The Magazine

Mao's Madness

When the Great Helmsman declared war on his people.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Mao's Last Revolution

by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals

Belknap, 752 pp., $35

Some may recoil from China's agonies in the 1960s, but there is an important reason to read Mao's Last Revolution and works like Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, the French Black Book of Communism, and, from earlier decades, the essays in The God that Failed. During the 20th century, repeated wars and tyrannies in Europe and Asia resulted from an overestimation of what politics can yield, never from an underestimation. Every Communist country found that social engineering led to disaster. Most of those regimes collapsed. China changed course in 1978 and now pretends it can reject social engineering but retain the leadership of the social engineers.

"To understand the 'why' of China today," Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals write, "one has to understand the 'what' of the 1960s Cultural Revolution." In a storm that finally discredited Chinese utopian social engineering, Mao ended up a King Lear of torment and doubt. Soon after his death in 1976, the new leader Deng Xiaoping set an anti-Mao direction. The authors aptly say of the Deng era: "If it worked, it would be done." Dreams gave way to nuts and bolts. Half the Politburo for much of the 1980s consisted of people whom Mao had imprisoned or sent to rural labor.

Mao, 72 in 1966, began to thrash about in the face of socialism's disappointments and his own mortality. He sought scapegoats, including his faultlessly loyal number-two, Liu Shaoqi. He beat the bushes to find "enemies" who must have "sabotaged" the glorious hope of socialism. He summoned youth from their cave of innocence, trusting they would possess "more purity and truth" than his (now-detested) colleagues.

The Cultural Revolution, one of 20th-century communism's worst episodes--if not in numbers dead, in misery, cynicism, and utter pointlessness--was not about culture, nor was it a revolution. Mao was in charge of events from puzzling beginning to repressive end. His rule over China was not changed fundamentally by the whole charade. Saturating the nation with "Mao Thought," intimidating the politically incorrect, slyly turning over "bourgeois" colleagues to angry crowds for destruction--it was more political theater than life-and-death battle.

Mao called down a plague on the United States and the Soviet Union simultaneously, defying any balance-of-power theories. He saw the 1960s world as an extended replay of China's own revolution: The countryside (Third World) would soon surround the cities (the West and Russia), just as Mao's farmer-revolutionaries had surrounded Shanghai and Beijing in the 1940s. World politics was turned into guerrilla warfare. Luckily, all this remained largely words.

A feast for the student of China, Mao's Last Revolution is a challenge for the general reader. Authoritative and tightly documented, it is rather dense with political maneuver and Communist gobbledygook. But it is fluently written, and it tells the known truth about the Cultural Revolution at a time when the Beijing regime cannot bring itself to do so.

Excellent memoirs of the Cultural Revolution exist, including Wild Swans, Son of the Revolution, and Life and Death in Shanghai. But this is the first political history of the event, and neatly combines the yin-yang talents of two authors: MacFarquhar, a British-born senior gentleman of international Sinology, once a BBC journalist and member of the House of Commons, brilliant in political analysis, now at Harvard; and Schoenhals, a Swedish Sinologist, matchless with Chinese materials, author of numerous revealing works on Chinese Communist politics, all done from Lund University.

The book grippingly recounts Mao's unleashing of youthful Red Guards to attack and destroy "the olds" in 1966; the purge of uncomprehending senior Mao colleagues in 1967; a military clamp-down in 1968 on the violent factionalism that two years of harebrained utopianism had produced; an ironic, deadly clash in 1971 between Mao and his top military leader, defense minister Lin Biao, as Mao sank in spirit and flesh; and the surreal arrival in 1972 of Richard Nixon who, ignoring the murder and mayhem of previous years, achieved a historic Washington-Beijing breakthrough from enmity to live and let live.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals call Beijing's split with Moscow "justification" for the Cultural Revolution. That was true. But the turmoil sprang from a reassertion of Mao's longtime Marxist-Leninist aim of remolding China into a Sparta of the East, weirdly spiced with Confucianism and Taoism.

"If we do our work on men well," Mao said in words that could have come from Confucius, "we shall have things as well." He reread Journey to the West, an old novel about a whimsical monkey called Sun who does wonderful feats but later questions them all. Mao wanted colleagues and citizenry to lie philosophically supine in the palm of his hand--if only later to toss them aside.

China is a huge place, with a population and territory larger than all of Europe, and when Mao cried out that civil war was fine, multiple goals were pursued by far-flung individuals and disparate groups with grievances or ambitions. "The authorities told us to take along Mao's 'Quotations,'" said one Red Guard of his travels around the country. "What we did was take a pack of cards and play." Frightful deeds were done against people called "class enemies," including a girl and her grandmother buried alive. "Granny, I'm getting sand in my eyes," said the child. "Soon you won't feel it any more," replied the old lady as dirt rose to their necks.

Communist talk was a smokescreen for jungle behavior. People were tortured for the sin of living in a nice house. Libraries were burnt or ransacked. Language was devalued, as always when authoritarians wield their doctrines. Suicide became as routine as smoking. Cannibalism appeared. People were vulnerable less for what they had done than for who they were.

Xie Fuzhi, the police minister, repeatedly ordered the murder of innocent people: "After all, bad persons are bad," he remarked, "so if they're beaten to death, it's no big deal." But the world never summoned Xie or any other high-level exterminator to an international court of justice. Instead, the same Chinese Communist party that ran the show then runs Beijing today.

The grimness is occasionally relieved by the humor or candor of a brave individual. "So you say it was Mao Thought that made you win at table tennis," rasped one wag. "How to explain when you lost?" A fed-up typesetter, instead of wishing Mao "eternal life without end," slipped in type that said Mao deserved "no eternal life without end." He got 20 years in prison.

Happily for the United States, Mao, hating Russian "revisionism," purged those hawks who wanted China to join with the Soviet Union in full-scale support of Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam war. A bizarre result of the Cultural Revolution was that it actually made the Nixon-Mao handshake possible, and, in a parallel way, it made Deng's veiled denial of Maoism politically viable.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals avoid the mushiness and attachment to moral equivalence that are common in liberal Sinology. They face the evil of China in the late 1960s, dealing head-on with Mao's cruelty. "The more people you kill," they cite Mao telling his circle, "the more revolutionary you are." While many Sinologists condescend to the flaws of the People's Republic of China because of awe for the greatness of Chinese civilization, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals do not. They cast a beady eye on the cooperation of numerous Chinese high and low with the horrors of the epoch.

Unfortunately, they do not nail Marxism-Leninism for its major role in the disaster. Liu was felled as a "capitalist roader," a concept drawn from Marxist class analysis. The thought reform and guilt by association in the 1960s were all in evidence a quarter century earlier in the dusty caves of Yanan, where the Chinese Communist party launched its Soviet-inspired polity. If Mao had not grown doubtful of the Soviet way after Stalin's death in 1953, and persisted in the Moscow-style policies of the 1950s, would Chinese "socialism" have somehow emerged? Of course not. It was never going to work, Cultural Revolution or no Cultural Revolution.

"It had always been Mao's assumption," the authors write, "human nature being what it was, that there would have to be successive Cultural Revolutions in the future to revive flagging zeal." Had Mao understood human nature, he could never have stuck with Marxism for so many decades, or tried one last time to kick-start the burnt-out vehicle of social engineering. The futility of a command economy is never faced in Mao's Last Revolution. In the real world of human nature, socialism is as unattainable as Osama bin Laden's New Caliphate. As Liu said drily (not cited here): "We started socialism, and everything disappears."

Although exciting things are happening in China today, Mao's communism has not been fully dealt with. With skill and some luck, Beijing has built a temporary wall between economic freedom and political freedom. The Communist party brought both Marxism and Leninism to China. Today, Marxism is largely gone, but Leninism remains.

Under the aging Mao, power's corruptions ebbed across China like an epidemic; today, money's corruptions join in. A dangerous dance, unique in the history of Leninist regimes, unfolds as huge sums of money slosh around with Communist bureaucracy. No rule of law exists to adjudicate the encounter.

How this dance ends will determine China's future for decades. So far, no Leninist regime has ever presided over prolonged economic success, and no Leninist regime has ever come to an end without a political crunch. Could Beijing, having half-buried Mao already, though not roundly denounced him, possibly slide into post-communism with a whimper instead of a bang?

Ross Terrill is the author, most recently, of The New Chinese Empire.