Stanford sociologist Andrew G. Walder rewrote the history of Mao Zedong as we knew it in his book China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed, where he argues that Mao was not inspired by Communism, but a poor understanding of Stalinism. Journalist Ian Johnson interviewed him for the New York Times.
I was struck by your description that the Communists’ guerrilla period was not as important to their governing style as we think. In fact, you argue that the civil war was far more important — and completely different from guerrilla war.A.
Only when I read historical scholarship in the last 15 years that focuses on civil war and casualty figures of the Nationalists did I realize that they didn’t come to power through guerrilla war. You look at the casualty figures, and you realize that. In graduate school, most works we read glossed over that fact. For me, that was a revelation. The Communist Party did very little of the fighting against the Japanese, and it was a myth that a people’s war led the Communists to power.
Instead, the conquest of China was a military conquest, much like the [Soviet] Red Army fought the Nazis. It was a mass mobilization that supported vast armies that defeated the Nationalists. I don’t think that’s sunk into the consciousness of the field.Q.
How did that affect the Communists’ governing style?A.
Mao had these startling victories. Everyone said he couldn’t win quickly against the Nationalists. Even Stalin urged caution. But he pushed and won. That was the approach he turned to again in the late 1950s with the Great Leap Forward. He thought that you could accomplish anything. Also, he learned that he shouldn’t listen to others.Q.
I was also struck by how little Mao evolved. After the civil war, he seemed to learn nothing.A.
Stalin also pushed hard for Communism, but after the war, he moderated his view and become relatively conservative. Mao never moderated his views. He became more radical with time.Q.
In fact, he seemed like an intellectual lightweight. You say most of what he learned about Communist thought was from “The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks),” the textbook commissioned by Stalin and first published in 1938.A.
He was a great strategist. But a lot of what he wrote was, if not ghost-written, heavily edited by people like [his secretary] Chen Boda. His understanding of Marxism-Leninism was based on a CliffsNotes edition of Stalinism.
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