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Response to Review no. 668

During the two years that have passed since the hardcover edition of Mao’s Last Revolution appeared in the summer of 2006, I have had the pleasure of reading many positive reviews of it. Now and then, I must admit, I have been surprised by what has prompted a particular reviewer’s positive comments, though. ‘Aha …,’ I have then said to myself, ‘I guess one could also draw that kind of conclusion from what we wrote. Not that it was what I had in mind …’ Most of the time, of course, reviewers seem to have enjoyed what they read for reasons I have been able to understand and take silent pride in. Mitter’s review is a case in point. What he has read, and to my great relief found worthy of generous praise, is the history I remember Rod and myself writing – a history that does indeed ‘see irony in the darker side of human nature’.

Many reviewers have come to view our book as an indictment of Mao. It is, of course, and quite intentionally so. It is also, however, as Mitter points out, a book that seeks with equally strong intent not to divide the players sharing the historical stage with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman ‘into misleading separate categories of perpetrators and victims.’ I must admit to spending a lot of time thinking about this particular aspect of the Cultural Revolution while writing. I very much wanted to give readers reluctant to see it that way a hard time. Certainly Rod and I never intended to use a wealth of new evidence to simply, in Soviet historian Peter Holquist’s words, ‘append new footnotes to old paradigms’. Mao’s Last Revolution was never meant to be but a better version of already existing histories or political science, pitting a radical, manic and therefore ‘bad’ Mao against rational and therefore ‘less bad’ (if not yet quite ‘good’) forces of moderation and modernity represented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. We sought to reconceptualise the nature of Mao’s Cultural Revolutionary (dis-) order. Perhaps not as a farce (identified correctly, in my view, by Mitter as an ‘undercurrent’) but certainly as something on the edge of what Mao called luan (chaos).

Already before Rod and I had finished our book, I had myself become provoked by Donald Rumsfeld’s observations: ‘Liberation is untidy’ and ‘there could be some untidiness as we go forward’, (1) to pursue an inquiry specifically into chaos as a component of the process by which groups or classes of people make decisions on who is to get what. My inquiry yielded what to me were unexpected results. Mao, of course, had been deeply influenced by Charles Darwin as a young man, and by the time he launched the Cultural Revolution, his particular brand of Hail Mary saltationary socialism was in fact (not that he would have known) cutting-edge evolutionary thinking. As theoretical biologists Stuart Kauffman’s and Christopher Langton’s research has since suggested, being ‘on the edge of chaos … provides the greatest evolvability’. (2) It was away from an oppressive past by way of an imperfect present that Mao sought at any cost to evolve China into a communist society. For fellow revolutionaries of his own generation satisfied with anything less than living on the border of disorder, he had only contempt. Pride in progress was fine, but contentment was revisionist!

At one point in his review, Mitter hopes that our tentative assessment of Mao will ‘pave the way for a fuller comparative analysis in the future’ – a comparison between Mao’s and the regimes of Stalin and Hitler. Personally I am already on record as arguing that a Wirkungsgeschichte that attempts a very different comparison would be more interesting, less predictable in its conclusions and certainly as exciting. (3) Mao’s last revolution was the ultimate 20th-century war against an ‘-ism’ – not capitalism, in his case, but ‘revisionism.’ On this point, comparisons with an ongoing 21st-century regime spring to my mind as far more meaningful than one with Stalinism or with Nazism. Our book is still a conventional Cold War generation history, its comparative perspective limited to analogies involving past totalitarianisms. But forcing itself on a post- ‘Global War On Terrorism’ generation of historians, I believe, will one day be a very different comparison – with the present. If I am wrong in predicting as much, it really matters little. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, ‘every generation asks its particular new questions about the past. And they will go on doing so.’

‘Western readers,’ Mitter believes, will find Mao’s Last Revolution ‘meticulous, balanced and fair’. I keep my fingers crossed. A Chinese language edition is due out later this summer, published in Taipei, translated in Shanghai, proofread and fact-checked in Beijing. Will a billion Chinese readers find it ‘meticulous’? Yes, of that I actually have little doubt, based on my correspondence with the baffled historian in Beijing whose unenviable task it is to assist the translator by decrypting our footnotes and sources. Will they find it ‘balanced and fair’? I actually believe some will think we have been too kind to the Chairman. Others, presumably, will call us unfair. Much of it boils down to how one judges our carefully contextualised snippets of what Mao is supposed to have said. In this respect, is ours anything like the real Mao? This morning, as I read a review of Wiser in Battle, the new book by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, I was reminded of how painful it may turn out to be for some of our Chinese readers (not for Rod and myself, nor for our reviewers like Mitter: as outsiders we all only knew the Cultural Revolution second hand) to come to terms with some of Mao’s cruellest and most cynical remarks. Because, why should they in retrospect be any less troubled by the words their leader employed to speak of the revolutionary endeavour into which they had had thrown themselves heart and soul, than all good Americans today must be when they confront what their leader has been saying in private about their ultimate good cause? ‘Kick ass! If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell!’, Sanchez tells us George W. Bush told him and Rumsfeld, Powell and Bremer on 6 April 2004: ‘Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!’ (4) By comparison to the ravings of the ‘decider’ in the world’s most powerful democracy, Mao’s supreme Cultural Revolutionary sound bite ‘a revolution is not a dinner party’ comes across almost as ‘refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous’! (5)

This reply was written by the junior of the co-authors of Mao’s Last Revolution; the elder co-author’s comment on the text was a quick return email containing only the word ‘Brill!’ (Students of central documents and Politburo politics in China will in this usage of the word recognise an informal British equivalent of Mao Zedong’s terse zhaofa, meaning ‘Distribute as written.’)


  1. The Nation, 25 April 2003 Back to (1)
  2. The Edge, 3 November 2003 Back to (2)
  3. M. Schoenhals, ‘The global war on terrorism as meta-narrative: an alternative reading of recent Chinese history’, revised version of paper read at St. John’s College, University of British Columbia, on 14 September 2005 and at a China Quarterly workshop at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 7-8 October 2005. Available at Back to (3)
  4. Tom, 1 June 2008 Back to (4)
  5. ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao’, Back to (5)