Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Communist League of Britain

The Theory and Practice of Mao

First Published: As a three installment articles in Class Struggle, starting Vol. 10, No. 9, September 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Mao Zedong died ten years ago. He was an extraordinary figure in world history. His 1ife was intertwined with the experience of one of the most important events ever, the Chinese revolution. Born in 1893, Mao became a leading figure in the Communist Party of China (CPC) after its foundation in 1921.

The CPC had a heavy task in leading the Chinese people to liberate themselves from the terrible exploitation of imperialists and domestic reactionaries. China was ripe for revolution. But what was needed was a correct political line to guide the people in making one. In its early days, the CPC made many mistakes, either relying too much on what it thought were progressive elements in the bourgeoisie, or going to the opposite extreme and neglecting to build up alliances. Mao struggled for the lines which were later proved correct. He worked out a class analysis which stressed the mighty revolutionary force represented by the poor peasantry: hence he was confident in the long term.


The CPC suffered the massacre of a large proportion of its members in 1927, and had to abandon its rural base areas in South China in 1935, because of its errors. But just after that, Mao was elected Chairman of the CPC. He led the Red Army on the 6,000 mile Long March at the end of which they reached Yenan in the north.

Under Mao’s leadership, the CPC fought the Japanese forces, invading China and made the reactionaries led by Chiang Kai-shek join a united front against Japan. When Chiang, supported by US imperialism, turned against the CPC after the Second World War, it was Mao’s political and military policies which guided the Chinese masses to victory and the founding of the People ’Republic of China.

After Liberation, the CPC led the Chinese people in ending their exploitation and building an economy independent of imperialism, which guaranteed the people a decent and improving living standard, despite a US-Soviet blockade. Externally, China assisted Korea against the US intervention straight after Liberation and broke the cold war blockade against it.

During a period when the rising national liberation movements – from Algeria to Vietnam, from Palestine to Azania – were facing a vicious onslaught from imperialism, when the established communist movement was degenerating and selling out to the and enemy –through all this Mao’s China stood firm, siding with the revolutionary movements and battling against the revisionist counter-current.


All these struggles were led collectively by the whole party, but Mao, because of his farsightedness and readiness to respond to the initiatives of the masses, played a crucia1 role.

Marx said: “The philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.”

No single event confirmed this saying more than the Chinese revolution. Revolutions are possible because of causes: imperialist oppression creates both the necessity of Change, and at the same time, its possibility.

But no revolution happens ’automatically’. In China in the twenties, the conditions were right: the masses were ready to rise against the oppression of imperialism and at the same time, no single imperialist power was strong enough to control China directly on its own. But a lasting change could only be brought about if these elements were concentrated together in a form which could give the movement conscious direction.

This could only be done, and can only be done in any revolution, by a communist party which works out a line to guide the masses forward on the basis of the reality of their situation, and feeds this back to the masses in the form of concrete leadership. The guiding policies and ideology of the CPC is summed up in a system of ideas generally known as Mao Zedong Thought; its source was the reality of the revolutionary movement as well as a distillation of the correct subjective ideas of the masses and it developed precisely in the course of changing reality. Under its guidance, the Chinese people accomplished the extra ordinary task of throwing off centuries of oppression by domestic and foreign exploiters began the construction of new society with many important new features.


It would be absolutely wrong to view Maoism as a purely Chinese phenomenon. Precisely because it was so closely integrated with Chinese reality, it produced lessons overwhelmingly positive but with some negative ones as well, which all revolutionaries have a duty to learn. Of course, revolutionaries have ultimate responsibilities lay for the movement in their own country where they alone deeply know the conditions. But it is necessary to view communism as an international movement, identify what the trends are and if necessary, polemicise about them. Marx and Engels did this. Lenin did this, and so did Mao. We have a duty to do the same with regard to the Chinese revolution.

At this point, we certainly cannot attempt a full summing up of Mao Zedong’s contribution, but it will be useful to list a few areas in which we think this was particularly important.


Mao held to a firm class stand, always upholding the interests of the labouring people. He understood very clearly that the proletariat and poor peasantry was the only class force capable of regenerating China and thus contributing to the world revolutionary movement. He resisted any tendencies to make communism dependent upon the movement of the local bourgeoisie, while at the same time resisting any sectarianism towards the different currents making up what is necessarily a complex and multifaceted movement for the resurgence of an oppressed nation.

Mao consistently applied his method of “seeking truth from facts”, and in doing so, he arrived at a view of reality which contradicted some deeply held received ideas within the communist movement of his time. There was a predominant view that the industrialised countries, where the level of productive forces was higher and the proletariat more numerous would inevitably be the force pushing the revolutionary movement forward at a world level, while the colonial and semi-colonial countries would have to be pulled along behind this process. (Lenin had many insights which showed the contrary, but these tended to get forgotten after his death).


Mao discovered that the peasantry, especially the poor peasantry, can be profoundly revolutionary, whereas the national bourgeoisie will always be incapable on its own of striking out in a direction really independent of imperialism.


Mao criticised those in China who only knew about the history of ancient Greece and not that of their own country. The Chinese revolutionary movement re-established the history of trade and cultural interchange between China and other Asian and African countries which had made an essential contribution to the dynamic of human history before it was disrupted by capitalism.

These lessons played an important role in raising the consciousness of the peoples of the oppressed nations. But it is no less important that revolutionaries of European origin should learn them to help liberate themselves from the cultural chauvinism which is strongly embedded in the left movement and which ties it to the ruling class.


Mao’s theories which guided the Chinese revolution to victory in 1949, particularly his theory of people’s war, represent a fusion of many aspects of his thought: his confidence in the fundamental revolutionary strength of the peasantry, his grasp of the dialectical philosophy, his complete freedom from the kind of philistinism which invests excuses to condemn the armed struggle of the oppressed nations. He wrote: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and stressed the need for a people’s army of an entirely new type as the fundamental guarantee of the revolutionary cause. He worked out a strategy for guerrila warfare in which the fighters move among the people like a fish in water.

Most important of all was his theory that the Chinese revolution could win victory by encircling the cities from the countryside. Practice proved it to be correct. Works of Mao Zedong like ’On Protracted War’ and ’The Situation and Our Policy after Victory in the War of Resistance against Japan’ rank alongside the greatest writings of Marx and Lenin; in addition to the practical importance of the policies they propose, they are brilliant examples of the dialectical and historca1 materialist method which can teach us the way to approach any problem.


As we have already pointed out, Mao broke with the mechanic misconception of the social and economic processes of world history, and of the imperialist era in particular, a truly dialectical conception of modes of production, social formations and relations of product to which Mao Zedong’s work opened the way, can help us understand the deepest causes of historical ’events’.

At the same time, however, Mao also repudiated another error within the communist movement which consisted in overestimating the importance of so-called economic laws, the expense of politics and ideology. Man stressed the role of consciousness in promoting change. Not all aspects of ideology were adequately dealt with: the Chinese revolution made inadequate progress in assessing the significance of racism on a world scale, for example. But Mao did accurately appraise the importance of revolutionary culture. He stressed the need for a culture which permeates the broad labouring masses and reflects their aspirations, while also appreciating the role of a genius like the writer Lu Xun.


Mao attached great importance to building the Communist Party along the correct lines. He said that was necessary to have faith in the masses and have faith in the party. He put forward the concept of “serving the people” and the leadership style of “from the masses to the masses”, arguing that communists must concentrate the correct ideas of the masses as the basis for the leadership they give to the mass movement. Communists, he said, do not seek political posts for themselves, they seek revolution.

The different aspects of the Maoist perspective which were forged during the years of struggle prior to the victory of the Chinese revolution, were further developed by Chairman Mao after 1949 in relation to the nature of socialist society and the tasks it faces, and also to the new international tasks which emerged in the post-World War Two period.


Deeply understanding the fact that the revolution in the oppressed nations is, in essence, anti-imperialist, Mao Zedong saw that the victory in the struggle for democracy won with the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, opened the way for an uninterrupted progress to socialist revolution by stages.

Mao had a deep conviction that revolutions are the work of the masses He always felt that real reactionaries are a small minority and it is possible to unite a broad range of forces against them. This may be difficult but it is the task of communists to bring it about. During the revolution up to 1949, the Communist Party managed to win the leadership of a very wide range of social forces who were ready to fight for at least some aspect of human dignity against domestic and foreign oppressors. Even with the transition to the much more radical, socialist revolution after 1949, Mao sought to maintain these allies and gradually transform them, rather than letting them drift into a reactionary position.

But most important of all was the worker-peasant alliance. Unless this could be consolidated in a very real way, by means of actual, concrete policies, any talk about socialism would be meaningless.


During the Stalin period, the Soviet Union had drifted into a position of thinking that the ruling Communist Party had to be monolithic, with only a single set of ideas, and even in socialist society at large, differences were considered something of an anomaly. Mao’s conception was very different. As a thorough going exponent of dialectical materialism, he held that contradiction was the lifeblood of any phenomenon or process. Contradictions within socialist society are an expression of its material reality and its liveliness – without them it would be dead.

Mao distinguished between two different kinds of contradictions. He opposed the view that anyone who disagreed with the official conception was part of the enemy. At the same time, in a world still ruled by forces hostile to socialism, of course there were real enemies; hence the two types of contradiction should not be confused.


Mao’s encouragement of debate and clash of ideas within the party and within socialist society did not mean that he considered these ideas primarily neutral, On the contrary, until the abolition of class society on a world scale, ideas would still have a class character. He believed firmly that progress in the communist movement was determined by struggle between two opposing lines or views. The two line struggle reflects the conflicting interests of the proletariat and bourgeoisie; but, of course, the issue can only be resolved through the test of practice, and even those putting forward a bourgeois line are not necessarily agents of the bourgeoisie. Mao believed in the principle of “curing the sickness to save the patient” in order to win round those who had put forward wrong lines.


With regard to the culture of socialist society, Mao put forward the principle of “letting a hundred flowers’ bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend·. This should be under stood from a dual viewpoint. On the one hand socialism has to be a society which gives the fullest play to human creativity, and hence it will be more rich and varied than earlier forms of society. On the other hand, as long as classes exist, reactionary ideas can crop up, but socialism can only grow stronger in combatting what is reactionary; so the principle of letting a hundred flowers bloom promotes the two line struggle.


Mao understood the need to maintain the class base for socialism even after the revolution. The worker-peasant alliance was a key factor, and in a sense, this needed to be embedded in the economic base itself. Hence Mao put forward a line best summed up in his article “On the Ten Major Relationships” (1956), which argues for putting great emphasis on the rural masses. This will create demand for the products of light industry and in turn there will be a reliable basis for heavy industry.

This mode of development contrasts with that used in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, whereby the peasantry was squeezed to provide a massive surplus, which did indeed permit rapid industrialisation, but also weakened the class basis of socialism, as well as leading to the dislocation between different sectors of the economy from which the Soviet Union is still suffering.

Thus the differences between the Chinese and Soviet kinds of society go much further than simply the question of who is conscious and who is not conscious of the problem of capitalist restoration. There are very concrete, perhaps ever qualitative differences between the types of society the two countries were building during their initial periods of socialist construction. It required great courage for the Chinese under Mao’s leadership to strike out along an independent road.


There is another angle from which we can look at the Maoist economic model of development. It is not only a breath of fresh air within the socialist movement, but also has profound significance for the debates within the third world movement. As well as showing the socialist movement what direction it should take, the Maoist model also shows the third world that it must take a socialist direction. Even if they genuinely aspire to be independent, those countries which allow themselves to be integrated into the capitalist world market will inevitably find their internal structures forced into a capitalist mould: within this mould the revenues of the peasantry are absurdly low because the pricing structure between agriculture and industry reflects that of a developed capitalism where agricultural productivity is much higher, and this provides a crucial barrier to development. Maoism points the way forward to a “delinking” from the world capitalist economy, and shows that development for the third world can only be realised under socialism.


The Communist Party of China (CPC), under Mao’s leadership, had a very acute understanding of the overall world situation. In Mao’s talk with the American Anna Louise Strong, he correctly characterised a whole era in world history – that of the Cold War – pointing out that although America really was threatening the Soviet Union, at the same time it was also using this issue an a cover for expanding its own spheres of influence and it was in the “intermediate” area that the most acute threat lay.

The problem of the correct role in world politics for a socialist state, and the relationship between this and the world revolutionary movement, was very difficult and the CPC made great contributions in this respect. The experience of the Soviet Union had accumulated quite a number of problems, particularly in the way in which revolutionaries were expected to conform to the twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy in the years leading up to World War Two. As early as the 1940’s, Mao already pointed out that the post-World War Two situation might oblige the Soviet Union to enter into some compromises with the imperialist countries, but these would not oblige the revolutionaries of those countries to follow suit.


Once China in turn had become a socialist state, Mao and his close comrade Zhou Enlai, worked out some very important new principles governing foreign relations, These were distinguished into three types of relations, namely party-to-party, state-to-state and people-to-people relations. The point was to bring together every possible force in the broadest united front against the main enemy, US imperialism tried everything to make the nations of the world, particularly the newly-independent third world nations, align with it and come under its domination. Later the Soviet Union tried the same trick. The popular masses in the oppressed countries vigorously resisted and the governments of many states, even if they were quite reactionary in some respects, had to go along with the mass demands and show certain tendencies towards independence. Otherwise they would have been kicked out. The virtue of China’s principled approach was that it distinguished clearly between the mass movement itself (expressed most clearly in the liberation movements) and the government policies which gave it circumstantial expression, while at the same time, encouraging whatever was progressive in the latter. And the communist movement itself, which is indispensable as the core of any successful revolutionary movement in the long term, was regarded as a separate level again.

China refused to abandon revolutionaries in order to curry favour with any government. China maintained friendly state relations with a number of countries e.g. Burma and Thailand – while the revolutionaries of those countries were applying Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought to their own conditions and making revolution with the active encouragement of the CPC.


Around the turn of the century, there had been a trend which tried to revise Marxism by eliminating its essence, for example by claiming that there could be a peaceful transition to socialism. Genuine communists waged a counter-attack against this “revisionism” in which they not only vindicated Marx’s ideas but also developed his theory further; Lenin saw that the revisionists were backing their own bourgeoisie the colonial question, and developed a line on this question which went beyond Marx. As Lenin said, the theoretical victory of Marxism obliged ever, its enemies to disguise themselves as Marxists. This is a deep truth which app1ies to the whole of the present era.

Mao fully grasped this truth, and understood that the line of the communist movement develops in struggle against what is negative. Under his leadership, the Central Committee of the CPC identified the fact that a new international trend, which they called “modern revisionism”, had reared its head. The Soviet leadership had been putting forward, particularly since its 20th Party Congress in 1956, a line which held that peaceful co-existence between themselves and the USA was the decisive factor, influencing the world situation and alleging that both class and national liberation struggles could proceed in a moderate way, without facing violence.

The CPC decided to counterattack in the early 1960’s with a series of collectively written documents which together make up the “Polemic on the General Line of the international Communist Movement”. The CPC made a few mistakes but overall the Polemic is an astonishingly correct and systematic restatement of basic Marxist-Leninist principles, as well as creatively developing the theory.


Today we call our movement Marxist-Leninist because the revisionists had departed from certain scientific truths which apply throughout the whole era of capitalism and imperialism, and the Polemic re-asserted them. They include the following:
(a) The capitalist state is an instrument of violence for the maintenance of capitalist rule, and it is virtually impossible that the exploiters will give up power voluntarily.
(b) Relations between socialist and capitalist countries can never determine the development of the three other important conflicts in the world i.e. the class struggle, national liberation and the clash between rival imperialist powers.
(c) Imperialism as a system is the source of war. Hence, struggles which serve to abolish imperialism, especially revolutionary wars of national liberation, can never be held up under the excuse that they would disrupt world peace.

Among the new ideas developed the following are particularly important:

The oppressed nations are facing a new era of neo-colonialism in which the tasks of national liberation, far from coming to an end, move to a higher plane.

Asia, Africa and Latin America are the focus of contradictions in the contemporary world.

The political storms across the Third World at times of relative peace within the imperialist states have amply proved the point.

Of all the ideas Mao Zedong put forward, the most controversial is his idea of the need for a ’Cultural Revolution’. Unlike nearly all his other theories, this one was not vindicated by practice. But China’s Cultural Revolution remains an unprecedented event in the history of the international communist movement, from which we can learn from both its negative and positive experiences.

It is 1ikely that it will take time before the international movement or even the Chinese Communist Party will be able to make a thorough, scientific analysis of this event. But its basic themes remain one of the major unsolved problems in the building of socialism.

The aim of the Cultured Revolution was to avert the threat of a restoration of capitalism in a socialist country. Reactionaries are happy to argue that revolution inevitably gives rise to a new oppressive society. But for revolutionaries, since the Soviet Union, once a living model can clearly no longer be considered a socialist society. The question of the restoration of capitalism is still a vital one.


At the very least, we can say that a bureaucratic grouping holds power now in the USSR, which has turned the Communist party into its instrument and monopolies wealth and privilege. The only possible source of its extravagant life style is the surplus value generated by the labouring people.

Thus, we can refer to this group as new class of exploiters. Even though they do not own the means of production, they control the nationalised economy because they control the state. Moreover, externally they oppress other nations, such as Afghanistan and Poland and Eritrea. Certainly the Soviet Union is no longer socialist, and unless we assume the existence of a completely new exploitative mode of production, it is probably correct to call it capitalist.

Thus we can see that Mao’s assessment of the danger of capitalist restoration, and the need for a mass movement to prevent tone in China, was correct in a general sense.


In its actual practice, the Cultural Revolution failed to carry out what remain necessary tasks. It was a grave negative experience, a reverse in the history of socialism. The hoped-for new ideas, new successors to the revolution, new forms of social organisation, failed to materialise. Instead, a large number of people, who had, at worst committed only minor errors were branded “capitalist roaders” and ill-treated and the party’s work style, inherited from the revolutionary wars, was overturned. Many opportunists used the mass movement to propel themselves to power. When Mao’s successor, Comrade Hua Guofeng threw out the ’Gang of Four’, there was vast popular relief.

The experience of the Cultural Revolution caused confusion because the correct concepts which Mao put forward (the need to combat revisionism and continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat) were discredited by the actual practice of the movement.


The Cultural Revolution was launched on the basis of a general analysis of the world situation rather than a concrete analysis of the situation in China. Like the Paris Commune of 1871, it can be seen as a first historical attempt from which the international movement can learn a lot in order to do better next time.

The target of the Cultural Revolution was supposed to be revisionists and people taking the capitalist road. But there was no definition of these phenomena in China’s concrete conditions. The process of the formation of central capitalism in the imperialist countries is different from that of dependent capital in the Third World, and different again from that of state-bureaucratic capitalism in the USSR. These crucial distinctions were completely neglected.

In the actual practice also, the concept of ’seeking truth from facts’ was abandoned and people relied instead on abstract slogans. In the earlier part of the Chinese revolution Mao had always combatted what he called “stereotyped party writing, empty phrase mongering and the style of “ruthless struggle and merciless blows” pointing out correctly that these reflected a failure to get to grips with material reality of a situation. But in the Cultural Revolution, these bad styles of work became the norm, and grew to fantastic proportions.

Another aspect of Mao Zedong Thought that was overturned by the practice of the Cultural Revolution was the important distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. Vast numbers of people were treated as the enemy, rather than simply influenced by bourgeois ideas. The policy of sending intellectuals to do manual labour among the masses was treated as a punishment. This critical error violated some of the correct tendencies, as well as leading to the ill-treatment of countless individuals.

As the above argument shows, even a critique of Mao’s errors, can be carried out by applying Mao Zedong Thought as a system. This is a measure of its fundamental correctness, in the same way that the errors made by Marx and Engels as individuals can be both explained and rectified by a consistent application of the principle of historical materialism which they put forth.


In 1962, Mao stated that: “The next 50 to 100 years or so, beginning from now, will be a great era of radical change in the social system throughout the world, an earth-shaking era without equal in any previous historical period. Living in such an era, we must be prepared to engage in great struggles which will have many features different in form from those of the past.”

A few years later, there began the period of the great structural crisis of the world imperialist system, in which we are still living. The new problems raised in this period are exceptionally complex, but equally the opportunities for revolution are great. More than ever, we need the tried and tested methods of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought to guide us forward and Comrade Mao’s Zedong’s indomitable revolutionary spirit to inspire us to victory.