Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution
The Red Book and The Great Wall
Red Star Over China (revised edition)
Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tse-tung
A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “psychohistorical” approach. He claims that the present confusion in China can best be understood within this “psychohistorical” framework, as coming from a desire to transcend death and achieve immortality for the Chinese Revolution. Mr. Lifton has recently completed a major work on Hiroshima, and his new book on China is only one of a series in which he is trying to explain human thoughts and actions in terms of man’s fear of death and his wish to achieve immortality, or a relationship with the past and future. In his view, man can attempt this biologically through having children, spiritually through a detachable soul, actively through outstanding individual achievements, or socially through intimate involvement in a great and undying cause.
One of the main elements in this view is the role of the death-defying leader. Mr. Lifton points out that in psychological studies the significance of a hero’s relationship with death has been strangely underestimated. He quite rightly suggests that this aspect is far more important than others, such as the Oedipus complex, which have previously received a great deal of attention. It is obvious that Mao Tse-tung is a hero of the classic type, like Guevara in the Sierra Maestra or Kennedy in his P. T. boat; but, on a far grander scale, Mao went through what Lifton calls his “road of trials” or “prolonged death encounter” in the Long March. Having faced death and conquered it, he came back with a message for his people.
According to Mr. Lifton, Mao’s survival where so many others died gives him an acute but double-edged feeling toward death. There is a sense of invulnerability but at the same time there is a heightened fear of death, which experience has shown to be immediate and arbitrary. However, while sharply aware of individual extinction, Mao clearly believes that those around him who have been killed, and these include two brothers, a sister, a wife, and a son, have all achieved a form of immortality by giving their lives to the revolutionary cause. Mao himself is aware that his deeds have put him on a plane with the great heroes of Chinese history, but he also wants what he thinks to be the more genuine immortality to be gained through involvement with an undying movement. Thus an important element of his and his comrades’ immortality depends on the continued success of the Chinese Revolution.
Mr. Lifton asserts that the activist response to the fear of death is not to prolong existing life but to try to achieve rebirth. In China he sees this response as “an all consuming death and rebirth.” In order that the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.