Wednesday, June 13, 2007


MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp. [Part 3]
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an important work and the editor's blog is a good place to discuss it as a preliminary to a review article for PA. Over the next few weeks I will be making entries one chapter at a time (there are sixteen). Comments are invited, especially from anyone who has read the book and wants to critique my take on a chapter, but anyone is welcome to comment.

Chapter Four "A Ferment of 'Isms'"

Around the time of Mao's first article (1917) he and a group of his friends in the New People's Study Society left Hunan and went to Beijing. There Mao met Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) one of the two men to later found the CPC (the other was Li Dazhao), but at this time he was the editor of New Youth a magazine that contributed to the future May Fourth Movement. He was the CPC General Secretary 1921-1927 and later became a Trotskyist. Short quotes Mao as having said that Chen (whose view was that before China could become a modern country the old culture had to be completely superseded ) influenced him "perhaps more than anyone else."

In Beijing, Mao came under many influences both from the traditional culture and the new Western ideas penetrating China. He picked up what he later called "old fashioned liberalism" from reading Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley. Another major influence was the Ming Dynasty Neoconfucian Wang Yangming [1472-1529] who, according to Short, "inspired him to link man to society, theory to practice, knowledge to will, and thought to action." This is a little redundant since "theory to practice" is the same as "thought to action." Wang Yangming is sort of a prolegomena to Marxism where the unity of theory and practice is a basic premise.

Another Ming philosopher that Mao liked was Wang Fuzhi [1619-1693], another Neoconfucianist, for whom the world "was in constant flux" and "the mutability of things, driven by the dialectical contradictions inherent in the material world, was the basic principle moving history forward." Engels couldn't have put it any better.

In 1919 Mao was writing about anarchism and later said that at that time he "favored many of its proposals." It is Prince Kropotkin that he has in mind. He thought the followers of Marx were too violent. This is a big improvement in humanism for Mao, as Short notes-- in three years he has moved from Butcher Tang to Kropotkin! Mao is now 25 years old.

On May 4, 1919 a great demonstration of students and workers took place in Beijing to protest the fact that the former German concession of Shandong Province was ceded to Japan by the Versailles Treaty. This was the beginning of the May Fourth Movement which spread throughout many areas of China protesting the weakness of the government and the warlord system. Above all it demanded the modernization of China. Short says this movement "has been regarded ever since as one of the defining periods of modern Chinese history."

Mao was in Hunan at the time, in the capital Changsha. He participated in actions against the local warlord. He started a local paper and in the first issue published an article on the crisis followed up by a long article that became very influential ("The Great Union of the Popular Masses.") He said China had a great future, the youth would be the major agents of change and a practical program was proposed.

Mao became nationally known and Hu Shih [1891-1962]: the philosopher of Chinese liberalism, he ended up in Taiwan after 1948, called the article, according to Short, "one of the [truly] important articles" and that Mao had "exceedingly far-reaching vision and effective and well chosen arguments." Mao was on his way!

But he was not yet a Marxist. Mao told Edgar Snow that he was a Marxist by the summer of 1920, but Short says this was untrue. Actually, Short says, "Mao at that time considered Dewey, 'who taught that 'education is life, school is society', to be one of the "three great contemporary philosophers", along with Bertrand Russell and the French thinker, Henri Bergson."

[Short has 142 pages of end notes to back up his claims, but no bibliography. Practically, this means you can't really check his references unless you want to spend hours searching thru the notes for the first time he cites a source since all subsequent citations are abbreviated. This is a sloppy and inexcusable procedure.]

Later Mao described himself at this time [1920]: "I am too emotional and have the weakness of being vehement." He said he wished he had had time to study Buddhism. His mother, who had died the previous year (his father died soon after) would have been happy had he done so. I cannot help but think the rest of the world might have also benefited if Mao had had a dose of Buddhist compassion along the way. Who knows?

Short says Mao, even after he became a Marxist, never abandoned the influences of his youth. His "thinking developed by accretion... Nothing was ever lost." This meant that when he was older he could think outside the box. He resorted to "metaphor and lateral thinking."

Who can object to a Marxist who tempers his views with knowledge of a wide range of other opinions and outlooks? His "approach to Marxism," Short writes, "when finally he embraced it, was coloured by other, very different intellectual traditions." Including many traditional Chinese motifs. This should bode well. Who wants Johnny one note as a leader?

In June 1920 Hunan's war lord was forced out and a new leader, with more democratic aspirations took over. Because of the general situation in the country Mao as well as most others favored a form of "home rule" for Hunan and its 30 million people.

Mao was a leader in Hunan and wrote articles and gave speeches advocating a government based on the participation of the citizens, and a democratic government in favor of socialism. But Mao didn't really think this type of government was actually possible. Because of a 90 percent illiteracy rate in Hunan he didn't think either a Soviet type revolution was possible, nor a really democratic form of government. His solution was to "create a movement of the educated elite, 'to push things forward' from the outside."

In November of 1920 Mao found himself at a conference in Changsha discussing constitutional government. Both John Dewey and Bertrand Russell attended and gave speeches. So Mao had the opportunity to participate in a conference with two of the three men he considered the most important philosophers of the day. A few weeks later another military leader overthrew the new Hunan government.

Meanwhile, since October Mao had been participating in a Marxist study group. By the end of the year the study group had three "factions" debating each other. Those who wanted to follow Bolshevism, those who favored Kropotkin style anarchism, and those who thought they should just work in education to enlighten the masses.

Mao was leaning towards Kropotkin. He didn't like what he called the "terrorist methods" of the Leninists and thought the education program unrealistic. But "realism" carried the day. With the war lords increasing in power Mao was finally won over to the Russian model. It was, he said, "a last resort."

By the beginning of 1921 Mao and his fellow radicals in Hunan were getting ready to found a new political party based on Marxism. "His conversion," Short says, "was complete." Yet there would remain to the end "an anarchist tincture" to his Marxism.

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