Politicians and Poets7 min read

John Gittings reviews two new books on the Chinese Revolution

In June 1959 Mao Zedong returned to Shaoshan, his home village in Hunan province, for the first time in over thirty years. He was there to find out what the local farmers really thought of the Great Leap Forward – his policy intended to leapfrog China’s countryside into the future, which backfired disastrously leading to a three-year famine from 1959-1962. After visiting his parents’ grave, Mao threw a dinner for the village elders and local cadres, and could not help noticing how hungrily they fell upon the food. Then came the complaints – cautious at first but soon spilling out furiously. The wasteful public mess-halls, the orders to plant crops too close, the useless backyard furnaces, and above all the lack of food.

Shaken, Mao retired to his purpose-built guesthouse and reflected. Should he rein back the Great Leap Forward and accept the mounting criticism of his leadership colleagues? After staying up all night, he decided to write a poem instead: ‘Shaoshan Revisited.’ The peasants were depicted as socialist heroes, their resolve stiffened by self-sacrifice. As Gregor Benton notes in Poets of the Chinese Revolution, Mao wrote it to “silence his critics and boost the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses.” The Lushan Plenum would follow a month later, at which the dismissal of Peng Dehuai, one of Mao’s strongest critics, lit the long factional fuse that would eventually explode as the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Ever since piecing together this story on my own visits to Shaoshan in the 1980s, I have sought to understand what really went on in Mao’s mind back then, and whether a change of course in 1959 could have saved revolutionary socialism – and possibly many millions of lives– from destruction. Some answers may be found in Afterlives of Chinese Communism, a collection of over fifty essays based on the proposition that the Maoist enterprise should be approached seriously and critically, not simply written off as an aberration. “There is no reason why one cannot feel both inspired and disgusted by different aspects of Maoism,” insist the editors, Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere, in their preface.

The Party doctrine of following the ‘mass line’ – consulting the people as to policies, described by academic Lin Chun in one chapter as an “innovative concept” – might have provided a safeguard to policy excesses. Yet Mao did little to observe it. The masses should have been consulted during the Great Leap Forward; their will should have been interpreted. The mass line had proved its value in the early post-1949 campaigns to tackle illiteracy and disease, but now had lost its genuine character. What was designed to provide “a two-way flow of information,” writes Lin, became “a conduit for the imposition of the Party line or [in the Cultural Revolution] the lawless anarchism of mass movements.” Nevertheless, she  suggests optimistically, although the mass line is dead “its lessons and aspirations live on.” Jodi Dean, in her afterword, describes it as a “vibrant” idea.

The book’s proposition is that the Maoist enterprise should be approached seriously and critically, not simply written off as an aberration”

For Matthew Galway, writing on the notion of permanent revolution, its disastrous consequences, starting with the Great Leap Forward, were rooted in a lack of critical rigour. Revolution, Mao had said, is like a straw sandal whose shape “evolves as it is woven” – but this approach only works if the process is constantly re-assessed. Could this have been effectively monitored by the work teams which were supposed to put the mass line into practice? Elizabeth Perry examines the work teams in her chapter, taking a positive view of their contribution to the social campaigns of the early 1950s, but noting that after 1959 they merely served to shift the blame from the central Party onto supposedly corrupt local officials.

Writing on collectivism, Mobo Gao provides the most positive assessment in this volume of what was, and what could have been, achieved in the Mao era. Collective farming was a rational approach which, by the end of the Mao years, had succeeded in both addressing macro-economic development and in serving the needs of the people, who by then were “reasonably healthy and educated.” Reforms after the Great Leap Forward, such as downsizing management to the level of the production team, improved life for China’s farmers and laid the foundations for local industry and enterprise. The development of Commune and Brigade Enterprises paved the way for the Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) which are praised for lifting China’s rural areas out of poverty after 1978. The collective ownership of land, concludes Gao, provided “a large well-educated but cheap labour force” of migrant workers that has since fuelled China’s economic growth spurt.

All of the essays are well worth reading, teasing out the theory and reality of a different Maoist concept; other chapters discuss class struggle, new democracy, the people’s war. Yet I felt something was missing, which would have helped to explain the central question: what went wrong in 1959, or perhaps long before? What derailed the Maoist project? Absent among the -isms examined in the book are those which reform-minded socialist thinkers, such as political scientist Su Shaozhi, explored in the 1980s as they looked back on the Mao era: elitism, factionalism, ultra-leftism, commandism, feudalism, dogmatism. Their arguments, and those of the students in Tiananmen Square,  were rejected in the crack-down of the late 1980s, and the door to real political reform has been closed ever since.. Somewhere among these -isms, and concentrated in Mao’s own personality, was the fatal flaw.`

Another clue to the riddle lies at the core of Poets of the Chinese Revolution, a brilliantly presented collection of four “red poets” edited by Gregor Benton and Feng Chongyi. Besides Mao, the poets in question are Communist Party founder and intellectual Chen Duxiu, Communist guerilla leader Chen Yi, and Chen Duxiu’s disciple Zheng Chaolin, who was jailed for decades for his Trotskyist beliefs, first by the KMT and later by the CCP. Benton describes the book as an “act of homage” to Zheng, many of whose poems were written – or often memorised when paper was denied to him – from prison in the early 60s.

While Mao was plotting vengeance on his critics, Zheng lived in the knowledge that he might be taken out and shot any day. His poems are allusively political but also infused with the humanity absent from Mao’s verse. They are deeply moving, especially when he addresses his absent wife. In one, recalling their first walk together “lit by the moon” in Shanghai, he pictures her first as a Taoist nymph and then, after her own suffering (she was jailed for five years for her association with him), as the Queen Mother of the West. In the same year that Mao wrote his fatal poem in Shaoshan, Zheng penned a verse in prison portraying himself as Dr Faust, tempted by the chance of freedom – probably a trap – if he renounced his Trotskyist beliefs. Yet:

elation wanes,
the potion fails,
the spell breaks,
the gloom resumes –
is not an old man
better off in bed alone?

Socialism should have a heart, or it is nothing. And if “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley claimed, then Zheng Chaolin has a better claim to the title of China’s premier socialist poet than Mao Zedong. ∎

Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi, ed. Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere (Verso, July 2019)
Poets of the Chinese Revolution, ed. Gregor Benton and Feng Chongyi (Verso, June 2019)