Mao Zedong's Quotations: An Informal Review

the main difference between [fascist Italy and communist China] is ideological, i.e. aesthetic. mussolini conceived of fascist italy as a set of classes under the dictatorship of the nation, whereas mao conceived of communist (?) china as a set of classes democratically guiding the nation. marx’s identification of bourgeois democracy as bourgeois dictatorship appears in a new form here!
Myself, "critique 4: catching up to speed & the forge"

Mao seems to take as his basis that commodity production is a historical constant while capitalists are responsible for its negative effects.
Myself, "Joseph Stalin’s Economic Problems […]: An Informal Review

In my under-educated opinion, Settlers doesn’t feel very Maoist except in its nationalist rhetoric. At least when reading Mao, I’ve come to associate his thought with class collaboration (via national democracy), peasant revolution, national populism, and abstract philosophy. I say this not to detract from Mao as a peasant revolutionary who fronted the anti-feudalist and anti-colonialist movement in China, but I feel like not he would call himself a proletarian revolutionary even if he called himself a communist one.
Myself, "J. Sakai’s Settlers: An Informal Review"

Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful. How can a Communist keep his eyes shut and talk nonsense?
Mao Tsu Tung, "Oppose Book Worship"

Well, sorry about that. Should I kill myself?

Lol. I was conflicted about reading Quotations from Mao Tse Tung because I was worried that, as a collection of quotations, it would not really be a helpful source to understand Mao’s theory and platform. At the same time, it was advertised as such, so I put my faith in the fact that people have read it in this way since it was published. Having finished it, I feel like it accomplished what it was compiled to do, and I have a more complete picture of what Mao advocated and why. I also see why this book has served as an organizational guide for numerous different parties, to its own credit!

I want to go over what you can expect to read about in Quotations, and also address some criticisms of Mao from the Communist Left with regards to national revolution, bourgeois politics, and his view of dialectics.


Quotations is basically a dummy's guide to Mao's philosophy of political history and organization. This is most of all unlike from what we would expect from authors like Marx or Engels or Lenin, who focused on historical analysis and critique rather than political methodology (so to speak). Expect to read less about what feudalism or capitalism or communism are, and more about how (Mao thinks) to transition from one to the other. The text offers such advice on the national level, the local level, and the individual level as far as how to organize and what the practices and goals of political organization should be. This includes explanations of how the party should interface with the population (politically and personally), how to carry out guerilla warfare, and how to handle conflict outside and within the party.

It also discusses, on a more abstract level: what the role of the party is; what is the relationship between democracy (general and bourgeois) and communism; what is the relationship between classes and nations; and how and why certain social antagonisms erupt into violent conflict, versus when they do not. This all has implications, of course, for Mao's historical analysis: that China was then engaged in a national struggle against Japan and the imperialist countries, during which the classes could set aside their particular interests and form a national coalition (led by the Communist Party). However, once the national war is over and the Party tries to transition towards communism, they should expect increased antagonism unless they act in line with the proletarian masses and keep the bourgeoisie from impacting state policy.

Does this make Mao sort of a revolutionary social democrat? He kinda sorta has to be, considering how China was basically still feudal before the Party took power. The country needs the peasantry and the national bourgeoisie in order to industrialize (Mao talks about this in his notes on Stalin's Economic Problems, that commodity production is the most effective way to industrialize and the most appealing to the peasantry), but can't let them actually be the ones in control of the state, especially once the Party tries to transition towards socialism proper. Overly optimistic or complete cap? I don't know why, but I'm more inclined to believe that Mao thought what he (or the Party) was doing would work, compared to Stalin who seems like he was just pulling rationalizations out of his ass. Whether or not it did actually work is a separate question.

On a tangent, the original reason I read Kroptokin's The Conquest of Bread was in anticipation of reading Mao, because I had heard that Mao had more in common politically and philosophically with Kroptokin than with the Bolsheviks (or, at least, earlier on). I wonder if his political optimism that the peasantry and proletariat would build socialism together isn't informed by Kroptokin's own cooperative view of human nature. That might be the central question on Mao, besides his organizational methodology: can you build communism by appealing to the masses' creative and cooperative potential, when it might not be in their class interest to do so? Didn't seem like it worked out.

But that doesn't discount the value of Quotations with regards to its main focus. There's a reason why, for example, the Black Panther Party disseminated Quotations despite them being in a social context where the question of China's economic development was basically irrelevant. By the way, I wrote the below prior to writing the above; so I'm going to address some of the same questions, just in greater detail and with a view to the topic at hand.

Socialism and The National Question

The basic line for Mao from left communist circles (of the ultra-Leninist variation) is that he was not a proletarian revolutionary but a peasant one—or, rather, that the Chinese Revolution was not a communist revolution but a bourgeois one. From what early Mao I had read previously, it seems like he would have agreed and identified with that assessment. He saw the Revolution first and foremost as a national war of independence from Japan alongside an anti-feudal revolution against the Chinese nobility. He also expressed the politics of this Revolution as a “new democracy”, a class compromise between the peasantry, proletariat, and national/petite bourgeoisie to modernize China (is it a new democracy after all?). This is all to say that the left communist analysis of Mao’s government is quite consistent with Mao’s own views, under virtually no pretense.

What complicates this analysis, however, is the post-revolutionary (to be precise, after the National Revolution) movement that Mao had tried to form. Lenin’s own view was that the developing and peripheral nations would need democratic, bourgeois revolutions in order to fully develop their economy to the same degree as the developed countries, since they were otherwise arrested in their development. This is Mao’s line as well, referring to not one but two Revolutions: the Democratic or National Revolution which had already passed, and the Communist Revolution that was basically yet to occur. Mao therefore could be seen as a Napoleon aspiring to also become a Lenin, a democratic revolutionary shifting gears in order to progress society even further.

Since Mao’s understanding of China’s own situation is not inaccurate, the question is less about Mao’s contemporary analysis of the state of things than the Communist Party’s platform and material interests. Having come into power in alliance with the peasantry and national bourgeoisie, could the party really act in the interest of the proletariat thereafter? Having taken empowered the poor peasants with property, could they go on to socialize production and distribution—to overthrow capitalism? Can they will communism into being without first attaining the economic development once thought necessary by Marx, Engels, and Lenin in their historical analysis?

It seems like Mao tried, and it didn’t work. Putting an iron furnace in everyone’s yard doesn’t have the same effect as industrial development on a social scale (which entails not just technological advancement but organizational refactoring of society). After Mao, as we know, China liberalized under Deng, and the country has since enjoyed the rule of capital—becoming an industrial power without taking checks from foreign banks or something like that. Only now does the current state of China resemble the conditions expected by Marx for a proletarian revolution to take hold. Will the Party see it through? They seem to be following the Manifesto’s advice, in that they’ve centralized capital and reinvested it in vast social projects. But since they were the ones to develop that capital from its infancy, will they be the ones to slay it—especially as workers in China experience hardships on orders from above, and their organizations are declared enemies?

My friend John B. has explained to me—very patiently—that the above is precisely the gamble that we are waiting to see play out, and I appreciate it now in the context of what had been done under Mao earlier. Still, not sure if that’s a gamble to take. China admittedly has a more effective and equitable government than we do over here, but that does not mean it will blossom into actual socialism. Has social democracy ever done this? At the same time, are they the worst?

Dialectics and Science

When Mao talks about the dialectical method without resorting to abstract discussions about contradictions and their unity, he seems to have a better grasp than many socialist wannabe intellectuals! That is, it is the analysis of systems and how their internal parts and the relations between them propel the system inside and out. This is what makes apt the comparison to natural science, which is also systems analysis. If biology reduces to chemistry and chemistry to physics and physics to mathematics, this is insofar as each lower field investigates the basic laws (relations) which produce, in aggregate, the behavior found on the higher level. Likewise, the social relations between individuals generate social relations between aggregates (classes) of individuals in a system. There’s all there is to it: investigate the workings of systems on “atomic” levels, rather than taking for granted the appearances of things.

Think about astronomy before Copernicus, biology before Darwin, history before Marx, and psychology before Freud. As “basic” as their analyses are now (for some), people just did not engage in modern, systematic, investigative science for a long time. Each one of those “scientists”, in their own time, was said to have humiliated the pre-modern establishments of their own fields, decentering our knowledge of the universe from divine acts or human will. God is not at the center of the universe, and neither are we. All phenomena are the products of forces beyond conscious control, from gravity to evolution to class struggle, each one emerging from relations internal of their domain.

This means we shouldn’t take for granted the scientific approach to analysis (which, by the way, is related to but distinct from the scientific method of experimentation—some people say Marxism is “scientific” because it’s allegedly experimental, and it seems that that’s not at all what anyone really had in mind). We should instead bear in mind that, in analyzing anything, one must dig deep into the inner workings of its domain, lest they take conclusions for granted. Understanding all that, the understanding of dialectics as science in itself—or even for itself?—totally checks out. Not bad, Mao!


Quotations was really not bad, and was much more systematic than I expected from a small book comprised of all quotes (and it was much better than what individual essays I had read by Mao, maybe because they were written during his early stage). I’m reminded of how Ovid opens the Metamorphoses, referring on one hand to the literal content of his epic while also to the manner in which he remixes existing myths into new stories with new meaning: “My soul yearns to speak of forms changed into new bodies!” Even where old quotes are given, they are basically transformed in juxtaposition with the new quotes—giving a more complete and final picture of Mao’s thought as it developed. The result is a highly developed guide to political organization and philosophy, on the individual and social levels, although it illuminates less the topics of historical and economic critique. I wouldn’t recommend Quotations for the latter only because it’s sparse, whereas for the former it really is pretty good.

One question that I took with me reading the book was: why was Quotations read by such a variety of readers—e.g., Black communists, drug cartels, and pretentious douchebags—and then all of them came out with basically different behavior and even ideology? Which one group upholds the meaning originally intended by Mao? It was only while reading that I realized the book was not responsible for any variety of interpretations it has. As per usual, ideology is just an expression of a class’ material interests in society, and likewise one’s interpretation of a text is more often a reflection of their own situation than the book’s manifest content. At the very least, I can see now what the Black Panthers saw in this text, and I really appreciate it for that. For them, it was a reflection of Black America’s situation as a virtual colony, and a guide for how to organize a mass movement in hostile territory.

Does it belong on a curriculum? Maybe. Probably? Not by itself, of course, but it really is pretty handy if handled well. I would recommend reading Marx first, of course, just to understand exactly why things are the way they are now. Mao, thereafter, offers a "how" to change things from there. YMMV.


  1. I've got to ask, as someone who showed up for the D&D content, how're you getting past the piles of bodies in the foundations of a lot of these works? "I'm reading Stalin and Mao for the theory" feels a lot like "I'm reading Playboy for the articles" - even if it's true, there's definitely some associations one might want to address.

    If nothing else, you seem much less worried with "let's try to make sure it doesn't end in millions dead next time" than I would expect.

    1. hi simulated knave! if you are interested, i ended up taking your question as a springboard to discuss those two more generally (and especially how their writings relate to their politics). here's the post:


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