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Communism is a form of government most closely associated with the ideas of Karl Marx, which he outlined in The Communist Manifesto . Communism is based on the goal of eliminating socioeconomic class struggles by creating a classless society in which everyone shares the benefits of labor and the state controls all property and wealth.

Social Studies, Civics, Economics

Soldiers Marching in Beijing

China is one of just five proclaimed communist nations left. There were many more communist countries in 1973 when this photograph of Chinese soldiers was taken.

Photograph by J. Cuinieres/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

China is one of just five proclaimed communist nations left. There were many more communist countries in 1973 when this photograph of Chinese soldiers was taken.

Communism is a form of government most frequently associated with the ideas of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who outlined his ideas for a utopian society in The Communist Manifesto , written in 1848. Marx believed that capitalism , with its emphasis on profit and private ownership, led to inequality among citizens. Thus, his goal was to encourage a system that promoted a classless society in which everyone shared the benefits of labor and the state government controlled all property and wealth. No one would strive to rise above others, and people would no longer be motivated by greed. Then, communism would close the gap between rich and poor, end the exploitation of workers, and free the poor from oppression. The basic ideas of communism did not originate with Marx, however. Plato and Aristotle discussed them in ancient times, but Marx developed them into a popular doctrine , which was later propelled into practice. Marx’s ideal society ensured economic equality and fairness. Marx believed that private ownership of property promoted greed, and he blamed capitalism for society’s problems. The problems, he claimed, stemmed from the Industrial  Revolution . The rise of factories, the reliance on machines, and the capability of mass production created conditions that promoted oppression and encouraged the development of a proletariat, or a working class. Simply put, in a capitalist system, the factories fueled the economy, and a wealthy few owned the factories. This created the need for a large number of people to work for the factory owners. In this environment, the wealthy few exploited the laborers, who had to labor in order to live. So, Marx outlined his plan to liberate the proletariat, or to free them of the burden of labor. His idea of utopia was a land where people labored as they were able, and everyone shared the wealth. If the government controlled the economy and the people relinquished their property to the state, no single group of people could rise above another. Marx described this ideal in his Manifesto , but the practice of communism fell far short of the ideal. For a large part of the 20th century, about one-third of the world lived in communist countries—countries ruled by dictatorial leaders who controlled the lives of everyone else. The communist leaders set the wages, they set the prices, and they distributed the wealth. Western capitalist nations fought hard against communism , and eventually, most communist countries collapsed. Marx’s utopia was never achieved, as it required revolution on a global scale, which never came to pass. However, as of 2020, five proclaimed communist countries continue to exist: North Korea, Vietnam, China, Cuba, and Laos.

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Communism is a political and economic ideology that positions itself in opposition to liberal democracy and capitalism , advocating instead for a classless system in which the means of production are owned communally and private property is nonexistent or severely curtailed. 

Key Takeaways

  • Communism is an economic ideology that advocates for a classless society in which all property and wealth are communally owned, instead of being owned by individuals.
  • Visions of a society that may be considered communist appeared as long ago as the 4th Century BCE.
  • Modern communist ideology began to develop during the French Revolution, and its seminal tract, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' "Communist Manifesto," was published in 1848.
  • Communism was pitted against capitalism, which relies on democracy and production of capital to form a society.
  • Prominent examples of communism were the Soviet Union and China. While the former collapsed in 1991, the latter has drastically revised its economy to include some capitalism.

"Communism" is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of ideologies. The term's modern usage originated with Victor d'Hupay, an 18th-century French aristocrat who advocated living in "communes" in which all property would be shared , and "all may benefit from everybody's work."

The idea was hardly new, even at that time, however: The Bible's Book of Acts describes 1st-Century Christian communities holding property in common, according to a system known as  koinonia , which inspired later religious groups such as the 17th-century English "Diggers" to reject private ownership.

Modern communist ideology began to develop during the French Revolution, and its seminal tract, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' "Communist Manifesto," was published in 1848. That pamphlet rejected the Christian tenor of previous communist philosophies, laying out a materialist and—its proponents claim—scientific analysis of the history and future trajectory of human society. "The history of all hitherto existing society," Marx and Engels wrote, "is the history of class struggles."

The Communist Manifesto presented the French Revolution as a major historical turning point when the "bourgeoisie"—the merchant class that was in the process of consolidating control over the "means of production"—overturned the feudal power structure and ushered in the modern, capitalist era. That revolution replaced the medieval class struggle, which pitted the nobility against the serfs, with the modern one pitting the bourgeois owners of capital against the "proletariat," the working class who sell their labor for wages.

In the Communist Manifesto and later works, Marx, Engels, and their followers advocated for (and predicted as historically inevitable) a global proletarian revolution, which would usher in first an era of socialism , then of communism .

In Communist theory, the final stage of human development would mark the end of class struggle and therefore of history: All people would live in social equilibrium, without class distinctions, family structures, religion, or property. The state, too, would "wither away."

The Communist economy would function, as a popular Marxist slogan puts it, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Marx and Engels' theories wouldn't be tested in the real world until after their deaths. In 1917, during World War I, an uprising in Russia toppled the czar and sparked a civil war that eventually saw a group of radical Marxists led by Vladimir Lenin gain power in 1922. The Bolsheviks, as this group was called, founded the Soviet Union on former Imperial Russian territory and attempted to put communist theory into practice.

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin had developed the Marxist theory of vanguardism, which argued that a close-knit group of politically enlightened elites was necessary to usher in the higher stages of economic and political evolution: socialism and finally communism.

Lenin died shortly after the civil war ended, but the "dictatorship of the proletariat," led by his successor Joseph Stalin, would pursue brutal ethnic and ideological purges as well as forced agricultural collectivization. Tens of millions died during Stalin's rule, from 1922 to 1953, on top of the tens of millions who died as a result of the war with Nazi Germany.

Rather than withering away, the Soviet state became a powerful one-party institution that prohibited dissent and occupied the "commanding heights" of the economy. Agriculture, the banking system, and industrial production were subject to quotas and price controls laid out in a series of Five Year Plans.

This system of central planning enabled rapid industrialization, and from 1950 to 1965, growth in Soviet gross domestic product (GDP) outpaced that of the U.S. In general, however, the Soviet economy grew at a much slower pace than its capitalist, democratic counterparts.

Weak consumer spending was a particular drag on growth. Central planners' emphasis on heavy industry led to chronic underproduction of consumer goods, and long lines at understocked grocery stores were a fixture of Soviet life even during periods of relative prosperity.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 after a push to reform the economic and political system and provide greater room for private enterprise and free expression. These reform pushes, known as perestroika  and  glasnost , respectively, didn't halt the economic decline the Soviet Union suffered in the 1980s and likely hastened the Communist state's end by loosening its grip on sources of dissent.

In 1949, after more than 20 years of war with the Chinese Nationalist Party and Imperial Japan, Mao Zedong's Communist Party gained control of China to form the world's second major Marxist-Leninist state. Mao allied the country with the Soviet Union, but the Soviets' policies of de-Stalinization and "peaceful coexistence" with the capitalist West led to a diplomatic split with China around 1958.

Mao's rule in China resembled Stalin's in its violence, deprivation, and insistence on ideological purity. During the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, the Communist Party ordered the rural population to produce enormous quantities of steel in an effort to jumpstart an industrial revolution in China.

The same period's Great Chinese Famine killed at least 16 million people and perhaps more than 45 million. The Cultural Revolution, an ideological purge that lasted from 1966 until Mao's death in 1976, killed perhaps a further 1.6 million people and subjected millions of others to political persecution.

After Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of market reforms that remained in effect under his successors. The U.S. began normalizing relations with China when President Nixon visited in 1972, prior to Mao's death.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains in power, presiding over a largely capitalist system, though state-owned enterprises continue to form a large part of the economy. Freedom of expression is significantly curtailed and meaningful opposition to the reining Communist Party isn't permitted. In short, it would take a miracle for the CCP to be ousted.

The year marked the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War between that power and the U.S.

The U.S. emerged from World War II as the world's richest and most militarily powerful nation. As a liberal democracy that had just defeated fascist dictatorships in two theaters, the country—if not all of its people—felt a sense of exceptionalism and historical purpose. So did the Soviet Union, its ally in the fight against Germany and the world's only revolutionary Marxist state. The two powers promptly divided Europe into spheres of political and economic influence: Winston Churchill called this dividing line the "Iron Curtain."

The two superpowers, both of which possessed nuclear weapons after 1949, engaged in a long standoff known as the Cold War. The closest the U.S. came to a direct military conflict with the Soviet Union was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The U.S. did fight a prolonged war in Vietnam, however, in which its military supported South Vietnamese forces fighting the Chinese- and Soviet-supported North Vietnamese army and South Vietnamese communist guerrillas. The U.S. withdrew from the war and Vietnam was united under communist rule in 1975.

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Communism failed for several reasons, including a lack of profit incentive among citizens, the failure of central planning, and the impact of power being seized by such a small number of people, who then exploited it and gamed the system.

Why Did Communism Fail?

While there has been extensive study of the reasons for communism's failure, researchers have pinpointed a couple of common factors that contributed to its demise.

The first is an absence of incentives among citizens to produce for profit. The profit incentive leads to competition and innovation in society. But an ideal citizen in a communist society was selflessly devoted to societal causes and rarely stopped to think about their own welfare.

The second reason for communism's failure was the system's inherent inefficiencies, such as centralized planning. This form of planning requires aggregation and synthesis of enormous amounts of data at a granular level. Because all projects were planned centrally, this form of planning was also complex. In several instances, growth data was fudged or error-prone in order to make facts fit into planned statistics and create an illusion of progress.

The concentration of power in the hands of a select few also bred inefficiency and, paradoxically enough, provided them with incentives to game the system for their benefit and retain their hold on power. Corruption and laziness became endemic features of this system and surveillance, such as characterized East German and Soviet societies, was common. It also disincentivized industrious and hard-working people. In the end, the economy suffered.

What Is an Example of Communism?

An example of communism would be a commune where people live together and share responsibilities and possessions. Many of these communities function well, although they do tend to be small in scale.

What Countries Are Still Communist?

Communism is the official form of government in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. However, these countries also abide by some capitalist principles, are largely autocratic in nature, and don't reflect Marx’s definition of the term.

What Is the Difference Between Communism and Socialism?

Both communism and socialism advocate public over private ownership, champion equality, and seek to give power to the working class. However, socialism is viewed as a more moderate ideology. Unlike communism, it permits the continued existence of capitalism in some parts of the economy and favors gradual change over revolution.

Communism, as a theory, has been around since the beginning of humanity. However, it was the French Revolution, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels who turned it into an influential political ideology. 

Since then, the idea of a classless society in which all property and wealth are communally owned has been tarnished somewhat. While it has existed harmoniously in smaller communities, on a larger level communism has so far failed to be successfully implemented. The two major examples we have are in Russia and China, where communist leaders ruled with violence and suppression and often gamed the system for their own benefit.

Some say this proves communism doesn’t work. Others argue that these regimes deviated from communism and shouldn’t, therefore, be considered as examples.

Britannica. " Communism ."

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. " The Communist Manifesto ," Page 9. Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. " The Communist Manifesto ," Page xxviii. Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955.

Library of Congress. " Revelations From the Russian Archives ."

History.com. " Joseph Stalin ."

Texas National Security Review. " Assessing Soviet Economic Performance During the Cold War: A Failure of Intelligence ?"

U.S. Department of State - Office of the Historian. " Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, 1989 ."

U.S. Department of State - Office of the Historian. " The Chinese Revolution of 1949 ."

U.S. Department of State Archive. " Background Notes: China, August 1999 ."

Columbia University. " The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-1961 ," Page 1568.

Harvard University. " For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Political Legacy of China's Cultural Revolution ."

U.S. Secretary of State - Office of the Historian. " Chronology of U.S.-China Relations, 1784-2000 ."

Human Rights Watch. " China ."

Center for Strategic and International Studies. " Hong Kong 2022 ."

Council on Foreign Relations. " Political Participation in China: What’s Allowed Under Xi ?"

Library of Congress. " Churchill and the Great Republic ."

U.S. Secretary of State - Office of the Historian. " The Collapse of the Soviet Union ."

Marxists.org. " How to Be a Good Communist ."

Britannica. " Which Countries Are Communist ?"

History.com. " How Are Socialism and Communism Different ?"

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The meaning of communism to americans: study paper by richard m. nixon, vice president, united states of america.

The major problem confronting the people of the United States and free peoples everywhere in the last half of the 20th century is the threat to peace and freedom presented by the militant aggressiveness of international communism. A major weakness in this struggle is lack of adequate understanding of the character of the challenge which communism presents.

I am convinced that we are on the right side in this struggle and that we are well ahead now in its major aspects. But if we are to maintain our advantage and assure victory in the struggle, we must develop, not only among the leaders, but among the people of the free world a better understanding of the threat which confronts us.

The question is not one of being for or against communism. The time is long past when any significant number of Americans contend that communism is no particular concern of theirs. Few can still believe that communism is simply a curious and twisted philosophy which happens to appeal to a certain number of zealots but which constitutes no serious threat to the interests or ideals of free society.

The days of indifference are gone. The danger today in our attitude toward communism is of a very different kind. It lies in the fact that we have come to abhor communism so much that we no longer recognize the necessity of understanding it.

We see the obvious dangers. We recognize that we must retain our present military and economic advantage over the Communist bloc, an advantage which deters a hot war and which counters the Communist threat in the cold war. In the fields of rocket technology and space exploration, we have risen to the challenge and we will keep the lead that we have gained. There is no question that the American people generally will support whatever programs our leaders initiate in these fields.

What we must realize is that this struggle probably will not be decided in the military, economic, or scientific areas, important as these are. The battle in which we are engaged is primarily one of ideas. The test is one not so much of arms but of faith.

If we are to win a contest of ideas we must know their ideas as well as our own. Our knowledge must not be superficial. We cannot be content with simply an intuition that communism is wrong. It is not enough to rest our case alone on the assertions, true as they are, that communism denies God, enslaves men, and destroys justice.

We must recognize that the appeal of the Communist idea is not to the masses, as the Communists would have us believe, but more often to an intelligent minority in newly developing countries who are trying to decide which system offers the best and surest road to progress.

We must cut through the exterior to the very heart of the Communist idea. We must come to understand the weaknesses of communism as a system - why after more than 40 years on trial it continues to disappoint so many aspirations, why it has failed in its promise of equality in abundance, why it has produced a whole library of disillusionment and a steady stream of men, women, and children seeking to escape its blight.

But we must also come to understand its strength - why it has so securely entrenched itself in the U.S.S.R., why it has been able to accomplish what it has in the field of education and science, why in some of the problem areas of the world it continues to appeal to leaders aspiring to a better life for their people.

It is to find the answers to these questions that in this statement I want to discuss communism as an idea - its economic philosophy, its philosophy of law and politics, its philosophy of history.

This statement will admittedly not be simple because the subject is complex.

It will not be brief because nothing less than a knowledge in depth of the Communist idea is necessary if we are to deal with it effectively.

In discussing the idea I will not offer programs to meet it. I intend in a later statement to discuss the tactics and vulnerabilities of the Communist conspiracy and how we can best fashion a strategy for victory.

I anticipate that some might understandably ask the question - why such a lengthy discussion of communism when everybody is against it already?

If the free world is to win this struggle, we must have men and women who not only are against communism but who know why they are against it and who know what they are going to do about it. Communism is a false idea, and the answer to a false idea is truth, not ignorance.

One of the fundamentals of the Communist philosophy is a belief that societies pass inevitably through certain stages. Each of these stages is supposed to generate the necessity for its successor. Feudalism contained within its loins the seed of capitalism; capitalism was, in other words, to supplant feudalism. Capitalism, in turn, moves inevitably toward a climax in which it will be supplanted by its appointed successor, communism. All of these things are matters of necessity and there is nothing men can do to change the inflexible sequence which history imposes.

It is a part of this philosophy that, as society moves along its predestined way, each stage of development is dominated by a particular class. Feudalism was dominated by the aristocracy; capitalism by something called the bourgeoisie; communism by the proletariat. During any particular stage of society's development the whole of human life within that society is run and rigged for the benefit of the dominant class; no one else counts for anything and the most he can expect is the leftover scraps. In the end, of course, with the final triumph of communism, classes will disappear - what was formerly the proletariat will expand so that it is the only class, and, since there are no longer any outsiders that it can dominate, there will in effect be no classes at all.

Now this theory of successive stages of development makes it clear that, if we are to understand communism, we must understand the Communist view of capitalism, for, according to Communist theory, capitalism contains within itself the germs of communism. The Communist notion of capitalism is that it is a market economy, an economy of "free trade, free selling and buying," to quote the manifesto again. It follows from this that, since communism inevitably supplants and destroys capitalism, it cannot itself be anything like market economy.

The fundamental belief of the Communist economic philosophy therefore is a negative one; namely, a belief that, whatever the economic system of mature communism may turn out to be, it cannot be a market economy; it cannot - in the words of the Communist Manifesto - be an economy based on "free trade, free selling and buying."

It may be well at this point to digress for the purpose of recalling the curious fact that the literature of communism contains so many praises for the achievements of capitalism. The manifesto contains these words about the market economy of capitalism and its alleged overlords, the bourgeoisie:

It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former migrations of nations and crusades. * * * The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce 100 years (the manifesto speaks from the year 1848), has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground - what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

Marx and Engels could afford this praise for capitalism because they supposed it would everywhere be succeeded by communism, a stage of society whose glories would in turn dwarf all the achievements of capitalism. Communism would build on capitalism and bring a new economy that would make the capitalist world look like a poorhouse. Those who constituted the dominant class of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, would have performed their historic mission and would be dismissed from the scene - dismissed without thanks, of course, for after all they only accomplished what was foreordained by the forces of history, forces that were now to throw them into the discard like the husk of a sprouting seed.

One of the most startling gaps in the Communist theory is the lack of any clear notion of how a Communist economy would be organized. In the writings of the great founders of communism there is virtually nothing on this subject. This gap was not an oversight, but was in fact a necessary consequence of the general theory of communism. That theory taught, in effect, that as a society moves inevitably from one level of development to another, there is no way of knowing what the next stage will demand until in fact it has arrived. Communism will supplant and destroy the market economy of capitalism. What will its own economy be like? That we cannot know until we are there and have a chance to see what the world looks like without any institution resembling an economic market. The manifesto, in fact, expresses a deep contempt for "utopian socialists" who propose "an organization of society specially contrived" by them, instead of waiting out the verdict of history and depending on the "spontaneous class organization of the proletariat." The Communist economy would organize itself according to principles that would become apparent only when the arena had been cleared of the market principle.

Operating then, in this vacuum of guidance left behind by their prophets, how did the founders of the Soviet Union proceed to organize their new economy? The answer is that they applied as faithfully as they could the teachings of their masters. Since those teachings were essentially negative, their actions had to have the same quality. They started by attempting to root out from the Russian scene every vestige of the market principle, even discouraging the use of money, which they hoped soon to abolish altogether. The production and distribution of goods were put under central direction, the theory being that the flow of goods would be directed by social need without reference to principles of profit and loss. This experiment began in 1919 and came to an abrupt end in March of 1921. It was a catastrophic failure. It brought with it administrative chaos and an almost inconceivable disorder in economic affairs, culminating in appalling shortages of the most elementary necessities.

Competent scholars estimate its cost in Russian lives at 5 million. The official Russian version of this experiment does not deny that it was an enormous failure. It attributes that failure to inexperience and to a mythical continuation of military operations, which had in fact almost wholly ceased. Meanwhile the Russian economy has been moving steadily toward the market principle.

The flow of labor is controlled by wages, so that the price of labor is itself largely set by market forces. The spread from top to bottom of industrial wages is in many cases wider than it is in this country. Managerial efficiency is promoted by substantial economic incentives in the form of bonuses and even more substantial perquisites of various kinds. Enterprises are run on a profit and loss basis. Indeed, there are all the paraphernalia of an advanced commercial society, with lawyers, accountants, balance sheets, taxes of many kinds, direct and indirect, and finally even the pressures of a creeping inflation.

The allocation of resources in Russia probably now comes about as close to being controlled by the market principle as is possible where the government owns all the instruments of production. Russian economists speak learnedly of following the "Method of Balances."

This impressive phrase stands for a very simple idea. It means that in directing production and establishing prices an effort is made to come out even, so that goods for which there is an insufficient demand will not pile up, while shortages will not develop in other fields where demand exceeds supply. The "Method of Balances" turns out to be something a lot of us learned about in school as the law of supply and demand.

All of this is not to say that the Russian economy has fully realized the market principle. There are two obstacles that block such a development. The first lies in the fact that there is a painful tension between what has to be done to run the economy efficiently and what ought to be happening according to orthodox theory. The result is that the Russian economist has to be able to speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. He has to be prepared at all times for sudden shifts of the party line. If today he is condemned as an "unprincipled revisionist" who apes capitalist methods, tomorrow he may be jerked from the scene for having fallen into a "sterile orthodoxy", not realizing that Marxism is a developing and creative science.

The other obstacle to the realization of a free market lies in the simple fact that the government owns the whole of industry. This means, for one thing, that the industrial units are huge, so that all of steel, or all of cosmetics, for example, is under a single direction. This naturally creates the economic condition known as oligopoly and the imperfectly functioning market which attends that condition.

Furthermore, a realization of the market principle would require the managers of the various units of industry to act as if they were doing something they are not, that is, as if they were directing independent enterprises. Understandably there is a considerable reluctance to assume this fictitious role, since the manager's reward for an inconvenient independence may well be a trip to Siberia where he is likely nowadays, they say, to be made chief bookkeeper in a tiny power plant 300 miles from the nearest town. Meanwhile, a constant theme of complaint by Moscow against the managers is that they are too "cousinly" with one another and that they are too addicted to "back scratching." They ought to be acting like capitalist entrepreneurs, but they find this a little difficult when they are all working for the same boss.

One of the most familiar refrains of Communist propaganda is that "capitalism is dying of its internal contradictions." In fact, it would be hard to imagine a system more tortured by internal contradictions than present-day Russia. It constantly has to preach one way and act another. When Russian economists and managers discover that they have to do something that seems to contradict the prophets, they usually don't know which of three justifications - all hazardous - they ought to attempt: (1) to explain their action as a temporary departure from Marxist propriety to be corrected in a more propitious future; (2) to show that what they are doing can be justified by the inherited text if it is read carefully and between the lines; or (3) to invoke the cliché that Marxism is a progressive science that learns by experience - we can't after all, expect Marx, Engels, and Lenin to have foreseen everything.

These inner tensions and perplexities help to explain the startling "shifts in the party line" that characterize all of the Communist countries. It is true that these shifts sometimes reflect the outcome of a subterranean personal power struggle within the party. But we must remember that they also at times result from the struggles of conscientious men trying to fit an inconvenient text to the facts of reality.

The yawning gap in Communist theory, by which it says nothing about how the economy shall be run except that it shall not be by the market principle, will continue to create tensions, probably of mounting intensity, within and among the Communist nations. The most painful compromise that it has so far necessitated occurred when it was decided that trade among the satellite countries should be governed by the prices set on the world market.

This embarrassing concession to necessity recognized, on the one hand, that a price cannot be meaningful unless it is set by something like a market, and, on the other, the inability of the Communist system to develop a reliable pricing system within its own government-managed economy.

The Communist theory has now had a chance to prove itself by an experience extending over two generations in a great nation of huge human and material resources. What can we learn from this experience? We can learn, first of all, that it is impossible to run an advanced economy successfully without resort to some variant of the market principle. In time of war, when costs are largely immaterial and all human efforts converge on a single goal, the market principle can be subordinated. In a primitive society, where men live on the verge of extinction and all must be content with the same meager ration, the market principle largely loses its relevance. But when society's aim is to satisfy divers human wants and to deploy its productive facilities in such a way as to satisfy those wants in accordance with their intensity - their intensity as felt by those who have the wants - there is and can be no substitute for the market principle. This the Russian experience proves abundantly. That experience also raises serious doubt whether the market principle can be realized within an economy wholly owned by the government.

The second great lesson of the Russian experience is of deeper import. It is that communism is utterly wrong about its most basic premise, the premise that underlies everything it has to say about economics, law, philosophy, morality, and religion. Communism starts with the proposition that there are no universal truths or general truths of human nature. According to its teachings there is nothing one human age can say to another about the proper ordering of society or about such subjects as justice, freedom, and equality. Everything depends on the stage of society and the economic class that is in power at a particular time.

In the light of this fundamental belief - or rather, this unbending and all-pervasive disbelief - it is clear why communism had to insist that what was true for capitalism could not be true for communism. Among the truths scheduled to die with capitalism was the notion that economic life could be usefully ordered by a market. If this truth seems still to be alive, orthodox Communist doctrine has to label it as an illusion, a ghost left behind by an age now being surpassed. At the present time this particular capitalist ghost seems to have moved in on the Russian economy and threatens to become a permanent guest at the Communist banquet. Let us hope it will soon be joined by some other ghosts, such as freedom, political equality, religion, and constitutionalism.

This brings me to the Communist view of law and politics. Of the Communist legal and political philosophy, we can almost say that there is none. This lack is, again, not an accident, but is an integral part of the systematic negations which make up the Communist philosophy.

According to Marx and Engels, the whole life of any society is fundamentally determined by the organization of its economy. What men will believe; what gods, if any, they will worship; how they will choose their leaders or let their leaders choose themselves; how they will interpret the world about them - all of these are basically determined by economic interests and relations. In the jargon of communism: religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law constitute a superstructure which reflects the underlying economic organization of a particular society. It follows that subjects which fall within the superstructure permit of no general truths; for example, what is true for law and political science under capitalism cannot be true under communism.

I have said we can almost assert that there is no Communist philosophy of law and political science. The little there is can be briefly stated. It consists in the assumption that after the revolution there will be a dictatorship (called the dictatorship of the proletariat) and that this dictatorship will for a while find it necessary to utilize some of the familiar political and legal institutions, such as courts. (There is an incredibly tortured literature about just how these institutions are to be utilized and with what modifications.) When, however, mature communism is achieved, law and the state, in the consecrated phrase, "will wither away." There will be no voting, no parliaments, no judges, no policemen, no prisons - no problems. There will simply be factories and fields and a happy populace peacefully reveling in the abundance of their output.

As with economic theory, there was a time in the history of the Soviet regime when an attempt was made to take seriously the absurdities of this Communist theory of law and state. For about a decade during the thirties an influential doctrine was called the commodity exchange theory of law. According to this theory, the fundamental fact about capitalism is that it is built on the economic institution of exchange. In accordance with the doctrine of the superstructure, all political and legal institutions under capitalism must therefore be permeated and shaped by the concept of exchange. Indeed, the theory went further. Even the rules of morality are based on exchange, for is there not a kind of tacit deal implied even in the Golden Rule, "Do unto others, as you would be done by"? Now the realization of communism, which is the negation of capitalism, requires the utter rooting out of any notion of exchange in the Communist economy. But when exchange has disappeared, the political, legal, and moral superstructure that was built on it will also disappear. Therefore, under mature communism there will not only be no capitalistic legal and political institutions, there will be no law whatever, no state, no morality - for all of these in some measure reflect the underlying notion of an exchange or deal among men.

The high priest of this doctrine was Eugene Pashukanis. His reign came to an abrupt end in 1937 as the inconvenience of his teachings began to become apparent. With an irony befitting the career of one who predicted that communism would bring an end to law and legal processes, Pashukanis was quietly taken off and shot without even the semblance of a trial.

As in the case of economics, since Pashukanis' liquidation there has developed in Russian intellectual life a substantial gray market for capitalistic legal and political theories. But where Russian economists seem ashamed of their concessions to the market principle, Russian lawyers openly boast of their legal and political system, claiming for it that it does everything that equivalent bourgeois institutions do, only better. This boast has to be muted somewhat, because it still remains a matter of dogma that under mature communism, law and the state will disappear. This embarrassing aspect of their inherited doctrine the Soviet theorists try to keep as much as possible under the table. They cannot, however, openly renounce it without heresy, and heresy in the Soviet Union, be it remembered, still requires a very active taste for extinction.

One of the leading books on Soviet legal and political theory is edited by a lawyer who is well known in this country, the late Andrei Vyshinsky. In the table-pounding manner he made famous in the U.N., Vyshinsky praises Soviet legal and political institutions to the skies and contrasts their wholesome purity with the putrid vapors emanating from the capitalist countries. He points out, for example, that in Russia the voting age is 18, while in many capitalist countries it is 21.

The capitalists thus disenfranchise millions of young men and women because, says Vyshinsky, it is feared they may not yet have acquired a properly safe bourgeois mentality. As one reads arguments like this spelled out with the greatest solemnity, and learns all about the "safeguards" of the Soviet Constitution, it comes as a curious shock to find it openly declared that in the Soviet Union only one political party can legally exist and that the Soviet Constitution is "the only constitution in the world which frankly declares the directing role of the party in the state."

One wonders what all the fuss about voting qualifications is about if the voters are in the end permitted only to vote for the candidates chosen by the only political party permitted to exist. The plain fact is, of course, that everything in the Soviet Constitution relating to public participation in political decisions is a facade concealing the real instrument of power that lies in the Communist Party. It has been said that hypocrisy is vice's tribute to virtue. The holding of elections in which the electorate is given no choice may similarly be described as an attempt by communism to salve its uneasy conscience. Knowing that it cannot achieve representative democracy, it seems to feel better if it adopts its empty forms.

When one reflects on it, it is an astounding thing that a great and powerful nation in the second half of the 20th century should still leave its destinies to be determined by intraparty intrigue, that it should have developed no political institutions capable of giving to its people a really effective voice in their Government, that it should lack any openly declared and lawful procedure by which the succession of one ruler to another could be determined. Some are inclined to seek an explanation for this condition in Russian history with its bloody and irregular successions of czars. But this is to forget that even in England, the mother of parliaments, there were once in times long gone by some pretty raw doings behind palace walls and some unseemly and even bloody struggles for the throne.

But where other nations have worked gradually toward stable political institutions guaranteeing the integrity of their governments, Russia has remained in a state of arrested development. That state will continue until the Russian leaders have the courage to declare openly that the legal and political philosophy of Marx, Engles, and Lenin is fundamentally mistaken and must be abandoned.

How heavy the burden of the inherited Communist philosophy is becomes clear when the concept of law itself is under discussion. Throughout the ages, among men of all nations and creeds, law has generally been thought of as a curb on arbitrary power. It has been conceived as a way of substituting reason for force in the decision of disputes, thus liberating human energies for the pursuit of aims more worthy of man's destiny than brute survival or the domination of one's fellows. No one has supposed that these ideals have ever been fully realized in any society. Like every human institution, law is capable of being exploited for selfish purposes and of losing its course through a confusion of purposes. But during most of the world's history, men have thought that the questions worthy of discussion were how the institutions of law could be shaped so that they might not be perverted into instruments of power or lose the sense of their high mission through sloth or ignorance.

What is the Communist attitude toward this intellectual enterprise in which so many great thinkers of so many past ages have joined? Communism consigns all of it to the ashcan of history as a fraud and delusion, beneath the contempt of Communist science. How, then, is law defined today in Russia? We have an authoritative answer. It is declared to be "the totality of the rules of conduct expressing the will of the dominant class, designed to promote those relationships that are advantageous and agreeable to the dominant class."

Law in the Soviet Union is not conceived as a check on power, it is openly and proudly an expression of power. In this conception surely, if anywhere, the bankruptcy of communism as a moral philosophy openly declares itself.

It is vitally important to emphasize again that all of the truly imposing absurdities achieved by Communist thought - in whatever field: in economics, in politics, in law, in morality - that all of these trace back to a single common source. That origin lies in a belief that nothing of universal validity can be said of human nature, that there are no principles, values, or moral truths that stand above a particular age or a particular phase in the evolution of society. This profound negation lies at the very heart of the Communist philosophy and gives to it both its motive force and its awesome capacity for destruction.

It is this central negation that makes communism radically inconsistent with the ideal of human freedom. As with other bourgeois virtues, once dismissed contemptuously, Soviet writers have now taken up the line that only under communism can men realize "true freedom." This line may even have a certain persuasiveness for Russians in that individuals tend to prize those freedoms they are familiar with and not to miss those they have never enjoyed. A Russian transplanted suddenly to American soil might well feel for a time "unfree" in the sense that he would be confronted with the burden of making choices that he was unaccustomed to making and that he would regard as onerous. But the problem of freedom goes deeper than the psychological conditioning of any particular individual. It touches the very roots of man's fundamental conception of himself.

The Communist philosophy is basically inconsistent with the ideal of freedom because it denies that there can be any standard of moral truth by which the actions of any given social order may be judged. If the individual says to government, "Thus far may you go, but no farther," he necessarily appeals to some principle of rightness that stands above his particular form of government. It is precisely the possibility of any such standard that communism radically and uncomprisingly denies. Marx and Engels had nothing but sneers for the idea that there are "eternal truths, such as freedom, justice, etc., that are common to all states of society."

They contend that there are no eternal truths. All ideas of right and wrong come from the social system under which one lives. If that system requires tyranny and oppression, then tyranny and oppression must within that system be accepted; there can be no higher court of appeal.

Not only do the premises of Communist philosophy make any coherent theory of freedom impossible, but the actual structure of the Soviet regime is such that no true sense of freedom can ever develop under it. To see why this is so, it is useful to accept the Communist ideology provisionally and reason the matter out purely in terms of what may be called human engineering. Let us concede that a struggle for political power goes on in all countries and let us assume in keeping with Marxist views that this struggle has absolutely nothing to do with right and wrong. Even from this perversely brutal point of view, it is clear why a sense of freedom can never develop under the Soviet regime. In a constitutional democracy the struggle for political power is assigned to a definite arena; it is roped off, so to speak, from the rest of life. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, there is no clear distinction between politics and economics, or between politics and other human activities. No barriers exist to define what is a political question and what is not. Instead of being ordered and canalized as it is in constitutional democracies, the struggle for political power in Russia pervades, or can at any time pervade, every department of life. For this reason there is no area of human interest - the intellectual, literary, scientific, artistic, or religious - that may not at any time become a battleground of this struggle.

Take, for example, the situation of a Soviet architect. Today without doubt he enjoys a certain security; he is not likely to lie awake fearing the dread knock at the door at midnight. Furthermore, he may now see opening before him in the practice of his profession a degree of artistic freedom that his predecessors did not enjoy. But he can never be sure that he will not wake up tomorrow morning and read in the papers that a new "line" has been laid down for architecture, since his profession, like every other, can at any moment be drawn into the struggle for power. He can never know the security enjoyed by those who live under a system where the struggle for political power is fenced off, as it were, from the other concerns of life. When Soviet "politics" invades a field like architecture, it cannot be said to spread beyond its proper boundaries, for it has none. It is precisely this defect in the Soviet regime that in the long run prevents the realization of the ideal of freedom under communism.

It is only in the constitutional democracies that the human spirit can be permanently free to unfold itself in as many directions as are opened up for it by its creative urge. Only such governments can achieve diversity without disintegration, for only they know the full meaning of "those wise restraints that make men free."

Since the Communist philosophy of history is the central core of its ideology, that philosophy has of necessity permeated every theme I have so far discussed. Briefly stated the Communist philosophy of history is that man does not make history, but is made by it.

Though communism denies to man the capacity to shape his own destiny, it does accord to him a remarkable capacity to foresee in great detail just what the future will impose on him. The literature of communism is full of prophecies, tacit and explicit. Probably no human faith ever claimed so confidently that it knew so much about the future. Certainly none ever ran up a greater number of bad guesses. On a rough estimate the Communist record for mistaken prophecies stands at about 100 percent.

Among the conclusions about the future that were implicit in the Communist philosophy, or were drawn from it by its prophets, we can name the following:

That communism will first establish itself in countries of the most advanced capitalism; That in such countries society will gradually split itself into two classes, with the rich becoming fewer and richer, the laboring masses sinking steadily to a bare level of existence; That under capitalism colonialism will increase as each capitalistic nation seeks more and more outlets for its surplus production; That in capitalist countries labor unions will inevitably take the lead in bringing about the Communist revolution; That as soon as communism is firmly established steps will be taken toward the elimination of the capitalist market and capitalist political and legal institutions; etc.

As with other aspects of communism, this record of bad guesses is no accident. It derives from the basic assumption of Marxism that man has no power to mold his institutions to meet problems as they arise, that he is caught up in a current of history which carries him inevitably toward his predestined goal. A philosophy which embraces this view of man's plight is constitutionally incapable of predicting the steps man will take to shape his own destiny, precisely because it has in advance declared any such steps to be impossible. Communism in this respect is like a man standing on the bank of a rising river and observing what appears to be a log lodged against the opposite shore. Assuming that what he observes is an inert object, he naturally predicts that the log will eventually be carried away by the rising floodwaters. When the log turns out to be a living creature and steps safely out of the water the observer is, of course, profoundly surprised. Communism, it must be confessed, has shown a remarkable capacity to absorb such shocks, for it has survived many of them. In the long run, however, it seems inevitable that the Communist brain will inflict serious damage upon itself by the tortured rationalizations with which it has to explain each successive bad guess.

This brings us to the final issue. Why is it that with all its brutalities and absurdities communism still retains an active appeal for the minds and hearts of many intelligent men and women? For we must never forget that this appeal does exist.

It is true that in the United States and many other countries the fringe of serious thought represented by active Communist belief has become abraded to the point of near extinction. It is also the fact that many people everywhere adhere to groups dominated by Communist leadership who have only the slightest inkling of communism as a system of ideas. Then again we must remember that in the Communist countries themselves there are many intelligent, loyal, and hard-working citizens, thoroughly acquainted with the Communist philosophy, who view that philosophy with a quiet disdain, not unmixed with a certain sardonic pleasure of the sort that goes with witnessing, from a choice seat, a comedy of errors that is unfortunately also a tragedy Finally we must not confuse every "gain of communism" with a gain of adherents to Communist beliefs. In particular, we should not mistake the acceptance of technical and economic aid from Moscow as a conversion to the Communist faith, though the contacts thus established may, of course, open the way for a propagation of that faith.

With all this said, and with surface appearance discounted in every proper way, the tragic fact remains that communism as a faith remains a potent force in the world of ideas today. It is an even more tragic fact that that faith can sometimes appeal not only to opportunists and adventurers, but also to men of dedicated idealism. How does this come about?

To answer this question we have to ask another: What are the ingredients that go to make up a successful fighting faith, a faith that will enlist the devotion and fanaticism of its adherents, that will let loose on the world that unaccommodating creature, "the true believer"?

I think that such a faith must be made up of at least three ingredients.

First, it must lift its adherents above the dread sense of being alone and make them feel themselves members of a brotherhood.

Second, it must make its adherents believe that in working for the objectives of their faith they are moving in step with nature, or with the forces of history, or with the divine will.

Third, it must be a faith that gives to its adherents a sense of being lifted above the concerns that consume the lives of the nonbelieving.

All of these ingredients are furnished in abundance by communism. In the Communist philosophy the first two ingredients are fused into one doubly effective amalgam. To become a Communist is no longer to be alone, but to join in the march of a great, oppressed mass of humanity called the proletariat. This silent, faceless army is being carried inevitably to its goal by the unseen forces of history. There is thus a double identification. History belongs to the proletariat, the proletariat belongs to history. By joining in this great march the Communist not only gains human companions but a sense of responding to the great pull of the universe itself.

Now the picture I have just painted is not one that even the most devout Communist can comfortably carry about with him at all times. Indeed, there are probably few Communists who do not, even in their moments of highest faith, sense some of the fictions and contradictions of the dream to which they are committed. The absurdities of the Communist ideology are, however, by no means immediately apparent to the new convert, who is likely to be intrigued rather by the difficulty of understanding them. The old believer sees no reason to point out these absurdities, partly because he does not wish to undermine the faith of the young, and partly because he has become inured to them, has learned to live with them at peace, and does not want to disturb his own adjustment to them.

One of the key fictions of the Communist edifice of thought is the belief that there is in modern industrial society an identifiable class of people called the proletariat. That such a class would develop was not a bad guess in 1848 and Marx had other economists with him in making this guess. As usual, history perversely took the wrong turn. And as usual, this has caused communism no particular embarrassment, for it continues - with diminished ardor, to be sure - to talk about the proletariat as if it were actually there. But professing to see things that are not there is often a sign of faith and furnishes, in any event, a bond of union among believers.

To many of its American critics, communism has appeared as a kind of nightmare. Like awakened sleepers still recoiling from the shock of their dream, these critics forget that the nightmare is after all shot through and through with absurdities. The result is to lend to the Communist ideology a substance that, in fact, it does not possess. If in moments of doubt the Communist is inclined to feel that his philosophy is made of air and tinsel, he is reassured and brought back into the fold when he recalls that its critics have declared this philosophy to be profoundly and powerfully vicious.

Part of the tarnish that an uncompliant history has visited on the Communist prophecies has in recent years been removed by the achievements of Russian technology. It is now possible to identify communism with the land that has the highest school buildings, the hugest outdoor rallies, the most colossal statues and the space satellites that weigh the most tons. It is not difficult to make all this appear as a kind of belated flowering of the promises communism began holding out more than a hundred years ago. It is easy to make men forget that none of the solid accomplishments of modern Russia came about by methods remotely resembling anything anticipated by Marx, Engels, or Lenin.

In suggesting the ingredients that go to make up a successful fighting faith, I stated that such a faith must be one "that gives to its adherents a sense of being lifted above the concerns that consume the lives of the nonbelieving." I have purposely left this aspect of the Communist faith to the last for it is here that the truly nightmarish quality of that faith manifests itself.

Not that it is any objection to a faith that it enables those sharing it to be indifferent to things that seem important to others. The crucial question is, What is it that men are told not to heed? As to the Communist faith there is no ambiguity on this score. It tells men to forget all the teachings of the ages about government, law, and morality. We are told to cast off the intellectual burden left behind by men like Confucius, Mencius, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Kant and Bentham. There are no "eternal truths" about society. There is no science of social architecture. Only the simple minded can believe that there are principles guiding the creation of sound legal and political institutions. For the enlightened there is only one rule: Smash the existing "bourgeois" economic and legal order and leave the rest to the "spontaneous class organization of the proletariat."

In diplomatic dealings the Russians display great respect for American military and economic power, but consider us hopelessly naive in matters political. We are still concerned with trifles as they feel themselves long since to have left behind - trifles like: How do you help a people to realize self-government who have had no experience with its necessary forms and restraints? How, following the overthrow of a tyranny, do you suggest steps that will prevent an interim dictatorship from hardening into a second tyranny?

It is not that the Communists have ideas about sound government that differ from ours. According to strict Communist theory there can be no ideas on such a subject. If a gray market for such ideas has gradually developed in Russia it has not yet reached the point of being ready for the export trade. Russia has engineers able to help the underdeveloped countries build roads and dams and there is no reason to question the competence of these engineers. But whoever heard of Russia sending an expert in political institutions to help a new country design an appropriate form of representative self-government? Not only would such a mission stand in ludicrous incongruity with the present situation of the Communist countries in Europe; it would be a repudiation of the basic premises of the whole Communist philosophy.

Even in the economic field, Russia really has nothing to offer the rest of the world but negations. For a long time after the establishment of the Soviet regime it was actively disputed in Russia whether for communism there is any such thing as an economic law.

Communistic ideology has had gradually to bend before the plain fact that such laws exist. But Russia has as yet developed no economic institutions that are more than distorted shadows of their capitalist equivalents. Russia may help a new country to develop electric power. It has nothing to say about the social institutions that will determine how that power will be utilized for the good of the whole people.

This great vacuum that lies in the heart of communism explains not only why its philosophy is in the long run so destructive of everything human, but why in the short run it can be so successful. Consider, for example, what it can offer to the leader of a successful revolution. A cruel dictatorship has been overthrown. It had to be overthrown by force because it permitted no elections or never counted the vote honestly. Following the successful revolt, there must be an interval during which order is kept by something approaching a dictatorship. Sooner or later, if the revolution is not to belie its democratic professions, some movement must be made toward representative self-government. This is a period of great difficulty. There is no mystery about its problems. They fit into an almost classic pattern known from antiquity. The revolutionary leaders must find some accommodation with what is left of the old regime. Sooner or later the firing squad must be retired. Even when this is done vengeful hatreds continue to endanger the successful operation of parliamentary government. Among the revolutionary party, men who were once united in overthrowing plain injustice become divided on the question what constitutes a just new order. Militant zealots, useful in the barricades, are too rough for civil government and must be curbed. If curbed too severely, they may take up arms against the new government. Etc., etc. What can communism offer the revolutionary leader caught in this ancient and familiar quandary? It can, of course, offer him material aid. But it can offer him something more significant and infinitely more dangerous, a clear conscience in taking the easy course. It can tell him to forget about elections and his promises of democracy and freedom. It can support this advice with an imposing library of pseudoscience clothing despotism with the appearance of intellectual respectability.

The internal stability of the present Russian Government lends an additional persuasiveness to this appeal. If Russia can get along without elections, why can't we? Men forget that it is a common characteristic of dictatorships to enjoy internal truces that may extend over decades, only to have the struggle for power renew itself when the problem of a succession arises. This is a pattern written across centuries of man's struggle for forms of government consistent with human dignity. It is said that the struggle for power cannot under modern conditions with modern armies and modern weapons, take the form of a prolonged civil war. That is no doubt true in a developed economy like that of Russia. The shift in power when it comes may involve only a few quick maneuvers within the apparatus of the party, which have their only outward manifestation in purges or banishments that seal the results. But the fact remains that the fate of millions will be determined by processes which take no account of their interests or wishes, in which they are granted no participation, and which they are not even permitted to observe.

It must not be forgotten that modern Russia was for an indefinite period prior to 1953 governed by a tyranny. This is admitted in Russia today. To be sure, the term "tyranny" is not used, because according to the Communist philosophy a term like that betokens a naive and outdated view of the significance of governmental forms. The Soviet term is "the cult of personality." According to the official explanation Stalin and his followers in some mysterious way became infected with a mistaken view of Stalin's proper role. According to ancient wisdom this was because Stalin ruled without the check of constitutional forms and without effective popular participation in his government. In the words of Aristotle, written some 23 centuries ago, "This is why we do not permit a man to rule, but the principle of law, because a man rules in his own interest, and becomes a tyrant."

It is plain that Stalin at some point became a tyrant. According to Aristotle this was because Russia did not base its government on the principle of law. According to the Communist theory some inexplicable slippage of the gears, some accidental countercurrent of history, led Stalin to embrace incorrect notions about himself.

If mankind is to survive at a level of dignity worthy of its great past, we must help the world recapture some sense of the teachings of the great thinkers of former ages. It must come again to see that sound legal and political institutions not only express man's highest ideal of what he may become, but that they are indispensable instruments for enabling him to realize that ideal. It would be comforting to believe that the forces of history are working inevitably toward this realization and that we too are cooperating with the inevitable. We can only hope that this is so. But we can know that the forces of human life, struggling to realize itself on its highest plane, are working with us and that those forces need our help desperately.

Richard Nixon, The Meaning of Communism to Americans: Study Paper by Richard M. Nixon, Vice President, United States of America Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/274060

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The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism

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4 Mao and Maoism

Timothy Cheek holds the Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. He has published extensively on China’s intellectuals and Chinese Communist Party history. Current projects include contemporary Chinese intellectuals and Chinese thought, the writings of Mao Zedong (Yan’an period), and Chinese historiography.

  • Published: 16 December 2013
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Mao Zedong played a central role in leading the largest communist revolution in the world outside the Soviet Union and in the ‘creative developments’ or ‘Sinification’ of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy to suit Chinese conditions. He combined the roles of Lenin and Stalin. The essay traces his rise to power in the Chinese Communist Party between the 1920s and 1949 and his career as leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1976, looking at the part he played in key moments, including developments in the Yan’an base area from the late 1930s, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. The essay examines the central ideas in Mao’s philosophy, such as the primacy of practice, contradiction, rectification, and concern with bureaucracy. It goes on to explore key debates in the historiography and asks what ‘Maoism’ really means. The personality cult around Chairman Mao culminated in outrageous veneration in the 1960s and his memory today elicits strong feelings, both positive and negative. Despite his many mistakes and towering cruelty, he is still widely respected in China, as can be seen from his appropriation in popular culture. His ideas continue to be influential in parts of Asia and Latin America and his image is still invoked by contending interests in China.

Mao Zedong lived from 1893 to 1976. He is remembered as China’s paramount Marxist-Leninist leader and theorist, the author of Maoism. A junior Party member in the 1920s and controversial regional leader in the countryside in the late 1920s and early 1930s, by the mid-1940s Mao had become the supreme leader of China’s Communist movement, and in 1949, of the new People’s Republic of China (PRC). The personality cult around Chairman Mao culminated in outrageous popular veneration in the turbulent Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and his memory remains vibrant in China today. His writings continue to serve as the official doctrine of the still-ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and his memory elicits strong feelings (both positive and negative) among China’s diverse population, as well as students of Marxism and revolution worldwide. In the international history of communism Mao Zedong played a key role in leading the largest communist revolution in the world outside Russia and in his ‘creative development’ or ‘Sinification’ of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy to suit Chinese conditions, adaptations that have influenced revolutions in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In all, Mao remains the pre-eminent representative of the successes and failures of Chinese revolutionary ideology and praxis.

Scholars of modern China have often noted that Mao’s role in the Chinese socialist revolution combined the individual roles of both Lenin and Stalin in the revolutionary era of the Soviet Union. Looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, a time in which considerably more of Mao’s misdeeds have now been documented, Mao’s legacy and memory seem even more complicated. Despite his many mistakes and towering cruelty, he is still widely respected in China. His ideas are still influential and his image is often invoked by contending interests in China. In many ways, it is more apt to describe Mao as the Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot of China’s tumultuous twentieth century. He systematized ideas and values that still animate public life in China, he provided the orthodoxy for the CCP, he was the harsh but effective state builder, and he was the tyrannical political purist responsible for tens of millions of deaths. This brutally incongruent heritage represents the unsettled business of China’s modern history and recent reforms. In all, Mao Zedong and Maoism are significant as representatives of both Marxist and state socialist practice in twentieth-century China and of the contributions of Chinese experience to communist ideology and practice worldwide.

Mao and China’s Revolutions

Mao was the continuous revolutionary. He joined and came to represent the efforts of many Chinese to find revolutionary solutions to the challenges of nationalism, socialism, and economic development confronting China from the early twentieth century. Mao’s career and writings can be viewed in three major stages: as a junior member of the new CCP who led the shift from an urban to a rural revolutionary strategy (1920s–mid-1930s); as the primary leader of the revolutionary Party and army from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s; and as the undisputed charismatic supreme leader of the CCP and PRC from the 1950s until his death in 1976.

Mao was but the foremost of a generation of Chinese intellectuals and activists known as the May Fourth generation (for the patriotic anti-imperialist movement centring on the demonstrations in Beijing on 4 May 1919 that protested against the transfer of some Chinese territory to the Japanese in the Treaty of Versailles). This generation wrestled with a confusing array of Western ideas—from anarchism to pragmatism to social Darwinism and finally, after 1917, Marxism—as a way to explain the failures of the Chinese government to resist the inroads of European and Japanese imperialism. May Fourth intellectuals were vigorously iconoclastic. They were also a diverse generation that came, in the 1920s, to divide across the political spectrum from neo-conservatives seeking a Confucian revival, to political liberals hoping for democracy, to militarists seeking order, to communists seeking revolution.

Mao entered the May Fourth world from a rural community in central China. He was born and raised in Shaoxing, in Hunan province. His father was a prosperous farmer and was able to pay to send Mao to school. Thus, Mao was not a peasant in the simple sense, but was most emphatically a rural person who believed that the heart of China lay in the villages, not in the cities. Mao soaked up the rich array of May Fourth translations from European and Japanese sources, including socialist and soon Russian Marxist writings (Mao never learned a foreign language). He chose to be a revolutionary and set off—first to Changsha (the capital of Hunan) and then Beijing and Shanghai—to find that revolution.

The CCP was officially founded in Shanghai in July 1921, and Mao attended the First Congress as a regional delegate from Hunan. The new party was small and under the strong influence of Comintern advisers. In accordance with Comintern policy, the CCP entered into a ‘bloc within’ United Front with the stronger Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD) led by Sun Yat-sen. In the mid-1920s, Mao participated in this United Front, joining the GMD (while maintaining his CCP membership) and teaching at the GMD’s Peasant Training Institute at the Whampoa Military School, in the southern province of Guangdong. The GMD, with CCP members participating particularly in agitprop roles, set out to reunify China by attacking militarist regimes in central and northern China. This Northern Expedition (1926–7) brought Mao back to Hunan where he researched and wrote his seminal call for rural revolution, ‘Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan’ (1927). 1 This text defined peasants as revolutionary and as key allies in the proletarian revolution. After the counter-revolution of April 1927, in which GMD forces under General Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) decimated Union and Communist ranks in Shanghai and other major cities, Mao and colleagues repaired to the countryside, setting up rural soviets in south-east China. This lasted until 1934, when GMD military forces crushed the Reds and forced them on the retreat that came to be known as the Long March.

Mao had not only not been a top leader during this period, but also had fallen out of favour with the Moscow-appointed Chinese leadership of the Party. In fact, his highest Party positions in the mid-1920s were in the GMD—at the Peasant Training Institute—before the 1927 split. However, the debacle of the 1927 GMD White Terror and then the collapse of the rural Jiangxi Soviet in 1934—in which urban orientation and positional warfare were shown to fail while rural orientation and guerrilla warfare at least provided survival—catapulted Mao to some top positions. Over the next few years he skilfully built a coalition of colleagues, sensible military and social policies, and a persuasive ideological corpus that confirmed him as the leader of the Chinese revolution.

The winning policies were built, or at least expressed, in terms of Mao’s understanding of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Between 1936 and 1938, Mao returned to reading (translations of) Marxist-Leninist texts and produced his own writings outlining his basic philosophy. His core texts are ‘On Contradiction’ and ‘On Practice’ (1937)—which privilege social praxis over doctrine and declared that the superstructure (that is, human will) could in certain circumstances play the ‘leading and decisive role’ in revolutionary praxis. Mao’s ‘Introducing The Communist ’ (1939) named the ‘three magic weapons’ for defeating the enemy in China’s revolution: the United Front, armed struggle, and Party building. This was the beginning of Mao’s application of the Bolshevik model to China, or the ‘Sinification of Marxism’. It produced effective policies that contributed to the CCP’s national victory within a decade.

These policies were implemented in the 1940s when the CCP’s capital was in the dusty Shaanxi province market town of Yan’an in north-west China. Internally, Mao ruthlessly eliminated his rivals for leadership and effectively streamlined and energized Party rank and file. This was accomplished most clearly in the 1942–4 Rectification Campaign. Here, Mao’s writings from 1936 to 1942 became the core of the Party’s ideology and policy. At the heart of Mao’s approach was the ‘mass line’ ( qunzhong luxian )—a broadly participatory mode of political administration that brought in the views, interests, and experiences of common working people in a fashion never stressed by Lenin or Stalin. This was not democracy. Indeed, Mao and the party stressed ‘democratic centralism’ and were ruthless in suppressing dissent.

Yet, this repression of dissent inside the Party—which foreshadowed disastrously expanded versions of this tyranny in 1957 and 1966—parallelled effective organizational and public policy reforms, including simplified administration, armies that not only did not rape and pillage but actually paid for the food they used, and a powerful ideology that mobilized a generation of cadres to ‘serve the people’. This revolutionary praxis was summarized in the 1 June 1943 ‘Resolution of the Central Committee of the CCP on Methods of Leadership’ written by Mao and included in his Selected Works . 2 The lessons of coordinated but flexible organizing outlined in the resolution have been applied to social movements elsewhere, from the Vietcong in Vietnam, to Che Guevara in Latin America, to Naxalite insurgents in India. The key points are (1) a version of ‘think globally, act locally’ but with a strong Leninist chain of command, (2) a hard-headed assessment of the ‘masses’ one wants to mobilize (usually 10 per cent activists, 80 per cent average, and 10 per cent backward or reactionary), (3) a focus on nurturing that activist 10 per cent to get the movement going, and (4) the importance of coordinated propaganda to guide leadership and motivate the rank and file. The philosophical method of this approach to revolution privileges praxis in a process of ‘theory-practice-theory’, in which an ideology (Marxism) is tested by actual efforts to do something and then modified on the bases of the practical results of one’s efforts. The mechanism for this social learning is the superstructure: the human will of the ‘thought-reformed’ cadre.

Externally, Mao led his colleagues in making the CCP and their programme for China look better than the only likely alternative: the increasingly corrupt Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. By 1939, Chiang Kai-shek as the hero of war-torn China and the GMD began a leadership cult to establish Chiang as China’s charismatic revolutionary leader. The publication of Chiang’s book, China’s Destiny , in 1943 brought Chiang’s leadership cult to a crescendo. Thus, the Mao cult of the 1940s responded to this practical challenge, as well as drawing from the example of Stalin. 3 Mao adroitly cast his public utterances in moderate terms. His January 1940 essay, ‘On New Democracy’, became widely popular among urban readers, especially youth. While clearly a Marxist-Leninist document, Mao’s programme promised a long period of democratic transition on the road to eventual socialism and communism. Additionally, he provided a public history of China’s humiliating confrontation with European and Japanese imperialism that, using Lenin’s ideas on imperialism as the highest form of capitalism, made sense of China’s history, and more importantly, gave Chinese readers as sense of purpose and hope and meaning. 4

His peers certified Mao Zedong as the charismatic supreme leader at the Seventh Congress of the CCP in Yan’an in April 1945. From that time on, he was known as Chairman Mao. In the ranks of the Party leadership he was, at first, restrained and practical, but all deferred to him. Externally, he was the great father of the revolution who could publicly proclaim in September 1949, ‘The Chinese People Have Stood Up!’ 5 Mao’s work in the new People’s Republic was largely practical in the early 1950s, as this rural movement adjusted to the profound tasks of administering not only major cities but also a territory the size of Europe. The new socialist government ‘leant to one side’—taking on the Soviet model of a centralized command economy and joining the Soviet Union in the emerging Cold War. Russian advisers guided the modern sector and Stalin lent (but did not give) funds to help rebuild the war-torn nation. The Korean War came upon the new government almost immediately—in June 1950. This confrontation with the US heightened the already brutal land reform and would cast a pall over the anti-intellectual political movements beginning the next year, as well as anti-corruption campaigns, during the early 1950s. 6 Yet, life for most Chinese was better than it had been in living memory.

By 1956 the new PRC government was feeling the pains of office. 7 Bureaucratism, the limits of the Stalinist economic model, and restiveness among the working peoples and, of course, the intelligentsia, bedevilled the CCP administration. Mao at first sought moderate application of his dialectical approach. In 1956 he gave speeches that have been redacted as ‘On the Ten Great Relationships’ which sought a practical and balanced mixed economy, somewhat in the mould of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). 8 In 1957 Mao revived the Rectification Movement approach of self-and-mutual criticism but extended it beyond the Party to the educated public, inviting intellectuals and professionals to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ and to criticize the ruling CCP. This was an unprecedented act for a ruling communist party and was vigorously opposed by Mao’s senior colleagues, yet as supreme leader Mao prevailed.

This was Mao’s last great public ideological effort that had some promise of success. In ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People’ (original text, February 1957) Mao sought to lay the theoretical basis for limited—but real—public criticism and dissent under a ruling communist party. 9 By defending loyal opposition to Party bureaucratism and abuses of power as ‘contradictions among the people’ in contrast to ‘contradictions with the enemy’, Mao went further than even the most daring of Eastern European regimes in the de-Stalinization of 1956. This promising opening to socialism with a human face was ruined by Mao’s own dictatorial style and petulance. When the invited criticisms arrived in the spring of 1957 they were not to Mao’s liking, and so he turned about-face and declared the critics to be counter-revolutionary rightists. The text of ‘Correct Handling’ was significantly rewritten before official publication in June 1957 to make Mao look good and to ratchet back permissible discussion to the restricted scope familiar to other state socialist societies. It was a failed experiment that cost the lives and careers of half a million intellectuals and Party members.

The next decade was a grim one for China and for Mao’s legacy. The ‘Hundred Flowers’ rectification of 1957 was followed by a harsh nationwide purge, the Anti-Rightist Movement. Next, Mao promoted an ambitious economic development strategy, the Great Leap Forward (1958–60) that was disastrously flawed and ruthlessly implemented. It contributed to at least 30 million deaths—mostly attributable to famine—by 1961. This has to be the single greatest crime of Mao’s rule of China. After a retrenchment in the early 1960s (administered by his number two, Liu Shaoqi) brought an end to the famine and began the economic recovery, Mao initiated a final effort at total revolution: the Cultural Revolution. It was designed to protect China from the dire threat of revisionism that Mao saw in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev (which had fuelled a bitter anti-Soviet polemic by Mao in the early 1960s). China and the Soviet Union fell into an ideological split that culminated in national confrontation and fighting on the Manchurian border in 1969. Now, at Mao’s behest, the Party revived the thought-reform and rural orientation of the Yan’an period. Mindless adulation of every utterance by Mao was represented in the ‘Little Red Book’, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong . In all, some 4.4 billion books and pamphlets of Mao material were published in the ten years 1966–76. 10 The social results were catastrophic—Red Guard youth gangs terrorized communities under the slogan ‘to rebel is justified’ (a Mao quote), colleagues denounced each other, universities were closed to send students and faculty to the countryside ‘to learn from the masses’, and individuals were subject to endless ‘thought investigations’. 11 To the degree that the populace in China participated in this self-subjugation, the Cultural Revolution even outpaced Stalin’s Russia as the closest realization of Orwellian dystopia. 12 Mao clearly allowed this to happen and saw the suffering as a necessary cost of resisting ‘revisionism’. 13

Mao’s final revolution was, after decades of angry confrontation with American imperialism, to spring a rapprochement with Nixon and the US in 1972 in order to outmanoeuvre the Soviet Union. This external pragmatism softened the already faltering chiliastic rituals of the Cultural Revolution and left China, and China’s ideological leaders, tired and dispirited, but still standing at the time of Mao’s death in September 1976.

The post-Mao period saw a brief effort to deify him further, in order to secure the new leadership of Chairman Hua Guofeng. This produced the controversial volume v of Mao’s Selected Works in 1977 (which has since been repudiated and withdrawn from circulation in China). The survivors of the pragmatic Thermidor leadership of the early 1960s regrouped under Deng Xiaoping, who took control from late 1978 until his death in 1997. Under this reform leadership, Mao was demoted from his godlike status but has been maintained as the leader of the revolution and the font of ideological legitimacy. The 1981 CCP Central Committee resolution on ‘Some Questions in the History of Our Party’ codified this assessment with the famous formula: Mao’s contributions were 70 per cent; his errors 30 per cent. 14

Maoism: Revolutionary Ideology and Praxis

The ideological contributions of Mao Zedong are systematized in Mao Zedong Thought ( Mao Zedong sixiang ), which is the official ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Post-Mao CCP authorities have made it clear that Mao Zedong Thought is the ‘crystallization’ of the revolutionary experience of the Party and the contributions of numerous other Chinese Marxists. Mao Zedong Thought is Sinified Marxism, according to this official view. Thus, it is reasonable to consider the ideological contributions of Mao as the key, but not the only, representative of Chinese contributions to Marxist thought and praxis worldwide.

In terms of philosophy, Mao’s approach to Marxist analysis of society makes practice primary. It is the resolution of contradictions in material life as experienced by individuals that drives Maoist dialectics. By the 1960s, Mao clearly stated what had been implied in his earlier work: the law of the unity of opposites trumps either the negation of negation or the transformation of quantity into quality (both of which he saw as subsets of the first law). The mechanism for Maoist practical dialectics, however, is human will—individual and collective. Thus, Mao is in both the humanist and idealist wings of Marxist thought, placing the superstructure over the base as the location of the motor of history (he first articulated this in 1937 in ‘On Contradiction’, apparently before Stalin made the same point in 1938). 15 This can be seen in Mao’s transformation of ‘proletarian’ character from a description of a social class into a virtue that can be learned by any class through personality transforming praxis and ideological education (that is, through rectification). If Lenin thought only the Bolshevik party could push forward the wheel of history, Mao held that Bolshevization could be radically internalized in the individual (albeit under the dominating guidance of a charismatic party and its correct leader).

In terms of revolutionary praxis and political policy, the experience of the CCP under Mao’s leadership created a variant of the Russian model. First, Mao instituted the mass line , an organized form of ‘democratic centralism’ that could be very responsive to local needs and which included the broadest actual popular consultation and participation in any communist movement. The dark side of the mass line was a propensity from the start to find numerous ‘enemies’ and scapegoats amongst the population. Second, the CCP applied Dimitrov’s call in the Comintern for Party education far more thoroughly than any communist movement. The Rectification Movement of 1942–4 implemented the mass line by providing noble goals of public service, the means to inculcate those goals among administrators (Party and government cadres), and mechanisms to test the level of success in their implementation. Used well, rectification provides one way to inform, guide, and control a revolutionary regime; used badly it has led to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Third, Mao and the CCP consistently returned to the idea of the United Front , an ideological tool that allows a Bolshevik regime to share power with other social forces. The United Front is institutionalized in the PRC government and has operated ever since the 1940s (with the exception of some years in the Cultural Revolution). As with Dimitrov’s proposals on Party education, the CCP’s United Front takes a Soviet example—the popular front idea of Second World War years—much further and has made it a tool that has contributed to the longevity of the CCP in power. Fourth, Mao consistently attacked bureaucratism , even though his flawed efforts (and personal faults) ultimately failed to address the issue successfully. Nonetheless, the corpus of Mao Zedong Thought provides a trenchant analysis of what Djilas called the New Class (though not with that phrase) and justifications for using the mass line and rectification to combat the abuse of political privilege. Fifth, Mao stressed rural issues and the peasantry. Integrating a primary focus on the countryside into the programme of a communist party has, perhaps, been the single most influential contribution of Chinese revolutionary praxis worldwide (and this despite Mao’s effective abandonment of peasant interests from the mid-1950s). Finally, Mao was straightforward about politics and favoured armed struggle . He was a violent revolutionary, and a pragmatic military leader. While it was Sun Yat-sen who had first concluded that China’s modern revolution had to have its own army, Mao took this lesson to heart more than other Chinese revolutionaries. His writings contain hundreds and hundreds of pages of practical analysis and examples of guerrilla warfare and other forms of popular violent struggle. Those who have found themselves in intolerable social circumstances where local governments violently repress opposition have found Maoist military strategy compelling—from the Vietcong to the Naxalites. 16

There are also negative contributions, or negatives to each of these six developments, which are most poignantly embodied in the ideological repression of the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign, the massive deaths of the Great Leap Forward, and the social terror of the Cultural Revolution. All were generated by the self-same Mao Zedong Thought and the CCP. Additionally, Maoism has become a stultifying orthodoxy in China, both during his later life and since his death. Thus, the legacy of Mao Zedong and his Thought is deeply mixed—having led China to ‘stand up’ in 1949 he needlessly struck China down in over a decade of avoidable human suffering, and Maoism remains as an ideological straitjacket in China today.

Historiography and Legacies

Scholarly studies, as well as popular images, of Mao and Maoism have been contentious since Mao first appeared in the press in the 1930s. Similarly, the memories today of Mao, his ideas, and the system built around them vary widely, both inside China and out. Improved scholarship on Mao and Mao’s writings helps ground these debates more firmly in scholarly knowledge but cannot hope to resolve them. Finally, the meanings of Mao and Maoism in China live on unconsciously today as habitual social and mental practices.

Mao’s own writings continue to be a resource not only for his ideas but also on his life. A wide range of Mao’s writings are now available in China, and a substantial number of these for the years up to 1958 have been published in careful scholarly translations in English. 17 In the case of Mao Zedong’s writings the general issues of interpretation are further complicated by his stature as the Great Helmsman, the Saviour of the Chinese People, and the author of ‘Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought’. The problems in textual transmission and editing of Mao’s writings most nearly resemble those of theological texts, such as biblical writings and commentaries.

Recent scholarship, especially in China, helps us to know which sort of Mao, or Mao text, we are reading. 18 First, beginning in 1944, volumes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong ( Mao Zedong xuanji ) began to appear by the order of one or another high-level CCP institution. They were edited by committee according to a ‘collective wisdom’ criterion: the belief that Mao ‘represented’ the summation of Sinified Marxism-Leninism and thus should reflect the consensus of the Party leadership. Both Mao himself and advisers from the Soviet Union were active in this process during the early 1950s when the authoritative Selected Works were compiled. Second, during the Cultural Revolution and particularly at the height of the Red Guard movement in 1967, Mao writings were published by a confusing array of unnamed editors based on the belief that the Chairman was a lone genius not subject to revision by any collective leadership, least of all by a Party riddled with ‘capitalist roaders’. Finally, since Mao’s death, Party historiographers have published both restricted circulation and publicly available collections of Mao writings that reflect in varying degrees a historicist urge to understand the past as it really was and to place Mao and his individual writings more firmly in historical context.

While it makes sense to read the scholarly translations of the original versions of Mao’s writings in order to understand Mao in his time and place, the official (or ‘collective wisdom’) editions are still useful. Even though they have been more or less heavily edited from the original, these are the versions that were studied by hundreds of millions of Chinese since the 1950s—as well as by readers around the world—as the authoritative word of Mao and doctrine of the CCP. 19

Both the academic study of Mao and popular images of Mao in Western societies have been tied to other interests, most usually the war of the day. 20 Edgar Snow’s glowing account in 1936 gave readers ‘a Lincolnesque figure’ who promised to lead China in the worldwide fight against fascism in what became the Second World War. Dire accounts of atrocities by ‘Chi-Coms’ and ‘Reds’ in the 1950s and 1960s spoke to the experience of US-led UN forces in the Korean War (1950–3), America’s own fight in Vietnam, and more broadly the US–Soviet struggle for dominance in the Cold War. Since the 1960s, China has been presented in scholarship and popular media in a roller coaster of ideal images (beginning with anti-Vietnam War activists in the 1960s) and dystopian tales (such as reports of forced abortions in the 1980s). 21

Scholarly treatments of Mao during his life assumed that Mao was absolutely critical for understanding ‘China today’. 22 Whether they thought Mao a saviour or a tyrant, or a bit of both, these studies tended to neglect other actors and other forces in explaining the rise and current operation of ‘China’s revolution’. By the 1980s, scholarship was looking not at revolution but at modernization, not exclusively at Mao (or other leaders) but at the experience of wider groups of peoples, especially individuals who had to live through Mao’s policies. 23

Writings on Mao today can be distinguished by their attitude towards Mao: bad Mao, good Mao, and historical Mao. Since Li Zhisui’s influential reminiscence of his years as Mao’s personal doctor was published in the 1990s there has been a steady stream of scholarship and popular writing depicting Mao as fundamentally evil. Significantly, these writings have featured Chinese émigrés who understandably have strong feelings about their experiences under Mao’s rule. 24 They echo an emerging literature in Chinese from PRC authors (but published in Hong Kong) that is similarly critical. 25 These works tend to explain the excesses of CCP leadership, notably the terrible famine of the Great Leap Forward and the social chaos of the Cultural Revolution, in terms of Mao’s personal character. The influence of the bad Mao approach is widespread and is reflected in most scholarly studies, even those seeking a more nuanced and contextual understanding.

There is also a body of scholarship that seeks to recover or redeem a good Mao. Nick Knight has been a consistent advocate of taking Mao’s ideas seriously and in a body of sound scholarship over the past few decades has made a good case for the significance of Mao’s thought beyond the man himself. Similarly, Rebecca Karl seeks to rescue the sense of revolutionary agency for ordinary people that can be found both in Mao’s writing and some of his life. Maurice Meisner, noted throughout his career as an academic Marxist but one who applied Mao’s ideas to a harsh criticism of the Cultural Revolution, produced a recent biography seeking to distinguish Mao’s contributions from his failings. 26 Like the scholarship in Chinese coming from scholars associated with the ‘New Left’, these authors seek in Mao’s writings and life tools for fighting injustice today. 27

The majority of scholarship follows the historical Mao approach. Most biographies have focused on making sense of Mao in his context over judging his character. Stuart Schram’s early biography of Mao came out in 1966 . It remains a reliable story based on a careful reading of Mao’s writings in historical context. There are literally dozens of scholarly biographies of Mao, most dating from the 1960s and early 1970s or from the last ten years. Among the more recent are grand tales by Philip Short or Ross Terrill and brief introductions by Delia Davin or Jonathan Spence. 28 A collective effort to assess Mao in his historical context, as well as to assess current views of Mao inside China, in the developing world, and in Western societies from a historical perspective is offered in A Critical Introduction to Mao (2010). 29

The most important legacies of Mao and Maoism are in China itself. Mao Zedong remains an enduringly manifold figure in China today, loved and hated; used for political leverage, celebrity value, and even religious efficacy. There is, however, a shared theme in all the multiple Maos embraced (or excoriated) among China’s diverse population: nationalism . As we saw, Mao’s 1940 essay, ‘On New Democracy’ told ‘the China story’, a story repeated by China’s leadership today as the story of rising China: China was great, China was put down, China shall rise again. 30

This China story and Mao’s role in it are used differently by the CCP leadership, PRC scholars, workers and farmers (what we might call interest groups), in commercial culture, and, finally, in the personal memories of individuals. Politically, Maoism is the CCP’s orthodoxy. It has been ‘enriched’ by doctrinal additions from Mao’s successors at the top of the CCP: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and more recently, Hu Jintao. Hu’s emphasis on ‘Harmonious society’ will remind those familiar with Latin American history of other forms of authoritarian populism. On the one hand it draws attention to questions of social equity, but on the other hand, it also signals intolerance of dissent or ‘disturbances’ by protesters. 31

Scholars now use Mao in most cases strategically (to hammer home a point or to shield themselves from political criticism), but more importantly, Mao is often not used at all in intellectual debate and discussion of public issues. It is the constituent parts of Mao’s thought—the nationalism, pragmatism, calls for social equity—that animate debates and serve as legitimizing themes rather than the invocation of Mao’s ‘wisdom’ per se. 32 Indeed, it is now possible to criticize Mao in limited focus (particular policies in the past) and even to poke fun at him in the arts. 33 There are a few scholars who invoke Mao’s ideals in claiming that Maoism should be restored, but these calls are a distinct minority among scholars. 34

China’s workers and farmers are increasingly outspoken as the social consequences of reform create winners and losers. In the fight over resources that deregulation, privatization, and uncoordinated development have created, farmers, workers, and urban residents have protested and struck back. In such resistance they often invoke Mao’s ideas and image to support their claims. 35 These are ‘weapons of the weak’ in which farmers and rural workers use Mao as they seek to protect their homes, their farmland, and their air and water from expropriation by developers and pollution by new rural industries. 36 Meanwhile, Mao, Maoism, and Mao Quotes rebound across the Chinese Internet supporting everything from today’s Party policy to commemorations of Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) to rabid anti-foreignism. 37

Mao has become a feature of popular culture. As Geremie Barmé notes, for many older Chinese, ‘Mao was representative of an age of certainty and confidence, of cultural and political unity, and above all, of economic equality and probity’. 38 Not so for the youth of the 1990s who had not experienced life in Mao’s China. Rather, as Barmé gleefully notes, youth found in this new Mao Cult ‘a politically safe idol that could be used to annoy the authorities, upset parents, and irritate teachers’. 39 With this market in place, Mao’s image has become a commodity item in street markets across China. T-shirts, cigarette lighters, art pieces, and bric-a-brac of all sorts sport the image of the Chairman (both as young revolutionary and older national leader). While for some these images are heartfelt, for others they are symbols of youth rebelliousness, and for many these commodified Maos signify celebrity interest rather than ideological commitment.

Mao now joins the host of popular tutelary gods in popular religious temples across China. This is an astonishing syncretism of twentieth-century ideological politics and long-standing Chinese religious folkways. Mao’s image hangs from the rear-view mirrors of taxi drivers to ward off accidents; Mao’s image has been put on ceremonial gold cash (used for the purposes of popular religion) with the words ‘May This Attract Wealth’ or with the traditional Eight hexagrams; and Mao’s full image appears in these temples—both rural and in working-class urban neighbourhoods—not as a political figure but as a religious figure. 40

One set of personal memories of Mao is becoming publicly important: the suffering of the ‘sent down generation’, the zhiqing (or ‘educated youth’). While some still honour Mao and blame local despots and cheats for ruining Mao’s vision, there are many who lay the blame squarely at Mao’s feet. 41 These stories are explosive. They cannot cohabit a public space with the glorified Mao that gives legitimacy to the CCP. Thus, we rarely see the expression of these tales of suffering blamed on Mao himself published in China. We do, however, see them published abroad, and they are increasing. Jung Chang’s controversial and critical biography of Mao, published in English in 2005 is, if nothing else, the tip of this iceberg of pain and suffering that will have to come out at some point. 42 Maoist China has yet to face its truth and reconciliation process.

In all, Mao’s memory in China today is a two-edged sword of legitimacy for the CCP: an ambivalent symbol of national pride for educated Chinese, a cool brand for middle-class youth, a talisman of self-worth for China’s dispossessed who have suffered under reform and globalization. Behind these meanings reside wider historical meanings of hope and despair analysed by scholars in Western countries, as well as the inspiration Maoism provides for rural revolutions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

What is Maoism?

The essay in this Handbook on ‘Stalin and Stalinism’ concludes with a similar question, stressing the ‘dynamic shifting nature of Stalinism’. This essay stresses the different Maos of different historical moments but more so suggests that the important Mao and Maoism has been in the eye of the beholder, in the communities that chose Maoism, had it foisted upon them, or seek to draw from it today. Nonetheless, there is a core to Maoism, usually referred to as revolutionary nationalism, the commitment to save China and then build up China and to do it radically, quickly, comprehensively. This also came with a world view: modern in the sense of teleology and faith in science and technology, internationalist in the sense of an identity of interests among peoples subordinated to the imperial powers of the day, self-confident in the hearts and minds of various revolutionary elites who were sure they had the truth and were competent to save China.

Stuart Schram, the doyen of Mao studies in the West, has long held that ‘the soberer elements in Mao’s thought’ from 1935 to 1965 constitute ‘a vehicle of Westernization’ for China. 43 This is true if we think in terms of helping China to come to terms with the new power of the West since the mid-nineteenth century and the imperialism associated with it. The comparative perspective of Kenneth Jowitt on ‘the Leninist response to national dependency’ helps us see this ‘Westernization’ not as conformity but as an active engagement with the Western world order of the twentieth century. The Chinese case is in this sense a variant of the Leninist model. Jowitt argues, based on the case of Romania but with an eye to Soviet experience, that when a polity found itself under economic and cultural domination of Western powers in the early twentieth century, the Bolshevik model as articulated by Lenin and developed by Stalin worked in some countries as a way to throw off that dependency and achieve some degree of national independence. 44 Mao’s revolution in China makes sense in Jowitt’s model. 45

This perspective echoes recent work on the Chinese revolution which tends to see a greater continuity and connection between the revolution of the 1920s led by Sun Yat-sen, the Nationalist Revolution led from 1926 by Chiang Kai-shek, and the socialist revolution led by the CCP and, by the 1940s, Mao. John Fitzgerald has persuasively argued that the key components of China’s revolutionary order—including the charismatic party, integrated ideology, party control of the army, popular mobilization, and the leadership cult—all begin with Sun Yat-sen’s reorganization of the Nationalist Party (GMD) in the early 1920s with Soviet and Commintern support. 46 This Sunism was then promoted by the GMD’s next leader, Chiang Kai-shek. The difference between the Leninist GMD and the CCP were matters of degree, not kind, in this view. Other research on the social experience of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s confirms the fluid identities of Chinese revolutionaries across these two main parties, and other smaller parties. 47 The harsh competition between the GMD and the CCP that broke out in April 1927 and which has been written into the historiographies on both sides of the Taiwan straits turns out to be much more ‘dynamic and shifting in nature’. Not only in the 1920s but also into the decades ahead individual Chinese and families moved between the revolutionary parties. In the 1930s and 1940s, the difference between the GMD and the CCP was the relative failure of Chiang Kai-shek’s ‘New Life Movement’ to create modernized adherents to Sunism and his inability to bring fractious warlords to heel or to withstand the Japanese invasion. The CCP, on the other hand, achieved a stunning success in their Rectification Campaign of 1942–4 which did produce a coherent Maoist force and was merely lucky to avoid the brunt of the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s.

Mao and Mao Zedong Thought have had an impact around the world. From Cambodia to Peru, and now in Nepal and among the Naxalites in India, Maoism is a living ideology, albeit one often as ‘adapted’ or localized as Mao’s own efforts at ‘Sinified’ Leninism-Stalinism. The core influence, however is pretty clear: political revolution on behalf of the working, largely agricultural or peasant, poor pursued through violent conflict under the direction of a unified ideology, party, and supreme leader. Much less influential, but nonetheless present, is the continuing attractiveness to Left-leaning intellectuals in the West of Mao’s revolutionary writings. 48 Together, these constitute the contributions of Chinese experience—both good and bad—to Marxist-Leninist praxis.

Despite the capitalist economic policies and ideological lassitude of the current Chinese government, Maoism lives on in China. This is mostly a social fact—structural and mental habits from High Maoism that continue to shape public and political behaviour in China today. The Maoist orthodoxy set up important social institutions that shaped life on the ground and continue to do so today. The three most important are the local Party committee (at each and every level of government and most large economic and residential organizations); the danwei work unit organization of employment, residence, and social insurance; and the hukou system of internal residential passports. 49

These artefacts of living Maoism continue to shape social life in China even as they have changed under the post-reform forces of market and international contact. The Party committee system embodies the CCP’s claim that the legitimate forum for public policy debate and policy formation is the Party itself, not the press, pubic square, coffee house, classroom, or proverbial kitchen debates. This has produced a cautious reluctance to get involved in public affairs because to do so is dangerous. Daily life in the work units and communes of Mao’s China helped to create this political passivity and dependency on the state. Those who lived through the Maoist system carry with them the habits of thought and expectations that made sense under Mao’s rule. This population, long corralled by the rules of non-democratic participation in danwei and commune life, does not have the habits of mind suitable for a liberal or tolerant society. These same habits and expectations even shape those who reject official Maoism and embrace alternate political ideas and social practices. Inevitably, some part of these values and expectations has been passed along—by parents and teachers—to younger generations. Naturally, they change with time and new experiences, but these mental models still shape the experiences and reactions of people across China. Central among these hegemonic values are respect for intellectuals, intolerant modes of argument and illiberal public demonstrations, and the expectation that suggestions should be addressed to the state. It is this mental furniture from Maoism that will shape the lives of people in China long after the hukou passports and danwei work units are a thing of the past.

1. Mao Zedong xuanji (Beijing: Renmin, 1991), i. 12–44 ; Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967), i. 23–59 ; Stuart R. Schram (ed.), Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912–1949 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1992–), ii. 429–64 .

Xuanji , iii. 897–902; Selected Works , iii. 117–22; Schram (ed.), Mao’s Road to Power , viii (forthcoming).

3. Lyman Van Slyke, in The Cambridge History of China , vol. xiii. Republican China, 1912–1949 , pt. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 692 .

Xuanji , ii. 662–711; Selected Works , ii. 339–84; Schram (ed.), Mao’s Road to Power , vii. 330–69.

5. Mao Zedong , ‘Zhongguoren congci zhanli qilaide’, in Mao Zedong wenji [Writings of Mao Zedong] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1999), v. 342–6 .

6. Jeremy Brown and Paul Pickowicz (eds.), Dilemmas of Victory: The Early Years of the People’s Republic of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) .

While some still view the early 1950s as a ‘golden age’ of CCP rule, there were profound tensions. See Brown and Pickowicz (eds.), Dilemmas of Victory .

8. Xuanji , v. 267–88; Selected Works , v. 284–307; John K. Leung and Y. M. Kao (eds.), The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949–1976 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1992), ii. 43–65 .

9. See Mao ’s ‘speaking notes ( jianghua gao )’ version translated in Roderick MacFarquhar , Timothy Cheek , and Eugene Wu (eds.), The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Council on East Asian Studies, 1989), 131–89 .

10. Daniel Leese , ‘Mao the Icon’, in Timothy Cheek (ed.), A Critical Introduction to Mao (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 219–39 .

11. Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals , Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005) .

This self-subjugation is poignantly portrayed in post-Mao PRC films, such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (1993), and Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994)—all widely available internationally with English subtitles.

13. See Joseph Esherick , Paul Pickowicz , and Andrew Walder (eds.), The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006) .

14. Beijing Review , 27 (6 July 1981), 10–39; Helmut Martin , Cult & Canon: The Origins and Development of State Maoism (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1983), 180–231 .

15. See Nick Knight , Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1990) .

16. See, for example, Arif Dirlik , Paul Healy , and Nick Knight (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Mao Zedong’s Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1997) , and Alexander C. Cook , ‘Third World Maoism’, in Cheek (ed.), Critical Introduction to Mao , 288–312 .

The standard references for translations of Mao’s collected works are Schram (ed.), Mao’s Road to Power (10 vols. planned with 7 published as of 2013); and for September 1949 to December 1957, Kau and Leung (eds.), The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949–1976 ; and for 1957 and 1958 MacFarquhar, Cheek, and Wu (eds.), The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao . The official, or ‘collected wisdom’, edition of Selected Works of Mao Zedong in Chinese and English as edited by the CCP and published in Beijing is widely available with a corrected edition released for Mao’s centenary in 1991. Finally, full texts of the official English version of Selected Works are available on the Web at Mao Zedong Internet Archive: < http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/index.htm >.

18. Based on Timothy Cheek , ‘Textually Speaking: An Assessment of Newly Available Mao Texts’, in MacFarquhar, Cheek , and Wu (eds.), Secret Speeches , 75–103 .

As many as 236 million copies of the first four volumes alone were published during Mao’s life. Kau and Leung (eds.), The Writings of Mao Zedong , p. xxvi.

20. Charles Hayford , ‘Mao’s Journey to the West: Meanings Made of Mao’, in Cheek (ed.), Critical Introduction to Mao , 313–31 .

21. An excellent study of the sociology of American China studies is Richard Madsen , China and the American Dream (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995) .

22. Dick Wilson (ed.), Mao Tse-tung in the Scales of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) .

23. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom , ‘Mao Matters: A Review Essay’, China Review International , 3/1 (1996), 1–21 documents this shift in scholarship in a thoughtful review of recent studies. Good examples are Anita Chan , Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985) and Rae Yang , Spider Eaters: A Memoirs (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997) .

24. Li Zhisui , with Anne Thurston , The Private Life of Chairman Mao , trans. Tai Hung-chao (New York: Random House, 1994) , and Jung Chang and Jon Halliday , Mao: The Untold Story (New York: Knopf, 2005) .

25. Gao Hua ’s Hong taiyang shi zenyang shengqide [How the Red Sun Arose] (Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2000) was a bellwether study by a Nanjing University professor. Yang Jisheng ’s Mubei: Zhongugo liushi niandai dajihuang jishi [Tombstone: A True History of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s] (Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, 2008) is notable and will appear in English translation soon.

26. Nick Knight , Rethinking Mao (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007) ; Rebecca Karl , Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 19–29 ; Maurice Meisner , Mao Zedong (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007) .

27. The notable Chinese example is Wang Hui, many of whose works have been translated: Wang Hui , China’s New Order (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003) and Wang Hui , The End of Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (London: Verso, 2011) .

28. Stuart R. Schram , Mao Tse-tung (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) ; Philip Short , Mao: A Life (New York: Henry Hold & Co., 1999) ; Ross Terrill , Mao: A Biography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999) ; Delia Davin , Mao Zedong (Stroud: Sutton, 1997) ; Jonathan Spence , Mao Zedong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999) ; Michael Lynch , Mao (London: Routledge, 2004) also provides a fine annotated guide to writings on, about, or by Mao for the general reader, 249–54.

Cheek (ed.), Critical Introduction to Mao .

30. Geremie Barmé , ‘Red Allure and the Crimson Blindfold’, China Perspectives , 2012:2, 29–40 , part of an excellent special issue of the journal on ‘Mao Today’.

31. Peronism—the economic, political, and social ideology called Justicialismo (social justice) associated with the rule of Juan Domingo Peron in Argentina at mid-century—is the obvious point of comparison. See Steven Levitsky , Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America: Argentine Peronism in Comparative Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) .

32. Xiao Yanzhong , ‘Recent Mao Zedong Scholarship in China’, in Cheek (ed.), Critical Introduction to Mao , 273–87 .

33. A good representative of this new wave of party history is Zhonghua renmin gongheguo shi, 1949–1981 [History of the PRC, 1949–1981] (Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2008) in 10 volumes featuring the work of key scholars such as Yang Kuisong, Shen Zhihua, Gao Hua, and Han Gang. See also Yang Kuisong , ‘Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries’, China Quarterly , 193 (2008), 102–21 .

34. See Mobo Gao , The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2008) , and Gan Yang , Dushu [Reading] 2007:06, 1–6 .

35. Ching Kwan Lee , ‘What Was Socialism to Workers? Collective Memories and Labor Politics in an Age of Reform’, in C. K. Lee and Guobin Yang (eds.), Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press & Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2007), 158–9 .

36. See Kevin J. O’Brien and Li Lianjiang , Rightful Resistance in Rural China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) .

37. Guobin Yang , ‘“A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing”: The Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Internet’, in Lee and Yang (ed.), Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution , 287–316 .

38. See Geremie R. Barmé , Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996), 19 .

Barmé, Shades of Mao , 48.

40. Wang Yi (under the pen-name Xin Yuan), ‘A Place in the Pantheon: Mao and Folk Religion’ published in Hong Kong in 1992 and translated in Barmé, Shades of Mao , 195. Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer , The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) .

41. David J. Davies , ‘Visible Zhiqing : The Visual Culture of Nostalgia among China’s Zhiqing Generation ’, in Lee and Yang (eds.), Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution , 166–92 .

42. See Gregor Benton and Lin Chun (eds.), Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’ (London: Routledge, 2011) .

43. Stuart Schram , The Thought of Mao Tse-tung (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 192 .

44. See Kenneth Jowitt , ‘The Leninist Response to National Dependency’, in Jowitt (ed.), New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 1–50 .

45. Timothy Cheek , Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China: Deng Tuo and the Intelligentsia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) .

46. John Fitzgerald , Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997) .

47. See ‘Communism in East and Southeast Asia’ in this Handbook . Most social histories and biographies of this period reflect this fluidity between GMD and CCP. An excellent example is in the family history Ancestral Leaves: A Family History Through Chinese History by Joseph Esherick (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010) .

48. See Dirlik, Healy, and Knight (eds.), Critical Perspectives ; Cook, ‘Third World Maoism’ ; and Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao: On Practice and Contradiction (London: Verso, 2010) .

49. Timothy Cheek , Living with Reform: China Since 1989 (London: Zed Books, 2006), 32–53 .

Select Bibliography

Barmé, Geremie R. , Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996 ).

Google Scholar

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Cheek, Timothy ed., A Critical Introduction to Mao (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010 ).

Knight, Nick , Rethinking Mao (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007 ).

MacFarquhar, Roderick and Schoenhals, Michael , Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univerity Press, 2005 ).

Mao Zedong Internet Archive: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/index.htm

Schram, Stuart R. ed., Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912–1949 , multiple volumes (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1992 –).

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The Impact of Communism on Global Politics

The legacy of communism.

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History Grade 11 - Topic 1 Essay Questions

Explain to what extent Stalin succeeded in transforming Russia into a superpower by 1939.

Stalin came to power on the back of Lenin’s death in 1925, after which he instituted a range of far-reaching policy changes that would alter the course of Russian society and politics for the rest of the 20th century. The communist Soviet Union we now remember was the product of Stalin, although it can be argued that Lenin was responsible for laying the foundations of its highly authoritarian political culture. The new Russia under Stalin was supposed to radically break from the economic and social backwardness that characterised the Tsarist regime, and which Lenin had little time to achieve. In many ways, Stalin did create a completely different Russia, one almost unrecognisable from before the October revolution which overthrew the provisional government. However, whether that translated into it being a superpower is quite another thing. This paper will argue that although momentous and radical, the reforms Stalin instituted did not transform Russia into a superpower by 1939, although it did lay the framework for such a status to be attained during the post-WWII era.

Stalin rose to power as the leader of the Soviet Union by crushing his opposition in the Central Committee led by Leon Trotsky. Although we shall not detail this complicated political battle, it is important to note that the vying for power between the powerful figures was also a contestation over the ideological and policy framework which the Soviet Union should take. By the late 1920s, Stalin had emerged victorious, and went on to institute his own brand of communism in the Soviet Union. This centred on the notion of ‘Socialism in one Country’, which was ideally to build up the “industrial base and military might of the Soviet Union before exporting revolution abroad.” [1] This was in contrast to earlier pronouncements made by Lenin and Trotsky, which indicated the need to establish a worldwide ‘uninterrupted revolution’ of workers. [2] The logic here was that socialism could never survive independently outside of a socialist world order; Stalin, on the other hand, saw a national socialism – which, ironically, would be compared to Nazism – as the only way for socialism to survive. [3]

The practical effects of Stalin’s socialism in one country was the rescindment of the New Economic Policy (NEP) – which had allowed for small-scale capitalist enterprise to operate – the collectivisation of agriculture, and rapid forced industrialisation. [4] Socialism in one country forced the Soviet Union to look inwards, to create a socialist nation whose lessons and ideas could then be exported overseas. This means that, for all practical purposes, Russia was not interested in attaining any overtly ‘superpower’ status in global politics. It meant, in terms of foreign policy, of “putting the interests of the Soviet Union ahead of the interests of the international communist movement.” [5] Ideally, when Russia became powerful enough, it would then ferment for workers’ revolutions the world over.

The costs and benefits of these sweeping policy changes – which essentially closed off the Soviet Union from the outside world – are difficult to determine. On the one hand, they certainly led to large-scale industrialisation which outstripped the pace of Russia’s Western counterparts. Through the policy instrument of Five-Year Plans, which set production targets for industries and farms, Stalin was able to bring Russia up to date with modern heavy-industry production techniques and increase output exponentially. For example, cast iron production increased 439% in ten years, and coal extraction 361%. [6] Russia also went on an extensive electrification programme, called GOELRO, which increased electricity production from 1.9 billion kWh in 1913 to 48 billion kWh in 1940. [7]

However, despite the resounding success with which certain - especially heavy - industries benefitted from forced industrialisation, many other industries and rural farmers often suffered. Because of the focus on heavy industrialisation, lighter industries that catered for consumer goods were often poorly made and faced shortages. The agricultural collectivisation programme which was conducted with increased inflexibility and violence across the Russian hinterland cost the lives of millions of peasants, who died of hunger resulting from famine caused by the upheaval of forced collectivisation. Figures range from 5.6 million to 13.4 million. [8] Millions of other prosperous peasants – known as Kulaks – were sent to gulag camps in Siberia for work; Molotov suggested that between 1.3 and 1.5 kulak households (accounting for between 6 and 7 million persons) were expropriated. [9] Thus, whilst Stalin broke the back of these peasants – by 1941, 97% of agriculture was conducted in collectives, and finally there was enough food to feed the cities – the human cost remains an ever-contested aspect of this period.

What is clear about this period, is that these policies centralised the economy and political power in Russia in Stalin’s hands. The increased industrial output, and the ability for (eventual) increased agricultural production to feed the cities, allowed Russia a certain amount of confidence in its ability to conduct itself as an industrial nation. As Stalin was once quoted as saying, “We are fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.” [10] Thus, one of the primary reasons for industrialisation was for the ability for Russia to protect itself. This fits in well with the overall ideological implication of Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’, which advocated for an insular reading of socialism that would allow for ‘proper’ socialist conditions to be reached within the massive country before a worldwide socialist revolution took place.

And in many ways, the industrial capacity generated during Stalin’s leadership up to 1939 was crucial for Russia to defend itself against Germany in 1941. Not only did allow for the production of millions of armaments and supplies crucial to the success of any armed conflict, but it also laid the groundwork for a post-war reconstruction. Because the Soviet Union boasted such impressive industrial capacity, it could rebuild after WWII much easier – and more importantly, without the help of aid from the West, especially the USA. The Marshall Plan, in which the USA loaned $15 billion to European countries to help rebuild industry and cities after their decimation during the second world war, was largely a strategic move to counter the spread of communism in Europe. [11] The spread of Russian influence into eastern Europe, on the other hand, was premised on its industrial power, which resulted in its alternative to the Marshall Plan - namely the Molotov Plan - which extended aid to socialist regimes in central and eastern Europe. [12]

The success of Russian industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation during the pre-war years allowed for the repel of German forces and the extension of Russian influence into the eastern European region. It was then that Russia became a superpower. In fact, it is only during the post-WWII war era when the notion of an international ‘superpower’ becomes widespread, when the cold war divides the world into two ideologically opposed sides – America on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other. [13] One could thus argue that the relative military strength of Russia after WWII, a result of its impressive industrial capacity – and its focus on heavy industry and agricultural production – meant that it could become a superpower. Thus, although no one would suggest that Russia was a superpower before WWII in 1939, its ability to retain its industrial strength after the war meant that it would become one. In conclusion, although Stalin did not transform Russia into a superpower by 1939, he laid the necessary groundwork for that to occur in the post-war era.

This content was originally produced for the SAHO classroom by Sebastian Moronell, Ayabulela Ntwakumba, Simone van der Colff & Thandile Xesi.

[1] "Communism - Stalinism". 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism/Stalinism#ref539199

[2] Erik Van Ree. "Socialism in One Country: A Reassessment." Studies in East European Thought 50, no. 2 (1998): 77.

[3] Kate Frey. 2020. "An Introduction to Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution". Left Voice. https://www.leftvoice.org/an-introduction-to-trotskys-theory-of-permane… .

[4] "Communism - Stalinism". 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[6] John P. Hardt and Carl Modig. The Industrialization of Soviet Russia in the First Half Century. Research Analysis Corp. McLean, 1968, pg. 6.

[8] Massimo Livi-Bacci. "On the Human Costs of Collectivization in the Soviet Union." Population and Development Review (1993): 751

[9] Ibid, pg. 744.

[10] Flewers, Paul. 2021. "The Economic Policy of The Soviet By Isaac Deutscher 1948". Marxists.Org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/deutscher/1948/economic-policy.htm .

[11] "Marshall Plan". 2021. History. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/marshall-plan-1 .

[12] Morroe Berger. "How the Molotov Plan Works." The Antioch Review 8, no. 1 (1948): 18.

[13] Joseph M. Siracusa. "Reflections on the Cold War." Australasian Journal of American Studies (2009): 3.

  • Berger, Morroe. "How the Molotov Plan Works." The Antioch Review 8, no. 1 (1948): 17-25.
  • "Communism - Stalinism". 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism/Stalinism#ref539199 .
  • Flewers, Paul. 2021. "The Economic Policy of the Soviet by Isaac Deutscher 1948". Marxists.Org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/deutscher/1948/economic-policy.htm .
  • Frey, Kate. 2020. "An Introduction to Trotsky’S Theory of Permanent Revolution". Left Voice. https://www.leftvoice.org/an-introduction-to-trotskys-theory-of-permanent-revolution .
  • Livi-Bacci, Massimo. "On the Human Costs of Collectivization in the Soviet Union." Population and Development Review (1993): 743-766.
  • "Marshall Plan". 2021. History. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/marshall-plan-1.
  • Siracusa, Joseph M. "Reflections on the Cold War." Australasian Journal of American Studies (2009): 1-16.
  • Van Ree, Erik. "Socialism in One Country: A Reassessment." Studies in East European Thought 50, no. 2 (1998): 77-117.
  • Hardt, John P. and Carl Modig. The Industrialization of Soviet Russia in the First Half Century. Research Analysis Corp. McLean, 1968.

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Communism and Capitalism Through the History Essay

Introduction, revolution of social darwinism.

During the modern history, there existed two main economic systems, namely: communism and capitalism. Their ideologies are intrinsically divergent and often unreceptive to each other. All over the hostilities defame and institutional propaganda has become extensive known creating worry and hatred between communist and capitalist.

Capitalism is defined as the economic system based on free trade where private sectors are allowed to do businesses with another individual or group of private citizens. In this system, the means of product and service production is mainly carried out and owned by the individuals instead of the government while communism also known as fascism is contrary to this where production and distribution of products is carried out by the state as non-profit organization.

The book “The Time Machine” is mainly a social appraisal of H.G. Wells who was a Victorian England predicted into a far future. The largest part of his life he remained a socialist with communist background and he argued in most of his books that capitalism was a major challenge to the post-modern future.

Fast development in technology, social life, education and other capitals had commenced the industrial Revolution in during 17 th and 18 th century. Additionally, he argued that by the late 19 th century of “The Time Traveler” the UK was most powerful with the economy whereas industrialists were enjoying their absolute wealth.

The capitalists during this era overworked men, women and even young children who were forced to work overtime with penny wages in dirty, smoke-filled industries. After observing all this as it took place, Wells decided to incorporate various scientific, natural and social ideologies in his arguments against capitalism and he majored on the citizens who were selective, discriminatory for their personal gain as they continued to exploit the poor and vulnerable members of the society (Wells 47 ).

First of all, Wells characterized capitalism as a revolution of social Darwinism. In this theory “Origin of Species”, the author Charles Darwin argued that nature allowed the reproduction of species that their characters fitted for best survival.

Therefore, social Darwinism was formulated by the British Philosopher Herbert Spencer whom regularly misrepresented this idea of natural fitness to validate 19th century social stratification among wealthy and unfortunate people. Wells contradicted with this philosopher where he argued that it did not imply that surviving species on an environment and the best but simply fit for their precise environment (Wells 83).

It is therefore concluded that evolution does not guide into perfectibility but to the maximum adaptability of a species. Communism was therefore aggravated mainly by the pessimistic impact of the industrial revolution on poor industrial employees. It was aimed at creating a social class of public common ownership where they believed that the society in general was more important than personal rights liberty and individual’s freedom.

On the other hand, as the communist fought hard against the capitalist, there were negative impacts that were associated with it where most dictators erupted as the results of communism for they were overall decision makers. For communism to work out, it relies on human nature where they need to be completely humane and ready to work for gaining of their neighbors (Wells 94).

Capitalism has the major economic system which takes control of the world economy and it has proved to be perfect enough comparing to the other economies such as socialism. It is characterized by its mode of production where prime resources such as capital and land are owned by the individuals.

Trade activities are fully controlled by the interaction between customers and sellers in the market and the owners here is free to make maximum profit from their resources. The main objective of a capitalist state is to secure concurrent high employment and stable prices (Wells 58).

During late 19 th century, wars uprising and economic despair has acted against capitalism. The great depression period has acted as the most challenging moment within the capitalism history where shares in the stock market depreciated at an alarming rate. Capitalism on its sides is referred to as the best economic friend for it freely allows for global competitive market and capitalist contributes a lot to the economy of a nation.

There are two types of capitalism which are commonly known, of which one of them is the proprietary capitalism. During this period of capitalism, there were only some corporations and no one could relate them to the modern society. The other form of capitalism is progressive capitalist economy.

In this type of capitalism, business outputs are present as inputs of the future. Even though capitalism has gone through transitional changes all over the years, capitalistic economy structure has remained to be most influential economy as well as the political structure in the world.

Finally, communism and capitalism has acted towards the economic development but several challenges have affected both economies. The communism has greatly affected it people where personal growth has been affected by national ideology of togetherness dragging back both economic and infrastructure development. On the other hand, capitalism has lead to emergence of life standards where it exists rich and the poor resulting to the exploitation of the vulnerable members of the society.

Wells, H. George. The Time Machine. Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.

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IvyPanda . "Communism and Capitalism Through the History." April 29, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/communism-and-capitalism-essay/.

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Slovakia, which was left reeling on Wednesday after an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Robert Fico, is a relatively young country whose history is closely intertwined with that of its central European neighbors.

Slovakia is one of two nations born out of the former Czechoslovakia amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the waning years of the 20th century.

Czechoslovakia was a multiethnic nation established at the end of World War I that endured dismemberment by the Nazis and more than four decades of Communist rule. But during the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when independence movements gained strength throughout the Soviet Union, a series of largely peaceful protests called the Velvet Revolution led Czechoslovakia first to independence and then to a split, often referred to as the Velvet Divorce , that left two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

After several years of economic and political upheaval following its independence, Slovakia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and adopted the euro in 2009. As the country navigated the establishment of its national identity , some tensions remained with the Czech Republic, its richer and larger neighbor , which has roughly twice Slovakia’s population of five million.

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