Alessandro Russo | Mao on Uprising and Revolution

By Alessandro Russo


Here are some preliminary remarks regarding the role uprising plays in Mao’s political theorizing and strategy formulation and on the relationship between uprising and revolution.


A first step is to link what follows with the seminar’s first session. Revolution in Marxism is the core concept of a broadly based and articulated cultural matrix of politics. It is not merely a radical transformation of a system, whether it be the unmaking of a state or overthrow of a government, and its substitution by another. Nor is it a simple seizure of power in Weberian terms positing politics as “… the pursuit for a portion of power or for influencing the division of power…” Rather, revolution is the end-point of a series of ‘historical’ contradictions pitting advanced social classes against their backward counterparts, production forces against modes of production, competing ideologies or even ‘world views’ against each other. It is a concept in Marxism that sits at the junction of an idea of history, economics and philosophy and clearly entails a form of political organization. Revolution means revolutionary organization, revolutionary party.

More schematically put while forcing somewhat Foucault’s concept to highlight its nature as a space of knowledge having its own unitary character, Marxian revolution was part of a ‘revolutionary episteme.’ At least through the 1960s of the Twentieth Century, it is possible to point to the existence of a ‘revolutionary culture,’ of a robustly constituted cultural space for revolutionary politics wherein revolution occupied a central place.


What place did uprising occupy in this revolutionary episteme for Mao?  Uprising, rebellion, or what he often called ‘disorder’ disorder, are constituents of Mao’s thinking. As he was wont to say, “There’s no need to be afraid of disorder”, or when there is “Great disorder under the heavens, the situation is excellent.” His optimism depended on the fact that rebellion for him was the condition that released the political potential of the masses. It was disorder, even in its ‘excessive outbreaks,’ that made possible the development of mass political intelligence ─ of the ordinary people’s capacity to influence the ‘affairs of the state.’

It is inevitable that such a political capability bears an element of disorder vis-à-vis a certain ritual order. In the hierarchical rituals (‘pecking order’) of a given social condition, the political existence of the masses (a generic term Mao liked to use) does not have a pre-constituted place. Its appearance thus inevitably leads to a more or less pronounced and protracted disorder. For Mao, revolt, uprising, riots and the like were the immanent condition for the political appearance of the popular masses ─ their advent dis-ordering the extant ritual order.


Uprising for Mao was neither an end in itself nor a means. The idea of a Mao as “Lord of Misrule” has no basis in fact. It was coined by an eminent Sinologist in no way associated with critical theory even if he had a certain influence with some critical theorists. There is no hint in Mao of the idea that revolt is a ‘Carnival-like interregnum’ in the social order after which everything returns to the normal status quo.

Indeed, Mao viewed rebellion as having a specific relation to the space of revolutionary political culture. Yet the relationship is not that of a means to an end. For example, it is not a prerequisite for the ‘seizure of power.’ The victory of 1949 was the result of a political and military invention ─ the ‘long protracted people’s war’ ─ that even had philosophical consequences. It was thus essentially different from an uprising.

When Mao took the first step in what would become the People’s War by going to the Jinggang Mountains in 1929, he also distanced himself from the directives on insurrection issued by the Communist Party. In effect, several defeats in the latter half of the 1920s were linked to a certain view of uprising. Mao had decided that the border regions offered the possibility of establishing ‘liberated areas’ as spaces needed for the existence of a people’s politics. Despite outbreaks of disorder and excesses, Mao viewed the advent of the masses on the political scene as a fundamental component of revolutionary strategy throughout the People’s War.


The Cultural Revolution is obviously the most problematic point of this vision. What perhaps best encapsulates Mao’s idea about rebellion having a place in revolutionary culture’s space is his famous remark “造反有理” zaofan you li. The English translation, ‘To rebel is justified,’ is shy of the essential point. The French translation renders it perhaps a bit better, ‘On a raison de se révolter.’ In his first Maoist work in the mid-Seventies, Badiou enthusiastically remarked on the philosophical-political merit of ‘reason’ for ‘revolt’. A little more digging may be helpful. The meaning is clear: revolt (zaofan) has (you) a reason (li). Here li certainly is ‘reason, rationality’ (as in lixing) while also indicating a systematically argued reasoning as in lilun, ‘theory’, rational discourse.

Recalling that the original saying was formulated in a 1939 note of greetings on Stalin’s sixtieth birthday it not simply of anecdotal interest. All the vast complexity of Marxism, wrote Mao, its principles, theories, teachings, can be read in zaofan you li. What makes Mao’s pithy remark effective is its argument: ‘revolt’ is intrinsic to Marxism’s li. For Mao, Zaofan is perfectly compatible with the cultural space of revolutionary politics as consolidated in and since the October Revolution. Indeed, the maxim puts the latter’s core meaning in a nutshell. Nor is it incidental that Mao is addressing Stalin, the supreme leader of the revolutionary episteme at the time (the greeting even vaguely hints at wanting to convince him of something).


Mao reiterates this conviction at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The masses, he said in 1966, “…must deal with the affairs of the State,” even though it could not but lead to disorder in the given state of the governing equilibrium. Yet this disorder was nothing to fear. He held that it was not only compatible with an inventive political rationality but even saw it as an un avoidable condition.

It surely appears correct to say that Mao was entirely convinced of this and remained optimistic for the first two years of the Cultural Revolution. For even when the disorders were at their height in mid-1967, Mao viewed the situation as a positive condition for the political self-education of the masses. By mid-1968, however, the wind had changed course. As documented by the ‘final scene,’ a radical turning point had been reached. The register and assessment of the ‘excesses’ were no longer what they had been, especially if compared to the 1927 essay on the Hunan peasant movement.

In 1966, when Mao replied in writing to a letter of the first independent student organization, he had emphasized what he meant by zaofan youli. The students had cited the famous saying in their missive and Mao had naturally responded that he fully supported them. He did, however, include several essential provisos. He invited the students to seek as much unity as possible on the issues and to allow those who had erred to correct their positions. Mao concluded his letter with a crucial insight: “Marx said the proletariat must emancipate not only itself but all mankind. If it cannot emancipate all mankind, then the proletariat itself will not be able to achieve final emancipation. Comrades will please pay attention to this truth too.”

By ‘all mankind’ Mao clearly signaled that the student revolt must develop a universal agenda for its unfolding. Only by striving for universality could their movement find its rationale. The revolt had no preconceived ‘reason’ for being. It had to find it. By itself, the revolt merely opened up a field of political possibilities that could just as readily collapse upon it.


Yet for many months Mao remained optimistic. Even in the most tumultuous moments, he thought the upheavals would eventually find the path to a universalist raison d’être. However, by his July 1968 meeting with the student leaders of Beijing’s universities, he drew an altogether different conclusion. Not only were the student organizations not striving for ‘the liberation of all humanity,’ they were doing nothing critical even for overhauling the university. Their slogan was ‘struggle-criticize-transform,’ but they were just being swept up in an armed conflict as grotesque as it was lethal for the ‘seizure of power’ in the universities. Mao said: “this little civil war is to little avail.” The very independent student organizations he had supported in the hope they would find a political ‘reason’ for being were engaged in extenuatingly senseless riots of unscrupulous youthful gangs.

An appraisal of the political demise of those independent organizations, i.e. their self-inflicted defeat, remains to be accomplished. The climate of ‘censorship’ and ‘removal’ that for decades has been obscuring the Cultural Revolution makes such an investigation an arduous task. The two years comprising the mass phase of the Cultural Revolution hold a wealth of singular events. That the independent organizations numbered in the tens of thousands is surely food for thought. It is estimated that no fewer than ten thousand each published an independent journal. In those two years China enjoyed unparalleled freedom of the press and speech.

How is it that this extreme extension of the principle of ‘revolt’ ─ the appearance of an unrestricted multitude of mass political subjectivities ─ failed to find a universalist grounding, i.e. a political rationality compatible with the potentialities it had possessed?

It is notable that Mao was rather perplexed about assessing the situation in the meeting with the leaders of Beijing’s Red Guards. How could they have wasted in the span of two years the political thrust that had initially seemed so promising? Mao said “there must be historical causes” but provided no further comment. While his decision in the end to dissolve the factions and put paid to the experiment of the independent organizations was prompt, an appraisal of that political impasse has long remained in abeyance.


The Cultural Revolution intended to test the mettle of the entire leadership of revolutionary political culture vis-à-vis a mass movement of indeterminate multitudes. It would aim first at the Communist Party, that culture’s fundamental organizing principle. While lending his support for revolt to the students, Mao also warned them that the stakes in play were the liberation of all humanity. When it came to the Party, he decided upon a more radical course and placed its political authority in check. “Bomb headquarters” meant that that organizing principle was to be rethought root and branch.

Since no one knew what new organizing principle would emerge, Mao unreservedly threw his support behind the unrestricted propagation of political organizations that were established during the initial months of the Cultural Revolution. He clearly did not anticipate that the chances for the existence of mass political subjectivities would fade as readily as they did. Nor could he have foreseen that the myriad of independent political organizations would end up trapping themselves in a thoroughly formalistic antagonism without a trace of political or intellectual content. Nevertheless, Mao never ceased to attempt a rational appraisal of those events. After the mass movements from 1966 to 1968, the crucial problem for him during the long ‘coda’ of the Cultural Revolution up to 1976 was how its universality was to be reckoned.

In other words, the ‘revolt’ failed to find its ‘reason.’ Upon their arrival on the political scene, the masses never found their place in the cultural space of revolutionary politics. The question Mao posited as that long decade came to an end was whether, given its internal constraints, the Cultural Revolution could be reappraised via a theoretical re-assessment of the very foundations of the revolutionary episteme.

The dispute between Mao and Deng in the last two years of that decade essentially hinged on double-entry accounting ─ whether it was to cover the entire historical record of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. revolutionary culture’s ideological and organizational space, or just the Cultural Revolution itself, its failings and its errors. Deng emerged the victor ─ not because China was on the verge of a collapse that he could prevent by dismissing the Maoist leaders after Mao’s death, but because he managed to prevent that reckoning altogether.