These pictures were published in Life Magazine when I was a boy, prompting me to wonder, “Why the heck are they making a big deal about this guy swimming?” I recall there was speculation about the image on the left – whether or not it was doctored.
No, Mao was in the swim, and he was demonstrating his fitness to be supreme leader and godhead of all political correctness in the coming storm, the soon-to-be released cataclysm of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Such a strange event – an aging dictator making good on his earlier threats to go to war against his own revolutionary establishment! Of course, these days, this is old hat, running for the Senate or President, and claiming status as an outsider, eager to clean house. But Mao did it…in his own way.
He really was sui generis as a tyrant. A romantic revolutionary, impatient and uninterested in the minutiae of running a huge state, but ever ready to stir up a hornet’s nest of chaos with some opaque power play or ideological broadside. Some of his colleagues called him B-52, because he dropped huge bombs from way up high.
He took on the role of emperor, the emperor perpetually running against Peking! The goal of the revolution was not to make China rich, but to maker her an independent power and to further the maelstrom process of class struggle worldwide. The Russians and many of his party, to his disgust, were more interested in pedestrian challenges like making the economy grow. Here we see the lingering influence of his youthful leanings toward anarchism, and perhaps the source of his appeal to young radicals around the globe. What other septuagenerian supremo would call on the students to smash the party regulars, dismantle the bureaucracy, trash the establishment, and give them arms, or at least look the other way when they stole them, to do it?
The millions of deaths he caused were not personally ordered by him. He did not pore over death warrants as did Stalin, personally making annotations and changes. He just commenced a totally hare brained scheme to make China overtake Europe’s economy in a few short years – without understanding a thing about economics – and as a result, agriculture withered, and tens of millions starved. He whipped up the Cultural Revolution and millions were beaten, tortured, killed, but excesses are inevitable in the yin-yang dialectical struggle of the classes. Oh, and he did personally direct a few traditional purges resulting in many thousands of executions, but only in a managerial capacity.
Why did he do this? He was entranced with the Idea of revolution, and he firmly believed in the supremacy of the will. Good qualities for a military leader fighting from a weak position – he was brilliant. Bad for the leader of a giant state. Nor did he have any understanding or interest of science and industry – willpower was supreme there as well. And since will, his will, was all important, he created a position for himself in which he could not be questioned or opposed. His lack of understanding and total contempt for what we call democracy, what he called bourgeois democracy, joined to the absence of any democratic tradition in China, topped off by the rule of committed party men who shared the Leninist belief in the guiding mission of the party ensured disaster. Any dissenters were targeted as the rightist bourgeois element within the communist party!
After he died, the Gang of Four, including his estranged wife of Peking Opera fame, tried to carry on his apocalyptic quest. The capitalist roader, Deng Xiao Ping prevailed and did exactly what Mao had been afraid he would do – turned China’s economy into a form of state-capitalism.
Mao unified China, drove out the foreign devils, made China a great power, and destroyed the feudal landlord class. For this, he will be regarded as a giant of China’s history forever. For now, the ruling dynasty of the Party lives on, but China favors total blandness in its new leaders, and no wonder.