ANEW official edition of Mao Tse-tung's "Selected Works" calls to mind the curious fact that in some respects the political landscape in Communist China presents a more familiar aspect to the student of Communism than the current landscape in the Soviet Union. This edition,[i] with its editorial comments and explanatory footnotes, is clearly designed to lift the figure of Mao Tse-tung to the position of the unerring Communist philosopher-king in the classic tradition of Lenin and Stalin. Like Lenin and Stalin before him, he has faithfully applied the universal principles of Marxism-Leninism to the requirements of time and place in China. From the very outset of his political career, he has possessed those principles of the New Democracy which were to remain his unerring guide. While other groups and individuals were diverted into eddies or dashed on the rocks to the left and right of the stream of history, Mao proceeded down the navigable channel.

Now, whatever may be the case in the future, the fact remains that none of the present group ruling in the Kremlin has as yet shown the slightest propensity or courage to claim anything like an analogous position. Whether this drastic diminution in the theoretical rôle of the Soviet leaders represents a "basic change" or whether it is merely a function of a passing situation is a question which we shall not attempt to consider here. Whatever may be the case, the contrast with China where the older tradition is still very much alive is most striking.

Since the edition so obviously serves an official purpose, one immediately suspects editorial tamperings. As a matter of fact there is room for such suspicion. A spot comparison of the Chinese, Russian and English texts does not suggest any tampering via translation and while one might readily suppose that the selection of texts for inclusion has been tendentious (obviously embarrassing pronouncements have, of course, not been included) actually the bulk of Mao's most significant pronouncements has been included. There has, however, been evidence of some tam- pering with the texts of the various items themselves. At least one deletion of an unhappy phrase has been noted and a detailed comparison of these texts with some of the older butcher-paper editions of Yenan days may yield more.

More important than any possible tampering with texts in giving the editorial slant are the editorial notices which precede each item and the explanatory footnotes which follow. In addition, we have the inclusion of a few items which do not stem from the pen of Mao himself but are designed to underline the impression of his unfailing correctness. Every effort is made in the notes to bring the edition in line with the current official interpretations of Party history.

Since all of the writings included belong to the pre-1949 period, they naturally turn one's thoughts once again to some of the major problems of Chinese Communist history. A rereading of these pronouncements has suggested to this writer that the writings of Mao have so far not been scrutinized as carefully as they might have been for the clues they offer to historic developments. The source is, of course, suspect, but a primary source nevertheless.

In this article I should like to consider some of these historic problems and then take up once more the much-discussed question of Mao Tse-tung's "originality" or lack thereof.


One of the significant problems of Chinese Communist history on which the "Works" may shed some further light is the problem of the rôle of that rather shadowy group known as "the returned student faction" or the "twenty-eight Bolsheviks." It will be recalled that this group of students of the Sun Yat-sen Academy in Moscow, including such persons as Ch'en Shao-yü, Chang Went'ien and Ch'in Pang-hsien, had practically been imposed on the Chinese Communist Party by Stalin after the disgrace of Li Li-san in 1931. During the whole period from 1931 until 1935 members of this group continued to hold the highest Party positions. In the last few years it has become clear that a struggle between this group and Mao's faction continued for more than half a decade; that when this group was forced to take refuge in the Soviet areas in 1933 it was actually able to push Mao from his leading position in those areas and to enforce its own policies; and that it was only at the Tsunyi Conference of 1935 that Mao finally achieved a position of clear dominance within the Party.

There are two items of Mao's "Selected Works" which bear on this conflict--one called "Strategic Problems of China's Revolutionary War," published in 1936 immediately after the conclusion of the conflict, and another significant item of 1945, the "Resolutions on Some Problems of the History of Our Party," passed by the seventh enlarged plenum of the Central Committee. These items, taken together, furnish considerable testimony on the issues involved in this conflict and some indirect testimony on the question of where the Stalinist leadership stood.

To consider the second question first--there is considerable circumstantial evidence which would suggest that Stalin supported the "twenty-eight Bolsheviks" during this whole period. As late as 1935 they continued to occupy the highest Party positions, although there is little evidence that they enjoyed rank and file support. Their ability to overrule the local leadership within the Soviet areas would certainly suggest support from high quarters. What is more important, when they were finally thrust aside from leading Party positions in China there was no attack or censure forthcoming from the heights of the Kremlin. There were no humble pilgrimages and confessions in the manner of Li Li-san. In the very year in which Mao Tse-tung vented his spleen against them in his "Strategic Problems," one of their number, Ch'en Shao-yü, played a seemingly spectacular rôle as Chinese representative at the Seventh Comintern Congress. It is therefore interesting to note that while this tract by Mao is full of venom against "left opportunists" and "adventurists" he nowhere names names. This reticence vis-à-vis a defeated and discredited faction is by no means a characteristic of Communist behavior and can perhaps be best explained by the assumption that Mao could not identify and openly attack this group at a time when Moscow had not withdrawn its favor from them. It is not until the document of 1945 that we find an open and detailed attack on these "left deviationists" which actually singles out Ch'en Shao-yü by name as the leader of the group. One is somewhat puzzled, as a matter of fact, by the amount of attention devoted by a Party document of 1945 to the errors of a "left deviationist" group operating during the 1931-1935 period. Is it possible that Ch'en Shao-yü was still a troublesome factor in 1945 and that the document has a current rather than a purely historic bearing? Or is it perhaps more likely that in the mood of high self-confidence which prevailed in 1945 it was now felt possible to indulge in open attack on all those groups in the Chinese Communist Party who had ever attempted to stand in Mao's way, regardless of whether they had or had not enjoyed the favor of Moscow?

It is significant to note in this regard that the same document also ventures for the first time to criticize the famous Sixth Congress of the C.C.P. (1928)--a Congress which had taken place in Moscow under the eye of Stalin and which had enjoyed a peculiar odor of sanctity. In all his earlier discussions of this Congress, Mao had always taken pains to demonstrate his complete solidarity with its decisions. Now, for the first time, we read of "inadequacies and errors in the work of the Congress" (e.g. it underestimated the importance of the rural bases, etc.). In retrospect it would now appear that these "Resolutions on Some Problems of the History of Our Party" actually set the mold for all subsequent interpretations of Chinese Communist history, including the now official work of Hu Ch'iao-mu.

If our assumption is correct that the "returned student group" enjoyed the support of Stalin during the whole 1931-1935 period, the discussion of the issues involved between the two factions assumes a new interest. It is unnecessary to point out that the struggle between Mao and this group was a struggle for power. As is so often the case, however, this struggle for power was inextricably wedded to a struggle over issues, since both groups had become committed to certain positions and had a stake in maintaining them. The two documents provide us, of course, with only Mao's version of the issues involved and hence cannot be accepted without reservations.

In any case, the heart of Mao's complaint is that the policies of this group differed in no major respect from the policies of the much-maligned Li Li-san. In sum, the "twenty-eight Bolsheviks" had no faith in the long-term efficacy of the Maoist strategy of concentration on the peasantry, the establishment of rural bases and the build-up of a peasant-based Red Army which would be used for propaganda and educational purposes as well as for purely military purposes. To the extent that circumstances had made it necessary for them to rely on the power of the Red Army, they wished to use it as an immediate tool for achieving more grandiose ends such as the occupation of urban centers and the crushing of Kuomintang troops. They were thus willing to risk the total loss of the army in ambitious adventures while Mao was interested above all in keeping a Red Army in being. They referred to the Maoist approach as a manifestation of a "localistic and conservative peasant mentality." It is by no means strange, incidentally, that these Moscow-trained Communists should have regarded Mao's exclusive obsession with peasant bases and guerrilla warfare as a cul-de-sac which offered no hope of victory. Had it not been for the continued ineffectiveness of the Nationalist Government and the spectacular effects of Japanese aggression they might well have been proven right.

At any rate, if we can safely assume that the "returned student faction" continued to be the true voice of the Kremlin during these years, then the present writer and others have been wrong in supposing that Stalin had acquiesced by 1932 or 1933 to Mao's sway in the Chinese Party as well as to the exclusive reliance on a Maoist strategy. Actually, it would appear that he had by no means acquiesced before the Long March of 1935. Furthermore, there are even spotty evidences (and this is a matter which bears further research) that while he had acquiesced to Mao's leading position during the Yenan period he continued to be somewhat less than enthusiastic about the Maoist strategy.


Another problem on which examination of these "Works" raises some speculations is the question of Mao Tse-tung's attitude to the whole problem of the United Front during the period between 1931 and 1937. It is well known, of course, that in 1935 Kremlin policy changed sharply from one of total noncoöperation with all other organized political groups, which were invariably labelled "Fascist" or "Social Fascist," to one of collaboration with any political groups willing to coöperate against Germany and Japan. Furthermore, the evidence is fairly overwhelming that the international line on this matter was applied to Asia as well as to the West.

In the case of Mao Tse-tung, however, we find evidence of a certain degree of consistency in his approach during these years. It was an approach which seemed to combine a deep-laid and genuine hostility to Chiang Kai-shek with an inclination to seek collaboration with all organized political and military groups willing to coöperate with the C.C.P. One of his accusations against the "left deviationists" of the Soviet period is that they blocked all moves to establish such collaboration, thus presumably cutting off the C.C.P. from excellent opportunities for infiltration and for influencing wide areas of public opinion. Again a word of caution is necessary. The works in which Mao makes these accusations stem from a later period and we have no direct contemporary evidence of his attitudes on this subject during the Soviet period. It should further be emphasized that to the extent that the "left deviationists" opposed such collaborative moves they were merely adhering to the general Comintern line.

There is every reason to believe, if this hypothesis is true, that Mao welcomed without reservation the resolutions of the Seventh Comintern Congress of 1935, for while this Congress called for a united front with "bourgeois" groups it did not as yet clearly indicate that Chiang Kai-shek and his followers constituted a "bourgeois" element. At any rate it is quite clear from Mao's tract of December 1935, entitled "On the Tactics of Fighting Japanese Imperialism," that he had not at that date the slightest intention of seeking a rapprochement with Chiang. He openly identifies Chiang not with the "national bourgeoisie" but with the "bad gentry and compradores" who are incapable of opposing Japanese imperialism. It was not until the Sian incident of 1936 with its complicated behind-the-scenes intrigues that Mao Tsetung finally shifted his approach. There is, however, evidence that Stalin and Ch'en Shao-yü in Moscow had striven almost from the very outset for a rapprochement with Chiang Kai-shek--a man who may have seemed to Stalin to constitute the only center of effective power available in China.


In sum, then, a rereading of Mao's writings combined with the testimony of other sources would suggest that divergences and tensions between the Maoist faction in China and the Kremlin on both matters of power and policy did not cease in 1931 with the founding of the Soviet Republic but actually continued well beyond that date--conceivably up to the very eve of the Chinese Communist assumption of power.

If this is so, does it imply that Mao was not, after all, a good Stalinist? I would not tend to draw this implication. There is every reason to believe that Mao and his followers accepted wholeheartedly the entire Stalinist development in the Soviet Union, that they accepted the Stalinist definition of "Socialism" with all its totalitarian implications. There is also every reason to believe that Mao's admiration for Stalin as a practitioner of "creative Marxism" was profound and genuine. It would imply, however, that Mao never really accepted the notion of the unvarying correctness of Stalin's directives and policies on Chinese matters when such directives and policies clashed with his own views or threatened his power position. Furthermore, Mao's acceptance of Stalinism does not seem to have been accompanied by acceptance of the view that Stalin was the last legitimate innovator within the Marxist-Leninist tradition. On the contrary, the claim that Mao has made "creative additions" to the tradition has gained strength in the course of time.

The question remains whether there is any justification for the claim. This brings us back to the much-discussed problem of the reality of Mao's innovations. Behind this question there looms yet another: What is the meaning of "innovation" within the Communist tradition? The Communists themselves speak of Lenin and Stalin as men who "enriched," "deepened" and "applied creatively" the universally true principles of Marxism to the unfolding process of history. The implication is that these innovations imply no breach in orthodoxy. They simply actualize the rich possibilities implicit in integral Marxism. To the Trotskyists, Lenin was indeed an innovator of this type while Stalin's innovations were purely destructive.

Now it is my view--which I shall not attempt to justify at this point--that most of the Communist innovations in Marxism beginning with Lenin himself have been destructive innovations tending toward the disintegration of Marxism as a system. They have generally been a response to a situation in which certain unforeseen, intractable realities have run directly counter to the teachings of Marxism as they existed up to that point. In this view, Lenin's innovations are more a tribute to the flexibility of Lenin than to the flexibility of Marxism. To the extent that Mao has been an innovator, he has contributed to this process of disintegration.

Furthermore, "innovation" in this context does not necessarily imply the presence of great "originality" or "intellectual creativity." In the case of Lenin one may indeed speak of a certain degree of originality in his resourceful manipulations and molding of elements of Marxist doctrine to serve his purposes. In the case of both Stalin and Mao, however, whatever may be their historic stature as politicians and statesmen, we find little evidence of great intellectual "originality." Thus, given the situation in which Stalin found himself, given his general acquaintance with the apparatus of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the theory of "Socialism in one country" represents no great intellectual feat. The same may be said of Mao's contributions.

Finally, one should not suppose that these "innovations" arose out of any burning desire on the part of Lenin, Stalin or Mao to demonstrate the richness and limitless flexibility of Marxist doctrine. Actually, they tended to arise in a time of trouble and were counterbalanced by a tremendous will to orthodoxy--by a desire to keep intact as much of the orthodox structure as possible. This, in spite of the fact that both Mao and Stalin have piqued themselves on their creative rôle. (The attitude of the present ruling group in Moscow to this whole range of problems is still very much a mystery.)

Using the word "innovation" in this sense, what can one say concerning Mao's claims as an innovator? First, the notion that a bona fide Communist Party can exist indefinitely without any ties to a proletarian base--that the proletarian nature of the Communist Party is a function of its possession of correct doctrine rather than of any tie to an actual proletariat--may still be considered one such innovation. It is interesting to note that the latest official interpretation of Chinese Communist history makes this much more explicit than it has ever been in the past. Secondly, the notion that China can pass from New Democracy to Socialism without a "dictatorship of the proletariat"--first hinted at in the tract, "On Coalition Government," and officially confirmed in the new Constitution--constitutes another. It should be added that the latter concept probably has little relevance to the internal political situation within China where the Communist Party reigns supreme. It is relevant, however, to the whole issue of the possibility of one or sevéral paths to Socialism.

Recently it has been vehemently denied in some quarters that Mao Tse-tung has been an innovator in any sense. According to this view, all of Mao's innovations are already present not only in Stalin but even in Lenin; all the essential innovations required to explain the Chinese experience can be found in Lenin's writings. Now it is, of course, true that Lenin opened the doors to all subsequent developments of world Communism. This does not mean, however, that he marched through all the doors which he opened and that all the developments of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and of Maoism in China are simply untroubled applications of Lenin's teachings. The Trotskyists may be profoundly wrong in their assumption that Lenin would never have resorted to such an expedient as "Socialism in one country," or the notion of a Communist Party without a proletarian base, if the situation had called for such expedients. They have nevertheless been able to marshal impressive testimony to support their view that he had not developed these notions at the time of his death.

Without Lenin's theories regarding the rôle of the peasantry, without his theory of Communist Party organization, Mao would never have been able to develop his own innovations regarding the relation of Party to class. However, while Lenin had created a political organization which could exist without any real ties to the proletariat, there is little evidence that he accepted this implication. On the contrary, there is a great weight of evidence that from beginning to end the notion of the necessary proletarian base colored all his thinking. An enormous portion of all his writings is devoted to the question of proper strategy in labor union activities. At the time of the October Revolution, he continually stressed the fact that the Communist Party had a genuine proletarian base in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets and he continued to scan the horizon with anxious eyes for signs of support from the huge proletarian populations of Western Europe. Had he lived on, he might himself have made the necessary doctrinal adjustments. Since he did not live on, elements of orthodoxy which he had not tampered with remained orthodox.

The only concrete bit of evidence offered on the other side of this question is a document on the colonial and national question stemming from 1920. In this document Lenin speaks of the possibility of Soviet régimes in "backward" areas led by the proletariat of the metropolitan countries. It has been claimed by some that Lenin was contemplating here the existence of Communist Parties in "backward" areas which would have their proletarian base in the Soviet Union. Actually this is not clearly suggested by the text and at one point Lenin explicitly raises doubts whether Communist parties can exist in countries without proletariats. Nor has any Communist Party in the "backward" areas ever tried to justify its existence in this way. They have all continued to claim indigenous proletarian bases. During the whole period from 1921-27 there was no faction in the Kremlin or in the Chinese Party which did not assume without further question that the acquisition of a proletarian base was one of the primary tasks of the Chinese Communist Party. All factions within the Party which opposed the Maoist trend after 1927 continued to raise the issue of the proletarian base time and time again.


Therefore I would suggest that the process of disintegration within Marxism for which Lenin laid the bases has been a slow and painful process inextricably enmeshed with struggles for power and the emergence of new historic situations created by local circumstances. I would suggest further that Mao has also played his modest rôle within this process--a process which has by no means terminated. Even if such a process of disintegration has taken place--some may ask--what is its importance? Lenin has provided Communism with the "organizational ideology" of the Communist Party. Stalin has provided it with the model of a fully crystallized totalitarianism. Whatever may happen to doctrine in general, the power system which has been called into being can now live a life of its own.

I would stress, however, that the vicissitudes of the faith are by no means unimportant. In the first place, even if the power system can survive on its own momentum, the story of the decay of doctrine may still hold a burning relevance for those elements outside the Soviet world who are still attracted by the apocalyptic promises and scientific pretensions of Communist doctrine. Secondly, the fate of doctrine may in the course of time have a profound effect on the relationship among Communist states such as China, Jugoslavia and the Soviet Union which are not directly subject to each other. Finally, human power systems are not perpetual motion machines operating in a vacuum. They are subject to many influences. If the original doctrines which have nourished and legitimized a power system gradually wither and decay, this may have profound effects on the morale, vitality and style of life of the ruling classes. If the Communist ruling classes should in the course of time cease to justify themselves in terms of the original doctrines and resort instead to justifications in terms of national power and the achievement of industrialization, this would not necessarily presage their downfall. One can venture to speculate, however, that it would involve many profound changes in the whole Communist scheme of things.

[i] Three volumes of the "Selected Works" are now available in English (New York: International Publishers, 1954 and 1955).

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BENJAMIN SCHWARTZ, Assistant Professor of History, Harvard University; author of "Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao"
  • More By Benjamin Schwartz