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A Mao for All Seasons

iconDavid Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Mao Zedong, 1969

A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “psychohistorical” approach. He claims that the present confusion in China can best be understood within this “psychohistorical” framework, as coming from a desire to transcend death and achieve immortality for the Chinese Revolution. Mr. Lifton has recently completed a major work on Hiroshima, and his new book on China is only one of a series in which he is trying to explain human thoughts and actions in terms of man’s fear of death and his wish to achieve immortality, or a relationship with the past and future. In his view, man can attempt this biologically through having children, spiritually through a detachable soul, actively through outstanding individual achievements, or socially through intimate involvement in a great and undying cause.

One of the main elements in this view is the role of the death-defying leader. Mr. Lifton points out that in psychological studies the significance of a hero’s relationship with death has been strangely underestimated. He quite rightly suggests that this aspect is far more important than others, such as the Oedipus complex, which have previously received a great deal of attention. It is obvious that Mao Tse-tung is a hero of the classic type, like Guevara in the Sierra Maestra or Kennedy in his P. T. boat; but, on a far grander scale, Mao went through what Lifton calls his “road of trials” or “prolonged death encounter” in the Long March. Having faced death and conquered it, he came back with a message for his people.

According to Mr. Lifton, Mao’s survival where so many others died gives him an acute but double-edged feeling toward death. There is a sense of invulnerability but at the same time there is a heightened fear of death, which experience has shown to be immediate and arbitrary. However, while sharply aware of individual extinction, Mao clearly believes that those around him who have been killed, and these include two brothers, a sister, a wife, and a son, have all achieved a form of immortality by giving their lives to the revolutionary cause. Mao himself is aware that his deeds have put him on a plane with the great heroes of Chinese history, but he also wants what he thinks to be the more genuine immortality to be gained through involvement with an undying movement. Thus an important element of his and his comrades’ immortality depends on the continued success of the Chinese Revolution.

Mr. Lifton asserts that the activist response to the fear of death is not to prolong existing life but to try to achieve rebirth. In China he sees this response as “an all consuming death and rebirth.” In order that the Revolution should survive, Mao has called for the destruction of the social order which he and the Communist Party created, so that something new and vital can emerge. To be certain of vitality, the new movement had to be led by the pure untainted youth and to be integrally related to the masses, that is to say to the indestructible Chinese people. In Mao’s eyes, because imperialism is divorced from the people it is certain to perish, and the inevitability of its ultimate fall makes it a hollow paper tiger. On the other hand, only if the Revolution remains true to its principles and is sustained by firm links with the people as a whole can it be strong and live forever.

There is no doubt that Mr. Lifton is right to draw attention to Mao’s interest in, if not obsession with, death and immortality. The quotations in the book from Mao’s interview with Edgar Snow in January 1965 and from Mao’s poetry and prose are only a fraction of the vast amount of evidence pointing in this direction. The author is also right to emphasize the importance of the theme of “immortalizing death” in the approved literature of the Cultural Revolution. The story of the simple altruistic soldier, boundlessly loyal to Mao Tse-tung, who laid down his life for the people is an old one in communist China. However, since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution this genre, which started in the armed forces, has become almost the only form of creative writing. Encouragement not to fear death has a clear practical use in an army; however the widespread extension of these moral tales to the whole population can fairly be linked to Mao’s concerns with death and immortality.

* * *

If Mr. Lifton has developed real insights into the motives of Mao and of some of the veteran soldiers around him who joined in the launching of the Cultural Revolution, he has helped to tell only half the story. Whether or not the Cultural Revolution was started in response to popular pressures, it has certainly released great social forces which have taken important social actions, and these cannot be explained so easily by psychological analysis. No attempt is made to explain the author’s implied claim that the recent mass movements are an expression of a collective fear that the Revolution will die with Mao. Mr. Lifton’s main social explanation is to call the Cultural Revolution a “revolt of the patronized,” a reaction against, in his excruciating phrase, “counterfeit nurturance,” which appears to mean molly-coddling, or care that deprives its recipient of independence. Reaction to “counterfeit nurturance” seems to be linked to the general theme of immortality only tenuously by Mr. Lifton’s view that the achievement of independence from a parental type of authority can be seen as a form of birth, as the creation of a true vitality. While “revolt of the patronized” is a useful description of the students’ and other young people’s political and intellectual assault on the all-embracing power of the Communist Party, it seems forced and artificial to insert fears of death or the desire for immortality into the explanation of this wide social movement.

Another general psychological explanation given by Mr. Lifton concerns what he reluctantly calls “psychism.” By this he means the attempt to face objective problems by taking psychological or social action rather than practical measures. For example, in the mid-Fifties, when agricultural production did not rise quickly enough to improve the standard of living of the fast-growing population and to provide a surplus for industrial investment, the reaction was not to set up specialized agricultural research institutes or to improve government efficiency in the distribution of fertilizers or better strains of rice. Instead the whole population was mobilized in the Great Leap Forward. Attempts were made to establish industries in the countryside without outside capital, and, in a mood of mass exaltation, communes were set up to provide the social framework for a new and better life.

Lifton’s notion of “psychism” reflects the analysis used by many sinologists when considering the Chinese slogan “both red and expert.” Chinese leaders frequently proclaim the need for men with both revolutionary consciousness and technical skill, but use of the slogan nearly always means that redness should be emphasized. This modern attitude corresponds to a major strand of Chinese tradition: the orthodox Confucian belief that if the Scholar official purifies himself and harmonizes social relations, other problems will sort themselves out.

In the modern world, with its superb technology and enormous wealth juxtaposed to its appalling suffering and poverty, this position does not seem altogether unreasonable. One may also raise doubts about the sinologists’ contrast between the hopelessly idealist red and the practical expert. Is there really such a thing as the completely detached and politically neutral expert? In economics and the social sciences, which are loaded with value judgments, the concept is clearly absurd. In the physical sciences the direction of much research and technology is closely controlled by political forces, and scientific successes and failures have obvious social consequences. Even the allegedly neutral idea of “letting” the experts “get on with the job” has the result of creating a privileged if not always powerful elite of technologists.

* * *

Nevertheless, there is still something to be said for Mr. Lifton’s use of the pejorative term “psychism,” at least in China with its desperate poverty and lack of technology. He refers specifically to Mao’s response to the failure or limited success of the Great Leap Forward, which he thinks was an attempt to increase revolutionary passion and self-sacrifice still further. Lifton sees the failure of the Great Leap as owing to technological and natural difficulties, and from the relative intractability of “human nature.” Thus the intensification of emotion or psychism of the Cultural Revolution has widened the gap between the objective situation and the thoughts and hopes of the revolutionaries. Mr. Lifton believes that this creates a vicious circle by which the further from reality the revolutionary picture of the world is, the more insistent its supporters have to be to cover the gap, and the more strident and extreme they are, the greater the chasm.

The author, who has written a detailed study of the generally effective methods used to achieve identification with the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s, believes that political conversions are now becoming increasingly superficial. He sees the rift between the new extreme beliefs as fundamental limits to the effectiveness of movements like the Cultural Revolution. He also suggests that people are simply growing tired of repeated and drawn-out periods of passion and confusion. Here I think he may be underestimating the importance of the fact that more than 40 percent of the Chinese population is under seventeen. Most of the Red Guards were under ten at the time of the Great Leap. Their political memories went back only to the early 1960s, when the Communist Party was in firm control and carrying out its “pragmatic” policies, while at the same time the values being taught were those of the Great Leap Forward. This discrepancy may well have something to do with the force of the Cultural Revolution as a social upheaval. All the same it would be absurd to deny that after three years of Cultural Revolution, many people, including many of its active participants, must be sick and tired of it.

One of the manifestations of the Cultural Revolution which fascinates Mr. Lifton is the apparent existence in China of groups of non-political and gentle “wanderers.” The evidence for these youthful groups seems slender and the idea somewhat dated now after the dwindling of the non-committed hippies as a social force in America. But Lifton suggests these “wanderers” may be part of the possible emergence of “protean” man all over the world. “Protean” man is a type he has investigated in other works. The term appears to apply both to the Japanese intellectuals who made drastic conversions from Marxism to imperialism and back again, and to Riesman’s “other directed man.” He is a man who makes radical changes and yet retains some form of identity. Mr. Lifton sees in “protean” man the hope for China. He believes that Chinese youth will be able to change their characters and move on from the disruptive interlude of the Cultural Revolution. They will then settle down to a calmer and less exciting form of progress, retaining at the same time many of the good facets of Maoism, such as participation in social and political life and the linking of practice and theory in education.

* * *

The Cultural Revolution is such an intricate and emotionally suggestive social movement that there is grist in it for almost everyone’s mill. While Mr. Lifton came to it with preoccupations on death and immortality and with an interest in “protean man,” Alberto Moravia looked at it in a mood of total disgust with consumer society and hatred for manipulative authority. Yet both men have found interesting things to say about the Cultural Revolution, Western Society, and themselves. They could scarcely be more different. Lifton the professional takes considerable trouble on points of detail and has meticulous footnotes, unintentionally giving a tone of scientific certainty to a subject in which nearly everything is speculative. In the few areas where there are known facts, Mr. Moravia the amateur is almost always wrong. His mistakes are not limited to such minutiae as his reference to “1957 that year of years” when he means 1958, or his statement that the wall or poster newspaper “is one of the great novelties introduced by the Cultural Revolution,” when they have in fact become increasingly common over the last seventy years. His misconceptions also concern some of the bases of his main argument that inadvertently or by design Chinese Society today is beautiful and good because of its poverty and chastity:

The peasants never knew the pleasures of sex. Now all of urban China is permeated by a peasant antisexual prudishness.

If Mr. Moravia had read some of the few intimate descriptions of peasant life in China he would know how ludicrous this sounds. For instance, in the village described by William Hinton in his classic Fanshen, the chief effect of the strict Confucian codes of propriety and marriage was to create a dense and widespread network of sexual liaisons. In China, as everywhere else in the world, sex is often the poor man’s only pleasure. The chastity and prudishness in China today seem to come from other sources. There is a tradition of propriety in public but, even more important, young people, particularly virgins, take moral maxims seriously, sublimating sex and giving everything to the great cause.

The paradox of The Red Book and the Great Wall is the discrepancy between the inaccuracy of its information and the brilliance and sensitivity of its general conception. It seems that the further Mr. Moravia is from China the better the perspective he has of it. There is little new in his descriptions of Chinese life, and most of his reported conversations are predictable. However, back in Italy and thinking about the direction taken by Western civilization, which he believes is turning men into well-fed and well-cared-for pigs only interested in consumption and excretion, Mr. Moravia turned his attention to the Cultural Revolution and immediately grasped some of the essential themes that have eluded most other observers. He sees that, far from wanting to increase despotic power, Mao and the Cultural Revolutionaries have tried to attack the Chinese counterpart of the Soviet system of bureaucratic hierarchy and material progress directed from above. He quite rightly thinks that it is immensely significant that party and government officials were not purged by a Stalinist secret police, but were bullied and hounded by masses of young and inexperienced Red Guards. Very much like Mr. Lifton, he believes that Mao was trying to revitalize the Revolution by reestablishing his links with the young and the people as a whole.

Mr. Moravia may be wrong about sex, but he speculates interestingly on the rural puritanism of the Cultural Revolution and the social roots of the hatred of finery and ostentation. However, as well as being fascinated by the traditional social causes for the attacks on culture, he is also concerned with the underlying ideology. He sees that Mao has broken away from the simple economic determinism of Marxism and he writes interestingly on Mao’s perception of the overriding importance of culture. In the 1950s the Chinese Communist Party, like the Russians, thought that after the establishment of a socialist economy the old culture was bound to wither away. Mao now believes that a pre-revolutionary cultural superstructure can overthrow a socialist economic base. This is the ideological reason why his previous tolerance of Western or traditional Chinese art, literature, and music has been changed to total condemnation.

Moravia also perceives the Chinese stress on will power as opposed to the Soviet emphasis on objective conditions. He makes the further point that class is no longer a question of one’s economic background, but is a moral category. That is to say, anyone, regardless of his past, who sincerely wants to be a revolutionary and thinks and acts in a proletarian way, is a member of the proletariat. Conversely, anyone who thinks of personal gain and behaves in a selfish way becomes bourgeois, whatever his own or his family’s occupation. The idea that, as the Communist Party was by definition the essence of the proletariat, it could remain proletarian without close contact with the urban workers, is an old one. In China, moreover, where the Communist Party was largely made up of intellectuals and peasants leading a movement consisting almost entirely of peasants, party spokesmen were forced to admit this even in the 1930s. The possibility that the proletarian essence could be divorced from the Communist Party and become completely free floating came much later.

* * *

As is so often the case in the study of contemporary China, one of the first scholars to grasp this new and significant point was Benjamin Schwartz. Far too many books and articles have been written on modern China. If only other writers had thought as much about it as Mr. Schwartz has done and had published as little, we would understand considerably more today. Mr. Schwartz’s articles on contemporary China are worth more than many people’s books, and it is extremely useful to have most of them collected in one volume. Reading the pieces in Communism in China: Ideology in Flux in chronological order, one has a fascinating view of the growth over the years of Mr. Schwartz’s many themes and interests. Perhaps the most important of these is what he calls the “disintegration of Marxism,” in which their appreciation of the realities of the Chinese situation has forced Mao and his colleagues further and further away from orthodox Marxism and Leninism. There can be no doubt about this general thesis. In his descriptions of the shifting Chinese lines, or the role of the Communist Party, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the form of the world revolution and other fundamentals, the author demolishes the notion that they are any more orthodox or dogmatic than the Russians.

To my mind the word “disintegration” has rather stronger connotations of collapse and destruction than Mr. Schwartz appears to imply in his descriptions of it. In some ways local and temporal adaptation may be a more fitting term. On the other hand, the concept of “disintegration,” in the sense of breaking connections, allowed the author to predict polycentrism in the socialist camp and conflicts between communist states long before other observers did. He was also able to foretell the extent to which communist leaders would be able to make drastic political and ideological innovations. The most remarkable example of his foresight was his writing in 1957:

However Mao is…. not only the leader of the Communist Party but also the leader of the people. By identifying himself occasionally with the “people” rather than the party, he can, as it were, criticize the party from without.

It is obvious that looked at today the Hundred Flowers Movement to which he was referring was in fact principally an attack by Mao on the Communist Party; he was not letting off steam to avoid an explosion, nor setting a trap for dissidents, as most contemporary observers believed. However, at the time the idea that the leader of a Communist state could attack its Communist Party was unthinkable. Nowadays, in Cuba, Yugoslavia, and most strikingly in the Cultural Revolution, this has become a common occurrence.

Though many of these articles were written several years ago, they are still remarkably relevant today. Many writers on Asia would be ashamed to publish their collected works; Joseph Alsop is only an extreme case. Mr. Schwartz’s success lies of course in his method, which is to pay attention to what the Chinese say, not in order to extract clues to fit one’s own theories, but to try to comprehend how they themselves see things. In almost every article there are attacks on observers of China who believe that they are being “objective” and “scientific” about other men who cannot understand their own thoughts and actions, let alone the rest of the world. In this group of scholars, Schwartz writes,

One proves one’s profundity by discounting the conscious behavior of others. The explanation of their behavior must be sought in forces operating behind their backs, as these forces are defined by the social sciences (the American social sciences) cultural anthropology, depth psychology, “political culture” and so on.

Mr. Schwartz would not deny that interesting results can be gained from these “profound” studies of modern China: All he asks is that one should see two major limitations in this kind of approach; first it should be realized that conscious ideas can influence behavior, secondly that no one is detached from the world, and the observer, like everyone else, is to a large extent the prisoner of his own background and environment. It is sad that he and, for that matter, Mr. Lifton too should have to waste their time combating absurd pseudo-scientific but influential ideas—for example, that it is impossible to combine communism and nationalism, that China is responsible for the success of the Vietnamese Revolution, or that the Cultural Revolution is merely a power struggle. But many of Mr. Schwartz’s shafts are aimed at more respectable theories, for example, that communism forms an unpleasant but almost inevitable stage of economic development or that a social system can be “inherently” aggressive or pacific regardless of its national circumstances. Both of these are discussed and dismissed intelligently.

It is paradoxical that although the author displays much sympathy for and understanding of China, and is skeptical of the olympian observer, he himself remains curiously detached. When Moravia discusses what he sees to be the issues of the Cultural Revolution, he clearly believes that they are relevant to him: What is being said and done in China matters directly to him in Italy. For Mr. Schwartz, China is a fascinating, even moving country, but it remains essentially a distant one.

* * *

In reprinting his articles, Mr. Schwartz has added new footnotes. Many of these are interesting but one still feels uncomfortable in not being able to distinguish between the contemporary observations in the old notes and the hindsight of the new ones. Edgar Snow has gone still further. He has revised the text of Red Star over China. This book, first published in 1937, is a description of the Chinese Communists in their stronghold in North West China, and it includes Mao’s only autobiography. It is based on the author’s visit to the area in the previous year. Not only is it a classic of the Chinese Revolution, but it became a social force in itself. Thousands of Chinese students formed their first picture of the communist movement from it. I read it myself at the age of twelve and it started me on Chinese studies. Thus I am horrified at the idea of tampering with it. When the new text is compared with the old one the alterations seem minor but worrying. For instance, where the original has:

Do not suppose first of all, that Mao Tse-tung could be the “savior” of China. Nonsense. There will never be any one “savior” of China. Yet undeniably you feel a certain force of destiny about him…. You feel that whatever extraordinary there is in this man grows out of the uncanny degree to which he synthesizes the urgent demands of millions of Chinese.

The beginning of this passage has been tightened or changed to read:

There never would be any one savior of China yet undeniably one felt a certain force of destiny in Mao.

The first is far-sighted enough: why change it? In other sections, such as the biography of Chou En-lai, a vast amount of fascinating new material, much of it collected by Snow, has been inserted. It would have seemed much better to have left the text untouched and to have included it in the biographical notes at the end of the book. These notes are detailed and important, and on their own make the new edition well worth buying.

Mr. Snow’s alterations are, of course, slight compared to those in the works of Mao Tse-tung himself. Most of the pieces published in Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Tse-tung have been changed considerably since they were originally written or spoken. However, it is extremely important for us to know their present form, the form in which they are helping to shape China today. Although the selection was completed before the beginning of the new movement, the writings contained in it are those most studied in the Cultural Revolution. It includes “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” and several other important pieces produced since 1948 which have not been in any previous Chinese collection. The snippets that make up the “little red book” tend to create the impression in the West that Mao is a Chinese Samuel Smiles, well-intentioned but platitudinous. The “Readings,” although abbreviated, convey some idea of the intelligence and breadth of probably the greatest man in the Twentieth Century.

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Martin Bernal was born in London in 1937. He studied at Kings College in Cambridge, and in 1959 attended Peking University. After taking his degree he did graduate work at Cambridge, the University...
Reviewed in This Article

Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution
by Robert Jay Lifton
Random House, 178 pp.

The Red Book and The Great Wall
by Alberto Moravia
Farrar, Straus Giroux, 170 pp.

Communism and China: Ideology in Flux
by Benjamin Schwartz
Harvard, 242 pp.

Red Star Over China (revised edition)
by Edgar Snow
Grove Press, 576 pp.

Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tse-tung
Printed by Foreign Languages Press, Peking
China Books and Periodicals, 406 pp.

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This article was first published in the January 16, 1969 issue of the New York Review of Books.