Thursday, November 29, 2007


MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp. [Part 16-finis]
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.


Short's epilog is a mixed bag. It was written around eight years ago in 1998 or 1999 so some his ideas about "capitalism" in China may be dated. But to the point.

About a month after Mao's death Hua Guofeng arranged to have the Gang of Four arrested and removed from power. Within two years Deng had been both rehabilitated and had ousted Hua from power.

Short says Mao was correct in his view of Deng Xiaoping. Deng "was a 'capitalist-roader all along -- and the moment he was in a position to do so, he began dismantling the socialist system Mao had built and putting a bourgeois dictatorship in its place. There was indeed a bourgeois class within the Communist Party and the country did indeed 'change its political colour.'

The problem with this assessment is that at the time of Mao's death and Deng's rise to power, there was no bourgeoisie in China capable of coming to power. Neither Deng nor any other CPC leaders or functionaries owned the means of production in China-- which were basically state owned or owned by communes. In terms of a Marxist understanding a bourgeois dictatorship in China would have been impossible. Even today, while a bourgeois class has come to exist in China, it is far from having control of the state apparatus.

Deng and the CPC embarked on a program to modernize China simply because the anarchy of he Cultural Revolution (and the general backwardness of the country) had left the economy in shambles. Socialism requires an advanced modern economy to have any chance of ultimate success. The CPC under Deng made a quite orthodox decision to open up China and use the market (ultimately controlled and directed by the state) to overcome feudal backwardness. This was a process initiated by Mao himself when he invited Nixon to visit.

In 1981 the CPC rendered a verdict on Mao's role. It was the same verdict he himself had rendered on Stalin-- i.e., he was 70% correct and 30% wrong in what he had done. Short spends a lot of time going over the question of how many people died as a result of Mao's policies. The numbers who died under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are compared.

These numbers are all contentious and ultimately meaningless and unverifiable. Great historical transformations are not the result of this or that individual. Revolutions and wars are like hurricanes and earthquakes. They break out as a result of forces and pressures that build up over time and are ultimately independent of the human will. Is Lincoln responsible for all the deaths of the Civil War? Is President Johnson, this one foolish individual, the cause of all the deaths from the Vietnam War?

Neither Stalin, Mao nor Hitler ever personally killed anyone.[It is actually obscene to compare Hitler with Mao or Stalin]. Would their policies have been possible without the mindset of the people who followed their leadership and shared their values: a mindset created by the previous history of Russia, China and Germany and the development of capitalism and imperialism. Is Adam Smith responsible for all the deaths due to the transformations brought about by the wars over markets and resources waged by the invisible hand?

These two sentences from Short point up the confusions. Mao's "rule brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history." "The overwhelming majority of those whom Mao's policies killed were unintended casualties of famine." The fact they were unintended, Short says, "puts him in a different category from other twentieth-century tyrants."

Individual leaders must of course accept responsibility for their actions. But the contexts that they are forced to confront cannot be ignored. That is why when all is said and done, Short is correct to conclude that, "A final
verdict on Mao's place in the annals of his country's past is still a very long way off."

This view is the view of most of the Chinese themselves. It is echoed in the special issue of Beijing Review of October 5, 2006 on the 30th anniversary of Mao's death ["Mao Today: How does his legacy still influence China?"]

His legacy is really "in flux." One article tells us how "the little red book" is used by the new Chinese capitalists for inspiration! One was able to get market share from foreign capitalists "by adopting Mao's military tactic of 'using the countryside to encircle cities.'" It seems many Chinese companies urge their workers to study Mao for his "spirit of rebellion" and innovative thought. This information comes from a section entitled "Mao as business guru." If US corporations want to remain competitive, I suggest their CEO's start reading Mao at once!

Elsewhere the article says the poor read him because they want to regain the social benefits lost in recent years. A university professor is quoted: "Mao is still the most popular among the farmers, many of whom face growing hardship 'Through holding memorial activities for Mao, the farmers hope the gap between urban and rural areas will narrow.'" Mao as a god!

I will conclude with a quote from Gao Hua of Nanjing University: "Mao's phenomenon is the outcome of China in a transitional period, from an imperial country to a republic . At the turn of the new century, China is facing new challenges , which requires new thinking and new systems. So all the reflections on Mao should be future-oriented."

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