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Date Posted: 18:30 31/07/2005



Mao and History

There might be more to Mao than Jung Chang allows.


ON JULY 1, the 84th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party passed with all the auspiciousness you would expect in a country where MacDonalds has replaced Marx and Starbucks has taken over from Stalin. Even Communist Party members themselves would have ignored the occasion had it not been for a frantic round of telephone calls by local branch organizers, notifying the chosen ones that the day would be marked by yet more showings of Party-sponsored movies about heroes and role models. To wit, a series of maudlin accounts of the triumphs, setbacks and further triumphs of intrepid rural postmen, indomitable police chiefs and tireless charity workers.

The leadership must be slightly worried about the fact that the whole edifice of the Communist Party has been propped, precariously, on top of old Chairman Mao, and that the source of their legitimacy has been placed in the hands of a man who, for the want of a phrase capable of summing up his legacy, was an old-school tyrant dressed occasionally in the trappings of the new, and who disguised the age-old caprices of absolute power in the cod-scientific dogma of Marxism-Leninism. That, of course, is the version of events presented by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their much publicized new book, Mao: The Untold Story.

The 'untold' aspect of the book is overstated. The Belgian Sinologist, Simon Leys, was describing the Cultural Revolution as little more than Mao's personal coup d'etat twenty years ago. Mao's bemused doctor, Li Zhisui, had already described his boss's deviousness and carnality in massive detail in a memoir published in 1994. Still, the relentlessness of the new account is its most striking feature: nothing Mao did in his eighty six years on Earth was motivated by anything other than warped amour propre and an insatiable lust for power, the book tells us. The reader half-expects to read about Mao cackling over the labour camp blueprints before throwing another dog into the incinerator. You soon imagine him drawing demented lines through world maps and shouting, 'this is all mine, mine!'

This is all, to some degree, in the past. The extent of China's transformation in the last quarter of a century is nothing short of astonishing. It is now more or less integrated into the international market, and sways more or less in line with the rhythms of global trade. While there are attempts in right-wing circles to characterize China as an alien civilization driven by needs and principles that are diametrically opposed to 'our own', these interpretations never quite wash. The conflicts emerge not because there is a 'clash of civilizations', but because China requires precisely the same things as the US, including political stability, national respect, equal treatment and, perhaps above all else, a steady supply of natural resources.

That apostle of globalization, Thomas Friedman, wrote recently that there is now a 'symbiotic relationship' between China and the US, and as the recent RMB revaluation showed, when Beijing sneezes, the world catches cold.

And so, years of ideological windmill-tilting and Promethean thunder-stealing have now come to this. The Maoist autarky is no more, and China is now more vulnerable than most to the mood swings of global capital. The government has become little more than a Teamsters union controlling Chinese labour on behalf of various transnational corporations and the country's own burgeoning capitalist class. The benighted peasants are, still, revolting, and the aforementioned Friedman is suggesting that the United States has a duty to help Beijing maintain the status quo.


The new leadership is, indeed, beginning to resemble the pre-liberation ruling elite of the Kuomintang.

The Maoist years have therefore become little more than an aberration. That long three-decade blip is made all the more interesting by the fact that the current generation of leaders are still obliged to talk about ideological continuity. In the Procrustean ideological consensus that now prevails, the steady course set by the ship of state was marked, at various intervals, by the great achievements of Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Important Doctrine of the Three Represents, all of which are interlinked and complementary.

In such a way, the leaders are still expected to pay their respects to Mao, but do so in a way that is, at best, hypocritical. The 'ten years of chaos' that were the Cultural Revolution are artfully rendered as the work of the 'Jiang Qing clique' and the 'Gang of Four'. Mao himself was, famously, correct only 70% of the time, and made mistakes only when he actually allowed himself to deviate from scientific Mao Zedong Thought. Thus, the volte-face that followed from Mao's death was, in fact, nothing of the kind, and was really a restoration of the correct path that Mao Zedong had set but then abandoned.

It was common among leftist academics in the west - including the aforementioned Jon Halliday - to argue that Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution was a glorious new ideological innovation designed to break the impasse that had affected all Marxist-Leninist states. The Yugoslav politician and theorist, Milovan Djilas, argued in 1955 that European Communism had actually created a new ruling strata of Party bureaucrats. Instead of serving the revolution, the nomenklatura were jealously upholding their own priveleges and interests, as all ruling elites do. The Cultural Revolution, argued leftists in London and Paris during the upheavals of 1968, would reinvigorate the movement and jump-start the dialectical forces of history. It would bring down the inchoate Party committees, shatter the hold of the paper-shufflers and apparatchiks. The stultifying minutiae of the Five-Year Plan would collapse under the waves of revolutionary spontaneity emerging from every village and every factory. Even decades later, Maoist sympathizers such as Arif Dirlik could still describe the Cultural Revolution as an attempted solution to a genuine ideological problem, however misguided its implementation turned out to be.

Veteran journalist John Gittings inadvertantly draws attention to the prevalence of this myth while criticizing the Jung Chang hatchet job. Jung Chang's Mao is little more than a violent and power-mad pervert in the grand imperial tradition, an obscene, blubbery blend of hypertrophied ego and pique. This interpretation, writes Gittings, overlooks the fact that Mao's later years were characterized by excessive 'revolutionary romanticism' rather than a simple lust for power.

Of course, there is not necessarily a distinction between Mao's personal ambitions and the fate of the revolution. Mao believed he embodied the revolution. He was even willing to take on the Party itself in order to fulfil what he regarded as his own personal manifest destiny in the transformation of his country.

History is replete with heretics seeking to subvert the ruling ideology in order to take a running jump to Paradise. The key to revolution, wrote George Steiner, is impatience, and Mao was nothing if not impatient. He launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward as a way of accelerating history. The failure was spectacularly brutal, and Mao was gradually sidelined by his more pragmatic colleagues. He seemed to have come to the belief that his policies had actually been sabotaged by the forces of revisionism in the Party and the government.

It needs to be emphasized that the success of the Chinese Communist Party drew on a peculiar set of circumstances, as well as a massive wellspring of cultural and historical references, few of which had much to do with Marxism or the dialectical movement of history. The Party, largely thanks to the gradual evisceration of its urban intellectuals and the growing dominance of Mao, drew on peasant sagas like the Water Margin and on the traditional romantic role played by bandits and secret societies in the Chinese countryside. It drew on the Taiping Kingdom and the Boxer Rebellion, and on the hidden historical undercurrents described by Sun Yatsen in a famous pamphlet as the real source of revolution in China. And if the Chinese Communist Party was a peculiar product of a particular version of history, it quickly realized that it could never begin anew. The Party was thus swept to power but could not entirely control the agenda. It could not - despite Mao's insistence that the peasantry was nothing but a blank slate - overturn thousands of years of history.

This was indeed the logical problem that all the Communist revolutions created for themselves, but it generally led to stasis and stalemate, to the various desperate dead-ends represented by the likes of Breszhnev and Jaruzelski. In this sense, the Cultural Revolution was, indeed, an attempt to break the impasse created by history. The later efforts by the Khmer Rouge to wipe away everything and begin afresh was the reductio ad absurdum of the Maoist revolutionary experiment. It failed, just as Maoism failed, and the moral of the story was that history tends to triumph over an idealized History, but only after a period of bloody mayhem.


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