C1893-1976) Leader of the Chinese Communist Revolution
Mao Zedong, reared in a middle-class peasant family in central Hunan province, became a leading architect of China’s twentieth-century Communist revolution. Inspired by the antiforeign nationalism of the May Fourth Movement, he became a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. When cooperation with the Guomindang (GMD, or Nationalists) collapsed in 1927, Mao retreated to the countryside.
We must learn to do economic work from all who know how, no matter who they are. We must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously. We must not pretend to know when we do not know. • Mao Zedong C1893—1976)
Mao’s view that China’s peasants, as the most oppressed social class, were the most revolutionary, clashed with the more traditionalist Communist views of the other CCP leaders, who were focused on China’s rather small industrial-worker class. From 1927 to late 1934, Mao championed the peasant struggle, building with Zhu De (1886-1976) and others an army that used guerrilla tactics against GMD forces. Forced to flee from their bases in southeastern China, Mao and others led the army to northwestern China on what became known as the Long March. In 1935 Mao became the chairman of the CCP, and his views on the nature of China’s revolution became dominant.
Japan’s takeover of Manchuria in 1932 and its war with China in 1937 shifted Mao’s attention from internal struggle toward the external imperialist threat. While the CCP fought anti-Japanese rear-guard actions from 1936 to 1945, Mao formulated his theoretical views of a socialist revolution in China. He departed from traditional Marxist doctrine in the emphasis he gave to the role of peasants, but he retained the concepts of class struggle and the vanguard role of the party. His views were enshrined in the CCP’s Seventh Congress constitution as Mao Zedong Thought.
Nationalist spirit spread support for the CCP. Halfhearted attempts at coalition government in 1945 presaged civil war against the GMD. CCP victory led to Mao’s founding the People’s Republic of China in the fall of 1949. By the summer of 1950, China was drawn into Cold War struggles in Korea (Mao’s son was killed in U. S. bombing there) and fought U. N. forces to a draw, setting the stage for anti-Americanism over continued U. S. support for the GMD government in Taiwan.
Domestically, Mao turned attention to China’s socialist transformation. First on the agenda was land reform. Keeping the promise of “land to the tiller” made by the Nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), Mao immediately pushed policies that by 1955-1956 resulted in the basic collectivization of newly distributed land into agricultural producers’ cooperatives. Following the Soviet Union’s definition of socialism, China also achieved basic state ownership of industry by the time of the Eighth CCP Congress in 1957. While other CCP leaders, especially Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) and Deng Xiaoping (19041997), were ready to consolidate early achievements, Mao, disturbed by the problems of corruption and bureaucracy, first invited then quashed criticism from intellectuals in the Hundred Flowers initiative and ensuing campaigns against those deemed reactionary. He argued that consolidation could result in loss of momentum, even reversal, by entrenching a new generation of elites. Mao’s response, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1959), aimed at creating a “new socialist man.” Rightist intellectuals and others would be reformed through physical labor, especially at the ill-conceived backyard steel furnaces which, he promised,
Mao’s tomb in Tiananman Square, Beijing.
Would permit China to overtake Great Britain in iron and steel production. This mass campaign also aimed at transferring technology to the countryside using the new People’s Communes as the social, economic, and political interface with the center. Famine and failures resulting from the Great Leap created the first serious break within the CCP leadership and some disillusion with Mao among the general Chinese population.
Relations with the Soviet Union also suffered from these failed policies. Criticism of Mao’s perceived departures from Soviet models resulted in Soviet withdrawal of technical experts, which disrupted major infrastructure projects. Mao retaliated by denouncing the Soviet Union for following the “capitalist road” and defended his policies as the logical next step in the world socialist movement, a position that exacerbated the Sino-Soviet split. At home, Mao condemned many within the party for taking the capitalist road and for failing to continue the revolution; in response, he launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Closing schools, mobilizing the masses, especially Red Guard youth, and using his own cult image, he hoped to create a generation of “revolutionary successors.” Attacks on authority, however, threatened chaos. Mao sent students to the countryside to “learn from the peasants” and institutionalized the Cultural Revolution at the Ninth Party Congress, establishing Revolutionary Committees in factories, government offices, and communes.
China’s admission to the United Nations, Mao’s perception that he had been betrayed by Lin Biao (19071971), his intended successor and continued Sino-Soviet border disputes prompted Mao to invite U. S. President Richard Nixon to China in 1972, despite U. S. involvement in Vietnam. From 1972 until Mao’s death in 1976, ideologues, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, tried to assert power under cover of Mao’s name.
In addition to the well-known influence of Mao’s ideas of “people’s war” using guerrilla tactics adopted by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, there are also Maoist groups such as the Sendero Lumininoso (Shining Path) in Peru, the Naxalite movement in India and recently in Nepal under the leadership of the self-proclaimed Maoist leader Comrade Prachanda. These have also emphasized Mao’s strategy of a peasant-led anti-imperialist anti-bourgeoisie struggle for seizing power rather than his economic development model.
Dorothea A. L. Martin
See also China; Revolution—China; Revolutions, Communist