Revolution #140, August 17, 2008

The TRUE Story of
Mao Tsetung and the Communist Revolution in China


In the 1960s and 1970s Mao Tsetung was one of the most famous people in the world. He had led the Chinese people, against all odds, to make a revolution. For the many millions who passionately fought for justice and liberation in those days, the Chinese Revolution stood out like a beacon. And Mao himself was most famous for restlessly refusing to stop the revolution halfway—for never settling in, never ceasing to fight for a world without any division into classes, into nations, into oppressor and oppressed. A lot of people—teachers, workers, doctors, scientists, students, and revolutionaries—from many different countries, went to China to witness the socialist society being built under Mao’s leadership. And many returned home, inspired and hopeful about the possibility of a truly liberating society.

In China itself, the masses revered Mao—as leader of the revolutionary vanguard in China, the Communist Party of China, he had led the victory in a 22-year war of liberation against both foreign invaders and domestic reactionaries. Following that epic struggle, he led the people to construct a new society and new lives in socialist China, and to go further in defending the revolution and transforming society during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. But there were those who opposed Mao, right in the leadership of the Communist Party of China. Like Mao, they had come into the revolution, and the Communist Party, burning with anger over China’s treatment by imperialism. Like Mao, they fought in the revolution for liberation. But unlike Mao their sights did not go all the way to communism; in fact, their aims really went no further than building China into a powerful nation. And in the name of building a strong and modern China they adopted programs and policies that essentially reinforced capitalist relations and thinking. After Mao died in 1976, these “capitalist roaders” in the Chinese Communist Party seized power and overthrew socialism and restored capitalism, arresting hundreds of thousands and killing thousands in the process. And even though the Chinese government has continued to call itself socialist and communist, China has been a capitalist country ever since. Mao’s principles—what he stood for—have been gutted, while China’s new rulers have turned Mao into a nationalist icon.

Today two whole generations of people have grown up in the U.S. where in large part what they know about Mao and China is the official storyline of the U.S. ruling class and mainstream media. And what they know, in large part, is ALL WRONG. People are told that Mao was a heartless, “power-hungry dictator,” who committed great crimes against people. But the TRUTH is that Mao Tsetung was a great revolutionary communist who led a quarter of the planet’s people to liberate China out from under the thumb of imperialist oppressors—and then move on to build a socialist, liberating society for over 25 years. Understanding the truth about Mao is important for everyone—the revolution he led was a major milestone in human history and everyone should know the truth about such a revolution and such a figure. For those who truly want to change the world, there is even more at stake—for Mao’s revolutionary thinking and practice form a critical part of the foundation and the point of departure for rebuilding a revolutionary movement today.

This is the TRUE story of Mao Tsetung and the world historic revolution he led in China.

Growing up in the
“Sick Man of Asia”

Mao was born December 26, 1893 and grew up in a China that had been invaded, and divided up by Britain, France, the U.S., Russia, Germany and Japan. These colonial powers controlled the economics and politics of China. They treated the Chinese people like dogs and rounded them up to be used as “coolie labor” on plantations and in mines all over the world. Foreign troops were in every main city. British and American gunboats patrolled the waters and foreign countries controlled the ports, postal system, shipping, railroads and telegraph. A sign posted in a park in the big city of Shanghai read: “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.” China was so oppressed that it was known as “the sick man of Asia.”

In the China where Mao grew up, most people were poor peasants suffering under the system of feudalism. Big landlords owned most of the land and landless peasants were forced to work for them, getting barely enough to survive. The peasants lived in constant debt, subjected to the tyranny of the landlords and conditions of poverty, hunger and disease. Families sold their children because they couldn’t feed them. Hundreds of thousands starved to death. And life for common people in the cities wasn’t much better. In Shanghai as many as 25,000 dead bodies were picked up off the streets each year. The British flooded China with opium, turning over 60 million Chinese people into addicts—while British and American capitalists got rich off this drug trade. Take a minute and think about the people behind those numbers—the degree of human misery and suffering this represented, year in and year out.

Mao also grew up in a time of peasant uprisings. From 1901 to 1910 there were nearly 1,000 such spontaneous struggles, involving tens of millions of people. As a student, Mao studied the Taiping Rebellion, where peasants took up arms and set up a revolutionary government (from 1850 to 1864). Mao learned how some 20 million people died when the Chinese government, along with the U.S, Britain and France, sent in troops to put the rebellion down. Again, think about the people behind that number.

In 1906, when Mao was 12 years old, all of China was hit by war, famine and flood. When the “Hunan Insurrection” happened, Mao said this influenced his whole life. Thousands of miners and peasants marched through the provincial capital and raided the grain stores of the landlords. Soldiers put the rebellion down and the heads of slaughtered rebels were stuck on the city gates as a warning to the people. Mao said: “This incident was discussed in my school for many days. It made a deep impression on me. Most of the other students sympathized with the ‘insurrectionists’ but only from an observer’s point of view. They did not understand that it had any relation to their own lives. They were merely interested in it as an exciting incident. I never forgot it. I felt that the rebels were ordinary people like my own family and I deeply resented the injustice of the treatment given to them.”

But despite their heroism and sacrifice, these rebellions had proven incapable of truly solving the problem and changing the society in a fundamental way. Mao, like many in his generation, was determined to find the way forward. In 1909, at the age of 16, Mao left home to go to school to become a teacher. He said, “For the first time I saw and studied with great interest a map of the world.” Mao studied the history of other nations and philosophers from many countries. He scanned newspapers from all over China. And for the first time, he read Marx’s “Communist Manifesto.” In 1917, Mao founded the “New People’s Study Society.” This group of young activists opposed opium smoking, gambling, drinking, prostitution and corruption and opposed the oppression of women. Mao argued that women should be “independent persons”—that men could not be free unless women were also liberated. The group started evening classes for workers where Mao taught history, discussed “current affairs,” and read newspapers to the workers. A poster announcing his classes read: “Come and listen to some plain speech¼ you can wear any clothes you want.”

Salvos from Russia

In 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and established a new socialist state. This revolution led by Lenin sent shockwaves around the world. It spread communism to other countries and connected with anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles that were going on. For so many generations the masses of Chinese people had fought back, but had no theory, no leadership and no plan for how to achieve liberation. But now, as Mao put it, “the salvos of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China.”

After World War 1, the imperialist powers that won the war transferred Germany’s colonial rights and privileges in China to Japan. On May 4, 1919, 3,000 students in the capital city of Beijing demonstrated against this decision. Martial law was declared and the police and army started arresting people. The students called for a general strike in the schools. Soon after this a strike centered in Shanghai, involving 90,000 workers, shut down more than 100 companies and factories. When Mao and other members of the New People’s Study Society heard about this “May 4th Movement,” they called for a strike and formed a students’ union in Hunan. And throughout 1919 this anti-imperialist movement gained widespread support all over China and politicized millions.

From early on Mao spoke out against the way women were oppressed by feudal tradition. On November 14, 1919, a woman cut her throat as she was being carried in a bridal sedan-chair to an arranged marriage. When Mao heard about this he published a series of 10 articles blaming the existing social conditions for this tragedy. He said women were “a tremendous potential revolutionary force” because “women have more oppression on their backs than men, for whereas men have three mountains of exploitation, women have four, for man also exploits her.” This fundamental stance of Mao’s—his burning desire to get rid of every chain upon humanity—would stay with him his whole life.

Ode to the Plum Blossom

Wind and rain escorted Spring’s departure,
Flying snow welcomes Spring’s return.
On the ice-clad rock rising high and sheer
A flower blooms sweet and fair.

Sweet and fair, she craves not Spring for herself alone,
To be the harbinger of Spring she is content.
When the mountain flowers are in full bloom
She will smile, mingling in their midst.

Written by Mao Tsetung in December 1961, to commemorate his first wife, Yang Kaihui, who was killed by the reactionary Kuomingtang in 1927 after she refused to renounce her revolutionary politics and her marriage to Mao.

In 1921, Mao joined with a small group of Chinese Marxists and together they formed the Chinese Communist Party. By taking up the ideology of Marxism-Leninism they could now begin to effectively tackle the theoretical and practical problems of making revolution in a country like China.

In 1921, Mao married Yang Kaihui, who had joined the communist party. She remained a revolutionary until 1927 when she was captured by the KMT and killed after refusing to renounce her marriage to Mao and her revolutionary politics. Later, in 1961, Mao wrote a poem to commemorate Yang Kaihui—which is among his most famous poems, titled “Ode to the Plum Blossom.”

The Revolution Begins

During this period, peasants were spontaneously rising up. They were confiscating land and attacking landlords and corrupt officials. In 1925 Mao walked from village to village in Hunan Province. He stayed with peasants and worked with them for his meals and lodging. He sat and listened to them, investigating firsthand what their lives were like. He helped set up peasant unions and recruited many peasants into the party.

Some leaders in the Chinese communist party wanted to write off the peasants as “too backward and conservative.” But Mao struggled against this view and argued that, “Without the poor peasants there would be no revolution.” And speaking of the peasant uprisings, he said: “Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them?”

The Kuomintang (KMT) was a party in China that had originally been nationalist—organized to fight for an independent China and against foreign domination. But in the 1920s it had been taken over by Chiang Kai-shek and turned into a vehicle for the imperialists and the big bourgeoisie and landlords in China. It especially had the backing of the U.S. and Britain, which wanted to maintain the semi-colonial status of China. In 1927, the KMT launched many campaigns aimed at decimating the Communist Party and the revolutionary movement. In the cities the KMT restricted political meetings, the press, workers’ organizations and the right to strike. Thousands of workers were killed, and communists and communist sympathizers were rounded up and publicly executed. At this point there was not a stable, unitary national government in China. In some parts of the country warlords (militarist-landlord cliques) were running things and in other places the KMT had control (and the KMT itself had different factions). Off of all this bloodshed, Chiang Kai-shek set up a KMT government in the city of Nanking and was immediately recognized by the Western imperialist powers as the sole and legal government of China.

Meanwhile in the countryside warlords were carrying out the slaughter of peasants. Rebellious women were singled out—cut into pieces and burned alive. In one area, in just five months, 4,700 peasants, including 500 women, were murdered—they were beheaded, buried alive, strangled, burned and cut into pieces. Land that had been seized by the peasants was returned to landlords. Peasant and worker leaders were rounded up and shot. In Hunan province alone, in one year, over 100,000 peasants and workers were killed. The party lost at least 15,000 members.

Revolution in the Countryside

By 1928 four-fifths of the Communist Party had been exterminated and the party was forced to go underground in the cities. This big defeat required a further analysis and breakthrough in revolutionary theory.

The strategy for proletarian revolution in the Soviet Union had been insurrection in the cities, followed by civil war. Some argued that the revolution in China should follow this model. But with the defeats they had suffered in the cities in trying insurrections, Mao saw this would not work in an oppressed country like China. He recognized that the counter-revolution was too strong in the cities and no matter how heroic, attempts by the workers to seize and hold cities were bound to fail.

Mao argued the revolution had to start in the countryside and build and expand base areas where the revolution could establish political power. The military struggle against the enemy had to be linked with and bound up with the process of carrying out agrarian revolution and creating the seeds of a new liberated society. This meant that the communists had to politically mobilize and lead the masses to carry out land reform, establish new local forms of people’s power, wage struggle against the oppression of national minorities and women and establish a new revolutionary culture among the people. In this way, the base areas could serve as a magnet and growing centers of support among the people. And the revolution could eventually encircle and seize the cities and establish nationwide power. With this strategy and goal, Mao said: “Without a people’s army the people have nothing.” And a new Red Army was formed.

Mao developed principles to build a politically conscious, disciplined army. When the Red Army marched into a town, Mao would immediately call for a meeting with the residents. But this was not always so easy. In one town, the people fled to the mountains and hid in the bushes. This was routine. Everyone fled when armies came by because they had suffered from the ways in which ordinary soldiers in the armies of the warlords and imperialists had been trained to loot and rape. But Mao ordered his soldiers to never enter a house or take anything and he struggled very hard against any thinking in the Red Army that echoed the rape-and-plunder mentality of the bourgeois and feudal armies, or the bandit gangs. So the courteous behavior of the Red Army soldiers was very unusual! By the third day the local people, watching from their hide-outs on the slopes, came back. Mao talked to them, urging them to return. He distributed money and cloth that had been taken from the landlords. He told the people that this army with its red flag was their own army, devoted to their own interests and dedicated to their liberation. The peasants fed and housed the Red Army soldiers and some of them joined the revolutionary army. This scene was repeated over and over as the Red Army under Mao’s leadership marched through the countryside.

All this time, Mao was also studying military theory in its own right, and the history of revolutionary war in the Soviet Union, as well as that of other wars—including in China. By the end of the decade of the 1930s, Mao would become the first to develop a comprehensive Marxist military line and system of thought on military affairs. This doctrine was rooted in the understanding that a revolutionary war depends on the masses and can only succeed on the basis that it enjoys their support and actively enlists them in the struggle.

Mao’s military thinking was extremely scientific. He argued that since the Red Army started out much weaker than the government troops, a quick victory was impossible. And engaging in all-out military battles would only lead to getting crushed. But by avoiding decisive tests of strength and waging guerrilla warfare, the revolutionary forces in China could defeat and weaken the enemy in smaller battles and, through a protracted process, gain popular support, increase in strength and numbers and extend their control. Mao said it was necessary to pursue a strategic policy of protracted warfare in the countryside to gradually bring about a change in the unfavorable balance of strength. And to carry this out Mao developed many different principles of guerrilla warfare like: “When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy halts, we harass; when the enemy tires, we attack; when the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

The Long March

In 1932 Japan invaded China. The Japanese launched a “kill all, burn all” campaign in which, over the years, 30 million Chinese people were killed. In December of 1937, Japanese troops entered Nanking and 50,000 Japanese troops were let loose in an orgy of rape, murder and looting. In four weeks 300,000 people were killed. Japanese soldiers beheaded babies and raped thousands of females, including young girls and old women. Thousands of men were lined up and machine-gunned. Groups of Chinese were used for bayonet practice. Others were doused with kerosene and burned alive. This was a mad, brutal war aimed at totally subjugating the Chinese people and breaking their will to resist.

The communists led the people to fight the Japanese, while Chiang Kai-shek refused to mobilize his troops—except to attack the communists. Chiang’s imperialist-backed KMT troops launched massive attacks against the Red Army. In 1933 a million KMT troops, tanks and airplanes were mobilized against the Red Army. On October 16, 1934, Mao and the Red Army were forced to make a strategic retreat from Kiangsi and embark on the amazing LONG MARCH.

The Red Army, with Mao leading, marched over 6,000 miles through some of the most hazardous terrain on earth. They went through 12 provinces in which 200 million people lived. They crossed 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers and occupied 62 cities and towns. They fought and beat one million KMT soldiers, averaged nearly one skirmish a day and made 235 day marches and 18 night marches. Mao called the Long March a manifesto, a propaganda force and a seeding machine. He said, “It has sown many seeds which will sprout, leaf, blossom and bear fruit, and will yield a harvest in the future.”

Three months into the Long March, in January 1935, the Red Army reached Tsunyi, in Kweichow Province. Here, the leaders of the Communist Party held a very important conference that turned out to be a crucial turning point. For the first time, the Party united around Mao’s line on political and military strategy, and his overall leadership. When the Red Army left Tsunyi, almost 4,000 peasants from the area joined the march.

On October 20, 1935, a year after leaving Kiangsi, the Long March ended in the North Shensi area. Some 100,000 started the Long March and only about 20,000 finished. While the Long March was a strategic retreat, it was not a defeat. The Red Army reached its new base area with its leadership intact and its political will as strong as ever.

The communists proved to be the best fighters against the Japanese invaders. In 1936, Mao had argued that the KMT and the Communists should form a united front against the Japanese invaders. But while Chiang Kai-shek, head of the KMT, was saving his weapons and soldiers to fight the communists, the Red Army fought 75 percent of the battles with the Japanese between 1937 and 1945. Red armies fought 92,000 battles, killed a million enemy troops, and captured 150,000 prisoners.

Developing Communist Theory

But none of this could have happened spontaneously. Mao developed theory to solve the problems of the revolution, and guide its course. Through all this, he made important and necessary new contributions to the science of communism. During this period Mao tackled the problems of the strategy to make revolution in a nation oppressed by imperialism, military affairs, and philosophy. Such works as “On Contradiction,” “On Practice,” “On New Democracy,” and many others made important contributions to the understanding of revolutionaries all over the world—and continue to be relevant today. Moreover, Mao’s method and approach in tackling these problems is itself an important thing to learn from. In all these arenas Mao both thoroughly rooted himself in Marxist theory but also found it necessary to break with convention in certain important respects.

At the end of 1939, Mao wrote the path-breaking essay, “On New Democracy.” Dealing with the specific question of China, he showed that because it had been dominated by imperialist powers for decades, China had never been able to develop as an independent nation and its economy was distorted and dependent. Imperialist development had led to the transformation of some of China’s more backward production relations. But feudal and semi-feudal economic relations—like landlords owning land and oppressing peasants—existed alongside of, and were incorporated into, capitalist relations; the backward political institutions and ideas that went along with this continued in force, while the Chinese nation overall was dominated by the imperialist powers.

Mao conceived of the revolution in China and other oppressed nations as a two-stage process. The first stage is the new-democratic revolution. This revolution unites all who can be united to kick out imperialism and overthrow feudalism and semi-feudalism, and the bureaucrat-capitalist class and the state system dependent on and serving imperialism. There are important democratic tasks that have to be carried out in this first stage—most especially agrarian land reform based on “land to the tiller,” as well as other democratic demands like an end to the oppression of national minorities and women. While these demands typically arise in the context of the bourgeois-democratic revolution,* and have the potential to open the door to capitalist development, Mao argued that if this struggle were waged as part of the world communist revolution—and specifically if the new state brought into being by the revolution was a form of revolutionary political power led by the proletariat while uniting with the peasantry, with a perspective and program of moving relatively quickly to socialism—then such a revolution could also open up the door to the socialist transition to communism. And Mao analyzed that such a revolution can and must unite in its first stage with sections of capitalists as well as enlightened strata that oppose imperialist domination.

In opposition to some in the Chinese Communist Party, Mao firmly maintained that the whole revolutionary process had to be led by the proletariat and carried out from the very beginning with a clear strategic perspective of socialism and communism. So while the revolution passes through distinct stages, it must be seen and led as a unified process with a red thread running throughout, guided by the outlook, ideology and politics of the proletariat and its goal of a communist world.

War and Victory

After the Long March, Mao and his troops set up a base area in Yenan where they rebuilt the Red Army and the Party with the aim of not only driving out Japan, but defeating the KMT and seizing nationwide power.

Thousands of peasants, workers and intellectuals came to Yenan where the seeds of a new socialist society were being planted and revolutionary groups were formed around all aspects of life. There were associations of women, youth, peasants, workers, school children, and old people. There was even an association of “loafers” who met to talk about how they could become productive members of a new society.

The masses were mobilized to uproot the brutality and poverty of feudalism. Arranged marriages, opium smoking, infanticide, child slavery, and prostitution were eliminated. And religion and superstition started to be replaced with scientific and revolutionary knowledge. Brutal landowners were no longer allowed to savagely exploit the people (and, with the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 and the onset once again of civil war, land was broadly redistributed to the peasants who worked it).

Among the artists and intellectuals from the big cities who came to Yenan was Chiang Ching, who joined the Party in 1933 and came to Yenan in 1937. Chiang Ching taught dramatic art at the Art Academy that had been formed in Yenan and joined the propaganda teams that were sent out to the countryside to put on plays for the peasants. Mao had an intense interest in writers, poets and artists and appreciated the role culture plays in molding public opinion in society. He attended plays, concerts and dances at the academy. He met Chiang Ching, the two fell in love and were married in 1939.

Western journalists like Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong who visited Yenan were struck by Mao’s connection with the people, his energy and his philosophical loftiness. One historian wrote: “There are many photographs of Mao, in patched trousers, worn and baggy jackets, pockets always deformed by books and papers. There are also many reminiscences of interviews with him of their length—sometimes lasting all night, of Mao’s untiring passion for explanation down to the last detail. He would join in the fun of parties, laugh at theatricals, in photographs he has a habit of not trying to occupy the center of the picture. Anna Louise Strong has left us a charming word picture of Mao dancing to a timing of his own—he is not a good dancer—of children running in and out of his cave while he worked. There is a kind of childish, impish gaiety about Mao, but it can change into deadly seriousness in a second.... In speaking, he has a way of presenting a most complicated subject so that even the uneducated man can understand it. He never talks above the heads of his audience but he never talks down to them either. There is a real flow of intimacy between him and the people. He always seems to be in contact.” (Han Suyin in Morning Deluge)

Yenan became the center of a movement to fan out and expand the liberated areas throughout China. And by 1945, there were 19 Red bases in nine provinces, and the population under communist administration was around 100 million people.

In 1945 the Japanese invaders were finally defeated. At that point, the U.S.—which had not attacked the communists while the communists fought Japan—immediately changed its tactics. It did everything it could to help the KMT defeat the communists. 90,000 U.S. Marines were sent in to occupy key cities, protect ports, airports, communications centers, coal mines and railways for the KMT. American advisers trained KMT officers and the U.S. gave Chiang modern weapons and vehicles. In the next two years Chiang would get 1.5 billion dollars in equipment and loans from the United States (which in today’s dollars would be roughly 13 billion dollars). But the People’s Liberation Army prevailed and in the first half of 1949, nearly half a million KMT troops were defeated. Chiang Kai-shek’s government fell in April and the People’s Liberation Army captured major cities in the following months.

A New Socialist China

On October 1, 1949, Mao stood in Tiananmen Square in the capital city of Beijing to announce the formation of the People’s Republic of China. He spoke to a crowd of millions and declared: “The Chinese people have stood up!”

Mao had led the Chinese people in 20 years of armed struggle to overthrow their oppressors and drive out foreign imperialism. Now the people had the power to build socialism—as a transitional society with the goal of a communist world free of classes, and all the oppressive relations and ideas that go along with class society.

On this historic day, Mao shared in the people’s joy and celebration, but he also understood, as he had pointed out, that: “The Chinese revolution is great, but the road after revolution will be longer, the work greater and more arduous...”  

*The “bourgeois-democratic revolution” refers to the overthrow of feudalism by the capitalist class, which usually involves certain democratic reforms. Examples are the American Revolution or the French Revolution. For fuller analysis of the ways in which these revolutions serve to extend the relations of capitalist exploitation and the ways in which the demands and ideals of those revolutions reflect, at bottom, these exploitative relations, see Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? and Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism, as well as the forthcoming Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy—all by Bob Avakian.[back]

Next—Part 2: The tremendous achievements of the Chinese revolution once in power—and why and how it was defeated, and capitalism restored.

Recommended reading about Mao Tsetung in this period of China’s history:

Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow
Mao Tsetung’s Immortal Contributions by Bob Avakian
Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Tsetung

These books are available at, Revolution Books and many major bookstores.

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