27 February 2012

The legacy of Mao – it’s kinda complicated, actually

Mao Zedong is, was and will continue to be one of the most controversial figures in all of Chinese history for many years to come. To many (including most commentators in the United States and Europe), Mao is a total, unredeemable monster – someone for whom the deaths of millions were to be counted as a blessing if they fell in with the pursuit of his goals, someone who sacrificed all of the best things in Chinese culture upon the altar of his own ego. To a handful of others (increasingly few in this day and age), Mao is to be regarded as a great hero and a patriot: a man whose vision paved the way for all of modern China’s triumphs. The Chinese Communist Party maintains (as in everything else) a sort of neutral, offend-no-one balance, painting him as a well-intentioned revolutionary whose thought was – according to Nicholas Kristof – 70% correct and 30% mistaken. And the Chinese Communist Party, as in everything else (or so it seems), believes and does exactly the wrong things for all of the right reasons: in this case, upholding the main bulk of Mao Zedong’s thought and merely revising the terms of his involvement in the economy – when, on the contrary, they ought to be praising his great economic accomplishments and dumping his ideology. They do this, purportedly, to promote ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ – yet Mao’s ideology (as expressed in the Cultural Revolution) devalued nothing so much as the stability and harmony of the family, calling on children to insult their parents, students to berate and shame their teachers, all in the name of rooting out the ‘capitalists’ and ‘rightists’ who ended up being the penultimate beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution.

I was recently reading an article by Noam Chomsky on the subject of the Vietnam War which made a rather startling claim with regard to Mao’s China. The conventional wisdom about Mao in the West, of course, is that the economic policies during the early part of his reign were unmitigated disasters that led to the starvation of millions of people. (Thankfully, my high school Chinese area studies teacher, Mr Mjaanes, was a bit too dignified to follow the conventional wisdom on… well, much of anything, really.) And yet, the statistics show otherwise – the Noam Chomsky article cited a paper in Science magazine (written by Peng Xizhe of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University) which showed the total death rate in the country falling from 14.0 per thousand in 1953 to 11.6 per thousand in 1964 to 6.5 per thousand in 1982; with the bulk of this decrease in death rate happening between 1950 and 1975 – precisely the years of Mao’s ascendancy. Peng attributes these decreases to purely economic accomplishments: development of industry, mass education and improved health services, as well as the public hygiene campaign which accompanied the Great Leap Forward. The primary beneficiaries of Mao’s economic reforms were precisely the very young and the very old. By the end of the 1970’s, infant mortality was cut to a third of what it had been in 1950 (and was cut in half again between 2000 and 2010). This campaign was so successful that by the time of Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms – 1978 and 1979 – the Chinese Communist Party had come to see the rise in population as a burgeoning threat, and implemented the One Child Policy alongside the market reforms. It should be noted as well that the crude death rate (not counting the abortions or sterilisations accompanying the One Child Policy) actually rose again during the ‘reform and opening’ period, and is now at 7.1 deaths per thousand population.

Thus, indeed, Mao Zedong has done some incredibly great things for China. He put an end to polygamy and child marriages, thus giving Chinese women an unprecedented degree of freedom and dignity. He introduced universal education, such that anyone could be given opportunities to which, up to that point, only a small fraction of people had access. He brought massive material benefits to the Chinese people in ways even the Qing Emperors could only dream of, and improved the lot of China’s peasantry to a massive degree through the breakup of large estates. The great problem with Mao Zedong – the exact point where the hero becomes the monster – is to be located precisely within his ideology, what came to be known as Maoism.

Mao believed – wrongly – that the revolutionary potential within the peasant class, which has made itself manifest at numerous points in Chinese history, could be harnessed to an ideology of infinite progress along Marxist lines. When Mao read Shi Naian’s Water Margin 《水滸傳》 and the legendary feats of the bandits who resisted the excesses of Song officials and robbed the wealthy to benefit the downtrodden, he noted with disdain that the heroes were ‘capitulators’ to the Emperor, and thus robbed their own movement of its revolutionary potential. But this is precisely wrong: the very revolutionary potential of the movement itself was predicated (in the novel) on the categories of Confucian morality and reciprocal duties which the Song government – particularly at the level with which Song Jiang and his compatriots were dealing with it – was busy neglecting or trampling over. Though 《水滸傳》 is semi-fictional, the revolutionary sentiments it portrayed are indeed far from it – the Chinese people have not, as a rule, suffered tyrants lightly, not since Shang Zhouxin, and neither have they had (historically) a great tolerance for greed or other abuses of power. Confucianism (at least under the influence of Mencius and Zhu Xi) has proven – time and again – that it is quite capable of very deep and persistent critique of both state power and private interest, and of mobilising people to take action on the basis of these critiques. And yet, in his zeal for demolishing all remnants of the old society, Mao Zedong not only broke the lives and livelihoods of millions of his innocent countrymen, but he also tore up the social fabric and paved the way for the cronyism and gangster capitalism that was to follow and made much more difficult the restoration of this ancient and venerable tradition of virtue-ethics with radical potential. It would be more accurate to say that Mao himself – though unknowingly so – was ‘capitulating’ to Deng and Jiang in pursuing the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, the agrarian, distributist, traditionalist and ritualist nature of the ‘old’ Chinese society (and the political instincts of still quite a few of its people, it should be noted) is now at odds with both of the loudest strains in modern Chinese political thought – those pushing for a return to Mao and those pushing for further economic ‘reforms’ in the spirit of Deng. And all the while the ruling class is pursuing a middle course which may prove untenable, unless it makes a radical return not to either Mao or Deng, but to the Doctrine of the Mean.

But this will require acknowledging the accomplishments of Mao whilst disavowing his ideology, rather than the other way around.


  1. Very interesting stuff.

    There is a similar dilemma here in Poland-- no right-minded person really wants to praise Communism, especially as it was imposed by the Soviet Union rather than being homegrown as Mao was.

    On the other hand, no semi-intelligent person can honestly deny the achievements which were made in many areas under Communism.

    There is a convincing argument which says that the same achievements would have been made under a non-Communist democratic regime, as they were in many European countries.

    What do you think about China? Could the same developments have been made the Communists?

  2. Sorry, that last line should read 'without the Communists.'

  3. Great post. I would also recommend Robert C. Allen's book "Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution" for a similar "heterodox" interpretation of a communist regime. Allen points out that Soviet development policy as articulated under Stalin was actually very successful at industrializing the country, and he makes a strong case that Tsarist capitalism would likely have performed worse than Stalinist central planning.

    Allen is not a Stalinist apologist and he discusses horrible events under Stalin’s regime, such as the collectivization famine and the mistreatment of the peasantry, but his book is an enlightening read because it questions the common narrative about Soviet economic incompetence.

    Ultimately, I think we can separate the material accomplishments of various systems with the ideologies behind them. Plenty of horrible things have occurred under capitalist regimes, yet, I think even the most ardent left-winger would have to acknowledge the material success of capitalism. I think the same thing can be said for communist regimes.

  4. @ Czarny: Hello again! Welcome back to the blog, and thank you for the comment!

    Well, naturally I think that neither Communism nor Mao was necessary for the developments which I credit to Mao here (or I wouldn't have brought up the Confucian tradition as an alternative toolbox for meaningful social change). And I do indeed think that a non-Communist, democratic regime would be a great step in the right direction for China.

    The difficulty now is that China's current regime simply cedes too much ground (or perhaps I should say, the wrong sort of ground) to the Deng-worshipping Shanghai- and Guangdong-based ultra-rich urban business clique and its neoliberal and neoconservative cheerleaders, both in their economic policies and in their highly-selective application of Maoism. The formal repudiation of the Cultural Revolution was certainly needed, but those who challenged the crony-capitalism which predictably filled the void were invariably accused, in the post-Deng political discourse, of wanting a return to the Cultural Revolution even when such was manifestly not the case.

    Naturally, this suits the coastal business elite, the neoliberals and the neoconservatives quite well, since they get all the benefits of an authoritarian government which increasingly conforms to their economic ideology, as well as the satisfaction of playing the victim and complaining to Western governments that the political reforms that would cement their place in this new order aren't coming fast enough. Or maybe I'm being too cynical?

    @ John: Thanks for the heads-up! I'll certainly check out Allen's work, soon as I'm finished with David's new book! (Definitely a good read so far - a very well-articulated selection of the keen political insights I've found expressed on his blog, though I find myself having to muddle through a few of his accounts of current events due to my relative ignorance of modern British politics...)

    And yes, we do certainly have to acknowledge the material successes of the capitalist order. But at the same time, our purpose as leftists is actually to be conservative moralists: pointing out the injustices involved in capitalism's inception (enclosures, imperialism, slavery, &c.) as well as in its subsequent maldistribution of productive property. Just as our purpose as conservatives regarding communism was to be leftist moralists, pointing out its inherent violence and its infringements upon the dignity of individuals and their consciences.