Ideology, Autocracy, and Dystopia

Review of: The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui. Trans. Tai Hung-chao, New York: Random House, 1994.

The title of this acutely perceptive memoir is perhaps misleading: the American reader has come to expect lurid, “tell-all” biographies which spare no graphic details of the subject’s debaucheries and scandals. Some such unsavory details are of course revealed, but the author–Mao’s personal physician for the remaining 22 years of Mao’s life (1954-1976)–had a more ambitious purpose in mind: to present a shrewdly insightful character-study of Mao as a man, ideologue and ruler.

Mao Zedong in Dandong, China ? Photo by Kim Petersen

The young, likable Dr. Li, chosen by Mao as his physician, eventually became a trusted confidant and witness to the daily travails of the Chairman. And Mao, an insomniac and hypochondriac, required constant attention (although he often enough ignored the doctor’s advice and indulged in health-threatening, even reckless, habits.)

Dr. Li, who in his first years on the job continued to revere the Great Leader, would only gradually become disillusioned and even shocked by Mao’s detached indifference to the real living conditions of the Chinese people. In the first years, Mao comes across as a calm, generally reasonable and good-humored leader, pragmatic and tolerant in resolving the inevitable disputes and rivalries among his subordinate officials (such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping). Dr. Li finds it easy to be open and candid with him–even regarding the intrigues and jealousies of Mao’s neglected wife, Jiang Qing.

Although Mao, like Lenin, claimed to disapprove of any “cult of personality,” he quickly adopted the traditional Confucian role of the wise Ruler who “is never wrong.” ((For an extensive discussion of how Confucianism was modified to rationalize the bureaucratic despotism of the First Emperor of China (221 B.C.E.), see: William C. Manson, “Incipient Chinese Bureaucracy and Its Ideological Rationale: The Confucianism of Hsun Tzu.” Dialectical Anthropology 12:271-284, 1988.)) Thus, within a few years, he voluntarily relinquished the position of Chairman of the Republic to a rival, Liu Shaoqi, in order to aggrandize his primary role as Party Chairman (wise ruler and guiding ideologue). And like Lenin and Stalin, he had little interest in the rights and needs of actual individuals per se, but rather dealt in collective abstractions (“the peasantry,” or at most, “the people”). (Marx, who had barely any human contact with actual workers, wrote abstractly about the “proletariat-class,” and likewise the intellectual theorist Lenin subsumed real persons into the faceless, abstract “masses.”) Such collective labels would have fateful consequences for millions of real individuals.

As with all single-party, autocratic regimes, the governing bureaucrats maintained their status, not through demonstrable managerial skill and competence, but through unswerving loyalty to, and agreement with, the Ruler. And Mao personified the limitations of the visionary ideologue, remote from real social and economic facts, who charismatically offers an imaginative goal of pure communitarianism, wherein ordinarily intractable individuals joyfully submerge themselves into an enthusiastic, collective effort to attain economic equality and advancement. (One is reminded of the proto-communist Jean-Jacques Rousseau–a fateful influence on Robespierre–who imagined an ideal republic in which patriotic citizens would willingly submerge themselves into a “general will.”)

Mao’s dreamed-up conception of a “Great Leap Forward,” in which each village and town across the nation would collectivize their accelerated efforts, thereby dramatically increasing crop yields, proved inefficient and disastrous. But when Mao, on his periodic tours of the country, visited such villages, local officials erected a facade of successful grain-surpluses–so as not to displease him. The collective, nationwide “Leap” also included, bizarrely enough, everyone pitching in to increase steel production by melting discarded iron implements (and such) in backyard smelters–instead of building steel mills! Overall, objective historians, as well as Dr. Li himself, estimate that the “Great Leap” programs resulted in massive famine: the starvation and death of tens of millions. But when more pragmatic officials (economists, agronomists) criticized the plan, they were quickly labeled “bourgeois” counter-revolutionaries (with the usual outcome).

When popular dissatisfaction and unrest finally climaxed in the Sixties, the revered Leader ruthlessly sidelined political rivals and blamed the government itself (i.e., corrupt bureaucrats) for all the disasters (sound familiar?)–thereby unleashing a violent Cultural Revolution of youthful, fanatically devoted Red Guards determined to purge the society of any suspected “rightists,” “counter-revolutionaries,” or even those maybe backsliding a bit into “bourgeois” tendencies. This movement, at first politically expedient for Mao, soon became uncontrollable and disastrous for national stability and morale.

Dr. Li’s highly absorbing and factual narrative reveals a megalomaniacal Mao, convinced of his own genius and thus entitled to hedonistic pampering, such as the endless sexual favors elicited from dozens of naive, awestruck young girls (whom, despite Dr. Li’s objections, Mao had no compunction about infecting with his multiple STDs). Like autocrats since time immemorial, Mao became psychologically dependent on the endless luxuries and pleasures provided by an ever-changing coterie of female devotees.

Nonchalantly indifferent to the deaths of countless millions as a result of his utopian fantasies, Mao is revealed–in Dr. Li’s probing, incisive portrait–to be a sociopathic narcissist, entirely unconcerned with massive human suffering and tragedy. Even when cautioned about the dangers of a possible nuclear war, Mao remained unperturbed: “China has many people…. The deaths of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of.” ((p. 125))

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.