What is Maoism?

Statue of Mao Zedong, the pioneer of the People’s Republic of China. Editorial credit: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / Shutterstock.com
Statue of Mao Zedong, the pioneer of the People’s Republic of China. Editorial credit: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / Shutterstock.com

Mao Zedong Thought, or simply Maoism, is the vision, policy, ideology, and political thoughts of Mao Zedong and his associates in the Chinese Communist Party that were practiced from around 1920 until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. It represents a revolutionary outlook that was applied as a guiding ideology for the Communist Party of China. However, it is difficult to point out the content and basic features of Maoism in the context of the evolving course of the Chinese Communist revolution. The major difference between Mao Zedong Thought and other components of Marxism is that it advocates for peasants as the main revolutionaries in China because they are better suited to establish a revolutionary class in the country compared to the industrial working class.

The Origin of Maoism

The Chinese intellectual tradition of the past century can be defined by the concept of iconoclasm and nationalism. By the turn of the 20th century, part of the China’s traditional elites like landlords increasingly became skeptical of the Confucianism. Therefore, they created a new part of the Chinese society, heralding the start of a revolution against the gentry as a social class in the country. In 1911, the last Imperial Chinese dynasty fell, leading to the final failure of the Confucian moral order. Confucianism later became synonymous with conservatism, leading to the iconoclasm among the Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century. Iconoclasm was expressed profoundly during the New Culture Movement from 1915 to 1919. It aimed at doing away with the past traditions and cultures of the Chinese people.

The Chinese intellectual traditions were also dominated by the radical anti-imperialism that evolved it into a fierce nationalistic fervor which had a great impact on Mao’s philosophy. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed which transferred the land ceded to the Germany in Shandong to the Japanese rather ran returning to the Chinese. The treaty led to a violent protest in Beijing, politically awakening a society which had been inert and dormant. Prior to the violent protests in 1919, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had elicited interest among the Chinese intellectuals but a revolution was not considered a viable option until the 1919 protest.

​Who was Mao Zedong?

Mao Zedong was a communist revolutionary and the pioneer of the People’s Republic of China. He was the leader of the CPC from its inception in 1949 until he died in 1976. Born from a wealthy family in 1893, Mao became a Chinese nationalist from a young age, having been influenced by Xinhai Revolution 1911 and the famous May Fourth Revolution in 1919. He became the founding member of the Communist Party of China while working at Peking University and led the Autumn Harvest Uprising in 1927. On October 1, 1949, he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Thereafter, he solidified his control of the country through land reforms, victory in the Korean War, and campaign against landlords who he considered anti-revolutionaries. Mao was regarded as a controversial figure and one of the most important people in the modern history. He is credited for driving imperialism out of China and modernizing the country. He died in 1976 at the age of 82 years.

The Components of Maoism

Maoism was defined by several features, ideologies, strategies, and policies considering the changing requirement of the Chinese revolution. At the top of the components was the theory of New Democracy which became popular among the revolutionaries in China in the late 1940s. The theory held that socialism could only be achieved through popular, democratic, and anti-imperialist movement with the communists in charge.

The other important component of Maoism was what Mao termed as “People’s War.” He believed that the revolutionary struggle by the majority against the exploiting class could only be worn by revolt and through guerrilla warfare. The Mass Line, another important theory of Maoism, held that the party and the people must never be separate, either through policy or revolution. For a revolution to be successful, the masses must be involved.

Maoism also focused on agrarian rather than the conventional Marxism which focused on industrial urban forces. Maoist parties focus on the agrarian countryside and have also emphasized on urban and rural areas development in accordance with the country’s economic activities.

The Fate of Maoism Beyond Mao

After the death of Mao, socialist market reforms were initiated by Deng Xiaoping, leading to radical changes in Mao’s ideologies in China. Deng held that the state policies should be judged by their practical consequences. He was also able to separate Mao from his idea of Maoism which was considered holy writ, effectively reducing the role of ideology. The constitution of China has been revised to promote the ideas of Deng over Maoism, leading to a perception inside and outside China that the country has abandoned Maoism. Internationally, Maoist movement was divided into three groups following a power struggle after the death of Mao.

The International Impacts of Maoism

Maoism had a great impact not only in China but also in the neighboring countries and beyond the continent of Asia. In Afghanistan, a Maoist organization known as the Progressive Youth Organization was established in 1965. It advocated for the overthrowing of their regime through “People’s War.” In Bangladesh, a Maoist party, founded in 1968, played a key role in the country’s liberation struggle. In Portugal, Maoism was active in the 1970s, particularly during the Carnation Revolution. The Portuguese Workers’ Communist Party was at the center of the revolution which led to the fall of the fascist government. Other countries that have been impacted by Maoism include Belgium, Iran, Ecuador, and Turkey.

​Criticisms of Maoism

Maoism is no longer popular within the CPC, especially after Deng’s initiated reforms of 1978. It was considered harmful to the several mass movements that were common during the reign of Mao. Deng suggested that the revolutionary aspect of Maoism should be separated from the governance side because of the dangers of the revolution. Enver Hoxha argued that the theory of “New Democracy” halted class struggle while the theory of “three worlds” was anti-revolutionary. Mao was also accused of departing from Leninism since he rarely showed interest in the urban working class and the role of Communist Party. Some scholars have viewed Maoism as an attempt to combine socialism with Confucianism.


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