Skip to content

Who Cared About Whether Mao was a Marxist or Not?

March 25, 2010

Who Cared About Whether Mao was a Marxist or Not? Liberal Historiography and Chairman Mao

Gerry Iguchi (2000)

In the years between 1951 and 1974, there was a consistent line of liberal, intellectual historiography on the topic of Mao Tse-tung which was bent on defining Mao as something other than a Marxist or Marxist-Leninist in any deep sense. Benjamin Schwartz got the ball rolling in 1951 with his Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Schwartz explicitly calls Chinese Communism the latest stage of Marxism’s “deterioration” (201-202); in the introduction to the 1958 edition, he called it the “decomposition” of Marxism (4). In the context of the early fifties “red scare,” Schwartz’s purpose was to point out the fact that Chinese Communism was not simply part of a global conspiracy being controlled by the Kremlin. In 1966, Stuart Schram wrote Mao Tse-tung, a biography of the Chairman in which he too, once again, let us know that Mao differed substantially from anything one could call Marxism/Marxism-Leninism. Although Schwartz moved on to other topics, Schram published two other books on Mao, both of which were collections of the Chinese leader’s written or spoken words: The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung (1969) and Chairman Mao Talks to the People: Talks and Letters, 1956-1971 (1974). In the introductions of both of these books, even as late as the mid-1970s when it was quite clear to most observers that the Chinese Communists had significant differences with the Soviets, Schram used the words of Mao to, again, proclaim that Mao is something other than a true Marxist.

Schwartz, Schram, and to a lesser extent some other established scholars, were all attacked by a group of young academics with radical leanings in 1976 and 1977. These young scholars included Richard Pfeffer, Andrew Walder, and Mark Selden. Their criticisms, along with the responses of Schram, Schwartz, and others, were published in Modern China. Basically, the older scholars were accused of basing their evaluations of Mao’s Marxism on overly dogmatic and rigid understandings of Marxism. It seems that Pfeffer, Walder, and Selden critiqued the dogmatic Marxism of non-Marxist Sinologists because they saw something of value in the Marxist tradition, but a Marxist tradition entailing the kind of flexibility the older scholars would have denied it. As for the responses of Schwartz and Schram, they maintained their previously published positions.

My sympathies in the debate probably would have been with the radical young men. However, in a sense Schwartz and Schram were right too. The problem is that there are many Marxisms/Marxsism-Leninisms (in noting this, however, I am already in disagreement with Schwartz and Schram): for example, the Marxisms of the various socialist countries which exist or have existed, the internally contradictory Marxism of what Marx and Engels actually wrote; the mostly academic and cultural or literary Marxisms of Western Marxists such as Jameson, Harvey, Althusser, Lukacs, and Gramsci; and the Marxism of purist liberal intellectual historians of China. At any rate, at this point and as far as I am concerned, because of the futility of trying to pin down “Marxism/Marxism-Leninism,” it really does not seem to matter much whether Mao was a Marxist/Marxist-Leninist. In what follows, I will, however, be concerned with why it mattered so much to Schwartz and Schram. In order to understand this, we need to examine the bases on which they made their judgments

According to both Schwartz (especially, 1951, 191-199, and “The Essence of Marxism Revisited” in Modern China, 1976, 469) and Schram (especially, 1966, 322-323, 1967, 78-81, and “Some Reflections on the Pfeffer-Walder ‘Revolution’ in Chinese Studies,” Modern China, 1977, 183), a significant difference between Mao’s practice and ideal Marxist theory was that Mao’s revolution had not the urban proletariat as its basis but rather the rural peasantry. Indeed, as Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao and Mao Tse-tung make quite clear, Mao’s genius lay in the fact that, unlike previous leaders of the CCP, he was able to apply, in a way independent of Comintern directives, a modified Leninist theory of imperialism to the Chinese situation. In this he had the help of his mentor, Li Ta-chao, who by 1919 had already begun to reinvent Marxism-Leninism, arguing that the Chinese in general (except for “a tiny minority of militarists and profiteers”) as the global proletariat vis-à-vis the imperialist powers who exploited them, could lead the world “proletarian” revolution (Schram, 1966, 48). Mao was ultimately successful as the leader of the CCP and as a revolutionary because, rather than worrying about orthodoxy (at least in terms of revolutionary practice), he built on Li’s interpretation of Marxism in the age of China’s subjection to imperialism; in short, he did what worked.

In fact, as Schram pointed out, Marxism failed in the West because of the “growing participation of workers in the benefits of society” (1966, 322-323). However, as critics of imperialism from J. A. Hobson (a British liberal who greatly influenced Lenin with his 1900 work, Imperialism), to David Harvey and Lenin himself have argued, the apparent benefits visited upon more powerful nations’ workers (along with management of crises that Marx hoped would threaten and topple capitalism due to the problems of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and the over-accumulation of capital) have, in the age of formal imperialism, as well as after 1945, been dependent in one way or another on imperialism/neo-imperialism. As a result, one might say that the Western urban proletariat Marx had such hope for had become conservative rather than progressive. The key to a successful revolution, or at least the key Mao realized, was that the most exploited of the world’s people, or at least those who could convince themselves that they were, would be most willing to “destroy all previous securities,” and this, the “lowest stratum” of the world’s population, did not have to be, or maybe even could not be, any country’s urban proletariat (Cf., Marx, 1977, 230).

For Schram and Schwartz, on the other hand, the ultimate proof of the Chinese Communist revolution’s inauthenticity as a Marxist revolution comes down to the fact that China was not at the stage in history where one would be possible. This has to do with the fact that China had not developed capitalism adequately, the fact that as a result China’s bourgeoisie and proletariat were both inadequately developed, and the fact that as a result, Mao used the idea of the CCP as a proxy for the proletariat as leaders of a revolution (even though most of the party’s members technically were not actually of proletarian backgrounds) that was overwhelmingly dependent upon peasant support. They rightly indicate the fact that Marx believed that only the urban proletariat of the most advanced (i.e., European) countries could be a truly revolutionary class. For Schram and Schwartz, but not for Mao, conditions were not ripe in China for progress to a truly capitalist or modern stage, let alone the putative next stage according to Marxist theory.

The problem for liberal historiography then is to misrecognize or argue away the importance of the progressive elements of Mao’s thought. I believe that the desire to not recognize Mao’s thought as authentically progressive is embodied in Schram’s frequent references to the “Chinese Tradition” in the Chairman’s thought. In all three of the books by Schram discussed here, he makes much of Mao’s early immersion in medieval and classical literature; Mao’s allusions to these in his speeches, talks and writings; and Mao’s pride in China’s premodern past (see especially the first chapter of selections in The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, “To the Glory of the Hans”). As for Schwartz, there is the way that he writes about Marxism like it is a religion. In his 1970s response to criticism of his 1951 work, with reference to Marxism, he wrote: “‘How far can a historic movement based on certain beliefs drift from basic premises and still maintain its identity?’ – still seems to me a question of agonizing importance whether one deals with Marxism, Liberalism, Confucianism, Christianity, or any other belief system” (‘The Essence of Marxism Revisited,’ 462).

Premodern “belief systems” such as Christianity and Confucianism tend to be grounded in the idea that history consists of movement away from a primordial ideal time. The past is always the point of reference and the present is judged in accordance with how well it measures up to it. Thus the passage of time is a process of decay mixed with a desire for return; all truth is then dogmatic because it is known fully in advance. With modern ways of thinking, such a Marxism, Hegelianism, etc., the idea tends to be that the passage of time means movement towards a future that is both completely different from the past and better as well. The truth is determined with respect to the degree to which it embodies progress towards the unknown future (Cf., Harold Kahn and Albert Feuerwerker, “The Ideology of Scholarship,” in Fueurwerker, 1968, 5). Schwartz wanted it both ways: he wants Marxism to be a fixed dogma which is inalienably progressive. For his part, Schram wanted to see tradition in Mao, and thus a regression that at least contradicts Mao’s progressive character. What Schram neglected to realize was that a reference to classical or medieval literature could be used in a completely modern (or Marxist) way. To argue otherwise would be like claiming that Joyce’s Ulysses was, in some significant way, actually an ancient Greek work of literature.

The fact is, however, some Marxisms (maybe including some of the beliefs and writings of Marx and Engels themselves), can be criticized on the grounds that there is present a fundamental contradiction between a psuedo-religious, dogmatic, and supposedly scientific theory of what history was, is, and will be, on the one hand, and the belief in progress to a completely new (and thus not entirely predictable) future on the other. However, this kind of Marxism has probably never worked in any constructive sense (as an analytical tool or as a guide to revolution, for example), and probably never will. Maybe this is why it is the kind of Marxism liberals like best. Mao, on the other hand employed an improvisational version of Marxism as applied to local, actual conditions, and as he himself noted, his dialectical method of understanding the relationship between the universal and the particular was consistent with Marx’s method of thinking, if not everything Marx wrote (see in particular, Schram, 1974, 86 and 238-239). Ironically, the liberal criticism of Marxism as dogma is the obverse of the notion that liberalism is not dogmatic or theoretical, but grounded in experience unencumbered by preconceived theorization (something akin to the Christian notion that all other religions are superstition). Mao’s revolutionary practice comes closer to this ideal than the form of “true” Marxism Schwartz and Schram believed in.

An interesting counterpoint to Schwartz and Schram is William Hinton, author of Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (New York: Monthly Review, 1966). Hinton was a fervent believer in a Maoist project of global revolution grounded in agrarian reform. Hinton furthermore believed, as did Mao, that the application of abstract Marxist-Leninist theory to concrete realities was a creative process. The contradiction between a theory designed with reference to 19th century British industrial workers, and its application to the world of late 1940s Chinese peasants was not particularly a problem for Hinton, as it was not for Mao. However, with Hinton we see important problems with the Maoist project as well. For Hinton, the words of Mao, other Chinese Communist theorists, Marx, Lenin, etc., are like the gospel truth. They are dogma indeed. Hinton begins each chapter with an epigraph from one of the great Marxist-Leninists (theory); what follows is the demonstration of how the wisdom in the chapter-heading quote is true (practice?).

Schram was quite right when he noted the emphasis in Mao on the “volunteerist” side of Marx (see especially, 1966, 273-274, and “Comment” in Modern China 1977, 398), as opposed to the determinist. What he meant was that, whereas Marx understood that there was always a dialectic between free will and determinism, all things being determined (as Althusser put it) in “the final instance” by an economic base, for Mao and Chinese Communism there came to be an emphasis on the idea that one could will radical change, and that with the correct application of will power, none of the contradictions between Chinese Communist practice and Marxist theory mattered much: one is what one thinks one is. I don’t think the difference between thinking one is a “proletarian” and being a “proletarian,” for example, is necessarily all that important. However, I think the difference between things like thinking one is free and being free, thinking one is determining one’s own destiny and having that destiny controlled by others, and being motivated by resentment and being motivated by a concern for justice might be. Hinton’s Communism is not religion in the sense Schwartz suggests Marxism is or should be. It is something much more powerful and much more frightening. This is because willing Communism, democracy, freedom, and/or justice may help to achieve these things, but it also might function to help maintain a situation in which the pretense that such ends have been, or are being, achieved conceals or represses the fact that they have not and will not be. In other words, it is all too easy to slip from the will to transform, on the one hand, to the will to deceive oneself and/or others, on the other. In cautioning his readers about the dangers of such slippage, Marx himself put it well in the German Ideology: “[l]iberation is an historical act and not a mental act . . .” (1988, 61).

In the end, for me, what matters is a question neither Schwartz nor Schram (nor their Radical Left critics in 1976 and 1977, actually) were asking: how did Mao use Marxism-Leninism? It seems like there are two related areas of concern. One is the way that Marxism-Leninism offered Mao a specific set of ideas which he could use to analyze China’s situation and lead a revolution which would unite modern China for the first time, largely expel imperialist powers, etc. The second has to do with the way Mao used Marxism-Leninism to acquire and maintain his position as leader of the Chinese Communist Revolution. According to Schwartz in 1951, through much of the revolutionary period, much lip service was paid to toeing the orthodox Marxist-Leninist line, when in fact there was often “an utter lack of relation between theory and practice” (1951, 200). I believe that the explanation for this lay in the fact that Mao needed to maintain a kind of legitimacy in the eyes of fellow Chinese Communists and the Soviets (to some extent the fluctuating discourse of Communist orthodoxy juxtaposed with contradictory realities characterizes China up to this day). He used the idea that he was orthodox to bolster his leadership position, regardless of actualities.

The problem for our historians was twofold. First, to tackle the “use and abuse” of Marxism-Leninism instead of calling attention to Mao’s “heretical” divergence from Marx would have been to indicate that other terms, categories, and systems of thought, such as “democracy,” “liberalism,” “justice,” “liberty,” “natural rights,” “freedom,” etc., are all protean discursive constructs which are all sometimes used, more or less depending upon the specifics of given cases, by some people in order to gain and maintain power over other people. This was a problem for liberals, but it was also a problem for the radical Left. Ironically, there is a fine line perhaps between (relatively unquestioning) belief in the absolute utility of a Marxism appreciating the dialectical interplay of abstract theory and concrete practice, and Hinton’s brand of (relatively blind) faith in the essential justice of revolution. I would say that the important thing is to think for oneself, but that would make me sound too much like a classical liberal. Perhaps the point is to think for oneself and to always realize that one’s own thinking is never disinterested; also that one never completely thinks for oneself, but always with and through language; concepts; cultural, gender, and class filters; and so on, and these are, more or less, always beyond complete personal control.

The second problem was that for American historians before the 1960s, investigating the utility of Marxism in opposition to the real evil of imperialism from the Chinese perspective would have been uncomfortable if not dangerous. For liberals like Schwartz and Schram, this problem was compounded by the fact that an admission of Marxism’s utility in the Chinese context would have contradicted the conviction that Marx was essentially and completely wrongheaded in his critique of liberal capitalist modernity. On the other hand, it is notable that Schwartz and, to a greater degree, Schram were writing in opposition to conservatives who saw “red” conspiracies everywhere and they performed a valuable service perhaps in their debunking of Mao’s Marxian orthodoxy.

However, as John Henry Newman said in his classic treatise on liberal education, “the study of history” gives the mind “a power of judging of passing events, and of all events, a conscious superiority over them which before it did not possess” (1996 [1899]). In other words, knowledge, no matter how rhetorically disinterested, involves a kind of power over the known. I believe this sentiment has something to do with the function of hyper-nominalist concerns such as whether Mao was a Marxist (a similar question, by the way, is whether Japan or Spain were ever fascist: the debates are ridiculously endless). Non-Marxist Sinologists’ casting of “true” Marxism as something like a platonic ideal gave the impression at least that things were more stable and less threatening than they actually might have been. This had two important effects. The first is with respect to Mao: he was not a “Marxist” but another, not so frightening Platonic essence, a “Chinese.” The value of such a characterization of the Chairman was attested to by the lengths Schram went in 1974 in order to “prove” that Mao shifted his emphasis over the years, from Marxism to a recognition of the importance of things Chinese (see especially 1974, 34-36). Secondly, arguing for a singular and true definition of “Marxism” would have the effect of making our own democracy seem all the more secure. The impression one derives is that things like democracy and Marxism are not things used, but rather representations of immutable Truth; security and stability, unfortunately, come at the price of not asking whose ends are being served by our belief in the actuality (or progressive realization of the actuality) of such ideals.


Fredrick Engels and Karl Marx (1977), “The Communist Manifesto” in David McLellan ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings. New York: Oxford University Press.

Albert Feuerwerker (1968), “The Ideology of Scholarship” in Feuewerker ed., History in Communist China. Boston: MIT Press.

William Hinton (1966), Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Monthly Review Press.

J. A. Hobson (1965 [1900]), Imperialism: A Study. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Karl Marx (1988), The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers.

John Henry Newman (1996), The Idea of a University. New Haven: Princeton University Press.

Stuart Schram (1974), Chairman Mao Talks to the People. New York: Pantheon Books.

___________ (1977), “Comment.” Modern China 3 (Oct.), 395-400.

___________ (1976), The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. New York: Preager.

___________ (1977), “Some Reflections on the Pfeffer-Walder ‘Revolution’ in Chinese Studies.” Modern China 3 (April), 169-184.

Benjamin Schwartz (1951), Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. New York: Harper Torch Books.

___________ (1976), “The Essence of Marxism Revisited.” Modern China 2 (Oct.), 461-472.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: