Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism

Note to the Reader: The following was written at the request of a west coast comrade after he attended the August 2012 “Everything for Everyone” conference in Seattle, at which many members of the “soft Maoist” Kasama current were present. It is a bare-bones history of Maoism which does not bring to bear a full “left communist” viewpoint, leaving out for the example the sharp debates on possible alliances with the “nationalist bourgeoisie” in the colonial and semi-colonial world at the first three congresses of the Communist International. It was written primarily to provide a critical-historical background on Maoism for a young generation of militants who might be just discovering it. —LG.

Maoism was part of a broader movement in the twentieth century of what might be called “bourgeois revolutions with red flags,” as in Vietnam or North Korea.

To understand this, it is important to see that Maoism was one important result of the defeat of the world revolutionary wave in 30 countries (including China itself) which occurred in the years after World War I. The major defeat was in Germany (1918–1921), followed by the defeat of the Russian Revolution (1921 and thereafter), culminating in Stalinism.

Maoism is a variant of Stalinism.[1]

The first phase of this defeat, where Mao and China are concerned, took place in the years 1925–1927, during which the small but very strategically located Chinese working class was increasingly radicalized in a wave of strikes. This defeat closed the 1917–1927 cycle of post–World War I worker struggles, which included (in addition to Germany and Russia) mass strikes in Britain, workers councils in northern Italy, vast ferment and strikes in Spain, the “rice riots” in Japan, a general strike in Seattle, and many other confrontations.

By 1925–1927, Stalin controlled the Communist Third International (Comintern). From the beginning of the 1920s, Russian advisors worked closely with the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) of the bourgeois revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, (leader of the 1911 overthrow of the Manchu dynasty) and with the small but important Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded in 1921.

The Third International provided political and military aid to the KMT, which was taken over by Chiang kai-shek (future dictator of Taiwan after 1949); the Comintern in the early to mid-1920s viewed the KMT as a “progressive anti-imperialist” force. Many Chinese Communists actually joined the KMT in these years, some secretly, some openly.

Soviet foreign policy in the mid-1920s involved an internal faction fight between Stalin and Trotsky. Trotsky's policy (whatever its flaws, and there were many) was for world revolution as the only solution to the isolation of the Soviet Union. Stalin replied with the slogan “Socialism in One Country,” an aberration unheard of until that time in the internationalist Marxist tradition. Stalin in this period was allied with the right opposition leader Nikolai Bukharin against Trotsky; Soviet and Third International policy reflected this alliance in a “right turn” to strong support for bourgeois nationalism abroad. Chiang kai-shek himself was an honorary member of the Third International Executive Board in this period. The Third International advocated strong support for Chiang's KMT in its campaign against the “warlords” closely allied with the landowning gentry.

It is important to understand that in these same years, Mao Zedong (who was not yet the central leader of the party) criticized this policy from the right, advocating an even closer alliance between the CCP and the KMT.

In the spring of 1927, Chiang kai-shek turned against the CCP and the radicalized working class, massacring thousands of workers and CCP militants in Shanghai and Canton (now known in the West by its actual Chinese name Guangzhou), who had been completely disarmed by the Comintern's support for the KMT.[2] This massacre ended the CCP's relationship with the Chinese working class and opened the way for Mao to rise to top leadership by the early 1930s.

The next phase of the CCP was the so-called “Third Period” of the Comintern, which was launched in part in response to the debacle in China. In the Soviet Union, Stalin turned on the Bukharinist “right” (there was in reality no one more reactionary than Stalin) after having finished off the Trotskyist left.[3] The Third Period, which lasted from 1928 to 1934, was a period of “ultra-left” adventurism around the world. In China as well as in a number of other colonial and semi-colonial countries, the Third Period involved the slogan of “soviets everywhere.” Not a bad slogan in itself, but its practical, voluntarist implementation was a series of disastrous, isolated uprisings in China and Vietnam in 1930 which were totally out of synch with local conditions, and which led to bloody defeats everywhere.

It was in the recovery from these defeats that Mao became the top leader of the CCP, and began the “Long March” to Yan'an (in remote northwestern China) which became a central Maoist myth, and reoriented the CCP to the Chinese peasantry, a much more numerous social class but not, in Marxist terms, a revolutionary class[4] (though it could be an ally of the working-class revolution, as in Russia during the 1917–1921 Civil War).

Japan had invaded Manchuria (northeast China) in 1931 and the CCP from then until the Japanese defeat at the end of World War II was involved in a three-way struggle with the KMT and the Japanese.

After the Third Period policy led to the triumph of Hitler in Germany (where the Communist Party had attacked the “social fascist” Social Democrats, not the Nazis, as the “main enemy,” and even worked with the Nazis against the Social Democrats in strikes), the Comintern in 1935 shifted its line again to the “Popular Front,” which meant alliances with “bourgeois democratic” forces against fascism. Throughout the colonial and semi-colonial world, the Communist Parties completely dropped their previous anti-colonial struggle and threw themselves into support for the Western bourgeois democracies. In Vietnam and Algeria, for example, they supported the “democratic” French colonial power. In Spain, they uncritically supported the Republic in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, during which they helped the Republic crush the anarchists (who had two million members), the independent left POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, a “centrist” party denounced at the time as “Trotskyist”) and the Trotskyists themselves. These latter forces had taken over the factories in northeastern Spain and established agrarian communes in the countryside. The Republic and the Communists crushed them all, and then lost the Civil War to Franco.

In China, the Popular Front meant, for the CCP, supporting Chiang kai-shek (who, it will be recalled, had massacred thousands of workers eight years earlier) against Japan.

In the Yan'an refuge of the CCP in these years and through World War II, Mao consolidated his control over the party. His notorious hatchet man Kang Sheng helped him root out any opposition or potential rivals with slanderous rumors, show trials and executions. One memorable case was that of Wang Shiwei. He was a committed Communist and had translated parts of Marx's Capital into Chinese. Mao and Kang set him up and put him through several show trials, breaking him and driving him out of the party. (He was finally executed when the CCP left Yan'an in 1947 in the last phase of the civil war against Chiang kai-shek.)

Mao's peasant army conquered all of China by 1949. The Chinese working class, which had been the party's base until 1927, played absolutely no role in this supposed “socialist revolution.” The one-time “progressive nationalist” Kuomintang was totally discredited as it became the party of the landed gentry, full of corruption, responsible for runaway inflation, and commanded by officers more interested in enriching themselves than fighting either the Japanese (before 1945) or the CCP.

The first phase of Mao's rule was from 1949 to 1957. He made no secret of the fact that the new regime was based on the “bloc of four classes” and was carrying out a bourgeois nationalist revolution. It was essentially the program of the bourgeois nationalist Sun Yat-Sen from 25 years earlier. The corrupt landowning gentry was expropriated and eliminated.

But it is important to remember that “land to the peasants” and the expropriation of the pre-capitalist landholders are the bourgeois revolution, as they have been since the French Revolution of 1789. The regime for this reason was genuinely popular and many overseas Chinese who were not Communists returned to help rebuild the country. Some “progressive capitalists” were retained to continue running their factories. After the chaos of the previous 30 years, this stabilization was a breath of fresh air. The People's Liberation Army also intervened in the Korean War to help Kim il-sung fight the United States and the United Nations forces. But it is also important not to lose sight of the fact that the Korean War was part of a war between the two Cold War blocs, and that what Kim implemented in North Korea after 1953 was another Stalinist “bourgeois revolution with red flags” based on land to the peasants. (North Korea went on to become the first proletarian hereditary monarchy, now in its third incarnation.)

We also have to see the Chinese Revolution in international context. Stalinism (and Maoism is, as mentioned earlier, a variant of Stalinism) emerged from World War II stronger than ever, having appropriated all of eastern Europe, winning in China, on its way to power in (North) Korea and Vietnam, and had huge prestige in struggles around the colonial and semi-colonial world (which was renamed the Third World as the Cold War divided the globe into two antagonistic blocs centered on the United States and the Soviet Union).

There is no question that Mao and the CCP were somewhat independent of Stalin and the Soviet Union. They were their own type of Stalinists. They were also a million miles from the power of soviets and workers' councils that had initially characterized the Russian and German Revolutions, on which basis the Comintern was originally founded in 1919. That is a thorny question that is too complex to be unraveled here. But from 1949 until the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, the Soviet Union sent thousands of technicians and advisors to China, and trained thousands more Chinese cadre in Soviet universities and institutes, as had been the case since the 1920s. The “model” established in power in the 1950s was essentially the Soviet model, adapted to a country with an even more overwhelming peasant majority than was the case in Russia.

World Stalinism was rocked in 1956 by a series of events: the Hungarian Revolution, in which the working class again established workers' councils before it was crushed by Russian intervention; the Polish “October,” in which a worker revolt brought to power a “reformed” Stalinist leadership. These uprisings were preceded by Khruschev's speech to the twentieth Congress of world Communist Parties, in which he revealed many of Stalin's crimes, including the massacre of between five to ten million peasants during the collectivizations of the early 1930s. There were many crimes he did not mention, since he was too implicated in them, and the purpose of his speech was to salvage the Stalinist bureaucracy while disavowing Stalin himself. This was the beginning of “peaceful co-existence” between the Soviet bloc and the West, but the revelations of Stalin's crimes and the worker revolts in eastern Europe (following the 1953 worker uprising in East Germany) were the beginning of the end of the Stalinist myth. Bitterly disillusioned militants all over the world walked out of Communist Parties, after finding out that they had devoted decades of their lives to a lie.

Khruschev's 1956 speech is often referred to by later Maoists as the triumph of “revisionism” in the Soviet Union. The word “revisionism” is itself ideology run amok, since the main thing that was being “revised” was Stalinist terror, which the Maoists and Marxist-Leninists by implication consider to be the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” There were between 10 and 20 million people in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union in 1956, and presumably their release (for those who survived years of slave labor, often at the Arctic Circle) was part of “revisionism.” For the Maoists, the Khruschev speech is often also identified with the “restoration of capitalism,” showing how superficial their “Marxism” is, with the existence of capitalism being based not on any analysis of real social relationships but on the ideology of this or that leader.

Khruschev's speech was not well received by Mao and the leaders of the CCP, whose own regimented rule of China was becoming increasingly unpopular.[5] Thus the regime launched a new phase, called the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, in which the “bourgeois intellectuals” who had rallied to the regime, recoiling from the brutality of the KMT, were invited to “let a hundred flowers bloom” and openly voice their criticisms.

The outpouring of criticism was of such an unexpected volume that it was quickly shut down by Mao and the CCP, who began to characterize the Hundred Flowers campaign as “letting the snakes out of their holes” in order to “smash” them once and for all. Many critics were arrested and sent off to forced labor camps.

Internationally, however, Maoism began to become an international tendency, becoming attractive to some people who had left the pro-Soviet Communist Parties after Khrushchev's speech. This was a hard-core ultra-Stalinist minority (who felt, for example, that their own country's CP had not supported the Soviet invasion to crush the Hungarian Revolution forcefully enough). By the early 1960s, in the United States, Europe and around the Third World, these currents would become the “Marxist-Leninist” parties aligned with China against both the United States and Soviet “social imperialism.”

In China itself, the regime needed to shift gears after the disaster of the Hundred Flowers period. There was growing tension at the top levels of the CCP between Mao and the more Soviet-influenced technocratic bureaucrats, who were focused on building up heavy industry. This was the factional situation that led to the “Cultural Revolution” that erupted in 1965.

Therefore Mao launched the country in 1958 on the so-called “Great Leap Forward,” in which Soviet-style heavy industry was to be replaced by enlisting peasants in small industrial “backyard” production everywhere. The peasants were forced into the “People's Communes” and set to work to catch up with the economic level of the capitalist West in 10–15 years. Everywhere pots, pans and utensils as well as family heirlooms were melted down for backyard small kilns to produce steel, at killing paces of work. The result was a huge drain of peasant labor away from raising crops, leading to famine by 1960–1961 in which an estimated 10–20 million people starved to death.[6]

The debacle of the Great Leap Forward was also a terrible blow to Mao's standing within the CCP. It represented an extreme form of the kind of voluntarism, at the expense of real material conditions, which had always characterized Mao's thinking, as summed up in his famous line about “painting portraits on the blank page of the people” (some Marxist!).[7] The Soviet-influenced technocrats around Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping basically kicked Mao upstairs into a symbolic figurehead, too important to purge outright but stripped of all real power. Thus the battle lines were drawn for what became, a few years later, the “Cultural Revolution.”

The “Cultural Revolution” was Mao's attempt at a comeback.[8] It was a factional struggle at the top level of the CCP in which millions of university and high school students were mobilized everywhere to attack “revisionism” and return Mao to real power. But this factional struggle, and the previous marginalization of Mao that lay behind it, was hardly advertised as the real reason for this process in which tens of thousands of people were killed and millions of lives were wrecked.[9] China was thrown into ideology run amok on a scale arguably even greater than under Stalin at the peak of his power. Millions of educated people suspected of “revisionism” (or merely the victims of some personal feud), including technicians and scientists, were sent off to the countryside (“rustification”) to “learn from the peasants,” which in reality involved them in crushing forced labor in which many were worked to death. “Politics was in command,” with party ideologues and not surgeons, in charge of medical operations in Chinese hospitals—with predictable consequences. Schools were closed for three years in the cities—though not in the countryside (19660–1969)—while young people from universities and high schools ran around the country humiliating and sometimes killing people designated by the Maoist faction as a “revisionist” and a “Liu Shaoqi capitalist roader” (Liu Shaoqi himself died of illness in prison). The economy was wrecked. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping (who also performed hard rural labor during these years) returned to power, Chinese agricultural production per capita was no higher than it had been in 1949.

In such a situation, where revisionist rule was to be replaced by “people's power,” things got out of hand with some currents who took Mao's slogan “It is right to rebel” a bit too far, and began to question the whole nature of CCP rule since 1949. In these cases, as in the “Shanghai Commune” of early 1967, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had to step in against an independent formation that included radicalized workers. The PLA was in fact one of the main “winners” of the Cultural Revolution, for its role in stamping out currents that became a third force against both the “capitalist roaders” and the Maoists.

(During all this, Kang Sheng, the hatchet man of Yan'an, returned to power and helped vilify, oust and sometimes execute Mao's factional opponents, as he had done the first time around.)

Perhaps the most interesting case of things “going too far,” along with the brief Shanghai Commune, before the army marched in, was the Shengwulian current in Mao's own Hunan province. There, workers and students who had gone through the whole process produced a series of documents that became famous throughout China, analyzing the country as being under the control of a “new bureaucratic ruling class.” While the Shengwulian militants disguised their viewpoint with bows to the “thought of Mao tse-tung” and “Marxism-Leninism,” their texts were read throughout China, and at the top levels of the party itself, where they were clearly recognized for what they were: a fundamental challenge to both factions in power. They were mercilessly crushed.[10]

Further interesting critiques to emerge from the years of the Cultural Revolution were those written by Yu Luoke, at the time an apprentice worker and, later, the manifesto of Wei Jingsheng, a 28-year-old electrician at the Beijing Zoo on the “Democracy Wall” in Beijing in 1978. Yu's text was, like Shengwulian's, diffused and read all over China. It was a critique of the Cultural Revolution's “bloodline” definition of “class” by family background and political reliability, rather than by one's relationship to the means of production. Yu was executed for his troubles in 1970. The Democracy Wall, which was supposed to accompany Deng Xiaoping's return to power, also got out of hand and was suppressed in 1979.

Mao's faction re-emerged triumphant by 1969. This included his wife, Jiang Qing, and three other co-factioneers who would be arrested and deposed as the “Gang of Four”[11] shortly after Mao's death in 1976.[12] This victory, it is often overlooked, coincided with the beginning of Mao's quiet outreach to the United States as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. There was active but local combat between Chinese and Soviet forces along their mutual border in 1969 and, as a result, Mao banned all transit of Soviet material support to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, a ban which remained in effect until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Mao received US President Nixon in Beijing in early 1972, while the United States was raining bombs on North Vietnam.

This turn was hardly the first instance of a conservative foreign policy at the expense of movements and countries outside China. Already in 1965, the Chinese regime, based on its prestige as the center of “Marxist-Leninist” opposition to Soviet “revisionism” after the Sino-Soviet split, had encouraged the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) into a close alliance with Indonesia's populist-nationalist leader, Sukarno. It was an exact repeat of the CCP's alliance with Chiang kai-shek in 1927, and it ended the same way, in a bloodbath in which 600,000 PKI members and sympathizers were killed in fall 1965 in a military coup, planned with the help of US advisers and academics. Beijing said nothing about the massacre until 1967 (when it complained that the Chinese embassy in Jakarta had been stoned during the events). In 1971, China also openly applauded the bloody suppression of the Trotskyist student movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In the same year, it supported (together with the United States and against Soviet ally India), Pakistani dictator Yaya Khan, who oversaw massive repression in Bangladesh when that country (previously part of Pakistan) declared independence.

In 1971, another bizarre turn in domestic policy also took place, echoing Mao's fascination with ancient dynastic court intrigue. Up to that point, Lin Biao had been openly designated as Mao's successor. The Maoist press abroad, as well as the French intelligentsia which at the time was decidedly pro-Maoist, trumpeted the same line. Suddenly Lin Biao disappeared from public view, and in late 1971 it was learned that he, too, supposedly Mao's closest confidant for years, had been a capitalist roader and a deep-cover KMT agent all along. According to the official story, Lin had commandeered a military plane and fled toward the Soviet border; the plane had crashed in Mongolia, killing him and all aboard.[13] For months, western Maoists denounced this account, published in the world press, as a pure bourgeois fabrication, including what Simon Leys characterized as the “most important pro-Maoist daily newspaper in the West,” the very high tone Le Monde (Paris), whose Beijing correspondent was a Maoist devotee. Then, when the Chinese government itself confirmed the story, the Western Maoists turned on a dime and howled with the wolves against Lin Biao. Simon Leys remarked that these fervent believers had transformed the old Chinese proverb “Don't beat a dog after it has fallen into the water” into “Don't beat a dog until it has fallen into the water.”

This was merely the beginning of the bizarre turn of Maoist world strategy and Chinese foreign policy. The “main enemy” and “greater danger” was no longer the world imperialism centered in the United States, but Soviet “social imperialism.” Thus, when US-backed Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, China immediately recognized Pinochet and hailed the coup. When South African troops invaded Angola in 1975 after Angolan independence under the pro-Soviet MPLA, China backed South Africa. During the Portuguese Revolution of 1974–75, the Maoist forces there reached out to the far right. Maoist currents throughout western Europe called for the strengthening of NATO against the Soviet threat. China supported Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos in his attempt to crush the Maoist guerrilla movements in that country.

Maoism had had a certain serious impact on New Left forces in the West in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unraveling the factional differences among these groups would take us too far afield, and most of them had faded away by the 1980s. But “Maoism,” as interpreted in different ways, was important in Germany, Italy, France and the United States. Some groups, such as the ultra-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party in the United States, saw the writing on the wall as early as 1969 and broke with China in that year. Most of these groups were characterized by Stalinist thuggery against opponents, and occasionally among themselves.[14] Their influence was as diffuse as it was pernicious; ca. 1975, there were hundreds of “Marxist-Leninist” study groups around the United States, and hundreds of cadre had entered the factories to organize the working class. By the mid-1970s, three main Maoist groups had emerged as dominant in the US left: the Revolutionary Union (RU) under Bob Avakian (later renamed the RCP), the October League (OL) under Mike Klonsky, and the Communist Labor Party (CLP). To really understand some of the differences between them, one needed to know their relationship to the old “revisionist” Communist Party USA. The more moderate groups, such as the October League, hearkened back to Earl Browder's leadership during the Popular Front years. More hard-line groups, such as the CLP, looked to the more openly Stalinist William Z. Foster. These and other smaller groups fought ideological battles over the proper attitude to take toward Enver Hoxha's Albania, which for some (after China's pro-US turn) remained, for them, the sole truly “Marxist-Leninist” country in the world. One small group trumpeted the “Three 3's: Third International/Third Period/Third World.”

In Germany, New Left Maoism was on the ascendant after 1968, a process which it gingerly termed the “positive overcoming of the anti-authoritarian movement” of that year. A major current was the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands), which fought against the much larger DKP (Deutsche Kommunistische Partei, the pro-Soviet party, which itself still barely accounted for 1 percent of the vote in German elections). Out of the KPD came a multitude of smaller “K-Gruppen,” with poetic names such as KPD-ML Rote Heimat (Red Homeland, with distinct populist overtones of “soil”). Only the DKP had any influence in the working class, with its infiltration of the trade unions; it was content to sit back after 1972 when the Social Democratic government of Willy Brandt issued its “radical decree” and came down hard on the K-Gruppen, much as the Italian Communist Party (PCI), with 25 percent of the vote in the 1976 elections, not only sat back while the Italian government criminalized the entire far left as “terrorists”; it actively helped the government in the suppression of the far left after the Red Brigades kidnapped and executed the right-wing politician Aldo Moro in spring 1978, as he was on his way to sign the “historical compromise” which would have allowed the PCI to join the Christian Democrats in a grand coalition.

In France, Maoism never had the clout of the much larger main Trotskyist parties (Lutte Ouvriere, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire and the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste, all of which are still around today, in the latter two cases under different names). Most of the Maoist “Marxist-Leninist” groups had been discredited by their manipulative role during the May–June 1968 general strike, such as one which marched to the barricades on the night of the most serious street fighting (pitting thousands of people against thousands of cops), announced that the whole thing was a government provocation, and urged everyone to go home, as they themselves proceeded to do. But in the spring of 1970, one small ultra-Stalinist and ultra-militant Maoist group, the Gauche Proletarienne (Proletarian Left), momentarily recruited Jean-Paul Sartre to its defense when the government banned it, following some spectacular militant interventions around the country. Sartre, who had over the previous 20 years been successively pro-Soviet, pro-Cuba and then pro-China, saved the GP from extinction, but it collapsed of its own ideological frenzy shortly thereafter. (It notably produced two particularly cretinous neo-liberal ideologues after 1977, Bernard-Henry Levi and Andre Glucksmann, as well as Serge July, editor-in-chief of the now very respectable daily Liberation, which began as the newspaper of the GP.) Former French Maoists turned up in the strangest places, such as Roland Castro, a fire-eating Maoist in 1968, who became an intimate of Socialist President Francois Mitterand, and was appointed to a leading technocratic position.

Maoism in Britain again had next to no influence, whereas both the Trotskyist Socialist Labor League (SLL) and the IS (later SWP), at their 1970s peaks, had thousands of members and a serious presence in the working class.

In Japan, finally, the most advanced capitalist country in Asia, Maoism (as in Britain and in France), had no chance against the large, sophisticated New Left groups in the militant Zengakuren, which not only had no time for Maoism but not even for Trotskyism, and which characterized both the Soviet Union and China as “state capitalist.” (Only the small underground, pro-North Korean “Red Army” could in any way have been characterized as Maoist.)

In 1976, as mentioned earlier, the Maoist Gang of Four, who up to Mao's death had been at the pinnacle of state power, were arrested, jailed and never heard from again, as the “revisionists” headed by Deng Xiaoping returned to power and prepared to launch China on the road to “market socialism,” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” beginning in 1978.

This bizarre ideological period finally ended in 1978–79, when China, now firmly an ally of the United States, attacked Vietnam and was rudely pushed back by the Vietnamese army under General Giap (of Dien Bien Phu fame). Vietnam, still allied with the Soviet Union, had occupied Cambodia to oust the pro-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who had taken over the country in 1975 and who went on to kill upward of one million people. In response to China's attack on Vietnam, the Soviet Union threatened to attack China. For any remaining Western Maoists at this point, the consternation was palpable.

As elsewhere in different forms, the Maoists in the United States did not go quietly into that dark night. Many of those who went into industry or otherwise colonized working-class communities rose to positions of influence in the trade union bureaucracy, such as Bill Fletcher of the Freedom Road group, who was briefly a top aide to John Sweeney when the latter took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. Mike Klonsky of the October League traveled to China in 1976 to be anointed as the official liaison to the Chinese regime after the fall of the Gang of Four, but that did not prevent the OL from fading away. The RCP sent colonizers to West Virginia mining towns, where they were involved in some wildcat strikes (some of those strikes, however, were against teaching Darwin in the schools). The RCP also supported ROAR, the racist anti-busing coalition, during the crisis in Boston in 1975. Bob Avakian, in 1978, with four other RCP members, rushed the podium when Deng Xiaoping appeared at a press conference in Washington with Jimmy Carter to consummate the US-China alliance; they were charged with multiple felonies and Avakian remains in exile in Paris to this day. In 1984 and 1988,[15] Maoists of different stripes were deeply involved in Jesse Jackson's run for the presidency, giving rise in 1984 after Jackson lost out to the “Marxist-Leninists for Mondale” phenomenon.

Members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) suffered a worse fate, when in 1979 members of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina (where they had organized in several textile towns) fired on their rally, killing five of them. But during Occupy Oakland in the fall of 2011, it emerged that no less than Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, as well as some of her key advisors, and high-level members of the Alameda County Labor Council, were former members of the selfsame CWP.

More recently, former members of the RCP who had their fill of Avakian's cult of personality formed the Kasama network, which now has a much larger, if more diffuse influence, at least on the internet.

On a world scale, Maoists recently joined a coalition government in Nepal, and various groups, some reaching back to the 1960s or even earlier, continue to be active in the Philippines. The Indian Naxalites, who were stone Maoists in the 1970s before they were crushed by Indira Gandhi, have made something of a comeback in poor rural areas. The Shining Path group in Peru, which was similarly crushed by Fujimori, has made a steady comeback there, openly referring to such groups as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as a model.

To conclude, it is important to consider the post-1978 fate of Maoism in China itself.

For the regime which, since 1978, has overseen nearly 35 years of virtually uninterrupted and unprecedented economic growth, averaging close to 10 percent per year over decades, with the methods of “market socialism,” Mao Zedong remains an indispensable icon of the ruling ideology. In officialese, Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” The “wrong” part usually means the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, although serious discussion and research on those events remains largely if not wholly taboo.

As a result, a rose-tinted nostalgic view of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution has become de rigeur in the so-called Chinese New Left.[16] There have even been echoes of Maoism in the recent fall of top-level bureaucrat Bo Xilai, former strongman of Chongqing with a decidedly populist style which led some of his opponents to warn of the dangers of a “new Cultural Revolution.” Given the impossibility, in China, of frank public discussion of the entirety of Mao's years in power (and before), and the small fragments of information available to the young generations about those years, it is hardly surprising that currents opposing the appalling spread of social inequality and insecurity since 1978 would turn back to that mythical past. This hardly makes such a turn less reactionary and dangerous. Everything that happened after 1978 had its origins in the nature of the regime before 1978. There was no “counter-revolution,” still less a transformation of the previously existing social relations of production. Once again, Maoism reveals its highly idealist and voluntarist conception of politics by a focus on the ideology of top leaders, as it previously did with Khruschev's 1956 speech and thaw. China from 1949 to 1978 was preparing the China of 1978 to the present. Even those pointing to the “shattering of the iron rice bowl,” the No. 1 ideological underpinning of the old regime, ignore the practice of significant casualized labor in the industrial centers in the 1950s and 1960s. Until a true “new left” in China seriously rethinks the place of Maoism in the larger context of the history of the Marxist movement, and particularly its origins in Stalinism and not in the true, defeated world proletarian moment of 1917–1921, it is doomed to reproduce, in China as in different parts of the developing world, either grotesque copies of Maoism's periodic ultra-Stalinism (as in Peru) or to be the force that prepares the coming of “market socialism” by destroying the pre-capitalist forms of agriculture and engaging in forced, autarchic industrialization until Western, or Japanese and Korean, or (why not?) Chinese capital[17] arrives to allow the full emergence of capitalism.

  1. [1]The term “Stalinism” is used here throughout to describe a new form of class rule by a bureaucratic elite that, in different times and different situations, fought against pre-capitalist social formations (as in China) or against Western capitalism. Some, myself included, see Stalinism as “state capitalism”; a smaller number, influenced by the theory of Max Schactman, see it as “bureaucratic collectivism.” Orthodox Trotskyists call Stalinist regimes “deformed workers' states”; the Bordigists simply call it “capitalism.” Marxist-Leninists see such regimes as…socialism. This is a huge debate which has taken place ever since the 1920s but one could do worse than read Walter Daum's The Life and Death of Stalinism, which, while defending a variant of the Trotskyist view, argues that the Soviet Union and all its “offspring” were state capitalist. Outside those countries where a Stalinist regime has state power, I use the term “Stalinist” to describe those forces which are fighting to establish one, or apologists for one or another version of “real existing socialism.”
  2. [2]All this is recounted in detail in Harold Isaac's book The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, first published in 1934 and republished many times since. Readers should be cautioned that Isaacs, a Trotskyist when he wrote the book, later became a “State Department socialist” and toned down the book with each reprint, but later editions still tell the essential story.
  3. [3]These three factions arose after Lenin's death in 1924: the Trotskyist left advocating export of the revolution and an intense industrialization policy based on strong extraction of a surplus from the peasantry; Bukharin argued for “socialism at a snail's pace” with a much laxer attitude toward petty producer capitalism by the peasants, and Stalin “wavering” in between. On this, see the review of the book of John Marot in the current issue of IN.
  4. [4]To put it in a nutshell: the historical trajectory of peasants under pre-capitalist conditions has shown itself in most cases to be toward private small-plot cultivation. In such conditions, as in Russia, they can be the allies of a proletarian revolution, in which the “democratic tasks” of socialist revolution by the workers combine with those of the bourgeois revolution (land to the peasants). There is a bourgeois mode of production (capitalism), there is a transition to the communist mode of production in which the working class is the ruling class (socialism); there is no “peasant mode of production,” which limits the historical role of peasants to being allies of one dominant class or another.
  5. [5]See for example Ygael Gluckstein's early book Mao's China (1955), particularly the chapter entitled “The Regimentation of the Working Class.” Gluckstein (who later became better known under his pseudonym Tony Cliff, leader of the British International Socialists and then renamed the Socialist Workers' Party) was the first person to systematically analyze China as a form of state capitalism.
  6. [6]Some estimates run as high as 35 million. Past a certain point, the exact figures are not so important as the unmitigated disaster caused by the policy.
  7. [7]Apparently neither Mao nor any other member of the CCP had read Marx at the time of its founding in 1921. They emerged out of the many ideological influences current in East Asia before World War I: socialism (vaguely understood), anarchism, Tolstoyan pacificism, and Henry Georgism, among others. “Voluntarism” as the term is used here refers to such episodes as the Great Leap Forward, or the (above-mentioned) characterization of the Soviet bloc as “capitalist” based on Khruschev's speech, or the (more idealist) definition of class in the Cultural Revolution not by an individual's relation to the means of production but by their family background or “revisionist” ideas. For background on the voluntarist ideologies current at the time of the founding of the CCP, cf. Maurice Meisner, Li ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism; on Mao's voluntarism inherited from his early reading of Kant, cf. Frederic Wakeman, History and will: Philosophical Perspectives of Mao Tse-tung's Thought.
  8. [8]The most important analysis of the Cultural Revolution in these terms is Simon Leys's Chairman Mao's New Clothes, published in French in 1969 and translated into English a few years later. Leys also wrote brilliant books on the cultural desert created by Maoism in power, both before and after the Cultural Revolution: Chinese Shadows, The Burning Forest, and Broken Images. His work is required reading for anyone nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution today.
  9. [9]Some flavor of these events is described by the liberal academic Song Yongyi. His book on the massacres of the Cultural Revolution is unfortunately only in French and in Chinese. He also edited an Encyclopedia of the Cultural Revolution which is dry and academic.
  10. [10]For Shengwulian's most important statement (1968) see their text “Whither China?
  11. [11]The Gang of Four came to be seen as the leaders of the Cultural Revolution towards its end. The original central organ that was directing things both openly and behind the scenes was comprised of 10 people. Among these were Kang Sheng, Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Li and others.
  12. [12]Once again, the books of Simon Leys, cited above, are all beautiful portraits of the ideological and cultural climate in China up to 1976. One curious book, to be read with caution but useful nonetheless, is by Dr. Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994). Li was Mao's personal physician from 1956 to 1976 and lived most of those years in the elite Beijing compound with other top party personnel, and traveled with Mao wherever he went. The English translation of the book was greeted with media-driven sensationalist focus on accounts of Mao's voracious sexual appetite for beautiful young women, which actually makes up a minor theme. Its real interest is the portrait of the comings and goings of the top CCP leaderships during the last 20 years of Mao's life, their rises and their downfalls. It also recounts Mao's deep reading in Chinese dynastic history, the so-called “24 dynastic histories” covering the years 221 BC–1644 AD. Mao's fascination was above all with court intrigue. According to Li, he had the greatest admiration for some of the “most ruthless and cruel” emperors, such as Qin Shihuangdi (221–206 BC), who founded the short-lived Qin dynasty. Qin ordered the infamous “Burning of the Books” and executed many Confucian scholars (p. 122). Another favorite was the Emperor Sui Yangdi (604–618), who ordered the building of the Grand Canal by massive conscripted labor, during which thousands died.
  13. [13]But another account surfaced, of which an English translation was published in 1983: Yao Ming-Le, The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao. It purports to be a pseudonymous account written by a high-ranking CCP member who was assigned to develop the cover story of Lin's flight and death. According to Yao, a struggle to the death between Mao and Lin had been underway, and Lin was plotting a coup to overthrow and kill Mao. The plot was discovered, and Lin Biao was arrested and executed. No less a skeptic of sources coming out of China than Simon Leys, in his book The Burning Forest, argues that Yao's account agrees with other known facts.
  14. [14]For a full account, see Max Elbaum's book Revolution in the Air, which purports to see these groups as the “best and the brightest” to emerge from the American 60s. For a short course, see my polemical review of Elbaum, “Didn't See The Same Movie.”
  15. [15]This foray into Democratic Party politics is enthusiastically recounted in Max Elbaum's book cited above.
  16. [16]See the article of Lance Carter on the Chinese New Left in Insurgent Notes No. 1.
  17. [17]Chinese investment in Africa in recent years, aimed first of all at the procurement of raw materials, has taken on serious dimensions; already some African leaders are warning of a “new colonialism.” On the level of high comedy, Western leaders have the effrontery to solemnly warn China “not to exploit Africa's natural resources.” (!)


23 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. ACJ,

    Serge July is no longer editor of Liberation, he was forced out after the 2006 takeover of the newspaper by Edouard de Rotchschild.

  2. Kersplebedeb,

    Our political perspectives on this are obviously a bit at odds (though i
    have never been a Maoist), and as this is a bare bones quick-and-dirty
    “beware of Maoism” primer, i recognize that my criticisms are in large
    part consequences of the form, rather than simply the content.

    i found Goldner’s article interesting, but of limited (though not zero)
    use. The core of the argument seems to hinge on what Mao did or did not
    do, and the history of 20th century China on the level of state policy –
    which is fine, but which simply parallels the “focus on the ideology of
    top leaders” which Maoists are then criticized for in this piece. Fair
    enough, perhaps, as the ideology is named after the man, but from my
    conversations with Maoists and ex-Maoists (including some who have gone
    on to become left communists and anarchists), it was not Mao’s personal
    charms or actions or even his catchy sloganeering that initially
    attracted them to Maoism, though these could be grafted on ex post
    facto. (To give an example, i think what is wanting in this
    understand-Maoism-solely-through-China approach is hinted at in the
    sentence, “China supported Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos in his
    attempt to crush the Maoist guerrilla movements in that country.”)

    This is where i find the article very weak, in its survey of Maoism
    outside of China (weak in the First World, both weak and threadbare in
    its brief mentions of Maoism in the Third World). Leaving aside the
    omissions, distortions, and errors in the cases of France and Germany
    (the only two i know anything about), i want to focus on the methodology
    in play. Essentially name dropping folks who at one point were Maoists
    and at another point were not, and mentioning in passing some of the
    worst errors and fuck-ups of Maoists around the world, does not make for
    a very useful argument. As a propaganda piece it may do the trick, but
    for people who are not predisposed to be anti-Maoist (i.e. for those of
    us asking “what is Maoism?” and not “what is wrong with Maoism?”) this
    is unsatisfying. Again, perhaps this is par for the course in a quick
    survey that is supposed to also serve as a flashing neon caveat emptor,
    but without mentioning any of the positives, any of the places where
    Maoism might have seemed more liberatory or more useful than other
    currents in the left, one is left wondering why so many people became
    Maoists – were they just stupid? or ill-intentioned?

    To be clear: i think the task of examining, with a suspicious frame of
    mind, Maoism (or any other -ism), is completely valid. There are
    questions that beg for answers; for instance, in the First World – why
    did so many Maoist groups have such trouble coming to grips with gay and
    lesbian liberation, even on a shallow level? how did the view of the
    Soviet Union as social imperialist segue into a small minority Maoists
    rallying to pro-U.S. positions? perhaps most importantly, how is it that
    in the early 70s Maoist parties and pre-party formations managed to suck
    in so many tens of thousands of committed radicals in a very short
    period, only to leave them bitter and disillusioned just years later
    when First World Maoism imploded? My guess, though, is that the answers
    to these questions have more to do with the political and social
    contexts in which they occurred, and the Cultural Revolution only played
    a role insofar as it served as an (often barely understood) mental
    reference point. An honest answer also requires acknowledging that these
    phenomena were not without exceptions – they often were the exception –
    and that to people today engaging with Maoism, it makes sense that they
    appear as atypical problems from the past, if they even register at all.
    So more sociology and less biography would be required to unravel the tale.

    From what i have been told, the initial appeal of Maoism in the late
    60s/early 70s had much to do with the perceived failings of the New Left
    that it emerged from. Similarly, those gains Maoists are making today
    seem predicated on the perceived weaknesses or shortcomings of the
    broader left. Without providing this context we get a narrative which is
    difficult to understand, except as a sorry story of how foolish people are.

    Without a more thorough examination of Maoism in each of the countries
    mentioned, it is difficult to gain more than a very superficial idea of
    the dynamics at play. For instance, what was it in German Maoism so that
    mutations occurred that lead into the Green Party on the one hand and
    the antideutsche a bit later on – and why in each case was what was
    initially a Maoist mutation quickly setting the beat for far greater
    numbers of “antiauthoritarians”? What about the distinction between the
    mao-spontex and more orthodox Maoists in France, the former having some
    cross-over with anarchist and post-situ types? in Quebec, Maoism in the
    1970s emerged at least in part as a left turn out of nationalism, with
    former FLQ political prisoner Charles Gagnon leading the largest far
    left group in the province at the time (En Lutte), and developing a
    position that was both revolutionary anti-capitalist and
    anti-nationalist. These dynamics can’t be grasped or understood in any
    real way just by mentioning them, but nor can the Maoist movements in
    various countries be discredited by simply mentioning Bob Avakian or
    Jean Quan.

    Among younger people, outside of Quebec, many if not most Maoists in
    white North America are former anarchists, or at least formerly part of
    the anarchist scene. i think the attraction these people have towards
    Maoism is likely despite, not because of, the checkered history of
    actual Maoists parties and organizations here. It also probably has much
    to do with the soft hegemony of a form of soft anarchism amongst
    activists (especially young white college-educated or -attending
    activists) in the radical left, and the weaknesses that flow from both
    that hegemony and from anarchist ideology itself. To grasp the nature of
    the phenomenon i think one must start by conceding that Maoism has
    continued to evolve and branch out in various forms, often nationally
    distinct, since Mao died in 1976, and in ways that can only really be
    evaluated on a case by case basis, by looking at the organizing work but
    also at the theoretical production.

    As is often the case in analyzing political traditions, starting from a
    perspective of simply collecting evidence to show that something is
    rotten-to-the-core is not the must useful approach, though i understand
    that for propaganda purposes it is sometimes necessary.


    • Daniel,

      Thank you for this post! I liked this piece but it served as a nice counterpoint to what was lacking, i.e. an explanation of the continuing appeal of Maoism and its ideology

  3. Noel Ignatiev,

    I had submiited the text below for consideration by Insurgent Notes. The editors declined to publish it. I think it sheds light on the issues involved. It’s also posted on my blog at

    Why Mao?
    Why, in spite of its long list of crimes* and the reality of modern China, does Maoism continue to attract adherents among revolutionaries in the U.S.? Part of the answer is that Maoism represents in many people’s minds the triumph of the will (no reference intended to Leni Riefenstahl’s film of that title).
    Marxism came to China around the time of the May Fourth Movement (1919), when Chinese students, enraged at the government’s subservience to foreign powers, turned to the West for new ideas. It arrived as one of many imports; particularly important was the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson argued for the supremacy of the will; here are some quotes from him, picked off the internet: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” “Always do what you are afraid to do.” “Our greatest glory is in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” “Passion rebuilds the world for the youth.” “Every revolution was thought first in one man’s mind.”
    And the following (especially appealing to many young Americans): “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”
    If Emerson stressed reliance on will, Marx discovered the link between communism and the proletariat. Addressing the same questions Mao addressed, and writing at about the same age Mao was when he became a radical, Marx wrote:
    Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation?
    Answer: In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.
    Maoism was the synthesis of Marxism and Emersonianism, and that was the secret of its triumph in China, a country with a tiny proletariat, and its appeal to a new generation of radicals in the U.S., a country where the proletariat appears to be diminishing in numbers and coherence.
    The history of Maoism is well known: After reactionaries crushed the workers’ movement of 1925-27 and slaughtered Communists in the cities, Mao led a faction of the Party to the countryside. There they built a peasant army that, as everyone knows, overthrew the feudal regime and brought the CP to power. I am in awe at Mao’s accomplishment in getting fastidious Chinese students, schoolteachers, librarians (he himself was a librarian), and mandarins, more steeped in class prejudice than any other people on earth, to go and live with peasants and eat out of filthy bowls and pick lice out of their bodies. It was one of the most heroic episodes in history, and one of the greatest revolutions.
    Looking back after nearly a century, it is evident now that the dust has settled that Communism in China did not bring about the “complete re-winning of man” but was the banner under which the old, reactionary, patriarchal, feudal society was overthrown and a capitalist society built up in its place. Although Mao and his comrades called themselves, and undoubtedly believed they were, Communists, the revolution they carried out was not a communist revolution, nor could it be, because it was not based in the proletariat, and when it comes to revolution, communist and proletarian are interchangeable terms.
    People looking for substitutes for the working class (and consequently infatuated with Maoism) need to ponder that lesson. Sometimes an ounce of theory is worth a ton of action.
    Lastly, a word on the “mass line”: The Maoist notion of the “mass line” (from the masses, to the masses) omits, and by omitting denies, the active role of the Marxist organization in refracting the mass movement into its different tendencies and then seeking to clarify the different implications of those tendencies. Instead it substitutes a notion of the Party as a neutral recorder, modestly serving the masses. It is disingenuous, even hypocritical, because while declaring its adherence to the formula “from the masses, to the masses,” it also insists that the Party is the “leading force,” invariably short-circuiting the part where the “masses” make up their own minds. (The same criticism applies to the Zapatista formula “To obey is to lead.”) The view of the Party as the “leading force” is especially popular among those who see no social force that because of its position in society can give shape to the entire movement, and therefore fall back on the Party, an organization of people of no particular class who come together voluntarily on the basis of political agreement, to perform that function.** (The Marxist organization may indeed be the “leading force,” but it has to win its position every day; during the entire period of transition from capitalist society to communism, the period sometimes known as “Socialism,” there can be no other leadership than the soviets, workers’ councils, etc. and even they can only be provisional.) The vanguard party may not be reactionary everywhere—even C.L.R. James acknowledged its value in backward countries; but it is out of place in a country where the working class is “disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”
    *My favorite of Mao’s crimes, which I have seen nowhere in print, comes from a professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard who lived in China for years. He reported that in the last years of his life Mao became infatuated with an 18-year-old female railway worker. He brought her to live with him in the Forbidden City, where she became for a while his intermediary to the outside world. She was the one Communist officials meant when they made statements beginning, “A spokesman for Chairman Mao declared.” According to the professor, the arrangement was an open secret among those in the know. I believe it. The irony is, it may have been the only recorded case in history of the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.
    **I maintain that the working class in large-scale industry, transport and communications is the only social force capable of performing this function on a world scale, but that view is of course debatable and moreover its meaning in different situations is not always easy to see. The faction that emerged on top in China after 1927 did not solve the problem of what it meant (if ever they gave it serious consideration). Forty years later, workers in Shanghai declared the Shanghai Commune (a deliberate reference to the Paris Commune, based on direct democracy); shortly afterwards all talk of the Commune ended, and the Party line became the Three-in-one committees, according to which one part of the state administration was to be drawn from the existing cadres, one part from the People’s Liberation Army, and one part from the new forces—in other words, the coopting of the insurgents. Some Italian comrades visited China right after and asked Mao why he abandoned the Commune. His reply: China has 20 million proletarians; how do you expect them to maintain proletarian rule in a country of 680 million peasants? He may have been right. The results are there for all to see. Could total defeat have been worse than what actually transpired? (We could ask the same question about the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt.)

    Noel Ignatiev

  4. I tried to post a comment here several days ago but it still hasn’t gone through. Here’s my second try. I’m glad Loren wrote this and I generally agree, but disagree with some details. NPC from Red Spark wrote a response, and I wrote a response to that, and reposted excepts from this exchange on CSG here:

    Especially note the comment by Lang Yan at the bottom.

  5. Don Zang,

    What is truly impressive here is the use of Chinese language sources and the dialogue with generations of Chinese intellectuals since the turn of the 20th century. This is Goldner at his best and most revealing.

  6. I want to second Husunzi’s direction towards the discussion between NPC and Husunzi….they get into a lot of specifics and complicate the critique in a very interesting way. Not knowing a lot of the factual questions, these seems like the kind of complex, nondogmatic discussions we need to be having. Loren, would you make time to respond to their discussion, critiques and responses to your piece? It would help advance the discussion beyond basic left comm vs. Stalinist.

  7. Eve Mitchell,

    I agree with what folks are saying about how this critique of Maoism so far is mostly empirical and devoid of political content. I am wondering if Loren is planning on filling it out in the next issue?

    Either way, I think Marty Glaberman’s piece that looks at Maoism on its own terms is a good place to start developing a critique:

  8. Charles Andrews,

    The Russian revolution was the center of a wave of enormous change in the twentieth century. The Chinese revolution was the center of the second wave of enormous change in the twentieth century. The article does not study the changes in order to learn; it carps at all the points where the changes do not match the author’s preconceived notion of what should happen. “This wood is not cut to my blueprint!”

    Such is the luxury afforded a commentator in a world created by the Soviet defeat of German fascism and the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese reclaiming of countries from U.S. imperialism.

  9. Great post, this information is educational, I am glad i found your site.

  10. The Fish is right I also want to second Husunzi’s direction towards the discussion between NPC and Husunzi, this can better things.

  11. Tom Cod,

    The problem with this kind of analysis, “variant of Stalinism”, is that it disparages and fails to fully appreciate the authenticity, genuineness and deep Chinese roots of the revolution there, second guessing every mistake from some idealized perspective of what should or could have happened. In reality, the Chinese Revolution was an epochal world shaking event in Chinese and human history, a REVOLUTION, like the French Revolution of 1789 etc, surely not something born of defeat, anymore than the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the product of the “defeat” of 1905, but rather a huge world historic victory, something of a nature, its neo-trotskyist critics have never been close to being a part of.

    Surely the young leadership of the revolution was influenced by various ideological sources, not the least of which was the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution and yes, Stalin, but it is simply wrong to characterize the revolution there, or in Vietnam for that matter, as “Stalinist” implying it was a franchise of Moscow or part of the “international communist conspiracy” and not something with its own deep local roots which were the primary aspect of it. This may sound a little exaggerated, but I really believe these sterile academic analyses reflect subtle anti-communist influences and neo-conservative tendencies of middle class intellectuals who grew up in a Cold War environment. In Oppose Book Worship, Mao talks about how intellectuals from privileged social backgrounds pave the way, consciously and unconsciously, for their drift to the right and counter-revolution through ultraleft and orthodox posturing while scripture quoting classic marxist texts.

    Any revolution or struggle, least of all the massive, epochal, 20th Century Chinese Revolution will experience various viccissitudes, set backs etc., ones that can be analyzed and parsed in great detail by armchair revolutionaries decades later. Ultimately, however, this revolution, like revolutions more generally, was a process driven from below by deep class contradictions and often spontaneous ferment. That the 30 something leadership of Mao and his milieu, itself-like Robespierre and the Jacobins in 1789- a layer and phenomenon thrown to the surface by this massive storm, committed mistakes in the heat of this struggle is unremarkable. Attributing corrupt or venal motives to that is another matter and entirely off base.

    Related to that, as with similar analyses of Spain, is the tendency of this “expert” school of trotskyoid history to shift the onus for the defeats, problems and shortcomings of the revolutionary process away from counter-revolution which was responsible for them. Thus we have little condemnation of Chiang, his betrayal and brutal repression, which is barely even mentioned while seeking to blame Mao for that. Ditto with Spain with barely a mention of Franco. Ditto with Allende and Chile. Seems like our experts need to educate themselves on basic history. “When you treat enemies like friends and friends like enemies, you yourself take the side of the enemy”-Mao

    Appreciating this history as it unfolded in 1927 in real time, it is easy to see how people, from the masses below to the young leaders, could believe that continuing the alliance with Chiang made sense. Was it mistaken? seems like it., but an easy call for us to make today. Nonetheless, that this didn’t work out and the horrific crimes that occurred as a result are squarely the fault of Chiang and the KMT which increasingly took on a fascistic character after that time. A good introduction and overview of the Chinese Revolution and its background for those who in reality may be novices to this subject is Barbara Tuchman’s excellent “Stilwell and the American Experience in China”

    • I M God,

      Appreciating this history as it unfolded in 1927 in real time, it is easy to see how people, from the masses below to the young leaders, could believe that continuing the alliance with Chiang made sense. Was it mistaken? seems like it., but an easy call for us to make today. Nonetheless, that this didn’t work out and the horrific crimes that occurred as a result are squarely the fault of Chiang and the KMT which increasingly took on a fascistic character after that time.

      You might have a point had not people from Marx’s time on down been warning against any alliance with the bourgeoisie. It’s not like there weren’t several sources on the arguing against popular frontism. Heck, even Stalin and company held the position until they decided to pull an ideological shift to match their heart-warming alliance with Hitler.

      So the KMT “betrayal” was less of a surprise than a big tragic “I told you so.”

      Sadder still is that people like you who should know better still haven’t learned the lesson.

  12. Sam Wong,

    What is genuinely remarkable in comrade Goldner’s far-reaching, profound analysis here is his engagement with Chinese sources and the tons of scholarship on modern China from both informed Marxists and others. Truly a model intellectual for how to understand non europrean histories and problems and contexts. Congratulations!

  13. I fear Golder and Co. may have missed Sam’s sarcasm, so let us just raise a few points : the whole of Goldner’s analysis reeks of the most vulgar Orientalism, replete with the usual tales of evil Chinese murders ( The Conspiracy and Murder of Mao’s Heir ) and Asiatic debauchery ( THe Private Life Of Chairman Mao). Had Goldner taken any effort to authenticate his sources with Chinese leftists, he would quickly have learned that these two ‘works’ are the products of C.I.A/ Taiwan intelligence circles. But one might have supposed that a ”communist” could quickly have come to such a conclusion for himself merely by the perusal of them. Is Goldner not acquainted with Said’s “Orientalism” ? Maybe he is, but shares the opinion of it with his evident intellectual mentor, Simon Leys, the very right-wing ideologue who has strong Kuomintang ties. Here is Ley’s estimation of Said’s ”Orientalism” : ”three hundred pages of twisted, obscure, incoherent, ill-informed, and badly written diatribe”. Can Goldner explain what epistemological biases motivated him to glean in the ideological furrows ploughed by fascist authors? As Turner puts it in his “Marx and the End of Orientalism”, Orientalism establishes a ”dichotomous ideal type of western society whose inner essence unfolds in dynamic progress towards democratic industrialism,” while oriental society is ”either timelessly stagnant or declines from its inception”. This aptly describes Goldner’s ”analysis” of the Chinese revolution in its failure to embrace the supposedly dynamic, revolutionary theories of Trotskyism. What strikes one here is the absence of any concept of class struggle as the motive force in China’s revolution. Goldner’s diatribe is the most wretched product of the idealist concept of history.. Frankly it is a scandal that such an article should appear under the banner of Marxism. Goldner should apply for a position as a propagandist with the Chiang Ching-kuo Institute in Taiwan. Simon Leys would no doubt write him a reference: it is sure to be a flattering one!

  14. Stephen,

    J Lowrie, read Simon Leys’s Broken Images. Loren and I can assure you that he is anything but a Kuomingtang/Guomingdang hack.

  15. Let me begin first by acknowledging the willingness of the editors of Insurgent Notes to print a criticism of Trotskyist views of the history of communist revolution. This is indeed the first time I have not been censored by a Trotskyist website, having even experienced this on one ostensibly devoted to democracy!
    Of course Simon Leys is not a Kuomingtang hack. I do not assert that; he is much too sophisticated a writer so to be designated, and all the more dangerous for it. Like George Orwell he professes to be a democratic socialist, and like Orwell he is a liar, being neither a socialist nor a democrat. Orwell, that product of Eton( the family wealth was founded on slavery) and the British Raj, so beloved of Trotskyists, has been exposed as a police snitch, who drew up a hit list of ”Stalinist” subversives that he forwarded to British Intelligence . The list, not unlike that prepared by the Gestapo for the Nazi occupation of Britain, contains comments against names with racialist slurs like ”half cast ” and
    ”Jewess”. Guess whose hit list Charlie Chaplin’s name was on?
    Now the point is, why were the Trotskyists unable to see through Orwell? Or why is Goldner unable to see through Leys? Such writers are much more dangerous to the communist cause than the Solzhenitsyns of this world! Mind you, I recall that the Trotskyist professor, Robin Blackburn, wrote an appreciative article on the latter for “New Left Review.” No wonder the Right are in Power! Whatever be Goldner’s subjective intentions, the fact that he utilises for the most part anti-communist sources in his evaluation of the Chinese Revolution objectively stamps him as the propagator of bourgeois ideology.

  16. Let us now turn to Goldner’s potted history of the communist experience of the 20th century. I put it to any genuine Marxist that this is an idealist abstraction from the real class struggles of that century, and is marked by simplification,ignorance and downright distortion. In fact, I can see little to distinguish Goldner’s view of the Chinese Revolution from that of the arch Stalinist, Enver Hoxha. There’s ideological incest for you! However that may be, let me raise a number of points:
    “Socialism in One Country”, an aberration unheard of till that time etc.
    This is false: Vollmar had argued for such as early as 1878 in his “The Isolated Socialist State”. Similarly Kautsky in 1891 had argued for economic independence and autarkic socialist states. Eric van Ree( Stalin as Marxist in Davis and Harris’ “Stalin : A New History” p167) observes that Lenin without acknowledging his debt to Vollmar and Kautsky in 1915 wrote” the victory of socialism initially in some or even in one given capitalist country is possible.”
    However I have always thought the debate a metaphysical question, a kind of Leninist version of how many angels can dance on the point of a Bolshevik thesis.
    “The Chinese peasantry…….not in Marxist terms a revolutionary class”. So much for the materialist view of history then. Apparently, we are to derive our theories of class struggle not from the events themselves but from some universal “Marxist” catechism of which Goldner holds the key. Lenin wrote, “Our European philistines never dream that the subsequent revolutions in Oriental countries, which possess much vaster populations, and a much vaster diversity of social conditions, will undoubtedly display even greater distinctions than the Russian revolution.” ( Our Revolution, January 1923). In 1877 Marx himself disavowed the idea that one ”must metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historic-philosophical theory of the universal path every people is fated to tread.”
    “Stalin’s crimes… the massacre of between 5 and million peasants during the collectivizations of the early 1930s.” This is a lie that owes its propagation to America’s No 1 fascist William Hearst and the Nazi press, and is currently one of the myths of contemporary Ukrainian fascism. ( Cf. Tottle, “Fraud, Famine and Fascism” 1987). Now, how come yet again Goldner finds himself in bed with fascists? For a scientific analysis of the famine, which was mainly due to crop failure compounded by Kulak sabotage and government incompetence, cf. Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933” Slavic Review, Vol.50 Issue 1 Pp 70-89).

  17. ” Between 10 and 20 million people in forced labour camps in the Soviet Union”. Such figures go back to fascist writers like Dallin and Nicolaevsky and Robert Conquest , a British Intelligence officer of the IRD in charge of black propaganda against the Soviet Union. Conquest, working under the auspices of various Ukrainian fascist organisations and the C.I.A., in the 1980s produced the film ”Harvest of Sorrow” , a veritable compendium of anti- communist propaganda, replete with fake photographs and Nazi diplomats etc. Apparently, Conquest now accepts that the famine was mainly due to natural causes! However that may be, Nove, late professor of Soviet Studies at Glasgow University, while greatly admiring Conquest’s film, gently chides him, not to be sure for falsification, but for coming up with statistics that are inherently implausible. He points out ( ”Stalinist Terror” 1993 Pp. 262-274) that were Conquest’s figures of 15 million in labour camps accurate then more than half of the male population between 30 and 60 must have been incarcerated!!! So what are we to make of Goldner’s figure of 20 million? Can he explain it away? Is it not clear that once again Goldner outdoes the fascists? He is not even up to the mental level of an avowed anti-communist like Nove! Listen to the said Nove :”In 1946 there was a famine in some areas caused by wartime devastation, and this cannot be teated analogous to the man-made famine of 1933” (Ibid. p273). But does man not make war? What he means is, if we cannot blame it on Stalin, let us not bother about it!

  18. The Great Leap Forward Famine:” Some Estimates run as high as 35 million.” Indeed they do,but since Goldner does not name his sources, let me do so for him, namely Dikotter’s “Mao’s Great Famine”. Once again Goldner is in bed with fascists, for his intellectual mentor this time is a hireling of the Chiang Ching Kuo Institute in Taiwan and writes apologetics for the genocidal regime of Chiang kai Shek. Falsification here too is the name of the game: the photo of a starving youth that Dikotter had on the front piece of his book was exposed not as coming from the communist era but from one of the countless famines of the Kuomingtang one. Dikotter lamely excused this away by admitting there were no photographs of starving peasants from the Mao era! What? None from the greatest famine in history, supposedly?
    Let us consider the following : the bourgeois writer Andrew Brown in his biography of the great communist scientist “J.D.Bernal: Sage of Science” writes ” It is estimated that 30 million people starved to a result of the Great Leap” (p403). By p 486 this figure has been inflated to “60-70 million people”. No evidence is adduced by Brown for these figures, but he hints that Bernal’s son, Martin, who was studying in China at the time was an eyewitness. I was much impressed by Martin’s “Black Athena”, which I hold to be a very great contribution to the demolition of euro-centric history( Bet Simon Leys hates it!) and e-mailed him, drawing his attention to a passage in Plato’s “Laws” that supported his arguments. He politely thanked me for this( I suspect he already was acquainted with the passage). I then took the opportunity of enquiring of him if he had indeed witnessed widespread starvation in China during his stay He replied (13/5/13): ” I did hear many anecdotal reports of severe food shortages, if not famine, but I never made any estimate on the number of deaths”.
    Professor Wertheim in his “Third World:Whence and whither” (pp62 ff), who visited China several times, including 1961, affirms that the Communes kept no birth or death statistics, and ridicules the likes of Ashton who establish famine on the back of mortality statistics correct to the first decimal point.
    Of course, any economic chaos in an economy with traditionally as fragile an agriculture as China’s must have resulted in increased mortality. Still the absence of the qualitative features of a famine such as we find in the great Bengal Famine of 1943, should give one pause. It is strange that Krushchov in his Memoirs, while ridiculing the GLF, knows nothing of any famine. Why did not any of the thousands of Soviet experts report this widespread famine?
    Personally, I believe the dissolution of the Communes probably fatal to the ecological sustainability of Chinese agriculture. One would have thought that a Marxist looking for a road to communism would have been concerned himself with this question, but then I am not persuaded that Goldner’s diatribe is motivated by a genuine scientific socialism. He is waving the red flag to oppose the red flag, though I fear the colour of his flag is actually BLACK!!!

  19. Nemo,

    Ahem an actual “black flag” would never discard “non-proletarian” peasants as possible revolutionary factors. Makhno’s army, as well as a significant proportion of catalonian anarchists, were peasants.

    The fetishism of industry and modernity is a distinctively marxist-victorian trair.

Add Your Comments

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>