Saint Mao, idealist, monster

January 22, 2007

The ghosts of dead communists travel to strange places.  Che Guevara went from guerrilla thug to t-shirt ornament.  Mao Zedong, according to this meandering article, has gone from moral monster to Buddhist saint, protecting cars from traffic accidents.

The article makes clear Mao’s personal depravity, citing a recent biography:  “Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook.”  The public horrors he inflicted on China, of which the famine associated with the Great Leap Forward was only the most brutal, are also freely acknowledged.  Millions — very likely, tens of millions — died because of this man.

Having accepted all this, the article begins a curious series of equivocations:

Yet “bad man” does not adequately sum up Mao and his legacy. To believe so would be to embrace the moral absolutism of communism itself, with its quick verdicts (“enemy of the people,”  “hero of the proletariat”), and to repeat the manipulations of official Chinese imperial history, in which even a flood or earthquake “proved” the evil character of the emperor. Were the “good men” around bad man Mao blind to his failings for so many decades? Were the hundreds of millions of Chinese who bowed before Mao’s portrait and wept at the sight of him out of their ­minds?

Mao made history; at the same time, history made Mao. In addition to looking at Mao’s failings as a human being, we must look at the structures and pressures that turned whim into tyranny. At the ideas Mao wielded. At the ­evaporation — ­in Mao’s case, as in that of several other ­dictators — ­of youthful idealism and exactitude. Above all, at the seduction of a “freedom” bestowed from above by a party-­state that believed it knew what was best for the ­citizenry.

Far be it from me to defend moral absolutism — but if I were ever to embrace it, I can think of no more deserving object of my absolutist loathing than Mao Zedong.

The author of the article, Ross Terrill, himself a Mao biographer, seems to mourn the fate of a youthful idealist who became a moral monster.  But that’s woolly-headed thinking.  To be a moral monster almost necessarily one must first be an idealist.  Crazed Caligulas have been rare in the last two centuries.  Armed prophets we have had aplenty, from Lenin and Trotsky, through Stalin and Hitler, and in Asia Mao and his Cambodian Mini-Me, Pol Pot.

All wished to reform and improve the human race.  All earnestly believed they could apply terror and murder to midwife the birth of a New Man.  The more the New Man resisted birthing, the fiercer the terror these idealists imposed.

Terrill regrets the materialism of modern China.  It’s tawdry, and not civic-minded.  On its own terms, I find this a tad condescending:  easy enough to deplore materialism from the well-endowed halls of Harvard, where Terrill works.  But I also suspect the criticism misses the big picture, which in a dictatorship lies buried beneath the surface.

The Chinese people are prone to spiritual enthusiasms; large numbers have been converting to Christianity.  I imagine that the future of China, for good or evil, will be determined by which faith ultimately dominates the public sphere.  Let us be thankful that Maoism — beyond talismanic, car-protecting images — is not an option.