The Revolutionary Mao and his Self-contradictory Dualism


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Like many radical, young intellectuals of the May 4th era, Mao dabbled in various “isms”, including anarchism, social Darwinism, liberalism, and democratic socialism, before becoming converted to revolutionary Marxism that suited Mao’s violence. In his earliest published political tracts, he focused on the importance of physical culture and self-discipline, that is, the need to strengthen one’s body and cultivate physical and mental toughness as preconditions for national strengthening.

Oil painting of Mao at Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Fengshan Mountain, Shaoshan Chongyin, Shaoshan City.
After going through many ideologies, Mao finally settled on revolutionary Marxism. (Image: Huangdan2060/Public domain)

Mao’s Savage Essays

Under the influence of his Marxist mentor Li DaZhao, Mao wrote in 1918:

Our nation is wanting in strength; the military spirit has not been encouraged…If our bodies are not strong, we will tremble at the sight of [enemy] soldiers.

In another essay, written around the same time, he wrote:

Exercise should be savage and rude. To charge on horseback amidst the clash of arms and to be ever-victorious; to shake the mountains by one’s cries and the colors of the sky by one’s roars of anger…All this is savage and rude and has nothing to do with delicacy. In order to progress…one must be savage.

These early ideas about rudeness and savagery seem to reflect and prefigure Mao’s famous 1927 essay on the Peasant Movement in Hunan. There, he famously noted that “a revolution is not a dinner party, painting a picture, or doing embroidery…A revolution is an…act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Hardening of Mao’s Political Views

As Mao underwent the process of revolutionary toughening in the mid-1920s, he also experienced a specific loss of emotional empathy. In his youth, Mao would often share his lunch with a poor classmate or stop to give coins to a disabled beggar. His wife, Yang Kaihui’s warmth and affection affected him deeply. His humanity, presumably inherited from his gentle, nurturing mother, was widely acknowledged in those days.

But as his involvement in revolution deepened, his political views began to harden. His earlier sensitivity to personal suffering began to give way to more abstract, class-based stereotypes. And as his empathy for ordinary people or “middle characters” diminished, he became inured to the pain and suffering of the individual.

As he wrote in his 1927 essay on the Hunan Peasant Movement,

Putting it bluntly, it is necessary to bring about a…reign of terror in every rural area…To right a wrong, it is necessary to exceed proper limits.

What Mao gained in revolutionary will and determination, he lost in simple humanity.

Learn more about Mao’s last revolution.

Killing Enemies Indirectly 

PLA soldiers during China’s 10th-anniversary military parade in Beijing, 1959
Mao approved of revolutionary violence, but seldom gave a direct command. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

In his early 30s, Mao began to condone killing class enemies simply because of their class. “Executing one important member of the local gentry,” he wrote, “reverberates through a whole county. The only effective way to suppress reactionaries is to execute at least one or two in every county.”

From there, it was but a short step to setting quotas of class enemies to be struggled against; and, if necessary, killed. 

Though he clearly approved of revolutionary violence, Mao seldom gave a direct command for anyone to be killed. He simply let his general wishes be known, leaving it to his subordinates to translate them into specific actions.

Mao: The Revolutionary

Mao’s victory over Chiang K’ai-shek revealed him to be an outstanding military strategist and a gifted tactician. In the course of protracted revolutionary struggles, Mao’s tactical flexibility, legendary ruthlessness, and sangfroid were among his greatest assets. Moreover, his theory of people’s war was nothing short of brilliant. He managed to unify the country and organize it in a way that China had not seen for centuries.

Mao’s record as a revolutionary thus remains largely intact. By and large, it is an extraordinary record, but with the critical caveat that in the process of creating his great revolutionary omelet, Mao broke a great many eggs.

Mao’s utopian vision of a world without individual greed, a world without mandarins, a world without landlords or capitalists or bureaucrats, has been widely shared by idealistic intellectuals through the ages. Moreover, his vision of the “just” society clearly inspired his countrymen to accomplish legendary feats of extreme bravery and endurance.

Yet, the very brutality and callousness of the means used by Mao to achieve his visionary ends call to mind the playwright Molière’s poignant warning: “More men die of their remedies than of their illnesses.”

Learn more about the complex and contradictory figure of Mao.

Mao’s Complexity

The roots of Mao’s complexity—his self-contradictory dualism, the yin and the yang of his character—were most appropriately summed up by Ross Terrill in a 1980 biography entitled Mao:

For all his [apparent] serenity, he was not an altogether secure man…Grudges lodged in corners of his mind;  vanity lay behind his off-hand ways. He was a great leader but…not an admirable character.

Mao wanted a flourishing culture for the new China, but political propaganda cowed writers and teachers. 

Mao wanted “liveliness,”…but he left behind a sullen populace that had learned by [bitter] experience not to stick its neck out.

He threw stones at convention all his life, and yet he left the People’s Republic of China bogged down in a wary-eyed conformism..

Mao’s career was not cut from a single cloth. The late Mao was enormously different from the Mao who won power…China might have been better off had he died twenty years earlier than he did.

Common Questions about the Revolutionary Mao and his Self-contradictory Dualism

Q: What happened as a result of Mao’s hardening political views?

As Mao’s political views began to harden, his earlier sensitivity to personal suffering began to give way to more abstract, class-based stereotypes. As his empathy for ordinary people or “middle characters” diminished, he became inured to the pain and suffering of the individual.

Q: How did Mao deal with his enemies?

Although Mao didn’t kill anybody himself, he clearly approved of revolutionary violence. He simply let his general wishes be known, leaving it to his subordinates to translate them into specific actions.

Q: What was the downside to Mao’s military genius?

Although he had proven himself to be a genuinely competent tactician after defeating Chiang K’ai-shek, Mao’s violence grew over time. Gradually, he sympathized less with the oppressed and focused more on uniting China at any cost.

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