Whence Maoism? (Part 3: Marxism, Leninism… Maoism?)

In this, the final part of my initial public meditation on “Maoism”, I wish to discuss “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism”. It will be noted that throughout the “Whence Maoism?” pieces thusfar, I have placed “Maoism” and “Maoist” in quotation marks. The reason for this relates to the phenomenon of “MLM”: “Maoist” and “Maoism” are labels that have been used long prior to the emergence of a conscious theoretical effort to grant “Maoism” the status of a third and higher stage of revolutionary science, forged throughout the struggles within the RIM, and surviving after the latter’s effective demise as an evangelical trend within anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism (or, as they would have it, surviving as the only real anti-revisionist communist ideology). A particularly dogmatically anti-Mao Marxist-Leninist may use the term “Maoist” to deride others who are not, in the view of the “MLM” crowd, “proper Maoists”. Similarly, Trotskyites may refer to anti-revisionism as a whole as “Maoism”, just as they may refer to “Maoism” as “Stalinism [with Chinese characteristics]”.


With their document “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!” we see the RIM’s official “recognition of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as the new, third and higher stage of Marxism”, forcing other Marxist-Leninists, regardless of their views on Mao and the Chinese struggle, to formally declare that we do NOT view “Maoism” as a “third and higher stage”. Consequently, in their eyes, we become “dogmato-revisionists”. Of course, we are not “dogmatically anti-Che” for not holding that “Marxism-Leninism-Guevarism” is a “new, third, and higher stage of Marxism”, even if we do think Che is an inspiring figure and a great Marxist-Leninist. The parallels may seem odd to “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists”, for whom Mao is indeed a second Lenin, but in fact, many “Maoist” comrades (most?) continue to self-identify as “Marxist-Leninist”. We do not see this level of confusion over the division between Marxist-Leninists and so-called “Orthodox Marxists”, with whom we have so little common ground on the question of Lenin as to prevent debate from occurring in the first place. When “Maoists” ask what is really “new” in Bob Avakian’s famous “new synthesis”, we ought to ask what is really “new” in “Maoism”. To outsiders, “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists” appear, more than anything else, to be pointlessly sectarian. While dogmatic Hoxhaites are viewed as very sectarian by “Maoists”, we cannot say that any Hoxhaite organisation has ever defined revisionism negatively in terms of Enver Hoxha the way “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists” do with Mao.

We are told that Mao did indeed have unique theoretical insights which must be grasped in order to be a true communist (to not descend into “dogmato-revisionism”). What are these insights? The document “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!” emphasises several ideas which are often repeated by “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists”, the most frequently repeated of which seem to be “cultural revolution”, “the mass line”, and “people’s war”. If I am mistaken that these are the issues which separate “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” from “dogmato-revisionist” Marxism-Leninism, I invite comrades to correct me. However, based on this assumption, I will give my appraisal of these ideas in the order I have given them above.

Cultural Revolution

I have previously commented briefly on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It is a fact that it failed in its mission to defeat the revisionists. I do not mean this in the sense that Stalin’s purges failed to prevent revisionism in the Soviet Union. I mean it failed in the most immediate sense, while Mao was alive, to the point where he was forced to accept Deng as a power player even while Jiang Qing and others continued to insist (rightly) that he was a capitalist roader.

I do not intend to use this space to attack the cultural revolution in the way that Enver Hoxha did, insisting it was un-Marxist and so forth. Nor is there much point in noting that mistakes were made, as almost all “Maoists” would admit that (otherwise they would be hard-pressed to explain the above-noted failure). What is worth discussing, in my view, is why this particular revolutionary moment is not merely upheld, but held up above all others. “Maoists” would respond that it is important because it represented the masses taking power into their own hands.

But as “Maoists” know better than anyone, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was but one of Mao’s many mass campaigns. Mao’s “mass line” meant that such mass campaigns were a tremendous part of his practice, something which they frequently mention as a reason to uphold Mao. Why then the emphasis on the last one? Was it the most successful? One may argue to the contrary, that this was the mass campaign that led to Mao’s surrender, and the military stepping in per the wishes of Mao’s opponents, etc. “The mass line” is no longer practised in China thanks to the new order accepted by Mao as a result of the Cultural Revolution. By contrast, the Great Leap Forward, also much maligned by bourgeois historiography, can in many ways be counted as a success.

In short, was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution the most important moment in Chinese history, or merely the largest (but still ultimately unsuccessful) example of “the mass line”?

The Mass Line

I did not merely redirect the Cultural Revolution to the mass line in order to degrade Mao’s practice in this area. Marxism-Leninism has always been a radically democratic ideology, in spite of anarchists’ wilful misunderstanding of what the vanguard party means. The idea of “the mass line” comes out of a thorough and scientific investigation into the dialectical relationship between the vanguard party and the masses. It is the idea that the party must lead the masses not merely by standing one step ahead of them in the march towards victory, not merely by agitating among the masses to teach them the way forward, but by learning from the masses, so as to better teach them. One of Mao’s many succinct aphorisms explains the concept in terms I have always found sympathetic:

 “Communists should set an example in study; at all times they should be pupils of the masses as well as their teachers.

Of course, the issue is that this dialectical relationship was not first observed by Mao, he simply gave it the name “the mass line”. Stalin is quoted as saying:

Lenin taught us not only to teach the masses, but also to learn from them.

What does this mean?

It means, first, that we leaders must not become conceited; and we must understand that if we are members of the Central Committee or are People’s Commissars, this does not mean that we possess all the knowledge for giving correct leadership. An official position by itself does not provide knowledge and experience. This is still more the case in respect to a title.

This means, second, that our experience alone, the experience of leaders, is insufficient to give correct leadership; that, consequently, it is necessary that one’s experience, the experience of leaders, be supplemented by the experience of the masses, by the experience of the rank-and-file Party members, by the experience of the working class, by the experience of the people.

This means, third, that we must not for one moment weaken, and still less break, our connection with the masses.

This means, fourth, that we must pay careful attention to the voice of the masses, to the voice of the rank-and-file members of the Party, to the voice of the so-called “small men”, to the voice of the people.

And so forth.

Those familiar with the writings of Mao on practical work will note similarities without my having to point them out. This is not to attack Mao as an unoriginal thinker: It was Mao himself who emphasised “the mass line” was “the Marxist theory of knowledge” (and all Marxists ought to agree, if they understand dialectics), and “self-criticism” as a “Marxist-Leninist weapon”. Some “Maoists” take no issue with this, and on the contrary, embrace Stalin’s “mass line” approach. This leads to the question of Chairman Mao’s other commonly cited theoretical breakthrough: “the universality of people’s war”.

People’s War

In the first few paragraphs of the section of “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!” entitled “Mao Tsetung”, we are told that among Mao’s key contributions was “people’s war”. Indeed, long prior to the RIM, the popular view among many lay observers was that “people’s war” was the essence of Mao’s practice. Certainly Mao’s military strategy inspired many, and is defended by many non-“Maoists”. “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” declares “the universality of people’s war”.

What does this mean? Does this mean that peasant revolution is to be carried out everywhere? “Maoists” insist that it does not. And yet the truly fascinating and historically noteworthy feature of the Chinese Civil War (from the perspective of proletarian internationalists and bourgeois observers alike) was how the peasantry of a backwards country was mobilised to defeat a professional military backed by the imperialist powers. Otherwise, what is “Maoist” “people’s war”? Let us go to the source, and we will see that Mao does not argue for universalising the lessons of China, rather he views the call for revolutionary violence (when called for by the conditions) as “Marxist-Leninist”:

The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This Marxist-Leninist principle of revolution holds good universally, for China and for all other countries.

But while the principle remains the same, its application by the party of the proletariat finds expression in varying ways according to the varying conditions. Internally, capitalist countries practice bourgeois democracy (not feudalism) when they are not fascist or not at war; in their external relations, they are not oppressed by, but themselves oppress, other nations. Because of these characteristics, it is the task of the party of the proletariat in the capitalist countries to educate the workers and build up strength through a long period of legal struggle, and thus prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism. In these countries, the question is one of a long legal struggle, of utilizing parliament as a platform, of economic and political strikes, of organizing trade unions and educating the workers. There the form of organization is legal and the form of struggle bloodless (non-military). On the issue of war, the Communist Parties in the capitalist countries oppose the imperialist wars waged by their own countries; if such wars occur, the policy of these Parties is to bring about the defeat of the reactionary governments of their own countries. The one war they want to fight is the civil war for which they are preparing. But this insurrection and war should not be launched until the bourgeoisie becomes really helpless, until the majority of the proletariat are determined to rise in arms and fight, and until the rural masses are giving willing help to the proletariat. And when the time comes to launch such an insurrection and war, the first step will be to seize the cities, and then advance into the countryside’ and not the other way about. All this has been done by Communist Parties in capitalist countries, and it has been proved correct by the October Revolution in Russia.

If “Maoists” are not adventurists, and merely seek to avoid pacifism and eventually overthrow the bourgeois state, and they are not peasant-ists, if they are not, in a word, “Narodniks”, then according to Mao’s description, “people’s war” appears to be yet another case where “Maoist” packaging makes orthodox Marxism-Leninism look brand new, contrasted against the revisionism and opportunism of surrounding non-“Maoist” parties (and, it is worth noting, many such revisionist and opportunist parties themselves “uphold” Mao).

(If “Maoists” doubt that Mao’s military strategy is acceptable to non-“Maoist” Marxist-Leninists, that there is some fanatical commitment to some particular type of military strategy which precludes guerrilla warfare, etc., they should note the reception of Ho Chi Minh in even anti-“Maoist”, dogmatic Hoxhaite circles, and then should explain how Ho Chi Minh was not practising “people’s war”, by any definition.)

There is surely more to say about “Maoism”, and I hope that “Maoist” comrades (both “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” and self-identified Marxist-Leninists who have great sympathy for Chairman Mao) will, upon finishing reading my disorganised personal musings here, directly engage me in a critical fashion in the comments. Perhaps the result can be a more thorough conversation on elements of Mao’s theory and practice. But my conclusion remains, as it was, that Mao may have been a great revolutionary for a significant period, but specific adherence to his line to the exclusion of, for example, Enver Hoxha’s should not constitute a shibboleth between revolutionaries and revisionists.

Whence Maoism? (Part 2: China’s Revolution, the Three Worlds Theory, and Revisionism)

Inspired by the revolutionary success of Marxism-Leninism in the Russian empire, Chinese comrades formed a CP. Mao made a name for himself throughout the party’s history, rising up through its ranks due to his indisputably masterful strategy and tactics. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: Mao’s leadership toppled the fascist Chiang Kai-shek clique and brought the CPC to power. On this point, the “Maoists” focus on Mao is quite scientific: One should be interested in the ideas which, against all apparent odds, overturn the old order. This is the science of revolution, of which Mao and his experience certainly played a decisive role.

In its early years, the CPC formed the “left wing” of the KMT, the party which, at the time, was at the vanguard of revolutionary activity against the imperialist domination of China, which was aided by what “Maoists” famously call their “running dogs”, the comprador bourgeoisie and their lackeys.

J. Moufawad-Paul, whose blog is certainly one of the more interesting reads on the “Maoist” internet and who himself seems a very intelligent communist, summarises the role of the CPC in the KMT and declares that this teaches us that:

…entryism is not a very good tactic

It may well be that Mao himself agreed, in retrospect, with the idea that the CPC should’ve never “entered” the KMT, that it should have, without delay, launched a “people’s war” to turn China red. In other words, Sun Yat-sen should’ve been actively struggled against in the same way Chiang Kai-shek was. If this is indeed Mao’s view, it is a frightfully undialectical one. If Stalin was indeed mistaken in backing the CPC’s presence within the KMT (and consequently, backing the KMT), then Stalin should have declared Sun Yat-sen a “fascist”, the CPC should’ve waged active struggle against the KMT in spite of their tactical common interests against the imperialist threat, and of course, the civil war should’ve started years earlier, when the CPC was weaker and lacked the credibility it built up after years of honest effort in the struggle for national liberation within the KMT (with Sun Yat-sen’s blessing).

I hope to write an entry at a later time on “entryism” and how it is used and misused as a rhetorical device, but for now, it suffices to say that the CPC was a formidable force within the KMT in the years leading up to the Chinese Civil War. It gained strength through its legal operations which so impressed progressive nationalists like Sun Yat-sen that his wife Soong Ching-ling, sexistly known as Madame Sun Yat-sen, sided with the CPC when Chiang Kai-shek attempted to crush the communists after his fascist clique seized power. The legacy of the KMT for the CPC was certainly not all negative in the eyes of Mao, who continued to praise Sun Yat-sen as a revolutionary hero, and allowed non-fascist KMT elements to continue to operate legally in the PRC after its founding, where they remain to this day.

At this juncture, readers will forgive the implication that they have not read Comrade Stalin, or that they are no better than the anarchists against whom he was struggling:

Today we are demanding a democratic republic. Can we say that a democratic republic is good in all respects, or bad in all respects? No we cannot! Why? Because a democratic republic is good only in one respect: when it destroys the feudal system; but it is bad in another respect: when it strengthens the bourgeois system. Hence we say: in so far as the democratic republic destroys the feudal system it is good — and we fight for it; but in so far as it strengthens the bourgeois system it is bad — and we fight against it.

So the same democratic republic can be “good” and “bad” at the same time — it is “yes” and “no.”

The same thing may be said about the eight-hour day, which is good and bad at the same time: “good” in so far as it strengthens the proletariat, and “bad” in so far as it strengthens the wage system.

It was facts of this kind that Engels had in mind when he characterised the dialectical method in the words we quoted above.

Things being always in motion, the KMT itself did change, and when this happened, Mao did indeed respond excellently, launching immediate guerrilla warfare, taking advantage of the poverty of the peasants, their considerable numbers, and the geographic advantages a peasant-based strategy represented to encircle the fascists. Mao’s actions were ingenious and heroic, and were exactly the response called for at the time.

A few years after the declaration of the People’s Republic, Comrade Stalin died, opening a new chapter in communist history. With Khrushchev’s rise to power, the dictatorship of the proletariat was declared obsolete, and the foundations for a profit-based economy were laid again. These changes were recognised by the Chinese and Albanian parties as “modern revisionism”, and the two countries became firm allies for a long period based on their shared commitment to upholding a strong Marxist-Leninist line.

Best friends forever!

While in Albania, the party continued for decades to develop and put into practice Marxism-Leninism based on the blueprint provided by Comrade Stalin, in China, the path was different, and by design (something Maoists and Hoxhaites can agree on, the disagreement being whether this was a boldly independent and creative Marxist difference or a deviationist difference of some kind).

In private, Enver Hoxha was concerned about the gulf between China and Albania, but in public, he spent years heaping praise on Mao and China, something which has not gone unnoticed by the “Maoists”. But these disagreements were indeed there early. Chairman Mao flirted with Tito whilst condemning Khrushchev, an act which, even if excusable in the mind of the reader, certainly displays a massive gulf between Enver Hoxha and Chairman Mao, as the former bordered on fanaticism in his attacks on “the Titoites” (although it must also be mentioned that Mao publicly compared Tito to Bernstein, it seems that a different stance on who is a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist and who is a revisionist scoundrel depending on time and place was not a monopoly of the Albanian party).

In his fight with modern revisionism, Mao rightly concerned himself with enemies at home as well as abroad. In the process, we begin to see take shape the beginnings of a distinct “Maoist” approach. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which included attacks on the “capitalist roaders” within the party, copies of the so-called “Little Red Book” (properly: Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) were the text consulted by young revolutionaries in China, and Mao was in effect the interpreter of Marxism-Leninism (laying the foundations for the later emergence of an ideology of “Maoism” proper, as distinct from Marxism-Leninism). The text itself was compiled by the People’s Liberation Army, then under the leadership of Lin Biao, prior to his falling out with Mao).

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, for its part, failed, and most self-declared “Maoists” today declare the People’s Republic of China to be “revisionist”. Many “Maoists” blame Deng Xiaoping for the current state of affairs, and view him as something of a Khrushchev to Mao’s Stalin. This may all well be true, but Mao Zedong himself seemed to have accepted this state of affairs by the end in a way that Stalin is not accused of doing, along with the “Three Worlds Theory”, a part of “Maoist” history that is not merely an incident, like so many in the history of Marxism-Leninism that can be brushed aside, but a theoretical point which led to differing interpretations of the core concepts of imperialism and social imperialism among various “Maoist” groups for years to come.

Assuming good faith with regard to Mao but an objective stance not based on attempting to find excuses for his line, I would draw two main conclusions from the internal experience of Mao’s China:

  1. Mao Zedong was a genuine struggler for socialism and against modern revisionism for some period, even if he seems to have surrendered near the end.
  2. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, whatever its merits or shortcomings, had a similar effect to Stalin’s purges: It held back but could not prevent the victory of revisionism. China under Mao was no more successful in establishing an unshakable new socialist society than Albania or the Soviet Union, “losing its way” after “the great leader” passed on.

If true, the former point forces us to look at Mao as slightly less of an exemplary figure than Lenin or Stalin, much to the disappointment of our “Maoist” comrades. However, this would not necessarily make Mao the counter-revolutionary anti-Marxist that Enver Hoxha painted him as after the Sino-Albanian split. After all, we must consider Mao and China not only as internal phenomena to be abstractly held up against the yardstick of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Enver Hoxha’s Albania, but in the correct context of the world revolution.

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.