PERMANENT REVOLUTION: The Rise And The Ruthlessness of Chairman Mao


In 1945, after Japan was defeated in World War Two by the Allies, the raison d’etre of China’s Second United Front, between the Nationalists and the Communists, evaporated, and open civil war returned to the land.  Before the end of decade, Mao Zedong’s communist People’s Liberation Party had defeated Chiang Kai-Shek and driven him and his remaining Nationalist forces into exile on the island of Taiwan.  There he would remain for the next quarter-century, calling himself the President of the “Republic Of China” until his death in 1975 (Mao would die the following year).  For a couple of decades or so, the United States attempted to maintain the facade that the true government of China was located in Taiwan, but it eventually bowed to reality and came to terms with Mao’s Communist China in the 1970s.  To this day, however, the United States still vows to come to the defense of Taiwan if ever mainland China attempts to absorb the island into “One China.” 

Though supported by the West, Chiang Kai-Shek never turned Taiwan into a truly functioning democracy.  It would be left to his son, who succeeded him, to do that.

As for the subject of today’s post, Mao Zedong, he had founded the communist People’s Republic Of China in 1949, the year his People’s Liberation Party had driven Chian Kai-Shek to Taiwan.  Over his next quarter-century in power, Mao Zedong force-marched China through a series of reforms so cruel and radical that they resulted in the deaths of millions of his own people.  Millions.  Nevertheless, under his tyranny (point-out the authors of Wealth And Power) China “at least became a nation that the world could no longer ignore, much less mistreat.”  As Mao Zedong put it, “the Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up.”

Mao Zedong began life as a peasant in the Hunan province.  He was influenced by, among others, the writings of Liang Qichao (destroy the old to build the new, a.k.a. Destructivism), Chen Duxiu (build a youthful, free-minded, communistic China), and Yan Fu (the social Darwinist who believed the Chinese must develop a since of Nationalism and graduate from subjects to citizens).

In his youth, Mao Zedong (who maintained a vigorous health into his advanced old age) advocated keeping the body healthy through exercise, which he felt “not only harmonizes the emotions, but also strengthens the will.”  He extolled the force of Will Power, and was able to manifest fearlessness in the face of adversity, saying that “one man who scorns death will prevail over one hundred.”  If, he said, a determined man focuses his Will Power on his goal and does not let up but remains steadfast, “he cannot be stopped or eliminated.  He is the strongest and the most powerful”  [because ] “his motive power presses forward in a straight line”– undispersed and unrelenting.


Perhaps because of his impoverished background, Mao Zedong understand China’s peasantry better than most leaders or thinkers during the what I call the Time Of Writhing (most of the 19th and 20th centuries), thus he was one of the first to recognize their untapped power which could and should be used by the Communists in the civil war with the Nationalists.  Furthermore, he understood the importance of first capturing the hearts of the people if the Party wanted to put their bodies to use… “Those who wish to move the world must move the world’s hearts and minds,” he wrote a friend.  “If all the hearts of the realm are moved, is there anything which cannot be achieved?”  In this way, through his realization, and courting, of peasant power, Mao Zedong was similar to Lenin, who unlike most Marxists, felt the struggle for Communism could not soley be left up to the proletariats to fight and win.  Both Mao and Lenin recognized that peasants could fight shoulder to shoulder with the proletariats in the same struggle.  And it was partially by capturing the peasant power of their respective countries that both men achieved their military victories.

Mao Zedong insisted that “the strength of the peasants is the main strength of the Chinese revolution,” noting that the peasantry comprised eighty percent of China’s population.  At the time, suggesting that mere peasants would be useful in the revolution was an idiosyncratic, almost laughable notion… the peasants?  help fight?  with what?  hoes and seedsacks?

Of course, Mao Zedong had the last (perhaps sadistic) laugh [permit an aside:  Actually, I do not think Mao Zedong was sadistic.  My impression is that he really thought he was doing the best thing for China, and though the misery and death caused by his reforms seemed not to trouble him in the least, he did not actively revel in suffering.  My bet is that he never allowed himself to think on the fact each thousand people reported dead were a thousand hopeful lives lost, a thousand families devastated.  My guess is that it was a matter of depersonalized numbers to him, abstract sacrifice made for the abstract greater good.  Not to equate the two positions of unfeeling dictator and plan-following army leader, but a general in the field must maintain a similar detachment when he sends his men to certain death in pursuit of some purpose he feels is of greater value than an individual life.  Viewed in this light, Mao was not so much “evil” as just a really, really bad general… a “bad general” defined by me as one who sacrifices too much life for too little good.]

Mao Zedong projected in his 1927 forty-page essay, “Report On An Investigation Of The Peasant Movement In Hunan,”  that when the peasants rise they “will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power however great will be able to suppress it.  They will break through all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation.  They will, in the end, send all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local bullies, and bad gentry to their graves.  All revolutionary parties and all revolutionary comrades will stand before them to be tested, to be accepted or rejected as they decide.”…


Mao Zedong never stopped fighting, or more precisely– never stopped rebelling.  Scholars and would-be psychologists have explored in-depth this character trait of Mao Zedong.  Some say his anti-authoritarianism stemmed from his childhood rebellion against his fierce and strict father.  Others see it as stemming from his immersion in Marxist thought, which itself is immersed in Hegelian thought.  [another aside, if you will:  I will mention here that until reading through the first hundred books of my list– The Three Hundred— I had undervalued the far-reaching influence of Hegel’s philosophy, a philosophy simultaneously very complex and very simple.  The simple part even I understand, and I think it is this simple part that has had the most impact in the world, that simple idea being Hegel’s contention that history unfolds as a succession of antagonisms… 1) the Thesis emerges,  2) the Anti-Thesis rises to combat it, and  3) the two opposing forces end up merging into a third thing, the Synthesis, which then becomes the next emerging Thesis… and the process continues. ]

For someone immersed in this worldview of eternal antinomy, it is easy to see how life for them would become a never-ending campaign of battles.

Mao Zedong wrote in his Marxist/Hegelian work, On Contradiction… “Contradiction is universal and absolute.  It is present in the process of development of all things and permeates every process from beginning to end”… “The old unity with its constituent opposites yields to a new unity with its constituent opposites, whereupon a new process emerges to replace the old.” […] “The new process contains new contradictions and begins its own history of development of contradictions” […]  “the suppression of the Old by the New is a general, eternal, and inviolable law of the universe.”  As the authors of Wealth And Power remark, this view is pretty much the polar opposite to the traditional Confucian way of thinking, which values Harmony and shuns conflict since they view it as a source of suffering and a as precursor of Luan (Chaos).


Long before seizing power in China, Mao Zedong was driven into hiding by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces.  The army, of which Mao Zedong was not yet the unchallenged leader, was driven out of his home province of Hunan and into the Jinggangshan Mountains of the Jiangxi Province after the failed Autumn Harvest Uprising.  From there, the Communists were pushed out again, this time by Chiang Kai-Shek’s quite successful “bandit suppression” units.  This time, the Communist army’s leadership decided to get farther out of reach from Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces, and they began the now famous Long March— a 6,000-mile march across inhospitable terrority to the Yan’an area of Southwest of China.  That’s six thousand miles, folks.  Like walking a straight line coast to coast across the United States — and turning around and doing it again!  Once in Yan’an, Mao was able to consolidate his power and assume full control of what forces were left after the torturous march– only 8,000 people remained out of what had began as a 80,000-person force, a devastating defeat for the Communists.


Mao Zedong knew that China would need its own style of communism; that communism, by entering China, would necessarily be changed.  “If you want to know the taste of a pear,” he analogized, “you must change the pear by eating it.”  The Chinese brand of communism would have to be “derived from objective reality and tested by objective reality.”

I offer the following Mao quotation on his stance against a rigid insistence upon dogma because I doubt you’d read it in many textbooks…  “And dogmas?” he asks.  “They can’t fertilize the fields, nor can they feed a dog” […therefore…] “your dogma is of less use than shit.”

The authors of Wealth And Power tell us that Mao Zedong was determined to re-establish Chinese dominance over the expansive, multi-ethnic territories maintained throughout most of the era of the Qing Dynasty (the last dynasty to rule China, being overthrown circa 1912 in favor of the relatively (especially by Chinese standards) short-lived Republic Of China.  This more expansive view of proper Chinese dominions definitely included Manchuria, which Japan had controlled for some time, but from which they had recently been expelled.  And Mao Zedong obviously still considered Korea in China’s sphere of influence, sending, according to our authors, 300,000 troops into Korea to tamp down U.S. ambitions in the troubled country during the Korean War of the 1950s.  The result of the U.S.-China staring contest was a Korea never unified under either authoritarian Communism or democratic Capitalism.  Mao Zedong’s territorial expectations of a whole China also included Tibet, in which the fires of rebellion broke out in 1959, only to be quickly stomped-out by the China’s People’s Army, with the Dalai Lama being sent into exile in India.


The irony of Mao Zedong is that he was an intense anti-authoritarian who became one of the century’s most notorious authoritarians.  “Question the unquestionable!” he once demanded.  He himself, even while ruthlessly suppressing dissent, never stopped revolting, and he considered China to be in a state of Permanent Revolution.  For him, the development of humanity keeps relentless churning forward… a powerful, smoke-belching thing he once described as “the locomotive of history” that it’s wiser to ride than attempt to block.  Our authors surmise that Mao Zedong was “in love with spontaneity and upheaval, mass demonstrations and peasant earthiness… but no less fixated on control, discipline, orthodoxy, majesty, and the formal trappings of high office.”

Mao Zedong, taking Liang Qichao’s Destructivism and turning the volume up full blast, did seem to revel in revolution.  Similar to Marlon Brando’s Wild One, if you asked Mao what he was rebelling against, he might very well turn to you and ask quite sincerely, “what have you got?”  He once referred to his radical reforms as tidal waves rolling over the land, explaining that “human society has been evolved out of tidal waves.”

Our authors write of this Eternal Rebel… “like an addict in search of the next high, he was always looking to the next campaign or movement, each more relentless, brutal, and exhilarating than the last.”  By the time Mao Zedong was done, he had “all but severed the bonds of tradition.”  He obviously thought of the Chinese as a white sheet of paper upon which he practice his calligraphy until he got it right.  The Chinese people he asserted, “have two remarkable peculiarities.  They are first of all poor, and secondly blank.”

Mao, no doubt a man of steel, seemed to expect others to be made of the same stern stuff.  “A revolution is not like inviting people to dinner,” he once admonished.  “A revolution is an uprising, an act of violence whereby one class overthrows the power of another.”


And he did not shun slamming his steel fist down upon those who disagreed with him.  Even as early as 1942, while still in retreat after the Long March to far Southwest China, Mao Zedong was already intent on washing out anyone who did not adhere to the Party Line– that is, to Mao’s Line.  This process of belief-correction was called the Rectification Campaign, and its goal was the establishment of a more politically disciplined People’s Liberation Party and a uniform Party orthodoxy.

Later, when in power, Mao came up with what our authors call “a new, innovative Maoist idea”– Thought Reform.  Dissenters to Party orthodoxy were seized and sent away to unlearn their wrong ideas and accept in their hearts and minds the dictums and dictates of the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP).  By this method, our authors tell us, Mao placed “the onus on individuals themselves for purifying their own thoughts.  Such a responsibility system brought into play a powerful set of new psychological self-control mechanisms, including shame, guilt, and a deeply traditional desire to conform to societal norms.  Such an expectation exerted an enormous pressure on individuals to extirpate their own errant thinking and reform.  Moreover, by being invited to heal themselves, wayward comrades were artfully made complicit in the process of their own ideological remolding.”  Beeyootiful.

Mao Zedong believed he could not relax just because he had beaten the Nationalists (who by the way were never any real threat again after being packed off to Taiwan).  He felt he must continue to ensure that no one deviated from the Party Line, that no one slacked or drifted now that the physical fighting was over.  “There may be some Communists who were not conquered by enemies with guns and were worthy of the name of heroes for standing up to those enemies, but who cannot withstand sugar-coated bullets.”

Mao Zedong was unapologetic about his government unleashing local reigns of terror in order to subdue recalcitrant parts of the country.  “It is necessary to bring a brief reign of terror in every rural area,” he said, “otherwise we could never suppress the activities of the counterrevolutionaries”


In 1950, Mao Zedong’s government instituted the Land Confiscation And Reform Movement.  According to the authors of Wealth And Power, during this time, “at least a million landlords were executed.”  A million.

Throughout the early 1950s, the Permanent Revolution continued chugging down the tracks… Mao Zedong implemented the Agricultural Cooperative Movement… forcing millions of peasants (the source of his once vaunted peasant power) to combine their farms into large cooperatives.  But this was small-time reform compared to the Destructivism which would be perpetuated upon the peasants during the so-called Great Leap Forward…

During the Great Leap Forward (not to be confused with Neil Armstrong’s first step upon the Moon), ALL Chinese agriculture was communized and rural China was completely reorganized.  Widespread crop failures ensued and an estimated thirty-six million people died in the resultant famine.  Thirty-six million.  “Of all Mao’s mass campaigns,” our authors comment, “the destructive Great Leap Forward turned out to have the most widespread and tragic consequences.” 

No foreign power in the century-long struggle of the Chinese against Japanese and Western Imperialism had ever accomplished the mass murder of Chinese on as grand of a scale as their own leader had– with the closest contender probably being the British-facilitated Indian-Chinese opium trade in the early 1800s.


The Permanent Revolution rolled on from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976 in the form of the Cultural Revolution.  This winner is sometimes called “the ten lost years” of China.  The purposes of the Cultural Revolution appear to have been the stomping-out of all remaining ancient social traditions, feudal institutions, and mindsets– and if a few people stupid enough to become enemies of Chairman Mao were neutralized along the way, so much the better.

The origins of this last mass campaign of Mao’s are somewhat nebulous, and I get the impression that the Cultural Revolution was not entirely pre-planned.  In the mid-1960s, Mao Zedong was spouting a lot of rhetoric against those who were advocating more gradualist approaches, especially after the abysmal failure of the Great Leap Forward.  Now, I don’t know what Zeitgeist was blowing across the world in the 1960s, but apparently students all across the globe felt compelled to rebel.  In China, this spirit of youthful rebellion (Chen Duxiu would have been proud) manifested itself in China in the form of spontaneously forming student groups who armed themselves and organized into “Red Guard” units.  These Red Guard units went about knockin’ the heads of authority figures.  They even had the support of Chairman Mao– once he heard about them.  However– surprise, surprise– it wasn’t long before the Red Guards were battling each other.

The End Of Chairman Mao

Luckily, in my opinion at least, Mao Zedong, who was well into his eighties, finally died.  During his quarter-century in power he definitely hit the reset the button on China, pushing it in front of the onrushing train of history, but at the tremendous cost of wide-spread suffering and the sacrifice of millions upon millions of lives and livelihoods.

For those of you interested (as many American Hippies and Pinkoes were in the 1960s), there is available a collection of sayings attributed to Chairman Mao usually called, due to its original cover, the Little Red Book, or Mao’s Little Red Book.  The compiler of the quotations was one of Mao’s military leaders (and a fellow Hunanese), Marshal Lin Biao.  Lin Biao originally compiled the sayings as a morale booster for the People’s Liberation Army, but the book quickly went the 20th century version of viral and became a global phenomenon.  BTW:  It was Marshal Lin Biao who made the (in)famous, Yogi Berra like statement, “Carry out Mao’s instructions, whether you understand them or not.” 

Mao Zedong had chosen a successor by the name of Jua Guofeng– another fellow Hunanese (it all comes back to clan, doesn’t it?) but in the end, that didn’t work out.  Mao’s wife and what our authors call her “coterie of leftists known as the Gang Of Four” attempted to assume power, but were eventually driven away.  However, it was a diminutive man (four-foot, ten) and former Mao favorite who eventually ascended to fill the power vacuum.  He name was Deng Xiaoping.


Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping & Tiananmen Square

Deng Xiaoping’s Counter-Capitalist Revolution In China

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek 

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

Liang Qichao, Yan fu, and China’s Post WWI Disenchantment With The West 

The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912

China Stumbles:  Opium Wars and the Tiaping And Boxer Rebellions

China In The 19th And 20th Centuries:  The Time Of Writhing

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist 



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