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Is China’s communism a new ideology or traditional philosophy rebranded?

Did traditional Chinese thought pave the way for the philosophy of Maoism?
Credit: Silvio / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • For Marx, the communist revolution was not meant to happen in China, which was an agrarian, largely illiterate, and non-European culture very different from Germany and Britain.
  • A lot of traditional Chinese philosophies — especially Daoism and Confucianism — lend themselves well to communism. Was China naturally receptive to Marxism?
  • There are certainly connections between Maoism and Chinese tradition, but this underplays the huge, brutal effort Mao took to purge views that didn't match his.

For Karl Marx, the communist revolution was not meant to happen in China. Rather, in his Communist Manifesto, he wrote “the eve of a bourgeois revolution…is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization.” It was in post-industrialized, late-stage capitalist countries that the revolutionaries were to be born — in Germany, France, and Britain. China didn’t fit the bill.

World War II ravaged China. It’s estimated to have killed roughly 20 million Chinese citizens, and it left the post-war industries operating at barely one-fifth of their previous output. China was a largely agricultural economy, with most citizens being uneducated peasants living outside of major cities; they were a long shot away from the intellectually awoken proletariat that Marx and Engels had envisioned.

How, then, did the Chinese version of communism — the philosophy of Maoism (a term which refers to Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese communist revolution) — take root? Not in terms of the historical and economic factors, but in cultural and philosophical ones? What ancient, traditional, and modern ideas were around that made China take so well to an ideology born in the cities of western Europe?

Justice and harmony

If we believe the political philosopher John Rawls, then the European political tradition is based upon the “first virtue” of justice. From Magna Carta to Black Lives Matter, it’s justice that matters most. As Rawls describes, it’s the idea that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” We cannot sacrifice the few for the many or do wrong in the name of the greater good because that’s not what justice is.

In Chinese intellectual history, however, harmony is seen as much the greater virtue. The four major philosophical traditions — Legalism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism — all argue that it is better to protect the integrity and welfare of the entire community than the individual. Strife, discord, and separatism are bad. Politeness, respect, and unity are good.

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In many respects, the two seem incompatible. But in Marxism, we might see the common ground.

Chinese basis for Marxism

It’s peculiar how often philosophy tends to converge on remarkably similar conclusions, despite originating in different cultures and traditions. This is true, also, with Chinese thought and the philosophy of Marxism.

In Lao Tzu’s Daoism, it’s argued that everything in the universe is locked in a cosmic embrace with its opposite. With yin and yang, you have two fundamentally different forces that work off one another to create everything in the world. All change and progress are the communication between these opposites. If we change the words only slightly, it’s striking how much this resembles the Marxist dialectic. If we replace yin-yang with “thesis” and “antithesis,” then we have essentially the same philosophy. This not to say they are identical, though, since Marx sees these opposites as locked in conflict, where Daoism see them as in harmony.

In Confucianism, too, we see the groundwork for the philosophy of Maoism. First, Confucius was revolutionary in his day for taking on elitism and authoritarianism. The Confucian emphasis on reciprocity and universal respect (regardless of social position) is easily translatable into the slogan “workers of the world, unite,” coming from Europe. Secondly, Confucianism is a hugely communitarian philosophy. A person cannot exist or reach completion when in isolation but must take their place in a social body.

It’s not that the individual does not matter in Chinese thought (as is sometimes argued). Instead, a person’s highest interest and development can only take place in a community. This kind of view of the individual as defined by the whole lends itself well to a centralized, totalitarian form of communist government.

Maoism versus Marxism

We have seen, then, how Chinese traditional thought might lend itself well to Marxism. But, we ought not to overwork the case. Chinese communism stands alone as its own thing. Philosophically, we can identify two major strands that uniquely define the philosophy of Maoism.

First, where Marx believed that history was an economic inevitability, Mao believed that ideology was by far the greater driver. For Mao, class was not some economic factor, but rather one of beliefs, values, and ideology. A “class struggle,” then, need not be the factory workers versus the owners, but rather could exist within factory workers. There could even be a “class struggle” within the heart of an individual.

Second, Marx saw the class struggle as coming to some utopian resolution, where the proletariat would win and establish a classless, peaceful communist society. Mao, however, believed that all things in life coexist and are defined by their opposites. There is no resolution or synthesis for Mao, but permanent revolution and struggle — a point which also differentiates Mao from Lao Tzu.

In many ways, the second follows from the first. If “class” is defined as the political and personal values we all have, it makes sense to assume there will never be an easy resolution. The need to hoard and the need to share, the need to lead and the need to be led — these all war within us.

For the philosophy of Maoism (and Chinese philosophy more broadly), politics is just the outward expression of this struggle. Maoism is a very particular and Chinese brand of communism.

Not such an easy transition

We have looked mostly at the philosophical and ideological background to Chinese communism and Maoism especially, but it would be wrong to completely ignore the historical, practical side. China was not some land of readymade revolutionaries, waiting around to hear the Maoist way forward. Mao’s seizing of power was defined by war. Supporters of the ousted republican government of Chiang Kai-shek were exiled, imprisoned, or killed. Rival revolutionary groups were purged.

The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was the attempt to establish the philosophy of Maoism as the only ideology of China. It’s thought to have killed around 1.6 million people. Mao wanted to weed out the “Four Olds” of custom, culture, habit, and ideas; Tibetans were forced to destroy monasteries and Uyghur Muslims banned from reading Arabic texts. All the traditional philosophies mentioned above were suddenly anathema: The People’s Republic of China had no room for Daoist and Confucian political thought.

The modern revival

The idea of “One China” has always been a lie. China was never, and is still not today, an ideological homogenous bloc. When Mao cut off all ties with Chinese traditional philosophies dating back millennia, it was always going to be short-lived. It’s something that even modern China is starting to appreciate.

It’s thought that Confucianism, especially, is enjoying a revival today in China’s schools and even in government. The Ministry of Education is considering including Confucianism in government textbooks; a statue of the sage was put up outside the National Museum in Beijing; and even current president Xi Jinping celebrated Confucius in a 2014 speech. The virtues of filiality (respect and loyalty for your parents), as well as harmony and social stability, are useful tools in Xi’s future policy.

It appears as if modern China is much more receptive to alternative ideas. When Xi says, “Chinese Communists are neither historical nihilists, nor cultural nihilists,” philosophers and liberals the world over ought to give a cheer. But we also shouldn’t get too excited.

Alternative ideas are fine, so long as they compliment the philosophy of Maoism.

Jonny Thomson runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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