What Mao meant by “Left” and “Right”

How could Mao Zedong call the Chairman of the Communist Party, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China “Rightist,” while also labeling the Soviet Union “Rightist,” while confiding to Nixon that he trusted governments of Rightists more than governments of Leftists?

Because those terms meant different things to Mao than they mean to us.

The iconic picture from Tiananmen Square, showing the Goddess of Democracy starring at Chairman Mao Zedong, is often interpretted to show Democracy starring down Communism. Rather, the Goddess and the Chairman were two faces of what intellectualls in the square would have identified as Leftism: a belief in the spontaneous power of the people to organize amongst themselves for the common good when an oppressive regime has been removed.

Both the portrait of the Chairman and the statue of the Goddess were positioned along the Central Axis, or “Dragon Line,” of Beijing. While they face each other, they both look at right angles away from Zhongnanhai, a former imperial garden and public park where the Communist leadership lives and works. At the time of Tiananmen the party machinery was led by Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, two survivors from the old days fighting the KMT. Deng and Chen were two faces of what reflective officials in Zhongnanhai would have identified as Rightism: a belief in the importance of an educated bureaucracy to guide a people basically incompetent to look after themselves.

In the days before the Massacre the protesters showed classic signs of what Mao would have termed the people’s spontaneous energy

AS REPORTED EARLIER, STUDENTS APPEAR TO CONTROL ACCESS TO THE CENTRAL PART OF THE CITY THROUGH A SYSTEM OF BARRICADES AROUND THE SECOND AND THIRD RING ROADS AND AT OTHER MAJOR ROAD APPROACHES TO THE CITY.

POLOFF VISITING ONE SUCH ROADBLOCK AT THE INTERSECTION OF THE THIRD RING ROAD AND JIANGUOMENWAI AVENUE REPORTED THAT THERE ARE MORE THAN 50 BUSSES IN THE AREA. FOURTEEN BUSSES BENEATH THE JIANGUOMENWAI AVENUE OVERPASS CONTROL PASSAGE ON THE THIRD RING ROAD, WHICH RUNS NORTH-SOUTH. THE BUSSES HAVE LEFT A ONE LANE OPENING ALONG THE ROAD AND CAN EASILY BLOCK TRAFFIC BY DRIVING INTO THE LANE

(If the liberated area of Beijing actually stretched to the Third Ring Road, as Wikileaks implies, this would have included all of non-suburban Beijing in 1989. The term ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ may thus be as much of a misnomer as if the fall of 1871 Battle of Paris as the “Place de la Concorde Massacre'”)

Understanding that the Massacre was interpreted by all reflective individuals involved as a a Left/Right struggle is critical to understanding the 40 years that proceeded it, and the 22 since:

Under slogans such as “Down with one-party dictatorship!” and greatly aided by the KMT (full of spies, wildly corrupt, and distracted by the greatest purge in the history of 20th-century regimes), the Chinese Communist Party established “New China” in 1949. After referring itself to a time as simply the Republic of China, and then trying on Democratic People’s Republic of China, the new regime soon settled on calling itself the “People’s Republic of China.”

The Communists made many promises to gain power, and broke nearly all of them.

The regime was lead by its Chairman, Mao Zedong, with tremendous help from Returned Students (including Deng Xiaoping) and the Whampoa Clique (such as Lin Biao). Certainly highly-influential people, including Premier Zhou Enlai, acted as godfather to both factions. But 1949 China had not yet been purged of ideology, and both Left and Right tendencies were visible to Mao in the party.

Mao’s dilemma, as a Leftist, is that naive attempts to simply exterminate the bureaucratic class had failed as early in the Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937). The CSR’s attempt at Leftism failed for the same reason the first liberal Chinese Republic failed in the 1910s: material conditions had not created a sufficient number of liberals to lead the country in the 1910s, as it had not created a sufficient number of educated peasants to lead the CSR in the 1930s.

Mao’s struggle, from 1949 till his head, was to allow the Right to build up the State, the Military, and the Bureaucracy, to safeguard the development of the peasantry until the time they were able to spontaneously organize. Thus, Mao typically governed as a Rightist in order to build Leftism.

Mao’s right-hand man and nemesis, Zhou Enlai, had the opposite estrategy. Zhou’s great legacy was to rebuild the bureaucracy that had nearly been destroyed by a serious of revolutions following 1911. Mao needed Zhou as a Rightest leader to give the Leftist cohorts he was building up time to mature. Zhou needed Mao’s political power and cover to build a Rightist bureaucracy. Between the two of them they allowed 100 million Chinese to die, because neither was willing to abandon the other in their opposing quest to change China.

Mao’s first designated successor, Liu Shaoqi, was a Rightist whose prestige was greatly helped by Mao’s failed Left-wing shock, the Great Leap Forward. Unfortunately for Liu, he was one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s second designated successor, Lin Biao, spoke and agitated as a Leftist, while secretly believing in Rightism and governing as one, as well. Lin became one of the last victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s third designated successor, Wang Hongwen was a Leftist. He also was proof of Mao’s fear that the peasantry was not yet competent enough to govern. Wang was simply shoved aside due to general incompetence and political impotence, though he would be arrested, tried, and jailed (for a time) later following Mao’s death.

Mao’s fourth designated successor, Hua Guofeng, and Hua’s successor, Deng Xiaoping both attempted to straddle the Left-Right divide, but for different reasons than Mao.

Mao was a Leftist who used Rightists as tools. Hua was a harmless opportunitist whose only contribution was to promise to say whatever Mao would have said, and do whatever Mao would have done (really!). Deng, in contrast, viewed both the Left and Riught as tools to helping China stand up.

Deng, like Mao, was an earthy fellow. Both enjoyed shocking audiences, Mao with profanity and Deng with undiplomatic honesty. Both felt extremely comfortable granting and taking favor from former peasants. While Mao was a romantic who truly believed in the self-organizing ability of the people, however, Deng had traveled abroad and learned a much deeper lesson: being poor sucks. From watching his friends die at a French factory, to learning his father had to sell land to support his living experiences overseas, Deng keenly believed that China’s problem was not a distant bureacracy but grinding poverty.

Like Mao, Deng could attack the Bureaucrats when it suited him (and both called them “women with bound feet” at times). Like Mao, Deng could rely on Rightists to govern for him, or take away their power when it seemed to obstruct the economic power of the people. Unlike Mao, however, Deng lived without a romantic sensibility, and so could easily believe cases were disasterous levels of incompetence emerged from trusting the common people.

Deng’s lack of heart-felt Leftism lead him to be purged three times (and to the crippling of his son), but his usefulness as an attack-dog against bureaucrats, his focus on results, his ability to praise Mao as long as Mao lived, and his wide network of friends meant he was never permanently gone.

Mao used the right to built the Left, Zhou used the Left to build the Right, Deng used the Right and Left to build China.

In the present day, China has a Bureaucracy that runs the second-largest economy in the world. While it’s relative size is probably smaller than in ancient days, this is the greatest performance for the bureaucracy in China’s history since the Great Divergence.

Also in the present day, China has a population that is connected to the world and knowledgeable about it. While it’s relative freedom is probably smaller than during the Republic, this is the greatest performance for the people since the Nanjing Decade.

When I visit China I am struck by the admiration for Mao, Zhou, and Deng, though of the three only Zhou is considered to be perfect. Opinions on Mao range from “Mao is #1” to “Mao is Evil,” while Deng’s reputation is admiration for the economic miracle combined with sadness at the increase in crime, corruption, and class differences.

In both China and the West the terms “left” and “right” seem to originate with the idea that the “right” is in support of the ruling powers while the “left” is opposed. At the time these terms were first used, however, the sttaus quo in the West meant rich landowners whose origins traced to the feudal era, while in Chian the status quo meant the powerful bureaucracy. In both China and the United States the Left/Right divide relates to the citizen’s relation to power: in China Left therefore meant being opposed to the bureaucracy, while in the West Left meant being opposed to the rich or the socially normal.

8 thoughts on “What Mao meant by “Left” and “Right””

  1. These days, I’m not sure Left and Right mean much other than factional labels. Both factions have backers amongst both the bureaucrats and the wealthy. Both claim opposition to ‘elites’ and seek to mobilize the power of the ‘majority’, spontaneous and otherwise. Meanwhile, neither trusts the unwashed masses on certain issues.

    We may as well drop the pretenses, call them warring tribes and have Leonardo DiCaprio narrate the Scorsese movie. And hope the action sequences are kept to a minimum:(

  2. Michael,

    In the American context, the Old Left, which I have genuine sympathy for, attempted to form a Party of Labour to complement the natural Party of Capital.

    No one could possibly confuse Obama, say, with an old Leftist — Clinton’s blowout of him in Appalachia testify to that!

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