Jenny Clegg: Was Mao a Marxist?

In this session for the Marx Memorial Library on 1 July 2021, Jenny Clegg explores how Mao adapted Marxist ideology to drive the Chinese peasant revolution from 1925-1949.


Edgar Snow’s famous book Red Star over China opens with a series of questions he was looking to answer as he set off for Yenan in 1936:  was the CPC a genuine Marxist Party or just a bunch of Red bandits? was the Red Army essentially a mob of hungry brigands as the Right wing KMT Nationalists made out?

From the Left also, Mao was being accused of departing from proletarian politics – for Trotsky the CPC under Mao’s leadership had been ‘captured by the peasants’ rich peasants at that.

Today similar scepticism is directed at whether or not China is genuinely socialist referencing these doubts about the earlier CPC history.

Mao was indeed a peasant leader; the Communist Party could not have come to power without the support of hundreds of millions of peasants  – they joined its mass organisations, they joined the Party itself, they carried out and conformed with its policies, and they gave material support in paying taxes and enlisting in its armies.  

Mao’s strategy of protracted revolution, building Red bases in the countryside to encircle the towns, is familiar to most people and will not be my focus here.

To answer the question ‘was Mao a Marxist’ it might be expected then that I start with his essays on philosophy – On Practice and On Contradiction.  But these essays in themselves are not the focus of my discussion either.  

Philosophy in context

For Mao, Marx was a guide to action – a guide to making revolution:.  It provided a viewpoint and a methodology.  His essays issued in 1937 – the one a theory of knowledge and the other an approach to analysing material reality in terms of social relations – were a call for Marxism to be grounded in the particularities of the Chinese situation, a call for the sinification of Marxism – the application of Marxist tools of analysis to solve the concrete problems of China by developing Marxism with Chinese characteristics.

It is my purpose today, focussing on the main question of peasant organisation, to show how Marxism was applied, setting out the concrete circumstances within which these essays were issued and how they came about.

With the Japanese armies preparing to move into China, Mao was already calling for a fundamental shift in the direction of CPC policy and revolutionary strategy in 1935, looking rather to renew a united front.  His ideas had developed by 1937 into building national resistance under the banner of New Democracy, a four class alliance including the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie, uniting all that could be united despite their different class interests, in the common aim of saving the nation. 

In doing this Mao had to stand up against the line and strategy of the existing CPC leadership which continued to adhere to the Comintern priorities of building worker-peasant Soviets the struggle for land.

The essays then were directed against a mechanical adherence to Marxism Leninism, against Left dogmatists who did not, as Mao was to say, ‘understand that conditions differ in different situations’ that is who were oblivious to the concrete circumstances of the political process.

Conducting discussion at a high level of abstraction, these works represent the concentrated essence of CPC experience since its foundation in 1921, setting out not so much the new strategy itself as the methods by which Mao, learning from past mistakes, arrived at this new understanding of China’s revolutionary situation.

Analysing China’s rural revolution: the conundrums

1937 was really the turning point for the CPC from a prolonged period of essentially groping in the dark to a period of greater clarity with policies and strategy now under Mao’s leadership guided by the application of Marxism.

Here I will highlight two problems in analysis of China’s revolutionary conditions: one concerning the analysis of China’s agrarian society, its relations of production and the dominant mode of production; and the other, deriving from this, the analysis of classes in the countryside.  These in turn provided firstly the basis for a strategy for peasant revolution and secondly an opening to analyse the interconnections between national and agrarian movements from a class basis, these being what ultimately guided China’s revolution to victory.

Now just to be clear when I ask: ‘was Mao a Marxist?’, I’m really talking also about the theoreticians he gathered round him in an ‘unofficial think tank’.  So one of the texts I shall look at is Chen Boda’s theory of rent. Chen Boda was a leading Marxist theoretician and Party activist who played a major role in developing the idea of New Democracy and who edited the first volumes of Mao’s works.  The other text to conisder, just a few pages long, was How to Analyse the Classes in the Rural Areas.

Before delving into these, so as to show their importance in addressing the particular challenges of understanding China’s concrete conditions, I need to go back to the beginning in order to set out the background.

The CPC founded in 1921 was an urban-based Party.  The revolutionary situation in the cities was escalating fast, and as opposition mounted against the imperialists and warlords, the Nationalist/KMT and the CPC formed a United Front in which the CPC was very much the junior partner.  

From Marx, Lenin and Stalin, the CPC drew the concepts of the bourgeois democratic revolution and socialism, of class alliances and the issues of bourgeois and proletarian leadership.  

The revolution was understood to comprise two processes – the national and the agrarian revolutions – and whilst it was recognised that the landlords and gentry at local levels served as the base of political power, at first, the CPC had low expectations of the revolutionary contribution of the peasants who were seen to be too scattered and difficult to organise.

But in 1926, as the KMT Nationalist armies embarked on their Northern Expedition wipe out the warlords and imperialists, support came not only from mass strikes by workers in the cities but also from the countryside with the rapid spread of peasant associations.   

Mao was to witness the peasants of Hunan ‘rising like a tornado’: seeing them parade the local ‘bad’ gentry in the streets with paper hats, learning how they broke into the houses of the wealthy families to eat up all their food, he recognised in them a force capable of challenging the political power of the landlord class even as their economic demands were still reformist, for rent reductions rather than the revolutionary take over of land.  

In this, Mao began to realise that, of the two parts the revolutionary process, the agrarian revolution was in fact the main content and the peasants as the motive force.

However, in 1927, at the point of victory against the warlords, the KMT leader Chiang Kaishek turned against the CPC and decimated the workers movement.   To escape the White Terror, the Communists were forced to retreat to the Southern mountains. 

What had gone wrong? For Mao, the failure of highlighted the importance of organising a Red Army.  However, his influence was very limited. The main controversy was between Stalin and Trotsky.

Stalin drew the conclusion, based on the Russian experience, this was the moment that the national bourgeoisie betrayed the revolution and that the bourgeois democratic revolution could only to be continued by a worker-peasant alliance under proletarian leadership.  

For Trotsky, the failure proved Stalin’s idea of the United Front had been fundamentally misconceived:  the capitalists were not a part of the revolution but the enemy and the only way forward was to build for socialism.

However, the working class in China was very small – the CPC had been unable to establish a single working class base in a single city – there was no other choice than to rely on the peasants.  But how to organise the peasants?  What was their revolutionary nature given the conditions of China’s political economy?  What was the stage of revolution?  How was a worker-peasant alliance to be built?  What role could a proletarian Party without a working class base?

These were extremely challenging questions.

In the first place, China’s agrarian society defied easy analysis.  There were landlords of varying sizes but no large scale manorial estates farmed by serfs; there were tenants and owner-cultivators, part tenants and part owner peasants, there were a great number of part time labourers and commercial relations were widespread but were no clear cut classes of agricultural proletariat or rural bourgeoisie.  Instead of promoting peasant independence and stimulating production, commercial relations only increased their impoverishment with households sliding into debt and losing land.  In other words, increased commercialisation only strengthened the position of the landlords.

Was China feudal? Was it capitalist? How to make sense of the complex patterns of exploitation: wage labour, usury as well as rent?  

What accounted for peasant impoverishment?  An inbuilt inability in the traditional peasant economy to respond to change and modernity? The subsumption of agriculture by international capital draining off the surplus?

Clearly analysis of agrarian society was key to understanding the peasant revolution – who were to be the targets of land confiscation? who were to be the beneficiaries of land redistribution? 

The revolutionary nature of the Chinese peasants and the roles of the rich, the middle and the poor peasants – where they stood in relation to the revolution – was the source of much contention in the CPC over land policies up to 1937.

The 6th Party Congress in the summer of 1928, with Stalin’s guidance, confirmed the bourgeois democratic stage of the Chinese revolution, however many questions remained unresolved.  The Congress in fact passed two apparently contradictory resolutions, one which, following Leninist orthodoxy, stated that the rich peasants were allies in the democratic revolution against the landlords; the other arguing explicitly that, in contrast with the European struggle by petty proprietors utilising land for a profit against the entrenched landed system, China’s struggle was that of completely impoverished and landless peasants as well as those self-cultivating farmers who had little land, against a feudal land monopoly. 

So here I come to the substance of my argument.  I will start by drawing attention to Chen Boda’s theory of rent which underpins the second of these resolutions. 

Chen Boda’s theory of rent

Chen Boda was to argue that the main constraint on China’s economic development was a system of parasitic landlordism based on monopoly rent.  This arose in conditions of the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a small percentage of the population on the one hand and its fragmented use on the other by the vast majority of land hungry peasants who farmed on tiny plots. 

The feudal character of the system, he argued, was expressed in the extra economic nature of rent which not only siphoned off surplus labour but also cut into the necessary labour, the subsistence, of the peasants.  

Now Trotsky had argued that the impact of foreign capital and the development of commerce had brought about a fundamental change in the landowning classes with the convergence of landlords, merchants and officials linked with the city bourgeoisie and increasingly integrated with the world capitalist system.

However Chen’s argument was that, despite the spread of commercial relations and of wage labour, there was no change in the form of surplus labour into capital.  Wealth accumulated through rent was used not for capital investment but for land speculation – to buy more land so as to collect more rent.  As the agrarian economy stagnated, the peasants had no way out other than to cling to small parcels for cultivation in order to survive, their competition driving rents up higher.  Unlike capitalist rent, Chen pointed out, the rate of rent was highest in the poorest areas where peasant demand was highest.  

The feudal nature of the system was for Chen also expressed in the fact that the predominant form of rent was paid in kind.  Collected as grain, rent was used to speculate in rural markets, buying cheap and selling dear all at the expense of the peasants.  In other words, through their land monopoly, landlords were also able to dominate the markets and control credit, so that unlike Europe, merchants and usurers grew on the basis of landlordism not in opposition to it, with commercial capital and credit closely linked to monopoly rent. 

It was not then as Trotsky thought the landlords who changed, converging with the merchants and the usurers, but the reverse as those making money from trade and credit used this speculate in land and in grain.

Chen’s analysis then helped to clarify the revolutionary nature of the Chinese peasantry as distinct from the patterns in Europe.  With the cultivation of land for a profit constrained, it was the poor peasant tenants with under-utilised labour and land insufficient to their needs, together with the owner peasants, the majority of whom were burdened by debt, that made up the main force of opposition to the system of feudal land monopoly.  

So this is the first example of the application of Marxism to the particular conditions of feudalism and capitalism in China.

The analysis of rural classes in the countryside.

Following the 6th Party Congress, the CPC at first took the line that rich peasants,

as allies in the democratic revolution against feudalism, were to be exempted from land confiscation and included in the peasant associations.  However, as land reform proceeded only too slowly, this ‘rich peasant line’ was identified as the obstacle.

The CPC leadership – the ’28 Bolsheviks’ – subsequently changed tack to pursue an anti-rich peasant line.

Now Trotsky had argued that struggle against the rich peasants should be the first and not the second step in the revolution in line with its socialist nature.  The usurious wealthy peasant, he claimed, was generally the hated exploiter in the village, the agent of urban banking capital.  

However this was not the view taken by the CPC leadership.  Instead they adhered to the Comintern line, that the national bourgeoisie had betrayed the democratic revolution, and saw the rich peasants as following them.  They then considered that the bourgeois influence of the rich peasants had to be countered by the assertion of proletarian leadership.  To ‘bolshevise’ the movement it was necessary to mobilise the poor peasants and agricultural workers in Poor Peasant Leagues in order to intensify the struggle against the village rich and contain the vacillation of the middle peasants, prioritising the needs of the poor above all.

Now Mao, whilst he had been following the leadership policies, had been drawing his own conclusions.  Endeavouring to apply the anti–rich peasant line, he was to observe that these methods led to indiscriminate attacks on anyone seen to be better off, driving the wealthy families into an impasse and inhibiting the middle peasants so that the poor peasants were left isolated.  Disunity in the peasant movement – contradictions among the peasants – left the villages susceptible to landlord intrigue as they sought to stage a comeback.  The only way the landlords could be brought under control, Mao concluded, was if the poor tenant and owner-peasants were united.  

The turning point for Mao was the application of Marxism in How to Analyse the Classes in the Rural Areas because by this method, rather than targeting wealth in general, whether the landlords, rich peasants or even well-to-do middle peasants, it became possible to distinguish different forms of wealth: from feudal exploitation; from capitalist exploitation and from own labour – and to organise appropriately.

The targets then were those chiefly relied on collecting rent, the landlords.  Whilst rich peasants also rented out land this was to a lesser extent, they differed in that they engaged in manual labour, that is, they were farmers.  They nevertheless obtained most of their wealth from exploitation mainly in the form of hiring labour.  

The middle peasants on the other hand relied mainly on their own labour although they might be involved in exploiting others or be exploited by others but only to a lesser degree.  The main difference between the middle peasants and the poor peasants was that whilst the former generally had sufficient to live on and did not have to hire out their labour, the latter, as part owners and completely dispossessed ,had to rent land, making up their insufficiency by hiring out their labour part time.  

Whilst the poor peasants generally made up some 60 to 70 per cent of the rural population and the middle peasants 20 to 30 percent, the landlords and rich peasants who held most of the land consisted only 10 per cent or so.  The agricultural proletariat who hired out their labour full time existed only in very small numbers.

This analysis then provided the basis for a strategy for organising the peasant democratic movement targeting feudal relations –  rented land – only, and prioritising not the needs of the poor but unity with the middle peasants.  Some of these had become targets of the Poor Peasants Leagues since they also engaged in hiring labour, although this was only to a lesser extent since they relied mainly on their own labour.  

Taking the middle peasants as the centre of the struggle, Mao’s new strategy, whilst mobilising the poor the most active peasants, sought to draw the more independent owner cultivators into the peasant associations. 

The strategy also set out a completely different to the rich peasants, treating them neither as allies nor in the enemy camp but seeking to neutralise them.  Class analysis revealed their dual characteristics – part capitalist as well as part feudal.  Mao then on the one hand opposed political leniency towards the rich peasants – excluding them from the peasant organisations since they tended to take the landlords’ side in opposing land confiscation, but on the other hand advocated economic leniency, encouraging them to develop their farm business, dividing them from the landlords by fostering their capitalist tendencies.

It was for these views on unity with the middle peasants as well as on a certain leniency towards the rich peasants that Mao was accused of departing from a class viewpoint; for his part he was to cast his critics who adhered closely to the Comintern line as Left dogmatists.

The agrarian and the national revolutions

This now takes us to the third aspect I wish to highlight concerning the interconnection between the national and the agrarian revolutions – which could only be understood by means of class analysis.

Mao’s reassessment of the rich peasants opened the door to a reconsideration of the assessment that the national bourgeoisie had betrayal the revolution in 1927.  Rather than having thrown in their lot with the pro-imperialist, pro-feudal camp as Stalin thought, Mao came to the view that the urban capitalists were in fact vacillating or wavering.  

As the Japanese began their advance into China, Mao saw that these nationalists were more inclined to join forces again with the CPC to form a new United Front of resistance.  Making his stand against the Left dogmatists, he was to succeed in radically shifting policy from the two-class worker-peasant alliance to a four class bloc, a New Democracy, involving the national bourgeoisie.  

The main contradiction, Mao understood, was now between the nation and imperialist aggression.  In the interests of uniting all who could be united in the largest force possible to defend the nation, peasant revolution was then to take second place and land policy was to be moderated from land confiscation to a policy of rent and interest rate reductions more favoured by the national bourgeoisie.  

This was a compromise for peasant interests but at least they saw some benefit from the easing of the rent burden.  Meanwhile, landlords and rich peasants, encouraged to concentrate on their business interests, even sold off some of their land.

However, these bourgeois-type reforms were to lead to problems later.  

With the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the United Front with the KMT collapsed and as the situation reverted to civil war, the CPC returned to the policy of land takeover aimed at the complete eradication of feudal relations.

What happened as the land policy shifted from moderate to radical, at least in some villages, is recounted in detail in the books of William HInton’s Fanshen and David and Isabel Crook’s on 10 Mile Inn.

These describe how local cadres and villagers confronted the problem of ‘not-so-thorough’ land reform.  Numbers of poor peasants still had insufficient land and the blame was laid on the landlords – ‘alien class elements’ who had infiltrated the movement – as well as on cadre corruption. Once again the situation in the villages descended into confusion.   Poor peasants even went to the landlords’ houses mob-handed to dig up non-existent buried treasure; the village leaders were summarily kicked out of the Party for collusion with the village rich.

Mao ordered the re-issuing of the How to Analyse of the Classes in the Rural Areas to expose the error of the indiscriminate attacks on all forms of wealth.  However it also became clear that this ‘poor peasant line’ had been a reaction against a ‘middle peasant line’ when, during the Anti-Japanese Resistance, the landlords had sold land to the benefit of the better off middle peasants who could afford to buy.  

This bourgeois transfer of land through purchase rather than through revolutionary confiscation by peasant mobilisation had resulted in only a partial land redistribution increasing inequality of land holdings among the peasants.  The problem of ‘not so thorough’ land reform was then a matter of contradictions among the peasants rather than simply of landlord opposition and cadre corruption.

Subsequently, as Hinton and the Crooks show, problems were solved through a process which involved both Party and villagers in study meetings to apply the text so as to understand the structure and potential of their village economy.

At the same time, in the areas newly liberated as the CPC now swept across the country, the land confiscation strategy was refined, narrowing the targets from the bigger land owners step by step down to the village rich as the peasant movement was built up in stages, driven by poor peasant activism but drawing in the middle peasants to take a proportion of the leadership positions in the village associations.

This episode, seen from a Marxist perspective, had revealed how the different class lines of the bourgeoisie and proletariat impacted on peasant organisation, the one relying on peasant passivism, exacerbating contradictions among the peasants, the other guiding peasant mobilisation through stages, handling the contradictions that arose amongst them in the process of rural transformation. 

To conclude

The CPC was in the end able to gain overall leadership as it finally ousted the KMT and their US backers to end the imperialist domination of China.  

Winning the support of the national bourgeoise was made possible by the CPC’s demonstration of leadership over the peasant movement.  As the poor peasants gained land sufficient for survival, a rich peasant economy was allowed to prosper.  In this way, the Party proved its ability to establish stability in the countryside necessary to set China on the path of economic growth and development, creating hope for the future.  

Marxism had enabled Mao to situate China’s historical trajectory within the general trend of the world from feudalism to capitalism and socialism.  The CPC saw the revolution advancing within the wider world socialist trend.  The Bolshevik revolution and Soviet support had given much confidence and under CPC leadership China’s democratic revolution contained seeds of a socialist transition.  This was to be seen not only in the mobilisation of the poor.  In addition as the village economies were transformed through land reform, some socialist features were nurtured, notably local government control of village granaries and the fostering of mutual aid exchanges of labour for tools and draught animals which knitted the poor and middle peasants together.

There was, as the CPC painfully learnt, no blueprint for revolution.  Nevertheless, the conceptual tools of Marxist theory gave the CPC the means to understand the specificity of its historical conditions – the distinctive combination of feudalism and commercial relations which gave the movement of impoverished peasants quite a different character from anti-feudal movements in Europe, defining distinctive roles to the different sections of the peasants.

The failure to understand the differences in the Chinese and European revolutions continue to confuse many in the Western Left – the charge that Mao was ‘unproletarian’ still echoes in critiques of Chinese socialism today.

But the CPC’s proletarian leadership under Mao was not to be counted in the number of workers in the Party which was after all small.  Nor was it about uniting the peasants’ struggles with the those of the working class in the towns – adventurist attempts to take over cities from the countryside after 1927 failed.  The Chinese revolution, Mao had realised, rather than consisting of a single national event simultaneously sweeping across the cities and country at one particular moment, involved the protracted struggle which was already taking place in the armed struggle of the peasants against the landlords. 

The CPC certainly developed deep roots among the peasants but proletarian leadership was really a matter of the application of Marxism to find solutions to China’s problems.

Mao was a Marxist in action, using Marxist methodology to unravel the complexities of the agrarian society, analysing production relations as a means of identifying classes so as to provide the basis for a revolutionary strategy.  From Marxist class analysis, the CPC was to develop a strategy of shared benefit so as to unite the various classes around mass peasant mobilisation.  Only in this way was it possible to create a force sufficient to defeat feudalism and imperialism and end the constraints on China’s development.

If I was asked what Mao brought to Marxism – added to Marxism – from which others should learn – I would say it was indeed the methods set out in his essays on philosophy.  The theory of contradiction enabled the CPC to take a holistic approach, building up a picture of the whole, seeing how the parts pieced together; looking to the long term trends whilst identifying the immediate primary and secondary contradictions.

This then makes it possible to prioritise and sequence revolutionary development so as to take a step at a time, organising class alliances according to changes in objective circumstances as the CPC did focussing now on the class struggle in the countryside and now the nation.  By looking ahead, it also becomes possible, in the midst of meeting the challenges of the present, to prepare the ground for transition to the next stage.

The important point is also that Mao’s approach laid weight not only on the central class struggle but also the contradictions among the people, not only the problem of the landlords but the contradictions within the peasant movement.

Mao’s strategy whilst based on analysis of material conditions also appreciated that class lines are sometimes not so clear cut – the rich peasants were a bit feudal, the urban business families would also retain some property in their home villages.  For Mao, class struggle whilst principled was not just about being for and against, there was room for neutrality, there was room for wavering in political class attitudes.  Later he was to spelt out On the Correct handling of Contradictions among the People issued in 1957 how it was possible for antagonistic class relations to be handled in non-antagonistic ways, just as the landlord-peasant relationship was handled during the anti-Japanese resistance and the relationship between capitalist and worker was handled under New Democracy.

And above all I’d emphasise Mao’s approach of learning from past mistakes.  

As we reflect on the achievements of the past 100 years, we should forget how the New China with its independence from imperialism was built on the strength of the peasant movement.  And that – something that can get lost in debates about whether China is state capitalist or socialist –  alliance with the peasants remains the basis of the people’s democratic state.

One thought on “Jenny Clegg: Was Mao a Marxist?”

  1. So has the Indian freedom non-violent struggle or mere transfer of power meant shackles permanently on the possibility of alternative strategies in a parliamentary road to development?

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