Maoism emerged as the dominant force on the revolutionary left in the 1960s and 1970s because the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" occurred at a time when students and workers all over the world were in rebellion. At the time, it seemed to be a revolutionary alternative to rotting fetid corpse of Stalinist orthodoxy. But most Maoist organizations fractured and disintegrated after Nixon visited China in 1971, which signalled that Mao and U.S. imperialism made peace with one another. Today, there are a number of Maoist sects - complete with worshipping Mao's Little Red Book and personality cults.
Although Maoism as a political force is more or less irrelevant in today's struggles, it is important to study for two reasons. 1: to study the revolutionary socialist tradition and the history of the working class movement, it is important to study ideas hostile and alien to both, especially if it cloaks itself in the red flag. 2: it exerted enormous influence in the left in the 60s and 70s, and its shortcomings proved fatal for many organizations on the left.
The Chinese Revolution in 1949 seemed to validate the practice of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the preceding decade and a half. Instead of building a mass working class revolutionary party, one could build a guerilla army in the countryside, and impose socialism from above. The ideas of Maoism are thus completely at odds with the ideas of Marxism - of the self-emancipation of the working class, of socialism from below.
Mao Tse-Tung and the CCP developed this strategy after bourgeois nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek slaughtered thousands of communists and working class militants, smashing the Chinese revolution of 1925-1927. Mao and the CCP, instead of resisting Chiang Kai-Shek and trying to salvage the organization, decided to flee the urban areas to wage guerilla war from the countryside. Maoism arose out of the most horrible defeat for the Chinese working class in its history; the idea that workers are the key to winning a socialist society was unceremoniously abandoned.
The logical corallory of this abandonment was that socialism no longer depended on the battle between classes, but on the battle between rival military forces. Relocating the struggle from the cities into the countryside, from the working class to an army of professional soldiers, changed the class base and nature of the CCP. After all, workers cannot quit their jobs and join the new army without losing their position as workers. So what was the revolutionary class of society if it wasn't the working class? "The peasants!", the Maoists say.
Yet the peasants are the product of pre-capitalist economic formations - and without capitalism creating a working class, there can't be socialism. Not only that, but the peasants are incapable of imposing and exercising their power as a class. As Marx observed in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members
of which live in similar conditions without entering into
manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production
isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into
mutual intercourse ... In so far as millions of families live
under economic conditions of existence that separate their
modes of life, their interests, and their culture from those
of the other classes, and put them into hostile opposition to
the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a
local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and
the identity of their interests begets no community, no
national bond and no political organization among them they
do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of
enforcing their class interests in their own name ... They
cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their
representative must at the same time appear as their master,
as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power
that protects them against other class and sends them rain
and sunshine from above.
This is not to say that the peasants cannot struggle or fight for their own interests. History is marked by thousands of incidents of peasant revolts spanning thousands of years. But because they are so isolated from one another and heterogeneous, they cannot become the ruling class. They can win battles, but not the war. Why? Because although they can conquer the cities from without, they cannot run the machines and technology in the cities. Leadership of the peasantry has to come from without - from an urban class.
For Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, this class was the proletariat. Unlike the peasantry, the working class did "enter into manifold relations with one another"; unlike the peasants, the working class had no choice but to battle their exploiters, and could only do so collectively, as a class. They envisaged the working class fighting the bosses, and the bosses' state, in the cities; in doing so, they could appeal to the peasants in their fight against that same state which protected the landlords and sent the tax-collectors.
But the working class is not the only urban class. The "Red" Army, created by the CCP, was mostly peasants at the rank-and-file level. But these peasants lost their position as peasants when they joined the army. The officers and leaders of the army, on the other hand, were almost exclusively from the urban intelligentsia, or the middle-class. This had several implications.
For one, the guerilla army's battle against the state excluded the mass of peasants, allowing them to be passive spectators at most. Along with the mass of the peasantry, workers were also condemned to the sidelines. Secondly, the ex-peasants in the army were ordered around - the army was structured in a top-down, authoritarian way. Again they were subordinate to a different class, and it wasn't the working class.
This is why Mao instructed the "Red" Army to be polite to the peasants, to pay for what you take, and so on. There is a continual temptation to do the opposite because of the imbalance in power. The relationship of the guerilla army seeks to act on behalf of the peasants; a revolutionary workers' party is part of the working class, and seeks to win the class to acting for itself.
But the guerilla army doesn't even really act on the peasants behalf, as John Molyneux observed:
The real basis of the elitism [between the guerilla army and
the peasants] is not just the superior culture of the guerilla
command, nor even its possession of arms, but a divergence in
class aims. The fundamental class aim of the peasantry is
possession of the land. The fundamental class aim of the
revolutionary intelligentsia who form the guerilla leadership
is the capture of state power to achieve national liberation.
The latter USES the former to propel ITSELF, and not the
peasantry, into power.
Once in power, the guerilla army's command structure becomes the state's command structure. The cult of the guerilla leader who is "sacrificing for the people" is elevated into a god, a god who demands sacrifice from the people, the workers and peasants, for the "good of the nation." The guerillas find themselves in much the same position as the Bolsheviks after the civil war - but it is not part of or connected to the international workers' movement, as the Bolsheviks initially were. The only option then is the Stalinist model - after all, national independence in a world of capitalist nation-states means playing by the rules of the capitalists. Economic growth and the accumulation of capital - by a harsh regime of exploition of workers and peasants - are necessary to keep imperialist countries at bay. This serves to cement the power of the guerillas-turned-rulers.
This is why the Marxist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, is totally at odds with Maoism.
While socialists must unconditionally support all struggles against imperialism and for national independence, we also need, as Lenin stressed, "a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist coloring to bourgeois-democratic trends in the backward countries ..." After all, the task of a national liberation movement is to free one nation-state from the domination of another; the task of the working class is to establish a classless, stateless society. Thus, while socialists unconditionally support all struggles for national independence, we must argue that the working class retain its political independence in order to fight for its own interests, and for socialism.