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To be Attacked by the Enemy is a Good Thing

by Robert Weil | 8 December 2005 | One Comment | Last modified: 7 Aug 1:18 am

I have always considered the words of Mao Zedong, “To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing” to be among his most valuable. Not only did it alter my conception of struggle, but it encapsulated perhaps more succinctly than any other of his sayings, the profoundly dialectical character of his thinking and strategy. It was this quality that allowed Mao to exploit the contradictions among the enemy, to “overcome all difficulties,” and to turn defeat into victory over and over again. But it was not the losses and suffering that such attacks brought that Mao was referring to—what he called the “bitter sacrifice” that revolution required, though he was always determined to turn it into “bold resolve” (“Shaoshan Revisited,” in Poems, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1976, 36). The reason that to be attacked was a “good,” and not a “bad” thing, was that it meant that the revolutionary forces were hurting the enemy, were a challenge to their control, were successfully carrying out the struggle. Otherwise, why would those opposed to the revolution even bother to attack? The less restraint such enemies showed, the more it revealed their own weaknesses and blinded them to reality. “It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work” (“To Be Attacked by the Enemy is Not a Bad Thing But a Good Thing”, May 26, 1939). The more strongly the revolutionaries were attacked, therefore, the higher the measure of the success that they must be having, in order to cause such a response from their enemies. Moreover, a blind thrashing out by those opposing the revolution, guided only by hatred, would cause them to make serious errors and discredit them in the eyes of the people.

The recent publication of Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, is an unrelenting and painful attack, not only on his leadership as an individual, but on the entire history of the revolution that he led, and on the ongoing struggle for socialism not just in China, but globally, of which it is such a fundamental part. Just released in the United States—it was earlier available in England and Asia—a sense of its overall approach and tone can be quickly grasped from even a cursory first perusal of the text. But the nature of this work had already been apparent from a reading of excerpts on the BBC program “Off the Shelf”—more commonly devoted to fiction—where it was clear that every action and event in the life of Mao have been treated to the most negative possible interpretation, a view confirmed in an interview with the authors on National Public Radio on October 20, 2005, and another on BBC five days later. This quality of the character of the book was evident as well from the early reviews already published before its U.S. release. As these reviewers universally made clear, the book sets out, in great detail, not only to demolish Mao as both a leader and as a person, but to deny the very nature of the Chinese revolutionary socialist past, down to the smallest factual matters. In it, the principal guide of both the national liberation struggle and revolution for socialism of the people of China is portrayed as a coward, scornful of the peasants, who enjoyed the deaths the revolution brought, ruled only through fear and manipulation, and was personally dissolute. It is already being seized upon by both mainstream and at least some “new China hand” reviewers with even more enthusiasm than they earlier embraced the supposed expose, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, by “Mao’s Doctor,” Li Zhisui. This breathless eagerness in the reception accorded the new work extends to the BBC, which gave Mao: The Unknown Story, though it claims to be a book of well researched nonfiction, a “dramatic” reading in a voice dripping with cynicism and irony.

The written reviews have a similar quality of unquestioning enthusiasm. In what one of the reviewers calls “a work of unanswerable authority . . . Mao is comprehensively discredited from beginning to end in small ways and large; a murderer, a torturer, an untalented orator, a lecher, a destroyer of culture, an opium profiteer, a liar” (Philip Hensher, www.seattlepi.com, 6/8/05). Claiming that he was responsible for 70 million deaths—an assertion vastly out of proportion with even the highest and hotly disputed claims put forth by some others—”Chang says of Mao, ‘He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did’” (Jonathan Mirsky, “Maintaining the Mao Myth,” International Herald Tribune, 7/6/05). But even this is not enough for some reviewers. Comparing him to the former Russian leader, Simon Sebag Montefiore declares, “Mao is the greatest monster of them all – the Red Emperor of China” (The Sunday Times – Books, London, 5/29/05). Philip Hensher joins this chorus of initial and enthusiastic reviewers, using similar language to denounce the “whole monstrous saga.” The first reviews in the United States following its release there parrot this language, with “China’s Monster, Second to None,” the title of the review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani, who notes that the book makes “an impassioned case for Mao as the most monstrous tyrant of all times” (10/21/05). The same words were echoed two days later—the lack of any originality in their language is itself telling—in the Times Book Review by Nicholas D. Kristof, who despite expressing doubts about its scholarship, sourcing and accuracy, and “reservations about the book’s judgments, for my own sense is that Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China,” nevertheless declares it to be a “magnificent biography” and a “magisterial” work. (10/23/05, 1, 10).

Hatred of Mao simply reeks from the pages of most of these reviews. They serve, intentionally or otherwise, to intimidate any who might take a positive, or even just a less totally negative view, than do Chang and Halliday, of the life and accomplishments of the leader of the Chinese socialist revolution. It is therefore important to address the climate out of which Mao: The Unknown Story and those who have so eagerly embraced it come and to which they in turn contribute. Clearly, this work fits perfectly into the pattern that Mao himself already anticipated in his essay, “To Be Attacked by the Enemy . . . ,” as it “attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue.” It is this entirely one-sided approach that the majority of reviewers have eagerly embraced and unquestioningly adopted as their own, blinding them to any more balanced analysis of his role. Like many others, I responded with anger and dismay at the issuing of this “poison weed,” as Professor Mobo Gao of the University of Tasmania in Australia has termed Mao: The Unknown Story—the book, as well as the many laudatory reviews of it, are already being challenged and disparaged by some initial readers, both Chinese and Western, on the web and elsewhere. But once my immediate reaction had passed, I was left with the more basic question: Why this book, and why now? If “to be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing,” what is it about Mao, almost thirty years after his death—when the current leaders of China have turned the socialist revolution that he led on its head, and returned to the “capitalist road” that he both foresaw and tried to prevent them from taking—that is still so threatening today? Why do the enemies of Chinese revolutionary socialism, such as Chang and Halliday, as well as their publishers, Jonathan Cape and Alfred A. Knopf, feel the need to trash his legacy, and to do so more completely than ever before? Why do so many reviewers outside of China feel the need to eagerly embrace their book? What about Mao is so relevant to the contradictions and struggles in Chinese society and the world today to call forth such attacks?

One cannot discount purely personal and financial elements here. For Chang, the author of the familial autobiography Wild Swans, Mao, and particularly the Cultural Revolution that he led, continue to be a source of deep bitterness and cause for revenge. That book focused in particular on the disillusionment and sense of betrayal both the parents of Jung Chang, and later she herself, felt after their earlier unquestioning and enthusiastic embrace of Mao. This personal history lies at the heart of the new work.

Driving the book is an unrelenting hatred of Mao Zedong, and a determination to pile up evidence to blacken him as totally selfish and sadistic—particularly by Chang, who as a teenager was an enthusiastic Red Guard at the start of the Cultural Revolution but who turned when she saw her academic parents brutally persecuted (causing the death of her father). (“Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05)

This is an old pattern. As those familiar with the tradition of such literature know, it is often from among the most fervent revolutionary believers, that the most scathing attacks come after they have “turned.” An element of personal vendetta cannot be dismissed in considering this new work. But Wild Swans, which sold some 10 million copies, was no doubt also immensely rewarding financially. Today Chang “lives in great comfort in London’s plush Notting Hill from the proceeds of her worldwide bestselling book” (“Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05). Presumably there are hopes that the new work will repeat that success, both for the authors and the publishers.

Yet obviously more is at stake here than simple personal rewards, whether emotional or financial. A book like Mao: The Unknown Story, clearly has a political purpose. For those who are filled with hatred for the Chinese Communist revolution—whatever form it may take—it is not enough that the leaders of China today have largely disassociated themselves from Mao and reversed his policies. They still call themselves “Communists,” and it is his picture that continues to hang from the most prominent symbolic center in the entire country, Tiananmen. It is his legacy on which the current leaders even today largely depend for their waning legitimacy. As Jonathan Mirsky asks in regard to the Chinese leadership at present, “Why, then, protect the Chairman now? Because without Mao a black hole would gape beneath the feet of the Communist Party . . . Without Mao, his heirs – for that is what they are – would be left dangling in an ideological void.” Mirsky, the former East Asia editor of the Times of London and another of the enthusiastic reviewers of the Chang and Halliday book, continues, “So to demolish the Chairman would be catastrophic for the present leadership. These leaders, after all, continue to emphasize that ‘the Communist Party makes mistakes but only the Communist Party can correct them.’ . . . But what if the Party itself is a mistake and Mao a yet greater one? China’s leaders are determined to prevent that thought from getting loose in the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese.” But that, of course, is a major reason why Mao: The Unknown Story had to be written. For not only anti-Communists like Chang and Halliday, but many reviewers, his very name must be extirpated, and even the pro forma ties of the current leaders to his memory must be broken, so that China will again be “free” of any remnant of the revolution that he led and the goals that he sought.

But why do they care? How does Mao still “hurt” the enemy so much, that they feel the need to devote such effort to launching this unprecedented outpouring of hatred and bile, distorting beyond recognition the very history of the revolution that he led? To what end must even the smallest details of that struggle be denied? Why must Mao be turned into a “monster” more terrible than any other world leader? Why is his role still so central that it is “good,” and not “bad,” that he is being attacked? Finally, how can those who still believe in the goals of the socialist revolution in China meet such attacks with the kind of dialectical response that allowed him to turn the tables, despite setbacks and reversals, on its enemies? The answer lies in part in understanding that the attack from Chang and Halliday is a measure of how much Mao still represents the Chinese people even today. China is rising, and the entire world is struggling with how to adjust to this new reality. U.S. and British imperial leaders, in particular—and their hangers-on in the academy and the mass media, such as Chang and Halliday—are torn, as the West has always been, between viewing the rapid growth of Chinese power as an opportunity or a threat. On the one hand, the desire to exploit the vast market that is developing in China is irresistible to global capitalists. On the other, they fear not only its economic power, but the political and military might that is rapidly growing in parallel with it.

This is a constant theme in mainstream media in the United States today—not only on the right, but among liberals and progressives as well. The San Jose Mercury News expressed this in a July 17, 2005, headline, “China’s Century Taking Shape.” The following article, by Tim Johnson of Knight Ridder has as its lead, “If the 20th was the American century, the 21st may belong to China. Just five years into it, China has become the world’s third-largest trader, one of its fastest-growing economies, a rising military power in northeast Asia and a global player extending its influence in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.” (1A) The New York Times followed with its own expression of concern, “Who’s Afraid of China Inc.?,” explaining how even “avowed free traders” are beginning to worry about its threat to U.S. “national security” (7/24/05, Sect. 3, 1) Similarly, columnist Robert J. Samuelson, discussing the recent Chinese bid for California oil producer UNOCAL—which was abandoned after it became clear that U.S. political resistance would block it—says that “We cannot decide whether China is a threat or an opportunity, and until we do, every discussion of our relations seems to slide into confusion and acrimony” (The Washington Post, 7/10/05). A similar ambiguity is very well expressed in the June 27, 2005, issue of Time magazine, in a lengthy Special Report titled “China’s New Revolution: Remaking our world, one deal at a time.” The subheadings reflect the fear as well as opportunities: “Here Comes China! Will the rise of the People’s Republic mean the decline of the U.S.?” and “The People’s Republic has embraced the modern world as never before. Is that cause for celebration or anxiety?”

For those for whom the answer is more threat than opportunity, it is bad enough that even a capitalist China will challenge the United States for global supremacy. But the danger will be that much greater if the Chinese should refuse to abandon their history, and once again take the path to socialist revolution, thereby threatening not only the U.S. led empire, but the very foundation of global capitalism itself. China must therefore be “cleansed” of its revolutionary past, to the point where not even a tiny remnant of it remains, and its “New Revolution” must be a safely “American-style” one, that is, devoted only to “free markets” and “deals,” not to socialism and the working classes. But here a problem arises. It is not the image of Deng Xiaoping, who introduced “market reforms” after the death of Mao, much less that of the current President Hu Jintao, that Time felt compelled to put on the cover of their Special Report. Rather it is the face of Mao that they chose to represent China, complete with rays of the sun radiating from his head—a representation that was popularized during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Since he stood on the platform of Tiananmen in October 1949 and declared, “the Chinese people have stood up,” he has remained the symbol of the modern emergence of China, and it is therefore over his legacy that the struggle must be waged as to what its character will be, opportunity or threat, friend or foe. For those, like Chang and Halliday, for whom the revolution led by Mao represents the greatest of evils and dangers in the modern world, it is critical that his role as the symbol of the nation is shattered once and for all. The “New China” that is emerging must therefore be swept clean of his example and turned into a pale imitation of the West that fits smoothly into the U.S.-dominated world empire and capitalist “globalization.” Anglo-American “freedom,” in this view, represents the Promised Land to which Jung Chang was finally able to escape at the end of Wild Swans. Only if Mao is demonized and the very nature of the revolutionary socialism for which the Chinese fought under his leadership is not just discredited, but totally denied, can the image of the nation finally be freed from the taint of “Maoism” that still haunts it today, and its people too experience Western-style “liberation.”

Though research on Mao: The Unknown Story began shortly after the publication of Wild Swans and was ten years in completion, the release of the book by Jung and Halliday, therefore, comes at a time when the very character of China is a matter of not only national, but global debate, and it is only in the context of this struggle that their attack on Mao can be properly understood as just one small part of a larger conflict. But it is not just the image of the Chinese nation that is at stake. Though Mao both led and represented the national revival of China, for which he is deeply honored by its people, regardless of what class they belong to, his role as the leader of its socialist revolution is even more critical to the contradictions of today. It is not just the Chinese nation that is rising up, but the workers and peasants themselves who are increasingly rebelling against the capitalistic exploitation of the “reform” era. For many members of the working classes in China, the older of whom still hold onto personal memories of life during the time when socialism was the foundation of national policy, Mao continues to represent the possibility of a society free from the exploitation, loss of jobs and social securities, and vast polarization and corruption of the “reforms.” But this is not merely nostalgia for the past or a vague sense that things were better in the “good old days.” Mao remains a critical reference point to which, over and over again, workers and peasants of China can and frequently do turn in order to find inspiration and guidance in their struggles.

This relationship is not, of course, lost on the Chinese leaders. As conditions for millions in the working classes continue to worsen, even the official press in China has been forced to confront the growing polarization, and the specter of revolution past.

The gap between China’s richest and poorest citizens is approaching a dangerous level and could lead to social unrest, state media reported . . . citing a government study.

The most affluent one-fifth of China’s population earn 50 percent of total income, with the bottom one-fifth taking home only 4.7 percent, said the report by the official Xinhua News Agency . . . .

“The income gap, which has exceeded reasonable limits, exhibits a further widening trend. If it continues this way for a long time, the phenomenon may give rise to various sorts of social instability,” it said.

These days, the wealth gap is evident everywhere, from elderly citizens digging through downtown trash bins for plastic bottles to recycle to migrant shacks squeezed between luxury villas in Shanghai’s suburbs. (Associated Press, 9/21/05)

But social unrest is not just potential, as Xinhua tries to imply. It is already extremely widespread. The possible consequences are evident to the government news agency, which knows that memories of the socialist revolution are never far beneath the surface in the consciousness of the Chinese working classes. Thus even in its coverage of the study,

The language harkens back to the revolutionary era of Mao Zedong, when the Communist Party nationalized private business and seized land from wealthy farmers in one of the most extreme leveling campaigns ever undertaken. (Ibid.)

Today, as privatization is again officially promoted, and peasants confront rural officials and entrepreneurs who conspire to rob them of their lands, the potential for a turn toward more revolutionary struggle is once more in the air, striking fear in the leaders in Beijing.

Though largely ignored in the West, some of the largest working class protests anywhere in the world are taking place on a virtually daily basis across China, from the strikes in foreign owned export factories of the southern coastal areas and demonstrations in the industrial “rust belts” of the central and northeastern provinces, to revolts over corrupt officials and environmental disasters in suburbs around eastern cities and isolated villages in western rural regions. Noting that, in figures released by the Minister for Public Security, “mass incidents, or demonstrations and riots,” rose to 74,000 in 2004, up from just 10,000 a decade ago, and 58,000 in 2003, the New York Times reported,

For reasons that range from rampant industrial pollution to widespread evictions and land seizures by corrupt local governments in cahoots with increasingly powerful property developers, ordinary Chinese seem to be saying they are fed up and won’t take it any more.

Each week brings news of at least one or two incidents, with thousands of villagers in a pitched battle with the police, or bloody crackdowns in which hundreds of protesters are tear-gassed and clubbed during roundups by the police. And by the government’s own official tally, hundreds of these events each week escape wider public attention altogether (8/24/05, A4).

These demonstrations have extended into the very heart of the “market reform” regions, such as downtown Shanghai, the new center of Chinese commercial capital. In these struggles, workers and peasants alike often contrast the ideas Mao advanced and the socialist policies he helped to introduce with the degraded conditions of their lives today.

In one protest, middle-aged residents invoked rebellious slogans from their youth during the Cultural Revolution, reportedly saying things like ‘to rebel is just’ as they denounced summary evictions to make way for high-rise developers and demanded fair compensation (New York Times, 8/24/05, A4).

But regardless of whether they explicitly invoke his name or not, it is Mao who provides a historical alternative in both analysis and practice to their current situation, and a point of unity for all those who oppose the present capitalistic and corrupt “reform” policies.

One example of this is the widespread support demonstrated for the “Zhengzhou 4,” worker activists in that city in central Henan Province, who distributed a leaflet denouncing the current direction of the party and state at a memorial celebration on the 28th anniversary of his death. It is Mao who they invoked in contrast to the rampant capitalism and corruption of the present leaders, calling on them to return to the socialist path which the country had pursued while he was alive, a “crime” for which two of them were arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. But these four activists are by no means isolated. Leftists came from all over China to show solidarity outside of their closed trial, websites published lengthy discussions of the case and defenses of their actions, and more than one hundred Chinese—a very large number given the political risks and restricted communication channels—signed a petition letter protesting their imprisonment, joined by an equal number of those outside the country, an unprecedented international alliance in support of militant leftist workers there. But there are other signs as well of the ongoing refusal to let the struggles of the past die. In a park in a working class neighborhood in Zhengzhou, hundreds—and up to a thousand or so on weekends—gather each evening to sing the old revolutionary songs and to uphold the legacy of the Mao era. In a similar, if less developed vein, workers and peasants often express the same kinds of views: life was different and better in the period under Mao, before China took the “capitalist road” that he warned against. Of course, such attitudes are far from universal. There are some workers and peasants who are “making it” under the current “reforms,” and even a few who are “getting rich,” as Deng Xiaoping urged them to do. Young members of the working classes, in particular, who do not have memories of the socialist era, are increasingly being drawn into the consumer world of China today, where individualistic economic pursuits are the overriding purpose of life. But enough workers and peasants still find in Mao the inspiration for their struggles to provoke a very harsh response—as exemplified by the case of the Zhengzhou 4—not only from party and state authorities, but from all those who fear a return to the socialist policies that he advanced, and the class struggles that he led, and above all, the Cultural Revolution, the last great campaign that he initiated to keep the Chinese from turning back to the “capitalist road.”

With protests growing ever larger, such social contradictions are rapidly rising. But it is not simply the expanding struggles of the working classes that are at issue here. So far, most of these demonstrations and even violent riots have been quite isolated and relatively spontaneous, focused around the conditions in an individual factory, village or urban neighborhood. Though efforts are growing to link up these struggles on a wider basis—for example, by bringing together representatives of all the factories in a city, as has taken place in Shenyang in Lioaning province, or even by developing ties between workers and peasants in a given region—there is overall little coordination so far. The great fear of the authorities and their supporters, therefore, is that the current protests will begin to be led by those with a broader sense of their strategic possibilities, and who have as their goal not local protest, but a challenge to the entire system of capitalist “reforms.” There are already signs of growing coordination, as “the protests are increasingly feeding off each other, powered by information exchanges through the internet.” In Taishi village in Guangdong Province, a sit-in and fast by hundreds of peasants protesting the confiscation of land for property development, have been supported by “a pro-democracy activist network” that “issues regular e-mails with information about the campaign and statements from the villagers,” who are demanding not only that their immediate claim be addressed, but justice, the rule of law, democratic participation, and the right “as master of the country . . . to choose our own future” (Richard McGregor, “Hu at pains to keep China from peasants’ revolt,” The Financial Times, 9/7/05). But though liberal activists and NGO’s such as these pose a growing challenge to state and party control, it is the left, with its historic ties to Mao and the socialist revolution, that poses the greatest danger.

More than anything else, what the present leaders of China are determined to prevent, is a revival of “Maoism,” and the linking up of leftist intellectuals with the working classes. They have reason to be afraid. Over the past five or so years, the left has reemerged in China, still small, divided and marginalized, but once again becoming a significant part of the national scene, driven in large part by the growing struggles of the workers and peasants themselves, who are both creating renewed pressure and providing inspiration for activism among all social strata. In increasing numbers, intellectuals and university students, in the face of the growing polarization and corruption of the “reform” era, have begun to turn back to Mao for guidance, and to link up once again with the new working class movement—as exemplified, once again, by the widespread leftist support for the Zhengzhou 4, which may have contributed to the release of one of the imprisoned activists, ostensibly for health reasons. Anecdotal evidence confirms this process, in which workers and peasants themselves are “educating the educated.” One leading intellectual, for example, turned to the “left” after spending extended time in the rural areas, because every person he met in his visits with peasants in the villages supported Mao, in contrast to the attitudes of urban liberals. So too, a progressive academic in Beijing, told how she was “moving back toward” Mao, because his critique of the “capitalist road” rings increasingly true today. As more than one activist put it, having tried “everything else” to explain what is happening in China, without finding answers for the polarization and other negative social factors becoming ever sharper by the day, many are turning again to “Mao Zedong Thought” for guidance.

As a result, both the struggles of the working classes, and the contradictions of the current conditions of Chinese society, are compelling more and more intellectuals toward the left. In the process, many have begun to make a “revision of the revision” of their view of the legacy of Mao, and even of the Cultural Revolution. This has significant ideological and practical consequences. On the one hand, there is a growing range of publications, websites and forums that are devoted to leftist analysis and critiques of the “reform” policies. In some cases, these are explicitly “Maoist.” More broadly, there are many expressions of a “new” left, which like its Western counterpart, mixes Marxist concepts with sociological and social democratic influences. Among young intellectuals, especially, there is a questioning approach to the widely accepted negative interpretations of the Mao era put forward after his death. But even among “old” leftists, many of whom earlier bought in at least partially to the “reform” policies under Deng Xiaoping, there is a new willingness to criticize the direction of the party and state, and to do so more openly than they had been prepared to do for many years. These changing attitudes have a broad popular base as well, such as the four million or so Chinese—ranging “from backpacking college students to busloads of middle-aged workers on company excursions”—who each year visit Yan’an, the remote base in the Northwest where the Long March ended, and from which Mao led the guerrilla struggle against the Japanese and launched the final showdown with Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists. It was there that the goals of the Communists were expanded and perfected, and to it many thousands of both members of the working classes and intellectuals found their way to join the revolutionary struggle under the leadership of Mao. Despite, or perhaps because of its remoteness, this city has remained a symbol of the spirit of sacrifice and closeness to the people that marked the revolution, standing in such contrast to the luxury, corruption and exploitation of the workers and peasants today—despite the efforts of those such as Chang and Halliday, and of some domestic Chinese critics, to debunk its legacy (New York Times, 7/1/05, A4).

Any renewed interest in the early revolutionary period and the “spirit of Yan’an” would be enough alone to worry those who oppose any hint of the revival of “Maoism.” But the turn to the left of many young intellectuals, in particular, takes a practical form as well, and one of potentially great significance for the working class struggle, that is even more threatening to those who fear a revival of the alliances of the Mao era. Beginning around five years ago, small Marxist study groups began to emerge on a few of the more elite university campuses. Originally quite isolated and devoted to reading the classical texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and especially Mao, these early efforts have blossomed into a much more widespread network of leftist campus organizations today. From a growing number of universities, students are now travelling to cities like Zhengzhou to meet with workers, study and report on their conditions, and offer both legal and material support to their struggles. A similar student organization, the Sons [sic] of the Peasants, is sending student delegations to the rural areas. Though still small, and barely a blip on the general university scene, where most students are devoted only to their studies and careers, these leftist campus groups are nevertheless a dramatic new development in China. Through this movement, hundreds of college students on the left, and those with broad progressive politics, are beginning to gain practical experience of the conditions and struggles of the working classes, and even joining them in opposing the current policies of the state and party authorities—a linkage that has not occurred since the Cultural Revolution.

While still largely marginalized, and subject to harassment by the government—some of those trying to go to Zhengzhou were even denied permission to get off at the railroad station there—these student organizations are rapidly breaking down the great gap that had opened up between intellectuals, and workers and peasants, under the Deng “reforms,” when professional elitism and a narrow focus on academic achievement were once again the basis of official educational policy. Attacks on Mao, such as the new one by Chang and Halliday, must therefore be viewed in the context of attempts to head off the growing alliance of the left and the working classes. The younger generation, in particular, must be “inoculated” against the “Maoist” threat. While the book, and even issues of magazines with reviews of it, have already been banned in mainland China, one can safely assume that underground and internet copies will soon be circulating there—since editions are planned for both Hong Kong and Taiwan—and that its major claims will become known at least to a relatively broad range of those who care to track it down.

Mao: The Unknown Story must thus be understood as one entry in the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Chinese people as they face a critical turning point, whether to plunge completely over the cliff of capitalist restoration and corporate “globalization,” or to turn back from the precipice and begin to rebuild a society in which socialism and the working classes have a meaningful role in determining the direction of official policy. In this sense, the Chang and Halliday book is a weapon in the class struggle that has once again begun to emerge in China with gathering force. Its treatment of the conflicts of classes in the revolution makes this clear. In its opening paragraphs, the book states that, “High positions were open to all through education” in traditional Mandarin society, and that those from “any background” could thereby gain wealth and power—a literal truth that blandly disguises and casually dismisses the oppression of the peasantry, and the necessity of revolutionary struggle to end it (4-5). The peasant uprising of the 1920s, in turn, is dismissed as little more than thuggery and banditry, while Mao is portrayed as joining and using it only to advance his own career (41-42). The release of Mao: The Unknown Story is thus part of the strategic moves by those who oppose the new potential for revolution that is developing not only among the Chinese working classes, but within the ranks of the intellectuals, who are turning toward the left and beginning to find ways to reunite with those from whom, since the Cultural Revolution, they were alienated. It is against such a potential for ever higher levels of organized struggle, that the government has issued a renewed warning, “a strongly worded recent editorial, published in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, under the headline ‘Maintain Stability to Speed Development.’ The commentary warned citizens to obey the law, saying that threats to social order would not be tolerated.” (New York Times, 8/24/05, A4). Soon after this statement, an even more stringent crackdown on websites and other forms of electronic exchange was begun.

But it is not only in the context of China alone that Mao: The Unknown Story has significance. For the same forces that are compelling the Chinese people to move in new directions are having a similar effect on the working and “educated” classes worldwide. From this standpoint, it is critical to remember the role that Mao played historically in the global struggles against imperialism and capitalist exploitation. He, like Ho Chi Minh and later Fidel Castro, was a preeminent representative of the unification of national liberation and socialist revolution. It was against this combination, more than any other, that the “Cold War”—which in reality was an almost continuous series of “hot wars”—was conducted. From the U.S. protective umbrella thrown over Taiwan to which the defeated Nationalists escaped after the triumph of the Chinese revolution, through Korea, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and numerous “contra” wars in Latin America and Africa, the West struggled to contain and “roll back” Communism by breaking apart the unity of anti-imperialism and socialism most evident in certain Third World revolutions. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the turn of China once again toward capitalism, the forces of U.S. imperialism and their intellectual hangers-on thought that they had once and for all driven a stake through the heart of the threat that leftists posed to their global rule, and that, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” had finally and permanently arrived.

But the left refuses to stay in its grave. As the Observer/UK in London noted recently, in response to a two page spread in the right-wing Daily Mail which vilified a “penniless asylum seeker” who “has been dead since 1883,” “‘Marx the Monster’ was the Mail’s furious reaction to the news that thousands of Radio 4 listeners had chosen Karl Marx as their favorite thinker. ‘His genocidal disciples include Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – and even Mugabe. So why has Karl Marx just been voted the greatest philosopher ever?’” (6/17/05) “Monster,” it seems, is the new favorite term du jour applied to both Marx and Mao, but those who use it are left unable to explain why millions worldwide refuse to abandon them. The answer, as the Observer analyzed, is that capitalism itself continues to provide the left with the fuel for its own revival. The contradictions of the global capitalist system, seen in China today as vividly as anywhere, continually drive not only the working classes, but the intellectuals, back toward leftist interpretations of the world, because these alone can explain what is happening in the lives of the people, and offer the possibility not just of minor adjustments, but the overthrowing, of the system that oppresses them. Marx and his “disciples,” including Mao, must therefore once more be totally discredited, and declared to be “Monsters,” in order to forestall a global revival of the left and a turn once again by workers and peasants toward the goals of revolutionary socialism. Whether for Fleet Street, or Chang and Halliday, the need is the same, to rally the forces of reaction against the reviving worldwide leftist challenge.

But as in the Chinese case, the threat here is not just ideological. Across the Third World in particular, but even in the core countries of the empire, tens of millions are now challenging capitalist “globalization” on a daily basis. The turn of Latin America to the left, the resistance of the most oppressed and marginalized indigenous members of global society to economic and environmental depredations, the growing struggles of Asian workers and peasants against the capitalist multinationals and the vast polarization of their societies, the demands from Africa for debt relief and the right to low-cost drugs for AIDS, and the massive demonstrations which greet the leaders of empire wherever they gather, most recently in Scotland for the G-8 summit—all are signs of this struggle. The present movement represents an unprecedented upsurge of popular organization against the corporate ravaging, environmental devastation, and economic and social polarizing that is the inevitable accompaniment of the unleashing of an unrestrained capitalism.

But as was true during the Cold War, the “anti-globalization” aspects of the struggle—that is, resistance to the U.S. dominated empire and expanding corporate control—and its anti-capitalist, and especially pro-socialist, elements are hard to bring together. In formations such as the World Social Forum, which has been at the forefront of the “global justice” movement, and especially among its participants and followers in the United States, there are strong strains of resistance to the legacy of both the socialist revolutions and to leftist ideology in general. There is little meeting ground between many of its activists, and revolutionaries such as the Nepalese or Peruvian “Maoists,” or the Marxist guerrilla movements in Colombia or the Philippines, or even, for some, the Zapatistas from Chiapas, who hardly fit the more traditional “model” of such struggles. Even the millions of working class protesters in China have received little attention from the “anti-globalization” forces, not only because of their limited ability to take part in gatherings such as the WSF, but perhaps because they too are considered tainted by socialist revolution and “Maoism.” (see John Gulick, “Insurgent Chinese Workers and Peasants,” in Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement, Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose, and George Katsiaficas, ed., Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2004) Many in the global justice movement, of course, do identify themselves as socialists, though of widely different varieties—and, for example, eagerly support the “Bolivarian Socialism” of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where the 2006 WSF will be held.

But just as in the era of anti-colonialism, only in certain cases do rebellion against the imperial system and socialist revolution come together in a sustained fashion, and this lack of unity remains one of the greatest weaknesses again today. As in China, therefore, it is necessary for the imperialists and their ideological supporters to do everything in their power to prevent any deepening ties of the working classes and the revolutionary forces of the left, of the global justice movement and the struggle for socialism. The existing divisions, which already weaken the forces that oppose both the U.S.-dominated empire and the capitalist system, must therefore be further exacerbated. The book by Chang and Halliday must be seen as part of this global battle, a worldwide right wing reaction, to head off as much as possible the unification that Mao represented of both anti-imperialism and socialist revolution, which threatens to rise again, even stronger.

Of course, the point here is not that Mao: The Unknown Story or the reviewers of this work explicitly address all of these various aspects of the current global struggle in their attack on him, but rather that they are one part of the general anti-left “atmosphere” of the present time, and that they share the ideology expressed in other ways by those with similarly reactionary views. This situating of the book as part of a worldwide class conflict and ideological battle, also points to the direction that will have to be taken in countering its claims. Each of the specific “charges” that the authors bring against Mao will have to be confronted, and despite assertions of those like Philip Hensher, they will not be “unanswerable.” Their refutation will rest first and foremost on those who knew and worked with Mao directly, as previously occurred in the case of Li Zhisui, when former comrades in the party and state denounced his claims and defended both the personal character and the revolutionary accomplishments of the Chinese leader. But since Chang and Halliday cite many such earlier associates of Mao themselves, this will mean helping to mobilize those who hold opposing views to come forward with their own counter version of key events and remembrances of his work and life. In this, historians and “China scholars” will also no doubt join in, bringing a more nuanced and balanced review of the record of the Mao era. At the same time, the methodology of Chang and Halliday, and in particular their loose approach to documentation, highly selective and biased use and interpretation of historical events, and contradictions with their own earlier works will have to be addressed. Such questions need not be raised only by the left. They have already been partly conceded even by some of the most virulent early reviewers, and exposed by those who take a more objective and critical approach. “China scholars across the world are questioning the veracity of historical accounts” in the book, as well “as factual errors and dubious use of sources – which even favourable reviewers such as Princeton’s Perry Link (an editor of the Tiananmen Papers) have felt compelled to criticize.” (“Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05) Similarly, Kristof, noting the range of estimates put forward for the number of deaths in the Great Leap Forward, accuses the authors of “Simply plucking a high-end estimate out of an article and embracing it as the one true estimate . . . .” (11) It is not just that Chang and Halliday pick and choose their evidence to prove their case, however, or that others argue for even lower estimates than those cited in the book and reviews (see, inter alia, Utsa Patnaik, “The Republic of Hunger,” Public Lecture, New Delhi, 4/1/04). For the same campaigns in which many died, primarily during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, also saw the introduction of health care and other social programs for the working classes, and especially the peasants, that saved and extended the lives of tens of millions, and raised China to unparalleled levels of life expectancy and literacy compared with such similarly poor Asian countries as India and Indonesia. Thus both the gains and the costs that the Chinese experienced during the revolution were closely interwoven, but Mao: The Unknown Story totally ignores any positive accomplishments. Still, a more thorough confrontation with and refutation of the claims of Chang and Halliday will have to await a broader distribution of their book, and especially access to it in China. Such a detailed rebuttal will take time, and require a very sustained and determined struggle.

But one issue can be addressed early on by those who have no direct experience of Mao, or special expertise in the details of the historical record of his leadership. This is the view, summarized by Simon Sebag Montefiore in his review, that the “authors . . . believe that Mao was never a Marxist, simply an opportunistic egomaniac.” Kakutani in his New York Times review similarly notes that “the authors declare that Mao lacked a ‘heartfelt commitment’ to Marxism.” Those familiar with the history of leftist theory and analysis know that there has long been debate and disagreement over the nature of the Marxism practiced by Mao, in particular regarding such questions as his dependence on a “peasant army” as the main force of the revolution in China, which some claim breaks with “classical” Marxism-Leninism, or his conflicts with the Soviet Union on the issue of revisionism and his opening to the West. To this day, the ranks of leftists across the world are frequently divided by whether they follow the interpretations of Marx that were advocated by Mao or competing tendencies. It is problematic whether Chang and Halliday are competent to enter into the finer points of this discussion from a Marxist standpoint, but regardless, any assertion such as that attributed to them by Montefiore is ridiculous and refuted by the writings of Mao himself. From his first works, such as “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” and “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”—building on the work of Engels and Lenin in particular—through which the revolutionary uprising in the rural areas was given theoretical and practical guidance, and on which the land reform movement was later based, through his outlining of the class alliance needed to defeat the Japanese, to his addresses to the “Yenan Forum on Art and Culture,” and his last writings on the continuation of the class struggle on the ideological plane in the era of the transition to socialism, Mao not only was thoroughly based in the fundamentals of Marxism, but made profound and lasting contributions to the expansion of its canon. His theoretical essays, such as “On Contradiction,” brought to an entire generation of the left, not only in China, but worldwide, a deeper understanding and extension of Marxist dialectics. In the United States, these and similar works had a formative influence on such diverse groups as the Black Panthers, Redstockings—part of the most radical wing of the Womens’ Liberation Movement—and various alternative academic and professional bodies. Above all, Mao made basic concepts of Marx accessible to hundreds of millions of workers and peasants.

The attempt by Chang and Halliday to dismiss Mao as “never a Marxist” says more about their own approach, therefore, than about the Chinese leader himself. Their interpretation of his report on the Hunan peasant uprising, for example, reduces it to nothing but a supposed discovery by Mao of his love of violence (41-42). A similar treatment allows them to avoid any hint, much less an indepth analysis, of the impact of his writings on the class struggle and policy conflicts not only in China, but around the world. That a virulent animus pervades their work and biases all of their interpretations has already been noted by some of the more middle of the road and “balanced” reviewers of their book, such as James Heartfield who, while by no means rejecting every aspect of its conclusions, made a well researched effort to expose the distortions contained in their account. His review addresses gaps in their theses, facts and methods, and in particular notes that they “struggle to explain Mao’s victory in their Unknown Story, because their hostility to their subject forbids any credit whatsoever” (James Heartfield, “Mao: The end of the affair,” www.spiked-online.com, 7/4/05). Kakutani criticizes the lack of reference to his “mature writings that might shed light on his politics or values,” and the absence of historical context, calling the work “tendentious and one-dimensional.” So too, Kristof complains that in the book, “Mao comes across as such a villain that he never really becomes three-dimensional,” and that he is “presented as such a bumbling psychopath that it’s hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead China and emerge as one of the most worshipped figures in history” (11). Here lies the fundamental flaw in the attempted “trashing” of Mao by those like Chang and Halliday and others of their ilk. For what such a dismissive approach cannot account for is how the largest revolutionary struggle in world history, stretching over more than half a century and involving between a fifth and a quarter of all humanity, overturning the millennial class structure of the Chinese empire, defeating internal enemies and external imperialism, and transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in the most profound ways, can have been accomplished with the kind of leader that they picture Mao to have been.

Such an attempt to reduce history to primarily the role of “great personages”—and in this case a supposedly monstrously evil one—denigrates both the struggle and wisdom of the people of China, and in particular its working classes, who followed him through thick and thin, victories and defeats, vast accomplishments and terrible losses. It also ignores the complexity of any social transformation, especially one on the scale of the Chinese revolution, and of those who lead it. Mao, like all the great revolutionaries, was a product of both his time and culture, who despite his profound radicalism, was nevertheless bound by the limits of the society of China that he inherited, and inevitably, as both a human being and as a leader, showed weaknesses as well as strengths. His record as the primary guide of the decades-long Chinese revolutionary struggle, must be and is constantly being reviewed, within the context of not only China itself, but the powerful global forces shaping his times. Both the great victories of the revolution and their extremely high cost are part of this necessary review. Any efforts to dehumanize Mao into a one dimensional “monster,” however, such as he is portrayed in the book by Chang and Halliday, result not in a better historical understanding, but become instead an empty exercise in warped political propaganda.

The emergence of a campaign to refute Mao: The Unknown Story has already begun, in a few more balanced and critical reviews of the book and on leftist websites and email lists. In the last analysis, however, it must be recognized that the intellectuals and journalists on the left, and even some of those more in the political mainstream, who reject all or part of the thesis of Chang and Halliday, are in a weak position acting by themselves in refuting its distortions. For they can never match the power of the print and electronic media of the right wing corporate monopolies, largescale book publishers, and quasi-governmental global radio networks such as the BBC, which reach hundreds of millions on a daily basis. Against such opponents, the resources of the left will always be grossly inadequate. But the battle is not and should not be confined to the field chosen by the reactionaries, who believe that they can win the day by promoting such attacks. For in the end, the struggle will not be determined primarily by whether those who read such books accept or reject their conclusions. As Mao himself made clear, “The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history,” (“On Coalition Government,” May 24, 1945). It only needs to be added, that they, and especially the working classes, in their hundreds of millions, are also its ultimate arbiters. In the end, it is the Chinese people as a whole, and above all the workers and peasants—along with billions of their peers around the globe—who will render the lasting historical judgment as to whether Mao helped to make their lives better or worse. Those who have spent even a small amount of time talking with members of the working classes of China know that the view of him and of the socialist revolution that he led, while today by no means unquestioning or uncritical, still remains deeply appreciative and approving, and he continues to be seen by many as their representative. This is especially so, when they compare the “Maoist” era with that of the current rulers, who are viewed as corrupt and defending only the interests of the growing ranks of exploiters in the party and state and the rapidly emerging capitalist class, which is daily driving the workers and peasants to desperation, and the edge of open revolt . As Wu Guoguang, a former government adviser and People’s Daily editorialist now teaching in Canada put it, “‘the masses are angry basically because of abuse of power by party officials. If the government were clean and efficient, things would be much calmer. But the perception is that the officials don’t want to pursue the state’s interests, so much as pursue their own interests—both legal and illegal’” (New York Times, 8/24/05, A4).

Those who want to repulse the attack by Chang and Halliday will not be able to do so successfully, without tapping this enormous reservoir of feelings and memories among the working classes, who will never, with only the fewest exceptions, read Mao: The Unknown Story—especially as the educational system for them collapses. But they do not need to pore over books in order to make their own evaluations of Mao and the revolution that he led. They know from their own lives, at times feel literally in their very bodies, the benefits of free health care and education, guaranteed jobs and social securities, and a participatory role in the running of their factories and farms, while he was the leader of the country—and that they have lost virtually any shred of such rights today. Every means must be found, therefore, to assist the Chinese working classes to give voice to their own views on Mao and his legacy. It was, above all, the purpose of the struggle that he led, and especially the Cultural Revolution, to create the opportunity for them to be historical actors, to participate in society in their own name, finally free of the millennial rule of the “educated classes,” first of the Mandarins and then, even after the triumph of the Communists, of many party and state officials and the intellectual elite, who dominated the new society and treated the workers and peasants as ignorant masses. Those who wish to defend Mao, will only be able to do so by following his own example, rededicating themselves to bringing to light the struggle of the Chinese working classes, and helping them in carrying it forward into the current era. They are once more on the move, struggling to redefine their role in the new “globalized” economy of a capitalistic China, a world Mao both foresaw and tried to prevent, to the very last days of his life.

Vicious, opportunistic and damaging as Mao: The Unknown Story is, therefore, it presents problems as well for those who oppose the late Chinese leader, as even many of the “Mao as Monster” ilk have been forced to recognize. Thus “some of the world’s most eminent scholars of modern Chinese history . . . say Chang’s latest blockbuster book . . . is a gross distortion of the records.” Among the early reviewers,

Few are disputing that their subject, the late Chinese communist party chairman Mao Zedong, was a monster as a human being and a leader who put first, his party comrades, and later, the whole country, through hell. Or that this is an extraordinarily powerful book, one that seems destined to be highly influential.

But many agree with Thomas Bernstein, of Columbia University in New York, that “the book is a major disaster for the contemporary China field.”
“Because of its stupendous research apparatus, its claims will be accepted widely,” he said this week. “Yet their scholarship is put at the service of thoroughly destroying Mao’s reputation.

The result is an equally stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader.” (“Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05)

Adds Steve Tsang of Oxford University, “the authors had been ‘appallingly dishonest’ in the use of sources they claimed to have accessed. ‘Mao was a monster,’ Tsang said. ‘(But) their distortion of history to make their case will in the end make it more difficult to reveal how horrible Mao and the Chinese Communist Party system were, and how much damage they really did to the Chinese people.” Or as Francesco Sisci of La Stamp in Italy put it, “‘You don’t feel cold analysis in this book, you feel hatred, which helps make it a wonderful read. But history should not work this way.’” Adds Fred Teiwes of Sydney University, who met Chang during her research for the book, “She just had her views so set, and was unwilling to entertain other opinions or inconvenient evidence.” Of Mao he argues, “When someone is responsible, and I believe he was, for upwards of 30 million deaths, it’s hard to defend him . . . But on the other hand to paint him as a totally monstrous personality who just goes out to kill people and protect his power at all cost is not only over the top but a bit crazy in terms of what actually went on.” (Ibid.)

Thus as Mao himself predicted, attacks by the “enemy,” carried to their logical extreme, lead to serious errors and discredit their validity. A blind thrashing out may score short-term tactical gains, but it is strategically foolish in the end, and only deepens the internal contradictions of those who oppose revolutionary change. Attacks such as that in Mao: The Unknown Story, therefore, represent both a threat and an opportunity. Despite the damage that it will do, the work of Chang and Halliday reconfirms, however unwittingly, the central role of Mao and of the socialist revolution that he led—and at the very time that his ideas and policies are once again becoming even more relevant, and as the working classes are rising up in newfound forms of rebellion. Their book will no doubt lend new support to those who dismiss the late Chinese leader as a “monster.” But its very writing “demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.” Their attack is carried to such a ridiculous extreme of hatred and distortion, that it helps to discredit the very approach that they have adopted and all who share such views, and begs for a more objective and positive review of the role of Mao. Such a reevaluation reopens doors long closed, and in particular the warning that he issued of what would happen if the Chinese people turned away from socialism and once again took the path to capitalism.

Thus the crucial point here is not the rehabilitation or the dismissal of a single leader, however central he was to the past revolutionary struggle. The critical issue now is whether the Chinese people, together with those of the entire world, will again turn back toward the road to socialist revolution. A full and fair evaluation of the record of Mao can only aid in reopening that question and pointing to a positive answer. In this sense, being attacked by Chang and Halliday is “not a bad thing but a good thing.” But this will only be the case if those who support the socialist revolution not only in China but worldwide, embrace the new opportunity that is offered to them by the publication of this book, to raise again the goals that Mao advanced, and that he spent his entire life struggling to achieve, and renew their dedication to the struggle of the global working classes that he helped to lead, and that is as necessary today as when he was alive.

One comment on “To be Attacked by the Enemy is a Good Thing

  1. I’m the only person who chose to comment on this post in seven years? Then perhaps the impact of the book was not as important as Chang and Halliday hoped, or as Weil feared.

    What I wonder is this: If Chinese capitalism is as much a threat to American “imperialism” as Weil claims and certainly as those who watch Fox news or listen to Rush Limbaugh believe it to be, then why not support and embrace the neo-Maoists? Nothing would bring the Chinese economic machinery to a halt as quickly as another Long March and “sending down” Chinese college students to destroy agriculture as they did in the 50′s and 60′s. If Americans fear China and the Chinese government still fears Mao, then we Americans should embrace the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and schedule mass air drops of The Little Red Book over western China and the factory cities.

    History, even Mao-friendly history, shows us what the effect of Communism would be on China: at least 20 million dead from starvation, a trickle of exports, closed borders and negative economic growth. All things that would benefit the supremacy of American business in the world (especially now that the EU is imploding).

    So keep up the good work, Mr. Weil. Promoting Maoism in China promotes capitalism in the good ole’ USA.

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