29 November 2013
Anti-communist literature as atrocity porn
Recently I took a new book, Frank Dikotter's The Tragedy of Liberation, out of the library. After a few chapters I wondered why I had bothered. Dikotter's book is a history of the early years of the People's Republic of China, starting with the post-World War II revival of the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Dikotter is a professor in a Hong Kong college, and I suppose it's a tribute to the integrity of China's "one nation, two systems" policy regarding the former English colony that a man so hostile to the current system of government on the mainland can keep his academic post. He's out to destroy any notion that there was a "good" period of Mao's rule before he went crazy during the Great Leap Forward (result: mass famine) or the Cultural Revolution (result:chaos). The evidence seems to be on his side: the first decade of the People's Republic saw indiscriminate terror as party leaders were given quotas of people to kill in their districts. No surprise, really; I wasn't exactly expecting Mao to have been enlightened or comparatively liberal at any point of his career. Dikotter's point is made convincingly very early in his book, yet the book goes on and on until you could believe the only point was that someone got or was expected to get a kick from all the tales of humiliation, torture and slaughter. The author's deeper point seems to be that communism, or at least Maoism, is little more than an ideology of hatred. He tries to demonstrate, first and more convincingly, that the gap between poor and "rich" wasn't very great in many parts of China, and then, perhaps more on faith, that there was little in the way of class animosity in many peasant communities. Dikotter's contention is that the Communists sought to implicate the masses in the violence of the revolution -- so they could be threatened with blackmail??? -- by inciting a hatred for supposed rich oppressors that wasn't really there in the first place. Dikotter might well believe that communism is no more than the scapegoating of the successful by vicious, stupid thugs, but I'm not sure that historical accuracy is achieved by writing under that assumption. I'm not accusing him of making stuff up; his stories are documented by Chinese sources. Nor do I doubt that there's psychological truth in his account of Chairman Mao as someone who basically got off on mass mobilization and mob violence. But I worry that we begin to lose track of what was happening when we take for granted the popular ad hominem interpretations of communist motives rather than engaging, preferably critically, with what they thought they were doing and why they thought they had to do that. You get none of that in Dikotter's book, or at least the part I read. That the Chinese communists were evil is a given there, but he goes too far in assuming that their evil is somehow distinctive. In an early chapter he describes the horrors in a city besieged by the People's Liberation Army, where hundreds of thousands of people died. Yet he can't possibly mean that siege warfare is some distinctive communist tactic, or that the Red generals were motivated by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought above all to let people starve. He quotes someone on the subject who described the siege as a slow-motion Hiroshima, as if to suggest that the starvation caused by the siege was an atrocity comparable to dropping an atomic bomb. The argument is not unfair when you look at the numbers, but couldn't someone else describe Hiroshimas in even slower motion if they want to denounce the deaths and suffering caused by capitalism, western imperialism, etc? It may seem absurd to many, but for generations many people saw the capitalist economic order as intolerably cruel to its subjects, a long-term crime that demanded nothing short for redress than a complete overhaul of the social order. The sincerity of such feeling wouldn't excuse atrocities carried out in the name of communism, but I fear we've reached the point where many believe that communists committed atrocities for no reason, but out of the basest impulses. I think instead that you can only take communist atrocities seriously if you take communism seriously. If you can't or won't do that, all your research amounts to the literary equivalent of a snuff film.