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Mao Tse-tung

Nigel Harris et al.

Mao Tse-tung

Mao Tse-tung Thought

What were the main lines of Mao’s thinking and how do they appear in comparison to Bolshevism?

One of the most striking assumptions is that the working class and the rural poor can only be won to the cause, and land distribution made more equal, after the seizure of State power. The class struggle is then not at all the basis of the revolution, the source of that collective experience and those institutions of class power (Soviets) which lead to the seizure of power. On the contrary, the class struggle is a side issue which can detract from the main task, building a military base independent of classes. Indeed ‘classes’ begin to disintegrate into complex strata whose treatment is defined not by their position in the social structure, but by their political attitudes:

‘Whoever sides with the revolutionary people is a revolutionary. Whoever sides with imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism is a counterrevolutionary.’ [1]

After the Party came to power, ‘class struggle’ took on a different meaning. It is still nothing to do with working class activity, but is a Party purge. Mao provides a striking example of this usage: ‘We have not had a class struggle for ten years. We had one in 1952 and one in 1957, but these were just in the administrative organs and in the schools.’ [2] It is only the CCP which can wage ‘class struggles’, because ultimately, it alone is the proletariat. In China’s case, however, during the Cultural Revolution when he led an attack on a section of the Party, it seems he and his followers became the proletariat on their own.

If the Communist Party is in practice the proletariat, it needs no organic relationship to workers or anybody else, nor do workers need to play an important role in the Party. Workers are just one of many groups that the Party relates to and, on occasions, needs to secure support from.

It follows that the Party is concerned with the class interests of the exploited only as a means to mobilise support for the army before the revolution, without thereby jeopardising the interests of other classes. In practice, this necessitates a programme of moderate social reformism, balancing contradictory interests and suffused with a great deal of moral rhetoric. Attacking a class interest is reserved only as a punishment for ‘unpatriotic’ landlords or capitalists. In the same way, in foreign policy in subsequent years, the two ‘superpowers’ lost and acquired moral status between the ’fifties and ’sixties; neither were seen as part of an objective world order, independent of the intentions of their respective leaders.

Class collaboration is therefore of the essence of the struggle for power. In practice, Mao seems to have measured his performance by the reaction of the ‘middle strata’, as he measured the foreign impact of China in the eyes of ‘educated liberal opinion’ in the Western countries, not the working class movement. The ‘middle strata’ in China covered a vast range from the urban middle classes through the middle and rich peasantry, to small businessmen and merchants, what for Marx was the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. They were, in Mao’s view, the majority:

‘Chinese society is a society with two small heads and a large body; the proletariat and big landlords and capitalists are minorities; and the broadest group is the middle class. If the policy of any political party does not look after the interests of the middle class, if the middle class does not have freedom of speech, if it does not have clothes to wear, food to eat, work to do, books to read, national affairs cannot be well managed.’ [3]

Collaboration with the Chinese bourgeoisie was in the foreground of these politics. But Mao also acquired from the politics of the Third Period an unwillingness to collaborate with other parties in the working class movement. It is not accidental that the term Stalin used to describe the Social Democrats in the late ‘twenties, ‘social fascist’, has been adopted as the description of pro-Moscow Communist Parties in the 1960s. The results are disastrous for Maoist groups abroad – an urgent need to collaborate with bourgeois parties, and a sectarian rejection of the Communist Party. [4] The ‘United Front’ Maoist style is not, as some people have suggested, a tactical feint – although it includes much smart footwork – but a strategy. Indeed, Mao himself defines its status thus:

‘Our eighteen years of experience show that the united front and armed struggle are the two basic weapons for defeating the enemy. The united front is a united front for carrying on armed struggle.’ [5]

Methods of cadre control became, in power, also methods of securing the acceptance of the cadres by the population and methods of general social control. Again, there was a characteristically peculiar combination of conservative practice and heroic slogans, as had occurred in the land proposals in the ‘thirties. The ‘bureaucracy’ was denounced, as if the Party leadership intended to abolish the bureaucratic ruling class, but the denunciation referred only to the style of work of the cadres. Or, Mao demanded ‘democracy’, but never majority control of the leadership or policy, only the cadres listening to people more and behaving fairly’. In the ‘twenties, Mao had called the Red Army ‘democratic’ without meaning that the soldiers elected their officers. What he did mean, he explained, was:

‘The officers do not beat the men; the officers and men receive equal treatment; soldiers are free to hold meetings and speak out; trivial formalities have been done away with; and the accounts are open for all to inspect.’ [6]

Similarly, the ‘Soviet’ was no longer the institutional expression of a collective, the working class, it was just the name of the local authority set up after the Red Army had secured a territory (and scrapped, as a verbal concession, after the ‘United Front’ was created in 1937).

The language of Marxism was little more than a camouflage. The core of Mao’s pre-occupations were either military tactics or associated material questions, and politics became not much more than a suitable decoration. For Lenin, the analysis of the objective world was decisive for fusing the struggle for class interests, the struggle for the State, and an objective class structure changing over a particular phase of history. But if the method of securing power, military conquest, did not need to identify and utilise class interest, there was no need of such an exercise.

It was appropriate enough that Mao should return to the philosophic doctrines of the nineteenth century nationalist revolutionaries, idealism, even if expressed in pseudo-materialist terms. Will and conviction were the sole keys to history. The psychology of men and women could be transformed, regardless of social structure, by education and propaganda:

‘The Red Army is like a furnace in which all captured soldiers are melted down and transformed the moment they come over.’ [7]

The soldiers, bandits, Kuomintang or warlord, could find the truth if they only believed. The method of doing so was creating, as well as a style and rules of work, a religion, a ritual, learned and repeated by rote, a set of abstract propositions entirely remote from any science of history.

The religion required a Godhead, and from the early 1940s, Mao played that role – as well as those of Gospel writer and Pope. The abstractions, the ‘quotations’, permitted complete freedom to the Party leadership to do what it wished. But no action could be undertaken without an embroidered fringe of Mao-thought, much as religious men in Europe added a word from the Bible a hundred and fifty years earlier, or Stalin dredged up some string of Lenin’s words. This was not ‘theory’, it was, in Marx’s sense, ‘ideology’, false consciousness’.

What is the meaning of the ‘cult of personality’? It is not an accidental mistake. It is, as Marx said religion was, a projection. Religion was the projection of all the humanity robbed from mankind by capitalism, ‘the heart of a heartless world’. The so-called cult of personality is the projection of a people’s creativity, of its initiative. The Chinese people built modern China, not Mao, but the historical record is of a giant bestriding a world of grateful pygmies, sheltering in his shadow. The size of the giant is an inverted measure of the self-emancipation of the Chinese people. The larger it is, the less emancipated they are.

Mao tolerated and encouraged the cult of his own personality from the early 1940s. It attained spectacular proportions in the Cultural Revolution, but it was not new. Consider out of the wealth of examples, just these two from earlier years. In 1950, the Peking Municipal Government cited with warm approval this statement of a peasant:

‘Formerly we worshipped Kuan Kung who was said to be omnipotent. Where is his omnipotence? Whom shall we worship? To my mind, we should worship Chairman Mao.’ [8]

In the Great Leap Forward, the cult attained even more inflated proportions:

‘Mao Tse-tung thought is the only correct thought. It is the incarnation of Marxism-Leninism in China, it is the symbol of truth. Therefore, if a person at any time whatever, in any place whatever, regarding any question whatever, manifests wavering in his attitude towards Mao Tse-tung thought, then, no matter if this wavering is only momentary and slight, it means in reality that the waverer departs from Marxist-Leninist truth, and will lose his bearings and commit political errors. So we must follow Chairman Mao steadfastly and eternally! Forward, following a hundred per cent and without the slightest reservation the way of Mao Tse-tung.’ [9]


1. 2nd session, 1st National People’s Congress, Chinese Political Consultative Council, 23 June 1950, included in Quotations from Chairman Mao, Peking 1966, p.14.

2. May 1963, Miscelleny II, p.33.

3. Address to the Shensi-Kansu-Ninghsia Border Region Assembly, Yenan, 22 December 1941, cited by Boyd Compton, Mao’s China: Party Reform Documents, 1942-44, London 1952.

4. See Portugal for the results, as described in Tony Cliff’s Portugal at the Crossroads, International Socialism 81/82, September 1975.

5. Selected Works, II, p.295, 1940.

6. The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains, Selected Works I, p.83, and Quotations, p.158.

7. Selected Works, I, New York 1954, p.83.

8. General Report on Agrarian Reform in the Peking Suburban Area, 21 November 1950.

9. Liu Tzu-chu, Cheng-chih Hsueh-hsi, 19, 1959, pp.3-4. Cited in Schram, Mao Tse-tung, London 1966.

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Last updated: 20.1.2008