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Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

A Critical Introduction

by Elliot Liu

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A nuanced and critical review of the Chinese Revolution - inherited as "Maoism" - and lessons it offers today's movements.

Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

Note: This book draws on many sources from different time periods and thus mixes Wade-Giles and Pinyin forms of transliteration. The author has done his best to standardize names and places.

Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.

—Mao Tse-tung, Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, 1926


The Chinese Revolution was one of the great world-historical revolutions of the twentieth century. It included the overthrow of a dynastic system that had governed China for over two thousand years; a period of rapid modernization and the growth of anarchist and communist politics in East Asia; two decades of mobile rural warfare, culminating in the triumph of a state socialist project; and finally, a series of external conflicts and internal upheavals that brought the country to the brink of civil war and led to the emergence of the capitalist dreadnought that stands to shape the course of the twenty-first century. One fruit of this rich historical experience is Maoism.

The term “Maoism” is used to describe syntheses of the theory and strategy that Mao Zedong developed from the 1920s to the 1970s, alongside his allies in the Chinese Communist Party. Different political tendencies use the word to foreground different elements of Mao’s thought and practice, but in its various iterations Maoism has made a great impact on the U.S. revolutionary left. In the 1960s, many groups in the black liberation, Chicano, and Puerto Rican movements, and later the New Communist movement, looked to China for inspiration. Mao’s influence continues today not only in well-established groups such as the Revolutionary Communist Party and the two Freedom Road Socialist Organizations, but also through younger groupings such as the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee and the New Afrikan Black Panther Party–Prison Chapter. If a wave of social movement is to appear in the United States in the coming years, Maoist politics are likely to be a significant element of its revolutionary wing.

Given the persistence of Maoism, today’s revolutionaries must ask: What are the central pillars of Maoist politics, in their various forms? In what historical circumstances did these elements emerge, and how were they shaped by their context? How have these ideas been interpreted and applied in revolutionary movements? How might these politics help or hinder us in developing a revolutionary movement for today? This book offers a set of preliminary answers to these questions. In the pages below, I provide a brief survey of the fifty-year Chinese revolutionary experience for militants who are unfamiliar with it, and contextualize the main elements of Maoist politics within that history. Along the way, I offer a critical analysis of the Chinese Revolution and Maoist politics from an anarchist and communist perspective.

While I disagree with him on particulars, my take on the revolution is in broad agreement with the central claims of Loren Goldner’s controversial “Notes Toward a Critique of Maoism,” published online in October 2012.1 The Chinese Revolution was a remarkable popular peasant war led by Marxist-Leninists. Taking the helm of an underdeveloped country in the absence of a global revolution, the Chinese Communist Party acted as a surrogate bourgeoisie, developing the economy in a manner that could be called “state capitalist.” The exploitation and accumulation around which Chinese society was subsequently organized transformed the party into a new ruling class, with interests distinct from those of the Chinese proletariat and peasantry. Mao’s wing of the party tried to evade the problems of bureaucratization and authoritarianism, using the Soviet experience as blueprint and foil. But even as they called forth popular movements, Mao and his allies were continually forced to choose between sanctioning the overthrow of the system that guaranteed their class position or repressing the very popular energies they claimed to represent. Mao and his allies repeatedly chose the latter, beating back the revolutionary self-activity of the Chinese proletariat and ultimately clearing the way for openly capitalist rule after Mao’s death.

My take on the various components of Maoist politics varies, depending on the philosophical, theoretical, strategic, or methodological element in question. In general, I consider Maoism to be an internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism. Over many years, Mao developed a critical understanding of Soviet society, and of the negative symptoms it displayed. But at the same time, he failed to locate the cause of these symptoms in the capitalist social relations of the USSR and so retained many shared assumptions with the Stalinist model in his own thinking. Thus Mao’s politics remained fundamentally Stalinist in character, critiquing the USSR from a position as untenable in theory as it was eventually proven in practice. This book makes an initial attempt to interrogate Maoist concepts in this context. Other militants will have to carry the task further. Only when Maoism is subjected to an immanent critique and “digested” in this manner will it be possible to effectively re-embed elements of Maoism in a coherent political project adequate to our present situation.

To develop our account further, we must examine the broad arc of the Chinese revolutionary experience. We begin at the transition from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, when modern China was born in toil and bloodshed.



1. The Emergence of Modern China

Revolutionary politics emerged in China during a contradictory period of economic and political transformation. The 1800s saw China’s precapitalist economy and bureaucracy shaken by rapid industrialization and conflict with the West. These circumstances entailed massive social upheaval and led to the establishment of a modern nation-state, the development of anarchist and communist movements, and eventually the emergence of Maoism.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain opened Chinese markets to foreign products through a series of imperialist conquests known as the Opium Wars. The technologically advanced British military delivered punishing losses to the Qing dynasty, won control of Hong Kong, and forced down trade barriers to British goods. It was a powerful blow to Chinese imperial pride, as the defeat marked the first time in centuries the Chinese state had suffered so decisive a loss to a foreign power. Other imperialist powers followed suit in later decades, forcing open Chinese markets at gunpoint, imposing war debts, and taking control of “concession” territories on the Chinese mainland where they established commercial zones. The French, Dutch, Russians, Americans, and Japanese all seized chunks of China in this manner throughout the late 1800s.

Imperialist domination generated unrest in Chinese society, even as its Qing rulers struggled to modernize the empire. The Taiping and Boxer rebellions swept China in the 1800s, attacking both imperialist powers and the Qing state itself. With the turn of the century, an entire generation of Chinese intellectuals turned to revolution. Confucian education was abolished in 1905, and many Chinese students traveled to Tokyo, Paris, or London to study Western natural and social sciences. As peasant and worker rebellions grew, this layer of intellectuals imagined the formation of a Chinese state on par with other global powers. Popular unrest culminated in the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty, and the founding of the first Chinese republic. Soon afterward, the “Revolutionary Alliance,” a group of secret societies that had helped stage the revolution, formed the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen.

The overthrow of the Qing dynasty only deepened the social turmoil, however. By 1916 the state had collapsed into a checkerboard of territories controlled by feuding warlord armies, and imperialists continued to dominate the coastal areas. In 1919, the nationalist May Fourth Movement drew thousands into the streets to demand Chinese unity against imperialist domination. A small group of revolutionaries emerged from this upsurge to found the Communist Party of China (CCP) in 1921. The party held its first congress on a boat in a lake in Changsha, in Hunan Province, with thirteen delegates representing fewer than sixty members in total.1 From this tiny beginning, the CCP quickly grew to a party of tens of thousands. The party centered its activity in the struggles of the growing Chinese proletariat, which itself was just one explosive fraction of the impoverished Chinese populace.

China in 1920 remained a predominantly peasant country, dependent on the work of five hundred million agricultural laborers whose living conditions were rapidly deteriorating. After the “medieval renaissance” of the Tang and Sung dynasties stalled out in the 1500s, China entered a “dynastic cycle” of booms and busts, the causes of which remain a subject of debate for economic historians. Throughout the 1800s population expanded steadily with no rise in agricultural productivity, and living standards fell. A highly unequal distribution of land strangled the peasant plot: the average family farmed a mere 3.3 acres into the 1930s.2 Drought and famine became common occurrences, as did the practice of selling children into servitude, or marrying young women against their will to rich landowners, to stave off destitution. The collapse of the Qing state only intensified the exploitation, with landlords and warlords seizing up to half of annual harvests in rents, and local officials engaging in tax gouging or debt schemes to keep peasants in perpetual servitude. Under these pressures, the traditional peasant kinship structure began to fracture.3 Mass peasant movements emerged that united the peasantry across clan lineages and broke traditional ties with the landlord class.4

China in 1920 was also being transformed by industrialization. As industry grew in coastal cities such as Shanghai, the proletariat expanded at a heady rate. There were a million workers in China in 1919, and the number doubled by 1922. While small relative to the population, the Chinese working class was highly militant and well connected to the workers’ movement at its world-historic height. In 1922 there were 91 strikes across the country involving 150,000 workers. In 1924, 100,000 workers marched in Shanghai to celebrate May Day, demanding an eight-hour day at a time when local workdays stretched from 12 to 16 hours. In 1925, 400,000 workers from Beijing to Guangzhou launched strikes and demonstrations against foreign exploitation.5 The CCP thrived in this class struggle, and grew in size.

Perched atop the massive peasantry and restive proletariat were a bloated landlord class and a stillborn capitalist bourgeoisie. Some bourgeois layers developed in the niches of the international trade imposed by foreign powers, and were thus sympathetic to imperialist forces. Others emerged in sectors that were threatened by outside imports, or otherwise hampered by the imperialist presence, and these tended to sympathize with nationalist sentiment. Many members of the bourgeoisie had themselves only recently emerged from the wealthy peasantry, and so used their profits to purchase land in the countryside. This strategy not only stunted industrial development but also further concentrated land ownership in a few privileged hands, and intensified rural exploitation according to the demands of capital accumulation.

With this configuration of class forces, China displayed all the explosive potentials and glaring contrasts of a semi-colonial nation in the 1920s: It boasted a vast agricultural economy, much of it operating outside capitalist relations of production, yet increasingly exploited by its integration in global flows of capital. It was ruled by a stagnant landlord class and a weak, foreign-dominated bourgeoisie, which were disinclined to carry out a thoroughgoing bourgeois revolution and transform the national economy. And it possessed a numerically small working class that nonetheless displayed all the militancy and revolutionary consciousness of the contemporary global workers’ movement. How would these different classes relate to each other in a revolutionary movement? What role should communist forces play in the development of such a revolution? These questions became central to the CCP throughout the 1920s. Every step of the way, the party was guided organizationally and politically by the recently founded USSR through the Third International, or Comintern.

2. The Comintern: State Capitalist Foreign Policy

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union held undisputed leadership over the world communist movement. This was true too in China, where the CCP developed under the close direction of the Comintern. The CCP was profoundly shaped by this relationship, both modeling itself after the Stalinist interpretation of Leninism, and working to break from Soviet control. This tension would become a defining feature of Maoism.

The history of the USSR and the Comintern is too lengthy to detail here, but some brief comments are necessary to frame its role in the Chinese Revolution. The Comintern was established in 1919 in Moscow, to direct what was seen at the time as an impending world revolution. The Russian Revolution had opened the floodgates, and now, it was believed, revolution would sweep the Western powers in quick succession, followed by the rest of the globe. But these hopes were dashed as the wave of working-class revolt after World War I met defeat—notably in the failed German insurrections of 1918–19, and the defeated Italian factory occupations of 1920. These developments caught Russian revolutionaries by surprise. For decades, Russian socialists believed their revolution would occur in tandem with a wave of upheavals in the developed capitalist countries, culminating in a world transition to socialism. Now they found themselves trapped in an undeveloped nation, surrounded by hostile powers, with little chance of world revolution breaking out anytime soon.

In this climate, the Soviet state went on the defensive. The turn was most clearly expressed in 1921, when the party suppressed the Kronstadt uprising, and established the New Economic Policy.6 After Lenin’s death in 1924, a theory of “socialism in one country” was developed by Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin (who would eventually be tried and executed by Stalin in 1938). The theory claimed it was possible to fundamentally break with capitalist social relations, and establish a socialist society, within the institutional framework of a single nation-state. The Soviet state thus came to be viewed as an “outpost” of socialism in a capitalist world, whose survival alone sustained the possibility of world revolution in a reactionary period.

Stalin’s theory distorted Marx’s understanding of revolution and the material basis for socialism. Yet the Russian party was compelled to reform its theory in part out of material necessity. Finding themselves in control of an underdeveloped country, the rulers of would-be communist Russia chose to act as a surrogate bourgeoisie, in place of the ruling classes they had just deposed. After nationalizing industry and sanctioning the return of market relations in the countryside to address food shortages, the party carried out “primitive socialist accumulation” in the 1930s, hyper-exploiting the peasantry to feed the cities and fund the state, and thereby sustain a program of rapid industrial development. Russian leaders believed they could carry out these tasks while remaining revolutionary communists; they were wrong.7

As Marx argued, social being ultimately determines social consciousness. Though the Soviet and Comintern leaders may have thought they were defending world revolution, they were increasingly simply defending the foreign policy interests of an emerging state capitalist ruling class, which represented the world proletariat in name only. The theoretical orthodoxy produced in the USSR, and disseminated globally through the Comintern until World War II, was profoundly marked by this experience. What we today call “Stalinism” is essentially a distorted version of Marxist theory, taken up and reworked in the service of capital. In addition to the doctrine of socialism in one country, its building blocks include the substitution of the vanguard party for the self-activity of the proletariat, a conception of revolutionary transition separated into rigid stages, and a reductive materialist theory of knowledge and practice, which will be explored further below. This was the body of ideas upon which Chinese revolutionaries based their conception of revolution and developed their own theory in turn.

When the CCP emerged in China in the 1920s, the Comintern was in its so-called “Second Period” under the leadership of Grigory Zinoviev (who would be tried and executed by Stalin in 1936). In this period, the Comintern rejected the possibility of world revolution in the near-term and prioritized defending the Soviet state from the imperialist encroachment. The Comintern thus actively supported nationalist movements in territories controlled by the imperialist powers. It also imposed the Bolshevik vanguard party as the universal model for communist parties across the globe and demanded the strict subordination of parties in other countries to the demands of the Comintern in Moscow. Comintern members believed this approach would further the world revolution—an aim they considered synonymous with the defense of the Soviet state—but it objectively had the opposite effect.

3. The Disaster of 1927

Throughout the 1920s the Comintern dispatched advisors and funds to the CCP in China. In 1923, Comintern advisor Mikhail Borodin instructed the CCP to cease building an independent party, and merge its organization with the nationalist KMT. In line with the geopolitics of the Soviet state, and its interpretation of Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Borodin believed a united nationalist movement in China would weaken global capitalism and thereby defend the USSR.8 The party followed the Comintern’s directives and fused with the KMT in 1924, over the objections of some of its cadre. The same year, the Comintern helped establish the Whompoa Military Academy in Guangzhou, to help train the KMT military. Sun Yat-Sen died the following year, and KMT leadership was taken over by Chiang Kai-Shek. In 1926, Chiang was accepted as an honorary member of the Comintern, and the KMT was incorporated as an associate party.

Popular rebellion continued to grow in the cities and the countryside. The “May Thirtieth Movement” erupted in 1925, after protesters were killed in Shanghai’s imperialist districts, leading to strikes across China’s industrial areas. A wave of peasant insurrections swept Hunan Province in the following months. As the party participated in both of these struggles, it ballooned in size. From only 1,000 members at the start 1925, membership leapt to 10,000 with the May Thirtieth Movement; 30,000 by July 1926; and 58,000 by April 1927. The KMT was also emboldened by the wave of rebellions. In 1926, Chiang Kai-Shek launched a military campaign to unify China and bring warlordism to an end: the Northern Expedition. CCP cadres worked in tandem to help bring the KMT to power. As Chiang’s armies moved through southern China, the party mobilized 1.2 million workers and 800,000 peasants in a series of strikes and uprisings.9

Yet as the KMT ascended, its antagonism with the CCP became ever more apparent. After being brought to power in Guangzhou by a general strike, Chiang disbanded the leading Canton–Hong Kong strike committee and imprisoned party cadres. At this “betrayal” many CCP members moved to split with the KMT but were prevented from doing so by Borodin, who instructed CCP members to apologize to Chiang and refrain from conducting agrarian reforms or seizing private property in the province. The party’s leaders dutifully followed suit.

With working-class militancy stifled in the south, Chiang launched his military expedition in June 1926. Again the CCP organized strikes and uprisings ahead of Chiang’s advancing army, and by February 1927, KMT troops were approaching the working-class stronghold of Shanghai. The Shanghai General Labor Union called for a general strike to usher Chiang to power, fielding 350,000 workers in street battles, but Chiang halted his forces at the outskirts of the city and waited for the movement to exhaust itself. Only after a second wave of street fighting brought 500,000–800,000 workers into the streets, at great human cost, did Chiang take the city. With the industrial heart of China under his control and the workers exhausted, Chiang ordered his First Division troops—composed of revolutionary soldiers from Shanghai—out of the area. He then executed a purge of all communist forces in the city. CCP members were rounded up in raids on union and party offices. Hundreds were imprisoned, and others were executed in the street by gunshot or beheading. The Shanghai purge was repeated across KMT territory over the following year, in a mass crackdown that killed as many as 200,000 CCP members and militant workers. It was a crushing blow to the working-class movement.10

Chiang’s “coup” didn’t pass unchallenged: in Wuhan, left-wing elements of the KMT split with Chiang. The CCP leadership sought to take the lead by forming soviets in the city but was again restrained by the Comintern. To Stalin, the left-KMT government was the “center of the revolutionary movement” in China, and the CCP should actively support it, not supersede it. The party relented, thereby clearing the way for the KMT government in Wuhan to conduct its own suppression of the communists in May 1927, before reuniting with Chiang. At this point, Borodin and other Comintern advisors were forced to flee China.11 By late 1927 the Comintern had run out of bourgeois allies, and it finally reversed course, calling for a split with the KMT and the immediate formation of worker and peasant soviets. It was too late: a “Canton commune” briefly flared to life in Guangzhou in December 1927, with little popular participation. It was crushed by local armies, leaving another 5,000 revolutionaries dead.12

The Comintern’s interventions in the 1920s expressed the contradictions of would-be revolutionaries at the helm of a capitalist state. On the one hand, leaders such as Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin believed worker and peasant power was the goal of revolutionary movements in underdeveloped contexts, and they advocated for it in word. On the other hand, they were compelled to prioritize building strong nationalist allies, as the shortest path to undermining other world imperialist powers and thereby defending the Soviet state. This was the line they followed in deed, repeatedly constraining, limiting, and delaying class struggle, and ultimately guaranteeing its defeat. The experience fundamentally altered the path of Chinese communism.

4. The Turn to the Countryside

The debacles of 1927 decimated the working-class movement, and permanently undermined the relationship between the working class and the CCP. In 1927, three million Chinese workers were in trade unions, but by 1928 that number was halved, and by 1932 the number shrank to 410,000. Class struggles throughout the 1930s remained defensive in character, and were often dominated by corporatist unions set up under Chiang’s regime. In some cases striking workers berated CCP cadres, or pleaded with them to leave, arguing that communist extremism would get them killed. Comintern representatives in Moscow were forced to admit that workers had rejected the party as a result of its strategic errors.13 The broken relationship between the CCP and its class base was reflected in the party’s membership. In early 1927, before Chiang’s crackdown, the CCP had 58,000 members, of which 58 percent were industrial workers. While the party rebounded after 1928, and continued to grow throughout the 1930s as it developed its rural base, its relationship with the working class was irreparably shattered: the proportion of workers in the party soon shrank to 1 percent.14

In this context, the CCP turned its attention to the peasantry—a strategic shift that would eventually bring Mao to prominence. Mao Tse-tung, son of a wealthy peasant from Hunan Province, had been one of the founders of the CCP in 1921. In 1927, Mao published Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, chronicling a wave of peasant rebellions. His report identified the poor peasantry as a revolutionary class in underdeveloped China, and criticized the CCP’s tendency to oppose peasant “excesses” in rural insurrections. After Chiang’s crackdown in Shanghai in September 1927, Mao launched an uprising to take the city of Changsha but was defeated. He managed to flee into the mountainous region separating the provinces of Hunan and Kiangsi with about a thousand men.

Gradually Mao’s military forces, and his prestige in the CCP, began to grow. First a column of CCP soldiers led by Chu Teh, then a rebel KMT unit led by P’eng Te-Huai, and finally two bandit gangs merged with Mao’s forces. The resulting army numbered about ten thousand soldiers, one out of every five of whom carried a rifle. With this force, Mao managed to repel three expeditionary attacks over the following months, and carry out agrarian reforms that won him renown among the peasantry. Clashes to the north soon drew KMT armies into other conflicts, allowing the CCP to establish further bases in the rural areas of southern China. After a second attack on Changsha ordered by the Comintern failed in 1930, the entire CCP leadership relocated to Mao’s base area in Kiangsi.15 The period of rural guerilla war had begun.

The politics of the ensuing Chinese Revolution, and Mao’s politics in particular, were profoundly shaped by the experiences of the CCP in the 1920s and 1930s. After doggedly following Soviet leadership into defeat after defeat, the party was forced to develop its own theory and strategy, drawn more clearly from Chinese conditions. Eventually Mao would develop a distinctly Chinese version of Marxism-Leninism through a critique of Stalin’s Russia; but already in the 1930s, the party seemed headed in that direction. Its shift to rural base areas contrasted with the Russian experience, wherein a generation of revolutionaries had forsaken the countryside to focus exclusively on the urban working class. In Russia the Bolsheviks seized power through urban insurrections, and only formed a Red Army with the onset of the Russian Civil War. In the 1930s, by contrast, the CCP set out on a prolonged, mobile, rural war as its road to power.

The experience of rural warfare would establish a foundation of Mao’s ideas. But as we will see, the theories developed by Mao and his allies were still fundamentally marked by the influence of the Soviet Union and inherited many of Stalin’s theoretical and strategic assumptions.


5. The Chinese Soviet Republic and the Long March: 1931–1935

The CCP declared the founding of a “Chinese Soviet Republic” in rural Kiangsi Province in November 1931, with Mao presiding as its president. From there, the CCP eventually established fifteen base areas across southern China. Even in this period, however, the Comintern struggled to retain control over the party. In 1931 the so-called 28 Bolsheviks, a group of CCP cadres trained in Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow, maneuvered to lessen Mao’s influence take control of the party Politburo. Wang Ming, theoretical leader of the group and Mao’s main rival, advocated using base areas as static defensive headquarters, from which to launch direct seizures of urban areas. Mao opposed this idea and advocated instead for gradually encircling the cities through mobile guerilla warfare. Mao repeatedly clashed with pro-Moscow leaders, and his influence in the party suffered.

The conflict within the CCP took place against the backdrop of constant KMT attacks and Japanese aggression. The KMT launched a total of five “extermination campaigns” against CCP-controlled territories from 1930 to 1935, the first four of which were defeated. KMT columns regularly charged into CCP base areas, only to be isolated and destroyed by the elusive and mobile Red Army. Mao developed a theory of modern guerilla warfare during these remarkable campaigns. Documents such as Why Is It That Red Political Power Can Exist in China? and The Struggle in the Chingkiang Mountains laid the foundation for classics such as On Guerilla Warfare, which would come later. In the same period, Japan seized control of northeastern China, conquering Rehe Province in a series of brief military offensives and annexations from 1931 to 1933. Now the threat of war with Japan hung over the internal conflict in China.

Despite the CCP’s growing military prowess, the party was forced to abandon its base areas in southern China during the KMT’s fifth and final extermination campaign. From October 1933 to October 1934, the KMT gradually tightened a noose around CCP territories, constructing fixed defenses with each advance. Unable to defeat these forces in conventional assaults, the CCP initiated an extended strategic retreat that became the stuff of legend: the Long March. The Long March took over a year to complete and consisted of a series of maneuvers stretching thousands of kilometers. The party traveled from Kiangsi to the remote areas of Yunan and Xikang before finally establishing a new base area in northwestern China centered in the city of Yenan. Several CCP columns conducted the retreat separately, engaging in daily combat with KMT forces and local warlords.

The Long March prompted the ascendance of Mao to the leadership of the party, a decisive break with Soviet control, and the gradual marginalization of the party’s Soviet-oriented leaders. Over the course of the retreat, the CCP lost contact with the Comintern completely: communication was broken in August 1934, when the CCP’s underground radio transmitter in Shanghai was destroyed. In January 1935, the CCP Politburo then held a meeting in Zunyi, in Kweichow Province in southwest China. The 28 Bolsheviks were criticized for their failed military strategy and officially dissolved. Several of the group’s members joined Mao’s wing of the party, while Wang Ming remained in Moscow. Only after winning control of the party did Mao reestablish radio contact with the Soviets, a year and a half later, in June 1936.1

The CCP escaped the KMT only after a great sacrifice: from ninety to one hundred thousand men at the start of the Long March, the Red Army was reduced to seven to eight thousand under Mao’s command upon arrival in the north in the autumn of 1935. It grew to a total of twenty-two thousand as scattered columns arrived over the following months.2 Soon afterward, however, continued Japanese aggression allowed the party a reprieve. For months, Chiang Kai-Shek had pursued the CCP single-mindedly, while ordering his troops to retreat in the face of Japanese annexations for fear of sparking a larger war. Yet the more territory the Japanese seized, the more Chiang’s own base of support urged him to confront the imperialist threat. Demonstrations against imperialism and capitulation began to break out in eastern cities. In 1936, the Comintern pressed the CCP to form an alliance with the KMT against the Japanese, in line with its Popular Front strategy against global fascism (which, at that moment, was sacrificing the Spanish revolution to bourgeois stability in Europe). Mao supported the idea and opened negotiations with the KMT but refused to merge his party or army with Chiang’s for fear of repeating the disaster of 1927. Talks of a truce dragged on for months.

The question was eventually settled by conflicts within the KMT itself. In December 1936, two of Chiang’s own generals kidnapped Chiang in Xi’an, demanding he cease attacks on the CCP and face the imperialist enemy. Chiang relented, and a shaky “Second United Front” between the two parties was secured. Japan launched an all-out invasion of China seven months later in July 1937. For the time being, the CCP and KMT paused hostilities to confront the Japanese empire.

6. The Yenan heritage: 1935–1945

The city of Yenan in Shaanxi Province served as the central headquarters of the CCP throughout the war. Yenan was a remote and impoverished city of 40,000, where party leaders lived in dwellings built out of caves in the hilly terrain, and fraternized daily with lower cadres. From its refuge the CCP coordinated work in sixteen other base areas across China and steadily expanded its organization. The party published theoretical journals and daily newspapers, built radio stations, installed telephone lines, and founded primary schools for the populace and party academies for cadres.3 Mao developed his distinctive theoretical and strategic formulations in this period, and the party established a common set of work methods under his leadership. Described in idyllic terms in many accounts, the Yenan period is often viewed as the “heroic phase” of the Chinese Revolution.

The party and army grew by incredible proportions over a few short years: from 20,000 members in 1936, the CCP expanded to 40,000 in 1937, leapt to 200,000 in 1938, and reached 800,000 in 1940. The Red Army withdrew from major engagements for its first few years in the north, and it expanded from 22,000 survivors to 180,000 soldiers in 1938, and 500,000 in 1940.4 At the same time, mass organizations of youth, women, poor peasants, and other social groups were established in the villages to create alternate bases of leadership from the local landlords. In the base area surrounding Yenan, there were 45,000 members in the party’s labor association, 168,000 in its youth association, and 173,800 in its women’s federation.5 Most of those who joined the party in the 1930s and 1940s were young men from poor peasant households. They were politically undeveloped and sometimes illiterate, but fiercely devoted to improving the plight of Chinese peasants and defeating imperial domination.

The CCP’s campaigns dramatically transformed social relations in the countryside. Land reforms, elections, and public tribunals against abusive landlords and other exploiters became a distinguishing feature of the CCP base areas, unseating the entrenched power of the landlord class.6 These mobilizations employed a repertoire of practices that were to become commonplace in Chinese politics, including mass criticism sessions, public confessions with occasional beatings, and the use of dunce caps or placards to identify targets of critique. Hundreds of thousands of peasants made use of the party’s organizational vehicles to denounce and punish their exploiters. Landlords and creditors were punished, and new local governments were elected. At the same time, the party worked to protect the property of “the middle bourgeoisie [and] the enlightened gentry” that supported war with Japan.7 By 1944, 50–75 percent of the peasants in CCP-controlled territories had taken part in some kind of moderate land reform.8

CCP leaders also established a set of standard work methods to implement throughout the party’s massive organizational apparatus. The most distinctive such innovation was the “mass line,” a technique employed by party cadres in mass organizations, which had first developed in CCP base areas in the south. Using the mass line, cadres were to

take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action.9

This exchange “from the masses, to the masses” was to be repeated continually, leading to ever more correct and effective policies. In practice, cadres used mass line techniques for a variety of ends: to resolve local disputes, investigate local conditions and concerns, or solicit adjustments to party policies as they were enacted.

Today many groups consider the mass line a distinctive feature of Maoism, and argue it distinguishes the Maoist tradition from Stalinist authoritarianism. Yet Mao’s writings leave unspecified what kinds of ideas cadres are to extract from the masses, how they are to judge ideas “correct,” how cadres are to rework and “concentrate” ideas in combination with their own, and through what decision-making mechanisms the masses should “embrace” the results. Thus the concept admits a wide range of interpretations, some democratic and others coercive. For many contemporary groups, mass line practice simply entails identifying local problems to which the party offers overarching solutions, or polling local sentiment in order to craft slogans. The mass line is rarely used to investigate everyday self-activity but more often serves as a feedback mechanism for existing political lines. In this way, the concept can easily slip into a populist method of manufacturing consent.10

Despite these shortcomings, the mass line and other work methods allowed the party to establish organizational roots in the Chinese peasantry throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Gender relations, however, remained a sticking point. Like most parties in the communist tradition, the CCP maintained control over the political line of its mass organizations and constrained their actions according to the party’s overall strategy. With the shift from city to countryside, the CCP leadership limited the party’s action on women’s issues, appeased the party’s predominantly male recruitment pool, and accommodated traditional family norms.

In CCP base areas land was redistributed by family unit and thus placed into the hands of male heads of households. Single women almost never received land, aside from widows. Within this patriarchal structure, women were encouraged to fulfill domestic roles and contribute to the war effort through household textile production, and discouraged from raising independent demands. In a 1942 speech, P’eng Te-Huai (then deputy commander of the Eighth Route Army) argued that feminist slogans should only be raised if they didn’t conflict with other spheres of the peasant movement, and that slogans such as “freedom of marriage” should not be raised until the peasants were more fully mobilized. In other cases, slogans such as “equality between men and women” could be raised in word but not implemented in deed.11

An opposition current criticized this approach. Most visible was Ting Ling, a party member who had been active in feminist and free love circles in the cities in the 1930s. In a 1942 article for International Women’s Day in Yenan’s Liberation Daily, Ting argued that party policy and the culture of Yenan held women to a double standard. On the one hand, they were expected to participate fully in political life and were criticized if they fell short; on the other, they were expected to fulfill traditional women’s roles and were criticized if they broke with gender norms. Against party leaders “who make fine speeches … about the need to first acquire political power” before addressing gender inequality, Ting argued that “if women want equality, they must first strengthen themselves.”12 Mao and other party leaders rebuked Ting’s article. Ting soon underwent self-criticism and was removed from political duties for two years.13 In February 1943, the CCP Central Committee reaffirmed that women’s liberation would come through participation in production rather than autonomous women’s demands. By 1944 around 60,000 women in the Yenan region were employed in weaving and 153,000 in spinning.14

While the CCP’s approach to women’s struggles would vary over time, the party generally inherited the assumptions established during the Second International and maintained in most twentieth-century communist movements. In this view, women’s participation in wage labor would undermine economic dependence on men, thereby overturning patriarchal relations in private and public life. Socialist and communist parties thus aimed to turn women into waged workers before and after taking state power. Yet as many autonomist Marxist feminists have highlighted, this strategy fails to attack the distinction between waged work and unwaged reproductive labor, forcing a “double burden” on working women while guaranteeing that their labor power will appear of lower value on the market. Far from liberating women, this strategy ultimately reinforces the division of labor that reproduces gender categories, while incorporating women into capitalism as a reserve labor force.15 In China, the CCP applied this strategy by encouraging women’s waged labor while maintaining patriarchal families and suppressing autonomous demands that might upset production.16 As a result, women’s membership in the party remained extremely low for decades, hovering around 10 percent into the mid-1960s.17

7. The United Front

The concepts of the united front and the New Democratic revolution became central concepts for the CCP, and continue to be so for contemporary Maoist groups. The term “united front” itself has a long history in the communist tradition, starting with the Russian revolution and continuing through most strands of Leninism and Trotskyism. A united front is a tactic whereby a revolutionary party forms an alliance with reformist organizations in order to connect with their base and, by waging common struggles with them, gain credibility, influence, and leadership in the movement. The tactic was defined and popularized by the Comintern in 1921 as a way for communist parties to adjust to the global decline of the revolutionary movement and the retreat of many European workers into reformism.18 It was further tweaked in the late 1930s, when the USSR courted relations with Western capitalist governments against the rise of Nazi Germany. Now the Comintern expanded the notion of the united front to include alliances with bourgeois parties, in addition to social democratic ones, in a “Popular Front” against fascism.

Mao crafted his own version of the united front in the late 1930s, as the CCP navigated its relationship to the KMT. In line with Stalin’s Popular Front strategy, Mao argued that an alliance was necessary not only between workers and peasants but also with progressive sections of the bourgeoisie, in order to guarantee China’s national liberation from Japan. In contrast to some applications of the Popular Front (and drawing lessons from 1927), Mao insisted the party retain its organizational and territorial independence. He refused KMT demands to reduce the numbers of the Red Army, admit KMT deputies into Red Army ranks, or submit the Red Army to a general command.19 Given these conditions, Mao was willing to accept the costs of an alliance. Yet to keep the KMT and other bourgeois forces committed to the nationalist struggle, the CCP would still have to ingratiate itself to the KMT’s class base. This required limiting class struggle in CCP base areas and protecting the interests of the nationalist bourgeoisie. In the process, the party positioned itself as a proto-state power, separate from the proletariat, and mediating its interests with those of its exploiters.

In The Question of Independence and Initiative within the United Front, published in November 1938, Mao proposes that all classes in CCP-controlled territories must make “mutual concessions” in the interest of fighting the Japanese. For the time being, the party must “subordinate the class struggle to the present national struggle against Japan.” Factory workers may “demand better conditions from the owners,” but they must also “work hard in the interests of resistance.” While “landlords should reduce rent and interest … at the same time the peasants should pay rent and interest.” Current Problems of Tactics in the Anti-Japanese United Front, published in March 1940, further details how the party will gain the support of the national bourgeoisie, the nationalist “enlightened gentry,” and regional power brokers in conflict with Chiang Kai-shek. Winning them over, Mao notes, will require the CCP to “respect their interests” while demonstrating the Red Army’s military abilities. The same year, Mao also moved to integrate ruling class sectors into the base area governments, apportioning seats “one-third for Communists, one-third for non-Party left progressives, and one-third for the intermediate sections who are neither left nor right.”20

Within this framework, the party limited itself to a “minimum program” of land reform rather than agrarian revolution. It sanctioned the seizure of comprador property in its base areas, belonging to “traitors” who had fled the area. But it prevented poor peasants from appropriating the land of “patriotic” middle and rich peasants, industrialists, or merchants. To soften the remaining inequalities, the party implemented progressive taxes, reduced rents by around 25 percent, and capped interest at a maximum of 15 percent per year.21 Many poor peasants in the CCP’s rank and file supported land seizures but were criticized or purged as “leftists” and “Trotskyites” as the united front policy was implemented.22 “The policy of the Party,” the central committee declared, “is not to weaken capitalism and the bourgeoisie, nor to weaken the rich peasant class and their productive force, but to encourage capitalist production and ally with the bourgeoisie and encourage production by rich peasants and ally with the rich peasants.”23

Mao’s formulation of the united front improved living conditions and avoided subjugating the party to the KMT. But it did so at the cost of positioning the party as a mediating force that increasingly dominated over the proletariat and peasantry, as it had over women. While safeguarding CCP control over its army and territories, Mao agreed to subjugate class struggle in those territories to bourgeois interests, with the party acting as the latter’s enforcer. He thus constrained the “independence and initiative” of the proletariat and peasantry, even as he guaranteed it to the party claiming to represent them. This orientation would continue through the end of the war. Even after clashes between the CCP and KMT intensified in 1940 and the Second United Front collapsed, the party still maintained its moderate line, in order to curry favor with the national bourgeoisie under a transitional strategy known as “New Democracy.”

8. The New Democratic Revolution

If Mao believed the party could ally with bourgeois elements to gain a leading role in the war, his theory of “New Democracy” proposed to do the same thing on a national scale after winning state power. In The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party and On New Democracy, Mao proposes a conception of revolution in semi-colonial countries that combines Stalin’s earlier formulations with new distinct features. He argues that the party can carry out a revolution in alliance bourgeois classes, use those classes to develop the country economically after seizing power and peacefully expropriating them to establish a socialist society.

In The Chinese Revolution, Mao argues that the Chinese Revolution will unfold in a series of distinct stages. The first will only aim to defeat Japanese imperialism and overthrow Chinese feudalism, “by means of a national and democratic revolution in which the bourgeoisie sometimes takes part.” This initial stage is “not against capitalism and capitalist private property” per se, and will inevitably take on a “bourgeois-democratic” character such that a “degree of capitalist development will be an inevitable result of the victory of the democratic revolution.”24 Yet Mao also argues that this “democratic revolution” will not be like the bourgeois revolutions of eras past. Under the party’s leadership, the new regime will practice “democracy of … a new and special type, namely, New Democracy.”25

Under New Democracy, China will be ruled by a “joint dictatorship of several anti-imperialist classes” that will suppress pro-imperialist and feudal forces. With “the proletariat and the Communist Party” as its leading element, “the republic will neither confiscate capitalist private property in general nor forbid the development of such capitalist production.” Yet the party will also establish state-run industries, which “will be of a socialist character and will constitute the leading force in the whole national economy.” As political hegemon and captain of industry, the party will gradually phase out the bourgeoisie, and Chinese society will transition peacefully into the next stage, socialism.

From Mao’s perspective, the socialist transition is assured by three historical conditions. First, he views all anti-imperialist struggles as objectively anti-capitalist. Mao accepts the Comintern orthodoxy built upon Lenin’s Imperialism, which argues that imperial domination is a necessary aspect of capitalism in its present stage of development, and that nationalist struggles thus weaken global capitalism and bring socialism closer. For Mao as for Stalin, every anti-imperialist struggle “inevitably becomes part of the proletarian-socialist world revolution.” Second, the political leadership and material support of the USSR helps anti-imperialist struggles move in a socialist direction. “The Soviet Union,” Mao argues, “has reached the period of transition from socialism to communism and is capable of leading and helping the proletariat and oppressed nations of the whole world.” Third, Mao believes the influence of the “proletariat and the Communist Party” and growth in “the state sector of the economy … and the co-operative sector” will ensure the displacement of capitalist relations.

As we will see, Mao’s assessment of the USSR, his faith in party leadership, and his embrace of nationalized industry as a means of socialist transition were all misplaced; Mao himself would be forced to grapple with these shortcomings in the late 1950s. Far from transitioning “from socialism to communism,” the Soviet Union in 1940 was implementing state capitalist industrialization, premised on grinding exploitation of the working class. In this period Russian workers competed for piecework wages, while facing imprisonment for quitting a job. Stalin’s purges had executed the vast majority of the Bolsheviks who had helped bring the party to power, and the Soviet prison system housed upward of two million people for alleged “counterrevolutionary” crimes. In such an era, national liberation struggles allied with the USSR did not objectively weaken global capitalism but rather strengthened its state capitalist wing (what Mao would later call “social imperialism”).

At the same time, Mao’s faith in the party rested on what some call “substitutionism.” Like much of the Leninist tradition, Mao considered the party the “brain” of the global proletariat, which possessed scientific knowledge about the nature of class society and the objective course the revolution would have to follow. Armed with such knowledge, the party could transparently represent the proletariat’s interests, in such a way that it could come to stand in for the latter, thus “substituting” party for class. Mao believed the party could lead the revolution through its inevitable stages, directing class struggle at will along the way—quelling it under the united front, subjugating it to capitalist development under New Democracy—while retaining a communist trajectory. Yet such a position must ultimately lapse into idealism. The concrete social relations in which a given party operates determine its relationship to the exploited, not merely its stated politics. Just as “progressive” CEOs are compelled to twist their egalitarian ideas in order to maintain their economic position, “communist” parties at the helm of capitalist economies can also render their own politics meaningless in practice. Regardless of whether party leaders believe themselves to be acting in the ultimate interests of the exploited, the latter will continue their daily struggle against class relations on their own terms, ultimately forcing such leaders to transform their conceptions, or else repress the very class in whose name they speak—and thus the revolution itself.

When implemented, the united front and New Democracy would help guarantee victory over Japan. But it would do so by constraining worker and peasant struggles, and replacing proletarian initiative with that of the party. Throughout the 1940s, Mao would repeatedly caution cadres against seizures of land or private property, for fear of alienating progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie.26 After the revolution the party would cultivate a friendly environment for capitalists, while preparing to put cadres in their place. In 1953, Mao assured a group of industrialists and liberal politicians,

Some workers are advancing too fast and won’t allow the capitalists to make any profit at all. We should try to educate these workers and capitalists and help them gradually (but the sooner the better) adapt themselves to our state policy, namely, to make China’s private industry and commerce mainly serve the nation’s economy and the people’s livelihood and partly earn profits for the capitalists and in this way embark on the path of state capitalism.27

Mao’s embrace of Stalin’s assumptions was not a simple theoretical oversight. It arose from his effort to grapple with the conditions the Chinese Revolution would face in the years ahead. As an underdeveloped country in a capitalist world system, with little industry and backward peasant agriculture, China struggled to raise living standards above subsistence levels, let alone achieve the communist ideal of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” States in this situation have few options but to trade on the world market, purchase industrial goods, and accumulate capital by exploiting their own populations. Mao recognized these challenges but believed state control would allow revolutionaries to run the economy in the long-term interests of the proletariat. Yet strategies he formulated in Yenan would ultimately provide a justification for the party to act as a surrogate bourgeoisie and generate a new capitalist ruling class in the name of socialism.

9. Mao and the Dialectic

Mao also used Yenan period to deepen his philosophical acumen. For some time, Mao had been criticized by Wang Ming of the former28 Bolsheviks group for his shallow understanding of Marxist philosophy. In Yenan Mao was finally able to address this criticism. In the late 1930s, Mao formed a philosophy study group among the CCP leadership, meeting in his room three nights a week. From these discussions Mao produced On Practice and On Contradiction, the two main philosophical texts of Maoism, in July and August 1937. In the same time period, Mao also produced Dialectical Materialism (Lecture Notes), which were used for internal party education but never published independently.28 These texts indicate Mao’s understanding of the link between thought and practice, as well as his relationship to Stalinist orthodoxy. They provide a window into the philosophy underpinning Maoist politics.

Mao’s version of dialectics relied on a philosophical canon that had then recently been established in the USSR. Ten years prior, philosophical debate in the Comintern had led to the self-criticism of Georg Lukács and the ouster of Karl Korsch, Marxist philosophers who emphasized the subjective, creative aspects of human praxis in the process of dialectical change. Afterward, Soviet debates shifted toward the relationship of dialectical philosophy to natural science. A division then emerged among Soviet scholars between “dialecticians” and “mechanists”: dialecticians urged scientists to use dialectical philosophy to conceptualize and discover dynamic processes in the natural world, while mechanists rejected philosophy as scholasticism, and reduced social and mental phenomena to the properties of physical matter. Stalin stifled the debate in the 1930s, imprisoning and executing many scholars, and imposed his own synthesis of the two positions in the form of “dialectical materialism” or “diamat.” Diamat put forward a simplified schema of the dialectical process, and proposed that thought, social systems, and the natural world all progressed according to this general logic. The dialectic, in this sense, was an objective and universal law present in all known phenomena. Diamat would remain the official state philosophy of the USSR for decades.29

Stalin’s state philosophy became the basis for Mao’s study of dialectics, through recently translated Soviet textbooks. In Yenan, Mao drew on texts such as A Course on Dialectical Materialism by Shirokov and Aizenberg (to which Mao gave nearly thirteen thousand characters of notation), and Dialectical and Historical Materialism and Outline of a New Philosophy by Mitin.30 Long sections of Mao’s Dialectical Materialism (Lecture Notes) are made up of verbatim, or slightly altered, transcriptions of these Soviet texts. The manuals served as the baseline through which Mao synthesized his reading of other first-generation Chinese Marxists such as Li Da and Ai Siqi, and of the Marxist texts that had been translated into Chinese years before: Engels’ Anti-Durhing and Dialectics of Nature, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and brief selections from his Philosophical Notebooks, Marx’s Capital, vol. 1 and Poverty of Philosophy, and Stalin’s On the Problems of Leninism. The resulting synthesis displays three defining characteristics.

The first is a form of reductive materialism that minimizes social consciousness. In contrast with Marxists who view consciousness as an active and creative process shaped by social relationships, Mao’s philosophy reduces thought to physical matter itself, through a “reflection theory” of consciousness. In his Lecture Notes, Mao insists his philosophy differs from “pre-Marxist materialism (mechanistic materialism),” which he argues “did not emphasize the dynamic role of thought in knowledge, attributing it only with a passive role, and perceiving it as a mirror which reflected nature.”31 But just a few pages later, Mao takes up precisely this formulation: “So-called consciousness … is only a form of matter in movement. It is a particular property of the material brain of humankind. It allows material processes external to consciousness to be reflected in consciousness.”32 “Impressions and concepts,” he argues, are “the reflection of objective things, a photographic image and sample copy of them.”33 In Mao’s view, what we experience as consciousness is ultimately a property of our individual brain matter, and concepts themselves are only a kind of imprint of the world upon the matter of our brains. Later in his Lecture Notes, Mao carries this logic to its conclusion, arguing that Hegel’s idealist dialectic was simply a mirror image of the dialectical dynamic that exists in all physical matter, much like a law of physics.

Mao’s formulation reworks ideas from Engel’s Dialectics of Nature and Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, both of which were reified in Stalin’s orthodoxy. In these works too, thought is not viewed as an active social medium but as a passive epiphenomenon upon which other matter leaves an imprint. Like Lenin and Stalin before him, Mao insists his view is different from the “mechanical materialism” of bourgeois science. But ultimately, he embraces a variant of this perspective. To council communist Anton Pannekoek, this variety of materialism was typical of revolutionary movements battling feudal regimes, which tended to draw upon the empiricism and positivism of bourgeois science in order to attack the ruling idealist ideologies.34 But the cost of this perspective is that human consciousness loses its inherently social character, and its creative capacity to interpret and transform the world. Instead it appears a passive reflection of matter, which may then be manipulated by specialists who comprehend the latter’s objective laws.

A second feature of Mao’s writings is his belief that mental categories change through empirical observation and testing, rather than through internal contradictions within categories themselves, which are brought to the fore through practical engagement with the world. This tendency is best illustrated by contrasting Mao’s account of cognition with that of other Marxists. In Notes on Dialectics, 35 C.L.R. James takes up Hegel’s philosophy to distinguish between three levels of cognition: First, basic sensory perception. Second, “Knowledge,” which organizes sense data into mental categories (for example, our experience of the color green, the texture of rough bark, and the sound of wind in leaves, all become “tree”). Knowledge categories are essential for our daily activity, but they can also prevent us from adequately grasping continual changes in the phenomena they describe. A further transformation must therefore take place: Knowledge categories must blossom with internal dialectical oppositions, and yield new categories through a series of negations. Hegel refers to this third level of cognition as “Reason.” For James, dialectical Reason allows revolutionaries to continually transform their categories in a manner adequate to social reality, as the latter is continually reshaped through social practice.

In contrast to this view, Mao makes no distinction between what Hegel would call “Knowledge” and “Reason.” The first level of cognition is apparent in On Practice: “In the process of practice, man at first sees only the phenomenal side, the separate aspects, the external relations of things…. This is called the perceptual stage of cognition, namely, the stage of sense perceptions and impressions.” Then, Mao explains,

As social practice continues, things that give rise to man’s sense perceptions and impressions in the course of his practice are repeated many times; then a sudden change (leap) takes place in the brain in the process of cognition, and concepts are formed. Concepts are no longer the phenomena, the separate aspects and the external relations of things; they grasp the essence, the totality and the internal relations of things.

In this passage, Mao essentially says one can grasp the essence of changing phenomena by steadily stacking empirical perceptions on top of each other, until a conceptual leap takes place by unexplained means.36 He thus sees in thought only the gradual accumulation of empirical data, generating new categories that can then be tested in practice. At this level of sophistication, there is little to distinguish Mao’s notion of cognition from simple empirical observation and induction. At the same time, he overlooks how collective social practice renders received categories contradictory, and how categories themselves may be transformed through these internal contradictions. One expression of this blind spot is Mao’s tendency to critique Stalinism by layering caveats and exceptions atop it, rather than examining its internal contradictions and negating it entirely.

A third feature of Mao’s philosophy is the original contribution he makes to the notion of “contradiction” itself. In On Contradiction, Mao establishes a distinction between “primary” and “secondary” contradictions. “There are many contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing,” he argues, “and one of them is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine or influence the existence and development of the other contradictions.” Mao takes Chinese society as an example: the contradiction between Chinese nationalism and Japanese imperialism is the primary contradiction at the moment, displacing the contradiction between the CCP and the KMT and allowing for the Second United Front, but when Japan is defeated the order will change again.

Mao further distinguishes between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions: “Some contradictions are characterized by open antagonism, others are not. In accordance with the concrete development of things, some contradictions which were originally non-antagonistic develop into antagonistic ones, while others which were originally antagonistic develop into non-antagonistic ones.” At the same time, he downplays the idea that antagonistic contradictions lead to “negation” (a process wherein something is destroyed, even as elements of it are preserved at a higher level in a new phenomenon).37 Instead, Mao emphasizes that the “principal” and “non-principal” sides of a contradiction switch places:

The principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction transform themselves into each other and the nature of the thing changes accordingly. In a given process or at a given stage in the development of a contradiction, A is the principal aspect and B is the non-principal aspect; at another stage or in another process the roles are reversed—a change determined by the extent of the increase or decrease in the force of each aspect in its struggle against the other in the course of the development of a thing.

In his original contributions, Mao conceives of social reality as a web of contradictions with varying levels of influence over one another. Each contradiction, in turn, is composed of discrete elements, which may become more or less antagonistic over time, and may alternate as the dominant term within an overall unity. This conception has strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, Mao’s primary/secondary and antagonistic/non-antagonistic distinctions provided a set of descriptive categories to interpret the complex political relationships in Chinese society. Was the relationship between the party and the national bourgeoisie antagonistic or non-antagonistic under New Democracy? Was the conflict between global imperialism and oppressed nations the primary contradiction in the world today, or the contradiction between capitalism and socialism? Mao’s concepts helped him grapple with politico-military problems, and they attest to his skills as a strategic thinker. In particular, the primary/secondary distinction offers a useful schema to ground the notion of contradiction in complex systems with varying centers of power and influence.

On the other hand, Mao’s contributions downplay the active, processual character of dialectical processes, and the degree to which objects of analysis are transformed through them. While Marx never explicitly elaborated his version of dialectics, he generally conceives of contradictions as ongoing, interactive relationships, in which opposed poles presuppose and constitute one another in a process of self-movement. This process may lead to a negation that radically transforms the content of the poles and the relationship itself.38 Mao’s dialectic, by contrast, is a formal opposition between two separate elements whose content remains constant, and which oscillate back and forth in response to outside stimuli, in a manner similar to a toggle switch. For Martin Glaberman,39 this interpretation lends itself to a view of contradictions as simple conflicts, which can be easily manipulated by outside forces. Mao expresses this tendency when he views the socialist state as a sovereign power, capable of managing and “resolving” contradictions in Chinese society by fiat, rather than an institution itself embroiled in contradictory class relations and constituted by them.

No philosophy can be said to lead, necessarily and directly, to a specific political line. By definition, philosophies are abstract sets of ideas, which may be interpreted in a variety of ways as they are brought to bear in practice. Depending on their formulations, however, philosophies may incline those who take them up toward some interpretations of reality and practice, and away from others. Historically the reductive materialism, empiricism, and positivism that Maoism shares with Stalin’s “diamat” have led revolutionaries in negative directions. In many cases, revolutionaries employing these philosophies have come to view individual consciousness as a direct imprint of the objective laws of class society, which may be discovered and manipulated by specialists with external knowledge, while the creative thought and activity of proletarians is overlooked or rejected as “false consciousness.” The result is a tendency toward manipulation and authoritarianism, seen so often in the Marxist-Leninist tradition.40

Revolutionaries today need not replicate the same applications of Mao’s philosophy. However, they must evaluate Mao’s writings in a critical manner and compare them with other conceptions, in order to arrive at a full appraisal of Maoist philosophical categories. Many currents in Marxist philosophy place consciousness and creative activity at the center of their understandings of dialectical change. Mao, by contrast, recapitulates the underlying assumptions of Stalinist orthodoxy. For him, the dialectic is a universal law inscribed in physical matter and society, independent of individual will, which may be manipulated by sovereign powers possessing scientific truth.

10. Guerilla Warfare

Mao’s final theoretical innovation at Yenan focused on military strategy. In pieces such as Basic Tactics, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, and On Protracted War, Mao elaborated a complete military framework for the Chinese Revolution, spanning overall strategy for the war with Japan, battle doctrine, and small unit organization and tactics.41 Many of Mao’s arguments are condensed in his famous On Guerilla Warfare. His work fused concepts from Western military theorists such Carl von Clausewitz with those of classical Chinese military theorists such as Sun Tzu and Liu Ji. It also coincided with the growth and consolidation of the CCP’s military forces, including the Eighth Route Army in the north, the New Fourth Army in the south, and guerilla base areas behind Japanese lines.

In his military works, Mao argues against factions of the party calling for negotiation with Japanese imperialism, and insists the war is winnable. Certainly, he concedes, Japan currently enjoys military superiority. But at the same time, “deficiency in her man-power and material resources” prevents Japan from fully securing the territory it conquers, while Japan’s internal class tensions and growing international opposition will weaken it in the long run. By contrast, China currently suffers from a “small fighting capacity,” but it also possesses a huge population, great economic potential, international support, and a vast territory that can be traded for time.42 Therefore “the strength or superiority on either side is not absolute,” and given effective strategy and tactics “the factors unfavorable to the enemy and favorable to us will both develop as the war drags on.”43 In order to give Japan’s weaknesses and China’s strengths time to manifest in practice, Mao argues, the war must become protracted in nature.

Mao conceives of protracted war in three stages: strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive. In the first stage, Chinese forces will be forced into a series of retreats, and the Japanese military will score major victories, seizing cities and territory. Yet as the relative strength of the two sides changes, the conflict will reach a point of equilibrium, and eventually Chinese forces will be able to retake the initiative and drive out the imperialists. Mao emphasizes the strategic stalemate stage as a crucial “pivot of change” in this sequence, a moment in which individual engagements have the ability to reshape the overall trajectory of the war. “Whether China will become an independent country or sink into a colony is not determined by the retention or loss of the great cities in the first stage,” he argues, “but by the degree to which the whole nation exerts itself in the second.”44

Mao emphasizes the centrality of guerilla tactics and organization to protracted war. In order to shift the balance of forces, the Japanese must be weakened by rapid opportunistic attacks, carried out by mobile forces in their rear areas. These forces must coordinate their activities with the Red Army but can operate with a degree of autonomy and may be formed on the initiative of villagers themselves.45 In several pieces, Mao details the tactics, arms, organizational structure guerilla units should employ, and how they should coordinate with the CCP’s military command.46 He instructs guerilla combatants to

avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws. In guerilla strategy, the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated.47

After driving enemy forces from a given territory, Mao anticipates that guerilla forces will be able to establish semi-permanent base areas from which to conduct operations. Guerilla units may then merge into the conventional army, and directly confront Japanese forces in the stage of strategic offensive.48

Guerilla actions, for Mao, entail small dialectical inversions of the balance of forces obtaining on a larger scale. While the Red Army overall finds itself on the strategic defensive, guerillas wage offensive attacks; while Chinese forces are compelled to defend their interior lines of supply, guerillas wage “exterior-line quick-decision attacks” on the enemy’s interior lines;49 and while the Japanese military encircles Chinese territory, guerilla bases in the enemy’s rear provide a kind of counter-encirclement of the Japanese as a whole. The anti-Japanese war, in turn, is just one part of a larger counter-encirclement of Axis forces by the Allies on a world scale.50 Thus Mao conceives of the war itself as a series of relational encirclements whose balance of forces can change rapidly, analogous to the Chinese game of weich’i.51 Guerilla warfare forms its linchpin.

In contrast with his philosophical work, Mao’s military writings emphasize the role of consciousness and practical activity in realizing the potentials of a given set of objective conditions. Rather than a mere reflection of material forces, social consciousness is an irreducible moment in the praxis of transforming the world. “Final victory,” Mao insists,

will not take place without human endeavor. For that endeavor there must be people who, on the basis of objective reality, form ideas, arguments or opinions, and bring forward plans, directives, policies, strategies or tactics; only thus can the endeavor succeed. Ideas, etc., are subjective, while endeavors or actions are manifestations of the subjective in the objective, but both indicate the activity peculiar to human beings.52

While people “cannot strive for victories beyond the limit allowed by the objective conditions,” Mao argues, “within that limit they can and must strive for victories through their conscious activity.”53 As his comment on the “pivot of change” during the strategic stalemate stage make clear, conscious activity can even shape whether one set of objective potentials is realized versus another.

Yet in most respects, Mao’s military strategy remains grounded in the same assumptions as his other Yenan texts. Rather than a revolutionary war of the proletariat and peasantry, Mao insists “the political objective of the Anti-Japanese War is ‘the ousting of Japanese imperialism and the building up of a new China of freedom and equality.’”54 For Mao “everything must be subordinated to the interests of resistance to Japan. Therefore the interests of the class struggle must not conflict with, but be subordinated to, the interests of the War of Resistance.”55 Mass organizations in guerilla base areas should therefore include “merchants and members of the free professions” alongside workers and peasants,56 and “the political goal must be clearly and precisely indicated … and their national consciousness awakened.”57 Mao recommends a KMT pamphlet entitled System of National Organization for War be distributed for this purpose.58

Furthermore, “economic policy for the guerilla base areas must be based on the principles of the Anti-Japanese National United Front, i.e. reasonable distribution of the financial burden and protection of commerce.” This requires implementing “the principle of ‘those who have money give money’” while “peasants, however, are required also to supply, within a certain limit, foodstuffs to the guerilla units.”59 Thus Mao’s military strategy ultimately constitutes an extension of his conception of New Democracy. It aims to unite a nation made up of multiple classes, and liberate that nation from an outside invader, while retaining capitalist relations under party control in order to guarantee tax revenues and food for the military.

Much of Mao’s strategic and tactical thought can be extracted from its New Democratic context and applied more broadly, but some of it remains shaped by its origins. One example is Mao’s conception of political work within the army. Rather than conceiving of the army itself as a vehicle for revolutionary transformation—for example, as a force supporting the armed expropriation of land from the landlords—Mao imagines it as a tool for national liberation. The result is that, just as in bourgeois militaries, divisions may arise between the army (carrying out the party’s New Democratic line) and the exploited classes (whose interests are balanced with those of their exploiters under New Democracy), or in the army itself between officers and soldiers recruited from different class backgrounds. The political work of the military must therefore be replaced with political work in the military, in order to manage these contradictions.

Thus Mao emphasizes that political agitation in army ranks “must resolutely uphold the general directive of the Anti-Japanese National United Front” and “bring about a universal and profound improvement in the relationship between officers and men and between the army and the people, to call forth fully the activeness of the whole army and the whole people to defend all our territories.”60 “Amusement rooms” and political slogans may be used to build camaraderie between lower and higher ranks.61 Rather than allow lower-class soldiers to elect officers or debate and larger political and strategic questions (a practice Mao had denounced as “ultra-democracy” since the Kiangsi period),62 Mao limits army democracy to tactical questions and calls for a specialized system of political cadres throughout the chain of command to promote the party line.63 In this way the Red Army, much like the military under a bourgeois state, remains a specialized body of armed men, disconnected from political debate or decision and directed from the outside by an administrative body balancing the interests of multiple classes.

From this foundation, Mao’s military writings helped to develop guerilla forces and a Red Army capable of defeating the Japanese and the KMT. But they also helped to establish the army as a neutral tool of organized violence, which could be employed in the service of any political line, including one requiring the reproduction of class relations. In later years, Mao would emphasize the flexibility of the army and its ability to take on tasks such as urban administration, political education, and productive labor.64 But just as the CCP would limit the scope of worker democracy in the factories, proletarian democracy within the army would also be constrained, its ranks subjected to the political control of party and state.

11. Rectification and Liberation: 1942–1949

By the early 1940s, Mao and the CCP leadership in Yenan had developed new work methods, strategies, and theories: the mass line, the united front, protracted people’s war, New Democracy, and a particular conception of the dialectic. At the same time, the party, army, and mass organizations had grown by huge leaps, expanding twentyfold since 1937. Now at the height of its renewal, the party suffered setbacks. In 1940 the Second United Front eroded, as clashes between the Red Army and the KMT escalated into a KMT blockade of the Yenan base area. Trade with outside areas was cut off, inflation spiraled out of control, and the party was forced to raise taxes on the peasantry.65 Undeterred, the Red Army launched the Hundred Regiments Offensive against the Japanese in August 1940. Yet the Japanese soon counterattacked with a brutal scorched earth campaign, in which the Japanese military executed thousands, razed whole villages, and deported tens of thousands of refugees to Manchuria. The party was set on its heels: by 1942 the population under CCP control had been cut in half, and the Eighth Route Army had lost one hundred thousand troops.66

In the face of the crisis, the CCP initiated its first major “rectification” campaign in 1942. The rectification sought to assess and correct party errors, standardize the ideology and discipline of its members, and consolidate the sprawling organization. Cadres studied new materials on Marxism-Leninism—including, for the first time, works by Mao himself—and took part in collective self-criticism sessions to root out incorrect views and secure group discipline. The campaign repeated the style of mass criticism used during the land reforms, including public confessions. At these events, participants would be encouraged to describe their life experiences in intimate detail, and renounce past or present conduct that deviated from the party’s line.

Eventually the campaign veered into a purge of cadres accused of spying for the KMT, an effort led by Mao’s ally Kang Sheng. Many investigations culminated in beatings or killings, which reverberated strongly across Yenan. In oral histories of the rectification, party members described the event as a kind of conversion experience, at the end of which their devotion to the party was renewed.67 For his part, Mao used the campaign to further criticize Soviet-oriented party leaders, and cement his wing as the dominant tendency in the CCP. Shortly after the rectification was completed, Mao rose to the chairmanship of the party. For the next fifteen years the CCP would operate without significant internal factions, and Mao would stand as its unrivaled leader and theoretical fountainhead.

In December 1941 the United States entered the Second World War, and the tide began to turn against Japan. Where the CCP and KMT had earlier been forced to “trade space for time” ahead of Japanese advances, the United States, Britain, and Australia now supported them with supply routes, military advisors, and bombing runs against Japanese-held territory and the home islands. The brunt of the fighting, and the lion’s share of allied assistance, went to the KMT. Yet by the time Japan surrendered in 1945, the CCP had become a powerful force, on a far larger scale than what revolutionaries experience today. The party controlled nineteen base areas, mostly in northern China, and governed about 90 million people, the vast majority of them peasants. Party membership stood at 1.2 million, with the Red Army numbering 900,000, and the militia numbering 2.2 million.68 War quickly broke out with the KMT, after a failed attempt by the United States to broker negotiations. In 1947, the Red Army took control of the whole of northern China in a series of offensive operations. Then, in a lightning campaign between late 1948 and 1949, it seized the whole of mainland China. The KMT collapsed over the course of the year, and masses of people sided with the CCP’s forces. It was a stunning military victory.

The Red Army offered a strong contrast to the other military forces at the time. The Japanese had engaged in a “three alls” scorched earth policy (burn all, kill all, loot all), which drove masses of volunteers into the ranks of the Red Army out of sheer self-preservation. The KMT fed its conscripts starvation rations, and exercised brutal control over its troops in order to keep them from fleeing the battlefield. In one case, two hundred KMT conscripts burned to death in a train bombed by the Japanese, because KMT officers refused to unlock the doors and risk them deserting.69 In contrast to both, the Red Army practiced Mao’s “Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention”: red soldiers forced local despots to obey the law, paid peasants for the goods its troops used, refrained from abusing the population, and carried out agrarian reform if not agrarian revolution.70 It was a remarkably humanitarian peasant army. As it won military victories, the population rallied to its side, and enemy units collapsed or defected in large numbers.

While the KMT crumbled and the Red Army swept toward the tropics, peasants across China began to seize land en masse. They appropriated lands not only from “traitors,” in line with the CCP’s moderate land reform policy but also from all manner of landlords. The upsurge forced the party to reassert control over mass activity again in 1948. Mao repeatedly warned against “adventurist policies”: “The industrial and commercial holdings of landlords and rich peasants should in general be protected”71 he argued, and cadres should avoid “the mistake of applying in the cities the measures used in rural areas for struggling against landlords and rich peasants.”72 Even at the height of the CCP’s victory, Mao was unwilling to sanction agrarian revolution from below or worker self-management in the cities. Instead he constrained the class struggle to fit the stages he imagined the revolution would follow, anticipating that he would still need bourgeois sectors to develop the country in the future.

Upon its arrival in southern China, the CCP found itself in control of the very coastal cities from which it had been expelled after 1927. The party returned as an organization of outsiders, inexperienced in running an industrial economy or urban centers. Mao instructed the army to administer the cities in 1949 but was later forced to call upon hostile civil servants to remain in their positions, and capitalists from the “four great families” that had dominated the Chinese economy under imperialism to continue running their businesses.73 By September 1949, the party membership had swelled to 4.5 million, of which 72 percent were poor and middle-poor peasants, 25 percent were rich peasants and members of the urban middle class, and a mere 2 percent were workers.74

With this organization at its helm, the People’s Republic of China was officially founded in October 1949. In addition to its military prowess, the new ruling party brought with it an original body of work methods, theories, and strategies. It enjoyed a close relationship with the Chinese peasantry, in contrast with the Bolsheviks’ separation from the Russian countryside. And it stood poised to enact a revolutionary strategy that, while distinct from Stalinist orthodoxy, nevertheless shared many of its fundamental assumptions, including “socialism in one country” and the aim of state capitalist development.

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1. Loren Goldner, “Notes Toward a Critique of Maoism,”

I. Prologue: The First Chinese Revolution

1. Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 54.

2. Ibid., 92–93.

3. Kay Ann Johnson, Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 30.

4. See Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), chap. 3.

5. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (London: Secker & Warburg, 1938), chap. 3. Also see Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919–1927, and Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism and Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution for an overview of this period.

6. For an account of these years, see Simon Pirani’s The Russian Revolution in Retreat: 1920–1924 (New York: Routledge, 2008) and G.P. Maximoff’s The Guillotine at Work, vols. 1 and 2.

7. For a sweeping history of these developments, see Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom from 1776 until Today (New York: Bookman Associates, 1958). For a parallel critical history of the social democratic tradition, see Endnotes, “A History of Separation,”

8. The proper relationship between the communist party and the national bourgeoisie in anticolonial struggles remained a topic of intense debate within the Comintern, however. For an account of the failure of 1927 from dissident Comintern perspectives, see Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution (New York: Pioneer, 1932), and M.N. Roy, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China (Calcutta: Renaissance Publishers, 1946).

9. Bianco, Origins, 54–56.

10. Isaacs, Tragedy, chap. 10.

11. Ibid., chaps. 11–12.

12. Ibid., chap. 17. See Maurice Meisner’s Mao’s China and After, chap. 3, for an overview of this period.

13. Jane Degras, The Communist International: 1919–1943, Documents, vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 529.

14. Isaacs, Tragedy, chap. 18.

15. Bianco, Origins, 64–70.

II. People’s War from the Countryside

1. Michael Sheng, “Mao, Stalin, and the Formation of the Anti-Japanese United Front: 1935–37,” China Quarterly 129 (1992): 149–70.

2. Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 68.

3. James Harrison, The Long March to Power: A History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921–72 (New York: Praeger, 1972), 319–21.

4. Ibid., 271.

5. Ibid., 311–13.

6. For an overview of this period, see William Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), and Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

7. Mao, “Current Problems of Tactics in the Anti-Japanese United Front,” March 1940,

8. Bill Brugger, China: Liberation and Transformation, 1942–1962 (London: Croom Helm, 1981), 36.

9. Mao, “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership,” June 1943,

10. For an example of an attempt to overcome these shortcomings within a Maoist framework, see The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement by Scott Harrison, available at

11. Kay Ann Johnson, Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 67–68.

12. See Ting Ling, “Thoughts on 8 March (Women’s Day),” 1942,

13. Johnson, Women, 73–74.

14. Paul Bailey, Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 98.

15. For an overview of this perspective, see Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class—The Perspective of Winning (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Leiden: Brill, 2013); and Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender,” Endnotes 3 (2013), http://

16. For an overview of the party’s gender politics in the Yenan period, see Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

17. Harrison, Long March to Power, 458.

18. See “Theses on the United Front” adopted by the Executive Committee of the Comintern, December 1921,

19. Michael Sheng, “Mao, Stalin, and the Formation of the Anti-Japanese United Front: 1935–37,” China Quarterly 129 (March 1992): 167–69.

20. See Mao, “On the Question of Political Power in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas,” March 1940,

21. Harrison, Long March to Power, 318.

22. Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 98–99.

23. See “Decision of the CC on land policy in the anti-Japanese base areas,” January 1942, in Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Schwartz, and John Fairbank, eds., A Documentary History of Chinese Communism (New York: Athenaeum, 1973), 276–85.

24. See Mao, “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party,” December 1939,

25. See Mao, “On New Democracy,” January 1940,

26. See Mao, “Current Problems of Tactics in the Anti-Japanese United Front,” March 1940; “On the Question of Political Power in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas,” March 1940; “On Some Important Problems of the Party’s Present Policy,” January 1948; and “On the Policy Concerning Industry and Commerce,” February 1948, all on

27. Mao, “The Only Road for the Transformation of Capitalist Industry and Commerce,” September 1953. Also Mao, “On State Capitalism,” July 1953,

28. Nick Knight, Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism: Writings on Philosophy, 1937 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1990), 32–38.

29. For an overview of debates in this period, see Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1985), chaps. 4 and 5.

30. Knight, Dialectical Materialism, 33.

31. Ibid., 89.

32. Ibid., 103.

33. Ibid., 115.

34. See Anton Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher (New York: Merlin Press, 1975), chaps. 2 and 7. Interestingly, the tendency toward vulgar materialism that Pannekoek highlights is also present in Bakunin’s philosophical work. Bakunin too reduces consciousness to a property of the brain, and ultimately to a “reproduction in the mind and brain” of outside physical matter, its “mediated pattern.” However, he also draws a distinction between “universal laws” governing all matter, and “particular laws” which only govern specific orders of phenomena, such as laws of social development. Thus Bakunin admits the possibility that social and mental phenomena may be guided by their own irreducible dynamics. See G.P. Maximoff, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (New York: Free Press, 1953), chaps. 1 and 2.

35. See C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1980), 16–33.

36. This shortcoming was noted by the Marxist-Leninist Education Project in 1980, as On Practice was becoming standard reading among left groups in the New Communist Movement. See Marxist-Leninist Education Project Theory of Knowledge Group, “Dialectical or Mechanical Materialism (A Response),” Line of March 1 (1980),

37. Today many Maoists claim Mao rejected the entire notion of the “negation of the negation,” an ultimate negation which brings a contradiction to an end in a final synthesis. This isn’t entirely accurate. While Mao insisted that “there is no such thing as the negation of the negation” in 1964—see Knight, Dialectical Materialism, page 18—the term is present in his Lecture Notes and was used in speeches throughout the 1950s. It appears the term gradually fell out of favor without clear philosophical exposition as to its strengths or weaknesses.

38. For a useful overview of Marx’s conception, see Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2003).

39. See Martin Glaberman, “Mao as Dialectician,” International Philosophical Quarterly 8 (1968).

40. This is a common critique of the Marxist tradition as a whole. See Tabor, The Tyranny of Theory: A Contribution to the Critique of Marxism (Albert: Black Cat Press, 2013) and Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).

41. Modern military theory distinguishes between several levels of strategy and tactics, from the “grand strategy” of statecraft and geopolitics, to specifically military strategy, to “battle doctrine” employed in specific operational theaters, to tactics employed in particular engagements. Though Mao did not use these exact categories, his military writings broadly cover the last three categories.

42. Mao, “On Protracted War,” secs. 10–11, Also see Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, chap. 4,

43. Mao, “On Protracted War,” secs. 32–33.

44. Ibid., secs. 35–38.

45. Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, chap 5.

46. See Mao, “Basic Tactics,” and Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, chaps. 5 and 7.

47. Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, chap. 1.

48. Mao, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, chap. 8,

49. Mao, “On Protracted War,” secs. 73–76.

50. Strangely, Mao anticipates that the world-scale encirclement of World War II will culminate in global revolution and world peace: “We can foresee that the result of this war will not be the salvation of capitalism, but its approach to collapse…. Once man has eliminated capitalism, he will reach the age of permanent peace, and will never again desire war. Neither armies, nor warships, nor military planes, nor poison gas will then be needed. Thereafter man will never know war again. The revolutionary war which has already begun is part of the war for permanent peace.” See Mao, “On Protracted War,” sec. 57.

51. Weich’i is known as go in Japan. See Mao, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, chap. 6, sec. 5, and Mao, “On Protracted War,” secs. 52–54.

52. Mao, “On Protracted War,” sec. 60.

53. Ibid., 62.

54. Ibid., 67.

55. Mao Zedong, “The Role of Chinese Communist Party in the National War,” in Mao Tse-tung: Selected Works, vol. 2 (New York: International Publishers, 1954), 250.

56. Mao, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, chap. 6, sec. 3.

57. Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, chap. 6.

58. Ibid.

59. Mao, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, chap. 6, sec. 3.

60. Mao, “On Protracted War,” secs. 112–17.

61. Mao, “Basic Tactics,” chap. 15, secs. 5–10.

62. Mao, “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party,” sec. 2, December 1929,

63. Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, Appendix.

64. See Mao, “Turn the Army into a Working Force,” February 1949,, and “Make Our Army a Great School of Mao Tse-tung’s Thought,” 1966,

65. Harrison, Long March to Power, 316.

66. Selden, The Yenan Way, 177–79.

67. David Apter and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

68. Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 150.

69. Ibid., 155–56.

70. Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, chap. 6.

71. See Mao, “On Some Important Problems of the Party’s Present Policies,” January 1948,

72. See Mao, “On the Policy Concerning Industry and Commerce,” February 1948.

73. Jean Chesneaux, China: The People’s Republic, 1949–1979 (New York: Pantheon: 1979), 10.

74. Ibid., 4.

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