Mao & the Dunce Caps: Real Contradictions of Real Socialism
Mao & the Dunce Caps: Real Contradictions of Real Socialism
Mao & the Dunce Caps: Real Contradictions of Real Socialism
Mao & the Dunce Caps: Real Contradictions of Real Socialism
Posted by Mike E on July 15, 2009
dunce-caps-mao-cultural-RevolutionBy Mike Ely
We have been discussing the experience of socialism in the twentieth century, and focusing on matters of free speech and internal repression and their impact on the socialist road. Yesterday, we posted some revealing essays by Mao (here and here) — opposing arrest for reactionary views and execution for political opposition.
In response Jonathan Rochkind writes:
This conversation certainly makes Mao sound like a wise old man, practically libertarian in his outlook. I have to say I’m somewhat suspicious whether the actual practice in China under Mao matched the implication of this conversation though — whether or not it’s what Mao intended.
Jonathan then asks a question:
What do you guys who know more think? Was China under Mao (at one period or another?) actually the libertarian tolerant place that the Mao in this conversation described/recommended?
I think the short answer is a qualified no.
Socialist China was far more complex and contradictory than some simple extension of Mao’s views. And the 1970 interview we posted is itself evidence of how controversial Mao’s views actually were and remained — even at a time when he seemed to be at the height of power (and at a time where his pictures and quotes were everywhere in society).
It is not as if Mao was two-faced (saying one thing and doing another), but rather that it was a struggle. China was often far from following Mao’s approach — because of a very real ongoing fight over the direction of society and the very real power of opposing views. Those opposing views included classic Chinese Confucianism in governance dovetailing with inherited Stalin-era assumptions about socialist methods, plus the capitalist “modernization” views that run today’s China.
Mao was not some “great dictator” ruling a “totalitarian” society etc. as is claimed in crude anti-communist descriptions. On the contrary, Mao’s Red book was published because powerful conservative forces had effectively sidelined Mao and buried his writings in the late 50s and early 60s.
In 1970, Mao remarked to Edgar Snow (in a famous comment) that he felt had influenced some places around Beijing but had, in many ways, left much of Chinese society untouched. This was the kind of poetic statement Mao made to make a point — i.e. that his life had been an uphill struggle, and that he often felt like he was just starting to stir things up. [A side point: in that Edgar Snow exchange, Mao described himself as “I am a heshang dasan.” This was widely mis-translated, including in Life magazine, as "a lonely monk walking with a leaking umbrella" (a forelorn and despairing self-image). In fact Mao was referring to being “wufa wutian” -- a monk without topknot or sky -- i.e. someone without a handle on him the gods could grab. Mao was in fact describing himself an unrepentent and unrestrainable rebel -- as a wandering monk without law or god.]
The important point here is (i believe) that Mao’s communist line was contending. It had great influence and an impact, it forced itself onto the center stage of Chinese and world politics over and over. But, in answer to Jonathan, I don’t think believe we should think it was hegemonic. (And here we are focusing momentarily on his views on speech and debate — but it applies also to his larger views on education, agriculture, internationalist support of revolution, wage differences, socialist planning, forms of military defense, ongoing revolution, etc.)
The excitement over Maoist China (then and now) was precisely that such deeply revolutionary views were contending. Society was never simply or mainly an embodiment of communist politics, this line was contending — from the street level to the heights of power — in a way that is truly world-historic. (And in a way that allows us to say that this was a socialist society overall, not a capitalist one.)
In regard to the struggle over ideas, here are examples of that influence of Mao’s line:
I think it is true that the Chinese Communist Party did not hold purges like the Soviet party (and that it is wrong to describe the Cultural revolution as “a purge.”) I think it is true that the Chinese communists overall held to their 1930s decision not to use execution as a means of inner party struggle. (Unlike the defeated in the Soviet Union, neither Liu Shaochi nor Deng Xiaoping were executed after their initial defeat in the Cultural Revolution, the same with their hundreds of thousands of co-thinkers, though some did die in confinement and some were reportedly beaten in in various ways). Political differences were not mainly resolved by police behind closed doors.
It also has to be said clearly that there was class struggle — including against KMT agents, local reactionaries, and party officials on the capitalist road. There was punishment for reactionary acts. (Mao is making a distinction between speech and reactionary acts like murder, assassination and rape.)
In the land reform in China, there were quite a few deaths of landlords — many many of whom had killed peasants, raped women, starved people to death, supported the white armies etc. So it not like Mao is putting forward some “libertarian tolerant place” where lion lies down with lamb. Mao was a revolutionary, leading a revolution.
He believed, as we quoted him saying:
“The suppression of counter-revolution still requires a long period of hard work. None of us may relax our efforts.”
And he was also not saying that reactionary speech and ideas should go unopposed — but that that they should be pulled into public view (allowed in that sense) — to be engaged, and drawn out, and in order that they may ultimately be defeated (in the sense that people broadly would come to understand and reject them.) He was urging the waging the class struggle over ideas in the realm of ideas (not in the realm of police criminalization).
Grappling for a Full Picture
I was recently reading an interview with someone from the small U.S. Maoist group RCP. There is an excerpt of the exchange:
Question: “What about democracy, though?”
Raymond Lotta: “….the socialist state guaranteed the rights of the masses. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, there was democracy for the masses on an unprecedented scale. Nowhere before or since did the masses not only have formal rights of free speech and press, etc., but actually use them on such a scale to examine and debate all aspects of political life. One well-known example is the widespread use of what were called “big-character posters” in the schools, factories, and other institutions where constant debate and struggle took place by posting large wall posters on every available surface. It was forbidden to tear down a big-character poster, and every institution was required to make materials—paper, paint, and brushes—freely available. The ability of the masses to hold meetings to criticize top party leaders, the freewheeling debates large and small… all of this was democracy on a scale not even imaginable in even the “most democratic” of capitalist states. The Cultural Revolution institutionalized what were called the “four bigs”—big character posters, big debates, big contending, and big blooming (of ideas). And if you think this was just cosmetic formality, the new capitalist rulers of China who came to power in 1976 understood that this was in the service of arousing and motivating the masses; they vilified and banned these practices.”
This description expresses one aspect of things in socialist China. The things listed here are true. They happened. And they were of great importance — because of their shocking novelty within the socialist experience. There certainly was a huge almost-riotous explosion of mass debate in the Cultural revolution — wall posters, criticism of powerful people, rebel views, etc.
This reflected a victory for Mao’s approach “to expose our dark side publicly and from below.” And his belief that people could learn and rule by engaging deeply with the controversies of socialist society.
But there is a tendency among communists to take the most positive experiences and present them (by implication) as the general experience. These things were true, in many places, at the hightide of the struggle, in the years of the late 60s when the cultural revolution was in its heyday. And that is important. But this is one slice of the political experience of socialist china. Where do we mention or contrast the other aspects?
One example: In the cultural revolution, rightist party officials were widely taken to mass meetings for denunciation and public humiliation. Sometimes they were forced to wear dunce caps, or have their heads shaved, or their faces painted with a big X. In one case Liu’s wife was forced to wear a slinky cocktail dress and a huge pearl-like necklace at a rally– publicly reenacting and mocking her non-revolutionary outfit worn on a foreign trip.
Mao opposed these methods (within the cultural revolution he had unleashed), but they were widely taken up — imitating the methods of peasants in land reform of cutting landlords down to size, speaking bitterness, and demonstrating how profoundly power relations had changed. Mao argued that it was one thing for peasants to do that after the guns of civil war had just stopped and the old society needed to be uprooted, but another thing for the Communist Party itself to adopt this as a method of struggle and criticism twenty years later.
And it is an example both of the contradictory experience of the cultural revolution, the limits of Mao’s control (even then), of the ways he fought to give things direction, and the fact that (on the ground) the struggle was often very different from what Mao was advocating.
Another example: In a post here on Kasama, Nuclear Fallout in Maoist China: What Does That Reveal?“, there is a discussion about radiation-caused cancers in western china during the Mao period, where it was noted that doctors saw an emerging epidemic but were preventing from blowing the whistle. The point was not just that nuclear testing damaged people (which is one issue), but that after the fact doctors were unable to raise a public alarm, unable to break through the silencing by their superiors…. and that this too says something about the norms of public debate and speech in socialist China.
Another example: I had repeated discussions over years with a publicly-known communist (who shall remain unnamed) who claimed (to my astonishment) not to know that China had prisons or that people could end up in those prison for political offenses. (Meet the stories of Kuai Dafu or Sidney Rittenberg.) This same comrade expressed shock at learning that large numbers of people had been executed in the USSR. While these gaps reveal a personal problem with critical thinking, they also reflect the summations that people within some communist movements have been fed — summations that sometimes highlight the most positive events (which are real) without a candid contextualizing or an honest accounting of the larger picture. And this contrasts sharply, of course, with what people generally are fed — which is the cartoonish anti-communist horror stories that equate communism with fascism.)
I think we can see, just by reading between the lines of Mao’s discussion with his student-age niece that his views here are rather shocking (even alien) to her… which suggests that his suggestions are far from the norm in China (and this was a discussion during the cultural revolution). There were clearly many instances where (as the niece’s remarks suggest) a simple reactionary remark (”Down with Mao!”) led to severe consequences.
Mao consistently held very radical views — from the beginning. He consistently fought for them. But there were many reasons (which we should explore and understand) that they were not simply a norm.
And what is the point of upholding socialist china, or of upholding Mao’s views, if that doesn’t emerged from a real assessment of what Mao was struggling against, and if we don’t acknowledge the complexity and diversity of what was going on?
This entry was posted on July 15, 2009 at 10:27 am and is filed under >> analysis of news. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
5 Responses to “Mao & the Dunce Caps: Real Contradictions of Real Socialism”
July 15, 2009 at 12:35 pm
Let’s unpack this word “liberatarian”.
Liberty, in common anglo-american usage refers specifically to control of property. In this key sense, liberty is the ability of property-holders to dispose of their property as they see fit, without “undue” regulation or state interference.
Think chattel. Or environmental laws or anything that would come between a Texas title holder and OUR common mineral resources.
Freedom of speech is a fascinating discussion when the vast majority of people are excluded from any meaningful imput. It’s pretty clear that liberals are quite fine with that arrangement so long as THEY have liberty, which is to say all the bourgeois rights they claim.
That said, I’m all for liberty in the sense of personal freedom of thought, conscience, religion (and lack thereof) and even, largely, for association. All non-commercial relations between consenting adults are pretty much their on affair and have little (and hopefully nothing) to do with the state.
State tyranny to expropriate mansions and finance capital? I’m all for it. Telling people how to tuck in their shirts? No thank you.
Andrei Mazenov said
July 15, 2009 at 1:16 pm
I think it is good that we are addressing a fact that a lot of people- communist or capitalist- seem to be oblivious to: that the Cultural Revolution was not a monolithic movement that was under the direct control of Mao at all times and that all the Red Guard and rebel workers factions agreed with him or carried out his line (even if they proudly recited quotes from the Little Red Book and plastered the walls of their universities with dazibaos denouncing Liu and Deng).
This past spring, I took at Chinese & Japanese History course in which I had a wonderful professor who was not a Maoist but was overall sympathetic to Mao. He was quick to point out that Mao’s specific line or his personal wishes were NOT always in command during the GPCR, even among the revolutionary forces like the Gang of Four or among the rebel workers. At times, he said, Mao himself stood alone.
I think we need to look deeper into the Red Guard movement and what happened there: was it worth what happened? Should it have gone on longer? How could it have been done differently?
Interesting document here, by the way:
July 15, 2009 at 6:38 pm
Had been referred to this site by andrei some while ago, but never really checked it out until just now reading this article and some of those linked from it… after having been dissillusioned for quite some time with most communist/collectivist thinking and virtually all communist organizations/groupings/whathaveyou, I am impressed greatly by this site. I was quite ignorant to much of what is contained in this article. I think the mention of “classic Chinese Confucianism” is important; it would seem Mao’s thinking essentially communism contextualised in the basic truths that have always existed at the core of chinese buddhist/confuscist/taoist thought. No further comments now, save that I am excited to read more of the articles on this website.
Would that All your actions be restful, and all your rest active,
Harsh Thakor said
July 16, 2009 at 6:29 am
The most important point is that any form of dissent has to be structured.Personally I feel freedom of expression should have been encouraged to a greater extent in Socialist China.There was a strong weakness of a Personality cult of Comrade Mao which was elevated by Lin Biao.The most fundamental question in this light is the differentiation of he dictatorship of the Proletariat with bourgeois democracy.What was tragic was that talented writers,musicians,poets etc were wrongly persecuted as powerful left sectarian tendencies prevailed.
However remember Mao’s China in that period was responsible for the most remarkable transformations in democratic revolutionary history.Remember the Shangai Peoples Commune,the Tachai brigade,the capture of he municipal headquarters.Revolutioanry Commitees iniated remarkable revolutionary innovatons.In Agriculture,education and health Socialist China inovated changes never witnessed in the history of mankind.Sadly towards the end the power of the Revolutionary Commitees weakened because the rightists became stronger.
It would be dangerous still to call for a multi-partysytem.Would that do justice to the line advocated by Chang Chun -Chiao and the remaining members of the Gang of 4?Infact it may wel have reversed the Socialist path .What has to be analysed is the relationship of the proletarian pary with the revolutionary Commitees and the mass organisations.What could be asked is whether it was a factional Struggle but there is no doubt that historically a staunch 2 -line struggle was waged agaisnt the capitalist Roaders by he folowers of he Socialist Path.True,there were factional tendencies and often clashes of personalities occured ,but remember it was the first experiment of it’s kind.What could be studied is how further democracy was given to the revolutionary Commitess and how even more dissent could be tolerated.However calling for open dissent as advocated by Co.Bob Avakian would destroy the base and superstructure of a Socialist Society.For this Socialist Societies have to inovate new democratic forms of Structure.A broader form of Strugle may have been created then where perhaps Comrade Mao was not the sole leader of the mass Movement.
July 16, 2009 at 7:36 am
in what way is mao’s experience in china at all relevant for trying to build socialism in 1st world countries? maoism has not had any success at all in first world countries. what does that tell you?
Now is the time of furnaces,and only light should be seen--(Cuba)Hose Marti
Posted: 2009-07-16 22:55 |
Class Revenge or Communist Revolution?
Posted by Mike E on July 18, 2009
Broad criticism of wrong policies and ideas were organized during the GPCR (Chinese Cultural Revolution)
Joseph Ball writes as part of our ongoing discussion of socialist democracy:
“Has it occurred to anyone that it might be right to put capitalist-roader leaders in dunce’s caps? When these people took over they imposed slavery and oppression on the working class and peasantry. Why on Earth should we be so concerned with the rights of oppressors and exploiters? Those who impose a life of humiliation on others surely deserve a few hours of humiliation themselves.
A fair set of questions.
When I was a high school student (in 1967-68), it was precisely the dunce caps on academic big-shots and authority figures that made me love (and investigate) the Maoist red guards. “Finally!” I thought. I loved the idea that petty oppressors and tormentors would be dragged into public, dis-empowered, and made to answer for their crimes.
Mao wrote early in the Chinese revolution: Without going to extremes, rights can’t be wronged. And I have always believed there is real truth to that. And I think such things do happen in the course of any real revolution. (But that doesn’t mean that the extremes are justified or overall positive or without consequences.)there is a question of whether specific forms of treatment correspond to our goals and values. Sure reactionaries deserve to be removed from power. Their hold on people deserves to be de-legitimized. Their crimes deserve to be exposed. They deserve to be given new work where they can’t oppress any longer.
But does it serve our movement and our cause if people are paraded for public humiliation? Does that help with the transformation of those targeted? Does it help people to come forward to document crimes and problems?
I recently studied “Red Color News Soldier.” It is a book by Li Zhensheng, who was a Chinese news photographer during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — recording key events in Heilongjiang, an industrial province in the far northeast of China. His photos here include the official ones that appeared in the press at the time, but also a whole secret stash of pictures he took of mass meetings and denunciations. It is very revealing and gives a sense of these movements that is freed from the official veil of romantization. You see the power of this revolutionary movement — but you also see it in ways that are very real and gritty.
And that is a sobering way to view any revolution. And while it should not cause us to pull back and oppose sharp class struggle — it does help us identify (as Mao did) forms of struggle that are not appropriate for our cause, our values and goals.
In June 1966, Chen Boda (one of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution) wrote an editorial “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons” in the People’s Daily, and as it circulated, Red Guards in many places started “dragging out” those who they thought fit that description. Mao soon spoke out against some of the methods that were employed in this.
From what I can tell, Mao opposed some of the methods used, and said so often. For example, this is from a 1967 discussion:
Nan P’ing: We still use kneeling and dunce hat wearing as ways of punishment.
Chairman: I have always objected to this kind of practice. You cannot deal with cadres in the same way as you deal with landlords. We have a good tradition; that is, unity-criticism-unity. “One divides into two” should be applied to cadres.
Mao was not against sharp class struggle for power — he led it, and initiated it, over and over. He was not against exposing capitalist forces, or organizing mass denunciations, or bringing forward people to speak their bitterness in public. These were all important parts of the experience of Maoist revolution. But he argued (during the cultural revolution) that the specific forms of public humiliation and punishment developed by peasants during the Chinese land reform were not appropriate forms to emulate and promote — because they did not correspond to the kind of political culture we wanted to create, and the kinds of objectives that were so important for a consciously socialist movement.
Let’s talk about “deserving” (i.e. the worldview involved in posing the issue that way):
You ask several times, Joseph, whether they “deserve” the same treatment they gave us.
Our oppressors torture, humiliate, murder, randomly terrorize, rape, threaten with nukes, starve people, frame people up and more. And, what does that mean for how we treat them? Do we now organize such treatment of them? This matter of “deserving” is a socially conditioned judgment. It is not my view (or, i believe, a communist view) that people “deserve” whatever they meted out.
Do rapists deserved to be raped in turn? Is our sense of justice that we should organize the rape of rapists? (OR that we, as communists, take responsibility for finding the ways to end rape?)
When the Soviet army swept through Nazi Germany, there was systematic rape of German women — in retribution for the atrocities the Nazis had committed on Russian soil. Is that justified — or is it an example of how far that Soviet army had come from being a red army?
Do torturers deserved to be tortured in turn? Should we organize such torture? Or should we declare that our values forbid us to continue such mistreatment (even of our sworn enemies)? Torture is not just degrading of its targets, but of the people and institutions that carry it out.
When Stalin signed an order approving torture of those arrested for counterrevolution and sabotage, was that justice or a sign of how far that society was moving from communist morality and goals?
What did it mean in the Soviet Union when the most lofty and revolutionary of the youth were organized to deport whole peoples and imprison hundreds of thousands with a great deal of arbitrary injustice? It is one thing to ask what became of those targeted, and it is another (also important) thing to ask what becomes of the revolution and the revolutionaries, if the revolutionary gun gets pointed too long and too often at large sections of the people themselves.
Within the Maoist movement (in the U.S. at least) what you are advocating, Joseph, has historically been called “the revenge line” — and I believe we have been correct in saying it is not (even when it emerges spontaneously from among the oppressed) a communist worldview.
What we are concerned about (instead of revenge, disguised as giving oppressors “what they deserve”) is ending the rule of oppressors — and that is about power, institutions, transforming ideas and customs. It is not about punishing the former oppressors one by one in public. I think oppressors deserve to be removed from power. But they don’t “deserve” the kinds of abusive, degrading treatment and oppression that we as communists want to abolish. And really, ultimately and essentially, this is not about what they “deserve” (as individuals or as a class) — but how we transform society (relations and ideas) in ways that lead to the emancipation of us all.
And more: what we are discovering is that the nature of political life (under socialism) affects the ability of the people to act and discern. And what we are proposing is not a more “liberal” approach to oppressors, but a more deeply communist approach to revolution.
We don’t want wide political debate because oppressors “deserve” a right to speak — but because the oppressed can learn to recognize and repudiate reactionary ideas if they are not debated.
“Those who impose a life of humiliation on others surely deserve a few hours of humiliation themselves.
Perhaps. But if we adopt their method, if we operate as they did, what do we become?
There is a scene in the movie Spartacus, where a revolt of much-abused gladiators has taken place, and some of the freed gladiators take their former owners and put them in the ring to kill each other for sport. In this fictional script, Spartacus intervenes and stops it, saying we will accomplish nothing if we simply become like them, if we simply treat them as they treated us.
That is one of the moments that marks this movie as a communist film.
We communists don’t organize revolution to “do unto others as they did unto us.” Revolution is not a revenge expedition or just about “turning the tables.”
It is about emancipating all of humanity, and transcending the methods and mistreatments of the past. It is about doing and becoming something different than the old oppressors. (And, i believe, that however unintentionally, the kind of argument you are raising could lead us in the direction of just becoming new oppressors, without any basic challenges to many of the moral assumptions of capitalism.)
In Fanshen (the book by William Hinton describing revolution in China’s remote countryside) there was a sharp struggle over whether landlords should get any land (when their huge possessions are divided up.) Did they “deserve” a patch of land like the long-oppressed peasants? Is that the basis to decide something like that? Mao argued that there were ten million landlords, and if they were all deprived of ANY means of livelihood, they would inevitably form first bandit bands and then counterrevolutionary armies. But if they too were included in the new order, in the new division of land, then the basis could emerge for neutralizing their opposition to socialism.
This discussion does not happen because there is a “concern with the rights of oppressors and exploiters.” It happens because there is a concern with the nature of socialism, and with learning how to more deeply involve the broad people in ruling, in understanding the difference between socialism and the old society, and in being able to defend that new society against restoration.
This entry was posted on July 18, 2009 at 2:29 pm and is filed under >> analysis of news. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
2 Responses to “Class Revenge or Communist Revolution?”
John B. said
July 18, 2009 at 3:13 pm
I read an interview some time ago with Tomas Borge, a leader of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Borge’s own wife had been tortured to death under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. It just so happened that after the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza Borge actually met the police official who had overseen his wife’s torture & murder. Borge told this creature, in effect, my revenge for what you did is to set you free. And indeed, the Sandinistas abolished the death penalty in Nicaragua. The maximum for any crime was 30 years in prison.
I too was intrigued by the GPCR when I was in high school (I’m a few years younger than you), but came to the conclusion rather quickly that it was a tremendous disaster for the Chinese people, that cost them dearly in wealth and culture. I frankly am a little dismayed to read some of the praises to the Cultural Revolution on this blog, but I suppose people will just have to figure it out for themselves. Have they ever considered that perhaps it was a reaction to the excesses of the GPCR that paved the way for Deng Xiaoping’s restoration of capitalism in China?
July 19, 2009 at 12:33 pm
The line between what the oppressors deserve on the one hand and what’s necessary to transform society on the other doesn’t seem so clear.
How can the oppressed and exploited have the confidence to transform society, without knowing that the former ruling classes have been decisively defeated and won’t return to power? Isn’t humiliation, including to an extent “punishing the former oppressors one by one in public,” an important part of this process? Fanshen has examples of this.
We could look also at Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. He says the one turning point in his life, “a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom,” was the moment he physically struck his master.
Now is the time of furnaces,and only light should be seen--(Cuba)Hose Marti
Posted: 2009-07-20 02:54 |
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