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Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism

January 30, 2010

Maurice Meisner. Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism: Eight Essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.

Christian Hess (2003)

In this collection of essays Maurice Meisner sheds light on an important but under-explored aspect of Maoist thought: utopianism. As he quickly points out in this work, Western scholars typically view Maoist utopianism as “political abnormal or economically irrational behavior that has intruded on the historical scene” (17). While not denying some of its bizarre elements (the cult of Mao for example), Meisner’s aim in this book is to redress such views and take Mao’s utopian visions more seriously. In doing so, he develops a picture of how such central components of Maoist thought as the transformative role of consciousness, the belief that the will of the peasant masses can shape society, and the ability of Chinese society to leapfrog over key stages of socio-economic development, were all vital in to Mao’s vision of China’s future. What this book sets out to do, then, is to trace the origins and the major characteristics of Maoist utopianism in an effort to demonstrate its centrality within Maoism, and how such visions in turn influenced the course of CCP history.

The eight essays also highlight some of the key differences between Maoism and more orthodox Marxism and Leninist Maoism. For example, in Chapter Three Meisner argues that the relationship between Leninism and Maoism was ambiguous, particularly when viewed in light of the Cultural Revolution (77). He finds that Mao’s faith in the peasant masses, his distrust of centralization and bureaucracy, and his disdain for occupational specialization share much in common with the Russian Populism against which Lenin fought (103). Importantly, Meisner notes that the Populists’ impatience with history, and their desire to bypass capitalism were key parts of their utopianism (81-2). This issue of speed is similar to a central component of Maoism (shared with Li Dazhao) that emphasizes that it is the transformation of consciousness that will enable Chinese society to rapidly attain socialism. Such comparisons yield a nuanced picture of Maoist leadership in practice as well, as Meisner notes a dial component in Maoism characterized by “encouraging spontaneous mass revolutionary activity and then imposing Leninist-style restraint on that activity” (106). Thus, for Meisner, Mao may have been “standing on Lenin’s shoulders” as many scholars have assumed, but he was also dreaming of a future for China. The nature of that future, and the means by which China was to achieve it, as Meisner argues, was different from other Marxist traditions.

Meisner’s most insightful analysis concerns Mao’s utopianism. Meisner illuminates the unique fact that for Mao, the utopian visions that characterized the major events of the 1950s and 1960s were developed and disseminated largely after he and the CCP came to power (189). While efforts were made in the Soviet Union to curb the radicalism of the revolution in order to soberly construct the state, this model was rejected in China. Moreover, he shows that Mao’s vision of the future contained both utopian and dystopian elements. To reach the utopia in which ‘red and expert’ divisions no longer existed among men required never-ending struggle, and at all stages of this vision, conflict and contradictions among people constantly exist (194). The future for Mao was thus not free of struggle; constant struggle was rather the key to its very formation.

Although intricately conceived, the book has its faults. Reviewers like Raymond Wylie criticize Meisner for glossing over too many details such as the relationship between totalitarianism and utopianism. Wylie goes so far as to say that Meisner’s own utopian view of Mao clouds his arguments (Pacific Affairs, 57,1:113-5). Brantley Womack finds Meisner’s final chapter dealing with the post-Mao era to be problematic in that rather than contributing to an understanding of the links between Maoism and the post-Mao era, Meisner chooses to view the latter as marked by “a complacent materialism eager to forget the challenging, utopian aspects of Maoism” (Journal of Asian Studies, 44,1:189-191). Such criticisms aside, as more scholars turn their attention to PRC history, this study will continue to be extremely important. As Meisner has demonstrated, many of the key events of the 1950s and 1960s cannot be adequately understood without reference to Maoist thought. While intellectual history may be fading from the field, contributions like this one will continue to influence future studies of the unexplored corners of post-1949 Chinese history.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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