Near and Far: Floating Mao quotes

“What [Mao] wanted was an entirely joyless nation – without culture, without the presentation of human emotions, populated by a numb herd that automatically follows his orders. […] In this regard, Mao was more extreme than Hitler or Stalin, since Hitler allowed apolitical entertainment and Stalin appreciated and preserved the classics.” (translated by AK)
Jung Chang, Jon Halliday
(2005): Mao. Das Leben eines Mannes. Das Schicksal eines Volkes. Blessing, p. 637

“I think that Maoism is a creative shift in the whole history of thinking and in communist action[.]” (translated by AK)
Alain Badiou in: Alain Badiou, Jean-Claude Milner (2012): “Controverse. Dialogue sur la politique et la philosophe de notre temps”, p.22

Judgements of Mao Tse-Tungs contribution to (Chinese) history are still unstable. An event like the cultural revolution produced or attracted various convictions, interests, and emotions that induced narratives of Mao’s decisions, political ideas and personality. As an experiment, lets categorize them in two groups, based on the distance:

  • Some narratives are connected with direct and local effects of Maos political ideology: The main author of a popular Mao biography,  Jung Chang, was a teenager when she and her family (her father was a party official) were affected by the violence during the cultural revolution.
  • Other people have been affected from distance: french intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the young Alain Badiou related the “May’68” events in Paris to the cultural revolution, which was a source of inspiration and reference. In the case of Alain Badiou, he still relates Mao quotes with contemporary events, as you can see in an article about the events in turkey.

near and remote effects

The spectrum varies from Mao as scapegoat or monster (similarly evil as Stalin or Hitler) to Mao as wise and visionary superhero that created a model for organized revolutionary movements. Lets look at it in more detail…


The Pendulum of Smoothed Narratives

One of the first results on YouTube on the term “Mao” is a BBC video episode of the series “BBC 20th Century History File”, from June 1990:

The video reflects a quite idealized  picture of Maos role in the transformation of China:

“Mao had improved the living standards of hundreds of millions of chinese” (at ~17:50)

In the late 1960’ies, the United States had an surprisingly sympathetic view on the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Tse-Tung. This was for multiple reasons, here are some: (1) Edgar Snow’s book “Red Star Over China”, (2) the need of the U.S. to relativize the power of the Sowjet union, (3) Chinas effectivity in filtering and controling information that goes out of China, (4) The effort of the Chinese Communist Party to present Mao as a wise and generous philosophical leader, with bookshelfs in the background.

Another purified picture is offered by the famous Mao biography in 2005: “Mao: The Unknown story” (In German: “Mao. Das Leben eines Mannes. Das Schicksal eines Volkes. Blessing 2005”). But now, the pendulum swang exactly to the other side. In this book, the authors describe Mao as sadistic, power-hungry, xenophobic, sex-obsessed monster – comparable with Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin – mainly responsible for the death of 70 million Chinese. The 800-pages book was a bestseller in western world.

Two of the most effective and striking passages in the book are about …

  • the decisions made during the “Great Leap Forward” by Mao (and his circle, but the book presents him most of the time as the only person who really was able to decide in China) that led to the starvation of millions of people. Instead of assigning enough food to the farmers (who grew and harvested the food), the party confiscated most of the crops. Subsequently, the crops have been sent to the Sowjet union in return for military support (for example getting details of the nuclear bomb). Or they have been generously donated to other development countries to improve the reputation abroad.
  • ideologically motivated and state-demanded slaughtering during the cultural revolution at the end of the 60’ies and how people defended their violent acts in reference to Mao and the omnipresent “Mao bible”:

    “A 86-year-old farmer ripped up the chest of a young boy, whose only crime was it to be the son of a former land owner. ‘Yes, I have killed him’, said the man later to a journalist. ‘The person was an enemy… Haha! I make revolution, and my heart is red! Didn’t the Chairman Mao say: Either you kill them, or they kill us? You and I live, that is the class struggle.'” (Mao, p. 707, translated by AK)


The book tries to tackle the need to get a less ideologically charged picture of the history and its transformative leader of China. Unfortunately, while the positively charged ideology was cut back, the charge let emerge a picture of Mao as a monster. Inbetween quotations of all possible sources (not all of them are accessible), the central theme of this book is to comment on the bad character and egoistic motives of Mao. As if there was only one smart but evil man who managed to induce fear and submission to all his functionaries in such a way that they could not decide on their own anymore. He was the monster that deviated millions of his followers from the right path.

Similar to the BBC clip, that creates a clear narrative of a heroic man that brought life quality to the Chinese people, 2005’s Mao book describes Mao as a monster obsessed by destruction and power. Although, fair enough, in the book he is recognized for his capability to prevent the Sowjet union to incorporate China – and still receiving military support.

One of the more helpful quotations in a careful review of the 2005 Mao biography comes from Andrew Nathan in the London Review of Books:

“A caricature Mao is too easy a solution to the puzzle of modern China’s history. What we learn from this history is that there are some very bad people: it would have been more useful, as well as closer to the truth, had we been shown that there are some very bad institutions and some very bad situations, both of which can make bad people even worse, and give them the incentive and the opportunity to do terrible things.”

This is not the only lesson to be learned: There are qualitative differences between remote effects and near-field effects. A generation of french intellectuals have been inspired and seduced not only by the local event around May’68 but also the remote effects of the Chinese revolution. It was appealing to have a “working” example of an “organized revolutionary movement”. But most of it was a fictional bubble and idolatry. The distance and lack of experience (who visited China during the cultural revolution? It was quite difficult for an ordinary foreigner to do so)  allowed a fiction of salvation that could help out political activists in Paris. At the time when people like Simone de Beauvoir wrote about Mao: “The power he exercises is no more dictatorial than, for example, Roosevelt’s was.”, and when Jean-Paul Sartre describes his “revolutionary violence” as “profoundly moral”, the cultural revolution in China produced slogans like “Those who are against Chairman Mao will have their dog skulls smashed into pieces” and organized public killing while flourishing “Mao bibles”.

Maybe it is not enough to flourish a book to command a crowd, but when a crowd starts to flourish your books and legitimates its actions by your sharpened quotes, its too late to regret. In the local case, the book was part of the plan, embedded in other means of propaganda: The Chinese Communist Party obliged the people to possess a copy of the “Mao bible” and instructed them to learn quotes by heart. In the case of the far field in Paris, no instructions were needed, there was already a desire. The desire for revolution. This, together with a lack of close experience to the event, smoothed the cultural revolution. It seems to me that for the “Maoists” in Paris, there was no interest in the consequences of the revolution on Chinese people. Alain Badiou still quotes Maos “It is right to revolt”, unsolicited – in yesterday’s article on the events in Turkey.

Maybe the vivid fantasy of the cultural  revolution in Paris helped around the 1960’ies to deviate from the orthodox path of Marxist analysis and gave impulses to explore and develop creative and influential philosophical and political ideas. On the other hand, I doubt that completely decoupling near-field and far-field effects is a helpful and responsible way of dealing with (historical) events, especially in the time of massive synchronous and asynchronous telecommunication, where a (fake) message sent by a hacked twitter account infects global stock market as if the local experience was irrelevant.

References / Further Readings

  • Jung Chang, Jon Halliday (2005): Mao. Das Leben eines Mannes. Das Schicksal eines Volkes. Blessing
  • Alain Badiou, Jean-Claude Milner (2012): “Controverse. Dialogue sur la politique et la philosophe de notre temps” (Preview and Blog Article)
  • Richard Wolin (2010): Wind from the East. French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s  (Review)