- Category: History
- Created on Wednesday, 27 October 2010 08:49
- Written by Mike Ely
by Mike Ely
One of the frustrating things about communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is his blanket acceptance of many anti-communist summations, made even as he provocatively puts forward, in his own idiosyncratic way, the communist cause and its giant figures like Lenin and Mao.
As John Steele recently wrote: "[Žižek] makes no distinction between the USSR under Stalin, the USSR under Khruschev, China under Mao, and China since the 1980s, and classifies it all as '20th century Communism.' A lot of us, I’m sure, would want to say that there are qualitative distinctions within that melange and that it doesn’t all fit under that label. So the challenge is to analyze and think, and not dogmatically from the past." In one notorious example, Žižek helped publish and promote a new edition of Mao Zedong's philosophical essays "On Practice and Contradiction" -- which is a much-needed development bringing important communist essays (once again!) into countless college classrooms. But then he prefaced it all with his own ominously named essay "Mao Tse-tung, the Marxist Lord of Misrule." That preface is complex and not easily characterized -- but among its themes is, once again, that very strange willingness to simply accept (to swallow whole) extreme anticommunist charges as if they were true.
Žižek writes in that introduction: “It is vital not to give any ground in the context of criminalization and hair-raising anecdotes in which the forces of reaction have always tried to wall [communist leaders] up and invalidate them.” [Appendix: Letter from Alain Badiou to Slavoj Žižek: On the Work of Mao Zedong] Yes. It is vital not to give any ground. And, more precisely, it is important to take a stand on the ground of actual historical fact in the face of anticommunist winds (where literally any claim can be made and believed often without even tenuous connection to reality). And so, we too need to do our homework.
Unfortunately, it has so far been Žižek who has refused to give ground, reportedly saying in New York recently that he had “done his homework on this one.” And he is, of course, not alone -- there is a resigned and stubborn acceptance of anticommunist claims that reappears in distressing ways among generally radical and creative forces. It is a influencing that originates among extreme and crudely deceitful accounts by professional anticommunists, and then seems to bleed virtually unchallenged, to taint the very soil that politics are being built upon.
It is hard for new generations to even conceive of a time when there were ground-pounding movements of self-liberation defining whole societies -- at some level, it is assumed that this must all have been myth and deceit, and that the cynical debunking of socialism by reactionary liars must (unfortunately) contain the sad truth. This is so ingrained in the culture that Badiou's unapologetic engagement with the Cultural Revolution is startling by its very existence.
For example: There is a heavily loaded discussion of famines in the anticommunist accounts -- for the obvious reason that a charge of consciously organized starvation suits their picture of utter evil. Stalin is accused of deliberately launching famine as an instrument of genocide against Ukraine's people. And now Mao is accused of organizing a famine of China's peasantry (the very people he is most closely associated with, and whose liberation was so central to his cause). The charge is that China's state murdered millions by callously extracting grain from impoverished villages to purchase modern weaponry.
It should be noted that there is a lazy and venal culture of "equating" at work here. The theorists of totalitarianism have long equated communism with fascism, Stalin with Hitler -- so that the proven holocaust against Jews by Germany can slide into place as the template for "viewing" (i.e. for not viewing) the totally different conflicts taking place in the Soviet Union.
And meanwhile, closer to home (i.e. on the left), there has been a rather parallel "equating" of Mao with Stalin -- so that verdicts on the Soviet Union can be simply applied to Maoist China without acknowledging (or realizing!) the ruptures and developments, and so the Cultural Revolution can be "viewed" (i.e. not viewed!) through the experience of Stalin's 1930s purges, or the Chinese agrarian revolution of the 1950s is assumed to be the same (in method and antagonism) as the Soviet collectivization of the early 1930s.
Why bother to explore reality when the acknowledged horror of Hitlerism can be imposed upon the wholly different world of the Soviet Union, and when Stalin's politics and approaches can be assumed to be inspiration and model of Maoist China. All of this (it unfortunately needs to be said) completely ignores (i.e. obliterates) differences of the most profound kind (including that precious difference between oppression and liberation). And that is of course its purpose.
A new book has just been published, Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which will (typically) add more fuel to these controversies. There will be a need, undoubtedly, to study it and respond to its argumentation. And lets be frank: There is not yet a clear communist summation of the Great Leap Forward (the events, the accomplishments, the unintended consequences, the international context, etc.) -- and it may be time for some serious folks to work one up.
For now we would like to share with readers some of the existing work done on these more narrow discussions of famine in the Maoist years. I think we can frame it generally within two assertions:
- First, the radical transformation of agriculture was essential for the liberation of China's people, even though inevitably such revolutionary change affected harvests for a number of years.
- Second, overall, the changes accompanying communist revolution in China brought that society out of that endless, historic sequence of famines and natural disasters that had tortured Chinese people under feudalism.
Utsa Patnaik: “On Famine and Measuring ‘Famine Deaths.’” Originally published in Thinking Social Science in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner. Ed. Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi, and Krishna Raj. New Delhi: Sage, 2002.
Hu De writes on the valuable China Study Group site:
There will be more to come on this. And in the process, we need also to document the sweeping positive transformations of rural Chinese social life through the revolutionary process, and not limit ourselves to the terrain of merely refuting the aggressive assaults on every bright period of revolutionary history.