Roger L. Simon

The Zabar's Zeitgeist Resurrects Mao

If anyone wants to know what I mean by the “New Reactionaries,” they should have a look at Nicholas D. Kristof’s review of MAO, The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in today’s NYTBR. After paying some homage to the biography and condescendingly evincing surprise that the author of a popular book could write such a work (even though her husband is a professional historian), Kristof gets to the crux of his argument:

This is an extraordinary portrait of a monster, who the authors say was responsible for more than 70 million deaths. But how accurate is it?… (some Dowdification on my part here but you can easily check) Take the great famine from 1958 to 1961. The authors declare that “close to 38 million people died,” and in a footnote they cite a Chinese population analysis of mortality figures in those years. Well, maybe. But there have been many expert estimates in scholarly books and journals of the death toll, ranging widely, and in reality no one really knows for sure – and certainly the mortality data are too crude to inspire confidence. The most meticulous estimates by demographers who have researched the famine toll are mostly lower than this book’s: Judith Banister estimated 30 million; Basil Ashton also came up with 30 million; and Xizhe Peng suggested about 23 million. Simply plucking a high-end estimate out of an article and embracing it as the one true estimate worries me; if that is stretched, then what else is?

Okay, so, accepting the lowest estimate of only 23 million dead – roughly three times the population Mr. Kristof’s own New York – what’s his point here really? He’s copacetic with killing only 23 million? Well, evidently he is:

Finally, there is Mao’s place in history. I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao’s legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today. The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea. Indeed, Mao’s entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.

Never mind that the real architect of current Chinese prosperity was Deng Tsaio Peng, not Mao, Kristof’s blithe “the ends justify the means” contempt for human life boggles the imagination. 70 million dead? 40 million dead? At numbers like that who could know really? The Great Helmsman was a mass murderer beyond comprehension. To excuse it in on any level is morally repellent and deeply dangerous to the future of humanity.

Yet, Kristof does. Why? If I were still a marxist, I would examine it on the level of (most probably unconscious) economic self-interest. Kristof (correctly) accuses Mao of having been a bourgeois, but there is no one more bourgeois than an oped columnist for the NYT. And like any bourgeois (including me), he has a position to preserve. Kristof’s paying audience doesn’t want to believe that Mao was all bad. After all, many of them marched or chanted in his behalf. I know this full well, because I was one of them. I even went to China in the Seventies and wore, once upon a time, a Mao cap. Of course I was one of Lenin’s “useful idiots.” So is Kristof.

UPDATE: BizzyBlog has more.