In his writings and talks Mao Tsetung referred many times to the great uprisings of peasants throughout hundreds and thousands of years of feudal society in China. Mao pointed out that these peasant uprisings achieved many things, including even the overthrow of powerful emperors, yet they did not achieve the real and complete liberation of the masses of people. Why is that and what can we learn from this to carry forward the fight for real and complete liberation?
Here is what Mao says about this:
"The ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the Chinese peasants forced them into numerous uprisings against landlord rule.... The class struggles of the peasants, the peasant uprisings and peasant wars constituted the real motive force of historical development in Chinese feudal society.... However, since neither new productive forces, nor new relations of production, nor new class forces, nor any advanced political party existed in those days, the peasant uprisings and wars did not have correct leadership such as the proletariat and the Communist Party provide today; every peasant revolution failed, and the peasantry was invariably used by the landlords and the nobility, either during or after the revolution, as a lever for bringing about dynastic change. Therefore, although some social progress was made after each great peasant revolutionary struggle, the feudal economic relations and political system remained basically unchanged.
"It is only in the last hundred years that a change of a different order has taken place."
"The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party," Mao's Selected Works, Volume 2, pp. 308-9
Let's break this down further. In all these peasant rebellions and wars that Mao talks about either the peasants were defeated; or their struggle was taken over by people at the top--feudal landlords, emperors or would-be emperors--and used for their own ends; or the peasants did succeed in overthrowing the ruling regime and then some leaders of the peasants would set themselves up as new emperors--starting up their own dynasties to rule over the people.
This is something oppressed people all over the world are all too familiar with. It is something that has happened to us throughout history. But in the present era there is something radically new and different in the world--something that makes all the difference. There is a class of people, not just in one country but throughout the world, who have both the interest and the potential power to make a revolution that will finally abolish all forms of exploitation and oppression. That class is the proletariat--the exploited class in capitalist society--the class whose labor is the basis of capitalist production and whose poverty is the basis of capitalist wealth.
In past eras of history, when the oppressed people rose up, although they fought and sacrificed heroically, they were not yet in a position to reorganize society on a radically new basis free of all exploitation and oppression. Why? Fundamentally this is because in these past periods of history, the productive forces of society--the land, tools, and other raw materials and machinery, as well as the people themselves and their knowledge and abilities--were not yet developed enough. That is, they were not yet developed enough to provide not only for everyone's basic material needs but beyond that for everyone's all-around development--intellectually as well as physically, through recreation as well as through work--and to allow at the same time for the continual expanding development of society as a whole, in a rational and planned way. And in the past there was no class of people who could reorganize society in this way, in accordance with their own interests.
Today all that has changed. Now the productive forces are developed enough to make all this possible, and there is a class of people who can and will do this. Once again, that class is the proletariat.
As the New Programme of our Party explains, "whichever class can in any period organize society in such a way as to most rationally utilize the productive forces at hand will ultimately come to power and prevail during that period." (page 12) Today the "productive forces at hand" in the world are capable of producing enough food, clothing, shelter, medical care and other basic necessities for everyone in the world to have a decent life and at the same time have a large surplus left over to devote to the all-around and future development of human society and the people who make it up.
Yet, as we know all too well, that is not what happens. Instead, a small number of people in a small number of countries, such as the ruling imperialists of the USA, control vast amounts of wealth and means to make wealth (productive forces). And under this system the masses of people in the world are themselves treated as merely means to make wealth for the owners and rulers of the system. These imperialists not only exploit and oppress the masses of people, they also carry out cut-throat competition with each other--reaching its highest form in wars of terrible destruction--to determine which one will come out on top.
All this is a profound and oppressive truth. But what is a more profound truth, and a profoundly liberating truth, is that this is no longer necessary--it is no longer the only way, or the most rational way, that society can be organized. Today it is the proletariat and the proletariat alone that is able to "organize society in such a way as to most rationally utilize the productive forces at hand." And that, at bottom, is why the proletariat and no other force in society can lead the masses of people to real and complete liberation. Any other attempt at changing things, led by any force representing any other class, is bound either to be crushed by the system, to sellout to the system, or even if it overturns a particular regime here or there, it will only continue the same basic system but with new people on top. This is because no other class has the material basis and the material position in society to bring about a radically different way of organizing and utilizing the productive forces--no other class represents radically different relations among people in production and in society as a whole.
Today's productive forces require thousands, ultimately millions of people working together to mass produce the things that are used by people throughout society. The proletariat is the class that represents the cooperative labor and cooperative efforts overall that correspond to this highly socialized nature of the productive forces. That is why the proletarian revolution is a revolution that aims to establish the socialized, common ownership of the means of production and to organize the people in a cooperative way to carry out labor and to distribute what is produced according to people's needs.
Today's productive forces are highly interconnected on an international level and in fact can only be most rationally utilized on an international scale. That is the underlying reason why the proletarian revolution is in the final analysis an international revolution. This revolution aims not only to abolish the division of society into different classes but to overcome all inequality and oppressive relations between different peoples and nations and ultimately move beyond the division of the earth's people into separate nations, replacing this with the society of freely associating and cooperating human beings, worldwide.
In short, the goal of the proletariat is to carry out the world communist revolution.
From this we can see why Mao often emphasized the point made by Karl Marx, the founder of communism--that the proletariat can emancipate itself only by emancipating all humanity. Only if all forms of exploitation are uprooted; only if all "division of labor" in society which puts some people in positions of privilege and power over others is overcome; only if all class distinctions themselves are eliminated; only if all relations of oppression and inequality are abolished worldwide; only in this way can the interests of the proletariat as a class be realized.
The proletariat must and will put itself at the head of the masses of oppressed people in rising up against the oppressive system, overthrowing it and establishing a new political power. In this the proletariat is like other classes in history that have reshaped society in accordance with their interests. But, as we have seen, the proletariat is radically different from all other classes in history--its interests demand not a new system of exploitation but the abolition of all forms of exploitation and oppression--and because of this the proletariat is not only able to rally the masses of oppressed people in a far more powerful way to overthrow the old system, it is able to continue leading them to transform the world in a conscious way for their own liberation.
To carry out this great epoch-making revolution, to realize its own class interests and ultimately to emancipate all humanity, the proletariat must be led by its vanguard, armed with the ideology and program that corresponds to the most fundamental and highest interests of the proletariat. It is through the leadership of this vanguard, based on this ideology and program, that the masses of oppressed people can be unleashed and led in a conscious and organized way to fight against, overthrow, and finally uproot the old order of exploitation and oppression and to create a new world--a communist world where, as Mao said, humanity "voluntarily and consciously changes itself and the world."