Maoism and Classical Marxism

James Batchelor - Dickson College 2009

Mao Zedong (1893 - 1976)
The ideologies of Mao Zedong and Russian socialist counterparts, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, are analogous in terms of fundamental revolutionary aspirations yet particularly contrasting in their mode of fulfillment. In consequence of China’s sizable rural population, the greatest point of conflict between the two lines of thought is Mao’s inclusion of the peasantry in the proletariat[1] differing greatly with the Marxist-Leninist view that the instigation of socialist revolution should come from the urban working class. There are also contrasting elements within their views on industrialisation; Marx and Lenin had an urban mind frame in the sense that they encouraged industrial development, whereas Mao believed that industrialisation only promotes further exploitation of the working class. He also stressed the malleability of human nature and the need for a continuous revolution in order to achieve a classless society, whereas Marx was a material determinist; tending to argue that social change is facilitated through the economy, rather than merely through a hasty transformation of humankind. The functioning of Marx’s classical socialist theory thus differs in interpretation by the Chinese and Russian revolutionaries, as was inevitable considering disparities in terms of culture and urban development.

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883)
Karl Marx (1818 - 1883)
Due to China’s underdeveloped state during the Twentieth Century, the overwhelming majority of the population were peasants; a fact of which led Mao to aim his focus away from the minority of the urban workers. According to Marx, the exploited proletariat should rise up against the repressive bourgeoisie[2] and lead the revolutionary movement. However the proletariat was in this context intended as urban workers in industrialised cities.[3] Before 1949, approximately eighty percent of the Chinese population constituted the peasantry class.[4] Even in the Twenty-First Century, the rural demographic of China makes up sixty-one percent of the population,[5] contrasting to the highly industrialised western power of Russia, which has an urban population of approximately seventy-three percent.[6] Early attempts at an urban working class revolution in cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou were failures.[7] While workers were the primary supporters of Chinese Communism, the reality of the situation was that they were too much of a minority to launch a large-scale movement. However Mao soon recognised the peasantry as a solid power base given the condition of China at the time, and within them he saw proletarian revolutionary qualities. "Mao was the first and only leader who had fully perceived, developed, and applied revolutionary potential of the peasants."[8] As Mao himself famously said in the ‘Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan’;

‘The present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm…’[9]

Russian communists disapproved of Mao’s strategy and considered the peasantry incapable of leading a revolution, as it was supposed that peasants had a limited political awareness and poor revolutionary skill.[10] This failure to understand China as it was during the Twentieth Century must surely come down to the fact that the western world at this point was undergoing advanced stages of industrialisation[11] , thus leading to a much more urbanised mind frame and a larger worker base to draw upon. However the concept of the peasantry taking a leading role in politics came to be a major and successful component of Maoism, breaking away from the Marxist-Leninist urban driven ideology.

Related Article: The Chinese Communist Party's Seizure of Power
Vladimir Lenin (1870 - 1924)
Vladimir Lenin (1870 - 1924)
In consequence of Mao’s recognition of the peasantry as a powerful source of revolution, his political endeavours were largely aimed at rural China and less on urban industrialisation.[12] There is a strong emphasis in Maoism placed on the capability of conscious human action to overcome a lack of material resources. This is in reference to what Mao saw as great feats of endurance, such as the Long March and the resistance against Japan during the Sino-Japanese War. According to Mao, the success of such campaigns rested upon the commitment of man, without the aid of technology or material involvement.[13] Complementary to such experiences, Mao naturally developed a theory that highlighted success as a product of the mind, not matter. As such, material goods were not constituent of, or significantly important to Maoism. "It should be pointed out that in the present conditions, agriculture occupies first place in our economic construction."[14] Mao was chiefly concerned with agricultural production as a means of subsistence, and saw no political gain from mass industrialisation. In fact Mao believed that industrialisation weakened the proletarian movement, by creating further means for factory owners and management teams to exploit workers.[15] However the Marxist-Leninist approach to socialist reform which juxtaposed against Mao’s agrarian views, relied heavily upon the encouragement of advanced industrialisation in order to strengthen the sense of proletarian repression. In this sense there was a strong point of conflict over industrial and agricultural production values between Mao and the Russians, which was in direct consequence of the peasants over workers dispute.

A fundamental facet of classical Marxist ideology is economic determinism; a concept whereby social change is driven by the economy.[16] However Mao placed a much larger emphasis on the malleability of humankind, and the capacity to change human nature through sheer will power. "Mao’s real conflict, of course, was not with Russia nor with revisionism, but with human nature."[17] He believed that the ordinarily extended process of change could be hastened with appropriate stimulation; a positive political frame of commitment and action.[18] While Marx also believed in the evolution of human nature, in contrast to Mao he regarded it to be a process beyond the control of man.[19] Marx developed the theory of material determinism, which suggested that the economy is intrinsic to social change and the development of human nature, a relationship practically ignored by Mao.[20] Features of society such as classes, politics and ideologies were seen by Marx to be outgrowths of economic activity, whereas Mao regarded changes to such features as a result of human will. "[Mao’s] process of remoulding human beings…[is] almost in defiance of orthodox Marxist historical and material determinism."[21] However what is generally agreed upon by Marx and Mao, despite the way in which it is done, is that this remoulding of humankind could take many revolutions, which led to the development of the ‘continuous revolution’ theory, a concept whereby the proletarian’s struggle against the bourgeoisie is everlasting.[22] This was particularly resonant in Mao’s work, as China’s socialist development varied in success over different periods of time. Following the disaster of the Great Leap Forward campaign, Mao recognised a need to overcome re-emerging capitalist tendencies:

New bourgeois and capitalist tendencies were re-appearing, especially in the countryside. The landlords had been practically eliminated, but the rich and middle class peasants were re-emerging and acquiring influential positions in the cooperatives and communes.[23]

While this continual need for remoulding human nature is recognised as a major facet of Maoism, Marx believed in natural change as a result of economic activity over long periods of time, and thus the concept of the continuous revolution is more of an incidental element of Marxism.

While essentially the goals of Mao, Lenin and Marx were alike in terms of achieving a classless socialist society, there were distinct contrasting elements within the paths chosen to achieve these aspirations. Mao believed in the revolutionary power of the peasantry class, whereas the Marxist-Leninist approach to socialist revolution was to lead from the urban working classes. Resulting from this major disagreement came differing views on industrialisation and urbanisation, Mao tending to pay closer attention to agricultural development, and the Russians to urban development. There was also ignorance on Mao’s behalf of the nature of economics, a subject of which Marx was an expert. Marx recognised the economy as a major driving force in social development, whereas Mao regarded human nature as something that could be changed by will. However while Mao may not have attempted to achieve socialism as Marx intended, a great disparity between Russia and China during the twentieth century made such a deviation from classical Marxism to some extent inevitable. One could claim that Marxism has never truly been achieved in any setting, and with both China and Russia now leaning more towards capitalism, it leads one to question whether given the nature of humankind, such change is even possible.

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Chiou, C. Maoism in Action. Hong Kong: University of Queensland Press. 1974.
This was a highly useful source for this topic, presenting an unbiased view of the functioning of Mao’s actions within Maoism itself. Comprehensive referencing, and useful quotations aided in its reliability as a major source for this discussion.

Devillers, P. What They Really Said Series; Mao. London: Macdonald & Co. 1969.
Written during Mao’s lifetime and being reasonably dated, this source runs the risk of bias and misinterpretation. However as it contains mainly extracts from Mao’s written pieces it has been a very useful source in providing primary documents. The discussion is informative and as it is an international series rather than one that was published in China, it seems fairly reliable in its interpretation of Mao’s work, and does not appear to have political motivation.

Jacobs, D. Baerwald, H. Chinese Communism New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963
A fairly dated source, yet contained some valuable unbiased, factual information about Mao’s views on Industrialisation.

Mitter, R. A Bitter Revolution. Oxford University Press. 2004.
A helpful, contemporary secondary source highlighting in the second half political changes during Mao’s leadership. A highly referenced, and academically acclaimed source.

Poole, F. Mao Zedong. Sydney: Franklin Watts. 1982.
Simply worded yet comprehensive biographical account of Mao’s life, and life’s work. It was helpful in terms of providing context with Mao’s life. Reliable source presenting an unbiased view of Mao.

Statistical Sources

China-profile. 2009. China: Urban and Rural Population.

Global Virtual University, Globalis Russia; Urban Population.


  1. ^ A term used here to describe the working class.
  2. ^ The middle class, or in a Marxist context; the capitalist class who own most of society’s wealth and means of production.
  3. ^ Chiou, C. Maoism in Action. Hong Kong: University of Queensland Press. 1974. p.88.
  4. ^ ibid. p.90
  5. ^ As at the census of 2002; China-profile. China: Urban and Rural Population. [online] available at:, 2009.
  6. ^ As at the census of 2002; Global Virtual University, Globalis Russia; Urban Population. [online] available at:
  7. ^ These were uprisings lead by Ch’u Ch’iu-pai in 1927 – 28, Li Li-san in 1928 –29 and Wang Ming 1929-1934 that aimed at seizing control of the proletarian class, and to use the cities as revolutionary bases.
  8. ^ Chiou, C. op cit. p.89.
  9. ^ Zedong, M. Selected Works. Vol. I. 23-24. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1965
  10. ^ Chiou, C. op cit. p.90.
  11. ^ China’s relative isolation from the western world was inevitably another factor causing this mutual misunderstanding.
  12. ^ These political endeavours aimed at re-enforcing the sense of collective in rural areas, such as the Land Reforms of 1950 and Collectivisation; both of which were in action by 1956.
  13. ^ Chiou, C. op cit. p.61.
  14. ^ ‘On economic Policy’ Zedong, M, op cit, p.142. This emphasis on agriculture highly influenced communist development of neighbouring countries such Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, which although had disastrous results was also aimed at the rural environment.
  15. ^ Jacobs, D. Baerwald, H. Chinese Communism. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963
  16. ^ While it is not generally discussed in most publications of Marx’s work, it is interesting to speculate whether Marx and his successors used this theory extensively in economic planning in order to instigate political change. However, Marx did regard economic determinism as a very long process, so any such goals would have been for the long term.
  17. ^ Funnel, V. Social Stratification; Problems of Communism. 1968. p.14.
  18. ^ Chiou, C, op cit. p.61
  19. ^ ibid
  20. ^ Mao has often been criticised for his ignorance in the field of economics, and sources listed in references tend to agree with this point of view.
  21. ^ Chiou, C. op cit. p.61
  22. ^ ibid.
  23. ^ Devillers, P. What They Really Said Series; Mao. London: Macdonald & Co. 1969. p. 250. This reference to capitalist roading, demonstrates the great difficulties communist nations have faced in suppressing capitalist tendencies. Perhaps this suggests something more about humankind, in that people are naturally always out to maximise their own benefits above others.