Mao: Monster or Model?

The world’s premier business newspaper the Financial Times (Japanese owned) has the answer: Mao was the worst ever. The worst ever what? If he was a monster that would be fine because monsters don’t exist. Revolutions do though and that’s the gripe of the Financial Times. That’s the story. Revolution or Maoism is back in the Chinese air – if it ever went away. So Mao is still a threat even if he has been dead for forty years. He’s still a model.

Foreign imperialists never managed to swallow China. And Chinese capitalists never managed to completely revise the Chinese revolution. So Mao is unfinished business for businessmen and their global market. Especially when China is waiting in the wings for it’s hegemonic moment.

China’s hero is Mao. And China sooner or later is expected to lead global capital. But the hero doesn’t fit this narrative. It’s like the USA having Malcolm X on the dollar bill. Or Leonard Peltier. Or Mumia Abu Jamal.  In fact the USA could systematically honour any of it’s historic rebels and it still wouldn’t come close to China’s connection to the rebellious Mao.

Mao was a combination of Jesus (in the Pasolini sense) and Sitting Bull (in the indigenous sense). He scared the physical and metaphysical shit out of the empire and the rich. He even did the impossible and outmanoeuvred Marx when it came to the peasants. Mao wanted to destroy the rich (in particular the landlords) and the imperialists here and now and forever. He wanted to recreate China and the world here and now and forever. And he bet on the poorest of the poor to do it.

Global business gambled when it set up shop in China because as well as cheap labor it was getting “cheap” communism too – one that could easily catch fire again and burn everything with a dollar sign on it.

According to the October 1 edition of the Financial Times: neo-Maoism is thriving in the streets of contemporary China. Bolstered by the official support given to the memory of Mao – the possibility of an explosive re-connection between the Chinese state and the Chinese masses exists. And if that happens global capitalism will be hammered like never before. At present though this possibility is just that – a far off possibility. But capital nevertheless finds itself in a possible trap. And it knows it. That’s why it has been demonising Mao nonstop since his death in 1976.

The Financial Times doesn’t hold back. It succinctly sums up the demonic view of Mao:

“In the West, Mao is understood chiefly as China’s “Red Emperor” – a vicious dictator who fostered an extreme personality cult, launched the disastrous Cultural Revolution and masterminded a “Great Leap Forward” that resulted in the worst famine in history. Experts estimate that Mao was responsible for between 40 million and 70 million deaths in peacetime – more than Hitler and Stalin combined.”

There’s only one problem with this Western view of Mao: China doesn’t agree with it. China itself doesn’t fit the above Western narrative on China.

Despite the West the non-West exists. Indeed for the last 600 years this has been the key problem for the West. Since Portugal attacked Africa in 1415 and went on to attack Asia, the West has never come to terms with the independence of the non-West. In modern times the opinion of the non-West has always been an inconvenience for the West – better left ignored.

To be fair to the Financial Times though it does listen to the Chinese even if the Financial mind is full of demons.

“Mao freed China from colonialism and he stood up to the west, he was really great,” says Guo Nianshun, a 24-year old student at Peking University. “Without him we would not have the modern, strong China we have today.”

“Chairman Mao was a truly great man but this is not the country he dreamed of, this is not real communism,” says a university lecturer in his thirties….”the economy today is dominated by monopoly industries controlled by the children of senior officials. The current government, led by Xi Jinping, is very bad.”

And even President Xi says “forever hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought “.

“The neo-Maoists say the Great Leap famine never happened, that it was a rumour started by the CIA,” says Yin Hongbiao, a professor at China’s elite Peking University…”

So who is right: the Chinese or “the CIA”? If Mao was a “vicious” megalomaniac who “masterminded” the murder of tens of millions of Chinese: why is he the hero of modern China? Are the Chinese stupid? Or have the West got the non-West all wrong yet again? When we see today the West getting Aleppo wrong and Duterte wrong and Russia wrong then the question surrounding the West’s interpretation of Mao is apt.

Thankfully we can turn to Western minds free from the CIA and financial prejudices for a proper perspective on Mao. Edgar Snow and William Hinton were two Americans who knew Mao and Maoism personally. Living in China at the time of the revolution they’ve given us in their books a first hand account of the Chairman and his country.

In Red Star Over China (1937) Edgar Snow writes of a meeting with Mao. A guerrilla fighter and leader then aged 44, Mao impressed Snow greatly.

“Do not suppose, first of all, that Mao Tse-tung could be the “saviour” of China. Nonsense. There will never be one “saviour” of China. Yet undeniably you feel a certain force of destiny in him.”

“Mao lived very much like the rank and file of the Red Army. After ten years of leadership of the Reds, after hundreds of confiscations of property of landlords, officials and tax collectors, he owned only his blankets, and a few personal belongings, including two cotton uniforms. Although he is a Red Army commander as well as chairman, he wore on his coat collar only two Red bars that are the insignia of the ordinary Red soldier.”

“He appears to be quite free from symptoms of megalomania, but he has a deep sense of personal dignity, and something about him suggests a power of ruthless decision when he deems it necessary.”

“There seemed to be nothing in him that might be called religious feeling; his judgments were reached, I believe, on the basis of reason and necessity. Because of this I think he has probably on the whole been a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death are concerned.”

“Yet I doubt very much if he would ever command great respect from the intellectual élite of China, perhaps not entirely because he has an extraordinary mind, but because he has the personal habits of a peasant.”

And what about the “Great Leap Famine” (1958-61)? William Hinton in an article published in Monthly Review in 2004 points out the flaw behind the claim that it amounted to being the worst ever in human history.

“Isn’t it indeed strange that this famine was not discovered at the time but only extrapolated backward from censuses taken 20 years later, then spinning the figures to put the worst interpretation on very dubious records”

And why would someone “put the worst interpretation on very dubious records”? Because, believe it or not, Mao had powerful enemies – the rich (the greed is good crowd) and the imperialists.

In his book The Great Reversal (1990) Hinton politically contextualises Maoism. His thesis is that a class war raged within China from the 1949 victory of the communists up until Mao’s death in 1976 and beyond. His point being that whatever chaos there was in China when Mao was attempting to build socialism was not only due to Mao but was also due to the opposing class forces: the “capitalist roaders” – personified by Liu Shaoch’i and Deng Xiaoping.

In Hinton’s words: “Mao foresaw… the “capitalist road” [the capitalist sabotage of the revolution], and called Liu and Deng “capitalist roaders.” He launched the Cultural Revolution in a major, historically unprecedented campaign to remove them from power and prevent them from carrying out their line. In the end he failed. The important thing to remember at this point is that the Cultural Revolution was indeed a revolution, an enormous class struggle, a form of revolutionary war, if you will, to determine the future of China.”

And the Financial Times in it’s article on October 1 (“The Return of Mao”) is not only confirming this thesis of contradictions within the Chinese Communist Party but is saying that the Chinese class war continues today. Indeed seen in this light the 40 years since Mao’s death have been an enormous counter-revolutionary war (Chinese neoliberalism). And Mao has been a prime target in this capitalist struggle for hegemony in China.

The future though has still to be determined. Mao may be dead but like Marx – as long as capitalism is still around so is he. His embodiment being the people. That’s why China’s capitalist leadership today doesn’t dare to remove Mao from his heroic position in contemporary China. If they remove Mao the leadership will lose whatever legitimacy they have. Nonetheless Mao’s “presence” delegitimises them. It’s a dialectical thing.

The last word concerning Mao and how we should judge him is Alexander Cockburn’s. In his book The Golden Age Is In Us (1995) he includes this conversation between himself and two great American Marxists – Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff.

Sweezy: “Mao had the right ideas. Probably it was impossible to carry them out.”

Cockburn: “How do you think Mao looks these days?”

Sweezy: “I think he looks great.”

Cockburn: “You don’t think he destroyed the party with the Cultural Revolution?”

Sweezy: “He probably destroyed the party because he had to, because it was a lousy party.”

Magdoff: “There was a capitalist road!”

Cockburn: “Why do you think Mao looks so good?”

Sweezy: “Because he said the kind of things – believed them and really inspired people to believe them – which have to be done to have a decent society. ‘Serve the people’. ‘Public service not private gain’. Marx, if he had come back alive would have said Mao’s his boy…Mao is the only real Marxist at the leadership level in the post-Marx period….[Lenin] might have become a Maoist in the sense of attacking the party and bombarding the party headquarters out of necessity to change the whole thing around.”

Magdoff: “Mao challenged the idea that economic planning would dissolve conflicts of interest among the people. He saw it dialectically – conflicts between intellectuals and manual workers, between the city and the countryside, stratification in the party and society. He said it was necessary to struggle to overcome these differences whether it takes 100 or 500 years. But now [in China] within the framework of socialism – which is really social welfare in a social democratic framework – all they want to do is to get the kind of economic growth of the capitalist world. It can’t be done. It creates the same kind of problems as in the capitalist world.”

Hence the spectre of Mao today in China. And everywhere else.

Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.