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Reply to Freedom Road

What Maoism Actually Stood For

By Max Elbaum
January 2004

I appreciate Freedom Road's serious treatment of Revolution in the Air. Due to space limitations, I will focus my comments on my differences with Khalil Hassan on the role of Maoism.

I must first point out that Hassan misrepresents central points in my book. He writes that Revolution in the Air considers Maoism "the principal problem of the revolutionary left" and he says that the book "avoids some deeper questions about problems within the Marxist-Leninist paradigm." Wrong on both counts.

My book argues that the principal problem with the New Communist Movement was a combination of ultra-leftism, voluntarism and a dogmatic "quest for orthodoxy" which, in different forms, afflicted all sectors of the revolutionary left. And on the level of doctrine I wrote: "there was an even more fundamental problem. Advocates of all these perspectives accepted the notion that there was one and only one revolutionary tradition - and that there existed a single, genuine Marxism-Leninism which embodied its accumulated wisdom." The book goes on to criticize many concrete aspects of the classical Leninist paradigm - in particular the single-party vanguard model - and in a related vein offers a stinging indictment of Stalinism.

It is especially unfortunate that Hassan gets this point incorrect since he and I have drawn remarkably similar conclusions about what should and should not be carried forward from the classic Third International Leninist tradition.

Where we do differ is that my book argues that Maoism did tremendous damage in reinforcing and exacerbating the New Communist Movement's negative side, while Hassan believes Maoism, while limited, pushed the movement in positive directions.

The problem with Hassan's argument is that it is based on a set of academic notions about what he would like Maoism to have stood for instead of what that trend actually did and said between the 1960s and the 1980s. Hassan says Maoism is to be credited with confronting an underlying "crisis of socialism" and for being at bottom a left-wing critique of Stalinism. Those would have been good things, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with Maoism's actual role.

After Khrushchev made his criticism of Stalin and at least half-heartedly opened the door for a re-examination of the Stalin era, it was the Chinese Communist Party and Maoism that stepped forward to become the biggest defenders of Stalin in the world communist movement. Maoism was the main proponent of the proposition that any alleged "crisis of socialism" began with Khrushchev's "betrayal" and had nothing whatsoever to do with the basic structures of the one-party state or "command" economy that Stalin had put in place.

Hassan is likewise off base when he discusses the Maoist thesis that the Soviet Union had been socialist under Stalin and after his death restored capitalism mainly as if this was the basis for a probing theoretical debate. He distances himself from this thesis, saying it is must be taken as only "descriptive," while completely evading the fact that this thesis was the central justification for both Chinese foreign policy of aligning with anyone - including U.S. imperialism - who opposed the USSR, and for the disastrous ideological crusades of the Cultural Revolution which alienated three generations in China from ideas of class struggle.

Further, it was the CCP and its followers who argued that embrace of the "capitalist restoration thesis" was an essential line of demarcation between genuine revolutionaries and opportunists. Hassan today ridicules the notion that the Soviet Union could ever have been socialist, since Western-style capitalism has been put in place there "without a civil war." What does he have to say about the fact that every single Maoist group argued that precisely this had taken place in the USSR after Stalin's death? Even PUL, arguably the most flexible U.S. Maoist group and a major predecessor of Freedom Road, insisted in its signature book "2, 3, Many Parties of a New Type" that:

"The third position, shared by the CPC, the PLA [Albania], and a number of other Marxist-Leninist Parties, believes that the rise to power of revisionism means the rise to power of the bourgeoisie…. The restoration of capitalism in a country as powerful and centralized politically and economically as the Soviet Union means the emergence of imperialism or social-imperialism… the question of the USSR stands at the center of the world stage…Communist unification will require basic agreement around this analysis." (p. 218)

Given this framework, it's not the Chinese party's support for Pinochet or denunciation of Cuba which "almost defies explanation" as Hassan argues. Rather, it's why Hassan thinks there is anything whatsoever mysterious about either these stances or Maoism's alliance with apartheid South Africa against the MPLA in Angola or its backing for the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea.

Maoism's stance undermined national liberation struggles that had been waged for decades across the global south, and was of tremendous value to U.S. administrations from Nixon to Reagan. That's why the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (among other liberation movements on the frontlines) concluded in 1981 that the "Chinese leadership's position in the international class conflict is one of retrogression and cooperation with imperialism."

Those who come out of the Maoist trend have a responsibility to more forthrightly face these realities. There may be certain ideas that come out of Maoism which can be useful for current efforts to find a 21st century revolutionary path. But they will not have much credibility with the vast majority of radicals who experienced the 1960s-1980s, or with those from a new generation who have studied those years, if those who advance them are unwilling to engage with the actual role Maoism played in the international class struggle.