A Chinese soldier stands in front of a portrait of Mao

Talk about there is disorder under heaven and the situation is excellent! The celebration concerts planned in Melbourne and Sydney for the 40th anniversary of the death of Chairman Mao have been cancelled, after strong protest by members of Melbourne’s Chinese-Australian community. There was always something a little mysterious about the provenance of the proposed events.

The Chinese government is not keen on giving a hugely prominent place to the memory of the Great Helmsman, sticking with the “70% right, 30% wrong” formula. His greatest residual support remains among Chinese from the south-west of the country, the place of his birth — which is why every big city has at least a couple of restaurants named “Mao’s”.

Inconvenient, also, that the death anniversary falls on the 50th anniversary of the start of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, the campaign sparked — partly, but not wholly — by Mao to have students and workers rise up against the party itself and the bureaucracy that was developing two decades after the Communists had won control of China.

The Cultural Revolution was one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century, with the Chinese state essentially ceasing to exist as a unified entity for about three years. As students, workers and peasants formed rival groups of “Proletarian” commandos, each claiming that their opponents were backsliders and capitalist roaders, the country descended into a civil war. GDP fell by 25-30% as factories and neighbourhoods came into bloody conflict with each other (rival factions of factory complexes shelled each other with artillery).

The more infamous persecution of academics and intellectuals was a relatively minor activity on top of a surging nationwide conflict. Whenever a region got wholly out of hand, Zhou En-Lai would step in with the army, and restore some order. This was made difficult when rank was abolished in the armed forces (an exaggeration, but not a total one).

The death toll from the Cultural Revolution is reckoned at between 1 million to 2 million — and that clearly sits atop a mountain of misery, lives wrecked, families destroyed. Seven years before that the Great Leap Forward — an attempt to stage a “people’s industrialisation” and leap past the UK, then the second largest world economy — caused between 25 and 40 million excess deaths, as agriculture was abandoned, and then collapsed for two years, in a favour of a cult of backyard steel making and the like.

Mao gets the whole blame for this these days, and he was certainly a leading proponent of what has become known as “impossibilism” — the argument that humans have such potential mastery over inert nature that anything can be achieved — but it was also convenient to slate the blame to him. Communist leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, were as enthusiastic about it as Mao was. When China became a Western ally against the Soviets in the late 1970s, it became convenient to construct Deng as a grandfatherly figure — a little stern perhaps, but no-nonsense. In the case of both the Leap and the Cultural Revolution, history now ignores the degree of popular passion that powered them. No one figure, however charismatic or commanding, can summon such great historical movements out of nothing.

But yes, much as one might want to champion Mao, the leader of a nation, it can’t really be done. Quite aside from the wanton brutality of such years, the industrial and social development of China — though substantial — was not what it could have been had the policies that came after Mao been put in place. Mao remains one of the most enigmatic figures of the century, a man with an extraordinary appetite for violence (“that Hitler,” he remarked, “he was a ferocious revolutionary”), that was applied even in the years prior to 1949 — when the Communist movement was riven with hugely lethal battles between factions, rival ideologues throwing whole armies at each in far-flung rural areas.

But that said, the dehistoricised assessments of Mao, Maoism and Chinese Communism are simply absurd. To read the accounts, with their post-1949 death tolls, you’d think that the China Mao had conquered was something like Denmark, when he appeared on the Tiananmen balcony in 1949. The truth is, there was no such thing as China at that point — if by that we mean a unified state. For more than a century, the civilisation — China is what Europe would have been if the Roman empire had never collapsed — was riven by disruptions of extraordinary violence. Warlords controlled territories the size of European states. Rebellions surged through one area after another.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 was violent enough, but it was nothing compared to the Taiping rebellion of the mid-19th century, whose death toll is estimated as high as 50 million, in a population of about 300 to 400 million. The decomposition of the empire in the early 19th century — helped, but not created, by the incursion of Western powers, and Britain’s malign enforcement of an opium trade from India to China, to pay for the rest of its empire — created the situation of perpetual violence. If Mao and the Communists achieved nothing else, uniting China was a great achievement in itself.

But there is another way in which death stalked China other than explicit violence, and that was simple poverty and hunger. The Great Leap Forward, with its mix of ideological fervour and spectacular failure, fascinates and horrifies — but China had been having regular famines for centuries before that. Cannibalism, a feature of the Great Leap Forward aftermath, was a regular feature of such famines, which would take between 5 million and 10 million lives.

Children were exchanged between families, so they could be killed and eaten. They were chained up and sold in marketplaces as sources of food. Indeed, it appears likely that the Great Leap Forward famine was a politically caused famine on top of a cyclical famine, thus exacerbating the death toll. Violence and mass death was a currency of Chinese life for a century or more before Mao and the Communists came on the scene.

But even in the good times, China was no bower of roses. The particular social form — parasitic aristocratism, village and agricultural structure — created a society capable of reproducing itself only at the barest minimum of surplus. China was famously poor, more so than peasant and rural peoples elsewhere. Life expectancy, so far as we can gauge, was in the mid-’30s, in the 1930s — equal or even worse than Africa, far behind Latin America. Medicine, and even the barest of luxuries were unknown to hundreds of millions.

Life was truncated and barely lived for a vast number of people. Furthermore, it became clear to millions, as the Second World War ended, that the European powers were not going to surrender their Eastern empires without a fight — and that what they had in mind was to impose agriculture-based underdevelopment on two-thirds of the world for decades and beyond. Imperialism had already killed tens of millions. As the Vietnam war showed, elements in the West were willing to kill tens of millions more to hold onto it. Division, poverty and subjection — it was this triad that Eastern Communist parties faced.

This historical background is forgotten today. Because the global imperialist system was dismantled by a mixture of mass popular force and the threat of it, people find it impossible to imagine the ethos and ideology that underpinned it: white racial superiority. But nothing is ordained. Imperialism was smashed largely because of Communism, and the creation of the Communist International by the USSR in the early 1920s, as a device to spread revolution through the world. The only theory capable of making sense of exploitation on a vast scale was Marxism, and the only practice capable of surviving the lethal oppressions of colonial rule was something deriving from Leninism.

The Ghandian movement in India was the great anomaly, its success deriving from the dominance of liberalism in British politics — and the threat of other more violent revolutionary forces. The beginnings of British decolonisation of India had begun in the ’30s (after the opium trade was banned by the US in 1907 — threatening Britain with American attacks on their navy, if they persisted with the trade — India had ceased to be a rewarding economic proposition) and Ghandi was essentially a partner in that process. Even then, of course, the process resulted in millions of violent deaths. The multicultural and non-racist (in aspiration) culture of the West today wasn’t something that produced the death of imperialism; it was produced by the struggles that caused its demise. If there hadn’t been a global anti-imperialist movement with real muscle and organisation, then it’s quite possible to imagine the post-WWII world as a vast apartheid-era South Africa style realm.

Once the global South had won its freedom, its new leaders faced a vast challenge. It’s one we have also forgotten, the difficulty of creating economic take-off. The Western economies achieved this by a mix of domestic development and foreign exploitation — modern slavery first, followed by commercial imperialism. Even then, growth rates were low — about 2% per annum in British 19th-century “high” capitalism, a rate we consider as stasis today.

The global South was riven with caste-based societies, no external markets for anything other than raw materials, no capital, and no educated workforce. The story of China from 1949 to 1979 may be dominated by the more grotesque episodes, but the less exciting but no less important story is one of steady industrial and agricultural development, even allowing for the reversals occasioned by the “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution.

With the assistance of tens of thousands of Soviet advisers and professionals (until 1963), the country got roads and an extension of its rail network, schools and hospitals, dams and factories, modern buildings. If there is less sign of that era in today’s China it is because the country has been rebuilt a second time, in the post-1979 era of the mixed economy. But that second era could not have occurred as it did without an earlier, more directed era.

From 1949 the Communists — once again, with fairly ruthless methods — redeveloped a society riven with caste and cultural barriers and features. Not only was this necessary to sustained economic development, it was also a fundamental liberation — especially of women, from a semi-chattel status. Without that fundamental reconstruction of Chinese social life — which involved a great deal of cultural destruction, of both tangible and intangible aspects — there would have been no platform for an economic take-off to lift hundreds of millions out of subsistence and sub-subsistence living.

The question that the extraordinary history of modern China poses is: how much of the destruction and violence was inevitable or necessary to what followed? Much of it clearly wasn’t. Maoism was a movement that combined Marxism — substituting the peasantry for the proletariat — with pre-Marxist utopian socialism, bits of Confucianism and other traditions. Both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were conceived as violent and total revolutions; the former presented as something that would jump China towards full communism within a decade, the latter as a sort of cult-like radical humanism, which would deliver humanity from both capitalism/commodification and bureaucracy.

From the communal process and the smashing of all traditional culture, a new and radically free humanity would emerge. Since that was not yet possible, such humanity would need to be embodied in one person. Thus the Mao cult and Mao Zedong Thought was theorised as radical human freedom by a dialectical negation, i.e. it only looked like the opposite of what it was allegedly arguing for. It is absurd and unhistorical to pretend that this conception of human destiny did not grip and energise a section of the Chinese people. It’s also absurd to pretend that it did not have some of the genuine equalising and democratising effects that it intended, further breaking down class barriers and privileges that had persisted within Communist China.

Joel Andreas’ Rise of the Red Engineers is the best account of the hybrid, contradictory but effective way in which this occurred — albeit one creating a new elite in the process. Nevertheless, the Cultural Revolution created a vast pool of talent that could be drawn on for the professionalisation of China (when the schools finally reopened).

There were other unintended consequences. In 1968, with the student-led Cultural Revolution getting out of hand in Beijing and Shanghai, Mao exiled thousands of students and newly qualified professionals to the provinces. That was the cause of immense suffering and sorrow for them — but since many were doctors, it also created a nationwide health system where none had existed before. By the mid-1970s, life expectancy in China had leapt into the ’60s.

Trying to judge the revolutionary and utopian atmosphere that spread across the planet in the 30 years after the Second World War is impossible, without falling into glibness or wilful obtuseness. But yes, the sort of totalising radical humanism that such adventures embodied were not essential to the project, which was ruthless and brutal enough in any case.

The USSR, after an initial period of total state control, had developed a mixed economy “New Economic Policy” in 1921. The Bolsheviks, in doing so, were essentially returning to Marxism, after their own heady bout of utopianism.* Lenin became steadily more enthused about the NEP, and said that it would be necessary to run it for decades.** Stalin killed off the NEP as a political move in 1928. China, after 1949, pursued a version of it.

In the early 1950s, 25% of the Chinese economy remained in private hands, and Mao addressed the Chinese businessmen’s association at an annual banquet, lauding them as pat of the new China. By 1956, once again for political reasons, that was wound up, and a utopian, and not particularly Marxist, direction was started on. Critics of Leninism would argue that such a trajectory was inevitable at the time, and they may be right. But what is clear is that the direction of China since 1979 has been along the lines of the Bolshevik “NEP” — a one-party state controlling the commanding heights of the industrial economy, with a dynamic capitalist sector, all contained within a series of five-year plans. This was not a departure from Marxism but a return to it — to the idea that you can’t jump the stages of history — from the hybrid movement-cult of Maoism.

When you compare this form of development with other trajectories of capitalist development, well there is no competition. China has created a vast middle class, a vast, comparatively prosperous, working class, modern cities, an agricultural system free of famine, universal housing, a nationwide hospital system, a vast school and university system.

India, having never had the sort of brutal reconstruction China went through, has passed from a village-based communalism to neoliberalism, creating a much smaller middle class, vast remnant poverty, and millions of people who still simply live and die on a stretch of earth or pavement. Central America, vastly more prosperous than China in the 1940s, remaining within the circle of imperial domination, has long since been passed by it.

Africa, riven by imperial divisions, the domination of transnational corporations and underdevelopment, has, in vast areas, barely developed at all. Can anyone really deny that the continent would have been much better off had it been genuinely Communised, had its Mao arisen? That whatever the brutalities that would have followed, the cultural destruction, the same thing would have been achieved — a platform for systemic development, and some reasonable distribution of its benefits? Until very recently, there were whole countries in Africa where life expectancy remained at 37-40 — as it was in China when the Communists took power. Had they taken power across Africa, the place would be full of gleaming cities, and millions now dead would be enjoying something of an extended and fuller life.

That’s the nub of it really, of the deadened and rote response to Communism in the 20th century. It’s easy to judge what happened — especially if it has a grotesque, evil or sadistic character — harder to assess what didn’t happen. Political deaths are assessed as murder, economic deaths as bad fortune or the way of the world — a morality that marks the ultimate victory of a laissez-faire liberal ideology, its insistence that the market economy is a part of nature, not a human construction.

Thus when we see a news report about another coup in Africa, and see that the city is a mix of broken-down old colonial era buildings, a skyscraper or two, and lots of tin sheds, and say “oh, that’s Africa”. But it isn’t Africa. It’s the absence of the Africa that never happened, the absence that has left a residue created by a global capitalism that does not cause development, unless it is steered and directed by political will. It is the Africa, and parts of Asia and Latin America, that has been left exposed to the depredations of global capital, via punishing interest rates, from loans contracted by corrupt local clients, that have made development impossible, and whose direct death toll — early death, childhood death, wasted years — must now number in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

Vast sections of the world we live in are what we would be reading about in fictional dystopias, if a genuine global development had occurred. The genuinely moral response is not to stop at the most visible deaths. Indeed, much of the “moral” response to Communism has by now been so consumed by aestheticisation that only trace elements of morality remain.

From The Gulag Archipelago to Stasiland, such accounts of violence and suffering have had a double effect; they expose the crimes as they should, but give them a symbolic and iconic status as a representative of the tragedy of human propensity for evil. The things that happen as an everyday matter are thus normalised. There is no Solzhenitsyn to record the deaths of children from dysentery in Africa, but more than a million do, every year, year after year.

China, meanwhile, has dozens of regional hospitals devoted to nothing other than the treatment of childhood diarrhoea. It’s not that the political/economic distinction is of no value or import. Reading a book like Tombstone, an exhaustive record of the devastation of the Great Leap Forward, is to enter a world where the wanton destruction of a wilfully deluded policy created a culture of vast cruelty — almost as if the process produced the cruelty, to give some sort of rationale to what was otherwise a morass of senseless death.

Even the most indifferent death-by-market cannot really compare (although, even here, the question about double standards has to be asked. The 1943 famine in British Bengal took 3 million people, about the same rate as the Great Leap Forward by population and area. But it was a mixture of bungling, British racism, hoarding and lack of democratic processes in the area. Does that not register on our conscience because it has no grand narrative? Or because it was unquestionably the fault of British imperial rule?). Such deaths, such entirely unnecessary suffering, demand a genuine moral response, a willingness to challenge the strong ideological currents that would reassure us that we have no need to concern ourselves with what isn’t being done. It’s a challenge many people fail.

Much of this aesthetication has a narrow political purpose. Nazism fascinates because it was a radically evil movement, in ends and means, its positive aim global enslavement. Communism fascinates because its moral ends legitimised unlimited evil of means. Late imperialism and neoliberalism, when looked back on, will fascinate because their means became ends — because they put the functional nihilism of market relations and the cash nexus at the centre of life, degrading society and self-hood towards an ultimate end point of cultural collapse. That the world stood by and let 15 million Africans die of AIDS (aside from any other diseases) over the course of a decade will be judged on a level with Auschwitz and the Gulag — not as like them in manner, but in the manner of arising from the application of a worldview.

To the compulsions of racial suprematism and humanist perfectionism, neoliberalism adds the paradoxical drive of total indifference as a positive cause. In this, the ritual re-enactment of anti-communism plays a role. Anti-communism, in its time, was a moral movement, which nevertheless exemplified the easy political/economic split that lies at the root of current moral obtuseness. Dominated by central Europeans in exile, it could conceive of human history as a European drama only, with the struggles of the non-white peoples of the world as mere shadowplay.

Now that communism, as was, has gone, those who persist in a simple morality tale about it, all that remains of anti-communism is an invocation against revolt or resistance of any description and a positive invitation to Panglossian indifference to real suffering — and beyond that, to the trajectory of catastrophe in matters of climate change and biosphere survival. That “disorder under the heavens” would appear to be beyond the capacity of undirected/uncontrolled private economies to solve, or even to address.

China has major problems ahead — ongoing political legitimacy, bubble effects of development, alienation and atomisation of mass modern life — but, compared to what has gone before, what problems to have. It is entirely possible that it is only a body like the Chinese Communist Party, should it survive, which would have the global heft, and the underlying humanist and ends-based philosophy, distinct from capitalist nihilism, to force real and effective global action on climate change.

Nothing in politics turns out as it appears likely to. No movement of the 20th century proved capable of avoiding paradox and reversal in its intent and achievements. A century after the October revolution, and with left and right formations on their way to break up and recombination, it is time to expand the moral compass by which we view the century, and assess it with fresh eyes, beholden to nothing, least of all what people though they were doing at the time.

*Russian Bolshevism was influenced by a bizarre Russian movement called biocosmism, a mix of Hegel and Christian mysticism, which sought to convert all inert nature into human product. They discussed space travel, the colonisation of planets, and the resurrection of the dead from their mortal remains. Much of the “impossibilist” strand that took over the sober and analytical movement of Marxism through Stalinism and into Maoism was kickstarted by the “biocosmist” hold on Russian utopian thinking.

**Essentially this was Lenin adopting a position he had scorned before the First World War — that advocated by Marxists such as Kautsky and Parvus, that a socialist revolution would inevitably have to run capitalism on, and control its direction towards socialism by use of centralised wage-fixing, interest rates and taxes. Both were influenced by the Harvester Judgement, and the system resulting from it, and called their proposal “the Australian system”. This was the proposition that Lenin was replying to in his famous — famous in Australia — 600-word article, decrying the ALP as a “bourgeois-democratic party”. By 1921, he adopted much of the Kautsky/Parvus proposal without acknowledging such.