I’ve been reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, with its shocking account of the cultural self-destruction unleashed during China’s Cultural Revolution, which saw temples and artworks smashed, libraries torched, schoolteachers humiliated by their pupils, the whole world turned upside down.
Here Jung Chang, who was herself a Red Guard, reflects on the death of Mao, who she had once idolised:
In the days after Mao’s death, I did a lot of thinking. I knew he was considered a philosopher, and tried to think what his ‘philosophy’ really was. It seemed to me that its central principle was the need – or the desire? – for perpetual conflict. The core of his thinking seemed to be that human struggles were the motivating force of history, and that in order to make history ‘class enemies’ had to be continuously created en masse. I wondered whether there were any other philosophers whose theories had led to the suffering and death of so many. I thought of the terror and misery to which the Chinese population had been subjected. For what?
But Mao’s theory might just be the extension of his personality. He was, it seemed to me, really a restless fight promoter by nature, and good at it. He understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilize them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so he got ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China. There was no need. In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred. But how much individual responsibility ordinary people should share, I could not decide.
The other hallmark of Maoism, it seemed to me, was the reign of ignorance. Because of his calculation that the cultured class were an easy target for a population that was largely illiterate, because of his own deep resentment of formal education and the educated, because of his megalomania, which led to his scorn for the great figures of Chinese culture, and because of his contempt for the areas of Chinese civilization that he did not understand, such as architecture, art, and music, Mao destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated. (Wild Swans, Chapter 28)
Mao seems to have been a creature of his era, and to have shared many of the characteristics of the other dictators who immediately preceded him in Russia and Germany. And these in their turn owed much of their thinking to Marx ( ‘the class struggle’) and Darwin (‘the war of nature’). It seems that all concerned shared a nightmare vision of life as incessant conflict.
I couldn’t help but think that the war on smoking (and therefore on smokers) was another example of a ‘class war’ which had got people to hate each other. And it’s also a class war in which the propagandised people are the principal weapon – as pub landlords are turned into policemen in their own pubs, and friends force friends to smoke outside their own homes. The role of Tobacco Control, after all, is not that of a KGB enforcement agency, but rather of a propaganda bureau, fashioning and broadcasting simple repetitive messages – e.g. Smoking Kills – for the masses to absorb.
Equally, isn’t our era also characterised by ‘the reign of ignorance’? Aside from the general ‘dumbing down’ of society, while there may be high levels of literacy, there isn’t a corresponding high level of numeracy. And this makes it easy to ‘blind people with science’ or fool them with statistics. Most people simply don’t have the skills to deconstruct research papers. All that’s needed is for ‘experts’ to say something is true, and for their findings to be broadcast on TV, and more or less everyone will believe every word they’re told.
And is it entirely irrelevant that the EU’s Manuel Barroso was once a Maoist, or that Richard Doll was once a Communist? Isn’t there a sense in which: once a communist always a communist, once a maoist always a maoist, once anything always that thing? The ripples and waves of these distant storms are felt on our shores also.