Mao’s Little Helpers
When Mao Tse-Tung launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, one of the principal targets of attack were intellectuals. Thousands were silenced, beaten to death, imprisoned, tortured or sent out to the countryside to be re-educated and purified through manual labour. Many of their persecutors were university students and schoolchildren. But theirs was also a death warrant signed by fellow-travelling intellectuals in the West.
Richard Wolin advances no one theory to explain this act of betrayal. The Maoist temptation was part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism. It drew upon a deep-seated discontent with the corruption of Western society as well as the illusion of a radiant utopian future. It was also heavily infused with bourgeois self-hatred. By placing the emphasis on culture — the Great Helmsman was after all a poet as well as a revolutionary — Maoism offered intellectuals in Paris (if not Beijing) the opportunity to act out the role of revolutionary vanguard. So, too, it appealed to those enamoured of the invigorating and moralising qualities of popular violence. Robespierre’s ghost was much in evidence.
In all of this what was happening in the real China did not matter. Indeed, as Wolin makes clear, the less that was known the better. Not even a visit to communist China could be allowed to dim the enthusiasm for the heroic struggles of the Red Guards and of the Chinese people. That the Great Proletarian Revolution might degenerate into tyranny was not something to be contemplated.