Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of the world’s inhabitants are Chinese, and that China is a powerful force in contemporary world affairs, and that I work with lots of Chinese immigrants, I know little about the place. Lately, I’ve been talking with some colleagues about the experiences of their families in China. I know about Hitler, a lot about Stalin, but nothing much about Mao. I decided to address that gap with some reading.
I first attacked Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday. I got through about 100 pages before I had to drop it. As one reviewer said, it reads more like catharsis than history. The authors clearly hate Mao, probably for good reasons, but the writing is so crude, so powerfully biased that it lacks credibility. As several critics noted, the authors undermine their own case, despite some excellent material. History as demonization doesn’t add much to our understanding of events, or of people, and I just couldn’t buy their portrait of Mao as a singleminded, sadistic, intellectual mediocrity who schemed his way to power with lies and trickery only. No doubt, many of their horrible annecdotes and critical observations are true, but history, and people, are not that simple, I think.
So, I decided to try Mao: A Life by Phillip Short. This one is a hundred pages or so shorter than the other, and much better as a history and biography. Short builds his life of Mao slowly, while Change and Halliday are intent from page 1 at demonstrating what a demon Mao was. This book is very good for a reader like me who knows little of the tangled nature of Chinese politics and geo-political affairs in the early twentieth century. A few things strike me after getting past about a quarter of the pages:
Mao didn’t have an easy path to power. He seems to be continually marginalized and dismissed by the leadership, all under the sway of the Russian Comintern. He was certainly astute in many ways, and he seems to have been the first to thoroughly grasp how different Chinese conditions were from those in pre-Soviet Russia. His insistence on the peasants as a force for revolution was constantly at odds with Russian directives and internal sentiments. The peasants, even to most left-wing intellectuals, were just an invisible mass.
Mao was certainly not the one-sided devil that Chang and Halliday create. He was schooled in the Chinese classics, and wrote romantic poems – his pithy aphorisms were based on his deep absorption of Chinese culture. One reviewer noted that The Unknown Story quotes poems in a Nietzschean vein that the authors exhort us to accept as the true revelation of Mao’s elitist, inhuman nature. Why, the reviewer asks, should we not also accept his cultured and restrained writings in the same way? He was a complex and beastial person.
China was incredibly chaotic at this time! It is amazing also to contemplate the differences between the state of China and that Russia or Germany in that period. While the Comintern focused on organizing a worker’s party to smash the bourgeois state, China had hardly any workers! The intellectual ferment among the progressives was all over the map as they struggled to find a way forward for their society. Mao was no different, favoring at first a Kropotkin oriented peaceful anarchism!
How did he make it from the sidelines to the undisputed leadership of the united nation? I have to keep reading…