Maoism and Theoretical Disillusionment

A young Mao Zedong
A young Mao Zedong

The material careers of some of the greatest contributors to critical political theory have stained their theoretical legacies, most notably Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. The latter differed from the former in terms of theory, however; Lenin developed much of Karl Marx and Frederic Engel’s foundational work, especially in the context of international politics, whereas Mao, in a far more pragmatic sense – as was the true nature of Marxist analysis – adapted theory to suit his own ends, or at least, his vision of the People’s Republic of China. Such adaptation, which included a reassessment of Marxist class structures, was motivated on two grounds: firstly, conditions unique to China that the theory could not account for; and secondly, abstract notions in the theory that Mao became discontented with, especially as socioeconomic problems within the Soviet Union began to emerge after Lenin’s death.

Issues in Chinese Context

Marx did briefly discuss his perceptions of Far Eastern socioeconomics, in the form of his ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’, placed somewhere between feudalism and developed capitalism. However, the theory was not particularly detailed, or well-informed, and so was deemed practically useless by Mao when he began to develop socialist theory for the new Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s. There were, however, also problems with the more mainstream historical materialism. Most importantly, the divisions between Marx’s economic classes did not suit the Chinese social system on two levels. Firstly, the country was simply too populous to generalise to such an extent as to label every Chinese citizen one of just two classes. The methods of resource distribution varied too much across similar socioeconomic classes; for instance, trust systems in both urban and rural areas allowed workers to buy into stocks, thus confusing the differentiation between Marx’s proletariat and bourgeoisie (the contemporary equivalent could be the shares given to employees of the John Lewis/Waitrose company).

Secondly, Mao could not mould the millions of Chinese peasants into the Marxist class system. In the theory, the peasantry did not hold revolutionary potential; Mao rejected this, probably because he understood that in order to overthrow the nationalist government, the communists were going to require the mass power of the Chinese peasantry.

Issues in Theory

There were also wider problems with historical materialism that Mao addressed in his reanalysis. Firstly, Mao feared a loss of focus on material objectives through the left wing tendency to abstraction. His mind was clearly set on solving real, material problems in his homeland, which he considered to have been perpetuated by the 1911 nationalist revolution and not solved. This links to the second problem, that of universalism; i.e. that Marxists were encouraged to unite on an international scale for a greater good. Mao considered this to remove focus on the objective of his theory. Finally, the evidence of a ‘failed’ Marxist-Leninist revolution in the USSR had a profound impact on Maoist theory, as class struggle was seen to prevail in a supposedly socialist polity.


Acknowledging the constraints of Marxist analysis, Mao set out constructing his own theory based on historical materialist principles. This was unique at the time; critical thought based on capital and class had all developed from Marx and Engels, or had been criticism of that very same theory. Here now was a theorist willing to deconstruct the parameters of such theory and challenge its faults.

Mao conducted the reanalysis of Chinese classes, developing the idea of the ‘people’ rather than differentiated economic divisions. This, as mentioned, was primarily due to the need to include the peasantry in any theoretical assessment made. He also granted individuals the opportunity to overcome the ideology of the class of their social origin; this, however, skewed attempts to categorise the Chinese people and contributed to the failure of Maoism as a material ideology in the early years of the PRC. Mao also engaged in a sense of pragmatism, accepting that class struggle would prevail in the early years of communism, and thus not building theory around the expectation of instant and absolute equality. This theoretical notion came from mostly from conversation with the Soviet government, whom Mao deemed hypocritical. This scepticism of Marxism-Leninism in its form at the time, along with international circumstance, led to the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960.


Perhaps Mao would be held in higher regard among academics if he had stuck to his books. Lenin too. Then again, the entire purpose of their theory was based on material application; it is just a shame for both of their reputations as scholars that their practices did not work out so well. For a full discussion of the context of Mao’s reassessments, and those of his successor Deng Xiaoping, see the following article, published on MCAS in May:


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