Article abstract: In 1949, Communist Party chairman Mao led the People’s Liberation Army to victory over the Nationalist Party forces in China and established the People’s Republic of China. He adapted Marxist-Leninist theory and practice to Chinese conditions and created a new doctrine that he later viewed as valid on a world scale.
Mao Zedong was born into a peasant family of some means. His father, seeing little value in education, forced him to leave school at age thirteen to work on the farm. Mao, however, had acquired a taste for reading, and novels about heroic bandits, peasant rebels, and notable rulers had fired his imagination. Continuing his reading, he came upon a book calling for the modernization of China and constitutional government. It motivated him to leave home and continue his studies. At age sixteen, he entered primary school, where he became acquainted with Western liberal thought. A book on heroes led him to admire nation-building military leaders and respect the martial virtues. A short stint in a revolutionary army led to his first encounter with the ideas of socialism.
In time, Mao settled on becoming a teacher and entered normal school in 1913, graduating in 1918. He acquired an effective writing style and ideas to write about. In short, he came to believe in the goodness of humanity, the malleability of human nature, the power of the human will, the potential inherent in the Chinese peasantry, and the need to adapt Western ways to Chinese culture. He was also involved in radical organizations and thus in laying a foundation for future political action.
In 1918, Mao was at the University of Peking, where he found enthusiasm for the Bolshevik Revolution and Marxism. Back in Hunan Province in 1919, he was a leader in the anti-Japanese, antigovernment May Fourth Movement. The following year, he became a primary school director and thereby attained status and influence. By 1920, he considered himself a Marxist, and in July, 1921, was present at the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Russian insistence on controlling the Chinese party split it into factions. Mao accepted Russian leadership and the official party position, including Communist membership in the Guomindang, or Nationalist Party, and support for a bourgeois nationalist revolution. In 1924, illness sent him back to Hunan, where a new peasant militancy convinced him that the poor peasantry was the true revolutionary class. After his failure to spark a revolt in 1927, Mao took his ragtag army to the Jingkang Mountains. He lost his major party positions, but he built his peasant army. Beginning in 1930, the Guomindang, now his enemy, began a series of attacks against Mao’s new base area in Jiangxi, leading to the six-thousand-mile Long March that began in late 1934. By 1935, Mao was chairman of the party’s politburo. A new phase had begun.
Mao had bested the Soviet-backed so-called Twenty-eight Bolsheviks, whom he had fought politically for control of the Communist Party. Of elite background, these members lacked an understanding of the masses. The relationship between the Chinese and Soviet parties would remain strained thereafter, especially since the Soviets backed the Guomindang, in their own strategic interests, and were willing to sacrifice the Chinese Communist Party accordingly. When Japan invaded China in 1937, the Soviets, concerned about their eastern territories, called for a Guomindang-Communist United Front, even though Mao’s Yan’an base area was under Guomindang attack. Necessity, however, dictated such an alliance. The alliance was effected, both parties aware that it was but a temporary partnership.
During the Yan’an period, Mao developed what became Maoism. Contrary to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, he stressed the role of the peasantry over that of the proletariat. Similarly, his goal was to conquer the countryside through guerrilla warfare and encircle the cities, which would later be taken by conventional warfare. He also set forth the basis for his theory of “permanent revolution,” holding that change is perpetual and conflict will continue even under communism. He also expounded his doctrine of the “mass line.” In a protracted war, the zeal of the masses must be maintained by the party cadres. The masses being infallible, it was the task of the cadres to gather their scattered ideas, synthesize them, propagate them among the masses until they accept them as their own, and then test them through action.
Meanwhile, Mao won over the peasants through fair treatment. People of all classes were called to join the anti-Japanese war, with the national (middle and patriotic) and petty bourgeoisie, and even the landlords, assured of retaining their property, at least for the moment. A clash with the Guomindang in 1940-1941 ended the United Front. This necessitated the rectification campaign of 1942-1944, as Mao believed that the recruits needed disciplining through studying Marxism-Leninism. Also, as Mao’s Sinification of Marxism was being ignored, he believed that it needed emphasizing. The tool was the so-called cult of Mao—Mao was supreme in matters of ideology and was proclaimed infallible. In 1945, “Mao Zedong Thought” was incorporated into the party constitution.
The final phase of the civil war began in late 1948. The Guomindang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had lost both U.S. military aid and the confidence of the Chinese, and were weakened enough for the Communist People’s Liberation Army to take the major cities. On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was officially inaugurated. The revolution was not...