Mao Zedong’s Travelling Circus

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This is a book review authored by VVFH member David Hanna.

Land Wars: The Story of China’s Agrarian Revolution, by Brain DeMare; Stanford University Press, 2019 (e-book version), $15.69.

Brian DeMare is a cultural historian and teacher of modern Chinese history at Tulane University in New Orleans. In his first book, Mao’s Cultural Army(2015), he found the cultural revolution ‘to be a profoundly theatrical event.’ It was also a profoundly murderous event and DeMare’s second book, this time on Mao’s agrarian revolution, depicts similar excesses but does not sufficiently condemn them for what they were: a politically self‑serving democide inflicted upon the Party’s potential opposition in the villages of rural China.

Coined by Professor R. J. Rummel whose research provides voluminous statistics on governmental killing, ‘democide’ involves acts of genocide, politicide and mass murder. By necessity, the self‑protective despotism of communist one‑party rule entailed all three of the above. While DeMare’s narrative does little to emphasize this point explicitly, his recounting of the Maoist bastardry which savaged rural China will do much to support that contention.

DeMare foregrounds Mao’s intuitive conviction that the Chinese peasantry could make or break the revolution, and the author’s varied research and narrative style make Land Warsa highly informative and readable account of how a communist mastermind artificially induced that revolution in the countryside. ‘Historians,’ writes DeMare, ‘must engage Mao’s narrative of revolution in order to understand what truly occurred in rural China as the Communists came to power.’

The central theme of Land Wars is that Mao’s peasant revolution was a fantasy, a fiction which the Party’s ‘work teams’ were commanded to convert into reality. While DeMare effectively ‘deconstructs and questions Mao’s narrative’, he simultaneously and mysteriously manages to affirm its reification. DeMare provides abundant and horrifying evidence that China’s agrarian revolution was, as he says himself, ‘nothing to be lionized’ and yet despite a painstaking litany of revolutionary deceit, human rights abuses, theft, slaughter, and rapine, he finds the overall results unworthy of a ‘wholesale denunciation.’

Tellingly, perhaps, the only explicit condemnation in the book is delivered not against Mao but China’s current president, Xi Jinping, who has departed from the agrarian agenda of the Maoist era but ‘insists in clinging to Mao’s revolutionary narrative to bolster his party’s legitimacy.’ Mao did no less himself and for similarly defensive purposes. As DeMare points out, Mao’s Orwellian ‘narrative’ was reified through systematic violence as the communists ‘came to power’ ironically and in part through grotesque processes of wholesale denunciation.

While the author unflinchingly describes examples of the gross political thuggery involved, he seems unwilling to condemn outright the totalitarian ideology which made such brutal processes essential to the supremacy of communist, one-party rule. The longevity of the revolution was by no means guaranteed nor did it enjoy a monolithic support amongst the peasantry, and thereby hangs DeMare’s tale.

Mao was acutely aware of the dangerous potential inherent in what General Giap in North Vietnam has referred to as ‘the peasant question’. And while DeMare does not suggest it was naked political self‑interest which sent Mao’s traveling democide circus to the countryside, he does inform us of a revealing Maoist metaphor: the hurricane. Mao’s imaginary peasant ‘hurricane’ was personified with a militant and revolutionary peasant consciousness, but DeMare makes clear this was a fantasy. ‘In reality,’ he writes, ‘rural China was an expansive and endlessly diverse place and it stubbornly resisted any simple characterization.’

This stubborn rural resistance to communism’s narrative simplicity lay at the heart of that vexing ‘peasant question’ and the Orwellian methodology used by Mao in China and, subsequently, Ho Chi Minh in North Viet Nam to resolve it in the interests of the Party’s self‑preservation. Were it otherwise, there would have been no need for agrarian circus troupes of indoctrinated thugs and communist ‘urban intellectual clowns to convert Mao’s ‘grand narrative’ into a gruesome revolutionary fact.

The author notes that in 1950 in Guizhou province the Party was beaten out of twenty‑eight counties and unable to beat its way back in again until the following year. In some earlier attempts at land reform in 1927, ‘redistribution’ was initiated only after ‘the Red Army opened fire on villagers.’  Mao warned, writes DeMare, that if his ‘comrades did not flock to the countryside to lead the peasantry … they would find themselves smashed underfoot.’ In short, the Party must induce the anticipated ‘hurricane’ and ride upon its fearsome violence or succumb to it themselves.

According to DeMare, and despite appalling instances of feudalistic abuse and poverty, ‘many villages lacked true examples of economic exploitation.’ Where dastardly feudal landlords could not be found, they were invented and innocent men and their families were unjustly and brutally punished. To achieve this, Mao specifically empowered the poorest and most disaffected elements of Chinese rural society. After a thorough indoctrination by communist ‘work teams’, cadres of this calibre were unleashed upon their neighbours and fellow citizens in villages across China.

DeMare tells us of Party members who were personally repelled and disquieted by Mao’s ‘insistence’ on employing the scum of the good Chinese earth. In the opinion of one official: ‘These men had revolutionary potential but were also quite “destructive”; they gambled, took liberties with women, and tended towards violence.’ But surely if one intends to generate a ‘hurricane’ of class‑hate and village-level thuggery, this is precisely the sort of chap one needs!

It is difficult to imagine that Mao’s empowerment of these ‘destructive’ men was unpremeditated. Communists in whom some residual shreds of sanity and rectitude remained did well to be ‘repulsed’ and ‘concerned’, and yet these worthies reified Mao’s democidal narrative in the countryside and refused to recognize that the greater evil lay in an agrarian revolution which was as counterfeit as the disaffected bullies who conducted it at Mao’s ‘insistence’.

Nevertheless, the reservations of Mao’s critics in the Party are as valuable as they are revealing. DeMare cites Xi Zhongxun (the father of the current president of China) who was keenly aware of what he called the ‘complex’ nature of even the poorest of the peasant class: ‘“Some,” he wrote, “are poor because they love to eat, drink, go whoring, gamble, or don’t want to work.”’ While DeMare showcases earnest Party officials such as Xi as examples of communist moderation and ideological purity, they nevertheless subordinated themselves to the Marxist idealism which empowered Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.

Perhaps such judgments lie beyond Land Wars’terms of reference; DeMare is telling us ‘the story’ and we must make of it what we will. And, to his credit, the author states that many tenant farmers ‘accepted landownership as legitimate: hard work led to prosperity, while lazy farmers sank into poverty.’ It was the cadres’ job to persuade them otherwise: that wealth acquired by individual effort was symptomatic of ‘exploitation’ and ‘injustice’. DeMare has shown that even dedicated disciples of Marxist economic morality conceded villagers may have been quite shrewd in their judgments of disaffectedly impoverished neighbours who were destined to become their persecutors.

Land Wars reveals, therefore, how Mao’s ability to exploit the basest elements of human nature within peasant society triumphed over moral common sense. ‘Ideology now trumped reality,’ writes DeMare, whose narrative cites instances worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Take, for example, the village of Long Bow where the bewildered villagers (those still alive after the initial rounds of denunciatory violence) were subjected to a series of communist reclassifications and a stunning reversal of policy. The process involved robbing the recently classified rich to give to the recently classified poor. As this produced no discernibly liberating change in village equity and living standards, it was decided to reclassify the villagers again, remove the confiscated property from the new owners and return it to the previously misclassified villagers from whom it was taken in the first place.

DeMare’s depiction of this circus of the absurd is impeccable in its clarity. While the cadres’ purpose was to find and redistribute village ‘wealth’, the reader is tempted to regard it as an affirmation of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.’ Similarly, if you ‘smash’ the social infrastructure of the countryside, you also run out of other people’s food. And, in this regard,

DeMare provides a tantalizing hint of the self‑preservative and pragmatic deceit of Mao and the Party: ‘To ensure agricultural production, widespread confiscation of property was no longer tolerated.’

Note the Orwellian language of the phrase ‘no longer tolerated’, implying official disapproval of the confiscations which officialdom itself demanded. In this mind‑boggling reversal of policy, there is an impression of a socialist psychosis at work in the village of Long Bow. Consider, for example, how the ‘local county party secretary’ (the Party line‑man for the county, if you will) came up with a novel solution to the contradictions experienced in achieving liberation (fanshen)for the village: ‘The peasants had in fact obtained fansheneven if they did not realize it at the time.’ As an example of Maoist doublethink, this surely must be unsurpassed. What it meant, writes DeMare, is ‘there was nothing left to redistribute’: game, set and match, it seems, to Mrs. Thatcher!

But apart from the devastating economic impact, consider also the profound psychological effect upon the hapless villager experiencing a liberation he did not realize he’d attained through a revolution he did not know that he was part of until Mao’s intellectual acrobats informed him he was leading it! And behind the bloodied curtain of this socialist absurdity, the elimination of the Party’s enemies and potential enemies continued apace. Even with the subsequent reigning in and scapegoating of the rabble element, the democide proceeded, as it must, to ensure the Party controlled the peasantry as effectively as Mao himself controlled the Party.

Mao’s subsequent ‘cultural’ revolution exemplifies how his instinct for political self‑preservation induced a revolutionary ‘hurricane’ by means of indoctrinated hoodlums seduced by the dark side of the farce and who, as DeMare points out, engaged in the ‘public explication of evil deeds, the shouting of politically charged rhetoric, and the use of humiliation and violence.’ It is a process not unfamiliar perhaps to conservative speakers invited to our university campuses merely to be shouted down and assaulted. But wherever such outrages occur, they find their origins in the fascism of the Maoist fantasy DeMare painstakingly unveils in Land Wars. ‘Mao’s Cultural Revolution,’ writes DeMare, ‘furthered the model of struggle perfected in the agrarian revolution, now firmly entrenched in urban political culture.’

There can be no doubt that Mao’s ‘model of struggle’ extirpated communism’s political opposition in the countryside causing the deaths not just of people but ideas. DeMare tells us these agrarian campaigns entailed the democide of two million Chinese citizens whom the activist performers of Mao’s traveling circus had classified for slaughter as cruel landlords and class enemies. However, this figure applies only to the agrarian revolution; combined with Chinese communism’s other campaigns of repression from 1949-1987, Professor Rummel’s China’s Bloody Century puts the death toll at thirty‑five million. If we include Mao’s wilfully induced famine and Rummel’s 2005 statistical revisions secondary to additional information, the grand total for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) democide is estimated at seventy-seven million people, making the CCP the most democidal political organization in the history of the world.

In spite of these statistics, DeMare does not refer to the agrarian revolution in terms of democide, nor does he inform us that Mao’s circus of the gruesomely absurd traveled south across the Sino‑Vietnamese border within the brain of Ho Chi Minh. Writes Han Suyin in Eldest Son, her biography of Zhou Enlai, ‘Ho Chi Minh had internal problems, collectivization of agriculture on the Chinese pattern was not going well’ (my emphasis). Ho had met with some of that stubborn, peasant resistance which Mao instinctively feared. And, like Mao, he overcame it through applied theatrical violence and, where necessary, the full-scale military suppression of rebellion. Ho had found his final solution to Giap’s ‘peasant question’ but the blueprint was stamped ‘Made in China’.

And yet, DeMare inscrutably concludes that ‘despite its violence, land reform represented something unique: a treasured moment of cooperation between peasants and the party.’ In Land Wars, this revolutionary romanticism does not in any way obscure the depths of the Orwellian abyss between Mao’s ‘grand narrative’ and its murderous reality.