Today I learned of the death of radical feminist writer Shulamith Firestone. Firestone’s influence on the fight for women’s liberation is inestimably large; I know her impact on my own politics, though perhaps waxing and waning throughout the years, has never dissipated. The mainstream press is full of slander and mockery for this brave and brilliant woman, so I will point you to a worthy obituary by comrade JMP that does Firestone justice.
Much noise is made by capitalists about the cult of personality and its place in the historic struggles to build communism. The narrative is, typically, as follows: the Party, intent on maintaining its ideological stranglehold on the nation’s people, builds its leader into a Colossus spanning all schools of thought and all parts of life. Adoration, fear, and dependency on the dictatorial state produce a population susceptible to docility, pliability, and even brainwashing. The artificial self-aggrandizement by the likes of Mao reveal the emptiness of communist rhetoric, and the totalitarian aims of the so-called vanguard.
Like all dominate capitalist narratives, this is utter fantasy.
The phenomenon of the personality cult is not wholly or even mostly some product of official state propaganda dictated from above, but rather something that develops naturally out of the revolutionary experiences of the masses during what are brutal, perilous times, when the road forward to victory would be partially obscured or even completely hidden where it not for the ability of certain theoreticians and leaders to concentrate the ideas of the masses into effective revolutionary systems.
In this essay I will deal with, specifically, the cult of personality surrounding Mao that was to be found during the revolutionary and socialist period in China. I will attempt to show the primarily organic “from below” nature of Mao’s cult of personality, why it developed, and some of the positive results it yielded. In a later essay I will discuss the negative aspects of the cult, and its misuse, expansion, and distortion by certain Party members who sought to implement capitalist ideology.
That it is only a select few who are able to organize a coherent revolutionary theory capable of advancing the struggle for communism is an unfortunate product of history. Rather than understanding leaders like Lenin or Mao through the capitalist logic of the Great Man theory, it is better to approach them honestly: Their ability to go further than others in grasping what is needed for revolution and to advance revolutionary science from a previous stage to the next stems not from some innate, almost supernatural intelligence, but is the product of the conditions that they are thrown into. Could Mao have ever lead as capably as he did, had he not been lucky enough to receive an education that so many other peasants were denied? Would he have had such expansive wisdom that it seemed to contain the whole of China, had he not walked his country’s length and width during the Civil War, engaged all the while in investigation amongst the masses? Certainly not. It was not Mao’s “genius” that produced the theory then known as Mao Zedong Thought and now properly understood as Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, it was his devotion to learning from the people and the particular opportunities and experiences afforded to him in his life. As Chairman Mao himself put it, “I am not at all more intelligent than others, but I understand dialectics and I know how to use it in analysing problems,” and, “the masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding, it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.”
Still we should not undervalue our leaders or consider them irrelevant. Certainly the masses making revolution in China did not. Early on they recognized that Mao Zedong struggled to bring the Communist Party of China out of the dark, dead-end paths of entryism, subordination, and capitulation to the Kuomintang. The capitulationist line was, at various times, represented by Party leaders like Chen Duxiu and Wang Ming, and had to be overcome for the Party to take power in China. In addition to intra-Party challenges, Mao had to struggle against blindly following the direction of Stalin and the USSR, who again would have placed the communists in the lap of Chiang Kai-shek at the expense of the people. Mao also understood, in spite the dogmatism and muddled thinking of the rest of the Party leadership, the extreme importance of the peasantry if China was to liberate itself from imperialism and semi-feudal backwardness. These early battles within the Party, and the successes won through them, made it clear that Mao’s line was correct, scientific, and proletarian. Mao was rightfully viewed by the masses as their most skilled fighter and ally. (We can see that a similar progression occurred amongst the Peruvian communists, with President Gonzalo leading a fierce struggle against the faulty line that dominated previously, after which a cult honoring Gonzalo developed.) In acute revolutionary moments, correct theory is vital to survival; incorrect theory leads to utter annihilation. Chairman Mao provided the former and defeated the latter.
As Mao developed further the theoretical tools of the Mass Line and Protracted People’s War, as he pushed to unite the broad masses and carry out land reform in liberated areas during the Civil War, and as the Party and the people were emboldened under his leadership, China’s reverence for Mao Zedong grew. His guidance saved countless millions from the clutches of the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Facing sabotage and even extermination by Kuomintang forces, the Chinese people upheld Mao and the red banner, and Mao upheld the people, helped to shine light on the path to victory, and stood firm and resolute in the bleakest moments. William Hinton gives a fine example in Fanshen of how the masses associated the revolution with Chairman Mao and Chairman Mao with the revolution. When something went well, they would praise Mao, if party cadre did not behave properly and failed to serve the people, peasants would exclaim, “Chairman Mao should not be this way!” In this manner Mao and the revolutionary cause of the masses became organically and inextricably linked in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. This process would continue throughout the socialist period, when Mao would come to understand how class struggle continues under socialism, and how to fight against both Right and Left deviation that sought to upend and reverse the Chinese people’s progress.
Mao Zedong Thought provided the people with so much more than state power, too. His development of dialectics armed the masses, previously so uneducated and backwards in such matters, with a scientific method whose application could be used to solve problems great or small. The Chinese press printed many stories of the Chinese people using Mao’s theories to achieve great victories in engineering, botany, factory organization, art, and all other spheres. (For an example, please read the Peking Review article I Learn Dialectics and Grow Bigger Crops by Yao Shih-Chang in which a peasant with very little education is able to significantly improve peanut crop output by applying Mao’s essay On Contradiction to his work.)
Because he stood with the proletariat and the peasants, and because his theoretical contributions were really the theories of the masses made solid and strong, the people could use Mao’s words to combat the revisionism and commandism of cadre who had strayed. They organized study groups, they posted their famous big character posters for all to see, and in so doing they weaponized Mao’s works to defend and expand the socialist cause against bourgeois ideology and capitalist roaders. In the hands of the people, Chairman Mao’s speeches and essays became a righteous material force.
It is right to close with Chairman Mao’s own thoughts on the matter:
“There are two kinds of cult of the individual. One is correct, such as that of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the correct side of Stalin. These we ought to revere and continue to revere for ever. It would not do not to revere them. As they held truth in their hands, why should we not revere them? We believe in truth; truth is the reflection of objective existence. A squad should revere its squad leader, it would be quite wrong not to. Then there is the incorrect kind of cult of the individual in which there is no analysis, simply blind obedience. This is not right. Opposition to the cult of the individual may also have one of two aims: one is opposition to an incorrect cult, and the other is opposition to reverence for others and a desire for reverence for oneself. The question at issue is not whether or not there should be a cult of the individual, but rather whether or not the individual concerned represents the truth. If he does, then he should be revered. If truth is not present, even collective leadership will be no good.”