mao, bush, and the "great man" theory of history
On a long car trip I have been reading "Mao: The Untold Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, originally published in 2005. As the title suggests, the book is less than complimentary. It's basic thesis is that Mao never really believed in communism or any other coherent set of values; had neither any affection for workers nor any appetite for physical labor of his own; was interested only in his own power and gratification; and, generally speaking, schemed, plotted, and murdered his way to control of the Chinese Community Party and eventually the country, leaving a trail of innocent victims in his path at every stage. The book estimates that 70 million people died during Mao's reign, including 38 million in famines deriving from the Great Leap Forward (1958-61)--all of them, the cover notes, during peacetime.
As readers of this blog will know, I am not a particularly big fan of Mao's or of the system that he created in China. The book is moreover extremely well-written, well-researched, and detailed. But I am intuitively suspicious of a theory that ascribes so much destruction to one person's personality traits. If Mao merely wanted to possess a lot of money and women, wouldn't it have been easier to be a successful businessman or an expatriate? And where were the rest of the Chinese people while all these things were happening? Did everyone else simply follow his lead during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution--like the Germans supposedly did under Hitler--or was there a lot more enthusiasm for these policies than people want to admit? As Simon Leys argues in "Chinese Shadows," weren't many of Mao's techniques actually quite typical of previous Chinese emperors, and people's acceptance of them similar, as well?
This tendency to ascribe everything to personality factors--what might be called the Freudian theory of history--is also observable in the context of a person not usually compared to Mao, namely, George W. Bush. The NY Times website reported today that Bush's particular brand of religiosity, which posits freedom as a Gift from Heaven and American as God's instrument in spreading it, was responsible for most of his foreign policy and (by implication) for the country's increasing isolation in the world. Even conservatives, the report suggested, were tiring of the President's misuse of religious thought.
Interesting, of course; but didn't Woodrow Wilson have much the same view of America's role in the world? Come to think of it, isn't the merger of Christian religion and democratic political theory the essential American synthesis, and hasn't a messianic vision of America's purpose--alternating, to be sure, with more hard-nosed calculations--been a driving force in foreign policy from the beginning? Where did Bush learn these values, seeing (as his critics tirelessly point out) that he spent little time outside the country before he became President?
None of this is to say that Bush is necessarily right. Much of Wilsonian idealism ended in disaster--look at Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s--and idealism untempered by reality is often asking for trouble. But to blame these problems on Bush's personality quirks seems to me beside the point, and suggests that there are going to be a lot of disillusioned people when Bush is no longer here but he problems that he faces remains. At least he can't be blamed for starting a Cultural Revolution. Yet.