Publication Maoism

An overview of the political and ideological tendencies rooted in the thought and practice of the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, its different currents and worldwide influence.





Henning Böke,


July 2022

Related Files / Chi Changyao

The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HCDM) is a comprehensive Marxist lexicon which, upon completion, will span 15 volumes and over 1,500 entries. Of the nine volumes published so far in the original German, two volumes have been published in Chinese since 2017. In 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung teamed up with the HCDM team to advance its "globalization" into English and Spanish, with the ultimate aim of recruiting a new generation of Marxist scholars from around the globe to the project and expanding its readership and reach. The below entry is one of a selection of these translations that are made available on our website.

For more information about the project and other translated entries, check out our HCDM dossier.

A: māwīya. - F: maoïsme. - G: Maoismus. - R: maoizm. - S: maoísmo. – C: Máo zhǔyì 毛主义

Since the mid-1960s, when the ideological schism between the CPSU and the CPC grew ever more persistent, Communist currents rooted in the theory and practice of the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and the CPC (before 1976) have been referred to as Maoist. Characteristic political aspects of these currents are widely considered to be the following: rejection of the SU model of socialism and the strategy of the CPs allied with it; orientation towards the Third World as the driving force of world revolution (with a strong focus on guerilla wars); insistence on the permanent revolutionary upheaval of society even under socialism (in line with the model of the Chinese Cultural Revolution); repudiation of economistic and deterministic concepts, reference to the relations of production as a central category, strong emphasis on politics, revolutionisation of consciousness and the superstructure.

The term M was initially an external attribution from Soviet or Pro-Soviet (cf. Fahrle/Schöttler 1969) and Western perspectives. It was only after 1980, when the fundamental revision of the CPC’s policies plunged Maoist groups across the world into an identity crisis, that a number of guerilla organisations in Latin America and Asia framed the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM). Regarding CPC terminology, the designation M never gained a place in the standard repertoire; it is merely used to label Maoist currents abroad. In the Chinese view, the “ideas of Mao Zedong” comprise the China-related adjunct to Marxism-Leninism. Across the globe, organisations that tied in with Mao and were sympathetic to China typically did not refer to themselves as Maoist, but rather as Marxist-Leninist (often denoted by the acronym “ML”), marking the claim to represent the ‘authentic’ teaching of revolutionary ML as it had been betrayed by the CPSU and its allies after Stalin’s death. However, the combination of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy with Mao’s theories, which includes, in some respects, independent and contradictory elements, led to ambiguities and a broad scope for interpretation that resulted in the fragmentation of Maoist currents.

Until the early 21st cent., M had only become a relevant political force in a few countries of the Global South, particularly India and Nepal. In the Northern/Western world it was a comparatively short-lived phenomenon, embedded in the extra-parliamentary movements of the 1968 period and mostly oriented towards the model of the “Cultural Revolution” initiated by Mao in 1966, which was assumed to reinvigorate the revolutionary dynamics of socialism with a novel concept of society based on mass democracy. Beyond a narrow politico-organisational horizon, M exerted a significant influence on those intellectuals delving into questions concerning the development of a non-economistic Marxism.

1. In Chinese-Soviet relations, tensions arose after the 20th CPSU party congress (1956); they led to a rift in the world-wide communist movement during the early 1960s. The foreign and domestic course that the SU adopted after Stalin’s death under the leadership of Khrushchev, was attacked by the CPC, with increasing ferocity, as a retreat from the class enemy. The CPSU’s pursuit of permanent peaceful coexistence with imperialism, particularly given the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, the CPSU’s attempt to promote socialism primarily through making it the more attractive option in economic competition between the two systems (“goulash communism”), and the party’s preference for a peaceful transition to socialism by gaining parliamentary majorities, were all regarded by Chinese leaders as discarding the “historical mission of proletarian world revolution” and a departure “from the revolutionary teachings of Marxism-Leninism” (Central Committee of the CPC to the Central Committee of the CPSU, 14 June 1963; cit. Peking Review 25, 21.06.1963, 7). The development of the CPSU was denounced as a degeneration towards “modern revisionism”, much like the revisionism in social democracy at the beginning of the 20th cent.; the CPSU, while wrapping itself in Marxist jargon, represented the interests of the bourgeoisie. In contrast to the CPSU, which warned of the devastating consequences of thermonuclear war for human civilisation, the CPC, which had come to power in a protracted war and civil war against a militarily far superior opponent, did not consider the new reality of nuclear weapons of mass destruction to be a fundamental game-changer in the conditions of international class struggle: “In the view of Marxist-Leninists, the people are the makers of history. In the present, as in the past, man is the decisive factor. Marxist-Leninists attach importance to the role of technological change, but it is wrong to belittle the role of man and exaggerate the role of technology” (15). Compared to the CPSU, the CPC – which, adhering to Mao’s analyses of the class structure of Chinese society, had based its revolutionary struggle on the large masses of poor peasants – placed a greater emphasis on the role of national, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist liberation movements in the process of world revolution, while at the same time underscoring the need for leadership by “principled proletarian revolutionary parties”.

The backdrop to the ideological discord revolved primarily around the SU’s efforts to achieve an international division of labour and integrate the socialist “fraternal countries” in the scheme. China, however, rejected the SU’s call for labour specialisation and insisted on achieving its own industrialisation. The thrust for self-reliance in development became one of the essential principles of M.

The CCP’s position received unexpectedly strong support, especially from communists in Asia and Latin America, where entire parties adopted the Chinese line, e.g. the Communist Party of Indonesia (which was almost annihilated by General Suharto in 1965). Other major CPs (India, Brazil) split over the issue. Among the ruling CPs, the Chinese position was vigorously supported by the Party of Labour of Albania. In Western Europe, the rift remained largely without consequences in the beginning: In countries such as Italy, France, or Belgium, only insignificant groups formed by traditionalist communists rejected Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinisation” and embraced China’s struggle against “revisionism”; in FR Germany, similarly aligned groups were few and lacked influence.

Core elements of the Maoist theory of socialism were on display in a commentary – by the editorial offices of the party newspaper Renmin Ribao and magazine Hongqi – titled On Khrushchev’s Phoney Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World (1964): In contrast to the Soviet view of socialism as a stable, homogeneous, contradiction-free form of society, which paved the way to the final goal of communism through the high-level development of productive forces, socialism was described – with pointed reference to Marx and Lenin – as a “very long historical stage” of transition to communism that required “anywhere from one to several centuries” (97), during which contradictions persisted despite the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. The emphasis on prolonged duration in itself comprised a rectification of an earlier perspective articulated by Mao towards the end of the 1950s, when, during the “Great Leap Forward”, he had raised the prospect of a rapid realisation of communist production relations; the same rectification was now directed against Khrushchev’s proclamation that the SU would reach communism’s final state within a few decades (82). According to Mao, during the period of socialism, the class struggle between the proletariat and the overthrown bourgeoisie had not yet been decided. Remains of the old exploiting classes, remnants of small-scale production, adherence to old habits, and the initially unavoidable continuation of bourgeois legal relations (in the sense of Marx in Gotha), would “all constantly breed political degenerates in the ranks of the working class and Party and government organizations, new bourgeois elements and embezzlers and grafters in state enterprises owned by the whole people and new bourgeois intellectuals in the cultural and educational institutions and intellectual circles” (10). While Stalin was recognised as a merited revolutionary and defended against Khrushchev’s attacks, he was, at the same time, faulted for critical errors that grew out of his undialectical understanding of socialism: In the mid-1930s, he had mistakenly assumed that class antagonisms no longer existed as a consequence of the transfer of the means of production to state and collective ownership. This failure to recognise the internal contradictions of socialist society had contributed to the fact that the danger inherent in the formation of functional elites had gone unnoticed and a “privileged stratum” of “degenerate elements from among the leading cadres of Party and government organizations, enterprises and farms as well as bourgeois intellectuals” (36) had developed. It had been a small minority kept in check under Stalin; after his death, however, it had found political representation in the “revisionist Khrushchev clique” (36) taking the SU “onto the path of the restoration of capitalism” (75). Numerous examples from industry and agriculture (20-36) were given to demonstrate that corrupt officials had run state and collective enterprises in the manner of private companies, aiming to acquire personal riches – which entailed, indeed, the private appropriation of socially produced wealth, i.e. class antagonism. CPSU doctrine, as proclaimed by the party’s 22nd Congress in 1961, stipulated that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had come to an end after it had fulfilled its function and that the SU had developed into a “state of the whole people” (a stance that had, in fact, been anticipated in Stalin’s conceptualisations pertaining to the drafting of the new Soviet constitution in the mid-1930s); now this notion was taken as evidence that Khrushchev had given up proletarian-revolutionary principles in favour of “a variant of bourgeois socialism” (83). Khrushchev’s opportunistic view of class reconciliation was “cast from the same mould as the renegade Kautsky’s concept of ‘pure democracy’” (61); his ideal was “a society of bourgeois philistines” (84); his goal was nothing but universal consumption (“Goulash communism”, 83 et sq.); and his de-facto representation of the bourgeois stance was corroborated by his professed admiration of achievements made by the United States (84).

Under socialism, it was concluded, class struggle against all manifestations of bourgeois degeneration had to continue aggressively to achieve the final goal of communism and avoid regression to capitalism. Stalin had mentioned the issue of intensifying class struggle under socialism in 1938, yet, he had attributed the threat of a resurgence of the bourgeoisie mainly to the influence of foreign agents. Such considerations played virtually no role in the CPC. Rather, it relied on Mao’s theory of contradictions, according to which, even under socialism, non-antagonistic “contradictions among the people” could turn into antagonistic “contradictions between us and the enemy”, if they were not recognised and openly resolved through debates and mass mobilisation (On contradiction, 1937, SW I, 311-47; On the correct handling of contradictions among the people, 1957, SW V, 384-421). Mao countered Soviet concepts with a strategy of permanent revolution based on the primacy of politics, which emphasised the process character and the evolving contradictory dynamics in an on-going revolution. Communism was not the result of the development of productive forces, but of a political transformation.

The inherent inconsistencies of M were apparent in the ‘Stalin question’: In internal party assessments, Mao accused Stalin of “metaphysical” thinking leading to crucial misorientations, excessive repression, a fixation on technology, a lack of understanding in dealing with peasants, and policies based exclusively on dirigisme (“the cadres decide everything”), rather than persuasion and mass mobilisation (1957; Mao intern, 1977, 103 et sq.). At the same time, the CPC considered the defence of Stalin’s status as a “classic” an indispensable prerequisite of its own legitimacy; the system he built remained undisputed. As a result of this ambiguity, M’s international support encompassed currents with essentially conflicting interests: ‘Stalinist’ communists viewed Mao as the keeper of tradition, while significant sections of the ‘New Left’ forming in the West projected their hopes for an alternative, democratic model of socialism onto China, finding in Mao’s writings independent, innovative approaches that overcame dogmatism.

Furthermore, the “founding documents” of M include Long Live the Victory of People’s War! by Lin Biao, published in Renmin Ribao on 3 September 1965. In this text, Lin described the strategy developed in the Chinese revolution – relying on a peasant-based military advancing from rural areas, encircling the cities – as forming the basis for a model of world revolution. The imperialist centres were to be conquered through the “people’s war” of liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In doing so, the people should rely on their own strength exclusively. The Soviet “revisionists”, who rejected the “people’s war”, were portrayed as vicarious agents of imperialism, seeking global dominance in cooperation with the United States. With this publication, the CPC staked out its claim of being the pioneering force of the world revolution. Lin posited that Mao had “succeeded in integrating the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution and has enriched and developed Marxism-Leninism by his masterly generalization and summation of the experience gained during the Chinese people’s protracted revolutionary struggle”; his theory of people’s war was “a great contribution to the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed nations and peoples throughout the world” (Lin 1967, 42 et sq.).

2. The positions formed in dispute with the CPSU, in which the ideological foundations of M crystallised, were unanimously represented to the outside world by the Chinese leadership. At the same time, however, dissensions about the development path erupted internally. After 1958, the “Great Leap Forward” – an attempt to organically combine agriculture and industrialisation, aiming to transition to communism as rapidly as possible – had led to catastrophic failure and severe famine. This prompted Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and others to take a more pragmatic approach. From the classic Marxist analysis, which posits that retrograde production relations impede the development of productive forces, Mao had drawn a reverse conclusion: the greatest possible revolution in production relations would give a tremendous boost to the development of productive forces. Considering the consequences of this utopianistic policy, from 1960, Liu and Deng steered a course that aimed primarily for economic growth and development of technology, and that put political-ideological debate last. (This is when Deng came up with his famous dictum: “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat – as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat”; it suggested that the work of scientific and technical experts, as it contributed to the development of productive forces, should be judged primarily by professional performance, while political-ideological positions were to remain secondary.) Mao discerned an advance of “revisionist” views; he was alarmed that an economistic and technocratic political approach would lead to professional specialisations based on a division of labour and, thus, to the formation of elites and hierarchical structures which would yield new types of capitalist exploitation.

This trend was to be halted by the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. To achieve the goal of disempowering his intra-party adversaries, vilified as advocates of the “capitalist road”, Mao set social actors in motion that were hardly compatible with traditional ML notions. The social basis of the Cultural Revolution was largely composed of discontented young people, apprentices, and young workers as well as of the precarised rural proletariat (cf. Hoffmann 1977), while the established industrial workforce stayed rather reserved. The historically unprecedented process of a ruling CP leader mobilising the population against the party apparatus, encouraging independent organisation, was emphatically echoed by the anti-authoritarian protest movement in the West, which now identified its struggle against the “establishment” with that of the Chinese youth.

Not all CPs that had supported the Chinese line in 1963/64 ascribed to this policy. For example, the CPI(M), which had formed out of the majority of the Indian CP in 1963, unambiguously distanced itself from it. Several decidedly Maoist factions split off and went on to lead the Naxalbari peasant uprising in West Bengal in 1967. In the following years, these Maoist factions worked to politicise the poorest and most discriminated lower classes, the Dalit and Adivasi populations, who are descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and who remain excluded from the Hindu caste system. Although fragmented, the militant “Naxalites” pose a serious challenge for Indian society even to this day at the beginning of the 21st cent.

M played a similarly important role in the Dersim region in Eastern Anatolia after 1968. In sharp opposition to the Kemalist state doctrine of Turkey, Maoist currents actively drew attention to the problem of the population living in the economically underdeveloped mountain region, most of whom were Zaza-speaking Alevis, being forced to assimilate into Turkish-Sunni majority society. In his analysis of the “semi-feudal” power structures, İbrahim Kaypakkaya (2014) tied in with M, and led the “Liberation Army of the Workers and Peasants of Turkey” in a guerilla war that ended in defeat in 1973. In contexts like these, M benefited from its capacity to sophisticatedly analyse complex exploitation and power relations that the economistic formulations of traditional Soviet Marxism and Trotskyism were unfit to grasp.

Western observers of the “Cultural Revolution”, who were allowed to visit China only after the military pacification of 1968 had put an end to civil war-like clashes, such as Charles Bettelheim (1974), described its results as an emancipatory transformation of social relations in the production process, accomplished through operative self-administration, a reduction of hierarchies, and strengthening the sovereignty of producers. To the Western New Left, such descriptions bolstered the perception of China as a forward-looking alternative to the ossified, unattractive Soviet model of socialism. The impact of M in Western Europe was by no means limited to the dogmatic “ML”-organisations emerging around 1970 (referred to in FR Germany as “K-Gruppen”, i.e. “c[ommunist] groups”), which attempted – with little success – to establish themselves, in the tradition of the Third International, as new communist cadre parties based on the rigid doctrinal edifice of Marxism-Leninism and firm organisational discipline. In the Romance countries, M became part of an undogmatic, radical left-wing culture, influential even at the left margins of “Eurocommunism”. M’s focus on the relations of production as a central category and its strong attention to the reproductive sector and to the superstructure touched on the struggles erupting throughout Europe for autonomous ways of working and living. Under these conditions, in Italy, for example, aspects of Operaism merged with Maoist approaches in pursuit of the common goal of overcoming the Fordist-hierarchical industrial regime. Even in moderate left circles, the PRC was perceived as a country embarked on an alternative development path based on self-reliance and independence from the world market, which was considered exemplary for the Third World.

The “Cultural Revolution”, however, blocked China’s economic development. After 1970, Zhou Enlai launched a policy of consolidation, which included the initiation of cooperation with the West and the rehabilitation of numerous previously demoted cadres, who were – as had turned out – indispensable for their professional expertise. Protagonists of the hard-left course, e.g. Chen Boda, were sidelined or eliminated. In 1971, Lin Biao, who had been designated Mao’s successor in 1969, died on the run after an unproven attempted coup (according to official party accounts, he had plotted Mao’s assassination and rapprochement with the SU). In 1973, following self-criticism, Deng Xiaoping was entrusted with management tasks in the government again. ‘Hard-line’ Maoist groups around the world struggled to keep up with these abrupt about-face turns. Moreover, Chinese foreign policy came to abandon any revolutionary perspective in favour of pragmatism; its basis was the sharp antagonism towards the SU, now denounced as “social-imperialist” and portrayed as the “main enemy” based on arguments similar to the Comintern’s theory of “social-fascism” of the late 1920s. With Deng’s 1974 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, the contours emerged of a new doctrine, which would be codified after Mao’s death in 1976 as the “three worlds theory”: it held, that the “superpowers” USA and SU – both vying for global “hegemony” – formed the “first world”, and that between them and the developing countries that comprised the “third world”, there was a “second world” consisting of Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia. Mao had spoken of “intermediate zones” as early as 1964 (cf. Bechtoldt 1969, 256-64), then further clarified the issue to the President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, in 1974 (Mao Zedong on Diplomacy, 1998, 454). Now the theory served as justification to cooperate with politicians such as Franz Josef Strauss or Shah Reza Pahlavi in the struggle against Soviet “hegemonism”. For revolutionary movements akin to that in Chile, on the other hand, this was hardly an acceptable conclusion(cf. Open Letter, 1978).

While Chinese foreign policy had long discarded the militant revolutionism of the 1960s and Zhou proclaimed the agenda of “Four Modernisations”, from 1973 (10th CPC congress) onwards, an extreme hard-left group around Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (along with Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen), which later came to be known as the “Gang of Four”, operated out of the Cultural Revolution stronghold of Shanghai in an attempt to reinvigorate the “Cultural Revolution” through fervent campaign policies. Although Mao criticised the sectarian factionalism of the Shanghai group in an attempt to strike a balance between revolutionary idealism and economic reason, there can be no doubt that the “Gang of Four” was ideologically closer to him. In the group’s interventions, late M revealed a paradox: as the basis of “revisionism”, the “Gang of Four” attacked the orientation towards the “primacy of productive forces” - which happened to be precisely what the Second and Third Internationals had considered the core content of Marxist orthodoxy. Mostly disseminated through “big character posters” (dazibao), which had been introduced during the “Cultural Revolution” as a standard means of communication, the group’s propaganda was mostly directed against authoritarian Confucian ethics, against Western and bourgeois culture (“Criticise Beethoven!”), against an orientation towards technical objectives (“Satellites shoot up to the sky, the red flag falls to the ground!”), against work discipline subject to technical imperatives (“Better to have revolutionary delays than revisionist punctuality!”), and against performance-based wage differentiation. In the education system, exams were rejected, and young people were encouraged to boycott school.

Such positions, although starting from completely different premises, touched on the views and interests of the Western New Left, which dealt with problems of technical rationality in late capitalism and questioned the traditional “productivist” paradigm of Marxism. From this vantage point, the initiatives of the “Gang of Four” appeared as an anti-authoritarian and anti-elitist contribution to recapturing the emancipatory perspective of overcoming capitalist “fetishism”, i.e. the domination of the product over the producers. According to the interpretation of the “Gang of Four”, M stood out as the only current of party Marxism to challenge the assumption of productive forces’ social/societal neutrality, i.e. one of traditional Marxism’s axioms, and take note of the problem of the correlation of technical divisions of labour and social hierarchies. Yet, by denouncing all efforts to raise economic and technical productivity, rationality, and efficiency as “capitalist”, the “Gang of Four” did considerable damage to the urgently needed development of the still poor and backward country.

In 1975, the theoreticians of the “Gang of Four”, Yao and Zhang, published articles on problems of socialist society, which took up the problem of the structural root causes of restorative tendencies in socialism once again. Firstly, with reference to Marx’s Gotha, they expressed lament at the continued existence of “bourgeois legal relations”: while bourgeois legal relations were unavoidable in the initial stages, they reproduced and disguised social inequality by subjecting unequal individuals to formal equality. Secondly, Zhang pointed out that tendencies towards capitalism stemmed not only from the remnants of small-scale production, of which Lenin had already spoken, but moreover, from the “question of leadership” remained crucial in state-owned industrial companies, “that is, the question of which class holds the ownership in fact and not just in name” (Zhang 1975, 10). Formal property titles said nothing about the reality of social relations. Full weight should be given as well to “the two other aspects of the relations of production” which exerted a “reaction upon the system of ownership”: “the relations among people and the form of distribution”. These aspects, like the superstructure, “may play a decisive role under given conditions”. Politics was “the concentrated expression of economics”. “Whether the ideological and political line is correct or incorrect, and which class holds the leadership, decides which class owns those factories in actual fact.” (11) These texts were created in the direct context of the promulgation of a new constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which guaranteed – at Mao’s insistence – the right to strike and thus officially recognised the existence of class-based conflicts of interests under socialism.

3. During the power struggle after Mao’s death in 1976, it quickly became obvious that the radical left was isolated in the party apparatus and the population. Hua Guofeng, chosen by Mao as his successor, assembled a centrist coalition of military veterans and apparatus forces and had the “Gang of Four” arrested. His attempt to maintain formal Mao-orthodoxy by stripping it of anti-authoritarian and grassroots democratic elements and enforcing productivist discipline (cf. Hua 1977) failed, as did his efforts to sideline Deng, who had been ousted once again just months before Mao’s death. Within two years, Deng, who was highly regarded as a capable organiser, managed to take over as the de facto leader and implement his policy course of “reform and opening-up”, which gave absolute priority to economic development. In this process, some of the identity-creating elements of M were revised: the policy of self-sufficient development was abandoned in favour of opening up to the world market; egalitarianism was replaced by an acknowledgement that it was necessary to develop productive middle classes, now considered pacesetters for the development of the country; while Mao’s accomplishments as a revolutionary and founder of the state were recognised as unquestionable, most of his domestic policy decisions since the late 1950s were considered erroneous; the “Cultural Revolution” was rejected as an “ultra-left” aberration.

This chain of events deprived international M of its reference model. Maoist organisations were faced with the dire choice of either endorsing the new Chinese leadership and drastically revising previously held convictions, or defending Mao’s policies against his successors, thereby accepting the path to dogmatic isolation. Some groups immediately condemned the arrest of the “Gang of Four”; others initially approved of Hua’s course, but then turned away after the ‘Deng line’ prevailed at the 3rd plenum of the 11th CPC Central Committee in 1978.

Albanian head of state and party, Enver Hoxha, who had been one of China’s most important allies since the late 1950s, broke not only with the new leadership after Mao’s successors showed no interest in continuing to support Albania; instead, he roundly condemned the “Mao Zedong Ideas” as a “variant of revisionism” and “an amalgam of views in which ideas and theses borrowed from Marxism are mixed up with idealist, pragmatic and revisionist principles from other philosophies” (1979, 395 et sq.). Specifically, Hoxha accused Mao of disregarding the leading role of the working class and Leninist party unity in favour of propagating factionalism and pluralism instead: “According to Mao, in socialist society, side by side with the proletarian ideology, materialism and atheism, the existence of bourgeois ideology, idealism and religion, the growth of ‘poisonous weeds’ along with ‘fragrant flowers’, etc., must be permitted”. This “conciliatory stand towards everything reactionary” went “so far” that Mao considered “disturbances in socialist society inevitable and the prohibition of enemy activity mistaken” (410 et sq.). Hoxha’s polemic – written from the vantage point of Stalin-type ML – highlighted aspects of an independent streak in Mao’s thinking that was alien to this tradition: Mao’s understanding of dialectics knew no linear and teleological trajectory, but instead, through the persistence of contradictions, recognised the essential ambiguity and incompleteness of the social.

While most Maoist organisations in Western Europe underwent de-dogmatisation from the end of the 1970s and dissolved into various left-wing alternative contexts sooner or later, other “ML” parties across the globe joined the Hoxha line (e.g. the CP of Brazil), until the collapse of Eastern European socialism reached Albania in 1990. Others revised their anti-Soviet stance in the 1980s, judged Mao more critically without completely rejecting him, and oriented themselves more towards classic Soviet-style ML. Vice versa, since 1990, as the remaining currents of orthodox communism in the Soviet tradition blamed the decline of socialism on the “opportunism” and “revisionism” that had developed after Stalin’s death, these circles started leaning towards certain positions which had previously been rejected as “Maoist” – without, however, adopting the genuinely Maoist interpretation of the contradictions within socialist societies. By way of international conferences, the – formerly Maoist – Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) has sought to promote such convergences between formerly Maoist and formerly pro-Soviet and pro-Albanian tendencies towards a Marxist-Leninist neo-orthodoxy.

In this sense, M as an international political movement with an independent ideological identity disappeared soon after Mao’s death, or it shrank into a marginal phenomenon of factions. Despite this general decline, however, militant organisations grounded in Mao’s theory of “people’s war” gained a foothold in some countries in Latin America and Asia after 1980. In 1980, on the heels of several schisms in the country’s communist movement, the Partido Comunista del Perú (PCP-SL), known as “Sendero Luminoso”, led by Abimael Guzmán (called Gonzalo) initiated a guerilla war against the state as well as against all the other leftist groups which ended in defeat in 1992. In 2007, the Central Committee of the PCP-SL, including Guzmán, proclaimed M the “third, new, and highest stage of Marxism” and introduced the term “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” to distinguish it from all types of “revisionism” (Sol Rojo, 30 June 2008, 9). Thus, Mao was awarded a position that the CPC had never bestowed on him. Largely supported by the PCP-SL, the “Revolutionary Internationalist Movement” (RIM) emerged in 1984 as a loose association of organisations that share this orientation. Most impactful among them was the CP Nepal (Maoist) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (called Prachanda), which led a peasant uprising in 1996, took control of large parts of the country over the course of a ten-year civil war, and brought about the overthrow of the monarchy. However, since 2005 it has taken a more pragmatic course and temporarily even headed a coalition government – a policy shift that was quite controversial in the RIM organisations (cf. Sol Rojo 30, 10 et sqq.). Apart from this insular persistence in just a handful of countries across the South, M no longer represents a relevant political force at the beginning of the 21st cent.

4. Aside from its influence on identity formation mostly among doctrinaire political organisations limited to a historically short time period, the role that M played for independent Marxist intellectuals – especially in Europe, particularly in the Romance and Scandinavian countries – should not be underestimated. In 1962 and 1963, the first theorist of Western Marxism to point out the importance of Mao’s philosophical work was Louis Althusser: In On Contradiction Mao had developed a model for the analysis of social contradictions, in which Hegel’s concept of dialectics as the processual, contradictory development of a simple logical unity was replaced by an irreducibly complex structure containing dynamic relationships between “principal contradiction” and “secondary contradiction”, “principal” and “secondary aspects” of “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions under the “law of the uneven development of a contradiction” (FM, 94, fn.; cf. 181 et sq., 194 et sq., 209 et sq.). From this, Althusser derived the methodological foundation for his non-economistic, non-reductionist, non-teleological understanding of the materialist analysis of society, in which economics was not determinative of social or societal phenomena as a mechanical cause, but rather represented a complex collection of practices. Around Althusser, Maoist theoretical approaches were often employed (cf. Karsz 1976, 138-53) regardless of political affiliation (he himself remained a member of the French CP and some of his students were active in Maoist groups).

From the mid-1960s, Bettelheim based his criticism of productive forces-centred concepts of socialism on cultural-revolutionary China: “ China’s example shows that it is not necessary (and, indeed, that it is dangerous) to aspire to build first of all the material foundations of socialist society, putting off till later the transformation of social relations, which will thus be brought into conformity with more highly developed productive forces. China’s example shows that socialist transformation of the superstructure must accompany the development of productive forces and that this transformation is a condition for truly socialist economic development. It shows, too, that when the transformations are carried out in this way, industrialisation does not require, in contrast to what happened in the Soviet Union, the levying of tribute from the peasantry, a procedure which seriously threatens the alliance between the workers and the peasants.” (1976, 42) Referencing the late Lenin and Mao, Bettelheim opposed the notion that socialism was the result of maximum centralisation of large-scale industrial productive forces, as was derived from interpretations by German social democracy towards the end of the 19th cent.; rather, he conceptualised it to be an alternative development path characterised by the primacy of politics, guided by the conscious action of the producers, not based on abstract system imperatives. In Soviet Russia after Lenin’s death, however, the Bolshevik party had proven unable to prevent the onslaught of an alliance of skilled workers and the technical intelligentsia, which – as the class struggles progressed – resulted in the push-back of the revolutionary coalition of workers and peasants. Initially, Stalin had followed the correct course as Lenin had set it (40); in initiating his policies of imposed industrialisation, however, he later became consistently motivated by an “economistic” bias as was widespread in the “congealed”, “simplified Marxism” (20) – a bias so prevalent, that it had never been questioned even by opposing party currents (Trotsky, Bukharin). As a consequence, “a capitalist state of a particular type” (46) developed in the SU beginning in the 1930s: “ The producers are still wage earners working to valorize the means of production, with the latter functioning” – in contrast to the individual capital of ‘classic’ capitalism – “as collective capital managed by a state bourgeoisie” (44). In contrast to the official doctrine of Maoist parties, Bettelheim thus offered a version of M that did not consider the intrigues of “degenerate” forces after Stalin’s death to be the cause of contemporary “revisionism” and the undesirable development of the SU; instead he emphasised the shortcomings of traditional party Marxism, which were only overcome by the practice of the Chinese revolution. His views – like those of Althusser – influenced the Marxist discussion not only in Western and Southern Europe, but also had a strong influence on Latin America and India. The events following Mao’s death, which made it clear that the “Cultural Revolution” merely modified the dictatorship of the party and did not overcome it (Bettelheim 1978, 87-90), led him to ultimately distance himself from M and from Leninism in general.

With a strong focus on Third World issues and palpable sympathy for China, the Monthly Review, founded by Paul M. Sweezy in 1949, developed into an important platform for the New Left in the USA. Similar to France and Italy – and maybe even more sustainable – an intellectual culture developed around it, in which “Maoist” impulses were not channelled into doctrinaire, sectarian, and politically inefficient organisations; but rather, they were fused with open “Western” Marxism. After 1990, this type of appropriation started to reflect on China: Among Chinese intellectuals who – following the period of persecution and humiliation during the “Cultural Revolution” – had by and large unanimously supported the reform policy initiated by Deng, the current of the “New Left” (xinzuopai) formed through the problematisation of the negative social, ecological, and cultural consequences of the market economy-driven modernisation, and, in turn, through the partial re-appropriation of Mao from the perspective of Western theory (Western Marxism, post-structuralism). A coordinating role can be ascribed, among others, to the “China Study Group” of US-American and Chinese left-wing thinkers situated in the intellectual vicinity of the Monthly Review.. 

The attractiveness of M for left-wing intellectuals in the West resulted from the fact that its orientation, which – compared to Soviet ML and Trotskyism – was less schematic and deterministic, tied into a need: In China, Mao had developed a methodology for the analysis of a society that, by the standards of classic Marxism, had not yet achieved the ideal type of a developed capitalist industrial society (and could not achieve it under the premises of the theory of imperialism handed down by Lenin), while the New Left in the West was dealing with a society that had already left the ideal type behind. M was susceptible to problems of social and societal modernisation, which China faced from the perspective of a developing country, while in the West they were characterised by the beginning crisis of Fordism. This was the basis of its theoretical relevance. As a political current, M failed because of an inability to solve these problems constructively in the aspired manner.

Bibliography: H.Bechtoldt, Chinas Revolutionsstrategie: Mit der Dritten Welt gegen Russland und Amerika, exp. updt. ed., Munich 1969; Ch.Bettelheim, China nach der Kulturrevolution: Industrielle Organisation, dezentralisierte Planung und Wertgesetz, Munich 1974; id., Class struggles in the USSR: First period: 1917-1923, transl. by B.Pearce, New York/London 1976; id., Fragen über China nach Mao Tse-tungs Tod, Berlin/W 1978; H.Böke, Maoismus: China und die Linke – Bilanz und Perspektive, Stuttgart 2007; R.Fahrle, P.Schöttler, Chinas Weg: Marxismus oder Maoismus?, Frankfurt/M 1969; R.Hoffmann, Maos Rebellen: Sozialgeschichte der chinesischen Kulturrevolution, Hamburg 1977; E.Hoxha, Imperialism and Revolution, Tirana 1979; Hua Guofeng, Continue the Revolution Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat to the End, Beijing 1977; S.Karsz, Theorie und Politik: Louis Althusser, Frankfurt/M-Berlin/W-Vienna 1976; İ.Kaypakkaya, Selected Works, Istanbul 2014; Lin Biao, Long Live the Victory of the People’s War! In Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of Victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japan, Beijing 1967; Mao intern: Unveröffentlichte Schriften, Reden und Gespräche Mao Tse-tungs 1949-1976, ed. by H.Martin, Munich 1977; Mao Zedong on Diplomacy, Beijing 1998; Open Letter of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Chile to the Communist Party of China, Toronto 1978; On Khrushchov’s Phoney Communism and its Historical Lessons for the World: Comment on the Open Letter of the Central Committee of the CPSU (IX), Beijing 1964; Yao Wenyuan, On the Social Basis of the Lin Piao Anti-Party Clique, Beijing 1975; Zhang Chunqiao, On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie, Beijing 1975.

Henning Böke

Translated by Hauke Neddermann

→ agrarian question, antagonism, anti-authoritarian movement, anti-colonialism, basic contradiction, chief/secondary contradiction, Chinese Cultural Revolution, Chinese revolution, class struggle, Comintern, contradictions within the people, crisis of fordism, critique of technology, Cultural Revolution, demaoisation, destalinisation, dialectics, dictatorship of the proletariat, division of labour, economism, egalitarianism, eurocommunism, focus theory, fordism, Great Leap, guerilla, hegemonism, ideas of Mao Zedong, K-groups, late capitalism, left-wing radicalism, levelling, Liuism, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, mental and manual labour, modernisation, New Left, North-South conflict, operaism, peaceful coexistence, people’s commune, people’s war, personality cult, productivism, revisionism, Second International, sectarianism, self-administration, self-reliance, sinicisation, social imperialism, Stalinism, struggle between the two lines, superstructure, technocracy, technological determinism, Third world, three worlds theory, Trotskyism, ultra-imperialism, ultraleft, vanguard, world revolution

→ Agrarfrage, Antagonismus, antiautoritäre Bewegung, Antikolonialismus, Arbeitsteilung, Avantgarde, chinesische Kulturrevolution, chinesische Revolution, Dialektik, Diktatur des Proletariats, Drei-Welten-Theorie, Dritte Welt, Egalitarismus, Entmaoisierung, Entstalinisierung, Eurokommunismus, Fokustheorie, Fordismus, friedliche Koexistenz, geistige und körperliche Arbeit, Gleichmacherei, Großer Sprung, Grundwiderspruch (Haupt-/Nebenwiderspruch), Guerilla, Hegemonismus, Kampf der zwei Linien, K-Gruppen, Klassenkampf, Komintern, Krise des Fordismus, Kulturrevolution, Linksradikalismus, Liuismus, Mao-Zedong-Ideen, Marxismus, Marxismus-Leninismus, Modernisierung, Neue Linke, Nord-Süd-Konflikt, Ökonomismus, Operaismus, Personenkult, Produktivismus, Revisionismus, Sektierertum, Selbstverwaltung, Self-Reliance, Sinisierung, Sozialimperialismus, Spätkapitalismus, Stalinismus, Technikdeterminismus, Technikkritik, Technokratie, Trotzkismus, Überbau, Ultraimperialismus, Ultralinke, Volkskommune, Volkskrieg, Weltrevolution, Widersprüche im Volke, Zweite Internationale

Originally published as Maoismus in: Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 8/II: links/rechts bis Maschinenstürmer, edited by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Frigga Haug, Peter Jehle, Wolfgang Küttler, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 2015, col. 1689-1705.