Translated Monday 1 March 2010, by Henry Crapoand reviewed by
An interview with Alain Roux, the historian and China expert. The author of Casse-tête chinois [Chinese Puzzle] explains the Great Helmsman’s exceptional destiny to us. How Mao, finally come down from his pedestal, has become a historical subject ...
How is one to understand the path of a figure who was both a totalitarian leader, responsible for millions of deaths, and a head of state able to breathe new energy and new pride into his compatriots? Alain Roux , as a historian and a China expert, furnishes us with a remarkable biography of the Chinese leader, whom he is careful to situate “in his time and place.”
What led you to work on a biography of Mao Zedong over 30 years after his death ?
Alain Roux: This project is the result of having noted a paradox: for thirty years, China has experienced a capitalist-type development, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to consider Mao as one of its elements of reference, which is even written into the CCP statutes. In other words, Mao continues to survive Maoism, which, however, ended in failure. How has a figure of such dimensions resisted, at least in China, the fallout from all of the disasters of which he was guilty? That was the starting point of my reflections. It turned out that, to think about Mao Zedong as a historian, that is, to treat Mao as an historical subject, the only way of answering this paradox, became possible with the publication of several liberating works. I have in mind the work of Simon Leys (les Habits neufs du président Mao), among the oldest work, or more recently the biography written by Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, la Vie privée du président Mao. Other books like that of Philip Short (Mao Tsé-Toung), which I appreciate a lot and which was published just as I began my own work, have confirmed that historical reflection on Mao is possible. In addition, the publication by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Mao, l’histoire inconnue) gave rise to real questions on my part as to these authors’ approach. Chang and Halliday, who are by the way qualified men, had access to many contacts and sources. They provide previously unpublished information which cannot be ignored any longer, but they simultaneously start from an a priori which, as a historian, I do not accept. To make a monster of Mao from the beginning of his political career is extremely simplistic and disdainful with regard to the Chinese people. In this, one can see a risk of history being used to destroy a legend which endures in China. It is going from a gilded legend which no longer has any reason to exist to a black legend which unnecessarily hinders historical research.
How did you proceed and what were the obstacles you had to overcome?
Alain Roux: I tried to follow the line of the crises and the line of the decisions which had motivated Mao. I don’t pretend to have uncovered new sources – I am specialized in the Chinese labor movement – but, on the other hand, I have tried to use them in an original way. I notably based myself on the research of Stuart Schramm, an American historian and China expert, the best specialist on Mao who, right from 1962-1963, accomplished a determining work for the knowledge of Mao and his ideas. One of the main obstacles that a historian has to get past comes from the Chinese cultural tradition itself. This tradition makes the work both easy and more difficult. In all ages, there has been in China an official and edifying history, which serves to draw political and moral lessons from studies of the great men of the past, even if they were wicked. At the same time, there also is a tradition of a parallel history, which is termed “indiscreet.” It is an “external” history, as the Chinese say, very much centered on stars and idols, in which gossip and scandal are intermingled, but which can also convey a whole series of pieces of information for which documentary data are not yet available. The problem is that these sources cannot always be checked, and their credibility is limited, but they open up hypotheses and perspectives which may later be confirmed by the archives.
Having concluded your research, how do you see Mao? Was he a nationalist? A socialist? How was such a historical character constructed?
Alain Roux: Mao was a patriot, and his first commitment was nationalist. This is due particularly to the humiliation that China experienced in the 19th century. Was he a socialist? What does “socialism” mean to a Chinese? In Chinese, the very word is not clear. It is rather closer to the term “sociology.” For Mao, socialism is related to government control. It consists in making a party-cum-state responsible for modernizing the country from above. With Mao, this government control comes into conflict with his vision of an egalitarian world, one without social classes, races or nations, the Great Harmony, which comes from Chinese tradition. Mao gives the impression that he wanted a less unjust, more egalitarian China. In reality, it is more of a populist project. Unlike the European communist leaders, Mao did not have much confidence in the working class. He was a worker leader who led strikes in Hunan in 1922, but he very quickly became disillusioned with the Chinese proletariat. He told a representative of the Communist International who was passing through his province that he thought the working class was not very combative, corporatist [having a craft mentality), and structured by secret societies. For these reasons, he looked for other social forces to make the revolution. Beginning in 1925, he was thinking of the peasantry. During the winter of 1926-1927, he discovered and praised to the skies the strength of the peasant movement in Hunan province.
Was it then that Mao became a “Maoist?”
Alain Roux: At first, Mao was not a Marxist theoretician. He was a theoretician of guerilla warfare who exploited the link between war and politics. He owes a little to Clausewitz, a lot to Sun Zi and his Art of War, written five centuries before Christ, and still more to robust peasant common sense. He perfected his guerilla warfare and was very lucky. If he had not been sidelined by the CCP leadership in 1934, he would have had to bear the weight of the defeat of the Soviet Republic of Jianxi, like the other communist leaders. Mao was lucky and he was able to take advantage of his luck, like all the great figures in history. He lost power at the right time and then appeared as someone you could fall back on. Under his leadership, the Long March, which was initially flight to escape from deadly encirclement, became an anti-Japanese offensive. Mao felt the need to become a theoretician after the Long March, when he became the top leader of the CCP, between 1935 and 1941. He then established himself as the man who could adapt Marxism to Chinese reality. One can debate his real theoretical contribution, which is often rather fragile. But it is true that the idea, according to which Marxism had to take root in the historical reality of each country, was an innovative idea, not only for China, but for the international communist movement. Mao Zedong Thought – the Chinese communists do not use the expression Maoism – was raised to the level of Leninism, which was perceived as the adaptation of Marxism to Russian reality. In 1945, following a tough campaign to bring the whole CCP into line with his views, Mao made his “Thought” the theoretical basis on which the growing power of the communists rested. It remains that basis.
What pushed Mao to provoke such terrible crises as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?
Alain Roux: One can see Mao’s vision of the world in the concept of “uninterrupted revolution” that he developed. He was persuaded that the world is made up of an infinity of contradictions which can never result in periods of stability – everything has to be continually called into question. In this way, a sort of metaphysics of the class struggle was created, in which every little private producer of wealth, even a humble coolie, becomes an exploiter to be denounced or eliminated. Even worse, this arbitrary class status becomes hereditary and gives rise to social pariahs, which, in the long term, is politically unmanageable: The population is mobilized continually. Mao presented this concept as a response to the bureaucratization of the Party in the USSR. Right from 1955, he criticized Soviet society, which he saw as frozen and non-dynamic. Mao dreamed of a different type of society. He was obsessed by the danger of the restoration of capitalism and by the risk of seeing a bourgeoisie develop from a bureaucratized communist party. Such fears are not totally wrong! This was seen at the time of the dissolution of the USSR and we are seeing it now in China, where a good part of the bourgeoisie that is forming has its base in the Party apparatus. Mao countered this bureaucratization with the enthusiasm and the mobilization of the popular forces. In his opinion, the masses could do anything. Mao’s state of mind is revealed in the letter he wrote on July 8, 1966, to his wife, Jiang Qing, just before the unleashing of the Cultural Revolution, to explain to her his vision of the big shake-up that he was preparing. He did not believe his power was threatened, but he feared that his successors would fall into the same errors as the Soviet revisionists. He was going to show his strength, to play the “tiger,” but he also used cunning, playing the “monkey”: his errors in the Great Leap Forward furnished him with arms against the very people who aroused his ire for having tried to limit the damage. Roughly every ten years, the masses had to be led against the Party cadres to put them to the test and to prevent the ossification of revolutionary élan.
Has your view of Mao changed upon the conclusion of your work?
Alain Roux: This concept of uninterrupted revolution, linked to the egalitarian project, explains to me why Mao kept repeating his errors. Right from 1949 you can see him setting up a new society on the model of Soviet development, which by the way succeeded in getting the Chinese economy off the ground. After 1955, he started what he defined as an original Chinese path and this was the Great Leap Forward which resulted in a first terrible catastrophe, with from 25 to 30 million peasants dying of starvation in three years. In 1962, you see the appearance of some solutions, which anticipate what is going to happen after 1978, notably with Deng Xiaoping, who initiated a policy of flexibility in the countryside. Mao let him get on with it, and then he suddenly stopped him and prepared the Cultural Revoltion to liquidate the cadres implicated in this political readjustment. A few years later, in the midst of the chaos, he called back Deng, whom he had chased from power, but once again he blocked his initiatives and deposed him in 1976. Why? It is as if he had an intuition that these changes were going to result in the restoration of capitalism in China. This kind of lucidity is tragic and powerless, since in fact it was the crises that Mao provoked that certainly precipitated the changes that he feared. The question that it was urgent for me to answer was to understand why such persistence in error was possible. Mao’s overblown ego, the restoration of national pride, the maneuvering skill of the ruling team and the absence of a credible alternative are not enough to answer the question. You have to look beyond Mao and China, to that dictatorship of a single party merged with the state, outlined by Lenin and generalized by Stalin, which made all-powerful despots of the communist leader or leaders who were in power. Seen from that angle, Mao was a perfectly orthodox Marxist-Leninist. The bloody repression of the peaceful demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square in June 1989 and the recent severe condemnations of Chinese intellectuals, guilty like Liu Xiaobo of demanding freedom of speech and freedom to organize, show that, thus reduced, Maoism as an avatar of police state, bureaucratic socialism subsists to the present time and prevents the Chinese people from fighting against the injustice of which it is a victim, to the greater profit of the Chinese oligarchs and foreign multinational corporations.
 Alain Roux is Emeritus professor at the National Insitute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO). Le Singe et le Tigre, Mao, un destin chinois. [The Monkey and the Tiger : Mao, a Chinese destiny] published by éditions Larousse, septembre 2009. 1 126 pages, 26 euros. La Chine au XXe siècle. [China in the 20th century] published by éditions Armand Colin, 2006. Le Casse-tête chinois. [The Chinese Puzzle] published by Éditions Messidor, 1980 (republished and updated under the title la Chine populaire, [People’s China] published by Éditions Messidor. Tome 1, 386 pages, 1983 ; tome 2, 400 pages, 1984.