Tag Archives: Josef Stalin

Zhou Enlai, Josef Stalin, and Other Rightists

My friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz sent me an article describing Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake by James Palmer. Mr. Palmer, whose wife is Chinese, had previously written The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia .

I probably will not read this book, though the subject matter certainly is fascinating. I have mixed-experience with episode-based Chinese histories- I was really disappointed in Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. To give the book at least a semblance of a fair shake, though, I downloaded the preview for Death of Mao from the Kindle store…

The impression I get is someone who knows roughly as much as I do, writing a summary of it. My strong suspicion is that he’s reading the same basic set of secondary sources that I am. So unlike authors who dig into primary sources and reveal more about the world, it just seems like a tilted version of it.

In the Kindle preview there’s a line about Mao torturing Zhou by denying him western medicine. Every party of this sentence is correct, except the word “by,” which should be an “and” — Mao did not use or trust western medicine, and this doubtless contributed to his own painful last few years. Like many Chinese he seems to have been personally scared by it. It’s possible to be an evil sadist and still distrust doctors.

A more serious criticism in the except concerns Zhou himself. Palmer is obviously heavily influenced by Zhou Enlai: Last Perfect Revolutionary,” written by former official Party Historian Gao Wenqian (who smuggled his own notes out of China, to re-write the book that he had written at the direction of the Party earlier). But he takes Zhou-bashing too far, and in doing so completely missing how Zhou was able to wield such power.

Palmer says that Zhou probably saved more historical sites than individuals. This strikes me as crazy. Literally every biography I’ve written of anyone who even touched power in this period includes a discussion of Zhou personally influencing events to the benefit of the person being biographied. Here’s a couple:

  • Chiang Kaishek had been Zhou’s superior at Whampoa (“China’s West Point”), where Chiang was Chancellor and Zhou was in charge of the Political Department. Later, after Chiang had been kidnapped near Xi’an and given to Mao, Mao (correctly) argued that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and therefore Chiang should be killed. Zhou delayed long enough for Stalin to become personally involved, thus sparing Chiang’s life and returning him to power.
  • Chiang Chingkuo was a student in the Soviet Union, applying to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, While there he was writing a serious of pro-Soviet anti-Chiang Kaishek editorials in the student/party newspaper of Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. While Visiting, Zhou spoke to him: “You should not criticize Chiang Kaishek. Even if he is a counter-revolutionary, he is your father.” Chiang Chingkuo went on to be the President in Taiwan.
  • In his autobiography, Ji Chaozhu relates how Zhou inexplicably, and out-of-character, exploded him at a meeting, going into detail about his failures as an interpreter in recent events, and publicly booting him from a high-profile diplomatic trip to Malaysia. Zhou himself mysterious was ill the day of the flight, and also couldn’t go. The plane was destroyed in mid-air by a KMT-placed bomb.
  • In his autobiography, Sidney Rittenberg (who was the only US Citizen to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and spent half of his time in the PRC in solitary confinement for various imagined crimes) describes how during an investigation into him, Zhou wrote a letter describing how Mr. Rittenberg engaged in “very serious and costly mistakes.” Rittenberg explains this probably saved his life — in the Communist legal system, “mistakes” concern intra-party matters, while “crimes” are against the Revolution. Mistakes can be corrected; criminals are shot.

Now, Gao’s biography of Zhou, Last Perfect Revolutionary, effectively argues that Zhou was not a disembodied saint, going around the country doing good. Rather, he was working very hard, and very diligently, at building an incredibly large political patronage and support network. The examples given above tie into each other, and show how patronage can have serious dividends (esp. if Chiang Chingkuo tipped off Zhou to the bomb on the plane!)

Zhou Enlai was an emotionally stable version of Josef Stalin. Like Stalin, his objective was wielding personally power through a modern bureaucratic state built on a technically sound but basically illiberal educational system. Like Stalin, Zhou was personally charismatic. Unlike Stalin, Zhou did not believe he was surrounded by invisible enemies (Mao may have helped with this — he was in the room with one extraordinarily visible enemy). What Marx called the “Asiatic Mode of Production” was what Stalin and Zhou would build across Eurasia– a centralized, bureaucratic, essentially statist state focused on maintaining the power elite through an educated Rightist mandarin class as opposed to fighting any Revolution.

From Mao’s perspective, Josef Stalin and Zhou Enlai were both Rightists, interested in establishing a Bureaucracy and leveraging the forces of production to buy-off social unrest. Mao, who found Rightists more predictable and less idealisitc than Leftists, was very comfortable working with right-wing leaders (Stalin, Nixon) and parties (the U.K Conservative Party, and the West German Christian Democratic Union) abroad for precisely this reason.

Mao “rode the tiger,” leveraging domestic rightists (like Deng Xiaoping, a Leninist, and Zhou Enlai, a Stalinist) to build up enough power to overthrow everything old and hateful about China in one blow — he tried this once during the Great Leap Forward, and again during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Mao failed twice. Zhou won. Deng won. The rightists won.

The tiger of Rightism that Mao rode kept him alive and in power, but as Mao told Nixon, his lasting influence might be limited to a few farms outside Beijing.

The government in China today is as basically Rightist as it was 150, or 1,500, years ago.

And China is more powerful for it.

When Stalinism is a Good Thing

The birth of modern science in the 19th century allowed the emergence of the modern state. Previously, the state could only spend extracted wealth in two ways:

  • Consumption by elites
  • Fighting other states
  • Charity

The evolutionary consequences of these actions have been described by Greg Clark in his history, A Farewell to Alms. In the context of generations, it was not obvious which of these is the best strategy. Pre-scientific production methods meant that the population would equal a land’s carrying capacity, adjusted for hygiene.  Thus, luxuries and wars that reduced the number of people through starvation and death lead to an increase in quality of life, as the society’s essentially fixed resources were shared by fewer people. Conversely, charity lead to an increase in the population, leading to greater misery among more people.

In this pre-scientific, zero-sum world, people still competed for power — two stable solutions seem to have been found. The first involved monopolizing trade routes, allowing a small but technologically advanced population to live in significant comfort. The Mongol, Dutch, English, and Americans were examples of this strategy. The second involved monopolizing access to land, allowing an even smaller but powerful elite to live off the taxes extracted from a larger, and more miserable, population. The Habsburg dynasties of Europe, and the Han of China, tended toward this solution.

The Scientific management of the economy was a breakthrough, new way of organizing a country, in which a rational allocation of resources would lead to economic growth. Public education rapidly spread this method, and by the early twentieth centuries the bureaucratic power needed to fix this solution had become ingrained in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, and (through educated and westernized bureaucratic elites) most countries in the world. New Deal Liberalism, Socialism, Fascism, Aryanism, and Communism were all modern ideologies that assumed a scientific approach toward growth.

The last significant attempt to turn back this tide began in 1966, during Mao’s launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR),  in which he purposefully destroyed the Party and State apparati which gave him scientific control over his country, and tried to turn back the hands of history.

The part of the CR that puzzled me when I called it “insane” was that nearly all obvious political objectives were achieved immediately. The President, the head of the military, the Party Chairman, the Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Beijing — the entire faction that had attempted to minimize Mao’s influence as a result of the Great Leap Forward were kicked out of power within a year.

If Mao had taken notes of Stalin’s purges, if he had instituted a scientific approach to terror, the history of the Cultural Revolution would have been radically better. Stalin went about rationally eliminating political groups he posed a threat to him — the Old Bolsheviks, the Trotskites, the Kulaks, the Generals, etc. By comparison, among Mao’s enemies were medicine, engineering, and Chinese characters.

While in Russian history Soviet Gigantism is a soulless epoch of architecture, in Chinese history it is a rare moment of sane civil planning. Gigantic public works assume that one is able to rationally control forces of nature through the application of mathematics.

The question is not one of power-maximization v. polity service. Indeed, I doubt Mao and Chiang Kaishek (CKS) would disagree with Louis XIV that “l’etat cest moi,” and see the dichotomy as an artificial one. Rather, Mao and CKS rejected rational planning, the strategic offense, the engaged executive, and other universal aspects of western management as foreign.

Mao and CKS only had exposure to Stalin as a source of funding, organizational support, and/or adversary. From 1921 to about 1945, the USSR was consistently more pro-KMT than the United States. It was the next generation of leadership — and in particular the Returned Students such as Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Chingkuo (CCK) — that actually were educated in a Stalinist system. Deng and CCK would exhibit a degree of rational inhumanity that was completely beyond Mao and CKS’s reach. A good example is political prisoners:

  1. Upon his accession to supreme power, Deng began a general amnesty that freed a variety of “class enemies,” including surviving officials of the pro-Japanese Collaborationist Government, KMT officials, East Turkestani officials, and Tibetan franc tirerus, but not supporters of Lin Biao. Thus, actual, unreformed enemies of the state were granted freedom, though heroes of the revolution whose only crime was to stop Mao at a time that Deng himself was in internal exile were kept in prison.
  2. Following (1), CCK denied applications for political asylum but active KMT members who were released from Custody by Deng, and censored an ailing CKS’s mails to prevent him from receiving petitions. However, CCK’s own protege Lee Tenghui had been a member of the Chinese Communist Party and had joined out of a “hatred of the KMT.” Thus, while the KMT hierarchy was composed of former Communist cell members, KMT political prisoners were forced to live either in China or in Hong Kong (if they could evade Crown border security).

I am not aware of CKS or Mao acting in such a Stalinist manner. Both men were stylized as Emperors — both were hailed with “Ten Thousand Years!” a public display of personal immortality that makes Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich seem humble by comparison. Stalin, Hitler, and for that matter Deng and CCK, shared an essentially mechanical and modern view of history. They are recognizably 20th century figures, and would be profoundly out of place in the 12 century. Mao and CKS both would have been happier in that world.

A last comment on purges: Mao’s purges differed greatly from Stalin’s in that (a) they were completed almost immediately, (b) outside the judicial system, (c) without blood. Removing any official was easy — Mao would ‘suggest’ they issue a self-criticism outlining their ‘mistakes’ (not crimes, mistakes), at which time the party would issue a censor, either a temporary reassignment or (at an extreme) stripping of party membership. Stalin’s victims would have greatly preferred this treatment!

The “craziness,” — that is the rational anti-modernism — of the CR was the targeted destruction on modern tools of state power. The Communist Party and People’s Republic were abolished as administrative entities, and the resulting ad hoc Red Guard committees were themselves banished to the countryside. One cannot imagine Hitler simultaneously destroying both the Reich and the Nazi Party, as we would expect him to somehow be acting in a modernist fashion, executing a rational plan with the expectation that his power would be greater at the end. Mao did not believe in western notions of planning or control, and attempted to eradicate the means of doing either. This is not unique to him — the Empress Dowager launched an almost identical campaign against her government that was known to the world as the Boxer Rebellion.

Taiwan, in contrast, benefited from the filial piety of the Chiang family. It was expected that CCK would be loyal to his father, and that CKS would transfer his power to his son as part of his inheritance. Thus, as conditions changed between generations, CCK was able to harness elements of power that CKS would not have had patience for (that is, planning and control).

An almost identical transition occurred between the Kangxi Emperor and his father, the Shunzhi Emperor, in the 17th century. In that case, filial piety allowed the Manchus to transition from a kinship-based tribal kingdom to a national-based Imperial elite. Similarly, the Chiang’s filial piety allowed the KMT to transition from a national-level government of warlords to an island-level Leninist state.

Stalinism killed ten million people in the Soviet Union. It may have been marginally worse than Nazi rule of eastern Europe. However, as a scientific ideology, it was infinitely better than the dead and violent end of Mao Zedong Thought.

Yearning for Stalin

It takes a special kind of man to make Josef Stalin look like a leader who truly just wanted the best for all people. Mao was that special kind of man.

Stalin and other Soviet Communists defined imperialism as the maintenance of a large-scale, multinational, state which extended overseas. Thus, in Stalin’s view, the United Kingdom and France were major imperialist powers, with extensive overseas possessions, while China, India, and the Soviet Union were simply large countries with extensive territories and a multinational population. Whether Stalin’s dislike of “imperialism” was ideological or pragmatic is besides the point — Stalin’s post-war Soviet Union was focused on dismantling the “imperialist” powers, and not a general world revolution against capitalism.

World Powers 1957

In early post-war India, the Communists acted in a “united front” with the ruling Indian National Congress to consolidate Indian national power. The Communist “revolutions” in India, such as the against against Hyderabad, were simply a part of Congress’s war against the princely states. The Communist Party of India never achieved national power, and from the point of view of Stalin, this was fine. India steadily removed the “imperialist” remnants, while the Communists patiently waited for India to develop economically.

Stalin’s plan for China was similar. The purpose of the Chinese communists was not to establish a democratic people’s republic in East Asia, but to assist the KMT in abolishing the treaty ports, extraterritoriality, and not assist the United Kingdom or France in foreign policy endeavours. The Chinese Communists, who were more ambitious than their Indian counterparts, could not understand why Stalin and COMINTERN kept instructing them to harm their own interests and support the KMT. The reason was that Stalin’s objective was not a “Communist” China… Stalin’s objective was an “anti-imperialist” China. If the early General Secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party — such as Chen Duxiu, Xiang Zhongfa, and Wang Ming — had triumphed, China would have slums but no Great Leap Forward and no Cultural Revolution. If Zhou Enlai had not sided with Mao, Zhou (and tens of millions of other Chinese) might have lived longer.

Instead of the guiding hand of Stalin, the Chinese Communists followed Mao into catastrophe.

There are very few countries in the world, where if the leadership had been more affectionate toward Stalin, there would have been less trouble.

China is one of those countries.