Skip to main content

Why Do These Stupid Books Sell?

I am always fascinated and frustrated by the North American mainstream public's willingness to buy and accept as authoritative "historical" books of dubious scholarship that popularize ruling class ideology.  The reason these books are not treated with the suspicion they deserve, obviously, is because they are designed to reinforce what people are already taught to believe.  These books masquerade as academic, as well-researched and expert, but they rarely fit the standards of academic feasibility and honesty.  And yet they still become part of popular discourse, defended by laypersons who repeat, ad nauseaum, these books' claims and pour scorn on the qualified critics who raise questions.

Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel, for example, not only argued the ahistorical and racist-colonial position that Palestine was an empty desert, a terra nullius, before the European Zionists arrived to "make it bloom again" (and that the Palestinians are really all lying Arabs who snuck into the Zionist paradise from neighbouring states), but he plagiarized his argument from Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial––a book already apprehended as a work of historical hucksterism decades earlier.  Despite the attempt of proper historians, The Case for Israel is still a best-seller and Harvard University Press is more than happy to re-issue further editions.

Dershowitz has built a career out of defending reactionaries and posing as a liberal-minded intellectual.  Long before The Case for Israel he was defending the porn-barons against feminism, raising the standard of "free speech" for misogynist corporations in order to deny this same freedom to the Dworkins and MacKinnons.  (There is a famous case of a public debate between Andrea Dworkin and Alan Dershowitz where Dershowitz refused to release the taped records after debating so that no one who was not in the audience could listen to what happened––so much for his beloved "free speech.")  And then there is the fact that, despite his professed love for civil liberties, Dershowitz supports Campus Watch, a right-wing group that black-lists leftist professors.  It is in this context that The Case for Israel was written: a context where Dershowitz agitates for professors to be fired for political reasons while he produces work that, for professional reasons, would normally be grounds for academic dismissal.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve, though, is Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao:The Unknown Story.  Paradigmatic of the current slough of anti-Mao literature that, like the current fad of anti-communist films I critiqued in a previous post, is nothing more than the most banal and ultimately unsupportable replication of cold war propaganda.  But people love the book, as ludicrous as it is, and bookstores are still packing their shelves with this garbage.  Kaz Ross, her essay Mao the all too familiar story, has argued that this book was popular because it fit into a pernicious "yellow peril" racism common in North America and Europe.  Thus, Chang and Halliday's Mao can be an inhuman Dr. Fu Manchu stereotype, imbecilic and unhygeinic, a mass murderer incapable of anything but evil.

Plugging into pre-existing sentiments and "common sense" beliefs, Chang and Halliday's book does not have to be properly cited: no one cares to check the references (which are badly cited, breaking academic convention in order to spread confusion regarding the sources), everyone believes the story full of contradictions, and no one questions why they base the majority of their tale on anecdotal evidence from unnamed individuals in the countryside they happened to meet––or even that they devote entire passages devoted to Mao's private thoughts and presenting their mind reading experiments as evidence.

One of thousands of the book's dishonesties, pointed out by a few authors, should give any reader that bothers to look up the most accessible sources pause: Chang and Halliday claim that Mao, in a 1958 speech, said "one half of the Chinese people would have to die"––this is cited as evidence of Mao's desire to murder most of China.  The truth, however, is that they wrenched their quote out of context from a speech in which Mao is self-criticizing both himself and the party's failures during the Great Leap Forward: "[If we carry on] in this way, I think, one half of the Chinese people would have to die… If 50 million people die, if you are not dismissed, at least I should be dismissed.  Our heads would also be a problem."  To misquote so obviously and intentionally should definitely demonstrate the dishonesty of Chang and Halliday––but the book still sells and people defend it!

Moreover, properly critical China scholars actually wrote a response to Chang and Halliday, Was Mao Reallly a Monster?, that went through all of their sources and demonstrated both the book's lack of historical substance and its dishonesty.  This book, however, is not a best-seller.  Nor does this criticism really matter when the people who read Mao:The Unknown Story, already convinced of its thesis ahead of time, are unwilling to even look at the counter-evidence.  Similarly, Rebecca Karl's recent book, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century: A Concise History (and I must thank long time commenter RRH for reminding/convincing me to pick this up), though better researched and an easier read, will not be a best-seller.  Karl is not really pro-Mao, and maybe this is a good thing for a concise history in an anti-communist context.  Nor do I find all of her arguments sound––her discussion the Great Leap Forward, for example, doesn't even deal with some of the more recent debates in the scholarship.  The point is simply that her book is a more recent and better researched book on Mao than Chang and Halliday's hatchet job but, unlike Chang and Halliday, Karl will never receive popular acclaim.

Beyond these pseudo-historical books, there are those books that push petit-bourgeois individualism as "facts of life"––the John Grays and Rhonda Byrnes who pretend they know something about the history of philosophy and claim to have distilled this philosophy into profound revelations.  Never mind the fact that they have no philosophical or historical background (John Gray received a fake doctorate from a mail-away school in transcendental meditation, Rhonda Byrne is a wealthy television producer), what they espouse is simply the self-absorbed and unremarkable garbage ideology of capitalism transformed into new age weirdness.   These books, I think, are useful for keeping disgruntled and jobless workers focused on the capitalist dream of hard-work-means-self-advancement.  They are especially useful now when the recession is worse at the centre of capitalism than it was in the Great Depression: people at the centres of capitalism have extreme difficulty realizing how much worse it is, as one of my friends pointed out just last week, because of a culture industry and the ideology it breeds.


  1. I would suppose that you are familiar with the recent reviews of books on Mao and China that Verso's page linked to (by Tariq Ali and Pankaj Mishra)?

  2. Yes, I read the Tariq Ali review. But thanks for cut and pasting it here.

  3. I actually read "Mao: The Unknown Story" one summer a few years ago. Although I didn't really consider myself a Marxist at that point (just had "socialist leanings"), and pretty much accepted the ruling class view that Mao was simply one of history's greatest mass murderers - even then, the book seemed fishy to me (not to mention tedious). It seemed like everything was written with the express purpose of making Mao out to be a despicable human being in every sense of the word. Not just the people who died under his reign, but also the way he treated his wives, his children, or being carried on a litter during the Long March while his men endured endless walking in brutal conditions.

    Since then, I've obviously evolved quite a bit politically. I read the Little Red Book in 2010 after hearing that the Black Panthers got a lot their inspiration from it. I loved what I read - Mao is clearly a good writer - but came away thinking he really didn't follow a lot of his own advice. The section on "Self-Criticism", for example, seemed to ring hollow when there was a personality cult of such magnitude around Mao, effectively portraying him as a deity, and encouraging the violent persecution of his political enemies.

    I try to keep an open mind about Mao, because he did accomplish many great things for China (in the same way that life improved in the USSR under Stalin, despite the fact that under his watch the country degenerated into a totalitarian police state). Life expectancy increased dramatically. Health care and education became more widely-available. Illiteracy was practically eliminated. He kicked the imperialists out of China and helped the country stand on its own as a unified, modern nation-state. Mao helped give the Chinese people self-respect again.

    But the two biggest problems I've always had with Mao - other than his anti-democratic leadership style, and violence suppression of striking workers - have been the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I have some friends in Toronto who have helped enlighten me on the Cultural Revolution, reminding me that there was a very real threat of capitalist restoration in China at the time, and that the mass movement of the students indicated definite revolutionary feeling among the broad population.

    The Great Leap Forward, on the other hand, just seems like a disaster on all fronts, and I understand it remains the worst famine in human history. It seemed to repeat a lot of the insanity that ensued during Stalin's rapid forced collectivization in the Soviet Union.

    I've looked around on your blog for more info about the Great Leap Forward, but haven't been able to find anything. Any way I might be able to get your take on it?

    1. First of all, the Red Book isn't a good source for mao's theory since it's just quotations, many out of context. Secondly, the cult of personality surrounding Mao was fostered by Liu Shaochi and the right-opportunists in the party intentionally to obscure the line struggle during the Cultural Revolution and Mao was actually against it. Unfortunately, since the party was trying to wage a struggle against semi-feudal ideology, the remaining shreds of this ideology were such that a cult of personality could grow easily. Finally, the amount of democratic initiative during the Mao era was so high that it became pretty chaotic during the GPCR (which leads me to my next point), so claiming that there was some anti-democratic leadership is erroneous. As are your claims about violently suppressing striking workers which is a pretty spurious and ahistorical claim: the PLA at one point during the Cultural Revolution was sent to suppress workers, but not because they were striking but because they were killing other workers who were also, in turn, attacking them... this is because the GPCR was a pretty tumultuous time.

      I think you need to carefully study the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution rather than assume they are what bourgeois historians and bad eurocentric leftists think they are. The Great Leap Forward was a failed attempt to industrialize in a mass-line kind of way. Although it did not lead to the horribly unsubstantiated "famine statistics" that rightists use (there's a lot of good stuff on Monthly Review explaining where these statistics come from and why they're innacurate – mainly they come from looking at a lower birth rate and assuming that this meant that the lack of a surplus population means that people died), it was referred to as the two or three bad years in the countryside. This was because of the line struggle in the party and the fact that Liu and Deng's line, which was always pushing for a top-down style of bureaucratic leadership (as opposed to the line represented by Mao and others which was a bottom-up and mass-line leadership approach – again you're quite wrong with your "anti-democracy" analysis here) did a lot of false-reporting and sabotage in this period. Because the line struggle was still within the party and not open at that time, the lack of transparency led to the GLF not reaching its aims… but not, for all that, producing an extremely terrible famine. The terrible famine ideology is something that was more recently applied, and you'll be hard pressed to find people in the Chinese countryside who have a memory of some devastating famine that only bourgeois scholars in North America claim existed.


    2. [cont. from above]

      The Cultural Revolution came about directly because of the failure of the Great Leap Forward in a period of time when the party was becoming horribly bourgeoisified. Mao's line cohered around rebels in society who were critiquing party privilege and, again to demonstrate just the level of pro-democracy Mao's politics embraced, this is why Mao and the comrades supporting his political line in the party basically agreed that the masses should "bombard the headquarters". The Cultural Revolution *was* a revolution and so was a class struggle just like any revolution: chaotic, violent (though not even close to as violent as rightists claim nor was Mao in command of what they claim he was in command of, the personality cult was even used against the politics he represented), but also a period of unprecedented transformation. It was, as some who were there have said, the only time in history the entire masses were actually talking about communism––that is, a classless society––and what it meant for them.

      So no, the GLF is not the greatest famine in human history according to critical academic scholars of China. Maurice Meisner, Arif Dirlik, and Rebecca Karl – all of whom are *liberal* scholars but who are considered the apex of academic scholarship on Chinese history – have rejected this analysis, and it's only uncontentious outside of academic discourse. Again, if the death toll is based on the surplus population, and it's clear that birth rates go down in societies that become more stable (it's Malthussian to assume otherwise), then this is shoddy scholarship. The academics cited above, as well as MR scholars, have done a good job demystifying this approach.

      If you want to read two good books that examine/critique the bourgeois analysis of these periods, and do a good job summing up why the arguments are bad and talk about their own experiences here, you should check out William Hinton's "Through A Glass Darkly" and Mobo Gao's "The Battle for China's Past."

  4. I bought a copy of that Mobo Gao book a few months ago and it was a great read! I definitely feel like I'm starting to get a more complex, nuanced and three-dimensional view of Mao and what he stood for, compared to the cartoonish nonsense we typically hear about him in the West. Nor do I think of him as a mere "Stalinist", since he clearly placed a much higher premium on democracy from below than Stalin or his successors in the USSR did (Exhibit A: The Cultural Revolution).

    1. Glad you enjoyed the book. You're quite right about the higher level of mass participation Mao emphasized compared to Stalin. In fact, in the debate between China and the Soviet Union under Khruschev, there is a piece called "On The Question of Stalin" where, despite defending Stalin's legacy against Khruschevite revisionism, there is an entire paragraph where the Chinese (and Mao was one of the authors) critique Stalin's lack of mass line and authoritarian tendency to deal with "contradictions amongst the people". So they did have the failures in the Soviet Union in this regard in mind during the GPCR.


Post a Comment