Maoism is the communist political system created by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and leader of China between 1949 and 1976. The exact definition of Maoism is somewhat murky, owing to the changes in Mao's beliefs which happened over time. Its followers believe that Maoism is the logical development and improvement of Marxism-Leninism, the theories of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which describe how capitalism can be overturned and a better, fairer society created.
Maoism has become important in three separate arenas. Firstly, it was the ruling ideology of communist China following the Chinese Communist Party seizing power in 1949. More recently, in the developing world, it has become important as one of the dominant ideologies of left-wing guerillas seeking to overthrow the often oppressive or feudal governments of nations such as Peru and Nepal. And in the developed west, it came to be seen as a purer or more extreme form of Marxism from the 1960s onwards (when Stalinism had fallen out of fashion as Stalin's crimes were exposed, and the New Left and the events of 1968 had offered a critique of existing communism, but had rapidly withered away as political forces).
The main features of Maoism are listed below.
Maoism is a socialist system, which means it believes in human equality and the equal distribution of resources. It is opposed to capitalism and the inequalities which exist between workers and employers, between men and women, between races, and between other groups of people. It considers that establishing an equal society in which no one lacks the essentials of life is more important than a society in which people are free to pursue economic goals.
Maoism draws heavily on the analytical principles of dialectical materialism, the supposedly scientific method of historical analysis developed by Karl Marx. Maoists support Marx's critique of capitalism and imperialism. They believe that a revolution of the working class is the way to overturn existing capitalist society and establish a better life for the workers, rather than believing in progressive reform. But while Marx believed that industrial capitalism was a necessary stepping stone to a communist state, Maoism believes it can move directly from an agrarian peasant society bypassing this stage.
Maoists take a Marxist-Leninist view of how a proletarian revolution will occur. Anarchist socialists believe in a spontaneous revolution in which the workers will rise up, throw off their chains and seize control of the means of production without the need for any government, even a transitional one. In contrast, Vladimir Lenin believed in the necessity for a vanguard, a small revolutionary party which will control and oversee the change from capitalist to communist government. Following the revolution, it may be possible eventually to move towards a society without any leaders (an anarchist society), but until then, Maoists believe a post-revolutionary nation should be ruled by a revolutionary government, a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (imperfect examples of which can be seen in the government of Soviet Russia and communist China).
Like Marxism, Maoism holds that a revolution is necessary to overthrow the government, and peaceful reform will not establish the communist state. Maoists typically have a fondness for violence, giving it a central position in the struggle, which may explain its attractiveness as a doctrine for left-wing guerilla groups worldwide. Struggle and war are considered the only means of achieving revolution and gaining power, and terrorism is often a part of that struggle. Compared to other brands of Marxism, Maoism places particular importance on the role of the peasantry in the fight, and devotes a lot of energy to the theory of war.
Maoists believe that it is not sufficient just to overturn capitalism and establish a new government. All existing social, cultural, political and economic relationships must be overturned, and inequalities between genders and races and other groups must be defeated. Also, even in a dictatorship of the proletariat further constant revolution is required: a continual process of self-criticism is needed to correct mistakes, and class struggle will continue in a socialist nation against the state.
Although Maoism draws heavily on the writings of such members of the bourgeoisie as Marx and Engels, many Maoist leaders have shown a distrust, fear or hatred of academics, artists and educated people. This tendency has led to the wholesale bloodshed of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and Pol Pot's massacre of the educated middle class in Cambodia. This attitude derives in part from a common socialist attitude, a love of the working person and the peasant farmer, who are considered more revolutionary than the doctor, academic or writer. But it often seems motivated by political expediency, to remove enemies, since there is a certain hypocrisy found in any Marxist intellectual's attack on the intelligentsia.
In practical terms, the legacy of Maoism in China has positive and negative features. Mao's leadership produced enormous economic development and industrialization, and laid the foundation for China's growing economic success. However, the constant change in official doctrine under Mao also produced a great deal of instability, a consequence of its belief in constant revolution, which greatly weakened the country's economy and temporarily destroyed its agricultural output (see the Great Leap Forward). Nonetheless, it is a mistake to judge Mao's economic success by comparing China with the nations of the western industrial world, owing to the poverty and lack of development in pre-revolutionary China (compared to 1930s USA or western Europe) and due to the great damage caused by the Japanese invasion.
Maoist doctrines in China were also responsible for the deaths of millions of people, both through state violence and through famine, and most people were denied freedoms of speech, association or religion. These attacks seem to be sanctioned by the doctrine of Maoism with its belief in constant struggle and its attacks on the intelligentsia. However, the rival Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan was also responsible for a reign of murder and oppression, indicating perhaps that dictatorships of the left and right have little to choose between them.
Within the Chinese communist party, Maoism has been attacked for its reliance on the cult of personality: its dependence on Mao as a leader. This can be seen in the constantly changing nature of Mao's beliefs. And equally, the successes in China under Mao's rule may have been more due to his strong leadership than his ideological underpinnings.
Outside China, Maoism has been associated with the massacres of Pol Pot in Cambodia and terrorist acts by guerilla movements worldwide. It is criticised by people of many different ideological backgrounds for its belief in violence, its suppression of dissent and its lack of democracy. The Marxist-Leninist form of communism has been seen worldwide to lead to dictatorship rather than freedom, owing to the reluctance of revolutionary governments to surrender their power to the people. In a somewhat similar vein, Maoism's emphasis on violent overthrow of the state seems to make it an attractive ideological cover for guerilla movements who seek an intellectual justification for their desire to wage war and seize power, when other more peaceful methods may better serve their purposes.
In conclusion, while Maoism has become a popular doctrine among revolutionaries of the left, it has been proven to have innate tendencies towards bloodshed and tyranny. The economic successes of Mao were bought at enormous human cost, while the Maoist government of Pol Pot was a complete failure politically, economically and in humanitarian terms. In other countries, it has proven a banner for guerillas and others fighting against oppressive regimes, with its violent, hard-hearted doctrines and belief in strong leadership; its main merit over other forms of Marxism-Leninism appears to lie in the vigour of its calls for constant revolution.
Notable Maoist movements:
Maoist International Movement, "Maoist International Movement", Maoist International Movement website, <http://www.etext.org/Politics/MIM/index.html>, accessed December 3, 2002.
Peru People's Movement, "Maoism is the third, new and superior stage of Marxism", December 26, 1999, <http://www.redsun.org/mpp_doc/mpp_261299.htm>, accessed December 3, 2002.
Rakul Sarnaik, "Eyewitness: Nepal's Maoist power base", BBC Website, July 4, 2001, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1422194.stm>, accessed December 3, 2002.
Newslook, "Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Newslook Webinventory", Newslook website, <http://www.newslookmag.com/topics/maoistwar/>, accessed December 3, 2002.
"Maoism", Wikipedia, <http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maoism>, accessed December 3, 2002.