The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Last of the Deliverers

It was the winter of '77, if I remember right, a winter when the snow squeaked in the cleats of my boots. 'Mull of Kintyre' was a Christmas hit. I had found myself, quite unexpectedly, on my own in London and with no plan and no money to go home. Perhaps it was the aching nostalgia incited by that MacCartney song on the radio that sent me, some time between Christmas and New Year, tramping through the snow from Hayes to Southall for a party in a comrade's flat. The heart and soul of that party was a guy with a beard and long hair and a guitar. He was an Irish trade unionist who lived in London. He was pro-Moscow: a stickie or a tankie, I don't remember. He loathed the Provos, anyway. He sang old Irish rebel songs.
Some men fight for silver
and some men fight for gold
but the IRA is fighting for
the land De Valera sold.
And he also sang:
The Chinese they have Mao Tse Tung
the Vietnamese have Ho
and we have Harold Wilson
and Daz and Fairy Snow.

Oh China, me old china,
they must have gone astray
So send them over here to us
and we'll show them the way ...
The leader of China's communist revolution was an educated peasant who became enthralled by a Western ideology. Around this ideology he built an organization, then an army, which took on the old regime in millions-strong clashes. Conquering the countryside, bypassing the towns, his peasant legions eventually captured the imperial capital. The redivision of land was accompanied by a massacre of land-owners. The population was subjected to mind-numbing compulsory indoctrination in the ideology. Millions, perhaps tens of millions, died in civil war, internal turmoil, and famine. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the revolutionary regime forced through long overdue reforms, abolishing as it did foot-binding and concubinage, and fighting drug addiction and many other evils. A classless society was proclaimed, a rigid hierarchy installed. Ensconced in the old imperial palace, the leader became in his later years a virtual recluse, devoting his time to philosophical rumination and sensual indulgence. After his death, his regime was speedily repudiated and much of its work, for good or ill, undone.

So much for the life of Hung Hsiu-ch'√ľan, leader of the Taiping Rebellion, self-proclaimed younger brother of Jesus and God's Chinese Son.

In 1976 I heard on the radio that Mao had died. Mao once said: Marx is dead. Engels is dead. Lenin too has passed away. Without Stalin, who would there be to give instructions? To my immediate and immense chagrin, I heard in my own mind a faint echo of that grotesque thought. Where, I asked myself, had it come from? Not from my political consciousness, but from my political unconscious. There is such a thing. Much, much earlier, as a curious schoolboy tuning another radio to the broadcasts of the other side in the Cold War, I'd heard the rival Communist powers' bulletins about the war in Vietnam. Radio Moscow talked about peace. Radio Peking talked about battles. Radio Tirana gave body-counts.

In 1972 Glasgow University's only Maoist, a music teacher as mild in manner as he was militant in outlook, had gleefully told me of a piece of graffiti down at the docks that for sure he and his comrades had not written:
Mao represented revolution in the minds of millions who weren't Maoists. It wasn't the repressive aspects of his rule that inspired them. Another trade unionist, a social democrat and an Englishman this time, the father of a friend of mine, told his more radical son: 'If you must be a communist at least go with the Chinese - they've done it without all the violence like in Russia.'

Ha ha bloody ha.

June 1989 saw an eerie, thousands-strong demonstration in Soho, London's Chinatown. It was a protest against the Tianenmen Square massacre. Most of the marchers were Chinese and most of the rest were British leftists. Everybody joined in with a catch in their throats and tears on their cheeks when the Chinese sang The Internationale. The veteran Communist and anti-Stalinist Monty Johnstone carried the banner of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I walked beside him and listened to his reminiscences. (He had been a fraternal delegate to the CPSU's Twentieth Congress. During Khrushchev's 'secret speech' denouncing Stalin, from which the fraternal delegates were excluded, Johnstone was sent off to talk to a group of Soviet factory workers who were studying the works of ... Bakunin.) Up ahead of us a small clot of Maoists kept chanting 'Free Chiang Ching now!' 'Send her to hell!' I shouted, over and over. 'That evil woman!' I snarled to Johnstone. 'Oh yes,' he murmured.

In the winter of 2005 I read the then chart-topping anti-Communist blockbuster, Mao: The Unknown Story by Jon Halliday and Jung Chang. The last-but-one biography of Mao to be published, a serious, well-researched and well-received work by Philip Short, was at that time thirty-three thousand places lower in the Amazon UK sales ranking. Reading with one thumb and two fingers in Chang and Halliday's infuriatingly complicated and tellingly indeterminate system of footnotes, I alternated between outrage at the horrors recounted, and dismay at the shaky nature of the evidence offered. The old China is presented as a harmonious land into which the Communists introduced class conflict. Points that might tell against this are hurried past: massive rallying to the Reds on the Long March is accounted for because in a first province the warlord was 'unusually cruel', in the next the people were dirt poor, in a third they were Muslims ... And it's easy to make a case that Mao was interested only in personal power and not in politics if you refrain from quoting so much as a complete paragraph (as far as I can recall) from Mao's extensive political writings.

Why did a minority of Western communists, and many who were by no means communists or even - in some cases - on the left, find Mao's ideas worth attending to? Why did many Chinese people rally to the Chinese Communist Party's line and practice, even at its most repellent? Why is Mao's rule remembered as workers' power by some workers who lived through it? You might think that the authors - a former Marxist intellectual who once greatly respected Mao's thought, and a former Red Guard whose Communist parents were cruelly persecuted in the Cultural Revolution - would be well placed to answer, in the most self-critical terms if need be, these questions. Yes, you might very well think that. You would be wrong. You could close this long book with very little clue as to Mao's ideas, and only the haziest impressions of the society he grew up in and fought to overthrow. And those impressions would contradict some much more vivid ones left by Jung Chang's earlier bestseller, Wild Swans.

These and other shortcomings of the Chang/Halliday book are detailed by Andrew Nathan, one of its few detractors in a sea of glowing reviews. (The authors reply here.) Charlie Hore gives it an informed and nuanced Marxist review, and points out that many on the left had the low-down on Mao while Chang and Halliday were still brandishing their Little Red Books (and in the case of the veteran Chinese Communist and later Trotskyist Peng Shuzi before Chang and Halliday were born). Other critical comments on the book can be found here and here. Nor should the bitter, decades-long denunciation of Maoism by the orthodox Communists be forgotten. A quarter of a century ago, one notably orthodox Communist drew a line under that critique: 'The present Chinese leaders themselves describe what happened in the period of the so-called cultural revolution in their country as "a most cruel feudal-fascist dictatorship". We have nothing to add to this assessment.' (Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, 1981.)

I was never a Maoist. As a schoolboy I was intrigued, to be sure. I read with some scepticism a copy of the Little Red Book given to me by a Maoist classmate. By the time I read Han Suyin's rose-tinted Maoist tract China in the Year 2001 (1967, Penguin 1970, 1971) I had encountered the theory of state capitalism, which seemed entirely applicable to what was then going on in China. In that perspective the puritanical and iconoclastic frenzy of a millennarian jacquerie was all too understandable, and all too facilely fitted into that conflation of the Communist revolutions with the bourgeois revolutions to which I have too often adverted since. The actual effect of Communism, in Russia and China, was to complete the overthrow of the old order, feudal or Asiatic or whatever; and to clear the ground for capitalism. I saw it as part of, or a continuation and radicalisation of, the Revolution that was what my parents meant when they spoke of 'the Revolution': 1640 and 1688. Its scale and ferocity in China were commensurate with the antiquity and conservatism of the social order it overturned. The actual effect of Maoism in China, like Stalinism in Russia, was to complete the bourgeois revolution: to accomplish the overthrow of the old order, and to clear the ground for capitalism. That was no small or savoury work. In the little British Isles, 800 000 perished in the bourgeois revolution; a revolution that in the memory of all but the Irish is remembered only for a few civilised battles and execrated only for the execution of a king.

The December before last, walking along George Street in the rain, an idea struck me with great force. It had never crossed my mind before. It was inspired by gloomy pondering on the Mao book. It is this. The stated aims of Communism are the same as those of democratic socialism, which are in turn much the same as, and are rooted in, those of liberalism. I'd always seen that continuity as a point in Communism's favour, amid all its evils: in Marxist terms an ironic, back-handed, 'historical justification'; which is not the same, incidentally, as a moral justification.

What if, instead, the evils of Communism cast condemnation back on its roots? Let me be quite clear what I mean here. I don't mean just liberalism. I mean that every ideal of progress, of liberty, equality and fraternity, of humanitarianism and egalitarianism, and every last one of their ideological offspring and offshoots - liberalism, democracy, anarchism, socialism, feminism, libertarianism - and every last consequence of all of them, might be intrinsically evil.

What if the liberal, republican ideology of Sun-Yat-Sen was the real origin of China's disasters? Or, going a little farther back, western thought itself? China's first communist revolution, the Taiping Rebellion which led to millions of deaths, was inspired by Christianity. Liberal British imperialism fought two wars for the right to sell opium to China. The effect, however justifiable in terms of libertarian doctrine, was hideously destructive. The closest parallel, indeed, might be the famines in British India. India had had its famines in the past, but it took minds informed by Liberalism, by laissez-faire, by Mill and Malthus to pass the Anti-Charitable Contributions Act. What if Liberalism is evil?

It could certainly be ruthless:
On January 3, 1793, the first Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Short, the American ambassador to Paris, who had criticized the early excesses of the French Revolution. Praising the insurrection, he asked whether "ever such a prize" had been "won with so little innocent blood?" His "own affections," Jefferson added, "have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is."
Half the earth desolated? Now that's revolutionary zeal!

The Glorious Revolution's great theorist Locke, in his justification of private property, made one well-known proviso: that the initial appropriator of the commons should leave 'enough and as good left over'. He made, in passing, another: that the appropriator should not waste what he appropriates, and may be punished (and, by implication, expropriated) if he does. Little celebrated in political theory, this get-out clause has been of great help in practice. It justifies, after all, the expropriation of anyone - savage, peasant, or despot - whose appropriation is less efficient than that of the capitalist. It could also justify, in theory, the expropriation of the capitalist, should capitalism turn out to be wasteful in comparison to a feasible alternative. The libertarian fancy that the depredations of imperialism and colonialism represent some deviation from the theory of property proclaimed by the bourgeois revolution is false. Actually existing capitalism has been true to its ideologues: that revolution was never betrayed.

Liberalism was the first secular revolutionary ideology, in fact the first secular ideology. Before Locke, people got along for thousands of years without political ideals or ideologies. Plato's Republic is a philosophical fantasy, not a political programme. Aristotle's Politics is a scientific classification of different forms of government, not an outline of an ideal government. Machiavelli's Prince and Discourses are practical manuals.

Is the pursuit of political ideals just the frenzy of a few recent and atypical centuries?

One can go further than that. The Liberalism of Locke has its roots in Christianity. In all the iniquities of antiquity there is not, I think, one ideological frenzy. Some emperors persecuted the Christians - for their odious, scrupulous and ostentatious displays of disloyalty, not for their beliefs, which were beneath the notice, let alone the concern, of the Caesars. In power the Christians persecuted each other, over matters comprehensible, if at all, only to themselves. The general tenor of ancient thought, East and West, was humane, rational and realistic. In the works of Epicurus and Lucretius, of Lucian, of Marcus Aurelius and Confucius there shines a way of thinking and being that you may not find again until you meet the mind of Hume. What if the original revolutionary disaster within whose coils we still struggle was the overthrow of Rome, and the original revolutionary ideology was that symbolised by the cross? In that sign, what conquered? And what was conquered?

To that Nietzschean question there may be only a Marxian answer:
English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
On India Marx may have been over-optimistic, at least in the short run. The British Empire did not bring to India progress at all commensurate to the cost:"India's overall annual rate of growth between 1820 and 1950 - 0.12 per cent - was pitifully low". How would Marx have estimated a regime that, whatever may have been its crimes, vile have been its interests, stupid its means of enforcing them, and sickening as it must be to human feeling, did a hundred times more to advance China than the British ever did to India?

Ah, but - some may say - Hitler built the autobahns, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. Does that justify their regimes? That rhetorical question is frightful in its frivolity. A humanity that takes such canards seriously has not met the last of its deliverers.


I'm going to need to think about this a bit, including whether Confucianism counts as an ideology, and how the pieces connect. If I were to link to or praise it at this point, it would be for the surface: for the way you describe the T'ai-p'ing Rebellion, for example.

--Vicki (lacking a blogger ID, but vr at redbird dot org or reaches me)

You know, should you ever tire of writing, you'd make a fine teacher or lecturer. I can count on one hand the number of people I've encountered who can make economic and political history both understandable and interesting, and you are one of them.

You write compellingly about the contradictions and confusion leftists faced over China.

For the first few days of the Tian An Men Square protest in 1989 I was proud of the Chinese government. Especially as Gorbachev was in town making this particularly embarrassing. I thought if this was the US they'd have sent in the National Guard by now. By allowing the protest to continue it looked like a shining example, as if even with China's problems and withdrawal from socialism, there was enough of it left to show how a civilised society behaved.

Then It happened ...

BTW, Prof Gregor Benton and Steve Tsang wrote a great academic critique of Jung Chang's Mao biog. Worth reading if you can find it.

have you seen alasdaire macintyre's later work? In particular After Virtue. he has something like the hypothetical position you outline. Its oddly compelling even for Marxists. I was reminded of it during a recent blog discussion on Afghanistan. It struck me as genuinely surreal when some folk, very active in all the arguments against islamophobia, knownothing peaens about progress in relationship to the masters of the war on terror, suddenly reproduced identical language to that used by Bush and Blair when it came to discussing the events of twenty years ago (and I mean identical not a loose resemblence). The argument seems to be that because the Soviets represent 'socialist' modernity, as opposed to 'imperialist' or 'capitalist' modernity (what these terms could possibly have meant in, for example helmand, in the early 1980's isn't made precisely clear) its all different, 'either you are in favour of progress or you are not' said one fervent campaigner against the occupation of Iraq and (contemporary) Afghanistan. Something similar seems to me to be true of the discussion on the Tibet question. Whilst there are fervent arguments about this, no one seems to notice the dissonance. This appears to back the later MacIntyres case that the differences between socialism and capitalism really reduce to a family squabble amongst modernists and liberals, who share a common enemy in most of humanity (a fairly standard conservative argument). I prefer the early MacIntyre's argument in the new reasoner (it can be googled) 'notes from the moral wilderness' that argued both that stalinism and liberalism were twins, AND that Marxism didn't have to be either.

Madam Miaow, many, many thanks for your comment. These were very fraught and dark days, of course even more so for you. I will look out the article next time I have access to a university library.

John, thanks also. I must check out the later MacIntyre. Re Afghanistan, I've noticed and remarked on this point, and on its converse in regard to the other side (e.g. Richard Perle et al supporting the muj.)

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