As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its centenary, it seems appropriate, in fact essential, to have a relook at its journey from a twenty first century perspective. An analysis of the unparalleled position held by Mao Zedong and his thoughts is central to this endeavour. Mao was one of those men who left their mark on an era, positively or negatively, changing the course of history in more ways than one. In present discourse, he has come to be seen not as a liberator, at least outside the People’s Republic, but as a tyrant and bringer of starvation and misery to the peasant class.


Mao always claimed to be an ardent Marxist, but scholars suggest that he was more of a Marxist- Leninist. His works indicate that his thoughts aligned more with Lenin’s views than that of Marx, though the Marxian theory was the fundamental basis for both. Mao ultimately drew both on Marx and on Lenin, but for better or for worse, he owed more to Lenin, and to his disciple Stalin, than to Marx. To his credit, the tweaking of Marxian ideas according to Chinese conditions was perhaps the most crucial factor in the success of Chinese revolution.

This paper attempts to understand the following aspects of Mao Zedong thought: firstly, the origins and underlying premise behind this ideology; secondly, a detailed insight about the key ideas of Mao’s thoughts from a critical perspective and finally the [ir-]relevance of such an ideology in modern day and age, both inside as well as outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Mao Zedong Thought: The Origins

It is imperative to have an idea about the sources of Mao’s thoughts if we are to investigate his understanding of the world. Mao, in his early days, was more inclined towards democratic anarchism but that changed after he came in touch with Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao while working as a librarian at Peking University. He officially declared himself a Marxist around the age of twenty-seven and the May fourth movement was a big push in this direction.

His second visit to Beijing which lasted for a short while (from the end of 1919 to the summer of 1920) was a period of great intellectual development for him. Looking back, he once said: "During my second visit to Beijing, I had read much about the events in Russia, and had eagerly sought out what little communist literature was then available in Chinese. Three books especially deeply carved my mind, and built up in me a faith in Marxism, from which, once I had accepted it as the correct interpretation of history, I did not afterwards waver. These books were the Communist Manifesto, translated by Chen Wangdao, and the first Marxist book ever published in Chinese; Class Struggle, by Kautsky; and a History of Socialism, by Kirkup. By the summer of 1920 I had become, in theory and to some extent in action, a Marxist, and from this time on I considered myself a Marxist".

Mao’s life went through different phases and there were significant changes from one phase to another, for better or for worse, is a separate issue. His numerous works, originally in form of manuscripts and speeches, form the basis of what is known as Mao Zedong Thought or Maoism. Mao authored extensively on political and philosophical issues pertaining to revolution that became the guiding force for the Chinese revolutionaries in days to come.

His first significant work Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (March,1927), often called the Hunan report, propounded the nature of Chinese revolution and the significance of the peasantry led by the Party in this struggle. Among philosophical works, On Contradiction (1937) and On Practice (1937) form the groundwork for ideas such as Mass Line and Contradiction. On Guerrilla Warfare (1937) and On Protracted War (1938) provide insights into Mao’s strategies for fighting the revolution with an armed struggle. The axiom that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," which Mao put forward as early as 1927 at the 7 August emergency conference, conveys in lapidary fashion his grasp of this fact.

Mao Zedong thought was supposed to be the customized version of traditional Marxism-Leninism fit for application in primarily agricultural and pre-industrial Chinese society. The Chinese intelligentsia was caught between old Confucian Morales and the new western capitalist ideology, both of which as per Mao, were not suitable to remedy the ailments plaguing the Chinese society.

Mao Zedong thought differs from classical Marxist theory in mainly two ways: Firstly, with regards to the identity of the proletariat and secondly, the causes of the communist revolution. Marx identified the proletariat as the urban working class whereas for Mao, it was the peasantry, which he often termed as “popular masses”, that was going to carry out the sacred revolution.

The "poverty" and "blankness" of the peasants continued to constitute Mao's yardstick of revolutionary virtue for the rest of his life. The peasant class was the largest in China at that time and most suitable for indoctrination as well as Guerrilla warfare. In Mao’s own words, “[a] clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it”. This was also in line with his ideas of Agrarian Socialism and the Three Worlds Theory. Mao’s impatience regarding industrialization of the country and his infatuation with “Permanent Revolution” had come to overshadow his realistic achievements in early days of the Revolution.

The second point of difference was about the cause of the revolution. Marx had suggested that the cyclical nature of tension between productive forces and the mode of production would inevitably result in a communist society, but Mao did not subscribe to this prediction. For him, it was high time and the revolution needed to happen at once with popular support of the masses to realize the dream of a communist utopia.

Key Ideas of Mao Zedong Thought

Most of Mao’s works, which were later promoted as Mao Zedong thought, were produced during 1930s when the CCP was headquartered in Yan’an after the Long March. This was the phase in Mao’s life when he established himself as a Marxist theoretician and penned down several dialectical treatises. In typical Mao style, keeping the uniqueness of Chinese conditions in mind, he also rejected the direct application of Soviet style revolution. Thus, he established his ideological independence from Moscow after which he also came to criticize Stalin on certain issues.

Of several ideas contained in Mao Zedong thought, some became more prominent than others depending on their degree of relevance during the Chinese revolution. In certain cases, such as the three worlds theory, Mao laid out his own version of how he views the world in relation to productive forces. With the success of Chinese revolution in 1949, his thoughts gained even more legitimacy especially outside the PRC as he was already revered within the country.

Agrarian Socialism was one of the pillars of Mao Zedong thought. His rejection of urban proletariat led revolution prompted him to put socialist principles into practice in rural countryside. This materialized in the form of Land reforms at a large scale. It also helped him in garnering support from the peasantry which was crucial. This framework was also used to accuse the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev, of being “revisionist” and involving in “state capitalism”. However, like most things under Mao, this too was violent in nature. The erstwhile landlords, the gentry class and anyone who resisted this change faced persecution at an unprecedented scale.

Considering his firm belief in support from the masses, Mao came up with a comprehensive methodology which was called Mass Line, to organize and effectively direct the masses towards the ultimate goal by way of propaganda disguised as an attempt of “pooling the wisdom of masses”. The stated objective was for the CCP to formulate policy after further deliberation, adjustments, implementation and experimentation, which would in turn continue to receive feedback from the masses. Critiques, however, argue that the real aim here was to make people believe what the Party thought was right for them.

Since his Hunan days, Mao had been a firm believer of armed struggle, and this was extended to the masses by the idea of People’s War wherein guerrilla warfare techniques were employed to lure the enemy to the countryside stretching their supply lines. In the Hunan Report (1927), he proclaimed that “Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” It was a military strategy with the goal of “surrounding the cities from the countryside”. Over time arguments have been made about Mao’s ability as a tactician and as a strategist, citing the fine line of difference between the two. Be as it may, no one can deny that People’s War proved successful given the communist takeover of Chinese mainland in 1949.

On the issue of democracy, Mao came up with his own version which he termed as “New Democracy” signalling another point of departure from classical Marxist position of a bourgeoise- democratic revolution preceding the emergence of a proletariat class. In his view, the bourgeoise- democratic revolution and the socialist revolution could be bundled into one rather than keeping them separate. The New Democracy would be achieved by a coalition of four revolutionary classes that are: proletarian workers, peasants, the petty bourgeoise and the national bourgeoise.

He claimed that this new form of democracy will be different from the western democracy, which has become old apparently, as well as the Soviet style of “dictatorship of the proletariat”. He advocated the idea of democratic centralism as follows:

"China may now adopt a system of people's congresses, from the national people's congress down to the provincial, county, district and township people's congresses, with all levels electing their respective governmental bodies. But if there is to be a proper representation for each revolutionary class according to its status in the state, a proper expression of the people's will, a proper direction for revolutionary struggles and a proper manifestation of the spirit of New Democracy, then a system of really universal and equal suffrage, irrespective of sex, creed, property or education, must be introduced. Such is the system of democratic centralism. Only a government based on democratic centralism can fully express the will of all the revolutionary people and fight the enemies of the revolution most effectively".

Another component of Mao Zedong thought is the concept of Contradiction which was elaborated extensively by Mao in his famous philosophical works like On Contradiction and On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People. He saw the matter as a composition of contradictions and this thought was equally applicable to the issues of human society, as per Mao. He goes to the extent of saying that “there is nothing that does not contain contradiction; without contradiction nothing would exist”. Developing further the idea of contradiction, he differentiates between a principal contradiction and a general contradiction, former being dominant over the latter.

The other distinction that Mao makes with regards to contradictions, is that between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. According to him, Antagonistic contradictions are those that arise between the masses and the counter-revolutionary forces and can only be resolved by way of a revolution. On the other hand, non-antagonistic contradictions are the one found within the revolutionary groups e.g., between two groups in the Communist Party. He suggests that such contradiction can be resolved through criticism and self-criticism, something still prevalent in modern day PRC.

In “On Practice”, Mao attaches the idea of contradictions with that of knowing and doing. As a devout Marxist, he believes that truth and knowledge make sense only in relation with material needs and production. He claims that practice connects “contradiction” with “class struggle” in the three realms of its functioning: economic production, scientific experimentation and finally class struggle. These may be considered the proper objects of economy, scientific knowledge and politics.

To my mind, the thought of Cultural revolution was a manifestation of Mao’s never-ending obsession with “Permanent revolution”. He was of the opinion that the class struggle continues even after socialism has been established, in fact it intensifies. Many scholars have pointed out that the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was nothing but a political purge by Mao to punish those who dared to point out the failures of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62). Raising questions about GLF, Mao’s ambitious project for China’s industrialization that eventually failed resulting into deaths of around 30 million people, was equivalent to questioning the Chairman’s leadership, an act as good as blasphemy.

Critiques of cultural revolution also argue that it is the very idea of rulers being able to label their critics as class enemies in order to stay in power that led to the abuses of the Cultural Revolution. That is to say, at the heart of the Cultural Revolution as in the rest of Mao’s rule was the lack of real democracy, a lack that Mao never really questioned and in fact desired to prevent.

Keeping aside his own horrors, Mao definitely seems to be interested in pointing out others’ crimes of aggression and exploitation. During the later stages of his life, he came up with the Three Worlds Theory. Essentially dividing the entire world into three types based on politico-economic structures of these societies. The first world, United States and the Soviet Union, as the biggest exploiters and the second world consisting of other imperialist powers belonging to either of these two camps. His prediction was that the exploited masses of the third world would rise up against the imperialists and hence revolution is most likely to appear in third world countries, which again will weaken imperialism opening up for revolutions in other countries too.

[Ir-]Relevance of Mao Zedong Thought in Twenty First Century

In terms of his ability with regards to the Sinification of traditional Marxism, Mao deserves due credit for identifying the distinct requirements of the Chinese revolution. But Mao Zedong thought as a whole does not seem to be solely a product of this requirement. After Mao declared himself a Marxist, his life seems to have revolved around just one word “Revolution”, that too a violent armed one.

A thorough analysis of his works and his life suggests that “control” was central to his philosophy, ideological or otherwise. His thoughts and ideas seem so relevant to Chinese case because the Revolution was successful unlike several other places where Maoist methodology completely failed. Had that not been the case, will it still be as pertinent, is a question that needs to be asked.

Mao’s prediction that the so called third world countries will eventually follow his New Democracy path, does not seem to have happened, in fact quite the opposite. Interestingly even within China, the degree of presence that the market forces (a symbol of capitalism) have, is a cruel joke on Mao’s absolute hatred of capitalism.

The Mass Line thought once again seems to be taking centre stage under Xi Jinping after it had taken a bit of a back seat in the interluding period between Mao and Xi. Perhaps, it is an attempt by the present chairman to gain the same status as that enjoyed by The Chairman. With respect to Mao’s goal of Chinese industrialization through Agrarian Socialism, the aim has been achieved albeit not by the path that Mao would have liked, much less followed.

Under Xi Jinping, the Cultural Revolution is still being practised although moderately and in a new shape and form. The coexistence of capitalism and socialism in China, comfortably dubbed as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, is the biggest example of aberration from Mao’s idea of antagonistic contradictions.


Some Mao apologists such as Jack Gray defend Mao on the grounds that finding positive elements in his thought and action is not to deny that he was a dictator. In Gray's own words:

"Although he constantly warned against indiscriminate resort to imprisonment and execution, he was ruthless when he believed he had to be; the revolutionary consensus had to be protected at all costs from its enemies. Yet to assume because most dictators are paranoiacs or kleptocrats or closet fascists does not mean that all are. I do not see Mao as another Stalin or as another Hitler. I see him more as I see Oliver Cromwell- a man of profoundly democratic instincts forced by circumstances to play the tyrant in defence of his democratic values and ill served by his major generals".

Gray’s defence of Mao is as absurd as defending a thief who murdered someone so that he could have that person’s bread to satisfy his own hunger. To say that Mao was bound by his circumstances and should be given a clean chit just because he was defending his own ill-founded beliefs, is not an acceptable argument. Mao Zedong Thought and his overall legacy is a matter of pride and veneration for some while for others it is nothing short of a blot on human history. A final judgment remains pending and most probably would continue to be so.


Sachin Singh, an engineer turned geopolitical analyst, earned his postgraduate degree from the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. His major interest areas include Chinese politics, India-China relations, Taiwan and cross-strait relations, South Korean foreign policy, Indo-Pacific security architecture, and South Asian geopolitics along with Non-State Armed Groups in the region. He has also worked as a Research Analyst for Asia-Pacific region at Janes, a London based Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) firm. He can be reached at: -@IndianguySachin

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