To Make Sense of Modern China, Look to Mao Zedong’s Long March to Power

In the 1920s, China’s Communist Party retreated from the cities to the countryside to wage a protracted guerrilla war. This long separation from the Chinese working class fostered an autocratic culture that went on to shape the party’s rule over China.

Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong addresses a meeting calling for even greater efforts against the Japanese, at the Kangdah (Anti-Japanese) Cave University in 1938. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

For many people on the Left, China’s political and economic nature remains something of an enigma. Rising tensions between China and the United States have given the debate greater political importance and urgency. This rivalry will define the remainder of the twenty-first century, forcing the Left to adopt a clear position. Should it take one side or the other in this contest — or line up with neither?

The question of China has persistently bedeviled the global left. Socialists have had to analyze a series of challenging events from the defeat of its first revolution in the late 1920s right up to the present day. Throughout all the vicissitudes of the period since 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has remained in power. With Xi Jinping’s effective induction as general secretary for life after the abolition of term limits, the party has entered a third period in its history after those inaugurated by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

For all the changes it has undergone since taking power, the CPC still has its organizational roots in the movement that waged a decade-spanning guerrilla war. Mao Zedong Thought, a collection of essays written by the Chinese Trotskyist Wang Fanxi in the early 1960s, sheds fresh light on how the CPC established its control over China under Mao’s leadership more than seven decades ago. The first English translation of this book should bring a vital perspective on the CPC’s history to a new audience.

Revolutionary Reflections

Wang Fanxi was previously best known to English-language readers for his book Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary, a vivid account of his three decades of political activism between 1919 and 1949, first as a member of the CPC, then as a Trotskyist militant. He left mainland China for Hong Kong shortly before Mao’s party took power. The British colonial authorities soon deported him to Macau where, as he wrote in 1957, Wang had “more than a little time to think” about recent Chinese history. His memoir and Mao Zedong Thought were the result of this enforced period of reflection.

Most of Wang’s comrades in the Chinese Trotskyist movement were arrested by Mao’s secret police in the early 1950s. His close friend Zheng Chaolin was only released from prison a quarter-century later, after serving a total of thirty-four years in jail under the successive dictatorships of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao. By then, Wang himself was living in Britain, having been assisted in the move by the historian Gregor Benton. Benton has played an important role in keeping alive both Wang’s memory and that of Chinese Trotskyism in general.

Benton previously translated Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary into English, and he was also responsible for this edition of Mao Zedong Thought, which shortens the original Chinese text by about one-third. Wang himself died in 2002, at the age of ninety-five, and Benton expresses the hope that he “would have accepted my excisions in the spirit in which I made them — to preserve the integrity of his thoughts while spreading them to a new generation of readers.”

The book includes a lengthy introduction by Benton in which he summarizes the course of Wang’s life and pays tribute to his character:

Most people who met Wang knew him as gentle, serene, and approachable, with none of the brashness and fanaticism often ascribed to leaders of revolutionary movements. He made friends while in England with people of all political persuasions and none. He was careful and polite with acquaintances, spontaneous and unguarded with friends, and a sensitive, receptive listener. He had a rich inner and intellectual life, and was fluent in several languages and widely read in world literature. In another age and place, he would have excelled as a writer or a scholar (just as Zheng Chaolin would have excelled as a philosopher and poet). However, he had none of the academic world’s obsession with publication and esteem, and all his writings were published under pseudonyms.

As Benton notes, biographical studies of Mao have proliferated since Wang composed Mao Zedong Thought, based on a wider range of sources than were available to him in Macau. But he correctly insists that Wang’s book “remains valuable and effective, not just as part of the historical record in its own right but as the ‘comprehensive, objective historical account’ he intended it to be and as good analytic and interpretive history.”

Diverging Paths

Mao and Wang were at one time both revolutionaries in the same movement, yet one died as a world-famous nation builder while the other ended his days as a virtual unknown in exile. As Wang recalled, the two men were never close comrades, but their friendship circles overlapped:

I have never had the chance to work closely with Mao, but we have no few mutual friends, among them Xu Zhixing (Mao’s childhood friend) and He Zishen (who worked closely with Mao for many years and has been in prison under him since 1952). From them I learned many things about Mao’s character, his learning, and his way of thinking and working.

It was the fiasco of the first Chinese revolution of 1927 that caused their political destinies to diverge.

The CPC had been founded in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its leaders had forged a young and vibrant party with almost 60,000 members by the late 1920s. It looked to the Moscow-based Communist International, or Comintern, for political direction. By the time of the first Chinese revolution, the Comintern itself was firmly under the control of Joseph Stalin, who subordinated the interests of the global working class to the priorities of his own bureaucratic rule in the USSR.

In China, Stalin wanted to form an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), a nationalist party that was closely aligned with Chinese landowners and capitalists. He made the KMT chief an honorary member of the Comintern Executive and urged the CPC to hold back on criticism of Chiang’s party and work as a bloc within it. Stalin stuck to this line even after the KMT military expelled and disarmed CPC members.

The result was a bloodbath when the Kuomintang turned on their erstwhile allies. In the middle of the Northern Expedition, a joint nationalist–communist campaign with Soviet backing to defeat China’s warlords and end the interference of foreign powers, Chiang launched an attack on the CPC in cities like Shanghai, massacring thousands of communists and workers.

This bloody disaster caused some Asian communists to doubt the wisdom of the Soviet leaders. In 1927, Wang was a twenty-year-old CPC organizer. The party had sent him, along with many of his young comrades, to study at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow. As Wang recalled, he secretly joined the Bolshevik opposition led by Leon Trotsky because they were the ones who “best understood the 1927 defeat” and had strongly criticized Stalin’s handling of Chinese affairs.

He had also grown frustrated by “the arbitrary and bureaucratic way in which the Stalinists conducted the inner-party struggle.” Wang formed a “rebel faction” among the Chinese students to mount resistance to Wang Ming, a loyal stooge of Stalin installed in the CPC leadership who later returned to China. Several hundred Chinese students in Moscow enlisted in the Trotskyist current, and it also won the adherence of Chen Duxiu, the CPC’s first leader.

A Traditionalist Revolution

For his part, Mao witnessed the failure of the first Chinese revolution at first hand. The bloodshed of 1927 did not break the CPC’s overall loyalty to the Comintern, which still derived its authority from the halo of the October Revolution. In the winter of 1927, Stalin claimed that the Chinese defeat was merely “a progression to a higher stage for the revolution.” His opponent Trotsky warned in vain against Stalin’s rash directives.

Trying to compensate for its defeat, the CPC organized a series of premature uprisings that led to the annihilation of its urban strongholds. The party then called on peasants to rise up in four provinces that were under its influence. These areas included Jiangxi, where Mao was commander in chief of the Red Army, a military arm of the CPC that it had hastily organized in opposition to Chiang’s coup.

The attempts at rural insurrection proved futile, particularly in Jiangxi, where smallholding peasants with their own plots of land constituted the majority. Mao and his thousand followers fled to the Jinggang mountain range, where he set up his first guerrilla base. Wang argues that this turned the traditional Marxist view of how to make a revolution on its head:

If he had known about the relationship in Marxist doctrine between workers and peasants, town and village, the former leading the latter, he would have slipped back into Shanghai or gone into hibernation in Wuhan rather than climb Jinggang Mountains.

In fact, Mao knew little about Marxism beyond its rudimentary principles at that point in his life. It was only in the late 1930s that he began to study Marxist literature properly. This was in the context of his rivalry with Stalin’s puppet Wang Ming, who used the authority of Moscow and Marxist terminology to attack Mao. According to Wang Fanxi, it was Confucian teachings and classical Chinese literature rather than Marxism that inspired Mao throughout his life.

Mao’s reaction to the failed insurrection — which later became known as the Autumn Harvest Uprising — seems to have drawn upon his literary knowledge. He took just two books, both of which were Chinese classics, to the mountains with him. One was Water Margin (水滸傳) — also known as Outlaws of the Marsh — the tale of a band of 105 men and three women who overthrew a corrupt dynasty from their mountainous hideout during the twelfth century.

In 1927–28, Mao created his Jinggang soviet in the image of these righteous bandits and their hideout, known as Liangshan Marsh, instead of drawing up on the examples of the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Petrograd Soviet of 1917. He identified himself with the figure of Song Jiang, the wise scholar who led the bandits, rather than Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, or even Stalin.

Detached from the urban working class, he recruited peasants to his guerilla army. According to Wang, Mao’s great contribution to the Chinese revolution was “to switch the focus of power to the countryside . . . and wage revolutionary war.” However, that also meant substituting

backward villages for the modern littoral, peasants for workers, a small number of communists in command of peasant armies for the industrial proletariat’s influence over the peasantry, and armed secession and protracted war for propaganda, agitation, long-term organization, and revolution by means of a general strike.

Wang believed that this gave rise to a lasting separation between the CPC and the working class that it was supposed to lead toward socialist revolution: “For 24 years, from the autumn of 1927 to the spring of 1949, the party stayed away from the cities and the workers.” During this period, he argued, the CPC changed its behavior and way of thinking, becoming “corrupt, bureaucratic, aloof, and haughty.”

Under Mao’s leadership, a hierarchical military campaign supplanted the idea of revolution based on mass action from below. In this framework, nonmilitary revolutionary movements became a mere adjunct to guerrilla warfare. As Wang notes, Mao’s famous remark that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” encapsulates this mindset. The second Chinese revolution, which triumphed in the late 1940s, was largely a military takeover with the urban masses playing the role of spectators.

Mao, Stalin, and Confucius

While Mao did not always follow Moscow’s directives, he refrained from openly criticizing Stalin in order to take advantage of Soviet material support. He gained control of the CPC in the late 1930s after a long struggle against the Wang Ming faction. Wang Fanxi argued that there was a fundamental difference of character between the two men:

Mao has never been a Stalinist in terms of faction. The Stalinists would never have recruited anyone as opinionated as Mao into their inner circle, and he is in any case by nature incapable of acting like a Wang Ming.

However, this did not mean that Mao was an opponent of Stalinism in principle:

Mao has all along remained outside the clique transplanted into the CCP from Moscow, but that has not prevented him from being a staunch Stalinist, just as it has not prevented the CCP from becoming Stalinized and the People’s Republic of China from being organized and constituted after an essentially Stalinist model. Historical and social factors are incomparably stronger than individual likes and dislikes in determining the character of states and institutions.

During the inner-party battle, Mao had appealed to nationalist sentiment by dubbing his own faction Tu (土: “earth” or “homegrown”) and its Moscow-educated rivals Yang (洋: “ocean” or “foreign”). Once he was confident that he could no longer be ousted from the party leadership, Mao embraced Stalin’s strategic thinking, according to which socialism was not feasible in colonial or semicolonial countries like China without first going through a bourgeois-democratic stage of development. He developed the concept of “New Democracy,” which sought to achieve a “joint dictatorship of the revolutionary classes” — the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie — over “imperialists, traitors, and reactionaries.”

Wang Fanxi saw Mao as an opportunist who fitted theory to practice and strategy to tactics rather than the other way round. This was intended to facilitate his control of the CPC and burnish his “school-boyish recitation” of the Soviet catechism. For Wang, Mao’s most famous work, On Contradiction, bore witness to this intellectual opportunism.

In this pamphlet, published in 1937 when the CPC entered into a second alliance with the KMT to fight against the Japanese invasion of China, Mao introduced the concepts for which he became later known. He distinguished between “principal” and “nonprincipal” (or secondary) contradictions. After discussing what he considered to be the philosophical aspects of this question, the CPC leader applied it to the political situation in China to justify the alliance with Chiang Kai-shek:

In a semicolonial country such as China, the relationship between the principal contradiction and the nonprincipal contradictions presents a complicated picture. When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions among the various classes within the country (including what was the principal contradiction, between the feudal system and the great masses of the people) are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position. So it was in China in the Opium War of 1840, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Yi Ho Tuan War of 1900, and so it is now in the present Sino-Japanese War.

As Wang observed, Mao blended Marxist and Confucian terminology, referring to the final stage of his Chinese revolution as datong (大同: “Great Harmony”), a concept drawn directly from The Book of Rites (禮記) by Confucius, which did not necessarily refer to a classless society. Rather, it suggested that there would be a familial community in which each family took good care of their own members first and then looked after others.

This was a utopian form of patriarchy rather than a Chinese version of Marx’s proletarian dictatorship. The neo-Confucian ideal of a strong state and patriarchal rule remains deeply implanted in China today. The song “Guojia” (国家: “The State” or “The Country”), popularized by the kung-fu movie star Jackie Chan, contains the line “each family is the smallest state and the state is tens of millions of families.” Since 2009, Chan has brought numerous state-sponsored festivities to a climax with another line of the cloying song: “Only a strong state will enrich its families.”

Wang Fanxi believed that Mao’s opportunism had freed the CPC from the constraint of ideological doctrines. Indeed, that remains the case to this day. Such latitude has enabled Mao’s successors to implement a mix of ruthless free-market discipline and brutal state control in the name of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” As Chen Yuan, former chairman of the China Development Bank, once remarked: “We are the Communist Party and we will decide what communism means.”

Legacies of 1949

Mao’s revolution was successful to the extent that it defeated Japanese imperialism and smashed the remnants of China’s feudal order. In the late 1940s, as it launched a determined bid for power, the CPC seemed like a progressive and visionary force when set against the corrupt KMT.

According to Wang Fanxi, Chinese Trotskyists were “shaken to the core” by the events of 1949 as they did not expect the CPC to emerge victorious. He concluded at the time that the Chinese revolution was the victory of “a collectivist bureaucratic party and in no way the victory of a Chinese proletarian party, that is, of proletarian revolution.”

Reflecting on the CPC’s triumph in the late 1950s, in an essay that Benton has included as an appendix in Mao Zedong Thought, Wang Fanxi put forward a different view:

In spite of its massive bureaucratic degeneration and its oppressive internal regime, its overwhelmingly peasant composition, its unprincipled manoeuvres, and its distortions of Marxism, it was still a working-class party of sorts, though it was more so in some periods than in others and it acquired a number of grotesque and repellent features.

However, this did not mean that Wang and his fellow Trotskyists were wrong to oppose Stalinism, he insisted, since “bureaucratic rule will never create a truly socialist society.” He described the main features of Stalinist rule that had been transplanted to China under Mao:

In practical terms, it means that all initiatives from lower levels of party and government organizations are stifled, that everything is done according to instruction, that political and social life is dominated by a frantic personality cult and a hierarchy of privilege, that all forms of thinking are controlled by the secret police, that all oppositions are purged, that all factions and parties are forbidden, and so on ad nauseam.

Whatever the social character of the Chinese system may have been in the 1950s, today it represents an authoritarian form of capitalism that fluctuates with the booms and busts of the global market and perpetuates inequality, rampant human rights abuses, and exploitation of labor. The Chinese version of state capitalism is not an alternative to Western free-market capitalism. It is both saddening and infuriating to watch the princelings of the CPC elite still use the language and narrative of socialism to rationalize their authoritarian rule.

Mao Zedong Thought will not be an easy book to read for those with little knowledge of Chinese history or Confucian philosophy — indeed, reading it was one of the few times when I have appreciated the formal Confucian schooling I received in South Korea. But it offers indispensable insights into the early history of the CPC as it embarked on the course that led it to rule China. Wang Fanxi’s work will remain relevant for as long as the state that Mao founded matters.

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Kap Seol is a Korean writer and researcher based in New York.  His writings have appeared in Labor Notes, In These Times, Business Insider, and other publications. In 2019, his exposé for Korean independent daily Kyunghyang revealed an imposter who falsely claimed to be a US military intelligence specialist posted to the South Korean city of Gwangju during a popular uprising in 1980.

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