Blog post

A revolution is not a dinner party

Clara Heyworth 7 January 2011

2010 closed with two excellent articles on Mao—one by Tariq Ali for New Left Review and another by Pankaj Mishra for The New Yorker.

Ali's "On Mao's Contradictions" is a review of Rebecca E. Karl's Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World—a book he describes as an "important new biography ... scholarly and readable" quite unlike Mao: the Unknown Story (paperback 2006) in which Jung Chang and Jon Halliday focus on

Mao's conspicuous imperfections (political and sexual), exaggerating them to fantastical heights ... The result of ten years' research, funded by a huge advance from Bertelsmann's Anglo-American operation, this tendentious and in parts fabricated account was presented as unmatched scholarship by publishing and media conglomerates all over the world—the Guardian hyping it as ‘The Book That Shook the World'. Portraying the Great Helmsman as a monster worse than Hitler, Stalin or anyone else, it was designed to finish Mao off once and for all.

Ali is not surprised that scholars generally took the Chang/Halliday with a pinch of salt, no doubt also fully aware of its shortcomings—shortcomings thankfully lacking in Karl's new book which

seeks to contextualize Mao within the history of his time, aiming to restore a degree of sanity in discussing his life and role, warts and all, as the father of modern China; and simultaneously to rescue the history of the Chinese Revolution from its detractors in the West and at home.

Following a detailed engagement with Karl's book and an exemplary mini-biography of Mao, Ali closes his article thus

As Chinese capitalism proceeds further, creating even more social and economic disparities, perhaps some of Mao's ideas might be deployed by the insurgent masses as they seek to storm the heavens once again.

Visit New Left Review to read the article in full.

In "Staying Power: Mao and Maoists," Mishra is quick to note that

a non-ideological view of Mao has rarely been available in the West, even as he has gone from being a largely benign revolutionary and Third Worldist icon to, more recently, sadistic monster. This is largely due to China's ever shifting place in the Western imagination.

His article comments on three new books: Patrick Wright's Passport to Peking, Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine and Timothy Cheek's anthology A Critical Introduction to Mao. Mishra is particularly critical of Dikötter, whose book could be seen as deepening the trend in Mao studies of which Chang/Halliday are a part:

Dikötter is not much interested in a wide-ranging account that would necessarily include China's internal political and economic situation in the nineteen-fifties, the shifting hierarchy of the C.C.P., or the Chinese sense of siege following the Korean War and the sharpening of Cold War divisions in Asia ...

Dikötter is, indeed, generally dismissive of facts that could blunt his story's sharp edge ... 

Focussing relentlessly on Mao's character and motivations, Dikötter confirms the man's reputation as sadistic, cowardly, callous, and vindictive. Yet his bold portrait bleaches out much of the period's historical and geopolitical backdrop (the uprising in Tibet in 1959, anti-American riots in Taiwan, border clashes with India, the Sino-Soviet rift), and he misses, too, the abusive relationship between Mao and the Chinese people: how sincerely and deeply, for instance, they trusted and revered their leader before being betrayed by him.

Visit The New Yorker to read the article in full. And, if you're curious, you may wish to pick up a copy of On Practice and Contradiction—introduced by Slavoj Žižek no less.

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