Mao Zedong was the great hero and icon of much of the "New Left" of forty years ago much as Stalin was for its predecessor, the "Old Left" in the early to middle decades of the last century. Those who fell under the spell of these tyrants in their youth have rarely managed completely to rid themselves of visceral sympathies for them, and a sense that somehow those who pillory their erstwhile heroes don't quite understand. So it is perhaps not surprising that the first book since Mao Zedong's death in 1976 to make a serious attempt to depict the man as something other than the monster he undoubtedly was, Lee Feigon's Mao: A Reinterpretation, should deal with Stalin, too.
Feigon's argument is that Mao started out sympathizing with, and being supported by Stalin, but then saw the inapplicability of the Soviet model to China, and thereafter struggled, through such initiatives as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to save China from the fate to which he had unwittingly delivered it.
A professor at Colby College, Feigon is best known as the author of a solid and useful study of the important early 20th-century Chinese left-wing thinker Chen Duxiu. But most of his argument in his latest book, his fourth, can be characterized as at best quixotic, for it is no less than a serious attempt, by a scholar of some repute, to portray Mao Zedong as a highly positive historical figure.
But although that is wildly wrong, not everything Feigon argues is to be dismissed. Above all, Feigon is almost certainly correct to contend that Mao owed a great deal more to the Soviet Union and to Stalin in particular than has usually been admitted. In the 1920s and 1930s, when Mao was climbing toward leadership, only one Communist Party existed in the world and its headquarters were in Moscow. Individuals joined that single Party. Their national parties had only as much independence as the Kremlin allowed them: Stalin chose and replaced their leaders at will; they in turn depended upon him for direction as well as political and financial support. Mao must have known what he was doing when he joined the Communists. After all, indigenous left-wing and other political movements existed in China as they did in Europe and the United States. The whole point about joining the Communists was that one thereby declared supreme loyalty to Moscow and an international socialist movementsomething many people around the world were willing to do in the 1920s and 1930s, when non-whites were by and large subject to arbitrary imperialism, while Europe and the United States suffered from an economic depression that led many thoughtful people to conclude that the liberal economic and political system had shown itself fatally flawed.
People living in that world were forced to confront deep social and political questions, to which Communism provided ready-made and plausible answers. Feigon correctly notes the significance of the publication in 1938 of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), Short Course, attributed to Stalin himself, which, with its combination of a clear historical narrative of class struggle through the ages with the high-sounding Marxist philosophical nonsense known as "dialectical materialism" quickly became the definitive guide to the Communist faith everywhere. Feigon tells us that Mao had it translated into Chinese and that by March 1941 "more than 100,000 copies were circulating." This reviewerwho keeps a copy of the English version handy to his deskoccasionally mentions it when chatting with elderly but still faithful Communists in China, most of whom are puzzled and appalled by the current scene. One such actually brought out to show, with great emotion, his own treasured and well-studied copy, in English, with Chinese equivalents of difficult words entered beautifully in the margins in fading fountain pen ink. Neither the intellectual seriousness, nor the basic humane motivation of such people, should be forgotten.
By stressing the degree to which Mao got his ideas from Russia, Feigon challenges what was the scholarly orthodoxy in America in the 1970s, when he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. In those days many Westerners took Mao seriously not only as a political figure, but also as a thinker, with the usual encomium being that he had skillfully blended "modern" Western ideas in their Communist guise, with Chinese tradition, to form an amalgam, "Sinified Marxism" that was thought peculiarly suitable to Chinese conditions. No one, I think, believes that any more, and scholars of the subject are showing more and more that Japan, not Russia, was the most important source of left-wing thought (if not practice) for China.
The Soviet influence continued as Mao came to power and after. The Chinese Civil War of 1945-49 was in no sense a "class struggle" (from elite to common soldier, the rivals had comparable, parallel backgrounds) nor was its outcome foreordained. Communist success was owed chiefly to two factors: first, the willingness of the Soviet Union to admit Mao's armies from faraway Yan'an into the strategically key Manchuria, which they had just conquered (indeed to help transport them there and later equip them), and second, Chiang Kai-shek's strategically catastrophic decision to attempt to drive them out in a rapid campaign (which nearly succeeded) rather than let them do what by every indication they wanted. That was to create in Manchuria, under Soviet auspices, a "Red China" that would coexist with Chiang's China to the south. The clearest hint that this was what they had in mind is the way they concentrated, after arrival, not on preparing their army for war (they did not expect one) but rather on extending their political and administrative control throughout what are now the so-called "Three Provinces of the Northeast."
But Chiang insisted on starting a Civil War at a time when the Chinese people longed for peace (and thus lost much of the support he had gained through his indomitable leadership against the Japanese). He lost, and summer of 1949 found the victor, Mao Zedong, hesitating outside Peking, seemingly unnerved by the scale of his own victory. At such a time he must have been comforted by the knowledge that Moscow provided a model of how he should proceed. The center of world Communism could provide everything a would-be ruler need, from help in organizing your party and your secret police to designing your national flag and other symbols, not to mention educational curricula, membership in a political bloc, and so forth.
So Mao finally entered the old capital and began to create, in effect, "Soviet China." (Interestingly, he seems never actually to have visited the old Imperial Palace, though he lived for years next door at Zhongnanhai. Perhaps, like Yuan Shikai, the general who overthrew Sun Yatsen in 1912, he was spooked by palace traditions to the effect that such and such a heavy ornament would fall on the head of any false emperor). Following the Marxist playbook, he installed a provisional government that looked diverse but was in fact under total Communist control, and began to impose a Soviet-style dictatorship, a task made easier by his decision (against the advice of most of his colleagues) to send Chinese armies to save Kim Il-sung in the Korean War.
Although as Feigon's narrative makes clear, Mao had long since begun to lean in the direction of Stalin and the Soviet Union, his policies upon taking power caught many Chinese by surprise. They had opposed Chiang Kai-shek (whose name, incidentally, Feigon spells as Jiang Kaishek, following no known system of romanization) because he ruled as a dictator and they wanted freedom and democracyexactly what Mao had long, and quite unequivocally, promised.
Who could forget his definitive statement on the topic, made on September 25, 1945, when Mao had responded in writing to twelve questions placed to him by the Reuters correspondent in Chongqing [Chungking, China's wartime capital]. The tenth question had asked what was the "Communist Party's understanding of a free and democratic China." Mao's response read:
A free and democratic China will have the following characteristics. Its governments at all levels, including even the central government, will all be chosen in universal, equal, and secret elections, and will be responsible to their electors. It will carry out Mr Sun Yatsen's Three People's Principles, Lincoln's principle of "of the people, by the people, and for the people," as well as Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter. It will guarantee the independence, solidarity, and unity of the country, and its cooperation with other democratic powers.
Those promises were broken by Mao (but never forgotten by Chinese) as he embraced the USSR with increasing intimacy, which culminated, after the Korean War, in extensive Soviet economic and military aid, including promises to provide China with the means to produce nuclear weapons. (Stalin also ensured he had leverage over Mao by holding on to Soviet naval bases in Manchuria).
Feigon's account of all this, though not his emphasis, is conventional and based mostly on published English-language sources and monographs. Here and there, however, he puts a foot wrong.
For example, Ian Buruma has suggested, quite accurately, I think, that, in Feigon's words, "once the facts of Mao's life became as well known in China as they have become in the West, balanced assessment of the former Chinese leader would be tossed aside, and everyone would agree that Mao was a monster." Feigon's response to this is simply wrong factually: "There are not many more facts about Mao to expose. Scholars have unearthed and published virtually every word Mao ever wrote and have attempted to describe his every action in exhaustive detail. They have even translated and analyzed the notes he scribble in the margins of his boyhood schoolbooks, and have documented his bowel movements before various battles." That is a deeply misleading statement, for although it is true that we now possess reams of documents by or involving Mao, memoirs from his doctor and at least one of his mistresses, and much comment from Chinese scholars, the doors of the Party Archives remain almost completely closed to scholars. The privileged few who have gotten in for a moment speak of vast amounts of material that no one outside Chinese officialdom has seen. Our scholarly situation today with respect to China is perhaps comparable to where we were with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, which is to say we had far better access than in the 1950s (not to mention the 1930s) both to documents and to genuinely informative Soviet scholarship, supplemented by much secondary material found (and mined by a few important scholars such as Professor William Taubman, author of Stalin's America Policy: From Entente to Detente to Cold War in Eastern European and other Communist historical journals. Decades will be required for the Russians themselves to digest the information to which they now have access and the same will be true for the Chinese, once Communism falls and the archives are opened. When that day comes, one suspects Buruma will be proven correct.
Nor is it the case, as Feigon argues in his conclusion, that ordinary Chinese still like Mao (the evidence is that cab driversthe universal sourceput his portrait on their dashboards, and striking workers often carried his picture "and spoke out longingly of the job security they had enjoyed under his rule") while he is disliked primarily by the new class of intellectuals and well-traveled, corrupt officials, associated with Deng Xiaoping that has come into being since his death. The fact is that ordinary Chinese don't know about Mao: they still believe he went hungry during famines (he most certainly did not), dressed and lived simply, and was an honest patriot unlike the current cast of characters. Nor is anyone informing them otherwise: the official cult of Mao continues, his portrait still commands Tiananmen Square, studies still grind out films about him). Furthermore, even though the Chinese Feigon refers to are wrong about Mao, they are correct about their present rulers, the most corrupt since the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
Nor, I think, does Feigon get Peng Dehuai right, the military commander who, at the Lushan Plenum in July 1959, ever so politely brought to Mao's attention the great famine being caused by the Great Leap Forward, only to be slapped down by a (pace Feigon, who reads it differently) a rambling and menacing speech in which Mao threatened, in effect, to split the Party if his policies were not supported. "[I]n the post-Mao world" Feigon notes, "Peng has come to be viewed as a truth-telling hero unfairly persecuted by Mao." The reality was different: "Peng was a cantankerous old man who had crossed swords with Mao on several key occasions…" (129)."Cantankerous?" If so, then the English language lacks the vocabulary to describe Mao's speech, which refused even to acknowledge the catastrophe that would soon cost the lives of at least thirty million Chinese."Old man" Peng (born 1898) was in fact five years younger than Mao (born 1893). Feigon misses the full import of Mao's lament that he is without heirs (one son killed, one went mad) which refers to the Confucian curse that, in effect, whoever invented human sacrifice should pay the worst of all Chinese penalties: to be without progeny (like Mao)and what greater human sacrifice could one imagine than thirty million dead in pursuit of the insane policies of the Great Leap? Mao's leap had been hubristic.
Just as importantly, Peng's disagreements with Mao probably go back long before the Korean war, which is where Feigon locates their beginning. In that war Peng commanded the Chinese troops and Mao's beloved elder son was killed, but that was not the start of their mutual dislike. My own reading is that the two men first disagreed in the 1930s about how to deal with the Japanese invasion. Peng, a Chinese patriot, favored all out resistance: he would lead the only significant Communist military action against the Japanese in the whole war. This was the Hundred Regiments Offensive of 1941, which damaged the enemy enough to elicit a vicious counter-attack, and for which Mao criticized him. Mao preferred to sit the war out in Yan'an in remote northern Shaanxi, about as far from the Japanese as one could get without actually leaving China, granting interviews, sampling the local female talent, and delivering so-called "lectures" on the arts and literature, while letting let the Japanese grind down the Chinese resistance (about half KMT divisions and half others not under Chiang's direct control)while building up his own army, not against the Japanese, but for future political purposes. Meanwhile Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, whatever their faults, repeatedly put themselves in harm's way (and both were nearly killed). So at war's end, everyone knew that Peng was a combat hero and Mao was a shirker. This Mao could not abide, and his score-settling echoed through the early PRC until Peng was finally killed by Mao's Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.
But perhaps the most serious defect of the stronger early part of Feigon's book is its complete inattention to the broader historical context of the events he describes. Jiang Zemin, as one perceptive PRC émigré has noted, never mentions any Chinese people in his speeches except Communists (the sole exception is Sun Yat-sen). It is as if China's non-Communist past, its culture, its liberal and authoritarian traditions, and so forth, never existed. In Jiang's case, the explanation is probably simple ignorance: he knows very little about what was going on in China in the 1920s and 1930s other than among Communists. But Feigon has no such excuse, yet his book suggests that he has not yet grasped that the really consequential events in China during the period of Mao's rise had little to do either with him or his Party. For example, the emergence of Shanghai as a great entreport and manufacturing center; the education of tens of thousands of Chinese at institutions such as the Rockefeller-funded Peking Union Medical Center or Yenching University, not to mention the flowering of literature, political writing, and the press in the first half of the last centuryand China's heroic resistance to Japan in the Second World Warcast far longer historical shadows in China than do the minutiae of kto kogo (literally "who whom?" meaning "who will win?" a phrase common in early Bolshevik usage) in China's Communist Party during those years. All of that really significant past has, however, until recently been expunged from the PRC Chinese publications, to which so many foreign scholars look for guidance.
Feigon, however, shows some real insight in the stress he places on the intellectual and cultural dependence on the Soviet Union of the early Communist movement, something that makes many China scholars deeply uncomfortablethough he is undoubtedly correct. Soviet architecture, Soviet movies, even Soviet food (!) were the ne plus ultra in 1950s Beijing. Soviet tailors were even called upon to make suits for the new Communist Chinese leadershipan insult, if ever there was one, to the highly skilled Western-style tailors of China's own Shanghai. The whole point about Communism was that it was foreign and modern, and a lot of Chinese who had been youths in the early years of the last century liked that. They hated Chinese culture and paid no attention to it.
This rejection of their own heritage is proving their fatal flaw today. Thus, when asked to explain the rapid spread in China of the Falun Dafa religion (alleged Chinese secret police reports from 1998 estimated the number of followers at between seventy and one hundred million) a follower responded: "Our faith has deep roots in Chinese culture and tradition" (a point with which academic specialists in Chinese religion agree) and is therefore immediately accessible. As for the Communist leadership that has so viciously persecuted the faith, "They are ignorant of Chinese tradition. Their heads are full of German and Soviet rubbish." Not perhaps exactly how Feigon would have put it, but close to his argument.
Feigon goes completely off the tracks, however, when he deals with Mao Zedong in power. His argument, necessarily oversimplified, is that Mao came to realize that the "Stalinist system" (and what a fine, archaic term that is, a linguistic escape hatch that permits us to avoid grappling with the fundamental errors and crimes of Communism by personalizing them) was inappropriate for China. He then waged a sort of heroic rear guard action against the system he had mistakenly imposed, attempting to ally himself with the Chinese people against the new class of autocratic cadres that had mysteriously appeared. Feigon applies this interpretationMao against those ossified, reactionary bureaucratsto both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The political outline is correct: in each case Mao stirred up a storm in order to avoid being sidelined by better educated, harder working, and more technically competent rivals.
Mao's attitude to Stalin is difficult to fathom. Almost the moment he had taken power in China in 1949 he departed for a long visit to Moscow, which included audiences with the Greatest Genius of the Present Age. Foreign Communists often found entering the Presence more than their systems could standand regularly soiled their linens. Mao did better: accounts suggest that his first meeting with the Marshal he was no more than speechless. Mao seems to have been unnerved by Khrushchev's "secret speech" confirming Stalin's crimes and the de-Stalinization campaign that followed, for he was, after all, in some sense China's Stalin (and Lenin too, as the author of the canonical texts). But de-Stalinization never really reached China. Indeed, embroidered portraits of Stalin were on sale all over China in the 1980s, and major streets in some Chinese cities still bear his name. So if, in fact, Mao did decide, as Feigon suggests, that he had to break with Stalin, it was a very stealthy breakand this is difficult to explain, for one suspects most Chinese would have welcomed the discarding of the Soviet incubus and a renewed embrace of Chinese tradition. Feigon makes much of the way Mao's agricultural policies (which were uniformly dreadful) differed from the Soviet, but the exercise is proves little about attitudesStalin's politics were what really stamped Chinaand as for comparing different approaches to collectivization, the exercise is about as useful as examining differing blueprints for Fourierist Phalanasteries, or for perpetual motion machines.
Feigon's interpretation of the Cultural Revolution is even more far fetched. In essence, he portrays this nightmarish period as having been, in fact, "empowering in many ways": middle school enrolment grew (though the colleges were closed most of the time), great attention was paid to the farmers (or "peasants" as Feigon calls them); information was made more widely available through a great increase in the distribution of "Reference News" (a government summary of foreign dispatches: i.e. the real news as opposed to the official propaganda of the other media). Not only that "Mao sponsored exciting new artistic experiments throughout much of the 1960s. They produced stirring new synthesis in art, music, and literature"…such as the "Eight Model Ballets" created by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing.
This is far-fetched indeed. A certain kitschy nostalgia, to be sure, surrounds the whole Maoist period in China today, and some Western scholars have taken up the unpromising task of "rethinking" the "art" of the period. But what Feigon's argument misses entirely is the politically manipulative nature of Mao's whole approach to the students, farmers, and others whom he enlisted against the Communist apparat that had finished with him after the Great Leap. If Mao's goal was to "empower" ordinary people, why not simply do it, or at least advocate it? If you want better information, why not free the press? If you want the farmers to have a better life, why not permit them to leave the slave-plantation like communes to which they were legally bound? If the farmers were entitled to political voice, why not let them vote, as they were doing at just the same time in India and elsewhere, and as Mao himself had promised they would? For all the empowering rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, no real power ever passed out of the hands of Mao or the Party. It was an "affirmative action" empowerment, which is to say that uneducated people were denied the genuine education and opportunity that would have made them self-sufficient players, but were instead skyrocketed into higher status roles than they had previously held, but which they, through no fault of their own, could not handle. Mao was interested in ordinary people as pawns or clients; he had no desire to make them citizens.
Finally, Feigon never really wrestles with the consequences of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. To be sure, he provides the data for the Leapat least thirty million dead, needlessly, owing to Mao's crackpot agricultural and industrial policies. Why isn't that alone enough to damn Mao? As for the Cultural Revolution, he mentions its many innocent victims, but seems to have no sense of the ruin and despair it brought to many Chinese (nor does he mention its cultural toll: the utter destruction of countless ancient monuments, art collections, books and manuscriptsand suicides of important intellectual and cultural figures).
Throughout the book, Feigon dances around the basic problem with Mao, which is that he embraced Communism, enforced it on China, and never let go. That was a crime at least as horrendous as anything Hitler or Stalin did, and they were pretty awful. Communism doesn't work (a Polish professor once memorably described it as "a system which bravely overcomes problems that would not exist under other systems") and people will not willingly vote for it. Indeed those who can, fleeas hundreds of thousands did to Hong Kong during Mao's service as Helmsman. So it must be imposed: violence and coercion are the foundation of the system. Without them it would not exist. "Consent" and "participation" are counterfeit. This was the case in Russia, and Yugoslavia, and Eastern Europe, and Korea, and Vietnam, and of course China, from the murders carried out in the often romanticized Yan'an days at the nearby Zaoyuan ["Date Palm Garden"] the personal residence and torture chamber of Mao's secret police Svengali, Kang Sheng, to the mayhem in the streets of Beijing in 1989, and beyond right into the present. Mao knew what a democracy was, as the 1945 interview demonstrates. But he was unwilling genuinely to break with "Stalinism" because to do so would have meant the end of his regime and possibly himself. (Though Feigon is correct to assert that in the Cultural Revolution Mao destroyed much of the party apparat, thus clearing the way for the changes that followed his death).
This book, then, is not for the general audience (which still awaits a definitive biography of Mao). It is rather an intriguing text in the internal discussion among those who once idolized MaoFeigon, at the age of thirty, in 1975, made his first visit to China "expecting to find a socialist paradise"but have become increasingly aware that was pure illusion (even at the time, Feigon states, he found "blinding poverty") and honest enough to talk about the problem. Back then, one can say, they were wrong for the right reasons. Poverty and the other pathologies of China were and are real and they thought Mao had found the answer. Now we know that not only did he not have the answer, if anything he made things worse. This is bitter intellectual medicine for people who have staked so much in their lives on an illusion.
Such China specialists are part of a more general phenomenon. Some people have been able to purge themselves completely of the Communist fantasy and move forward creatively: the French scholars, Jacques and Claudie Broyelle, come to mind, as does the Australian born American Ross Terrill, and of course Leszek Kolakowski, author of the greatest study of Marxism yet written. But most humans can't quite manage such a clean break, or even a break at allwitness the Eric Hobsbawms of the world.
Hence the endless "rethinking" and "reevaluating" engaged in by such prisoners of their own pasts. Like the diminishing company of scholars who try to make the case for the Soviet Union or East Germany, Feigon has embarked on a vain quest, for no somehow ignored "good" or "positive" potential exists either in Communist theory or practice.
Still, perhaps the fairest evaluation of Mao comes from his personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, who states that the Chairman wanted to do something good for China, but was so ignorant and untraveled (Moscow was the extent of his foreign visits) that he didn't have any idea of how to go about the taskand his attempts brought more than failure, they brought the worst catastrophes in all of Chinese history. As Dr Sun Yatsen observed, "action is easy, knowledge is difficult."
Furthermore, the post-Maoist China specialists have been among the best in the academic world at dealing with the utter collapse of Marxism and Communism, in whose warm hegemonic status they had long comfortably basked. For it is hard not to suspect that the whole phenomenon of deconstruction and post-modernism, with its attack on the idea of objective truth, is really an elaborate rear guard action to somehow reclaim something of Marxism by denying the possibility of any philosophy being actually correct. The irony of course is that Marxism was long second to none in its self-confidence, in its belief both in its empirical foundation and its philosophical arguments.
But China scholars go to China. They observe, they think, they listen. Feigon writes clearly, avoids jargon, deals with counter argument, and bases his assertions on evidence. He is largely correct about Soviet influence, and he is on to something as well when he points out how Mao continues to be popular in the misnamed "age of reform." But I think in the end his argument tells us more about the defects of China's present than it does about the non-existent virtues of an idol, who like his soulmates Stalin and Hitler, has fallen for good.