I have just finished reading Philip Short’s long but concise history of the rise of Mao and the great Chinese revolution of the last century, Mao: A Life (Henry Holt, 1999). The revolution arose like so many others of its time throughout the world – Spain, Russia, Germany. And many of the same elements are present excepting the cultural setting and history leading to it. What begins under the banner of a freedom movement comes to resemble fascism more than anything else.
In the case of Mao and the Red Army much of the preexisting power vested in national government or culture itself had to be destroyed. That included not only battle against national military power but actual governmental authorities, past cultural signs of authority like religion, and especially the educated. It is the last category – the intelligentsia or intellectuals – that fascinates me the most.
To assure their absolute dominance Mao and his movement had to socially belittle, exile, imprison and kill any semblance of intellectuals who could think for themselves or raise educated objections to the regime. It was essential to cut at the root of the tree, to remove educated resistance.
This was also the model used in other iterations of Maoist revolutions, such as in Cambodia and its killing fields. The educated elite were marginalized and sent to “reeducation camps” which were camps of hard labor. The former teachers, scholars, artists and journalists were separated so they could not influence the proletariat, the working classes (who were really dominated by the revolutionary elites, like Mao). Their voices were silenced so that Mao’s propaganda could not be contradicted by other opinion. Then they were quietly murdered.
In terms of Mao’s priorities on the way to securing absolute power he had to first smash the military, then the governing powers, and then the intellectual elites. All had to be vanquished.
When we consider what it takes to create and secure a vital, free and democratic society, we find the elements of protection ensconced in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech and assembly assure that a variety of voices will be heard. Laws prohibit the cavalier disposal of those who differ with the regime. And even when anti-intellectualism rules the land, we have safeguards in place that insure a free and continuing voice of reason, thoughtfulness and intelligence. That is protected.
We don’t read history so much as it reads us. Every time we hear strains of a new anti-intellectualism in our time, when we hear someone or some group disparage our intellectuals, artists, writers, journalists, and prophetic religious voices, it may behoove us to bring the picture of Mao’s reeducation camps to mind. Purging the educated by labeling them troublesome elites may feel good for the moment. But it is like the body chopping off its own head to make a point. Headless bodies don’t navigate well, at least not for long.