Maoism and capitalism

Fri Aug 13 00:42:17 MDT 1999

>>> Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> 08/13 12:03 AM >>>
(Maurice Meisner, "The Deng Xiaoping Era: an Inquiry into
the Fate of
Chinese Socialism 1978-1994", Hill and Wang, 1996, pp 11-21)

Mao ZedongÆs 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, MaoÆs
nationalist and
populist impulses militated against embracing that elemental
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 "peopleÆs 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 YanÆan 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 PeopleÆs 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
agrarian policies of the YanÆan 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
capitalism" in the cities during the early years of the
PeopleÆs 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
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
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 LeninÆs 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,
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 ChinaÆs 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 ZedongÆs 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
ideology. For Mao, much like the nineteenth-century Russian
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
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
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
revolution was set forth in its most pristine form in this
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
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
advantages of backwardness. While Mao deplored China's
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
countries the West, where, he charged, the bourgeoisie and
their pernicious
ideas had penetrated "every nook and cranny," stifling the

Mao Zedong's views on the relationship between socialism and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
historical situation. Revolutions presuppose
revolutionaries--and indeed
revolutionaries who are able to appreciate the political
opportunities a
historical environment offers. The Chinese revolution
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
ideological peculiarities-which, from conventional Marxist
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.)

Are they all like this?

Louis Proyect

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