Toward a Critical Reassessment of Maoism

Toward a Critical Reassessment of Maoism

Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che offers the revolutionary Left an opportunity for a long-needed self-examination. A well-written and thoughtful book, it seriously examines much of what led to the formation of a New Communist Movement in the USA, and much of what led to its collapse by the 1980s. An exhaustive review is necessary since Elbaum’s book can and should catalyze a needed dialogue and analysis of that period. At the same time, the publication of this book, and its harsh condemnation of the political tendency known as Maoism as being the principal problem of the revolutionary Left, offers us a moment to begin a reassessment of the political tendency that came to be associated with the late Chairman of the Communist Party of China.

The following essay presents a series of theses toward such a reassessment. A much more in-depth look is warranted, but in light of the discussion that has accompanied the publication of Revolution in the Air, it is critical to clarify terms, and better understand the Maoist political tendency.

It should be added at the outset that Elbaum collapses most of the problems of the New Communist Movement into his notion of the errors of Maoism. With this thesis, I am in fundamental disagreement. The New Communist Movement, a movement that, as Elbaum correctly noted, arose out of the progressive social movements of the ’60s and attempted to rebuild a revolutionary current in US politics, died due to an ultra-leftism that crossed political currents, a fact that Elbaum grudgingly seems to accept, albeit in contradiction with his main argument.

This ultra-leftism was grounded less in traditional dogmatism and a slavish support for the nuances of the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China, and more in semi-anarchist assumptions and practices; voluntarism (at the levels of theory and practice); and a search for a mythological orthodox communist heritage. Underlying all of this, however, was the critical error: the failure of the new revolutionary Left to recognize and comes to grips with the crisis of socialism, a crisis that went back to the Stalin era in the former Soviet Union. Our collective failure to understand the crisis of socialism and its implications was linked to a social practice of ultra-leftism.

Maoism and the Crisis of Socialism

It is, therefore, fitting that one should begin a reassessment of Maoism by addressing the crisis of socialism. In its fundamentals, what came to be known first as “Mao Zedong Thought”, and later by many as “Maoism,” was an effort led by forces within the Communist Party of China (CPC), and later in other communist and revolutionary movements and parties, to address the crisis of socialism. In this regard, to narrow an understanding of Maoism to the specifics of China’s foreign policy misses the mark entirely. Foreign policies of any country, regardless of rhetoric, are driven by various forces, including class forces, ideological pulls, historic tensions, perceived national interests, and on and on. Maoism, on the other hand, represented a political tendency, and a complex one at that. It certainly contributed to the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China, but it was not identical with it.

What can we say were some of the elements of Maoism? To borrow from the Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin, “Maoism offered a critique of Stalinism from the left, while Khrushchev made one from the right.” Maoism emerged as a critique of the Soviet experience. It did so in a contradictory manner in that it represented both a political critique of the actions of the Soviet Union post-Stalin, as well as an often-implied theoretical critique of the Stalin period.

As such, contained within the broad rubric of Maoism were sub-tendencies or alliances that shifted over time. Thus, within Maoism one could find those who sought justification for their analysis based, ironically, on Stalinism. At the same time one could find those that more overtly critiqued the Stalin period and the approach to socialism that it represented. (Elbaum does acknowledge the sub-tendencies within Maoism, but tends to represent this as some haphazard united front. See p.140.)

All that said, I would argue that the key elements of Maoism that made it more than an amalgam of ideas are as follows:

  • (1) It reaffirmed Marx and Lenin’s proposition that socialism was not a mode of production but represented a transitional period between capitalism and communism during which elements of both modes of production would exist (and by implication, be in struggle).
  • (2) Given point #1, and that there would continue to be classes, class struggle would continue during socialism, but this struggle would take different forms than had existed under traditional capitalism.
  • (3) Classes, including antagonistic classes, could in fact re-emerge during socialism. Socialism, therefore, was not a period in which there could be no reversals. The consolidation of capital under the rubric of state property—to borrow from Engels—was insufficient to guarantee a transition to communism or the emancipation of the oppressed.
  • (4) The 20th century had witnessed the rise in importance, if not centrality, of the national liberation struggles and struggles for national independence against imperialism. While class struggle in the imperialist countries would remain important, and the struggle on the part of the socialist camp against imperialism could be invaluable, by implication Maoism saw both of the latter as being relatively weak compared with the former.

  • (5) The Communist International (Comintern) had been a disaster and undermined the sovereignty of revolutionary movements and their ability to develop revolutionary strategies that fit their concrete conditions. Rather than the Comintern’s serving as a body to coordinate revolutionary strategies developed indigenously, the Comintern was seen as imposing strategies from without. Flowing from this was the notion that while there needed to be support of revolutionary movements and parties, the internal contradiction within each social formation must be the decisive measure of the character of a revolutionary movement.
  • (6) That a broad united front against imperialism was necessary, including within it a variety of middle forces that were not in and of themselves revolutionary.
  • (7) That the worker-peasant alliance was critical in the advancement of any revolutionary process in the so-called Third World.
  • (8) That the Soviet Union had degenerated into a capitalist state, and was, in effect, an example of social imperialism.

There are, of course, in addition the points and elaborations on matters of philosophy offered by Mao.

Class Struggle and Retreat under Socialism

It is impossible in this short essay to take on each of the themes, but it is worth offering some summary points. This essay began with a lengthy quote from Engels in order to illustrate that from the beginning, Marxism has attempted to grapple with the interrelationship between the state, capital, private capitalism and capitalist relations. Engels offered, very presciently, the notion that the state could serve as what he termed the “aggregate capitalist.” In other words, the fundamental feature of capitalism is not the existence of private capitalists.

Maoism, in attempting to understand the development of the USSR, took this as a key starting point. Stalin had looked at class struggle as a matter of military action either against foreign aggressors or against imperialist agents. In both cases the answer was simple for him: elimination. The notion of class struggle and the possibility of the emergence of a new oppressive class arising from both small commodity production and from within the socialist state and party itself were simply not on the table. For Stalin, as for many of his followers in what came to be known as the New Communist Movement in the USA, socialism was a one way street: the only way for there to be capitalist restoration or otherwise backsliding was through a counter-revolutionary insurrection or an external invasion.

Beginning in the 1940s some Trotskyist tendencies began exploring the possibility that there might be other ways to reverse the socialist course. (The noted Marxist C.L.R. James was among the more prominent Trotskyists to suggest that a form of state capitalism had emerged in the USSR under Stalin.) Maoism, through its various exponents, including but not limited to Mao, saw the key to proceeding along the socialist road in the question of what steps were taken to move against capitalist relations and build the power of the workers and peasants.

The Communist Party of China’s break with the Soviet Union was rooted in the critique of Kruschev’s revisionism and marked a turning point in the development of Mao’s thinking.

Maoism challenged the economic determinism of Stalinian Marxism, even in its post-Stalin incarnations. It suggested that while the development of the productive forces was essential, economic development in and of itself would not, ipso facto, lead toward communism, even if a communist party were in command. It is in this context that it is useful to consider the quote from Mao that Elbaum so frequently ridicules: “The correctness or otherwise of the ideological and political line decides everything.” The entirety of the quote reads as follows:

The correctness or otherwise of the ideological and political line decides everything. When the Party’s line is correct, then everything will come its way. If it has no followers, then it can have followers; if it has no guns, then it can have guns; if it has no political power, then it can have political power. If its line is not correct, even what it has it may lose. The line is a net rope. When it is pulled, the whole net opens out. (Mao Zedong, “Summary of Chairman Mao’s talks with Responsible Comrades at Various Places during his Provincial Tour from the Middle of August to 12 September 1971,” in Stuart Schram, editor, Chairman Mao Talks to the People: Talks and Letters: 1956–1971 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), p.290.)

While the point was overstated and subject to the wild interpretations by an infantile movement that Elbaum cites, the critical feature of this notion is that there is no inevitability on the road to socialism, whether that is in the pre-revolutionary stage or in the post-revolutionary stage. The party’s political and ideological line, which Mao never reduced to a set of programs and proclamations, but always founded on a concrete analysis, was the battleground in the construction of socialism.

If one does not believe that a socialist society can move backwards short of an insurrection or invasion, then it is clear that none of what Mao elaborated would make a bit of sense. As an author close to the Communist Labor Party (which came to oppose the notion of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union) wrote in the 1970s, the notion of capitalist restoration would be like humans devolving into apes. Yet it was the possibility of capitalist restoration that Maoism attempted to address.

While Elbaum and many others may think that Maoism was completely off the mark in such an analysis, there is an interesting question one must ask: If the USSR was socialist, why was it that a formal restoration of Western-style capitalism transpired so easily? Why was there no civil war? Why was it that cadres of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) did not rally en masse against private capitalism? How, in other words, did the great tree become infested with termites? Short of a conspiracy theory that places all the blame on a cabal of a small group of leaders, there are few answers besides getting to the root of actual class struggle as it was playing out in the former USSR. (And such conspiracy theories have proliferated within the international Left. The Workers Party of Belgium (PTB), an otherwise outstanding force on the Left, retreated from a semi-Maoist analysis of the USSR and focused its analysis of the collapse of the Soviet bloc on conspiracies carried out by the CIA, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.)

Was Maoism correct that the Soviet Union had become a form of state capitalism? I believe that it is far from clear what the actual social formation was. In that regard the characterization of the USSR as capitalist, let alone social imperialist seems more descriptive than analytical, and even in the descriptiveness, missed many important nuances. The debates that included such forces as those grouped around Monthly Review magazine, the French Marxist Charles Bettelheim, Samir Amin, and others were informative in probing this question but not decisive in answering the problem. Despite the disappearance of the USSR, understanding what transpired remains a key theoretical task of all serious forces on the revolutionary Left.

Actual Soviet Practice

It is important in making this analysis of the Soviet Union and the possibility of the restoration of capitalism (or the creation of some other sort of non-socialist, post-capitalist state) to ask a question about the international role of the USSR, particularly because Elbaum walks very quickly around issues of Soviet international practice while blasting the Chinese for each and every transgression on proletarian internationalism. Influencing both Maoism and Chinese foreign policy was the question of whether there was an actual threat from the USSR, i.e., a threat to China and possibly to other countries.

In order to answer this it is important to consider theoretical propositions as well as actual practices. During the Stalin era the CPSU elaborated two important notions with regard to the possibility of a supposed socialist division of labor on both the political party front and on the nation-state front. In the early years of the USSR, the federation that was to become the USSR supported the notion of self-determination up to and including the right of secession. Nevertheless, when forces, including communists, within many of those nation-states suggested that self-determination should be exercised in favor of greater autonomy or outright independence, they were met with repression. This included actions in the Ukraine as well as in what came to be known as Soviet Central Asia.

Coinciding with these purges was the emergence of the notion of the so-called “Russian Elder Brother,” i.e., the Russian Republic playing the leading role in the division of labor within the USSR. After World War II this notion was further expanded to include the relationship between the USSR and the East European People’s Democracies as well as the Mongolian People’s Republic. In its most extreme form this proposition played itself out in the 1968 Soviet invasion of the then Czechoslovakia.

The other aspect of the socialist division of labor concerned the relationship between parties. Chinese suspicion and resistance to the notion of a new Communist International had little to do with the pragmatism that Elbaum implies, but rather to the actual experience of the Comintern. The Chinese Party, specifically, had a very negative experience with Comintern directives in which disasters unfolded due to dogmatic and otherwise out-of-touch direction. The Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI), the leading body between Comintern congresses, held an international role analogous to the central committee of the communist party of a nation-state. Thus, the Comintern could dissolve a party, alter its leadership, or change its direction. An example of some of the more extreme measures included the physical elimination of the leadership of the Communist Party of Poland (and the dissolving of the party) by the Comintern in 1939, all carried out under the leadership of the CPSU.

Thus, at the level of experience, there was a sound basis to be suspicious of actual Soviet practice. To be added to this can be included Stalin’s machinations in the late 1940s to separate Sinkiang Province off from China; the withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1960; the unilateralism of the USSR and the CPSU in its relations with other parties generally, and the CPC in particular; and the twice-discussed/considered nuclear bombardment of China that the USSR contemplated (along with the USA).

It is worth mentioning these points to understand that Elbaum’s notion of some sort of grand anti-imperialist front that the Chinese allegedly broke simply does not correspond with the actual facts. Second, that there was a relationship that the Soviets wished to impose on others that was very Eurocentric and assumed Soviet hegemony. These facts all contributed to the development of Maoism as a political trend, but also contributed to the development of Chinese foreign policy.

A note should be offered about Chinese foreign policy. Elbaum is absolutely correct that many in the Maoist movement slavishly followed Chinese foreign policy in much the same way that an earlier generation followed Soviet foreign policy. In both cases the results were often disastrous. The failure of any party or organization to independently elaborate its own international line leads to both bad theory and worse practice. In the case of China, there are examples, many offered by Elbaum, that almost defy explanation. The stand of the Chinese on the 1973 Chilean coup and its aftermath is certainly one example. The failure of the CPC to distinguish the objectives of Cuban foreign policy from that of the USSR is yet another example. The withdrawal of assistance to several revolutionary movements, and in some cases defaming such movements certainly unsettled the international anti-imperialist movement.

Yet Elbaum fails to acknowledge in the same bold way that Soviet practice, both pre– and post–World War II left something to be desired when it came to proletarian internationalism. This can include the invasion of Poland in 1939; the division of Europe into spheres of influence; machinations against Yugoslavia; the disastrous advice to the Greek Communists during World War II and the abandonment of the Greek Revolution in the late 1940s; Soviet support of the Argentine military junta in the 1970s; Soviet support of Ethiopia in its war to suppress the Eritrean national liberation movement… and the list goes on.

In the cases of both the Chinese and the Soviets there is much that we did not know and do not know or understand that might explain some of these actions. Other actions were driven by objectives that have little to do with ideology, but a lot to do with the nuances of the national and international class struggle.

Why Did Maoism Fail?

If Maoism was an attempt at a critique of Stalinian Marxism from the Left, why did it fail, possibly permanently, but at the least for the moment? There are Marxists far greater than I who have attempted and are attempting to articulate an answer to this question. As a modest contribution to this discussion, however, I would suggest that Maoism emerged over time, rather than full-blown, as a critique of the Soviet experience. One can see, for example, in reading Mao’s A Critique of Soviet Economics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977) the beginning of an analysis on the question of socialist society. In other words, Maoism, as a body of theory, cannot be summed up by simply looking at CPC resolutions, Chinese foreign policy, or even the words of Mao at a particular moment. It must be understood as a movement, theory, and practice over a space of time.

Maoism attempted to critique the Soviet experience, and by implication Stalinian Marxism, from within the traditional Marxist-Leninist paradigm. In a peculiar sense, Maoism attempted to both break new ground and simultaneously cling to a certain orthodoxy in order to justify its positions. Maoism became trapped within that paradigm in ways that weakened its possibility of successfully addressing the crisis of socialism. The failure to conduct an outright demarcation with Stalinian Marxism certainly provided fertile ground for a retreat. More importantly, it could not pave the way toward a revolutionary resolution of the crisis of socialism.

Ironically, as important as was the worker-peasant alliance in Maoist theory (and for Mao personally), steps were taken during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that were far in advance of where the peasantry was as a class. Certainly on the positive side the development of collective farms and communes represented a step to move further down the socialist road. But capitalist relations were going to continue at least to some degree under socialism, and this could not be eliminated quickly, particularly in an underdeveloped, formerly semi-colonial country.

To the extent to which a criticism of voluntarism should be accepted (and it should), it could be contained in the tendency within Maoism to identify correctly what needed to transpire, but to assume that victory could be accomplished through persistence. This voluntarism was a response to the depressing determinism of the Soviet bloc theory and practice, but it could and often did lead to counter-productive ends. The cadre and supporters became weary, and cynicism ended up prevailing. Within cynicism, capitalism and capitalist relations find a fertile ground for growth.

Maoism represented a contradictory attitude toward the question of the communist party. On the one hand, the importance of a revolutionary party at all stages in the revolutionary process was constantly reaffirmed. Maoism correctly identified that it was within the communist party and the state apparatus that a new class of exploiters could emerge, precisely because the means of production were no longer owned privately. For this reason, Mao’s calls, during the Cultural Revolution, for struggle against the party and for the creation of new revolutionary organizations represented an important breakthrough for Marxism.

Yet this call, and Maoism itself, balked. The unanswered question was whether there really was a space for additional revolutionary parties. Was the struggle against bourgeois tendencies in THE communist party the only legitimate ground, or was it possible for revolutionary forces to constitute other formations that, while being in support of socialism, might have a difference with the official communist party? Maoism stepped up to the precipice and then halted. It could not answer that question within the traditional Marxist-Leninist paradigm. And, when faced with the chaos at a certain stage in the Cultural Revolution, retreated from even asking the question. This, I would suggest, had international theoretical and practical ramifications for the development of the revolutionary Left.

Conclusion

There is certainly much more that can and should be said about Maoism. This essay is only a minor contribution toward that discussion. We should conclude, however, by reiterating the earlier point about the source of the problems of the New Communist Movement. By pinning the blame on Maoism, Elbaum avoids some deeper questions about problems within the Marxist-Leninist paradigm. By simply looking at those groups that subscribed to Maoism and those that did not, the striking feature was the commonality of problems, and in many cases, practices.

The New Communist Movement emerged out of a social milieu that provided a foundation for ultra-leftism. Was that ultra-leftism avoidable? Certainly. But in order to avoid that ultra-leftism, our movement could have used greater help from prior generations of revolutionary theorists and activists. More importantly, the New Communist Movement would have needed to come to grips with the crisis of socialism. By believing that the problems of the USSR, other revolutionary movements, or even the Communist Party USA were primarily problems of insufficient political will to move in the right direction, we laid ourselves wide open to fall into voluntarist theory and practice.

Maoism broke new ground in asking tough questions that the international communist movement had largely feared facing. It offered the inspiration of a courageous revolutionary practice—in China as well as other countries. Yet, while several of the communist parties that made a critique of the Soviet experience from the right (e.g., the Italian Communist Party, the French) were for their own reasons prepared to call into question many of the fundamentals of Leninism (as transpired during the 1970s and early to mid 1980s with the development of what came to be known as “Eurocommunism”), Maoism was unprepared to challenge Marxism-Leninism from the Left in ways that could have advanced a revolutionary (rather than social democratic) project. Thus, and contrary to Elbaum, we owe a debt of gratitude to Maoism for opening up a door through which we must now pass, even if as a theory it could only take the first steps.

Khalil Hassan is a long-time labor activist and socialist.

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