Mao Zedong: Should Reactionaries Have Free Speech?

The following is a transcript of one of Mao's conversations with his niece Wang Hai-Jung (December 21, 1970.) It deals with HOW revolutionaries should expose and isolate reactionaries -- and how they should deal with criticism from hostile forces. It touches directly on the question of whether to criminalize reactionary speech.

Hai-jung: Class struggle is very acute in our school. I hear that reactionary slogans have been found, some written in English on the blackboard of our English Department.

Chairman: What reactionary slogans have been written?

Hai-jung: I know only one. It is, 'Chiang wan sui.'

Chairman: How does it read in English?

Hai-jung: 'Long live Chiang.'

[i.e. a slogan, written in english, upholding  Chiang Kai-Shek the leader of Nationalist Kuimintang Party that was overthrown by the communist revolution in 1949.]

Chairman: What else has been written?

Hai-jung: I don't know any others. I know only that one.

Chairman: Well, let this person write more and post them outdoors for all people to see. Does he kill people?

Hai-jung: I don't know if he kills people or not. If we find out who he is, we should dismiss him from school and send him away for labour reform.

Chairman: Well, so long as he doesn't kill people, we should not dismiss him, nor should we send him away for labour reform. Let him stay in school and continue to study. You people should hold a meeting and ask him to explain in what way Chiang Kai-shek is good and what good things he has done. On our part, you may tell why Chiang Kai-shek is not good.

Chairman: How many people are there in your school?

Hai-jung: About 3,000, including faculty and staff members.

Chairman: Among the 3,000 let us say there are seven or eight counter-revolutionaries.

Hai-jung: Even one would be bad. How could we tolerate seven or eight?

Chairman: You shouldn't be all stirred up by one slogan.

Hai-jung: Why should there be seven or eight counter-revolutionaries?

Chairman: When there are many, you can set up opposition. There can be teachers in opposition. Only they should not kill.

Hai-jung: Our school has realized the class line. Among the new students 70 per cent are workers and sons and daughters of poor and lower-middle farmers. Others are sons and daughters of cadres and heroic officers and men.

Chairman: How many sons and daughters of cadres are there in your class?

Hai-jung: In addition to myself, there are two, while others are the sons and daughters of workers and poor and lower-middle farmers. They do well. I learn much from them.

Chairman: Are they on good terms with you? Do they like you?

Hai-jung: I think our relationship is good. I find it easy to associate with them and they find the same with me.

Chairman: That's good.

Hai-jung: But there is the son of a cadre who doesn't do well. In class he doesn't listen attentively to the teacher's lecture and after class, he doesn't do homework. He likes to read fiction. Sometimes he dozes off in the dormitory and sometimes he doesn't attend the Saturday afternoon meeting. On Sunday he doesn't return to school on time. Sometimes on Sunday when our class and section hold a meeting, he doesn't show up. All of us have a bad impression of him.

Chairman: Do your teachers allow the students to take a nap or read fiction in class? We should let the students read fiction and take a nap in class, and we should look after their health. Teachers should lecture less and make the students read more. I believe the student you referred to will be very capable in the future since he had the courage to be absent from the Saturday meeting and not to return to school on time on Sunday. When you return to school, you may tell him that it is too early to return to school even at eight or nine in the evening, he may delay it until eleven or twelve. Whose fault is it that you should hold a meeting Sunday night?

Hai-jung: When I studied at the normal School, we usually had no meeting Sunday night. We were allowed to do whatever we liked that night. One day several cadres of the branch headquarters of the League (I was then a committee member of the branch headquarters) agreed to lead an organized life on Sunday night but many other League members did not favour the idea. Some of them even said to the political counsellor that Sunday was a free day and if any meeting was called at night, it would be inconvenient for us to go home. The political counsellor eventually bowed to their opinion and told us to change the date for the meeting.

Chairman: This political counsellor did the right thing.

Hai-jung: But now our school spends the whole Sunday night holding meetings -- class meetings, branch headquarters committee meetings or meetings of study groups for party lessons. According to my calculation, from the beginning of the current semester to date, there has not been one Sunday or Sunday night without any meetings.

Chairman: When you return to school, you should take the lead to rebel. Don't return to school on Sunday and don't attend any meetings on that day.

Hai-jung: But I won't dare. This is the school system. All students are required to return to school on time. If I don't people will say that I violate the school system.

Chairman: Don't care about the system. Just don't return to school. Just say you want to violate the school system.

Hai-jung: I cannot do that. If I do, I will be criticized.

Chairman: I don't think you will be very capable in the future. You are afraid of being accused of violating the school system, of criticism, of a bad record, of being expelled from school, of failing to get party membership. Why should you be afraid of so many things? The worst that can come to you is expulsion from school. The school should allow the students to rebel. Rebel when you return to school.

Hai-jung: People will say that as the Chairman's relative, I fail to follow his instructions and play a leading role in upsetting the school system. They will accuse me of arrogance and self-content, and of lack of organization and discipline.

Chairman: Look at you! You are afraid of being criticized for arrogance and self-content, and for lack of organization and discipline. Why should you be afraid? You can say that just because you are Chairman Mao's relative, you should follow his instructions to rebel. I think the student you mentioned will be more capable than you for he dared to violate the school system. I think you people are too metaphysical.

People in this conversation

  • I don't think we need to look all the way over to China sixty years ago to understand free speech.

    If people can't speak, they can't think. If people can't think, they can't rule. If people can't rule, then socialism is impossible and we should all find something else to do.

    People can speak, think, rule. Socialism is to remove the fetters, not add new ones. If people are so afraid of reactionary ideas, how do they plan to accomplish anything?

    Busy-body leftism and the general tyranny of middle-management is just not where it's at. Let's lift the bottom up, not cram everyone into the same box. Let's not reward knuckle-headed conformism, but chart an uncharted course.

    Leftoid, PC, chuchy-talk silliness is subculture (and a lame one at that).

  • Guest - Miles Ahead

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Redflags! And how the hell do people think that the people really learn, learn how to think, embrace revolutionary ideas, and go forward? By expelling and shushing up a Chiang Huan Sui? Let's get real...are revolutionary ideas and visions not always going to exist alongside reactionary ones--at least up until communism is actually realized, if then? Do some think that the people in general are so stupid that they are unable to discern between reaction and revolution? Is not the struggle (and exposure) over reactionary vs. revolutionary ideas and practice not an opportunity to up the ante, not simply seeing reactionary lines and ideas as simply dangerous? Free speech to me is a no brainer...that is, like Mao asked, "Did he kill anyone?" And even then, as I recall, the only crime punishable by the death penalty in revolutionary China, was rape.

  • Guest - Jonathan Rochkind

    This conversation certainly makes Mao sound like a wise old man, practically libertarian in his outlook.

    I have to say I'm somewhat suspicious whether the actual practice in China under Mao matched the implication of this conversation though -- whether or not it's what Mao intended.

    What do you guys who know more think? Was China under Mao (at one period or another?) actually the libertarian tolerant place that the Mao in this conversation described/recommended?

  • Guest - Tseug

    In reply to: Guest - Jonathan Rochkind

    For a short while during the "Hundred Flowers Campaign", there was a policy of open speech and free criticism. It was then quickly cancelled and many who had criticized the government were sent away for labour reform. It's believed by most that the campaign was solely designed to bring counter-revolutionaries out into the open, to be quickly disposed of.

  • @Tseug;

    Common--that is the same tired out right-wing propoganda I've been hearing for years. That's just like saying the entire purpose of the cultural revolution was to purge out unworthy party members. Those of us who have studied these campaigns no how much these right wing pundits have lied about both campaigns. Mao seriously believed his own Communist philosophy would win out during the hundred flowers campaign. He got some counter-revolutionary critisizm he wasn't expecting which is why he changed his mind on it. There is no evidence at all of a "plot" to expose his opponents. If I believed that I wouldn't be a Maoist.

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  • Guest - enzo

    Redflags said:
    "People can speak, think, rule. Socialism is to remove the fetters, not add new ones. If people are so afraid of reactionary ideas, how do they plan to accomplish anything?"

    Well, in one sense, this is true. Socialism--the dictatorship of the proletariat--removes the fetters off of the masses (proletariat and other non-capitalist classes). But it puts real fetters, "new ones" if you will, on the former exploiters (depending on the situation... capitalists, feudalists, compradors, etc...) They are not going to be allowed to organize a return to the old system of exploitation... otherwise, what is this "dictatorship" anyway?

  • Guest - Renegade Eye

    This is an interesting discussion. It reminds me of what goes on at my blog.

  • Guest - entdinglichung

    a text, I can recommend: Fourth International - <a href="/" rel="nofollow"> The Dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist democracy</a> (1985)

  • Guest - David

    Interesting indeed. I think the separation of speech and act, though, is an idealistic one, as in, I believe speech is action, speech is deed, materially speaking. Whether the Revolution is undermined with the tongue, with the pen, or with the rifle, should it not have the right to self defence? I'm not saying those 3 instances should require the same vigour or the same responses, however, it is known that ideas--when instantiated in people and in social groups--have real currency, thus the <em>spectre of communism</em>. So I think the position that there must be an absolute freedom of speech, a freedom to undermine the Revolution, is idealist in character.

  • Guest - mlw

    "So I think the position that there must be an absolute freedom of speech, a freedom to undermine the Revolution, is idealist in character."

    Oh for goodness sake, the US with its Voltaireian(on paper) free speech laws gave "reactionaries" ample opportunities to undermine the republican ideology, never happened. When you have momentum you have momentum. As long as there is a behavioural change in favour of a new ordering of things no amount of propaganda will stop it.

  • Guest - David_D

    Mao was clear enough: " arrest, try and sentence certain counter-revolutionaries, and to deprive landlords and bureaucrat-capitalists of their right to vote and their freedom of speech for a certain period of time -- all this comes within the scope of our dictatorship."

    "...freedom is freedom with leadership and this democracy is democracy under centralized guidance, not anarchy. Anarchy does not accord with the interests or wishes of the people. "

    "As far as unmistakable counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech."

    What is an "unmistakable counter-revolutionary?" How do the state authorities identify him or her? Is opposition to the socialist constitutional order, coupled with anti-socialist political organizing unmistakably "counter-revolutionary?" I'd say so. In that case, Mao would be calling for them to be deprived of freedom of speech.

    Should we agree? I do not know. I don't think there is a single answer that is always applicable. Liberalism will certainly kill a revolutionary order. The old thinking is very strong and there is fertile soil for restoration at all times. This is dictated by the superstructure and the base. With economic development and cultural revolution, this soil becomes less fertile for restoration.

    In any event - is "freedom of speech" a right under socialism? It hasn't been. Should it be?

  • "freedom of speech" is a funny expression. Let's look at it another way: When what you say matters, you have far less "freedom" to say whatever crosses your mind.

    Every great epochal change has been accompanied by what can be called "confessional" movements: think about the rise of Protestantism in Europe, and how hard it must have been to live in a German town that flipped back and forth between Lutheran and Catholic, each switch demanding everyone pray and duck in the proper ways. People had to publicly confess the correct faith, over and over again.

    It's hard to imagine that the nutty racists who've had free reign to run their yaps for centuries, who believe their right to degrade others is the measure of their freedom... well, I think they won't be happy no matter what we do.

    But even still: the more "free" people actually are from among the broad masses of people... the less anyone will care about the backward. Counter-revolution tends to come from those waving red flags, not the symbols or rhetoric of whatever ancien regime was overturned. With that in mind, communists should promote the power of people and their dignity, which requires freedom of conscience and speech – even and especially when it's wrong.

  • Guest - Luís Bonifácio

    Parece que Mao tinha um certo carinho por Portugal.
    Em 1960, já com a India a acossar Portugal, a china procurou um entendimento com Salazar pis também tinhaas suas quezílias com Nehru.
    Em 1966 proibiu uma invasão de Macau, pois não considerava Portugal um país colonialista.

    Acho que muito ainda está por escrver sobre a China.

  • Guest - Mike B)

    Faction fight!

    How about equal political power for all?

  • Guest - G

    David writes, I think correctly, that speech is an action and affects things materially speaking. Therefore, he raises the question: "should it (the revolution) not have the right to self defense?"

    I’d answer yes, however, it does not necessarily follow that a "self defense" against reactionary speech necessarily entails one act against it, in the sense that we make it a crime and punish those who engage in it, with the possible exception of, perhaps, certain ‘hate speech.” But many countries currently have such prohibitions and are generally considered to uphold “free speech.” Thus, the “defense” I’d advocate as correct would be quite broad and actually encourage more free speech. With State power in the hands of the proletariat, we can set the terms of debate, and control materially a great many things (as has always been the case), to keep things moving in a positive direction. So it’s essentially speech vs. speech, realizing the great tool and value of free speech as a concept to uphold, not just in the abstract but as a means to transform and liberate people both materially and ideologically.

    Thus, I think a very liberal attitude towards trying for the widest possible application of the concept, practically speaking, is of great value to a revolutionary movement and society, articulated well by Greenred.

    The active political suppression of reactionary free-speech I think is an overreaction more in character of reactionaries, indicative of those who have a great 'fear' of change. Reactionaries and those who are not interested in the truth, of getting at reality and transforming ideas. They are the ones who need to fear open social discourse. We, on the other hand need to be fearless and uphold the spirit of rebellion and questioning, even if the content of the ideas are backwards. Fear nothing but fear itself.

    So, in keeping with free speech, the way we suppress reactionary speech is with revolutionary speech. This is healthy and part of the class struggle.
    We should welcome all such opportunity as part of defending the revolutionary gains struggle for its advancement in the ideological realm, and thank the reactionaries for being brave enough to speak their mind, and thus granting us an opportunity to engage with their ideas. Most backwards people just need to be educated so by speaking out they are actually asking for help, in a sense. It’s a gift. Also, even reactionaries might have some valid points hidden within that we can learn from, and find aspects to unite with in moving forward with breaking with old ideas. If the reactionary content of the speech reaches a certain point where it’s no longer a serious question among the masses, then it’s safe to say such a position has little social currency and can safely either be ignored or ridiculed—much as the capitalist mainstream press currently does with anyone left of the Democratic Party.

    Of course the conception of "absolute freedom of speech," is idealist, which like everything else in bourgeois democracy is also quite illusionary, and in any case materially impossible. Freedom of speech is and has always been a matter of degrees, and with restrictions. But this is not the point.

    The real point is that revolutionary socialist society should have a far greater freedom of speech overall, and esp. for the masses. There should be less restriction over airing all kinds of topics, given the great need to unleash people's active participation in society, which means discussion and debate of everything. In fact, I’d think we need to err on the side of being “more than less” with “free speech’ precisely to combat mistakes of past socialist societies and prove ourselves in practice to the world, not to mention to get rid of a “chilling” effect. The best parts of Maoism stands out for being fearless in unleashing the masses during the CR, the “hundred flowers” campaign, while arguably the worst parts of other historical experiences with socialist revolution involved this ‘chilling’ effect on free expression among the intelligentsia. Stalin comes to mind.

    The fact that we hold state power means that the actual material restrictions (platform, time, breath and reach of a message, whose ideas get printed more, etc) is a great advantage already, and thus can be tilted towards progressive class interests and that should be enough to give us confidence that reactionary ideas don’t reach a critical mass where the revolutionary power becomes jeopardized, even though such ideas are deeply rooted in centuries of class society. It’s like what Lenin said about the dead corpse of capitalist society stinking up the air as it decomposes.

  • Thinking about G's comments, I want to point out that the suppression of counterrevolutionaries has a complex effect on the unleashing of the people.

    At the victory of a revolution, the suppression of hated reactionaries (death squads, local brutalizers, prominent leaders of rightwing movements, klansmen etc.) is a powerful indicator of "the change of sky" -- it is a signal to those who have been previously suppressed that they (and their political movement) is now ascendant, and they can speak and act without fear.

    In that respect the punishing of particularly notorious oppressors (like landlords in china who had raped women, or forced families to sell their children, or cheated peasants for generations) was indespensible for making it clear (in not just words!) that this was a new day and a new society.

    In fact, if such oppressors had not been publicly punished -- who would have felt safe? who would have believed that they were not still in power, or would not quickly return to power.

    So (again) the public suppression of notorious reactionaries, and the break up of brutal organizations (deathsquads, klan-type terrorist groups, etc.) is a prerequisite for people's power.


    If the broad section of the people get a feeling like "one slip, one wrong word and you can be in deep trouble" -- the suppression of reactionaries can strike fear among the people.

    There is a big difference between the suppression of hated and notorious reactionaries in the wake of a revolutionary victory, and the routine arrest of people who complain about the revolutionary government. And there is another leap that happens when the organs of suppression are turned against ordinary people who complain or members of the revolutionary movement who are oppositional.

    If the target of state suppression broaden, and if the threshold that triggers suppression drops, this will drive the people themselves away from political life.

    To put it crudely: if ordinary folks can be arrested for saying "this government sucks" (or even "I want the old days back"), you will not have an easy time involving people in decision-making, holding the revolutionary government accountable etc. And obviously, officials in the new government who are being criticized will often assert (and believe) that the motives behind the criticism are secretly reactionary...

    So the issue around the suppression of reactionaries is not just or simply "do they deserve it?" And it is not simply "does the new system have a right to self-defense?"

    the more nagging problem, for socialism in the twentieth century, was to draw the broad people into the administering of society, into the process of critiquing the new order, into political life. And if you have an active secret police, who can jail you if you run afoul of your local officials, or if you say something ill considered -- the socialist "self-defense" will drive the broad population into political inactivity, a sullen acceptance.

    This was the experience of the Soviet Union, certainly, where the widespread (and often arbitrary) arrest and punishment of people (including for minor and often non-existant) offenses had the effect of ending political life among the people. Politics was left to careerists and yes-men, and everyone else kept their mouths shut.

    (The former Soviet leader Molotov writes in his memoirs how there were perhaps extremes in what was done, but that there was a wonderful silence that appeared at one point, allowing him and Stalin to speak without constant questioning and chatter -- it is a chilling remark in my opinion.)

    The suppression of active counterrevolutionaries IS a real issue during and after revolutions. The U.S. (for example) funded all kinds of groups inside China through the 1950s and after -- dropping arms, radios and trainers into various parts of china to stir rebellion against the revolutionary government. And the old exploiting society leave behind potent networks of reactionaries, killers, soldiers, and cops that often turn into movements against change (and sometimes violent undergrounds). All of this is real.

    But we also need to deeply grapple with the challenges of drawing people into political life -- in a society still polarized by civil war-like conditions. And in many ways, the broad masses of people need a real "ease of mind" -- a sense that they can enter political life, speak their mind, yell at officials, strike, protest, make demands and suggestions, even make serious mistakes of judgment or skirt the outrageous ... all without ending up under police scrutiny. Otherwise you cut off the very wellsprings of socialist transformation and accountability.

  • Guest - Harsh Thakor

    The main point today is that Socialist Society has to develop a synthesis between the dicatatorship of the Proletariat and democratic dissent.Even Comrade Mao had not completely developed it and Com.Bob Avakian was the first to highlight it.True ,a Socialist State has to protect itself but must be able to tolerate criticism.The great personality cult in the Cultural Revolution era acted against the mass line and several intellectuals were wrongly perscuted.We have to analyse how much criticism of Comrade Mao could have been tolerated from 1949-1976,particularly in the last 10 years.A very important factor is the freedom given to mass organisations in relation to the party.However this cannot be at the cost of Leninist principles with regard to the proletarian party.Would an Alexander Solzhenityn,Andrei Sakharov,Roy Medeyev,Fangh Lizi, been progressive or harmful in a Socialist Society or even Sigmund Freud for that matter?It is most important to improve the faculty of the broad masses to reason rather than merely follow by brainwashing.A socialist Society has to create the greatest avenues for debate and dissent but not at the cost of it's survival.

  • I think Mao had a sense that a revolutionary society had to have freedom of speech, but there also had to be a push for speech that would move society forward and discourage those who tried to move it backwards. It was a difficult balancing act and I don't think he got it quite right. After all, would we allow the Koch Brothers, who have bought freedom of speech in the news mediia to use such underhanded and unfair tactics in a society that is undergoing a socialist revolution? Speach isn't really free if someone can buy it and exclude their opponets.
    Mao made a much better effort to encourage free debate and speech than what took place in the USSR or many other similar countries.
    When the revolution comes, I think we can do even better than Mao. At least he tried.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Freedom of speech is our First Amendment, because without it, all the rest don't work very well. Of course, everything in the universe has limits, including free speech. In one sense, in our country, we set the bar rather high--no shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater and the laws of libel in civil courts. In another, speech is distorted by money--owning a printing press, a TV station or just the ability to buy ads. But it's rather natural that the masses in their millions are going to have quite diverse views on things--some revolutionary and progressive, others rather backward. Best to let everyone feel at ease in speaking out and speaking up. Otherwise, how do you know how to lead? Reactionary speech is best combated with more progressive and critical speech. That way everyone learns. Sometimes 'speech' can become criminal, as when, say, someone is recruiting and firing up a lynching. But even in these few cases in mind, I would still 'bend the stick' toward the libertarian view of the matter.

  • I completely agree that we should always value our dedication to free speech. That is a traditional US value. I would add that such speech should be guarenteed to all and no one should be alowd to us money or influence to monopolize such speech to the point of excluding others. That is the problem we have today. If we had real freedom of speech, Mike Ely could get on Nightline.

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