A Single Spark Can Light a Candle: Maoism in Canada Today

by Joseph Mackenzie, Revolutionary Initiative

Perhaps it is true that history moves in spirals, because it seems our present looks down on the era preceding the Paris Commune. The great revolutionary arch of the late 19th and 20th centuries has ended in objective and subjective conditions somewhat similar to its beginning. Nowhere does a revolutionary Communist movement hold state power. We have no International. The working classes and oppressed around the world are restive, but the number of genuine revolutionary Parties is dwarfed by the number of opportunists. The bourgeoisie are firmly entrenched in state power, yet nervous, haunted by specters, and adopting new forms of repression. On the other hand, we are at a higher level. We have the benefit of the experience of revolutionary movements that smashed bourgeois and semi-colonial semi-feudal state powers, built socialism, and fought the restoration of capitalism and the profound revolutionary theories that emerged from those experiences. The absolute and relative size of the proletariat is much larger and their consciousness higher: almost nowhere is open colonialism or dictatorships (even so-called nationalist ones) acceptable to the people. It is a time of rebellions and Peoples’ Wars. Both nightmares and optimism are justified.

A basic method to find our way: the North star is always there.

Let’s state it plainly: if we are going to make a revolution in Canada then we need a qualitative leap in our revolutionary theory and practice. We need to build a conscious revolutionary vanguard capable of functioning as the militant representative of all oppressed peoples, establish a project of universal liberation that sinks deep roots into our society, and develop the strategy and tactics necessary to shatter the existing social order.

For that it happen, we need the insights found in Maoism. It’s not that Mao was a prophet or an individual of such super human intellect that he created a perfect theory for all places and all times that we just need to take up and apply to our local conditions. It would make our jobs much easier if that were the case (“here’s the Red Book, memorize it!”) but that would be a departure from the reality of history and materialist dialectics. Rather, it’s that Maoism represents a radical development of Marxism, a vital contribution to a living science of revolution, that we need to engage with if we are to understand where we are in relation to our monumental tasks and how to move forward.

This article will not be a general overview of the historical development of Marxism or introduction to Maoism, as there is already the overall useful (if rather linear and non-contradictory) introductions from India: “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, Basic Course” and “Marxism – Leninism – Maoism Study Notes” or some of the material in RI’s How To Study, How To Think study guide. Rather, this article will focus on the certain aspects Maoism that are distinct (but not separate) from Marxism-Leninism and that are particularly important to grasp at the current stage of the Canadian revolution.

“But we don’t have peasants in Canada!”

In order to understand the contribution Maoism can make to a Canadian revolution it is important to understand the difference between what is Maoism as a revolutionary theory and what was a product of that theory under particular conditions. Some radicals incorrectly equate Maoism with a military strategy for mobilizing peasants for rural-based guerrilla warfare and will dismiss Maoism on the basis that Canada is an imperialist country with a very different class structure. This is of course partly true – Canada is not a semi-feudal semi-colonial society. Anyone who has ever been on a long car trip from one major Canadian city to another will note that our countryside isn’t teaming with peasants and that the overwhelming majority of our population is concentrated in urban eras. We could establish a rural base area, but without a large rural population or a social order to transform it would be politically indistinguishable from an extended camping trip.

However, this outlook is partly wrong as it confuses theory with the product of that theory as it both emerged from and was applied to Chinese society. It is to confuse the essence of the method with the particular conclusions it reached in a specific context. Every particular experience of revolution has some universally significant principles that are important to recognize, still we cannot mechanically transport aspects that are particular to that experience.

This incorrect tendency was reinforced by the early history of some Maoist movements outside China, elements of which identified themselves as Marxist-Leninists and supported the ongoing revolution in China and opposed Soviet revisionism. Their political outlook was overly tied to a particular time and place, rather than the revolutionary methodology that needed to be creatively applied, adapted to their own local concrete conditions, and further developed. Without a firm but flexible ideological grounding these former Maoists missed much of the point of revolutionary dialectics and lost their way when the Chinese revolution was defeated by the revisionists in the CCP. Some drank Deng Xioaping’s kool-aid about “socialism with Chinese characteristics” while others retreated into dogmatic forms of anti-revisionism that they imagined to be more “pure” forms of Marxism-Leninism. None of them established a significant base amongst the people that was capable of contending for state power.

The revolutionary movements that did successfully grasp the universal essence of Maoism were those that correctly applied revolutionary dialectics and figured out what they needed to keep and what they needed to cast aside. This was true even for movements based in countries with conditions much closer to China than Canada, such as the Philippines, Nepal, and India. Since the Philippines is shredded into an archipelago and separated from other countries by the ocean, it has war fronts that are extremely narrow. Rather than the highly mobile regular warfare and fixed base areas that characterized much of the Chinese civil war, the CPP fights a war that is based on intensive, highly fluid guerrilla warfare, with fixed base areas and regular warfare only appearing in later stages. (See: “Specific Characteristics of our People’s War”) The Maoists in Nepal also modified PPW by combining it with aspects of insurrectionism in what they called the “fusion concept.”

This need for adaption, development and breaking with inherited ideas is just as necessary for Canada as for semi-colonial semi-feudal countries. This does not make Maoism “inappropriate” for Canada but rather that the dialectical process of continuity and rupture is inherent to and an integral part of Maoism and what makes it a revolutionary theory. Maoism is not a collection of final conclusions but a way of approaching, understanding, and engaging in ongoing revolutionary practice. If we are to develop a genuinely revolutionary program for Canada we will need to apply and develop Maoism to Canadian conditions. What that will produce will scarcely resemble the program or experience of the Chinese revolution – or any other revolution – but will still be Maoism.

Social Investigation and Class Analysis

The equation of Maoism with peasant-based Protracted Peoples’ War neglects to ask an important question: How did revolutionaries in China determine their strategic line? Where did it come from? How did they orient themselves?

It certainly did not come from received wisdom. During the formation of the Chinese revolutionary movement, the insurrection strategy was the orthodox theory in the International Communist Movement. It was assumed, based on the experience of the Paris Commune and the Russian revolution that the universal path for revolution in all countries was one of urban proletarian insurrection. The Party would lead an armed mass uprising it key urban areas, rapidly construct a Red army, then prosecute a civil war in the countryside against the counter-revolution

ary “White” armies and foreign intervention forces. The main and leading force of the revolution was to be the proletariat and the countryside only became truly important after the seizure of power in the urban areas. As such, the CCP did not hear the growing rumblings amongst the hundreds of millions of peasants whose anger at the semi-feudal semi-colonial regime was growing. Based on assumptions inherited from the ICM, they did not even think to listen and their dogmatism and

mechanical thinking led to disaster. The urban uprisings of 1927-28 were brutally suppressed and tens of thousands of proletarians lost their lives. The initial conclusion in the ICM and in the majority of the CCP was that the CCP had practiced the right strategy, but had made errors in carrying it out. It was not a problem of strategy, but of execution.

Breaking with Comintern strategy: soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army of China on the Long March.

Mao saw things differently. Mao introduced Protracted Peoples War not by proclaiming it as a new universal but by describing what was absolutely unique about China and Chinese conditions by asking, “Why Is it That Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” He affirmed the basic truth that power had to be seized through revolutionary popular violence but he saw that the proletariat needed a different way of fighting that was better suited to Chinese conditions and the class character of their society:

“The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This Marxist-Leninist principle of revolution holds good universally, for China and for all other countries. But while the principle remains the same, its application by the party of the proletariat finds expression in varying ways according to the varying conditions.” (Mao: Problems of War and Strategy)

They needed to break with inherited Communist strategy and orientation, so that their strategy could be based on the strengths and advantages they possessed in their particular conditions. This is what we need to do in Canada: pay the utmost attention to all the particularities of this society at this time in order to identify the sites and means by which red counter-power can be built. How is it that red political power will exist is Canada? To answer this question we need to apply rigorous social investigation and class analysis.

Social investigation means the investigation of the conditions of society while class analysis is the means by which that investigation takes place. All societies are made up of classes, but each society has its own particular class structure and this class structure is embedded in some level of the imperialist international division of labour. These classes must be differentiated and studied in terms of how they relate to each other, how they relate to imperialism, what conditions they face, and how they function in the economy, politics, and culture. However, class does not exist in a pure form, untouched or unaffected by other contradictions. Therefore all the various sectors of society must also be understood in terms of their own internal contradictions and how those contradictions relate to the class struggle. Only then can we understand how the society as a whole works and how to change it. It is through this process that we identify who are our friends and who are our enemies, who we must mobilize and rely on principally and secondarily, and who we must isolate and make the targets of the revolutionary movement at any particular stage of its development.

This is what determines the strategy and tactics in all countries and constitutes the living essence of Maoism: the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. When this point is lost there is an attempt to jump over this process and declare PPW as being either a rival to insurrection (that there are “two roads” for revolution) or that it has supplanted insurrection as the new universal model for all countries. Perhaps that is true, but that is not the means by which we should arrive at that conclusion. Even if a truth is universal it must be studied in terms of how it presents itself in the specific. If we have a correct understanding of our particularities – our society and context – we will be able to avoid this casual (and deeply wrong) tendency to declare particular ideas and strategies as universals, a tendency that has had disastrous consequences for revolution throughout the previous century. We will be able to study revolutionary successes, experiences, and ideas without being tempted to copy them in a mechanical way. It was through this method that Mao was able to identify the sites where the all the contradictions of Chinese society were most acute and most likely to produce a rupture capable of bringing down the old society; where new organs of political and military power could be built based on the boundless initiative and enthusiasm of the Chinese people; and where the enemy was weakest and how they could be defeated. It is through this same method that the correct strategy for the Canadian revolution will be developed.

Mass Line

Once Communists identify where they must “dig in” and who they must rely upon, how should they relate to those social forces? How should they prepare minds and organize forces for revolution? It is not enough for a Party to have a comprehensive analysis of their society, a correct program, and a willingness to trumpet their ideas from on high. It must also have method of relating to the people that unites the consciousness of the revolutionary avante guard with the consciousness of people in all their infinite complexity.

Mao called this method the mass line.

“The people, and the people alone are the motive force in making world history.” (Mao: On Coalition Government)

“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily ‘from the masses to the masses’. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action . . . And so on, and over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.” (Mao, SOME QUESTIONS CONCERNING METHODS OF LEADERSHIP)

The reason for this method is that revolution can only be an act of the people themselves. Socialist revolution in particular will require large numbers of people to consciously embrace communist methods of organization and communist ideas. It cannot be done on their behalf or in their name. Previously, the masses were a motive force in tearing down particular forms of class rule, but they could not eradicate class rule as such. Slave owners were replaced with feudal lords who were replaced by capitalists yet humanity still remained divided between a people that laboured and a minority that exploited and repressed. Only with the dawn of the era of socialist revolution could humanity create a new socialist order, one based on a consciously planned economy dedicated to social needs, one that over a period of transition could dig up the roots of all social relationships based on domination and exploitation. This cannot be done by the existing state apparatus or by any group of professionals claiming to be the peoples’ representatives. It must be carried out through the conscious agency of the people themselves, through their involvement in creating new organs of political power and their crystallization around the desire for radical change.

How we employ the mass line now also impacts how the revolutionary process plays out during later stages. Revolution is not just the violent overthrow of one class by another, it is also a war amongst the people and how a society polarizes impacts the options available to the revolutionary movement and the political form of the new society. The Bolshevik focus on urban workers during the early days of the socialist movement led to a much smaller base amongst the peasantry. When the society sharply polarized it left the Bolsheviks with a fairly narrow base for the revolution, a large portion of it’s best and brightest dead from the civil war, and a new regime facing the incredibly severe choice between capitulation to the forces of reaction or to forge ahead and in the process forcibly impose socialist transition on a large section of the population under threat of the gun. Under these conditions the formation of the one party state under Stalin was both an act of choice and necessity, but it made it much more difficult to create the radically democratic structures of power and ever broadening mass participation in the administration of society necessary to advance towards communism. It also contributed to the growth of capitalist elements within the Party and the state and a silent political culture that was ill-equipped to carry forward class struggle under socialism.

There are two main wrong interpretations of the mass line.

The first is rightist and economistic. It is based on the assumption that building mass movements will on it’s own produce revolutionary forms of organizing and consciousness amongst the people. “From the masses to the masses” is limited to taking a survey or summarizing lessons out of immediate struggles and coming back to the masses with something that is better at achieving this or that particular and immediate aim. It reduces the revolutionary organization’s role to that of a flattering clothing-shop mirror: reflecting a slightly improved image of the masses as they currently exist back upon themselves. This may inspire people to be better activists and organizers of various campaigns (of which there are plenty, for a variety of causes) and it may get more people in a given community “active”, but it will not train communists or build a revolutionary movement. Conceiving of the mass line in this way reduces leadership of revolutionary movements of people into effective administration of things and postpones radical politics into the indefinite future.

The second is “left-in-form right-in-essence” and equates the mass line with popularization of the Party. It limits the mass line to a means of figuring out how to give the open promotion of revolutionary ideas as they currently exist some mass appeal. It assumes that we already have the correct line and analysis as a complete package, or at least an understanding of “universal principals” and that the mass line is the means by which that package is done up in a shiny new wrapper. It disdains any involvement in mass struggle as “economism” and a distraction from the real work of making revolution. At its worst, it comes off as painfully awkward and out of step. Amongst youth it may be appreciated – but only ironically. We certainly want revolutionary ideas to be popular, but without deep roots amongst the people it will be difficult for the people to adopt these ideas as their own – because they are not their own if they are not linked in any real way with their actual lived experience.

What both interpretations have in common is that they are non-dialectical – they have no synthesis. It is not that communists do not engage in mass struggle – far from it – but rather that the mass line is the means by which communists both lead people and transform consciousness. The mass line as a distinct method of communist leadership, one that illuminates the universal in the particular because it unites all of the scattered discontents and just demands of the people with the goals of the communist revolution. The mass line produces explicitly revolutionary and communist work because it is the synthesis of the ideas, moods, and insights of the people (the product of day-to-day struggles and conditions) with communist theory (which largely emerges from outside of direct, immediate experience). Without this the people cannot be organized to carry out their own liberation and form the foundation for an ongoing revolutionary process. The means by which this synthesis will take place in Canada needs to be developed, both theoretically and practically, and is one of the immediate tasks of our movement if we are to get beyond our current stage of backwardness.

Maoism and Strategy

“Marxists are not fortune-tellers. They should, and indeed can, only indicate the general direction of future developments and changes; they should not and cannot fix the day and the hour in a mechanistic way.” (Mao: “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire”)

We should not attempt to make up schemes for events that are not just unknown, but at this stage are also unknowable. Many Marxists have compared the absence of theory to stumbling about in the dark, but the danger at this stage is closer to walking in a desert, where we may become convinced that we are heading towards an oasis when it is nothing more than a phantom.

The 20th century contains many examples of phantom strategies. Previous insurrection theory of the Comintern era did have a general conception that there were stages to revolutionary struggle, with different tasks unique to each stage and a necessity for political and organizational transformation as one transitioned to another. This was vulgarized by revisionist parties into two stages: the legal and the illegal. The Party would develop in a fairly linear and entirely legal way until there was (somehow) a mass (possibly armed) uprising or until the Communists in parliament had won such decisive support that the society could peaceful transition into socialism. Until that point all work had to be within the bounds of bourgeois legality and within the framework of the bourgeois state and institutions (running in elections, struggling within state-funded NGOs, attempting to capture formal leadership of bourgeoisified unions, etc). Since this strategy kept them trapped within the mire of legalism and electoralism it was guaranteed to never go beyond a certain level, so preparing for revolution could always be delayed indefinitely or outright opposed as “adventurist.”

In reaction to this, certain militarist conceptions of revolution won over a section of the movement with the idea that an armed underground could immediately, in fairly ordinary times, declare war on the state. This war would be based on either urban or rural guerrilla warfare and would (somehow) inspire the masses to rise up for revolution and elevate the political-military organization to its leadership in a telescoped way. For those with a Guevarist conception, armed activity was to be carried out by professional “heroic guerrillas”: soldiers that were members of a political/military organization that worked on behalf of, but quite separate from, a mass movement that would be inspired by their daring deeds. Other groups attempted to apply Mao’s PPW strategy in a mechanical way to an imperialist context. While some fared a bit better than others (the Red Brigades during their early years for example), their misreading of the international balance of class forces and political economy, and expectations of victory in the short term resulted in militaristic errors and inevitable defeat. Those forces that went to a war footing during ordinary times were either quickly rounded up by the state or were driven so deep underground that they became for all practical purposes politically irrelevant or merely symbolic: little more than armed attacks and paper manifestos, all issued without any real prospects for gaining influence amongst the people or building new forms of political power.

What all of these conceptions had wrong was their failure to understand the different stages of revolutionary struggle, the specific content of each stage, and how those stages related to each other. As a whole, revolutionary struggle is the struggle to unite all the just demands of the people against the imperialist state, the building of new organs of peoples power, and the dispersal of the former by the latter. That process breaks down into distinct phases, each with their own characteristics, main tasks, and objective and subjective requirements to reach before passing through to the next.

The stages are: the accumulation of forces, strategic defensive, strategic equilibrium, and strategic offensive.

The accumulation of forces is a pre-strategic stage, in that the proletariat has not produced a general strategic line or the organizations to carry it out. It is almost entirely under the leadership of the bourgeoisie and has limited autonomous capacity for political action and has little ideological, political, or organizational unity. There may be demonstrations, campaigns, even small rebellions here and there, but without a revolutionary Party or united strategic orientation there is little consolidation as these largely spontaneous movements ebb and flow. Each grouplet either remains fixed on their own parochial areas of interest or contents itself with delusions of grandeur, never pressing forward with a common program capable of uniting all oppressed sectors of Canadian society. The central task of this stage is the development of that program. This will involve developing an in-depth understanding of how the society was historically constituted, its basic problems, the relationship between the various contradictions in that society and the path for its transformation – hence this article’s focus on social investigation and the mass line. To carry this out, revolutionaries must unite in some form of pre-Party organization, which may take the form of a revolutionary mass organization, a network of collectives, or organizing committees. These may or may not practice democratic centralism, depending on various conditions.

The strategic defensive is achieved with the launching of a genuine Communist Party. The necessary achievements that the pre-Party organization must meet before it can transform itself into a genuine Communist Party we believe to be laid out in Revolutionary Initiative’s “On The Preconditions For The Founding of a Genuine Communist Party in Canada” document. During this phase the superiority of the bourgeoisie is overwhelming and revolutionary forces will have to be developed under these conditions of power. The central task of this phase is to build the Party and the broader revolutionary movement by extending the Party’s influence and capacity to coordinate and heighten struggle. It must train new waves of revolutionaries out of the popular masses, strengthen their consciousness and fighting capacity. It must build a mass movement that is autonomous from the bourgeois state. It must do all this while out-maneuvering the repressive apparatus of the imperialist state and its counter-revolutionary programs.

Strategic equilibrium is a stage of transformation, when qualitatively the revolution and the state have achieved a qualitative parity of forces and yet neither is capable of dispersing the other. There exists a condition of dual power, in which the proletariat has developed to some degree new organs of political power and social organization that are outside the control of the bourgeois state. This is the stage during which revolution has become the order of the day and the Party must practically prepare itself and the masses for decisive forms of struggle through new forms of organization and mass uprisings that will be “dress rehearsals” for the seizure of power. The bourgeoisie may choose to violate its own legality and pretense of liberal democracy and opt for increasingly violent and authoritarian solutions to the combating the revolutionary forces. The proletariat must work to politically disintegrate and split the standing army of the ruling class so that the bourgeoisie cannot assert its military superiority as well as ensure the protection and expansion of its own armed forces. During periods of rebellion the revolutionary forces must prepare for retreat as well as offensive so that they do not over-extend themselves.

Red Guards defending Peoples’ Power.

Lenin laid out the basic objective and subjective requirements necessary to move from this stage to the strategic offensive, which are: 1) That the ruling class is in crisis within itself and is no longer able to rule in the old way; 2) That the lower classes can no longer live in the old way, that they are convinced that revolution is necessary and are willing to fight and die for it; and 3) That a communist vanguard has achieved the leadership of an upsurging mass movement and has developed the necessary strategy and tactics to carry the struggle through to victory.

During the strategic offensive moves to decisively break the states physical power, which protects and perpetuates the social relations of oppression and exploitation. Historically, this stage has been characterized by an open war for territory between the revolutionary forces and the die-hard defenders of the old order (both domestic and any foreign intervention forces). The central task is the transfer of all political power to the new order, first through armed insurrections that captures multiple major cities followed by a civil war to liberate the remainder of the country. All normal forms of class struggle become subordinate to the war effort.

These phases are not absolutely distinct. It is not that a movement has one set of tasks one day and then a completely different set of tasks on the next. Rather, each phase prepares the ground for the one that follows. For example, while during the early stages the work of the Party will be almost entirely within the bounds of bourgeois legality, yet the Party must also train it’s members, supporters, and the mass movement ideologically and politically to actively uphold the right of the people to engage in militant resistance, to appreciate open rebellion by the masses, and the need to practically prepare for a decisive confrontation with the state. It must resist the lures of respectability and becoming “responsible” to the bourgeois system.

Should there be a significant change in the conjuncture of contradictions this may require a new set of tasks and forms of struggle. While generally urban guerrilla warfare cannot advance beyond a very low level in an imperialist country this can change under certain conditions, such as during the foreign occupation of many countries in Europe during WWII or in Ireland under British occupation. The addition of that additional antagonistic contradiction changed the alignment of contradictions in such a way as to allow for the immediate transition to a war footing. However, this change in context does not necessarily advance the struggle from a lower stage to a higher stage – if anything it is more likely to cause the reverse as the revolution is forced to regroup and reorient itself under the new conditions. It only changes the content of the stages.


It is important to emphasize that these three particular aspects of Maoism (social investigation and class analysis, mass line, revolutionary strategy) are not the only contributions that are relevant to Canada at this and every stage of our movement’s development. Mao’s contribution to dialectical materialism has a direct impact on how we interpret and relate to the various contradictions in society. The concept of “two line struggle” improves how even a pre-Party formation can carry out principled debate and struggle without splitting into micro-sects. Knowing that class struggle continues under socialism clarifies not just how to struggle, but what we’re struggling for. These concepts and others are important to grasp firmly as we develop our revolutionary ideas and practice.

What constitutes our conception of Maoism at this moment may be substantially different from the Maoism that is produced at a later stage, such as when we have actually performed a comprehensive class analysis of Canadian society and deduced from it the correct strategy and tactics – which is to say a program. Currently, Revolutionary Initiative is a pre-Party organization. We have some ideas, which are constantly being developed, accumulated, checked and refined but we do not pretend to know in advance what will be the living reality of the revolutionary movement that is yet to be built. However, through a Maoist practice we are confident that we can carry the question of the Party and the revolution into the midst of the people. Through investigation, class analysis, the mass line, class struggle, verification and rectification, we can build on strengths and overcome weaknesses and develop from a lower to a higher level.

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