Mao: Outsider Philosopher King

May 25, 2010

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.


Free will, and all that…again

May 24, 2010

Following up on earlier posts about historical determinism, free will, all that sort of stuff, I offer this astonishing snip from the New York Times, musings by Paul Kennedy on the eternal question of who makes history – great men, or impersonal forces: 

Interestingly, the most important challenge to Carlyle’s great-leader theory came from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the opening paragraphs of his classic “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” he offers those famous lines: “Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency of human endeavor, but reminds us of how even the most powerful people are constrained by time and space, by geography and history.

Yes, astonishing too is the occurence of favorable comment on Karl Marx in the press, let alone the Times.  Fact is, he was a brilliant historian and thinker.  Maybe not so hot as a practical politician.  Not unlike Mao, about whom I am reading in Phillip Short’s biography – and he too made a difference as an individual.  A big difference!  But as Short makes clear, he did so within the structures of Chinese cultural history, adopting or slipping into the role of detached-philosopher-emperor, the object of daily veneration, just as Mao was brought up to bow to the image of Confucius each morning.


Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


Chairman

May 14, 2010

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…


Soul Man

August 16, 2008

As the television world watches the Olympics in Beijing, the Party is ensuring that certain things will not be seen.  In order to stage a protest of any sort, especially during the festivities, you must get a permit and only exercise your right to speech in selected zones.  (Sounds a bit like the Republican convention in NYC, 2004, eh?)  According to this article in the NYTimes, quite a few of those who sign up for the right to voice their grievances publicly are ending up disappearing into the maw of the Chinese Communist Party security apparatus.  It reminds me of that grim old joke about Stalin and the Soviet constitution that was packed with liberal human rights.  They only published it to see who would sign on, so that then they could be dealt with.

The fellow shown here is a veteran protester, profiled briefly in the article:

Despite what seem to be the perils of applying for a permit, scores of people continue to flock to the capital seeking an opportunity to publicize their grievances. Gao Chuancai, 45, a farmer from Heilongjiang Province, evaded a police cordon in his hometown and arrived in Beijing with a handwritten poster describing a litany of abuses by local officials.

Mr. Gao said in an interview that he had no delusions about his prospects. Over the years, he said, he has been jailed a dozen times and beaten repeatedly for trying to publicize corruption in Xingyi, a village just outside Harbin in China’s northeast. Security officials from Harbin had in the past even tracked him down in Beijing and stopped him from petitioning higher authorities in the capital, he said.

Early this month, after he learned of the Olympic protest zones on television, he mailed in an application to Beijing.

On Wednesday, he worked up the nerve to visit the application office. “Whatever happens, happens. I don’t care if I die,” he said as his taxi pulled up to the building.

Just what makes a person act this way?  Some sort of glorious stubborness that might, under most circumstances, make him a rather unpleasant person?  Surely, the authorities are asking themselves the same question:  “Why won’t he just shut up!!”  Philip Pan’s engrossing new book, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, tries to answer just this question.  He profiles several men and woman, inspiring, brave people with   tremendous grit, who won’t buckle under to the the Chinese state.  He also describes others who are cynical, rapacious, brutal, and totally unprincipled, and he sees it as an open question as to which group will carry the day in China, ruled as it is by an entrenched, corrupt, kleptocracy.  (Communist ideology dropped by the wayside long ago.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Gao…

At the reception area, a pair of officers questioned him about the nature of his protest and asked him to fill out a lengthy form that included the names and numbers of the officials who had wronged him. Mr. Gao was reluctant, but he complied.

After an hour, they smiled and told him to return in five days. As he walked out the door, he overheard one of the officers on the phone. He was calling the police station in Harbin.

I wish him luck.


The Masses

October 2, 2007

mao_mao.jpg

People always say that George Orwell’s 1984 was a warning about communism or Stalinism. One reason they say so is because Animal Farm certainly was a dark satire about the Russian Revolution (among other things), but some aspects of 1984 seem a lot closer to Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution than Russia. I am reading Anchee Min’s memoir, Red Azalea, and the world she describes, one in which people live in mortal fear of being caught in a romantic or sexual relationship, sounds a lot like life under Newthink. At one point, she describes a scene in a large park in Bejing, filled with masturbators hiding in bushes – if they tried it at “home,” they might very well be caught and denounced as a bourgeois reactionary with no devotion to the proletarian spirit, and be “sent down” to slave on the farms. The universal unisex clothing, the endless hectoring about every aspect of private life, the ceaseless propaganda pitched at high decibels…yes, 1984, and a small step to Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia. The mass meetings, the mindless quoting from Mao’s Red Book – it all sounds like 1984′s anti-Goldstein rallies, and the Two-Minute Hate sessions.

In Stalin’s Russia, they didn’t care what you wore, and once you were in the Gulag, they didn’t try to reeducate you – they just expected you to work until you dropped. On the other hand, nothing I’ve read talks about Mao’s China having industrial quotas for shooting people, although they did make up for it by causing millions of people to starve to death.


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