An anarchist in love with Mao’s China - Herbert Read’s ‘letters from China’ ... Plus a list of dubious accounts of ‘successful’ revolutions, from Russia to Rojava

An anarchist in love with Mao’s China - Herbert Read’s ‘letters from China’ ... Plus a list of dubious accounts of ‘successful’ revolutions, from Russia to Rojava

In the second year of the Great Leap Forward famine – in which perhaps 30 million died, anarchist Herbert Read visited China on an official delegation. Read’s acceptance of a knighthood for his literary achievements had already discredited him amongst many anarchists. But, at the time of his visit in 1959, he was still the most prominent anarchist in Britain and his published writings had considerable influence on, amongst others, Murray Bookchin.†

Read’s ‘Letters from China’ show how easy it is for a radical intellectual to get it completely wrong. The nearest comparable episode was in 1967 when Noam Chomsky used phrases like ‘mutual aid’, ‘popular control’ and ‘nonviolence’ while referring to Mao’s collectivization policies. (Later, in 1977-79, Chomsky was also reluctant to acknowledge the full horror of Pol Pot’s version of these policies. See ‘Chomsky on Cambodia’ and here and here.)

These extracts are a timely reminder to be sceptical of any account that claims that the new revolutionary society is being constructed outside of a global working class revolution:


EXTRACTS FROM HERBERT READ’S ‘LETTERS FROM CHINA, 1959’

The afternoon was devoted to the Forbidden City [in Peking]. … Everywhere the people are wandering around, free & happy. Delightful children, amused to see foreigners. There is an extraordinary air of happy-go-lucky contentment everywhere, but everyone is working (there is no unemployment, but a shortage of workers). …

[The Chinese] are extremely moral, in fact puritanical. Crime has, apart from occasional 'crimes of passion', practically disappeared. Each street has a committee which settles all disputes, and there are women’s associations that look after the morals of the inhabitants. Theft, which used to be frequent, is now almost unknown. … Food is plentiful & cheap.

To-day began with the most interesting event so far – a visit to an agricultural commune. These communes have come into existence spontaneously during the past 12 months (previously there were various types of collectives, where work & implements were only partly shared). There are now 24,000 of them, covering practically the whole country & having 450 million members. It is my idea of anarchism come into being, in every detail & practice.

The commune is divided into five brigades – we were in the Peace Bridge brigade & had then to listen to all the statistics for the brigade. Then a description of how it all works, most interesting – but the most important fact is that these communes are autonomous, which makes them anarchist from my point of view; and they are successful – Production has gone up by leaps & bounds, earnings of workers have doubled, schools & clinics have been provided (33 doctors in this one commune – ten years ago there was none). Many other improvements. …

But everywhere there was pride in their achievements & a feeling that the wicked landlords had gone forever. I forgot to ask what had happened to their wicked landlord – no doubt he was in charge of one of the five piggeries. All this sound dull, but I found it fascinating – a dream come true. …

I wish you could see what is going on here socially & economically – it is the biggest & most successful revolution in history, & very inspiring. We spent this morning at Peking University & there too (in education) they have there own completely convincing methods. …

I remarked to the interpreter that I had not seen a policeman, & he answered as I expected, that they were not needed since the Liberation.

There is still a lot of poverty, though the average income [increased] fourfold since the liberation – from £15 a year in 1949 to £65 now – but now they also get free food (for which they pay 18/- a month). Again much evidence of the moral revolution – as the [commune] Chairman said, in the past much fighting, quarrelling, selfishness, now ease of mind, poetry & song. …

All these communes are virtually self-supporting – the only things they need to get from outside are heavy machinery like tractors & perhaps coal & minerals like cobalt. It is the complete decentralization of industry advocated by Kropotkin in ‘Fields, Factories & Workshops’.

I warn some of them [about the technological destruction of natural beauty], but they smile & say it will be different with us – our workers will be educated, they will want beauty & leisure & we shall not repeat the mistakes of the capitalist world. You get the same answers everywhere, & it is not indoctrination, but a faith that moves mountains. …

There are slogans & posters everywhere, and party literature in every hotel lounge: but like the professor this afternoon, however firm their faith, they are willing to discuss it in a free & friendly manner. …

(From A Tribute to Herbert Read, 1893-1968, p44-49, emphases added.)




Here are some other accounts inspired by visits to various ‘socialist’ regimes:

Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution
– in which Serge, a former anarchist exiled in Russia, defends the Bolshevik Party, saying the Party ‘must know how to stand firm sometimes against the masses’ and ‘to bring dissent to obey’.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The Truth about Soviet Russia
– This pamphlet summarises the book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, which was inspired by a visit to the USSR during the devastating Ukrainian famine. In the pamphlet, these influential intellectuals overlook the famine while claiming that ‘Stalin is not a dictator’ and that the USSR is ‘not only a political but an industrial democracy’.

Simone De Beauvoir, The Long March
– in which De Beauvoir claims of Mao that ‘the power he exercises is no more dictatorial than, for example, Roosevelt’s was.’ De Beauvoir visited China with Jean Paul Sartre, who, after his earlier visit to the USSR, had concluded that ‘the Soviet citizen has, in my opinion, complete freedom of criticism.’

Paul M.Sweezy, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution
– in which Sweezy says that there is no sort of ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ or dogmatic ‘line or ideology’ in Cuba.

Joan Robinson, ‘The Korean Miracle’
– in which the influential Keynesian economist says that Kim Il Sung ‘seems to function as a messiah rather than a dictator.’

‘Statement from Black Panther Delegates to North Korea’
– in which North Korea is described as a ‘paradise’.

Noam Chomsky, ‘In North Vietnam’
– in which Chomsky says ‘there appears to be high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels.’

Dan Burstein, ‘Exclusive Eyewitness Report from Kampuchea’
– in which Burstein says he saw ‘not a single sign of coercion’ in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In another article he wrote that a ‘very broad democracy exists in the cooperatives’.


Image of Khmer Rouge fighters from this film

Michel Foucault, ‘What are the Iranians Dreaming about?’
– in which Foucault says that ‘by Islamic government, nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.’ Foucault also seemed to believe that under such an Islamic government, ‘between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights.’

Alex Mitchell, Come the Revolution
– This book includes an account of several Workers’ Revolutionary Party trips to Libya to obtain funding from Gaddafi’s ‘revolutionary’ regime.

Tariq Ali, Revolution from Above
– in which Ali recounts how he tried to convince Piotr Suida, a survivor of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, to join the Russian Communist Party. Ali dedicated his book to the Moscow Party leader, Boris Yeltsin, in the hope that the Party leadership would revive Soviet socialism.

350x
Chomsky, Albert and Chavez

Michael Albert, ‘Venezuela’s Path’
– in which Chomsky’s colleague, Michael Albert, praises Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution for a ‘vision that outstrips what any other revolutionary project since the Spanish anarchists has held forth.’ In 1980, Albert was similarly naive about China’s Maoists, claiming that they may have genuinely wanted ‘greater worker and peasant power’. (For different views on Chavez, see: 'The Revolution Delayed' and ‘Dead Left’.)

David Graeber, ‘No. This is a Genuine Revolution’
– in which Graeber explains that the Rojavan ‘security forces are answerable to bottom-up structures’ and that they intend to ‘ultimately … eliminate police’. See also his ‘I Appreciate and Agree with Ocalan’ interview.

Janet Biehl, ‘Impressions of Rojava: a Report from the Revolution’
– in which Biehl says that ‘women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century’ and that although ‘images of Abdullah Ocalan are everywhere’, there is nothing ‘Orwellian’ about this. (For a variety of views on Rojava, see the ‘Rojava Revolution Reading Guide’.)

It may seem unfair to include anti-Stalinists like Chomsky and Graeber in the same list as those who had real illusions in Stalinism and Maoism. But critical thinking is essential for working out how to make a revolution that does succeed. It is therefore important to show how a neglect of critical thinking can affect any of us.

(† D.Goodway, Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow)

Comments

GerryK
Jun 27 2015 16:56
Quote:
Several points:
1. Sir Herbert Read was always an arsehole; the fact that he called himself an anarchist says a lot about the nature of British anarchism. The term "anarchist", whilst often adopted by those genuinely opposed to this society, is, like all "ists", also something adopted by very conventional people (eg Terry Jones, Russell Brand, Bill Oddie - celebrity-comedians in the Uk who never take risks - have all at times defined themselves as "anarchists"). Despite Sir Herbert's "To Hell with Culture" he in fact supported modern culture as much as any other modern art establishment figure (he was a trustee of the Tate Gallery, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Roland Penrose). He had no notion of the realisation and suppression of art, and was merely opposed to some of its more archaic forms. Even within the framework of art he never did anything innovative like the surrealists or lettrists, though in the archaic culture of the UK merely supporting the surrealists might have seemed a little daring.

2. When this article says "possibly 30 million died" during the Great Leap Forward into mass starvation and brutal primitive capital accumulation that seems to be a fairly conservative estimate. The Chinese state itself, which still treats Mao as a national God, estimates 15 million. Others, less implicated in such hero-worship, have suggested at least 45 million. The probable figure is round about 35 million. The man in charge of agriculture at that time was Tan Zhenlin, who in 1958 said, “Communisation is the communist revolution”. Theoretically, communisation meant forcing the merging of small collectives into huge communes, involving the immediate breaking down of the separation between production units, the abolition of property, wages and individual land patches. In practice this meant squads of Communist Party cadres went round smashing up peasant cottages, burning down villages, confiscating all peasant tools and cooking utensils. Peasants were forced into collective slave labour camps. Any independent means to collect, store or even prepare food was taken away and the cadres imposed a monopoly of food supply in the communal dining halls, used as a weapon of social control. Those who didn’t co-operate were deliberately starved to death. In Henan, for instance, from the winter of 1959 to the spring of 1960, at least one million people starved to death – 12.5% of the population. For Read to have said that these communes came into existence "spontaneously" is about as close to the truth as saying Nazi Concentration camps came into existence spontaneously.

3. Ocalan used to be a Maoist. As far as I know he has not denounced Mao publicly, which you would have thought would be the case if he'd decided to re-model himself in the image of Bookchin. The cult of the personality that was intrinsic to Mao's China, is reflected in the cult of the personality of Ocalan also, even down to the similarity of some of the artistic depictions of Ocalan (him appearing in the sky with beams of sunlight behind his head, for instance). What's absurd is for anarchists to hail Kobane as the revolution, with Graeber comparing it to Spain '36-7, when there's probably only 5% of the original population living there in the most dire of circumstances, just trying to get through the day and night without starving or freezing to death. How desperate does one have to be to so clutch at straws that one can dress this up as some anarchist experiment?

4. Victor Serge was almost invariably a fence-sitter. During the Kronstadt uprising he despaired over the calumnies of Lenin and Trotsky but still justified putting the revolt down because the alternative was "chaos". How often have we heard that before? Because of his international reputation, he was probably the only person in Russia at that time who could have denounced the Bolsheviks publicly and lived to see another day. During the Bonnot gang trial he very carefully distanced himself from the others, who felt betrayed by him. Which is not to say that he didn't write some excellent things, merely to say that someone's writing is not the sole or primary focus for judging someone.

- here

Guerre de Classe
Jul 8 2015 19:48

In this "Anti-War" publication, he/she/they provided some interesting links to texts to read about "useful idiots" who praised some last decades impostures: China, Vietnam, Kampuchea, North Korea, etc. If readers didn't make the effort to click on each of those links, here I publish one of these texts. It's the interview of Dan Burstein about its visit to Kampuchea in 1978:

Rojava... (Whoops) Kampuchea Takes the Socialist Road

Let's just emphasize among all the bullshit of this beautiful fairy tale this quote about the system of cooperatives:

Quote:
"The cooperative system, which was actually initiated in the liberated zones in 1973, has now been firmly established throughout the entire country. About 90% of the population lives in agricultural cooperatives which are able to provide most of the daily necessities needed by their members.

The cooperative system has also, been a great tool for tapping the enthusiasm of the masses and educating them in Marxism. Very broad democracy exists in the cooperatives. Every three days there are mass meetings of the whole cooperative to discuss practical tasks, and every 10 days there are meetings to make long-range plans, carry out study, and hold criticism and self-criticism sessions. Through this system the people speak their minds freely with the result that new ideas and innovations come forward at every cooperative.

[...]

Of course these successes of the revolution don’t mean that there have been no failures, mistakes and problems. There are plenty of shortcomings and the Kampuchean people and Communist Party leaders are well aware of them. But the overall picture is very bright. The revolution is going forward full speed."

https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-5/burstein-class-struggle.htm

I know that "comparisons are odious" (Frenchies say "comparaison n'est pas raison", litterally "comparison is not reason") but it's somehow interesting to juxtapose this quote with some praising the same cooperative system in Rojava and you will see that there is the same uncritical mood to believe and praise any "radical" reform that sounds like, that smells like, that looks like revolution but that is nothing else than a watered-down version (Frenchies would say a Canada Dry version):

Quote:
"The main economic activity here is agriculture, and so the majority of cooperatives are concentrated in agriculture. That is our community economy. The other cantons function in the same way.

Let me explain that in all three cantons we are surrounded—we are embargoed. Rojava is rich in natural resources and agriculture, but we receive no infrastructure investment. Internationally there’s no investment here. Internationally Rojava isn’t recognized—it doesn’t exist. If we want to develop in Rojava, we have to build everything ourselves."

http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/rojavas-threefold-economy/

Quote:
"In Rojava, neighborhood assemblies make up the largest number of councils. Every person (including teenagers) can participate in an assembly near where they live. In addition to these neighborhood assemblies, there are councils based on workplaces, civic organizations, religious organizations, political parties, and other affinity-based councils (e.g. Youth). People often are part of a number of local councils depending on their life circumstances. These councils can be as small as a couple dozen people or they can have hundreds of participants. But regardless of size, they operate similarly. The councils work on a direct democracy model, meaning that anyone at the council may speak, suggest topics to be decided upon, and vote on proposals.

[...]

How do you base a government on anarchism? Rojava is not the first, and hopefully won’t be the last, experiment in creating a new form of a decentralized non-state government without hierarchy. In the past two years, two-and-half million people in Rojava have been participating in this new form of governance, a governance related to that of the Spanish Revolution (1936), the Zapatistas (1994), the Argentinian Neighborhood Assembly Movement (2001-2003), and Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism. Despite some similarities to these past experiments and ideas, what is being implemented in war-torn Rojava is unique—and it’s extremely ambitious. It’s no hyperbole to say that this revolution in northern Syria is historic, especially for anarchists.

[...]

Radicals in the West have been mostly silent as regards the Rojava Revolution, and we find ourselves in a strange situation where the mainstream media seems more interested in these events than we are. There are of course a number of reasons, and excuses, for this lack of interest in the revolutionary experiment going on in Northern Syria."

http://libcom.org/library/mountain-river-has-many-bends

gamerunknown
Jul 28 2015 11:03

The link for Chomsky's quote regarding "mutual aid" and "popular control" in Mao's collectivisation goes to an article for NY Books where he's discussing a village in Thanh Hoa, writing:

Quote:
There are still some peasants who have not joined the cooperatives, but apparently not many, the advantages of joining being rather obvious, including not only state assistance but also the benefits achieved through mutual aid.

That is, a state sanctioned entity also carries benefits which arrive through the free arrangements of individual members. Possibly the least contentious political statement I've seen made. To claim that Vietnamese collectives were the result of Maoist policy is to embrace the most reactionary stance on history.

Popular control is referred to in the following passage:

Quote:
My personal guess is that, unhindered by imperialist intervention, the Vietnamese would develop a modern industrial society with much popular participation in its implementation and much direct democracy at the lower levels of organization. It would be a highly egalitarian society with excellent conditions of welfare and technical education, but with a degree of centralization of control which, in the long run, will pose serious problems that can be overcome only if they eliminate party direction in favor of direct popular control at all levels

High degree of participation?

Quote:
Although there appears to be a high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels, and some degree of leeway for independent planning at these levels—limited, to be sure, by the exigencies of war—still major planning is highly centralized in the hands of the state authorities.

Perhaps that's an unconscionable statement.

Anarcho
May 14 2016 19:51

A couple of point:

Quote:
in which Serge, a former anarchist exiled in Russia, defends the Bolshevik Party, saying the Party ‘must know how to stand firm sometimes against the masses’ and ‘to bring dissent to obey’.

Yes, a former anarchist who, when he wrote the work in question, had been a Leninist for nearly a decade. Unsurprisingly, a Bolshevik is defending the Bolshevik party...

(for more on Serge, see my Victor Serge: The Worst of the Anarchists)

As for Chomsky:

Quote:
in which Chomsky says ‘there appears to be high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels.’

Talk about selective quoting. Chomsky actually states:

Quote:
Although there appears to be a high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels, and some degree of leeway for independent planning at these levels—limited, to be sure, by the exigencies of war—still major planning is highly centralized in the hands of the state authorities.

he also states:

Quote:
My personal guess is that, unhindered by imperialist intervention, the Vietnamese would develop a modern industrial society with much popular participation in its implementation and much direct democracy at the lower levels of organization. It would be a highly egalitarian society with excellent conditions of welfare and technical education, but with a degree of centralization of control which, in the long run, will pose serious problems that can be overcome only if they eliminate party direction in favor of direct popular control at all levels.

So he clearly indicates that the regime had "centralisation of control" with "party direction", so hardly saying what is being claimed he said. In other words, he is saying there are good elements and bad ones within the regime.

As for the "mutual aid" comment, he is simply stating that co-operation (joint effort) has advantages. He also noted that this was the case in the old regime as well:

Quote:
We were also told that in traditional Vietnamese peasant society there was a certain degree of mutual aid and some communal land, and also considerable village and regional independence. Land holdings were limited in size by the “law of the king.”

Presumably him noting these facts means that he is a supporter of feudalism?

So less of the selective quoting -- I can only assume the link was provided on the assumption that no one would check...