Norn Samnangseymony*

* Norn Samnangseymony is a student from the Department of International Studies (DIS), Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL), Royal University of Phnom Penh with emphasis on International Relations; and English Language Based Bachelor of Law (ELBBL), Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) with emphasis on International Criminal Law.

Liberalism… is corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension.” – Mao Zedong.Can Liberalism defend itself against such an assessment?


Mao Zedong was one of the most active scholars in the camp of Communism. After his death, his ideology remains inimical to Liberalism but a strong pillar to the Chinese Communist Party. In his book, Combat Liberalism in 1937, Mao was overly critical of Liberalism. He criticized Liberalism as “corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension.” This sparks a controversial question in camp of ideological debate to whether Liberalism is capable of defending itself against Mao’s allegation. In this article, Mao’s motives behind the allegation will be scrutinized. To defend Liberalism, this article examines the core values thereof particularly individualism, freedom and competition. It will then conclude that Mao’s assessment is only conjectures, and that Liberalism literally can preserve its ideological values despite crossing the line of fire.

Key words: Ideology, Maoism, Liberalism, Positive Individualism, Freedom and Competition


At the heart of the heart of China lies a very powerful corpse which no one dares remove – the dead body of the influential communist man, Mao Zedong (hereinafter called “Mao”). Mao’s corpse has been preserved from decades and inhered at the center of the magnificent Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square.“Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist; a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist; a great patriot and national hero,” said President Hu Jintao in 2003 on Mao’s 110th anniversary.[1]His corpse is worshipped and said to be a scared symbol of the Chinese communism yet, to some, nothing but a mad communist man who plunged China into the bloodiest mass killing in pursuance of achieving his own dream of global dominance and personal hatred over Liberalism–an ideology that places a paramount importance on individualism, freedom and reason and was rivalry to Communism during the Cold War.[2]

In the Yan’an Soviet, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party (hereinafter called “the CCP”) from 1936 to 1948, Mao formulatedhispowerful master piece of Communist ideology and marked the starting point to his ideological scholarship whichallowed him to grip stronger authoritative power in China. There, 82 years ago, he developed one of, if not, the most famous pamphlet in his lifetime, entitled Combat Liberalismin September 7, 1937. Mao was in bid of transforming China into a complete socialist republic; however, he encountered an evil force in the country which attempted to obstruct his dream–ziyouzhuyi (Liberalism). Thus, he published this text as a warning on how corrupt and evil Liberalism can drive an individual. In other words, this short pamphlet was written with the aim of attackinghis fellow comrades within the CCP for corrupt minded behaviors and with liberal mentality. This text outlines the eleven sins of Liberal ideology arguing thatLiberalism is the cancer disrupting the revolutionary will of the Party.[3]With these 11 sins, he concluded that “Liberalism…is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension” and “is extremely negative tendency”.[4]

This powerful quote of his writing significantly serves as the foundation of his negative perceptions toward Liberalism. Thus, in this article, the author strives to elaborate the rationales behind Mao’s assessment and argue that Liberalism can defend itself against such allegation. The author will deploy political thoughts and ideologies from the scholars who contributed meaningfully to the pool of Liberal understandings. The author will moreover defend Liberalism against Mao’s assessment within the timeframe of 1937 until the present day and debunk Mao’s shortsighted vision of how society works and the suitability of his political ideology.


As mentioned in the foregoing, the author had introduced Mao’s famous legacy “Combat Liberalism” which was written in 1937. This short text, when read, attract his readers into Mao’s world of ideology, engulfs them with hatred over Liberalism and inspires them uprising against it. In the text, he laid out strong words and heavy phrases to cast away Liberalism. At the outset of his text, he mentioned “we stand for active ideological struggle because it is the weapon for ensuring unity within the Party and the revolutionary organizations in the interest of our fight”.[5]He then presented that Liberalism could exist in many evil forms which he later delineated them into different types. In his quote of “Liberalism…is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension,” he seemed to understand Liberalism as an agent of the fallen whose system is considered as acidic which from time to time devours social unity and solidarity, demotes the idea of ‘togetherness’, and eventually leads to disagreement among each other.[6] This system, he believed, is harmful to the process of revolution and party unity, for it serves no collective interest but individual interest. It is exploitative. Because of exploitation, individuals tend to decrease their enthusiasm toward their work. Further, Liberalism corrupts individuals to the extent that causes dissension owing tothe diversity of interest. Like Friedrick Engels’s ‘false consciousness’ and Antonio Gramsci’s ‘consent-led’ understandings, Mao believes that Liberalism created a system that consolidates in the minds of the working class to ensure that the “slave is persuaded that he is free”–viz. “the proletariat wear their chains willingly”.[7]

The CCP, during his time, designated two offensive definitions for Liberalism. They first defined Liberalism as “a politico-ideological theory of the bourgeoisie to promote exploitation and freedom of competition under the surface of individual freedom”.[8] The second definition was that Liberalism is “a reactionary economic theory that promotes the freedom of the bourgeoises to carry out exploitation and plunder”.[9]Born within the ambit communism, Mao, in assessing the quality of Liberalism, scrutinized and criticized its core values ranging from individualism andfreedom and competition. These are the aspects of Liberalism that it seeks to defend. The author will therefore defend each core values in the following sections.


“Liberalism stems from petty-bourgeois selfishness,” said Mao.[10]He believes that this individualistic character is what eats away unity. The author dissents this opinion, however. The author draws the reader’s attention to the definition of ‘individualism.’ Individualism is defined as a doctrine that stresses heavy importance of the individual over collective group. There are many types of individualism under the framework of Liberalism. Here, the author argues that Mao’s negligence on assessing a bigger picture of individualism and conferred upon his subordinates with such blinded assessment is what makes him wrong. In Mao’s teaching, he had always targeted the so-called ‘egoistic individualism’, which assumes that individuals are independent from society and that they only think of their interests. In proving Mao’s wrongness, the author argues that egoistic individualism is of classic way of thinking. During his time and after, one had witnessed the new realization of individualism, forging that human beings are equipped with optimistic nature. In achieving their goal of individual interest, human nature affixes mankind to social sympathy which embraced by the sense of social responsibility–the responsibility “for those who are unable to look after themselves”.[11] The author believes that it is not important to stress on how an individual pursues egoism, but it is important to examine the goal of individualism. In the sense of social responsibility, individuals tend to be “united in their desire to create a society in which each person is capable of developing and flourishing to the fullness of his or her potential”.[12]

In his writing, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke conceptualizes an individual as “a thinking intelligent being” who is equipped with value.[13]Thus, if such intelligent and rational beingspossess something we call‘value’, then they would treat each other with respect and dignity. The author exemplifies this with a simple example. Suppose our loved one isdrowning, our mentality will operate by itself desiring to help them from the dire situation owing to the existence of value, respect, and human dignity. This, the author believes, is “positive individualism”.[14]Perdomon, in her writing, Positive Individualism, stated if individuals understand the value of each other, they will treat each other accordingly in the way that it would benefit everyone as a whole with moral principles.[15]

In addition to this, the author entails the U.S. liberal ideology for further assessment. Despite having criticized as an individualistic society, the American people have their collective goal to achieve, the ‘American Dream’, a dream that all Americans shall be able to school, work hard, be employed, form a family of their own and be able to sustain their family in accordance with the merit they earn. In achieving that goal, the Americans follow the same path constructing it as a social objective and see who there really are–the American–and bind people with the sense of ‘togetherness’.[16]People, in this sense, act in their own function to form an identical community. Moreover, Liberalism entails democracy; hence, the author believes that the voice of majority also represents community.

This strikes a critical truth that Mao’s assessment on Liberal’s individualism that devours unity is in error. Thus, the author reaffirms that at the heart of individual lies the sense of collectivism and social responsibility. In responding to freedom of competition which Mao adhered to be a system of exploitation and challenging cohesion and giving rise to apathy, the author will defend against it in the next section.


Why can’t I be free to do what I desire? Is having a different view from you or your party considered as an enemy to communism and the people? Do I always need to accept your way of thinking to qualify myself as agent of solidarity?Why am I not allowed to compete with one another to get what I deserve? Is it fair if my friend is a free rider, and I work so hard, but he obtains the same merit as mine? The author intentionally brings up these questions at the outset of this section to provoke the reader about their perception on freedom and competition in society.

The spirit of Liberalism is the pursuit of freedom for all individuals. In the state of nature, John Locke believed that “liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth. In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth”.[17] As a classical liberal, Locke believed in the notion of non-interference and non-coercion from the external actors.The state shall refrain itself from impacting the way of living of its citizen without consent.

Maoism, on the other hand, believes that by giving too much freedom, people willdevastate the peaceful society. Owing to the swamps of diversified goals and self-egoistic attitudes, people neglect the sense of cohesion and therefore engulf in apathy. That said, the author founds mistakes within such framework and thus object Mao’s assessment. When freedom is guaranteed, comes the freedom of expression and speech that lies within it. There is a cliché saying that humans are different from dogs, for humans do not exchange bones. It is fair to say thus that humans are rational. They are creatures with reasons unlike behavioristic animals. Humans are able to witness imperfections in society that the State cannot. In expressing and voicing their opinion and concerns, they will provide critiques and recommendations of what they see fit in pursuit of promoting a better society for all. This espouses that freedom actually paves a way to better society.

In rebutting Mao’s definition of Liberalism as a tool of the bourgeoisie to exploit the poor in the context of market competition, the author opines opposite. Market competition guarantees the promotion of incentive. People will receive what they should receive based on the merit they have made. In promoting an absolute equal society regulated completely with a state is harmful. Reason being, this type of system will face the loss of incentives. There will be free rider in the society and they will receive the same outcome that is as the result of your hard work. Eventually, Mao’s way of think is the one who causes apathy and the reduction of productivity. This type of system is not sustainable at all. If Mao were to live until 1978, he would witness that his successors started to liberalize China, through their ‘Open Door Policy’.[18]If his successors believe that his assessment was correct, why then did they convert China to the liberalization of market? When all is said and done, the author believes that his claim is invalid.


Wherefore in light of the ideological assessments presented, arguments advanced and authorities cited, the author believes that Liberalism can indeed defend itself against Mao’s invalid assessments. In assessing his rationales behind his bad sentiment toward Liberalism, the author found that Mao erred what he conceived as ‘individualism’, for he failed to establish a bigger picture on how a particular society works and neglected to consider the importance of collectivism within individualism as a product of value, morality, respect and dignity. On top of that, he held too heavy grudge on Liberalism that ‘freedom’ is somewhat a product of badness which rendered the fragility of cohesion and encourage apathy. The author reveres that it should be Mao’s idea that causes weak cohesion and apathy because freedom serves as a bridge to social development and that market competition is guardian of incentives. “Liberalism…is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension,”[19] said the man who killed more than 70 million people in pursuit of his personal and egoistic dream of global domination.

[1]Geoffrey York, Mao Zedong: Sacred symbol and bloodiest mass killer, The Globe and The Mail (Aug. 2, 2005),

[2]Liberalism has been existing in the agenda of political ideology since 1840s when it was recognized throughout the continent of Europe. The ideology itself is divided into two chief categories: Classical Liberalism and Modern Liberalism. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An introduction (2012).

[3]Mao Zedong, Combat Liberalism 1–3 (Foreign Languages Press Peking trans., 3rd ed., 1965) (1937).

[4]Id. at 3.                          

[5]Id. at 1.

[6]Mao, supra note 4.

[7]Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Joseph Katz ed., Samuel Moore trans., Washington Square Press 1964) (1848).Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1921).

[8]Henry Y. He, Dictionary of The Political Thought of The People’s Republic of China691 (2016).


[10]Mao, supra note 4.

[11]Andrew, supra note 3.


[13]John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 586 (1836).

[14]Rebecca Perdomo, Positive Individualism, 16 HIM. 6 (2014).


[16]Id. at 15.

[17]John Locke, Two Treatises of Government 76 (1821).

[18]Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, China Without Mao: The Search for a New 206-247 (1990).In Chinese context, ‘Open Door Policy’ is the new economic policy declared by President Deng Xiaoping in 1978 whose purpose is to open China’s economic door to the outside world. This policywelcomes foreign business, investment and private enterprise and encourage state-to-state trading transactions. See He Li, Globalization and Democratic Transition in China, 7 AJCS. 83, 83–104 (2000).

[19]Mao, supra note 4.

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