What Is Maoism?

The Maoist movement in India is a direct consequence of the tragedy of India ruled by her big bourgeoisie and governed by parties co-opted by that class-fraction.  The movement now threatens the accumulation of capital in its areas of influence, prompting the Indian state to intensify its barbaric counter-insurgency strategy to throttle it.  In trying to understand what is going on, and, in turn, to re-imagine what the practice of radical democratic politics could be, it might help if, for a moment, we step aside and reflect over the questions: What is Maoism?  What of its origins and development?  What went before its advent?  What are its flaws?  Where is it going?  Where should it be going, given its legacy?  As I write at this lovely time of the festival of lights — Diwali — in India, I hope to bring back into the glow this body of thought and practice that the stenographers of power have consciously, deliberately distorted.  I am fully aware that those whose job it is to transcribe the opinion of the dominant classes will — having already presupposed what Maoism is all about — accuse me of pushing an ideological agenda, and will dismiss what I have to say as illegitimate.  Nevertheless, let me persist.

. . . (A) Marxism stripped of its revolutionary essence is a contradiction in terms with no reason for being and no power to survive. — Paul M Sweezy (1983: 7)

Anuradha Ghandy (Anu as we knew her) was a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI (Maoist)].  Early on, she developed a sense of obligation to the poor; she joined them in their struggle for bread and roses, the fight for a richer and a fuller life for all.  Tragically, cerebral malaria took her away in April last year.  What is this spirit that made her selflessly adopt the cause of the damned of the Indian earth — the exploited, the oppressed, and the dominated — as her own?  The risks of joining the Maoist long march seem far too dangerous to most people, but not for her — bold, courageous and decisive, yet kind, gentle and considerate.  Perhaps her days were numbered, marked as she was on the dossiers of the Indian state’s repressive apparatus as one of the most wanted “left-wing extremists”.  That oppressive, brutal structure has been executing a barbaric counter-insurgency strategy — designed to maintain the status quo — against the Maoist movement in India.  What is it that is driving the Indian state, hell-bent as it is to cripple and maim the spirit that inspires persons like Anu?  Practically the whole Indian polity — from the semi-fascist Bharatiya Janata Party to the main affiliate of the parliamentary left, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — have pitched in against the Maoists, backing a massive planned escalation of the deployment of paramilitary-cum-armed-police, this time with logistical support from the military, to crush the rebels.  It seems that sections of monopoly capital — including ArcelorMittal, the Essar Group, Vedanta Resources, Tata Steel, POSCO, and the Sajjan Jindal Group — have given an ultimatum to the state governments concerned and the union government that they will dump their proposed mining/industrial/SEZ projects if the local resistance to their business plans are not crippled once and for all.

Righteous indignation against “left-wing extremism” has reached a crescendo, buttressed as it is by sections of the commercial media, with images and profiles (dished out to the fourth estate by anti-terrorist squad officers) of apprehended revolutionists a source of excitement for TV audiences.  A year and a half ago, my son — lanky, unkempt, his hair dishevelled — came home from school one day to tell us that his teacher called him a Naxalite (what the Maoists are popularly called).  I asked him, “How did you react?”  He queried, “Daddy, who are these guys, these Naxalites?”  I answered, “Well, they are rebels who resent the deep injustice meted out to the poor.”  He responded, “Well then, I feel proud to be called a Naxalite”.  The boy is still very young, but he will soon approach that wonderful time of his life when his urge to understand what is going on in the country and the world will be unquenchable.  More recently, a malicious and vengeful advertisement by the home ministry in the newspapers painted the Maoists as “cold-blooded criminals”.  Maybe it is time for me to consider how I will answer his question: What is Maoism?

An answer to such a query requires a stepwise approach to finding first answers to questions such as: What is Marxism?  What is Leninism?  What is Stalinism?  Only then, can one get to understand what Maoism is all about.  For, after all, Mao’s Marxism undoubtedly stemmed from the Leninist school; he applied Marxism, Leninism (the latter, a school of Marxism in the age of imperialism) and Stalinism (a decomposed form of Leninism which he also struggled to overcome and go beyond), as a method of analysis of the social reality of China.  But more, he intervened in that reality through conscious social political action guided by Marxist theory and from the late 1920s to the end of the 1960s continuously learnt from events, thus making possible an enrichment of the original.

What has come to be known as Maoism had its material roots in China’s underdevelopment, the failed practice of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the urban areas in the 1920s, and its subsequent peasant-cum-guerrilla-based movement in the countryside.  Theoretically, and in practice, Mao’s Marxism was enriched by overcoming and going beyond Stalin’s mechanical interpretation of Marx’s theory of history.  And, Mao constantly applied Marx’s “materialist dialectics” in helping to understand and resolve multiple “contradictions” — internal conflicts tending to split what is functionally united — with the likely outcome following from the reciprocal actions of the opposing tendencies.  It is the fusion of all of this with the original Marxism and Leninism that constitutes Maoism.  Like Marxism, at its best, it is a comprehensive world view, a method of analysis and a guide to practice, not a set of dogmas.  What then is meant by the Maoist dictum “learn truth from practice”?

With this preview, we are now in a position to move on.  At the outset itself, let me say that while I speak solely for myself, I make no claim whatsoever to originality.  I wrote this piece as a self-clarifying exercise and submitted it for publication in the hope that it might help others like me, striving to be educated about matters that are not academic.

What Is Marxism?

In searching for an answer to this question, I can do no better than what the Monthly Review has taught me.  In one of the founder-editor’s words (Sweezy 1985: 2):

Marxism is above all, a comprehensive world view, what Germans call a Weltanschauung — a body of philosophical, economic, political, sociological, scientific . . . principles, all interrelated and together forming an independent and largely self-sufficient intellectual structure. . . .  It is a guide to life and social practice, and in the long run its validity can only be judged by its fruits.

In its view, prior to the development of capitalism, civilization had been impossible without exploitation; the social surplus appropriated was (1985: 3-4)

concentrated in the hands of a few, so that luxury, wealth, civilization at one pole was necessarily matched by poverty, misery, and degradation at the other.

It was into such a world that capitalism was born . . . incomparably the most productive and in that sense progressive society the world had ever seen.  . . . [I]ndeed, for the first time ever it made possible a society in which exploitation and the concentration of the surplus in the hands of a few was no longer the necessary condition for civilization.

Now humanity faced . . . a prospect without precedent.  Would it go forward to a new and higher, non-exploitative form of civilization . . . or would the exploitation of the many by the few continue to be the way of human life?

Marx believed that . . . capitalism . . . would never be able to make use of . . . [society’s productive forces] for the benefit of the workers who he thought were on their way to becoming the majority of the population. . . .  Sooner or later . . . the workers would become conscious of their real class interests, organize themselves into a powerful revolutionary force, seize power from the capitalists, and begin the transition to a communist society from which exploitation and classes would finally be abolished.

It hasn’t worked out that way.  Workers in the more developed capitalist countries were able to make enough gains by struggle within the system to forestall the emergence of a revolutionary consciousness.  A significant part of these gains came at the expense of dependent and exploited countries of the third world, which were thereby prevented from using their resources for their own independent development.  As a result, the centre of revolutionary struggle shifted from the advanced to the retarded parts of the capitalist world.

At this point, it must be said that while Marxists share a conception of reality, they differ in many respects in explaining the world and in assessing it.  Also, the intellectual structure created by the founders of Marxism — Marx and Engels — has been significantly modified and adapted, as it no doubt should, with advances in human knowledge and understanding, and with the development of capitalism into a global system.  But, and of course, its scientific validity should be judged in the first instance by its contributions to the ability to explain reality.

However, there’s something even more exacting — in the very long run, Marxism has to be judged by the fruits of its project of taking humanity along the road towards equality, cooperation, community, and solidarity.  We should have done this earlier, but it is now apt to bring into focus the most crucial character of Marxism, something, following Sweezy, we alluded to in the beginning of this article.  The whole purpose of constructing and re-constructing its distinctive intellectual structure to understand the world was and is so that this exercise may lay the basis of changing society for the better.  This is stated most succinctly in Marx’s 1845 Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.”  But integrating theory and practice (developing a strategy and a set of tactics for changing the world for the better and implementing them) is far more difficult and messy a project.

Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in December 1847 and January 1848, but they never even attempted to define, let alone provide, any blueprint of the transitional society (their followers called it socialism) which would in time — that was the expectation — evolve asymptotically towards communism, never really reaching it.  As Sweezy has it, in Marx and Engels’ conception, the transitional society (“socialism”)1 would begin its existence as “primarily a negation of capitalism which would develop its own positive identity (communism) through a revolutionary struggle in which the proletariat would remake society and in the process remake itself” (1983: 2-3).

But, frankly, the proletariat in the developed capitalist countries, for reasons already mentioned, was increasingly losing its quality as the source and carrier of revolutionary practice.  The development of the working class, the advance of human capability — always at the very centre of the forces of production — was not perceived by the workers as being hindered by the relations of production; the latter was not discerned as intolerable by the workers as long as they were able to extract better terms from capital through their struggles (strikes, etc) within the confines of the system.  Why should they then bear the risk of losing what they were gaining in the present when what they could gain by revolting against the system was highly uncertain and far away in the future?  In other words, Marx and Engels didn’t blame the workers for the lack of a revolutionary consciousness; the objective conditions weren’t there for its germination.

What then of early Marxism (it was not called Marxism is Marx’s time, but for convenience we are designating even that period within its scope) in its mistaken expectation, drawn mainly from its analysis of the living and working conditions of the working class (in Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in late 1844, early 1845 when he was 24) and the logic of Marx’s the famous 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that that class in the advanced capitalist countries would eventually, sooner or later, revolt and emancipate itself?  The at first spontaneous, and later on organised, struggles of the workers, led by the parties of the left, were eventually able to force the ruling class and its political representatives to bring in the factory laws and various social legislations, and implement them, which convinced the workers that things could get better even within the confines of capitalism.  In this, no doubt the surplus from the toilers in the colonies/neo-colonies/semi-colonies/dependent countries (the “periphery”), shared not only between the local elites and the ruling classes in the “centre”, but also to an extent, by the working classes there, helped provide part of the cushion.  As a result capital at the “centre” got richer and stronger too.

Marx and Engels didn’t take all of these developments into account and so proved wrong in their expectations of a socialist Europe.  But, to his great credit, Marx did brilliantly take account of — besides the massive expropriation in Britain through the enclosures — capitalism’s pillage, in its mercantilist phase, of what later came to be called the “periphery” or the third world, in Part VIII of Capital, Volume 1, entitled “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation”.  He also did not ignore “unequal exchange” — through siphoning a part of the surplus created in production via funds used by a distinct class for trade in commodities (merchant capital) — with the periphery, in the competitive phase of capitalism.  Basically, merchant capital played a crucial role in the periphery, albeit as an appendage of industrial capital at the centre (Kay 1975).  Marx had not the opportunity to re-orient his theory of accumulation to take account of what had begun to happen at the end of his life, the emergence of capitalism as a global system with the ushering in of monopoly capitalism.  But, we have it from Sweezy (1967: 16) that he was fully aware of the causal relationship between the development of capitalism at the “centre”, in his day, in Europe and the development of underdevelopment in the “periphery”.  Early Marxism however proved inadequate in elaborating a theory of accumulation on a world scale that would explain the functioning of capitalism as a global system.  All the same, Marx suggested a way of analysing capitalism — how capital got its wealth from the pillage of the “periphery”, from expropriation through the enclosures, from the surplus labour of workers in the past, and from the acquisition of smaller and weaker units of capital; how the superstructure (the state, the legal system, the dominant ideology and culture) was adapted and modified to facilitate all of this; and with what potentialities.  That method was “materialist dialectics”, which was applied by the best of his followers — two of whom were Lenin and Mao — to understand the ever-changing world and to intervene to change it for the better.

Meanwhile, the parties leading the various working class movements in Europe, members of the Second International, continued to pay lip service to the cause of proletarian revolution.  But, soon they were exposed for what they really had become when in 1914 they supported their respective governments in the war, an act demonstrating nothing less than the self-destruction of internationalism, and the quashing of many a hope of proletarian revolution.  With the possibility of the workers making significant economic, social and political gains within the confines of capitalism at the “centre”, Marxism was “revised”, re-fashioned by Eduard Bernstein and others to empty it of its revolutionary content.  Of course, this was not Marxism anymore, but given the objective conditions in Europe, the “revisionist” doctrine took the place of the revolutionary one there.

What Is Leninism?  What Is Stalinism?

It was in these the worst of times that Lenin, a thoroughly orthodox Marxist, struck a momentous chord on the political stage with his pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), explaining the war then raging in terms of a division of the world into separate spheres of influence and the inter-capitalist struggles for its re-division.  Lenin’s purpose was limited mainly to explain the nature of the war then underway and what should be done by socialists leading the working class.  Lenin urged that rather than fighting and killing each other in this imperialist war, the workers must be convinced to convert the imperialist war into a civil war to overthrow their respective bourgeoisies.  The impact of accumulation on a world scale in shaping the nature of “underdevelopment” of the “periphery” and, in turn, the accumulation of capital at the “centre” — and the consciousness of the working class there — were not the focus.

Instead, in Lenin’s view, the super-profits of monopoly capital were, among other things, used to bribe an upper stratum of the working class — thereby creating an “aristocracy” of labour — and some leaders of the working class movements.  Lenin thus blamed the political leaderships of the social-democratic parties leading the movements of their respective working classes and their betrayal of the majority of their respective proletariats.  The fact that the objective conditions in Europe had changed, which thwarted the permeation of a revolutionary consciousness in the workers on the continent, eluded him.  But it may be said — on the whole — of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that in the course of their practice they rescued Marxism from those of its adherents who mistakenly and mechanically interpreted Marx as a “historical determinist”.

But let me explain the Marxist position.  A “determinist” way of thinking argues that history and the given conditions existing on the ground uniquely determine what is likely to happen next.  In pure contrast, a “voluntarist” point of view holds that almost anything can happen subject to the will and positive resolve of effective leaders and the resolute support they get from their followers.  In my view, Marxism is neither “determinist” nor “voluntarist” — in its conception, at any given moment there are a range of possible outcomes, determined both by history and the existing conditions and context.  The actual outcome from among this set will depend on social action.  That is, which particular intermediate goal the leaders choose from the range of possibilities (“strategy”), and whether they and their supporters go about trying to achieve that result with appropriate tactics and respond “correctly” to the course of events that unfold.  Clearly, Lenin — and Stalin, and Trotsky, we might add — put great weight on patterns of leadership — centralized direction by a revolutionary elite.  Mao did not disagree with this, but from experience emphasized the necessity of honest and correct feedback from the party rank and file and the masses.

Stalin has called Leninism the Marxism of the era of “imperialism” and “proletarian dictatorship”.  But he is one who evokes deep anguish among many socialists.  On the one hand, he was the only top leader among the Bolsheviks who came from the wretched of the earth (his father was a poor cobbler and his mother was of poor peasant-serf stock), fortunate to have been educated at a religious seminary; it was under his leadership that the Soviet Union and its Red Army vanquished the might of the German armed forces in the Second World War to safeguard humanity from fascism.  And as long as he lived it was possible to believe (mistakenly, in the view of some) in the existence of a global co-ordinated movement in active revolutionary conflict with capitalism and imperialism.  But, on the other hand, he consigned Leninism and socialism to the grave — that which is not democratic can never be socialist.  Indeed, as Harry Braverman (1969: 54) put it:

The destruction of the old Bolshevik Party closed innumerable possibilities to the Soviet Union, and it is hard to envision them all.  [And, in a footnote, he adds] Stalin did not stop with the annihilation of the left and the right oppositions, led respectively by Trotsky and Bukharin.  He turned on his own faction, and, as Khrushchev told the Twentieth Congress, executed 98 of 139 (70 percent) of the Central Committee selected at the Seventeenth Congress in 1934.

Paresh Chattopadhyay (2005) argues that the very notion of socialism in Lenin and the other early Bolsheviks’ (before Stalin’s consolidation of power) was completely at odds with that of Marx.  The suggestion seems to be that, given this original flaw, and economic and social backwardness, it was only a matter of time before the ruling elite in the Soviet Union metamorphosed into a ruling class, legitimizing its authoritarian (and, in this view, exploitative) rule in the name of Marxism.  Certainly, as a result, Marxism and Leninism have been discredited in the eyes of many.  After all, following the seizure of power in October 1917, didn’t the means begin to shape the very ends to eventually overwhelm the socialist aspiration?  However, I think one should take account of what has come to be called “Lenin’s last struggle” — warning of serious danger from the growth of a ruling bureaucracy and from the “crudity” of Stalin.  Beyond this, it seems to me, and I have come to believe this, that given the existence of class, patriarchy, racism (and caste, one might add) over millennia, power and compulsion are deeply rooted in social reality; indeed, they have almost become part of the basic inherited (but not unchangeable) human condition, which leads one to make a very strong case for civil and democratic rights and liberties (these have been gained through historic struggles waged by the underdogs) that should not be allowed to be abrogated come what may.

For our purpose over here, however, it would be pertinent to briefly mention the way Lenin conceived of the revolution in “backward” capitalist Russia where, in his analysis, the bourgeoisie and its political representatives were incapable of bringing about the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” — overthrowing czarism and seizing and dismantling the feudal estates — making it imperative that the working class in alliance with the peasants take over that task, only to quickly move on to the next stage, that of socialist revolution.  In all of this, the worker-peasant alliance was to be led by the vanguard party.  Lenin’s conception of such a party then becomes germane — its purpose was to politically organise and bring revolutionary ideas to the working class, more generally, the masses, and lead the revolution to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.  Marx had conceptualized the latter as a system in which, following the seizure of power, this would be the regime in which the proletariat would “not only exercise the sort of hegemony hitherto exercised by the bourgeoisie”, but a “form of government, with the working class actually governing, and fulfilling many of the tasks hitherto performed by the state”, and Lenin fully endorsed this view (Miliband 2000: 151).  Of course, in Lenin’s way of thinking, the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be exercised by the workers under the guidance of the vanguard party.

The latter evolved over time — in the conditions imposed by illegality, inner-party organisation was different in 1902 from that following 1905, and then February 1917, when a mass-based party adhering to “democratic centralism” was seen to fit the bill.  Democratic centralism was conceived as an inner-party organisational principle and practice where the various factions within the party strictly adhere to the guideline “freedom of discussion, unity of action” (Johnstone 2000: 135).  Of course, what happened in practice was the stamping out of the democratic component; in 1921, factions were virtually outlawed, something Stalin is said to have taken advantage of to ultimately secure his domination of the party (Johnstone 2000a: 408-409).  In parallel, the dictatorship of the proletariat — conceived as a dictatorship over the former ruling classes, but a democratic role model as far as the masses were concerned — came to be “widely associated with the dictatorship of the party and the state over the whole of society, including the proletariat” (Miliband 2000: 152), which came to be associated with Stalinism.

Stalinism — a decomposed version of Leninism closely associated with the regime in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s to the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 — has to be seen, as Ralph Miliband rightly emphasised, in the context of Russian history (2000a: 517).  However, given the constraint of brevity, we can, at most, only list its principal characteristics, drawing largely — but not uncritically — from Miliband (Ibid: 517-19):

  • the outlook that it is possible to build “socialism in one country”;
  • the opinion that under socialism there must be a very strong state;
  • the view that class struggle intensifies with the advance of socialism;
  • the cult of personality, with an obsessive focus on the supreme leader’s will;
  • forced collectivisation and rapid industrialisation;
  • crude suppression of dissent, and of critical intelligence and free discussion within the party;
  • the “political” trials and the purges, and elimination of most of the major figures of the Bolshevik Revolution;
  • the forced-labour camps where thousands of ordinary people suffered complete ruin (recalling this makes me cry);
  • opposition to fascism and a decisive contribution to the Allied victory over it; and,
  • the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism because of a mechanical interpretation of it, and its stamping as official state ideology to legitimise elite/ruling-class power.

All the same, it seems that Lenin’s aspiration and vision of the socialist state — as expressed in State and Revolution, written in the summer of 1917 — after the seizure of power was inspired by Marx’s lauding of the 1871 Paris Commune and drawing lessons from it about the future socialist “state”.  Marx was emphatic that the working class, after taking power, should not simply take control of the existing structure, institutions and machinery of the old state, all of which had to be “smashed” and replaced by a state of a radically new type.  As Ralph Miliband (2000b: 524) sets forth Marx’s depiction of the credo of the Commune, which Lenin seems to have accepted, and the role of the party envisaged by the latter in his tract, State and Revolution:

[All state officials] would be elected, be subject to recall at any time and their salary would be fixed at the level of workers’ wages.  Representative institutions would be retained, but the representatives would be closely and constantly controlled by their electors, and also subject to recall.  In effect, the proletarian majority was intended not only to rule but actually to govern in a regime which amounted to the exercise of semi-direct popular power.

A very remarkable feature of State and Revolution, given the importance Lenin always attributed to the role of the party, is the quite subsidiary role it is allotted in this instance.

But Lenin’s vision of the socialist state “did not survive the Bolshevik seizure of power”.  Yet, he “never formally renounced the perspectives which had inspired State and Revolution“.  Can we thus conclude that Lenin wanted “the creation of a society in which the state would be strictly subordinated to the rule and self-government of the people” (Miliband 2000b: 525)?  The contrast between theory and practice, in this respect, couldn’t have been starker.  Frankly, one has to clearly distinguish between what one says and what one does.  After all, what happened to the Congress of Soviets — soviets which had the potential to be self-governing organs of the workers and the peasants — that had arisen almost spontaneously from the movement of February 1917?  By the summer of 1918 the soviets had no more than a mere formal existence.  The main institution of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (independent of any one party), took the back seat, with the party leadership at the steering (Miliband 1970).  Indeed, the dictatorship of the proletariat was deemed impossible except through the leadership of the single party; socialist pluralism too got precluded (Ibid).  But, to be fair, it is important though to note that Lenin, in his last writings, expressed the need to create the basis for popular self-governance, for which, he felt, there must be a genuine revolution, where culture flowers among the people.  Was he then calling for a “cultural revolution”, something that Mao launched in China in 1966 with the aim of “preventing capitalist restoration” (Thomson 1970: 125)?

Maoism: Evolution and Development2

Millennia are too long: Let us dispute over mornings and evenings. — Mao Zedong (1963)

The conventional wisdom of the day presents Mao as some kind of a “monster”, for instance, in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s 2005 book, Mao: The Unknown Story, which, in its obsessive intent to denigrate Mao, is least concerned with the known facts about the man (Gao 2008: chapters 4 and 5).  Indeed, in Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao, he is made out to be a “monstrous lecher” by a doctor, bent on disparaging Mao, shabbily doctoring the facts (Gao 2008: chapter 6).  It is evident that a “battle for China’s past” is underway, with the elite intelligentsia leading the attack.  The latter are Chinese, who were the victims, real or imagined, direct or indirect, of the Cultural Revolution, and some leading lights in the “China Studies” field the world over, who have always been prone to somersaults depending on the direction of the political wind in Washington.  For instance, their positions have shifted from “disparaging” during the period of Cold War hostility to “grudgingly complementary” following Sino-US détente in the early 1970s, and then to “Mao-was-all-wrong; Mao-is-to-blame” with the great reversal in China in the post-Mao period when the official view turned anti-Maoist, and the ideology of neo-liberalism took hold.3

The credo of objectivity that is repeatedly claimed is a myth.  It is not surprising that in a world where “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”, the views of the beneficiaries of the cultural revolution, the peasants and the workers, who gained in terms of education, healthcare and other aspects of social welfare, as well as the “voice” they got in the fields and the factories and in the political arena, are not being heard (Gao 2008).

With this necessary communication of the side I lean on, let me then get to the origins of Maoism, which got its lease on life in the immediate aftermath of the eventual rejection of the disastrous line of “united front from within” (leading to restraints on organisational independence), which was virtually forced on the CCP by the Third International (the Comintern) in 1923.  It was claimed by the latter that the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chang Kai-shek (after Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925), represented the “revolutionary national bourgeoisie” of China.  This alliance was supposed to produce national liberation and the bourgeois-democratic revolution (revolution led by the bourgeoisie in alliance with the workers and peasants) but led only to the disastrous defeat of the communists at the hands of Chang’s counterrevolution in 1927, leading to the civil war (1928-35).

But even in defeat there was a silver lining: no doubt the Chang-led KMT controlled the bulk of the armed forces; but the Fourth Army deserted in August 1927 to join the communists, which led to the founding of the Red Army.  A new leadership of the CCP gradually began to coalesce around Mao; however, it was only by around 1932 that this budding “Maoist” authority gained legitimacy and the CCP could forge, and refine over time, its own strategy and path to achieve the goals of the “new democratic revolution” (NDR).

For our purpose over here, it must be mentioned that the Comintern had mechanically extended Marx’s historical analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe to the colonies/semi-colonies/neo-colonies, merely adding that imperialism had allied there with the feudalists to maintain and consolidate its power.  It was then assumed that the national bourgeoisie would take the lead in the struggle against imperialism and feudalism/semi-feudalism, and therefore it was the duty of the communists there to rally the masses in support of such a project, for it would lead to national independence and bourgeois democracy, without which the struggle for socialism would have had to be indefinitely postponed.  But, as we have seen, such a policy led to the disastrous defeat of the communists in China in 1927.  The so-called national bourgeoisie proved to be nothing but the ally of imperialism against the communists.

It was the CCP under Mao that most effectively challenged the Comintern line by refusing to surrender control and leadership to those who could not be relied upon to carry through to the very end the struggle for genuine national independence or the fight against feudalism/semi-feudalism.  The quality of the leadership was crucially important (Sweezy 1976: 10).  It adopted the strategy of protracted people’s war (PPW), which relied on the peasants, built rural base areas, carried out “land to the tiller” and other social policies (for instance, dealing with the gender question through the mobilization of women in the countryside) in these areas (run democratically as miniature, self-reliant states), thereby building up a political mass base in the countryside to finally encircle and “capture” the cities.

Here it needs to be emphasised that it was only during the anti-Japanese resistance (1937-45), when the contradiction between Japanese imperialism and national independence became the principal one (playing the leading role), relegating the fight between feudalism and the masses to a secondary and subordinate position, that the CCP managed to shift nationalist opinion progressively in its favour.  It was in this period that it overcame its confinement in the rural areas to move on to the national stage, extend the PPW and capture the popular imagination.  The CCP could not have successfully “captured” the cities, but for the massive nationalist upsurge in the course of the anti-Japanese resistance turning decisively in its favour due to its correct handling of the unity and struggle between nationalism and anti-imperialism, leading on to the successful completion of the NDR.4

At the core of the NDR was opposition to the transformation of the society under the leadership of the bourgeoisie and its political representatives.  The NDR — unambiguously led by the communist party — suppressed the big bourgeoisie because, even as it retained private capitalist enterprise, it was primarily meant to create the prerequisites for socialism.

At the heart of the course of the NDR, from 1927 to 1949, was the building of base areas, involving the following (Gurley1976: 70-71):

  • achieving victory in the political struggle, thereby establishing the basis for running a miniature state in the base area;
  • winning the economic struggle — land to the tiller, land investigation, promotion of mutual aid and cooperation, and achieving the development of the productive forces (the material means of production and human capabilities) in agriculture and small industry; and
  • carrying out the cultural and ideological struggle, with a great deal of overlapping among the three.

All of this — whether political, economic, or cultural and ideological — entailed following the “mass line”, which is a distinctive feature of Maoism.  This is a method of involving the masses in how, for instance, each of the above is to be done and then implementing what had been decided upon with their participation.  The party leaders thereby correctly understand the opinions of the people and so fashion the required policies in a manner the masses will support and actively implement.  Mao summed this up pithily as: “from the masses, to the masses”.  Indeed, in the process of participating in the “land to the tiller”, land investigation, and in the ideological struggles, the people understood the local class structure and the ideas and institutions bolstering the status quo (Gurley 1976: 71-72).

This brings us to three crucial dimensions of Maoist theory and practice in trying to enrich the democratic process in the Leninist vanguard party, the mass organizations, and the society.  In the Maoist conception of the vanguard party, just like in Lenin’s, centralised guidance by a revolutionary elite is at the core, and this elite leadership is drawn from intellectuals, workers and peasants, with the difference that workers and peasants are sought to be represented, over time, in greater proportion.  What is however distinctive in Mao is the conscious effort to fuse the inner-party organisational principle of democratic centralism (“freedom of discussion, unity of action”) with the mass line (“from the masses, to the masses”), the mass organisations under party leadership providing the crucial link between the two.  However, a word over here about the claim of the vanguard party being led by the proletariat might be in order.  Here, as Benjamin Schwartz (1977: 26) explains, in Maoism, the term “proletarian” refers to a set of moral qualities — “self-abnegation, limitless sacrifice to the needs of the collectivity, guerrilla-like self-reliance, unflagging energy . . . iron discipline, etc” — as the norm of true collectivist behaviour.  Proletarian leadership then comes to be constituted by a set of intellectuals, workers and peasants who excel in these moral requirements.

We are thus beginning to grasp some distinctive features of Maoism — the conception of NDR as opposed to that of bourgeois-democratic revolution; PPW; “base areas” and the way they are established; the principal contradiction (which may change over time) steering the course of the PPW; and, democratic centralism plus the mass line.  It is then time to introduce what may indeed be the differentia specifica of Maoism, best done by illustration from Maoist practice in China.  We have already alluded to the idea that the road to socialism was already entered upon and struggles to persist on that road were undertaken early on in the new democratic stage of the revolution itself.  We said that the big bourgeoisie is suppressed during the NDR itself in order to lay the ground — create the pre-conditions — for socialism.  Why?

Socialists, more than others, are well aware that there are definite limits to the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, that is, if the latter is understood as government in accordance with the will of the people (Sweezy 1980).  But from a capitalist point of view, such democracy is acceptable and considered viable only if the majority continues to believe that the capitalist system is the best for them, or that there is no alternative but to live with it.  The moment this belief erodes, democracy becomes a potential danger to capitalism, best illustrated by the case of Chile, where, following the coming into office in 1970 of a party pledged to begin the transition to socialism, the big bourgeoisie collaborated with Washington and the military took over to save capitalism there (Sweezy 1980).  To circumvent such a reaction, a new type of democracy (“new democracy”) — a type of democracy that doesn’t preclude the transition to socialism if the majority want it — has to be created, for which, the big bourgeoisie has to be suppressed.  In effect, the NDR doesn’t do away with capitalism, but it confiscates the property of the imperialists and the big bourgeoisie — those at the apex of wealth, power and privilege — and hence stymies the anti-democratic opposition to socialism from their representatives and backers.

But let us elaborate upon the Maoist idea of steps within the new democratic stage, steps in the transition to socialism, and steps within the socialist stage itself, and the thought that the pre-conditions of a subsequent step/stage in the process of progressive change must be created within the step/stage that has to be transited from.  The land reform program leading in steps to communes can be used as an apt illustration.  It may be best to take William Hinton’s books, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (1966) and Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village (1983), which together provide a rich documentary account of the land reform in Long Bow village of Shanxi province during 1946-48, onward to the formation of mutual aid teams, and from 1953, the merging of those teams into “elementary cooperatives”, and from there to advanced cooperatives and further on into communes, and tracing developments up to 1971.  They tell a whole lot of facts, even those that contradict what the author is trying to argue; it is difficult to even propose a framework to look at this whole social canvas.  However, fortunately, subsequently Hinton has helped provide such an enabling structure (1994; 2002; 2004), though he also revised his assessment of the Cultural Revolution following the publication of Shenfan (Pugh 2005).

Perhaps it would be best to begin where Fanshen concludes (Hinton 1966: 603):

Land reform, by creating basic equality among rural producers, only presented the producers with a choice of roads: private enterprise on the land leading to capitalism, or collective enterprise on the land leading to socialism.

The book, however, does bring some thoughts to mind and I cannot resist expressing one or two.  As is well known, Hinton’s first story of Long Bow offers a “microcosm” of the upheavals in China that overthrew semi-feudalism in the countryside.  On the one hand, it throws light on what a poor peasant has to go through in a bad year and how he/she feels when there is no surplus to pay the rent, interest and amortization, and yet he/she then has to part with the grain that would have kept his/her family from hunger and starvation, and to know that that very landlord and/or moneylender-trader had collaborated with the Japanese during 1937-45.  On the other, one can understand why a close bond may develop between the poor peasant and the village-level party person when the former knows that latter considers himself/herself accountable to the poor peasants’ league and the village congress.

There is one more important insight that comes from Fanshen — that when one extracts rent and interest, and what is lost in “unequal exchange” from the net output of the poor peasant household, especially in a bad year, what remains is not even what wage labour would have got, that is, if one were to impute the respective wage rates for family labour.  This suggests exploitation of a greater order under semi-feudalism than under backward capitalism, if both are at the same technological level.  Marx had also referred to this, albeit, in a different context, when he discussed the plight of the Irish tenant farmer.  This leads one to a dispute with those scholars, including Benjamin Schwartz (1951: 4) who hold that the CCP, though successfully having come to power essentially on the strength of its organisation of the peasantry, and not that of the urban proletariat, had inaugurated in China the “decomposition” of Marxism that Lenin began in Russia, and thus, the opposite of the significant innovation that some have attributed to it.  Given Marx’s remarks on the Irish tenant farmer, I would doubt that he would have agreed with this view.

Let us then get to Shenfan.  In 1948 itself, the peasants had begun to form mutual aid teams where a small number of households pooled resources other than land (tools, implements, draft power, occasional labour) but still cultivated the land on an individual basis.  Then in 1953 the formation of elementary cooperatives got underway, in which land as well as other resources were pooled, but individual ownership rights were maintained.  Incomes were based partly on property ownership and partly on labour time committed to cooperative production in ratios set to garner majority local support.  Here dividends had to be paid on the assets, including land, made available, but the complaint of the middle and rich peasants was that this was not as much as they would otherwise have got, that is, if they had cultivated individually by hiring in labour.  But when crop yields began to increase because of more intensive use of labour in the cooperative mode, the conflict regarding how to divide the income as between the labour contributed and the assets pooled became sharper (Hinton 1983:142-43).  The resolution usually took the form of moving from something like a labour to capital share of 40:60 to 60:40, for, over time, it was living labour that had created the addition to assets.  A time would then come when the new assets created by labour overwhelm the original assets pooled at the time of the formation of the cooperative, when it then became appropriate to abolish the capital share of the net output, that is, move to “advanced cooperatives”.

The latter entailed a definite socialist advance, involving all peasant households being incorporated in such producer cooperatives, with common ownership of all productive resources.  As Hinton (1994: 6-7) puts it:

When the new capital created by living labour surpasses and finally overwhelms the old capital with which the group started out, then rewarding old shareholders with disproportionate payments amounts to exploitation, a transfer of wealth from those who create it by hard labour to those who own the original shares and may, currently, not labour at all.

Of course, with one more step on the collective ladder, the advanced cooperatives were turned into larger units of collective economy and government — the communes.  The point however is that in each step of the ladder leading up to collectivization, the preconditions of the next step were introduced, which helped resolve the old contradictions and smoothed the transition to the next step/stage.

But, it is alleged that the strategy of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) (1958-61), the organisation of the people’s communes, and the left deviations of that period led to a massive famine in which up to 30 million people are said to have died.5  Then, there have been the excessive violence and the personal tragedies of the Cultural Revolution (CR).  For both, the excesses of the GLF and the CR, Mao and Maoism have been held entirely responsible.  Hinton however disagrees.  To get to the truth, he explains the context — that of “protracted political warfare” (Hinton 2004: 51).  The NDR was a revolution of a new type, new in that it was meant to create the preconditions for the socialist road, unlike bourgeois-democratic revolutions that open the road to capitalism.  Following 1949, however, the resolution of the contradictions with semi-feudalism and imperialism brought the contradiction between capitalism and the Chinese working people to the fore — the latter became the principal contradiction.

Right from the time of the launch of the NDR, the CCP had been divided into two major factions — a “proletarian” one, headed by Mao, and a “bourgeois” one, headed by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping; pre-liberation, the former was based in the liberated areas, while the latter was in the KMT-dominated cities.  After liberation in 1949, the two factions “merged as one organisationally, but they never did merge ideologically” (Hinton 2004: 54).  This led to a fundamental split over development strategy and policy ever since Mao took China decisively on to the socialist road.  It was on the eve of the GLF that Mao declared on 27 February 1957 (“On the Correction Handling of Contradictions among the People”): “. . .the question of which will win out, socialism or capitalism, is still not settled”.  As Hinton put it: “No policy, from either side, could be applied without contest”, which meant extreme friction between the two factions (Ibid: 55).  He goes on (Ibid: 56-59):

To blame Mao, then, for the struggle that ensued and for its outcome is unwarranted, unrealistic, and unhistorical.  Mao did what needed to be done given his social base [the rural poor and the workers in the alliance he cultivated], while Liu did what he had to given his social base.  After a decade of conflict things came to a head in the Cultural Revolution.  . . . Mao had the upper hand politically.  He was able to speak directly and mobilise hundreds of millions of peasants and workers.  But Liu had the upper hand organisationally. . . .

. . . in 1958, . . . severe disruption . . . coupled with very bad weather in 1959, ’60, and ’61 . . . produce(d) a shortage of crops, hunger, and even starvation.  Mao’s initiatives failed temporarily but were well conceived. . . .

. . . During the Cultural Revolution similar extremes arose.  . . . However, the movement as a whole was a great creative departure in history.  It was not a plot, not a purge, but a mass mobilisation whereby people were inspired to intervene, to screen and supervise their cadres and form new popular committees to exercise control at the grassroots and higher.

. . . The principal contradiction of the times was the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class expressed in the party centre . . . [U]nless it was resolved in the interest of the working class the socialist revolution would founder. . . . [T]he method must be to mobilize the common people to seize power from below in order to establish leading bodies, democratically elected6 organs of power was . . . summed up by the phrase “bombard the headquarters” . . . [T]he target of the Cultural Revolution [was] “party people in authority taking the capitalist road”.

Basically, in order to resolve the contradiction between the “proletarian line” and the “bourgeois line” within the party in favour of the former, the Maoists, in the CR, tried to plant the seeds of a later stage of socialism in the earlier stage itself, thus doing away with a mechanical separation of the two stages and concentrating instead on their interrelations (Magdoff 1975: 53).  The two stages of socialism, supposed to follow chronologically, are the phase where distribution of the social product is according to the principle “from each according to her/his abilities, to each according to her/his work” followed by the phase where distribution is according to the norm “from each according to her/his abilities, to each according to her/his needs”.  Magdoff (1975: 53-54) explains that Maoists focus on the interrelations between the two and therefore emphasise the need to create the preconditions for the transition within the earlier phase itself, the main prerequisites being the way the social product is distributed and a change in human relations.  If one doesn’t do this, the inequalities produced and reproduced by the current stage will lead to the emergence and consolidation of a new privileged elite that will gradually transform itself into a new ruling class.  And, they derive their justification of this with reference to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, with its forceful description of the necessary persistence of inequality in a socialist (but not communist) society.  One can thus understand why the major concerns during the CR were “measures that tend[ed] to reduce differences arising from the division of labour between city and country, manual and mental labour, and management and employees”, knowing very well that their attainment was “in the far distant future and will involve many political struggles in the years ahead” (Ibid: 54).

It is then clear that Maoists reject Stalin’s mechanical interpretation of Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy as a deterministic theory of history.  Mao accused Stalin of emphasising only the forces of production (the means of production and human capability) to the neglect of the relations of production (relations at work, and ownership relations that bestow control over the forces of production and the product), and the superstructure (institutions such as the state, the family, religion, education, and the law, and culture and ideology).  Even among the productive forces, Stalin — Mao alleges — in a relative sense neglected the growth of human capability, which should have constituted the core of the forces of production.  Again, Stalin essentially viewed the direction of causation as a one-way route from change in the forces of production to alteration in the relations of production, and thereon to revamp of the superstructure (Mao 1977).

Mao instead argued that elements of the superstructure are transformed only with a considerable lag; the old culture hangs on long after the material base of the economy is radically altered.  But, if a conscious effort is made to change the elements of the superstructure, this, in turn, affects the economic base (the productive forces and the relations of production).  Hence, Mao was bent on ushering in the people’s communes even before the modernisation of agriculture, for, in his view, changing the relations of production and elements of the superstructure would, in turn, spur the productive forces.  Hence, also the stress upon the stifling economic effects of the prevailing class structure of the factories during the CR, or of the domination of landlords and “comprador-bureaucrat” capitalists in the pre-liberation period, or on the liberating effects of smashing the superstructure (for example, Confucian culture) (Howe and Walker 1977: pp 176-77; Gurley 1976: chapter 2).  How apparently open-ended the interrelations among and between the forces of production, the relations of production, and the superstructure are in Mao’s conception of Marx’s theory of history!

Marrying the Various Strands

We have seen in this essay that, at its best, Marxism leads one to expect a close interrelationship between theory and practice; where either is scarce the other will be acutely disadvantaged.  Maoism, by and large, has privileged practice over theory — it views practice as the foundation of theory.  But what does the Maoist dictum “seek truth from practice mean”?  At its best, and if one reads Mao’s July 1937 definitive On Practice: On the Relation between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing, he takes on both, the dogmatists and the empiricists, the “right opportunists” and the “leftists”.  As he puts it: “Practice [‘class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits’], knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge.  This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level”.  And, in his outstanding August 1937 essay On Contradiction he holds that contradictions — the struggle between functionally united opposites — cause continual change.  Development stems from the resolution of contradictions and strategy involves choice of the form of struggle most suited to resolve a contradiction.  But the desired qualitative alteration can be brought only through a series of stages, where the existing stage is impregnated with the hybrid seeds of the subsequent one, thereby dissolving the salient contradictions of the former and ushering in the latter.  Mao’s Marxism was of the Leninist school, albeit tending closer to its Stalinist version (which, as we have seen, is a decomposed version of Leninism), but struggling to overcome and go beyond Stalinism.

We have traversed a wide canvas with some wild strokes, covering the ground from Marxism to Leninism, and from there to its Stalinist revision, and then to Maoism in terms of its evolution and development in China from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, focussing on its differentiae specifica.  The latter, we have found, are:

  • the poor peasantry of the interior of a backward capitalist/semi-feudal society rather than the urban proletariat constitute the mass support base of the movement;
  • theory of revolution by stages as well as uninterrupted revolution, implying a close link between successive stages;
  • the stage of NDR, which makes capitalism much more compatible with democracy, thereby aiding the transition to socialism;
  • the path and strategy of PPW, which relies on the peasants, builds rural base areas, carries out “land to the tiller” and other social policies in these areas (run democratically as miniature, self-reliant states) thereby building up a political mass base in the countryside to finally encircle and capture the cities;
  • the conception of “base areas” and the way to establishing them;
  • “capturing” (winning mass support in) the cities by demonstrating a brand of nationalism that is genuinely anti-imperialist, thereby re-orienting an existing mass nationalist upsurge (as during the anti-Japanese resistance, 1937-45 in China) in favour of the completion of the NDR;
  • democratic centralism plus the “mass line”, ensuring that “democracy” doesn’t take a backseat to “centralism” and making sure the people are involved in policy making and its implementation;
  • the central idea that contradictions — the struggle between functionally united opposites — at each stage drive the process of development on the way to socialism, which is sought to be brought about in a series of stages, where the existing stage, at the right time, is impregnated with the hybrid seeds of the subsequent one, thereby dissolving the salient contradictions of the former and ushering in the latter;
  • open-ended interrelations among and between the forces of production, the relations of production, and the superstructure; and
  • the idea that political, managerial, and bureaucratic power-holders entrench themselves as a ruling elite and, over a period of time, assume the position of a new exploiting class, and that the people have to be constantly mobilised to struggle against this tendency.

“Materialist dialectics” as a way of thinking and a guide to doing was a powerful tool in Mao’s hands, but its weaknesses were perhaps inherent in its very strengths; in the end, the very method led him to hugely overestimate the pace of change and vastly underestimate the obstacles to change.  Marx too fell into the same trap when his very method of analysis led him to believe that revolution was around the corner, immensely underrating the huge barriers to progressive change.  Does the very application of the method of materialist dialectics lead its practitioners to err on the side of “voluntarism” in their practice?

If one looks forward from the vantage point of 1969 — the year marks the beginning of the end of the Maoist era — the great reversal from “socialism” to capitalism (Sharma, ed. 2007) lay ahead.  But 1969 also affords a good look back in time.  It might help to begin from an incident from Mao’s childhood when he was in school, which he related to the American journalist Edgar Snow (1972).  One day he and his fellow students were witness to the decapitated heads of rebels strung to the city’s gates as a warning.  The insurrectionists had led starving peasants in an uprising to find food.  The savage repression of the rebellion was obvious, and the incident left a profound impression on the boy and he never forgot it, deeply resenting the treatment meted out to the rebels.  Clearly, from a very young age Mao came to view the prevailing social order as quite simply intolerable and to expect a revolutionary high tide sooner or later.  “A single spark can start a prairie fire”, he told his close comrades in January 1930; twenty years later, he is said to have declared: “The Chinese people have stood up!”  There is a touching story of Mao’s triumphant entry into Beijing which is worth recounting:7

There were a million Chinese present to welcome him.  A large platform, fifteen feet high, had been built at the end of a vast square, and as he mounted the steps from the back, the top of his head appeared and a roar of welcome surged up from a million throats, increasing and increasing as the lone figure came fully into view.  And when Mao . . . saw the vast multitude, he stood for a moment, then suddenly covered his face with both hands and wept.

But in the years after 1949, even in the mid-1960s, as we have seen, the question of whether it will be capitalism or socialism in China was still unsettled.  At the age of 72, the guerrilla in Mao stirred again — better to burn out than to hit the skids.  As Jerome Ch’en (1968: 5), quoting Mao the poet put it:

The Chinese revolution was at a cross-road.  It could “look down the precipices” and beat a retreat or “reach the ninth heaven high. . .” and then “return to merriment and triumphant songs.”  The choice, according to the poet, depended entirely upon one’s “will to ascend.”

Four years later, all that remained were the embers — the time had come to just fade away.  Not much later, his closest comrades, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De passed away.  The Bard of Avon’s idea that “all the world’s a stage” has acquired the status of a cliché, but it must surely have been one of the great pleasures of Mao’s life to have been on the same stage with the two of them.  The time was now up for one of the greatest Marxist revolutionaries of all time to ascend to the stars to join them: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, the 20 million soldiers of the Red Army who had died in the war against fascism, the many ordinary peasant-guerrillas of the PLA who sacrificed their lives in the long march to a better world.

Maoism, however, needs to be taken to task; one cannot but ask: Why the peasants and workers didn’t resist the great reversals to capitalism in China and the Soviet Union — the counter-revolutions?  Were these regimes, as long as Mao and Stalin were around, really socialist, as has constantly been the claim of latter-day Maoists?  The truth could only be highly disappointing, that is, if one were to judge Maoism, as is only fair, by the fruits of its project of taking humanity along the road towards equality, cooperation, community, and solidarity.  In China itself, Maoism didn’t succeed on this score — all the united actions of the workers and the poor peasants, all the mass education of the Maoist period, didn’t seem to have brought about their intellectual development to a point where they could take on the “capitalist roaders” after 1978 to uphold the ideas of equality and cooperation as against hierarchy and competition.  Maoism failed to provide a successful working model of socialism in the 20th century.  What’s worse, even as Mao was in his last years, People’s China entered into an accommodation with US imperialism against the Soviet Union — Mao’s On Contradiction was misapplied to justify the arrangement.  In a blatant violation of an important Maoist tenet, nationalism got the better of anti-imperialism when in 1974 Deng Xiaoping used so-called “three worlds’ theory” to rationalise the “right-wing” turn in China’s foreign policy.

But despite all these shortcomings, there can be little doubt that over the longer period, from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, Maoism did something unprecedented in human history — it brought about a drastic redistribution of income and wealth in China; it radically reordered the way Chinese society’s economic surplus was generated and utilised, all for the better.

Mao’s Legacy and the Future of Maoism

It’s time then to talk of Mao’s legacy.  As we have seen, Maoism has a definite view about how to get to socialism, and about what needs to be done to meet the basic needs of everyone in a poor country.  Development is to be on an egalitarian basis — we are all in it together and everyone rises together.  What then of Mao’s legacy, Maoism?  Surely, this is open to all who share his Weltanschauung, his method of analysis — materialist dialectics — his values, his vision, and choose to embark together on the long march to socialism, knowing beforehand that the journey is fraught with considerable peril.  What then of Maoism in India (Ram 1971; Banerjee 1980; Mohanty 1977; Gupta 1993; 2006; Azad 2006), one might ask?  Maoist China did its best to feed, clothe and house everyone, keep them healthy, educate most of them.  Contrast this with the deplorable conditions in India at the end of the 1960s and even today — the tragedy of India ruled by her own big bourgeoisie — and one gets wind as to why there are some in India who look to the Maoist model of development as the way to a richer and fuller life for all.  Anu — whom we started this article with — was one of them.

However, while one may have deep respect for such people, one needs to ask the question: Are the basic path and strategy of revolution that were necessary in China in the 1930s and 1940s right for India in the 21st century?  Well, India differs very significantly from the China of those times, more so in its history, geography, class and social structure, traditions, and in the nature of its “semi-feudalism”/backward capitalism, the accommodation of the big bourgeoisie with imperialism,8 the strength of the repressive apparatus of the state, the nationalities question, and so on.  And, importantly, while Chinese history is replete with periodic widespread peasant uprisings, Indian history, in a comparative sense, is scarce of such rebellions, which perhaps can be explained in terms of caste (Moore 1966: chapters 4, 6, and 9) — it is fundamentally antithetical to any meaningful unity of the exploited and the oppressed.9  Recall that Mao adapted his Marxism-Leninism to the realities of China’s history, China’s potentialities; “learn truth from practice” was his message.  Surely a party like the CPI (Maoist) that stems from a political tendency that, over the last 40 years, has done its best to take the Indian revolution forward might like to take a hard re-look into the abyss that is India — its history, its potentialities.

The Maoists must keep in mind that the scientific validity of the Maoism they uphold will be judged in the first instance in India by its contributions to correctly explaining Indian social reality.  There is a lot they have had a hand in this respect, for instance, in emphasising the parasitical reliance of Indian capital on the state for its self-expansion, expressed in the notion of bureaucrat capital.  Or, in stressing the powerful role of the state in the very making of the Indian big bourgeoisie (of course, the “state’s” fostering of the ruling classes more than the other way round, going back to ancient times, is an insight from the eminent historian D D Kosambi).  The Maoists have also helped us to see the post-1956 official “land reforms” as having led to the partial amalgamation of the old rural landowning classes into a new, broader stratum of rich landowners, those not setting their hands to the plough, including an upper section of the former tenants, all of whom, despite the various markets, have yet to rid themselves of various “semi-feudal” practices and pre-capitalist elements of culture.  Also, it is the Maoists who, in their practice, correctly do not even try to differentiate the rural poor into “agrarian proletariat” or “landless peasantry”, knowing very well that the same very poor household can be categorized in one or the other at various points in time.  And, in organising the “agrarian proletariat”/”landless peasantry” along with the poor and middle peasants, and a section of the rich peasants, they insist on factoring in the caste question, despite their knowing how highly problematic and painfully difficult such a getting together can be.  Also, it is the Maoists more than others who first grasped the brutal character of the dominant classes and the leaders of the political parties they have co-opted, the very same categories whose forebears had taken power in the name of Gandhian non-violence.  All this is knowledge essentially derived from their practice.

The CPI (Maoist) has come in for a lot of condemnation for its violent activities, including killings.  The violence however has to be viewed in the context of the undeclared civil war that is underway in the areas of its influence, for instance, in Dantewada in the state of Chhattisgarh (PUDR 2006).  The government is implementing a barbaric counter-insurgency policy, which includes the fostering of a network of informers and combatants among the civilian population, right from the village level upwards: a state-supported, state-sponsored, and even state-organised so-called people’s resistance — called Salwa Judum (SJ) — against the Maoists.  Entire villages have been evacuated and the villagers forcibly dumped into relief camps, and this, in the circumstances of large-scale acquisition of land by private corporations in what is a mineral-rich region.  The last four years have witnessed violent attacks, loot, destruction, intimidation, rape and killing on an unprecedented scale principally by the SJ; indeed, the latter has even forcibly mobilised the displaced into its ranks.  Undoubtedly, the killing is by both sides, but the big difference is that the Maoists, generally when they target specific state representatives, or even informers, they first warn them to desist from the anti-people activity they are undertaking.  Those guilty of rape, torture, deaths in custody, or responsible for “encounter” killings are singled out so that others may, out of fear of such reprisals, desist from acting thus.  As far as the SJ representatives are concerned, any person who joins them is targeted, not because of any personal enmity, but because of the role that the SJ has been playing in the undeclared civil war.

More generally, the violence also has to be seen in the context of the close de facto nexus between economic and political power at the local and regional levels; the dominant classes, through various means, exercise a degree of control over the police and the judiciary, which increases the chances of violent confrontation between the contending classes.10

Those who deliberately, falsely depict the Maoists as “devotees of violence” choose to suppress the fact that the violence of the oppressed (and the Maoists who now lead them) has been always preceded and provoked by the violence of the oppressors (and the state and private forces that back them).  To claim, as some liberals do, that the violence of the oppressed is “morally equivalent” to that of the oppressors is to endorse the reactionary state, which backs the oppressors.  And, in this age of the management of public opinion, the “programming” of what the public thinks, sees and reads, the “facts” that are disseminated are artificially separated from a whole host of other relevant facts, never allowing the public to discern the “real” present.

But, while acknowledging that antagonistic contradictions between hostile class-based organisations will lead to violence, it is a Maoist tenet that guerrilla actions ought to be subordinated to “mass-line” politics — the Maoist guerrillas should give precedence to winning over the mass of the people in their base areas and, in consequence, in the surrounding areas — and work towards a better balance (“proportionality”) than ever before between means and ends.  Regarding the resort to violence in the revolution, to the extent that I have absorbed their writings, it would be fair to say that Marx and Engels might not have disagreed with the use of violent methods by the revolutionary forces in India today.  The dominant classes could never be expected to give up their control without employing all the repressive power at their command.  It is useful perhaps to recall that Marx’s response to the “crimes and cruelties alleged” against the “insurgent Hindus” of 1857 was to set out an account of the daily violence “in cold blood” of British rule in India (Marx 1857).

As to the false claim that the Maoists have no mass support in their areas of influence, one has only to listen to perceptive yet sensitive, independent observers who know the situation on the ground.  The state forces are much stronger (as far as armaments and numbers go) than the Maoist guerrillas, and yet the tribal peasants support the latter.  Why do these peasants take the risk of supporting the underdogs, even when they know that, when the guerrillas are vanquished, they, as their supporters, will be at the mercy of the state forces, and will most probably perish?  If, at the risk of death itself, the peasants choose the guerrillas, surely there must be something more significant going on over here.

Besides India, Maoism is a political force to reckon with in Nepal (Bhattarai 2005; 2009; Mage 2005 and 2007; Parvati 2005; Mage and D’Mello 2007; AMR 2008), the Philippines (Sison 1989; 2003), and Peru (Spalding 1992, 1993; Leupp 1993).  The Nepali Maoist leaders have been imaginative — their ideas of some combination of the “Chinese” (triumph in the countryside and spread to the cities) and the “Russian” (victory in the cities and spread to the countryside) models of revolution, and of “21st century democracy” (multi-party competition as long as all agree on the goals of “new democracy”) are appealing.  The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), given its relative strength vis-a-vis “the enemies” of democracy and their friends and masters outside the borders of that small country (above all in India), seeks to utilize the bourgeois republic as a stage in mustering the force of the impoverished masses and nationalist intermediate strata to proceed towards NDR (Bhattarai and WPRM-Britain 2009).  But these theories are being put to a severe test in practice.

What then of the future of Maoism and the renewal of socialism that it promises?  Frankly, “whatever chance there may have been that the revolutions of the 20th century could or would provide successful working models of socialism” has long since been extinguished; “socialism, we are told, has been tried and failed” (Sweezy 1993: 5).  But, as Marx was the first to show, the obstacles to a better future cannot be meaningfully addressed within the framework of capitalism.  The challenge then is to revive and renew the legacy of socialism.  In this, can Maoism illuminate the way?

Maoism has its roots in Marx who was, above all, a radical democrat — he demanded the reincarnation of community and mass solidarity; he dreamed of the communion of human beings with nature; he stressed the dialectic of liberation; he looked forward to a just society alongside “rich individuality”; and, as Paresh Chattopadhyay (2005) reminds us, he insisted on the removal of commodity exchange, the division of labour, the state. . . .  But, then, Lenin too, in his State and Revolution appeared as a thoroughgoing democrat, though he introduced into his conception of socialism elements that are antithetical to the “association of free individuals” — wage labour and state (Ibid).

Mao and the Chinese Maoists too gave the impression of being revolutionary democrats, that is, if one were to go by the 20 million people marching through the streets of various Chinese cities in the last week of May 1968, the demonstrators mainly chanting the slogan: “long live the revolutionary heritage of the great Paris Commune”.  Indeed, Marx’s interpretation of the Commune was then deemed relevant to the revival of the revolution in China, something that found a place in the famous “Sixteen Points” of 8 August 1966 (Meisner 1971; Robinson 1969: 84-96).  “Let a hundred flowers blossom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” was not merely intended policy for the promotion of progress in the arts and sciences, but one of ushering in a flourishing socialist culture — at least that was the claim.

Thus, given the radical democratic streak running from Marx to Mao, the best thing that Maoism could do is to commit to the promise of radical democracy: just as there cannot be liberty in any meaningful sense without equality, for the rich will certainly be more “free” (have more options) than the poor, so there cannot be equality without liberty, for then some may have more political power than others.

So far, all revolutions inspired by Marx have only enjoyed the support or participation of a significant minority.  Can the commitment to radical democracy up the tide to get the help of the majority?  Will the means then be carefully chosen so that they never come to overwhelm the socialist aspiration?


1  Paresh Chattopadhyay, in personal correspondence, draws my attention to the view that Marx spoke of a “political transition period” (not of constituting a distinct “society”) from capitalism to communism under the rule of the proletariat; socialism and communism, for him, were simply the alternative names for the same classless society he looked forward to, after capitalism.

2  We think it necessary to be more comprehensive on Maoism because even one of the best dictionaries of Marxist thought (Bottomore 2000), even in its second edition, didn’t have an entry on Maoism, although it, rightly and deservedly, had one on Trotskyism.

3  But even as I make such general remarks, I need to qualify them by stating that within the “China studies” field there have been and are a set of first-rate scholars, some of whom we have learnt a great deal from — Benjamin Schwartz, Stuart Schram, Maurice Meisner, Mark Selden, Carl Riskin, Manoranjan Mohanty, G P Deshpande, Chris Bramall come to mind.  However, as will soon be evident, herein I mainly rely on writers of the Monthly Review School — John Gurley, William Hinton, Harry Magdoff, and others.

4  To his credit, it was Benjamin Schwartz (1951) who first highlighted the shift in the CCP’s strategy (in response to what the party saw as a change in the “principal contradiction”) during the course of the anti-Japanese resistance.

5  The figures have been disputed though, among others, by Utsa Patnaik (2004: 10-12) and Joseph Ball (2006).

6  I may be naïve, but given that Mao is said to have had overwhelmingly the people’s and the PLA’s support but the Liu-Deng faction had the upper hand organizationally within the party, Mao could have split the party and gone for a referendum to decide China’s future course — capitalism or socialism — and there would have been little doubt what the result of the plebiscite would have been, the outcome of which would have totally legitimized the socialist road.  Why didn’t he do this?

7  This episode was related by Chou En-lai [Zhou Enlai] to Charlie Chaplin in Geneva during the Korean crisis when the former had come to negotiate an end to the Korean War and the latter had made possible a showing of City Lights to the visiting dignitary (Chaplin 1966: 526, 530).

8  The country has recently witnessed the largest ever Indo-US military exercise on Indian soil.

9  Also, religion, ethnicity and nationality have been divisive cards played by the main political parties and their forebears to divide the toiling masses at the local level in the Indian sub-continent.  The utter criminality of communalist-religious mobilizations and the pogroms unleashed against the main religious minority in India have been the most tragic outcomes of this brand of semi-fascist politics in the recent past.

10  In 1994, I happened to go to the courts in Midnapore town (in Paschim Midnapore district of the Indian state of West Bengal) for some legal matter.  During the long lunch break I was resting in an empty courtroom when two desperately poor tribal men, who seemed to be in a bad condition as a result of torture, were brought by the police into this “court” — as I pretended to sleep, the court clerk, masquerading as the judicial authority (the real guy was probably enjoying his extended siesta at home) passed a summary order in a minute, remanding the accused to further police custody.  I mention this because Lalgarh, in the Jhargram sub-division of the district, and the contiguous Jangalmahal area, is presently one of the epicenters of Maoist revolt, and, if one wants to get to the roots of this local eruption since November last year, the criminal justice system’s deliberate, callous, and continuing discrimination against the poor, the tribal poor in particular, is not unimportant.  It is interesting that at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 Marx, referring to “some of the antecedents which prepared the way for the violent outbreak”, quoting from the report of the “Torture Commission at Madras” highlights “the difficulty of obtaining redress which confronts the injured parties”.  Marx concludes (1857):

In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects.  And if the English could do these things in cold blood, is it surprising that the insurgent Hindoos should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of crimes and cruelties alleged against them?

What is tragic is that, in a province of independent India governed by the “social-democratic” Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government without a break since 1978, there are elements of an essential continuity (with respect to British India in 1857) in the manner in which the criminal justice system functions.


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Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and is a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.  This essay is dedicated to the memory of my first editor, the late Samar Sen (Shômor babu, as we called him), founder-editor of the Kolkata-based weekly, Frontier.  It is also in appreciation of Subhas Aikat whose Kharagpur-based, hand-to-mouth existing Cornerstone Publications brings out an Indian edition of the Monthly Review and books that pose the kind of questions generally shunned by academia.  The essay is my small thanksgiving to all you MR people, past and present, on the occasion of your 60th anniversary.  I thank Paresh Chattopadhyay, N Krishnaji, John Mage, C Rammanohar Reddy, and P A Sebastian for their critical but helpful comments on an earlier draft; the usual disclaimers apply.