This may be the most difficult book review to write. I have decided to break it into two parts. Writing it is difficult because one has to have huge admiration for Yang Jisheng, a former journalist, now a historian, who has amassed an incredible amount of information about the political maneuvering, personal relations, events and, most importantly, victims of the Cultural Revolution and presented all of this in his new book “The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Cultural Revolution” (published in English only two months ago). Yang reminds me of those few courageous authors, indignant by the inequities of communism who, beginning with Djilas, then the Medvedev brothers and even Solzhenitsyn himself, or Volkogonov in his biographies of Lenin and Stalin, have written valuable testimonials about the system.
But, alas, most of them were almost fully ignorant of political science, economics and historiography. Yang is perhaps an extreme example: on the one hand, extraordinary evidence that he has collected (I think that the book must contain several thousand names of people involved), and on the other hand, equally extraordinary absence of any thinking about that evidence. The book is thus a succession of events, many of them tragic, conferences and rallies, gossip and innuendoes, intrigues and betrayals. Yang is the type of writer whom Cicero two thousand years ago dismissively called “narratores rerum”.
So, in my first review I will focus on these defects and problems.
Yang’s explanation for many events during the Cultural Revolution, including ritualistic vows of fealty to Mao, is “totalitarianism”. It is repeated a number of times. It is a cool word to say, but the Cultural Revolution was anything but totalitarianism. It might have been started by Mao (although I will explain later that Yang never tells us why) but while totalitarianism is absence of agency by individuals, the Cultural Revolution was the opposite: millions of individuals had agency. They had too much of it. The Cultural Revolution was not totalitarianism, but its very reverse: Hobbesian world where everyone fought everyone else. The most tragic revelation about the Cultural Revolution (an observation that Yang does not make) is that it shows us what the withdrawal of the state and government does: it reveals human nature at its worst. Without state’s monopoly on violence, we would simply go out fighting each other. Forever. Imagine the United States, when suddenly the President, Congress, all politicians, judges, and police simply decide to go home and never return to their jobs. Within a week, the country would be in a “Cultural Revolution”. (Actually, with Katrina, it took less than a week for New Orleans to descend into the “Cultural Revolution”.) China during the Cultural Revolution was not Stalinism redux, but Libya today.
Under totalitarian regimes, every individual, spontaneous action is proscribed. Writing on your own a letter of support to Stalin was as likely to land you in jail as writing a letter criticizing Stalin. Not so under the chaos of the Cultural Revolutions: everyone wrote big-character posters, organized rallies, attacked “traitors”, called themselves a follower of “Mao Zedong’s line”. It is just that nobody knew what that line was today or what it might become tomorrow. Neither did Mao.
But if not totalitarianism, was it autocracy? That too is difficult to justify in standard terms. Mao did not rule like an autocrat; he ruled like a God; which meant that he appeared just from to time, when needed. Yang shows that Mao, uninterested in management of the country and the economy, and even in foreign affairs, simply delegated all of day-to-day running of the country to various people, mostly to Zhou Enlai. But even saying “delegated” is an exaggeration. Mao just ignored the running of the country, and whoever managed to get to it, did. If, in this management, “the delegate” did something that eventually displeased Mao, he could end up dismissed, expelled from the party, wearing a dunce hat, being driven to suicide or pushed by mob from a tall building. But Mao’s ruling style was not the style of a usual autocrat. Mao was neither a Stalin who worked 12 hours per day and personally authorized (or ordered) executions during the Great Terror, nor a Hitler with his obsessive control of every detail. People were persecuted or killed without Mao having had the slightest idea what is happening to them. In daily affairs of government, Mao’s involvement was significantly less than, for example, the involvement of Joe Biden, Angela Merkel, let alone that of an autocrat like Vladimir Putin. He would disappear for weeks, sometimes for months; would come to Beijing without his “closest collaborators” being aware of it. We do not even seem to know how Mao was spending his days: was he writing poetry, editing Central Committee’s communiques, sleeping, having long meals, sharing bed with mistresses—but whatever he was doing he was not running the government in the way governments are commonly run by autocrats.
Perhaps the closest parallel that we have is the power of a prophet (Weber’s charismatic power?). The prophet does not need to show up dally—perhaps it is even better for him than he does not. But prophets are not normally prototypes of autocratic leaders.
Then, why did he start the Cultural Revolution? Yang does not tell us. There are some very vague hints that it was a revenge for Mao’s relative loss of power after the failed Great Leap Forward. Was it a pay-back time for Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi? But to get rid of the two, Mao did not need to turn 800 million people upside down, nor to have Collective No. 6 fight Collective No. 5 with sticks and stones (and at times firearms) in X’ian or Shanghai. Another possibility is his fear of being replaced by a within-Party coup as happened to Khrushchev in 1964. It is possible, but we are never provided any evidence nor a narrative why the Cultural Revolution might have been a solution to that fear. It is also possible, Yang mentions in passing, that it was sheer idealism: “permanent revolution” and the desire to recreate the Paris Commune. But many lovers of the Paris Commune (Lenin was buried wrapped up in its flag) did not see the need to start the war of all against all in order to replay it.
Since this is a critical review, let me just end in the same spirit. The book suffers from many editing problems. There is, for example, a direct quote from Mao that is, midway, suddenly interrupted by the introduction of the third person, “Mao observed”. There are typos. There are statements in the introduction that are plainly contradicted by the text. The quality of American publishing has steadily deteriorated—probably under the pressure of time and money-making. This was a super difficult book to translate and edit (the translators had to convince the author to drop four chapters from an already very lengthy book). I can only hope that the translation was better than the editing.