Mao’s Achievements (as seen in 1991)

Blue river blues

By Gwydion M. Williams

Mao Tse-Tung began his career as a schoolteacher, and it was only when he saw that no stable state structure was going to be established in China that he turned to politics and came to look for guidance to the only authority that had any useful ideas for China’s problems. As a Stalinist Communist, he undertook three impossible tasks during his lifetime, and succeeded in two of them.

The first impossible task was to re-establish a unified and independent China. The Chinese Nationalists never managed it, despite their subsequent economic success on the tiny island of Taiwan. It was Mao’s peasant armies that contradicted all conventional opinion and re-established China as a single sovereign state.

The second impossible task was curing China’s endemic poverty and corruption. Many Chinese and almost all outside observers were sure it could not be done. China, once seen as a hopeless “basket case”, with no more prospects than Bangladesh, is now seen as having suddenly begun to sort out its problems. Despite one period of acute crisis and famine, China was permanently changed.

The third impossible task was to try to stop a Leninist communist party degenerating into a corrupt oligarchy. Mao correctly saw that the process started by Khrushchev would lead to collapse and long-run capitulation to the West. The party hierarchy would throw away socialism but would hang on to party power to the bitter end. Something had to be done about this – but what? He might have opted for introducing Western style pluralism and multi-party democracy, an essentially social-democratic solution. But the whole tradition of Leninism was against this. Sun Yat-Sen had had the notion of a long-lasting but limited dictatorship that would gradually introduce full democracy. Mao, however, tried for a more radical solution with the Cultural Revolution. And he failed. Even before his death, he had been blocked and frustrated by the party oligarchy. His Red Guards had in any case mainly created chaos, without bringing into being any viable new system. And he had used up most of the prestige he had accumulated from his earlier successes.

After his death, Mao’s ideas for China’s future were officially repudiated through the trial of the “gang of four”, his wife and three close associates. Formally speaking, it was pretended that this was nothing to do with Mao – just as the announcement of Madame Mao’s recent death omitted the fact that she was his wife. But everyone knew what the real situation had been. As Madam Mao put it, she was Mao’s dog, and bit only when she was told to bite. Jiang Qing – “Blue River” – was important only because her views were assumed to be Mac’s own. During the trial of the “Gang of Four”, it was pretended that Mao had actually wanted something very different. But since the fall of the “Gang of Four was followed by the rapid introducing of elements of capitalism, it has to be assumed that this was a polite fiction. It was actually a “gang of five”, but Mao was left out because he was the founder of the very state of which his rivals had now secured control.

Mao, the frustrated teacher turned politician and general, spent his whole life trying to teach new lessons to his fellow Chinese, changing them a great deal, but not rooting out as much of the past as he would have liked. Tiananmen Square was no aberration, but a logical part of the Khrushchevite development that Mao tried to stop and failed to stop.

Leninism is essentially dead. Its Stalinist branch was the only effective part of it: the Khrushchevites could not keep what they held, and the Trotskyists in Western Europe have presided over a strong decline in the fortunes of the left. Possibly some other form of Leninist development was possible once, but no longer. The Cultural Revolution produced only disorder and disruption.

Socialists in Western Europe have wasted the last 20 or 30 years looking to the rest of the world to show the way to socialism. Plenty of left-wing people have very deliberately blocked possible reforms – most notably industrial democracy – in the expectation that they were preventing a doomed capitalist system from having its life extended. Some of them have learned their lesson even now – while others, like Fred Halliday, have now gone over to the enemy camp, walking away from the mess that they helped to create. But the New Right is also strongly in decline, losing ground to grey pragmatists like John Major. If the left were to stop fighting itself and get down to building socialism in Western Europe, almost anything might be possible.

[This article appeared Newsnotes for July 1991.  I hadn’t then updated my knowledge of China.  I was still using the old Wade-Giles version of Chinese names.  Much more importantly, I failed to realise that a modified version of Leninism was still flourishing there.]