Mao’s Many Legacies – OpEd


Jung Chang’s Wild swans: Three daughters of China, 2004 [1991], skewers Mao and Maoism like no other memoir of the surreal hell that China descending into from 1954 until the death of Mao in 1976. Both her parents were model communists, her father one of Mao’s early disciples in Yunan, the golden age for Mao. Both were tormented starting in 1954 until 1973, when the horrors of the cultural revolution had reduced the country to a state of collapse, and the surviving old guard comrades were being quietly recalled to try to save the country from ideology gone berserk.

The current Chinese leadership is trying to sweep all this under the carpet.

In 1977 a campaign against Red Guard looting and killing took place, but petered out, as Mao was never fingered as the instigator of all the purges, which actually started back in the 1930s. Repression was collective, with uncontrolled gangs waging war for power. So guilt was/is at least partly collective. Many victimizers became victims. There were ‘speak bitterness’ meetings and the most notorious victimizers were dealt with, but by the 1990s, a return to the Mao cult began, much of that nostalgia for the youth of the current ruling elite. The Cultural Revolution was their ‘misspent youth’. China’s baby boom lasted much longer than the West’s, with a one-child limit only imposed in 1980.  

The current rulers want to forget about all that and focus on the future. But Mao’s influence is felt not only in Xi’s China, but in the West, both past and present, in other guises. It was embraced in 1968, at the height of Mao madness, by spoiled-brat students, famously in Paris, and by such luminaries as Sartre,* Cohn-Bendit and many others, even conservatives.*+ 

Same demographic as their Red Guard comrades at the time, but what a difference. 

The Chinese Maoists were about ‘Out with the olds!’ (ie, ideas, culture, art, music, books, whatever). May ’68 was about more drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll — as delusional as Mao’s Red Guards. Both did more to discredit socialism than anything. Neither had any realistic idea of what should take the place of the olds.

Let’s face it. Socialism is boring. Not kids’ stuff. And not the stuff for starry-eyed narcissists and megalomaniacs.

And, to make matters worse, just as a handful of cynical Trotskyists morphed into neocons and neoliberals, Maoism has found its new incarnation in the very heart of the West, US-Israel, the double-headed dragon terrorizing the world today. 

After 500 pages of tales too wild to be fiction, Jung nails Mao’s philosophy: perpetual conflict as the motivating force of history, so there must always  be ‘class enemies’, class war. Created if necessary to keep the tension in society at a revolutionary heat. But such a powerful force can only be tamed by total submission to Mao.

You rule by getting people to hate not only the enemy, but each other. In doing so, you get ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by secret services. You turned people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. And it never ends. Class enemies, bourgeois capitalist-roaders are a disease and need to be caught in the bud.

But that’s all in theory. The reality is the worst elements in society seize the moment to ‘rebel’ and take control. By nourishing the worst in people, Mao quickly created a moral wasteland, a land of hatred. ‘Mao’s Cultural revolution destroyed both Party discipline and civic morality,’ writes Jung. 

‘The other hallmark is the reign of ignorance, scorn for great figures of Chinese culture and contempt for areas he did not understand, such as architecture, art, music, destroyed much of cultural heritage. People had practiced acting to such a degree they confused it with their true feelings.’ (Jung, pp497, 518).

Mao vs Soviet Union

China in 1949 had a genuine friend next door, the Soviet Union. Any Chinese who remembers life before 1960 knows that the early period 1949–56 was the best time, the real enemies, the Japanese and Kuomintang, long gone, and the only external enemy, the US, defeated by 1953, with lots of Soviet help. Objectively, Mao had no real enemies then, including the ‘paper tiger’, who had his wings clipped in Korea. He could have led China into a peaceful reconstruction. Together, the Soviet Union and China could have, eventually, ruled the world. That was the imperialists’ fear.

But Mao didn’t like peace, and when his idol, Stalin, was overthrown in 1956, he turned against the ‘capitalist-roader’ Khrushchev and proceeded to do everything in his power to destroy not the imperialists, who were no longer a real threat, but the ‘big brother’, who was turning away from the nightmare of Stalin’s own ‘cultural revolution’. It had decimated Soviet culture, but in a much milder form than Mao envisioned. As the Soviet Union matured and became less totalitarian, less one-dimensional, Mao saw that his vision was shattered and had to fight his new enemy. 

Mao’s only guide was Stalin, as he never travelled abroad to study. Deng Xiaoping and Ho Chi Min studied in Paris, where many future revolutionaries came and shared their experience and ideas. Mao’s first trip abroad was in 1949 to Moscow where he finally met his idol, who disliked Mao and treated him cavalierly. Stalin had not studied in the West either; his schooling was in a Georgian seminary, dabbling in poetry like Mao. But Stalin was Lenin’s most devoted student, and some of Lenin survived in him, despite his descent into paranoia in the 1930s.

So Mao’s path was to undermine the capitalist-roaders, abroad and at home. That was not so easy. Soviet culture had deep roots, dating from the Decembrists and a century of radical thinking. Stalin was an aberration and was rightly disowned. Mao was out of his league and openly mocked and defied Khrushchev’s correction. There was no longer any room for Stalin’s portrait along Lenin’s let alone Mao’s, so he mighty as well chuck Lenin’s legacy and shoot for the stars.

The finishing touch was to invite arch-imperialist Nixon to Beijing. That was in Mao’s final years of delusion, and he was still in his destruction model ‘out with the old’. Nixon didn’t care. The handful of visitors to Beijing in the early ‘70s, including Antonioni, saw a ghost-like desolation (watch his raw documentary Chung Kuodenounced by Jiang Qing). Or a Kim Il-Sung utopia of selfless, ascetic communists.*+

And what comes after the Cultural Revolution? Deng filled in the blank — capitalism. Deng was a disciple of Mao, a kind of yang to Mao’s dark yin. The mouse-catcher. Deng, too, was happy to continue undermining the Soviet Union, working hand-in-glove with the US. 

So Mao’s revenge against the capitalist-roader Soviets triumphed in the end, though it finished off Mao’s revolution as well. It’s hard to comprehend — Mao destroyed much of the art, most of China’s books. Then opened the door to profit as the failsafe engine of conflict in society. The rest is history.

Maoism and US-Israel 

I like to think of  the US and Israel as conjoined twins, or with a Chinese flourish, a two-headed dragon. Israel lives only because the US wants it to, and would die if they were separated. Both are societies that thrive on conflict. Neither could function without an external enemy, so one is invented as needed. They also are societies at war with themselves, the long trail of persecution of blacks and natives in the US is a veritable blueprint for what Israel was from the very start, even in the early 1900s,** both based on flagrant lies, with racism like an electric current running through them, energizing them.

When Mao triumphed in 1949, the US and Israel were both very conflicted. Both had ‘enemies’, the same ones as befits twins, the Soviet Union and Islam; since the collapse of the former, now mostly Islam. Like Mao’s China, enemies of their own making. 

Both the Soviet Union and Islam are based on peace. Lenin’s call to revolution was ‘bread, jobs, peace’. ‘Salam aleikum’ means peace be with you. But instinctively, western business and politicians wanted conflict. Why go through the trouble of actually making something useful when you can just keep pumping out arms and conquer the world to boot?

As for the Palestinians, they were turned into captives in their own land, like North American natives, which became a living hell without end. And most of the Israeli settlers are bad-ass Americans out to conquer the last frontier. For the Palestinians, the double-headed monster is a daily terror. US-Israel’s agenda of war and general all-round cruelty in the name of capitalism and racial supremacy is on display for all to see. 

But just as total media control allowed Mao to fuel his Cultural Revolution, both the US and Israel control the narrative to keep their respective warlike systems both conjoined and popular, despite their daily atrocities. 

So we have self-created ‘enemies’ and societies on a permanent war footing, and a jingoist media. Mao would understand this. For the US, there are many ‘enemies’ — Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and yes! China itself — to keep off-balance. What must Mao be thinking now, seeing China beating the US and Russia at capitalism, call it Dengism or Xiism. Would Mao have been willing to chuck communism to make China number one, to beat the paper tiger at its own game?

For tiny Israel, there are fewer enemies. Russia is now more-or-less an ally, as is China, and everyone else who wants to buy Israel’s stat-of-the-art arms and spyware. Its special enemy is Iran, the only nation pointing at US-Israel as the real double-headed dragon.

Maoism vs gaylib, Taliban, Iran and others

Mao’s ‘revolution in the revolution’ is also the philosophy behind gaylib. A New Zealand artist on Zoom: ‘my work is about constantly coming out.’ Rather than accept victory in the war against ‘hetero-patriarchy’, gaylib pushed the revolution to the next stage — transgenderism — as its very own extremism, with MeToo an ally, to target all misbehaving ‘sexualities’. All this gender politics thrives on conflict. Life is a battleground. Liberty vs death, etc. Speaking of which, Maoist China was very prudish (except for Mao), a scorched-earth MeToo, though used selectively as the need arose. 

The Mao-gaylib norm is ‘slots for all possible niches’, putting all these sexualities on a par with the tired old m-f norm. The same cruelty and whiting-out of offensive people and words from our language. Today’s Thought Police are as eager to destroy the olds as Mao’s Red Guard, but just as for the original Maoists, the rebuilding is fraught, requiring pumping unwilling bodies with hormones to shape a new gender-fluid transhuman. This is merely a repackaging of Marcuse’s polymorphous perversity of the ’60s.

A fitting spanner in the works, also in line with Maoist strategy, are the Taliban, masters of peasant-style guerrilla warfare. Their agenda is much the same as Mao’s: destroy, this time, non-Islamic influence, forbid distractions from belief, use force if necessary. So music and most intellectual activity is ‘guilty till proven innocent’. Anything that distracts from worship is ‘haram’ (i.e., capitalist-roadist). 

Yes, this fanaticism is self-defeating, but at least it is not for personal deification. Allah is alone, the family is sacrosanct, charity is an obligation. The Taliban want peace, unlike US-Israel (or Mao). Their Maoist-like grimness is at least not a recipe for endless upheaval, or fashioning personal empires of unlimited wealth. And they actually host Uighur separatists, their brothers in faith. China will have to watch its step.

Then there are Maoist guerrilla movements in Cambodia, Peru, Naxalite insurgency in India and, in Nepal, Maoist-led governments (which came and went without much change). Cambodia is still recovering from its Khmer Rouge period, and the others are living on Mao nostalgia, Mao mystique, not much of a threat. Guerrilla and tribal warfare is as old as the hills. Just ask the Taliban. 

And of course ISIS. Just as Mao turned against his own socialist friends and his own comrades, purging them Stalin-style, rather than working with them against the real enemy, US-Israel, ISIS declared its caliphate and immediately started purging their own Muslims, in true Cultural Revolution tradition. ‘Down with snake demon Mao Yushi!’ ‘Don’t shave your beards and start praying NOW!’ It’s much easier to victimize your own captive people than fight a powerful and ruthless enemy. The only guys actually fighting US-Israel are the Palestinians. And Iran.

This moral militancy is also the policy of Saudi Arabia and Gulf monarchies — sinner vs capitalist-roader — but where Islam has been fashioned to meet the needs of tribalism. It is skin-deep, and not much different than ISIS.

Interestingly, the analogy doesn’t really apply to Iran. Yes, ideology-driven and prudish, but not tribal. Shia Iran has a large Sunni community and a small Jewish community that do just fine. There are issues, but nothing that a policy of peace in the region couldn’t help solve. With Israel threatening outright war against Iran, stealing Palestinian land every day, bombing Syria, nothing can be solved. 

Mao’s innovation on Marx and Lenin was really just Stalin’s totalitarian version of socialism taken to the extreme, where the masses themselves become weaponized for capitalist-roader-bashing ad infinitum

Mao’s endgame

Isolated, an also-ran in communist history, Mao the narcissist decided he’d just have to go it alone. The ultimate ‘splitter’, sectarian. And if he failed, well, he’d just bring down the whole revisionist edifice with him.

And it worked! His trusty sidekick Deng carried on the legacy, working with the US and Uighur militants to vanquish the communist foe in Afghanistan. The once powerful European and American New Left of the anti-nuke 60s–80s, working peacefully with the socialist bloc, achieved many successes in restraining nuclear arms and the threat of war. And helped the stodgy Soviets loosen up. Those days are gone and any hope of fighting against rampant militarism with them. The current neoliberal world order, with profit the engine, thrives on war, ‘creative destruction’. The past century and the current warlike atmosphere shows that without a doubt. 

The worldview behind Marx and Lenin was peace, not war, so we would be better to cut Maoism adrift from Marxism-Leninism, to see it for what it is: the dagger through the heart of world socialism. Without Maoism’s 30 years of sabotaging the Soviet Union et al, the socialist world would most likely still be in place.

We can even say Maoism brought about the ‘end of history’. The beginning of a period of ‘warring states’, reminiscent of the Middle Kingdom in one of its many dynasties, with money as the ideology and capitalism driving it to constant war, Mosha Dyan’s ‘like in the movies, but in real life.’**

That is Mao’s ‘greatest’ legacy.                                               

xxxIt is spooky that Mao’s two decades of terror (1954–76), ending in his death, matches Stalin’s (1931–53), ending in his death (poisoning?). Peas in a pod. But what contrasting legacies. Khrushchev’s revisionism gave the system a second chance. Another few generations. Fondly remembered as the best of times. Mao’s chaos quickly led to capitalism, billionaires, etc. Along with the now crippled Russian Federation, the other ex-socialist states now lost to a hostile Europe. Well done, Mao!

xxx*By coming out in favour of Israel on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Sartre essentially put an end to the Arab existentialist movement, discrediting in one fell swoop his revolutionary stance on the struggles for freedom across the Middle East and North Africa. He later said he regretted the “powerful reactionary forces” gaining ground in Israel and preventing all possibility of peace, but he was happy to accept an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1976.

China was/is also a supporter of Palestinians, but given the chaotic swirl of Middle East politics and Mao’s own shambolic legacy, China is not doing a whole lot to promote Palestine, and is doing a lot of schmoozing with Israel. Arab leaders have moved on since then, making friends with an unapologetic Israel. The Palestinians have official friends apart from Iran anymore, so they must do their best to keep their heads above water, not alienating anyone. Mao’s track record in the third world was to support any government or opposition that was anti-Soviet, which undermined liberation movements in Angola, Southwest Africa and elsewhere, putting China in league with South African apartheid, leaving a trail of violence and civil war.

*+China as a utopia concretized, appealed not only to the New Left, but also to conservatives such as former French minister of education Alain Peyrefitte, German journalist Klaus Mehnert, Swedish colleague Olof Lagercrantz, all of whom visited China in the early 1970s. In their travelogues, they describe China as something akin to an earthly paradise, where the populace scorn wealth, where bureaucracy is reduced to a minimum, where direct democracy is implemented and where the authorities encourage innovation and experiment. These are echoes of the writings of Agnes Smedley (1892-1950), Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970) and Edgar Snow (1905-1972), who had begun to sing Mao’s praises as early as the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

**The US-Israel link is perfectly shown by the Harvard-sponsored archeological excavations in Sebastia, Palestine, in 1908. Now called the ‘massacre of excavation’, as the purpose was to ‘prove’ scientifically Jewish history to buttress the budding Zionist movement to ‘move’ to Palestine en masse , setting the template for much of Israel’s archeology, including theft of the Dead Sea scrolls and essentially all archeological artifacts, which be rights belong to the Palestinians on behalf of the world, with no secret supremacist agenda. Sebastia is now an Israeli National Park. 

Moshe Dyan, an atheist and amateur archeologist, took a coin from Sebastia to the UN as proof of Jewish presence 2000 years ago, claiming Jewish culture rather than religion as his reason for personally participating in the digging. In a TV interview, he explained his excitement in uncovering pottery, but also said bashfully that ‘war is the most exciting part of life. Image, like in the movies, but in real life.’

Eric Walberg

Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s. He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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