(Note: This article was significantly revised on 5/1/2017.)
Maybe one of the most important prerequisites to any discussion of Mao is to point out that much of what we are told about, say, Malcolm X, or the Black Panthers, by the white-supremacist capitalist education system, white-supremacist capitalist media, and the white-supremacist capitalist culture that pervades “the West” is just total lies and propaganda.
On that note, it’s important to bear in mind that, similarly, whatever your current conception of Mao, if all you have heard is that he and the Chinese Revolution were brutal and bloody and heartless, it’s important to investigate this from other sources that the ruling class does not have full control over. There are lots of these if you like, but for the sake of this piece, it will be enough if you’re willing to at least entertain the idea that there might have been lots more dope shit, and far less bad shit, going on under Mao than we’re taught. Suffice it to say that either you have the prejudiced belief that hundreds of millions of Chinese toiling people were brainwashed into thinking they were running their own society, or you accept that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were doing a lot of things right.
CONCRETE THEORY ABOUT HOW TO “DO COMMUNISM”: THE MASS LINE
One of the most important contributions of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) over previous Marxist tendencies is that it offers a specific mechanism for “doing communism” wherever you are—a method called the “mass line.”
How do you make more communists? How do you turn the working class and other oppressed groups into communists? What is the method by which communists can successfully provide leadership?
Is it enough to just sort of fan the ideas of communism in their direction? To put a newspaper in their hands and hope they read it? It hasn’t helped the “International Socialist Organization” and similar organizations grow in decades.
So how do you do it? You recognize that capitalism-imperialism causes concrete forms and experiences of suffering and oppression in each area, and that these problems and experiences will vary from area to area. So the people in each particular area want solutions to those particular problems, but only communism can fully solve those problems, so here’s what the communist collective in each area does:
First, it gathers the ideas of the masses. It figures out (a) what particular problems they most want to solve, and even more importantly (b) what they understand to be the root cause of those particular problems, (c) how they believe those particular problems can best be addressed by collective action in the community, and (d) why they believe those problems will be best solved by those methods.
So then, second, the communists take these ideas about what the problems are and what the masses believe should be done about them and why, and they analyze them with communist theory:
There will be three groups:
A small group of “relatively backwards” people, a larger group of “relative intermediate” people, and a small group of “relatively advanced” people. What is this a measurement of? Two combined things: (1) consciousness of the need for revolution, and (2) commitment to making revolution happen.
So you take the ideas of the most advanced in the area you’re working in and sharpen them, retaining their essence but amplifying their revolutionary content into (a) slogans that are sharpened forms of the concepts they themselves have spoken to you in and (b) a campaign based around their ideas for how to accomplish the task at hand. e.g., if they say the rent is too high and they mention that everybody’s suffering from it, we may decide to say, “you’re right, let’s turn our collective suffering into a collective strength by forming a tenant’s union and going on a rent strike,” also pointing out, using the terms they use, how landlords try to raise the rent as much as possible, and how the whole government collaborates with them to keep them able to collect rent, and that the cops work with the landlords, etc.
You then present this campaign and slogans back to the relatively advanced people. And if you’ve done your work right, they will love this campaign that is very much from their own ideas, and they will rally a large section of the intermediates (who are their friends and family and co-workers) to the campaign as well.
If you do your campaign right, some of the advanced will become communists, some of the intermediates will become advanced, and some of the backwards will become intermediates; and hopefully any enemies living among the people (e.g., committed white supremacists, pimps, and anyone else committed to making a living by preying on the masses) will be more isolated and less able to harm the masses.
Then you repeat and repeat, the more communists you recruit, the more of the population you can “mass line” with. And then the more of the population you can “mass line” with, the more communists you can recruit, and so on.
This is the method the Bolsheviks used for the most part, but it wasn’t really theorized. Mao systematized and theorized it, and now groups all over the world use it.
PEOPLE PRACTICING OR INFLUENCED BY MAOISM HAVE THE GREATEST SUCCESS WORLDWIDE
The most successful revolutions in the world right now are all led by parties carrying out lessons that were learned in the Chinese revolution. For instance, the revolution in the Philippines is such a massive force in the country that the government recently unilaterally declared a ceasefire for a little while. Meanwhile, the most theoretically advanced and sharpest revolution in the world today, the people’s war in India, has gained a tremendous amount of ground since its beginning with small numbers.
This is not to mention the people’s war that occurred in Peru. In Peru, where MLM was created—in a country that was thought to be difficult to wage revolution in—the revolution went from being very small to quickly being a force that many of the world’s capitalists thought would take power within a decade, increasing in strength and size more quickly than even the revolutions in India or the Philippines.
There’s also the fact that the one of the most advanced communist movements in a part of the world that resembles our situation, the DHKP-C in Istanbul (and also the largest communist organization in Turkey), is heavily inspired by Mao, very much engaged in the methods of meeting material needs while conducting political education, which has helped them produce areas in urban neighborhoods where the cops and soldiers fear to go, to steadily expand outward from.
There have been setbacks and twists and turns in all of these places and there will be more to come. But regardless of the short-term situation at any given time, this clear overall greater success shows that the lessons of the Chinese revolution, and now today the lessons from the people’s war in Peru, are without a doubt the best way forward for building a revolution that will really bring the people to power.
MAOISM HAS THE GREATEST LEGACY OF RECENT SUCCESS IN THE UNITED STATES
Without question the single most successful communist organizations in modern times in the United States were the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Young Lords, and other groups like them, in addition to the groups of the New Communist Movement such as the Revolutionary Union. They were all either explicitly Maoist or heavily inspired by Mao; you probably know that the BPP read and sold “Quotations from Chairman Mao.”
But even more important than that, they ran the mass line, or something much like it. The BPP met the masses’ basic needs (using “Serve the People” programs after a slogan from revolutionary China), which provided a point of contact at which to talk to the masses, show them the politics behind their concerns, and bring them in. And it worked—they and the other groups grew very quickly, in large part because they used this method.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR SOCIALISM? CULTURAL REVOLUTION
The Chinese revolutionary experience also answers a very important question that has rightly and worriedly been raised by many different communist tendencies and non-communists who learned about the ideas of Marxism-Leninism: how do you keep your centralized power apparatus from turning on the people?
In China, although it came too late, they realized the solution: it is true, as many have thought, that a new capitalist class does constantly arise within the communist party under socialism. However, it does not arise equally and uniformly—some individuals will become corrupted quickly, others slowly, and others not at all.
What is the answer? Maoism believes that “the people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history” and that “the masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant.” The masses know what’s up, they can tell when someone in the party or other position of power is getting corrupted or capitalist-minded, wanting to use their power to serve themselves instead of serving the people.
So the solution is the Cultural Revolution: call upon the masses to “bombard the headquarters,” pulling out and denouncing all corrupt party members and other people in authority, as well as criticizing all aspects of culture that these authorities use to try to legitimize their corrupt power.
Maoism recognizes that the state isn’t actually exactly going to “wither away” on its own; actually, you have to help the process along. Since the idea of the end goal of communism, to be achieved through a transitional socialist period, is that you don’t need a state anymore because the masses themselves have assumed all the tasks of the state and exercise them collectively, Cultural Revolution is a way of fostering that process by encouraging the masses to take initiative and become emboldened to start running society themselves directly to an ever-growing extent.
A state is still necessary during this time, and will be necessary until (a) all the rest of the countries of the world have gone socialist and no longer pose an external threat and (b) the internal economy and culture have been so transformed that the slogan of communism, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” is a realistic material possibility, and is something that will actually happen. Once that occurs, you have one final Cultural Revolution that abolishes the state for good, and communism is achieved, and the masses run society directly. No other method will get us there but Cultural Revolution. But you need the state to stay true servants of the people up to that point, and Cultural Revolution is the process by which the masses purge it of capitalist elements and keep it the people’s party.
The MLM party is also a new type of party
The way the MLM party itself is built is also importantly different from the old model used by the Bolsheviks. The MLM party is intentionally built to avoid being an unchanging, monolithic organization but instead to be the opposite: a living thing, where lively disagreement and change are not only allowed but encouraged and considered absolutely necessary. This means that the party can continually adapt to the times and avoid becoming dull, and instead become an increasingly sharp weapon of the masses.
MLM understands that within the party at all times there will always be a contradiction, a struggle between the leftist line, the people in the party who are continually trying to hear the new ideas of the revolutionary masses and lead the country forward to a new world, and the rightist line, those in the party who have become disconnected from the masses and whose ideas are mainly shaped by the old, stagnant world we are trying to leave behind.
Building the party with this understanding helps avoid capitalist restoration in at least two ways: First, the fact that struggle is seen as good and necessary helps create room for the correct new ideas to keep emerging and eventually win out even if they are put forward only by a few people at first. Second, the fact that the party officially acknowledges that many authorities within it can and will be wrong means that the masses see it is not only acceptable but crucial to air their criticisms—and so the broad masses of people are strongly encouraged to trust their own ideas and abilities, building a culture where the people are more and more able and eager to run society directly themselves.
A GENUINELY VIABLE STRATEGY FOR ACHIEVING POWER: PROTRACTED PEOPLE’S WAR
Finally, Maoism offers the communist movement a systematized political-military strategy for achieving power for the working class far superior to any other ever developed. The Bolshevik method was a successful one for their time, but all attempts to duplicate it have led to failure and massive, crushing reaction.
The Maoist strategy, which Maoists hold is universal to all countries, recommends a different strategy from the method of insurrection most people associate with the Bolsheviks. (A better way to put it might be that the actual process that brought the Bolsheviks to victory was more like a protracted people’s war, and the insurrection in 1917 was just one part in an armed struggle that had lasted decades.)
Instead of staying mostly legal until one glorious lucky moment when you risk it all, instead we do it slow and steady. It has three, you might say four stages.
First, build forces. Serve the people. Win their hearts. Live among and merge with them. This stage has many legal components, and it happens region-by-region instead of across the whole country all at once.
Second, once you have support among people who love and trust the communists and offer them support, the movement begins a guerrilla warfare strategy. The guerrillas can “swim through the masses like the fish through the sea,” using 10-on-1 ambush tactics to slowly weaken the state, steal their arms and resources both for the party and to serve the people with, train your soldiers, kill enemies of the people (e.g., fascists, particularly corrupt and vicious police, violent criminals who prey on the people) as a way to serve the people and win their hearts and trust, and inspire the people to join.
Third, this leads to a time when there are “base areas,” places where the communists have power and the cops and soldiers fear to go. Here you can begin outright building the embryo of socialist society, and using these areas to produce resources that strengthen the movement and politicize the masses and spread the revolution to other parts of the country. The tactics remain guerrilla tactics, but there are many more attacks than there were before, and the sheer number of these attacks is creating a pressure on the state that the pinpricks from the previous stage could not.
Finally, once there are enough base areas, you start taking whole cities in a more conventional fashion, first starting with the small ones, then moving to the large ones. Once you have those, you can surround the main cities and bring to bear a whole country’s worth of resources on the holdouts.
This is how you turn a country socialist in our day and age. People all over the world are working on getting this strategy up and running in their countries.
Other important aspects of protracted people’s war
* The weapon of the people is the people’s army. The people’s army is an army of a new type, because (a) it is not like an imperialist army where they go among the masses and leech off of them; instead, it is a toiling/producing army and actually goes out in the field and participates in productive labor to help the people eat, and to support themselves; (b) it is a politicizing army, constantly connecting with and learning from the masses and helping them ever more sharply understand the specific mechanism of the specific exploitation and oppression they face and helping them see the necessity of revolution in fully resolving it, and so on.
* The “united front” is a strategy that recognizes that not everyone who can and will work to bring the government down needs to be a communist or a Maoist. The united front is a vast movement, much bigger than the party but guided by the party, that consists of mass organizations that the communists control or which are allied to the communists without necessarily being run by them. This recognizes that, for instance, the petty bourgeoisie (small business owners and many “white-collar” workers), who are a huge group in the United States, might not have the same class interests as the working class, so they can’t lead the revolution, but many of them will support it because hey, they recognize that we live in a sham democracy and they want to live in a real democracy where they will have a meaningful voice, and also where crime and other ills of society have disappeared because people are truly taken care of. And after all, the petty bourgeoisie are still being oppressed by the big, monopoly capitalists who run the world’s giant corporations and control the government. So you win over and provide revolutionary guidance to sections of all the groups that may not be working-class but still have an interest in revolution.
* Another aspect of MLM is that it brings a great deal of clarity on a crucial question of revolution: what does it mean to take power? Two of Mao’s most important insights are that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and that without a people’s army the people have nothing—or another way of putting it is that unless the masses have the military organizations necessary to protect themselves as they build their new world, then everything they’re setting up and building is for nothing and can and will disappear at the point of the enemy’s guns. MLM follows these insights to a deep conclusion and then offers the specific practical steps we have to take to create a society where there is really and truly no power but the people’s power. To build such a society, we must make sure that actual power is spread broad and deep among the masses. This means that the masses must be militarized: armed, trained, and emboldened, and helped to form into militias. This means not only that the new society that the masses are building will be better able to defend itself against the brutality of existing capitalist governments, but very importantly that even within socialism, if some wing of the new state should ever turn on the people, the sea of armed masses will be able to swallow up these would-be tyrants and replace them with genuine servants of the people.
How can the masses be militarized?
First, this process can only be successfully carried out if the leading force of the revolution, the party itself, has no illusions about where power actually comes from. In technical terms, the party must be militarized. What this means in practice is two things must happen: (1) Every member of the party must also become someone who understands on a deep and intuitive level exactly how class oppression works and how to physically fight and stop the military forces who want to enforce it. For this reason, every member of the party must also be a member of the people’s army. (2) The party as a whole must make the people’s war the most important focus of its work. It must realize that its central task is to destroy the military forces of the old, capitalist society while building the strength, size, and determination of the military forces that nurture and protect the new, communist society. In practical terms, this means that the party builds the people’s army around itself in the most careful and thoughtful way to advance the revolution.
An essential aspect of the militarization of the party is that it allows the party to maintain a more firm control over the people’s army, ensuring that “the party commands the gun” (that is, maintains political leadership over the army) so that the gun can “never be allowed to command the party” (that is, force the party to accept a certain politics). This is all the more crucial because one of the main problems that led to the restoration of capitalism in China is that the people’s army increasingly became separated from the party to constitute its own center of political power that consistently deviated toward more rightist conceptions. Eventually this separation was exploited to allow the pro-capitalist faction to seize control over the party and restore capitalism. If this “gap” between the party and the people’s army doesn’t exist because the party has been militarized, then it becomes impossible for rightists to exploit it and try to wield the army independently of the party.
Second, we must make sure that the individuals who do the most work to serve the people aren’t just anyone—they must be people who will best help the masses get very clear on how power actually works and how they can get it and keep it. Thus, the main people who lead the work among the masses in the united front must be members of the people’s army. This is an additional and utterly necessary part of the work that the people’s army’s does to serve the people: not only do they do productive work and help educate the people, teaching them how to analyze the world and learn to run their own society—but they also help the masses learn how power really works and how to keep it, and place it squarely and securely into their hands, making sure that the militarization of the masses is occurring. In this way, the united front is built so that it is most helpful with the central task of the movement—the people’s war—while simultaneously the masses themselves are physically, mentally, and strategically transformed into the genuine holders of power.
This model, where the party builds and commands the people’s army, and the people’s army in turn builds and guides the united front, is called the “concentric construction” of the three tools of the revolution.
* The enemy cannot militarily defeat PPW. The reason for this is the following: In PPW, the military becomes one with the people. And the capitalist-imperialists cannot kill the soldiers without killing all the people. And they can’t kill all the people, because then there would be no one to keep producing for them. So they’re stuck—they cannot actually kill the militants more often than the militants kill them. In this way, the militants can slowly accrue guns, and experience, and leech the enemy’s resources to build their movement and serve the people, and bleed the imperialists, coming out when they know they can win and never attacking otherwise. This is how the Chinese communists took down a numerically larger and better-armed force. A similar method is how an outnumbered and outgunned Vietnam drove out the U.S. It is how communists damn near toppled the capitalist governments in Peru and in Nepal, why they are today a large force in both India and the Philippines, starting from a very small number.
* Meanwhile, the “orthodox” strategy of insurrection requires waiting for the exact right moment and risking it all. One of the premises of insurrection is correct insofar as it says that there will be crises in capitalism—there definitely always are. However, the insurrectionary strategy is foolish insofar as it says “wait with a bunch of untested ‘soldiers’ for the exact right moment, then risk everything.” Attempting to use this strategy has failed again and again. Meanwhile, if instead you have a live, active, trained and fully-committed group of revolutionaries ready at every moment, then when each crisis comes, they can fan out, make maximum use of the crisis, and then return to their regular strategy once the crisis moment has receded. In this way, the crises are still used and territory is still gained, but the risks are very low compared to the rewards. Lasting through time, you can learn over many crises how to “ride the wave” of them, and your timing will get better and better, and you know you will survive even if you don’t make good use of a crisis, instead of risking everything on a moment you aren’t even prepared for, as is called for by insurrection.
that is dope! what next?
If you feel like you need a little more clarity on some of the things in this post, check out “How to learn everything a communist ought to know, from the beginning.”
For a deeper but still very accessible statement of what Marxism-Leninism-Maoism looks like, check out the General Political Line of the Communist Party of Peru.
If you want to know how to start doing Maoist organizing, check out Red Guards Austin’s position paper “Condemned to Win.”
If you like what RGA suggests as far as undertaking Maoist organizing and need at least two more MLM comrades to found a Maoist collective with, check out “Some suggestions on how to help others in your area become Marxist-Leninist-Maoist organizers.”
one final note
Being a Maoist isn’t just about believing that the above positions are true. At its core, Maoism requires applying the same scientific method of analyzing the world that Marx, Lenin, and Mao used to arrive at those positions. Being a Maoist means carrying out an analysis of every question in life, large and small, in the same way they analyzed the world, and then boldly acting on it. For this reason, even though there’s no doubt that the above aspects of Maoism are stunning in their clarity and depth in understanding humanity and the world we’re living in, in order to truly act on them, there’s no replacement for studying (and really absorbing) “the classics.” This takes time, and we definitely shouldn’t wait until we’re done before we start organizing, but devotedly absorbing the classics is essential in order to be sure that what we’re applying is genuine Maoism.