Chris Harman


The myth of Mao

(18 June 2005)

From Socialist Worker, No.1956, 18 June 2005.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The authors of a new book say that they have told the “unknown story” of Mao Zedong. Chris Harman examines their claims

Many people on the left once saw the Chinese leader Mao Zedong as a great revolutionary – in the same league as Marx, Engels and Lenin. They carried Mao’s portrait on many of the demonstrations across the world in the late 1960s.

He was seen as continuing a socialist tradition that had been abandoned by the rulers of the USSR in that period – Nikita Khrushchev and then Leonid Brezhnev.

Even today you meet people who wear Mao badges, believing his policies were the alternative to present day China’s enthusiasm for market driven capitalism. Such people will hate the new book, Mao: the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, because it sets out to puncture the Mao myth from beginning to end.


The book shows how Mao pursued policies that led to tens of millions of peasants dying of starvation, and that he used torture, terror and state murder – not just against the landlords of the old order, but also against vast numbers of his own closest followers.

It supports these claims using testimony from people who knew and worked with Mao, obtained from Russian and Chinese archives. There can be no denying these basic facts and those on the left who try to do so are damaging the cause of socialism.

However, this book has two faults.

First, it claims the truth was previously “unknown”. This may be how it seems to the authors, who were both once bedazzled by the Mao myth. Jung Chang, the daughter of a Communist Party official, was indoctrinated with it as a school student in the China of the 1960s. Jon Halliday was a member of the editorial board of the journal New Left Review during its semi-Maoist phase in the late 1960s.

But some on the left had already graphically described the most important negative features of Mao’s regime and come to the conclusion that it in no way pointed towards human liberation.

This was what the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff, showed in his book Mao’s China, published 48 years ago. A series of articles that appeared in Socialist Review, the International Socialism journal and Socialist Worker in the 1960s made similar points.

No explanation

Secondly, and more importantly, Chang and Halliday’s book provides no explanation for Mao’s policies apart from his own lust for power. But what happened in China can only be understood if you look at a wider picture than that of Mao’s psychology.

In the first decades of the last century China, like most of what we now call the Third World, was being ravaged by the capitalist powers of the west and Japan. They had each established mini-colonies called “concessions” in its great cities and backed rival warlords who fought for control of the rest of the country.

A whole generation of Chinese intellectuals and students felt humiliated by what was being done to one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilisations.

They looked desperately for an alternative – turning first to the ideas of 19th century liberalism, as preached by people such as John Stewart Mill, then to the idea of “national self determination”, a phrase used at the time by US president Woodrow Wilson to disguise his country’s imperial ambitions.

Finally they looked towards the 1917 revolution that had recently taken place in the neighbouring Russian empire.

A handful of activists, including Mao, came together at the beginning of the 1920s to form the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), believing that the struggles of the small but highly concentrated working class could provide a revolutionary socialist alternative to imperialism and warlordism.

A huge wave of workers’ struggles swept the cities, attracting much wider numbers of middle class intellectuals to the notion that Russia showed the way forward.

So powerful was the movement that one of the warlords, Chiang Kai-shek, sought to exploit it for his own ends, allying himself with Russia and using Russian advisors to train his army. The ruling group in Russia, which was by then led by Stalin, told the CCP to help build up Chiang Kai-shek’s forces.


A revolutionary nationalist wave swept the country, culminating in 1927 when a workers’ uprising took control of Shanghai and handed it over to Chiang Kai-shek. But the privileged sections of society from which his army officers came feared revolution far more than they hated the foreign imperialists.

Once in control of Shanghai they turned their guns on the workers and smashed working class organisations. Militants were executed in their thousands, much as they were in Spain when the fascist forces won the civil war, or in Chile when Pinochet took power in his 1973 coup.

Revolutionary activists could often only survive by fleeing to remote parts of the countryside with the few parts of the nationalist army that supported them and establishing guerrilla bases.

Once there, however, they began to operate using methods very different from the mass democracy that had prevailed during the rising tide of workers’ struggles. The guerrilla armies were just that – armies. They relied on the strictest top-down discipline.

What is more, they could only feed themselves by taking food from local peasants, however close those peasants were to starvation.

The very character of the CCP underwent a change. Sections of the radical middle class who had merged into the workers movement in the 1920s were now operating as officers within an army that lived off the peasantry and used them to fight their battles.

The transformation was encouraged from outside by Stalin. He drove out many of the old leaders of the CCP, especially those who agreed with Leon Trotsky’s criticisms of the alliance with Chiang Kai-shek.

Top down

Their place was taken by leaders whose temperament was most in accord with the top-down, disciplinary approach that prevailed in Stalin’s Russia, and which fitted with the practice of the guerrilla armies.

All this encouraged the nastiest sort of personal manoeuvring to replace honest debate and concern for the mass of people.

The model for overcoming China’s problems ceased to be one based on revolution from below, involving genuine workers’ democracy. Instead, it became to copy what Stalin was doing in Russia – rapid industrialisation at the expense of the workers and peasants.

This seemed to wide sections of the educated middle class in China – and in many other parts of the world – the way to overcome the national humiliation that condemned them to miserable and unrewarding careers.

The attraction of this Stalinist model grew during the 1930s and 1940s. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, having made its peace with the foreign powers and rival warlords to crush the workers in 1927, proved incapable of providing a sense of national purpose and stopping the onslaught on the country by Japan’s army, which invaded in 1937.

Eventually even some of Chiang’s generals felt attracted to Mao, allowing his army to take the whole of the mainland in 1949.

Mass movement

Mao: the Unknown Story provides some interesting new details about this period, but fails to link them to the rise and defeat of a mass revolutionary movement.

Instead it falls back on crude stereotypes such as Mao joining the CCP out of careerism when it only had 57 members, or the revolutionary regime in Russia in 1920 wanting to “subvert” China so as to enhance its own national power.

There is no feeling at all in the book for the power of the workers’ movements of the 1920s. In this respect Patrick Lescot’s recent book, Before Mao, a biography of another CCP leader Li Lisan, is far superior.

For Chang and Halliday, Mao’s eventual victory is seen simply as the result of Russian help, “moles” among Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and mistakes by the US.

The book may be correct when it challenges past accounts of Mao’s role in the famous Long March. But it fails completely to explain his success in first gaining control of the CCP and then in defeating Chiang Kai-shek.

History is not just a product of nasty individuals. There were clearly bad elements in Mao’s character. But it was particular circumstances that brought these to the fore, allowing them to shape events.

This was certainly true once Mao was in power. The regime he established rested on a section of the educated middle class, organised through an authoritarian party, who had taken control using a peasant army as cannon fodder.

The class goal of this ruling group was for China to become a great power alongside other great powers. For them the key to this was to build up modern industries and produce modern armaments, just like their equivalents everywhere else in the world.

This was not just some demented personal obsession of Mao.

Catching up

The authors of this book are, however, right about the consequences. Industrialisation was financed by exporting food. China was so poor at the time that this could only be done by seizing it from hungry peasants, causing tens of millions to starve to death.

Yet even that was not enough to achieve Mao’s goal of catching up with the Western states in just 10 or 15 years.

As this became clear a series of bitter and murderous struggles broke out within China’s leadership.

There followed mass purges of intellectuals and experts during the “Cultural Revolution” of the mid-1960s, the driving to his death of the country’s president Liu Shaoqi, the death of its armed forces chief, Lin Biao, as he fled the country, and, after Mao’s death, the imprisonment of Mao’s wife and the taking of power by Deng Xiaoping.

The goal of catching up with the West and increasing China’s military power did not die with Mao. But now it was to be done through participation in the world markets. This has led to economic growth and prosperity for wide sections of the middle classes in the cities.

But it still leads to appalling conditions in vast areas of the countryside, as shown in recent Chinese films such as Not One More, about a village school, and Blind Shaft, about coal miners.

The weakest point about this book is its claim that Mao was uniquely evil and “responsible for 70 million peacetime deaths” – “more than either Hitler or Stalin”.

All rulers in this barbaric capitalist world are prepared to see people die if it is necessary to achieve their goals of accumulating wealth or armaments.

They endorse sanctions in Iraq, which killed half a million children in ten years. They happily blast apart cities such as Belgrade or Fallujah. And they preside over a system that sees 50,000 die in the Third World each day from poverty-related causes – which means more deaths in just four years than died under Mao’s brutal regime.

Last updated on 14 December 2009