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Contemporary China: Was Mao’s State “Totalitarian”? Essay

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Updated: Oct 25th, 2021


Current essay deals with the problem which simultaneously has specific relation both to political science, history and theory of ideology. This problem may be formulated in the following way: Was Mao’s China ‘totalitarian’? To find the answer to this question, current essay focuses on the following issues: the notion and theoretical conceptualization of ‘totalitarianism’, as it occurs in Western political science during cold war.

Main body

Discussing the formation of ‘totalitarianism’ studies, the essay focuses on how they are tied with the general context of ideological and propagandist struggles during cold war. Based on our findings the legitimacy of the ‘totalitarianism’ concept is defined and the possibility of its application to the studies of Mao’s China. The second issue that is analyzed within the frames of this essay is economic, political and social developments in China under Mao.

The attention is particularly paid to the issues which incline many of researchers and ideologists to describe Mao’s China as totalitarian. Finally, based on general findings about Mao’s China within the contexts of Great Leap policies, collectivization and Cultural Revolution, the conclusion about real conditions of China’s society and its structure are made.

The notion of ‘totalitarianism’ and its applications in ideological studies.

There is no denying the importance of the fact that ‘totalitarianism’ is a common place not only in Western social sciences but also general ideological representation of different societies.

What is characteristic of the ‘totalitarianism’ concept as it was formulated in the works of Friedrich and Brzezinski is total neglect of social and economic relations formed in a given society. Totalitarianism for Brzezinski and Friedrich is an organic entity of state which took full control over civil society and directs it according to its corporate interests (Friedrich and Brzezinski, 1967). It is characterized by the dominance of single ideology, ruling mass party, the unilateral rule of dictator, which installs the system of terror, has monopoly over communication outlets and control over economy. Friedrich, Brzezinski and many scholars after them used this term for describing post-WW1 fascist states and socialist societies such as Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba etc.

There is no denying the importance of the fact that these concepts are mere ideological inversion of liberal postulates which are automatically canonized as true and progressive. From the point of careful analysis of socialists societies (China, Soviet Union), this conceptualization is very poor because it is focused not on their understanding but delegitimation.

The complex interrelation between social, human and productive forces development and progressive overcoming of capitalist relations and cruel accumulation is totally neglected. In these way ‘totalitarianism’ concept produces another historical justification of ‘totalitarian’ liberal state which in fact corresponds with basic features of ‘totalitarianism’ concept – single ideology (liberalism), dictatorship (of market) and the lack of democracy which is formal and controlled by lobby groups and big corporations. Now, let’s look at the historical contours of Mao’s China and refer to basic points in which ‘totalitarianism’ ideology has pretensions.

China under Mao: contradictive development

Before the communist takeover in China and bloody Civil War between Mao and Chan Kaishi, the economy and overall Chinese society was controlled by Western monopolies which exploited China’s natural resources and labor force (Barnouin, 1993, p. 23). The country was practically divided between British Empire, France, Japan, Germany and other Western states. Hence, there is no denying the importance of the fact that Mao accession to power can be described as positive development for the China’s poor whose interests were for the first time protected in the history of this country.

The basic pretensions of ‘totalitarianism’ theoreticians such as the repressive nature of planning and socialism can be debunked as ideologically prejudiced if they contradict with the interests of population in a given country. Market relations are more antidemocratic and repressive in nature than socialist redistribution of wealth, land and national power as it took place in Mao’s China, because they are based on the imperative of profit and monopoly control of the small layer of private owners over national resources and capital.

This can be easily proved by references to the history of Western countries which gained their momentum of social equality in the era of so called welfare state when state took active role in redressing negative consequences of capital accumulation by means of social redistribution of wealth and possibilities.

After Mao came to power he embarked on democratic social policy by meeting the interests of common peasants (the dominant social class in China). Huge individual land ownership was abolished and Chinese peasants received possibility of cultivating their land for the virtue of all Chinese citizens.

New small land holders used their land to produce necessary products for society and sold them to the government. High taxes and rents were abolished. Besides this, new land policy allowed using the fruits of agricultural development for stimulating industrialization of this backward country (Fairbank and Goldman, 1998, 23). As a consequence, Chinese industrialization resulted in the development of urban areas, massive architecture projects and life buildings for the urban workers. Besides this, economic development stimulated the growth of professional cadres and science, transforming China into modern industrial country. Unlike Western countries these processes were not characterized with growing social polarization and equality but on the contrary resulted in more just and equal redistribution of wealth among Chinese citizens. The development of industry helped resolve historical problems of floods and irrigations as new dikes were built.

Of course, these developments which brought positive social changes and were welcomed by Chinese peasantry can not be described as ‘totalitarian’ policies. ‘Totalitarian’ means not meeting the interests of democratic sovereign – people. Both subjectively and objectively these policies were positive for the Chinese population and this can be additionally proved by the warm welcome for collectivization in the end of the 1950s (Murphey, 1996, 50).

The personality of Mao is one of the main reasons for describing him as a totalitarian leader. However, this greatly contradicts with real historical facts and Mao’s policy. As Hart-Landsberg and Burkett claim, Mao was an egalitarian politician who struggled against elite dominance in the party and bureaucracy. He claimed that only Chinese people are the source of wisdom and was a real populist politician. This can be proved by real historical facts – Cultural Revolution in China which would be described later was one of the main sources of democratization in the Party and struggle against egoist bureaucracy.

However, it was accompanied by repressions which are objectively negative phenomenon, the designation of these practices as totalitarian runs contrary to their nature and objectives (Hart-Landsberg and Burkett, 2005).

In the end of the 50s in his struggle with bureaucracy Mao decided to launch the campaign of improving the free speech which used the slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers bloom!” and which was pressured by Party oligarchy to be stopped, however it had positive consequences for the Chinese society where the level of civil consciousness and education permanently raised.

The strategy of Great Leap which was started in 1960s also shows that Mao considered planning to be not so effective and desired to give people possibility to spontaneously decide on their economic interests. This fact is widely quoted and proved by historical expertise and thus it is misguided to say that Mao realized totalitarian policies.

Cultural Revolution, declared by Mao also centered on democratizing the culture and political agenda in China and, hence, may be described as democratic practice (Barnouin, 1993).


To sum it up, our analysis shows that those experts, who denounce Mao’s China as ‘totalitarian’ and antidemocratic fail to capture basic democratic and egalitarian trends which were characteristic of Mao’s initiated policies and therefore are ideologically prejudiced and false.

The history of China after Mao vividly proved that bureaucratization and market mentality against which Mao struggled proved to be more powerful than democratic policies, however this does not prove that these developments are progressive for the Chinese people.

‘Totalitarian’ concept can not be used in China’s case unless we seek objective and analytical research of Chinese society, because this concept is ideologically prejudiced and serves propagandist role in the history of Western though. Only immanent analysis of Chinese society and materialist research may give us necessary tools for developing objective approach to Chinese history and Mao’s role in it. Such historical events as Great Leap, Cultural Revolution, Free Speech campaigns are democratic phenomenon, however their democratic nature should be analyzed based on the structural features of Chinese society and its contradictions.


Fairbank, J. K. and Goldman, M., 1998 China: a New History.

Barnouin, Barbara. 1993, Ten years of turbulence: the Chinese cultural revolution. Publication of the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva. London; New York: Kegan Paul International; New York: Distributed by Routledge, Chapman & Hall Inc.

Chan, Anita., 1985. Children of Mao: Personality development and political activism in the Red Guard generation. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Friedrich, Carl and Brzezinski, Z. K., 1967, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2nd edition.

Hart-Landsberg, M., Burkett P, 2005. China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Murphey, Rhoads., 1996, East Asia: A New History. University of Michigan Press.

Selden, Mark, 1979, The People’s Republic of China: Documentary History of Revolutionary Change. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Terrill, Ross, 2003, The New Chinese Empire, And What It Means For The United States. New York: Basic Books.

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