Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Lynn Middleton

China takes new look at Mao and the past

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 32, September 22-October 5, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Four years after Mao Zedong’s death, China’s new leadership appears ready to come to grips with at least some of the major issues involved in evaluating his contributions, his mistakes, and the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution under his leadership.

This was clearly evidenced in the meetings of the National People’s Congress earlier this month where a major reshuffling of the post-Mao state leadership took place. Hua Guo-feng resigned as prime minister along with seven deputy prime ministers including Deng Xiaoping.

The resignations were necessary for three reasons–to replace aging veterans, to better distinguish between state and party functions (Hua and Deng for example will continue in their leading party posts) and to remove those still” associated with some of the ultra-left policies of the gang of four during the Cultural Revolution, replacing them with those who have emerged as the leaders in China’s new modernization campaign.

In an orderly transition of power Zhao Ziyang, who has been doing trail-blazing work in developing the economy of Sichuan, China’s most populous province, has assumed the post of Prime Minister. Zhao–along with Deng Xiaoping and the late Liu Shaoqi–was disgraced during the Cultural Revolution and attacked as a “revisionist” for promoting ideas on economic modernization. Like Liu and Deng, he was bitterly assailed by the gang of four.

Official Chinese sources cite the need to distinguish state and party functions as the cause for Hua’s resignation. However, western China watchers continue to speculate that the real reason lies in the fact that although Hua stood against the gang of four when the decisive moment came to arrest them, his orientation on major questions during the Cultural Revolution and even in the 1976-78 period remained tinged with some of the ultra-leftism of the Cultural Revolution, the period during which he himself rose to national prominence.

In any event, all the major figures in the Chinese leadership have stressed publicly that at this point there is no major division between Hua and Deng Xiaoping or any other key leaders, and that in fact there is widespread unity.

When the time came for the state leaders to offer their resignations at the Congress, there was a standing ovation for their good work and no political criticisms or denunciations of any of them. This reflects China’s desire to maintain unity and stability and not allow differing assessments of the past to stir new chaotic political struggles and campaigns.

Timed to coincide with the Congress, Deng Xiaoping (who has emerged as the most powerful figure in China despite his resignation as deputy prime minister and the fact that he is only a vice-chairman of the Communist Party) gave an interview to the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci. In the interview he presented the most detailed public account yet of controversial questions about himself, Mao, Hua, the Cultural Revolution, the gang of four and China’s domestic and foreign policies.

The interview makes a two-sided analysis of Mao, especially praising his role in leading the Chinese revolution up to its 1949 victory. Deng says that Mao “devoted most of his life to China and saved the party and the revolution in its most critical moments.” He says that without Mao the Chinese people would at least have spent “much more time in groping their way in the darkness.” He recalls that it was Mao who combined the principles of Marxism-Leninism with the realities of China.

Stressing that what came to be known as “Mao Zedong Thought” was in fact a product of the collective thinking of many leading figures of the Chinese revolution as early as the Yanan period in the 1940s, Deng argues that the concepts developed at that time still provide a sound basis for guiding the Chinese revolution.

Having made these kind of assessments, Deng turns to Mao’s errors. And, for the first time, a Chinese leader goes beyond the euphemisms that have been used for the past few years in talking of Mao’s negative side, such as “he was only human and everyone makes mistakes.” In no uncertain terms, Deng told Fallaci that from the late 1950s on, Mao’s ideas and policies were largely in error. His style of work became “unhealthy”; his ideas became “ultra-left”; he started to act in a “feudal” and “patriarchal” manner. “The very good principles he had set up for years,” says Deng, “such as democratic-centralism and the mass line” were not institutionalized, and in fact were contradicted by Mao himself.

Deng believes that while Mao had good intentions in initiating the Cultural Revolution in 1966, it was out of touch with the real situation, had the wrong goals and targets, and turned out to be an “all-round civil war” that especially “decimated” many revolutionary cadres. Deng says that so many people died in the Cultural Revolution that “even if other tragedies hadn’t taken place during it, the number of dead would be enough to say that the Cultural Revolution was the wrong thing to do.”

Deng distinguishes between what he calls Mao’s “political errors” and the gang of four’s “crimes.” He points out that towards the end of Mao’s life, he even made some criticisms of the gang, and recognized that the Cultural Revolution had gotten out of hand. In the upcoming trial of the gang, Deng says, Mao’s responsibility in promoting them to power will be shown, but this will not mean an attack on Mao’s memory.

“The crimes committed by (the gang),” says Deng, “are so many and so evident that we do not need to implicate Chairman Mao to prove them.”

Deng went on to assure Fallaci that there would be no wholesale attack on Mao, like Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin. He continued to assert that, on balance, Mao’s contributions outweighed his errors, thus laying to rest for the moment some of the Western press speculations about total deMaoification.

While distinguishing Mao’s role from that of the gang of four, Deng did not dismiss the close relationship that existed either. “When I say Chairman Mao made mistakes,” he says, “I also think of the mistake named Jiang Qing... She is so evil that any evil thing you say about her isn’t evil enough...Yet Chairman Mao let her usurp power, form her faction, use Mao Zedong’s name as her personal banner...”

Deng’s candid and forthright statements appear to be an effort to bridge the gap that is evident to anyone looking at recent events in China. Mao’s policies and decisions of the last 20 years have been going through a process of dismantling and reversal ever since his death; yet out of the need to preserve what was correct in Mao’s thinking and to preserve the unity and stability he brought to China with the victory of the revolution, it has thus far proven impossible to make any open, substantive political critique of him.

Until recently, the official view from China–and the view that has been reflected in most of The Call’s coverage of events in China–was that Mao made relatively small mistakes. The problems of the last 20 years were primarily blamed on Lin Biao and the gang of four’s corruption and perversion of Mao’s correct ideas and on their factional activities inside the Communist Party and the government. Mao was said to have consistently opposed their orientation. This analysis has always left the “big question” unanswered: Where was Mao when all these terrible things were being done in his name and why didn’t he try to stop them?

Deng’s analysis is still only a partial one, and no matter how powerful Deng may be, it still reflects only one trend of thought in China today. Yet it certainly seems much more plausible and realistic than the earlier analysis.

In essence, Deng is saying that Mao was in fact a great revolutionary leader of the Chinese people, but that after the consolidation of the Chinese revolution in the mid-’50s, he took a wrong course. From the anti-rightist campaign in the ’50s, to the Great Leap Forward, to the Cultural Revolution. Mao seriously erred in his conception of how to build socialism and how to give play to democracy inside the party and the governmental structures. While he was correct in sensing something very wrong with what was happening in the Soviet Union, the way to solve problems of bureaucratization in China was not to call for a “proletarian” faction to rise up against a “bourgeois” faction and overthrow the existing leadership and social, political, economic and legal institutions as happened during the Cultural Revolution in China.

It would appear that Deng is challenging what was once called Mao’s greatest contribution to Marxism-Leninism–Mao’s theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat–with its emphasis on the Cultural Revolution form to maintain the revolutionary character of socialism.

The implications of all this cannot be very clearly seen as yet. But the implications reach not only deep into Chinese society, but also well beyond China’s borders. After all, the experiences and example offered by the Cultural Revolution played a significant role in coalescing and shaping the development of anti-revisionist parties all over the world which based themselves on Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, including our party.

The reexamination of Mao and the Cultural Revolution now ongoing in China and typified by Deng’s interview with Oriana Fallaci, offers a good bit of food for thought in examining some of the history of the ultra-left thinking that has been so pervasive in our party and in our movement for the last ten years.