The Passing of Mao

The death of Mao Tse-Tung has been anticipated for many years in speculations over who would be his successor. Now it has happened and drawn world-wide attention to China. Ostensibly the interest is in the passing of a celebrated national leader; practically, it is in whether there will be changes of policy and how they will affect China’s relationship with the rest of the world.

The history of China since 1949 closely resembles that of Russia thirty years before. The Communist revolutions in both countries were the taking of political power so that capitalism could develop and the entry to the modern world be made. Like Lenin, Mao provided a figurehead, and as with Lenin a version of Marxism was put out in his name to create a social vision to gain mass support for modernization. The projection of Mao’s personality has been carried much further than Lenin’s; but behind this cultivated charisma has stood a ruling class strongly conscious of its economic aims.

The phrase for China in these conditions is “Mao’s China”, implying that his personal and political qualities have been the chief factor. The effect of this “great man” view of history is to make it dependent on the emergence of outstanding individuals; but the opposite is true. Individuals are given opportunities by crises and the pressure of new developments, and these make them “great”. But for the 1939-45 war Churchill would have remained any unpopular minor statesman. Napoleon was the product of post-revolution conditions in France. The rise of Mussolini and Hitler was primarily the result of the failure of social-democracy in Europe and the effects of the 1929 depression on Germany. In some circumstances history appears almost to go looking for some nonentity or a lunatic to elevate into a “great man”.

Of course the day-to-day behaviour of individuals, once they have political power, produces effects of its own. But what makes them “great” is precisely that their ambitions and whims are not incompatible with the wider requirements of the time. The shifts and innovations in Chinese policy under Mao have had a plain coherence in aiming at the achievement of world power status as quickly as possible. Like Russia in the nineteen-twenties, China in the ‘sixties had to put every effort into increasing agricultural production and speeding-up capital accumulation. The slogans and mystical dicta of Mao provided a sanctified image of the methods necessary to reach these goals.

The “power struggle” expected after Mao’s death is a feature of one-party states. In nations with the traditional structure of parliamentary democracy the struggles for political power are among parties with electoral programmes. Where this does not exist, the conflicts are among small groups and the individuals they nominate. This reinforces the idea of personalities triumphing through strength, though in practice they may be only puppets. In both cases, what are they struggling for? Political power means control of the state machinery which administers capitalism.

We know that whoever wins the American election is charged with doing his best for capitalism in the United States. The same is true of whatever political change takes place in China. The new figureheads, and whoever may depose them, will inevitably claim that they are the true heirs and interpreters of Mao. However, if Mao’s doctrines do not suit the future development of China they can be revised and even rejected. The Chinese leadership twenty-five years ago were wholehearted Stalinists. The split was not simply a political one, but a realization that Stalin’s own bending of Marx’s theories and Lenin’s viewpoints were not applicable to the situation in China.

As was the case with Russia, the leaders of other countries have realized what they are dealing with in China—a capitalist state differing from their own only in scale. In a China Quarterly essay reproduced in  China Under Mao (1966) Benjamin Schwartz remarked: “Among many Americans there is in fact the latent assumption that a fully modernised society will look exactly like the United States with all its social and cultural specificities.” The reactions to Mao’s death were particularly interesting since in the last five years the Chinese government has become amiable to the west. Thus, on television in Britain Edward Heath spoke about his meeting with Mao: a Conservative leader singing the praises of a Communist one. The American President said Mao “had the vision and imagination to open the doors to the United States”. The obvious interest of the western nations is in whether Mao’s successors will carry on this policy with its economic and military potentialities; while the Russian leaders hope for a change advantageous in the same way to them.

It is, of course, a tragedy that these developments of capitalism have taken place in the name of Marxism. Marx’s vision of “human society” has provided an attractive wrapping for power-seekers, and his unique analysis of the capitalist system has been used in the so-called Communist countries as a guide to exploitation. However, workers all over the world have the opportunity to find out for themselves what Marx wrote and meant—most of all, that capitalism in whatever guise cannot be run in their interests.

Robert Barltrop

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