Communism’s Ideological Evolution: From Marx to Mao


By Brandon Gimpelman

Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong are some of the great heroes of communist ideology. When Karl Marx first published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, he described communism as a specter haunting Europe. Marx thought it was only a matter of time before the workers of the world would unite and seize control of the means of production in a communist revolution; they had nothing to lose but their chains. It wasn’t until sometime afterward, however, that a brilliant young lawyer named Vladimir Lenin was able to put some of Marx’s ideas into practice. As the leading figure for the revolution in Russia up until his death, Lenin wrote his own interpretations of Marxist theory. Years later in China, an ambitious revolutionary named Mao Zedong was inspired by the writings of Marx, and the actions of Lenin. When Mao came into power as Chairman of the Communist Party of China, he practiced his own interpretation of communism. Consequently, Marxism, Leninism and Maoism explore the ideas of communism and liberalism in a unique way.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx is a major indictment of the liberal regime type.  Marx contends, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The class struggles that Marx speaks of are a direct result of the capitalist system. In Marxist theory, capitalism allows for two classes: those who own capital, and those who work for capital owners. The wealthy elite who own capital are referred to as the bourgeoisie. Conversely, the working class wage-laborers are called the proletariat.

For Marx, capitalism was the exploitation of the proletariat for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. He goes so far as to call the proletariat, “…slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State.”  According to Marx, the only proper thing for the proletariat to do is break out in violent revolution against their capitalist rulers. “They smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman in the Middle Ages.” A violent overthrow and destruction of the bourgeoisie was absolutely essential to creating the new society. It would be such that the proletariat, the workers themselves, would control the means of production. In doing so, they would acquire political supremacy and become the leading class.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible


In theory, Marx saw a solution to the problem of class warfare as a result of capitalism. The solution was the extinction of the capitalist class.

It is important to note that Marx does not completely dismiss all of liberalism. In fact, Marx sees the value in capitalism for defeating feudal society, a system he considered to be far more evil. Marxism critiques capitalism more so than democracy. Marx simply views democracy as a subset of how capitalism works. Democracy is merely an illusion, or window dressing for how the elites stay in power. Democracy as a subset of capitalism, to Marx, was just another transitional phase of class society.

Marx was convinced that the capitalist system, like slavery and feudalism before it, would eventually be destroyed in a social revolution – this time eliminating class divisions among human beings altogether and ushering in communism, an era of global harmony and abundance.


A major question remained, however. There was a certain ambiguity about how the new communist system should actually function. When the proletariat was organized as the new ruling class, would a utopia exist as it did in theory?

            Vladimir Lenin provided a good answer to this question in State and Revolution. Lenin touches upon an idea first proposed by Friedrich Engels, Marx’s lifelong friend and co-author of The Communist Manifesto. After the working-class revolution had taken place, the proletariat would establish a state that works for it. However, such a state was only a transitional phase that would eventually lead to a purely communist system. This phase was called a “semi-state” by Engels. Lenin sums up this entire concept when he writes, “The replacement of the bourgeois by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state , i.e. of all states, is only possible through “withering away.” Lenin argues that the state exists because of class antagonisms, and that it continues to exist as a means of reconciling them. In order to transition to a system where there is no need for the state, differences between the classes must be reconciled, and this can only occur with the destruction of the bourgeoisie. Over time, remaining class differences would simply disappear.

            When it came down to the actuality of performing a communist revolution, Lenin did it first. In 1917, Lenin returned from his studies in Switzerland to overthrow the provisional government of Russia. Unlike Marx had predicted, the first communist revolution actually occurred in a widely unindustrialized country.  In order to rally his countrymen together, Lenin proposed the idea for the revolution  to be led by a group of Marxist intellectuals who would be consistently devoted to revolutionary activity. This group was called “the vanguard of the proletariat,” or a “party of professional revolutionaries.” The vanguard too was supposed to “wither away” once the revolution occurred, but in reality, this group of elites never truly gave up power, and became The Communist Party.

            Lenin also says some interesting things about democracy. He writes, “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of the capitalist society.” When the rule of the proletariat would occur, a more inclusive democracy would exist to protect the rights of the poor. Lenin contends, however, that democracy is really only a formal recognition of equality. In this sense, his belief is no radical departure from that of Marx. Lenin writes:

Democracy is of great importance for the working class in its struggle for freedom against the capitalists. But democracy is by no means a limit one may overstep; it is only one of the stages in the course of development from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to Communism.


When Lenin talks about freedom, he once again echoes Marx. Lenin believed that freedoms under a liberal system were merely illusions to give the oppressed people a false sense of liberty.

            Vladimir Lenin considered himself to be a convinced Marxist at young age. In many ways, Lenin simply echoes or clarifies Marx. Where the two differ is with the idea of the “vanguard of the proletariat” rising up to lead the revolution. Lenin thought that this group should be organized with a strict hierarchy. He argued that the party should practice what he called, “democratic centralism,” meaning that once the party’s Central Committee had rendered a decision about any given issue, the debate should end immediately. This is somewhat of a departure from Marx who believed that the revolution would simply unite all the workers of the world, and no such vanguard would be necessary.

            Years later, China experienced a communist revolution of its own. After nearly twenty-three years of civil war, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power and chose Mao Zedong as its Chairman. By watching Lenin and reading Marx, Mao adopted, interpreted, and invented many new ideas for the communist ideology.

            Mao’s writings suggest a complete attack on all things liberal. According to Mao, “In revolutionary organizations liberalism is extremely harmful. It is a corrosive that disrupts unity, undermines solidarity, induces inactivity, and creates dissension.” Mao also discusses the idea of liberalism as being too passive, but that it may be overcome with the active spirit of communism.

            Mao’s leadership style was that of a totalitarian despot. In a 1937 speech, Mao idealizes Stalin for his contributions as the leader of the world revolution. He supports the idea of a revolutionary front, much like Lenin when he suggested the concept of the “vanguard of the proletariat.” He asks, “If we did not have a Stalin, who would give the orders?” Mao essentially takes the idea of the “vanguard” and goes one step further, suggesting that it is entirely necessary to have a ruling body that won’t “wither away” because it is needed to make important decisions. This idea is a radical departure from Marx and Engels.

            In conclusion, Marx, Lenin, and Mao held their own unique views on communism. Marx, as its founder, established a broad base for interpretation of his theory. Lenin expanded on these ideas when he proposed that an elite group of revolutionaries should exist to lead the revolution on the proper path. Mao took it one step further and suggested that this elite group was necessary even after the communist revolution was successful. And so, the specter that was communism haunted Europe for three quarters of a century. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, signaling the end of communism in Europe. China, today, still considers themselves to be a communist state, but it is arguably not so. 


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