Maybe if the number of deaths on Mao's hands had broken 100,000,000, the Left might have started to feel uncomfortable? Fifty million is rather "moral purity."
Mao’s hatred of learning was coupled with a passion to destroy China’s cultural heritage. In 1949, when he came to power, the Mongol-Ming-Qing capital of Beijing (Peking) was still intact, with its massive dressed stone walls and gates, its hundreds of temples, its traditional courtyard houses with their exquisite tile roofs, its memorial arches or pailou, and its distinct drama, cuisine, customs, and traditions. Everything had survived the war with Japan; were it extant today, it would constitute one of the world’s most magnificent historical sites.
But Mao decreed its obliteration. In 1958, on the eve of his campaign, roughly 8,000 historical monuments were listed as still standing in the capital. Mao planned to keep only 78 of them; most were destroyed.
Rather than opposing the Japanese invasion, Mao had welcomed it. He hoped the Japanese would engage and destroy his rival, Chiang Kai-shek, and would also draw Soviet troops into China. Mao avoided armed conflict not only with the Japanese but also with the Nationalists. Rather than being a champion of independence for his country, Mao since the 1920s had been an agent of the Soviet Union, taking its arms and money, doing its bidding, and accepting its control of the Chinese Communist Party. He knew his only hope of gaining power in China was with Soviet support, a belief ultimately confirmed in his takeover of the country in 1949. Mao was no agrarian reformer. He redistributed no land and liberated no peasants. His initial “red base” at Ruijin in Jiangxi province, southern China, had been achieved not by a revolutionary uprising of the masses but through military conquest by the Red Army, armed and funded by Moscow. His rule was identical to that of an occupying army, surviving by plundering the local population and killing anyone who resisted.
Much of Snow’s account of the Long March was also untrue. The march’s objective was to establish a new base in the north, near the Mongolian border, in order to have ready access to Soviet supplies and arms. Many of Snow’s tales of outnumbered Communist forces bravely breaking through Nationalist lines were pure invention. Chiang Kai-shek, in fact, largely determined Mao’s route by giving him free passage through selected regions, while blocking alternative routes. Chiang’s aim was to use the arrival of the Red Army in the territories of otherwise recalcitrant provincial warlords to coerce them into joining him, thereby exploiting the Communist presence to unify the country under Nationalist rule. Some of the most famous battles of the Long March never took place. The celebrated crossing of the suspension bridge over the Dadu River at Luding, for instance, had not been in the face of Nationalist machine gun fire. No Communists were killed there at all. And Mao shared few of the privations of his troops. Instead of trudging over mountains and through swamps, he and the other leaders were borne throughout most of the march in litters, shaded by tarpaulins, carried by long bamboo poles on the shoulders of their bearers.
The biggest single number of Chinese dead was the 38 million who perished in the famine of the four years from 1958 to 1961, during the so-called Great Leap Forward. Westerners have known since Jasper Becker’s path-breaking 1996 book Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine that the famine killed between 30 and 40 million people. Becker attributed this to Mao’s ideological folly of conducting an ambitious but failed experiment in collectivization. Chang and Halliday produce new evidence to show it was more sinister than that.
Mao’s regime confiscated Chinese harvests in these years so it could export food to Communist-controlled Eastern Europe in exchange for armaments and political support. Food and money were also exported to support anti-colonial and Communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the first year of famine, 1958–1959, China exported seven million tons of grain, enough to feed 38 million people. In 1960, a year in which 22 million Chinese died of starvation, China was the biggest international aid donor in terms of proportion of GNP in the world. Thanks to Chinese agricultural exports, East Germany was able to lift food rationing in 1958, and Albania in 1961.
The future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited in 1960 and wrote a starry-eyed, aptly titled book, Two Innocents in Red China, which said nothing about the famine. Britain’s Field Marshal Montgomery visited in both 1960 and 1961 and asserted there was “no large-scale famine, only shortages in certain areas.” He did not regard the shortages as Mao’s fault and urged him to hang on to power: “China needs the chairman. You mustn’t abandon this ship.” The United
Nations was completely ineffectual. Its Food and Agricultural Organization made an inspection in 1959, declaring that food production had increased by 50 to 100 percent in the past five years: “China seems capable of feeding [its population] well.” When the French socialist leader, François Mitterand, visited in 1961, Mao told him: “I repeat it, in order to be heard: There is no famine in China.” Mitterand dutifully reported this assurance to a credulous world. At the same time, Mao enlisted three writers he knew he could trust—Edgar Snow, Han Suyin, and Felix Greene—to spread his message through articles, books, and a celebrated BBC television interview between a fawning Greene and Chou En-lai.
Among Western intellectuals, Mao’s most enthusiastic supporters came from the French Left. Simone de Beauvoir visited China in 1955 and declared: “The power he [Mao] exercises is no more dictatorial than, for example, Roosevelt ’s was. New China’s Constitution renders impossible the concentration of authority in one man’s hands.” She wrote a lengthy book about her visit entitled The Long March. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, her consort Jean-Paul Sartre praised the “revolutionary violence” of Mao as “profoundly moral.” It is true, as Chang and Halliday argue, that in terms of electoral politics, the Maoist parties China funded in Western countries from the 1950s to the 1970s only ever gained miniscule support. But among intellectuals, the story was very different.
In France, the intellectual center of Maoism from the late 1960s to 1976 was the journal Tel Quel. This publication was the focus of much of the theoretical activity that emerged in Paris at the time and was responsible for launching the careers of many of the luminaries of the French intellectual Left, notably the cultural analyst Roland Barthes, the post-structuralist philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, the theorist of psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan, and the radical feminist Julia Kristeva. Themes that emerged in Tel Quel at the time were taken up by the influential British Marxist journal New Left Review and from there spread to the rest of the English-speaking world. Tel Quel began as a Marxist-Leninist journal but became influential in shifting the Western Left away from old Marxism, with its emphasis on the blue-collar working class as the bearer of social revolution, and towards the new Leftism of the post-1960s period, with its emphasis on feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, and anti-colonialism.
The journal’s founder, the novelist and critic Philippe Sollers, in 1967 began pub- lishing Mao’s poems accompanied by sympathetic articles. By 1971 the journal had switched to an overtly Maoist political and theoretical position. Although the editorial group flattered Mao as a serious thinker, lauding in particular his essay “On Contradiction,” the only substantive point they took from him was about the autonomy of the cultural sphere. Traditional Marxism held that the culture of a society was determined by its mode of production. Taking their cue from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Tel Quel argued instead that culture was a relatively autonomous realm. This opened a space for them to endorse the notion of cultural politics—the idea that literature, debates, lectures, performances, and artistic output could effect social change—a position that was bound to be popular with writers, academics, and artists who had been previously consigned by Marxism to utilitarian roles. Intellectuals were thus elevated to major players in the socialist revolution. Ideas and attitudes that survive today for which Tel Quel can claim more responsibility than most include the theory of postmodernism, the academic field of cultural studies, the policy of multiculturalism, the sanctification of theorists as celebrities, and an utter hostility to liberal-democratic capitalism, especially in its American form, which the journal identified as the source of all oppression.
Tel Quel’s formal switch to Maoism in 1971 cost it the support of Derrida, Althusser, and a few other writers who did not want to break with the French Communist Party, which remained steadfastly loyal to the USSR. But most of the editorial group went along with Sollers. The culmination of their enthusiasm for Mao was a visit to China by Kristeva, Barthes, and Sollers in 1974. In his history of the journal, The Time of Theory (1995), the English writer Patrick ffrench writes that its Maoism pushed it sharply to the Left. The group wanted to emulate the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. This was rather difficult, however, since none were students. They were the teachers, lecturers, and writers who in China had been dismissed from their posts and forced into manual work. Instead of going out into the factories and fields, the Tel Quel writers made do with less arduous measures. They printed the slogan “Vive la pensée-maotsétoung” in each edition of the journal and decorated their offices with political graffiti copied from Chinese walls.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, there was a great debate among economists about
the best policies to end the poverty and backwardness in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By this time, enough information had emerged from the USSR to show that its regime’s claims and statistics about industrial success and agricultural output in the 1930s and 1940s were either largely exaggerated or outright bogus. State control of the economy, collectivization, and five-year plans should have been consigned to the dustbin of economic history. Yet at the very time this was becoming apparent to those with eyes to see, left-wing economists were lining up to offer precisely the same advice to the Third World. Many used Mao’s Cultural Revolution as confirmation of their case.
In Britain, the group of Keynesian economists at Cambridge University led by Joan Robinson used its considerable influence with Social Democrat politicians around the world to argue this line.
In the United States, other Keynesian economists took a similar line. In his 1973 book, A China Passage, written after a Potemkin-style tour of the country, John Kenneth Galbraith gushed: “There can now be no serious doubt that China is devising a highly effective economic system.” Despite the complete absence of any credible statistics, Galbraith endorsed estimates by other economists who traveled with him that Chinese industrial and agricultural output was growing at 10 or 11 percent per annum: “This does not seem to me implausible.”