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The Mind of Mao

The Center of the World: Communism and the Mind of China

by Robert S. Elegant
Doubleday, 396 pp., $5.95

The Communism of Mao Tse-tung

by Arthur A. Cohen
University of Chicago, 205 pp., $5.00

The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung

by Stuart R. Schram
Praeger, 319 pp., $7.00

When westerners first spoke of the “Middle Kingdom,” there was something arch in the usage. To the Chinese it was a simple self-estimate, but when used abroad, even in a respectful context, the term was quaint. Nowadays, the “Middle Kingdom” (or “the center of the world”) hints of menace, evoking visions of Mao calling the monster of pride from the deeps of Chinese history. Whose face is that, snarling, in the center of the star, in the center of the jacket of The Center of the World? No doubt the publisher put it there, that lurid mask breathing “Tomorrow the World,” but it suits Mr. Elegant’s book too. Its thesis is that Mao’s China is eager to force history, onward and outward, that Mao means to create utopia soon, and to bring China’s weight to bear all over the world. This is a serious point of view, but Elegant proposes it with an almost unbearable intensity and banality. Here is the introductory “motto” to one of the historical sections:


Western Aggressiveness Penetrates the Glorious Isolation of Imperial China

China has moved through time much like a gigantic jellyfish in the 2,200 years since she became a political entity by the consolidation of her independent feudal states into an empire. Vast in bulk at the outset, she has constantly expanded. The process has, from time to time, been checked or reversed, sometimes for centuries, but the instinctive outward growth has always been resumed. China has charged her internal organization—or become conscious of her own character—only in response to external stimuli. Her reaction has sometimes been a shrinking into herself, sometimes an unhurried ingestion of the intruder, and sometimes a violent striking out. China, like a Portuguese Man-of-War, has possessed stinging tenacles whose embrace could maim or kill the adversary.

This is a change from the blue ants, but it still suggests instinct, anti-human and anti-analytic. The historical narrative itself is calmer, but it has the same portentous rhetoric. Still, one might say, nobody goes to a book like this for its style. But the substance of Elegant’s book is inseperable from its style—his over-interpretation is a part of his over-writing. He presents the dangerous prospects for China by showing that her past prefigured them—an eternal China, autocratic and overbearing, shines through the surface of drastic change. The substance of his book is itself the separation of form and substance: revolution is mere form and Mao is echt-chinesisch. Elegant speaks, to be sure, of a “completely altered Chinese society” transformed by the Communists, but he sees this merely as a new means to the old end of glory. In The Center of the World, what is essential about China is that it has an essential character (“To this day, neither artifice nor compromise has ever convinced the Chinese…that embracing Christianity will not alter their essential character”). Again, “Communism in China is as much a reaffirmation of Confucianism as it is a reaction against the tradition.” And “…as the vehicle which will carry it to the traditional goals, Communism in China today must be considered as much an outgrowth of the ancient mind of China as a branch of the international Communist movement.”

As much…as much…” Elegant seems judiciously poised between two opposing explanations, though the weight of his rhetoric falls on the side of perennial China. He does not try to connect the two extremes but seems merely to be striking a philosophical attitude. The problem of the relation between iconoclasm and tradition remains. Elegant’s diagnosis is schizophrenia: he claims that the Communists really affirm their legacy, but they do so by seeking to destroy it. At war within themselves they then project violence into the world outside. This is rather ingenious, certainly better than the jellyfish as a venture into popular science, but it is no answer to the question. Perhaps in ascribing irrationality to the actors, Elegant is expressing his own failure to make sense of the drama.

If Elegant, offers spurious operatic excitement, Arthur Cohen provides authentic boredom. Mao and his acolytes make large claims to originality in revolutionary thought and practice. Mr. Cohen’s aim is to disprove this claim and to tell us who really furnished his mind. They are all there—Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin. But, he is careful to add, “Actually, this is merely a paraphrase, not a development, of Lenin’s remarks in….”

Yet, the book has elements of intrinsic interest. Cohen provides a competent, well-documented account of Mao’s thinking on revolution, transition to Communism, dictatorship of the proletariat, contradictions in socialist society. He describes Mao’s pragmatic talents as well as his brilliance as a tactician in carrying on a revolutionary war from self-sustaining rural bases. What puts the reader off is the petty end to which all this comment is directed. One cannot make a whole book out of debating-points and triumphant refutations of claims to intellectual originality.

There are two ways to see Mao as unoriginal. One thoroughly anti-historical way is to see him as only superficially Marxist, but really “Chinese,” as Elegant does. Bureaucracies, Classics, imperial powers and glories—plus ça change.

The other un-original Mao has some of his own tactics and strategies, which are suited to the Chinese scene (and perhaps to others), but he is not basically Chinese at all. That is, if we scrape away the local color, he is garden-variety Communist. This is essentially Cohen’s way of seeing him, and it is not so much anti-historical as unhistorical. It is un-historical because it is aridly textual, concerned with thought but not with thinking. The historical context is missing, the different histories of Lenin’s world and Mao’s world, which would help explain Chinese quality of Mao’s ideas. Mao is not, as Cohen suggests, Lenin’s understudy; Lenin’s lines, from Mao’s pen, are part of a different script.

Mao Tse-tung has a formula to explain Chinese history, which is one of his great concerns. In effect, he claims that Chinese history, on its own, has proceeded in a way not its own. This history, culminating in Communism, runs parallel to the history of the West. On the other hand, Lenin saw Russian history not as parallel to the West, but as that part of western history which leads all of history to culminate in Communism. Whatever distinctions between Russia and the West the Slavophiles might make, Marxists, under Lenin, took Europe’s past as their past—something which Mao could never, and would never, do. For Lenin, the French Revolution was an historical ancestor, not an analogue to an event (like the Chinese revolution of 1911) from quite another history.

Pre-Communist China and Russia may seem equally backward economically compared with the West. By classical Marxist criteria, then, both should have been inappropriate for socialist revolution. But since the Russian intelligentsia considered its country a part of “the West,” Russian Marxists could make a virtue of necessity. They could see their country as peculiarly appropriate for socialist revolution exactly because it was industrially weak; in this way they could see themselves as western revolutionaries, attacking, with tactical wisdom, the most vulnerable sector of a broad front, that part of the bourgeois West where the bourgeoisie was weakest. Thus they would be contributing to the ultimate communizationn to merely of their own lagging capitalist nation, but of their ripely capitalist, hence potentially socialist, world. However unsatisfactory the Russian past, Russia could have the future by coming into history on the crest of revolution. But to have a crest, there had to be a wave, and the wave was European. Precisely because so many nineteenth-century Russians deprecated the Russian past, they had to point towards a future that had Europe behind it they had to fill in line with European history. Even the Marxists, revolutionary rivals of specially “Russians” bent needed to keep the rest of Europe in their minds to set off the “Russian spirit.”

None of this applies to the Chinese intellectuals. They had no “Third Rome” in their past, so they could not attempt to ride a western wave of history. Indeed, what they deplored was their present, not their past. Their past was much more brilliant than the Russians, but their present was more troubled and their future harder to see as theirs in a world of western hegemony. From the indictments of the past, Russian culture flowed into a superb modern literature. But the disaffection of Chinese intellectuals with their present had no comparable effect. The dilemma of Chinese cultural malaise was resolved by Marxism acting as a deus ex machina: In Russia, Marxism seemed to issue from the logic of the cultural situation.

Stuart Schram’s fresh and skillfully edited anthology of Mao’s writings brings a fine intelligence to bear on the agonizing issue of modernization or westernization. He has much to say about the sources of Mao’s thinking—he has dug deeper than Cohen, to Chinese sources as well as European ones. Schram is not interested in polemics: Rather, he sees, with Mao, that a considerable, though not an exclusive, Marxist-Leninist ancestry might establish China’s leadership rather than its dependence. To restore the continuity of Chinese history, Mao must insist on the continuity of Marxist history. China can no longer conceive of itself as the only world that matters, as the old Confusian empire did; but it can be come the central nation in the world. Aspiring to world Communist leadership which would reflect glory on China, Mao must maintain that he has creatively enriched in China what he has nevertheless openly drawn from international sources. Schram dismisses the misconceived alternatives of “Chinese” (nationalist) or “Communist” (internationalist). He sees Marxism Sinified in form by Mao, but in substance representing an adaptation of Marxism to Asian conditions rather than a “Sinification of Marxism.” Mao has, of course, consciously lodged himself in Chinese history by drawing materials from other histories besides China’s. He is not “Chinese” in the sense of presiding over the restoration of “old China.” He is Chinese in wishing to extend Chinese history, not to repeat it (for one must be “anti-feudal”), nor to divert it into the western stream (one must be “anti-imperialist”). As Schram shows with great clarity, neither Mao’s Marxism nor his Chineseness is an illusion.

Schram succeeds where Elegant fails in relating the international Marxist to the national Chinese. In his comments and in his selections, Schram shows how national commitment and class-analysis come together in Mao. The anthology is comprised of Mao’s writings on the peasantry, proletariat, and bourgeoisie; war, revolution, and socialist society; the West, the “underdeveloped countries,” and the Soviet Union. In all these sections, Mao is revealed as Chinese nationalist and Marxist theoretician. He united the two personae in moving on from a westernizing to a modernizing zeal. In 1919, in a westernizing vein, Mao blamed many of China’s misfortunes on the backwardness of its own social system. Confucian intellectual life was stale, Confucian society unraveled and unappealing. But westernization could hardly hold him or many of his countrymen, for what led them to their disaffection was their strong identification with China. As modern, but not as “western,” China could still be “theirs,” and yet not remain indefensibly traditional. With the aid of a Marxist time-scale, China might own its share of modern time—a huge share for a huge country—instead of deferring to the West. Class-analysis identified the stages of progress, class-struggle provided the motor: Marxism, especially Leninist anti-imperialism, would implement Chinese nationalism. In the selections from Mao in Schram’s book, Marxist and national fervor seem to reinforce each other.

Today, what makes China seem so ominous to the West and the Soviet Union is Mao’s last turn of the screw: Chinese nationalism has come to the fore to implement Marxism. Allegedly free of “antagonistic contradictions” internally, China at last becomes what Mao’s master, Li Ta-chao, had called it in 1920—a proletarian nation. The proletarian nation, with the other “victims of imperialism” in tow? As Schram remarks, if the Chinese people is a revolutionary class, then nationalists and revolutionaries are one and the same. The Chinese, by contriving a classless society in their nation, would constitute a class in the society of the world. This fancy has nothing to do with any Confucian eternal return. It derives, however eccentrically, from a world-view that compensates for Confucianism lost. Just like the modern West, old China would be laid away in history. And so would Soviet Russia, while the new proletariat, new China, assumed for itself the grace of the quondam savior. Caveat redemptor.

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