Creative destruction

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was proclaimed by Chairman Mao Tse-tung (as he was then spelt) on the 16th of May, 1966. I leave gentle reader to do the math. It continued ten years, until its author’s death. It was one of the greatest continuing massacres of history — a work of incredible destruction through which almost all the surviving institutions and monuments from China’s civilized past were also wiped out. The Chinese Communist Party, which still rules this immense nation or empire, no longer wishes to talk about it. The anniversary has been suppressed, and even in Hong Kong, where media retain some fraction of the freedom they enjoyed under British colonial rule, Internet links to the anniversary have been frozen.

Led by young, psychopathic Red Guards, it was an unrestrained obliteration of what Mao called “The Four Olds” — old habits, old customs, old ideas, old culture. His satanic dream was of a “perpetual revolution.” His principles were ultimately those of the French Revolution — “improved” by the models of Leninism and Stalinism, the Hsin-hai Revolution of 1911 (in which the Chinese emperor was deposed), and the imagination of a petty bourgeois from a rural backwater in the province of Hunan (Mao himself). At this day, nothing like an adequate historical accounting can yet be attempted of the Cultural Revolution; nor of Mao’s previous iconoclastic essays; nor of the ways in which subsequent economic accomplishments have depended on them. Crucial sources for such a history remain under the control of the Politburo; and travel within their empire is still regulated by their “guides.”

The personality cult Mao launched, for the worship of himself as living god, exceeded that of Hitler or of Stalin. (At one point nothing was allowed in print that was not either by or about him.) I note that his image yet adorns Chinese banknotes.

As a high school student in Georgetown, Ontario, I would often bus into the city of Toronto, truantly to prowl the bookstores, and haunt the museums and libraries. Among my ports of call was a little establishment on Gerrard Street that specialized in Chinese revolutionary paraphernalia. I no longer have my copies of Mao’s Little Red Book (which I bought as a mischievous decoration), the two volumes of his Selected Works, or odd numbers of the Peking Review. This last was the periodical in which I discovered that I was myself a “running dog of American Imperialism” — a phrase I once found repeated several dozen times within a single article.

But at this distance the flavour of the Cultural Revolution was merely quaint. It was later, discovering for instance the works of that remarkable wandering Belgian Catholic, Pierre Ryckmans (pen-name Simon Leys, 1935–2014) that the full horror of the Chinese experience began to reach me. This amateur sinologist was among the few Western intellectuals who freed themselves from the mesmerizing “coolness” of the Mao cult, in his own generation. Understated, he presented only what he could learn from first-hand travel and research. The power of his writing came from this extraordinary patience. He was looking only for the truth.

Yet I had skirted China by then in my own travels, and read other newsy-historical works, and chatted with more than one acknowledged “China expert” in my quasi-vocation as a hack journalist; and thereby been fed almost entirely with lies. I knew that Maoism was evil, but could not begin to compass how radically evil. A growing appeciation of the grandeur of the ancient Chinese civilization accentuated this. For what was destroyed, in addition to the bodies corresponding to tens of millions of human souls, was of tremendous value, not only to China but to the legacy of the planet.

To my mind looking back, the Cultural Revolution may be the most sustained and thorough exercise in the cause of “progress” that men have yet performed.

I have come to think that its specifically communist ideological thrust was only a component: an efficient means to a larger end. The ideal of “creative destruction” is at the heart of modern capitalism, too: the scouring of the earth in pursuit of some empty glittering tomorrow. The removal of all signposts to a loving God. Their replacement with endlessly sprawling utilitarian “facilities,” in which the human spirit will find no home.