It has been a century since the October Socialist Revolution and the first establishment of a country built by and for the working people. The victory of the Russian people lit a flame that continues to burn in the hearts of revolutionaries all over the world. This spark has ignited a prairie fire and this has led to the construction of progressive societies that have cared for the welfare of their people and have been driven to give them the power over their own affairs: socially, economically, and culturally. The achievements of these societies have ranged from the universal right of all people to healthcare, to democratic control of the means of production, and workers control of the workplace. What is a true shame is that the achievements of these societies have been downplayed or outright denied as propaganda. Two things that have suffered this slander immensely are Mao’s China and Mao Zedong himself. The Western narrative paints him as a bloodthirsty tyrant bent on the destruction of his people when in reality he strived for their wellbeing. Mistakes were made, these missteps and their sometimes devastating consequences cannot be denied but, this experiment in an equitable and fair society was one of many great victories that still resonates to this day. Victories in women’s rights, healthcare, people’s power, and industrialisation make Mao Zedong worthy of commendation as a leader. His contributions to theory and practice in the science of liberation warrant even more recognition. His immortal contributions cannot be denied.
To understand Mao’s China, the history of the Chinese people’s struggle must be examined. When Mao was born, China had been enduring the “Century of Humiliation”. This was marked by 100 years of imperialist intervention, losses to the Japanese, and land concessions to foreign powers. This was due to the lack of efficiency in the old Qing Dynasty and general discontent. Sun Yat Sen led the first Chinese Revolution in 1911 which overthrew the imperial government, establishing the Republic of China. The newborn republic suffered from issues of corruption, feuding, and the same inefficiency of the old regime. This gross disorganisation was proven with three attempted imperial restorations and the constant warring between warlords. China was not unified and the people were no better off than before. What bolstered Mao Zedong into prominence was the May the 4th Movement which was made in response to the concessions made by the national government to Japan. The movement mobilised the Chinese people to stand up to both the warlord government and Japanese imperial ambition. From this movement, the Communist Party of China was formed in 1921 with Mao as a founding member. The newly formed Communist Party of China began the Chinese Revolution in 1931 with the establishment of the Jiangxi Soviet. This also formed the Workers and Peasants Red Army to defend the Soviet. Over the next decade, the Communists would fight the reactionary Kuomintang in the Civil War only lapsing in conflict when the Japanese invaded China in the late 1930s. The Kuomintang would break the truce in 1945 and the Civil War would rage for another four years. On October 3rd, 1949 the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed with popular support from the Chinese people. The foundation of the PRC would usher in the Mao era of Chinese history.
Maoist China is often slandered in Western narratives and Mao himself portrayed as an authoritarian and murderous despot. The truth is much different. One of the biggest claims made by fervent anti-communists is that the Great Leap Forward was an intentional policy of forced famine. This claim lacks historical context or any knowledge on what the Great Leap Forward exactly entailed. The Great Leap was an agricultural and industrial initiative meant to bolster Chinese production with lateral economic planning. In urban centres, heavy industry was prioritised and factories were built. In the countryside, communes were established and villages and towns were equipped with light industry to serve the needs of the local population. This included steel furnaces, small vehicle factories, and factories for farming equipment. Due to this industrial initiative, Chinese industrial production rose 11.2% per year between 1952 and 1976. By 1975 industry was 72% of the gross national output in China. Less success can be claimed in agriculture but, the facts differ from the Western narrative. Guo Shutian, a former director of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture during the Mao era states that between 1969 and 1978 the per hectare yield rose by 145% and food production grew by 77.7%.
A detail often ignored by Western rhetoric is the economic and political democratisation that occurred during the Mao era. The Great Leap Forward was an experiment in lateral economic planning. This means that instead of a national committee of economic planners dictating every goal, such as in the Soviet Union, planning was more decentralised. To achieve this Mao built upon the already existing workers’ councils and established communes in the countryside. These communes produced food and set mostly their own goals to meet their needs. These goals would be set by democratic councils of the people that worked there and could be changed depending on the situation. It was seen as a solution to the problems seen in the Soviet Union with food production and famine. The Chinese communes and workers councils are the reason for the boost in agricultural and industrial production. When the workers can control their own affairs and workplace, a higher standard of production is possible. However, these positive statistics do not explain the Chinese Famine of the early 1960s.
The official narrative of the Chinese government, both at the time and after Deng Xiaoping’s coup in the 1980s, has been a combination of natural factors along with administrative error were to blame for most of the severities. Historical fact backs this narrative more than the Western one of outright intentional murder. One glaring problem with the Western narrative is that it lacks context and nuance. It ignores Mao’s actions during the famine and his response. When the famine first began to become disastrous, it was Mao who petitioned the government to send food and aid to the areas. Mao began to import food from the USSR to help alleviate the crisis but, political tension between China and the USSR greatly hurt the amount of aid. Mao had taken responsibility for the failures of the Great Leap Forward. He stated it was “too ambitious” in some of its agricultural goals. Mao deserves criticism for his lack of quality analysis of the conditions in the countryside.
The organisational errors of the government were not helped by the natural disasters and the consequence of outdated farming practices. Famine has been shown to be more common in some of the world’s “breadbaskets”. This is especially true in Europe and Asia where the land has been worked far longer. Many farmers in China had never practiced many modern agricultural practices introduced during the Mao era. This modernisation unknowingly killed many of the fields or many farmers would not use them and stick to old tradition. The government tried to spread modern agriculture all over China but, had not succeeded by the early 60s. This led to situations of farmers waiting for modernisation and it never comes. Where Mao and his government can be solely blamed for incompetence is with the lack of effort put into a national food storage system. This is due to the general lack of material analysis on the part of the Communist Party. Even with these failures, the Great Leap Forward had its victories in establishing democratic economic power and lateral economic planning. It was an experiment that had a sadly very high cost.
Mao is often best remembered by Marxists and revolutionaries for his theoretical contributions and his progressive social policies. He took the established Marxism-Leninism and added his own theories to apply it to China. This Mao Zedong Thought would be further refined into Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in the late 20th Century by Gonzalo and Peruvian communists. The main change made by Mao to Marxist-Leninist theory is explained in his book On Contradiction. In the book, Mao asserts that class struggle does not end with the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat but, in fact, does continue. He takes how the influence of old bourgeois culture carries over into the socialist stage in amounts and can still remain an organised reactionary force. Mao’s solution to this was the concept of cultural revolution. Cultural revolution is the revolutionary purging of old reactionary elements from a socialist society. It strives to build a truly socialist culture free from backward practices and oppressive trends. This idea drove many of the social policies implemented during the Mao era that boosted the position of women, LGBTQ people, and minority groups in China. Mao also formulated many practical ideas for revolutionary strategy and organisation. The most prevalent of these ideas is the Mass Line. The mass line is an idea to take the thoughts of the masses and apply them to a Marxist political line. It takes the struggles of all peoples from different areas and walks of life and applies them to the political line. This prevents favouritism and entrenches the movement within the masses. Mao was an advocate of the party not being above the masses but being among them. The intellectualism that had permeated previous revolutions had led to alienation from the working people, Mao sought to correct this. Maoist policy towards working with the masses can be summed up in three words: Serve the People. Mao encouraged party cadres to engage with the people, helping them and working with them. This was done to build trust and confidence with the masses all whilst educating. It is this strategy that made the Chinese Communist Party a popular movement with the working people of China and earned them the admiration of the world.
Maoist theory also stretches into the actual fighting of a revolution as well. In his definitive text: On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao describes the Protracted People’s War (PPW). PPW is a collection of various concepts from military organisation and tactics to relations with the people. The central organisation to a People’s War is the People’s Army. This is exactly what it sounds like: an army for the people of the people. The People’s Army is meant to apply the Serve the People principle in its effects on people. In The Three Rules and Eight Points, Mao outlines proper behaviour for a revolutionary armed force. This includes things such as banning confiscation of peasant property and speaking politely. This ensured that the army and the party could be trusted by the people and their cooperation in the struggle. The other key half of PPW is the actual military aspect. Mao states that as long as the army is entrenched within the masses, while it can lose, cannot be totally defeated. This assertion also comes from the “protracted” in Protracted People’s War. PPW is meant to be a long guerrilla struggle and Mao says that having revolutionary headquarters in the cities leaves the base of revolution too vulnerable. Mao suggests that with headquarters in the countryside and bases in the cities, a revolutionary struggle can be effectively waged. What putting the HQs in the countryside does is extend the supply lines of the reactionary army, leaving them open to attack from guerrillas. It also can overextend and army to the point of failure. This theory was proven correct in China and many other revolutionary struggles. Some or all ideas from PPW have been taken by revolutionaries all over the world. Be it the Irish Republican Army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, all use some aspect from PPW. This is because it is almost universally applicable with little to no change. The effective use of popular support, discipline, political education, and guerrilla war tactics have led to many successes across the world and from the failures, it is possible to learn.
China during the Mao Era was one of the most progressive social experiments ever seen in human history. There was the aforementioned economic democratisation but, this is not the only stride made. The Communist Party greatly improved the lives and status of Chinese people through progressive social policies. Mao sought to provide every Chinese person access to healthcare so he established the Barefoot Doctors. These were doctors that would go into the countryside and rural areas to establish hospitals and care for people. This was one of the most popular initiatives during Mao’s time in power. It was sadly stopped during Deng Xiaoping’s counter-revolutionary coup in the 1980s that saw a decrease in the living standard of Chinese people. It is part of the reason many Chinese people in the countryside have substandard or no healthcare. Mao’s China also greatly bolstered the position of women in Chinese society. During the revolution, it was the Red Army that established the Red Women’s Detachment. This unit was a full on military force, fighting in all major battles. It was highly progressive for the time and allowed women to truly participate in the revolution and Chinese politics. Mao also ended the practice of foot binding, a cultural practice in which families would bind little girls’ feet and deform them. By the late 1960s, this practice was abolished. Mao’s policies also allowed for people’s power in government action. The workers’ councils that governed towns and workplaces were able to function to their full democratic potential and the extension of the communes also helped bolster democracy in China.
The true nature of people’s power in China was seen during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The GPCR was an effort to purge reactionary elements from Chinese society. It was meant to allow the Chinese people to shed the chains of old imperial practices and build a new society. It was the next step in socialist development in China. While it had problems and occasional excesses, it was a victory and the closest we have ever been to a truly socialist society. The Cultural Revolution encouraged the people to act as a unit with very limited intervention from the government or party, except on ideological guidance. Groups of radical students known as Red Guards sprung up around China as the arm of the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards began to challenge reactionary teachers and old authority figures with struggle sessions. Old landlords, imperial or Kuomintang officials, and those who opposed the progress of socialism and the Chinese people were challenged and dethroned. Where the Cultural Revolution saw problems was in the destruction of Chinese cultural objects and sites. This was an unintended side-effect brought on by a lack of leadership from the Communist Party over the Red Guards. This hands-off approach taken by the leadership encouraged people’s power but, caused unintended chaos and cultural destruction. The Cultural Revolution could have been a success if the chaos had been controlled and the revisionist coup did not happen following Mao’s death in 1978. The Gang of Four would attempt to keep the Maoist line until 1980 when Deng Xiaoping took control in a coup and implemented market reforms. It was those reforms that formed the China we know today and it is hardly the China Mao wanted for his people.
Mao Zedong is remembered by many with honour and respect. From the people in China, today to guerrilla fighters in the Philippines, Mao Zedong, and his ideas shine like a radiant sun over the revolutionaries of the world. He achieved this respect through his leading of the revolutionary struggle in China and being a shining example of international socialism and revolution. He is worthy of commendation and has already received it from the downtrodden people of the world, those who yearn to be free from their chains. Those who dare to struggle and will dare to win.