Mao Zedong rose to become one of China's most famous and most feared leaders. Whilst the national implementation of many of his philosophies and ideas - known as Maoism - was largely unsuccessful, Maoism remains an important and historic political ideology in the field of political science. This article will explore Maoism whilst highlighting its chief principles in the hopes that you the student will gain a better understanding of this doctrine as you navigate your political studies.  

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Table of contents

    Maoism: definition

    Maoism is a communist philosophy introduced in China by Mao Zedong. It is a doctrine based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism.


    Refers to the official ideology practised in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Its purpose was to replace the capitalist state with a socialist state by means of a revolution led by the proletariat working class. Once overthrown, a new government would be formed that would take the shape of a 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.


    A term used in the Soviet Union to refer to the politically and socially aware working class, distinguished from peasants in that they rarely owned assets or land.

    However, Maoism has its own distinct revolutionary outlook that sets it apart from Marxism-Leninism in that it envisions the peasant class leading the revolution rather than the proletariat working class.

    Basic principles of Maoism

    There are three principles associated with Maoism which are similar to Marxism-Leninism that are important to the ideology.

    1. Firstly, as a doctrine, it intends to seize state power through a mixture of armed insurgency and mass mobilisation.
    2. Secondly, another principle running through Maoism is what Mao Zedong called the ‘Protracted People's War’. This is where the Maoists also use disinformation and propaganda against State institutions as part of their insurgency doctrine.
    3. Thirdly, leading on from the discussion of state violence is a major element of Maoism. The Maoist insurgency doctrine states that the use of force is non-negotiable. Thus, one could argue that Maoism glorifies violence and insurgence. An example is the ‘People's Liberation Army’ (PLA) where cadres are trained precisely in the foulest forms of violence to insight terror among the population.

    Once in power, Mao blended Marxism-Leninism with some key differences, often described as Chinese Characteristics.

    Maoism Statue of Mao in Henan Province StudySmarterFig. 1 - Statue of Mao Zedong in Henan Province, China

    They can be remembered using this simple acronym:

    Mao stated 'power comes out of the barrel of a gun'.1Violence was routine in Mao's regime, not only when seizing power but also in the maintenance of it. The Cultural Revolution that attacked intellectuals during the 1960s was a prime example of this.
    Anti-colonialism fuelled Chinese nationalismAt the centre of the Chinese Communist Party's dogma was the wish to avenge a century of humiliation at the hands of imperialist powers. China had to do all in its power to become a superpower once more.
    Odd political reformsMao's reforms ranged from the catastrophic famine-inducing Great Leap Forward to the peculiar Four Pests campaign that disrupted the ecosystem.

    Imperialism was a name often employed by communists to refer to the invasion of foreign countries by Western aggressors.

    Maoism: A global history

    When looking at the global history of Maoism it makes sense to look at it chronologically. It all started with Mao Zedong in China.

    The start

    We can begin by looking at Mao Zedong and how his political enlightenment came about. Mao's political opinions formed when China was in an intense crisis in the early 20th century. China at this time can be described as not only divided but incredibly weak. The two main causes of this were:

    1. The removal of foreign occupiers
    2. The reunification of China

    At this time Mao himself was a nationalist. As such, it is clear that he would have been anti-imperialist and anti-Western even prior to his discovery of Marxism-Leninism. Unsurprisingly when he came across it in 1920, he because drawn to it.

    As well as his nationalism he admired the martial spirit. These two things in combination became a keystone of Maoism. At this time, the army was vital in creating the Chinese revolutionary state. Mao Zedong himself heavily relied on military support in conflicts with his party in the 1950s and ’60s.

    The road to power (the 1940s)

    The best way to describe how Mao Zedong developed his political ideology is slowly.

    The Marxist-Leninists traditionally observed peasants as not capable of the revolutionary initiative. Their only use, if any, would be to assist the proletariat.

    However, over time Mao chose to shape his revolution on the undeveloped power of the peasants. China had hundreds of millions of peasants and Mao saw this as an opportunity to tap into their potential violence and power in numbers. Following his realisation of this, he planned to instil in the peasants a proletarian awareness and make their force alone serve for revolution. Many academics would argue that by the 1940s Mao Zedong had 'proletarianised' the peasantry as part of his revolution.

    The creation of modern China (1949)

    The Chinese communist state was created in 1949. Its official name is the People's Republic of China. Mao finally seized power after a long struggle with capitalist advisory Chiang Kai-Shek, who fled to Taiwan. Following its creation, Mao Zedong endeavoured to conform to the Stalinist model of 'building socialism'.

    The early 1950s

    However, in the mid-1950s Mao Zedong and his advisors countered the results of the creation of the communist state. The main consequences they disliked being:

    1. The development of a bureaucratic and inflexible Communist Party
    2. Resulting from this was the rise of technocratic and managerial elites. In other counties and particularly the Soviet Union this was used for industrial growth.

    During this period, despite his political deviations from Stalinism, Mao's policies followed the Soviet playbook.


    One of the salient steps in the transformation of a country to a socialist state, collectivization describes the reorganisation of agricultural and industrial production by the state rather than private companies.

    In 1952, the first Soviet-style five-year plan was implemented and collectivisation rapidly increased as the decade wore on.

    The Great Leap Forward (1958-61)

    As dislike for the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became more pronounced, Mao's competitive streak dragged his country into tragedy. The next five-year plan was cast as the Great Leap Forward, but it was anything but.

    Desperate to compete with the Soviet Union, Mao catapulted his country into oblivion. Backyard furnaces replaced agriculture, as steel production quotas gained priority over food. In addition, the Four Pests campaign sought to eradicate sparrows, rats, mosquitoes, and flies. Despite the fact that a huge number of animals were killed, it completely destroyed the ecosystem. Sparrows in particular became virtually extinct meaning that they could not perform their ordinary role within nature. Locusts multiplied with devastating effects.

    Overall, it is estimated that the Great Leap Forward caused at least 30 million deaths through starvation, it became known as the Great Famine.

    The Cultural Revolution (1966)

    The party’s leaders, at Mao’s instruction, launched the Cultural Revolution. The aim of this was to quash any emerging 'bourgeois' elements - elites and bureaucrats. The party leaders emphasised egalitarianism and the value of the peasants. Mao's Red Guard seized intellectuals, sometimes including their teachers, and beat and humiliated them in the street. It was a year zero, where many old elements of Chinese culture were eradicated. Mao's Little Red Book became the bible of Chinese Communism, spreading Mao Zedong Thought through his quotations.

    Maoism Political slogan from the Cultural Revolution outside Fudan University StudySmarterFig. 2 - Political slogan from the Cultural Revolution outside Fudan University, China

    Thus, Maoism was grown as a result of revolutionary enthusiasm and mass struggle. Hence, quite different to any movement led by the elites. Maoism brought the dictatorship of industrial and economic management face to face with the collectiveness and will of a huge number of human beings.

    Maoism outside China

    Outside China, we can see that a number of groups have identified themselves as Maoists. A notable example is the Naxalite groups in India.

    Guerrilla warfare

    Fighting by small rebel groups in an uncoordinated way, as opposed to traditional military warfare.

    These groups engaged in guerrilla warfare for decades in large areas of India. Another prominent example is the rebels in Nepal. These rebels, after a 10-year insurgency, gained control of the government in 2006.


    Marxism–Leninism–Maoism is a political philosophy that is a combination of Marxism–Leninism and Maoism. It also builds on these two ideologies. It has been the reason behind revolutionary movements in countries such as Colombia and the Philippines.

    Maoism: Third Worldism

    Maoism–Third Worldism does not have one single definition. However, the majority of people who follow this ideology argue for the significance of anti-imperialism to the triumph of the global communist revolution.

    As previously mentioned, Maoism can be found in India. The most violent and biggest Maoist group in India is the Communist Party of India (CPI). The CPI is a combination of many smaller groups, which eventually became outlawed as a terrorist organisation in 1967.

    Maoism Communist Party of India flag StudySmarterFig. 3 - Communist Party of India flag

    Maoism - Key takeaways

      • Maoism is a type of Marxism-Leninism advanced by Mao Zedong.
      • During his lifetime Mao Zedong observed a social revolution within the agricultural, pre-industrial society of the Republic of China, this is what led him to develop Maoism. It came with horrendous side effects during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
      • Maoism represents a type of revolutionary method which isn’t essentially dependent on a Chinese or Marxist-Leninist context. It has its own distinct revolutionary outlook.
      • Outside China, we can see that a number of groups have identified themselves as Maoists.


    1. Mao Zedong quoted by Janet Vincant Denhardt, Dictionary of the Political Thought of the People's Republic of China (2007), pp. 305.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Maoism

    What does Maoism mean?

    Maoism relates to the political philosophy of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

    What is the symbol of Maoism?

    Maoist symbols range from the face of Mao Zedong to the little red book and the communist hammer and sickle.

    What is the difference between Maoism and Marxism?

    Traditionally, Marxism-Leninism makes use of the proletariat in the revolution, whereas Maoism focuses on the peasantry.

    What are examples of Maoist books?

    The most famous Maoist book is the little red book, used during the Cultural Revolution to spread 'Mao Zedong Thought'.

    What was the main goal of Mao?

    To preserve the Chinese Communist Party's position and make China strong in the face of foreign threats.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Mao relied on the proletariat during his Chinese revolution. 

    Killing                      had the most devastating effects during Mao's Four Pests Campaingn.

    The Great Leap Forward was also known as the Great Famine.

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