Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rebecca Karl's "Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World"

Rebecca E. Karl is Associate Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, and a co-editor of Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China and Marxism beyond Marxism.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book and reported the following:
In my newly published book, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Duke University Press 2010), page 99 begins the most difficult chapter I had to write. It is the about the promising premise but practical disaster of Mao’s version of socialist economics, promoted during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. The chapter opens:
With the anti-rightist campaign in full swing, rural collectivization all but completed, and urban private property and industries now under state ownership, Mao was in a good mood in the summer of 1957. Even the Party leaders with whom he’d been at odds were back on his side. In a July article prepared for a meeting in Qingdao of provincial leaders, Mao noted that the difficulties China was facing were part of the struggle “between the two roads – socialism and capitalism.” He added, “Complete victory in this struggle will take a very long time. It is a task for the entire transition period.” Clearly, capitalism as an economic system no longer existed in China. Here, “capitalism” meant “bourgeois thought” and “rightism,” while “socialism” pointed to revolutionary consciousness, or, increasingly, loyalty to Mao himself.
Here, I’m setting a scene filled with individual and philosophical conflict: Mao vs. the Communist Party; collective vs. private ownership of property; and most important, socialism vs. capitalism as historical choices of economic and social organization.

The book has been leading to this particular series of conflicts, but this passage also exemplifies my general conceptual strategy of combining the individual (Mao) with the historical-philosophical forces that made Mao possible. The chapter that begins on page 99 was hard to write because so much written about socialism and Maoism is profoundly judgmental.

I wanted to write about these topics seriously by paying real attention to the theoretical and historical considerations underlying Mao’s choices in the late 1950s; thus, I did not want to dismiss it all as some crazy scheme dreamt up by a tyrant. What I wanted to do was to show that there was real thought and hope behind the choices that were made, all of which went disastrously and tragically wrong especially in the late-1950s and early-1960s.

In large part, page 99 does turn out to be representative of the book as a whole. I’d never heard of Ford Madox Ford’s saying, but I’ll now pay far more attention to writing a good page 99!
Read more about Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue