Philosophy 231 - 12.2.3 Revolutionary Movements of the 20th Century

During the first two decades of the 20th century, revolutions swept across the globe. Contrary to Marx’s prediction, these did not occur in the most industrialized countries. Rather, the Ottoman Empire (in Turkey), the Russian Empire, and the Chinese empire all fell to coalitions of different groups, including advocates for representative government who embraced Enlightenment philosophies, socialists and communists implementing their versions of Marxism, and factions within the military that sought to empower their nations through modernization.

Lenin’s Imperialism

In 1917, Russian revolutionary leader and Marxist theorist Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) published a pamphlet proposing to explain why communist revolutions were not occurring in the most advanced industrialized capitalist economies. Lenin suggested that capitalism had morphed into imperialism. Rather than continuing to squeeze their own working classes at home for profits, large national monopolies had gained access to both cheap raw material and labor and new markets in Africa, Asia, and South America. The result, Lenin argued, is that communist revolutions will take place in these subjugated nations rather than in the most industrialized countries (Lenin [1963] 2005).

Mao’s Reframing

The military losses of the once-great Chinese empire to imperialist invasions over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the resulting humiliations played a major role in the Chinese revolution of 1911. Imperialist Japan’s conquering of northern China provoked an on-and-off military alliance between Chinese democratic reformers and the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), that eventually deteriorated into civil war. Adopting Lenin and his predecessors’ views of imperialism, Mao reframed the Marxist revolution. Imperialist nations represented capitalists and the semifeudal, colonial, and semicolonial states that they subjugated represented the proletariat. The Chinese revolution, Mao argued, was part of a global revolution against capitalism that would see subjugated nations throw off imperialist chains and establish Marx’s vision (Mao [1966] 2004).

Mao’s reframing of the Marxist revolution has profoundly impacted the course of history. Anti-imperialist, socialist groups in Africa, Asia, and South America helped their countries achieve independence. Often displacing other nationalist groups that supported revolution, they succeeded at one period in establishing a large network of small socialist states. Today, as workers in industrialized nations have failed to embrace communism, Marxists largely envision their battle to be against what they view as modern-day imperialist nations.

Unlike Russia and industrialized nations, China lacked an organized working class that might provide the Communist Party with the numbers and material support needed to launch a revolution. As a result, Mao addressed his rhetoric not only to the proletariat proper but to the peasantry as well. He defined a different class struggle—one between the peasants and the landlord class. “The ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class forced them into numerous uprisings against its rule,” Mao noted in the Little Red Book—a selection of Mao’s quotes first published in 1964 that all individuals were strongly encouraged to own and study (Mao [1966] 2000, ch. 2). Mao extended the revolutionary class even further to include members of the intelligentsia and the petty bourgeoisie, a term describing those managing small-scale commercial undertakings. Mao urged all these people to join the peasants and the proletariat and become “saviors of the people” by ousting the Japanese imperialists and establishing a new democracy based on Marxist principles. Mao even extended membership in the revolutionary class to members of the bourgeoisie who held strong nationalist, anti-imperialist views: “Being a bourgeoisie in a colonial and semi-colonial country and oppressed by imperialism, the Chinese national bourgeoisie retains a certain revolutionary quality” (Mao [1966] 2004, § 5).

Mao’s reframing of the proletariat afforded Marxist movements far greater flexibility in choosing supporters and defining their enemies. Like Mao’s reenvisioning of the Marxist revolution, this shift enabled the spread of Marxism within the less-industrialized world.

Statue of Chairman Mao in front of a large, modern building with a sign in both Chinese characters and English letters. The English letters read “China University of Geosciences”.
Figure 12.6 Mao’s reframing of Marxist ideology inspired not only the Chinese people but also those seeking to establish governments and economies founded on Marx’s ideals in other parts of the world. (credit: “Mao Statue” by Philip Jägenstedt/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Cultural Revolution and Reeducation

Mao identified the transformation of China from a feudal monarchy to a representative democratic system to a Marxist democracy as a series of cultural revolutions. Despite Mao’s highly inclusive definition of the revolutionary element, he strongly emphasized the primacy of the proletariat and the Communist Party. In discussing the new democracy, Mao explained, “This culture can be led only by the culture and ideology of the proletariat, by the ideology of communism, and not by the culture and ideology of any other class” (Mao [1966] 2004, § 12). Mao had galvanized the support of many groups to win control of China. Now, Mao needed a mechanism to maintain the primacy of the Communist Party and communist control of the nation once imperialist Japan had been evicted from northern China.

Mao found his mechanism with a method he called self-criticism. Mao warned that the party must not become complacent after achieving success. The minds of comrades, Mao explained, gather dust and must be washed from time to time. Engaging in regular self-criticism meant that the party might avoid mistakes and respond quickly and effectively to setbacks. A deeper motivation for self-criticism, however, stemmed from the Communist Party’s desire to establish and maintain control over the new society.

In theory, self-criticism would consist of groups of comrades sitting together, discussing their ideas, reporting on their dealings, and helping each other improve. Mao described how self-criticism should proceed: “If we have shortcomings, we are not afraid to have them pointed out and criticized, because we serve the people. Anyone, no matter who, may point out our shortcomings. If he is right, we will correct them. If what he proposes will benefit the people, we will act upon it” (Mao [1966] 2000, ch. 27).

In practice, as early as the 1930s, self-criticism sessions turned from small groups that shamed individuals into public events in which “class enemies” were denounced, humiliated, and beaten, often by people whom they were close to—such as family members, students, or friends. Indeed, Mao recognized these practices as essential to the revolutionary movement: “A well-disciplined Party armed with the theory of Marxism-Leninism, using the method of self-criticism and linked with the masses of the people; an army under the leadership of such a Party; a united front of all revolutionary classes and all revolutionary groups under the leadership of such a Party—these are the three main weapons with which we have defeated the enemy” (Mao [1966] 2000, ch. 1). Mao’s attempts to reeducate his people culminated in the Cultural Revolution (1966–1977), during which mobs and militias murdered somewhere between hundreds of thousands to millions of citizens who were deemed class enemies.

Whereas in practice, self-criticism in China resulted in brutality and repression, the idea that communication and self-examination can serve as a tool of liberation has continued to develop.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax