Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893, in the town of Shaoshan, in the southern province of Hunan. Mao was the son of a well-to-do peasant who was able to pay for his son’s education, including his board in a secondary school in the provincial capital. Mao took seriously his studies, and he was an avid reader. But the young Mao lacked direction, such that during 1911 and 1912, he changed from one program to another, including a brief stint in the military. However, from 1913 to 1918, he found the first steps on his road, at the provincial normal school in a teacher preparation program. During this period, his political ideas began to take shape, which he expressed in an essay, “The power of the mind.” He wrote of the need for a strong centralized state, the importance of human will, and the need for Chinese intellectuals to encounter the thought of the West (Díaz, 2016:12-14; Chang and Halliday 2006:3-15).
In 1917, at the age of 24, Mao was elected student of the year as well as head of the Student Association. He reactivated a night school for workers, and he organized a group of thirteen students in what later would become the Association of Studies of the New People. He was critical of some Confucian principles, but unlike many students and intellectuals of his generation, he did not completely reject Chinese traditions. He sought a synthesis of ancient Chinese customs and Western radicalism. His ideas were full of a patriotic spirit, and he supported a boycott of foreign goods (Díaz, 2016:16-17).
Upon his graduation in 1918, Mao relocated to Peking, where he met Chen Duxiu, who was a professor at Peking University and editor of an intellectual magazine, New Youth. Chen proposed the total transformation of Chinese culture, basing his projections on a mixture of Western ideas, including liberalism, democratic reformism, and utopian socialism (2016:18). Upon returning to Hunan in 1919, Mao participated in the creation of the Association of United Students of Hunan, and he drafted a call to protest the Versailles decision to grant German concessions in China to Japan (2016:19). He published an article, “The great union of the popular classes,” in which he called for the uniting of workers, peasants, students, professors, women, and rickshaw drivers in support of a progressive agenda that would promote reforms at all levels (Díaz, 2016:18-20).
Articles on Marx and Chinese translations of the works of Marx and Lenin appeared in China in the period 1919-21. Professor Chan became a Marxist, and he formed a communist group of five members, including Mao. By 1921, Mao had embraced Marx’s materialist concept of history, which Mao saw as the theoretical base of a new political party (Díaz, 2016:22).
The Chinese Communist Party was established in Shanghai in 1921 by twelve delegates that represented fifty-seven members, mostly students. Mao was among those at the founding meeting, one of two representatives of the province of Hunan. Two representatives of the Communist International in Moscow were present to provide assistance and advice, but there can be no doubt with respect to the Chinese initiative in the process, stimulated by reading of Chinese translations of Marx and Lenin. Subsequent to the founding meeting, Mao dedicated himself to various activities in Hunan: recruitment of Party members; the organizing and directing of an alternative school dedicated to unifying the intellectual and working classes; and the organization of workers, in accordance with the orthodox Marxist emphasis on the working class (Díaz, 2016:23-24; Meisner, 1999:14-19).
During 1922 and 1923, there was much debate among Chinese communists with respect to a united front with Chinese bourgeois organizations and parties. The Communist International was proposing the strategy, but most Chinese communists, including Mao, were not in agreement, believing instead that they should focus on the organization and education of the popular masses. However, inasmuch as the Chinese Communist Party at its Second Congress in 1922 voted for affiliation with the Communist International, the Party was obligated to adopt the united front strategy. In spite of his disagreement with the strategy, Mao joined the Nationalist Party of Sun Yatsen, and he was appointed in 1924 to the position of Secretary of the propaganda section of the Nationalist Party (Díaz, 2016:25-27).
In 1925, now 32 years old, Mao returned to his native town of Shaoshan, where he remained for seven months, conversing with residents with respect to local events. During this time, he encouraged the poorest of the local peasants to create an association. This experience led him to his first Marxist heresy. He arrived to the conclusion that, in the context of Chinese conditions, the peasants would play a central role in the revolution, and an agrarian program would have to be pivotal to the revolutionary project. In the early months of 1927, Mao wrote a report describing the peasant movement in Hunan and the revolutionary spontaneity of the peasants (Díaz, 2016:28-29; Meisner 1999:26; see “The five heresies of Chinese socialism” 3/2/2018).
As developed in practice, Mao’s heterodox Marxism involved an armed struggle that began in the countryside and moved to the cities; the political education of the peasant soldiers; and a moderate agrarian reform program in territory controlled by the revolution. Radical intellectuals, with commitment to social and economic transformation, were the leaders of the revolutionary process. As we have seen, Mao directed the revolution to triumph, and he led a transition to socialism that would reestablish the sovereignty of China and that would take significant steps toward the protection of the social and economic rights of the people. (See “The triumph of the Chinese Revolution, Oct. 1, 1949” 1/9/2018; and “The Chinese transition to socialism” 1/11/2018).
However, further steps in protecting the social and economic rights of the people required the general improvement of the standard of living, which would necessitate the modernization of the economy. As he developed his thoughts on this issue, Mao found himself not in agreement with the majority of the members of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The disagreements were over the pace of the formation of agricultural cooperatives, and over the type of industry that ought to be developed. Utilizing his support among the people, Mao prevailed in implementing his will. But the two projects that he promoted, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, resulted in tragedy, chaos, and division. After Mao’s death in 1976, they would be criticized as ultra-Leftist political errors (see “The emergence of Maoism” 1/18/2018; “The Cultural Revolution in China” 1/25/2018; “Mao’s ‘ultra-Leftist’ political errors” 2/1/2018).
Beginning in 1978, the Chinese Communist Party proceeded on a program of modernization, which it called “Reform and Opening.” The project was successful in promoting significant economic growth and development, attaining its success on the foundation of the transition to socialism forged by the Mao-directed revolution in power from 1949 to 1957. However, the success of Reform and Opening would be at a price, particularly in the form of growing social inequality and environmental degradation. These limitations have given rise to a new stage, launched in 2012, of “New Reform,” which seeks to continue with economic development, but in a form that attends more completely to the social and economic rights of all and that is ecologically sustainable. We will address these themes in future posts.
Conventional Marxism envisioned a revolution led by the industrial working class, with the most advanced workers in the vanguard; or a revolution of workers and peasants, led by a vanguard from the working class. In the United States, such concepts led to a strategic emphasis on the organization of workers, to some extent with a disdainful view of students as part of a non-revolutionary petit bourgeoisie. These ideas, however, were formulated in a context of revolutions unfolding in Europe, but the popular revolutions in China and the Third World did not develop in accordance with this pattern. China illustrates the common tendency, in which professors and students conceived and initiated the revolutionary process. They took seriously intellectual work, reading and writing with an orientation to understanding. They tied their quest for understanding to the needs of the people and the nation, as they sought to organize and educate the people, and to lead the people to the taking of political power. They illustrate the key role of the radical wing of the petit bourgeoisie in launching and sustaining revolutionary processes.
Are there not lessons here for Leftists in the nations of the North, as they face the challenge of responding to the evident political failure of imperialism and neoliberalism, which is generating the emergence of neofascism? As we confront this challenging situation, let us set aside romanticized notions of revolutionary guerrillas and ultra-Leftist Maoism, through which we conceive of a revolution in a form that has little to do with us and with our political reality. Let us focus instead on who Mao was. As a student, he took seriously the quest for understanding and the importance of reading. As an organizer, he also was a teacher, and he continued to read and write. In his reading, he studied books from other lands, but always creatively adapting their insights to national conditions, which he came to understand by listening to the people. He believed in the wisdom of the Chinese classics; in the virtues of the most humble among the people, whose revolutionary spontaneity did not nullify the fact that they must be led; and in the future of his nation. With political intelligence, he led a political process that established the foundation for a more just and dignified nation. In these respects, Mao is exemplary.
Díaz Vázquez, Julio Aracelio. 2016. China: Economía y democratización. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.
Chang Jung and Jon Halliday. 2006. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Random House, Anchor Books.