Thoughts of Mao Tse-tung

The vast, unfinished human experience called the “Chinese Revolution” is not, in my view, the kind of event that can be simply approved or disapproved. The People’s Republic, during the twenty-three years of its history, has undergone many shifts, experienced many crises and many upheavals in leadership. At times the leadership itself has harshly condemned previous lines of policy which had received full endorsement from people abroad who believe that “Revolution” must invariably receive total approval. Thus one can acknowledge the many huge and undeniable accomplishments of the People’s Republic without making a total commitment to some general state of affairs called the “Chinese Revolution” and without accepting all of Chairman Mao’s claims as a political and moral philosopher.

I will discuss here not the “Chinese Revolution” but certain themes in the “Thought of Mao Tse-tung,” particularly as they were developed during the recent cultural revolution. While these themes generally derive from Mao’s previous ideas, they take an especially acute form in the “cultural revolution” of recent years.

I shall not concern myself with the question whether Mao is an “original” moral and political philosopher. It is probably true that had he not achieved power, few of us would be interested in his metaphysics or his moralpolitical philosophy. Yet the fact that those with political power are able, to a degree, to put their ideas into practice will always lend a particular interest to whatever ideas they may have. What is more, the ideas themselves concern fundamental issues—in my own view, issues fundamental not only to China in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but to all of us. In challenging the dogma that China’s different culture and its lower “stage of development” make its thought “irrelevant” to us in the West, the Western admirers of Mao, whatever their limitations, have performed a distinct service.

Whether Mao’s vision of cultural revolution is relevant only to China’s present condition (or, more broadly, to “underdeveloped societies”) or whether it has bearing on more universal matters is, one finds, a question that divides the defenders of that vision as well as its skeptics. One can distinguish among the former what might be called the “tough-minded” and the true disciples. The true disciples believe that all of Mao’s words are to be taken at face value. The “tough-minded” believe that there is both a public and an esoteric Maoist doctrine.

Like all sensible leaders, Mao, in the “tough-minded” view, is interested mainly in “modernization” as this term is understood in the West. He is fundamentally a theorist of economic development. He realizes that countries woefully poor in capital, such as China, must depend heavily on intensive use of labor. Hence his appeal to selflessness, austerity, and infinite self-sacrifice—to “moral incentives” in general—as the only way to mobilize the masses for development. As a consummate social engineer, Mao knows well that this morality of sacrifice and collectivity is an interim, instrumental morality. He realizes that modernization will in the end lead to a…

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