Whence Maoism? (Part 1: Why China?)

In 1977, the Progressive Labor Party published a piece entitled “Whither Maoism?”, in which they provided a short analysis of various pro-Mao parties’ responses to Deng Xiaoping’s consolidation of power in the PRC. “Maoism”, it seemed, was no longer a revolutionary current in any meaningful sense, but an assortment of punchlines for a dark joke about what had gone wrong in China. The irrelevance of the “Maoists”, it seemed, was now assured.

Decades have since passed, and one must say that whether one considers oneself a “Maoist” or not, whichever definition of “Maoism” one uses, “Maoism” remains one of the most important trends in Marxism. In a series of posts, I will try to explain the longevity of “Maoism”, and in the process, evaluate the positive and negative qualities of “Maoism” in its various forms.

The East Is Red

Even prior to the Sino-Soviet split, two important elements of the later cult of Mao were already recognised in some form: Firstly, China was (and remains) an enormous country of tremendous historical and cultural importance in both “East” and “West”. No matter who had been at the head of the Communist Party of China, the world would have been watching. Secondly, Mao was recognised to have been a brilliant leader whose tactical line was decisive in the victory against the fascist Chiang Kai-Shek clique, humiliating the right wing of the KMT and forcing them to retreat to Taiwan.

In this post, it is the first element I wish to emphasise, as it is often overlooked by “Maoists” themselves. China gained the attention of the international communist movement at a time when there were no “Maoists”, at a time when almost all communists (except the Trotskyites, the Titoites, and some smaller irrelevant trends) were more or less united. Paul Robeson performed his rendition of the new anthem of the People’s Republic of China in celebration:

Why did Robeson not provide us with recordings of the national anthems of Poland, the DPRK, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, or Hungary, from the same period? The victory in China was viewed as greater because the stakes were higher: Bigger country, bigger history, bigger population, bigger influence. Of course, one could argue that the Russian Empire was similarly impossible to ignore for reasons of scale, but there is a key difference: Prior to the October Revolution, there were no successful Marxist revolutions. The October Revolution heralded a new era, of which the 1949 Revolution was a part. One of the biggest parts, but a part. The later revolutionary experience in China may have been significant in its own right, but China was where people, and communists in particular, already wanted to be looking.

It was likely for this reason that the Soviet–Albanian split did not capture the attention of the international communist movement as the Sino-Soviet split did. Both the Chinese and the Albanians were harsh critics of the Khrushchev clique (by many accounts, the Albanians were harsher, for reasons that may have been related to Yugoslavia, a point which I will return to in later parts), but Albania was a small country, and China was a big one. At this point, there was no Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but huge numbers of anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists threw their lot in with China specifically, not merely against Khrushchevite revisionism. This may have also played a role, perhaps one as great as the actual attachment to Mao that many parties had at the time, in the reluctance to embrace Albania as the new “saviour” of anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism at the time of the Sino-Albanian split.

Accepting that Mao was already in an ideal position to capture the attention of the international communist movement on the grounds that China had the attention of the international communist movement, the next part will focus on the dynamics of the Chinese revolutionary experience itself, its struggle with revisionism, its success, and its failures.


6 thoughts on “Whence Maoism? (Part 1: Why China?)

  1. “Why did Robeson not provide us with recordings of the national anthems of Poland, the DPRK, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, or Hungary, from the same period? The victory in China was viewed as greater because the stakes were higher: Bigger country, bigger history, bigger population, bigger influence.”

    Another major factor in the longevity of “Maoism” (related to China’s geography) is race. Mao is the first non-white, non-European self-proclaimed Marxist of world-historic importance. Marxism has always had an old white bearded man problem in the sense that its major theorists/practitioners were old white bearded men.

    Mao destroyed that stereotype once and for all.

    I suspect Mao’s non-whiteness is a major reason why radicals of color have gravitated to Mao’s Marxism long after the events of 1949, from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to various “Maoist” sects today. After WW2, anti-colonial struggles swept the globe and the 1949 revolution was probably the single most important episode in that wave since the Chinese communists came to power not only against the will of the capitalist ‘West’ but also of the communist ‘East’ i.e. without Stalin’s active support or even permission. This dual independence I think is a major reason that radicals of color involved in the civil rights/Black Power struggle like Malcolm X often came to admire the Chinese revolution (and later the Cuban revolution); they came, through their own struggles, to strongly identify with the struggles of non-European/non-white peoples for independence and self-determination and, at the same time, looked askance at the old bankrupt predominantly white left/Marxist/pro-Moscow organizations like CP USA who played little or no role (positive or negative) in the struggles they were involved in. The Chinese revolution of 1949 in the person of Mao served as the cypher for both these aspects of that lived experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed, but conversely, many Maoists and non-Maoists ignore Thomas Sankara who played an exemplary role against much greater odds. And this can’t merely be blamed on the fact that he met with a tragic end: Allende is frequently brought up in conversation among Marxists who never discuss Sankara.

      For your mention of CPUSA, I certainly understand why anyone would choose Mao over the revisionists.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not excusing people who mention Allende and not Sankara, but as an American I’m much more familiar with struggles in Chile (and the U.S. government’s role in squashing them) than I am with Burkina Faso. I don’t even know what language they speak in Burkina Faso whereas in Chile I know they speak Spanish and so it’s a little easier to follow and figure out what’s going on there. I would imagine that if I were a Marxist based in South Africa or Uganada, the reverse would be true and I would be more familiar with Sankara than Allende.

        Liked by 1 person

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