Letter Discussing Criticisms of Ranganayakamma’s
Article on the Personality Cult around Mao

Note from the Editor

The following consists mostly of large excerpts from a letter (of March 19, 2007) written by Warren, who is associated with the Single Spark web site, to a close friend of his who we will call “Ted”. Warren was circulating the article by Ranganayakamma about the personality cult around Mao, to see what other folks thought of it. Ted criticized a number of things about it, and viewed it as having some serious problems. Warren suggested that Ted’s criticisms could be posted on Single Spark along with the Ranganayakamma’s article. But Ted didn’t want to do that because his comments were not a thorough exposition of his views on the subject. Warren thinks we should not be afraid to speak out even if our ideas are not fully elaborated or thought out; he says it never stops him! But in any case, Ted’s letter has not been posted, and even most of the quotations from that letter in Warren’s response have been changed to paraphrases.

Hi Ted (and everybody),

Thanks for commenting on Ranganayakamma’s article on the Personality Cult around Mao. If we decide to post her article is it OK if we also post your comments? (We could omit your name if you like.)

Actually, I don’t agree with many of your criticisms (as I’ll get into below), but I think that your remarks along with hers can really help spur some additional serious thinking about this issue. In fact, I’d like to launch into some of that additional thinking myself in his letter. I’m setting out not primarily to disagree with your comments here, but to just set down some of my own views on this question.

I think you are correct in saying that Ranganayakamma (I’ll call her R. from now on!) sees the personality cult around Mao as entirely negative, while you (and many other Maoists) believe that while it was carried to an extreme, it was still useful and even necessary at least to a degree. I’ll get to my generally negative view of the Mao cult specifically later on. First there is the more general issue:

1. The first question to explore is whether a personality cult can ever conceivably serve any sort of useful purpose. Despite my deep hostility to such cults, I would admit the general point that it is at least conceivable that a personality cult could serve a somewhat useful or even “necessary” purpose in some exceptional situations.

My reason for thinking this is that we Marxists reject the Kantian approach to ethics and politics, which says that there are all these absolute maxims which are invariably valid, such as that it is always wrong to lie. Any sensible person knows that while lying is generally wrong, there are times when it is necessary and unavoidable.

We Marxists really only hold one moral/political principle as an absolute: That which is in the real interests of the people is what is right and correct. (Of course there is a whole lot to explicate even there, since this includes the implicit people/enemy dichotomy, and because the people’s interests sometimes conflict, as between short-term and long-term, for example, and thus there are times when we have to choose between their conflicting interests. But I’ll assume you and the other folks I’m writing this for are on the same page when it comes to all that.) Then of course there is the primary corollary to that principle which we also take as a given: That which serves to advance the proletarian revolution is right and correct (because only in that way can most of the masses’ long-term interests be served).

Consequently, there are situations where all sorts of inherently distasteful actions are actually necessary and morally and politically correct, including killing people in the course of a revolution. But we also recognize that such things are correct and defensible only where they cannot reasonably be avoided. That goes not only for lying and for killing people, but also for creating and defending personality cults.

2. Was the personality cult around Mao completely avoidable? Given the situation as it existed at the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), quite possibly not. But isn’t it possible that that situation itself was in large part the result of earlier mistakes on the part of Mao and the Communist Party of China (CPC)? I have no doubt that it was. In that case, if those earlier mistakes (in the education and promotion of cadres, for example) had not been made, it would not have been “necessary” for Mao to promote a personality cult around himself. In other words, if you look at the larger chain of development, there was probably no real “necessity” for any personality cult—except for the fact that lots of other serious mistakes were also made.

3. R. assumes that the personality cult around Mao didn’t go back very far, though at one point she says there were signs of it in 1958. Actually, the roots of it go back at least to the rectification campaign in the CPC in 1942. But it was not taken to the totally wild extremes that it eventually came to until the Cultural Revolution. Mao already had tremendous personal authority both among the masses and within the Party before the GPCR began, although his reputation was considerably tarnished (in the Party at least) by the Great Leap Forward. Still, it is not at all clear to me that Mao could not have led a “cultural revolution” overthrowing the revisionists in the Party without greatly intensifying the existing more modest personality cult.

4. You agree that the Mao Cult was carried to extremes, that it fostered blind devotion and this should be criticized. But R. seemed to argue—and I think she is right about this—that this “blind devotion” aspect is really essential to any personality cult. The whole idea is that Mao and his followers were in a minority and some way other than political argument had to be found to get many of those who disagreed with Mao to nevertheless follow him. If the point is to get people to do what they don’t themselves see as correct just because someone they respect tells them to, then it seems to me that this is the very same thing as promoting blind devotion, or at least blind following.

It is true that there are degrees to “blind devotion” or “blind following”, and the greater degree there is, the less defensible it is. But, really, is even just a little bit of “blind devotion” actually a good thing? Is it really the right way to go about leading a revolution?

5. You say that the personality cult around Mao unleashed a lot of revolutionary activism and raised political consciousness on a mass scale. I would agree with that to a considerable degree. But was the personality cult the only way to do this? Or even the best way? We have to remember that the final result of the GPCR was still the collapse of socialism after Mao’s death. I think that in retrospect we have to admit that the political consciousness of the masses (and even most Party members) was not raised anywhere near as much by the personality cult and the GPCR as we believed at the time. Much of this consciousness was actually very shallow and superficial. And way too much of it centered on Mao as the savior of the Chinese people. I think that a good case could be made that the net result of personality cult around Mao may have been to actually contribute to the defeat of socialism in the long run.

6. You say that R. does not appear to think that there was a serious and imminent danger of the triumph of the capitalist roaders in the party in the mid-1960s. And you add that this was the overriding reason and necessity for the promotion of Mao at that time—to go over the heads of the revisionists to the masses directly. First, I think you are wrong that R. doesn’t understand or defend the necessity of the GPCR. In any case, I would certainly agree that it was correct to “go over the heads of the revisionists” and appeal to the masses directly as Mao did. Yes, this required playing on his personal authority to a considerable degree, and violated the democratic-centralist rules and norms of the Party. But it was nevertheless correct because, as you say, the revisionists had become entrenched in the Party. But even so, the way this was done, with the focus on promoting the cult of Mao, was wrong, and—in the end—counter-productive. Mao did need to go over the heads of the revisionists and directly to the masses, but the main message to the masses should not have been “I am your savior”. It should have been much, MUCH more politically sophisticated than it actually was.

7. You comment that the personality cult was in fact toned down after the initial victories of the CR. I would agree that it was toned down—from wildly ridiculous to merely moderately ridiculous. If the point of the personality cult was to regain control of the Party and society, then once this was basically accomplished (c. 1970) the new goal should have been to drastically tone down the personality cult (if not eliminate it completely) and focus on raising real, genuine MLM consciousness in place of the religious personality cult. There were certainly some efforts in this direction, but—in retrospect—nothing near what was actually needed!

8. You remark that R. thinks that the personality cult aided the revisionists, but deny this and say that it was actually part of the offensive against them. Yes of course it was, in purpose and goal. But offensives can sometimes be mishandled and fail. In the end, the GPCR failed. In the end the greatly intensified personality cult, which was a major part of the GPCR, also seems to me to have failed—i.e., become counter-productive. And to say that it became counter-productive in the end is to admit that it ended up helping the revisionists, even if it helped foil them for a few years before that. As I suggested in point 7, it really seems to me that the personality cult and its excesses as well as its excessive prolongation, got in the way of raising the real MLM political consciousness of both Party members and the masses.

9. You think that some of R.’s points are off the wall, such as her view that it was wrong for Mao to hold more than one post, or that it was wrong for him to be Chairman of the CPC for 33 years. “Who else would she have proposed?” These are rather small points in R.’s article, so even if she is wrong about them that wouldn’t detract from her other points. But I think there is some considerable validity even here. How can successors be trained if they are not given serious responsibilities? It really is wrong for one person to be in charge of too much. (It is also wrong for one person to have too much individual responsibility; democratic-centralism requires collective leadership.) I think it was also wrong for Mao to be the Chairman of the Party for all that time. He should have retired, especially in his last few years, when he was sick and tired, and—truthfully—incapable of carrying out the responsibilities on his shoulders. My own view is that a major reason for the serious weaknesses and eventual failure of the GPCR is that Mao was simply too old and sick to properly lead it. There were many aspects to this, including his inability to write serious essays any more. You cannot lead a revolution by means of isolated aphorisms.

As far as “Who could have taken his place?” goes, if there was no one, not even committees of reliable senior revolutionaries, then clearly Mao and the Party had failed in a much more profound way than we could have imagined at the time. If there are no capable and reliable people to take over, then even if the leader of the original revolution is alive, the revolution is dead. It is merely waiting for the one guy to die.

You think that, yes, there was a big problem in developing new Maoist leadership to carry forward the revolution, but this was not the result of the personality cult. But this claim doesn’t make any sense to me. Of course if you present one man as the only reliable leader, and give him all the responsibility, then there will be no scope for revolutionary successors to develop. “Under a great oak, no acorn can grow.” (Russian proverb)

10. You say it wasn’t wrong to focus on the mass publication of the Red Book and Selected Works, and that, as far as you know, the other M-L works were still available. R. claimed that for a while at least, the publication and promotion of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin virtually ceased. I don’t know myself if this is true or not, but I wouldn’t automatically dismiss it. I would certainly agree that it was proper to publish Mao’s works, and to promote their serious and repeated study. But the fact is that the training of most of the “revolutionary successors” turned out to be woefully superficial. The insufficient political education of both Party members and the masses seems undeniable to me. And this at least suggests that the classic works of Marx, Engels and Lenin were not being widely and carefully studied to the degree they should have been.

Maybe China was just too backward, and the task was hopeless. But I think it is much more likely that Mao and the other revolutionaries just screwed up. And in part they screwed up by pushing a religious politics, instead of a serious study and practice of scientific MLM.

11. You think R. appears to deny that Mao Zedong Thought was a new stage in the development of M-L. First, I don’t know if this is true. Second, I’m not sure I see the relevance even if it is true. I hold to what Mao himself once said, that we should be willing to learn and listen to criticisms from anybody, no matter who. Even if she didn’t call herself a Marxist at all, I believe R.’s criticisms of the personality cult around Mao would be well worth considering. I don’t say it is the most definitive discussion of the issue, let alone the most concise! But given that most Maoists have been very slow to dare to even consider the question, it is good if a few people—of whatever politics—give us a push!

For just a bit more of the background of Ranganayakamma, she is/was a novelist in the Telugu language (of Andhra Pradesh state), who began publishing in 1955. Around 1973 she became a Marxist, and began writing essays on revolutionary politics. She has been critical of the CPI(Maoist) and its predecessors, and has written at least one major article opposing their strategy for revolution. (In my own view, it is wrong to simply assume that the CPI(Maoist) must be right about everything, or that we should not listen to other revolutionary voices in India.) R. has clearly been very strongly influenced by Mao and the Chinese revolution, and is—in my opinion a revolutionary Marxist. I don’t know if she is a member of any political group, but I’d say her ideological stance is in line with the middle MLM forces in India. I know of no reason to think that she is out to “knock down” Mao in general, and in fact in her article she says exactly the opposite of that.

12. The Mao Cult, and any personality cult, is in fact inherently anti-democratic. The idea is to whip people up into a blind religious sort of frenzy, so that you can get them to do what they otherwise would not choose to do. Democracy is itself a principle, and one that may not always be defensible in every conceivable situation. (That would again be a Kantian absolutist conception.) But democracy—not in the bourgeois sense of phony, manipulated elections—but in the Maoist sense of “people having control over their own lives”, is an extremely important principle for us that we can and should defend in almost every situation. At the very least we should be extremely suspicious of anything that goes against democracy, or which turns it into a manipulated travesty. And a “voluntary” or “democratic” decision by the masses who have been whipped into a blind devotion around some god-like leader is definitely a very manipulated democracy.

13. One of the worse things about Stalin’s personality cult was that it was a major factor leading to Mao’s personality cult. And one of the worst things about both is that they have inspired more of the same within other Maoist parties since then. This was taken to absurd heights by Chairman Gonzalo and the Senderistas in Peru, and has also appeared (in more modest form) in the Nepal party and the RCP. (I’m told the minuscule satellite party of the RCP in Mexico City is now pushing “Avakian Thought”, for example.)

It seems to me that it is very clear that many Maoists have blindly or unthinkingly accepted the whole idea of personality cults, and that if we are ever going to seriously return to a fully and genuinely scientific Marxism we have to reject this nonsense and return to the positions of Marx, Engels and Lenin on this matter.

Has there been too little or too much criticism of Mao’s personality cult and personality cults in general? To me it is obvious: way too little!


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