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Mao Zedong
from The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World


By all reasonable standards of historical judgment, Mao Zedong must be counted among the half-dozen most important political actors in modern world history. Mao was the acknowledged leader of the greatest and most popular of modern revolutions. And almost unique among revolutionary leaders, he remained the dominant figure in the postrevolutionary regime for more than a quarter of a century, presiding over the beginnings of the modern industrial transformation of the world's most populous land. Certainly no one influenced more profoundly, for better or for worse, the lives of more people than did Mao Zedong by virtue of his person, his power, his policies, and his thought.

The son of a rich peasant, Mao Zedong was born in the village of Shaoshan in Hunan province on 26 December 1893. During his early years, the old imperial Chinese order was rapidly disintegrating, radical reformist and revolutionary movements were rising, and newly introduced Western ideas and ideologies were undermining faith in traditional values and beliefs. Although the young Mao became well versed in classical Chinese texts and retained a strong attachment to certain aspects of tradition (especially historical novels and poetry), he soon became caught up in the radical political and iconoclastic intellectual currents that swept Chinese cities in the years preceding and following the Revolution of 1911 that overthrew the imperial system. As a student at the middle and normal schools in the provincial capital of Changsha during the years 1913–1918, Mao eagerly assimilated a broad range of Western ideas, briefly pursued a career as a teacher, and embarked upon his lifelong career as a political organizer, establishing the "New People's Study Society", one of the more important of the local groups that were to prove so politically and ideologically instrumental in the making of the radical May Fourth Movement of 1919. In Changsha, Mao became involved with New Youth magazine, that extraordinarily influential westernizing and iconoclastic journal of the new intelligentsia that molded the ideas of a whole generation of modern Chinese political and intellectual leaders. It was in New Youth that Mao's first published article appeared in 1917, A Study of Physical Culture, which combined an ardent Chinese nationalism with a no less ardent rejection of traditional Chinese culture—in this instance an attack on the Confucian separation between mental and manual labor. It was a uniquely modern Chinese combination of nationalism and cultural iconoclasm that very much reflected the radical spirit of the times and one that was to remain a prominent feature of the Maoist vision.

In late 1918, Mao Zedong left Changsha for Beijing. Beijing University had then become the center of radical Chinese intellectual and political life. Under the influence of radical intellectuals and their activist student followers, Mao became increasingly politicized. Even though he was unable to enroll as a regular student, he worked as an assistant librarian at the university and was first introduced to Marxist theory in the winter of 1918–19 as a member of a loosely organized Marxist study group. But Mao did not become an immediate convert to Marxism. He later described his ideas at the time as a "curious mixture" of Western liberalism, democratic reformism, and utopian socialism or anarchism. It was only after his return to Changsha in the summer of 1919, under the influence of the increasingly radical and fiercely nationalistic currents then rising in China, that Mao began to be attracted to the political message of the Russian Revolution and its accompanying Leninist version of Marxism.

Yet Marxian influences are by no means apparent in Mao's prolific writings and frenetic political activities during the winter of 1919–20. Rather, what is most clearly evident is a powerful populist strain that celebrates the organic unity and inherent revolutionary potential of the Chinese people. Also celebrated, again in typically populist fashion, was a belief in the advantages of backwardness. Although the Chinese people had been oppressed and made impotent for "thousands of years," Mao wrote in his main treatise of the period entitled The Great Union of the Popular Masses, this historic backwardness promised great political advantages for the future—for, as he confidently put it, "that which has accumulated for a long time will surely burst forth quickly." These populist-type beliefs were to remain enduring characteristics of the Maoist mentality, profoundly influencing Mao's reception and reinterpretation of Marxism.

Mao Zedong's actual conversion to Marxism, according to his own testimony, occurred only in the summer of 1920, following discussions with one of his political mentors in Shanghai. He then plunged into organizational activities, working to establish a labor union for miners in his native province of Hunan and organizing a small Communist group in Changsha, one of several such local groups in various parts of the country (and among Chinese students studying abroad) which coalesced into the Chinese Communist Party. Mao was one of the thirteen delegates who attended the party's founding congress, secretly convened in Shanghai in July 1921.

During the first, urban-based phase of the party's history (1921–1927), and especially during the period of the Soviet-fashioned Communist-Nationalist anti-warlord alliance (1924–1927), Mao's populist proclivities increasingly drew him from the cities to the countryside—and from the proletariat to the peasantry. Mao was not the only, nor the first, Chinese Communist to discover the revolutionary potentialities of the peasantry, but he did of course prove to be the most important. During the years 1925–1927, he devoted the greater portion of his prodigious energies to detailed investigations of rural socioeconomic conditions, to the organization of peasant associations, and (under Nationalist auspices) to the training of a peasant organizational cadre. Mao's populist impulses found their fullest expression near the end of this period in his famous Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, published early in 1927. Here, in what is perhaps the most pristine expression of what later came to be known as "Maoism," the young Mao celebrated the spontaneity of peasant revolt, an elemental force that he described as a tornado and a hurricane, one "so extraordinarily swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it." Mao not only looked to the peasantry as the popular base of the Chinese Revolution; he also attributed to peasants themselves all those elements of revolutionary creativity and standards of political judgment that orthodox Marxist-Leninists reserved for the Communist Party. For Mao, it was not the party that was to judge the revolutionary capacities of the peasantry, but rather peasants who were to judge the revolutionary sufficiency of the party. Throughout, the document emphasized, in most non-Leninist fashion, the creative revolutionary works that the peasants were accomplishing on their own and expressed hostility to all external organizational restraints.

The "Hunan Report," so heretical from an orthodox Marxist-Leninist point of view, no doubt would have earned Mao his expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party had it not been for the collapse of the Communist-Nationalist alliance just weeks after the publication of the document. It was in early April 1927 that Chiang Kai-shek turned his army to the task of destroying the Communists and their urban-based mass organizations. The relatively few Communists who survived the counterrevolutionary carnage were driven from the cities and sought refuge in the more remote areas of the countryside. The tie between the Communist Party and the urban working class was severed and was to remain broken until 1949. The confinement of the revolution to the rural areas was the essential condition that permitted Mao's political ascendancy in the Communist Party and the emergence of "Maoism" as the dominant Chinese version of Marxism.

The rise of Mao Zedong to party leadership in the mid-1930s was accomplished only after a long and bitter struggle against a Moscow-supported faction of Chinese Communists—and in direct defiance of Stalin. During the entire Stalinist era of the world Communist movement, Mao was the only leader of a Communist party to achieve leadership without the blessings of the Soviet dictator. The Chinese party's de facto independence of Moscow sowed one of the seeds of the later Sino-Soviet dispute. The Yanan era (1935–1945)—so called after the area in remote northwest China where the Communists established a base area to escape annihilation by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces—was the heroic and decisive phase in the history of the Chinese Communist revolution—and it was undoubtedly Mao's finest hour as a revolutionary leader and military strategist. Under Mao's leadership and through a combination of popular nationalist and social revolutionary programs, the Chinese Communists won enormous popular support, especially among the peasantry of north China, the essential basis for their eventual victory over the Nationalists. During the Yanan era the distinctive Chinese variant of Marxism-Leninism (canonized as "Mao Zedong Thought") crystallized as a formal body of doctrine. It was an ideology marked by powerful nationalist, populist, and voluntaristic impulses that greatly modified the inherited corpus of Marxist-Leninist theory. Indeed, "Maoism" implicitly defined itself, in large measure, by its departures from the main premises of Marxist theory. It was a doctrine that rejected the Marxist orthodoxy that capitalism is a necessary and progressive phase in historical development and thus the essential prerequisite for socialism. Accordingly, Maoism rejected the Marxist faith in the industrial proletariat as the necessary bearer of the new society, instead looking to the peasantry as the truly creative revolutionary class in the modern world. Further, Maoism inverted the Marxist conception of the relationship between town and countryside in the making of modern history, rejecting the Marxist and Leninist assumption that the city is the source and site of sociohistorical progress. And reflecting the lack of any real Marxist faith in objective laws of historical development, Maoism placed a decisive emphasis on the role of human will and consciousness in molding social reality.

Such were some of the essential intellectual and ideological preconditions for the Maoist-led Chinese Revolution, which took the historically unprecedented form of harnessing the revolutionary energies of the peasantry in the countryside to "surround and overwhelm" the conservative cities. That unique revolutionary process, with a now-semisacred Mao Zedong as its unquestioned leader, culminated in 1949 when the Red Army defeated the numerically superior armies of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists—and peasant soldiers victoriously marched into the cities to "liberate" an urban working class that had been mostly politically passive since the defeats of 1927. On the basis of that victory, the People's Republic of China was formally established on 1 October 1949, unifying China after a century of disintegration and humiliation. In 1949 Mao stood high atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace ("Tiananmen"), appearing as both national liberator and socialist prophet.

Mao Zedong dominated the history of the People's Republic for more than a quarter of a century, until his death in September 1976, just as he had dominated the history of the rural-based revolution that had produced the new communist party-state. Much of what is unique and distinctive about both the general pattern and the specific events of China's turbulent postrevolutionary history must be credited to—or blamed upon—the leadership of Mao Zedong. Rarely in world history has an entire historical era been so deeply stamped by the personality of a single individual.

In considering the thought and policies of Mao Zedong over "the Mao era" (1949–1976), one is struck by several enduring themes. First, it is a period animated by the notion of "permanent revolution." Although the Maoist theory of permanent (later "continuous") revolution was not explicitly set forth as part of "Mao Zedong Thought" until 1958, the essential components of the notion were present from the outset—an impatience with history that expressed itself in an ambivalent attitude toward the Marxist assumption that socialism presupposed capitalism; a burning determination to pass through the Marxian-defined "stages" of history in the most rapid possible fashion; an ardent faith that people armed with the proper will and spirit can mold social reality in accordance with the dictates of their consciousness, regardless of the material circumstances in which they find themselves, and indeed a tendency to extol the advantages of backwardness as such for the advancement of socialism. The latter notion was to find its most extreme expression in Mao's celebration of the alleged Chinese virtues of being "poor and blank."

This utopian impulse to escape the burdens of history manifested itself in the brevity of the "bourgeois" or "New Democratic" phase of the history of the People's Republic, essentially terminated at the end of 1952 with the proclamation of the beginning of the period of "the transition to socialism." It further revealed itself in the 1955–1956 campaign to collective agriculture, accomplished in little more than a year. And it found its most fulsome expression in the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958–1960, whose utopian ideology envisioned a spiritually mobilized populace simultaneously bringing about the full-scale modernization of China and its transition from socialism to communism within a few short decades.

A populist modification of Leninism is another strikingly pervasive feature of Mao Zedong's postrevolutionary theory and practice, one manifestation of which was a continuous tension between the person and persona of Mao, on the one hand, and the institution of the Chinese Communist Party, on the other. The tension originated with the "Hunan Report" of 1927 when Mao drew a sharp dichotomy between the revolutionary spontaneity of the peasant masses and the conservative restraints that political parties (and intellectuals) attempted to impose upon them. A similar dichotomy reappears after 1949, with Mao presenting himself not simply as the chairman of the Communist Party but also as the embodiment of the popular will struggling against the conservatism of an increasingly bureaucraticized party apparatus. This tension between Mao the leader and the institution he led dramatically revealed itself in July 1955 when Mao personally overrode the collective decisions of the party leadership and appealed directly to "the people" in launching the accelerated campaign for agricultural collectivization. It is also apparent in the "Hundred Flowers" campaign of 1956–1957 when Mao encouraged nonparty intellectuals to criticize the Communist Party from without. And the tension culminated in the Cultural Revolution, which began (but did not end) with the extraordinary Maoist call for the masses to rebel against the authority of the party and its organizations.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the postrevolutionary Mao Zedong was his historically unique (if ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to reconcile the means of modern economic development with the ends of socialism. Rejecting the inherited Stalinist orthodoxy that the combination of rapid industrialization with state ownership of the means of production would more or less automatically guarantee ever higher stages of socialism and eventually communism, Mao emphasized that the continuous socialist transformation of human beings and their social relations was essential if the process of modern economic development were to have a socialist outcome. This social radicalism was responsible, in part, for the adventures of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution—and Mao Zedong must bear the historical and moral responsibility for the enormous toll of death and suffering that resulted from these extraordinary events, however unintended those results may have been. But Maoist social radicalism also served to forestall the fully Stalinist institutionalization of the postrevolutionary order in China and perhaps served to keep alive, among some, the hope for the eventual realization of the ultimate socialist goals that the revolution promised. It certainly kept the postrevolutionary order in flux, providing Mao's successors, including Deng Xiaoping, with considerable flexibility for charting a new course of development.

The conventional view of the Mao era is that Mao Zedong sacrificed modern economic development to "ideological purity" in a vain and costly quest for some sort of socialist utopia. Yet the actual historical record of the era suggests that Mao was more successful as an economic modernizer than as a builder of socialism. Over the Mao period (1949–1976), China was transformed from a primarily agrarian nation to a relatively industrialized one, the ratio of the value of industrial production to total production increasing from 30 to 72 percent. From 1952 (when industrial output was restored to its highest prewar levels) until the close of the Mao era, Chinese industry grew at an average annual rate of 11 percent, the most rapid pace of industrialization achieved by any major nation (developed or developing) during that time. Indeed, Maoist industrialization, however crude the process was in many respects, compares favorably with comparable decades in the industrialization of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, hitherto generally regarded as the three most successful cases of modernization among major "latecomers" on the world industrial scene.

Rapid industrialization during the Mao period exacted enormous human and social costs, as had been the case with other late-industrializing countries, and most of the costs were borne by the peasantry. Agricultural production barely kept pace with population growth, and living standards in both town and countryside largely stagnated after 1957 as the state extracted most of the surplus product to finance the development of heavy industry. Yet although the blunders, deficiencies, inequalities, and imbalances that marked and marred the process were many and grave, future historians nevertheless will record the Mao era as the time when the basic foundations for China's modern industrialism were laid.

Far more questionable than Mao's status as a modernizer is his reputation as the creator of a socialist society. For what is most strikingly absent in both Maoist theory and practice is the elemental Marxist principle that socialism must be a system whereby the immediate producers themselves democratically control the products and conditions of their labor. In the Maoist system, by contrast, the control of labor and its fruits was left in the hands of an ever larger and more alien bureaucratic apparatus. Mao, to be sure, repeatedly conducted antibureaucratic campaigns, and there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of his antipathy to bureaucracy. But from those campaigns, he time and again failed to devise any viable means of popular democratic control over the powerful bureaucratic apparatus over which he uneasily presided. And if Mao broke, at least in some significant ways, with the Stalinist strategy of socioeconomic development, in the political realm the Maoist regime retained essentially Stalinist methods of bureaucratic rule and consistently suppressed all forms of intellectual and political dissent in Stalinist fashion. The Mao era was thus marked by a deep incongruity between its progressive socioeconomic accomplishments and its retrogressive political features, an incongruity that precluded any genuine socialist reorganization of Chinese society.

The Mao era in the history of the People's Republic was one of the most turbulent periods in modern world history, and it remains one of the most controversial. When the political passions engendered by the era have subsided, most future historians will likely evaluate Mao Zedong much in the fashion in which he is now ideologically portrayed by his successors in Beijing. First and foremost, Mao will be lauded as modern China's greatest nationalist, the leader of a revolution whose enduring achievement was to bring national unification and independence to the world's most populous land—after a century of repeated internal political failures and grave external impingements. Mao will also be seen as a great modernizer who, despite monumental postrevolutionary blunders, presided over the initial modern industrial transformation of one of the world's most economically backward lands, inaugurating a lengthy process destined eventually to make China a great world power. Ultimately, Mao Zedong's role as a pioneer of socialism will receive less attention and will appear far more problematic than his legacy as a nationalist modernizer.

Maurice Meisner

Benjamin I. Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Cambridge, Mass., 1958).

Mao Tse-Tung [Mao Zedong], Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, 5 vols. (Beijing, 1967–1977).

Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography, 2d ed. (Stanford, 2000).

Maurice Meisner, Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism: Eight Essays (Madison, Wis., 1982). Stuart Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung (Cambridge, U.K., 1989).

Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong (New York, 1999).

From The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World


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