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
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
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.”
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
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
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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