Figuring ‘It’ Out, Putting ‘It’ to Use


As I have understood the task at hand, the editors of Aneek expect me to respond to the question: Is ‘Maoism’ in India an authentic application of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’?  Frankly, I am not comfortable with such a positing of the question for it seems to suggest one “correct” interpretation of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’ (M-L-M)/Maoism.  I would rather like to imagine M-L-M as open-ended and adaptable to new and changing historical situations, wide open to empirical evidence and thus able to grapple with social reality as it is unfolds.

Marxism as Open-Ended

Leninism, following Stalin, is commonly designated as “Marxism of the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution”.  Nevertheless, the specificity of its origins in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the context of economic and social “backwardness” should not be lost sight of.  Mindful of this historical context, we however need to wrest the universal truths of Leninism.  Thus, for example, in my view, today, a Leninist conception of the Party would be one where internal democracy and socialist pluralism would be sought to be safeguarded even under the most severe conditions of civil war and/or imperialist intervention.

Marx, Lenin and Mao did change their views about the world as the world changed (with the passage of time), and, like all human beings, they were fallible.  Lenin’s conception of the Party is not merely to be found in his 1902 book What Is To Be Done?, where the emphasis is on centralism rather than on democracy and where he expresses the view that socialism can only be brought to the proletariat by the revolutionary intellectuals of the Party.  But what about Lenin in 1905, and in 1917 in his book The State and Revolution?  Again, by way of an example, didn’t Marx, whose motto was to doubt everything, continue to the very end of his life to learn truth from history, economics and politics, from the real world of social relations and class struggle?  One might contrast his attitude to British colonialism in India in his famous “The British Rule in India” (written on June 10, 1853) and “The Future Results of British Rule in India” (written on July 22, 1853) in which he is very hopeful of India’s economic transformation with a letter to Nikolai Danielson in St. Petersburg from London on February 19, 1881 in which Marx writes:

What the English take from them [the Indians] annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus; pensions for military and civil service men, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc, etc. — what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England — it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India!  This is a bleeding process, with a vengeance!

Surely, Paul Baran, in his The Political Economy of Growth (1957), had got on the correct Marxist track with his emphasis, both from a class and a centre-periphery perspective, on polarisation — islands of wealth and luxury in a sea of poverty and misery.

In China from the late 1920s to 1949 in such a sea of poverty and misery, and, after “liberation”, from 1949 to 1969, still facing the acute problem of backwardness of the “productive forces”, Mao and his comrades in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) brought about many innovations in Marxism-Leninism in order to make and continue the revolution in a country where it was desperately needed.  This brings us to Maoism, or what the Aneek editors prefer to call ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’.  I would prefer the use of the term Maoism simply because it is more than simply the application of Marxist-Leninist principles in the Chinese context and “-ism” encapsulates what is more collective, international and universal in its connotation than “Thought”.

Here, I need to briefly deal with “official” claims as to what is “correct” and what is “wrong” as far as “Mao Zedong Thought” is concerned.  In a “Resolution on Certain Questions of Party History since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” adopted at the Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CCP in June 1981, there was a so-called “definitive evaluation” of Mao and Mao Zedong Thought.  Putting it starkly, and perhaps, with a bit of exaggeration, post-1957 Mao and Mao Zedong Thought were judged to be 100% wrong.  In particular, the Great Leap Forward, the communes, Mao’s theory of “uninterrupted revolution”, and the Cultural Revolution, which was justified on that basis, are, in the resolution, judged, as expected, very harshly.  I radically differ.  In my view, the communes, despite adverse weighting of the cases of failure over those of success, the theory of “uninterrupted revolution”, never mind that it was not adequately developed, and the Cultural Revolution, notwithstanding the many serious ‘left’ errors and the sharp contrast between Maoist aspirations and reality on the ground, must be counted among the most innovative features of Maoism.1

Essence of Maoism

In brief, in my view, the distinctive features of Maoism, drawn from Chinese practice during 1927-69, are the following:2

    • the poor peasantry and rural landless wage-workers of the interior of a backward capitalist/semi-feudal society rather than the urban proletariat constitute the mass support base of the revolutionary movement;


    • a theory of revolution by stages as well as “uninterrupted revolution”, implying a close link between successive stages and an imperative that the political party and other organisations of the revolutionary classes leading and continuing the revolution must be free of all the debilitating influences coming from the exploiting classes and need to maintain their independence and uncompromising opposition to those classes if the revolution is to be taken to its logical end;


    • the stage of New Democratic Revolution (NDR), which makes capitalism much more compatible with democracy, thereby aiding the transition to socialism;


    • in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country, the revolutionary path and strategy is one of Protracted People’s War (PPW) with the people’s liberation army and the Communist Party at its core, 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” (politically win over) 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 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 through practice of the leadership principle “from the masses, to the masses”;


    • 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;


    • an incisive critique of Stalin’s philosophy, politics and economics, and especially, a rejection of the Stalinist practice of “primitive socialist accumulation” which was against the interests of the peasantry and, in fact, dealt a severe blow to the worker-peasant alliance in the Soviet Union, and led to the build-up of a many-times-more repressive state there;


    • progression from land to the tiller to mutual aid teams, and then to elementary cooperatives (where incomes are based on productive capital ownership and on labour time committed to cooperative production with the ratio of the labour to capital share of net output increasing over time), followed by advanced cooperatives (when the capital share of net output is done away with), and, over a period of time, turning the latter into larger units of collective economy and government — the communes;


    • open-ended interrelations among and between the forces of production, the relations of production, and the superstructure;


    • in the period of transition to socialism, the need for a series of Cultural Revolutions — mass mobilisation and initiative on the part of students, workers and peasants in major “class struggles” against a powerful and privileged stratum that has a tendency to emerge in the party, the government, the enterprises, the communes, the educational system, and so on, and which develops a stake in maintaining its favoured position and passing it on to its progeny (a ruling class in the making).  (CR is meant to prevent “capitalist restoration”; its focus is on the political, ideological and cultural superstructure — institutions that wield power and instil or alter the ideas and values held by individuals and classes in the transitional society);


    • the importance of women’s emancipation (“women hold up half the sky”) even during the NDR;


  • stress on egalitarianism even where the forces of production have not yet been developed enough to produce and satisfy all reasonable human needs (notion of the “iron rice bowl”).

But even as Maoism in China raised crucial questions concerning the “transition period” to socialism, as outlined above, in practice, given the lack of development of the productive forces and the failure to respect even conventional civil and political rights of the people, “dictatorship of the proletariat” (Marx’s “self-government of the producers”) was a far cry — the producers (workers and peasants) didn’t have the political power to control the labour process and the distribution of the products of their labour.  In short, while socialism — in Marx’s sense of the term — was intended, it remained a distant dream in China.  The personality cult of Mao and the silencing of his opponents in the absence of democracy made matters worse.  Perhaps the very process of the accumulation of capital on a world scale that had shifted the centre of the revolutionary struggle for socialism from the “centre” to the “periphery” of the global capitalist system made the success of any Marxist revolution doubly difficult.

India’s Path: Protracted People’s War?

Maoism in India, 1967-2011 can best be assessed within the framework of Mao’s dictum/tenet — “practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge”, repeating itself in “cycles” — and evaluating whether, with each cycle, the content of practice and knowledge was raised to a higher level.  Given the constraint of length, we do not intend to do this over here.  What we will do is touch upon the main reason for the failure of the Maoists in India to establish “base areas” even after four decades of practice of the strategy and tactics of PPW.  From the Maoist point of view, if they create and sustain a few base areas, the PPW will be able to sustain itself over a long period; in the absence of base areas, the Maoist guerrilla army will not last long or grow.

Basically, in its analysis of the interplay of continuity with change, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) seems to emphasise continuity rather than change.  Indeed, if one looks at the party programme adopted by the original CPI (Marxist-Leninist) at its first Party Congress in May 1970 and compares this with the same passed at the first Congress of the CPI (Maoist) in 2007, in the characterisation of Indian society as “semi-colonial”, “semi-feudal”, the character of the Indian state, the four major contradictions, the two fundamental contradictions, the principal contradiction, the character of the Indian big bourgeoisie, the stage of the Indian revolution, the four-class revolutionary united front, and so on, they are essentially the same.

Contrary to this, in our understanding, India is an underdeveloped capitalist country, permeated with the following tendencies/propensities that are leading to its emergence as a sub-imperialist power:3

    1. An increasing share of foreign capital in modern industry and finance;


    1. Globalisation of the country’s financial markets and the imperative to follow conservative fiscal and monetary policies;4


    1. Rapid decline in the share of agriculture, relative stagnation in industry’s share, and a rapid rise in the share of services, all as a proportion of gross domestic product from the 1980s onward but with the corresponding changes in employment shares, especially that of agriculture declining much less, in turn, having serious implications for mass living standards;5


    1. Widening wage gaps vis-à-vis the developed capitalist countries and, consequently, unequal exchange in international trade;


    1. A consequent outward mobility of “knowledge workers”, constrained by political restrictions in the recipient high-wage countries;


    1. A systematic reliance on the import of technology as far as the islands of high productivity in the economy — in agriculture, industry and services — are concerned;


    1. La Grande Bouffe, so characteristic of consumer society, confined to the local elite, which imitates the consumption patterns of its counterparts in the developed capitalist countries;


    1. An increasing proportion of exports of primary commodities, manufactured goods, and services routed via the trade and investment networks of transnational corporations;


    1. Islands of undreamt-of wealth-luxury in a vast sea of poverty-misery;6


    1. Increasing degree of monopoly in the modern industrial and services sector, buttressed, no doubt, by foreign capital;


    1. Dispossession of the peasantry via class differentiation and, increasingly, through displacement and environmental degradation;7


    1. Political subordination to US imperialism and working with it to advance mutual strategic interests;


    1. Bolstering of the semi-fascist project of the Hindutva forces (whose parliamentary political front, the Bharatiya Janata Party is the only serious contender of the Congress Party for power at the national level) following the US’ “war on terror” in the aftermath of 9/11; and,


  1. Intensification of coercive institutional mechanisms internally and extra-territorially, as regards the latter, where the Indian state teams up with Indian business to advance mutual interests and power beyond its national borders, for instance, in Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

All this cannot be elaborated upon over here, and the Maoists too touch upon some of the above tendencies, but where would the contradiction between caste-based feudalism and the broad masses of the people, what the Maoists say is the principal contradiction among the set of four major contradictions, figure as an explanation for these propensities?  The concepts “semi-feudalism” and “semi-colonialism” must be open-ended and adaptable to new and changing historical situations if they are to aid an understanding of “the present as history”.  Our point of disagreement with the CPI (Maoist) is significant: If the party programme follows mainly from the party’s class analysis of the society, the character of the Indian state and understanding of major contradictions (the two fundamental ones from among them, and from these two, pinpointing the principal contradiction), and strategy is formulated based on that programme, then if there is a major error in understanding class structure and relations, the character of the state, and the nature of the main contradictions, the party programme and consequent strategy and tactics would be inappropriate and erroneous, and lead to a serious underestimation of the stability, power and strength of the Indian state, the economy and the ruling classes.  We think that uneven development in a backward capitalist system is fundamentally different from the same in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial setup, making it doubly difficult to successfully establish a series of base areas from which the movement can then be steered and expanded to move beyond the stage of “strategic defence”.

What then did Mao mean when he said “learn truth from practice”?  As we understand it, this refers to learning truth “from history, from economics and politics . . . from the real world of social relations and class struggle”8 in combination with and from one’s own political practice.  In keeping with this exhortation, Maoists in India need to take a hard re-look into the abyss that is India — its history, its economy and polity, its potentialities.  As Mao did, we also need to change our views about the world as the world changes.  He offered no revolutionary path for all times and places, but he left us with his Weltanschauung, his method of analysis — materialist dialectics –his values, his vision.  Of course, even as we critique the Maoists in India, one admires their simplicity, their singleness of purpose, their high spirits in the course of the fight, their sense of misery when one of their comrades gives up the fight or submits to the powers that be, their ever-willingness to excuse the gullibility of the masses but nevertheless, detest any signs of servility.


1  This proposition is argued in my article “Did Lenin/Mao Forsake Marx?” in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 22, May 29-June 4, 2011, pp. 94-99.

2  These attributes of Maoism have been developed in my essay “What Is Maoism?” in What Is Maoism and Other Essays (Kharagpur: Cornerstone Publications, 2010), edited and introduced by me, and in the essay mentioned in the previous footnote.

3  I first began theorizing about this phenomenon in 1998.  See Bernard D’Mello, “Does Indian Sub-Imperialism Drive the Bomb?” Frontier, Vol. 31, Nos. 8-11, September 20-October 17, 1998, pp. 38-40.

4  See N K Chandra’s “India’s Foreign Exchange Reserves: A Shield of Comfort or an Albatross?” Economic & Political Weekly, April 5, 2008, pp. 39-51.

5  See Utsa Patnaik’s “Unbalanced Growth, Tertiarization of the Indian Economy and Implications for Mass Living Standards”, in Praveen Jha (ed.): Progressive Fiscal Policy in India (New Delhi: Sage), 2011, pp. 299-325.  An earlier episode was in colonial India from 1881 to 1931 (Ibid.: p. 301).

6  See S L Shetty’s “Growing Inequality: A Serious Challenge to the Indian Society and Polity”, in Praveen Jha (ed.), Progressive Fiscal Policy in India (New Delhi: Sage), 2011, pp 86-147.  Also see Utsa Patnaik’s “The Republic of Hunger”, Social Scientist, Vol. XXXII, No. 9/10, September-October, 2004, pp. 9-35.  Utsa Patnaik’s “The Tendulkar Committee Report on Poverty Estimation” (People’s Democracy, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, January 3, 2010, pp 1-4) shows the committee’s own estimates of the proportion of the rural and urban populations unable to reach the minimum nutrition norms in 2004-05 are 86.7% and 64.5% respectively.  Also see N K Chandra’s “China and India: Convergence in Economic Growth and Social Tensions?” in EPW (ed.), China after 1978 — Craters on the Moon: Essays from Economic & Political Weekly (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan in association with Sameeksha Trust), 2010, pp. 279-317.

7  See Utsa Patnaik’s “Imperialism, Resources, and Food Security, with Reference to the Indian Experience”, in Waquar Ahmed, Amitabh Kundu, and Richard Peet (eds.), India’s New Economic Policy: A Critical Analysis (New York: Routledge), pp 217-39, which, among other things, links displacement due to special economic zones with rural landlessness.

8  See Paul Sweezy’s “What is Marxism?” Monthly Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 10, March, p. 1.

Bernard D’Mello ( is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.  This piece is a slightly revised version of his article “When Will That Radical New Spring Come?” — first published in Bengali in the magazine Aneek in its issue of September-October 2011.

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