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Maoism (毛澤東思想; pinyin: Máo Zédōng Sīxiǎng, lit. "Mao Ze Dong's thoughts") is a particular brand of Marxism/Leninism developed (though not named) by Mao Zedong, leader of China's early post-revolution era. Its most distinguishing features within Marxist theory are the central roles assigned to the peasant class during socialist revolutions, to an armed vanguard of the peasant class, and to anti-colonial rebellion and nationalism driving revolution on a world scale. In practice, it became whatever-the-Chinese-government-says-it-is, accompanied by a cult of personality. China's decidedly un-revolutionary international stance and establishment of a state-capitalist economy left Maoist movements orphaned and searching for a new guiding light for the international revolution. Various figures from the post-Mao era have been shoehorned into that role, although there is no consensus among Maoists on who is the true keeper of Mao's flame.
Maoism was firmly based on Marxist theory and influenced by other communist movements, such as the Stalin-era Soviet Union. However, its practical implications, shaped by China's specific economic and social make-up and needs in the mid-twentieth century, are much less universalist than Marxist orthodoxy. The most distinguishing features of Maoism within Marxist ideology are the central role assigned to the peasant class and a peasant-based guerrilla army in revolutionary strategy. Like Stalin before him, Mao favored a fusion of Marxism with nationalism, which separated Mao's Marxist practice from the more traditionally internationalist Communist theory. One of his notable quotes from Quotations from Chairman Mao is, "Can a Communist, who is also an inter-nationalist, and at the same time be a patriot? We hold not only that he can be but must be." The Maoist emphasis on peasant rebellion and nationalism gained Maoism some currency during the period of Third World anti-colonial rebellion that followed World War II. Shifting factional alignments in China's power structure during the Cultural Revolution presented a chaotic picture to Maoists internationally, leaving little theoretical framework for defining contemporary Maoism other than the cultlike following of pronouncements of the Great Leader.
Marxist theory had envisioned socialist revolutions occurring in highly industrialized societies with a powerful industrial working class, or proletariat. In the actual event, revolutions occurred in less-developed societies where both the proletariat and the state apparatus were weak. The Marxist movement initially conceived of a two-stage revolutionary process in agrarian societies. The first phase would be a bourgeois-democratic phase that would overthrow the remaining feudal structures and lay the foundation for the growth of the proletariat until it could seize state power. The Bolsheviks in Russia essentially rolled the two stages into one, forming a revolutionary coalition based on the urban proletariat and the peasant class. The Chinese proletariat was even smaller than in Russia, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) found itself isolated from the proletarian base in China's coastal urban areas. Accordingly, Mao developed the doctrine that a small vanguard party could lead a socialist revolution with armed insurgency based on the peasant class.
Founded in 1921, the CCP initially adopted the two-stage strategy, acting within the Nationalist Kuomintang movement to end feudal land ownership. Chiang Kai-shek, who became the leader of the Kuomintang in 1925, was not interested in land reform; he was mainly interested in eliminating rival warlords, and the Kuomintang became increasingly divided over the pursuit of land reform and support of peasant rebellions. After a successful expedition of the Kuomintang to eliminate opposing warlords in the north, Chiang expelled the CCP from the Kuomintang and killed many of their cadres in Shanghai and other cities that constituted their base. The CCP responded by leading uprisings directed at overthrowing Chiang, opening the first phase (1927-1937) of the Chinese Civil War. Mao led the Autumn Harvest Uprising, distinguished from the others by the central role of peasants, and fostered the notion that the peasant class would be central to revolutionary strategy. After the initial rebellions, the CCP's scattered forces coalesced in southern China's Jianxi and Fujian provinces, enabling the Soviet Republic to be founded in November 1931. The Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet could not hold territory against the Kuomintang, precipitating the Long March (retreat) of 1934/35. The Long March saw the ranks of the revolutionary forces decimated and power eventually consolidated under Mao and Zhou Enlai in the remote area of Yan'an in Shaanxi province, which would serve as the CCP's redoubt during the second Sino-Japanese war. CCP officials lived in close contact with the local peasants. They had to rely on them as their only available source of support, furthering Mao's doctrine that emphasized this class as the driving force of the Communist revolution in China. The CCP proved remarkably adept at mobilizing the rural populace and managed to assemble a large force of soldiers trained in guerrilla tactics, an asset that would be critical during the second and final stage of the Civil War (1946-49).
The Maoist doctrine of peasant-supported armed insurgency accounted for the survival of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) during the First Civil War, but not the final overthrow of the Kuomintang. During the First Civil War, the Kuomintang was weakened by the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, and Mao's PLA was able to establish its western redoubt. The First Civil War was ended by expanding Japanese occupation in 1937; Soviet leadership sought to bolster their anti-Japanese alliance with the Kuomintang and brokered a truce between the PLA and the Kuomintang, at the same time hedging their bets on the future direction of Chinese politics. The climactic phase of the war with Japan, corruption within the Kuomintang, and dysfunction in the relationship between the Kuomintang and their western supporters resulted in a state of military and economic crisis by the end of the war. The Kuomintang forces were weakened by combat losses and economically-forced demobilization amounting to about two-thirds of their strength, leaving them unable to have much effect in expelling the Japanese troops. A postwar shift of Soviet support to the PLA, driven by the onset of the Cold War and conflicts with the Kuomintang over Mongolia, became pivotal in the Second Civil War (1946-1949). After the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Army by the Soviet Red Army in Manchuria, the PLA gained free passage into the formerly Japanese-held areas and a trove of equipment and supplies euphemistically abandoned by the Red Army as it withdrew. As a result, the balance of forces was dramatically shifted in favor of the PLA. The advantages gained from hand-me-down Soviet equipment proved decisive in the final battles of the Civil War, in which armor and artillery played a prominent role. The Kuomintang's anti-Communist alliances with warlords were disastrous, often leading to defections to the Communist side. The PLA's taxation program with which they financed themselves in the newly-gained territory was simple: confiscate the holdings of the wealthy.
Maoism gains influence, loses coherence, and declines after the Chinese Revolution
Apart from its reliance on the peasantry, the most critical part of "Mao Zedong Thought" (as it is officially known) is the idea that even after the creation of the socialist state, there will always be "capitalist restorationist elements" that must be dealt with. This is expressed in the idea of "contradictions". Every stage of development has internal contradictions that must be overcome for the next stage to come around. Hence, Maoism emphasized the need for constant revolution and regular purges. This thought can be seen as the intellectual precursor of the Great Cultural Revolution (文化大革命; Wénhuà Dàgémìng) of the late 1960s, which attempted to abolish the "feudalist" structures inherent in traditional Chinese culture and quickly turned into a chaotic free-for-all that brought the country to the brink of another civil war.
Internationally, power politics combined with doctrinal differences would prompt the breakup of the alliance between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's international stance was based on realpolitik, developing arrangements between Communists and non-Communist "progressives." After initially espousing a similar position in his speech, On the People's Democratic Dictatorship in 1949, Mao eschewed all such economic and political engagement between Communists and non-Communists, ultimately denouncing the USSR as just another imperialist power and seeking to promote his own brand of Communist revolution throughout the Third World. Moscow-line and Maoist Communist movements opposed each other bitterly.
The Sino-Soviet split left China badly isolated, hostile toward both superpowers, and without an industrialized patron to aid its development. In the late 1950s, Mao pursued a massive program of agricultural collectivization and industrial development called the "Great Leap Forward" (大躍進; pinyin: Dà yuè jìn). This project was doing well at first but failed due to Mao's diversion of the agricultural workforce to steel production, using crude backyard smelters on rural collectives. Most of the "steel" produced by that method was unusable, and agricultural output dropped, triggering an unprecedented famine that claimed about 45 million. Mao's own attitude towards the catastrophe facing China's population was indifference; if the Communist Party cadres had been required to make sacrifices for the revolution during the civil war, so could the peasants make sacrifices for industrialization.
Faced with continued isolation and the disastrous results of the Great Leap Forward, Mao quietly retreated from his most rigid purism and adopted the realpolitik practices he had denounced the Soviet Union over. China forged relationships with capitalist states to curb the influence of the Soviet Union. The first such move was with Pakistan against the Soviet-Indian alliance. China backed Pakistan in the Second Kashmir War of 1965 and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The second was rapprochement with the United States. China's international realpolitik reached its most cynical depths in the aftermath of the American wars in Indochina, when China used the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia as a proxy force against Soviet-aligned Vietnam, then launched an abortive invasion of Vietnam on behalf of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
While Mao retreated from being a purist revolutionary advocate to a more conventional player in the international power game during the 1960s, he and his sycophant Lin Biao fostered a cult of personality with the "little red books" of quotations from Mao. The Cultural Revolution saw Maoism morph from a body of thought that sought to justify itself in terms of dialectical materialism to cultlike "Mao Zedong Thought" that championed "purity of thought," i.e., suspension of individual critical faculties, and "revolutionary spirit," aka fanaticism. The emphasis on "revolutionary spirit" ironically echoed the quasi-mystical Nazi emphasis on "will,]" but it had a simple-minded appeal for "Marxists" who were more about the radical chic of following the Great Leader than actually understanding what they were doing. Simple-minded sloganeering and a cult of personality in place of tempered analysis would become the hallmark of Maoist groups such as the Revolutionary Communist Party (US). During the Cultural Revolution, the chaos within the Chinese power structure caused doctrinal crises within Maoist movements worldwide, especially with the retreat signified by the rehabilitation of purged figures whose abilities were needed to keep the Chinese government functioning. After cheerleading for the Cultural Revolution, the Progressive Labor Party denounced the CCP as "revisionist" in 1971. China's cool stance towards the Vietnamese Revolution was another source of doctrinal contortions among Maoists.
However, Maoism gained supporters among anti-imperialists in the less-developed nations and radical elements of the New Left. The heyday of Maoism in the West was during the late 1960s. Radical chic led American student radicals to adopt the Maoism promoted by the Black Panther Party, and Maoist factions vied for control of Students for a Democratic Society. The Beatles song Revolution was a polemic directed toward Maoist radical chic in Britain. The aftermath of the 1968 upheavals in Europe saw interest in Maoism rise at the expense of the Moscow-line Communist Party, which in the eyes of many leftists was responsible for squandering an opportunity for a revolution in France.
After the Maoism fad that engulfed SDS, multiple axes of tension, mostly involving clashes between Maoists and the various New Left tendencies attempting to coexist under one umbrella, caused the movement to splinter. The 1969 breakup of SDS was only the beginning of splits, and sectarian battles among Maoists, who were undergoing ideological whiplash as the Cultural Revolution descended into chaos and the Chinese leadership showed ideological incoherence, worship of "Mao Zedong Thought" notwithstanding. During the early 1970s, the ranks of American Maoists were soon winnowed to the true crazies, with various Maoist splinter groups spitting sectarian venom at each other and anyone else they saw as a threat to their One True Way. American Maoists developed the doctrine that the lumpenproletariat could become the most revolutionary sector of society and mounted efforts to recruit from prisons. Some splinter groups such as the Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Union/RCP came to resemble cults with newspapers. Others, such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, were violent underground groups. In western Europe and Japan, violent Maoists made the American ones look like amateurs. The German Baader-Meinhof Group and the Japanese Red Army maintained high-profile public terror campaigns, including bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and (in the case of the JRA) hijackings and one mass shooting.
The doctrine of Third World armed peasant uprising morphed in practice into violent subjugation of peasants by Maoist vanguard movements. The most successful Maoist insurgency since 1949 was mounted by the Khmer Rouge, who capitalized on the collapse of the Cambodian state in the aftermath of the US intervention to seize power in 1975, then ruled with the support of China and the US as a political counterforce to Soviet-aligned Vietnam. The Pol Pot regime ended when, after launching attacks against Vietnam, it was defeated by Vietnam in 1978. The years under Pol Pot were a time of bloody terror, mass enslavement, and deliberate mass starvation under possibly the most brutal regime the world has seen in modern times. The brutality of the Pol Pot regime and of the Great Leap Forward in China is high on the list of things Maoists don't want to talk about. Other Third World Maoist sects have attempted to mount armed insurgencies, none of which have brought an armed peasant revolution to fruition. Some, such as FARC in Colombia, transitioned to legal status under negotiated settlements. Most, such as the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru, were utterly defeated. See the Wikipedia article on Internal conflict in Peru.
After Mao died in 1976, while maintaining a Leninist party-state apparatus centered on the Chinese Communist Party and keeping Mao as a national icon, the Chinese government has quietly buried Maoism as far as possible, putting the Chinese economy on a capitalist footing. The CCP asserted its position as the sole channel for political organization in suppressing the Tienanmen Square uprising of 1989 while quietly dismantling some social and educational structures and policies held over from the Cultural Revolution that had been sources of grievance. The post-Mao political changes in China can be summarized as 1) greater legal constraints on individual power within the ruling bureaucracy, replacing the "strongman" rule of the Mao era with legally-modulated, more technocratic authority, and 2) retreat regarding the scope of the personal sphere in which bureaucratic authority asserts itself, increasing personal freedom in non-political realms (the One-child policy of 1979-2015 standing as a salient counterexample).
However, Maoist ideology continues to have some adherents outside of China. During 2008 and 2009, the ruling party in Nepal was Maoist, and there are Maoist rebels in the Philippines, India, and Turkey. Besides a brief period surrounding the rebellion that toppled the Nepalese monarchy, Maoist sects have consistently failed to gain popular support. As late as 2008, a small outfit called the "Maoist Internationalist Movement" put out a really obnoxious newspaper that it would leave around universities. The Revolutionary Communist Party (US) raised its head during protests over the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA, with their white cadres attempting to foment full-blown race riots that they saw as furthering their cause.
Naxalism is the most influential modern militant Maoist movement, one that started in 1967 and continues, though now largely abated, to this day. Naxalism derives its name from Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal, India, where a group of landless and impoverished peasants rebelled against the landlords exploiting them. When the police came to arrest the movement's leaders, the peasant radicals ambushed them. The movement gained ground, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) supported it. However, when the CPI (M) actually came to power, they softened their stance and refused to confiscate the landowners' property.
Disillusioned, a radical faction of the CPI (M) formed in 1969 a new and dedicatedly militant group, the CPI (ML) (Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)), which was inspired not by the Leftist intellectuals of contemporary India but by the struggle of Mao Zedong. Since then, the movement has turned into an all-out war against the Indian state and has spread out into Nepal. However, after the death of Lin Biao in China, the party split into at least 20 parties over the next few years. There are two dozen or more Maoist parties, some of them in electoral politics, some of them in war. (This only starts to scratch the immense number of Communist parties in India) A partial list is:
1. Communist League of India (Marxist-Leninist)
2. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Bolshevik
3. Provisional Central Committee, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
4. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Naxalbari
5. Communist Party of Indian Union (Marxist-Leninist)
6. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Flag
7. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star
8. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation
9. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Unity Initiative
10. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) New Initiative
11. Communist Organization of India (Marxist-Leninist)
12. Central Organizing Committee, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
The Communist Party of India (Maoist), formed in September 2004, leads the protracted "people's war." It is believed to have 9-11,000 armed fighters and many more tribal eiders. Its revenue is estimated at 1.5 to 2.5 billion rupees from extortion, abduction, and revolutionary tax (euphemism for protection money). Since 2009, the Indian government has captured or killed thousands of Maoists. Since 2015, hundreds of Maoists have surrendered. CPI(M) has been accused of corruption, child soldiers, and abuse of cadres by leaders. Upto 40-50% of the cadres are women. Even though Naxals claim to be pro-tribals, they have committed crimes against the tribals.
In 1994, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) was formed from a split in the Communist Party of Nepal (United Centre). In 1996, a decade-long civil war broke out in Nepal between the king and the Maoist rebels. The king was notably backed by US and UK. In 2006, after a general strike and massive protests, the king stepped down. Recognition of the Maoist organization as a terrorist group was withdrawn. They joined mainstream politics and, in 2018, merged with the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), which opposed the Maoists. They now rule Nepal with a big majority in Parliament. However, some Maoists try to continue the civil war as a part of the Communist Party of Nepal. CPN claimed responsibility for blowing up a telecom tower in early 2019.
Since 1969, the coalition of the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People's Army, and National Democratic Front has been waging a guerilla war against the government. Till the death of Mao in 1976, China funded the rebellion. In the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnam and Libya supported the rebellion. They sent representatives worldwide to get financial and moral support from communist organizations worldwide. 43,000 people died in the rebellion. Up to 13 parties have split from the rebels. In 2016 and 2017, attempts were made for a truce, which collapsed.
The International Communist Movement: Gonzalo-Maoism rules the future!
In 2018, the International Communist Movement published a manifesto titled, In defence of the life of Chairman Gonzalo, hoist higher the flag of Maoism!, stating that the One True Way for communists is to follow the diktats laid out by the imprisoned leader of the Shining Path movement in Peru, Abimael Guzman ("Chairman Gonzalo"). The document recounts the various setbacks, befuddlements, and factional struggles of the Maoist Revolutionary International Movement and bemoans the rise of "revisionism" (including American Maoist guru and Shining Path fanboy Bob Avakian's "New Synthesis") as the cause of the worldwide defeat of Maoism. But have hope, Maoists! Once we "impose Maoism as the sole command and guide of the Proletarian World Revolution", a wave of proletarian revolution will sweep the world! The manifesto is signed by various splinter groups concentrated in Latin America (including, apparently, the defeated remnants of insurgencies in Peru and Colombia) and scattered groups in Europe and the USA. American Gonzalo-Maoists are represented by "US Red Guards." The title of the American branch is strangely appropriate, as they use the same tactics their namesake gangs of goons did during the Cultural Revolution, physically attacking those they deem ideologically impure. In October 2019, the Red Guards disrupted a conference led by Democratic Socialists of America in Kansas City, putting one elderly man in the hospital for a head injury. In January 2020, the Red Guards disrupted a DSA event in support of the campaign of Bernie Sanders in Austin, TX, then assaulted organizer and Congressional candidate Heidi Sloan. Such tactics have led the Party of Socialism and Liberation to speculate that the Red Guards are agents provocateurs. Maybe, or maybe they're just Maoists using the same tactics as did the Progressive Labor Party in 1971.
- Chinese Civil War
- Enver Hoxha
- Khmer Rouge
- Maoist Internationalist Movement
- Maoist Rebel News
- Mao Zedong
- North Korea
- Pol Pot
- Shining Path
- Stalin apologetics
- Tiananmen Square Massacre
- Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company, 2010. p. 333. ISBN 0-8027-7768-6
- Maoist Internationalist Movement, MIM(Prisons) website.
- See the Wikipedia article on Communist Party of India (Maoist).
- See the Wikipedia article on Communist rebellion in the Philippines.