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Monster or liberator? On the legacy of Mao Zedong


Posted by Carlos Martinez on Thursday, December 26, 2013

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The following is a slightly expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at a recent event marking the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong.

Giving a short assessment of the life of someone like Mao Zedong is not an easy job. The man was politically active for over half a century; he lived through the Chinese Revolution of 1911 (which established the Republic of China); the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the revolutionary civil war of 1925-27; the revolutionary civil war of 1927-36; the war of resistance against Japan; the war of liberation; the birth of New China (it was Mao who proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949); the construction of socialism; the Korean War; industrialisation of China; modernisation of China; the Sino-Soviet split and the breakup of the united world communist movement; the intense and at times deadly inner-party struggles within the CCP; and so on. It was an incredibly momentous period of history – a story of never-ending struggle – and he was a leading protagonist. Therefore I can’t possibly hope to do justice to his legacy in a half hour speech! For that reason I’m just going to focus on a couple of points that I think are worthy of discussion.

I’d like to start off by posing a question. And that is: what if there’d been no Mao? In what way would China – and indeed the world – have been different? How many people wouldn’t have lived long, meaningful lives? How many people wouldn’t have had enough to eat? How many people wouldn’t have learnt to read and write? How many people _wouldn’t _have made it past the age of 35? Would China have even broken the cycle of underdevelopment that it had been locked in for so many centuries? Would the ‘ century of humiliation‘ have become two centuries of humiliation? Would China even exist as a united country, or would it have been broken into pieces by the different colonial powers? Would China still be run by warlords, like Afghanistan is? Would China be the economic and scientific powerhouse that it is today? Would China have lifted fully hundreds of millions of people out of poverty? Would China – before the revolution one of the poorest, most economically backward countries in the world – have landed a rocket on the moon a few days ago, becoming only the third country to achieve such a feat? Would it be launching telecoms satellites on behalf of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador? Would the socialist experiments in Latin America be receiving the financial support they need to build their social programmes? Would there be any meaningful threat to US global hegemony?

Western historians slander Mao

In the west, this question is usually approached in a very different way. There was this monster of a man, Mao Zedong, and he killed millions of people. According to some very well-paid historians, Mao is single-handedly responsible for what they say is the biggest famine in human history. There are maybe hundreds of western academics competing with each other to provide the biggest, the most shocking, the most appalling, the most awe-inspiring number in their favourite game: ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’.

For example, the popular book Mao’s Great Famine, by Professor Frank Dikotter, actually estimates that as many as 60 million people died during the four-year period of the Great Leap Forward – 1958-61. And that has suddenly become the accepted figure in western academia now. How is that even possible?! Was the Great Leap Forward devised as some kind of mass extermination programme, that it could wipe out 10% of China’s population? Of course, it’s no problem for people like Dikotter to get their books published, because their role is to attack socialism rather than to provide evidence and meaningful historical analysis, but at least make some attempt to be credible! For example, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that, in spite of this unprecedented loss, China’s total population didn’t go down during that time; in fact it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later!

The Great Leap Forward wasn’t a crazed population control scheme; it was an ambitious programme, led by Mao, to achieve rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, the idea being to make a much-needed final break with underdevelopment, backwardness and poverty. That’s a good cause! Were there excesses? Were there serious mistakes? Did many people suffer terribly, including to the extent of starvation? Yes. Mao himself admitted this. There were mistakes and there was also a disastrous series of droughts and floods. But one cannot go from that to calling it “the greatest crime ever committed against humanity”. For whatever the problems of the Great Leap Forward, it was not the Nazi holocaust; it was not the forced transportation of at least a hundred million African slaves; it was not the vengeful murder of 10 million Congolese by the armies of King Leopold; it was not the death of 35 million Chinese at the hands of Japan’s imperialist armies during 1937-45; nor was it the policy-driven famines created by the oh-so-civilised British administrations in India and Ireland.

I’m not here to go into detailed refutations of the nonsense that people like Dikotter come out with – there’s plenty of excellent material available on that topic, for people that are interested. But it is very important to refute the slander, to refute this idea of Mao as ‘monster’. The point of the whole ‘Mao was a monster’ narrative is specifically to denigrate the Chinese Revolution. What these academics are trying to do, what their job is, is to prove the superiority of capitalism over socialism; to prove the superiority of colonialism and imperialism over national sovereignty and self-determination. In effect, they’re saying: you people were better off when we were in charge! But when we investigate the actual facts (“seek truth from facts!”), we are able to prove the direct opposite: that is, the superiority of socialism over capitalism; the superiority of national sovereignty over colonialism and imperialism.

What capitalist country has achieved so much, in so short a time, compared with what’s been achieved in China, and what was achieved in the Soviet Union? And where the capitalist countries have achieved a high level of development, what has the cost been? What laid the basis for such development in Europe and North America? Slavery, colonialism and brutal class oppression. The deaths of millions upon millions. The perpetuation of a system of global apartheid which we’re still struggling to get rid of today. Does anyone imagine that British factory workers at the time of the industrial revolution had a nice life? Did they have ample food, spare time, access to education, healthcare and cultural facilities?! Hardly. And even they were massively privileged compared to the African slaves, transported in their tens of millions to the Americas; or the masses of India, Kenya, Ireland and elsewhere, whose lives were broken through British plunder and colonial policy. The progress of the socialist world is not rooted in slavery and colonialism but in the collective efforts of its people.

As an aside, I should mention that this Professor Dikotter has a slightly patchy record as a historian. A vehement anti-communist, he has argued for rehabilitating the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek (never mind the millions he killed!) and he used his Inaugural Lecture at SOAS to claim that Britain’s forcing opium onto the Chinese population in the mid-19th century really wasn’t that bad!

How many people lived because of Chairman Mao?

mao-zedong-1So really there’s a bit of a gap in the market when it comes to modern Chinese history. Instead of ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’, let’s ask: ‘How Many People Lived Because Of Chairman Mao’? If it’s reasonable to attribute all unnatural deaths in China since 1949 to this one man, then surely it’s also reasonable to attribute all life beyond the 1949 life expectancy to the same man!

Before the revolution, life expectancy in China was around 35 years. China was ravaged by famine, war, stagnation, feudalism and colonial brutality. By the time Mao died in 1976, life expectancy had almost doubled, to 67 years. Now it’s 76. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was around 20%. By the time Mao died, it was around 93%. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million – clearly, something changed for the better; clearly circumstances were generally favourable for human life! Women, ground down by millennia of feudal backwardness, were able to make unprecedented gains towards attaining social equality. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up and suddenly became accessible to the masses of the people – even to the endlessly ground-down Chinese peasantry, who had never had access to such things. Chinese land was irrigated. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty, developed industry, developed the means to defend itself militarily, helped other nations – less than a year after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, China sent an enormous volunteer army, led by one of the great revolutionary heroes, Peng Dehuai, to fight with the Koreans against the US. 180,000 Chinese soldiers gave their lives in that war.

So the Mao era was not the nightmare it is sometimes painted as. Mao was not a monster; he was one of the truly great revolutionary leaders of the 20 th century, and it’s correct that we recognise him as such. To talk of Mao’s mistakes is fine; that’s important too. He was after all a human being, and by definition made mistakes. Being the leading figure in a revolution that covers a quarter of the world’s population, his mistakes had a little bit more impact than other people’s mistakes! I, for one, make mistakes all the time, but I have very little in the way of power or influence and therefore nobody really notices! But when it comes to Mao, the mistakes were those of a great revolutionary, an exceptional leader who, more than any other single person, is responsible for the liberation of China.

The Mao era and the post-Mao era

Slightly more sophisticated bourgeois analysts will tell you that, OK, China has made impressive progress, but this has only been since the introduction of market reforms and foreign investment. Well, it’s certainly true that incredible progress has been made in recent decades, but that progress is built on what came before it. Without the basic industrialisation that took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the policy of opening-up could have led to disaster; to China being returned to semi-colonial status, its economy totally controlled by the imperialist powers as it was before liberation. But that hasn’t been the case, precisely because it’s built on the base of what was achieved in the first three decades of People’s China. The 1981 document ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China’ explains this succinctly:

“The establishment of the socialist system represents the greatest and most profound social change in Chinese history and constitutes the foundation for the country’s future progress and development.”

This crucial role of the first decades of socialist construction is still recognised in modern China: “The First Generation of Collective Leadership with Mao Zedong, the founder of both CPC and New China, at the core led the whole party and the people of all ethnicities for the fulfillment of the socialist transformation and the establishment of the basic socialist system after new China was founded in 1949, and laid a vital, crucial basis for the ensuing explorations.”

If you’ll pardon the expression, there’s no Chinese Wall between Mao’s China and post-Mao China. There are different tactics and policies, but the overall direction remains: building a strong, modern, prosperous, educated, cultured, socialist China, capable of defending itself, capable of providing a decent standard of living to all its people, and capable of contributing to a global project of making the world a better place.

The impact of the Chinese Revolution on the rest of the world

Africa is ripe for revolution - Chinese posterI wonder what sort of situation the rest of the world would be in now if it hadn’t been for Mao and the Chinese Revolution? I put it to you that the world would be a very different place, and a much less hopeful one for the masses of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Historically of course there is the support for liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, in Algeria, in Korea, in Tanzania and elsewhere. Also it’s important to note that China’s revolutionary model was particularly relevant and particularly inspirational to many countries that were, similarly to China, locked in colonial subjugation and underdevelopment. The ideas of people’s war, of revolutionary base areas, of building a peasant army: these concepts resonated across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and I think it’s fair to say that, more than anyone, it was Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution that helped to expand the scope of Marxism from the industrial working class of Europe to the oppressed masses worldwide.

Today, those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get from China. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support. Chinese support is also massively important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and lots of other places. There is a real opening now for the stranglehold of imperialism over the third world to be broken. It seems to me very unlikely that this would be happening had it not been for the Chinese revolution; had it not been for the incredible courage, brilliance and inventiveness of Mao Zedong and his comrades.

Non-traditional thinking – the fight against dogma

Another great revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, who as you know sadly died just two weeks ago, wrote in his autobiography about what had inspired him in the days when the ANC and the SACP were working out their strategy:

“I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that had led him to victory.”

This idea of ‘non-traditional thinking’ is indeed a very important aspect of Mao’s legacy. Although many Maoists one comes across in the west these days are painfully dogmatic and seem to think that Mao’s works provide some sort of blueprint for revolution, Mao was totally against the idea of books as blueprints. He understood very well that there are no simple formulas for conducting a revolution. His writings and speeches constantly called for creative and serious analysis of specific problems, rather than the application of formulas. He was pretty harsh about it! In his pamphlet Oppose Book Worship, he says:

“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship.”

So today, to follow the example of Mao is not to do everything Mao did; is not to treat Mao’s strategy as the One Strategy to Rule Them All; is not to head to the hills and create revolutionary base areas; rather, it is to try and emulate Mao’s bravery, his creativity, his understanding, his total dedication to the people; and to celebrate his legacy; to celebrate his contribution to China and to the world.


  1. Patrick herbots - December 27, 2013 5:52 am

    Very interesting! Eye opener!

  2. Rango74 - December 30, 2013 2:29 am

    Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung): Summing up his life and teachings, 120 years after his birth.

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  5. Janbiya - March 11, 2015 5:03 am

    Well written, a nice and refreshing read!

  6. Sarath Chandra - April 11, 2015 4:16 pm

    Thanks for providing perspective. This article has inspired me to read a lot more about Mao. I do believe that India and China are two very compatible civilizations and the war in the 60’s was unfortunate and merely an aberration.

  7. Hong Liu - May 11, 2015 7:10 pm

    A well-written article, a contextual thinker and writer.

    People both inside and outside of Chia will not truly understand China’s past, present and future, without a proper understanding of Mao Zedong and his contributions to China and to the rest of the world.

    If only USA had been wiser, accepting, treating China as a sovereign country, without imposing an economic embargo for 30 years, Mao’s legacy will be more visible and stands a chance of fair growth to be a country not operated under private ownership, profit otriented marke economy.The burden of debt to both the government and to individual person makes everyone give a second thought, “where all this are leading to?”

    Should we revisit Mao ad his legacy to get some new questions and answers?

  8. Sean - August 24, 2015 5:59 am

    Any serious critique of Mao’s character and history must include the Cultural Revoltution.

    During a period in the cultural revolution, students were encouraged to oppose their teachers, to become ‘morality’ police in the name of the revolution! (You can guess how well having a 15 year old be your judge would work out.)

    They were called the Red Guard. And for a short while, these students became the authority in China, with Mao at the head of them. They were brainwashed. They killed people. They beat you for confessions and sent you to forced labor if you were lucky enough to be spared.

    The charges they held you accountable were ridiculous:



    Yes I agree with you that Mao isn’t as bad as Hitler, but he’s still a guy who did a lot of bad things.

    He did a lot of good things too, and it’s true we don’t give him enough props for it in the west. But the fact remains that murder is never justifiable.

    Sometimes times get tough. Sometimes it’s necessary for some people to die. But it’s never justified. Absolutely never.

    Don’t worship the guy. Acknowledge his strengths and weakness and move on.

    This is not a man you should emulate.

    • Sean - August 24, 2015 6:01 am


  9. Alan Lietzke - September 13, 2015 6:09 am

    As a truth-seeking experimental scientist and life-long student of history of 70 years, I have often discovered that what I am able to “see” often depends upon the filters I utilize to make an overwhelming amount of data manageable. Moreover, I often encounter at least three additional obstacles; missing data, corrupted data, and confirmation bias. Data that has been intentionally suppressed or corrupted by those attempting to obtain positive judgments and/or avoid negative judgments, is particularly problematic, because it can jeopardize the reliability and dependability of subsequent analyses… one probably intent of those responsible. On the other hand, confirmation bias can be unintentional, It results in “seeing”, even “amplifying”, the significance of data that supports the desired conclusions, while ignoring. impugning, obfuscating, or diminishing the significance of data that might appear damaging or contradictory.

    Many questions arise, including
    1) If self-determination is so laudable, what’s the need to subjugate Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang?
    2) Why such extensive (and continuing) efforts to to suppress information? Chiang’s published confidential communications and diaries. Let the world see Mao’s
    3) Labeling the experimentation in failed (or nearly failed) states like Zimbabwe, Algeria, Korea, Tanzania as “liberation struggles” suggests considerable bias. Likewise for glowing words about failed states like Soviet Union and Zimbabwe and the enthusiastic support for subsidizing the social experimentation of nearly failed states in Latin America.
    4) Questions that invite conjectures about things that can’t be answered or disproved… as means of supporting ones position… is highly suspicious.
    5) Regarding the cost of social experiments, since everyone dies sometime, it’s more illuminating to ask, “How many died before old age. and who, how and why did they die? How many were executed in support of the experiment?

  10. RAUL SANDOVAL - December 30, 2015 3:09 am

    of course he was a liberator , he got rid of Religion which aloud the people to think more on science, and reality .Which moved the People forward

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  12. Laurie Rogers - April 20, 2017 3:52 am

    I encourage anyone who wishes to understand Mao Zedung, the birth of Communism in China, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution to be sure to read “No Wall Too High,” by Xu Hongci. He was there and saw all of it firsthand. The book isn’t a delightful read, I’ll grant you, but it is an awakening.


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