D. Dowd Muska


Poet, Philosopher, Revolutionary, Butcher

November 01, 2012

The hundreds of millions of men, women, and children who bore immeasurable hardship under Mao Zedong wouldn’t appreciate the objectivity of Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine.

The mission of Mao: The Real Story (Simon & Shuster; 755 pages; $35), its authors explain, is “neither to praise nor to blame” their subject, but to depict him as “a complicated figure who indeed tried his best to bring about prosperity and gain international respect for his country.”

It’s curious -- to be charitable -- treatment for the gangster statesman with history’s highest body count. But while Pantsov and Levine possess poorly calibrated moral compasses, their thoroughness can’t be challenged. Aided by “the release of important new documents from China and exclusive access to major archives in the former Soviet Union,” Mao exhaustively explores every aspect of the chairman’s life -- from his upbringing and education, through his struggle to control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to his triumphs as a successful guerilla, godlike dictator, and marquee Cold Warrior.

The “Great Helmsman” was born in rural Hunan, at the close of the 19th century, during the Qing Dynasty. A Deep Thinker from an early age, like most intellectuals, he considered manual labor to be beneath him. Fortunately for Mao, as he grew into manhood, the empire was overthrown. The poet, dreamer, and voracious reader was presented with a ground-floor opportunity. China was freeing itself from scoundrels at home and abroad, and he had an unquenchable ambition to shape his nation’s new course.

Mao didn’t drift into Marxism immediately, but by 1921, when the CCP held its founding congress, he was a believer. One of Mao’s best features is its meticulous tracing of the role Moscow played in turning China communist. In brief: No Soviet Union, no CCP; no CCP, no People’s Republic of China. Stalin opened the funding floodgates, which allowed Mao and his compatriots to scheme full-time. Incredibly, even during the early days of Operation Barbarossa, the Kremlin valued the Comintern more than the needs of Russians. Pantsov and Levine write that on July 3, 1941, “the very day … that Stalin first publicly acknowledged the extent of the German onslaught, the Politburo decided to send $1 million to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The Japanese occupation forced a temporary halt to communists’ campaign against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, but the civil war resumed when World War II ended. In 1949, the generalissimo and his followers fled to Taiwan. The CCP -- i.e., Mao -- ruled the mainland. China’s top comrade could begin his utopia-building unfettered. And if some of his countrymen got in the way of communist nirvana, well, sacrifices must be made. Marxism, the chairman said, was “indeed cruel and has little mercy, for it is determined to exterminate imperialism, feudalism, capitalism, and small production to boot.”

One eyewitness to Mao-era brutality observed: “Chinese had no rights. Everyone had to obey their ‘superiors’ unconditionally. … A given individual was merely a tiny gear in an enormous and complicated machine. The slightest sign of dissatisfaction or deviation from established norms and the gear would be discarded.”

Pantsov and Levine’s narrative of the Great Leap Forward is transcendently chilling. Mao, and “almost all members of the Chinese Politburo,” they write, “knew nothing of economics.” Yet the crazed dilettantes pushed a radical expansion of steel and grain production. When combined with natural disasters (drought and flooding), the Great Leap Forward began to kill by the tens of millions: “Emaciated villagers roamed the countryside, stripping off leaves and bark from trees, collecting worms, beetles, frogs, wild plants, and grasses. In many places they even ate dirt mixed with weeds, a concoction called Guan Yin tu (Goddess of Mercy earth).”

The Cultural Revolution, Mao’s multiyear terror movement designed to purge “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various cultural circles” arrived a few years later. Pantsov and Levine find that during the bloody convulsion, over “a million persons were tortured, shot, or driven to suicide … and a hundred million suffered to one degree or another. … Mao knew everything and understood everything.”

Ideologues who fuse a poor understanding of the nature of man with a perfervid unwillingness to correct mistakes produce murderous madness. That is what Mao Zedong wrought in China. Pantsov and Levine are reluctant, in their “lively and interesting human story,” to label the chairman a monster. Perhaps it’s unnecessary. Readers will not need any help to reach the conclusion on their own.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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