EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece by William F. Buckley Jr. appeared in the June 30, 1989, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here.)
During the first ten days I found myself waiting. Waiting for the ultimate symbolic act. The television cameras over and over again showed, perched high above Tiananmen Square, the picture of Mao Tse-tung. When would it come down, as the statues of Stalin came down in the Soviet Union? But day after day he was still there, exhibiting a ghostly, ghastly immunity from the great counter-revolution; his steely brown eyes gazed down on in his great square, constructed at the expense of relics of a thousand years of Chinese culture, a destruction bemoaned by Simon Leys in his tone poem, “Chinese Shadows.”
Then, on Wednesday, the report was published that three men had defaced the picture, splattering paint on it. But this act had not been done by protesting students. On the contrary, they were outraged by it. Within a matter of hours, a fresh picture of the Great Helmsman was back up there, and students who were representative of the demonstrators went so far as to allege that those who had thrown paint over the face of the great man had been agents provocateurs, put up to it by Li Peng, to document the ultimate blasphemy of the demonstrators. Several students were quoted lamenting the deed and praising Mao Tse-tung, who, after all, as one of them put it, “liberated our country.”
How unfinished the thought of these heroic young men and women, Yet it reminds one of the all-but-universal refusal of the Russians to reject Lenin. Gorbachev can criticize Chernenko (he skips Andropov, who was his political godfather) and Brezhnev — and Brezhnev could criticize Khrushchev, who criticized Stalin: but no one will criticize the fons et origo
of all that poison, Lenin. And it is so, sadly but perhaps understandably, in China.
During his lifetime Mao took in more than gullible Chinese. He took over significant voices of the West. Paul Johnson, in his book Modern Times, refreshes the memory. One Western visitor wrote of Mao’s China that it was “a kind of benign monarchy ruled by an emperor-priest who had won the complete devotion of his subjects.” Simone de Beauvoir testified that “life in China today is exceptionally pleasant.” Another witness said (we are talking about the late Fifties, during the disaster of the Great Leap Forward) that China had become “almost as painstakingly careful about human lives as New Zealand.” Human casualties at that point from Mao’s Thought Reform period (1951) followed by his Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom period (1956) were estimated by some as high as 15 million people executed, though the figure goes down as low as 1 to 3 million. David Rockefeller (yes, our David Rockefeller) praised “the sense of national harmony” and argued that Mao’s revolution had succeeded “not only in producing more efficient and dedicated administration, but also in fostering high morale and community of purpose.”
And so on, ad, literally, nauseam. All of this adulation, which reaches even into the demonstrators’ square, was for a man at once the total vulgarian and the Brobdingnagian dictator, a kind of King Kong poet. In 1956, Mao, deploring Khrushchev’s exposure of the crimes of Stalin, counseled that “every fart has some kind of smell, and we cannot say that all Soviet farts smell sweet.” But what distinguishes the true, total tyrant is his self-absorption. Even as Stalin was compared to the rising sun and the aurora borealis, even as, in Germany, Good morning and Good night yielded to Heil Hitler, Mao trained crowds who greeted him to intone the ritual chant, “Boundless life to Chairman Mao.” The greatest hell on earth he visited on his country — the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 — combined adulation for Mao and vilification of his (fancied) enemies. “Beat down the capitalist-roaders inpower! Beat down the reactionary bourgeois authorities! Sweep awayall wicked devils and evil spirits! Do away with the Four Old Things: old thought, old culture, old customs, old habits. The Thought of Mao Tse-tung must rule and transform the spirit, untit the power of the spirit transforms matter!”
And orient your devotion to Mao — “the sun of our heart, the root of our life, the source of our strength.” “His thought is a compass and spiritual food.” He was “like a massive cudgel swung by a golden monkey . . . a brilliant beam of light exposing monsters and goblins . . . the source of all wisdom.”
No deliberative human being, even at age 20, can worship a man who sponsored what Mao sponsored. And this tells us that the brave young people in China, whose historic bravery may change history, have much to learn. Much of crucial importance.