What is Mao’s Little Red Book, first published in 1964 at the start of the Cultural Revolution? In 2019, I think we have to look at it in three ways:
The Little Red Book was a work of journalism. This means it sought to impart knowledge which was specific to its exact time, and as a response to the needs of its particular moment. Were you to read a report of mine from 2009, of course it would not be considered as relevant, hip and accurate were it to be directly applied to the situation in 2019… but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hit the nail on the head the day it was published. Mao’s Little Red Book served an immediate need for immediate decision-making, much like journalism does.
Secondly, the Little Red Book was essentially of code of conduct. It was aimed at workers in the government and preached an ascetic program of socialist officialdom. I.e., it was moral instruction for civil servants, telling government workers to be good workers.
Thirdly - and this is the source of the Little Red Book’s greatest social impact during the CR and the reason it is immortal – it was able to be used as a very real weapon of democratic empowerment for China’s lowest classes against bad civil servants.
This series examines The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village by Dongping Han, who was raised and educated in rural Jimo County, China, and is now a university professor in the US. Han interviewed hundreds of rebel leaders, farmers, officials and locals, and accessed official local data to provide an exhaustive analysis of seeming unparalled objectivity and focus regarding the Cultural Revolution (CR) in China. Han was kind enough to write the foreword to my brand-new book, I’ll Ruin Everything you Are: Ending Western Propaganda in Red China. I hope you can buy a copy for yourself and your 300 closest friends.
Han does something which Westerners never do without total derision, total ignorance of its contents, and a general disinterest in the aims of socialism to begin with: he fairly discusses the impact of Mao’s Little Red Book. Han writes with his characteristic modesty and refusal to exaggerate:
“Fundamentally speaking, yang banxi (the model Beijing operas) and Mao’s quotations served important social functions. They promoted a democratic, modern political culture and established a highly demanding, though loosely worded, code of official conduct. They called on Communist Party members to accept hardship first and enjoyment later. They required government officials to think about the livelihood of the masses. They denounced high-handed oppressive behavior and promoted subtle persuasion in dealing with difficult persons. … They set up good examples for the officials to emulate, and, more importantly, they provided the ordinary people with a measuring stick of good official conduct.”
Providing a new measuring stick – is that not what Revolutions are all about?
“To the outside world and to the educated elite, songs based on Mao’s quotations and yang banxi constitute a personality cult carried to the extreme. But in a way this cult served to empower ordinary Chinese people. Ordinary villagers used Mao’s words to promote their own interests. What some outside observers don’t realize is that Mao’s works had become a de facto constitution for rural people. More importantly, this de facto constitution became an effective political weapon for ordinary villagers.”
There is no doubt that longtime China analysts in the West are flummoxed by such a positive, democratic analysis.
Just like journalism, we can only judge the true worth of the Little Red Book by accepting the judgment of the local masses. It’s easy to imagine that non-Chinese, especially properly educated ones, may view the Little Red Book as unnecessary instruction… but this was decidedly not the case in 1964 China for the average person. When “ability to increase the empowerment of the average person” becomes our measuring stick, then our assessment must change…but for this type of focus - which is egalitarian and communal, as opposed to individualistic - we need people like Han and not Harvard professors.
“Scholarly critics of the Cultural Revolution dismiss the study of Mao’s works as blind submission to Mao’s words as the final authority. That is very true. It is true that few people in China ever, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, subjected Mao’s work to any theoretical scrutiny, which is sad indeed. However, critics sometimes forget the social context of Chinese society in the mid-1960s, and the most urgent needs of ordinary people at that time. For the illiterate and powerless villagers, it was not the business of the day to subject Mao’s works to theoretical scrutiny, but to use Mao’s words as a weapon to empower themselves against official abuses and to overcome their traditional submissive culture.”
Again, Mao’s Little Red Book is a superb piece of urgently-needed journalism which created a code of conduct that people from the disempowered classes could immediately use as a democratic weapon.
What are we supposed to do with such an analysis of Mao’s Little Red Book? Are we to tell Professor Han - with all his research, personal background, knowledge and ability to provide context – that his point of view is less informed and intelligent than that of Western journalists and academics? This is why Han’s book is revolutionary: those who read it can either accept it and change their “measuring stick” of the CR, the Little Red Book and many other things Chinese socialist… or they can be fairly denounced as reactionaries who believe that upholding illogical but traditional thought - which only supports an obviously unequal status quo - is more important than the use of honesty, reason and moral fairness.
Han, not being a journalist as I am, is not at all prone to such indignant accusations, LOL.
Mao’s problem is that he was both a genius politician and a genius thinker. His double genius, and his incredible ineffectiveness at his chosen tasks, have inspired such awe and loyalty that the popularity of the Little Red Book is assumed in the West to be solely a product of a “cult of personality” for Mao instead of its amazing democratic utility.
I have never heard of a “cult of personality” applied to a Westerner. I’d like to discuss this with you sometime in France - we can go to the tiniest of villages and meet at Place du Charles de Gaulle, which is at the intersection of Avenue Charles de Gaulle and Rue Charles de Gaulle, and catty-corner from Allée Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle, I note, did not even produce an equivalent of the Little Red Book, and thank God for that - it would surely have been based merely around the grandeur of France, i.e. petty nationalism.
The ideas, beliefs and sayings of Mao compiled in the Little Red Book were obviously so dear and so accepted by the Chinese people that the Book’s popularity became proof of brainwashing to anti-socialists. However, to socialists the Book was obviously something much more: it was a necessary tool of empowerment.
Dismissing the Little Red Book shows that one either hasn’t read it, or is a loud-mouthed reactionary
For Han, schoolchildren using the Little Red Book to teach political empowerment to their illiterate parents is not the source of amusement, nor is it trivial, nor is it authoritarianism-cloaked-in-leftism – it is real leftism in action, and incredibly suited for its time and place. We can debate its academic/theoretical quality regarding socialist political theory, but Han relates how it was a superb tool of democracy against bad governance.
“I would argue that one reason why ordinary villagers made such an effort to study Mao’s works and why they could recite Mao’s quotations and other lengthy works at that time is because they gained power by doing so.”
That certainly seems logical: a low-level Party official might commit the Little Red Book to superficial memory, but why would an “ordinary villager” take the time out of their busy farming day to do so? This is a question which will endlessly flummox Westerners, and to the point where they resort to the most absurd fear-mongering: “Oh, they must have feared the gulag if they didn’t learn it.”
During the public forums for which the CR is known for, imagine a corrupt cadre being confronted publicly with Mao’s injunctions, such as:
However active the leading group may be, its activity will amount to fruitless effort by a handful of people unless combined with the activity of the masses. (Page 251)
This surely was used by Chinese peasants to compel Party cadres to include the democratic will when creating local policy, but to make cadres work in the fields (and that truly happened during the CR decade, and en masse).
If, in the absence of these movements, the landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements and monsters were allowed to crawl out - while our cadres were to shut their eyes to this and in many cases fail to even differentiate between the enemy and ourselves… the Marxist-Leninst Party would undoubtedly become a revisionist party or a fascist party and the whole of China would change its color. (Page 79)
These are honestly the two first passages I randomly turned to in my copy of the Little Red Book. Why are they so good? Because The Little Red Book is a “Greatest Hits of Mao Zedong” - it’s the best thoughts from his speeches, writings and interviews from over decades. I truly just turned at random again, and this is something de Gaulle would have hated (I knew it’d be easy to write this article):
“But we must be modest - not only now, but 45 years hence as well. (I.e., the year 2001, as this was written in 1956.) We should always be modest. In our international relations we Chinese people should get off great-power chauvinism resolutely, thoroughly, wholly and completely.”
Fake-leftists condemn Mao as a tyrant, yet his words were beloved by the masses because they were so empowering, clear-hearted and universal. It should be clear that his works were not memorized in a rote form as a way to pass a civil service test – they were learned by heart because they were so very intelligent yet so applicable. The reality is that during the CR decade old Chinese peasants who had just learned to read were waving the Little Red Book in the faces of shamefaced, younger Party cadres.
Han provides us fascinating, accurate, local insight into the impact, need for and democratically empowering motivations behind the Little Red Book. We should be able to see why the Cultural Revolution would not have spread far and wide within China without it.
The reality is that Chinese peasants in 1965 were leap years ahead of Westerners, from a mental-political perspective – that’s what 16 years of socialism will do for somebody:
“To many Western scholars, Mao’s Cultural Revolution-era messages were extremely ambiguous. Andrew Walder, for instance, has written: ‘It takes an extraordinary amount of energy and imagination to figure out precisely what Mao really meant by such ideas as ‘the restoration of capitalism’ or ‘newly arisen bourgeoisie.’ However, to Chinese people, even to the illiterate villagers, these terms were not so hard to grasp. Due to China’s leap ahead in political modernity, and some subsequent obstacles, capitalism’s restoration meant incomplete land reform for farmers, and the new bourgeoisie were the Party leaders who acted very much like the old landlords.”
Such sentences from Walder-types are constant when reading Anglophones discuss socialism: they adore to subtly but clearly express their belief that - at its base - socialism is just a childish fantasy, without any grounding in logic or reality.
These cynical notions take one very far in the West. Walder won a Guggenheim fellowship and taught at Harvard and Stanford despite being far stupider than the average Chinese peasant (by his own admission). It’s incredible that someone who cannot understand those two simple terms would rise so far in the realm of political science academia; it is not surprising that such a person would produce obviously anti-China and anti-socialist works such as China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed. Han’s work explains why the CR was in fact a re-railing of socialist revolution…but I do not think he will get a Guggenheim Fellowship for his efforts, sadly.
The reality is that until we learn to prioritize local/native studies and views we will always have great difficulty in understanding foreign cultures. Yet when it comes to socialist-inspired countries native voices are totally excluded in the allegedly-free press/free thought-loving West.
“Today farmers still say that, ‘Chairman Mao said what ordinary villagers wanted to say (shuo chu liao nongmin de xinli hua).’”
For those many Westerners who envision Mao burning in Hell, I think he’s pretty happy where he is because that is an extremely meritorious legacy for any politician – being a conduit for the ordinary People.
Conversely, ex-French President Francois Hollande was recently asked if what the French say about current President Emmanuel Macron is true: that he is the “president of the rich”. Hollande, who was bitterly derided by the decidedly not witty Nicolas Sarkozy as “Mr. Little Jokes”, responded: “No, he’s not. He’s the president of the super-rich.” (Where was this great analysis when you were in charge, Francois?)
De Gaulle could never say what ordinary villagers wanted to say…unless they were French villagers - his political ideology was based on petty, blinkered French nationalism; he could never have united scores of European ethnicities, whereas Mao did (and still does) unite 56 officially-recognised ethnicities.
Macron is capitalist, De Gaulle was imperialist - both should not write even very little books, and of any color.
The Little Red Book remains a source of amusement in the West, but it’s not as if they understand it. And it’s not as if ever-surging, ever-united China needs Western acceptance in 2019.
Han has helped prove that the legacy of the Little Red Book will be that it enabled a new worship and devotion to the tenets of socialism (with Chinese characteristics) - Mao was merely the conduit of thoughts much larger than his person.
It is unfortunate that the West continues to build and worship their ignorant cult of anti-Mao, rather than understanding how the Little Red Book increased democracy and empowerment.
This is the 4th article in an 8-part series which examines Dongping Han’s book The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village in order to drastically redefine a decade which has proven to be not just the basis of China’s current success, but also a beacon of hope for developing countries worldwide. Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Part 1 – A much-needed revolution in discussing China’s Cultural Revolution: an 8-part series
Part 2 – The story of a martyr FOR, and not BY, China’s Cultural Revolution
Part 3 – Why was a Cultural Revolution needed in already-Red China?
Part 4 – How the Little Red Book created a cult ‘of socialism’ and not ‘of Mao’
Part 5 – Red Guards ain’t all red: Who fought whom in China’s Cultural Revolution?
Part 6 – How the socioeconomic gains of China’s Cultural Revolution fuelled their 1980s boom
Part 7 – Ending a Cultural Revolution can only be counter-revolutionary
Part 8 – What the West can learn: Yellow Vests are demanding a Cultural Revolution
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.