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Maoism is an influential revolutionary ideology of the twentieth century. The term Maoism, despite its originating from the name of the People’s Republic of China’s former leader Mao Zedong, is used primarily outside of mainland China. The Communist Party of China (CPC) uses Mao Zedong Thought as its official ideology. Although Maoism is only a derivation of Marxism and Leninism, its impact has been worldwide. Maoism continues to inspire international Maoists everywhere—especially in Asia and Latin America—even as the Chinese have been moving increasingly away from it.
The crux of Maoism is a belief that Marxism and Leninism can be adapted to suit the conditions of developing countries in their struggle against capitalism and imperialism. According to Karl Marx, a Communist revolution will be organized by advanced productive forces, such as industrial workers, and is possible only in an advanced capitalist society. Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, however, believed that rural revolutions in a traditional society can become a stepping-stone for an advanced social revolution, and peasants can be allies of the industrial workers and thus should play a pivotal role in erecting socialism and communism. During the lengthy military struggle in the rural areas of China, Mao formulated his theory of New Democratic Revolution.
Mao’s theory of revolution is based on the guerrilla war strategy, a disciplined Leninist party, and the united front. First of all, Mao believed that “political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” He and his comrades developed the strategy of rural-based guerrilla warfare and fought the nationalist government in the countryside for two decades. This strategy provided a practical solution for a smaller and weaker revolutionary force to defeat a much stronger and powerful state power. During World War II (1939–1945), Mao further extended his theory into the strategy of the “protracted people’s war,” designed to mobilize a total, yet prolonged, war to figuratively bleed the Japanese invaders to death.
Second, Mao emphasized the importance of a disciplined, elitist political party with absolute control over a revolutionary army. He developed doctrines such as democratic centralism, mass line, and criticism and self-criticism. All of these doctrines have become operational principles of the CPC. Finally, while stressing the need for the leadership of the CPC, Mao embraced a corporatist strategy to extend the party control to other political parties and groups. His theory of united front appears to raise the status of many smaller parties from opposition to collaborative and participating parties, yet it denies these parties the right to become competitors with the CPC, and thus lays the groundwork for the corporatist party-state after 1949. For all these contributions, the CPC formally adopted Mao Zedong Thought as its official doctrine in the Seventh Party Congress of the CPC held in Yanan in 1945.
In his early revolutionary career, Mao was a populist practitioner of Marxism rather than a dogmatic follower. Mao’s success in using his military strategy to seize political power in a big country such as China established Mao’s charismatic legitimacy in China and throughout the developing world. In his later life, however, Mao became an ardent defender of Marxism after the death of Joseph Stalin. In his fight against the so-called revisionists, such as the Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, Mao apparently became more dogmatic. He defended Stalin and was unremitting in his emphasis on the theory of “a continued revolution under proletarian dictatorship.” Mao and his supporters believed that an important task of the revolution was to carry out the proletarian dictatorship and class struggle against old and new bourgeoisie.
Maoism also contains some utopian elements. Mao believed that industrialization and modernization could go hand in hand with socialist transformation. The ambitious Great Leap Forward program (launched in 1958) tried unrealistically to speed up the industrialization process, but suffered a major setback. Nevertheless, this did not stop Mao from launching another major political campaign, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), to crush leaders “who are taking the capitalist road,” and to transform political, social, and cultural superstructures that were considered to be unfitting with a socialist economy. Mao’s quotation books (such as what became known in English as “The Little Red Book”) became a spiritual guide for the millions of young students (Red Guards) who waged a war on the establishment. The subsequent chaos was eventually put to an end after Mao’s death in 1976.
Although Mao Zedong Thought continues to be upheld as the CPC’s official ideology, the radical and utopian elements have been discredited and revised. Worldwide, Maoism is still influential. The Maoist International Movement in the United States still supports a Maoist world revolution, and the Revolutionary Internationalism Movement continues to believe that the strategy of people’s war is an effective means of Marxist revolution.
- Alexander, Robert 2001. Maoism in the Developed World. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Schram, Stuart 1969. The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger.
- Spence, Jonathan 1999. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking.
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