Maoism and China: How Mao Zedong Thought United and Divided a Nation

When the People’s Republic of China was founded, Mao Zedong was faced with a nation divided on every level, having been ravaged by a century of external foreign invasion and internal civil wars. Like Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, Mao Zedong had the difficult task of consolidating and unifying China ahead of him. Maoism should be seen in the context of this unifying task: Mao Zedong Thought was the political and ideological fruit of Mao’s efforts towards a unified nation.

Initially, the twin poles of the ideological and the political complemented each other. Mao had a rational premise and goal, to unite and strengthen China under his leadership, and this premise was striven towards by rational ideology and politics. It will be argued that this unification required a paradoxical division. Mao Zedong Thought carved up the population into the pro-Communist majority and the anti-Communist minority. This minority was then absorbed by the majority, or suppressed. In that creation of the “Other,” which at different times could be foreign imperialism, capitalism, landlords, counter-revolutionaries, or reactionaries, the Communist Chinese were hence strengthened and united.

The ideological and the political became increasing separated for Mao, particularly when he faced challenges to his authority. The premise remained the same, but the means to the end became contradictory. In that sense, the socialist revolution and construction was sometimes irrational, especially as the ideological and the political become divided for Mao. This was particularly true after de-Stalinization and the subsequent Sino-Soviet split, where Mao saw his own ideology under attack and was forced to entrench. It is here that the seeds of the Cultural Revolution can be seen—when criticized implicitly by Khrushchev, Mao sought to marginalize his critics and reassert Maoism in a new level of intensity. Mao’s own fall from grace following the Three Bitter Years is perhaps the tipping point in the ideological-political scale, where for the first time, Mao saw himself truly politically isolated—and perhaps, had to truly and irrationally pervert his ideology for political power.

The Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Volume V is an invaluable source highlighting key pieces of Mao Zedong Thought from September 1949 to November 1957, that most important and initial proving ground for Mao. Since the death of Stalin, there has been a decline in the attribution of the “theory of totalitarianism,” which sees power as an end in of itself by the political leadership, to Communist models (Schwartz 4). Instead, a more functional approach has become vogue, and is broadly used here. Power “must always be explained in terms of ‘larger’ social, historic and economic forces of which it is the mere instrument” (Schwartz 5).  By tracing Mao’s thoughts, actions, and policies from 1949 to 1957, his underlining motivations and rationales towards unity and power will be elucidated, and some deeper insight on the eventual evolution of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution gleaned.

It is first necessary to contextualize the Communists’ rise to power. In his “Organizational Principles of the Chinese Communists,” Schurmann attributes the Communist victory over the Nationalists to the organization mechanism, specifically “the ordered mobilization, control, and manipulation of people for certain ends” (87). From the very beginning in 1949 then, the Communists had a framework that sought to unite and control the masses. Schurmann remarks on the “remarkable uniformity in this great structure, a uniformity possible only in a totalitarian society” (88). While such a structure was influenced by the organizational theories and practices of the Bolsheviks, there were some distinctly Chinese elements, primarily the Chinese theory of contradictions. Mao identified two types of contradictions: antagonistic, which require adjudication through force, and non-antagonistic, which are essentially non-violent (Schurmann 89-90). Those that are in the minority or most challenge Communist rule can be antagonistically suppressed; those that are a significant number or only question Communist policies can be non-antagonistically absorbed. Thus, the insignificant antagonist minority is divided and cut off, while the significant non-antagonistic is united with the Communist majority. These dual classification of contradictions within the Chinese socialist state means Mao has a certain flexibility in his modes of resolution, and is able to divide or unite as the situation demands. Such an ideological context must be kept in mind and is relevant through the time period examined, as evidence by Mao’s 1957 speech “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” which continues this line of thought.

The opening address of the first plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) effectively draws a line in the sand, with China as led by the Communists on one side, and the Kuomintang and America on the other: “It is because we have defeated the reactionary Kuomintag government backed by U.S. imperialism that this great unity of the whole people has been achieved” (Mao, “The Chinese People Have Stood Up!” 15). The choice of the CPPCC as the arena here is critically important, as “it represents the will of the people of the whole country and demonstrates their unprecedented great unity” (Mao, “The Chinese People Have Stood Up!” 15). In “The Relationship Between Party and Non-Party,” Mao accepts that there are multiple parties, and that such pluralism is indeed desirable, so long as “all the democratic parties and democrats without party affiliation have professed their acceptance of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” (297). In doing so, Mao groups the various Chinese political groups together, and can hence emphasizes the continued need for vigilance against a foreign, anti-China threat: “Our revolutionary work is not completed, the People’s War of Liberation and the people’s revolutionary movement are still forging ahead and we must keep up our efforts” (“The Chinese People Have Stood Up!” 17). Crucially, Mao stresses that “Our revolutionary work is not completed.” Although the Chinese Communist Revolution has resulted in the People’s Republic of China, this People’s Republic of China still requires work.  Thus begins the heavy emphasis on unity and revolutionary ideology, as exemplified in the “Eternal Glory to the Heroes of the People!” and “Be a True Revolutionary” speeches (Mao 22-23, 37-41).

Mao is effectively engaging in an act of political theater: the CPPCC, as led by Mao, symbolizes a potential united China. Maoism is needed to keep China’s enemies at bay and make that united potential a reality. There is then, enemies both abroad and at home. Firstly, the foreign: the new Communist government lacked legitimacy and recognition from the major powers, save some newly-independent Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. However, Mao regarded these nations as susceptible to imperialist powers, and thus saw their independence and friendship as suspect (FitzGerald 74). Against such a hostile international environment, Mao saw his only allies as other Communist nations as led by the USSR, which hence necessitated an entrenchment of the Chinese Community identity, as articulated in the familiar Chinese rhetoric of revolution.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons China entered the Korean War was it feared a U.S. victory in North Korea would mean China would become susceptible to a foreign invasion (Lee 93). Chinese intervention in North Korea would also signal China’s commitment to Communism: “The Chinese and Korean comrades should unite as closely as brothers… The Chinese comrades must consider Korea’s cause as their own” (Mao, “The Chinese People’s Volunteers Should Cherish Every Hill” 44). The anti-foreign and pro-Communist dimensions should be seen as two sides of the same coin, as evidence by the name of the campaign, “Resist-America Aid-Korea.” As Theodore H. E. Chen painstakingly analyzes, this anti-American sentiment also had the benefit of uniting every group of society in China into a patriotic fervor (24-27). It is crucially important to remember that Chinese Communism is still young here, and Mao is not opposed to a monolithism as led by Stalin, “the world front of peace and democracy headed by the Soviet Union” (Mao, “Fight for a Fundamental Turn” 26). Unity is not only emphasized domestically, but internationally; it “is the political basis for winning victory” (Mao, “The Chinese People’s Volunteer Should Cherish Every Hill” 44). Throughout the Korean War, Mao continues to concentrate around this point of unity, as evidenced by the title of a 1952 speech titled, “Let Us Unite and Clearly Distinguish Between Ourselves and the Enemy” (78).

China’s eventual “victory” in the Korean War was heralded as a testament to unity. China was able to repel one of the greatest powers in the world, the United States, an enemy with “weapons many times superior to ours” (Mao, “Our Great Victory” 115). It is interesting that underlining emphases remains static: “Leadership is one factor, but the most important factor is the contribution of ideas by the masses” (Mao, “Our Great Victory” 116). The unity of the masses as bound by a leader is still paramount.

The difficulties Mao faced on the way in the Korean War shows how his policies moved from the ideological to the political. In September 1950, Mao was still committed to a peaceful purge of his enemies, and discouraged executions or even arrests (Lee 94). “After the war began, Mao, worried about the dangers of facing internal and external enemies at the same time, emphasized the need to consolidate power”—and the government summarily executed 700,000 counterrevolutionaries in six months (Lee 94).

This leads to an examination of Mao’s actions domestically. Land reform was the first major policy of the new Maoist regime, as per the Communist ideology and promises of equality and ownership. FitzGerald takes a rather cynical view of the new land policy, seeing it as a temporary transitional tool towards the co-operatives: it “was a political act intended first to fulfil the dream hope of the poor peasants, and then, by showing up its economic deficiency, to make further more realistic land policies acceptable” (76). Such a view is supported by the “Request for Opinions on the Tactics for Dealing with Rich Peasants,” where it would appear that political concerns were given precedence over ideology. Mao contemplates the correct amount of action to take against the class enemies, given that “We have formed a united front with the national bourgeoisie politically, economically and organizationally” (“Request for Opinions on the Tactics for Dealing with Rich Peasants” 24). Here, Mao’s over-arching concern for unity first and foremost can be seen. Once again, this domestic unity extends to the international, as China borrow strongly from the Soviet economic model (most obviously the Five Year Plans), “during the years from 1959-1956 there can be little doubt that the goal of modernization on the Soviet model was assiduously pursued by the Chinese Communist leadership” (Schwartz 8).

There is a pragmatism to Mao’s ideology in regards to the domestic economy. This is most explicit in Mao’s “Fight for a Fundamental Turn for the Better in the Nation’s Financial and Economic Situation,” where Mao says, “it is necessary to follow a policy of combining suppression with leniency without stressing one to the neglect of the other” (“Fight for a Fundamental Turn” 31). Mao is cognizant of the importance of the small, native capitalists, and their necessary role in expanding the industrial and commercial sectors of China’s economy: “Relations between the state sector and the private sector and between labor and capital should be effectively and suitably improved” (“Fight for a Fundamental Turn” 30). As with the land reform, Mao’s relationship with capitalism was more politically pragmatic than ideologically consistent. As Arthur A. Cohen notes, this tolerance of native capitalism “was a departure from doctrine, but not a clear break with precedent” (75). Yet this tolerance only extended to ideologically correct capitalists—the great violence inflicted upon large landlords and counter-revolutionaries must be remembered, as Mao states: “a policy of certain punishment for the main culprits, no punishment for those accomplices who act under duress” (“Fight for a Fundamental Turn” 31). Again, Mao identifies the driving force behind these improvements as unity: “the People’s Government has exercised unified control and unified leadership over financial and economic work on a national scale and has been successful” (“Fight for a Fundamental Turn” 28).

In 1951, the three primary areas that Communist policy focused on was the international, the domestic rural, and the domestic urban, which is aptly captured in the “Main Points of the Resolution Adopted at the Enlarged Meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China”: “Campaign for Resisting U.S. Aggression and Aiding Korea,” “Agrarian Reform,” and “Urban Work” respectively (Mao 45). Crucially, each of these three areas correspond to a mass movement, as reflected in “Great Victories in Three Mass Movements.” This element of public participation is essential to the political and ideological facets of such policies. Mao sought to harness the Chinese people, to truly create a collective identity steeped in Communism.

Like the line in the sand drawn in the first plenary session of the CPPCC, another division was being made: Communists on one side, counter-revolutionaries on the other. The suppression of the counter-revolutionaries was bought to a new level of organization in the form of the Three-Anti and Five-Anti campaigns. Crucially, there was also a new emphasis on purging counter-revolutionaries within the Party. Mao sought to purify both the nation and the state, to purge it of corrupt elements. While land reform emphasized the rural, the Anti campaigns emphasizes the urban. Again, the ideological and the political are intricately bound, particularly as the cleansing ideology behind the Anti campaigns were firmly in the political arena i.e. removing corruption, which targeted political opponents and capitalists, which in turn consolidated Mao’s power.

Shanghai can be seen as the epitome of foreign capitalism in China, and examined as a case study to understand the impact of the Three Antis and Five Antis campaigns. The majority of Shanghai’s industry and commerce was under foreign and bourgeois management (FitzGerald 78). FitzGerald takes a distinctively anti-Kuomintang view, “the Kuomintang, in the brief three or four years during which they governed after the war, had introduced to Shanghai all the evils and corruptions which the foreign residents had always expected” (79). Such a view was echoed by the Communists, who placed the onus on local officials having succumbed to the bourgeoisie and foreign structure. Thus the “grave danger of many Party members being corrode by the bourgeoisie” can be seen as a foreign threat to the correct form of Chinese capitalism (Mao, “On the Struggle Against the ‘Three Evils’” 64).

This escalation of the “Other” was reflected in a consolidation of the “Chinese.” Maoism emphasized the peasants as the key revolutionary force, so it is unsurprising that the rural peasants were coerced and cajoled into Communist-led co-operatives. This was distinctively a top-down process, as evidenced by the note in the Draft Resolution that it “may appear in inner-Party publications but not in newspapers for periodicals for general circulation” (Mao, “Take Mutual Aid and Co-Operation” 71). The context of this note is interesting: at the time, Liu Shaoqi had circulated his criticisms on the mutual aid teams. Mao’s instructions that the draft resolution be kept to the Party reflects his desire to maintain a united front. Indeed, in 1953, Mao explicitly binds himself to the central leadership in response to Liu Shaoqi and Yang Shangkun’s deviations: “all documents and telegrams sent out in the name of the Central Committee can be dispatched only after I have gone over them, otherwise they are invalid” (Mao, “Liu Shao-chi and Yang Shang-kun Criticized” 92).

It is against this increasing monopolization of ideological and political power by Mao that the co-operative land reform accelerates. Mao is well aware that the illusion of choice must exist for the peasants, just as it must appear that the Party is united behind him. “To make the quota optional would be to let things drift,” but the level of control is not yet present to force the peasants (Mao, “Two Talks on Mutual Aid and Co-Operation” 131). The goal is “Allotment without compulsion—this is not commandism” (Mao, “Two Talks on Mutual Aid and Co-Operation” 131). That was the purpose of the mutual aid teams, to create a “general pattern to proceed from the mutual-aid team to the co-operative” (Mao, “Two Talks on Mutual Aid and Co-Operation” 132). But the peasants still retained title to their land—strictly speaking, they could not be compelled to join and hence, the ideology was still sound.

It is about this time that the ideological and the political become increasingly blurred. Both seem to have the same ends now, that of a Chinese unity as directed by Mao to maximize China’s economic situation. Chen notes that thought and ideology are synonymous in Chinese, and that thought reform, “ssu-hsiang kai-tsao” literally means the remaking or reconstruction of thought—hence “‘thought reform’ and ‘ideological remoulding’ are almost synonymous” (72). As with the co-operatives, thought reform was supposed to be voluntary, but large societal pressures existed (Chen 74). In his discussion of “Uniformity of Public Opinion,” Mao again creates a dichotomy of the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary. Mao claims to allow freedom of speech and opinion, so long as the views expressed are not counter-revolutionary. In doing so, he co-opts the masses into the revolutionary rhetoric implicitly by force i.e. “uniformity of public opinion” can be contradictory, but only within the tightly defined limitations of Mao Zedong thought. “Counter-revolutionaries find ‘uniformity of public opinion’ inconvenient for them. Their inconvenience is exactly what we want and is exactly what is convenient for us” (“Refutation of ‘Uniformity of Public Opinion’” 172). The parallels to Qin Shi Huang’s unification of China is evident: Qin burned books to suppress dissenting opinion.

This explains the progression of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Though Mao initially encouraged citizens to voice their opinions of the communist regime, this quickly degenerated into a series of crackdowns. The multiple strands of the ideological and the political weaved together at the close of 1957, in the form of the Anti-Rightist Movement. The Anti-Rightist Movement can in the tradition of the campaigns against those who appeared to support foreign elements and capitalism and were opposed to collectivization and Mao Zedong thought. The Rightists, the minority, are seen as representative of “the influence of the bourgeoisie and of the intellectuals who come from the old society, the very influence which constitutes their class ideology” (Mao, “The Correct Handling of Contradictions” 409). On the other hand, the majority of China are seen as good and Communists—indeed, the two are essentially synonymous: “In the Communist Party, the Youth League and the democratic parties and among the students and intellectuals, the majority are invariably good people… the Rightists account for only 1, 2 or 3 per cent” (Mao, “Beat Back the Attacks of the Bourgeois Rightist” 457). The rhetoric once again falls upon the trope of the masses led by the Communists, “Ours is a people’s revolution, a revolution by 600 million people under the leadership of the proletariat” (Mao, “Beat Back the Attacks of the Bourgeois Rightist” 459). And precisely because it is a people’s revolution, the “people” have nothing to fear: “Don’t be afraid. Why be afraid of the masses? There’s no reason to be” (Mao, “Beat Back the Attacks of the Bourgeois Rightist” 458). Hence Mao largely blames the Rightist minority for the recantation of the Hundred Flowers campaign.

As Lee notes, Mao’s rhetoric labeling the enemies transitioned from “counter-revolutionaries” to the much more severe “reactionaries,” in spite of his earlier caution that it would not be necessary to use such a highly charged word (117). It’s interesting that the “Other” has largely shifted, as evidenced by the title of the 1956 “U.S. Imperialism is a Paper Tiger” and the 1957 “All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers.” 1957 can be identified as the year where Mao begins to focus on the purity and unity of the domestic to new levels.

The Anti-Rightist Campaign is the culmination of the Maoist goal of unifying a nation. Uniting a country simultaneously requires dividing it into two ideological groups, the majority and the minority. While initially, Mao expressed optimism in absorbing the minority, he quickly moved to suppress the more reactionary and counter-revolutionary elements. Thus the ideological shifts towards the political, as political challenges to Mao’s ideology are removed. The antagonist and non-antagonistic dichotomy of the Communist’s organizational principles as espoused by Schurmann is once again evident.

Could the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution be avoided judging from Mao’s actions and policies in the years leading up to 1957? The trend would certainly suggest that it could not be. The Great Leap Forward was the next step in the progressively collectivized land reform. This is essentially rational in both ideology and politics. The communes were the ultimate stage harnessing the masses in ideology, and further centralized power politically. Li Choh-Ming compares the Great Leap Forward to the First Five Year Plan and the proposal for the Second Year Plan. Li identifies the failings of the Great Leap Forward in its over-emphasis on ideology, “going all out and aiming high to achieve greater, quick, better and more economical results in building socialism” (180). The enthusiasm of the masses was present in the First Five Year Plan, but it was more moderate, and secondary to economic progress. With the increasing radicalization of ideology and politics in the years following the First Five Year Plan and leading up to the Great Leap Forward, “all the caution that had been taken in setting up the growth rates and targets in the 1956 proposal concerning the Second Five-Year Plan was now swept aside” (Li 180).

Like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution can be seen as the next in a line of previous policies. The essence of the Cultural Revolution can be seen in the context of Mao’s increasingly fanatic thought reforms. Once again, the relationship between the ideological and the political should be emphasized here. As Mao’s ideology grows and becomes more intolerant, so does his political clout as his opponents are marginalized. This creates the division of the correct, pro-Communist majority, and the incorrect, anti-Communist minority. The Cultural Revolution flipped this on its side, as Mao had effectively lost political power: the Red Guards were a political minority, but claimed ideological legitimacy through their association with Mao.

That the Great Leap Forward ended in Three Bitter Years was due to an irrational execution—although it could be argued that the fundamental ideological premise was flawed. The same cannot necessarily be said for the Cultural Revolution, depending on Mao’s motivations. Did Mao truly believe that the Cultural Revolution would restore the ideological and political purity of China against Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping’s revisionist usurpers? Or was the Cultural Revolution primarily a political bid for power? Such a question falls outside the scope of this paper; indeed, an entirely second paper could be easily written on the topic. What is particularly relevant is that the Cultural Revolution fragmented the Communists, “Mao shattered the unity of the Communist party by attack the system of consensus under which the party had built its rule during the previous decades” (Lee 140). From 1949 to 1957, Mao sought to mobilize the majority of the Chinese masses under Communism as led by himself. In 1966, Mao used the Red Guards minority to attack the majority Communist structure to reassert his own rule. Mao apologists would see the Cultural Revolution in the same vein as the Anti campaigns, as efforts to root out enemies in the state structure. The violence of the Cultural Revolution was the only means available to a marginalized Mao.

The argument could continue in perpetuity, but the decentralization aspect of the Cultural Revolution strongly portrays Mao as driven by the political, rather than the ideological. (Lee 141-143). After all, as shown, Mao had spent the years from 1949 to 1957 centralizing Communist power. The only difference in 1966 was that this Communist power was no longer led by him. The initial and rational premise, to unify China under Communist leadership, was hence perverted into an irrational premise, to divide China under Mao’s leadership. Deng Xiaoping famously summed up Mao’s legacy as “70% good, 30% bad.” 1949 to 1956 were the good years, where Mao united and centralized China rationally underneath Communism and faced down American imperialism in the Korean War. This unity was taken a step too far in the bad years of 1957 to 1961, but the end goal was still rational, even if the means were not. And finally, Mao’s revival in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 were the really bad years, where Mao divided and decentralized China for political gains—here, Mao’s slow transition from the ideological to the political, from the rational to the irrational, from a unified Communist China to a divided Red Guard China was complete.


Works Cited

Chen, Theodore H.E. Thought Reform of the Chinese Intellectuals. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1960. Print.

Cohen, Arthur. The Communism of Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. Print.

FitzGerald, C.P. Mao Tsetung and China. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976. Print.

Lee Choh-Ming. “China’s Industrial Development, 1958-63.” China Under Mao.Ed. Roderick MacFarquhar. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1966. 175-210. Print.

Lee Feigon. Mao: A Reinterpretation. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. Print.

Mao Zedong. Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Volume V. Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1977. PDF file.

Schwartz, Benjamin. “Modernization and the Maoist Vision.” China Under Mao.Ed. Roderick MacFarquhar. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1966. 3-19. Print.

Schurmann, H.F. “Organizational Principles of the Chinese Communists.” China Under Mao.Ed. Roderick MacFarquhar. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1966. 87-98. Print.

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