The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. But in too many cases there is not even a modicum of good to accompany those bones. So, it seems, it was with Mao Zedong, the “father” of modern China.
Just last week we were again reminded of the evil influence of this man and how that evil still lives among us when, heroically, Katy Morgan-Davies, enslaved since birth in Britain by her Maoist-inspired cult leader father, said she forgave him after a judge condemned him to die in jail for his decades of abuse in which he had robbed her of “family, childhood, friends and love”.
Aravindan Balakrishnan was found guilty of horrific assaults against two female followers and false imprisonment and child cruelty against his daughter.
At Southwark Crown Court Judge Deborah Taylor said: “You were ruthless in your exploitation of them. You engendered a climate of fear, jealousy and competition for your approval. The judge said Balakrishnan had treated his daughter like “a project”.
A project? Therein lies the pernicious influence of Mao Zedong, the man whose dedication to a utopian project was pursued at the cost of the lives of more than 45 million of his countrymen.
Yet this man, of whose ideology Balakrishnan is a micro representation, inspired some of Western Europe’s most famous intellectuals for some of the seminal decades of the last century, the 1960s and 1970s. In fact recent studiesreveal that in its essence Mao’s legacy was as brutal and his personal life was as vicious as that of the man who was last week condemned to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Mao was not only the man who set China on her ruthless totalitarian path. He was also the man whose ideology has inspired his successors to continue to pursue social and population control policies which seem set to plunge China into a demographic catastrophe. Furthermore, in his personal life he was a voracious and utterly abusive predator of the women in his life – and there were multitudes of them. He would put Caligula to shame.
A review in the Times Literary Supplement of a recent biography of a Belgian-Australian writer who died in 2014 reminds us that:
In the 1960s and 70s, a nation that saw itself as the most sophisticated on earth fell under the spell of the greatest mass murderer in history. Mao Zedong had admirers in many places, but only in France did his appeal stretch beyond small bands of revolutionaries. The cream of the progressive intelligentsia – from Jean-Paul Sartre to Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Godard – as well as pillars of the conservative establishment enthused about him. André Malraux was Mao’s most fulsome eulogist. Alain Peyrefitte, another Gaullist grandee, published a bestseller in 1973 arguing that under Mao’s stewardship China was destined for greatness. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called Mao a “beacon” for humanity.
Pierre Boncenne, the author of the biography of Simon Leys (the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans), tells us that he should be remembered as one of the earliest voices to be raised against the adulation of this tyrant. He tells us of the moment when Leys was first alerted to the atrocities perpetrated by Mao. He was pursuing his day job, the study of Chinese art and literature in Hong Kong when a car bomb exploded outside his apartment and killed a famous critic of Mao. This was 1967 and this was just one atrocity of the many that made up Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Within a year of that explosion students were on the streets in Paris, London, Dublin and other cities around the world, accompanied by some of the aforementioned intellectuals, acclaiming Mao Zedong as a hero for our times. It was too much for Leys. He wanted to put the record straight and began the first of the three books he published between 1971 and 1976 – Chairman Mao’s New Clothes. Then he followed with, Chinese Shadows and Broken Images. In these books he told the story of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution as he saw them unfold, exposing the naivety of Mao’s Western acolytes.
Boncennes’ biography, Le Parapluie de Simon Leys, tells us that while some acclaimed the books, they made little impact on the Western cult of Mao. The TLS review summarises the moment when the penny finally dropped:
Their public shaming did not come until Leys’s first television appearance in May 1983. Other guests on France’s prestigious cultural show Apostrophes that evening included Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, who was promoting her unrepentant autobiography of a Mao fan. Leys took the opportunity to tell the Red Guards of the Left Bank to their faces what he had been thinking of them for so long. “I think idiots utter idiocies just as plum trees produce plums – it’s a normal, natural process. The problem is that some readers take them seriously”, he said. “The most charitable thing you can say about [Macciocchi’s book] On China is that it is utterly stupid; because if you did not accuse her of being stupid, you would have to say she’s a fraud.”
Sales of Macciocchi’s book plummeted after the show – which ironically she appeared on to promote.
The reviewer tells us that Leys’ writing on the subject still repays reading because of his power to tell simple truths. Forty years on, researchers have shed light on key episodes and updated the death toll – as high as 45 million for the Great Leap Forward of 1958–61 alone – but few, he says, have painted the overall picture with such limpidity and depth. “Leys brings not just factual but moral clarity to the story of Maoism. His notes on a hellish utopia and the fascination it can exert make him a significant figure of anti-totalitarian literature.”
True religion, G.K. Chesterton wrote, was a way of stopping the mind from spinning out of control and of anchoring it in reality. This appealed to Leys, who was a devotee of G.K. and also a devout Catholic. In his view the political monstrosities of the 20th century were rooted in a failure to acknowledge reality and this was particularly true of Maoism, which stated the absolute supremacy of the leader’s will: if you followed Mao’s teachings, – and remember how many students in the 60s and 70s were intrigued by his “Little Red Book” – anything was possible. Imagine and design your project and pursue it to the death, the deaths of millions if necessary. For Leys the sophisticates of the West who refused to pay attention to real events, lost in their abstract thoughts, idiotically surrendered themselves to one of the greatest evils the world has ever seen.
Michael Kirke lives in Dublin and blogs at Garvan Hill. This article has been republished with permission.