Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Oscar Rios

Mao Zedong – Great Chinese revolutionary

First Published: Unity, Vol. 9, No. 19, December 15, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This year during a visit to China, I joined a long line of Chinese and world travellers at the Mao Zedong Mausoleum in Beijing. There, we paid our respects to this great Chinese communist leader who touched the lives of so many millions.

I am one of those who was deeply inspired by Mao’s theories and his revolutionary example, for I was born in El Salvador and grew up in the U.S. during the oppressed nationalities’ uprisings of the 1960s.

It is timely today, on this occasion of Mao’s birthday, December 26, to reflect on his lifetime of revolutionary struggle. It is important to do so because today there are many misconceptions about him both in the left and in the U.S. press. There are some who claim that the Chinese people no longer hold Mao in high esteem and that his ideas are “dead”. Others claim that Mao did no good for the peoples of the world. I don’t agree. Mao made errors in his lifetime, but he also made great contributions.

At a recent student conference I saw many students gathered around a literature table buying the works of Mao Zedong. As a new generation of young people come to learn about Mao Zedong, it is important that we try to understand his life and his accomplishments in their historical context.

Much can be said about Mao’s tremendous accomplishments in leading the Chinese people, one quarter of humanity, in their victorious struggle for national liberation and socialism. To the alarm and dismay of reactionaries everywhere, Mao and the Chinese people carried out the first revolution led by communists in a third world country.

The Chinese Revolution opened up a new era of anti-imperialist struggles for national liberation that swept Asia, Africa and Latin America. Some of Mao’s greatest contributions to Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory had to do with the role of third world national liberation struggles as a powerful new revolutionary force in world history.

First and foremost, Mao was a leader of the Chinese people and a product of their struggles. Yet, there is a lot we can all learn from his life and his theoretical contributions to Marxism-Leninism.

A lifetime of struggle and sacrifice

Mao was born December 26, 1893, in the farming village of Shaoshan in Hunan province, to an “upper middle” peasant family – not poor yet not well-to-do either.

Mao’s life was filled with both great accomplishments and great tragedy, much like many Chinese revolutionaries. By the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Mao had lost many family members – two brothers and one sister killed in revolutionary struggle; his first wife, Yang Kai-hui, killed by the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), and several of his children, who died during the revolutionary war.

Mao had the chance to go to school, rare in those days in China when less than 3% of the people could read and write. At a young age, he felt outrage at the invasion of foreign imperialist powers which carved up China for their own profit and oppressed the Chinese people. In school, he was exposed to new ideas which transformed his anger into political activism, and Mao became swept up in the 1911 democratic revolution led by Sun Yat-sen. A few years later, Sun’s new republic was betrayed by the feudalists and militarists. With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Mao and many other young activists began turning to Marxism for answers to solve China’s plight. In 1921 in Shanghai, Mao and a small group of representatives of Chinese Marxist groups founded the Communist Party of China. The new party had less than 60 members at its birth, but by 1927 the party had grown to over 50,000.

Mao was not yet chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, he seriously disagreed with top leaders of the party who tried to apply mechanically the strategy that Lenin used in Russia. Mao believed that in China, the revolutionary forces had to be based in the countryside among the peasantry, not in the cities as the Bolsheviks had done. Mao wanted to form an alliance of workers and peasants, joined by the middle classes and even patriotic capitalists, to defeat the feudalists and foreign imperialists.

Based on his analysis of Chinese conditions, Mao also saw that the Chinese Revolution needed a people’s army. He helped establish base areas deep in the countryside and founded the famous Red Army.

But it wasn’t until 1934, during the Long March (a strategic retreat away from Chiang Kai-shek’s attacking forces), that Mao was elected to head the Communist Party. He remained its chairman until his death in 1976.

From 1934-49, Mao led the party in defending itself against attacks by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, in forming a national united front against the invading Japanese imperialists, and then in a civil war which led to Chiang’s final defeat. During those stormy years, Mao wrote some of his most important Marxist-Leninist works on political strategy and tactics, military science, communist organization and Marxist philosophy.

Solving problems using Marxism-Leninism

At each step, Mao stressed the need to study the concrete conditions and history of China to solve the major questions of the Chinese Revolution. He treated Marxism-Leninism as a living science, not as a formula based on conditions of some other country or abstract theory divorced from real life. Mao always saw that “practice is the criterion of truth,” and that the whole purpose of revolutionary theory is to guide revolutionary practice.

Under Mao’s leadership, the Chinese people waged a “new democratic revolution,” which united all patriotic Chinese under the leadership of the Chinese workers and peasants. The new democratic united front brought an end to feudalism and foreign exploitation by uniting all who could be united against the main enemies of the Chinese people, and opened the way for socialism.

Mao’s theory of a new democratic revolution proved more useful for third world countries like China than the model of the Bolshevik Revolution. Before long, national liberation movements throughout the third world began applying lessons from the Chinese Revolution and from Mao’s theoretical writings on the new democratic revolution to the conditions of their own countries.

No sooner was China liberated than the Chinese people were again plunged into war, fighting side by side with the Korean people against the U.S. forces in Korea. In spite of great hardships, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were able to lead the Chinese people in constructing their new society. During the 1950s, land reform redistributed huge tracts of land to the peasants, foreign-owned properties were taken back for the Chinese people, and people’s democracy was begun.

Experiments in building socialism

In the decade after the triumph of the revolution in 1949, tremendous accomplishments were achieved. Where before in China literally millions might die of starvation in one year, China could now produce enough food to feed all its people. In a few short years, widespread illiteracy was brought to an end and a modern educational system was built. Homes and factories were built, and a new, more prosperous China was on its way.

By the late 1950s, Mao wanted to speed up the development of socialism, yet the question was how? He knew that there was no set model for China to follow, and that the Soviet Union – the world’s first socialist country – based its form of socialism on very different conditions and history than China’s.

Mao tried first by launching the “Great Leap Forward” of 1957-58, a mass movement to collectivize the land and boost production. Although this plan did not achieve Mao’s expectations, it was a bold experiment on uncharted terrain. During this period, Mao also had disagreements with the Soviet leaders. He felt that they had abandoned revolutionary principles. He was critical of the way they belittled the anti-imperialist revolutions taking place in the third world.

The anti-colonial, national liberation movements were reshaping the entire world, and Mao was convinced that their impact was just beginning to be felt. The Soviets, however, saw these struggles as endangering world peace, and that these liberation movements should rely on the Soviet Union’s efforts to “negotiate” their liberation and reach “detente” with the U.S. This was not, of course, agreed to by the third world peoples who were determined to fight for their own liberation.

In contrast with the Soviet leaders, Mao encouraged the third world national liberation struggles. It was Mao who declared, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., that “The storm of Afro-American struggle taking place within the United States ... is dealing a telling blow to U.S. imperialism.” Mao’s unwavering support for the Black Liberation Movement here in the U.S. struck a deep chord with oppressed peoples here and around the world.

Mao’s concerns about how to build socialism led to the Cultural Revolution. Mao launched this mass upheaval in 1966 in the belief that China had to revolutionize itself again to avoid the bureaucracy that had stifled socialism in the Soviet Union. He wanted to strengthen socialism and improve the lives of the Chinese people, and prevent China from taking the “capitalist road”. But instead, the Cultural Revolution resulted in serious damage to China’s development during the ten years of turmoil. Today Chinese leaders have summed up that Mao’s fears about capitalist restoration were based on a misassessment of what was actually happening in China. They say the Cultural Revolution fostered divisions among the people and harsh, even tyrannical, measures against those who could and should play a role in building socialism.

Mao died in September 1976. He had dedicated his entire life to the Chinese people and the cause of communism. He left behind a collection of Marxist-Leninist writings on politics, philosophy, ideology, and military affairs which are lasting contributions to revolutionary theory.

As for Mao’s errors, he was only human. Whatever his weaknesses, they must be judged in the context of his lifelong commitment and sacrifice for the betterment of life for the Chinese people. The Chinese say that without Chairman Mao’s leadership, the Chinese people would have groped in the dark for much longer before their revolution would have triumphed.

In many ways, the dramatic changes taking place in China today in her efforts to become a modern socialist country were made possible by what Mao had done before. In this sense, Mao’s presence is never far removed from the bustle of everyday Chinese life, and he remains immensely respected and loved by the Chinese people.

Mao’s legacy belongs primarily, but not exclusively, to the Chinese people. The lessons from his revolutionary experience also belong to the people everywhere who are struggling for liberation, progress and socialism.

Oscar Rios is a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle and recently visited China on a League delegation.