The Long Read

I have just finished what I am sure is likely to be my longest read ever. Weighing in at a massive 32 years 181 days (the white bookmark you can see is the receipt from W H Smith which tells me I bought it on 23rd June 1984 for £1.75 and is still lodged at page 57 where I stalled on my first attempt) I fear I may not have that long left to finish any book I start now.

I confess that much of the time it felt like reading English as a foreign language. As with any book touching on Marxist politics, I found myself plunged into a world described in terms of petty bourgeoisie, proletariat, imperialists, materialism and the Party with its Congresses and Comintern control.

I think that the Bolshevik Committee which convicted Mao in 1932 of “narrow empiricism” and “opportunistic pragmatism” may have understood him better than they realised. If by narrow empiricism you understand that Mao gathered as much information as possible and examined it objectively rather than through the distorting lens of Marxist-Leninist ideology (in which he was notably deficient at the time) and by opportunistic pragmatism you understand that having correctly identified the main chance by his narrow empiricism he then went ahead and took it then I have to say that I find Mao guilty as charged.

I found myself almost permanently “reading against the grain” as Derrida would have it. At times it reads like a hagiography with Wilson uncritically reporting childhood stories of Mao sharing his school packed lunch with a fellow pupil whose mum didn’t provide one that could have been lifted straight from a sycophantic party mythmaker. But then he would quote allegations made by political rivals such as Wang Ming, backed by Stalin, that Mao tried to poison him. However, these attacks are sometimes ridiculed and their credibility questioned. So the balance of the reporting is perhaps questionable. But then, is the rejection almost overdone; doth he protest too much to the point of deliberately undermining his own apparent support for the official position or Party line? In the end I just don’t know which side of the fence Wilson comes down.

I did have to keep reminding myself that this is a biography of the man not a history of the revolution he lived through and, to a great extent, drove. So I must be satisfied with a view of what Mao the man was doing in Yenan after the Long March and accept the tide of events that happens around him – World War 2 and the civil war with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, which seemed to be won without any explanation of how the stalemate was broken.

This narrow perspective also avoids big questions by simple omission. Wilson simply glosses over the number of deaths resulting from Mao’s decisions in, for example, the land reforms. The prospect of “one tenth of the peasants would have to be destroyed” is treated as almost a casual aside but that maths equates to perhaps 50 million deaths out of a population of half a billion as being somehow an acceptable price (actually only – can I really use “only” in this context – about a million people died).

This blindness of view allows Wilson to present Mao as a the man, the political schemer with a ruthless core without turning him into a monster. But it is impossible to forget that he directed the government whose actions directly and indirectly caused the deaths of more than 45 million people in the supposed cause of progress. Only Stalin comes close with the blood of some 20 million victims of his policies on his hands. Hitler’s 6 million victims begin to look like the efforts of an amateur by comparison. 

Nothing is so dangerous as a man convinced he is right.

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