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Unearthing the Fraught History of Chinese Communism

The editors of a new collection of essays argue that we can’t ignore the Chinese Revolution and its impact on the world.

Mao Zedong addressing a meeting. Fox Photos / Getty

Is Mao Zedong a comrade? What about his fellow revolutionaries Lin Biao, Ding Ling, Liu Shaoqi, Yu Luoke, or Zhang Chunqiao?

In his 1971 essay, Blood In My Eye, the revolutionary and Black Panther member, George Jackson, described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Fanonist.” For Jackson this series of names did not provide an identity or demand rigid adherence to a set of ideas. It designated a sequence of struggles against capitalism, colonialism, and racism fought by those who were on the same side and whose comradeship cut across time and space.

Jackson could think of himself and his comrades as participating in this history of struggle and he could see how the lessons learned by Russian, Chinese, and Algerian revolutionaries applied to the fight for black liberation in the United States. Jackson could call Mao a comrade.

In 1959, W.E.B Du Bois celebrated his ninetieth birthday in revolutionary China. He had first visited in 1936 when the country was under Japanese occupation. On his second visit he was struck by the social progress that had been made. In the 1949 Chinese Revolution, Du Bois saw proof that the colonized could rise up against the colonizer and win. In the country’s postrevolutionary advances he saw an alternative to Western imperialism in the making. Echoing Mao’s famous 1949 speech establishing the People’s Republic of China, he urged that: “Africa arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Act! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun.”

For a time, the Chinese Revolution was hailed by leftists as an event comparable in significance to the Paris Commune or the Russian Revolution. It served — and in some cases still serves — as a point of reference for struggles across the world. Kwame Ture, for instance, implored that Mao and his comrades be read alongside Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Che, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Nkrumah. For Ture, a revolutionary did not have the right to speak until they had undertaken this political education.

In Huey Newton’s estimations, meanwhile, the Chinese Revolution disproved Marx’s rejection of the lumpenproletariat as an agent of revolutionary change. In Harry Haywood’s, it taught the importance of “serving the people.” In Amilcar Cabral’s, it demonstrated the significance of the countryside to revolutionary struggle in the Third World. And in Rossana Rossanda’s, its challenge to certain Stalinist tenants taught the need to non-dogmatically adjust political strategy without giving way on revolutionary principle. These revolutionaries could all call Mao a comrade.

Today, most struggle to think of Mao this way. When we think of Maoist China we are less likely to think of anti-colonial struggle, Third World Internationalism, or women’s liberation than we are the catastrophic failures of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But most leftists try not to think of this period of history at all.

This isn’t the case for the writers and editors of a new collection of essays on revolutionary and postrevolutionary China entitled “The Afterlives of Chinese Communism.” And they want you to find lessons of all sorts in the Chinese Revolution.

Afterlives contends that the relative inaccessibility of the Chinese experience has two causes. The first is that Chinese Communism never really went away. Today the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a tight grip on the legacy of the Chinese Revolution and appears to be the future driving force of global capitalism.

The second reason is the persistent influence of Cold War ideology over our perception of China.

In just the past few years Maoism has been evoked to disparage everything from Donald Trump to the Green New Deal. Afterlives sets itself the task of wrestling with this “complicated and contested” history in search of alternative afterlives for Chinese Communism. In so doing it hopes to provide the Left with “new interpretive possibilities” that are not constrained by the official line of the CCP or anticommunist ideology.

The book is comprised of fifty-three essays presented in alphabetical order with contributions from China experts from across the world. Each essay explores a central concept of Chinese Communism — from serving the people, to the mass line, to sugar-coated bullets, to socialist law — to uncover new and often unexpected resonances with the political questions of our time. Readers are invited to make their own way through the collection and to treat it as a reference for understanding the Chinese Revolution and contemporary Chinese politics.

What makes Afterlives particularly commendable is the way that it navigates the difficult terrain of Chinese Communism. As the editors explain in the volume’s introduction, “there is an unspoken pressure that any hint of positive regard for Maoism must be qualified by an acknowledgement of its violence and the untimely deaths of millions of people.” Without shying away from the horrors done in its name, the editors insist that “there is no reason why one cannot feel both inspired and disgusted by different aspects of Maoism.”

It is precisely this approach that lay behind Fidel Castro’s evaluation of Mao as “a great revolutionary” who all too often “destroyed with his feet what he did with his head.” Castro could call Mao a comrade — he could see how Chinese Communism had contributed to the struggle for liberation — but it was on this basis that he was sharply critical of Mao’s mistakes and betrayals.

Afterlives strikes a similar tone. Each of its essays takes Chinese Communism “seriously as a revolutionary project” and yet for many of its authors this means refusing to move too hastily towards condemnation or justification of the Chinese Revolution’s legacy and excesses.

The result is a volume of essays in which easy answers are not forthcoming. We are asked to “approach the Chinese Revolution … to stand in relation to it, and to feel something towards it.” What we feel is often a mix of discomfort and inspiration. We encounter the euphoria of liberation, the state-organized cruelty of “speaking bitterness” to one’s oppressors, the simultaneously positive and catastrophic consequences of collectivization, the Cultural Revolution’s empowerment of the working classes and its chaotic collapse, the creation of new kinds of revolutionary class consciousness and their eventual disintegration. This is the complex history and fraught present of Chinese Communism and it is brought brilliantly to life across this collection of essays.

Despite the many discomforts and setbacks that appear throughout Afterlives its authors remain committed to the idea that the Chinese Revolution’s lessons has a part to play in our ongoing struggle against an accelerating climate crisis and the global resurgence of authoritarian nationalism. We should adopt the same posture toward this history.