Mao Zedong was chairman of the Communist Party of China and the principal founder of the People’s Republic of China. Along with Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin, he is regarded as one of the three great theorists of Marxian communism. Mao’s greatest achievements were the unification of China through the destruction of Nationalist power, the creation of a unified People’s Republic, and the leadership of the greatest social revolution in human history. This revolution involved collectivisation of most land and property, the destruction of the landlord class, the weakening of the urban bourgeoisie, and the elevation of the status of peasants and industrial workers. As a Marxist thinker and the leader of a socialist state, Mao gave theoretical legitimacy to the continuation of class struggle in the socialist and communist stages of development. Although Mao was criticized after his death for the failure of his economic policies and the revolutionary excesses of his later years, his basic foreign policy was continued and his theories, particularly those on the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, remained influential in the nonindustrialised Third World.
Born on December 26, 1893 into a well-to-do peasant family in Shaoshan (Shao-shan), Hunan province, Mao graduated from the Hunan First Normal School in 1918. He worked briefly as a library assistant at Beijing University. In 1919, Mao returned to Hunan, where he engaged in radical political activity while supporting himself as a primary-school principal.
Mao understood how to win peasant support for a national and progressive movement. Attacked by Chiang Kai-Shek, in October 1935 he led his followers by the Long March to North West China, from where they issued to defeat both the Japanese and Chiang, and proclaim a People’s Republic in 1949. During the early 1950s, Mao served as chairman of the Communist party, chief of state, and chairman of the military commission. His international status as a Marxist leader rose after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953.
Mao’s uniqueness as a leader is evident from his commitment to continued class struggle under socialism – a view confirmed in his theoretical treatise “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” (1957). Dissatisfaction with the slowness of development, the loss of revolutionary momentum in the countryside, and the tendency for CCP members to behave like a privileged class led Mao to take a number of unusual initiatives in the late 1950s. In the Hundred Flowers movement of 1956-57 he encouraged intellectuals to make constructive criticism of the party’s stewardship. When the criticism came, it revealed deep hostility to CCP leadership. At about the same time, Mao accelerated the transformation of rural ownership by calling for the elimination of the last vestiges of rural private property and the formation of people’s communes, and for the initiation of rapid industrial growth through a program known as the Great Leap Forward. The suddenness of these moves led to administrative confusion and popular resistance. Furthermore, adverse weather conditions resulted in disastrous crop shortfalls, severe food shortages, and a famine that cost many millions of lives. All these reverses cost Mao his position as chief of state, and his influence over the party was severely curtailed. It was also during the late 1950s that Mao’s government began to reveal its deep-seated differences with the USSR.
During the 1960s, Mao made a comeback, attacking the party leadership through a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which peaked from 1966 to 1969. As tensions mounted and events threatened to get out of hand, Mao was obliged to rely increasingly on the military, under the leadership of Lin Biao (Lin Piao). On the popular level the thrust of the Cultural Revolution was to teach the Chinese masses that it was “right to revolt” – that it was their privilege to criticize those in positions of authority and to take an active part in decision making. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s sayings, printed in a little red book, and buttons bearing his image were distributed to the masses; his word was treated as an ultimate authority and his person the subject of ecstatic adulation. Despite this temporary assumption of an authority higher than the CCP, Mao continued to state his belief in the Leninist notion of collective party leadership. He showed his opposition to the “personality cult” by explicitly asking that the number of statues of him be reduced.
Toward the end of his life, Mao put forward a new analysis of the international situation in which the world’s states were divided into three groups: the underdeveloped nations, the developed nations, and the two superpowers (the United States and the USSR), both of which sought worldwide hegemony. This analysis underscored China’s position as a leader of the Third World (that is, the underdeveloped group) and helped to rationalize a rapprochement with the United States. The fostering of closer relations with the United States was looked upon as a way to lessen the influence of the USSR, whose relations with China had continued to deteriorate. In 1972, Mao lent his prestige to this policy change by receiving U.S. president Richard M. Nixon in Beijing. Mao died in Beijing on September 9, 1976.