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.