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Essential Features

This essay takes Mao's own expressions of his thoughts as the basis for defining Maoism. While the contributions of Mao's CCP comrades are acknowledged, they are not regarded as an integral part of Maoism if Mao himself did not accept or adopt them. In identifying the basic features of Maoism, moreover, it is essential to test them against the development of Mao's thoughts as a historical process. Indeed, unless Mao's own changing ideas are carefully examined, it is impossible to grasp the essence and basic features of Maoism.

Maoism as utopian vision.

At its core, Maoism is first and foremost a utopian vision. Throughout Mao's political career, he fought for the ideal of universal justice and equality "all under heaven." This vision derived at one level from Mao's Sinification of Karl Marx's concept of a communist society, yet it was also compatible with the age-old Confucian ideal of a "society of great harmony." Despite the vision's central position in Mao's conceptual realm, Mao was never able to define clearly the path and the means by which it would be turned into reality. The extraordinary ambiguity of Maoism as a utopian vision provided, on the one hand, space for Mao and his comrades to develop the CCP's ideology, strategies, and policies given the changing requirements of the Chinese revolution, and, on the other, created serious internal tensions in the Maoist system—especially when Mao's ideals proved unable to stand the test of people's lived experience.

Maoism as political ideology.

Maoism is also a political ideology, representing Mao's theories and methodologies about how China and the world should be transformed in revolutionary ways. Three important features distinguished Mao's concept of revolution from other revolutionary theories in the tradition of Marxism-Leninism.

First, Mao's perception of revolution was characterized by a unique notion of permanentness in time and unlimitedness in space. In particular, Mao persistently emphasized the necessity of "continuing the revolution" after the CCP seized power in 1949. However, Mao's notion of permanent revolution was by no means a simple repetition or minor alteration of earlier formulations by Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky. While adopting such Marxist discourse as the "law of historical development" to justify his revolution, Mao often used the Chinese term tianxia ("all under heaven") to define the space in which the revolution should occur. The tianxia concept had its historical/cultural origin in the long development of Chinese civilization—implying that the Chinese way of life was the most superior in the known universe. Used in connection with tianxia was the Chinese word geming—a term that in modern times would be adopted to represent the concept "revolution." The original meaning of geming was that violent means must be used to deprive a ruler of heaven's mandate to rule. In employing tianxia to define the space in which geming should occur, Mao, in a China-centered manner, at once attached the qualities of permanentness and unlimitedness to his perceived revolution.

Second, Mao's perception of revolution reflected the profoundly voluntaristic belief that human consciousness, rather than the material conditions of society, would determine the orientation of historical development. For Mao, an essential condition for a revolution was the consciousness and will on the part of the "great masses" to carry out revolutionary changes. In the final analysis, whether a revolution should be judged a success or a failure depended on whether it had created a new order in the hearts and minds of the people.

Third, and closely connected with the above two features, the Maoist notion of revolution put greater emphasis on destruction than on construction. Indeed, Maoism proved more ready to deal with tasks of destroying the "old" than to cope with missions of constructing the "new." Mao believed firmly that "no construction happens without destruction; only when destruction is under way does the process of construction begin." Not surprisingly, Mao's revolution was one of the most violent and destructive in history, not only during the stage of "seizing political power," but in the stage of "continuous revolution" as well.

Maoism as revolutionary strategies and tactics.

Maoism also represents a series of strategies and tactics concerning how to make, enhance, and sustain the revolution. Mao certainly was a theorist and a man of ideas; but he also viewed himself as a practitioner and a man of action.

The central mission of Maoist revolutionary strategies concerned mass mobilization. In particular, Mao emphasized the importance of taking the peasants as the main force of the Chinese revolution. This clearly distinguished Maoism from the urban, working-class–centered mobilization strategies favored by orthodox Marxism-Leninism. Yet Mao's dependence on peasants drove him into a fundamental dilemma in furthering his "continuous revolution" after 1949. While adhering to the populist belief that the peasants' spontaneous "revolutionary initiatives" represented a natural source of the "revolution after revolution," Mao was simultaneously obsessed by the "petty bourgeois tendency" of the peasants in practical life. When the "socialist planning economy," which made industrial development the top priority, encountered resistance from the peasants, Mao argued that "a serious question is how to educate the peasants."

In Mao's own summary of his revolutionary strategies, he highlighted armed struggle, united front, and the Party's leadership role as the three keys that led the Chinese revolution toward victory. A firm believer in the idea that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" (Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 224), Mao invested great energy in developing strategies and tactics for waging revolutionary wars with both domestic and international aims. He summarized the basic principle of guerrilla war as "when the enemy advances we retreat to avoid him, when the enemy stops we harass him, when the enemy is tired we attack him, and when the enemy retreats we chase after him" (Mao Zedong wenji, vol. 1, p. 56). He also emphasized the importance of "making everyone a soldier" in waging a "people's war." The "united front" strategy was designed to "unite with all of those who can be united" in order to fight against the primary and most dangerous enemy. The adoption of this strategy in international affairs was often influenced by the traditional Chinese concept of "checking one barbarian by borrowing strength from another." In emphasizing the importance of the Party's leadership role, Mao originally embraced Lenin's "democratic centralism." However, with the deepening of his revolution he increasingly obscured the distinction between his own leadership role and that of the Party. Consequently, in his later years Mao openly celebrated the "correct personality cult," making enhancement of the cult of himself a crucial condition for the ongoing revolution.

In practice, Mao often interwove his ideas and plans with the discourse of revolutionary nationalism. Constantly appealing to the Chinese people's "victim mentality"—which was unique in the sense that it reflected the sharp contrast between the Chinese people's collective memory of their nation's glorious past and their perception of its experience of humiliation in modern times—Mao found a powerful source that continuously rendered help to legitimize his programs of transforming China and the world.

The above features of Maoism, to be sure, both persisted and evolved over the course of Mao's long career. In order to achieve a genuine understanding of these features, therefore, it is essential to undertake a historical review of the shaping of Mao's worldview, as well as of the development of Mao's thought.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Macrofauna to MathematicsMaoism - Essential Features, Shaping Of Mao's Revolutionary Worldview, Development Of Mao's Thought To 1949