The title of Maurice Meisner’s comprehensive assessment of the first quarter century of China’s Communist government sets the tenor of his book and the Chinese revolutionary experiment in proper perspective. In strategy, ideological growth, and personal leadership, Mao’s presence dominated the major changes that have taken place in China since 1949. Viewing the motivations behind Chinese Communist policies, Meisner offers many salient comments to explain Mao’s—and by inference, China’s—contribution to the ideological development of Marxism-Leninism. So extensive has Mao’s imprint been that a third component added to the Marxist-Leninist lexicon, identified as “Maoism,” is justified.
While Mao developed his views on Communism and its application to the Chinese scene in the early 1940’s at Yenan, his basic concepts had already been formulated two decades earlier. Meisner contends that when Mao became an avowed Marxist in 1919, his thoughts that would later guide his interpretation of Marxism and revolution were already present. It is axiomatic that Mao then believed that the course of history is determined by men and that their revolutionary thoughts were most important in directing their actions. Mao could see during the New Culture Movement of the early 1920’s that organization and activism were effective means for bringing about political, and possibly institutional, change. It is precisely these ideas that led Mao to take his dramatic steps in launching the Great Leap Forward campaign (1957-1958) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), the first to accelerate the pace of communization and the second to challenge the party’s implementation of Marxism-Leninism.
Although Mao recognized Communism as a world revolutionary movement, he departed from traditional Marxist thinking to see the special role of China in it. Nationalism was prominent in Mao’s thoughts, and at the root of it was the Chinese hatred of imperialism. This widespread Chinese sentiment, Mao believed, would unite the people behind the revolutionary cause. In search of this mass support, Maoism inevitably assumed a populist role; and the countryside, where the vast peasantry lived, became the object of China’s Communism. Mao’s nationalist and populist role, contends Meisner, had a profound influence on “the manner in which he adapted and employed Marxism.” His basic departure from Leninism was Mao’s disinterest in the urban working class and in his understanding of the nature and role of the party. The peasant masses, Mao believed, bore a “revolutionary consciousness” rather than the party. While Mao’s strategy was unorthodox, Meisner correctly points out, his goals were in accord with orthodox Marxism.
Important to the determination and success of Chinese Communism was the commitment of the Maoists to the vision of a “socialist future” once a Communist government had been established. The Communist movement in China, Meisner contends, was not led by power-hungry men using Marxism as an ideological disguise for their ambitions, nor were they solely nationalists or modernizers, but they were devoutly committed to liberating those who were oppressed and exploited. Consequently, no matter to what extent Chinese Communist revolutionary strategy may have strayed from classical Marxism-Leninism, China’s leadership never abandoned its socialist objectives, as evident in the social and economic policies of the People’s Republic.
To achieve Mao’s goals in a large country, with yet unknown millions of people, speaking various dialects, amid squalor, destruction, and disorder, was no simple task in the early years after victory. The restructuring of China in a socialist mold required intense discipline and strict governance to weed out disruptive elements. Despite Mao’s preference for “democratic” methods of “persuasion,” it became apparent in the period 1949-1953 that the new Communist state resorted to oppression. A virtual “reign of terror,” sanctioned by Mao, against intransigent landlords opposing the new regime, resulted in the deaths of at least two million people.
Meisner suggests that this harsh policy was a nervous reaction to external threats emanating from the Korean War, a policy which subsided as the threat of a direct American attack on China receded. His explanation, however, may be too simplistic. While foreign threats were used to rally support for the new government’s policies, the oppression was likely a response to more urgent needs. When the Communists seized power, relatively few Chinese were acquainted with the objectives of Maoism; and at least one segment...
(The entire section is 1914 words.)