This book by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schnoenhals a history of the insane Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. I saw “insane” purposefully. Such actions as the Holocaust and even Cambodia’s “Year Zero” in a way make sense, as they were purposeful applications of an ideology designed to achieve a defined end. Mao’s war against the Communist Party, however, Hitler was more-or-less in charge of the destruction of the Jews, as Pol Pot more-or-less oversaw the destruction of the Cambodians. Mao opted for a less conventional approach. Rival “Red Guard” organizations tested dirty bombs in a series of escalations and even attacked arms shipments intended for the Vietnam War. Mao’s Last Revolution is the story of this madness.
The Cultural Revolution took place in the context of Soviet “revisionism,” where first Khrushchev and then Brezhnev reformed the soviet system away from a cult of personality to the nondescript party oligarchy it eventually became. Mao feared a similar transformation of the People’s Republic, and identified “Khrushchevs” around him. Immediate threats were the pragmatic Secretary-General of the Communist Party Deng Xiaoping and Mao’s designated successor, Liu Shaoqi. Mao recognized the broader threat as the Chinese Communist Party itself, however, and proceeded to destroy it.
Mao first purged the Mayor of Beijing and the Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army to severe the Party’s links to supporting organizations. Then he proceeded to destroy it. Red Guards were incited to tear down the Party organization, and the Army was then unleashed to tear down the Red Guards. (The self-described Red Terror is told in enough detail that one positively roots for the Army as it mows down “student demonstrators.” The context of Tiananmen has never been more clear.)
Throughout the book specific incidents and anecdotes are elaborated on. The cities of Beijing (radicalized by the presence of Peking and Tsinghua Universities, not to mention the sometimes presence of Mao himself), Shanghai (where the Red Guards were subsumed by the organization of factoryworker-cum-intellectual Wang Hongwen, later one of the Gang of Four), and Wuhan (where Mao might have been deposed). Wuhan is especially notable as the beginning of the misfortunes of Wang Li, a high-ranking but not especially powerful member of the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group. Wang is attacked and tortured by enraged followers of a PLA General that Wang completed peace talks with, later is imprisoned by his fellow Culturally Revolutions, and only released by the Deng government in 1982.
Mao, whose Lou Gherig’s disease worsens as the history continues on, is a master politician who is able to place one group against the other. His Red Guards destroy the Party, the People’s Liberation Army (headed by toady Lin Biao) destroys the Red Guards, and the purging of Lin and other top generals in the PLA returns the government to “civilian” rule. Mao’s 5GW is in a brilliant position on his death, with his wife and the rest of the Gang of Four in power behind a hapless toady, Hua Guofeng. Only a rump and discredited band of “survivors,” those kept alive and with nominal party membership by Mao Zedong, remain.
Happily for the fate of the world, Madame Mao is an idiot many times over and provokes a defensive coup by Hua Guofeng which results in Deng Xiaoping’s final, and successful, rise to power. In an epilogue, the authors note that Mao is the last of the “traditional” Chinese rulers (anti-market) and Deng the first of the radicals (pro-market). Deng has now been succeeded by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who now “re-envision” Mao’s legacy in what must be a nightmare to the Chairman’s Ghost.
Mao’s Last Revolution is one of the best histories I have ever read, and easily the most readable. Strongly recommended.