China History

When Stalinism is a Good Thing

The birth of modern science in the 19th century allowed the emergence of the modern state. Previously, the state could only spend extracted wealth in two ways:

  • Consumption by elites
  • Fighting other states
  • Charity

The evolutionary consequences of these actions have been described by Greg Clark in his history, A Farewell to Alms. In the context of generations, it was not obvious which of these is the best strategy. Pre-scientific production methods meant that the population would equal a land’s carrying capacity, adjusted for hygiene.  Thus, luxuries and wars that reduced the number of people through starvation and death lead to an increase in quality of life, as the society’s essentially fixed resources were shared by fewer people. Conversely, charity lead to an increase in the population, leading to greater misery among more people.

In this pre-scientific, zero-sum world, people still competed for power — two stable solutions seem to have been found. The first involved monopolizing trade routes, allowing a small but technologically advanced population to live in significant comfort. The Mongol, Dutch, English, and Americans were examples of this strategy. The second involved monopolizing access to land, allowing an even smaller but powerful elite to live off the taxes extracted from a larger, and more miserable, population. The Habsburg dynasties of Europe, and the Han of China, tended toward this solution.

The Scientific management of the economy was a breakthrough, a new way of organizing a country, in which a rational allocation of resources would lead to economic growth. Public education rapidly spread this method, and by the early twentieth centuries, the bureaucratic power needed to fix this solution had become ingrained in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, and (through educated and westernized bureaucratic elites) most countries in the world. New Deal Liberalism, Socialism, Fascism, Aryanism, and Communism were all modern ideologies that assumed a scientific approach toward growth.

The last significant attempt to turn back this tide began in 1966, during Mao’s launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR),  in which he purposefully destroyed the Party and State apparati which gave him scientific control over his country and tried to turn back the hands of history.

The part of the CR that puzzled me when I called it “insane” was that nearly all obvious political objectives were achieved immediately. The President, the head of the military, the Party Chairman, the Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Beijing — the entire faction that had attempted to minimize Mao’s influence as a result of the Great Leap Forward were kicked out of power within a year.

If Mao had taken notes of Stalin’s purges, if he had instituted a scientific approach to terror, the history of the Cultural Revolution would have been radically better. Stalin went about rationally eliminating political groups he posed a threat to him — the Old Bolsheviks, the Trotskyites, the Kulaks, the Generals, etc. By comparison, among Mao’s enemies were medicine, engineering, and Chinese characters.

While in Russian history Soviet Gigantism is a soulless epoch of architecture, in Chinese history it is a rare moment of sane civil planning. Gigantic public works assume that one is able to rationally control forces of nature through the application of mathematics.

The question is not one of power-maximization v. polity service. Indeed, I doubt Mao and Chiang Kaishek (CKS) would disagree with Louis XIV that “l’etat cest moi,” and see the dichotomy as an artificial one. Rather, Mao and CKS rejected rational planning, the strategic offense, the engaged executive, and other universal aspects of western management as foreign.

Mao and CKS only had exposure to Stalin as a source of funding, organizational support, and/or adversary. From 1921 to about 1945, the USSR was consistently more pro-KMT than the United States. It was the next generation of leadership — and in particular the Returned Students such as Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Chingkuo (CCK) — that actually were educated in a Stalinist system. Deng and CCK would exhibit a degree of rational inhumanity that was completely beyond Mao and CKS’s reach. A good example is political prisoners:

  1. Upon his accession to supreme power, Deng began a general amnesty that freed a variety of “class enemies,” including surviving officials of the pro-Japanese Collaborationist Government, KMT officials, East Turkestani officials, and Tibetan franc tirerus, but not supporters of Lin Biao. Thus, actual, unreformed enemies of the state were granted freedom, though heroes of the revolution whose only crime was to stop Mao at a time that Deng himself was in internal exile were kept in prison.
  2. Following (1), CCK denied applications for political asylum but active KMT members who were released from Custody by Deng and censored an ailing CKS’s mails to prevent him from receiving petitions. However, CCK’s own protege Lee Teng-hui had been a member of the Chinese Communist Party and had joined out of a “hatred of the KMT.” Thus, while the KMT hierarchy was composed of former Communist cell members, KMT political prisoners were forced to live either in China or in Hong Kong (if they could evade Crown border security).

I am not aware of CKS or Mao acting in such a Stalinist manner. Both men were stylized as Emperors — both were hailed with “Ten Thousand Years!” a public display of personal immortality that makes Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich seem humble by comparison. Stalin, Hitler, and for that matter Deng and CCK, shared an essentially mechanical and modern view of history. They are recognizably 20th-century figures and would be profoundly out of place in the 12 century. Mao and CKS both would have been happier in that world.

A last comment on purges: Mao’s purges differed greatly from Stalin’s in that (a) they were completed almost immediately, (b) outside the judicial system, (c) without blood. Removing any official was easy — Mao would ‘suggest’ they issue a self-criticism outlining their ‘mistakes’ (not crimes, mistakes), at which time the party would issue a censor, either a temporary reassignment or (at an extreme) stripping of party membership. Stalin’s victims would have greatly preferred this treatment!

The “craziness,” — that is the rational anti-modernism — of the CR was the targeted destruction on modern tools of state power. The Communist Party and People’s Republic were abolished as administrative entities, and the resulting ad hoc Red Guard committees were themselves banished to the countryside. One cannot imagine Hitler simultaneously destroying both the Reich and the Nazi Party, as we would expect him to somehow be acting in a modernist fashion, executing a rational plan with the expectation that his power would be greater at the end. Mao did not believe in western notions of planning or control and attempted to eradicate the means of doing either. This is not unique to him — the Empress Dowager launched an almost identical campaign against her government that was known to the world as the Boxer Rebellion.

Taiwan, in contrast, benefited from the filial piety of the Chiang family. It was expected that CCK would be loyal to his father and that CKS would transfer his power to his son as part of his inheritance. Thus, as conditions changed between generations, CCK was able to harness elements of power that CKS would not have had the patience for (that is, planning and control).

An almost identical transition occurred between the Kangxi Emperor and his father, the Shunzhi Emperor, in the 17th century. In that case, filial piety allowed the Manchus to transition from a kinship-based tribal kingdom to a national-based Imperial elite. Similarly, the Chiang’s filial piety allowed the KMT to transition from a national-level government of warlords to an island-level Leninist state.

Stalinism killed ten million people in the Soviet Union. It may have been marginally worse than Nazi rule of eastern Europe. However, as a scientific ideology, it was infinitely better than the dead and violent end of Mao Zedong Thought.

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2 thoughts on “When Stalinism is a Good Thing
  1. I really liked this post. Incisive observation on your part re: Mao-Chiang classical training.

    When Nixon visited China, Mao joked about their mutual friend, the Generalissimo. One gets the sense that Mao did not really hate Chiang in a personal sense, with the sort of venemous fury he turned on Liu Shaoqi and earlier party rivals, and that Mao and Chiang understood each other quite well.

    One point where I would demur:

    ” One cannot imagine Hitler simultaneously destroying both the Reich and the Nazi Party, as we would expect him to somehow be acting in a modernist fashion, executing a rational plan with the expectation that his power would be greater at the end”

    I can. Hitler loathed bourgeois routine and the idea that his power as Fuhrer could be constrained by a state apparatus or “legality”, even Nazi legality. This is why Frick, an early key Nazi figure who was made Interior minister and advocated “national socialist justice”, declined in influence. Hitler preferred unwritten Fuhrerbefehl issued to whomever to proper administration, overlapping party-state jurisdictions, spontaneously rewarding “initiative” from below etc. When Hitler decided certain artists should be exempt from military conscription, he did not issue a decree but sent for their draft files and personally tore them to pieces. This arbitrary exercise of power was the antithesis of rational statism.

  2. Where do Guilds fit in to the pre-scientific worldview? I can see where, if the empire monopolizes land and trade route dominance monopolizes what passes for capital, the Guild (and similar structures like those of Venetian craftsman) monopolizes skilled labor. Question is, how enduring were they? I know Venice’s set-up lasted for hundreds of years, but was that the exception or the norm?

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