Monday, June 06, 2005

 

Morrison Preferable to Mao

When I was studying government at university we used a text by Herbert Morrison (yes, it's that long ago) which tended to encourage a cosy, Panglossian, 'it all works for the best' view of the constitution. As students we were not all inclined to accept this approach but were more attracted by the scathing critiques offered by the likes of Bernard Crick (another neanderthal name) or Brian Chapman (once a professor at Manchester). But even their strictures were about the detailed efficacy of parliament or the workings of the civil service. The main pillars of the system were regarded as solid as English oaks. Unless, of course, one was a Marxist and wanted to tear down the meaningless democratic edifice which disguised the hegemony(nice Marxist word there) of the property owners which maintained the workers in their positions of 'slavery'.

But Marxism was not for me; partly because I was never a root and branch rebel and partly because my doctoral studies of the USSR convinced me that Marxism was a beguiling diversion which created many more problems than it solved. 'We are not the doctors ... we are the disease' said Alexander Herzen and this summed up my objection to a creed which suggested human nature itself could be altered from without. Stalin was proof that the darker side of human nature will always be the spectre which haunts any political system. Place too much power in the hands of a few - as Marxist-Leninism proposed with its theory of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' - and some gimlet-eyed creature will emerge to sieze control for his own self directed ends.

British history is relatively free of such psycopathy; after King John in the 13th century, monarchs were something less than power crazed. And if they were mad, like George III, they were reasonably harmlessly so. I suppose the key factor was that dynastic power struggles affected only the small elite who competed for control of the state. The people were generally left alone apart from those who had to fight in the private armies of kings and putative kings. A new book by Jung Chang (author of the sublime Wild Swans) and her historian husband Jon Halliday, teaches us how fortunate we have been to escape the ravages of a real madman in contrrol of our state and our destinies. It is called Mao: the Unknown Story (Cape).

The book is not yet widely available in the shops but we know the essence of it from the extensive reviews - Roy Hattersley in Sunday's Observer and Michael Yehuda in Saturday's Guardian. We learn that Mao was no superhero. He had nothing but contempt for the peasantry and was happy to see them die so that he and his forces could survive. His Long March is revealed as a myth - he was allowed to escape by Chiang Kai sheck and thoughout he displayed total contempt for his 80,000 strong army, only 4000 of which made it through to the end. We learn that he revelled in acts of violence, torture and murder and used young women continuously to satisfy his other all too human urges. Two other unsavoury things we learn is that Mao seldom cleaned his teeth, with the result that they were green, and that he went for 25 years without a bath! Being ravished by the great Chinese Marxist must have been memorable indeed.

Virtually all his major decisions proved to be failures. The most spectacular was the disastrous Great Leap Forward when he tried to equal the steel out put of the west via back yard furnaces thoughout the land and produced merely useless pigiron by the thousands of ton. Maybe 30 million died of starvation as a result of this crazy venture. The Cultural Revolution which killed many more millions, was the attempt of a geriatric leader to sustain his slackening hold of power. In other words Mao was probably the most blood soaked power fixated leader in history, responsible for 70 million deaths and who would have calmly sacrificed as many more in a nuclear exchange with the west had he needed to.

By comparison our history of Wars of the Roses and Cromwell's New Model Army, not to mention the din of debate in the Commons and constant back stairs scheming by Mandelson and his ilk, seem the most sedate of vicarage tea parties. Our system is imperfect, as we observed at the last election, which produced a Labour majority of 66 from only 21 per cent of the vote, but we do not have concentration or political re-education camps, nor do we have mobs rampaging the streets intent upon killing anyone with more than a single GCSE. It's a small point perhaps but we should occasionally be grateful for our mundane stability. This historic biography should be read by all young people and all Chinese too (yes, all 832 pages of it) to remind us how cautious, peaceful democracies are always preferable to violent, if in some ways romantic revolutions.

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