Mao Zedong on the dangers of ‘liberalism’ (1937)

The Yan’an Soviet was the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) between 1936 and 1948. Yan’an served both as a military base and a proving ground for communist ideas and policies. It was also where Mao Zedong developed his own ideology and strengthened his grip over the CCP. The following short pamphlet, titled “Combat Liberalism”, was written by Mao in Yan’an in September 1937. It was not a critique of Western liberal ideas, as the title suggests, but an attack on individuals for certain inclinations or behaviours. Any CCP members given to free-thinking or non-conformity, Mao wrote, were undermining Party unity. These demands for obedience and discipline were an early sign of Mao’s authoritarianism, which culminated in the 1941 Rectification Movement:

“We stand for active ideological struggle because it is the weapon for ensuring unity within the Party… But liberalism rejects ideological struggle and stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent attitude and bringing about political degeneration in certain Party individuals and revolutionary organisations.

Liberalism manifests itself in many ways.

To let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship, when a person has clearly gone wrong; to refrain from argument because he is an old acquaintance… This is one type of liberalism.

To indulge in irresponsible criticism in private instead of actively putting forward one’s suggestions to the organisation. To say nothing to people to their faces but to gossip behind their backs… This is a second type.

To let things drift if they do not affect one personally; to say as little as possible while knowing perfectly well what is wrong, to be worldly wise and play safe and seek only to avoid blame. This is a third type.

Not to obey orders but to give pride of place to one’s own opinion. To demand special consideration from the organisation but to reject its discipline. This is a fourth type.

To indulge in personal attacks, pick quarrels, vent personal spite or seek revenge instead of entering into an argument and struggling against incorrect views for the sake of unity or progress… This is a fifth type.

To hear incorrect views without rebutting them and to hear counter-revolutionary remarks without reporting them, but instead to take them calmly as if nothing had happened. This is a sixth type.

To be among the masses and fail to conduct propaganda and agitation or speak at meetings… Forgetting that one is a Communist and behaving as if one is an ordinary non-Communist. This is a seventh type.

To see someone harming the interests of the masses and yet not feel indignant or dissuade or stop him but allow him to continue. This is an eighth type.

To work half-heartedly without a definite plan or direction; to work perfunctorily and muddle along… This is a ninth type.

To regard oneself as having rendered great service to the revolution, to pride oneself on being a veteran [yet] to be slipshod in work and slack in study. This is a tenth type.

To be aware of one’s own mistakes and yet make no attempt to correct them, taking a liberal attitude towards oneself. This is an eleventh type.

We could name more. But these eleven are the principal types. They are all manifestations of liberalism. Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of organisation and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organisations from the masses the Party leads. It is an extremely bad tendency…

We must use Marxism, which is positive in spirit, to overcome liberalism, which is negative… All loyal, honest, active and upright Communists must unite to oppose the liberal tendencies shown by certain people among us and set them on the right path. This is one of the tasks on our ideological front.”

mao yan'an liberalism 1937
Mao Zedong addresses a rally in Yan’an, 1937