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Maoist Discourse, Historical Breaks, and Liberalism’s Vengeance

by Hu De | 12 October 2009 | One Comment | Last modified: 13 Oct 5:56 pm

DRAFT paper, read at the international conference on “China: Culture and Social Transformation” held at Zhejiang University, July 2009

“Maoist Discourse, Historical Breaks, and Liberalism’s Vengeance”

With a few, important exceptions much of the knowledge of modern China produced in the world either ignores or demonizes the Mao era as a long series of economic disasters and despotic politics. Think for example of popular books like Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Untold Story, a veritable treasure trove of Cold War orientalism, or a somewhat more academic study like Frank Dikotter’s The Age of Openness: China Before Mao. This last makes a similar if implicit argument about Maoism and the revolution by presenting the middle-class’s semi-colonial era in urban centers like Shanghai as a utopian space of cosmopolitanism, wealth and freedom; this is then generalized into the real, secret story for China as a whole.

This demonization of the radical era of socialist construction is neither surprising nor uncomplicated. It arises from a number of developments in China and the world. The second half of this paper will emphasize these. But there are two crucial ones worth flagging here at the outset. One is a certain ‘return of the repressed’ among the post-Mao liberal intelligentsia and indeed across the globe; put another way, we need to take seriously the liberal part of neo-liberalism as this last is more than a solely economic program. What I mean is the rise of a basic and simplistic, yet profoundly powerful discourse of an individualistic, liberal humanism that emphasizes negative liberties—freedom from the state above all, and from any notion of social, collective responsibility and determination. Relatedly, as thinkers as diverse as Carl Schmitt and Wang Hui have noted, we have to understand the present as an age of depoliticization in which liberalism triumphs over not only communism and radical right wing movements but democracy as such. So strong is this triumph that already I have to remind us that democracy in this Rousseauian or Maoist sense means precisely mass politics or the popular, collective or common will. There are other factors related to the negation of the Mao era in intellectual-political culture: such as the non reception of both Marxist and postcolonial (i.e. anti-colonial) theory within the China field, the predominantly ethical if not anti-political appropriations of French theory, and the persistence of orientalism and the positional superiority of China Watchers. So too there is the inordinate impact of Western knowledge production within China itself. But I want to move on here.

On Maoist Discourse, Against Totalitarianism

I want to argue that despite the triumphalism that says we now know that the Mao era was a dark age or some type of oriental aberration, it is not the real Truth which has been revealed since the late 1970s, but a production of truth about the radical period in Chinese life and letters. Concomitant with the production of negative or depoliticizing knowledge about the Maoist decades after the Cultural Revolution is the dismissal of Maoist discourse. To see Chinese Maoism not as totalitarianism, an assault upon liberalism and human rights, we need to put it back into its context as a powerfully affective and rational way of thinking, acting and being-in-the-world. This requires a basic notion of Maoist discourse. The first step to circumvent the demonization of the Mao era and therefore to restore some of the complexity and specificity of modern Chinese politics, is to recover analytically the complex discursive formation of Maoism: not simply Maoist ideology (Mao’s thought and sayings, the Maoist line) but the “common-sense knowledge and socially shared values, beliefs, practices, administrative measures, disciplinary technology, education, and so on” that “provided a framework and standard for the Chinese to relate to in their thinking and behaviour and to make sense of their lives” (Gao, “Maoist” 14). To amend Lenin on Marxism, Maoist discourse was all powerful because it was true. It was the regime of truth that powerfully held sway from, say, Yan’an until the great reversal after the CR. This is a call to move from the notion of totalitarianism to a more positive, Foucaultian notion of discourse and power, one that includes three crucial dimensions of the power/knowledge nexus: One, the non-discursive apparatuses or technics of Maoist governance beyond liberal, state-phobic notions of an all-powerful despotism. Two, the self-understanding of Mao era subjects. And three, the knowledge, ‘statements’ or content that Maoist discourse offered.1 Implicit to this is the classic, dual notion of knowledge in Foucault’s French. One, that of savoir or “the process by which the subject undergoes a modification of the very things that ones knows”; this is also what I mean to signify by using the more anthropological category of a subject’s self-understanding (Foucault, Power 256). And two, that of connaissance, the things that one knows, discursive statements or knowledge in the more conventional sense. I am arguing, then, for the necessity of a roughly historical-materialist and Foucaultian account of Maoist discourse and revolutionary governmentality. Put yet another way, to restore the complexity of the Mao era we need to deal with its own self-understanding: what it did and what it said, or what it said it did. And we need to allow this to mediate our retrospective production of knowledge about this most radical of eras, an era very different from our own, depoliticized one. That our time is marked by the absence of mass, commitment politics (at least on the left) does not mean theirs was.

That it may seem different now – that for many people the Mao era only conjures up terror, denunciations and a cultural desert – does not reflect the real truth of the era having been discovered and made known worldwide since the 1980s. It reflects a change in discourse, an historical shift from one discursive formation to another, from Maoist discourse to what we can call a liberal humanist, even Dengist formation that has swept the world since the 1970s. This shift is part of the rise of globalization and the turn to the right in intellectual-political culture in China and the West. Since the collapse of the CR by the mid-1970s and the shift to de-Maoification what has happened has been the violent end of an era, a transformative capitalist ‘reform’ and the rise of a neo-liberal rationality; this is all familiar enough, save for the memory of the coup d’état, but it is always worth remembering another part of this shift: the fundamental rupture in the discourse available to subjects. This process includes as well the West’s celebration of its own perceived, essential difference from China, as well as Chinese liberalism’s desire to make up this difference and catch up overnight.

To speak of a rupture means that the self-understanding under Maoist discourse, then, is at odds with current stories of victimization and human rights abuses. Allow me to quote feminist historian Wang Zheng here:

Everyone who was talking [by the late 1980s], including the once victimizing Red Guards, was a victim scarred by the Maoist dictatorship. But I could not think of any example in my life to present myself as a victim or a victimizer. I did not know how to feel about my many happy memories and cherished experiences of a time that most vocal people now called the dark age (“Call” 35).

My point is not that Wang’s account here is representative of all former CR participants. My point is rather one made by Gao Mobo: namely that liberal notions of human rights and the sacrosanct individual were simply not in circulation during the highly politicized and revolutionary context of the immediate Chinese past. Hence it is at best an anachronism to deploy them to sum up the entire CR era, and at worst can be part of an orientalist production of knowledge about a despotic ‘modern’ China. So too the limits and non-universality of liberal individualism have long been exposed by the emphases on collective or communal belonging and responsibilities in traditional Chinese culture. While Sinology has long noted this last fundamental aspect it has yet to deploy it against the rewriting of the Mao era as an assault upon the former- the Western, Judeo-Christian liberal subject.

Maoist discourse merits book-length treatment but from here I will just focus briefly on this last, third dimension – its content at the level of what is thought and said. This includes not only “Mao Zedong Thought” but key planks of the overall discourse, such as the famous emphases on contradictions, class struggle, continuous revolution, serving the people, the intellectual/manual labor and urban/rural divides, and so on. Perhaps the chief element here – and it overlaps with everything I have just listed — - is the friend/enemy distinction that Michael Dutton, drawing on the political theory of Carl Schmitt, has recently explored in his rich history of Chinese policing.2 As will be recalled, Schmitt sees the friend/enemy distinction as constitutive of political theory – indeed of politics as such. The essential idea here – one that like “gender neutrality” was institutionalized in the Mao era – is that this basic either/or, friend/enemy distinction is a foundational political binarism that lies at the heart of the Chinese revolution. From Mao’s own texts to the responses to the Kuomintang’s annihilation campaigns and the later heat of the so-called Cold War, the revolution understood politics as being a politics of commitment that turned upon an early question from 1926 of Mao Zedong, one shared exactly by Schmitt: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution”3

This question guided the post liberation era until the economic reform of the 1980s. Before that era of depoliticization the friend/enemy distinction was mapped on to the class question (worker/capitalist, revolutionary/revisionist) and made class a far from merely economic category but one that turned on social factors and subjective passions. This was a reductive division but also an enormously productive, impassioned one. As Dutton notes, “the new Maoist revolutionary state was little more than a condensation of the friend/enemy distinction as it was applied both to the question of government and to the onto-political question of life” (“Passionately” 103). It produced not only a uniquely Maoist form of governmentality but a China that was:

“a state of commitment politics lived on the knife-edge of a binary division. It produced a life both extremely dangerous but also utterly life-affirming. It gave purpose to one’s existence and offered a sense of belonging that would fill one’s soul.” (Policing 313).

This lived and institutionalized binarism formed the basis of all political thinking and moreover made life a political project structured by an intense “dyadic form” ( Policing 313).

This is all to say that those studies of Maoist China that do not take on board this structuring governmentality and way of life therefore leave a lot at the door when they enter the era. They effectively de-politicize Chinese politics, often focusing solely on personalities, anecdotes, and ‘courtly’ matters, even when analyzing overtly political campaigns that involved millions of people. Without some notion of Maoist discourse, of what being in the true of the Mao era and revolution meant and including this structuring, supple friend/enemy binarism, a analytical void is produced that is quickly filled by notions of totalitarianism and the like. This is to say we need to read the politics and culture of the radical era in the light of both this impassioned, life affirming binarism and of Maoist discourse in general. We should allow them to mediate our retrospective production of knowledge about this most radical of eras, in part because it is so different from our own. Maoist discourse may well be at best residual these days, though hopefully will endure as a type of reservoir of political affect and beliefs for some future, re-politicized culture. Be this as it may, it did exist materially, subjectively and discursively. And as with Foucault, we simply cannot assume that there is an underlying, true reality of the individual subject that we can use as the ground of our critique of an alleged Party-state domination. So too there is no outside of power; as if one could have governance without governmentality, a society without a state. Like it or not we have to take the Maoist discursive formation seriously, must allow it to make an analytical difference in a positive sense, if we are to do anything other than read back into the radical past our very contemporary and immediate concerns and concepts.

Return of the Repressed?: Liberalism’s Vengeance

How are we to understand the historical shift from the heyday of Maoist discourse during the CR to today’s liberal or neo-liberal one, a discourse we could call “Dengist,” if these terms are acceptable? We can begin by recalling the friend/enemy or revolutionary/revisionist binary that structured much of Chinese political life, which is to say much of life in general and Maoist discourse in particular. My point here is simple: the enemies won. That is to say, as the events of 1976 (Gang of Four’s arrest), 1979 (purge of Hua, rise of Deng), 1984 (household farming in toto) and de-Maoification in general instruct, for better and for worse, much of what Yao Wenyuan predicted in 1975 in his essay “On the Social Basis of the Lin Piao Anti-Party Clique” came to pass (the spread of capitalism, corruption, iniquitous class differentiation).4 The left was defeated and its people purged or worse. I do not mean to sound arch or vulgar here, but until the final victory of Deng et al there really was a complicated, messy but nonetheless real two-line struggle in China. It was part of the self-understanding and part of the socio-political reality. It seems to me that the Schmittian friend/enemy political criterion explains these (violent) changes perfectly well. In retrospect, they may well also have been the final throes of politics proper in China, notwithstanding 1989.

This brings us to de-politicization and also thereby opens us onto the level of full scale globalization, the ‘end of history’ with 1991, the advent of neo-liberalism and post-Fordist economics since the 1970s, and so on. This is not then a Chinese or Western but a truly global development. Let us turn to two unlikely bedfellows here: Schmitt and Wang Hui. The failure of the Cultural Revolution, which Wang locates in the descent into factionalism and the re-bureaucratization of the state, marked the state’s own, final attempt at a popular, democratic politicization. Indeed these two roots of the failure were simultaneously the key factors of depoliticization within the Cultural Revolution, as opposed to the open debates, extra-state activisms, and classed-based ‘affirmative action’ and ‘going down to the countryside’ policies (Wang 35-36). To summarize, the Chinese party-state has been depoliticized:

it is “no longer an organization with specific political values, but a mechanism of power. Even within the party it is not easy to carry on real debate; divisions are cast as technical differences on the path to modernization, so they can only be resolved within the power structures”(Wang 32).

The Party in other words has no distinctive “standpoint or social goals” but only a “structural functionalist relationship to the [ repressive] state apparatus” (Wang 35). And the primary functions, as is often remarked, are the preservation of stability and the facilitation of economic growth, i.e. profit. While Wang’s brilliant essay could certainly offer more of a definition of the political, it is not hard to agree with some of the obvious signs of an achieved, depoliticized Chinese state: the collapsing boundary between the Party or political elite and the capitalist power elite; the ceding of major social and economic decisions to the logic of the amoral, ‘apolitical’ market as well as to global institutions like the WTO (Wang 39).

As Wang emphasizes, these changes may well have begun in China at the end of the 1970s and escalated through the next decades, but today they are worldwide. Indeed it is worth recalling that the Sino-US rapprochement and the floating of the dollar at Breton Woods – i.e. the financialization of the globe – share a 1972 anniversary. Think of the U.S. political system – one party with two right wings, as Gore Vidal famously quipped – or the recent financial tsunami and the poverty of global, political responses to this. As if it were an act of nature or a mere banking problem and not a crisis of over-production. But what neither Wang nor others acknowledge enough is that depoliticization in China and elsewhere also has much to do with the resurgence of liberalism, and that form of depoliticization. In practice liberalism and democracy are two separate and arguably opposed entities. For Schmitt, liberalism neutralizes the political –the inherently agonistic and binary dynamics of political life — at the expense of democracy. As Roberto Esposito notes:

The ideology of liberalism, in its logic, presuppositions, and conceptual language (antiegalitarian, particularist, and at times also naturalistic) if not opposed to the ideology of democracy is quite different; the latter tends to be universalist and egalitarian” (642).

Moreover democracy is to be understood as the quest for an identity between the government and the governed, an expression of popular will, and this flies in the face of current anti-state, liberal doxa in China and the world. Promulgating legal or merely formal equality as well as (atomized) individualism; transforming enemies into debating adversaries or economic competitors; reducing the political sphere to that of economics (‘management’) and the juridical or the ethical: this is how liberalism depoliticizes.

I need hardly add here that there has been a resurgence of liberalism within China since the 1980s especially, dating back to at least Wei Jingsheng in 1978, and to say nothing of the current intellectual scene. As I’ve gestured to earlier, this is in part a certain return of the repressed, in both literal and psychological terms; if there was one class fraction and social problem that the new, post-1949 regime tried to unsuccessfully deal with, it is that of the (traditional, humanist) intellectuals. Or recall the He Shang phenomenon in the later 1980s. Heralded as a bold and enlightening text, or even as a frankly occidentalist but nonetheless subversive, democratic text,5 it held forth liberalism and the market as the hope of China while simultaneously damning the revolutionary period and the peasantry as feudal and backward. It depoliticizes Chinese history for the merely cultural and symptomatic; as if the previous decades were a product of false consciousness and the lack of individual, entrepreneurial autonomy. And there is nothing more liberal in the philosophic sense then the attribution of wrong thoughts (false consciousness) to individuals or even groups as the basis for what went wrong or right in history. Indeed here is where both the Party-state, in its famous 1981 resolution on Party history and in its condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, and its liberal critics share an epistemology.

Works Cited

Dutton, Michael. Policing Chinese Politics: A History. Durham: Duke UP, 2005.

—-. “Passionately governmental: Maoism and the structured intensities of revolutionary governmentality.” Postcolonial Studies 11.1 (2008): 99-112.

Foucault, Michel. Power. Ed. James D. Faubion. Vol. III., Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984. Ed Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press, 2000.

Esposito, Roberto. “Totalitarianism or Biopolitics? Concerning a Philosophical Interpretation of the Twentieth Century.” Trans. Timothy Campbell. Critical Inquiry 34 (Summer 2008): 633-44.

Gao, Mobo. “Maoist Discourse and a Critique of Present Assessments of the Cultural Revolution.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 26.3 (1994): 13-31.

—-. The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

Wang Hui. “Depoliticized Politics, From East to West.” New Left Review 41 (Sept 2006): 29-45.

Wang Zheng. “Call Me Qingnian But Not Funu: A Maoist Youth in Retrospect.” Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era. Ed. Zhong Xueping, Wang Zheng and Bai Di. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001. 27-52.

  1. Despite its impenetrability The Archeology of Knowledge remains Foucault’s key text on the statement/enonce and discursive practices.
  2. See his Policing Chinese Politics: A History. Durham: Duke UP, 2005.
  3. The Selected Works of Mao TseTung, vol. 1, “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society.” Dutton aptly notes that this line expresses the “quintessence of politics”: “If you want to understand the concept of the political, turn to the first line of the first page of the first volume of Mao Zedong’s Selected Works” (Policing 3).
  4. “. . . . in the matter of distribution a small number of people will appropriate increasing amounts of commodities and money through some legal and many illegal ways; stimulated by ‘material incentives’ of this kind, capitalist ideas of making a fortune and craving personal fame and gain will spread unchecked; phenomena like the turning of public property into private property, speculation, graft and corruption, theft and bribery will increase; the capitalist principle of the exchange of commodities will make its way into political and even into Party life . . . .” Yao Wenyuan, “On the Social Basis of the Lin Piao Anti-Party Clique.” <>. Accessed 19 July 2009
  5. This is the point of Chen Xiaomei’s reading of He Shang in her Occidentalism.
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  • J. Lowrie said:

    What is so infuriating about leftists is that they are so apologetic and thus fall into the trap of debating with the bourgeoisie on their terms. An example of this is Brenton and Chun’s “Was Mao really a Monster?” Nobody with an ounce of integrity should even contemplate being associated with such an argument. This allows people like Barme to profess “objectivity”,by arguing that Chang and Halliday have exaggerated. Of course he does not want to do a body count because this will bring into public view the real monsters of recent history, who in China were Chiang Kai-chek and the Emperor Hirohito. How many did this pair exterminate with their anti-democratic and anti-communist policies? It can hardly be less than 100 million and may be perhaps as high as 150 million. When will we see a museum to that pair’s genocide in Beijing? Here is a good campaign for Chinese leftists.For Hirohito see Barenblatt’s ‘A Plague upon Humanity’ (2004).For Chiang ‘Ways That Are Dark’ by Townsend, an extreme right winger, who was U.S. vice-consul in Shanghai from 1931-33. Here we get information about Chiang’s China from a man of impeccable right-wing views. I quote:”the number who starve to death every year reaches into millions’p44.”officials …their present -day abominations are widespread and fiendish’p59-60.’Infant mortality in China as computed by foreign medical workers, exceeds fifty per cent for children under five alone.’p80.’World champion starvationists by sad necessity’ p81.’Hundreds of thousands of government officials etc.relying upon opium as their main income’ p269. ‘ Slavery in Fukien is fairly widespread…men, women and children sold, usually, under duress of poverty’ p 236.Townsend describes the exploitation of 95% of the Chinese people as ‘on a scale probably never before paralleled in the world’s history.’
    So we have to combat this liberal discourse with our own, and I think Hu De has pointed in the right direction when he says democracy has to be posed against liberalism. Democracy originally meant ‘rule of the poor’ or as we would say now ‘rule of the unpropertied’. In no way can a capitalist state be called a democracy; a state ruled by the rich is an oligarchy(Aristotle’s Politics is the key text here).The U.S. is in fact an oligarchic despotism that rules by mass terror, torture and even genocide.e.g.Ward Churchill ‘A Little Matter of Genocide(1997);Stannard ‘American Holocaust’(1992);Mehr ‘Constructive Bloodbath in Indonesia The united States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66′(2009).It is to cover up their endless acts of genocide that the oligarchs have to demonise Mao. An alternative discourse- ask the liberals how many hundreds of millions more people they intend to exterminate and invite them to join you in the democratic transformation of society.(Cf.Cockshott ‘Towards A New Socialism’)

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