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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"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.