The French Revolution did not need an ideol-ogy. Recent uprisings in Mexico and Peru have shown that oppressed people rising up against their tormentors do not necessarily need to call themselves Marxist-Leninists or Maoists.
If poverty, oppression and government neglect gets unbearable, the people have a choice either to take up arms or to move elsewhere. It is more likely that they will take up arms because usually such people have nowhere to go. Ruling elites who have no concerns for social justice and equity, driven as they are only by greed and the quest for power, should not be surprised when peasants, workers and ordinary people decide enough is enough. And the banners need not be red, they can be green or blue or pink.
However, it is also a fact that such outbursts usually cannot rise from the district or regional to national level without the underpinnings a doctrinal base. An ideology of national scope, however, must be scientific enough. And it may be of the left or the right. Let us not forget that it is not the monopoly of the left to be a progressive force. The period of history when the left had the exclusive role of trying to transform society in a progressive way has passed, partly because of what has happened in those countries that called themselves communist. There are movements from the right which have been progressive as well, such as the Portuguese colonels´ coup in l975 which toppled the fascist dictatorship of Salazar and unleashed political and economic reforms.
China and Asia
In the past 500 years, there have perhaps been only two persons who have managed to captivate a worldwide audience with what they wrote: Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations in 1776 and Karl Marx a hundred years later with Das Kapital. The world today still revolves around these two men. Each created an ideology, a school of thought, and a method of analysing society. What the founder wants and what the follower makes of it are, however, two different things. The followers tend to transform an ideology into religion, irrespective of the founder´s intention.
A look back at the rise and spread of Maoism in this century has to start with an understanding of the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. When the Soviet uprising triumphed in the second decade of this century, there was a big debate about whether the revolution would spread to the developed world first before catching on in the ´backward´ countries. At that time, delegates from China, India and Japan questioned the assumptions of the Communist International and argued forcefully that the peasantry was very much a revolutionary force.
When the Chinese revolution started in the 1930s, Mao Zedong was trying to chart his own path to revolution, one which was quite different from the Bolsheviks´. The Russian revolution took place in Petrograd and in Moscow, very much the result of an urban working class revolt. Mao and his associates knew that the Chinese experience had to be quite different.
However, to their ultimate distress, the communist movements of the developing world tended to structure themselves according to the colonial pecking order. So, the Indonesian communists essentially answered to the Communist Party in Holland, which in turn answered to Moscow. In the Philippines, the Communist Party took its cue from the US Communist Party which likewise looked to Moscow. It was not much different in the Subcontinent.
But it was different with the Chinese. Even before the triumph of their own revolution, the Chinese communists had started organising overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia: trade unions in Thailand, ethnic Chinese working class in Singapore and Malaysia, and to a lesser extent ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines. The leadership in Thailand´s Communist Party was always of ethnic Chinese composition. Wang Hongwen, the youngest member of the infamous Gang of Four, was actually born in Thailand to Chinese parents.
Perhaps the only other country besides China where Maoism actually ruled for a while was in Cambodia. The Cambodian Communist Party under Pol Pot (see page 37) started to distance itself from Vietnam even while they were jointly fighting the Americans in the early 1970s. When they entered Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge started its experiment with a Cambodian version of Maoism. The result was what has come to be known as the Cambodian holocaust, which shocked even the supporters of Cambodian communism.
Earlier, Cambodian Maoists had also been working with Thai communists, launching joint operations against villages inside Thailand. But the Thai comrades were shocked by the zeal of the Cambodians who proceeded to shoot villagers riding motorcycles thinking that if they could afford the machines, they must be class enemies.
Uncle Ho vs Uncle Sam
In Vietnam, things took a different turn because the country had its own communist visionary, Ho Chi Minh. But even so, the Chinese had a strong influence on Vietnam, and Vietnamese communists used southern China as a refuge. In the Philippines, the small Chinese communist branch helped train guerrillas to first fight the Japanese and later local feudal landlords. In what was then Malaya, the Communist Party was run by the Chinese branch.
That was the setting when the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s and China itself was going through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. The main slogan of the Red Guards was that US imperialism was a “paper tiger” and that armed struggle was the only way to fight it. And they were happy to let the Vietnamese do the fighting. But when the Paris peace talks began, the Chinese Communist officialdom was unhappy that the Vietnamese were negotiating peace with Uncle Sam – it was contrary to the concept of valiantly defeating imperialism in the battlefield.
The Vietnamese, always fiercely independent, argued that they had a two-track policy: in the battlefield, fight, in the conference room, talk. The Chinese were displeased and the Vietnamese were puzzled: here they were fighting imperialism and they were being accused of revisionism! As the Vietnamese Communist Party started pursuing a more independent line, the country was automatically pushed into the Soviet camp.
To a large measure, therefore, the spread of Maoism in Asia was dictated by efforts to export the Cultural Revolution and Cold War geopolitics. The Red Guards orchestrated riots in Hong Kong as an attack British and Portuguese imperialism, and smaller demonstrations were organised in Burma by ethnic Chinese. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was the largest communist party after the Soviet and the Chinese parties, and was pro-Chinese in the fight against the Soviet wing. Interestingly, despite its Maoist leanings, the PKI never advocated armed struggle to seize power. And that may be why they were wiped out in military-backed pogroms in which a million people were killed in 1965.
The Sino-Soviet split had repercussions on communist movements all around the world. This falling out of two fraternal nations was repeated within the communist parties of almost every country which had a communist party, with pro-China and pro-Soviet factions emerging in almost pre-determined fashion. In hindsight, we can see that this split postponed real revolutions within the countries of Asia, as the communists busied themselves defending China or the Soviet Union instead of doing their own homework. There was a fragmenting of the communist movement Asiawide.
Mao and Maoists
There is no doubt that Mao Zedong was a true revolutionary. But one must separate Mao Zedong from the people who today call themselves Maoists. One thing that revolutionaries worldwide have taken most seriously about Maoism is the famous dictum included in the Red Book: “Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” When you carry around a phrase like that it soon transforms itself into a religious credo, a mantra for violence. However, although violence has been used by political movements of both the left and right, the political violence of the left has usually tried to be clear about its role: the target has to be a class enemy, and political violence has to have a political end.
But in many revolutionary situations, violence has degenerated into a fetish; it has become an end in itself, and hurts the very people who are to be saved. In the Philippines, for instance, Maoists would shoot ordinary traffic policemen on the streets, unmindful of the fact that he was just a working class cop doing his job of regulating traffic. There was the expected backlash from the public as, far removed from political ends these so-called revolutionaries began to show their colours as mere criminals and killers. Purges within some Maoist parties have been more ruthless, brutal and arbitrary than even the violence against class enemies.
Today´s political parties of the left will have to be independent. That is the first condition. They cannot take orders any more from any one, not Moscow, not Beijing, not Havana, not Pyongyang. Of course, the parties will have to take into account international factors such as globalisation and interlinked cross-border issues, but their concentration must be on redeeming situations within their own countries and populations.
What remains of Maoism in the globalised world is a mixed bag. China itself has more or less abandoned Maoism. The Great Helmsman is in his mausoleum and that is about the only relic left. There are a handful of countries where there is still active Maoism. In Peru, the Sendero Luminoso has been decimated after their violence became too indiscriminate, leading to a reaction by alienated peasants.
In the Philippines, the Maoist groups have split and the Chinese don´t even bother with the remnants that call themselves Maoist. The majority of those who split away think that the objective conditions are not the same and the system is no longer feudal but an underdeveloped capitalist mode of production. In Sri Lanka, what you´d call real Maoism was finished off a long time ago when the first JVP uprising was crushed in 1971, ironically, with Chinese military help for the Bandaranike government. The second uprising in 1988 was essentially a violent grab for power that tried to ride the crest of a popular anti-Indian sentiment.
In India, the Naxalite movement had its supporters in some parts of the country and was building up some momentum before it was crushed, but India is so vast that the impact of Naxalites was to a certain extent exaggerated by the media and there was never really much danger to the state. Today, the People´s War movement in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar are either escalations of caste violence as each side tries to take revenge for a previous massacre with an even bigger atrocity, or it is a limited uprising against the state security apparatus, which has become the symbol of local oppression.
In Sri Lanka, Nepal or India, the legal process is still an option and the avenues for parliamentary struggle are still open. It may be a very distorted parliamentary system, but it represents a way to come to power through the ballot rather than the bullet.
For any serious political movement of the left of today, the lessons of history are quite clear. First, we may draw lessons from the Bolshevik, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions but we cannot duplicate any of them. Each revolution has its own cultural, historical and economic context. The second lesson of this century´s experience with communism is that there is no revolution without democracy and there is no democracy without revolution.
Maoists have long known how difficult it is to convince a peasant to take up arms. Because he has to leave his family, his land and his crops in the field, grab a gun and fight. If you cannot even convince a person to vote for you, it is more difficult to convince him to come fight for you. The realistic path for the left is to embark on a long process of education not only of their own people but also of society at large. To begin with, rather than raise the gun, communist movements must work to understand the nature of their national societies. The overall heightened level of consciousness can then be used for political mobilisation. Trigger-happy Maoism will not serve the people, not in Nepal, Vietnam or the Philippines.