George Walford: Heroes and Devils

In the Introduction to The Messiah and the Mandarins (London, 1982, Weidenfeld and Nicholson), Dennis Bloodworth speaks of Chairman Mao:

the characteristics of the hero that enabled him to perform the almost incredible feat of ‘liberating’ all China then prompted him to shatter the society he had created.

This is nonsense. The idea that one man could liberate the biggest nation on earth and later, when it had grown to nearly a thousand million, was able to shatter it, belongs with the tales of goblins and witches. Bloodworth is not the only writer to have committed this absurdity, and Mao is not the only leader to have had his history described in these terms. Although BLoodworth goes on to say that the key to Mao lies in his Chineseness, these same impossible powers have been ascribed to (among others) Stalin, the explanation of them, in his case, sometimes being sought in his Russianness.

The history of China since the Peking revolution of 1911 follows, in its broad outlines, that of Russia since the February revolution of 1917. In both instances revolutionaries ousted reformers, there was foreign military intervention, and the revolutionaries were responsible for the murder of millions of their countrymen in the struggle to impose communism. In both instances this struggle swayed back and forth, periods of apparent relaxation being followed by renewed outbursts of aggressive determination, and in both instances the outcome has been acceptance of a social system differing only in detail and emphasis from that of the professedly capitalist democracies.

Attempts to account for this by the behaviour of leaders stagger from one absurdity to another. Things fall into place only when it is accepted that the general body of the people, of all economic classes, all status-groups and all levels of education are firmly committed to economic individualism, to the pursuit of their personal and family affairs. They are not concerned with broad social theories, either to support or oppose them, and this makes it possible to set up a system in which the officially accepted principles are those of socialism or communism. But when the working of such a system is investigated it is found to be motivated by that same concern, on the part of the general body of the people, for private, personal, family affairs which has motivated human society since its inception.

It is this widespread tendency, presenting an elastic but solid reistance to attempts by the dominant political minority to establish a society operating by the principles of communism or socialism, that accounts for both the apparent success and the actual failure of the attempts to establish either of these systems in China, in Russia and elsewhere.

from Ideological Commentary 19, July 1985.