[Note: the bulk of the following essay was written before John Steele had his piece, "Some remarks on Bloom and Contend: A Critique of Maoism," put up on the Unity and Struggle website. My own response, below, shares the same core elements as Steele's, and I, therefore, hadn't intended to finish it, finding Steele's shorter article sufficient. Ultimately, though, I elaborated the rest of the piece below out of separate inquiries and debates on Chinese history happening elsewhere, as a sort of draft of a more focused essay on the subject. Though still framed below as a response to Chino, the larger goal is to begin an investigation into some of the questions that Chino's piece has raised. It should not be read as a simple one-for-one critique of Chino's piece, nor as a polemic offering a cut-and-dry counterposition.]
Mao or Maoism?
A recent piece by Chino (formerly Ba Jin) of Unity and Struggle has again raised the question of contemporary communists’ appraisals of Chinese revolutionary history. While Chino’s piece claims to be a critique of Maoism as such, it is not. The author does not address Maoism as a whole, only Chinese socialist history. The difference is a subtle but important one. Chino’s piece can be seen, somewhat, as a critique of the historical roots of Maoism, which only took on its specific name and character around the time of the Cultural Revolution, and mostly took on this character outside of China. “Maoism,” then, was very much a foreign export—speaking more to the appropriation of certain doctrines and spectacles from Chinese revolutionary history by radicals elsewhere.
And that is a broad elsewhere. The Maoisms of Latin America remained distinct from the Maoist influence on Black Liberation in the US or the Maoist student groups in France. There are shared characteristics, but these are not necessarily discernible through an examination of Chinese revolutionary history—and particularly not one that emphasizes the early revolutionary years and ignores the majority of the “long” (’66-’76) cultural revolution, which was the primary vehicle for the later export of specifically “Maoist” theory, aesthetics and mythologies. What did these “Maoists” take from the Chinese experience and what did they leave? This is should be a key question in any critique of Maoism, yet Chino leaves it unanswered.
These various Maoist histories are largely exhausted. In most places, Maoism not the name for a vital communist politics today, even if there are a few select lessons and tools that might be salvageable. There are, obviously, living exceptions to this in places such as India, Nepal and the Philippines. Chino’s stated goal is, then, a worthwhile one. Maoism itself needs to be excavated, explored and properly buried. It is an understudied topic. A one-to-one conflation of Maoism with Chinese history, however, actually prevents this burial from taking place—or, more accurately, buries one corpse in another’s grave.
That said, it is an equally important endeavor to excavate, explore and properly bury Chinese socialist history itself. This is not only useful for the lessons and tools that we might extract from the process, but also for the concrete insight it can give us into the capitalist powerhouse that China has become. Chino’s approach, however, detracts from both projects, weakening the historical critique through an overemphasis on textual, aesthetic and ideological dimensions, while also overburdening the theoretical critique with history’s obtuse weight.
In what follows, I take Chino’s piece to be exploring these historical questions, rather than critiquing Maoism as such, since the piece lacks any discussion of Maoism’s extension (and in fact creation) outside of China. By contrast, the essay discusses many points of history at length and in substantial detail.