I have a few friends and acquaintances who are Maoists, so let me just put this out there: if I say something here about Maoism that is unfair or untrue @ me. For real, I’ll be doing a whole episode of legit corrections. I hope you listen to this all the way through, and give it some serious reflection. And I hope it makes you want to know your own tradition better, because all the times I’ve ever talked to Maoists about what Maoism is, I mostly felt like they didn’t know. It was seriously like talking to someone who had just joined a cult and wasn’t sure what they were allowed to say. Or worse, they claimed it all started in the 80s and felt zero responsibility to understand the history of the man whose name they self identified with. Prove me wrong. Please.
Christophe Bourseiller once said: “Maoism doesn’t exist. It never has done. That, without a doubt, explains its success.” Let’s talk about Mao.
As the 1920s moved along it became increasingly clear that proletarian revolution was not going to spread to western Europe. The failure of the socialist movement to understand changing conditions in Germany, i.e. the arrival of genuine democracy in a coalition government that was distinct from the limited Prussian democracy of the past, had led to the Soviet Union being isolated on the world stage. The Bolsheviks turned their attention east. Their relative ignorance of the new spaces they were entering led first to comedy and then to tragedy. To take just one example, in Uzbekistan, which had a feudal economy, party operatives identified women as the local “proletariat” and campaigned to end women wearing the veil. The Russians pushed reform on locals, who rebelled against this intrusion on custom. The end result was a cultural reaction against modernity and an entrenchment of patriarchal norms (Northrop from Raleigh, pp. 125-145).
In China capitalist development came from the Europe, and the trade agreements that came along with modernizing production always came at a terrible cost to local wealth and prosperity. In 1921, as the Bolsheviks were facing decisive defeat in Germany and encirclement by capitalist powers they saw in China’s struggle against western imperialism a reflection of their own struggle. China had gone through a nationalist movement and revolution led by Sun Yat-Sen in the early 1910s. The results were mixed, with no centralized power that ruled China. The various regions of China were ruled by various military leaders who made uneven deals with imperialist powers including but not limited to Britain, Japan, France, Germany and Russia.
Harold Isaacs was an American journalist who became involved in left-wing politics after he moved to China in 1930. He has given us an excellent account of the failure of Bolshevik policies there during the 1920s in his masterful “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.” By the time the Chinese Communist Party was founded by Chen Duxiu in 1921 the nationalist party was practically non-existent. The Russians insisted that their Chinese comrades revive the old nationalist party and submit to its discipline. The communists in China were to defend bourgeois property in order to strengthen the anti-Imperialist struggle, and make sure that workers only struck when doing so would help the new nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek. By tieing the hands of the Chinese Communists in this way the Russians assured that the nationalists would get the upper hand. The organization of the toiling masses to strike against Chiang Kai-Shek’s enemies helped him get the upper hand and unite Manchuria under nationalist Chinese rule. However, the mounting strike wave proved difficult to contain, and the nationalists were not willing to grant concessions to the workers in the form of wage increases or working for fewer hours. Things came to a head in April of 1927. Chiang Kai-Shek was then making a deal with the imperialists to decapitate the working class movement, arresting leaders and then on April 12th leading a massacre of workers in Shanghai. In the weeks leading up to this massacre, Russian Communists ordered their Chinese comrades to disarm, to give up key battle positions and to submit to nationalist authority. The Chinese communists, for their part, had trouble convincing local workers not to assert their prerogatives. It is estimated that some 25,000 workers were killed by nationalists in 1927 (Isaacs, p. 277).
It’s probable that the Russians didn’t think Chiang Kai-Shek would betray his own countrymen, but it’s also probable that they thought it was a risk they could afford if the payoff was a Chinese state dominated by right wing nationalists that was friendly to Russia and antagonistic to western Imperialism. This was the same period that saw Stalin’s consolidation of power and the pivot from revolutionary internationalism to “socialism in one country,” and it is within that context that we have to understand the Russians’ China policy. They may have honestly been sympathetic to imperialist oppression of the Chinese and simultaneously self interested. If we can get to the Spanish Civil War we will see a more explicit Russian chauvinism, but in China we must speak of mistakes, not intentional sabotage of workers’ ambitions for democracy. On the other hand, those mistakes were made against the advice of Leon Trotsky and others who said that China was ready for a workers’ revolution. You wonder if Stalin ever admitted when he was wrong. Instead of reflecting on the Bolshevik’s failure, as we know in 1927 Stalin expelled from Russia the left opposition. At the same time the Stalinist Comintern took an ultra left turn that urged just what Trotsky had proposed several years prior: a workers’ revolution. But by this time it was too late. Everywhere the communists tried to organize, the workers shunned them for their collaboration with the bloody nationalists. What no one seemed to imagine was that at that moment a young communist organizer working in rural China would soon find a synthesis of nationalism with socialist rhetoric that would captivate the world, take over China in a couple decades and rule there to this day. That young organizer was Mao Tse-Tung.
Julia Lovell is professor of modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, and in 2019 she gifted the world with her excellent book “Maoism: A Global History.” What’s original about Lovell’s work is the original research she presents about Mao’s support of revolutionaries abroad. That gives us a chance not only to see what Mao said and did, but to also understand how those ideas became different things in different places, and how Mao’s revolution was experienced in those parts of the world where it was successfully exported. In what follows I will retell her version of Mao’s ascent up to the sixties so that we can approach the Vietnam war within the context of Chinese and Vietnamese history. Lovell is brilliant, and you should go read her book. I’m only going to share here some of her work describing the path Maoists in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam took. Then we’ll contrast that view with how we as Americans imagine the Vietnam war, a war which perhaps more than any other event in the 20th century formed American left politics.
Mao started organizing in rural China in 1925, championing the peasants against the landlords, making alliances with certain peasant notables, organizing a guerilla army. Mao’s activity found a base of support in Hunan province, in the south of China. From the beginning, Mao revelled in violence and terror, earning sharp rebukes from the rest of his party.
Lovell: “In his ‘Report from Hunan’, Mao particularly celebrated the violent tyranny exercised by the rural lumpenproletariat against local landowners. ‘The only effective way of suppressing the reactionaries is to execute at least one or two in each county… it is necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror in every rural area… to exceed the proper limits.’ Parts of the report seemed almost ecstatic at the violence witnessed. ‘It is wonderful! It is wonderful!” By 1927, Mao - to the horror of his intellectual bosses such as Chen Duxiu, who was deeply unhappy about the levels of violence approved and encouraged by Mao in Hunan - had championed both the military and the rural turn in CCP history… Commanded in 1929 by the Central Committee in Shanghai to disperse the army, he robustly refused: the order was ‘unreal’ and' liquidationist’. The Central Committee responded by accusing him of ‘roving bandit ideology.’” (Lovell, p. 34). None of this should be surprising about a leader who famously said “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Mao was always an anti-intellectual. He emphasized practice over theory in all things, and so one prominent aspect of Maoism worldwide is that often people from the bourgeois class who encounter it drop out of whatever bourgeois occupation their schooling has prepared for them and they go work in a factory or on a farm. Classically, Maoist ideology is formed less by books and scholarship and more by group discussion, sometimes called struggle sessions. This is part of why Maoist ideology can be so difficult to pin down, and why Maoists are often shy about explaining it. The other part of that shyness is all the killing. Part of Maoism is the kind of fortune cookie style aphorisms of the little red book. Here is a small taste:
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution, an act of violence by which on class overthrows another.” (Mao, p. 5)
Lovell takes a statistical approach, surveying the landscape of Maoist ideas and practices from the 1930s to today.
Let’s list some of the more prominent aspects that have historically characterized Maoism:
Violence is a good way to get what you want. (pp.26, 95, 131, 170-171, 350).
Anti- intellectualism (35, 47, 131)
Feminist aspirations with variable success (37, 106, 116, 202, 267, 288, 291, 293, 334)
Rigorous internal criticism, frequent purges and a rejection of independent thought (41, 117, 144, 137, 287, 292, 300)
A Manichean anti-Imperialism (53, 100, 132, 140, 166, 221, 166,154)
A cult of personality (47, 99, 106, 125, 131, 143, 222, 267)
Voluntarism, or the idea that just by wanting something you can make it happen (131, 56, 105, 111, 112, 144, 167, 168, 179, 196, 266
End of list.
By 1934 the nationalists had Mao’s group cornered, and to escape he had to lead his followers to North western China. Lovell: “The Long March traced a massive, reverse L-shape across some of the country's wildest terrain - the freezing peaks of Tibet, the boggy plains of the far north-west, finally ending in the bleak, crumbly landscapes of Shaanxi - all the while fighting running battles with a pursuing Nationalist army. Of the 80,000 who began the trek, only 8,000 are said to have completed it, settling in a new base area around the town of Yan’an. But Mao - who, at the start of the Long March, was only the lowest ranking member of the politburo - emerged resurgent from the ordeal. During the military crises of the Long March, Mao took over leadership of the army” (pp. 37-38).
In 1937 war broke out between Japan and China, part of WW2, putting the conflict between Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek on hold. As soon as the Japanese were beaten, in 1945 civil war broke out again. Mao was victorious in 1949 and the nationalists retreated to some islands off the coast, principle of which is Taiwan. Importantly, in the late 30s an American journalist named Edgar Snow lived in Mao’s camp. Snow’s version of the early Maoist movement in China “Red Star Over China” became an international best seller. Snow was in love with Maoism, and believed everything they told him. The picture that he paints in that book is probably exaggeratedly positive for Mao, but just how far that exaggeration goes is up for debate. What’s clear is that the image of Mao put forward in Red Star, of him leading his people in martial contests and ideological struggle sessions, bravely building a new world in defiance of the old, is the part of Maoism that people will likely defend. What they will likely neither mention nor defend is the intentional mass starvation event known as the Great Leap Forward.
In 1956 Nikkita Khrushchev gave a secret speech, leaked almost immediately, that exposed Stalin’s crimes and repented of them and thereby launched a program of de-Stalinization. Mao utterly rejected this movement and doubled down on what he imagined to be Stalinism. The state expropriated peasant land and at gun point instituted a forced communal lifestyle. Because part of the ideology was the idea that victory is just a matter of will, party officials could not admit failure to collect grain quotas without at the same time confessing their own lack of revolutionary conviction. So, much as in Stalin’s Ukraine, party officials lied about the size of grain harvests, and to do so convincingly had to send all the grain to the capitols leaving nothing behind for the peasants. Lovell: “As its cadres presented fictionalised statistics of vast grain harvests, the state extracted its set quota of his illusory harvest to feed the cities and sell abroad to generate revenue for industrial development. But as the official statistics far exceeded the actual amount being produced, farmers were left with almost nothing. Historians inside and outside China have tracked the horrendous results: tens of millions of deaths from starvation and malnutrition-related disease, as well as from beatings administered by state thugs hoping to extract yet more food from ‘hoarding’ peasants.’” (p. 133). These sacrifices, to the extent that the regime was unable to deny them, were justified to the Chinese people as necessary in order to fulfil China’s predestined place as the leader of world revolution. Mao therefore had to continuously ratchet up tension between himself and the United States to tamp down on domestic unrest.
In 1950 North Korean forces poured over the 38th parallel in an attempt to reunify Korea. The 38th parallel was the border drawn by the US and the Soviet Union after WW2. North Korea started the Korean war in a surprise attack. Despite early American victories, General MacArthur’s forces were set back when a 400,000 strong army of Chinese volunteers took Seoul in January of 1951 (Lovell, p. 91). Seven thousand Americans were taken prisoner. A prisoner swap was organized, but prisoners were given the choice to repatriate or not. 22,000 of the captured communist soldiers chose not to be repatriated. Twenty three Americans chose to stay in North Korea, citing US racial injustice and communist hospitality as reasons. This set off a hysteria in the United States about China’s supposed ability to brain wash people. It was a load of nonsense, but it stands as a testament to white America’s inability at the time to confront its own racism. We’ll talk more about racism in our next episode about how the Black Panther Party ended the Vietnam War. In 1962 Frank Sinatra starred in a movie based on all of this stuff called the Manchurian Candidate. Despite some very heavy government funding, no one was ever successful inand reprogramming someone. All of that just to avoid telling the hard story of how some American servicemen prefered living in a Communist dictatorship to living in Jim Crow America! Clarence Adams was one of these Americans who stayed in China. Here’s what he said about his experience, from Lovell: “‘The Chinese didn’t brainwash me… They un-brainwashed me… I went to China because I was looking for freedom, a way out of poverty, and to be treated like a human being, instead of something subhuman. I never belonged to the Communist Party. I never became a Chinese citizen, and in no way did I betray my country.’ It was, he insisted, ‘racism at home rather than Chinese propaganda that inspired my decision.’ Adams brought the same questioning rationality to bear on his decision to return to the US in 1966. Although Mao’s China had given him an opportunity to go to university, to travel, to become a translator, he felt his career options were limited. He also missed his family back home and disliked the lack of individualism among Chinese acquaintances.” (pp123-124). As late as February 2013, the Party for Socialist Liberation, a Maoist group in the US, cited Clarence Adams as someone who resisted American imperialism, without mentioning his return to the US and without mentioning the 22,000 captured Communist soldiers who refused to repatriate. This is an example of bending the facts to suit your ideology, something we’ve already mentioned and will come back to regarding the way the US left discusses history. [I feel like more could be said about the difference between 22,000 and 23 choosing to stay….]
Through the 60s Mao constantly provoked the United States by promoting revolution in the countries all around him. From afar these interventions could be imagined as a real empathy for oppressed people, but when looked at in detail it’s pretty clear that Mao supported revolution if, when and to the degree that it was in his interests, often with disastrous results for his foreign “comrades.” It turns out that open insurrection requires more than revolutionary zeal to be successful, and it isn’t the solution in every case.
In July 1949 Mao opened the Marxism-Leninism Academy offering one year courses in Maoist revolution (Lovell, p.97). Lowell describes the experience of one of the very first students of the MLA, Mohit Sen, who went on to become an important communist leader in India: “Despite its name, the academy’s curriculum was all about Mao. After a crash course in Chinese - set text: Mao - and now disguised in the blue cotton uniform of a CCP cadre, Sen was dispatched with his two hundred classmates (half of them were Vietnamese; the rest came from the Philippines, Australia, Japan, Thailand and Burma) to Guangdong in the south to witness land reform. The campaign 0 the CCP’s top priority for the countryside in the early 1950s - redistributed some 43 per cent of land to 60 per cent of the farming population though at considerable human cost (at least one million landlords are estimated to have been killed). ‘All through, the unceasing refrain was the power and the glory of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao,’ Sen recalled. A final ‘victory meeting’ was held against the backdrop of a massive portrait of Mao, and to the soundtrack of pledges of eternal loyalty to the chairman and yet more renditions of ‘The East is Red’. ” (p.98). So, that sounds like a death cult to me. Uniforms. Hymns to the leader. Over a million killed. Gross. Sen goes on to describe marathon self criticism sessions lasting weeks during which two students committed suicide, and how Mao used his powerful position to seduce women. Gross. We don’t have time in this podcast to cover the paths of all of these revolutionaries, so we will describe some paradigmatic cases gleaned from Julia Lovell’s own research. Again, this is an excellent book, and you should go read the whole thing.
Starting in 1948 Malaysia was under British rule. The arrangement disenfranchised ethnic Chinese living there and that created a natural force of attraction for them to Mao’s China. Britain prevailed upon America to send $1.5 million dollars in aid to the newly formed federation. Chin Peng studied at the MLA and returned to his native Malaysia to start a guerilla war against the British. The British led a counterinsurgency campaign against them that by 1955 had just about beaten the Maoist guerillas. Malaysia got its independence in 1957, throwing doubt on the necessity of Peng’s insurgency. Peng lied about not getting material aid from China. In return for medical services, food, training, weapons and political direction, Peng supplied Mao with a steady stream of propaganda. Another Malayan Maoist revolutionary and close comrade of Peng’s was Ah Cheng. It’s worth quoting Lovell at some length to get an idea of how Mao’s support for the rebels alternated with the geopolitical priorities of Beijing.
“China’s own national self interest or convenience always trumped revolutionary theory when it came to supporting the MCP [Malaysian Communist Party]. Mao and Zhou Enlai urged the Malayan Communists to negotiate with the British in 1956 to fit the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China]’s new self-projection as a non-interfering source of international harmony; this was to gain leadership kudos with the Afro-Asian and Non-Aligned movements. About a month after the collapse of the Baling talks, in early 1956, Ah Cheng was abruptly summoned late one night to talks with the top CCP leadership: with Mao, Zhou, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and director of International Liaison Wang Jiaxiang, all squeezed together on a single sofa. Mao began by praising Chin Peng’s defiant response to Tunku Abjul Rahman’s demand that the MCP surender: ‘we would prefer to fight to the last man’. Chin Peng, Pao flattered, was ‘a hero… the word surrender doesn’t exist in the dictionary of us communists’. But then, in an abrupt change of tone, Zhou suggested a surprisingly non-Communist way forward for the struggling MCP. ‘We’ll help set you up in business. Why don’t you get some of your cadres to open a shop in Malaya and we’ll send some goods for you to sell?’ The meeting left Ah Cheng bemused and disappointed; the CCP was clearly trying to give him an exit strategy from a revolution that they had encouraged and even designed in their image, but which no longer suited their geopolitical ambitions.” (p. 105). Nevertheless, in 1961 China felt it needed to champion world revolution again now in belligerent competition with the Soviet Union, so they convinced Chin Peng to wage guerilla war again this time against an independent Malaysia and Singapore. Finally in 1980 Deng Chao Ping stopped aiding the Malaysian guerillas, and a peace was signed in 1989. “Deng was only continuing Mao’s own policy of growing detachment. In talks to re-establish Sino-Malaysian diplomatic relations in 1974, the Malaysian prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, quickly broached the most sensitive issue between the two states, asking Mao to use his influence to shut down the MCP insurgency on the Thai border. ‘Tricky,’ Mao responded. ‘We haven't had any contact with them for many years. Anyway, they don’t listen to us. Don’t worry: they’ll never beat you.’” (pp.105-106). In other words, Mao never had any real confidence that the MLA would take power: he egged them on and encouraged them because it didn’t matter to him what damage they caused or suffered. The important thing was to keep up the story that he was leading an international revolution, because that was the only way for him to keep his hold on power at home. I feel like I’ve known this guy: this abuser who justifies his crappy life skills because he’s a ‘revolutionary.’ I may have been that guy at some point. Yikes. Moving on…
Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1945, united under a a charismatic Muslim mystic by the name of Sukarno whose ideology was nationalism with a shade of socialism. Millions of Indonesians had died under Japanese occupation during WW2. What Indonesia came into independence with was therefore a strong military tradition, a broken economy, and a plurality of many different political tendencies including Communist, Islamist and Nationalist. There was an honest attempt at democracy that ended in 1956 when Sukarno announced a dictatorship with the help of the army. The US correctly saw that Sukarto was going to fall into Mao’s orbit and end Indonesia’s burgeoning democratic movement, and sent military forces to Singapore to provide support for rebels in Indonesia. The operation was typical of the CIA in those years: the intelligence it was premised on was faulty and the weapons and ammunition it airlifted in was scooped up by the Indonesian government (Weiner, pp. 164-178). Everyone should have a copy of Tim Weiner’s excellent history of the CIA: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. The result of all this shenanigans in 1957 was that Sukarno ruled Indonesia as a dictator who would occasionally stage rigged elections. Nevertheless his rule had a certain stability and was built on a coalition with the army and the Communist Party of Indonesia [PKI]. The two coalition partners were ill at ease with each other, but the PKI was nevertheless successful at giving workers and peasants in Indonesia a voice and an advocate in the halls of power. Julia Lovell: “By the early 1950s, the party controlled not only the largest national federation of trade unions, but also Indonesia’s largest national farmers’ association, the Barisan Tani Indonesia (Indonesian Peasant Front): the PKI organised rural workers to demand rent reductions and to resist bandits; it distributed seeds, tools, fertiliser and fish eggs; it built wells and schools; it killed hundreds of thousands of field mice. Culture had an important role to play in PKI election campaigns: political messages would be slipped into ‘People's Festivals’, before the singing, dancing and boxing began. The party ran schools, seminars conferences and vast rallies throughout the nation. Thanks to all this work, the PKI won 16 percent of votes in the 1955 national elections, then increased its share of the vote by another million in local elections in 1957. In 1958, the Central Committee began organising ‘go-down’ campaigns, rusticating high-ranking cadres for up to six months at a time among farmers. Indonesian society was saturated with PKI messages. At a time when average newspaper circulation was less than 10,000, the PKI paper ( the People’s Daily) sold 60,000 copies. In 1956 alone, 700,000 copies of party publications rolled off the presses. By 1965, PKI membership stood at around 3.5 million, while the combined membership of its ‘united front’ organisations was perhaps 20 million - a fifth of Indonesia’s population.” (p.163). The problem was that the majority ideology of the PKI was Maoist, and Maoism was not, like Marxism and Leninism proper, an ideology that worked to rally society to the working class to muster protests and strikes to demand democratic participation. Maoism was first of all war. While Marx invoked the dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary armed defense of democratic gains won through nonviolent protest and strikes, Maoism dispensed with protests and strikes and bypassed them for organized armed struggle and permanent dictatorship. Maoism is first of all militarism, and the Indonesians were Maoists without an army. Dipa Aidit was a senior leader of the PKI and a member since 1948 when following a failed uprising many in the party fled to China. From Lowell: “In 1959 and 1961, at the height of the Great Leap Forward and its subsequent famine, respectively, Aidit visited the same model commune in China, where he was given the full propaganda treatment: that the Great Leap Forward and the communes had achieved an economic miracle. Aidit’s Chinese minders deftly concealed the true nature of the commune system - terror, starvation, cannibalism - and reinforced the Indonesians’s enthusiasm for the Maoist experiment… In the voluntarist syle of the Great Leap Forward, Aidit began to eschew the kind of careful, patient mobilisation that had taken place through the 1950s, in favour of statement that emphasised high Maoism’s ‘spirit, resolve and enthusiasm’: ‘The Eight-Year Plan must be replaced by a realistic ‘Plan of Drastic New Action’” In 1963, Beijing published his tract with the self-explanatory title Dare, Dare and Dare Again! Nationalism and audacity became the answer to any problem -geopolitical, economic, social… ” (p. 167, 168). Aidit made an important contribution to high Maoism, because it was Dipa Aidit who first in the Maoist tradition to have the idea that instead of class divisions that cut across national borders, the real struggle was between oppressed and oppressor nations. The idea is much older than Aidit, but its unlikely he was cribbing Narodnik ideas that the Czar was not ethnically Russian as Lev Tikhomorov put forward in 1885 (Erlenbusch-Anderson, p. 58). Maybe it's just very easy during a several weeks long struggle session to devolve from ideas of class war to ideas of race war. Maybe every generation has to climb the hill from tribal identifications of family and ethnicity towards humanism. But I digress.
Mao was a big fan of Sukarno, and in March of 1964 he offered to give Sukarno ownership of the Indonesian Branch of the Bank of China. The two were BFFs, with Mao cheering Sukarno’s protest withdrawal from the United Nations in early 1965. Sukarno’s nationalization of British and Dutch investments in Indonesia resulted in capital flight, and that resulted in Sukarno becoming more and more dependent on Maoist China for aid. Under pressure from Mao, Sukarno encouraged the PKI to begin organizing a citizens militia. The PKI was soon to have its own army. Impatient for world revolution, the PKI began pushing land reform, often bullying peasants who didn’t cooperate. Indonesian society became balkanized between zones dominated by Communists, Islamists and neither. Lowell comments: “High-level divisions thus translated down to the grass roots. Indonesian society on the eve of September 1965 was fiercely divided between local elites, landowners and religious Muslim leaders, onthe one side, and those either tightly or loosely linked with PKI organisation, on the other. Polarisation in power between the army and PKI led many civilians to seek one or the other as patrons - the rift, or at least the perceived rift, that this generated helped intensify much of the violence of 1965-66. ‘The nation is at a boiling point,’ Aidit told his party. ‘Therefore intensify the revolutionary struggle at all points.’” (p. 172). Sukarno fell ill in August of 1965, and the Indonesian Maoist vanguard sprang into action. In the early hours of September 1, 1965 seven teams of soldiers and students kidnapped six generals and failed to capture the most important one, General Nasution. This was the beginning of an attempted coup by leaders in the PKI. The action had been planned 10 days earlier, and failed to start on the appointed time. Hence what is known as the “September 30th” movement happened on October 1st. The plotters had no radio communication. The couriers they used were all delayed in public transport. No plans were made to feed what soldiers they had, and many of them deserted after a day of going hungry. The action had not been rehearsed. Two of the teams were led by military novices who barely knew how to hold their guns. The Generals were supposed to be forced into fabricating a confession of their own coup plot, and to beg for mercy from Sukarno. Instead, each team killed their General before any confession could be had. Six generals and an adjutant mistakenly kidnapped instead of General Nasution lay dead, shot and bayoneted, at the bottom of a well. The surviving Army staff with General NasutionSuharto in the lead, wasted no time in launching their supporters into reprisals. Before the year was out they had conservatively murdered half a million to a million people.
Some have said that the coup was ordered from China. Some have said that it was not. Stalinist hack Michael Parenti blames the United States without any supporting evidence (p. 26). It seems true that the army didn’t have to use the failed coup as an excuse to try and cleanse the country of communism. So, for the killings I blame those in the army who actually did the killing. For the coup I blame the leadership in the PKI and elements in the army that aided them. The communists unnecessarily provoked the army at every opportunity, and then prematurely launched a civil war that was probably not necessary to begin with. Given that Indonesia was just another set piece in Mao’s passion play, it is clear that anyone in Indonesia that didn’t want to go through a giant leap forward had to resist the communists. The Indonesian communists did what they did in the faith that only revolutionary zeal was necessary and sufficient to gain the victory, and that the only way forward was war. Even if war was necessary, to rush into something when one could build one’s forces is reckless and irresponsible. The leadership got what they had coming to them, but the people they led deserved better. These were tactics Mao had put forward as universal, but as so often with such things, the tactics worked in Mao’s situation and not in many other situations. But Maoism then was not driven by rational self reflection. From Lovell: “Undaunted by the setback, in August 1966 the Chinese media underlined: ‘To achieve complete victory, the Indonesian revolution must take the road of the Chinese revolution, i.e. adopt as its main form of struggle the armed agrarian revolution of the peasants.’ The PRC told the remaining would-be revolutionaries still in Indonesia to refuse to be ‘pushed around at the whim of the Indonesian reactionary forces… To survive one must carry out struggle… inspired by the invincible thought of Mao Tse-tung and fearless of violence and even of being beheaded.’” At its worst, Maoism is a death cult. The Indonesian workers and peasants didn’t find any victory in being beheaded. Suharto’s dictatorship lasted until his resignation in 1998.
Ho Chi Minh began political organizing in China directly after graduating from the University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow in 1924. China had for centuries dominated Vietnam cultural and often politically. Ho came of age as a socialist in the times when Mao was rising, and he and a whole generation of Vietnamese socialists embraced Maoism and its emphasis on peasant insurgency. The Chinese trained the Vietnamese officers who led the fight against the French colonial rule of Vietnam starting in 1946. Mao supplied not just training to the Vietnamese in their fight against the French, he supplied materiel, soldiers and even gave orders at key moments. The terms of French surrender at Geneva in 1954 were negotiated in China’s favor. The Vietnamese communists were still true believers in Maoism, but the fact that the Chinese had dictated to them the acceptance of a Vietnam that was split between North and South at a time when they could have unified the nation was bitterly resented by the Vietnamese.
Bui Tin was one of Ho’s officers. As recounted by Lovell, here is how he later described the party in those days:
“The ever increasing amount of military and civilian aid from China enabled the Viet Minh to strengthen its position. But… tension grew… large numbers of Chinese advisers arrived… The friendly, even cosy atmosphere which had previously existed disappeared with talk of orthodox class warfare. Marxism had come to Vietnam via Maoism… What is the Communist Party? It plays the leading role in every aspect of society. It is constant, correct and absolute… The individual is as worthless as a grain of sand, and to be crushed underfoot… Chinese books, films and songs were everywhere… Mao Tse-tung’s song ‘The East is Red’ assumed the status of an official anthem… Only after that came a song in honour of Ho Chi Minh and the Internationale. At the same time, a campaign got underway to encourage the reading and speaking of Chinese while a constant stream of cadres was sent North to study in Peking, Shanghai, Nanking, Nanning and Canton… Having just escaped from the long night of being slaves to the French, we were dazzled by the new light of the Chinese Revolution which was acclaimed as our role model. We accepted everything impetuously and haphazardly without any thought, let alone criticism.” (p. 231).
Maoism dominated the communists and the anticolonial struggle in Vietnam, and this meant for the peasants red terror and land reform. Nguyen Thi Nam was a Vietnamese revolutionary. She was a wealthy merchant and farmer who gave famine relief during WW2, saved Ho Chi Minh’s regime financially after the collapse in 1945 and urged her two sons to serve militarily against the French. In May of 1953 she was was publicly flogged by party members and later shot by firing squad. Her only crime was her class identity. Her calvary went forward over Ho Chi Minh’s objections. The campaign did mobilize peasants to fight. Lovell comments: “The meetings, the propaganda, the political education mobilised thousands to fight and die on the mountain slopes of Dien Bien Phu. Yet the campaign has also gone down in popular memory as one of the party’s greatest mistakes: for its excessive harshness and fanatical violence, for polarising society between the have-nots and the have-littles. Even a government institution like the Vietnam Institute of Economics stated in 2002 that almost 80 per cent of ‘cruel and bullying landowners’ had been wrongly categorised… The death toll of land reform -- somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Vietnamese -- was the result of the mechanistic application of Chinese experience imposed by their advisers… Ho Chi Minh was to blame… [but] it was Mao Tsetung who really forced his hand.’” (pp. 233-234).
Beyond all of this chauvinistic and inhuman cruelty, a major source of resentment for the Vietnamese communists was that Mao’s aid came with the constraint that they not accept Russian aid because Mao considered them a scorned rival for leadership of the ‘world revolution.’ This meant a lack of artillery, tanks and heavy weapons, ensuring that the North Vietnamese would have to fight a long and costly, in terms of lives, guerrilla combat. Nevermind that the Maoists had won their civil war by a combination of guerrilla tactics and more conventional battles. What from the US looked like a david vs. goliath people’s war, was in part a propaganda stunt organized by Mao’s China with the lives and deaths of the Vietnamese as disposable props. One is naturally reminded of the way Stalin bled Spain and diverted solidarity organization for Ethiopia in Harlem: top down socialist authoritarians protect their own interests by betraying the grass roots organizations they manipulate with propaganda and lies.
Julia Lovell comments: “How on earth were the Vietnamese to win any kind of decisive victory against the Americans and the US-supported South Vietnamese Army without the kind of big guns that the Soviet Union could provide? From the Tet Offensive onwards, the Vietnamesee began to favour attacks on cities, a tactic that Zhou Enlai [Mao’s right hand man] denounced as Soviet, and as an affront to the Maoist strategy of protracted war, of encircling the cities from the countryside. As one of the major shifts of the Cold War began in the late 1960s -- China and North Vietnam moving towards talks with the US -- both suspected each other of selling out to the Americans, and scolded the other accordingly. Above all, the North Vietnamese felt that Chinese rapprochement with the US would remove a crucial deterrent to escalation of the American war effort -- the threat of Chinese intervention. ‘The Chinese government told the US that if it did not threaten or touch China, then China would do nothing to prevent the attacks [on North Vietnam],’ General Giap  remembered. ‘It was like telling the US that it could bomb Vietnam at will, as long as there was no threat to the Chinese border… We felt that we had been stabbed in the back.’” (pp. 238-239).
Spurned by the Vietnamese, Mao cultivated Pol Pot in nearby Cambodia. The wave of Vietnamese refugees along with Mao funding a guerilla insurgency destabilized Cambodia. Julia Lovell documents a conversation in 1975 werein Mao recommends mass murder to Pol Pot, and laments that because of ‘rightist forces’ in China Mao was prevented from doing the same in China. Nevertheless, in the organized lawlessness that was the Cultural Revolution in China where Mao gave free reign to various grass roots committees to murder at will, some 2 million people were murdered in the name of fighting degeneration in the party. Somehow in the confusion Mao’s enemies fell and his comrades’ positions were consolidated. In 1975 with Chinese aid, Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia and massacred two million people, often just because they were professionals of some kind. Doctors, lawyers and airplane pilots were targeted because of their class identity.
To summarize, 10 million people were intentionally starved to death by an undemocratic Maoist government claiming to be acting in the name of “the people.” Another two million were massacred senselessly by the same Maoist state intentionally demolishing the rule of law so they could eradicate internal dissent following the starving of the 10 million people just referenced. The US invades Vietnam to try and halt the spread of this genocidal ideology, leading to instability in Cambodia. Mao took advantage of that instability to lift up Pol Pot into rule over Cambodia, and encouraged him to massacre another two million people because of their class identity. Two million Vietnamese civilians die because of the American invasion. Two hundred thousand American military personnel die in the conflict. Somehow the two hundred thousand Americans get movies made about them, and the millions are pushed into the background as supporting cast.
I was born in 1978. My step dad fought in Vietnam. That was the conflict that defined his generation. To me these events, if they ever entered my awareness, immediately get sorted into two boxes. In the first box are things that have nothing to do with me. The intentional starvation of Chinese peasants was never presented to me in a movie starring Sean Penn, and their deaths have never inspired in me the same gut wrenching sympathy that I have for Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. In the other box are all the things that as an American I can’t seem to escape being guilty for, though they happened long before my time and without my permission. We all seem to be forever implicated in the suffering of the Vietnamese people. I’m not saying these feelings are good or bad. I’m saying this is the feeling for these events that society gave me. Intellectually I understand this is a kind of trolley problem. The deaths of American military service members should be just as appalling as deaths of Chinese peasants, and if I had a heart the size of the cosmos I would surely feel the death of tens of millions more than the deaths of a couple hundred thousand. I want to be the person that spares the most life, even if that is harder. I don’t think I’m the only American who feels guilt over Vietnam so much more strongly than I do the urgency of opposing the spread of Maoism. What would it mean to really stand in solidarity with the Vietnamese people, caught as they were between two monsters? Maybe in hindsight handing out Mao’s little red books wasn’t particularly helpful, but Maoists in the US at the time didn’t know everything that was going on in China and were adapting what they took to be his ideas to their own context. This was particularly the case with the Black Panthers, who are the topic of our next podcast. They were also betrayed by Mao, but we’ll talk about that next time.
The decision to go to war in Vietnam had a noble inspiration: it was right to oppose the spread of Maoism. The great tragedy was that the group of advisors around John Kennedy that initiated US involvement there did not understand Ho Chi-Minh, who should have been our strongest ally against Mao. By 1965 Ho Chi-Minh had fallen out with Mao, because Ho Chi-Minh believed in democracy. He thought the US would embrace him as the George Washington of SouthEast Asia. In 1945 Ho wrote a letter, declassified in 1972, to President Truman saying “What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.” (http://www.rationalrevolution.net/war/collection_of_letters_by_ho_chi_.htm). This is Ho in 1966: “I have always been impressed with your country's treatment of the Philippines. You kicked the Spanish out and let the Filipinos develop their own country. You were not looking for real estate, and I admire you for that. I have a government that is organized and ready to go. Your statesmen make eloquent speeches about helping those with self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us? Am I any different from Nehru, Quezon- even your own George Washington? I, too, want to set my people free.” (Ibid).
In the US state department, conventional wisdom held that the US had to support movements of national independence against the communists. Almost no one in that circle imagined that a communist movement could represent that national interest against foreign communist domination, but Ho Chi-Minh was just such a figure (Beinart, p. 30). The Maoists and the Americans disbelieved that socialism was a democratic movement because Stalinists had worked to destroy the democratic tradition in the socialist movement. They had imperfect knowledge based on the supposition that they had absolute enemies with whom they could not negotiate, a supposition that was not based on enough fact. In 1979 China invaded Vietnam, which had found the space to act independently of Mao once the US invasion had left. Mao bombed all the parts of Vietnam that the US had not, further devastating the nation.
I just want to repeat the moral of the story I led this podcast with. Mao Tse-Tung and Stalin came to the struggles of Vietnam and of Spain as though they would help, but they badly harmed those nations for the sake of their own geopolitical goals. The bird who stayed north was thawed by the cow’s turd, and the birds flapping attracted the cat that killed it. Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy, and not everyone who pulls you out of some shit is your friend.
Before the Vietnam War part of the US left was committed to anti-communism, afterwards many would shift to an anti-Americanism that tripped over into support for foreign dictators. The result is that while Stalin’s crimes compelled resistance particularly from parts of the left that imagined a socialism that was not authoritarian, that was democratic, that didn’t suppress human rights and civil liberties, figures like the Khomeini in Iran, Milosovic in Yugoslavia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria would be given a pass for their resistance to imperialism. In a later podcast, after a brief detour in the French experience of WW2, we will tell the story of how the Vietnam War buoyed the Stalinist movement in the United States, and drove a wedge between radicals and workers that remains to this day.
I want to pass on a fable an old professor passed on to me decades ago. It has been a constant touchstone for me in life and in politics. It’s about the bird that didn’t fly south. This one bird wanted to know why the flock moved south in the Fall. She asked every bird she knew, but no one knew why they moved south. No one could tell what happened up North after they moved South. So the bird decided to stay North to find out. The bird started to get really cold, and so she realized she had to fly south. But it was too late, and the bird began to freeze. She fell out of the sky into a farmer’s field where a cow shitted on her. The shit was warm and so she began to thaw out and flap her wings. This was great, and she was about to take off flying when her motions attracted a cat. The cat pulled the bird out of the shit and ate her.
The moral of the story is that not everyone who shits on you is working against you, and not everyone who pulls you out of some shit is helping you out.
Peter Beinart tells the story of how anti-communism fell out of fashion in the US left. Left anti-communists were key to advancing civil rights. Reinhold Neibuhr and the Americans for Democratic Action linked in the political discourse expanding rights for Black people with national defence. If America continued to be unjust towards its own citizens, so the reasoning went, it could not lead the fight against communism. These are the people who kicked the racist Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party in 1947. It was the alliance of this kind of liberalism, embodied by J.F.K., with the civil rights movement, embodied in Martin Luther King Jr., which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was the last time that the radical left, committed to civil rights and anticommunism, had broad popularity with the working class.
All of this came to an end in the 60s. Tom Hayden, a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society [the ADA], led a crusade against anti-communism. This was a major reorientation wherein college students, and not workers, became the agent of history. They framed progressive struggle as that between an enlightened minority, the students, and the majority in the United States. Vietnam was not just a mistake to Hayden and this New Left, it was proof of original sin. It was a vision of America that would fulfil its own prophecy by creating a left that was increasingly isolated from regular Americans. Instead of viewing society as a self contradicting totality, ever dynamic, the New Left saw society as presented in Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, as culturally dominated by capitalist forces. Social change could only happen with the help of an enlightened conspiracy. American leftists of this era were walking the same path as the Blanquists Marx broke with in 1848: the path of small conspiracies of revolutionaries and away from democratic values and mass politics.
The battle lines on the left in the 1960s were not pro-war and pro-peace. The dividing line was between people who thought the US should end the war in Vietnam, and those who decided that the US had no progressive role to play in the world. Humphrey had waffled somewhat about US involvement in Vietnam, but in the end he lost because unlike McGovern, Humphrey still saw a progressive role for the United States in the world.
“On September 30, Humphrey finally broke with Johnson on the war, calling for an unconditional halt to bombing. The next day in Nashville, a sign in the crowd read, ‘If you mean it, we’re with you.’ With some antiwar liberals returning to the Democratic fold, Humphrey appealed to working-class whites. In speeches and leaflets written by Tom Kahn, he countered Nixon and Wallace’s cultural appeals with an economic one - blasting them for supporting policies that hurt the workers they supposedly championed. And labor, Humphrey’s old ally, rallied to his cause. By late October, Humphrey had cut Nixon’s lead in half. And as the campaign drew to a close, he seemed to gain ground with each passing day. Despite everything, it looked like the liberal coalition might hang together after all. But in the end, Nixon won by 500,000 votes, less than a single percentage point. Fifteen million Democrats had defected to either Nixon or Wallace. Throughout the 1960s, the left and right had waged a ferocious assault on cold war liberalism - and in 1968, it fell.” (p. 49). Some in this anti-American camp were pacifists. Others opposed the Vietnam war not because the US should have sided with Ho Chi-Minh in his democratic struggle, and not because of civilian casualties, though these became regular talking points. These opposed any US military intervention as such because they believed Americans should fight their own government on the side of Mao’s China and Ho Chi-Minh.
One of these new anti-anti-communists was Allard Lowenstein.
Allard Lowenstein had led a drive to register voters in 1963. In 1968 he led the split in the ADA that separated the far left from the largely anti-communist working class. Peter Beinhart tells the tale: “Trying to connect to a new generation, in 1966 the ADA put Lowenstein -then 37 years old - on its board. The following year, it made him vice president. But Lowenstein and his student allies were on a mission to defeat Lyndon Johnson, a mission many ADA labor leaders - who loathed the antiwar movement - adamantly opposed. The organization faced a stark dilemma. Unless it supported McCarthy, it would consign itself to irrelevance among the activist young. But backing him, as Joseph Rauh warned, would split ‘the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s.’ On February 10, 1968, in the most important ADA meeting since the Willard Hotel, the National Board voted 65 to 47 to endorse McCarthy’s presidential bid. Within weeks, more than a thousand new members, many of them young, joined the organization. But representatives of the steel workers, the garment workers, and the communication workers resigned. ‘The coalition,’ one labor leader declared, ‘is finished.’” (p. 46).
This was the fundamental split between the workers, who saw a strong American military and a commitment to fighting tyranny overseas as important values, and the New Left, anti-American and fundamentally based in academia. The liberal left center is forever navigating between the left accusation that they are Republicans in progressive garb, and accusations from the right that they are not concerned with the safety and security of Americans. These tensions are even more acute after 9/11, but this basic thing has divided the left from working class America ever since the late 60s. Every now and then this far left, which only in 2016 half woke to the need to organize and make their case to society as a whole, has succeeded in upsetting an election between a moderate and a right wing candidate in favor of the right wing candidate, as happened in 1968 to Hubert Humphrey, but they have never produced anything as impactful and grand as the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act. They can spoil an election, but they cannot win on their own. The split where the left chose anti-anti-communism over the working class happened so long ago that almost no one remembers a time when the left had a good relationship with the working class. But if we’re going to succeed as a socialist party, we will have to find a way over, through or around this divide.
Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Beinart, Peter. The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror. Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2007.
Isaacs, Harold Robert. The tragedy of the Chinese revolution. Haymarket Books, 2010.
Lovell, Julia. Maoism: A Global History. Random House, 2019.
Raleigh, Donald J. Provincial landscapes: local dimensions of Soviet power, 1917-1953. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.