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The Three-Headed Beast: interblog dialogue

This entry will begin an inter-blog dialogue between myself and BF of The Workers Dreadnought that is aimed at discussing the theoretical contributions of Maoism to the Marxist canon. The title comes from a statement by John Hutnyk in Bad Marxism where he speaks of drawing upon “that three-headed beast” of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Our intention is to demonstrate how the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist tradition should not be understood simply as a sectarian species of Marxism but, rather, as a tradition that has produced a very important development of Marxist theory. Thus, instead of relying on dogmatic diatribes that bash other marxisms, we are concerned with what can be used productively for the reinvigoration of a Marxist politics.

When the Cultural Revolution failed and the “capitalist roaders” became the directors of China’s national destiny, Mao’s rich and revolutionary legacy was obscured behind successive waves of reactionary historiography, both from the centres of capitalism and China itself. In the centres of Capitalism the Cultural Revolution was depicted as an orgy of violence, directed by the boogey-man pyschopath Mao Zedong, where tens of millions of people were intentionally massacred. In China the Cultural Revolution was similarly denounced; Mao’s image was retained as a cipher for state capitalist politics––a politics completely antagonistic to Mao himself. And then, when Maoism was no longer a threat to Euroamerican imperialism, the scary Mao disappeared from popular discourse. Instead we were given the kitsch Mao, the Mickey Mao, the Mao as commodity.

The Western and false history of the Cultural-Revolution-as-organized-massacre, where statistics of millions of victims were invented and mobilized by conservative American think tanks, has recently enjoyed a resurgence. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s well-written but conservative revisionist Mao: The Unknown Story has resurrected this story where Mao plays the role of psychotic dictator. Although numerous academic authorities on Chinese history denounced this book as innacurate and historically false, Mao: The Unknown Story, like all pop-histories that reinforce previously held dogmas, became a best-seller. (Much of the criticism for this book comes from non-Maoist and non-Communist academics. In particular, see Andrew Nathan’s “Jade and Plastic” in London Review of Books, 17 November 2005. Also of interest is the symposium that the TV Ontario show Big Ideas held on Chang and Halliday’s book on April 15, 2006. Every panelist in this symposium––none of whom were communists, although one was a jaded ex-Maoist––rejected Mao: The Unknown Story as historically accurate.)

So why this resurgence of the evil and serial-killing Mao? Although I do not wish to be overly-simplistic, perhaps one of the answers to this question can be found in the simultaneous resurgence of Maoist revolution. Is it a coincidence that Mao: The Unknown Story appeared at the time when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was entering an advanced stage of its People’s War? CPN(Maoist), after all, is on America’s list of terrorist organizations and is considered a threat to the stability (meaning capitalist stability) of Asia. In this context Mao: The Unknown Story is timely.

The legacy of Mao Zedong, however, is indeed terrifying for the ruling classes. The Chinese Revolution, I want to argue, went further than any previous revolution; the failed Cultural Revolution was attempting to revolutionize culture itself. Mao’s theoretical framework was extremely helpful in allowing Marxism to be further operationalized for the global victims of colonialism, semi-colonialism, and imperialism. Theorizing national culture as part of revolutionary praxis, and emphasizing national liberation as part of class struggle, spawned further revolutionary theory such as that of Frantz Fanon, Samir Amin, Eldridge Cleaver, etc.

Even in China the ruling classes are terrified of the real Mao––the Mao that threatens their sanitized Mao, much like the real figure of Jesus threatens the white, reactionary and American Jesus of the Christian right. During the Tianenman Sqaure revolt in 1989, for example, the masses of workers who sang the Internationale, raised the Maoist banner, and demanded a return to the Cultural Revolution, received the most violent repression––far more violent than what was experienced by the students.

It is in this context that Mao’s legacy needs to be reexamined. Such a reexamination, we should add, should not pretend that this legacy ever disappeared; the influence of Mao’s theory on Marxist theory and practice in Asia and Africa has remained vital. Not only is there a persistence of Maoist and Maoist-influenced social movements, but the theoretical concerns highlighted by Mao have, for a long time, been the starting point for every important work of Asian and African revolutionary theory. Here in the so-called “West”, however, European, Euroamerican, and Eurocentric Marxist theories are far more common. The possible and vital dialogue between Maoist-influenced theory and the theories of, say, New Left Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse have been prevented by this theoretical impasse. While the latter group ignores and perhaps marginalizes Maoist and Maoist-inspired theory, the former group reacts by writing off theorists such as Marcuse as thoroughly Eurocentric and petit-bourgeois. The task, then, is to begin this dialogue anew by highlighting the importance of Maoism.

Highlighting the importance of Maoism means, first and foremost, to focus our analysis on Mao’s development of Marxist theory rather than Mao’s biography as leader of the Chinese Revolution. This is not to say that Mao Zedong’s biography is unimportant or that we cannot learn lessons from his real, rather than perceived, successes and failures. Focusing our attention on Maoism rather than Mao Zedong is important because in the Eurocentric centres of capitalism people tend to focus on Mao’s biography, Mao: The Unknown Story being a contemporary and reactionary example of this problem.

We would like to suggest that perhaps one of the reasons for this focus is Eurocentric ideology. Mao, being an “oriental”, has been perceived as incapable of being a theorist. Even some historians sympathetic to Mao, such as Stuart Schram, have suggested he wasn’t truly a Marxist and that his only theoretical contributions were in the realm of military strategy. Historically many Western Communists rejected the Chinese Revolution as not being properly “communist” because it did not accord with their vulgar Marxist assumptions. Lewis Gordon once remarked, in reference to Frantz Fanon, that there is a tendency to focus on the biography rather than the intellectual work of non-white theorists––white people do intellectual work, is the racist assumption, whereas non-white people provide experience. Leave the original rigorous theoretical work, this implicit racism suggests, to those capable of rationality; at best the non-white theorist can only regurgitate the theories of great white thinkers, unable to provide something new. We can read Gordon’s concerns unto Mao: why Mao the revolutionary actor and not Mao the revolutionary theorist? Why Mao who can only (badly) imitate the rational white theorists Marx, Engels, and Lenin, rather than a Mao who is part of this tradition but has also provided new and influential theoretical work?

Therefore our concern is with the “three headed beast” of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM). Not Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought that, semantically, emphasizes Mao the person as a second order thinker capable only of adding a few “thoughts” and “insights” to a tradition of theoretically robust “isms”. The task is to perceive Maoism as an important theoretical development in the Marxist canon.

What, then, is this “three headed beast”? What are the Maoist contributions and progressive developments to Marxist theory? In this inter-blog dialogue, we would like to suggest that there is a definite coherency to the Maoist development of Marxist theory. Moreover, I think we would both agree (here I can only speak for myself, but I'm certain BF is on the same page!), that the inverse claim, that Maoism lacks theoretical coherence, is plagued by the same Eurocentrism of those who would focus predominantly on Mao's biography. Incapable of properly comprehending, let alone coherently developing, the theory of a brilliant European man such as Marx, this position implicitly argues, Mao’s theory can be anything we want it to be. Thus we are given a smorgasbord Mao where we can pick and choose the writings we like.

Although we do not deny that there can be disagreements within the Maoist tradition, we do not link this disagreement to the ultimate incoherence of Maoist theory. Like Marx and Lenin, Mao can not be anything and everything we want. There are obviously divergent readings of Marx, for example, but I doubt any Marxist would claim that Marx believed that capitalism was “the end of history” or that he denied class struggle. Our task with Mao, then, is to define the major contributions of his theory. Disagreement within these contributions is perhaps inevitable but it is important to first note these contributions––to note Maoism’s coherent and important development of Marxist theory.

And now I turn it over to BF at
The Workers Dreadnought to either argue with some of the claims I have made, to expand, or to start the examination of theoretical coherency in Mao...