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Chairman Mao Talks to the People

January 29, 2010

Stuart Schram, ed. Chairman Mao Talks to the People: Talks and Letters: 1956-1971. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Rachel Scollon (2000)

Schram selected these pieces mostly from unofficial Red Guard publications issued between 1966 and 1969. The texts in this volume add depth to the view of Mao’s thought Schram presented in The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, providing a glimpse of the practical side of Mao’s politics. The book is, too, a portrait of Mao as charismatic leader, aiming to convey something of the flavor of the man’s presence in a fashion accessible to the general reader. Schram has thus made his selections with an eye to piquancy of style, and not included items which require too detailed a knowledge of the ins and outs of policy. The texts are arranged in chronological order, with commentary limited to the introduction and the explanatory notes.

In his introduction Schram organizes his discussion of the ideas Mao presents in these speeches around four themes. The first is “organizational principles,” primarily the tension between democracy and centralism in democratic centralism. Mao values both, stressing one or the other depending on in which direction he felt the balance was currently being upset, warning against both the perils of excessive bureaucracy and unchecked activity by the confused masses. “[T]he real hallmark of his thinking is that in the last analysis it is not necessary to choose between [democracy and centralism]” (p. 13). Mao goes so far as to argue that “if there’s no democracy there won’t be any centralism,” defining “centralism” as “centralization of correct ideas” (p. 163), which cannot be achieved without listening to the masses.

Schram’s next category is “education,” part of Mao’s general concern with the remolding of Chinese culture, and linked also to his exaltation of youth. Schram notes that the Cultural Revolution caused Mao to move from a stress on the possibilities of youth to an awareness of the need to educate young people. Mao is wholeheartedly in favor of learning through practical experience, but seems more ambivalent about book learning, wobbling back and forth between exhorting everybody to study every day and read more books and proclaiming that books make you stupid.

The third category is “patterns of economic development,” which Schram argues that Mao sees in terms of dialectics or the unification of opposites, so that cities and countryside complement each other, rather than being in a hierarchical superior-subordinate relationship.

Schram’s last category is “foreign relations,” in which the Sino-Soviet split led Mao from seeing the capitalist imperialists as the main threat to seeing China as fending off the imperialists on one side and the revisionists on the other.

Schram focuses on the theoretical content of these pieces, but the material presented is also interesting from a rhetorical point of view. Text 6, a speech delivered in July 1959 at the Lushan Conference, is particularly interesting. Mao tries to motivate cadres to adjust and move on after a period of discontent at distributional distortions produced by the Great Leap Forward’s industrial policies, projecting a carefully calculated blend of encouragement, sympathy, and mild remonstrance tinged (as far as one can tell from a transcription) with a certain level of personal discomfort that seems meant to convey that “we’re all in this together.”

By the time this book came out Mao’s health was visibly failing. The book contributed to an effort to sum up his significance and the nature of relationships between the Chinese political elite in order to predict what kinds of changes might come with his death. It was also, as Jacques Guillermaz points out in his review for the China Quarterly (No. 62, June 1975, pp. 318-319), of great practical help to have these texts collected in one volume. Guillermaz finds the treatment of Mao’s method of balancing Leninist and mass-based revolutionary strategies to be an important contribution of Schram’s introduction.

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