Modern Activism’s Maoist Roots

15 January 2021
Modern Activism’s Maoist Roots - Featured image

This article from the Summer 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by Melbourne free speech activist, Magnus O’Mallon.

Being a virus, Marxism has its strains. Increasingly, the strain of the social justice movement is Maoism. There are those who have called the actions of the ‘protesters’ in recent times the results of young people being angry or bored. Think this at your peril. By examining the philosophical premises shared between the Chinese Cultural Revolution and today’s social justice movement—with a particular focus on ideas of law and justice—we can see the lawless depravity on display in America and, broadly, throughout the entire Western world, has deep philosophical roots.

Maoism is a particularly irrational form of Marxism. While some sources would indicate its defining characteristic is promoting the peasantry to the vanguard of a Marxist revolution (as opposed to the proletariat/working class), this can be disputed. Indeed, educated students and urban young were the prime pushers of the Cultural Revolution as the Red Guards, the student-led paramilitary organisation sponsored by and loyal to Mao. The essential tenet of Maoism is the primacy of the masses. In practice, this is mass mindlessness. As Mao wrote: “The thousands of principles of Marxism can be summarised in one sentence: To rebel is justified.”

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) had been suspicious of formal law long before he commenced the Cultural Revolution in 1966. At the Eighth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in September 1956, Liu Shaoqi—who incidentally would later become the main target of the Cultural Revolution—gave a speech in which he declared the time of ‘revolutionary storm’ was over, and the task of building order was now at hand. Dong Biwu, then President of the Supreme People’s Court, called for codification and observance of law. Mao, however, warned of the dangers of bureaucratism and of being isolated from the masses. According to Mao—founding leader of the People’s Republic of China, the CCP having seized power in 1949—formal law was mechanistic and unrevolutionary. He explained such formal laws and rules could not be allowed to impede the revolution: “Proper limits have to be exceeded in order to right a wrong, or else the wrong cannot be righted.” Mao considered the law was merely a tool by which one class oppresses another. He desired to dismantle ‘bourgeois’ law so a new proletarian (‘working class’) law, grounded in the principles of the revolution, could take its place.

During the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, Mao called for the “smashing of Kung-chien-fa (public security, procuratorate, and judicial organs)”. He insisted China depend “on the rule of man, not the rule of law”. Taking up his line, a People’s Daily editorial titled ‘In Praise of Lawlessness’ called for the complete destruction of bourgeois law. What followed from Mao’s instigation may be called mob rule or anarchy. The crucial element is that it involved popular participation in the attainment of perceived justice. The zeitgeist of mass mobilisation took numerous forms, including mass demonstrations, mass struggle sessions, or the formulation and fostering of revolutionary workers’ groups.

Mao wanted rule of man, not rule of law.

During the Cultural Revolution, those deemed enemies of Communism were treated with savagery and public humiliation. The forms of this popular justice included mass trials and public judgement meetings, big-character posters, struggle sessions (in which accused counter-revolutionaries were made to wear dunce caps and taunted by jeering crowds) and mob violence. All over China, crowds of people claiming to defend the revolution would publicly denounce so-called enemies of Mao Zedong thought, often without any rationality or substance. Relics of China’s Confucian past were destroyed as part of an attempt to destroy the ‘four olds’: past ideas, culture, customs and habits. Although at times it was at least ostensible government policy to avoid violence, bloodshed spread throughout China. Aided by a sense of moral righteousness, the perpetrators of violence were particularly savage. A chilling account of a beating at Peking University (Beida) reads: “The privileges of the bastards who ruled Beida for decades came to an end like fallen flowers carried away by the flowing water”. The students here apparently threw ink in the faces of their victims. As Harvard University history, political science and government professor Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals (professor of Chinese at Chinese Lund University, Sweden) assert in Mao’s Last Revolution, “No evidence, proof, or discussion of guilt was necessary”.

The incidents of irrational violence became murderous. A younger woman, at the time a student in a Beijing middle school, wrote of an evening where she was involved in a group beating of a man suspected of being a class enemy. The man purportedly confessed:

… that he had committed all the crimes [the group] could think of. The words that dropped out of his mouth turned into facts in our minds. And these ‘facts’ fuelled our hatred towards him.

In the course of the beating, the man exposed his penis to the girls. The male Red Guards took over and beat him with sticks until death. The government was ambivalent towards the violence. It did not pursue criminal responsibility for such murders at the time, and officially forgave the murderers after the Cultural Revolution. The savagery of the era also provoked suicides. Eventually these ‘revolutionary masses’ were armed under Mao’s orders, and massacre ensued. The Cultural Revolution’s attitude to force and violence is represented by Mao, who in private mused: “The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are.”

Red Guards were not the sole providers of mass justice. Students more broadly were involved, as well as factory workers and others. The momentum was such that few in Chinese society would have refused to take part. Yu Guangyuan, from the Central Propaganda Department, was actually trusted to make his way across town for his own scheduled struggle session. He arrived at the campus venue, only to be told he had to have a ticket for entry. After some argument with the guard, he gave his name and was allowed in and subsequently put in the ‘jet-plane’ position.

Rhetoric and public shaming were integral. The rhetoric consisted of dehumanisation of the enemy combined with ‘concept creep’ (the expansion of the meaning of a given concept over time). Big-character posters were put up in public display, denouncing certain individuals for perceived transgressions against revolutionary ideology. Even the slightest transgressions or no transgressions could earn one the label of being an enemy of the revolution. Liu Shaoqi—committed to the revolution but believing in different methods to Mao—was considered a ‘counter-revolutionary’ and a ‘bourgeois dictator’. Rather than a public discourse which spoke of mere disagreements, the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution branded its perceived opponents in the language of evil, calling them ‘Freaks and Monsters’.

Black Lives Matter protestors confronted diners in Washington DC and demanded they show their solidarity, 26 August 2020. Photo: Twitter/@KunkleFredrick

Black Lives Matter protestors confronted diners in Washington DC and demanded they show their solidarity, 26 August 2020.
Photo: Twitter/@KunkleFredrick

I emphasise that the ultimate enemy of the mob was not a group of gendarmes or politicians. It was purportedly the capitalist system, with its various manifestations of culture and tradition. Marx argued that ideas, values, beliefs, superstitions and laws are all dependent on a particular system of production. These things are merely part of a superstructure with an economic base, and are an extension of the will of the capitalist class. And so, in China, monuments and artifacts were destroyed, temples were ransacked. Western dress was attacked. According to senior journalist and book author Jonathan Fenby in The Penguin History of Modern China, “men in tapered trousers and pointed shoes were told to remove them. Women with stylish coiffures were escorted to hairdressers to have them cut off”. Beijing middle-school students drew up a list of a hundred instructions on how to “destroy the old and establish the new”, including banning “the bastards of the bourgeoisie” from using restaurants and laundries. Even the family system was attacked. Students were vicious towards their teachers. They tortured and killed them. Artists and writers were made to wear placards around their necks reading ‘demons and snake spirits’, and were made to kneel as they were beaten.

BLM founders Cullors and Garza are trained Marxists.

Even just a cursory examination of some of the lead ideas of the social justice movement (the oppressive structures of Western society, the systemic inequalities) will suggest an intellectual lineage to Marxist theory. And as has been well documented, many of the ideas of social justice have an origin in the work of the Marxist Frankfurt School of Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas et al. Not only has Black Lives Matter’s Patrisse Cullors explained that she and fellow co-founder Alicia Garza are trained Marxists, but numerous BLM groups make it clear on their webpages that they are enemies of capitalism, and the main webpage of the movement once impugned the Western nuclear family. However, despite the broad awareness of the Marxist nature of the social justice movement, its Maoist element has remained somewhat overlooked.


Mao promoted the idea of the mass line in political organisation, believing the party should listen to and ultimately be led by the masses. In the Cultural Revolution, this focus on mass politics was taken further. According to former CrossRoads editor Max Elbaum in Revolution in the Air, the New Communist Movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s looked to the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s “grassroots model of socialism” for guidance. The decentralised Maoist method of mass justice stood in stark contrast to the Soviet Union’s hyper-centralised control. In China, the masses were given free rein as to how they would run society. The state would not interfere. Everyone would have power, and no one would have power.

Ayn Rand said protecting individual rights is the only purpose of law.

Decentralised mass politics appears to be the most prominent method of ‘organisation’ for the social justice movement today. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, the Occupy movement (‘We are the 99%’), and numerous other groups have adopted this approach. Antifa (a word and concept borrowed from the German left-wing antifaschistische movement) is essentially a loosely connected network of autonomous groups throughout the Western world who use sharp tactics to try and stop what they perceive as fascism. They have been described as a street militia. It is best described as a movement; Antifa scholar and supporter Mark Bray (whose pro-Antifa handbook was published by Melbourne University Publishing!) calls it an ideology. On the website of Antifa Sacramento, the last in their list of ‘Points of Unity’ is: “Each person who chooses to do antifascist work chooses their own individual level of involvement with Antifa. We are not a club or a gang, nor do we have leaders.”

Antifa took their name from the German left-wing antifaschistische movement. Photo: Gregor Wünsch/Flickr

Antifa took their name from the German left-wing antifaschistische movement.
Photo: Gregor Wünsch/Flickr

In 2017, when protesters labelling themselves as part of Black Lives Matter interrupted a speech by Bernie Sanders, the event created friction within the movement. The Daily Beast asked: ‘Who Really Runs #Black Lives Matter?’ The article continued: “The answer to that question might be a small group of people who self-identify as a ‘radical organization’. The answer to that question might also be anyone.” Through decentralisation, these protest groups purportedly push the power of the ‘masses’. On the website of the mass-action group BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), also considered part of the Antifa network, the group’s pledge encourages people to instigate mass action protest and not rely on the elite: “Changing the actions/attitudes of the rich and powerful and their political representatives requires asserting through mass action the superior power and will of the masses. This is the only road to victory.”


In order for society to reflect the direct will of the masses, objective law must be destroyed. Objective law is a chain which stretches right from the moral origins of law, through the foundations of a political system, right to the application of law in district courts and policing. According to the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, the only objective moral purpose of law is to protect individual rights. When this purpose is cast aside, law becomes an arbitrary imposition of force by a ruler and becomes non-objective. The term ‘objective law’ is used here not to mean ‘disinterested’ law, but rather law achieving a certain objective: the protection of individual rights. This means the standard of law is external to the desire of any particular person or people. If one accepts, as I do, that the only logical reason for having law is to protect individual rights, that means any law which rejects that purpose cannot be logically explained. When the need to justify law with logic is discarded, there is no end to the destruction of rights. Every tyrant rules by non-objective law, because non-objective law is just his whim backed up with a whip.

As explained, Mao believed the law was merely a tool by which one class oppresses another. But whereas other strands of Marxism keep to removing objectivity by stealth (by removing the objective moral purpose—and thus the objective authority—of law), Maoism does not hide. Mao believed the masses had to instigate the new socialist law. Formal law involves—or should involve—a select group of trained experts applying a purportedly objective test to facts, and is thus inherently specialist: only those who can apply that objective test can and should do it. To abandon this procedure to the masses in any substantive sense is to do away with specialisation and objectivity: it is to say anybody can apply law. So what is the role of the masses? It is to do away with objectivity in justice. The law is simply what the masses want it to be. Just as Marx and Engels spoke of bourgeois jurisprudence as being an extension of the will of the capitalist class, mass law is an extension of the will of the masses, literally. Whatever the masses want, the masses get. The social justice movement has likewise put the formal legal system in the firing line, and destroys objective law via the same methods. In Toward a Political Philosophy of Race, philosophy and political theory professor Falguni A. Sheth adopts the Violence of Law framework of Jacques Derrida to explain the deep racial discrimination that exists inherently within our legal system:

I reject one of the dominant narratives of modern political philosophy, namely the story of liberalism, which tells us that the fundamental function of law is to ensure justice for all individuals, and that the basic purpose of law is to protect all who fall within its purview.

Instead, Sheth argues, the role of law is to preserve the sovereign power that wields it, through the ‘violence’ of law: “It is a violence imposed, enacted, administered, and managed by state power; it permeates our legal structure and… it is a fundamental source of racialisation and racial division.” So deep is racial bias allegedly embedded in the US criminal justice system, it has been called ‘The New Jim Crow’. By arguing that law itself is simply a tool of a ruler, you deny the possibility of objective law—as a formalised, logically justified set of rules that exist to protect individual rights.

The social justice movement has abandoned objective law.

All that exists thereafter are mobs fighting to take control: a nation of rulers and not rules. Who are the present rulers? It is clear what the social justice movement thinks. There are complaints about the racial make-up of the judiciary in Australia and in the US. The number of white men as judges is apparently inappropriately high. At its best, a call for diversity is a call for judges with wider life experiences to inform their approach to deciding cases. But by focusing on race alone in order to achieve this, it becomes an expression of biological determinism: white judges decide cases in a white way, and black judges in a black way. Such a view denies any possibility of objectivity in jurisprudence. Objectivity requires reason, not biological automatons.

In Privilege Revealed, law professor Stephanie M. Wildman writes that our notion of upholding the rule of law does not always produce justice. She writes:

The rule of law in turn embodies the idea of fair and equal treatment—treating like cases alike and all individuals equally… But… when we apply legal standards of equal treatment to a social and economic culture that systematically privileges some and disadvantages others, the result is the maintenance of an uneven and unequal status quo.

If Wildman is correct, what is the solution? Instead of a racist rule of law, the masses must rule instead. Antifa Sacramento’s webpage reads:

  1. We do not rely on the cops or the courts. They do not serve our interests or support our struggles.
  2. We oppose all forms of oppression, prejudice, marginalization, and exploitation. We support the full liberation of all peoples. We are against the capitalist state and the (in)justice system that enforces it. By adopting the Marxist view of law, by attacking the present legal system and by adopting the coercive techniques of the primacy of the masses, the social justice movement has abandoned objective law (anyone who initiates force abandons objective law, since they deny objective law’s very purpose). Be it the Defund the Police movement or the more explicit abolitionist movement, law enforcement itself is now impugned. Notice the vague suggestions of ‘community’ law enforcement stepping in to fill the void. The ‘oppressed masses’ have taken control of jurisprudence. The result? The anarchy of Seattle’s short-lived Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.


When you reject a system of law, you reject what that system of law does. By attacking the system of formal law that existed in China, the Red Guards destroyed what protection it gave to individual rights. A parallel can be drawn with the social justice movement, in that its proponents negate individual rights by challenging the entire system of justice which exists to protect such rights. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the social justice movement is not averse to using force to achieve its aims. According to the social justice movement, individual rights do not exist. What does exist is the right of ‘communities’ to defend themselves.

The ‘will of the masses’ achieves mass mindlessness.

Another parallel between the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the social justice movement cannot be ignored: the use of public confrontation and shame. We have seen footage of Black Lives Matter ‘protesters’ harassing peaceful citizens, including one BLM group surrounding and screaming at a woman for refusing to raise her fist in ‘solidarity’. You will see similar images from the Chinese Cultural Revolution: mobs with fists raised against the victims of public humiliation; the victims lower themselves before the crowd.

The BLM mob swarming through the streets now is not targeting the ruling political class, nor representatives of the state. They are targeting the ordinary populace, to directly force a change to the culture of that populace.


When objective law and individual rights are replaced by ‘the will of the masses’, what you achieve is not justice. It is mass mindlessness. When the Cultural Revolution and the social justice movement are compared, what can be gleaned is the social justice movement’s ever-increasing capacity for violence. What can also be gleaned is that lawlessness breeds lawlessness. When people are the victims of a lawless mob, they will have to resort to lawlessness themselves—since the mob has already declared itself above the trappings of court and procedure. Civil war broke out during the Cultural Revolution. By using force and violence, the social justice movement compels it on the other side, since the only way to deal with force is to use a bigger club.

In China, the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution was arguably the prime instigator for the radical reform that happened afterwards, once Mao had died. “The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster,” write MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, “that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall.” It may also be that the depravity of the social justice movement leads to the collapse of the very ideology it sought to install.

Magnus O’Mallon is a Melbourne composer, writer and free speech activist.

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