Nigel Harris


The Mandate of Heaven


Part VI
The Chinese Communist Party and Marxism


19. Mao Tse-tung Thought

It is the mark of both religion and bourgeois thought that they deal in abstract principles, applicable independently of time and place. Marxism is by contrast historically specific. It offers principles covering all societies solely in terms of methods of analysis. In Russia, the different tactics of different phases of Bolshevik history became translated in Stalin’s time into general principles, as if they were all equally applicable at any given moment; the selection of the principles and their interpretation remained the prerogative of the leadership (which took care to purge the historical record, to rewrite or reinterpret episodes that might be embarrassing).

This was the “Marxism” the Chinese party embraced. Given the standards of the Comintern, whatever the party did had to be described in terms of the orthodoxy, with appropriate quotations from the sacred literature. As a result, the originality of much of what the party did is not reflected in its “theory”, and its “theory” provides little understanding of its practice. Practice is entirely determined by tactics – the tactics of the United Front, of armed struggle, of military conflict – and has no link with the claimed intellectual foundations. We can see the line between on the one hand Lenin’s Imperialism and State and Revolution and Marx’s Capital and, on the other, the specific tactics pursued immediately after the October revolution. No such sequence occurs in Mao’s work. We do not need his modest foray into philosophy to understand party actions, and these works did not guide Mao’s tactical responses; they offered a convenient rationalization after the event.

Why was a theory important for Marxists? Because a particular class was identified as the self-conscious agency of revolution. Capitalism was dynamic, continually changing itself, the working class and all relationships – today’s truth became tomorrow’s falsehood. Only through an account of the present position of a changing society, how it is changing, and its relationship to the rest of the world, does it become possible to identify the immediate interests of a class embracing millions of people, to predict how those interests are changing, and how they relate to the final aim of working-class power. Such an exercise is never final nor foolproof, but it is necessary in order to identify what should be done in a context where there are many alternatives being offered simultaneously, some of them appearing very like workers’ programmes. The analysis makes possible a preliminary programme in which the interests of workers as they see them at that moment can be fused to the final aim; practice may show the identification to be wrong, “lessons are learned”, the programme adjusted and theory corrected. Science and struggle are interrelated, shaping each other.

However if a party does not base itself upon the working class, such concerns are irrelevant. It is not necessary to outline a perspective nor to draw lessons in order to correct it. Failures can be attributed not to flawed analysis (since none was prepared), but to poor morale or ideological deviation. The failure to draw lessons is one of the signs that the relationship between theory and practice has been broken. We have seen the most glaring examples of this in the Comintern’s attitude to China between 1925 and 1927. In 1927, Bukharin, leader of the Comintern and expressing the views of the Soviet Communist party, marked the change to the “Third Period” with a wildly inaccurate assessment: “The period has also foreshadowed anew the greatest historical catastrophe. Between labour and capital, between the imperialist countries and the Soviet Union, there is about to be a tremendous struggle ... a defiant resistance on worldwide scale by the oppressed masses of the people and the colonial areas. Such a great struggle is unprecedented in the history of mankind.” [15] Now most predictions are borne out (with a bit of skilful window-dressing) if we extend the time period long enough. The Second World War and the victory of the anti-colonial struggles would then vindicate Bukharin’s prophecy. But he did not intend his prediction in that way. His prediction was the basis for immediate tactics of insurrection in the years 1927-31. In that light, he was wrong on all counts. Yet no one within the Comintern raised the question of this mistake for it was no longer possible to learn from it. The Comintern’s perspectives were no longer grounded in a public analysis of the objective situation; they were a verbal reflex of the tactics pursued by the Russian leadership for purposes that could not be divulged lest they destroy the illusion of an international working-class movement. Analysis was now a decoration added after the tactics had been decided upon, or, in some cases, even carried out.

In China, the basis of the party’s power was its independent military forces and territory. As a result, the leadership was preoccupied with the tactics of survival against a militarily superior enemy. The programme deteriorated into public relations work among a heterogeneous population, instead of galvanizing a class into independent action which would discipline the party through its experience. Mao had no need to undertake the sort of theoretical work which Lenin accomplished. His survival did not depend on understanding China and the world, only on understanding the military potential of the districts in which the Red Army operated.

This experience, in conjunction with what was learned from Russia, is the origin of the peculiar elitism in the party’s attitude. The people become no more than the water in which the Communist fish swim. “Without a people’s army, the people have nothing.” It is the source of the Idealism apparent in Mao Tse-tung thought – morale, élan, consciousness, so vital for the small partisan bands, are the decisive historical factors, not the contradiction between the productive forces and the social relations of production: “men are not the slaves of objective reality. Provided only that man’s consciousness be in conformity with the objective law of the development of things, the subjective activity of the popular masses can manifest itself in full measure, overcome all difficulties, create the necessary conditions, and carry forward the revolution. In this sense, the subjective creates the objective.” [16] The “objective law” apparently lacks all necessity, because if it were necessary, it would be impossible not to act in conformity with it. In any case, what is it? Since no acknowledgement is made (as it is in Marx) that the degree of necessity varies with the degree of development of the material forces, we are left with an abstract principle – regardless of material circumstances, the subjective can “create” the objective, the exact opposite of Marx’s contention.

Mao pursued this logic to its conclusion – propaganda and education, methods of changing consciousness, not the material forces of production, are the key factors in revolution and economic development: “First and foremost, create public opinion and seize power. Then resolve the question of ownership. Later, develop the productive forces to a large extent. This in general is the rule.” [17] But how are the educators to be educated? How does the “correct Marxist-Leninist leadership” itself acquire its consciousness, so making itself independent of the society concerned, and how does it prevent that consciousness from reflecting the material reality of society?

If Marx turned Hegel on his head, Stalin and Mao reversed Marx’s posture. There are paradoxical results. Lenin understood that it was easier for a minority to secure a following in a backward society than in an advanced one, easier to manipulate a dispersed peasantry than a concentrated working class; but backwardness meant also that the material base for a socialist society did not exist, so that socialism could not be achieved in an isolated Russia. But Mao reverses this: “Lenin said: ‘The more backward the country, the more difficult its transition from capitalism to socialism. Now it seems that this way of speaking is incorrect.’ As a matter of fact, the more backward the economy, the easier, not the more difficult, the transition from capitalism to socialism. The poorer they are, the more people want revolution. After the revolution has borne fruit, boosting mechanization further should present no serious problems. The important question is remoulding of the people.” [18] Whereas for Lenin, the materialist, material backwardness was the most threatening obstacle to the realization of freedom, for Mao, the backwardness of consciousness made all things possible.

If objective reality is open to any changes consciousness determines, there is no necessary division of labour, determined by the degree of backwardness. The great differences within society – Mao’s Three Differences – can be overcome if consciousness can be moulded appropriately. Compare Engels’ assessment of class differences and the possibility of ending them: “Only at a certain level of development of the productive forces of society, and even very high level for our modern conditions, does it become possible to raise production to such an extent that the abolition of class distinctions can be real progress, can be lasting without bringing about stagnation or even a decline in the mode of social production. But the productive forces have reached this level of development only in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie therefore, in this respect, is just as necessary a precondition of the socialist revolution as the proletariat itself. Hence a man who will say that this revolution can be more easily carried out in a country, because although it has no proletariat, it has no bourgeoisie either, only proves that he has still to learn the ABC of socialism.” [19]

In the Cultural Revolution, Mao at no stage measured the aim, the abolition of the Three Great Differences, against the material conditions of China, nor would he have even seen the need to do so.

The division of labour, in Marx’s writings, is impelled and sustained by the nature of production, and in turn provides the basis for objective social classes. But in Mao’s work, the word “classes” confuses class, strata, occupation, political attitudes, all dissolving into “the people”: “Workers, peasants, urban petit bourgeois elements, patriotic intellectuals, patriotic capitalists, and other patriots, comprise more than 95% of the whole country’s population. Under our people’s democratic dictatorship, all of these come under the classification of the people.” [20]

Mao uses the terms “proletariat”, “peasant”, “capitalist” in a similarly loose fashion. The terms do not refer to objective categories, to different relationships to the means of production, but to political attitudes, degrees of support for the Communist party (which is itself the “proletariat”). Consider his casual identification of the class character of the Chinese State, and compare Lenin’s careful description of the Russian State (“a workers’ State with bureaucratic distortions”): “To practise democracy among the people and to practise dictatorship over the enemies, these two aspects are inseparable. When these two aspects are combined, this is then proletarian dictatorship, or it may be called people’s dictatorship.” [21] The class character of the State is not determined by its relationship to class any more than the party’s class character is; it is determined by the method of describing what it does. Thus, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” can arrive in 1956, ending the “New Democracy”, somehow disappear along the way, and then become the prize in the Cultural Revolution (this time, arriving in the new constitution). Nothing happened in terms of the structure of class power, even if, by 1956, the juridical forms had been changed (i.e. private capitalism had been abolished, and agriculture co-operativized). The use of the terms was so careless it was clearly a matter of no great importance.

If classes are no longer defined by their relationship to the means of production, class struggle is not what participants in the production process do. Left to themselves, the producers are capable only of “selfish, sectional” attitudes; given to “excesses”, to “economism”. Only the party can see their “long-term interests”, for ultimately only the party and, in a faction fight, only Mao’s following is the proletariat. Class struggle is what the party does – whether in the revolution or, afterwards, in a purge. We have already noted an example of this in Mao’s 1963 observation: “We have not had a class struggle for ten years. We had one in 1952 and one in 1957, but these were just in the administrative organs and in the schools.” [22] Class struggle is something you “have”, like a bath or a drink – or a hobby: “Man’s social practice is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits.” [23] Since the workers cannot be won until after the revolution, the proletariat must be something other than workers; the class struggle in the Marxist sense (between workers and employers, poor peasants and landlords) is not the basis of the seizure of State power, it is at best a side issue. The main role of workers before the victory of the party is to volunteer to work in the Liberated Areas, to send supplies, to leave the workplace (where the class struggle in Marx’s sense takes place). The party needs no organic link with workers; workers do not need to play a specific role in the party; the party does not need a programme embodying the class interests of workers – it needs only military manpower and production to support it. This was the source of the party’s programme for mild social reform before 1949. The party reserved the expropriation of capitalists or landlords not for structural change of Chinese society, but as a punishment for the “unpatriotic”.

Because there is no objective basis for classes and class struggle in Mao’s writing, the essence of the ideas of “necessity” and “contradiction” disappears. Contradictions are now no more than problems the government must overcome. In Marx, contradictions can be understood, but cannot be resolved without entirely transforming the production base from which the contradictions flow. But in Mao’s case, workers, if left to themselves, become selfish because they get more money than peasants, so they have to be educated out of a situation where they might “contradict” the long-term aims of the proletariat (alias the party). Mao, the legislator, ordains what is to be “done about” contradictions: “The contradiction between exploiter and exploited, which exists between the national bourgeoisie and the working class, is an antagonistic one. But, in the concrete conditions existing in China today, such an antagonistic contradiction, if properly handled, can be transformed into a non-antagonistic one and resolved in a peaceful way.” [24] Where classes exist without class struggle, and class struggle without classes, everything, even contradictions, are negotiable, a matter of the right public relations.

In party history, the past is not the result of the collisions in the material basis of Chinese society and how the party related to them, it is an account of the struggle between the correct line (source unspecified) and ideological deviations. The deviations are vaguely attributed to alien social forces, but the attribution is only an embellishment, not an explanation. The Kuomintang loses any specificity – at one time, respected ally (“authentic national revolutionary bourgeoisie”), at another, main enemy (“counter-revolutionary, comprador bourgeoisie”), and yet again, an ally (“learning lessons”). Apparently, only an erratic moral turpitude in Chiang Kai-shek separates the phases. The Kuomintang is the bourgeoisie when the alliance is secure, so its behaviour indicates what the “bourgeoisie” believes, just as the Communist party’s actions indicate what the “proletariat” believes: the scrabble of political fragments has completely eliminated the social structure.

Just as the Communist party cannot explain why it exists, what its foundation in the peculiar material reality of China is, so it cannot explain the source of its “ideology” which is what supposedly distinguishes it (since its class character does not distinguish it). Mao’s innocence in this respect is charming; he justifies Marxism in the following fashion: “Since the feudal class has a feudal doctrine, the bourgeoisie a capitalist doctrine, the Buddhists Buddhism, the Christians Christianity and the peasants polytheism, and since in recent years some people have also advocated Kemalism, fascism, vitalism, the ‘doctrine of distribution according to labour’ and what not, why then cannot the proletariat have its communism?” [25] After all, if other people have their eccentric notions it is only fair that we should have ours! In general, Mao does not seek to explain or justify his tactics; he decrees them, embellishing his account with such concepts as will put his proposals beyond dispute. Consider his account of the difference between Russian and Chinese revolutionary experience: “the Chinese bourgeoisie differs from the bourgeoisie of old Tsarist Russia. Since Tsarist Russia was a military-feudal imperialism which carried on aggression against other countries, the Russian bourgeoisie was entirely lacking in revolutionary quality. There, the task of the proletariat was to oppose the bourgeoisie, not to unite with it. But China’s national bourgeoisie has a revolutionary quality at certain periods and to a certain degree, because China is a colonial and semi-colonial country which is a victim of aggression. Here, the task of the proletariat is to form a united front with the national bourgeoisie against imperialism and the bureaucrat and warlord governments without overlooking its revolutionary quality.” [26] The case does not stand serious examination. The terms, “military-feudal imperialism”, “colonial and semi-colonial” are there to block further examination, to seal off the case from questions as to why the Russian bourgeoisie showed this curiously different response to the Chinese. We are not meant to take the history seriously, only the tactical line. The history is false – the Russian bourgeoisie was possibly more “revolutionary” than the Chinese – in the 1870’s and in 1905. It could equally be argued that the Chinese bourgeoisie was weaker than the Russian and therefore more dependent upon foreign interests and easier to eliminate; it was more necessary to do so since, because of its relative weakness, it was more easily used as the tool of foreign powers.

In sum, Mao Tse-tung thought is a return to pre-Marxist doctrines of socialism and to philosophical Idealism. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word – the correct Marxist-Leninist line – was with the Communist party, or, in certain circumstances, with Mao alone. The elite, defined both by its possession of the Word and its exemplary spiritual character, will emancipate the majority, lift them and enlighten them. All the problems are in the area of doctrine, arising from those who misinterpret or neglect the doctrine and thereby become the prey of other alien forces. Mao does not refashion Marxism, he merely uses the terminology to express something quite different, something which contradicts it. As a result, Mao Tse-tung thought can scarcely even count as a form of “revisionism” since it does not “revise”, it ignores.



Pre-Marxist Socialism

Some of the key ideas of Mao Tse-tung thought take up much older themes than those of Marxism (indeed, Marx and Engels spent much time in refuting some of these ideas). Mao did not copy the pre-Marxists; there was no opportunity for him to acquire a knowledge of them; but a comparable material context reproduced similar ideas, especially given the loose theoretical approach of the Chinese party.

The sans-culottes, some of the most radical participants in the French revolution, argued for some of the same things as the Red Guards. They also aspired to equality of consumption without understanding the relationship of income to the organization of production. They also had no real sense of class divisions based upon the process of production. The People – “a word which is neither defined nor analysed; it is as if the nation in its entirety had been moulded into one mythical person” – was identified not by a position within an objective social structure, but by an attitude of patriotism: “Failing to define their place in society as a working population, the sans-culottes had no clear and precise idea of the nature of labour itself. They did not appreciate that it had a social function of its own; they only considered it in relationship to property.” To be a patriot, a republican, was not to occupy an objective class position, but to exhibit the right political responses and live, at least in externals, with austerity and humility: “The sans-culottes could not endure pride or disdain, since these feelings were thought to be typically aristocratic and contrary to the spirit of fraternity which should reign among citizens equal in rights ... such personal defects are frequently mentioned in the reports justifying the arrest of suspects.” Expropriation of property was a punishment for moral failure, not a method of changing the structure of society regardless of the moral status of the propertied. Furthermore, the sans-culottes never relinquished hope that the propertied might join the cause, regardless of what they owned: “the frustration and resentment revealed by the sans-culottes at their failure to convert these citizens [the rich] for the revolutionary cause only emphasizes their sincere desire for unity, and their inability to grasp the true nature of class differences: insouciants were arrested not so much on account of their social standing, but as a result of their political behaviour ... Their search for unity, transcending class barriers, underlines the utopian aspect of their political and social aspirations.” [27]

The economic interests and political aspirations of the revolutionaries diverged. In the winter of 1793-4, when the Revolutionary government failed to keep Paris adequately supplied with grain, there were strikes for increased wages. The local committees of the revolution declared such action illegal; in China, strikes against the abolition of overtime pay were “economist”. The artisans could not, according to the régime, know their own true interests.

However, there are important differences between France in the late eighteenth century and present-day China. Then the pressure of the world was trivial in comparison to its unremitting influence today. The revolutionaries could afford, even if only briefly, the most extreme demands for freedom in all matters. No mass party encompassed France, balancing, as the Communist party in the Cultural Revolution, between the contradictory demands of defending State power and winning mass loyalty. The revolutionary leaders in France had less ability to control the movement, so that the revolution was much more given to “excesses”. In the Terror, the guillotine cut swathes through the rich to feed and clothe the poor, establishing an image of revolution to disturb the sleep of the rich of Europe for decades to come. Some of the militants urged that the guillotine should not just stand on every street corner, it should accompany the army as it went about the countryside to persuade the farmers to sell their grain. In the autumn of 1793 the National Convention decreed that “all that part [of Lyons] that was inhabited by the rich shall be demolished; only the houses of the poor and the homes of good patriots, those who have been murdered or outlawed (by the federalists) shall be left standing”. [28]

The leadership of the revolution – as in China – endeavoured to rouse and sustain support by helping the poor, but did not encourage them to help themselves, let alone run society. In France, when the only organized and armed force, the State, asserted itself, the sans-culottes were wiped out. The mass organizations, the Section Assemblies, were converted into the paid agents of the government. In the same way, the mass organizations of China in 1966-7 were absorbed into Revolutionary Committees, the backbone of which was the PLA, and then finally taken over by the rehabilitated party.

Through much of the nineteenth century, what Marx called “Utopian Socialism” repeated themes which recur in contemporary China – the hostility to the cities (usually by members of the urban middle class), the demand that the urban working class should return to the land, forming self-sufficient agrarian-industrial communities which, it was thought, would prevent the growth of hierarchical organization, bureaucracy and a specialized division of labour, and ensure all-round educational development in manual labour. Marx regarded such ideas as fantasies, forms of reactionary opposition to the necessary centralization of capital and the development of a specialized division of labour, without which abundance would never occur and so the possibility of socialism. As Lenin put it: “The separation of town from country, their opposition and the exploitation of the countryside by the town ... [are] universal concomitants of developing capitalism ... Only sentimental romantics can bewail this. Scientific theory, on the contrary, points to the progressive aspect given to this contradiction by large-scale industrial capital.” [29] For Marx, one advantage of capitalism was that it “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life”.

Equality could not be based for very long on a common sharing of poverty, a moral ideal of ascetic self-denial; only upon the full development of the means of production, ensuring all had access to abundance. For those however whose income is not in doubt, it becomes possible to play with ideas of socialism without troubling about the material base.

The Utopians were speculative, and while in some areas influential – for example, through Ebenezer Howard, on the traditions of town planning, and conceptions of garden cities and New Towns – they in no way deflected the development of capitalism. The same is true in China. While Mao was clearly excited during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, years of warfare and struggle grounded his final views in the bedrock of reality – the supreme need for accumulation. That determined the approach of tolerating the real inequality of income generated by the need for accumulation while sporadically attacking the symptoms of inequality. Utopian socialism was the decorative form of the process, not its essence.


Marxism did not, then, remain intact in an isolated backward China. It could only have done so if linked to an international class which sustained the theory. Confined to China and even there isolated from its claimed foundation, Chinese workers, it could not fail to become “false consciousness”, an ideological rationale concealing purposes other than those expressed in the rhetoric. It was fortunate, for Marxism in its original form would have been an insuperable obstacle to achieving what the party aimed for – a new and powerful Chinese State. Through the trappings of Marxistj argon, the essentials of nineteenth-century radical nationalism reappeared to justify the role of a new class.

The Chinese revolution was not “betrayed”. The Communists in the 1930s did not propose the self-emancipation of the working class (or indeed of the peasantry). Mao did not set out with the aims of 1917, but with the target of national liberation. In the Comintern’s original scheme, national liberation forces were to ally with the main force, the European proletariat, just as the Russian workers were to lead the peasants. The interests of each were different – for national liberation and an international workers’ republic on the one hand; for nationalized property and small peasant private property on the other. Yet without an alliance, each force would lose. By Mao’s time, the distinction between national and international liberation had been entirely lost; indeed, the first had entirely swallowed the second.

Nonetheless, national liberation was a great step forward for China, even if it was entirely different from the aims of the 1917 Russian revolution. Stalin’s transformation of the purpose of the Russian Communist party, by contrast, was a major retreat from the ambitions of 1917. National independence was the precondition for the survival of China as a national society. Given the real alternatives in the 1930s in China, given the Comintern’s destruction of any serious world workers’ alternative, there was little option. Mao settled for the twentieth century’s version of the “bourgeois revolution”, for the “emancipation of the productive forces”.

The story is not done. For the survival of the Chinese Communist party now depends upon securing that continued process of accelerating capital accumulation which will build the material base appropriate to China’s national independence. The effectiveness of the party depends upon its ability to transmit to China the imperatives of the present stage of the world’s means of production, and to organize the Chinese people in the form most appropriate. Forty years ago, in the Soviet Union, with world capitalism in disarray around it, that meant full State ownership of the means of production, planning and the militarizaton of society – a far cry from what was appropriate in France in the late eighteenth century. The People’s Republic has gone a considerable way to achieving as close a parallel as it can to this in the cities; the importance of the PLA as the model for Chinese society is much greater, indeed, than the Red Army was in the Soviet Union. But China’s vast countryside remains outside, uncolonized. Accumulation has proceeded rapidly, but whereas in Russia this led to a steady decline in the rural and agricultural proportion of the population (although it still remains high by the standards of the industrialized countries), in China it has had in this respect only a slight effect. Accumulation is possible, but it does not now produce “the socialization of the labour force”.

It appears that State ownership by itself is no longer enough to combat the power of the advanced concentrations of capital. The terms on which the competition are waged have changed. Indeed, it now seems that the aim of an independent developed national economy has become utopian; the material basis for China’s national independence can be no more than an industrial enclave.

In conditions of world growth, the problem is concealed. The backward countries, including China, were swept along, albeit at a relatively declining pace. But now, as the system enters stagnation, it becomes apparent that national power is the obstacle to the further growth of an international means of production, to feeding the mass of the world’s population. The condition of China’s national survival becomes an international revolution.




15. The Chinese revolution and the tasks of the Chinese Communists, Communist International (Political report to the 6th Congress of the CCP), Part I, translated in Chinese Studies in History, Summer 1970, III/4, p.268.

16. Wu Chiang, cited by S.R. Schram, The Political Thought, op. cit., p.80.

17. Miscellany II, p.269; see also: “Our revolution began with making propaganda for Marxism-Leninism. This was to create a new public opinion to push the revolution ahead. In the course of the revolution, only after the backward superstructure was overthrown was it possible to put an end to the old relations of production” – 1961-2 in Miscellany II, p.259.

18. Ibid., p.259; compare Che Guevara’s argument: “It is more difficult to prepare guerilla bands in those countries that have undergone a concentration of population in great centres and have a more developed light and medium industry, even though not anything like effective industrialization. The ideological influence of the cities inhibits guerilla struggles” – Cuba: An Exceptional Case?, Monthly Review, July-August 1961.

19. On social relations in Russia, SW II, pp. 46-7.

20. January 1962, in Mao Unrehearsed, p.169.

21. Ibid., p.167.

22. May 1963, in Miscellany II, p.33.

23. SW I, p.296.

24. On the correct handling of contradictions among the people, Peking, 1964, p.4.

25. On new democracy, 1940, in SW II, pp.361-2.

26. Ibid., p.348.

27. All citations from: Albert Soboul, The Parisian sans-culottes and the French Revolution, Oxford, 1964, p.5.

28. Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787-1799, vol.2, London, 1974, p.342.

29. A characterization of economic romanticism, in CW 2, p.229.


Last updated on 27.1.2002