Critical Social Theory and Cultural Commentary

Saturday, 22 January 2011


'Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists', Pankaj Mishra and 'On Mao's Contradictions', Tariq Ali
Pankaj Mishra and Tariq Ali, writing for the New Yorker and New Left Review respectively have written interesting reviews of the recent literature on Mao, with much contention still surrounding the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Western academic discourse has been dominated by the legacy of Cold War anti-communist rhetoric in recent decades, painting a vision of Mao as a brutal tyrant and placing the horrors of his revolution on a par with those of the Holocaust and Stalin's Gulag, during the Twentieth Century. History is however usually more nuanced than this account can hope to be and Mishra and Ali succeed in highlighting the attention given to the complexities of Mao's rule in more recent work on the subject. In the context of European, American and Japanese imperialisms, Mishra notes that Mao's most enduring legacy remains the unification and mobilisation of the masses through a uniquely Chinese narrative of lost greatness and renewal, even if his egalitarian ideals may have been subsumed under the banner of mass consumerism. Likewise, for Ali, the historical functioning of Mao's leadership and ideology needs to be properly contextualised. The Chinese Communist Party inherited a legacy of Bolshevik thought that was crucial to its establishment, but proved - as was so often the case - unsuited to the realities of communist rule outside of the Soviet Union:

"The model that new Communists imbibed was the one they encountered in Moscow: a social dictatorship of the Party/bureaucracy that was master of all public life and sustained by institutionalized networks of repression. This was the system put in place when they came to power or even within parties active in the capitalist and colonial worlds. The stifling of debate weakened both Party and state".

In China, Stalinist style purges did not take place, and the Soviet dictum was inverted to become a sustained anti-bureaucratic mass revolution drawing its sustenance from the legitimacy of the collective will; but, Ali points out, Mao's China lacked the representative institutions required to transmit different interpretations of that collective will. What resulted was the failure of the Great Leap and famine in the countryside, with a leadership insulated from the reality of an unfolding human and ecological catastrophe.

The mass demagoguery of the Cultural Revolution likewise demonstrated the anti-bureaucratic currents of Maoist thought, but was rather instigated by Mao and his supporters in a power-grab after they had been sidelined. The effects, Ali notes however, were quite contradictory in many respects, unleashing new concepts of social mobility and patterns of thought, beyond what could have been intended. Mishra also, quotes Amartya Sen on the Great Leap. Sen argues that India has seen worse:

"...despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former".

Roderick MacFarquhar adds that: "what Mao accomplished between 1949 and 1956 was in fact the fastest, most extensive, and least damaging socialist revolution carried out in any communist state." Further, for Mishra a complex and often unfavourable geopolitical climate must be accounted for: "...the uprising in Tibet in 1959, anti-American riots in Taiwan, border clashes with India, the Sino-Soviet rift..."

What therefore are we to make of Mao? The enduring appeal of Maoist ideology no-doubt lies in its appeal to down-trodden populations and its possibilities for communism as a mass-movement as opposed to the Soviet model of top-down bureaucracy and oligarchy, and the inequalities of capitalism. Its failures lie in the demagoguery and dogma associated with a mass-movement that came to centralise power in the hands of a few, with the inability to transmit signals to the centre. We can learn a lot from this. Whilst I would not go so far as to say that Mao is in need of rehabilitation or emulation, the historical record certainly deserves an account that is not still driven by the vagaries of McCarthyism's rhetorical norms over half a century on.

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