Review: Mao – The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

An attempt to discredit the Chinese Revolution and, by association, the ideas of socialism.

Peter Taaffe reviews Mao The Unknown Story – an expose of the leader of the Red Army and of China for 27 years. In reality it is an attempt to discredit the Chinese Revolution and, by association, the ideas of socialism.

Mao – The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

The defeated Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 – led by the immortal workers of Shanghai and Canton – represents one of the most magnificent movements in the history of the international working class.

The successful Chinese Revolution of 1944-49, as far as socialists and Marxists are concerned, is the second greatest event in human history, after the October Revolution in Russia, led by the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky, in 1917. This is disputed by the authors. Yet author Ian Johnson, roving correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, who has written a recent unsympathetic account, can say: “Shortly after taking power in 1949, the Communist Party enjoyed some success. It united China for the first time in a century, put people to work and redistributed land. Even when the disasters came – and they came fast – the party didn’t have to worry too much about the unrest.” [Wild Grass – China’s Revolution from Below by Ian Johnson, Penguin 2004.] Five hundred million Chinese workers and peasants, kept at the level of pack animals by landlordism and capitalism, their country dismembered into imperialist “spheres of influence”, finally stepped onto the scene of world history.

Mao Zedong

The Chinese Revolution reverberated throughout Asia and the world. Mao Zedong was the leader of the Red Army that presided over this revolution. He was, by his own admission, a “Stalinist”, and constructed not a democratic workers’ state along the lines of Russia in 1917-23, but a regime similar to that existing in Stalinist Russia. Landlordism and capitalism were gradually eliminated and the beginnings of a planned economy were put into place, although this was presided over by a one-party, totalitarian regime, with power in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy in the party, the state, the army and the economy.

Mao Zedong, unlike Stalin who played no key role in the Russian Revolution, led the forces of the Red Army in defeating the capitalist nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and taking power. The regime established was not “socialist” as understood by Marx and the great Marxists since but it represented a rupture with capitalism and imperialism. Therefore, its evolution and the forces that it represented, the kind of forces that Mao established, is worthy of an all-sided analysis from which young people and workers today could benefit in the struggle for socialism.

This book, unfortunately, does not provide that. Genuine Marxism, Trotskyism, has analysed at each stage the phenomenon of Maoism, the figure of Mao himself and the regime constructed in China. This book is not the “unknown story” as it claims, although it has many new facts on the blunders of Mao, both before and after the revolution, and the terrible price which the Chinese people have paid through the establishment of a Stalinist regime rather than a democratic workers’ state. If the Chinese working class had taken power in the 1925-27 revolution, in such a state could have been constructed a planned economy but with workers’ democracy, which would have transformed the world. There is no analysis even of the events of 1925-27 in this book, only a scant passing reference.

The figure of Mao himself is pictured as almost fully formed – like Minerva from the head of Jupiter – displaying all his later dictatorial tendencies, selfishness, lack of sympathy for peasants and many other undesirable traits. Yet Mao, like thousands of others, was drawn towards communism by the example of the Russian revolution. Moreover, the authors inform us, he was influenced by Chen Duxiu, the “father” of Chinese Marxism and at one stage the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who broke with Stalin and Stalinism and moved towards Trotskyism at one stage. Indeed, Mao himself was accused of the sin of “Trotskyism” by his opponents within the CCP at one stage.

The rise of Mao and the forces of the Red Army was directly linked to the defeat of the 1925-27 revolution. The defeat of this revolution led to the complete decimation of the CCP and its basis amongst the working class and in the cities. By 1929 only three percent of CCP members were industrial workers, which shrunk to 1.6 per cent by 1930. The working class, however, from the time of Marx, was the major social force able to carry through the socialist revolution. These figures indicate that the CCP was no longer a working-class party in the Marxist sense of the term.

Yet leaders of the working class in the CCP, including Mao, had retreated into the countryside. As Mao Zedong reported, and as this book explains, it did not get a big echo amongst the peasantry in the first instance and was even attacked. This was because the peasants were used to armies coming across their territory and plundering them, and therefore, initially, the red detachments were assumed to be just another marauding army.

There were a number of “red” armies, including the one in Hunan province led by Mao Zedong, who subsequently became the political leader of the Red Army with Zhu De the military leader. Despite the arguments of the authors, this force did find a big echo amongst the poor peasants in particular. In October 1934, the Red Army began what became known as the “Long March”. The authors claim that Mao was, in fact, “carried” on the Long March and that Chiang Kai-shek, the military dictator of China at that stage, “allowed” Mao to escape for his own military and strategic reasons. If this is the case – not yet established as a fact – then Chiang Kai-shek completely miscalculated because Mao and the Red Army were to be his downfall 15 years later.

In 1932 when the peasant Red Army was scoring brilliant victories over the Kuomintang (KMT), Trotsky posed the question of what would happen if this army, after defeating the landlords, entered the cities? He pointed out that the red armies were ex-workers. The red forces were made up predominantly of peasants, ex-peasants or landless labourers, and also refugees from the various warlords.

In the publications of the CCP itself, and underlined in this book, complaints were voiced over admission into the Red Army of the lumpen proletariat and lumpen agricultural population. For over one thousand years, such armies, traditionally peasant in character, had arisen against oppression and exploitation by the landlords. What would happen if this “Red Army”, victorious in the countryside, would enter the cities? It could come into collision with the working class and maybe fuse with the capitalist class, resulting in classical capitalist development. There were parallels in China’s history for this.

But this was not borne out by the revolution of 1944-49. None of this is explained by Halliday or Chang; in fact, they seem sympathetic in the phraseology that they use, to the inadequacies of Chinese landlordism and capitalism, and its political expression, “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. For instance, they refer to the “enclaves” of the foreign powers, which were in fact territories brutally conquered by different imperialist powers, in which the word, laws and the state of the foreign slave owners ruled over the Chinese workers and peasants in these areas.

Moreover, 20 million people had been killed since the defeat of the 1925-27 revolution through the brutal repression of Chiang Kai-shek and the slaughter of millions by Japanese imperialism in particular. With the defeat and retreat of the Japanese imperialist forces, a vacuum opened up in Chinese society. The war weariness of the European and particularly the American people following the end of the Second World War prevented US imperialism in particular from intervening militarily to support the KMT. They did, however, supply them with weapons – subsequently captured by the Red Army and used against the US in the Korean War – and billions of dollars in aid.

It is implied by Chang and Halliday that Chiang Kai-shek was defeated because of “poor judgement” of personalities, of weakness in his “character”, and not for economic and social reasons. On the contrary, Mao defeated Chiang because of the bankruptcy of Chinese landlordism and capitalism, the rottenness and corruption of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime – detailed in part by the authors. There was mass support for the programme of the CCP to “confiscate bureaucrat capital”, code for taking over capitalism – nationalisation of the capital controlled by imperialism, the tops of the KMT and their supporters, and a thoroughgoing land reform. A massive inflation also rotted any of the lingering foundations of the KMT, particularly amongst the middle class.

At the same time, the Red Army showed hostility to any independent movement of the working class in the cities, warning against “strikes” that would be suppressed. Mao looked towards Moscow for his model state: “In June 1949 Mao sent Liu Shao-chi to Russia to learn about the Soviet model in detail… A Stalinist state was being constructed even before Mao had formally assumed power.” At the same time, private businesses were not immediately touched, nationalisation coming a little later, “collectivisation of agriculture was not carried out until the mid-1950s”.

Outright corruption absent

There was not the outright corruption at the beginning in China, as was the case in Stalinist Russia, and because of the very low living standards in China. However, there was privilege for the bureaucratic officials, many of them inherited from the previous KMT regime, particularly through a “privileged standard of living, which was minutely graded hierarchically… [and the] personal lifestyle [of Mao] was one of royal self-indulgence, practised at tremendous cost to the country”.

The book is littered with examples of the buildings and palaces, the special compounds, which Mao and the bureaucracy cornered for themselves. Such was his fear, it seems, of an attack that not only did vehicles carrying him go right into his compound “sometimes even Mao’s train drove into his villa – or strictly speaking, into the front garden… In many places, an exclusive underground tunnel ran all the way from the villa to the local military airport… Throughout his reign, he lived in his own country as if in a war zone.”

Like all Stalinist regimes , with arbitrary power exercised from above, Mao’s was subjected to the same zigzags as Stalin’s although, because of the size of the country, exercised on a monumental scale with colossal negative consequences, which vitiated the advantages of a plan of production. Like in Russia, forced collectivisation was carried through, a form of forced labour, as the authors indicate, was used against the peasantry in particular in order to accumulate the forces for forced industrialisation.

A democratic workers’ state would have proceeded entirely differently to the approach of Mao. Lenin and Trotsky pointed out that the construction of land co-operatives, never mind collectivisation, would have to have been carried through by voluntary methods with a democratically decided co-efficient between industry and agriculture, with industrial goods in particular being supplied to the peasants by nationalised industry. The arbitrary and dictatorial methods of Mao resulted, according to the authors, in at least 22 million people dying.

A similar catastrophe resulted from the “Great Leap Forward”, and the dash for growth involving “backyard furnaces” and the squeezing of the population. In a backward country like China, where a revolution takes place, is isolated and also does not have workers’ democracy, the regime, in effect, seeks to carry through the tasks which capitalism itself is incapable of doing but at many times the cost under capitalism.

In China, this was compounded by Mao’s mad attempt to establish superpower status through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Four million Chinese were dragooned into projects to acquire nuclear status. This was combined with Mao’s “theory” that a new third world war was likely, and even desirable, out of which Chinese “socialism”, would emerge victorious. This set the alarm bells ringing both in Washington and in Moscow. This book reveals that there is nothing new in George W. Bush’s doctrine of “pre-emptive military strikes”. President John F Kennedy, the great “liberal”, contemplated a nuclear strike on China’s nuclear facilities, predating by more than 20 years Reagan’s actual strikes on Iran in 1981.

A significant section of the book deals with the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao mobilised 22 million “Red Rebels” against the wing of the bureaucracy represented by Liu Shao-chi, who had effectively demoted Mao following the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward. The purpose of this “pseudo-revolution” was to restore Mao back to power and also to cut down the swollen privileges of the bureaucracy. But, by going outside the bureaucratic elite, Mao unleashed forces, some of which went much further than Mao in the direction of greater democracy and a challenge to the bureaucracy. This is detailed fairly well in this book.

It also illustrates that, despite Mao’s phrase of “revolution”, he feared an independent movement of the working class, as happened in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. In both instances, Mao was at one with Khrushchev in suppressing movements which were searching for a political revolution – not a return back to capitalism – involving the preservation of the planned economy but with workers’ democracy. Similar tendencies developed in the Cultural Revolution – although not on the same level as those in Hungary and East Germany.

Death of Mao

The death of Mao, as is well known, led to the re-emergence of Deng Xiaoping who had been purged in the Cultural Revolution and who initiated the first steps which have resulted in the re-emergence of Chinese capitalism, the dominant trend in China today.

The publication of this book is organically linked to this process. It has received glowing accolades in all the journals of capitalism and is top of the best sellers list for “hardback non-fiction” in British bookshops today. It is ironic that one of the authors, Jon Halliday, was linked to New Left Review, which at the height of Maoist fervour adopted an uncritical approach towards the Mao phenomena. Ex-Maoists are lining up to heap praise on the book. Like Solzhenitsyn in Russia, who wrote excellent fictional denunciations of Stalinism, Wild Swans by Jung Chang was in a similar vein but against Chinese Stalinism. Solzhenitsyn went on to write The Gulag Archipelago, denouncing the slave camps of Stalin and the purge trials but without mentioning that the central accused were Trotsky and the Trotskyists. His book was used to discredit not just Stalinism but also the ideas of genuine democratic Marxism and socialism.

Unfortunately, this new book fulfils the same function in relation to China. The capitalists worldwide are eager to use the crimes of Stalinism to discredit socialism and the idea of a planned economy and, in so doing, speed up the process of the transition of capitalism in China, which would open up the prospect of huge markets and profits for them. Unfortunately, the present increasingly capitalist regime in China stubbornly adheres to Mao’s dictum applied to Stalin but now applied by Chinese rulers to him: “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, with posters and statues of Mao dominating Tiananmen Square. This is done in order to facilitate the “smooth” transition to capitalism while maintaining the main elements of Mao’s state repression.

They are not likely, therefore, to welcome this book but nor can socialists and Marxists, particularly when, in the first few pages, it states: “Unlike most founding dictators – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – Mao did not inspire a passionate following”. To bracket Lenin with the butchers of the Italian and German workers is an abomination. Moreover, even when correct points are made about the mistakes and crimes of Mao, these are in the context of an attack on socialism and the planned economy.

Therefore, if readers plough through the almost 700 pages of this book it should be with a critical eye. The new generation of workers and young people will never return to the abominations of Stalinism. They will reject the unrestricted capitalist future for China implied by this book, which will be a catastrophe, dwarfing the many disasters under Maoism, both for the Chinese people and for the world.

Mao – The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Jonathon Cape, £25

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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July 2005