Stalin, Mao and Polemics

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Apr 17 22:30:19 MDT 1995

As a former quasi-Maoist with perhaps a lingering soft spot for the Great
Helmsman I am maybe not the best person to say something on the issue of
whether Mao was worse than Stalin. It's possible that in terms of the body
count, Mao was worse, at least if the revisionist "low" estimates on the
Stalin terror are right. I have no interest in defending Mao's repression
of the 100 Flowers, the catastrophic stupidity of the Greap Leap Forward,
or the squelching of the initially liberatory aspects of the Cultural
Revolution. Nor can I find anything favorable to say about the shameful
and ludicrous cult of personality that Mao built up around himself, or, if
his doctor's reports are correct, his personal hygene or sexual
exploitativeness. But for what it's worth, the Chinese I know do not hate
Mao the way the Russians I know hate Stalin. Maybe they don't know enough,
which is quite possible given their propagandistic education: China never
went through de-Maoification as the USSR went through deStalinization. But
I suspect it is in part because Mao really did improve the well-being of
ordinary Chinese a great deal, and is perceived, in part correctly, to
have actually cared about this in a way that Stalin never cared about
anything but his own power.

While I was in grad school in Cambridge I knew a completely apolitical
historian of mathematics, also in my department (History and Philosophy of
Science), who had been sent there as sort of a compensation for having
been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. I was
surprised to find he was not bitter or angry. He said that he deeply
resented having been humiliated in public and at the time he was angry at
being taken from his studies and sent far away to work with peasants. Whem
he got there it was worse because he was useless, or so it seem,ed. He
didn't know anything about farming and he was just an extra mouth to feed.
But in the two or so years he was there, he said, he had to make himself
useful, and he discovered that the peasants couldn't do simple
calculatioins that would be helpful to their work. So he taught them,
learning at the same time how to apply his skills practically. When he was
called back, the peasants threw a big party for him and he was almost
sorry to leave. The one literate person in the village still wrote him. He
says he never would have gone on his own, but he now (at that time) thinks
it was good that he went. As for politics, he wasn't interested.

Now I don't tell this story to endorse his views, butg to report them. It
is inconceivable to me that a former Soviet intellectual would have
anythingf like so positive an attitude about such a terrible experience.
Perhaps my friend was idiosyncratic. I don't know. I simply offer the
story for whatever it mught be worth.

That said, I fully support the Chinese democracy movement and agree with
the Chinese whom I once heard quoted as saying that had Mao died in 1953,
saym, when Stalin did, he would be properly venerated, but since he died
in 1973, after doing all those terrible things....(shrug).

I once more recommend the piece, "Mao: A LAmentation" from thew current
issue of Science & Society.

I should say that I'm no China scholar.

--Justin Schwartz

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