Mao in History

Mao in History

Mini Teaser: During the first decades of Mao's China, a time of American self-confidence and strong sense of purpose spurred by the World War II victory, U.S. Sinology for the most part took on an "idealist" rather than a "realist" orientation: hopeful about s

by Author(s): Ross Terrill

To gain perspective on Mao's career at the summit of power in China,
one may imagine a Ronald Reagan who not only ruled for the eight
years he was elected to office, but also long previously (when a
Democrat) and long afterwards (when afflicted with Alzheimer's
disease). This approximates the span and subjective variation of
Mao's decades-long "reign" in Beijing. Mao's career evolved through
an embrace of universal individualism (as a youth), to a phase of
belief in Soviet-inspired proletarian progress (in the early 1920s),
to peasant revolt (late 1920s), on to war communism (in Yanan),
socialist building (the 1950s), disillusion with the results of
socialism (from the late 1950s), a philosophical and moral coarsening
(1960s), and a final return to a highly subjective individualism

It would be nonsensical to say Mao did not change his views and ways
over this spectacular lifetime, no less than it would be to say that
the Reagan of the White House years was to be equated with the victim
of Alzheimer's disease living in retirement in California. But given
the Chinese system, most of the different "Maos" were part of the
single until-death political rule of Mao.

Hence the more we learn about Mao the person, the more we are driven
to analyze the system over which he presided. Because he exercised
power for so long, and held it until he died, Mao's personal doubts
and decline were translated into gyrations of the Chinese state.
Intrigue was unleashed. Uncertainty--the oxygen of Mao's
court--turned colleagues and staff into fearful conspirators. The
imperial-plus-Leninist system acted as a magnifying glass, giving a
huge dimension to each quirk of his personality. But in the service
of what vision of history and society did this personality enlist

There was a sharp dualism to Mao's political ideas. His political
methods and his notions of how China related to the non-Chinese world
probably owed more to Chinese traditions than to Marxism-Leninism.
There was little about the modern world--other than Marxism--that Mao
knew well; he reached into Chinese tradition for his instinctual
knowledge. Yet Chinese tradition did not provide Mao his goals. These
came from the social engineering arsenal of
Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. In its fullness, this meant nothing less
than the refashioning of the Chinese spirit away from balance and
nearer to polarization, away from harmony and nearer to struggle,
away from private values and toward the collective values of an
Eastern Sparta. The mismatch between goal and method caused many of
the tragedies of the Mao era. The clashes between the two began long
before the spectacular problems of the 1960s and 1970s, but they
intensified as Mao used stratagems from the old novels Dream of the
Red Chamber and Journey to the West to prosecute the heightened
Marxist class struggle of the Cultural Revolution. As his
subjectivism soared, "class" meant little more than a way to
demarcate friend and enemy of the moment.

It is surprisingly common for Western scholars of China, still today,
to assume that social engineering could have worked if the conditions
were correct and it were properly done. I will cite here not extreme
cases, but excellent scholars from the pages of The Politics of China
1949-1989, which is based on the recent monumental Cambridge History
of China, whose points of view are widely representative. My own
first two books on China--much earlier volumes--reflect the influence
of this same standpoint; my recent ones do not.

Frederick Teiwes says of the state dominance over society that issued
from the Three- and Five-Antis campaigns against anti-socialist
elements in the early 1950s: "As a result, CCP leaders had achieved a
position where planned economic development was genuinely feasible."
But surely the twentieth century has taught us that planned economic
development is never feasible, "genuinely" or otherwise. We have
abundant evidence, most of it from outside China studies, about the
disastrous unworkability of the command economy. (One of the best
arguments against central planning is Friedrich Hayek's The Road to
Serfdom, written before Mao's capture of power. Whatever criticisms
may be made of Hayek's thesis when applied to Western societies, his
title is an apt summation of communist China's journey and travails.)
Here, in the social engineering goals of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism,
lay the most profound flaw of the post-1949 Mao.

It is not satisfactory to laud the success of the Mao of 1949-57 and
say that, from then on, with the onset of the crusade against
"rightists" in 1957 and the Great Leap Forward soon after, he "made
mistakes" or fell into "excesses." Kenneth Lieberthal is able to call
the regime of the 1950s "a wholly legitimate CCP rule." Whence its
legitimacy? Communist rule continued in the 1950s for the same reason
that communist rule came into being in the 1940s: the power of the
gun. The Marxist self-righteousness that gave Mao a sense of his own
legitimacy was cut from the same cloth as the self-righteousness that
made him declare half the people around him "counter-revolutionaries."

"The specific reasons for the failure of the Great Leap Forward
remained unclear", says Lieberthal. But if the reasons for the
failure of the Great Leap Forward are not clear to us, then nothing
Mao did can be clear to us. Not only Lieberthal but other estimable
China specialists still write in the 1990s as if a continuance of the
Soviet-model years, without the lurch into the Great Leap Forward and
the Cultural Revolution, might somehow have led to the achievement of
Mao's stated goals. Nothing in the experience of the Soviet Union or
Eastern Europe suggests that this is valid.

Harry Harding even implies that the Cultural Revolution might have
"succeeded" if it had been fully carried out:

"The flaw in Mao's strategy, in other words, was that he waged only
half a revolution between 1966 and 1969. He failed to design a viable
and enduring alternative political order to replace the one he sought
to overthrow. . . . In this sense, the Cultural Revolution was the
second unsuccessful Chinese revolution of the twentieth century
[following 1911]."

But a "revolution" in 1966 would have meant the overthrow of the
Communist Party, and that was not Mao's intention. Indeed, the
Communist Party was his tool for the social engineering that provided
the raison d'être for his being in power. No, the "flaw in Mao's
strategy" was fully evident in the first half of the "revolution"--he
had not even correctly defined his enemy, and the reason was the
blindness to reality that social engineering induces.

Recent scholarship has pushed back in time the critical failures of
the CCP-in-power. The same process is evident in the case of the
Soviet Union, where a previous notion of Stalin "betraying" Lenin's
revolution has given way to a sense of Lenin as one with Stalin in
his essential social engineering objectives and their concomitant
dictatorial political methods--as shown in Richard Pipes' striking
1996 book The Unknown Lenin. Mao's crusade against "rightism" began
far earlier than the Cultural Revolution, earlier still than the
Great Leap Forward, earlier even than the acceleration of
collectivization of 1956. The Thought Reform campaign during the
Korean War bears the essential marks of the terroristic methods of
the Cultural Revolution. The united front tactics by which
businessmen were used and discarded in Shanghai in the early 1950s
were one with those pioneered in Yanan a decade earlier and practiced
in the use and misuse of allies by Mao throughout his communist

Perhaps 1949 is the real watershed in Mao's career, and a more
important point of demarcation than any dualism in his own character,
not primarily because Mao deteriorated personally after 1949 (that
mostly came a decade later), but for reasons inherent in "socialist
construction." Benjamin Yang in From Revolution to Politics (1990)
aptly suggests that, prior to 1949, Mao's "revolutionary idealism"
was under the control of his "political realism", whereas after 1949
his "political realism" was at the beck and call of his
"revolutionary idealism." From his rich pre-1949 experience of the
practice of realism, often in struggle against doctrinaire pro-Moscow
colleagues, Mao knew the realist language, and he soothingly spoke it
from time to time.

Even as the Great Leap Forward soared, Mao reviewed a report from a
certain county in Shandong that ended by saying, "the county will
attain communism in two years", and scrawled on it, "add a zero
[making it twenty] and the country still won't attain communism." But
these flashes of realism were but an intermittent restraint on his
rampant leftism. They could not be more than that because Marxist
social engineering, Mao's chief post-1949 goal, is inherently
unrealistic about the human material that alone can constitute the
building blocks of a social order.

The flattering Defense Minister Lin Biao cried that Mao had dealt
with questions Marx and Lenin had not grappled with. This was another
way of saying that Mao--unlike Marx and Lenin--lived long enough into
the period of socialist construction to find out that Marxism in
practice was a disaster. Do we not grow suspicious when we find Mao
saying of Stalin that he confused the people with the enemy, and then
Deng Xiaoping saying the same thing of Mao? Does this not go to the
heart of the failure and arrogance of social engineering?

Essay Types: Essay