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May 6, 2015

Mao at his death left China backward but, ironically, ready for reform, Stanford scholar says

Stanford sociology Professor Andrew Walder found that, unwittingly, Mao Zedong's long campaign against "capitalist tendencies" in the Chinese Communist Party laid the groundwork for a transition to a market economy.

By Clifton B. Parker

Mao Zedong, shown declaring the creation of the modern People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, clung to discredited Stalinist ideas that damaged his country, according to a book by Stanford sociology Professor Andrew Walder. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

The damage that Mao Zedong wrought in China made it much easier for that country to move away from a Soviet-style economic model and toward a new market-oriented one, a Stanford scholar says.

In fact, China has been in full retreat for four decades from Mao's disastrous rule, according to a new book by Stanford sociology Professor Andrew Walder. "Mao ruined much of what he had built and created no viable alternative," he wrote. "At the time of his death, he left China backward and deeply divided."

Led by Mao, China's Communist Party seized power in 1949 after a long period of guerrilla insurgency followed by full-scale war. Mao launched a bloody Chinese revolution that resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese over the next few decades. 

In an interview, Walder said that Mao pushed campaign after campaign against the Chinese Communist party and bureaucracy after 1966 – "The bureaucracy was basically flat on its back at the time of his death."

By contrast, Walder noted, the Soviet bureaucracy was powerful and well-entrenched, and had enormous vested interests that thwarted genuine reforms.

"In post-Mao China, the economy was so backward and the bureaucratic interests so weak that market reform was bundled together with a program of national revival – restructuring the economy along market lines while rebuilding the party and bureaucracy," he said.

Therefore, the politics of reform were much easier for a Chinese leader like Deng Xiaoping than for a Soviet leader like Mikhail Gorbachev, who had to contend with an entrenched bureaucracy still proud of the fact that the USSR was (until the late 1980s) the second largest economy in the world and an undeniable superpower, according to Walder.

He noted that Mao's initiatives repeatedly led to unintended and unanticipated outcomes.

"What is so remarkable is that after 1956 this was a recurring pattern. His initiatives repeatedly ran into trouble, forcing him to backtrack and change direction constantly – although he always insisted that things had unfolded in ways that were according to his plans," Walder said.

Class struggle, imaginary enemies

Mao's China, he added, was defined by a harsh Communist Party rule and a socialist economy modeled after the Soviet Union. Mao himself intervened at almost every level, despite a large national bureaucracy that oversaw this authoritarian system.

"The doctrines and political organization that produced Mao's greatest achievements – victory in the civil war, the creation of China's first unified modern state, a historic transformation of urban and rural life – also generated his worst failures: the industrial depression and rural famine of the Great Leap Forward and the violent destruction and stagnation of the Cultural Revolution," Walder wrote.

He said that Mao misunderstood China's real problems in advocating a top-down "class struggle" against capitalism and imaginary enemies.

"At the time of his death (in 1976), he left China backward and deeply divided," Walder wrote.

The result was a gradual transition to the market-oriented system of today, he added. Almost immediately following Mao's death, his most fervent followers and supporters in the party were arrested and detained – all of which opened the door to reform and opportunity.

China has overcome widespread poverty to become the second largest economy in the world within the span of just a couple of decades. Still, according to Walder, China's rulers seek to cling to a sanitized version of Mao as a way to buttress their legitimacy.

"The damage of his misrule, and the incompetence on his part that it reflects, are not part of the official story anymore, and certainly this is not what is taught to school children or in party manuals in the present day," he said.

World War II and Stalinism

On two other key issues, Walder said his book challenges the conventional wisdom about China and Mao.

First, he says that Mao's forces did very little of the fighting against the Japanese in WWII.

Walder said that the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 over the Chinese nationalist forces has usually been traced to the strategy of guerrilla warfare in rural regions championed early on by Mao.

"But that was simply a strategy of survival during the Japanese invasion – and Mao's forces did very little of the fighting against the Japanese, in stark contrast to the popular myth of rural resistance." (Only 10 percent of China's military casualties were Red Army, he said.)

What Mao's Chinese Communist Party (CCP) excelled at was mass mobilization for all-out warfare during the Chinese civil war of 1945-49, Walder said.

"And this – pushing your organization and the population for all-out mobilization for war – is the real source of the CCP's success over the Chinese nationalists. This was more like the Soviet Union's war against German armies during World War II than a 'people's war' led by a party that was close to the rural people and built support by catering to their needs," he said.

Second, Walder describes Mao's thinking as frozen in Stalinist doctrine, despite the conventional view of him as an original thinker.

"In fact, Mao's core ideas were absorbed from late-1930s Soviet pamphlets put out under Stalin, and his thinking was very much frozen in that earlier era," Walder said. "The core idea that he absorbed from these pamphlets in creating 'Mao Thought' was that socialism had to be built in an all-out mobilization, like warfare, by extracting huge sacrifices from the population."

The most pernicious idea that Mao absorbed from these old Soviet pamphlets, Walder said, was that class struggle actually intensifies after the means of production are put under public ownership and former exploiting classes are liquidated.

"The sad corollary to this idea is that the Great Leader is the fount of correct ideas, and those who doubt or oppose him represent class enemies who actually oppose socialism," said Walder.

Based on this logic, Walder pointed out, the class struggle had to be waged against "incorrect ideas" as judged by the Great Leader. "Mao's personality cult was an imitation of Stalin's own."

And so, the Chinese leader held on to old Stalinist ideas long after they were rejected by the Soviet Union as crude distortions of Marxism.

"Mao was actually insisting on keeping to the old and tattered Stalinist playbook," Walder said.

For more Stanford experts on sociology and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.



Andrew Walder, Sociology: (650) 723-0174, (650) 723-4560,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


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