Mao assaulted the party and state hierarchy through whipping up a popular tornado. Can this really be compared with what happened in Meiji Japan and Bismarkian Prussia?

Modernisation with typical characteristics

Is the People’s Republic of China really such an odd social formation? Mike Belbin finds the answer in history

China has been called a strange, hybrid social formation, neither capitalist nor socialist. Yet it is not so odd if viewed in the recent history of global capitalism.

The autocracy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is due less to the tradition of emperors and civic conformism than to the much shorter history of Asia’s response to western imperialism. It is not where people start that matters - their ‘heritage’ - but what they do in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Coming out of the 19th century, there were intellectuals in imperialist-dominated Asia who had no doubts that their project was to better the west. Around the year 1900, many of them from Egypt, Turkey and, of course, China had gathered in Tokyo to focus on the problem. Japan had become the new hope - the first Asian nation to give an example of using a strong state to modify the economy in order to compete with the west.

Japan was small, without resources attractive to others, like rubber or tea, and had a balance of class forces which managed to replace the traditional dictatorial shogun with a pliable emperor. After pressure from the USA in 1854, the feudal structure gave way to the dominance of large capitalist firms, which were like clans with subordinate supplier companies.

China, on the other hand, was large - an empire rather than a kingdom, the product of invasions and civil wars, and far-flung fragmentation. Although steel, gunpowder and paper had originated in China, it saw no necessity to send its big ships to conquer much land abroad: let them come to us. The emperor’s court, however, was conservative and lacking in authority with regard to regional governors. This weakened the country in the face of imperialism.


Over the 19th century China had tried to modernise like Japan. Most of its businesses were foreign-owned, but the Beijing administration attempted a ‘self-strengthening’ by building up that which was left: its arms industry. Foreign companies had set up more workplaces in China than in Japan due to the abundance and cheapness of labour, while the central government took less than 3% of the national product in tax. It also tried to erect a national telegraph system, but that fell into the hands of a Danish company. By World War I, agriculture too had become capitalist - 65% of the Chinese peasants owned no land at all.

It is no wonder that Chinese reformers sought something more radical than the Japanese. The aim of many reforming intellectuals in China was to try and turn away from tradition: that is, Confucius. Kong Fuzi (or ‘Master Kong’: ie, Confucius) was a contemporary of the Buddha and, like the Buddha, he did not believe in gods. His focus was on harmonious human relationships through appropriate behaviour. To avoid cruel government and civil war, people should behave with a benevolence appropriate to their position. Classes had duties to other classes and fathers must honour sons, while sons should protect their fathers, even if it meant lying. Rulers should adopt a “lofty courtesy” with subordinates. By the late 19th century many Chinese were questioning this ethic, as it left them inhibited and open to exploitation.

In 1911-12 the armed forces took part in the revolution which brought down the Qing emperor and made China a republic. Home-grown capitalism though could make little headway, as it was weighed down by imperialism and a weak ruling class. However, there was an alternative, for liberals and socialists alike: direction by a strong state.

One of the new generation of Chinese thinkers, Liang Qichao, a teacher in Hunan, was the first to seek the key to western competitiveness. His original conclusion was that there was a need for “constitutional government” to mitigate the lack of Chinese “national consciousness”. Chinese people needed to become active citizens: that is, guomin.

Liang travelled the world seeking to learn about the power “to be strong”. In 1903 he arrived in the United States, as he was particularly interested in the lessons of “liberty and democracy”. He met leading politicians and entrepreneurs, as well as the local Chinese. He then reached a further conclusion. The Chinese in the US had not absorbed individualism, but kept to the traditional subservient attitudes. The problem, Liang wrote, was that even in San Francisco “they were too attached to clan, village, region and the ancient culture”. This made the Chinese as a people too slavish for democracy. He concluded: “... we can accept only despotism and cannot enjoy freedom. If we were to accept a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than committing national suicide.”

We see here the first mention of an attitude that later informed the CCP, from Mao to Deng and more recently Xi Yinping: the Chinese are immature; they require unity and discipline, a strong state; not to continue traditional ways, but to bring the nation up to speed with the west.

In 1919 Liang was at the Paris Peace Conference (aka ‘Versailles’) and found there what he condemned as western hypocrisy. These post-World War I talks were dominated by the great powers - France, Britain and the USA - whose representatives spoke up loudly about national self-determination. But this was intended to calm Europeans like the Czechs and Serbs, and not for the ears of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples, like the Arabs and Asians. As part of the settlement, the conference even gave away some Chinese islands to the Japanese. In China, nationalist movements like the Fourth of May and New Culture rose in response to the contempt of Versailles.

Liang died in 1929. He was praised by the founder of the CCP, Chen Duxiu, who wrote, “The fact that we today have some knowledge of the world is entirely the gift of Mr Kang and Mr Liang.” (Kang was another philosopher and reformer.) In 1935, Mao Zedong told reporter Edgar Snow that, as a young man, he had “worshipped” these thinkers and had “read and reread their works”. The influence on the Chinese leader is plain - a programmatic emphasis on national unity and government-led discipline. The other stream into Mao’s thought was, of course, Marxism, but this was a version adapted to Chinese events.


Even before the foundation of the CCP in 1921, Chen Duxiu had gone further than many Chinese thinkers. He had early on supported ‘Mr Democracy’ and ‘Mr Science’ and was closer to the 17th century English empiricist, John Locke, than Confucius.

In Russia, meanwhile, Lenin in 1920 was defining an approach for the Bolsheviks regarding anti-imperialism and colonial liberation. In Theses on the national and colonial questions he outlined what they should and should not support. Any anti-colonial movement, even led by the bourgeoisie, must be supported if it weakened the imperial powers. However, in mainly rural countries with a tiny proletariat, Lenin still suggested the promotion of popular councils (soviets) for poor peasants. The one thing he did condemn unreservedly was petty-bourgeois nationalism that pretended to be internationalist: “The interests of the proletarian struggle in one country must be subordinated to the interests of the struggle on a worldwide scale” (Theses p26).

In China at this time the largest anti-colonialist force was the Kuomintang (KMT). In 1921 its leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, asked the Bolsheviks for assistance. In alliance with the smaller urban CCP, the KMT went on to fight against regional warlords, as well as the Beijing administration. Chiang even went to Moscow to study politics and arms. By 1925, however, in both countries, the leading parties were splitting into left and right factions.

In February 1927 it was Mao who prepared a report on the peasant revolts against warlords and government forces. He was impressed with how the peasantry in Hunan had risen against all the oppressive forces. They were no longer passive and obedient.

The class of peasants and small farmers everywhere had not been ignored by previous activists (the Russia Social Revolutionaries, for example), but not much was expected of them by most thinkers. Mao struck a new note. He wrote: “If you are a person of determined revolutionary viewpoint, and if you have been to the villages and looked around, you will undoubtedly feel a joy never before known.”

He concluded: “Several hundred million peasants in China’s central, southern and northern provinces will rise like a fierce wind or tempest - a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it ...” (Report on an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan February 1927).

In April of the same year Chiang Kai-shek decided he wanted no more allies on the left, in his own army (KMT) or outside (the CCP). In Shanghai and Wuhan he conducted the first ‘purge’ - an elimination of people for reasons of political faction. On April 12 in Shanghai there were hundreds of arrests and executions. The CCP fled from the cities and began to work in the countryside, helping the peasants redistribute the land and expel rich landlords. Mao had shown the alternative: the rising of the peasants became the CCP’s revolution.

Here we may note Mao’s interest in energetic movement, foreshadowing the later Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution respectively. He was the coach of the people’s activity. His focus though was on the mind, rather that the body: the right attitude with the appropriate slogan - or ‘new formulation’, as the Chinese term has it.

The relations between the KMT and the CCP were always on and off. Stalin, even before he propagated the policy of socialism in one country, favoured an alliance of the Chinese groups. Later these two groups, the CCP and KMT, joined together again to repel the Japanese invaders. This kind of relationship may have been what inspired Mao’s concept of non-antagonistic contradictions.

The CCP’s ambition for a strong party directing an energetic populace was not a product of a traditional backward culture, but part of the region’s response to the west: the use of the state. In fact the west itself was developing a greater use of the state, but within capitalism.

Classic capitalism

Classical economics was the theory of the 18th and 19th century economy advanced by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and JS Mill. As the recent late conservative, Roger Scruton, defined the idea, “Competition [between businesses] is the foundation of economic activity” and “gives grounds for the belief that market conditions, operating without interference from the state, would generate economic stability” (A dictionary of political thought New York 1982, p69).

Yet by the 1870s competition gave way to growing monopoly. Engels for one noted that it was “joint stock companies [and] trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, which puts an end to private [solo] production, but also to planlessness”, as well as promoting an increasing reliance on the state. After 1870, the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ confirmed that competition was now between nations supporting firms, promoting a national antagonism which resulted in World War I. In India the British colonialism of the private East India Company was replaced by a viceroy, appointed by London.

In this new national competition, second-league nations like Germany and Japan responded by falling back on the state to create a welfare sector and close relations with clannish corporations. ‘Pure’ capitalism as an idea was fading and the alternative was a system of oligopoly and ‘state assistance’. This is the global context in which reformers from Turkey to China began to think there was a need for autocracy to facilitate rapid modernisation. In 1917 the revolutionaries who still aimed at global socialism (the Bolsheviks) tried to break from this barren alternative. But, when they tried to spread the revolution, they eventually fell back into a local autocracy themselves. Their domicile too, the USSR, became a state committed to rapid industrialisation.

In the China of the 1920s the heirs to anti-imperialism did not even pretend to ‘a workers’ democracy’. Like their domestic opponents, the Kuomintang, they believed in the policy of previous local reformers, like Liang Qichao and Chen Duxiu, and adopted an autocratic pragmatism that both exalted the masses and suppressed their directional ability.

Later the party would continue to prove its flexibility by seeking trade with capital-statist nations. During the cold war (and indeed still) the US saw any independence on anyone’s part - whether it be the Soviet Union, China or Iraq - as a threat, even while post-war American governments relied on a sponsored military sector to underlie a consumption boom.

‘State socialists’ were never an alternative to capitalism, but a substitute: another player to do the same job, though perhaps from a different position. Elites governed in both systems. Many Marxists, even while they were opposing each other’s sects, invested hope in the statist countries as ’transitional’, only requiring some tweak like ‘a political revolution’ to remedy the earlier mistake. Either that or followed a general anti-capitalism that made countries simple versions of each other (‘state capitalism’), rather than different kinds of state-led modernisation, with or without the profit system.


Mao’s modification of Marxism was not only borrowed from the Bolsheviks - even as the party changed from Marxist to Stalinist - but was based on the CCP ambition to modernise the ‘passive’ Chinese. Mao’s dialectical philosophy stressed contradiction, as opposed to its resolution.

In ‘On contradiction’ (August 1937), Mao observes that there is conflict everywhere and this is the motor of change, but that there are also such things as “non-antagonistic contradictions”. An example he gives is the economic antagonism of town and country: namely that “under the rule of the bourgeoisie the towns mercilessly plunder the countryside. But ... in a socialist society this antagonistic contradiction has changed into a non-antagonistic one.” Of course, in line with the style of Mao’s theoretical work, this is declared, not proved. How then had things not exactly changed, but become non antagonistic?

Or perhaps a non-antagonistic contradiction is one which has not changed much, but we can ignore, as it is now on our side - the side of the Chinese state. This theory laid the groundwork for an opportunism which could declare what would be defined as not “antagonistic”: that is, not a problem, whether it be an alliance with theocratic Pakistan or the ruthless use of the Chinese countryside.

One feature of dialectics discussed by Engels that Mao leaves out is the negation of the negation. Contradiction is the interplay of opposites and, where one side gains the upper hand, a decisive move is made and change occurs. The negation of the negation is where the opposition is transcended and elements of the previous contradiction disappear, while others are preserved - an interesting way of observing what has altered in any situation. When the bourgeoisie-proletariat relation is abolished (due to the abolition of the profit mechanism), what you can have is a non-capitalist society (which will bear elements of the previous form), but one where the primary relation is between a state bureaucracy and the people. The wolf may become a dog (a predator becoming a pet), but there are still elements of the wolf remaining. Balancing out what has changed and what has not is the focus which the negation of the negation encourages.

By 1930, the party was almost a secret society. It was formed in war - the Chinese civil war and later the Japanese occupation. In 1949 its leaders found themselves in power, faced with a decrepit bureaucracy and a huge, scattered peasantry. They had little to fall back on other than the reformers’ idea of a strong state and a Chinese Marxism which lacked the heritage of a more open European socialism. Over the decades, the party would go through a series of “new formulations”, from “the mass line” to “the enemies of the nation”, as Xi calls dissidents (not of the class or the revolution, but “the nation”).

One example of the Maoist opportunism in practice is the Chinese state’s relation to the 1971 war in Bangladesh. In their time, Mao and the CCP had always made a point of being prominently in favour of national liberation struggles, especially in Asia. In 1956 Mao wrote that “imperialism is a paper tiger” and China gave assistance, verbal and material, to anti-imperial forces in Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In 1971 the struggle that began in Bangladesh against Pakistani rule fitted the archetype of a national liberation struggle. Yet China supported Pakistan. The CCP argued that the uprising was part of a threat to dismember the Pakistan state, China’s ally. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) - an associate of Maoism - suffered a loss of prestige, as refugees began to flow into India with reports of rape and massacre. As Dilip Simeon of the CPI(M-L) said later, “Our narrow doctrinal explanations gave us no handle on this gigantic event ... We were the only ones supporting the Pakistani army ... all that commitment to world revolution and the suffering masses disappeared into thin air” (interview with Julie Lovell, quoted in her book Maoism).

The CCP’s underlying commitment to a strong state in competition with imperialism could include both support for national struggles and rejection of them if state interests depended upon it. The idea may not be Marxist, but it is shamelessly CCP. It also applies to building trade routes in Africa and providing contracted work for western capital.

Mao is now more of an idol than a model - a picture on the wall, like Winston Churchill. But the regime of a strong, but opportunist, state is still the Maoist policy operating in Beijing. Unfortunately the combined aims of secure survival and global competitiveness make for an unstable society.

Xi Jinping wants to make China great, in a coalition of party and entrepreneurs. But the people, middle class and working class, can compare themselves to citizens of rival powers in Europe and the US and object to a lack of rights and being pushed around. Semi-capitalism without even the appearance of democracy is a risk.

The wealth-gap societies of the west have their own version of this risk. Everywhere the parasitic rulers are chancing it. In the era of climate destruction and the widening wealth difference, what is needed is fundamental change and evaluation of what is ‘in transition’, between where and where.


The CCP and its expression in Maoism was an unembarrassed ‘state Marxism’: that is, a strong national state leading an overworked populace. This was not a policy shift, as with Bolshevism, from world revolution to national development - the Chinese party had always been for national development. Ironically, Confucius has re-emerged lately as a thinker to study - the philosopher of duties is now an ally of Xi’s ‘harmonious’ nation. As in so many states, the past has been called in to support the stagnating present. But Marxism is aimed at a society without an elite. Stalinism was the pragmatic recognition that the Bolsheviks, heading the bureaucracy, were a ruling elite and had to act like it. Maoism was even more extreme: the CCP insists on its rule, whatever economics or brutalities it uses.

In the 21st century, there are more challenges to tradition than ever before, including the tradition of state-led modernisation. Let us ditch the elites, even for ‘transitional’ states. Marxism does not defend such elites.

The focus must be on the international unity of the class - eastern and western, white and non-white, diverse and non-binary. Far from homogeneity - that is, avoiding the differences - but in democratic unity against the elites.


For the competitive response in the east to imperialism:

P Mishra From the ruins of empire: the revolt against the west and the remaking of Asia Allen Lane 2012.

Jack Brad, ‘What is Chinese Stalinism? Notes on the nature of the new state party’ New International Vol 15, No2, February 1949: www.marxists.org/history/eto/newspape/n/vol15/no02/brad.html.

For China’s anti-Confucian reformers up to Mao and Deng:

O Schell and J Delury Wealth and power: China’s long march to the twenty-first century Little Brown 2013.

VI Lenin Lenin on national and colonial questions: three articles. In particular, ‘Preliminary draft of the theses on the national and colonial questions’ (pp25-26), Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1970.

J Lovell Maoism: a global history pp352-56: ‘On Chinese foreign policy’, Bodley Head, 2019.

For Mao’s philosophy:

Mao Tse-Tung, ‘On contradiction’ in Four essays on philosophy Foreign Languages Press, 1966.

For the alliances and conflict between the CCP and KMT:

‘The Chinese Civil War’, Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Civil_War.

On state-led modernisation:

J Studwell How Asia works: success and failure in the world’s most dynamic region Profile, 2013.