Communism in China

In Lenin’s eyes the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia was only the first stage of the world revolution that was to overthrow Capitalism everywhere. In 1920 a Comintern representative was dispatched to China to instigate and promote Communist activity there. But while in some measure stimulated from the outside, Chinese communism has developed a character of its awn focused on the imposing figure of a man very much a native Chinese, the now legendary Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Tse-tun

Few comments on the significance of Mao Tse-tung are as cogent or as authoritative as that made by his old comrade-in-arms Liu Shao chi to Anna Louise Strong in 1946

Mao Tse-tung’s great accomplishment has been to change Marxism from a European to an Asiatic form. Marx and Lenin were Europeans; they wrote in European languages about European histories and problems, seldom discussing Asia or China. The basic principles of Marxism are undoubtedly adaptable to all countries, but to apply their general truth to concrete revolutionary practice in China is a difficult task. Mao Tse-tung is Chinese; he analyzes Chinese problems and guides the Chinese people in their struggle to victory. He uses Marxist-Leninist principles to explain Chinese history and the practical problems of China. He is the first that has succeeded in doing so. He has created a Chinese or Asiatic form of Marxism. China is a semi feudal, semi colonial country in which vast numbers of people live at the edge of starvation, tilling small bits of soil. In attempting the transition to a more industrialized economy, China faces the pressures of advanced industrial lands. There are similar conditions in other lands of southeast Asia. The courses chosen by China will influence them all.

Mao Tse-tung was born into a Hunan peasant family in 1893. His father was a small trader who owned a small quantity of land. Mao’s father was apparently an extremely harsh and frugal man who sought without much success to dominate his son. At the age of eight Mao was sent to the village teacher to learn to read and write, although he continued to do farm work while studying.

Later he resisted the regulations and curriculum of the provincial school and spent a good deal of time in the public library devouring translations of Rousseau, Darwin, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, among others. At age twenty he entered a Normal School where he studied philosophy.

Although moved by a powerful desire to reform China, Mao was not yet a Marxist, describing his state of mind as a curious mixture of ideas of liberalism, democratic reformist, and Utopian Socialism.`The distinctly Chinese quality of his later work was foreshadowed by the fact that he paid little attention to foreign languages while in school. This meant that he was exposed to Western literature, including Marxist literature, only in translation. Thus, Mao, unlike some of his Russian trained colleagues, was never tied quite so closely to the doctrinaire Soviet version of Marx’s teachings.

In 1918 Mao went to Peking where as an assistant in the librarian of Peking University he first read the Communist Manifesto. By 1920 Mao thought of himself as a Marxist and in 1921 he attended the First Congress of the Chinese Communists. By 1935 Mao had gained control of the Party, a control which with a variety of ups and dawns he has maintained until the present day.

Mao’s importance as an original political theorist is a matter of considerable dispute, but there can be little doubt about the historic political significance of his doctrines even if one sees them simply as logical extensions of thoughts begun by Marx and Lenin. While Lenin had recognized the significance of the peasantry in societies not heavily industrialized, it was Mao who moved them to a central place in revolutionary strategy. Mao seems to have suggested that the proletariat be replaced by the peasantry as the vanguard of the revolution, a position heretical in the eyes of some Marxists. As early as March 1927 in an article entitled Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan, Mao developed views that were to result in a new strain of Communism. A significant passage reads as follows

This enormous mass of poor peasants, altogether comprising 70 percent of the rural population, are the backbone of the peasant association, the vanguard in overthrowing the feudal forces, and the foremost heroes who have accomplished the great revolutionary undertaking left unaccomplished for many years. 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.

Mao continued, however, to be orthodox enough to always call for proletarian leadership in the Chinese class struggle. The Chinese Communist Party made up of professional revolutionaries on Lenin’s model would supply proletarian ideological leadership even if it did not actually contain many genuine workers. Whether Mao’s stress on the peasantry was heresy or the enlightened application of Marxist-Leninist thought, it certainly had its roots in the Chinese situation. Much of Mao’s inspiration grew from Chinese history. The gigantic struggles of the peasants-the peasant uprisings and wars–alone formed the real motive force of historical development in China’s feudal society.

Chinese history was studded with examples of peasant wars. Particularly notable were the revolts of Huang Ch’ao in the ninth century and Li Tzu-ch’eng in the seventeenth. In general these revolts had failed because the peasants had attacked and retreated, as relatively poorly armed guerillas should do, but they lacked strong bases to fall back on. This lesson was not lost on Mao Tse-tung who early surprised his urban-oriented Communist colleagues by asserting that proper strategy was to surround the cities from a countryside containing well established revolutionary bases.

According to Mao, because the forces of imperialism and reaction were firmly entrenched in the cities, continuing the struggle involved a considerable period of avoiding decisive battle with the generally stronger enemy. While the revolutionary forces were still weak, it was necessary to build the backward villages into advanced, consolidated base areas, into great military, political, economic and cultural revolutionary bastions, so that they can fight the fierce enemy who utilizes the cities to attack the rural districts. Given the immensity of Chinese territory and the almost total separation between the simple agricultural villages and the modernized urban areas, Mao believed that eventually conditions would be right for total victory by the revolutionary forces operating from their rural bases.

Few political thinkers, and indeed few Communist leaders, have attributed such great significance to war and to military power. The world can be molded only with the gun whoever wants to seize the political power of the state and to maintain it must have a strong army and political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, according to Mao. Mao speaks primarily not of war in the ordinary international sense but of civil war whose object is distinctly political, that is to say, the seizing of power over the governing of territory.

Enemy advances, we retreat; enemy camps, we harass; enemy tires, we attack; enemy retreats, we pursue is Mao’s formula for the initial guerrilla stage of the political warfare he describes. While it is clear that Mao’s objective is the overthrow of a well-established, well equipped, urban based regime, it is apparent that the political objective is not a set of isolated victories but a sort of nibbling process whereby the regime is weakened and the populace disillusioned about the government’s ability to protect them.

This stage is to be followed by one of mobile warfare using a technique of advance, retreat, and surprise attack like that of guerrilla warfare but-with the application of more force. Such a stage can, of course, begin only when the enemy is sufficiently weak and the revolutionary forces sufficiently strong. Only after this stage can the revolution move to conventional positional warfare in which the enemy will be totally overwhelmed. Since ultimate political victory is the objective, patience must be one of the revolutionary’s prime virtues. Such a strategy of protracted war may, as Mao very well realized, take a substantial period of time.

Mao is perhaps the first Marxist theorist to do much writing about the development of politics after the revolution. Engels talked of the withering away of the state in general terms, while Lenin in State and Revolution quoted Engels in support of his contention that under communism the government of persons would be replaced by the government of things. The notion of dialectical reasoning that serves as the principal analytical tool in all Marxist theorizing tends to suggest a closing off of conflict and argument at the end of the dialectical process when all contradictions are resolved. The idea that class conflict pushes history to a proletarian revolution that ends in the classless (and therefore conflicts) society is the paradigm case of this closing off process in Marxist thought.

Mao, however, is quite explicit about an open-ended, ever-continuing dialectical process. Speaking on the nature of the intellectual process Mao says,

The development of the objective process is full of contradictions and conflicts, and so is the development of the process of man’s cognition. All the dialectical movements of the external world can sooner or later find their reflection in man’s knowledge. The process of coming into being, development, and elimination in social practice as Well as in human knowledge is infinite. As the practice of changing objective existing conditions based upon certain ideas, theories, plans, or programs moves forward step by step, man’s knowledge of objective reality also deepens step by step. The movement or change of the world of objective realities is never finished, hence man’s recognition of truth through practice is also never complete. Marxism-Leninism has in no way put an end to the discovery of truths, but continually pu tuan ti blazes the path toward the recognition of truths through practice. Our conclusion is that we stand for the concrete and historical unity of the subjective and the objective, of theory and practice, of knowledge and action.

The discovery of truths through practice, the verification and the development of perceptual knowledge into rational knowledge and, by means of rational knowledge, the active direction of revolutionary practice and the reconstruction of the subjective and the external world practice, knowledge, more practice, more knowledge, and the repetition ad infinitum of this cyclic pattern, and with each cycle, the elevation of the content of practice and knowledge to a higher level-such is the epistemology of dialectical materialism, such is its theory of the unity  knowledge and action.

Mao’s explicit advocacy of a more open-ended and flexible understanding of the dialectic is elaborately intertwined with his problem of adapting a Western theory to the peculiarities of the Chinese situation. Communists have always talked of contradictions in social processes and situations, but Mao finds it useful to draw a very careful distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions.

An antagonistic contradiction is one between the revolutionaries (who represent the people) and the enemies of the people, while a non-antagonistic contradiction may exist among the people. Stalin in 1930 said rather the same thing when he differentiated between contradictions within the bond, that is, between the mass of the people and the proletariat, and contradictions outside the bond, that it, between capitalist elements and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Mao insists that the contradiction between the working class and the national bourgeoisie is non-antagonistic, that is, it exists within the people. Moreover, Mao differs also from Stalin by suggesting that while the Communist government truly represents the people, there can still be contradictions between the two.

The practical application of this manipulation of philosophical concepts can be observed in what Mao called the New Democracy and his particular doctrine of socialist transformation. In 1940 Mao proposed a political system for post-revolutionary China different in important respects from the Russian pattern. He described it not as a dictatorship of the proletariat as the orthodox tradition would have it, nor as what Stalin called a democratic dictatorship of peasants and workers, but as a democratic republic under the joint dictatorship of all anti-imperialist and anti-feudal people led by the proletariat in 1949, as total victory was near, he called for the inclusion of the national bourgeoisie.

The national bourgeoisie (enemies of the people from a more orthodox point of view) came to be included in the New Democracy although Mao was careful to point out that they must not have the dominant role. They were, moreover. allowed to remain in business for a considerable time, thus altering the pattern of socialist transformation. The national bourgeoisie, according to Mao, at the present stage is of great importance. Imperialism, a most ferocious enemy, is still standing alongside us. China’s modern industry still forms a very small proportion of the national economy.

To counter imperialist oppression and to raise her backward economy to a higher level, China must utilize all the factors of urban and rural capitalism that are beneficial and not harmful to that national economy and the people’s livelihood; and we must unite with the national bourgeoisie in common struggle. The fact that the national bourgeoisie stood in non antagonistic contradiction with the forces of revolution was in true Marxist fashion both theoretically sound and practically expedient.

In 1966 Mao shook China and drew the attention of the world by launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Masses of young students were organized into Red Guards and directed against much more established sectors of Chinese society including, in some measure at least, the Chinese Communist Party itself. Liu Shao-ch’i, whose authoritative statement of Mao we quoted earlier, was himself purged.

Mao was apparently disturbed by the growing influence of deviations from his teachings and therefore found it necessary to promote an extensive cultural transformation and political purge. The principal target of the Cultural Revolution was the handful of party persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road. These persons, according to the Maoists, stand in principal and antagonistic contradiction to the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers along with the revolutionary cadres and intellectuals. Attempting as always to maintain the distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions, the Red Guards were to completely discredit and overthrow the leadership element who represented bourgeois thinking, while using only reasoning and debate on that portion of the people who had been duped into following their lead. The evidence suggests that these subtle distinctions of theory broke down in practice and that Chinese society descended nearly to anarchy until the army was able to restore order.

At this writing it is impossible to come to a final judgment on Mao’s contribution to political theory and practice. In the Cultural Revolution, however, Mao has perhaps provided the history of political theory with the supreme test of his work. The Cultural Revolution seems designed to preserve Mao’s Chinese Marxist society from being overwhelmed by industrialization and consequent bureaucratization of life that has characterized the modern West and is increasingly characteristic of the Soviet Union as well. Enrica Collotti Pischel, writing before the proclamation of the Great Cultural Revolution, sharply points up Mao’s problem

From the peasant Wu Sung, who strangles a tiger with his hands because he is unarmed and does not want to be eaten, chosen as a symbol of the invincibility of the Chinese revolution, to the East wind that now prevails over the West wind, Mao has elaborated a whole series of themes whose effectiveness with the Chinese masses can scarcely be appreciated by a European. This Capacity for fertile and popular syntheses constitutes a fundamental instrument in the effort-to call forth and direct the revolution in China, and also, within certain limits, for carrying over part of the momentum of the revolution to the period of peace and building of socialism. But it is of less and less weight as the technical and objective problems of building socialism come to take precedence over armed revolutionary struggle. In a more complex society, less easily influenced by mere human factors, above all by the action of voluntarist and moral factors, Mao’s simplifications lose part of their effectiveness and may all too easily become the source of mechanical and dogmatic repetition, and of escape from the concrete and specific problems posed by the modern world.

It is too early to tell whether Mao was able with the Cultural Revolution to breathe new life into his doctrines and, thus, to establish for them a wider validity, or whether they will over time come to be seen only as a dated and peculiarly Chinese response to the problems of the industrializing world.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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