A great leap backward: Idealist or monster? The controversy over Mao’s legacy refuses to die

John Gittings – The Guardian

Copyright The Guardian
Saturday July 23, 2005
Fifty years ago this month, when China was finally at peace after decades of war, Mao Zedong launched a new revolution in the countryside – for reasons that are still highly controversial. Mao insisted that the peasants wanted more and bigger cooperatives; they were a “blank sheet of paper” on which beautiful socialist words could be written. China could not mark time in the transition to socialism, or else it would go backwards.
Mao’s impatience in that July of 1955 set in train a tragic sequence of events which led first to the people’s communes and the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61. The failure of the Great Leap amid serious famine encouraged his critics to speak out, and led in turn to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when he sought to crush their “revisionism”. Finally, reacting against the last two turbulent decades of Mao’s life, his successors have jettisoned socialist policies, moderate as well as extreme, and embraced capitalism in all but name.
In China today, where the government still believes criticism of the chairman should “not go too far”, serious argument over Mao and his motives is mainly confined to academic websites. Most ordinary Chinese either regard the entire Maoist period as “madness” and “chaos”, or remember nostalgically the time when, it is claimed, “we could sleep without locking our doors”.
Western biographies of Mao since his death in 1976 – most recently Mao: a Life, by Philip Short – have sought to strike a balance between his grand vision and its deeply flawed reality. This approach is now challenged in Mao: the Unknown Story, a new biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday that delivers an uncompromisingly negative view. Their verdict, as summarised by the Guardian’s reviewer, is that Mao “lacked either idealism or a clear ideology … he was driven by a personal lust for power”, and that his rule was based above all on the “use of terror” by which he “enforced his will” on the Chinese people.
The book is based on impressive research and a formidable array of sources, but its strongly argued conclusions should provoke a lively debate. First, can the Chinese revolution really be explained, as the authors imply, as if the Chinese people were terrorised by Mao into overthrowing the Nationalist government – did they not already have good reason? As Jonathan Fenby’s recent study puts it, corruption under Chiang Kai-shek was “a way of life”, his carpetbaggers plundered the areas liberated from Japan, and the rural masses were “alienated by oppression”. To a significant extent, the civil war of the late 1940s was a class struggle in which, as the US embassy reported at the time, the communists’ mass support derived from “the agrarian and industrial proletariat”.
Second, to what extent does “lust for power” adequately explain Mao’s long career with the Communist party? Even if he was attracted by its revolutionary violence, would it not have been more rational to hitch himself to the rising star of Chiang Kai-shek (who was not averse to shedding blood himself)? Third, although Mao’s grasp of Marxist theory in his early years was shaky, were his extensive theoretical writings over five decades really nothing more than camouflage for his ambition?
The real tragedy for China, I would argue instead, is that far from being uninterested in ideology, Mao in his later years became obsessed with it. By 1955 five years of communist rule had, in spite of the Korean war, greatly improved the life of the majority of Chinese. Even if not quite the “golden era” that many older Chinese recall with nostalgia, it was a huge transformation. The crude death rate fell by nearly half in eight years; except for the worst year of the Great Leap (1960), it would remain well below the comparable figure for India.
Yet Mao was not content to take a gradual road towards socialism and the rebuilding of China. He rejected the orthodox view that the “productive forces” (such as mechanisation and land fertility) must be fully developed before the introduction of more socialist “relations of production”. Older and wiser peasants disagreed, but many young Chinese (and some of Mao’s colleagues) shared his enthusiasm. The Great Leap goal of “catching up and overtaking” the west was rooted in a revolutionary romanticism with its origins in half a century of nationalist struggle.
Lust for power also seems an incomplete explanation for Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution. With China’s secret police under the sinister Kang Sheng at his disposal, could he not have simply had his critics cast into labour camps or shot? Instead, and fatally for China, Mao went back to the theoretical drawing board. If the masses were less enthusiastic for socialism than he had thought, the problem must lie in the ideological “superstructure”: China needed a Cultural Revolution.
In an important set of notes compiled in 1961-62, Mao began to identify some of the social tensions that persisted under “socialism” in China (and the Soviet Union) and focused particularly on new vested interests and bureaucracy. His anti-elitist goals became popular in the Cultural Revolution with marginalised groups such as working-class students, contract workers excluded from state benefits and junior party members chafing against their seniors’ privileges.
If China’s search for socialism under Mao was not wholly bogus, why did it prove such a disaster? Mao’s imperial style and refusal to heed criticism was principally to blame; even when the peasants in his home village warned him that the Great Leap was failing, he refused to listen – and sat down to write a poem instead. By the time of the Cultural Revolution he had replaced all his loyal colleagues, except for the premier Zhou Enlai, with ultra-left zealots and political opportunists.
In the 1980s, Chinese critics of Mao (before the post-Tiananmen clampdown) set his rule in the wider context of a semi-feudal political culture allied to a rigidly authoritarian party.
In the end, Mao himself saved the party from destruction during the Cultural Revolution – having converted it into his docile tool. Significantly, the origins of the post-Mao democracy movement right up until 1989 lie among former Red Guards who were alienated by this refusal to translate egalitarian rhetoric into reality.
Finally, we should ask how far western (effectively US) hostility encouraged Mao’s radical turn from the mid-1950s onwards, fostering a climate of chauvinism from which China has not yet completely emerged.
Mao’s offer in 1945, ignored at the time, to visit Washington and talk with President Roosevelt, made good sense as an early attempt to “triangulate” between the US and the Soviet Union. Even more intriguing were China’s later efforts in 1955 to open a dialogue with the US in the spirit of “peaceful coexistence” that followed the 1954 Geneva conference. These talks foundered because Washington was prepared to talk detente with only the Soviet Union, not China – thus helping (perhaps not by accident) to widen the gap between Moscow and Beijing. When Richard Nixon was finally willing to do business with China nearly two decades later, the compromise formula adopted on the pivotal issue of Taiwan was one Washington had refused to table in 1955.
Next year is the 30th anniversary of Mao’s death; it is time (especially in China) for a new debate on the chairman, omitting neither warts nor ideas.
ยท John Gittings’s The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market is published by OUP next week

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