Marxism claims to offer a materialist approach to history, where class relations and the forces of technology are given more importance than the doings of individuals. In practice, however, political regimes based on professedly Marxist principles have indulged in an unprecedented worship of their leaders. Communist parties the world over brook no criticism of the Holy Trinity of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. No Prime Minister or President of a bourgeois democracy has ever experienced the slavish adulation enjoyed by Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s.
In modern times, the ‘personality cult‘ of Stalin in Russia has been equalled or exceeded only by two leaders and countries—the North Korea of Kim Ll-Sung, and the China of Mao Zedong. I recall, in the early 1990s, walking past the embassy of the Peoples Republic of North Korea in India (located in the upmarket locality of Sunder Nagar), and laughing out loud at a display board on its walls speaking of how the Beloved Leader had single-handedly brought his people out of darkness into light.
More laughs came my way recently, when, on a London pavement, I picked up a book entitled The Miracles of Chairman Mao, published in 1971, and containing translated excerpts from the Chinese press and radio bulletins from the years 1966 to 1970. Edited by a anti-Communist journalist named G. R. Urban, the book carried the sarcastic yet accurate sub-title, ‘A compendium of devotional literature.’
The stories this compendium contains are so wonderfully bizarre that I must share a selection. Thus a girl who had been deaf and dumb for years suddenly burst into song under the inspiration of Chairman Mao. In another case, a patient with a tumour weighing forty-five kilograms inside him was attended by doctors who had devotedly read their Great Leader’s Little Red Book. The operation they conducted was inspired by Mao’s statement: ‘Attack dispersed, isolated enemy forces first; attack concentrated, strong enemy forces later.’ Accordingly, the surgeons first removed the tissues surrounding the tumour before tackling the tumour itself. At hand to help them were the hospital staff, who carried portraits of Mao even as they offered blood to the patient. As for the patient herself, when she regained consciouness, she felt her tummy to find the tumour had disappeared. The first words she now uttered were: ‘Long live Chairman Mao! Chairman Mao has saved me!’
Move now from the realm of health care to the field of sport. After a Chinese table team won the world championships in 1959, one player revealed the secret of their success. Apparently, they had implemented, on the ping-pong table, the tactics and the principles of Mao’s articles ‘On Contradiction’ and ‘On Practice’. ‘Chairman Mao’s teachings’, said another team member, ‘have enabled us to understand that we must set our own path to reach the top of the world. Looking back, it is now clear that for the past 10 years and more, we have followed a road of giving prominence to proletarian politics and Mao Tse-Tung’s thought.’
After the Chinese won the 1965 world championship, the same player said that in their game they had ‘placed the study and application of Chairman Mao’s works in the forefront and put revolutionary dialectics into practice’. The table-tennis bat, he added, was ‘under the command of his [Mao’s] thought.’
Another incident reported in the book featured a worker helping dig a tunnel through a rocky mountain. Rendered unconscious by the effort, he eventually came to his senses. As he did, the worker recalled Mao’s teachings: ‘What is work? Work is struggle. A good comrade is one who is more eager to go where the difficulties are greater’. Thus invigorated, he immediately went back into the tunnel, and dug his way successfully out onto the other side.
In a case more curious still, party cadres in north-east China sought to inculcate the principles of Mao’s thought in the minds of small town barbers. The cadres faced a challenge from the ‘handful of capitalist roaders’ who peddled slogans such as ’“profits first”, “material incentives” and other revisionist nonsense of the arch scab Liu Shao-chi.’ In the end, the revolutionary ideology was victorious, but not without a struggle. An account broadcast over Peking Radio in April 1969 explained the anguish and agonies of one particular barber:
‘One evening a barber named Chih Sung-ta went out as usual to a residential district to give people haircuts while publicizing the excellent situation of the great proletarian cultural revolution. He returned home late at night. He stayed awake and tossed in his bed as he assessed the day’s work in the light of Chairman Mao’s teachings. Chih Sung-ta felt uneasy because, when he was cutting the hair of a paralysed man, he noticed that his blanket was soiled and he had not washed it for the sick man. He had failed to work wholly and “entirely” in the people’s interests, as taught by Chairman Mao. Early the next morning he went to the home of the man and took the blanket to wash it for him.’
In the China of Chairman Mao, class solidarity had (in theory) necessarily to override family obligations. When a lady was knocked down and killed by a lorry, her loving husband was at first full of vengeful feelings against the lorry driver. Then he recalled Chairman Mao’s teaching: ‘Our point of departure is to proceed in all cases from the self-interests of the people and not from one’s self-interest…’. Thus comforted, he sought out the driver and said he forgave him his mistake. However, he urged the driver to go study Mao’s thought, which ‘is as essential to a revolutionary as a steering wheel is to a driver’. The driver was overcome with emotion; he hugged the bereaved man, and told him: ‘I’m grateful to Chairman Mao, grateful to him for bringing up a noble man like you. I’ll always remember the lesson I’ve learnt from this tragic accident, and creatively study and apply Chairman Mao’s works. I’ll fight self-interest and repudiate revisionism and try to be a model in grasping revolution and promoting production.’
In a famous speech to the Constituent Assembly of India, B. R. Ambedkar warned of the dangers of hero-worship in politics. The warning was disregarded, as witness the deification by some Tamils of Jayalalithaa, some Gujaratis of Narendra Modi, some Maharashtrians of Bal Thackeray, and all Congressmen of Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Ambedkar himself has been accorded quasi-divine status by his followers. Even so, one wonders what he would have made of this editorial which appeared in the Liberation Army Daily on 13th August 1967:
‘Chairman Mao is the most outstanding, greatest genius in the world, and his thought is the summing up of the experience of the proletarian struggles in China and abroad and is the unbreakable truth. In implementing Chairman Mao’s directives, we must completely disregard the fact whether we understand them or not. The experience of revolutionary struggles tells us that we do not understand many directives of Chairman Mao thoroughly or partly at the beginning, but gradually understand them in the course of implementation, after implementation, or after several years. Therefore, we should implement resolutely Chairman Mao’s directives which we understand, as well as those which we temporarily do not understand.’
I suppose this is what is called blind faith. At any rate, the miracles attributed to Mao in the China of the 1960s make a Hindu Godman seem pedestrian indeed.
THE MIRACLES OF MAO
by Ramachandra Guha
published in The Telegraph, 6th April 2013)