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Thinking about Mao Tse-Tung and China

November 9, 2022


“”The process of the war will present China the possibility of capturing many japanese prisoners, arms, ammunition, war machines and so forth. A point will be reached where it will become more and more possible to engage Japan’s armies on a basis of positional warfare, using fortifications and deep entrenchment, for as the war progresses, the technical equipment of the anti-Japanese will greatly improve and will be reinforced by important foreign help. Japan’s economy will crack under the strain of a long, expensive occupation of China and the moral of her forces will break under the trail of a war of innumerable but indecisive battles. The great reservoir of human material in the revolutionary Chinese people will still be pouring men ready to fight for their freedom into our front lines long after the tidal flood of Japanese Imperialism has wrecked itself on the hidden reefs of Chinese resistance.”

– Mao Tse Tung in Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow. Grove Press edition. 1968. p. 113 –



It is hard to deny that these past 43 years, since Deng Xiaoping initiated the great economic reforms that China has become a global superpower and that as such, it challenges the position that the United States has in the world today. This reflection, however, is not so much about the current tensions associated with China’s rise and Washington’s relative decline. (1) No, I am more interested in exploring the 20th century history of China’s extraordinary rise to world power status and in contrasting it with the collapse of the Soviet Union both of which happened at more or less the same time..

Given that both communist countries instituted market reforms, and at about the same time, why is it that in response to these reforms the Soviet Union collapsed but, to the contrary, China has flourished. Some of the answer, I am convinced, has to do with the more immediate policies both countries used, how they went about making the reforms at the time they did.  But in order to understand the contrasting results better, one has to look back earlier in the histories of both countries, returning to approximately the same moment – the 1917 Russian Revolution that swept the Bolsheviks to power and for China, that which immediately followed, the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

In the case of China, the long, complex history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the person who emerges in the mid 1930s as its penultimate leader, Mao Tse-Tung, is key as is his relationship to helping build the CCP along lines somewhat independent of Soviet influence. I must admit, that when I first started studying both Chinese and Soviet socialism back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that I thought that Chinese socialism with all its chaos and turmoil at the time would have collapsed and it would have been Soviet socialism that would  triumph and prosper. That precisely the opposite happened, a reflection of how wrong I have been (although not only myself).

As is quite obvious, History, that harsh teacher, gave the opposite verdict. But then there are a number of historic events that many scholars and commentators, even those who try to follow events closely, failed to grasp. I would cite among them Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, both the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communism from 1989 to 1991, and in the same vein, the growth and stabilization of Russia after the calamity of the 1990s. These examples are reminders of how shallow our analyses often are, and how there are processes going on under the surface that even the best social scientists don’t see nor can’t fathom until years later when history reveals its secrets.

When I first ventured into studying the Chinese Revolution, it was in the midst of a convulsion called the Cultural Revolution, which as I understood it, actually threatened to bring the whole house down, and which was – as is well known – the brainchild of the country’s founder, Mao Tse-Tung. At the time, the 1960s I was less than impressed with what I knew of the goings on in China. Mao’s shrill criticisms of the then Soviet Union seemed pretty empty. In China’s case – and the example is not limited to China by any means – it was one thing for the Communists to seize power and quite another to build a socialist society there, the latter being even more difficult than the former. Mao excelled at the process of seizing power but was less successful, I would argue, in the actual construction of socialism in China.

The “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950s was essentially a bust, more a few steps backward in terms of the country’s economic development than a basis for laying the foundations for China’s future growth. By the 1960s, chaos and directionlessness had deepened that much more and the split between the Soviet Union and China had emerged full force. The Chinese were referring to the Soviets as “social imperialists” – a designation void of any substance then or now; Mao’s American clones, a number of Maoist revolutionary groups that sprang up at the time – the Revolutionary Union, the October League come to mind. It was hard (for me) to take these groups or their analysis seriously (and I didn’t). They appeared all the more pathetic carrying around and quoting from – Mao’s little Red Book, as if it had even the slightest relevance to the conditions and movement for socialism in the USA. That these groups soon disintegrated or turned into something approaching cults was not surprising. Then there was Mao’s irresponsible and frequent comments downplaying the dangers of nuclear war which was little more than icing on the cake.

And yet, projecting forward to the present, China, led by none other than its Communist Party, has succeeded to a degree that I doubt many would have thought possible. It has eliminated abject poverty (or so it claims – a claim I find quite credible) and built a manufacturing giant soon to be the “workshop of the world” if it isn’t already. Its international prestige has soared and its trade relations with much of the world continues to grow. It’s alliance – informal or not – with Russia has insulated it to a certain degree from U.S. pressures. In a world of climate change, growing global economic insecurity, with ethnic tensions on the rise, it appears as an outpost of hope and stability in an increasingly irrational world. It has managed to institute its extensive market reforms without imploding as the USSR did or abandoning its one party rule. Where there is life, there are problems and certainly, China has plenty of its own, but not to acknowledge its breathtaking accomplishments today is simply to deny history or refuse to accept reality, a problem pervasive in Washington DC.


Certainly, despite the chaos and the factional tensions he created once in power (as noted just above), much of the credit for China’s rise, unquestionably lays at the feet of Mao Tse-Tung. If Mao was unable to envision the mix of a nationalized economy open to market reforms that China embraced shortly after his death, still, his life’s work laid the groundwork for his country’s spectacular rise. Many of the themes for which he was singularly responsible for innovating  -“the sinification of Marxism”, his long term strategies for guerilla warfare both against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek and the Japanese Occupation, his unending insistence on political, ideological training, his profound understanding of when and with whom to develop “united front” alliances – there could not have been a Chinese Revolution without these and other innovations. Combine that with his courage, physical stamina, his profound understanding of China’s history, its civilization and his belief in his country’s potential and a much more comprehensive understanding of both Mao and China today become clearer.

Years ago, sometime in the 1970s, I read Red Star Over China. I remember appreciating the book, especially its descriptions of the Long March, and its expose of the civil war between the Communists and Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist forces. Rereading it a few months ago I was impressed with the book’s richness and wondered why it was that I failed to appreciate the book’s breath and depth more earlier. It is one of the finest pieces of modern political journalism of the last century, nothing less.  In any case, watching China’s recent dynamism made me curious to go back to the roots of its success, to get a better understanding of these current developments and China’s road to success. With this in mind, I picked up, read and thought a great deal about the content of two books: Edward Snow’s classic Red Star Over China, and Stuart Schram’s lesser known classic, Mao Tse-Tung. “Red Star Over China” was first published in 1938 and contains some of the first interviews Mao gave to a Western journalist. It was republished several times since. “Mao Tse-tung” was published nearly thirty years later, 1966, with the author having far more documents in hand than Snow did at the time, yet Schram admits that Red Star Over China is a book of considerable historical value to which he frequently refers. While the time periods covered are not identical, the main subject matter of both is essentially the same – the thirty year period from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1919 to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. If I were still teaching courses in Global Political Economy today, both books would be required reading.

Bhadrakumar Melkulangara, the retired Indian diplomat whose commentaries I often read, recently suggested that people could do worse than to reread Red Star Over China. In these current times, with US foreign policy focusing more and more on hostility to China, that sounded like a good idea.

The jacket cover of the Snow’s 1968 edition of Red Star Over China says it all: “The classic account of the birth of Chinese Communism.” That, it is; Edgar Snow represents the best of a political journalistic tradition that offers historical perspective of the times in which he lived both prior to and just after World War II. So much was Snow’s work respected that during WW2, 1942 I believe, then U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, distrustful of his own official advisors on Asia, asked for a meeting with Snow and requested that the author report back to him after his next trip was over. That trip would take Snow to Russia, the Middle East, India and China, the results of which would be written up in another volume, People On Our Side, published by Random House in 1944. (2) Snow, the experienced global traveller, lived outside the United States (b. Kansas City) where he was born. In 1928 he started a trip round the world that included living in the Far East for thirteen years, most that in China. He learned Chinese well enough to speak and read it with “modest fluency” he would relate. With an introduction from his friend Madame Sun Yat Sen, he was able to gain access to the CCP’s base in Yenan Province, where they had found refuge after the Long March. There he was introduced to Mao Tse-Tung who, interested in familiarizing an audience outside China, dictated the story of his life to Snow. Until the end of World War II, when no foreign journalists had access to Mao or Yenan, this book was a unique source of information; in fact it was the only source of information available in English. As Dr. John K. Fairbanks, noted scholar of Asia, wrote in his introduction to the 1968 Grove Press edition of the book:

“The remarkable thing about Red Star Over China was that it not only gave the first connected history of Mao and his colleagues and where they came from, but it also gave a prospect of the future of this little-known movement which was to prove disastrously prophetic. It is very much to the credit of Edgar Snow that his book has stood the test of time on both these counts – as a historical record and as an indication of a trend.”

At the height of Communist influence during World War II, the CPC was already in control of vast forces and territories where it had established its own government, economic and educational institutions. Snow visited the Communist base in Yunan for a second time in 1939. (described in People On Our Side). In Yenan, formerly one of the most backward and poorest places not just in China but on earth at the time, the rebel government had built “an intelligent and prosperous community with an “energetic and honest” administration. It included free compulsory primary education, middle schools, technical schools and colleges including a College for Women. “Thousands of youths walked hundreds of miles across enemy-held territory to reach Uenan and study in its institutions. Public health services and several hospitals were established as well as industrial cooperatives and some state-owned industries. Peasants in the liberated territories opened up more than 600,000 acres of new landa and with government support tens of thousands of refugees from occupied China were settled there. Opium sale and usage was prohibited and ended; prostitution and child slavery were effectively eliminated. Rights hitherto denied to women for millennia were granted. Polygamy was outlawed, freedom of marriage at the age of 18 was instituted, free education and suffrage for women became the law in these regions.

All this was accomplished in the Communist-liberated zones but there were also similar developments even in Japanese occupied areas during the war, as well as right under the nose of Tokyo’s armies. American Professor Michael Lindsay (who had escaped from Japanese-held areas to these liberated zones) gave more details of Communist policies that Snow cited. Lindsay claimed that there were over three million members of the women’s organizations under Communist control, that in some liberated areas as much as 80% of the younger children of school age were literate. He spoke of some 4,000 cooperatives in Shansi Province along which were established and 5,000 of them in Central Hopei. Again according to Snow, in 1943 guerilla districts behind Japanese enemy lines had given training and organizing skills to some seven million people. Supporting the armed elements were as many as 12,000,000 members of various anti-Japanese associations which helped to clothe, feed, house, equip and transport regular troops. Even Chiang Kai Shek’s official data showed that 455 counties (hsien) of North China where the Communists were concentrated and which they effectively controlled, there were 52,8000 villages with a population of more than 60 million people.

Such was the result of the organizational genius that produced such revolutionary gains even prior to the 1949 independence.

The point here is that even prior to the final offensive that threw Chiang Kai Shek and his ilk off the mainland in 1949, Mao Tse-tung had under his belt an extraordinary range of profound and broad-based experience with political change and societal organizing. Furthermore it was precisely these reforms instituted during the war against the Japanese that won the respect and support of the entire country of China once the war had ended, propelling Mao and the Chinese Communists to power in 1949. It was this effort that laid the basis for the stability of the Chinese Revolution despite all its twists and turns.


Women Students in Yenan. Edgar Snow. People on Our Side. 1944.


Nearly thirty years after the appearance of Red Star Over China, Stuart Schram’s Mao Tse-Tung appeared in print in a Pelican Original paperback. Written some 17 years after the Chinese Revolution of 1949, it covers much of the same territory as Snow’s work with some additional commentary on the progress of the People’s Republic of China 1949-1966. But for my purposes it is the period prior to 1949, the same time that Snow was writing about that is primarily of interest. Snow is mentioned in Schram’s acknowledgement at the book’s beginning; quotes and commentary from Red Star Over China appear throughout the work although Schram has been able to use sources either unknown to Snow at the time of his writing or produced afterwards. There is, from what I can tell, virtually no contradictions or corrections of Snow’s work of any substance in Schram’s analysis but the tensions between the Soviet (meaning mostly Stalin’s) approach to China and that of Mao Tse-Tung are expanded upon significantly.

The Soviet view of their Chinese Communist counterparts, was, in the end both shallow and self serving. Stalin thought himself an expert on Chinese affairs; actually he wasn’t. The Soviets were more interested in defending their national interests (and not unnecessarily antagonizing the West – the United States, United Kingdom) than in The Soviet leader placed greater confidence on Chang Kai Shek’s nationalist movement and continually “suggested” that the Chinese Communists accept Kuomintang leadership. In a mechanical manner that backfired spectacularly, the Soviets insisted that its Chinese counterparts put their organizational focus on the urban proletariat, small and insignificant as it was at the time (1921 onwards) in China while downplaying the role of China’s enormous peasantry. This combined with a profound ignorance of the richness, the wisdom of 5000 years of Chinese culture. All that resulted in the Soviets and their international Communist arm, the Comintern, having “a thoroughly European outlook” in which their vision of Chinese realities – and how to address them – was fundamentally distorted. Stalin’s analysis that he understood China “was to lead to repeated catastrophes which Chinese leaders, and Mao in particular, never forgot.” (3) Comintern advice and leadership also led to the April 1927 purge and massacre of Chinese Communists in Shanghai,

The struggle between Stalin’s Comintern advisors whose influence in the CPC’s leadership was decisive early on and a more indigenous Chinese path to Socialism, came to a head in the 1930s with Mao’s ascension to the leadership of the party in Tsunyi, Kweichow in January, 1935. From that point onward, the Chinese communists essentially free themselves from the shackles of Soviet orthodoxy and continue on a more independent Chinese path. While not completely neglecting the role of the Chinese proletariat, the Chinese Communists emphasized organizing the country’s burgeoning peasantry, a strata of the population that proved themselves again and again – and at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering – open and ready for revolutionary action. In fact, the manner and the degree to which the Chinese Communists organized and became part and parcel of the peasantry forms the basis for their success,

Mao was fighting a war on two fronts – one against the Japanese occupation and the other against the Kuomintang opportunists. The Chinese Communists were able to survive the repeated Kuomintang efforts to crush them through a series of bold hit and run tactics. They, the Communists, emerged from World War II as the main force that confronted the Japanese, a reality which helped sweep them to power in 1949. So much of both the strategy and tactics developed by Mao to come to power would be studied and applied to other Third World revolutions in the post WW 2 period, among them, Chinese emphasis on placing the nationalist movement above the class struggle, the manner in which guerilla movements engage in armed struggle with more powerful colonial and neo-colonial militaries,  how to radicalize, organize largely peasant, poor rural populations and the complex tactics involved in establishing united front politics. No one knew how to organize a revolution in the 20th Century better than Mao Tse-Tung. Both Edgar Snow and Stuart Schram’s insights as to how that was done in China and, broadly speaking, how it can be done today, remain relevant.


  1. I have nothing to add about the current situation at this point that others haven’t delved into in greater depth and knowledge. That said, I do try to follow Chinese developments – both their domestic achievements and their current international status – and have been greatly added in this effort by two sources. I find a website called Dongsheng, Chinese Voices, published by a collective of Chinese Marxists living in the USA invaluable and objective. There is also the constant outpouring of analysis of an Indian friend (well he has become one over the internet), Bhadrakumar Melkulangara, whose ideas can – at least of the moment – be read regularly on his Facebook page or his blog, Indian Punchline, a link to which is provided.
  2. As a part of that journey, Snow, already an internationally respected journalist, would be one of the first foreign reporters to enter Stalingrad after the great Soviet victory there over the Nazis in February 1943.
  3. Stuart Schram. Political Leaders of the Twentieth Century: Mao Tse-tung. Pelican Press: 1967. p. 61.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Jones permalink
    November 9, 2022 12:19 pm

    “I am more interested in exploring the 20th century history of China’s extraordinary rise to world power status and in contrasting it with the collapse of the Soviet Union both of which happened at more or less the same time.”

    Still waiting to read about this contrast of the development and collapse in the two countries.

  2. margy stewart permalink
    November 9, 2022 11:26 pm

    Great retrospective! Thank you.

  3. Tom Moore permalink
    November 10, 2022 7:05 am

    Tbanks! Interesting. Tom


  4. tim mccarthy permalink
    November 13, 2022 10:13 am

    Edgar Snow is one of my hero’s. When I was in the air force (1961-19650 it was possible to find books by wwII war correspondents. There were a number who were impressed with the Chinese communists as compared to the nationalists in the fight with Japan. That led me to more reading and to Snow. He has more than one book. Another writer was Agnes Smedley. thanks, Rob

    ps – another oldie but goodie – Alexander Werth

    • November 13, 2022 10:40 am

      Tim – I have read two by Snow – Red Star Over China and People On Our Side, the latter found in a “little library” in our neighborhood. Are there others that you recommend? Read Smedley a long, long time ago – Daughter of Earth. As I recall, she grew up in or near Trinidad, CO. I want to read her stuff on China. Any specific recommendations?

      • tim mccarthy permalink
        November 13, 2022 1:06 pm

        I think that it has about 60 years since I read Agnes Smedley, and I can’t remember titles. Wikipedia has a good write up.
        Reading your article made me think of those times and about a book I have about another of my heroes, Wilfred Burchett. It is his autobiography his dispatches from Vietnam were very helpful in the 60’s.
        I enjoy your blog, political and bird life, and your radio program. We met once when I came in to answer phones for Hemispheres.


        • November 13, 2022 6:50 pm

          I’ll look up Agnes S. Was thinking of reading something by her. Think she did a bio of the Chinese general Chu Te. As for Burchett – I’m with you 100%. Had several of his Vietnam books – especially the one about the final offensive in 1975 but must have given it (and the others) away. He was, again my memory is sketchy, one of the first, if not the first Western reporter to enter Hiroshima after the atom bomb exploded there. He wrote about it in the Australian press and was banned from the US for life. Yeah, wonderful writer. I don’t remember meeting you at KGNU but then I don’t have much of a memory – but I appreciate your comments – both the tone and the content … Be nice to meet you sometime in person.

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