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Mao Tse-tung

Nigel Harris et al.

Mao Tse-tung

Mao and the Chinese Revolution

‘As our opinions of an individual are not based on what he thinks of himself so can we not judge of such a period of transformation (social revolution) by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production’
(Marx, Critique of Political Economy, Selected Works 1, London n.d., p.356).

MAO is dead. The twentieth century loses possibly the greatest nationalist revolutionary of the century, and one of the greatest of all times. The peculiarities of the history of his times enabled Mao to play such an extraordinary role. What were the historic forces which enabled him to be effective?

The State and capitalism

In the twentieth century, capitalism has a number of new characteristics – the scale and concentration of production and ownership (’Monopoly Capitalism’), the merger of business and the State, and the intense domination of the whole globe by the rivalries of a small group of industrially advanced countries. The private owners of capital – numbering in Britain, hundreds of thousands in the nineteenth century – have dwindled as the power of the system has grown. They can no longer in any serious sense be, as they once were, a popular class, with deep roots in the mass of the population. Even for those that survived as owners, State ownership, control and planning became decisive for their survival. Every crisis or war served only to increase the role of the State in order to safeguard the national ruling class against internal and external attack.

Segments of private business promoted the changes in order to secure their own survival (other segments fought bitterly against it, of course, since success in the endeavour would eliminate them). The more backward a country, the more vulnerable it is under the hammer blows of slump, and the more sections of its ruling class were impelled to adopt measures of statification. It was primarily a defensive reaction, an attempt to secure a scale of capital and unity of direction capable of competing with the enormous concentrations of capital that dominate the world market, capable of substaining the national independence of a particular ruling class.

The Bourgeois Revolution

If the institutional form of a stable national capitalism requires today complete or partial control or ownership of the means of production by the State, what does this make of the concept of the ‘bourgeois revolution’? There, the capitalists, rising out of a pre-capitalist society, led the urban classes to seize the State, while the mass of peasants seized the lands of the aristocracy, so destroying the social basis of the old State, all in the name of the freedom of the majority. Once accomplished, capitalism could freely develop, transforming the whole country on the basis of a much more systematic and increasing exploitation of labour. In pre-capitalist countries of the twentieth century, however, industrial production was largely in the hands of foreigners and of their dependents, essentially parasitic interests. Already, at the turn of the century, European Marxists had noted that

‘The farther east one goes (i.e., the more backward the country), the weaker, meaner and more cowardly in the political sense becomes the bourgeoisie.’ [1]

The ‘moral’ failing was the result of the changed position of capital, now threatened from abroad by much more powerful concentrations of capital, and at home, by a numerically much more powerful working class, infected with radical ideas. Even if, by chance, private business did inherit power, it was no longer capable, by reason of the structure of world capitalism, of building an independent capitalist economy, of transforming the whole society.

The ‘bourgeois revolution’ in its classical form stopped. Its highest ‘achievement’ in the twentieth century was the Weimar Republic of Germany, tumbling helplessly into Nazism. In more backward countries, there was not even that interlude. Only bayonets could protect the social order, and State enterprise the economic. In Italy, Poland, Rumania, fascism was the only method of survival for the ruling class in conditions of interwar slump. In China, in practice if not name, it was the same order under Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang; in the economic order, the largest part of the fixed assets of industry and transport were in the hands of the State.

However, the problems for which the bourgeois revolution was a solution – the contradiction between the relations of precapitalist production and the means of production, as well as the general social misery of pre-capitalist society – not only continued, they were vastly intensified under the impact of increasing domination by the advanced industrial powers. In the same way, the problem of national independence, essentially the struggle of a subordinated bourgeoisie to secure its freedom, grew more extreme.

The bourgeois revolution always had an international aspect, intimately interwoven with the struggle for national independence. As a result, there were many examples of national independence being won before the material basis, capitalism, had arrived. The American war of independence contributed directly to the French revolution of 1789, which in turn sparked off national independence movements throughout the whole of Latin American which, assisted by British imperialism, destroyed the Spanish Empire. But US capitalism did not secure unchallenged domination of the United States until after the American Civil War, one hundred years later. Mexico experienced a terrible bloodletting in the war of independence against Spain (1810-30), but did not, in victory, secure a stable bourgeois order; political upheavals continued through the century, culminating in the great peasant revolution of 1910-1920, but again ending in stalemate. Not until after the second World War, under the impact of world economic expansion, did the Mexican bourgeoisie create the material basis for what they had undertaken in 1810.

‘Socialist’ nationalism

If the employers would not undertake to destroy the old State, others did. There were a host of them in the backward countries of Europe (Garibaldi in Italy and Kossuth in Hungary, for example) and in Latin America. In Asia, in the twentieth century, there were others – for example, Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang in China, or Ghandi and Nehru in India. They were in general from the social group Marx called in Germany, ‘the democratic petit bourgeoisie’. [2] In our times, however, they are more narrowly identified as coming from the urban intelligenstia (even where some of them had a prior rural origin). Such a group, not rooted in the private ownership of the means of production, were much more adept at transmitting the changed needs of twentieth century capitalism – State control, ownership and direction.

In the twentieth century, all the national revolutionaries have been in name ‘socialist’. Any movement for national independence must be cemented with demands for social reform, and must secure State direction and planning, the precondition for even attempting to survive against the great capitalist concentrations of the imperialist powers. Only ‘socialist’ rhetoric was capable of linking the social aspirations of the mass of the population (in place of 1789, when ‘freedom’ played that role) with the new form of capitalism. Many of the national leaders, reacting pragmatically, produced only impure forms, however: the ‘mixed economy’, State planning with a public sector but also private business and foreign capital (for example, see the cloudy ramblings of Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles or Nehru’s ‘socialism’). Many of them also lacked the organisational forms capable of carrying them to power – the mass centralised party (which had not been required in 1789 or the nineteenth century). Those contributions came from a different source.

The Bolsheviks

The Marxists were engaged in a quite different undertaking – not the creation of a substitute national bourgeoisie in a backward country, whether fashioned out of private businessmen or the functionaries of the State, but the destruction of the bourgeoisie in advanced capitalism and the creation of an international planned economy, founded upon the self-emanicipation of the majority, the working class. However, in Tsarist Russia, the two revolutions overlapped. By European standards, Russia was backward, its working class small, and its private industry dominated by foreign interests.

The first step was clearly the bourgeois revolution, but Russia’s few private employers were far too weak to undertake the seizure of the Tsarist state. According to the Bolsheviks, the only class which could undertake it, in conjunction with the peasant seizure of the land, was the working class. Once the workers had seized power, however, they would be defeated by a new alliance of private property owners, the new landowning peasantry and the petty private businessmen (Kulaks and nepmen). The only defence against such an occurrence was the possibility that the destruction of the Tsarist State would merge with the international socialist revolution in the advanced countries of Western Europe. Then, the victorious working classes of advanced capitalism would bring the material means to assist their beleagured Russian brothers and sisters, to placate the peasantry and secure the survival of the workers’ State.

The Bolsheviks were not concerned with the ‘national liberation’ of Russia. On the contrary, it was explicit that an independent Russian State would be dissolved in an ‘international Soviet Republic’ (Communist International, 2nd Congress) The growing contradiction between the political structure of the world, the national State, and its economic structure, a world capitalist economy, would be resolved through an international society.


The perspective failed. There was no German revolution. On the contrary, there were massive defeats for the west European working classes. A new leadership in the Soviet Communist Party switched the points of history, from the aspirations of an international working class revolution in 1917 to the national ambitions of 1789, executing the historic tasks of a Russian State-based substance bourgeoisie: accumulation and the transformation of Russian society to fit the imperatives of the survival of national power in the twentieth century. In the plans of the thirties, they had apparently remarkable success in this endeavour. A ‘new civilisation’ was born, founded on a more systematic exploitation of labour than was possible in the old capitalisms of the West.

In doing this, the Russian leadership also transformed the political alternatives available. The most advanced sections of the working class of the industrialised countries were now tied for more than a generation to the perspectives of creating a new State-based industry in Russia. In the backward countries, a new perspective for power was born, through a mass organised party, borrowing upon the collective disciplines of the working class, and, after the seizure of power, introducing the purest forms of accumulation – State capitalism. ‘Socialism’ became, not a method of collective self-emancipation, but a ‘model of economic development’.


The ultimate argument against Stalin’s transformation of the perspectives of the Communist International was a working class revolution that broke free of his Russian national preoccupations. Few countries had such an experience, partly because often the leadership of the workers’ movement was tied either to the interests of the rulers of the Soviet Union or to those of the advanced capitalist countries. But the Chinese working class, in the mid-1920s, exploded with elemental force. The contradiction between the interests of the Russian ruling class and the Chinese proletariat wrecked the Chinese Communist Party, tore it entirely loose from its shallow moorings in the traditions of October 1917.


Mao’s strength was to create, slowly and patiently and in the face of apparently overwhelming obstacles, a quite different force. Not only was it not rooted in the Chinese working class, there was no need for it to be; indeed, it would have made its operations much more difficult if it had had to carry a working class base. Nor, contrary to what is often claimed, was it rooted in the Chinese peasantry, although a majority of its members were ex-peasants. It was not dedicated to creating an international workers’ republic, but to attaining national power in China, with whatever social forces would assist in that undertaking. The forces of the old bourgeois revolution in China were so weak that they could create no more than a corrupt dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek, but even then, the whole territory of China could not be unified under it, nor could the Kuomintang make any effective resistance to the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. In such circumstances, Mao’s ‘communist’ party became the only Nationalist alternative.

Stalin and his supporters betrayed the perspectives of October 1917; they turned the clock back. Mao did not, for he did not set out to achieve 1917; but the betrayal of 1917 was the precondition for Mao’s career. Stalin pushed the aspirations of the Soviet Union in the 1920s backwards into the imperatives of primitive accumulation, dressed in the rhetoric of ‘socialism in one country’. But Mao went forward towards primitive accumulation, a great step forward for backward China. Out of the catastrophe of 1926-27, Mao created a military force capable of survival against overwhelming odds. In the face of all the predictions to the contrary, he then conquered power. He could not have done so in circumstances any less extreme than those of China in the late 1920s and 1930s, the era of warlords, weak central government, social collapse, and finally overwhelming foreign invasion. But to say that is not to detract from the remarkable capacities of tenacity, courage and persistence required to survive and grow in that period. But this had nothing to do with the international proletarian revolution, although it was the language of that tradition Mao was obliged to use. He could never acknowledge his own real originality in his writings, since it contradicted the tradition.

For a mass working class organisation, the programme of the party is a decisive question. For it is meant to summarise class interests as they are perceived by the advanced elements of the class. But this is not so in all revolutions.

It was the audacity and persistence of Mao and his party, his incorruptibility and devotion to all Chinese which inspired the young nationalists of China, just as earlier such characteristics had inspired the followers of Bolivar and Garibaldi. In 1789, it was the same for the sans-culottes – ‘it was this impression of “caring”, far more than any political specific, which counted.’ [3] Like Robespierre before him, Mao seemed to have dragged down the gods from their pedestals. He cleansed China of that peculiarly vicious form of barbarism, Asiatic despotism, rotted but simultaneously glued in place by Western imperialism and its satraps.

In Korea, his armies, still breathless from the rigours of a vast and testing civil war, operating from a war ravaged country, blocked the might of the most powerful military State in the world, the United States, leaders of the old bourgeoisie. Only ten years later, Mao acquired the highest status symbol of national power in the modern age, nuclear weapons. With audacity, he openly opposed the oldest State of the substitute bourgeoisie, the Soviet Union, much as the young Prussia of 1871 flexed its muscles over ageing France. And ten years later, with manifest delight, he received the highest accolade of the old bourgeoisie, a State visit from the President of the United States.

National power was not the only theme, but the most important one, and certainly so for Mao himself. The Chinese revolution is part of the old age of the long epoch of the bourgeois revolution. But it has thrown up some of the same themes originally raised during the youth of the epoch, the French revolution of 1789. There, the revolutionaries also proclaimed Equality and Fraternity – but also Liberty. Saint-Just and the radicals declared:

‘The poor are masters of the earth; they have the right to speak with authority to government who ignore their interests.’ [4]


‘Robespierre had no detailed or specific programme at this time. His economic ideas were unformed. He gave expression to the feelings that patriots most widely shared, glorifying the people, calling for vengeance upon aristocrats and traitors, urging the government bodies be purified, branding as counterrevolutionary both middle class moderates and proletarian malcontents. [5]

Even the abolition of the marks of military ranks, proudly proclaimed in China in 1965, had its French forebear:

‘let commanders, officers and soldiers receive the same pay and eat the same bread, so that differences in ranks do not become the subject of a vain parade, but serve a useful purpose.’ [6]

Then, as in China today, morality rather than science was all. The morality is aimed, in Marx’s words on the utopian socialists, at inculcating ‘universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form’ [7], an ‘ascetic communism, scorning all enjoyments of life and liked to Spartan conceptions’. [8] Its nearest reality in the eighteenth century were those Puritan businessmen who lived in a terror of any raid upon their accumulation from those with no better claim than hunger. In a backward society with controlled equality, rather than competing businessmen,then the picture is rather more what Marx described in Fourier as ‘industrial feudalism’.

Thus in history, the material forces of production transform the proclaimed ethics, transform the struggle for emancipation into the rationalisation of more systematic exploitation. Ironically, those ethics are still strong enough in the old bourgeoisie to excite their universal admiration of People’s China. But they are not strong enough to change the material basis of China with any rapidity.

The sequence by which the achievements of the Chinese revolution were accomplished are complex. Here are a series of notes on some of the important episodes that fashioned Mao Tse-tung and his role in China.


1. Struve, Manifesto of the Russian Workers Social Democratic Party, cited Carr, 1950, p.4.

2. Cf. Address to the Central Council of the Communist League, 1850, Selected Works, op. cit., pp.167-8.

3. G.A. Williams, Artisans and Sans-culottes, London 1968, p.17.

4. 8 Ventose, cited by Albert Soboul, The Parisian Sans-culottes and the French Revolution, Oxford 1964, p.26.

5. R.R. Palmer, Twelve who ruled, Princeton 1941, p.39.

6. L’Ami du Peuple, 14 August, 1793, ibid., p.229.

7. Communist Manifesto, op. cit., p.237.

8. Engels, Socialism, Scientific and Utopian, ibid., p.143.

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Last updated: 20.1.2008