What’s a Maoist, Anyway?

How to tell Nepal’s Maoist rebels from garden-variety Communists.

Mao: Say you want a revolution?

The guerrilla insurgents who’ve been fighting the Nepalese government since 1996 are usually referred to as Maoists. How does Maoism differ from garden-variety communism?

Maoism has a more rural bent than the ideologies espoused by Marx and Lenin. Marxism-Leninism, as the Soviet version of communism is often called, held that urban workers should form the revolutionary vanguard. Mao Zedong, on the other hand, believed that Communist revolutions should gestate among the rural peasantry, who would later join with their proletariat comrades in the cities to form classless paradises. Indeed, the bulk of Mao’s rebel force was drawn from China’s hinterlands, where the vast majority of the population lived in abject poverty similar to that of modern-day Nepal.

This idealization of the peasant masses goes hand-in-hand with a distrust of urban industrialization, which Maoism views as a potential source of bourgeois elitism. Perhaps the defining moment of Maoist thought was the Great Leap Forward of 1959, in which rural collectives were urged to produce steel in backyard furnaces; if the people needed to produce nonagricultural products, the rationale went, best to do it in small batches and out in the sticks. Up until that point, China’s strain of communism wasn’t terribly different from the Marxism-Leninism practiced next door in the Soviet Union. But Mao had grown to believe that the U.S.S.R. was veering toward capitalism under Nikita Khrushchev and was suspicious of the Soviets’ urban industrialization program. Mao’s rural alternative, the Great Leap Forward, was, of course, an epic catastrophe, and led to a famine that killed millions. (Mao blamed the failure on inclement weather.)

A third feature of Maoism is the idea that the bourgeois menace is ever-present, so party officials must always be vigilant to prevent the revolution’s corruption. During Mao Zedong’s reign, this meant constant violent purges and “re-education” of suspected counterrevolutionaries, culminating with the Cultural Revolution of 1967-1977, in which millions were harassed or killed for not being Maoist enough. (Mao died in 1976; the Cultural Revolution was declared over the following year.) Though the Chinese government has never condemned Maoism, it’s clear that the nation’s leaders no longer embrace the Great Helmsman’s far-left ideas. Mao would likely have a conniption if he saw modern-day Shanghai or heard that the Chinese government was considering adding a provision to the constitution to guarantee private property rights.

Mao’s teachings influenced revolutionaries in several nations with large rural populations, but the Nepalese insurgency is perhaps the last Maoist movement left. The “ultra-Maoist” Khmer Rouge, whose antiurban purges in the 1970s left at least 1.7 million Cambodians dead, has essentially evaporated. And save for one tiny faction, Peru’s Maoist Shining Path has dissolved since the arrest of its founder, Abimael Guzman (aka “President Gonzalo”), in 1992.

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Explainer thanks Brantly Womack of the University of Virginia.