Interpreting Chairman Mao and his revolution has become an industry. But to appreciate his achievements, Americans must grope for his structural ideas through the successive veils of the Chinese language, the Marxist-Leninist terminology, and Mao’s application of these European concepts to China. So Mao is perhaps best interpreted from Europe, where a peasant-feudal background makes the idea of class struggle more intelligible and socialism a more widely accepted ideal. American social scientists, on the other hand, so sincere and intent on empirical data, lack a national experience of peasant rebellion and foreign invasion. Feudalism and imperialism can hardly be the chief protagonists of history in American thinking as they can be in Eurasia.

Thus far, of course, no one has seriously tried to fit Mao into Chinese history. Any great revolutionary wants to leave history behind and start afresh. But of all peoples the Chinese are far and away the most history-conscious, and Mao’s speeches are full of historical allusions. China’s revolution is pre-eminently against the Chinese past, both feudal and imperialist. Supposing the new ideas of the revolution dominate conscious thought, what about the half or say two-thirds (or 90 percent?) of human conduct that remains unconsciously habituated, adjusted to the perduring environment? Understandably, Mao inveighs against old ideas and practices. But how far is his own institutional role like that of the old emperors?

For example, continuity in power. During the span of our American history since 1607, China has had two emperors who each ruled for sixty years (K’ang-hsi, 1662-1722; Ch’ienlung, 1736-1795). The Empress Dowager held power for more than forty years, 1861-1908. And now here is Mao, the old lady’s exact opposite in every conceivable way, except for longevity in power. Imagine if FDR were still in the White House, having been there continuously since 1932! Mao Tse-tung has led China’s revolution since 1935, some would claim since 1927. This says something about the Chinese readiness to accept a supreme personality—instead of our idea of the supremacy of law and due process.

Mao outshines all the emperors by being more creative. But he is also like the best of them in being the One Man at the top, the main font of wisdom and policy yet antibureaucratic, unpredictable, and even capricious, withdrawn from sight for months and then re-emerging like thunder and lightning. Can Chinese politics function without such a figure? Only a supreme personality of Son-of-Heaven proportions could twice in succession cashier his number two in the hierarchy (Liu Shao-ch’i in 1967, Lin Piao in 1971), like an emperor sacking his chief ministers, and yet bring back a cashiered number three like Deputy Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing, all the while remaining number one himself.

Until 1911, the Son of Heaven sat on top of a multi-layered ruling stratum of officials, upper scholar gentry, and lower landlord-merchant gentry, a privileged elite, hardly 5 percent of the population. Today, Mao’s unprecedented attack on this old ruling class tradition makes him by volume the greatest emancipator of all time. But his unique status does not come out of a vacuum. It comes out of history. In reviewing the struggle for liberation from the top of the T’ien-an Men in the heart of Peking, Mao has stood on the same central axis as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperors once sat enthroned, only a few hundred yards inside the Forbidden City. Not by accident, this is the strongest vantage point from which to attack China’s outworn past.

Unfortunately, such historical analogies are faulty because we are still too ignorant about the emperors. Mao is best approached through his speeches, and the how-to-do-it ideas they convey about transforming people in order to transform China. In Chairman Mao Talks to the People, Stuart Schram, a leading expert on Maoist texts and concepts, has selected twenty-six speeches, most of them newly available in recent years. Their effect on the reader is overwhelming—here is one man completely free, afraid of nothing, full of history, handing out praise and blame to everyone including himself. For example, after the economic disaster of the Great Leap in 1958: “The chaos caused was on a grand scale and I take responsibility. Comrades, you must all analyze your own responsibility. If you have to shit, shit! If you have to fart, fart! You will feel much better for it.” (The Chairman’s earthy style is one of his links with the farming masses.)

K. S. Karol, raised in Poland, spent seven years in the USSR as student and soldier. In early 1965, a four-month trip with the French photographer Marc Riboud let him see China as a Western journalist with a Soviet background. His book of 1967, China: The Other Communism, made sense of the Sino-Soviet split. The Second Chinese Revolution, based on two months travel in China in 1971 and extensive sifting of the record, is devoted to analyzing the course of the policy splits within the Chinese leadership that eventuated in the fall of Liu Shao-ch’i in 1967, and of Lin Piao in 1971.


A socialist in principle, Karol views Stalinism as a perversion, wrong both in political method and in economic goals. Stalin’s stress on heavy industry at the expense of the populace preserved capitalism in the form of state capitalism. The Soviet population is still alienated and exploited by class differences between rulers and ruled. Against this background, Karol sees in China from 1965 to 1969 a genuine second revolution. He summarizes events that baffled observers at the time—the Red Guards terrorizing officials, Mao’s swim in the Yangtze (fifteen kilometers in sixty-five minutes with the current and, adds Karol, “a strong wind in the right direction”!), the Shanghai commune, and other events already analyzed for the American public in various studies by Stanley Karnow (Mao and China, Viking, 1972), Edward E. Rice (Mao’s Way, University of California Press, 1972), and others.

Karol’s main argument is that the Cultural Revolution was not a personal struggle for power, but a genuine policy clash, first over priorities and then over timing. At the start, Liu Shao-ch’i, the organization man, was trapped in support of the party bureaucracy against mass criticism, while later on Lin Piao, the Maoist zealot, was stuck with supporting ultra-left mass action against the central leadership and rebuilding the party. Neither stood a chance against the One Man, who follows a zig-zag rhythm of inducing struggle between opposites and then their transformation into a new unity. In less dialectical-Taoist terms, Mao sensed in 1965 the popular restiveness at the rise of a new rulingclass of party bureaucrats, and he sensed in 1971 the popular surfeit with the stress of revolution. Only he in his special role as the sage, the font of political wisdom, could call the tune. Finally, Karol insists there are several things the Cultural Revolution was not—it was not a struggle by Mao to regain power (he never lost it), not an effort by the military to take over (they are party members first), not an attempt to negate the Soviet model (China had already gone her own way).

Karol is baffled by two things—first, why the Chinese are so extraordinarily uninterested in explaining themselves to the outside world. Their accounts are one-sided, terse, and poorly documented. “Four years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, not one book on the subject had been published in China…. Not a single protagonist has come forward as a witness, not a single ‘rebel’ group has written its own history. Never before has a revolution been followed by such a silence” (p. 5). The reason for this silence, he believes, is that the Cultural Revolution produced such a broad split in the leadership.

Second, like so many other observers, Karol finds the retrospective vilification of the fallen number-two men quite senseless. If Liu was secretly a wrecker from 1922 to 1971 and yet rose to be chief of state, the Party and Mao were fools, not once but for half a century. So with Lin Piao, undoubtedly a close follower of Mao throughout his career. Once he was designated his successor, why try to assassinate him? The official diatribes against both men smack of ritual exorcism or scapegoating. I wonder if perhaps this irrationality meets a traditional, moral need: to assert that a man of bad conduct (or bad policies) must have had a bad character, for in China’s great tradition conduct expresses character, and one cannot go wrong without the other. The institution of a loyal opposition is not recognized.

John Gittings’s The World and China, 1922-1972 is a major work, a careful synthesis of Mao’s foreign policy concepts and positions, thoroughly documented yet presented with British concision in half the space one expects from political scientists. Here again, abroad as at home, Mao is the essential creator of Chinese communist foreign policy, with a style more flexible and capacious than that of doctrinaire European communists. Gittings sees in the background the Chinese tradition of “using barbarians to control barbarians.” One may wonder if the Chinese tradition of dealing flexibly with powerful outsiders is not merely one aspect of China’s long tradition of domestic power politics among regions within an area as big as Europe. Mao showed his creativity in updating Sun-tzu’s Art of War in the guerrilla strategy and tactics of the 1930s. His foreign policy ideas have been equally fertile and productive.

Mao began with the realization that, contrary to Sun Yat-sen’s view of China as even worse off than a colony, China’s “semi-colonial” status under unequal treaties with many foreign powers was an advantage, because the rivalry of the imperialist powers concerning China fostered disunity within China and gave his revolution a better chance to maneuver among contending groups. As in guerrilla warfare, the trick is to convert one’s over-all weakness into local strength by isolating one’s major opponent while neutralizing or allying with other opponents. The united front tactics of the mid-Twenties and late Thirties within China were thus a preparation for diplomacy after 1949. On the world scene, Mao saw his field of maneuver as being in an “intermediate zone” between the socialist camp and the imperialist camp, an area now also called the Third World, where developing countries were open to both camps. Recently, the industrial but nonsuperpowers have been seen as another part of the intermediate zone. The same rules apply. Americans travel to Peking today because America’s vicious imperialism is seen as a “minor contradiction” compared with the major contradiction of Soviet “social imperialism.”


From the beginning, Mao was disenchanted with Stalin and willing repeatedly to consider relations with the United States. “The Chinese communists swapped superpowers during World War II” (p. 90), testing out the possibilities of American aid. Mao told Jack Service in 1945 that the Chinese and American peoples were both “democratic and individualistic…non-aggressive and non-imperialistic.” As Admiral Leahy revealed in 1950, Mao offered to visit Washington, to no avail. Thereafter, contrary to the rather complacent American view of General Marshall’s distinguished mediation in 1946, Gittings piles up the evidence to show how the basic American anticommunist intent was made overwhelmingly evident to the revolutionaries in Yenan. Our mediation efforts to bring peace to China under Chiang Kai-shek were a myth that, like the Open Door, impressed us much more than they did the Chinese.

Disregarding Stalin’s advice to go slow against Chiang, Mao came to power in 1949 diplomatically isolated and so had to “lean to one side” to get Stalin’s help. Only after the Korean War could Mao begin in the late 1950s the task of shaking off “the double embrace of Soviet dependence and American encirclement.” Now it has been achieved, by dint of flexible tactics in the intermediate zone. China can deal with anyone while remaining secure in the realistic belief that “contradictions persist in a socialist society,” that Stalin went astray by disregarding peasant needs, and that Khrushchev’s boast that there was no more class struggle within the USSR disclosed the real fact of Soviet revisionism. Gittings concludes that the foreign policy of the People’s Republic has sought survival, not expansion; that it is based on Mao’s view of the world, which assumes a dialectical imbalance in shifting power relations so that policy must make decisive twists and turns. “Whether offering to visit Washington in 1945, deciding to lean to one side in 1949, rejecting the Soviet Union in 1963, or welcoming Mr. Nixon to his private study in 1972, Mao has never hedged his choices or muffled his gestures” (p. 270). They have been (need I add?) the clear-cut moves of a supreme personality.

What do Americans make of Mao’s China? The unusual national program of inviting foreign guests to see the fruits of revolution is producing a spate of books. At the “China-to-me” end of the spectrum, we have the reactions of Shirley MacLaine. The first half of You Can Get There From Here recounts her vicissitudes in Hollywood, television, and the McGovern campaign, all of which illustrate those evils of individualism, sexuality, and bourgeois commercialism that the Maoist revolution seeks at all costs to avoid. In late 1971 S. MacLaine was invited by today’s foreign minister in Peking, Ch’iao Kuan-hua (who must be a crypto-sociologist interested in human experimentation) to bring to China a group of twelve American women. The delegation that went to China in April 1973 could not have been more diverse if they had come from Mrs. Noah’s ark—“a 200-pound, coal black woman of mammoth heart” from Mississippi, one Wallaceite from Texas, one Navaho, a twelve-year-old Racine schoolgirl, a starchy Republican, some academics, and a camera crew, “all feminists, but they were also individuals with their own special personalities and concerns.”

Set down unprepared on the tour route in China, these mixed American personalities tended to fall ill of exhaustion and culture-shock. China “got to them.” Their bodies were in Shanghai, but their minds were still in the US. As their leader says, “I talked with people about religion, death, marriage, money and happiness, and all the while I was trying to figure out their New Society.” In the end, they brought back a variety of messages, and no doubt left their Chinese hosts confirmed in Mao’s thought that “revolution is justified.”

Shirley MacLaine decided that China’s revolutionary accomplishments could not be due simply to the proletarian dictatorship. “There was something else going on here. People related to each other in a way that I had never seen before.” She felt this was due to the system of self-criticism, and so speculated on the effect that self-criticism would have on individual creative expression. “Perhaps honest group communication reduced the need for individualistic artistic expression in the New Society.” She contrasted China with “America’s climate of anger, violence, crime, and corruption,…and her free-wheeling abuse of freedom.” A year later Shirley MacLaine opened in Las Vegas: “China makes you believe that everything is possible.”

This Issue

May 1, 1975