponents of the present regime to criticise Deng Xiaoping and his chosen ‘core of leadership’, using Mao as a reference point. In the 17 years since Mao’s death, Deng has attempted to delegitimise what is called Maoism, negate the theoretical legacy of Mao and reduce his towering image to ordinary proportions.

This has not been an easy task. Fifty-six of Mao’s 83 years were dedicated to building the Communist Party of China (CPC) and strengthening the Chinese state. Those were momentous years that witnessed the Long March, the prolonged anti-Japanese war of national liberation, and the civil war. The years after the People’s Republic was founded in 1949 witnessed rapid economic and social transformation at home; the creation of new institutions and social structures; the hostility, first of the United States and then of the Soviet Union, that threatened the security of New China; and the successful attainment by China of its rightful place in the world.

By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China had indeed stood up. It was recognised as an independent actor of consequence on the world stage. In the 1960s Mao’s thought stirred up campuses in the heart of the capitalist world. And when the Cultural Revolution was under way, Mao was hailed as the innovator of a unique alternative development strategy. For most of those years Mao dominated the realm of decision-making in both domestic and foreign policy. He was the leading theoretician of the CPC and, after the death of Joseph Stalin, of the socialist world. The successes and failures of the party during those years are inseparable from Mao and his thought, as is the personality of Mao from the course and nature of the Chinese revolution. The years in Yenan were the years of Mao’s greatest theoretical creativity. Most of his writings date from this period. These were also the years in which the party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were honed to follow and implement the strategies and policies of the Chinese revolution.

The official history of the CPC identifies three ‘magic weapons’ that enabled a weak, ill-equipped CPC to defeat a large, well-trained and well-equipped Kuomintang (KMT), supported and sustained by the U.S. These are the strategy of the united front; the PLA; and the party itself. All bore the imprint of Mao.

The same official history declares that without the CPC there would have been no Chinese revolution.

The CPC was founded in the inspiring wake of the Russian revolution and patterned on the Soviet model. It defined itself as the vanguard of the proletariat; set itself the task of bringing about a proletarian revolution by relying on the working class and encouraging urban insurrection. It was content to play the role of the junior partner to the KMT in the national struggle for democracy and freedom from foreign oppression. ‘Imperialism’ was equated with the financial enslavement imposed by the inflow of foreign capital and forced loans and with the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Western powers that eroded Chinese sovereignty.

Mao was presumably party to this self-definition of the CPC; there is no record of his dissent. In the next few years the CPC willingly played its supporting role – urged on to do so by the Comintern (Communist International) – while waiting for its time to come. It was instead almost destroyed when Chiang Kai-shek unleashed the white terror on the Communists and the KMT ‘left’.

About the same time, however, Mao had begun to reperceive China and its realities. His investigations in Hunan province alerted him to the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, particularly the poor peasantry, the most oppressed stratum of Chinese society. On the basis of this and other investigations, he made a leap into the general and posited the entire countryside as being awash with revolution.

Breaking with Marxist orthodoxy, he declared that without the poor peasant there could be no revolution in China. This was his first disagreement with the Comintern and, in its view, his first act of heresy. His second was his rediscovery of Chinese nationalism. As a student, Mao had been fired with the call to ‘save’ China from further subjugation by the Western powers. Formal Marxism perhaps had not permitted him to look on nationalism as a revolutionary force. Meanwhile, Japan, which was making deep inroads into China, was regarded as an aggressor but not yet an imperialist power. It was only after the creation of the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo and Japan’s aggression into China proper that Mao began to observe the spread of anti-Japanese nationalism among all classes and sections of the Chinese people. He concluded from this new discovery of China’s objective world that the dynamic of the Chinese revolution could only be nationalism.

What is called the Chinese revolution dates from Mao’s unorthodox pairing of these elemental forces under the leadership of the CPC that set Chinese society on the path of socialism via national liberation, New Democracy and the agrarian revolution. The revolution derived its claim to socialism by casting Japan as imperialistic, and by positing a natural alliance between it and the domestic oppressors or reactionaries.

This ‘sinification’ of Marxism, or the Maoist reinterpretation of Marxism to meet Chinese realities, represented a complete rupture with the methods and strategies of the Russian revolution as well as with those of the CPC and its leadership. It propelled Mao to locate the Chinese revolution in the countryside instead of the cities; to switch from a strategy of urban insurrection to that of peasant revolution; from methods of strikes and boycott to armed struggle; to making national liberation the first-stage objective of the revolutionary effort. It also led to the destruction of the original CPC and its recreation along Maoist lines.

For Mao, unlike the Soviets, ‘making revolution’ or bringing socialism to a country like China was a long, slow process by stages; a long process of uninterrupted and continuous revolution for which there was no blueprint. Mao’s line and leadership had from the earliest been challenged from within. His comrades did not share either his perception of China or his choice of priorities and development strategy.

The two lines – the Soviet and the Maoist – continued to exist within the leadership which nevertheless maintained a convincing show of unity. The party was not racked by purges, large-scale arrests or disappearances. Little is known about the power relations within the CPC leadership, but by 1954 Mao was in danger of being sidelined. The new constitution no longer based itself on Mao’s thought, while the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) development strategy borrowed heavily from the Soviet Union.

Four years later Mao introduced his own strategy, albeit experimentally. The heady days of the Great Leap Forward, of the communes, of mass movements, followed. Differences within the CPC and with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which had arisen anew after de-Stalinisation, sharpened further. The line separating inner-party differences from intra-party differences was blurred. When Mao concluded that Soviet revisionism had to be countered, he began at home. The domestic fallout took the shape of the Cultural Revolution and became an ugly witch-hunt for ‘capitalist roaders’ within the party.

Deng Xiaoping was named the second most important ‘capitalist roader’ and was dismissed from all his posts. Deng had long differed with Mao, who complained that Deng had ceased to discuss his work with him from 1958 and had treated Mao like a dead ancestor. What was criticism of Deng then is merit for him in today’s China. It is used to demonstrate Deng’s prescience and insight and Mao’s fallibility.

Yet, in 1974, an ageing Mao recalled Deng from exile to understudy the cancer-stricken Zhou Enlai and to take charge. This was a tribute to Deng’s abilities and talents as well as to his commitment to the nation and the state. Mao perhaps had a residual hope that Deng had been reformed, for Deng had confessed, in writing, to his errors. He had also pronounced Mao’s new analysis of the world, its trends and the appropriate strategies to be followed by China and the countries of the world in the U.N. General Assembly. But that was not to happen. In both domestic and foreign policy, Mao’s determination to keep politics and the class struggle at the centre has been displaced by Deng’s strategy of economics in command.

The rapid changes that have been under way in the world and the ignominious collapse of the first socialist state (the USSR) appear to uphold the Deng strategy, as does the phenomenal economic growth of China in the last decade. Mao and his approach seem tragically out of date and unrelated to the real world. Yet, an important part of Mao’s legacy has been inherited by Deng – the search for power and wealth for the Chinese state.

Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, one of the world’s leading scholars on China, died on December 13, 2009.

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