Mao, the Great Machiavellian:
Why Mao Launched the Cultural Revolution
This past Decmeber was the centennial of Mao's birth. In China these few years there has been a "Mao fad" and Mao is now regarded as a great hero in spite of the tremendous disaster he brought to the nation. For me, I prefer to call Mao a "jian-xiong." "Xiong" in Chinese refers to "hero," and "jian" denotes something evil, cunning, tricky, deceitful, and unscrupulous. So perhaps it is best to translate "jian-xiong" as "Machiavellian hero."
I don't think that Mao ever read The Prince, but Mao did read a lot of Chinese historical classics which are full of court intrigues and conspiracies. Machiavelli certainly would have thought these stories were good examples of his doctrine. It may be true that Machiavelli, as many scholars hold, was in fact not an evil man who taught evil doctrines; I am only using the term "Machiavellian" according to its popular meaning today.
To understand Mao requires an understanding of the Cultural Revolution, which was the chief deed Mao completed after he became the leader of the People's Republic of China. There are two questions to consider. The first is: Why did Mao launch the Cultural Revolution? The second is: how could he do it? I shall omit the first question which relates to the objective political, social, and cultural circumstances in China at the time. In this speech, I will only focus on the second question which is related to Mao's Machiavellian character.
With respect to his motive for launching the Cultural Revolution, it is widely believed that Mao had been very worried about the restoration of capitalism in China. This was what Mao said himself; he repeated this theme again and again, and he even devised a theory which was called "continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat." This explanation was officially adopted and came to be accepted by most people in China and abroad. According to this account, Mao was very well-intentioned, but he is to be blamed only for his judgment--he overestimated the danger of capitalist restoration.
There are some scholars who regard the Cultural Revolution as the result and culmination of a serious elite power struggle within the party.
Though these explanations are popular, I do not think they are particularly satisfactory, especially the first one. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was no possibility for the restoration of capitalism in China; Mao had no reason to fear it. Mao accused Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai and others for being capitalist roaders, but in fact they were steadfast communists, and Mao clearly knew this. Besides, they had not tried to challenge Mao. Mao's second in command, Liu Shaoqi, was far inferior to Mao, both in terms of prestige and in terms of power. Premier Zhou Enlai was too mild and since 1949 he had never dared to oppose Mao. While both Zhou and Liu disagreed with some aspects of Mao's policy, they both ultimately always yielded to his will.
Lin Biao, who controlled the army since 1959, showed steadfast loyalty to Mao, and Mao trusted him. Then, why did Mao suddenly announce that the party officials of every province and every department were under the leadership of a secret "bourgeois headquarters" led by Liu Shaoqi, whose aim was to subvert the proletarian dictatorship in China?
The CCP Central Committee said that it was Mao's arrogance and imprudence that caused him to make such an incorrect decision. But the C.R. was not a common mistake; it was absurd -- so absurd that it cannot be imputed to simple arrogance. It ran contrary to common sense; why was an intelligent man such as Mao not aware of it? Mao did not only smash down most of his comrades-in-arms, but he almost destroyed the whole party of which he was one of the founders. Was Mao insane?
We must search for other reasons to explain Mao's motive. It is, in fact, Mao's character and personality, which played a great role in contributing to the launching of the Cultural Revolution, and which until recently has been basically neglected in scholarship. Many scholars believe that Mao's actions were guided by his revolutionary theory, such as his theory of "continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat," which stressed the danger of capitalist restoration, but this theory was not based on facts. It still is open to question why Mao invented this theory. We must keep in mind that Mao was a Machiavellian; he just invented this theory to provide a rationale for his action. We should not take Mao's word for it.
In recent years, many of Mao's former servants and bodyguards have published reminiscences about his everyday life. From these recollections we can identify some of his character traits -- he was obstinate and perverse, as well as sensitive about his dignity and his authority -- and he was adamant in never confessing a failure. These characteristics will help us to understand better his actions.
To explain this, we must look back to an event that happened in the early 1950s -- the death of Stalin and the criticism of the personality cult in the Soviet Union. What was Mao's response? In the early years of the revolution Mao had been under pressure from Stalin. Stalin had supported Mao's political opponents, and he even refused to acknowledge that Mao was a real communist. This must have hurt Mao's feelings deeply. Now, after Stalin's death and the criticism of him, Mao could feel satisfied that he was a better Marxist. After the death of Stalin, there were no communist party leaders, including Khrushchev, who enjoyed more prestige than Mao; Mao was the only charismatic communist leader. Was it not an opportunity for him to assume the leadership of the world communist movement? Mao ostensibly stressed that the Soviet Union should hold the leading post, since "the world communist movement must have a head." But in fact Mao despised Khrushchev, and he was only doing what Lao Tzu taught: "If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish; if you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given." Later Mao challenged and attacked Khrushchev fiercely.
By l958 Mao thought the time was ripe to overtake the USSR. When Khrushchev proclaimed that the USSR would surpass the United States, Mao wanted to match this, by vowing to overtake Great Britain. But in reality Mao's chief opponent was neither Great Britain nor the United States, but rather the USSR. He needed to do something swiftly to astound the entire world and to show how China could achieve eminent status under his leadership. This is the background for the l958 Great Leap Forward and the establishment of the people's communes. Mao thought that these two beloved inventions would be his contribution to the entire world. Mao wanted China to enter the stage of communism earlier than the Soviet Union. But he showed some modesty by saying that even if we realize this aim earlier than the Soviet Union we would not declare it until the day after the Soviets -- otherwise "our older brother" would feel ashamed.
And so when the Great Leap Forward failed and became a fiasco, it was a great embarrassment to Mao. From that time on, Mao became obsessed with the shadow of Khrushchev. He was very afraid to meet the same fate as Stalin. Then Peng Dehuai wrote his famous letter to Mao, implicitly criticizing him for the Great Leap Forward. Mao became infuriated. Khrushchev had only dared to criticize Stalin after his death; here was Peng Dehuai challenging Mao while he was still alive! In retaliation, Mao capriciously targeted Peng as a "revisionist," the same label which he had earlier attached to Khrushchev, suggesting Mao's fear that Peng could someday become a second Khrushchev.
From l959 to l96l, due to Mao's risky policies, the economic situation worsened dramatically. Tens of millions of people were starving to death. At the same time Mao engaged in a fierce debate with the Soviet Communist Party. Because he could no longer even think of surpassing the Soviet Union economically, he attacked the USSR politically and challenged the leadership of the CPSU to show that although China was poor, it was still the leader of the world proletarian revolution. By doing this Mao successfully diverted the attention and resentment of the Chinese people to the Soviet Union.
Mao attacked Khrushchev for his criticism of Stalin's personality cult. Mao emphasized that Stalin was a great Marxist whose achievements surpassed his faults. If Stalin's achievements were rated 7, then his faults would be rated 3, or less. By protecting Stalin, Mao was protecting himself.
It was not until the beginning of l962, when the economic situation was getting better, that Mao thought the time was right to make some self-criticism. At the 7000 Cadres Conference in Beijing, Mao gave a speech, briefly confessing his mistakes. Meanwhile, he called for more inner-party democracy, more criticism and self-criticism. He told the audience the ancient story of "Farewell my Concubine," warning those party cadres who were reluctant to listen to criticism and different opinions. Mao said they would eventually meet the same fate as Xiang Yu, whose concubine committed suicide before he perished. When Mao spoke these words, his voice was high and sounded very angry.
The conference became animated -- many cadres began to speak out about what they really thought. Liu Shaoqi also made an informal speech. He declared that the three calamity years were not due to bad weather, but rather could only be blamed on man-made disasters. He stated that had China delayed the establishment of the people's commune system, the situation would not have been so severe. "We need not make any conclusions about the Great Leap Forward and the people's communes at present," Liu said. "It would be better for us to postpone it to the future." Liu was not aware these words would be fatal for him. To the sensitive Mao, what did they imply? "Future"--that meant Liu was waiting for Mao's death. Mao had been obsessed by Khrushchev's shadow, now he had proof. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, as well as many other cadres, were sympathetic to Peng Dehuai. Mao said nothing, but he must have detected this undercurrent.
There was only one leader who spoke forth to admire and support Mao, and that was Lin Biao. He declared that the past achievements were very great and the difficulties were very minor, and even these minor difficulties were due only to nonadherence to Mao Zedong Thought. Lin's speech helped Mao to extricate himself from an embarrassing situation. After Lin ended his speech, Mao stood up, to lead the audience in applause. I believe it was then that Mao decided to replace Liu Shaoqi with Lin Biao as his successor.
Peng Dehuai must have been encouraged by the opinions about him during this conference. Before long he submitted a long letter to the Central Committee and Mao, requesting that his case be reexamined.
That was the situation which Mao faced. He had no reason to worry about the so-called "capitalism restoration" or "revisionism," but he did have reason to fear that he would be blamed and his errors corrected after his death. I do not believe Liu and others were intending to copy exactly what Khrushchev had done to Stalin. After the polemics with the Soviet Union, in China everyone had come to regard Khrushchev as the number one villain. Most probably Liu or Zhou and others would have gradually and mildly changed some aspects of Mao's policy. They might have subtly suggested that Mao had made some mistakes, but they would have avoided attacking Mao publicly. But even this Mao could not tolerate. This was Mao's nightmare which haunted him repeatedly, and he made up his mind to prevent it from becoming true at any cost.
So, if we understand what Mao was really worried about, it was not so illogical. The problem was Mao had to disguise his real thoughts by high-sounding words.
A half year later, in the fall of l962 at a party meeting Mao called for paying attention to the severe situation of "class struggle," and the danger of "revisionism" or "capitalist restoration." Meanwhile, Lin Biao started a personality cult toward Mao within the army. Later Mao praised Lin Biao and called on the whole nation to copy the example of the PLA. So, strange to say, after Mao's blunder, his prestige did not decrease, rather it was enhanced. These circumstances paved the way for the launching of the Cultural Revolution.
Thus the original reason for the launching of the Cultural Revolution was totally irrational, though it adopted an ostensibly rational form. The Cultural Revolution came about due to Mao's craving to compete with Khrushchev, to challenge the leadership of the Soviet Union, and because of his nightmarish obsession with the fear of Khrushchev's shadow among his colleagues. He carefully created an ideological justification for all of his actions.
Mao was a genius military strategist who could use these skills in political struggles against his colleagues. Initially, his plan was a secret and only Jiang Qing and Lin Biao knew what he was up to. Mao went to Shanghai and to Hunan to launch the movement throughout the country by remote control.
At the end of 1965 an article suddenly appeared in a Shanghai newspaper sharply criticizing the historical opera "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office." This opera was written by Wu Han, a famous historian and a vice mayor of Beijing. In it figured a moral upright and righteous official who was dismissed by a foolish emperor. The entire nation was puzzled. Then Mao proceeded to point out that Peng Dehuai was just another Hai Rui. So it was assumed that this opera attacked Mao by innuendo.
At first it was thought that this would only be an ideological campaign that Mao called a "cultural revolution." Liu Shaoqi hurriedly returned from abroad to try to deal with the student violence on the campuses, even though he had no advance preparation on how to deal with it. He thus adopted the old method of sending in work teams in order to try to thwart the violence. Suddenly, in August l966, Mao returned to Beijing and the first thing he did was to call for a party meeting to criticize Liu Shaoqi's "bourgeois reactionary line." He then composed the big character poster "Bombard the Headquarters." At the beginning of l967 he mobilized the "January Revolution," a nationwide movement to seize power. Only at this point did the Chinese people begin to realize that in fact this was to be a political revolution.
Since many of Mao's targets were high officials and party cadres, he could not rely on their support. So he turned to the youth, the Red Guards outside the party, gullible young people for whom Mao was the "reddest of red suns."
The so-called mistakes of Liu Shaoqi naturally were not sufficient to eliminate him. So Mao's next step was to criticize Liu's book "How to be a Good Communist." Thus Liu Shaoqi became the number one "capitalist roader," despite the lack of any concrete evidence for this. Mao established a committee to investigate Liu's so-called "crimes." This group used many illegal measures to force people into betraying Liu. Ultimately Liu was labeled a "renegade, a secret agent, and a scab." And
Mao was able to use these accusations to force his expulsion from the party and his dismissal as head of state, disregarding all legal processes. Many other high officials experienced similar fates. In this respect, Mao had learned a lesson from Stalin who secretly arrested and murdered his political enemies. But after Stalin's death most of his past opponents were gradually rehabilitated. So Mao adopted a different method to dispose of his enemies; he instructed the red guards and the mass media to criticize publicly his opponents instead of merely sending them to prison, so that the entire country would know that Liu Shaoqi was the number one villain. Everyday from morning to night the mass media was full of slanderous attacks. "A lie repeated l000 times thus became the truth." By using this method Mao assumed that it would be impossible for Liu and the others ever to be rehabilitated.
Mao also realized that in Poland and Hungary the intellectuals had played an important role in the Prague Spring and in the Polish events. So he also targeted the intellectuals -- writers, professors, scholars, and journalists. Almost every noted intellectual in the country was attacked and criticized . Many of them died or committed suicide during this period. Publicly Mao declared most of the party cadres to be good, or comparatively good. He wanted to adopt a civil method, not resorting to violent struggle against his foes, but actually violence occurred everyday on a very large scale, and Mao was well aware of it. In the case of some high officials and famous writers, when they were just at the final point of desperation, suddenly Mao would show mercy and grant them forgiveness, for which the people would then be so deeply moved that they would burst into tears, expressing their gratitude to their benevolent leader.
Upon what forces did Mao rely to achieve this? At the highest echelon was the small groups of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing. They were all members of the central Cultural Revolution group. This organization actually replaced the Politburo, in violation of the party constitution. At the middle levels of power, there was the army, led by Lin Biao. At the grass-roots level the red guards and the young students blindly and gullibly worshipped Mao. Their overzealousness bordered on insanity. For the sake of Mao, they were willing to climb a mountain full of knives or to jump into a sea of fire. Initially they were merely idealist revolutionaries. But if they made errors in their struggles, it would not be Mao's fault.
Premier Zhou Enlai played a special role during this period. At first he was similar to Liu Shaoqi; he did not like violence and he often went to try to persuade the red guards not to engage in violence and not to fight against the high officials and against the different sectors of the society. But the red guards thought that Zhou was too compromising and not as radical as the central Cultural Revolution group. So there emerged an anti-Zhou sentiment, paving the way to attack Zhou in the future. Mao and the Cultural Revolution group did not object to this, in fact, they tacitly supported such preparations. It is likely that after Liu and Deng, Zhou would have become the next target. By early l967, there was much turmoil and chaos throughout the country. So Mao realized that he could not let things continue as such. He felt he could not dismiss Zhou at this time, because there was no person among the leftists of sufficient prestige and ability to assume the position of premier. So he temporarily abandoned the idea of doing away with Zhou. But nevertheless many of Zhou's colleagues were attacked and lost their positions. Many ministers fell from power and there was no one left in the State Council under Zhou and Zhou was left with all of the responsibilities of the State Council. Only one vice premier, Xie Fuzhi, remained in power, and he was a follower of Jiang Qing, not an ally of Zhou.
By l969 every province had established a new government made up of a revolutionary committee, supposedly all loyal to Mao. It was under such circumstances that the Ninth Party Congress was convened. It was at this congress that the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing cliques were elevated to the apex of power and that Lin Biao's succession to Mao was written into the party constitution. It was hoped that the Ninth Party Congress would mark the end of the Cultural Revolution, since Mao assumed that Zhou had already lost his power. But shortly after the ninth congress, the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing cliques wanted to grasp more power. There was a conflict at the Lushan conference between these cliques in l970. At this time Mao supported Jiang Qing. Lin Biao soon realized that his position was not secure -- so he made his plans to assassinate Mao.
It was in this context that the September l3 Incident occurred. Lin Biao, with his wife and son, tried to flee to the Soviet Union and were killed in a plane crash in Mongolia. This event was a great blow to Mao, because the whole aim of the Cultural Revolution had been to replace Liu Shaoqi with Lin Biao. Lin's position as the successor to Mao had already been written into the party constitution. And Lin had become a symbol of the Cultural Revolution. How could Mao explain this great embarrassment to the nation and to the people. The people would certainly then doubt his wisdom in his choice of the villainous Lin. Why had he, Mao, accepted Lin's obsequious flattery?
Additionally, the incident resulted in the elevation of Zhou's position to that of number two, second only to Mao. At first Mao seemed to trust Zhou very much and all the heavy burdens of the party work were placed on Zhou's shoulders. That in and of itself should have been enough to crush him. So it was reasonable for Mao to want to correct some of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution in a limited fashion, such as a reevaluation of the so-called February countercurrent and to rehabilitate Ye Jianying, Yu Qiuli, and Xu Xiangqian. But Mao was concerned that this would result in a total negation of the Cultural Revolution. During l972 there was a certain amount of hesitation about how to criticize Lin Biao in the media, so in fact there were very few articles criticizing Lin, as compared to those critical of Liu Shaoqi at that time. This was because such criticism would also damage Mao's image. Zhou instructed the People's Daily to criticize Lin Biao's ultra-leftism, but Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan were of a different persuasion. At that time I was an editor at the People's Daily and when I realized this distinction I wrote a letter to Mao to expose the differences between Zhou Enlai on the one hand and Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan on the other with respect to criticism of Lin Biao. But Zhang and Yao's opinion was consistent with that of Mao. So by criticizing my letter, Mao was indirectly also criticizing Zhou. From this period on, the winds shifted to criticize Lin's rightism, not his leftism. The mass media, under instructions from Jiang Qing and her clique, thus began to publish many articles criticizing Confucius and some premiers in Chinese history. And as Confucius was presented similar to Zhou Enlai these articles were in fact indirect criticism of Zhou. It was at this time that Zhou was diagnosed with cancer so his days were numbered. In spite of Zhou's unfailing loyalty to Mao and his steadfast following of his instructions, Mao knew that at the bottom of Zhou's heart, Zhou had not agreed with the launching of the Cultural Revolution. Mao therefore hoped that Zhou would die before him because Mao was worried that if Zhou were to outlive him he would probably rehabilitate many of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. Mao had been searching for a reason to bring about Zhou's downfall. Mao had thought that he could only criticize Zhou after Zhou's death, but as Zhou lie dying, he thought it was necessary to give the people some message about Zhou even before his death. The criticism of Confucius was just such a message to prepare for future criticism of Zhou and Zhou was well aware of this.
Now Mao needed help from Jiang Qing. Jiang Qing had said that she was the running dog of Mao; now this dog was breaking away from its leash and lashing out at Zhou. Mao calculated that if Jiang were successful, Mao would emerge from behind the curtain. If Jiang Qing failed, it would be her problem. And ultimately she did fail, due to her imprudence by meeting with the American scholar Roxanne Witke. This irritated Mao very much and made Mao unhappy. In turn Mao then blamed Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four and he demonstrated his support for Zhou Enlai at the Fifth National People's Congress when announced that the premier was still the premier -- thus implying that originally there had been a problem. Despite his grave illness Zhou delivered his "four modernizations" speech. The applause for Zhou was long and deafening which certainly annoyed Mao. Mao was the sun and when the sun was shining there could be no light from the moon.
Mao had for the first time refused to be a delegate to the congress to reflect his lack of support for Zhou. Just after the closing of the congress Mao called on the whole country to study the the theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Mao declared that China was still had commodity economy with a eight-grade wage scale. Thus, if Lin Biao or his likes assumed power, it would be easy for them to restore capitalism. So instead of studying the documents from the congress and Zhou's call for the four modernizations, the entire nation focused on Mao's instructions on the importance of class struggle. By this time, however, the Cultural Revolution was almost over and the term class struggle had become a cliche. Why did Mao reemphasize this during this time? What was his intention?
Zhou understood very clearly what his intention was. Many people were puzzled, but Zhou understood quite well. It was at this time that Mao called for Wang Hongwen to come from Shanghai to Beijing so that he could cultivate him as a new leader and he rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping to take over Zhou's work. With Zhou's support Deng Xiaoping worked hard to correct some of the most egregious mistakes of the Cultural Revolution. But this once again made Mao anxious. And it also aroused Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao's dissatisfaction. They had their cronies accuse Deng of seldom affirming the achievements of the Cultural Revolution. These accusations touched Mao's most sensitive nerve.
On the one hand, Mao thought it was necessary to correct some of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution. But on the other hand, he was afraid that this would result in a total negation of the entire Cultural Revolution, upon which he had gambled the reputation of his later life. So he had no choice but to once again dismiss Deng from power. Deng was accused of producing a "leftist wind"; the real meaning of this, however, was that he tried to correct the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution.
At the beginning of l976 Zhou Enlai died. When Zhou was first diagnosed with cancer, the Central Committee established a special group of medical specialists (Mao was included in this group which can be considered quite unusual) to oversee the treatment of Zhou. The doctors suggested that surgery would be advisable, but Mao postponed this surgery, saying that it would be better to use Chinese traditional medicine. The chance to find a cure was lost in this delay; Zhou's cancer spread throughout his body. During the period of Zhou's illness Mao launched yet another attack; this time his target was Song Jiang in the novel Water Margin who had capitulated to the emperor in ancient times. Mao accused Song Jiang of being a traitor to the peasant revolution. Most people in China did not understand the meaning of Mao's attack at this time. But Zhou had rightly understood Mao's true meaning. Zhou retorted: "I am a revolutionary; I am not a traitor!"
During the whole period of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou had loyally followed Mao's instructions. To this very day there are still some people who are critical of this. They feel that Zhou should have stood up to Mao and resisted his instructions. Zhou might have done this, and in retrospect he would be a perfect hero today, even greater than Mao. But had he done so, he would have immediately become another victim of Mao and a villain like Zhang Chunqiao would have replaced him. Once becoming Mao's victim, Zhou would not have had any way to protect so many people and to mitigate some of the worst disasters of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhou's death produced massive mourning among the Chinese people. Many people wept openly in the streets. Yao Wenyuan had instructed the People's Daily not to publish too much about the mourning for Zhou. But this only made the people very angry. And the writing of the eulogy for Zhou was overseen by Mao and its evaluation of Zhou was very moderate; it did not mention that Zhou had been a close comrade-in-arms of Mao, and it did not call Zhou a great Marxist. This only further provoked the masses. On April 5, l976 thousands of people gathered in Tiananmen Square, writing poems and making speeches accusing the Gang of Four for their treatment of Zhou. The people were incensed not only because of the ill-treatment of Zhou but also because of the dismissal of Deng Xiaoping. And some of the speeches and poems in the Square were veiled attacks on Mao. So once again Mao decided to crack down.
This was the last of Mao's several disastrous errors. First he wrongly made the decision to start the Great Leap Forward. And to prove that he had not been wrong he punished Peng Dehuai, thus committing another grave blunder. Then to try to prove that these two were not mistakes, he committed an even more serious mistake, that is the Cultural Revolution. To prove that the Cultural Revolution was not wrong he punished Zhou Enlai and then Deng Xiaoping, culminating in the l976 Tiananmen Incident. During his last days, Mao repeated many times that the Cultural Revolution should be launched again and again. He certainly knew that the Cultural Revolution was a failure, but he would not accept this. Mao appointed Hua Guofeng as his successor, only because he thought that Hua was trustworthy -- not based on his competence. But Mao was mistaken. Hua united with the other senior leaders of the party and arrested the Gang of Four, thus finally bringing the Cultural Revolution to its end.
(Presentation at Colgate University, September 1993)