Maoism and capitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Aug 12 16:03:07 MDT 1999

(Maurice Meisner, "The Deng Xiaoping Era: an Inquiry into the Fate of
Chinese Socialism 1978-1994", Hill and Wang, 1996, pp 11-21)

Mao Zedong’s views on capitalism were ambiguous from the outset. If
Marxist-Leninist theory taught that capitalism was a universally necessary
and progressive stage of historical development, Mao’s nationalist and
populist impulses militated against embracing that elemental Marxist
proposition. Nonetheless, during most of the revolutionary era, and indeed
for several years after 1949, official Maoist theory emphasized the
essentially "bourgeois" character of the Chinese revolution, an emphasis
that received its main ideological expression in the celebrated theory of
"New Democracy." It also found expression in the official description of
the new Communist state as a "people’s democratic dictatorship" rather than
a "dictatorship of the proletariat," the latter, of course, being the
accepted Marxist formula for a socialist revolutionary outcome. Moreover,
during the Yan’an period (1935-45) and after, Maoism not only insisted on
the necessity of a bourgeois stage of development but also championed the
historically progressive role of indigenous Chinese capitalism. On the eve
of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Mao declared that "China
must utilize all elements of urban and rural capitalism that are beneficial
and not harmful to the national economy.  Our present policy is to regulate
capitalism, not destroy it."

These pronouncements received practical expression in the reformist
agrarian policies of the Yan’an era, in the eminently bourgeois character
of the Land Reform campaign of the early 1950s (which created a capitalist,
not a socialist, rural economy), and in the promotion of "national
capitalism" in the cities during the early years of the People’s Republic.

Yet modern Chinese historical conditions were not conducive to an
acceptance of the Marxist faith in the progressiveness of capitalism. It
was not old Confucian biases against commercial activities that made
Chinese intellectuals suspicious of capitalist development but rather
modern nationalist impulses. For modern capitalism in China was not
primarily an indigenous phenomenon, but rather one imported under the aegis
of foreign imperialism. Insofar as industrial capitalism grew in
twentieth-century China, and it certainly was not very far, it not only
re-created all the social evils associated with early industrialism in the
West but also developed primarily in the foreign-dominated treaty ports. A
perception of capitalism as an alien phenomenon has been a universal
response to the social effects of early industrialization. It was a
perception that the modem Chinese historical experience magnified. Although
some Western-oriented Chinese Marxists attempted to adhere to orthodox
Marxist perspectives, the Chinese situation did not encourage faith in the
socialist potential of a capitalism which seemed so alien in origin and so
distorted in form. The dominant tendency, which found its most powerful
expression in Maoism, was to identify capitalism with imperialism, to see
both as external impingements on the Chinese nation, and to look elsewhere
for the sources of socialist regeneration.

Chinese Marxist rejections of the conventional Marxist analysis of the
historical role of capitalism were facilitated by the absence of a Marxist
intellectual tradition in China. For most early Chinese converts to
Communism, a political commitment to the Marxist-Leninist program of
revolution long preceded any real intellectual commitment Marxist theory.
For many years, the young Chinese Communists had only the most superficial
understanding of Marxism, and they were afforded little time and
opportunity to correct the deficiency as were immediately thrust into the
frenetic politics of an increasingly complex revolutionary situation in the
1920s. Consequently, they were far less firmly tied to Marxist theoretical
concepts than their Russian and Western counterparts, most of whom had
spent years immersed in the study of classical Marxian texts. For Mao
Zedong, then, it was intellectually much easier than it had been Lenin to
ignore or revise basic Marxian views. Lenin had spent good part of his
early revolutionary career attempting to refute the populist argument that
Russia could achieve socialism without capitalism. Mao had no desire to
retrace Lenin’s ideological steps.

Nonetheless, political and ideological considerations dictated reining
orthodox Marxist-Leninist formulas on the question of the "stages" of
development. In formal Maoist theory, accordingly, an apparently firm
distinction was made between the bourgeois and socialist phases of the
revolution. While drawing the distinction seemed to imply acceptance of the
Marxist view that socialism presupposed capitalism, theoretical appearances
were deceptive. For an elemental hostility to capitalism--in any form and
in any revolutionary stage--permeated Maoism from its beginnings in the
mid-1920s. For Mao, capitalism in China was perceived as an alien and
politically undesirable force. The product of foreign imperialism, Chinese
capitalism, in the Maoist view, remained inextricably tied to the external
impingement. Thus as early as 1926, Mao not only condemned the compradore
"big bourgeoisie" as traitors to the nation but described the presumably
progressive indigenous bourgeoisie as a politically unreliable class, one
potentially hostile to the revolutionary movement and, ultimately,
politically irrelevant. "As to the vacillating middle bourgeoisie," he
wrote, "its right wing must be considered our enemy; even if it is not
already, it will soon become so. Its left wing may become our friend, but
it is not our true friend."

Even at the height of the united-front policy with the Guomindang, which
was vigorously pursued to resist the Japanese invaders, Maoist suspicions
of indigenous capitalism and the national bourgeoisie remained. As Mao
wrote in 1939: "National capitalism has developed to a certain extent and
played a considerable part in China’s political and cultural life, but it
has not become the principal socioeconomic form in China; quite feeble in
strength, it is mostly tied in varying degrees to both foreign imperialism
and domestic feudalism." With native Chinese capitalism "mostly tied" to
foreign imperialism, the oft-repeated Leninist distinction between a
reactionary compradore bourgeoisie and a presumably progressive national
bourgeoisie largely vanishes.

Mao Zedong’s celebrated theory of New Democracy did envision a partly
capitalist economy for China over a lengthy historical period. Mao drew a
seemingly sharp division between the democratic and socialist stages of the
revolution. "In the course of its history," he insisted, "the Chinese
revolution must go through two stages, first, the democratic revolution,
and second, the socialist revolution, and by their very nature they are two
different revolutionary processes." Moreover, he discovered a necessary
historical link between capitalism and socialism, observing that the
"objective mission" of China's "bourgeois-democratic revolution was "to
clear the path for the development of capitalism" and thereby prepare the
way for the development of socialism. Further, he criticized as "utopian"
the "theory of a single revolution" and the notion of "revolution at one
stroke." And he repeatedly emphasized, in the decade prior to the victory
of 1949, that China's "new democratic" revolution was directed against
feuda1ism and monopoly capitalism, "not at wiping out capitalism in
general." In view of China's backwardness, he wrote in 1947, "it will be
necessary to permit the existence for a long time of a capitalist sector of
the economy represented by the extensive petty bourgeoisie and middle

Yet Mao attached so many qualifications and modifications to his version of
bourgeois-democratic revolution that it seems unlikely he really envisioned
a discrete bourgeois stage or a course of development that proceeded
somewhere between capitalism and socialism. Even though he sometimes found
it politically expedient to point to similarities between his theory of New
Democracy and Sun Yat-sen's program, the aim that Mao assigned to what he
characterized as "a special, new type" of bourgeois-democratic revolution
was, as he candidly put it, "to steer away from a capitalist future and
head towards the realization of socialism"--and to do so as quickly as
possible under the guidance of a Marxist political party that proclaimed
socialist and communist goals. In this novel conception of bourgeois
revolution, there was little place for the actual bourgeoisie or even a
political party representing capitalist interests. Rather, the leadership
of the revolutionary process, Mao emphasized, "rests on the shoulders of
the party of the Chinese proletariat, the Chinese Communist Party, for
without its leadership no revolution can succeed." Here can be found not a
conception of "revolution by stages" but rather the seeds of Mao's notion
of "permanent revolution."

It seems most unlikely that Mao ever was converted, even temporarily, to
any genuine Marxist faith in the historical progressiveness of capitalism,
much less to the proposition that socialism presupposes the material,
social, and cultural products of a developed capitalist economy. He did, of
course, make customary ideological bows to prevailing Stalinist orthodoxies
on "revolution by stages" and the dogma of a universal and unilinear scheme
of historical development. Thus he felt compelled to argue, however feebly,
that "China's feudal society . . . carried within itself the embryo of
capitalism," and that "China would of herself have developed slowly into a
capitalist society even if there had been no influence of foreign
capitalism."' But he also observed, and with more conviction, that the
actual historical case was that China "remained sluggish in her economic,
political and cultural development after her transition from slave to
feudal society." So sluggish was the movement of Chinese history, in fact,
that the feudal system persisted for three thousand years, and "it was not
until the middle of the nineteenth century that great internal changes took
place in China as a result of the penetration of foreign capitalism." It
was imperialism that undermined the old feudal economy and "created certain
objective conditions and possibilities for the development of China's
capitalist production," resulting in the emergence of "national capitalism
. . . in rudimentary forms."

Thus, for Mao, even "national capitalism" was the product of foreign
imperialism, and therefore assumed an alien character. Indeed, one cannot
escape the impression that Mao viewed capitalism in general as an alien and
unnatural phenomenon. The impression is reinforced by Mao's treatment of
social classes and class struggles in both traditional and modern Chinese
history. The differences between Marxism and Maoism in this realm are
striking. In the conventional Marxian analysis of feudalism, the major
concern is the struggle between the old feudal aristocracy and the newly
arisen bourgeoisie: the peasantry, although the main victim of feudal
exploitation, is not a major historical actor. In Maoist theory, by
contrast, the major class struggle throughout China's long feudal history
was between peasants and landlords, not between a bourgeoisie and the
feudal ruling classes. Moreover, Mao set forth the proposition (which was
to remain the Chinese Marxist ideological orthodoxy throughout the Mao era)
that the class struggles of the peasantry "alone formed the real motive
force of historical development in China's feudal society."

Just as the nature and social composition of class struggles in differed
from those in the West in their premodern histories, so they did in
contemporary times. Whereas Marx's conception of modern revolution centered
on the activity of the classes involved in capitalist relations of
production, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Mao was primarily
concerned with the relationship between peasants and intellectuals. For the
sources of revolutionary activism, and indeed for the sources of socialism,
Mao was disposed to look to those masses and strata of Chinese society
least influenced by modem capitalist forces of production-to an essentially
precapitalist peasantry to an intelligentsia uncorrupted by bourgeois
ideology. For Mao, much like the nineteenth-century Russian Populists,
capitalism was seen not as the harbinger of socialism but rather as a
barrier to its realization.

Thus, from the beginning, Maoism looked not to the Marxian-defined
revolutionary potentialities of modern capitalist forces of production but
to "the Chinese people" as the wellspring of revolution--and of socialism.
"The people," of course, were the vast peasant massses who constituted the
overwhelming majority of that organic entity of the 395 million Chinese
whom Mao identified in 1926 as "true friends" of the revolution. By
employing an essentially numerical standard to measure the revolutionary
potential of social loses, Mao not only dispensed with the bourgeoisie but
ignored the urban proletariat as well. He was exclusively drawn, as he so
passionately expressed it in his 1927 "Hunan Report," to the spontaneity of
peasant revolt, that elemental "tornado-like" force he predicted would rise
in a manner "so extraordinarily swift and violent that no power, however
great, will be able to suppress it." The Maoist vision of peasant
revolution was set forth in its most pristine form in this seminal
document-which, among its many remarkable features, ignored both capitalism
and the modern social classes capitalism had produced.

Mao Zedong's belief that the peasantry was the truly revolutionary class in
the modern world was to remain one of the enduring features of Maoism, even
though Mao's later writings were formulated in more orthodox
Marxist-Leninist terms. Mao's early antipathy to capitalism also proved
enduring, as did his reluctance to accept Marxist teachings on its
universality and historical progressiveness. Although formal Maoist theory,
as officially canonized during the Yan'an period, duly repeated
conventional Marxist views on "the necessary stages" of social development,
for Mao himself it clearly remained the case that capitalism was neither an
inevitable nor a desirable stage.

Mao's celebration of the revolutionary creativity of the peasantry and his
hostility to capitalism were closely related beliefs; what molded both, and
linked the two together, was a broader perception of the socialist
advantages of backwardness. While Mao deplored China's material
backwardness and was determined to overcome it, he saw in that very
condition of backwardness a reservoir of revolutionary energy and a source
of moral purity. Much in the fashion of the Russian Populists, Mao found
special revolutionary virtues in the fact that China, unlike the West, was
relatively uncorrupted by capitalist influences.

Thus as early as 1930 Mao was convinced that "the revolution will certainly
move towards an upsurge more quickly in China than Western Europe." For Mao
it was not capitalism but rather the absence of capitalist development that
held the promise of socialism. As he later argued, the backward countries
were more amenable to social revolutionary transformation because their
people were less poisoned by bourgeois ideology than in the industrialized
countries the West, where, he charged, the bourgeoisie and their pernicious
ideas had penetrated "every nook and cranny," stifling the revolutionary

Mao Zedong's views on the relationship between socialism and capitalism,
his belief that the peasantry was the truly revolutionary class, and his
faith in the advantages of backwardness departed fundamentally from the
premises of Marxist theory. Further, Maoism was a doctrine that rejected,
at least implicitly, the Marxist belief in the of objective historical
laws, the belief that socialism is immanent in the progressive movement of
history itself. In the Maoist view, the consciousness, the moral virtues,
and the actions of dedicated people were the decisive factors in
determining the course of history.

These Maoist ideas on capitalism, socialism, and economic backwardness
recall Marx's warning about that "vulgar superstition" which holds that men
can build themselves a new society "out of the of the earth," rather than
out of the accomplishments of their predecessors. Whereas Marx insisted
that people must, "in the course of their development, begin by themselves
producing the material conditions of a new society" and that "no effort of
mind or will can free them from this destiny," Mao believed that it was
precisely efforts of mind and will that would bring mankind to its
socialist destination.

If Mao shared little with Marx on the question of the historical of
capitalism and on the relationship between socialism and economic
backwardness, it is interesting to note a curious affinity between Maoism
and conservative Western social theorists, such as W. W. Rostow and Adam
Ulam, who argue that Marxism is an ideology that finds its natural home in
economically backward societies. Ulam, for example, attributes the appeal
of Marxism, to masses and intellectuals alike in economically undeveloped
lands, to the social psychology that accompanies the transition from
preindustrial to industrial society. Original Marxism, he emphasizes,
having been formulated in similar historical circumstances in early- and
mid-nineteenth century Europe, is thus "the natural ideology" for
twentieth-century societies striving for industrialization. Whereas for
Ulam, Marxism, once having taken root in an economically backward
environment, essentially becomes an ideology of modernization that provides
a socialist facade for an intensified process of capitalist
industrialization, for Mao Zedong, Marxism was taken as a guide for the
socialist development of an economically undeveloped land through
uninterrupted processes of radical social change.

Mao Zedong's Populist-type refashioning of Marxist-Leninist doctrine took
him far from the premises of the Marxist theory that it was claimed he had
"creatively developed." Yet it was precisely Mao's departures from orthodox
Marxist views that formed the ideological prerequisites for the
revolutionary strategy that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power.
No orthodox Marxist or Leninist could have foreseen, much less presided
over, so unique and strange a revolutionary process which assumed the form
of a war of the backward countryside against the advanced cities, one where
the forces of peasant revolt were mobilized to "surround and overwhelm" the
cities, while a politically inactive urban proletariat passively awaited
its liberation by armies of peasants. The strategy that brought the
revolution from the countryside to the cities, based on the principles of
what came to be celebrated as "people's war," was not simply the result of
the "objective imperatives" of the early twentieth century Chinese
historical situation. Revolutions presuppose revolutionaries--and indeed
revolutionaries who are able to appreciate the political opportunities a
historical environment offers. The Chinese revolution presupposed
revolutionaries who were willing to abandon the cities and the proletariat
and look to the revolutionary potentialities latent in the vast and
backward Chinese countryside. Such was the essential revolutionary role
performed by Maoist ideology, and more particularly by Mao Zedong's
ideological peculiarities-which, from conventional Marxist perspectives,
were often condemned as heretical "utopian" departures from
Marxist-Leninist theory.

(Meisner is a Professor of History at University of Wisconsin, Madison and
the author of six books on Chinese revolutionary politics.)

Louis Proyect

More information about the Marxism mailing list