The vast, unfinished human experience called the “Chinese Revolution” is not, in my view, the kind of event that can be simply approved or disapproved. The People’s Republic, during the twenty-three years of its history, has undergone many shifts, experienced many crises and many upheavals in leadership. At times the leadership itself has harshly condemned previous lines of policy which had received full endorsement from people abroad who believe that “Revolution” must invariably receive total approval. Thus one can acknowledge the many huge and undeniable accomplishments of the People’s Republic without making a total commitment to some general state of affairs called the “Chinese Revolution” and without accepting all of Chairman Mao’s claims as a political and moral philosopher.
I will discuss here not the “Chinese Revolution” but certain themes in the “Thought of Mao Tse-tung,” particularly as they were developed during the recent cultural revolution. While these themes generally derive from Mao’s previous ideas, they take an especially acute form in the “cultural revolution” of recent years.
I shall not concern myself with the question whether Mao is an “original” moral and political philosopher. It is probably true that had he not achieved power, few of us would be interested in his metaphysics or his moralpolitical philosophy. Yet the fact that those with political power are able, to a degree, to put their ideas into practice will always lend a particular interest to whatever ideas they may have. What is more, the ideas themselves concern fundamental issues—in my own view, issues fundamental not only to China in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but to all of us. In challenging the dogma that China’s different culture and its lower “stage of development” make its thought “irrelevant” to us in the West, the Western admirers of Mao, whatever their limitations, have performed a distinct service.
Whether Mao’s vision of cultural revolution is relevant only to China’s present condition (or, more broadly, to “underdeveloped societies”) or whether it has bearing on more universal matters is, one finds, a question that divides the defenders of that vision as well as its skeptics. One can distinguish among the former what might be called the “tough-minded” and the true disciples. The true disciples believe that all of Mao’s words are to be taken at face value. The “tough-minded” believe that there is both a public and an esoteric Maoist doctrine.
Like all sensible leaders, Mao, in the “tough-minded” view, is interested mainly in “modernization” as this term is understood in the West. He is fundamentally a theorist of economic development. He realizes that countries woefully poor in capital, such as China, must depend heavily on intensive use of labor. Hence his appeal to selflessness, austerity, and infinite self-sacrifice—to “moral incentives” in general—as the only way to mobilize the masses for development. As a consummate social engineer, Mao knows well that this morality of sacrifice and collectivity is an interim, instrumental morality. He realizes that modernization will in the end lead to a society in which the dominant goals of life will be consumer pleasures and the pursuit of status, but thinks of all these matters as a hard-headed strategist of development. He is, as it were, self-consciously creating his own version of a Protestant ethic.
Yet it is precisely the parallel to the notion of the Protestant ethic that leads one to question this view of Mao. Neither Calvin nor his successors were strategists of development. They profoundly believed that their ethic was tied to man’s eternal salvation. They were entirely unconcerned with the achievement of wealth as a “spin-off” effect. Nothing could have been further from their vision than an interest in “economic development.” Indeed if they had believed in the supremacy of the goals of economic development, they would have speedily abandoned their ethic of salvation. As Max Weber argued, the economic effects of the Protestant ethic were unintended.
It is true that Mao’s vision of cultural revolution is explicitly committed to economic development and national power, and even to the view that the Maoist ethic will spur such development. This, however, by no means proves that Mao does not really believe in the cultural revolutionary ethic as an ultimate end in itself. Some proponents of Western liberalism have argued simultaneously that individualism is good because it encourages economic enterprise and that it is also good as an end in itself. The same may be true of Maoist collectivism. Thus in treating Mao’s thought I shall accept the interpretation of the true disciples who believe that Mao desires “modernization” but only the kind of modernization that can be achieved within his vision of the good society.
Finally, I shall not be concerned with all the possible motives of Mao’s behavior in the cultural revolution or with what relationship his doctrines bear to the actualities of Chinese politics in 1973. In fact, in many sectors of life there now seems to be a definite retreat—muffled in Aesopian language—from the full implications of Mao’s “cultural revolutionary” vision.
The Maoist Conception of Science
What I call Mao’s conception of science is an element of his ideas of cultural revolution that goes back at least as far as the Yenan period (from about 1936 to 1946) and perhaps has its roots in Mao’s earliest acquaintance with the concept of science in the writings of Yen Fu, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, and popular tracts of the early twentieth century. This concept of science at first seems based on an inductive-pragmatic view common in the Anglo-American tradition. It is essentially Baconian, emphasizing the importance of induction from observation of concrete facts, as well as “learning by doing.”
This view of science Mao relates to the simple epistemology we find in “On Practice,” an essay written in July, 1937, during the early stages of the Yenan period. Here Mao writes that concepts are immediately derived from perceptions made in the course of man’s social practice and are then immediately applied in practice. Mao, of course, shares with other Marxist-Leninists the conviction that the word “science” is just as applicable to the “truths of Marxism-Leninism” as to the truths of natural science. The view of science described in “On Practice” seems applicable both to the social history of man and to the natural sciences, although, as we shall see, there are in fact considerable differences in the way Mao’s concept is applied to each.
It seems apparent that this conception of science is consistent with many other themes in Mao’s writing during the Yenan years and in his later work on cultural revolution. First, it seems to include an element of populism. If science is basically a matter of learning from immediate practical experience, it should be a matter of common sense immediately accessible to all. Here if you will you can find similarities between Mao’s linking science to populism and John Dewey’s view that an experimental-pragmatic method of science is linked to democracy.
But of course Mao’s view of science also becomes a weapon for attacking those intellectuals who believe that conceptual reasoning can be separated from immediate perception and that truth can be gained through sustained abstract reasoning divorced from immediate practical experience. Such intellectuals are addicted to learning from books rather than from immediate practical experience. To believe in the fruitfulness of abstract thought separate from direct concrete practice and to rely heavily on past experience mediated through books implies that a politically inactive intellectual cloistered in his study may still independently arrive at truth.
Two questions arise at this point. To what extent does Mao consistently maintain his view of science and to what extent is it valid? The first question is particularly relevant to Mao’s view of the “science” of social history and to the supposedly populist implications of this view.
Here it is illuminating to compare Mao with John Dewey. As we know, in spite of Mao’s insistence on deriving truth from concrete situations, as in the case of Lenin and Stalin, “empiricism” is for him a bad word. Empiricism, he argues, fails to place newly experienced concrete situations within the pre-established framework of the “universal truths of Marxism-Leninism.” (By now, we can perhaps add the “universal truths of the thought of Mao Tse-tung.”) Dewey also occasionally attacked “empiricism.” By this he meant the “abstract” empiricism of Locke and Hume1 which attempted to reduce experience to universal elements, namely sensation. To Dewey experience is made up of complex and unique concrete situations. He objects to a “logic of general notions under which specific situations are to be brought,” and he is not prepared to admit the existence of any pre-established universal truth that may not be upset or modified by any new situation. All people, equipped by education with scientific intelligence, will be able to solve the problems that face them by dealing with the situation in which the problems occur. They need not assume in advance that any a priori universal truth necessarily applies to their situation.
In Marxism-Leninism (including Mao’s version of Marxism-Leninism) pre-established universal truths about the world certainly exist. In Mao’s thought there are not only truths that are universal but even some that are eternal, such as his famous “laws of contradiction.” Other truths concerning the “laws of history” are not eternal but they are in principle universal during the period in which they are applied. To be sure, in a speech delivered in February, 1942, when he was launching his “Remolding” campaign, Mao informed us that Marx himself arrived at his “universal truths” from “detailed investigations and studies in the course of practical struggle.”2
Apart from the fact that Marx made most of his investigations for Das Kapital in the dusty archives of the British Museum when he was very little involved in “practical struggles” (other than personal ones such as supporting his family), there remains the old philosophic problem of how universal and necessary truth can be derived inductively from what must always be partial and contingent empirical data. In fact, some of the universal categories of Marxism-Leninism derive from Hegel, who firmly believed that his major categories were based on a general contemplation of the nature of the universe itself and not merely on atomic empirical observations of “learning by doing.”
Quite apart from the question whether all the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism have been derived inductively, there is the thornier question of who is authorized to relate pre-established universal truths to new situations. The Leninist answer is that only the party has this authority; while Mao informs us that “our comrades who are engaged in practical work must realize that their knowledge is mostly perceptual and partial and that they lack rational and comprehensive knowledge.”3 It is thus obvious that those who gather perceptual knowledge at first hand are not necessarily the same persons as those who derive the new rational and comprehensive concepts from this knowledge.
For Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, moreover, the “application” of universal truth to concrete new situations usually means that previously held truths are modified and hence their universality denied. Lenin and Stalin (however different they may have been) no less than Mao constantly spoke of “applying and extending” pre-established theory to new unanticipated experience. In this sense, all three are “empiricists” and “pragmatists.” Like Mao, both Lenin and Stalin “applied” the truths recorded in the canonical books of Marx and Engels to “life.” Thus the party or the current leadership of the party, or the Leader, came to have exclusive authority to interpret universal truths and to link universal truths to the new lessons derived from new perceptual experience. The Leader thus has the awesome authority to negate the pre-existing universal propositions.
This was the view taken by Mao during the “Cheng-feng” debates in Yenan in the early 1940s. Mao then accused those communist intellectuals he called “dogmatists” of excessive literalness in interpreting Marxist and Leninist texts. At the heart of those debates was not simply the question whether truth is to be derived from direct perceptual “practical” experience. To the extent that Mao spoke of the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism, he was referring to truths recorded in books. But he was essentially placing the authority of the church to interpret the social scriptures above the scriptures themselves. He was by no means asserting that every man in the village has the right to interpret the scriptures in the light of his own “partial” reading of perceptual experience.
It is probably true that Mao’s view of Chinese political and social realities in the Yenan period was generally more accurate than the views of many of those whom he attacked, such as the orthodox Wang Ming and others. But embedded in the “remolding” speeches he made in Yenan was the claim that the task of “synthesizing the experience of the masses into better articulated principles and methods” was the exclusive prerogative of the “correct” political leadership—“correct” not only because it could base its inductions on a broad view of experience as seen from the mountain top but because it knew how to relate pre-established universal truths to new experience.
It may, of course, be maintained that Mao’s inductive-pragmatic view of science is far less ambiguous when applied to the natural sciences. 4 Here one might say that the populist implications of this thought are clear. The man in the village or factory is unable to relate his own immediate “partial” experience to the total social and political world and to his society’s history, but he is, after all, in immediate contact with physical nature. A worker or group of workers in contact with a machine may be able to discover ways of improving it; and new inventions have indeed been made by artisans throughout the ages by using “empiric” methods. If we identify the history of science with the history of technological progress before the scientific revolution (and even to some extent after the scientific revolution), Mao’s conception of “science” remains cogent. Indeed as Joseph Needham has obsessively insisted, China may well have been in the vanguard of this older type of technological advance for centuries.
A more fundamental question than any we have yet considered is, however, whether the Maoist conception is valid when applied to the science that has emerged from the modern scientific revolution. A layman’s reading of contemporary historians and philosophers of science such as Koyre, Popper, Toulmin, Kuhn, and others would suggest that the cutting edge of the scientific revolution in the “hard sciences” was not mainly the inductive method—accurate and exhaustive observation or even experimentation as such—but the construction of fruitful deductive hypotheses, often of a logical and mathematical nature. Of course, observation, experiment, and “practice” are crucial to the process of verification but not, we are told, to the process of discovery.
Thus, the crucial elements not only in science but in intellectual work generally may be the abilities of the human mind to abstract itself from immediate reference to concrete experience, to form conceptions, and to engage in sustained reflection and reasoning. Indeed, to the extent that Mao Tse-tung is inclined to treat literature as a kind of applied science of social engineering, one must add that some of the same abilities seem necessary to the creative imagination. Mathematics, of course, is the purest example of the kind of abstract thinking I am referring to and, as we know, mathematics has played an enormous role in modern scientific work. To be sure, the scientific discoverer must in his reflections constantly refer to a vast accumulation of acquired human experience but much of this experience may well come from memory and books. Einstein could accomplish most of what he did apart from immediate “practical” experience.
One can still make an argument for many of Mao’s maxims concerning intellectuals—scientific and others—on social and ethical grounds, and such arguments have been made in many other times and places. Intellect may lose its connections with “life” and become a self-contained scholasticism. People in the academy may lose the capacity to see the connection between the printed word in books and the realities with which they deal. On the other hand, people may delude themselves that their “social practice” constantly reconfirms their general maxims when, in fact, it does nothing of the sort. Intellectuals—scientific and others—may be enormously arrogant and may use the social advantage derived from their claims to knowledge to achieve special privilege. Whether they are more inclined to do so than “practical” revolutionary politicians whose social advantage derives from their positions in the political vanguard is, of course, questionable.
Something may also be said for the view that in China in particular, with its long tradition of divorcing artists, writers, and scholars from physical labor, some direct contact with physical work may have a wholesome effect. Whether it has all the intellectual and even moral effects attributed to it is far from clear. It can also be argued that what China now requires is not so much theoretical scientific discoveries as practical scientific applications. That in a vast and poverty-stricken country large numbers of medical and technical paraprofessionals should be trained, mostly on the job, without being required to master the theoretical foundations of a given discipline, is a notion with obvious merit, even if it does not vindicate Mao’s ideas concerning the foundations of modern science.
The main question here is whether truth concerning society and the cosmos can be discovered in libraries or laboratories by people who do not occupy a position within the current leadership or close to it.5 The idea that truth can be discovered in this way clearly challenges the leadership’s monopoly of the privilege of “synthesizing the experiences of the masses into better articulated principles and methods.” The present Maoist philosophy of education is designed to make education as pragmatic as possible. While this view may be defended on the grounds of practical necessity, it also presumably reflects Mao’s Baconian-pragmatic view of science. As for the universal principles required by the masses, these will, of course, be derived from the thought of Mao Tse-tung. The masses may thus be shielded against the corrupting effects of wrong “syntheses” derived from illegitimate sources.
On Bureaucracy and Domination
No element of Mao’s cultural revolutionary vision has had more appeal in the West than his attack on bureaucracy and on organizations in general. While the capitalist societies of the West have been a primary target, some of the most subversive implications of his doctrine apply not only to the Soviet Union but also to Marxist-Leninist doctrine itself. What Mao has done is return to a position long shared by liberals and anarchists—that social power and privilege gained from positions within a political institution or bureaucracy can be as primary and as autonomous a source of oppression and exploitation as the social power and privilege conferred by the ownership of private property.
We are now told by Mao that the bureaucrat who sits in his office shuffling papers (like the intellectual sitting in his study perusing books) may be as far removed from the interests of the masses as the capitalist owner of the means of production. For example, the current Chinese claim that the Soviet State has been captured by the “bourgeoisie” obviously does not assume that the Soviet Union has a large class of people whose power rests on the private ownership of the means of production. As often happens when Mao uses the Marxist vocabulary, words are emptied of their concrete social and economic meanings and given largely moral ones. The potent word “bourgeois” now simply means exploitative, oppressive, selfish, etc. The new “bourgeoisie” of the Soviet Union has been able to achieve its position precisely though the control of the organization provided by party and state.
If we look back to all of Marx’s writings, the issue is, of course, never simple. One theory claimed to derive from Marx which stresses the primacy and autonomy of political power is the theory of Asian society. In Asia, at least according to this view, political organization was itself a primary force in creating social classes. Whatever implications for political power in the West Marx drew from his theory of Asian society remain unclear. I believe he simply did not consider how this theory would affect his analysis of Western society. The theory did not prevent the ascendancy of “vulgar Marxism” in which political power was treated as strictly “superstructural” and governments as the “executive committees” of the ruling class. True, the Marxist social democrats of the late nineteenth century, including the Mensheviks, insisted that their parties be organized along the lines of democratic constitutionalism. They by no means disdained the “machinery” of political democracy within their parties (notwithstanding the highly bureaucratic centralization of the German Social Democratic Party).
The Marxist social democrats certainly did not believe that some pre-established harmony between leaders and followers made constitutional controls superfluous. On the contrary, they sincerely believed that, because the party represented the harmonious general will of the industrial proletariat, political democracy would truly be realized within the social democratic party. Such Mensheviks as the early Trotsky and Martov, of course, immediately suspected a tendency in Lenin to create a new bureaucratic elite. Their experience in Russia alone would have made it difficult for them to ignore the reality of bureaucratic power.
In the same way, it was the Leninist strain in the Marxist movement that was most inclined to depreciate the separate reality of political power and to emphasize its “superstructural” quality. It was the Leninists who were most prepared to invoke the vulgar Marxist notion that the state is merely the executive committee of the ruling classes. From this Stalin was later able to conclude that, in any society where the private ownership of the means of production is abolished, the existing state—whatever its organization—necessarily represents the proletariat. Before his death Lenin had some dark premonitions about the resurgence of bureaucratic power but he allowed himself to be comforted by the thought that the proletariat occupied the heights of power and that the party continued to be the “virtual representative” organ of the proletariat.
Even under Stalin we also find routine attacks on bureaucratism. What was criticized, however, was mainly the inertia and incompetence of the party bureaucrats rather than their caste privileges and power to oppress. The Stalinists tended to insist on the benign and “superstructural” nature of the new elite. Even the hounded Trotsky remained sufficiently imprisoned within his own Leninism to refuse to admit the emergence of a “new class” in the Soviet Union.
By contrast, Mao in his cultural revolutionary phase essentially accepts, as does Djilas, the possibility of a new class. The access to power and privilege which divides the leaders of party and state from the “masses” is by no means less real than access to power and privilege created by “relations of property.” One may indeed use that most powerful epithet “bourgeois” to describe both.
For Djilas, this notion leads directly to a rehabilitation of all the principles of constitutional democracy. If political power is a primary and formidable source of oppression and exploitation, the machinery created by liberal democracy to check political power and make it accountable becomes valid. If that machinery is defective and fallible, it should simply be improved.
Constitutional democracy obviously plays hardly any role in Mao’s thought—probably even less of one now. The machinery of constitutional democracy is, after all, machinery, while the spirit of the cultural revolution is skeptical of any institutional apparatus whatsoever. In the discussions of party building which have taken place in the last few years and in the documents of the Ninth Party Congress of 1969 we find a weakening of the kind of electoral machinery that has survived as a ghost of constitutionalism within other communist parties of the Soviet type. This has even led to Soviet attacks on Maoist leadership for undermining the “norms of intra-party democracy” within the Leninist constitution of the party.
The other modern movement holding that political power and organization themselves are the social basis of class domination is, of course, anarchism. Nineteenth-century anarchism, when it did not simply call for an apocalyptic annihilation of all authority, tended to advocate the destruction of the nation state and the creation of a network of small communitarian societies in which direct democracy would prevail to the extent that political organization was required at all. One of the influences behind this variety of anarchism was the doctrine of Montesquieu and Rousseau that democracy in any true sense of the term was only possible in something on the scale of a city state.
The “Paris Commune,” which has played a distinctive role in the writings of Marx and Lenin and which was invoked in China both during the “Great Leap Forward” and in the Cultural Revolution, was, in many ways, an embodiment of certain nineteenth-century anarchist ideas. True, the accidental fact that the Commune was confined to Paris was precisely what made its anarchist-communitarian character possible, although Proudhonians and other kinds of anarchists also played a role in it. The Commune’s anarchism would have been tested if its Paris government had extended its power throughout France—a test it would probably not have met.
Marx’s attitudes to the Commune were complex. His passing enthusiasm for it seems largely based on what he regarded as its revelation that a revolution in Europe was still possible; at the same time he found in the Commune prefigurings of a vaguely articulated utopia which would, of course, be anarchist in some sense.6 To Lenin, the Paris Commune had a narrow polemical meaning. It proved that there could be no peaceable transition from capitalism to socialism and that the “old state machine must be smashed.” The question whether there was anything in the Commune anticipating a centralized bureaucratic organization like the Communist Party is one he simply fails to consider.
In Mao’s references to the Paris Commune, particularly at the time of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, one can perhaps discern a tendency to invoke some of its more anarchist characteristics. He described the Chinese communes of 1958 as being ideally autonomous cells of society which would carry on agricultural, industrial, cultural, and even military activities in a self-sufficient way, thus greatly reducing the tasks of the central state organs. Their existence would lead to an enormous reduction in the size of the state bureaucratic apparatus, particularly in agriculture.
It must not be forgotten, however, that the emphasis on the local and autonomous in Mao’s image of the commune during the Great Leap Forward was effectively counterbalanced by the unifying tendencies of the party organization. It is true that even in 1958 the party was ideally portrayed as being made up not of bureaucrats but of dedicated cadres. Ideally, the unity of the party, unlike the unity of the state, depended not on its bureaucratic organization but on the selfless discipline of its individual cadre members, who would be effective local leaders yet would maintain their unquestioning loyalty to the authority of the “Center.” Nothing could have been further from Mao’s mind than the disintegration of China as a unified national society. Indeed, the tasks of the party as an integrated nervous system would become heavier than ever.7
The Cultural Revolution of the mid-Sixties, of course, goes much further. Here an attack was made not only on the state bureaucracy and organization but on the machinery of the party itself. In spite of all the “remolding” of the previous years, the party had, in Mao’s eyes, shown itself susceptible to the same bureaucratic diseases as the state apparatus. Thus it would seem that Mao’s invocation of the Paris Commune during the Cultural Revolution had much more radically anarchist implications than his reference to it during the Great Leap Forward. Indeed, some of the younger and bolder cultural revolutionaries leaped to the conclusion in 1967 that Mao was really calling for the abolition of the whole national apparatus of state and party, and was for carrying out the anarchist-communitarian “Paris Commune” ideal.
In fact, there is no reason to believe that Mao had ever accepted this conclusion or ever wavered in his belief that within the national society there should be a central, supreme authority—a “Center”—with overwhelming decision-making power. One might say that in early 1967 he had, in his own person, become a living embodiment of this central authority although he relied even then on his cultural revolutionary group, the Red Guards, with the army already lurking in the background. When the Red Guards showed a weakness for “anarchist” tendencies and the vicious “theory of many centers,” he came to lean very heavily on that other crucial pillar of support of central authority—the People’s Liberation Army.
Mao, in fact, is not an anarchist. He has never wavered in his belief in vanguard leadership and political authority—both central and local. Since he obviously believes in the continued existence of China as a cohesive society, he has never changed his conviction that the vanguard leadership must have a center of ultimate authority, just as in his polemics with the USSR he always held that the communist bloc ought to have a spiritual center. In all his discussions of the dissolution of the division of labor in human society, in all his expressed hopes for the development of a man who will be simultaneously peasant, worker, soldier, and intellectual, Mao has not questioned the need for a working division of labor between leaders and led.8 His attack on bureaucratic machinery and elaborate hierarchic organization does not necessarily imply the rejection of a ruling elite. It seems rather to represent the dream of a ruling elite whose authority is rooted in the moral and intellectual quality of its members rather than in their organizational positions and functions.
Mao Tse-tung, like many others in the Chinese communist leadership, has concerned himself more than communist leaders elsewhere with the problems of central versus local government which often concern Western “bourgeois” political theorists. Mao obviously dreams of a local leadership which will be creative, take initiatives, exercise independent judgment, be close to the masses, even while maintaining a profound loyalty to the policies of the central government. This concern with local grass-roots government may reflect many of the particularities of Chinese communist history. It does not imply any anarchist proclivities. The rather unexpected praise for American techniques of local government which the Chairman expressed in 1971 in his interview with Edgar Snow—however seriously meant—would indicate how far he is from rejecting the nation-state.
If a leader recognizes the sinister potentialities of political power as such and yet rejects the liberal democratic and anarchist ways of dealing with them, how then does he deal with the corruptions of power? The answer provided by Mao is a very ancient one and one with a long Chinese past. It is to insist that the holders of power embody moral virtue. The very language used by Mao to describe the virtues that leaders must have is ancient. He wants leaders who will be servants rather than masters, who will sacrifice themselves for the collectivity, live austerely, be humble, constantly scrutinize their own behavior, be open to criticism, etc. Yet if the answer is ancient, it is nevertheless true that some of the methods Mao suggested to achieve these ends are indeed new and bear consideration.
Both Western liberals and anarchists would, of course, be inclined to reject out of hand the notion that the problem of restraining those in power is resolved by the moral character of leaders. The rhetoric of moral improvement is alien to their discourse. Indeed, as in the case of Djilas, the liberals would be more inclined to feel that the rediscovery of the special malignancy of political power vindicates the long effort to create effective constitutional machinery designed to check it and make it accountable. And yet, as we are well aware, contemporary Western liberalism has its own problems. Not only do there remain huge concentrations of private power which are hardly subject to effective accountability, but the needs of the nation-state have created vast and distant bureaucratic and executive power which is held accountable only by methods that are indirect and work over long periods.
While many who call themselves liberals have been quite impervious to the belief in moral elites, they have not been equally impervious to the belief in technocratic elites—the belief that many of the problems of modern society must be handled by “scientific” experts and the political authorities they serve. It is easily accepted that such experts are wholly dedicated to the rules of their science, and that they are competent as scientists. Since they are in some sense ultimately accountable to the electorate, the question of their corruption and abuse of power presumably does not arise.
Relatively speaking, liberal democracy has probably been more successful in preserving civil liberties than in creating an iron-clad machinery for assuring the accountability of power. Those who are corrupt and abuse power have proven more ingenious than the machinery designed to control them. Thus the machinery of political democracy has by no means made irrelevant the ancient and tragic question of the corruptions of power and domination. Conversely, however, the very recognition of the dangers of political power as an autonomous source of oppression may also vindicate the legitimacy of efforts to control power by constitutional machinery.
We are by now fairly familiar with Mao’s formulas for ensuring that power be used morally. Leaders must not be separated from the masses. They must be in constant gemeinschaftlich contact with them. Higher cadres must constantly be sent down from their offices to learn from the masses. There must be a constant and unremitting inculcation of the Maoist ethic of self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, etc., and words must, of course, be closely tied to practice and immediate application. Administration must be made as simple as possible. The local cadre must be subject to constant scrutiny by others who are constantly judging his performance. “Participation in labor,” in particular, is felt to have had a powerful moral effect. Finally, the masses, who will have been thoroughly imbued with a Maoist ethic, will themselves exercise moral control over their leaders. The aim is not only moral virtue but also effectiveness, and here we see how the Maoist concept of science neatly meshes with his methods of inculcating morality. The cadre, by being in constant touch with the immediate local practice, learns from actual experience how to apply the general line to local affairs.
One of the first questions that arise here is, how simple can administration be in a regime which aspires to become a “rich and powerful” nation-state? Has Mao disproven Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy? To what extent can any state which aspires to exercise authority over vast territories eliminate the tendency to bureaucratic specialization and the chain of command? This is by no means a new problem of “modernization” but is, rather, inherent in the effort to exercise authority over great distances. The tendency to division of labor in government arises from the same imperative as the division of labor in general. If the goal is control over vast territories, the time and energy of men can be most effectively used by specializing their activities rather than by leaving them diffuse. This specialization will also involve hierarchy and chain of command.
Ever since bureaucratic government has existed, men have bewailed its pathologies: the Parkinson effect, the inertia and red tape, the Kafka-like distance of the administrator from the administered, and the more common abuses and corruptions of power. In China there is an impressive traditional literature on all these subjects. Indeed, among many Confucian thinkers there was a recurring call for “simplification of administration,” although not, of course, for “sending down” officials to the village. In the parts of China that remain agrarian, the local cadres may continue to be closer to a certain version of the ideal of “all around men.”
It would, however, be quite misleading to confuse the question of bureaucratic specialization with the question of hierarchy and domination. So long as the modern ambition to extend the “wealth and power” of the nation is added to the traditional aims of maintaining peace and order it will not prove possible to kill the animal of large-scale organization. Most of the energies and time of some people are more effectively used in offices rather than “in the field.”
If we can believe Mao Tse-tung’s remarks to Edgar Snow, it is clear that, in 1967, he did not support either the pressures for extreme radicalization of foreign policy or the attack on the foreign policy administration that took place at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, those cultural revolutionaries who did call for a more radical foreign policy had every reason to think that they were drawing the necessary consequences of Mao’s cultural revolutionary doctrine.
For one thing, international relations as now practiced embody all the vices of bureaucracy which Mao had attacked. The diplomatic corps and even the foreign policy specialists in Peking were clearly more out of touch with the masses and perhaps more vulnerable to “bourgeois” degeneration than other parts of the bureaucracy. If, as is now clear, Mao himself believes it is advantageous for People’s China to have more active and open relations with many countries, he must want China’s foreign policy specialists, diplomats, and trade officials to work hard at traditional diplomacy, with its elaborate protocol of airport receptions, limousine caravans, cocktail parties, and banquets. If there is still some practice of hsia-fang—of going down to work in villages and factories—in the foreign policy offices of government, one can hardly believe that it is allowed to occupy much time; nor is there any evidence that the trend within these offices is toward the drastic simplification of administration.
I suspect that if this is true of the foreign policy bureaucracy, it is probably also true for most of the top level of power in other parts of the central administration. Indeed an anarchist might point to the contradictions in enforcing Mao’s high moral demands on lower echelon cadres while neglecting them on the highest level.
As for the cadres on the lower levels—is it true that a more unstructured power operating in close proximity to the masses is necessarily more benign than the power of distant bureaucrats? There is here a tendency to confuse domination with bureaucratic organization. The leader of an unstructured gang may be as dominating as a bureaucrat in an office. The fact is that throughout history, men and women have suffered as much from the oppression and brutality of their overseers, foremen, corvée heads, etc., as from distant bureaucrats—if not more.
On the other hand, it has often been pointed out that, in China and elsewhere, despots have been hostile to bureaucracy because of the constraints it places on the exercise of arbitrary power from above. True, if the authority of the local power holder is entirely dependent on the local community as envisaged in communitarian anarchism, he will be entirely beholden to the local community. Yet, as we have seen, Mao’s doctrine of cultural revolution never abandoned the notion of the subordination of local power holders to higher authority and to decisions made from above. Indeed, the sins of “tailism”—of the capture of local leadership by the “backward” views of the local masses—still are said to exist.
When Mao speaks of the infallible wisdom of the masses, he is, of course, referring to the masses as a kind of abstraction and not to the actual groups and individuals who make up this entity. In spite of all the rhetoric about learning from the masses, there is always the proviso that one must not learn bad and incorrect things from them. The wisdom of the masses finds its ultimate distillation in the mind of Mao, but the masses as they exist are quite capable of wandering from the true path. Their view of experience remains one-sided and perceptual. Even the cultural revolutionary cadre must not become an instrument of their errors and backwardness.
Indeed, when there is a tension between the errors of the masses and the general line, the good cadre must do everything possible to bring them to the truth. Thus we find references in China to the ever present dangers of people being driven to “commandism” in order to avoid the pitfalls of “tailism” and “departmentalism.” After the Great Leap Forward of 1958 there was much criticism of the “commandist” tendencies of many local cadres. At the present moment many ultra-radical cadres of the cultural revolutionary period are being accused of “a priori idealism,” a sin which most probably involves commandism.
All the local cadre’s dealings with the masses thus take place in a situation where basic policy and decisions are made by the central government and higher levels of authority—whether the cadre’s relations with the masses are defined by bureaucratic rules or by the close informal experience of working together seems to have little effect on this.
No doubt it is a very sound idea in China as elsewhere for “higher cadres” to “go down” to see how policies work in practice as well as on paper and to “learn from the masses.” But even the most selfless servant of the public must be concerned not only with his own direct conclusions from “perceptual” observation but also with the way conclusions bear on the general line which has been “synthesized” above him. If his reading of The Red Book has not already overcome his selfish tendencies, “going down” to the villages and factories may become entirely routine.
As for “participation in labor,” it may indeed do something, as has been urged, to overcome the traditional mandarin disdain for physical labor. But whether it has all the redemptive qualities attributed to it remains questionable. In the United States, where disdain for physical labor is not really part of the cultural tradition, many in authority have gone through the experience in their youth without its visibly changing their adult behavior, although they may boast about their early hardships. There still remains in China an essential difference between those who possess the power to command and those who do not—while the physical labor of cadres is intermittent. There are, no doubt, some in whom the experience creates a sense of solidarity with the masses (a solidarity that may not always lead to enthusiasm for the current general line). To others it may be an unpleasant ritual to be gotten over with as soon as possible in the happy realization that this is not one’s true vocation.
None of this means that in the vast ranks of China’s cadres there are not those who fervently and sincerely attempt to realize the tenets of the cultural revolutionary faith. The few frank reports available suggest there may also be many who belong to what the writer Shao Ch’uan-lin called the “middling type” who attempt to realize the ideal but do not fully succeed not only because of their inner weakness but because of their sheer inability to cope with all the complexities I have mentioned. Unfortunately, it is still not clear from the information we have whether the game can best be played by the sincere disciple or the agile opportunist. While some of these techniques have their merits, there remains room to doubt whether Mao’s methods will in the end be more successful than others in imposing moral standards on the average holders of power (putting aside the question whether we agree with the Maoist ethic itself).
The fact that the Chairman himself has doubts is indicated by his remarkable doctrine of the permanent revolution. The struggle between bourgeois and proletarian tendencies, he writes, will continue into the indefinite future. The unrelieved mutual scrutiny of groups, the supervision of the masses, the “struggle-criticism-transformation” sessions in which people examine and sometimes are led to repudiate their own thinking—sessions about which we know very little—are all designed to maintain an unremitting Revival atmosphere. The devil can be exorcized only by maintaining the battle at fever pitch. Whether the Chinese, not to mention other people, will always want to view life as permanent, unremitting struggle is, it seems to me, a highly moot point.
In any event, one can raise questions about the methods of struggle themselves. The “masses” are exhorted to supervise the cadres, but only from a correct point of view, and the correct point of view continues to be determined at the Center. To the extent that the Center is Mao, to the degree that one believes that Mao infallibly synthesizes the wisdom of the masses, one may rest assured that all is well. But if the Center ceases to be occupied by Mao or any genuine adherent of the Cultural Revolution Ethic? Similarly, the techniques of struggle-criticism-transformation with their malleable Maoist language can be used by all sorts of people for all sorts of purposes. The left deviationists of 1967 who had good reason to regard themselves as the purest disciples of the Cultural Revolution found themselves as vulnerable to the treatment as the “capitalist-roaders” themselves.
I have here considered two themes of cultural revolutionary Maoism. There are many other themes which might be considered—the question of self-interest and selflessness, the nature of mass participation, the relationship of the masses to high culture and cultural revolutionary views on education, etc. To the extent that Chairman Mao presents himself as a social philosopher and philosopher of science, his doctrines can hardly remain immune to questioning. While he himself would no doubt strongly resist any effort to divide the philosopher from the king, we are free to do so and in doing so we are not trying to render any final judgment on that great slice of history, the “Chinese Revolution.”
February 8, 1973
Reconstruction in Philosophy (Mentor Books, 1949), pp. 84-85. ↩
“Rectify the Party’s Style of Work,” Mao Tse-tung Hsuan-chi, Selected Works, Vol. III (Peking, 1960), p. 60. ↩
Throughout the history of the People’s Republic there has been much less interest than in earlier Soviet history in applying Marxist-Leninist universal truth to nature (in the manner of Engels), although one occasionally finds references in cultural revolutionary literature to the application of “On Contradictions” (China Books, 1964) to particle physics. ↩
I shall not dwell here on the fact that even during the height of the Cultural Revolution many scientists in nuclear physics were probably allowed to carry on their theoretical activities unimpeded. Practical politicians even when they are most visionary are always capable of making exceptions for certain kinds of experience. ↩
See particularly Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 239-249 ↩
Franz Schurmann has pointed out that the Great Leap Forward was actually preceded by a rectification movement directed against regionalist tendencies within the party (Ideology and Organization in Communist China [Berkeley, 1966], pp. 215-216). ↩
He has occasionally used the Marxist notion of the dissolution of the state, but his notion of the permanent revolution with its continuing struggles and contradictions would suggest that the need for a social vanguard will continue into the distant future. ↩