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Our Petty-Bourgeois Selfishness

When I first encountered Mao’s Combat Liberalism I was just beginning my PhD and identified predominantly with autonomist Marxism (which, despite my problems with it now, still “saved” me from nebulous anarchism).  I was only just beginning to look to Lenin; I still had that ahistorical, Dulles-inspired, and orientalist understanding of Mao.  Maybe he wasn’t as “bad” as western pop culture would have me believe, but he was not someone I was actually interested in examining--either in theory or in practice.

I was at a party primarily attended by anarchists and activist academics who were wary of vanguardists (and were probably post-modernists) when someone produced Mao’s Combat Liberalism on his computer and decided to read parts of it aloud.  But as a joke.  And it was rather funny at the time--it even sparked running jokes that moved through disparate circles of friend about being this or that type of liberal.  It’s still something of an inside left joke to call someone the ninth, sixth, or whatever type of liberal. 

Whatever the case (and though I still find it funny to call someone a type of liberal), Combat Liberalism was read by this anarcho-activist as a joke: see how silly Mao is?  People especially laughed whenever there was mention of “the party.”  No one seemed too concerned with the closing remarks warning of “petty-bourgeois selfishness” and why it was wrong for revolutionaries to place their personal interests above the interests of the people.  Or that liberal individualism eats away unity and solidarity.

But now I read Combat Liberalism and, despite finding it amusing to jokingly call someone a type of liberalism, see myself and everyone at that party in this small document that was concerned only with proper communist behaviour.  I see my own behaviour in the warnings.  I see all those activist and activist organizations that I once supported and once loved but that have now degenerated into petty back-stabbing, sad little cults of activist superstars, and ultra-leftist squabbles over who’s more radical than who.  So maybe it’s not all that funny to laugh at this small and seemingly insignificant document that warns about liberal behaviour.  About how to treat other people.  About how to understand our own propensity for selfishness, especially since we live in a society that thrives on selfishness.  About how we tend to complain about other peoples’ problematic behaviour behind their backs, turning it into the most vicious gossip, rather than confront them. 

Combat Liberalism has to be the Communist equivalent of the “golden rule.”  Actually, it pretty much is the golden rule since it’s guidelines on how to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  An examination of attitudes and behaviour to avoid––attitudes and behaviour that result in putting the self before others––in order to avoid political degeneration.  Most importantly, though, it’s about being other-centred which is something, if we are communists (or at the very least anti-capitalists), should be our prime concern.

When I read Combat Liberalism now I know why libertarians hate communists so much.  Sheer collectivism!  That horrible communist maniac Mao Zedong is actually suggesting that my individuality is less important than the needs of others?  That I should [gasp] “serve the people?”   Combat Liberalism is clearly the bare-bones outline a collectivist ethic and thus represents everything libertarians revile about communism.  They would hate Combat Liberalism for the same reason that Nietzsche hated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: horrible, terrible “slave morality” where individual will and personal interest is rejected as less important than the will and needs of the community.

In any case, because I think this document is an important outline of how those who profess to be communists or left radicals should act, and because my initial introduction to this document was under the auspices of humour, I shall dedicate future entries to all of the types of liberalism Mao lists and how I’ve been guilty of demonstrating such behaviour.


  1. I never did what I promised at the end of this typo-laden entry. Perhaps it speaks to my liberalism?


    Have you read the book reviewed here?
    I've been in some pretty good discussions about Mao and China today with a Chinese geologist working up here and am thinking this may help me along.

  3. No I haven't read this book, though I've seen Rebecca Karl speak at a conference once. From what I know of her work, she's a critical scholar of China who takes serious issue with the whole Mao-the-mass-murderer ahistorical line that is being pushed these days by Jung Chang and John Halliday. Tariq Ali's review is a little weak, though, but that's to be expected since Ali's heavily Trot-influenced understanding of history should be taken with a grain of salt. (Note how he speaks of the 15-20 million peasants that died in the Great Leap Forward, and uses this as evidence against Karl's supposed position, when so many critical scholars of China have attacked these statistics because they were derived from a change in census numbers... Hinton's "Through A Glass Darkly" and Mobo Gao's "Battle for China's Past" synthesize this approach.) In any case, it looks like it will be a good book and I am looking forward to reading it. The China Study Group folks [the link of which I've included on my link section] also have a lot of good material in this area.

  4. I have Chang and Halliday's book at home (it was a 'gift') and found it a really horrible read. Few, if any, footnotes were provided to back up some of the horrendous claims about Mao (one that sticks in my mind was how Mao was carried, like some god, by rank and filers throughout the Long March). This book reminded me of Radzinsky's "biography" on Stalin. Now, any time I see a book about a communist personality based on "newly openned secret archives" I just cringe. The good part is, the more these reactionaries trash people like Mao and Stalin, the more interested and empathetic I become.

    My real introduction to Mao was through my mother and the gift of the little red book I mentioned before.The rest I got from reading about the civil war in China and the Korean war. None of that focused on Mao or the Chinese Revolution specifically.

    The young Chinese geologist I speak with informs me that while he was taught to respect Mao when he was a kid, there is a tacit understanding among the new generation that the Chairman is not really relevant to China today. My argument is that China's drift into Capitalism makes Mao as much, or more (given his comments regarding the possible return of the capitalists in his writings), relevant than ever! The conversations are interesting and very respectful. I get the impression that he is (very) torn between his obvious reverence for the Revolution and Mao and his belief in the "new" China.

    The conditions of the native population up here have made an impression on him as have the Canadian history lessons he's been getting when we talk. One thing is for sure; when I brought up the settler nature of our society and said we could use a revolution he did say "I can see why".

    I stuff I get from you and the links you provide really helps with this discussion and my undertanding of China and Mao.



  5. Actually, your previous comment reminded me about the Karl book and I picked it up today on my break - it seems like it will be a good read. The idea that Mao is not really relevant to China today is only an idea common to the privileged minority of China: there is still a massive respect for the Maoist era amongst workers and peasants. Mobo Gao's book "The Battle For China's Past" actually makes this argument, investigating this radical desire amongst Chinese peasants and workers and how the Chinese state is trying to shut down this rebellion. Also Minqi Li, who spent time in prison because of the Tianenman fiasco, actually argues that the majority of the protestors in Tianenman Square, and the ones that the Chinese state wanted to put down, were workers demanding a return to the Cultural Revolution era. So this "new generation" that thinks Mao isn't relevant is just as representative of all of China as the children of Canadian CEOs are relevant for all of Canada!

    Always a pleasure to have you comment. Thanks again for reminding me about the Karl book.


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