Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Harry Powell

Mao Tse-Tung: Revisionist or Revolutionary?

First Published: Revolutionary Praxis, 1994.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

(This text is based on the notes for a talk given to the Stalin Society on 27th, November 1994).

* * *

Just as there has been a tirade of abuse against Joseph Stalin since his death so the same is true of Mao Tse-tung. It is claimed that Mao’s policies led to disaster for the Chinese people. The capitalist roaders in China, who came to the fore after Mao’s death in 1976, claim that the political line put forward by Mao was mainly wrong from the mid-nineteen fifties onwards. Western bourgeois commentators attack him with all manner of seedy stories about his private life. The fact that reactionary critics are so unremittingly fierce in their denunciations of Mao might suggest that the reason they hate him so much is precisely because he was such an outstanding communist leader.

More seriously there are some people who claim to be Marxist-Leninists who attack Mao including some members of the Stalin Society. These include Bill Bland of the Communist League and others who have been influenced by Enver Hoxha’s later writings. Here Mao’s standing as a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary will be examined particularly with respect to three important issues:
1. The Question of Revisionism.
2. The United Front Policy and the Role of the National Bourgeoisie.
3. Analysis of International Contradictions.


Before it is possible to objectively evaluate whether or not there is any credibility in the claim made by some that Mao was a revisionist it is necessary to be clear about the meaning of this important concept in Marxist-Leninist theory. The term revisionism is often used loosely and imprecisely and Mao’s own observations can be of help in gaining clarity on this matter. I suggest that a brief and accurate definition is:

Revisionism is the form bourgeois ideology and practice takes on within the revolutionary movement.

It should not be confused with various species of reformism and liberalism which are forms of bourgeois and petit bourgeois ideology. Revisionism is different because it appears, at first sight to be consistent with Marxist-Leninist theory whereas in reality it is a form of bourgeois ideology which can undermine the revolutionary communist movement from within. Although the term ’revisionism’ came to acquire its modem meaning during the eighteen nineties in the controversies within the German Social Democratic Party it has in fact been present as a political phenomenon ever since the beginnings of the modern communist movement during the mid-nineteenth century.

From where does revisionism come? Like all other forms of thought it arises out of the practice of a class, in this case the bourgeoisie. As Mao himself so succinctly put it:

In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class. – Mao Tse-tung, On Practice [1]

In capitalist society the praxis of the two classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat, generates two different world outlooks and these are present, to a greater or lesser degree, in the consciousness of everyone including self-conscious Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries.

What is more, this ideational reflection of the two classes in people’s consciousness’s will persist until such time as class society is abolished, i.e. until full communism is achieved!

In every individual Marxist-Leninist and revolutionary organisation a two-line struggle between bourgeois and proletarian views on various matters is a normal and unavoidable state of affairs. While the Marxist-Leninists should always consciously, struggle to make sure that a proletarian revolutionary approach to issues is the predominant one there will at the same time still be a tendency for bourgeois, reactionary views to creep in. What this means is that there is, living under and within the capitalist social order as we do, a revisionist side to us all including the great leaders of our movement; Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. If we trawl through the writings of these outstanding leaders then it is not too difficult to find quite a bit of reactionary nonsense. It would be odd if it were otherwise because these people were, just like the rest of us, products of bourgeois society and unavoidably there were residues of bourgeois thinking present in some of their analyses of various issues. ’Heresy, heresy!’ I hear some of you cry but the aim of building a party “free of all revisionisms”[2], as Bill Bland aims to do, is an undialectical idealist fallacy.

In assessing the political character of any individual or organisation claiming to be revolutionary the relevant question is which is the principal aspect of their theory and practice revisionism or revolutionism? This is the correct way to approach a political evaluation of Mao Tse-tung.


The strategy and tactics for revolutionary struggle in semi-feudal, semi-colonial countries under imperialist domination were originally formulated in the International Communist Movement under the leadership of Lenin and Stalin and further developed by the Communist Party of China during the period when it was led by Mao. The working class in such countries was a very small minority and thus could only carry on effective revolutionary struggle with any chance of success if they united with other anti-feudal and anti-imperialist classes and strata. Mao claimed that it is possible and. indeed, necessary for the communist party, representing the working class, to unite with the peasantry, urban petit bourgeois and sections of the national bourgeoisie, what he called the bloc of the four classes, to bring about the democratic stage of an uninterrupted revolutionary process which could lead on to the socialist stage. However Mao was emphatic that the working class and its party must win leadership of this united front if it was to decisively defeat feudal and imperialist forces and pass over to the stage of socialist transformation; Sad to say, in the second half of the twentieth century many brave national liberation struggles have failed to even achieve the democratic goals of the revolution precisely because there was not a hegemonic communist party in the national liberation movement.

In China in the early nineteen twenties this united front policy was put into practice, under the guidance of the Comintern, when the CPC formed an alliance with the nationalist Kuomintang led by Sun Yat-sen. The practical outcome was some serious defeats for feudal and imperialist forces in China but the alliance was broken in 1927 when the majority of the Kuomintang leadership under Chiang Kai-shek allied themselves with the comprador bourgeoisie and imperialists and slaughtered the communists. This was a great setback for the CPC but the Japanese invasion of China from1931 onwards altered the objective situation and made possible the reestablishment of a united front including sections of the national bourgeoisie. It was mainly because of Mao’s clear understanding of this possibility that his overall leadership of the CPC was recognised at the Tsunyi Conference held in January 1935 during the course of the Long March.

Some people, such as Bill Bland in his The Revolutionary Process in Colonial-Type Countries, deny that it is possible for the working class and its party to retain leadership in a united front which includes elements of the national bourgeoisie. The inevitable outcome, they say, will be the subordination of the interests of the working class to those of the bourgeoisie. However in actual practice this did not happen in China. The outcome of the United Front policy upheld by Mao was that Chiang Kai-shek’s generals forced him to stop attacking the Chinese Red Army and unite with them to oppose the Japanese imperialist invasion. Although this was a very fragile alliance, even erupting into armed conflict between its partners at times, it meant that by 1945 when the alliance came to an end the CPC was strong enough to wage civil war against the CPC resulting in a decisive victory by 1949.

Mao was always very clear about the uncertain role of the national bourgeoisie in national liberation struggles. He described them as “flabby” and “vacillating” and pointed out that unless handled very carefully they may well desert to the enemy at a certain point in the national liberation struggle.[3] Nonetheless it is still correct to unite all who can be united in the struggle against feudalism and imperialism to accomplish the tasks of the new democratic revolution, i.e. land reform and the expulsion of imperialists. The correctness of Mao’s policy on national liberation was demonstrated in practice in China where this stage of the uninterrupted revolution was undoubtedly accomplished.


Much confusion about united front tactics and. their correctness or otherwise has been caused by the fact that at the same time, 1935, as a united front policy was adopted in China Georgi Dimitroff put forward his United Front Against Fascism line at the Seventh World Congress of the Comintem. The aim of this version of united front tactics which was formulated primarily with imperialist countries in mind, was defensive, to prevent fascism coming to power and to hold off and even prevent inter-imperialist war. In order to try to hold fascism at bay, Dimitroff advocated not just unity among different sections of the working class and with sections of the petit bourgeoisie but also with the liberal bourgeoisie. Although they share the same title of ’united front’ there is a very important qualitative difference between the type of tactics advocated by Mao for imperialistically dominated countries and the type of tactics advocated by Dimitroff for imperialist oppressor countries. In the former type of country the national bourgeoisie are an oppressed class, not a ruling class, whereas in the latter type of country the bourgeoisie, including its ’liberal’ wing are an oppressor class, a ruling class. Uniting within a country with your own ruling class is nothing other than capitulation to the class enemy. The fundamental incorrectness of Dimitroff’s united front line was demonstrated in practice from 1935-39 when attempts to apply it in Europe led to defeat and disaster for the working class. It was a revisionist policy.[4]

Mao was quite clear on the different revolutionary tactics appropriate for imperialist countries on the one hand and countries oppressedˇ by imperialism on the other hand. In his Problems of War and Strategy (1938) he wrote:

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.[5]

Unfortunately Mao, somewhat isolated in the Yenan base area, was misinformed as to the situation in Western Europe where the communist parties in France and Britain were busy trying to appease their own “democratic” imperialist governments but with only negative consequence for the working class.

Bill Bland also criticises Mao for not aiming to establish a state of the dictatorship of the proletariat but a new democratic state, the people’s democratic dictatorship based on the bloc of the four classes and established as the People’s Republic of China in1949. This is essentially the same position as that taken up by Trotskyites because:
1. It denies the necessity of the revolution passing through two stages, the democratic and socialist, in backward, imperialistically dominated countries.
2. It rejects any form of the dictatorship of the proletariat except pure working class rule. On these grounds it would have to be denied that the dictatorship of the proletariat existed in the Soviet Union since it was based on the worker-peasant alliance. A ’pure proletarian revolution’ is hardly likely to ever occur anywhere. For example, in Britain an alliance between the proletariat and sections of the very sizeable intermediate strata would probably be necessary.

By mid-1952 the basic tasks of the new democratic stage of the revolution had been carried out, i.e. defeat of landlords, land distribution and defeat of the comprador bourgeoisie and imperialism. Thus, as Mao said:

the contradiction between the working class and the national bourgeoisie has become the principal contradiction in China; therefore the national bourgeoisie should no longer be defined as an intermediate class.[6]

It is also true that Mao thought that this inherently antagonistic contradiction could, in the concrete conditions of China, be transformed into a non-antagonistic one and thus peacefully resolved by a process of ideological remoulding. This probably was a revisionist error. Far from fading away, the national bourgeoisie, who were allowed to retain interests in and profits from the enterprises they owned previously, prospered as the Chinese economy developed. Precisely because they showed no signs of fading away they were expropriated of their property during the Cultural Revolution. During the counter-revolution led by Teng Hsiao-ping, following Mao’s death in 1976, these assets were restored to these national bourgeois elements.

Mao continued to put forward this line on the national bourgeoisie, as in 1957 in ’On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People’[7] but thereafter his views on class struggle under socialism developed and changed for two reasons:
1. The triumph of Khrushchevite revisionism in the Soviet Union. By late 1956, within the CPC, Mao was denouncing Soviet revisionism.
2. The experience of the Great Leap Forward commencing in 1958. This bold policy to accelerate socialist construction had both great successes and serious failures. This sharpened the divisions within the CPC between the revolutionaries, such as Mao, and the emergent revisionists such as Liu Shao-chi and Teng Hsaio-ping. This resulted in Mao becoming marginalised in the party leadership.

In the light of these experiences, by 1962 Mao was saying:

Now then, do classes exist in socialist countries? Does class struggle exist? We can now affirm that classes do exist in socialist countries and that class struggle undoubtedly exists. Lenin said: After the victory of the revolution, because of the existence of the bourgeoisie internationally, because of the existence of bourgeois remnants internally, because the petit bourgeoisie exists and continually generates a bourgeoisie, therefore the classes which have been overthrown within the country will continue to exist for a long time to come and may even attempt restoration.[8]

In other words, as socialist transformation proceeds the class struggle becomes sharper, more antagonistic and not the opposite. Mao was developing and changing his position on class conflict in the light of the actual experience of socialist construction in the USSR and China.

In 1966 Mao and his comrades launched the Cultural Revolution to “overthrow those in power taking the capitalist road”, i.e. revisionists such as Liu Shao-chi. As a result of observing the course of revisionism in the Soviet Union and China Mao further developed his analysis of class struggle under socialism. No longer was it remnants of past reactionary class or imperialist agents who were the main danger to socialism. Rather, it was a new, emergent state bourgeoisie growing out of the very heart of the communist party itself. By 1976, the year of his death, Mao was saying:

You are making the socialist revolution, and yet don’t know where the bourgeoisie is. It is right inside the Communist Party – those in power taking the capitalist road.[9]

The material basis for the existence of a new type of state bourgeoisie is, as Mao pointed out, the persistence of capitalist relations of production and ideological practices. Only continuing struggle to revolutionise these things can ensure the victory of the revolution. As Mao said, ’’Never forget class struggle.”

Mao certainly was mistaken as to the possibility of the national bourgeoisie being eradicated in a non-antagonistic way. Much more important, however, was that be came to grasp, unlike previous communist leaders that the main threat to the revolution came not from the remnants of previous reactionary classes or imperialist agents, but from within the communist movement itself. Mao realised that the inevitable persistence of bourgeois ideas and practices in the early stages of socialist transformation could generate an entirely new type of bourgeoisie from among high level party and state functionaries. This insight is a very important contribution to Marxist-Leninist theory and it is absolutely necessary to develop this analysis if we are to be in a position to more effectively combat tendencies towards capitalist restoration after future revolutionary upheavals. Those who choose to turn their backs on this aspect of Mao’s thinking are doomed to remain irresolvably locked within the problematics of the past.


Another line of criticism directed at Mao concerns China’s foreign policy from the late nineteen sixties onwards, particularly changing relations with US imperialism. Enver Hoxha, according to his Reflections on China, was increasingly critical of China’s foreign policy and eventually of Mao himself. By December 1977 Hoxha was writing:

Mao Tse-tung is not a Marxist-Leninist but a progressive revolutionary democrat...[10]

Hoxha seemed somewhat confused about Mao’s ideological position because a few months before he wrote:

When we read the four volumes of the works of Mao Tse-tung we drew some conclusions and these conclusions were positive. Indeed .... it is not easy to find there any problem treated theoretically in an incorrect way.[11]

However he claims that the reality of Chinese society was quite different from what Mao’s writings might lead one to believe and that Mao’s published writings were given a Marxist gloss by editors.

It was only after Mao’s death and the counter-revolutionary coup in China that Hoxha started to attack Mao. Before that he had become very critical of Chinese foreign policy but it was Chou En-lai in particular and Teng Hsaio-ping who he criticised – and rightly so. What Hoxha was attacking was China’s foreign policy from the early 1970’s onwards and the notorious Three Worlds Theory which tried to give it a theoretical Marxist-Leninist justification.

It is true that in the late 1960’s Mao came to regard the Soviet Union as the more aggressive and dangerous of the two imperialist superpowers. After all, there were serious border clashes between China and the Soviet Union in the late nineteen sixties and war seemed possible. At the same time there was growing detente between the Soviet Union and the USA and some indications that the latter would not be displeased if the former invaded China. It certainly is true that Mao wanted to head off this possibility by exploiting inter-imperialist contradictions to China’s advantage. Thus the sudden opening of relations with America and the visits of Kissinger and Nixon to China.

Many progressive people, including some communists, were shocked by this sudden change of policy on the part of Mao rather as in an earlier period, in 1939, there was widespread confusion when Stalin entered into the Nazi-Soviet Pact. From the mid-1930s onwards the Soviet Union had tried to form alliances with the so-called “democratic” imperialists of Western Europe against the fascist imperialisms of Germany and Italy but without success. When it became abundantly clear that the “democratic” imperialists preferred collusion with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Stalin managed to deflect and delay German invasion of the Soviet Union by this cunning diplomatic manoeuvre. Similarly Mao employed the same tactic when it became clear that the revisionist Soviet Union was increasingly aligning itself with US imperialism against China.

However there is no evidence to show that Mao created or approved of the Three Worlds Theory. The November 1977 statement Chairman Mao’s Theory of the Differentiation of the Three Worlds is a Major Contribution to Marxism-Leninism[12] has quotations from Mao to try to justify itself but they do not endorse the position of this revisionist international line.

In fact, the true authors of the Three Worlds Theory were the revisionists Mao was struggling against in China. It should be remembered that the targets of the Cultural Revolution – “those in positions of power taking the capitalist road” – were beginning to make a comeback by the early nineteen seventies, especially Teng Hsiao-ping who became first vice-premier. This revisionist theory was first fully unveiled by Teng at the United Nations in New York in 1974[13] but its true author was almost certainly Chou En-lai. Interestingly in Hoxha’s writings on China and its foreign policy it is Chou, not Mao, who he repeatedly criticises and attacks.

The Three Worlds Theory is in essence a recycling of Dimitroff’s United Front policy. It exaggerated the degree of inter-imperialist contradictions and the extent to which these can be used by socialist states to further revolutionary objectives. It called upon the masses in the lesser imperialist countries, such as Britain, and in the oppressed countries to support their own bourgeoisies against the Soviet state bourgeoisie. It claimed that workers in imperialist countries have “national interests” to defend. It elevated struggling to prevent inter-imperialist war above revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism.

These sort of social chauvinist and social pacifist deviations were by no means new among the Chinese revisionists. Even in the essentially correct statement of 1963, A proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement[14], it speaks of the working class in imperialist countries attacking the monopoly capitalists who are betraying “national interests”.

From the late nineteen seventies the Teng Hsiao-ping leadership changed their line on the Soviet Union and ceased to refer to it as “social imperialist” and started calling it “socialist” because now rapprochement rather than confrontation suited their interests. The Three Worlds Theory was consigned to the graveyard of revisionism.

Mao always opposed the capitulation of the proletariat and its party to bourgeois elements. In 1945 when Stalin advised the CPC to enter into a coalition government with Chiang Kai-shek Mao opposed this line, something on which Stalin later conceded he had been wrong. It was the Soviet Union’s external policy of conciliation with imperialism, rather than its internal affairs, which first alerted Mao during the nineteen fifties to the real revisionist nature of Khrushchev’s leadership. Some of his statements can be interpreted as suggesting that he overestimated the degree to which socialist states can exploit inter-imperialist contradictions. If so, then this was an error on his part but one which was far outweighed by the enormous international solidarity of the most practical kind provided by the PRC, e.g. to Albania and Vietnam, during the period of Mao’s leadership.


Mao Tse-tung, as a result of his leadership of the Chinese Revolution, made a number of extremely important and enduring contributions to Marxism-Leninism:
1. He developed the method of materialist dialectics and showed how it could be applied to the practice of revolutionary struggle.
2. He developed the practice of communist leadership with the mass line – “from the masses, to the masses”.
3. He advanced the theory and practice of national liberation struggle by applying and developing the groundwork laid down and by Lenin and Stalin.
4. He inaugurated and led the struggle against Khrushchevite revisionism.
5. He developed the theory and practice of socialist transformation and laid the basis for explaining how capitalist restoration can occur under socialism and how to struggle against it.

Mao, just like all our other great communist leaders did make errors, some of them even revisionist, but the revolutionary aspect of his theory and practice was overwhelmingly the principal aspect. He was a true dialectical materialist because his revolutionary theory and practice continued to change and develop right up until the end of his life. Those comrades who seek to renew the international communist movement but ignore or, like Bill Bland, seek to denigrate this great communist revolutionary are doomed to impotence and destined for the rubbish heap of history.



[1] MAO TSE-TUNG, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol 1, Peking, 1975 p296

[2] Rather like the Christian striving towards a state of freedom from all sin, Bill may derive a certain amount of masochistic pleasure in the course of his quest for purity but it is a goal impossible to attain.

[3] ’On New Democracy’ in MAO, op. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 348-9.

[4] An extended critique of Dimitroff’s United Front policy can be found in MARXIST-LENINIST PROGRAMME COMMISSION, The Unholy Alliance: The United Front Against Fascism and War, 1935-47.

[5] MAO, ibid. pp. 219-20.

[6] MAO, op. cit., Vol 5, Peking, 1977, p. 77.

[7] MAO, ibid., pp. 402-4.

[8] MAO TSE-TUNG, Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters: 1956-71, ed. S.Schramm, Harmondsworth, 1974, p. 189.

[9] Quoted in FANG KANG, ’Capitalist-Roaders are the Bourgeoisie inside the Party’, Peking Review, No. 25, 18/06/1976.

[10] ENVER HOXHA, The Artful Albanian: Memoirs of Enver Hoxha. ed. J. Halliday, London, 1986, p. 322.

[11] Op cit., p. 319.

[12] PEOPLE’S DAILY, Chairman Mao’s Theory of the Differentiation of the Three Worlds is a .Major Contribution to Marxism-Leninism. Peking, 1977.

[13] Speech by Chairman of the Delegation of the People’s. Republic of China, Teng Hsiao-ping at the Special session of the U.N. General Assembly, April 10 1974, Peking, 1974.

[14] A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement: The Letter of the Central Committee of the Communist party of China in Reply to the Letter of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of March 30, 1963, June 14, 1963, Peking, 1963.