When Mao Tse-Tung launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, one of the principal targets of attack were intellectuals. Thousands were silenced, beaten to death, imprisoned, tortured or sent out to the countryside to be re-educated and purified through manual labour. Many of their persecutors were university students and schoolchildren. But theirs was also a death warrant signed by fellow-travelling intellectuals in the West.
Richard Wolin advances no one theory to explain this act of betrayal. The Maoist temptation was part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism. It drew upon a deep-seated discontent with the corruption of Western society as well as the illusion of a radiant utopian future. It was also heavily infused with bourgeois self-hatred. By placing the emphasis on culture — the Great Helmsman was after all a poet as well as a revolutionary — Maoism offered intellectuals in Paris (if not Beijing) the opportunity to act out the role of revolutionary vanguard. So, too, it appealed to those enamoured of the invigorating and moralising qualities of popular violence. Robespierre's ghost was much in evidence.
In all of this what was happening in the real China did not matter. Indeed, as Wolin makes clear, the less that was known the better. Not even a visit to communist China could be allowed to dim the enthusiasm for the heroic struggles of the Red Guards and of the Chinese people. That the Great Proletarian Revolution might degenerate into tyranny was not something to be contemplated.
Wolin is merciless in his exposure of the willing naivety this involved. If the Maoists exploited Jean-Paul Sartre for their own ends, he tells us, by the same token the latter used Maoism to revivify his career. For France's most famous philosopher, the excesses of revolutionary violence amounted to justifiable homicide. Worse still was the shameless behaviour of Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva. In their craving for the intellectual limelight, the editor of Tel Quel and his wife took Sinophilia to new heights, Sollers sporting Maoist dress and Kristeva announcing that the feudal practice of foot- binding testified to the secret power of Chinese women. That Kristeva had been brought up in Stalinist Bulgaria makes this even more difficult to pardon. As for Sollers, he was just a rich kid from Bordeaux living out his immature fantasies...Might one include in the assininity the Government of Canada, which unofficially honours Mao by perpetuating the "heroism" of Dr. Norman Bethune, the surgeon who laboured to keep the Maoist army up and running? Why, yes indeed, one well might. Here in Mao's own words, is a eulogy for the great man whom both Canada and Communist China held/hold in such high esteem:
Comrade Norman Bethune, a member of the Communist Party of Canada, was around fifty when he was sent by the Communist Parties of Canada and the United States to China; he made light of travelling thousands of miles to help us in our War of Resistance Against Japan. He arrived in Yenan in the spring of last year, went to work in the Wutai Mountains, and to our great sorrow died a martyr at his post. What kind of spirit is this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people's liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism, from which every Chinese Communist must learn. Leninism teaches that the world revolution can only succeed if the proletariat of the capitalist countries supports the struggle for liberation of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples and if the proletariat of the colonies and semi-colonies supports that of the proletariat of the capitalist countries. Comrade Bethune put this Leninist line into practice. We Chinese Communists must also follow this line in our practice. We must unite with the proletariat of all the capitalist countries, with the proletariat of Japan, Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and all other capitalist countries, for this is the only way to overthrow imperialism, to liberate our nation and people and to liberate the other nations and peoples of the world. This is our internationalism, the internationalism with which we oppose both narrow nationalism and narrow patriotism.Makes you want to race right over to Bethune Houuse, Canada's national shrine to the great man, to pay him homage, doesn't it?
Comrade Bethune's spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people. Every Communist must learn from him. There are not a few people who are irresponsible in their work, preferring the light and shirking the heavy, passing the burdensome tasks on to others and choosing the easy ones for themselves. At every turn they think of themselves before others. When they make some small contribution, they swell with pride and brag about it for fear that others will not know. They feel no warmth towards comrades and the people but are cold, indifferent and apathetic. In truth such people are not Communists, or at least cannot be counted as devoted Communists. No one who returned from the front failed to express admiration for Bethune whenever his name was mentioned, and none remained unmoved by his spirit. In the Shansi-Chahar-Hopei border area, no soldier or civilian was unmoved who had been treated by Dr. Bethune or had seen how he worked. Every Communist must learn this true communist spirit from Comrade Bethune.
Comrade Bethune was a doctor, the art of healing was his profession and he was constantly perfecting his skill, which stood very high in the Eighth Route Army's medical service. His example is an excellent lesson for those people who wish to change their work the moment they see something different and for those who despise technical work as of no consequence or as promising no future.
Comrade Bethune and I met only once. Afterwards he wrote me many letters. But I was busy, and I wrote him only one letter and do not even know if he ever received it. I am deeply grieved over his death. Now we are all commemorating him, which shows how profoundly his spirit inspires everyone. We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. A man's ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people.