Myths of Maoism

Myths of Maoism

In recounting how a group of politically engaged scholars sought to extend solidarity to East Asia in the 1968 era, a new book falls into many of the same pitfalls as the scholars it profiles.

A member of a CCAS Friendship Delegation (left) takes part in farmwork in China, 1972 (Stephen R. Mackinnon / UC San Diego Library)

The End of Concern: Maoist China, Activism, and Asian Studies
by Fabio Lanza
Duke University Press, 2017


In 1968, a year of youth rebellions around the globe, graduate students at elite American universities formed the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS), challenging their senior professors’ complicit silence on the Vietnam War. Like those in other academic fields, the Asianists opposed U.S. aggression in Vietnam and racism at home and abroad. They sought a more democratic and ethically committed profession.

Most CCAS activists—myself among them—carried the ideals of the nonviolent U.S. civil rights movement. We were appalled by and struggled against the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up, the uncontrolled use of the defoliant Agent Orange, and mass assassination campaigns in southern Vietnam. We focused on American crimes and errors, not on capitalist imperialism versus socialist revolution.

But in contrast to other academic organizations, CCAS would only last a decade. Fabio Lanza’s The End of Concern: Maoist China, Activism, and Asian Studies tells the story of the rise and fall of CCAS. (As one of the group’s founding members, I make several appearances in the book, and spoke to Lanza for his research.) Lanza’s book is a well-researched work marred by his Maoist sympathies. He writes off some of the best scholars of China in the CCAS generation—Perry Link, Paul Cohen, Phil Huang, and Joe Esherick—for not working from a Maoist perspective. He treats the minority who were committed to revolution as if they were the standard by which to evaluate all CCAS members. Furthermore, he fails to understand Asian dynamics that undermined assumptions about the unique evil of Western imperialism.

Lanza is right in treating Mao’s China as central to CCAS. What made CCAS different from the other radical democratic academic caucuses of the late 1960s was that the largest bloc of people in the organization were students of China. This mattered for conceptualizing U.S. foreign policy and the war in Vietnam. For Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the main rationale for America’s war in Vietnam was that it was the only way to defeat Maoist expansion by proxy. Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese fighters were seen as tools serving Mao’s purpose.

The junior scholars in CCAS saw the flaws in Kennedy’s and Johnson’s understanding of Chinese foreign policy. They did not accept the view that Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese fighters were proxies for Mao’s China. CCASers saw Ho’s side as Vietnamese patriots fighting for Vietnamese independence. The CCASers knew the history of China-Vietnam relations, which made national heroes in Vietnam of those who gave their lives to defeat Chinese invaders for more than a millennia. While most Vietnamese sought (and still seek) beneficial, peaceful, and dignified relations with their giant neighbor to the north, they well knew the dangers of an imperial, expansionist China. It had invaded Vietnam during the Ming dynasty and proudly claimed to have killed some 7 million Vietnamese.

The CCASers knew that Ho’s forces had become the vehicle of Vietnamese nationalism by resisting Japanese forces who stole the rice crop from Vietnam in 1944–1945, producing a famine that killed over a million Vietnamese, a number that would have been far higher had Ho’s side not worked to save crops and share the food fairly. CCASers also knew that Ho’s forces, greatly aided by Mao’s military, had defeated the French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In contrast, the juntas in South Vietnam backed by the United States had no comparable nationalist legitimacy with the people of Vietnam.

The CCAS position on the Vietnam War was that the U.S.-backed Saigon regime could not win. CCAS urged the U.S. government to leave Vietnam and establish normal relations with Ho’s regime in Hanoi as the United States had with the Tito regime in Belgrade. But Kennedy and Johnson saw the government in Hanoi not as Vietnamese patriots, but as a tool of Mao and of China’s ambition to spread wars of national liberation to defeat capitalist imperialism.

Getting American foreign policy right required getting Asia right, especially China. But the Maoist sympathizers in CCAS did not get China right. They saw the PRC through the lens of their own ideals. CCASers were largely united in wanting to deepen the democracy in their flawed constitutional system. Where many young China specialists erred was in imagining Mao’s Red Guards as building a participatory democracy.  In fact, the cult of the supreme leader made Mao all-powerful, while most Chinese were terrorized and traumatized, with millions cruelly killed by Red Guard vigilantes, by the Maoist military, and by crazed crowds seeking Mao’s approval. Lanza acknowledges “the Red Guards’ excesses and military repression” only in passing. He then goes back to praising a 1969 CCAS volume and its sympathetic portrait of life in China during the Cultural Revolution.

Given CCAS illusions about Mao’s domestic policies, it was the international relations of communist regimes in Asia—Beijing, Hanoi, and Phnom Penh—that disillusioned many CCAS members and led to the swift end of the committee. Lanza ably recounts the key events. CCASers saw Nixon as a reactionary who would not recognize the socialist Mao government and would instead pursue an endlessly murderous war in Vietnam, but Nixon did the opposite. He opened a way to normal U.S. relations with China and pulled the U.S. military out of Vietnam.

Worse yet for CCAS presuppositions, when the regime in Hanoi defeated the southern junta in Saigon in 1975, 1.5 million or so Vietnamese risked their lives to flee, many of them by boat. After Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese government made public some of his monstrous crimes, which caused the death of at least 40 million innocent Chinese. And all could see that Pol Pot’s mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, in power since 1975, practiced a level of cruelty seldom encountered in the annals of inhuman suffering. Then, in 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and in 1979 China invaded Vietnam to teach its rulers a lesson about toppling China’s partners in Cambodia. Communist leaders in Asia did not act as anti-imperialists promoting human liberation. In 1979, CCAS disbanded.

To the more militant members of CCAS, the bad relations among socialist China, socialist Vietnam, and socialist Kampuchea (under the Khmer Rouge) were simply the result of “Nixon’s attempted manipulation of big-power chauvinism to create dissension among socialist countries. . . .” Lanza quotes such statements at length, while devoting very little attention to the historical tensions between China and its neighbors.

Ho Chi Minh and his allies believed China wanted Southeast Asia to be weak and divided so that a mighty China could more easily dominate the region. Therefore, China had undermined Vietnamese interests at the 1954 Geneva Conference meant to decide the future of Indochina after French colonialism ended. China wanted a divided Vietnam, a weak Cambodia, and a yet weaker Laos, not an Indochina in which Vietnam was the key power. As in centuries past, China sought regional domination. So did Vietnam.

Rather than acting as a socialist friend, Mao’s China made its military aid to Ho’s side contingent on Vietnam fighting a protracted guerilla war and declaring, time and time again, that the waters and land features of what Americans call the South China Sea all belonged to China. (Tellingly, Vietnamese call it the East Sea, Filipinos the West Philippine Sea, and Chinese the South Sea.) The year after the U.S. military left Vietnam in 1973, Mao’s military seized islets of the Paracel group in the South China Sea. With Vietnam united and independent in 1975, Hanoi renounced all its coerced statements that the waters and land features off Vietnam’s shores were Chinese, insisting that they long had been Vietnamese. In 1988, the post-Mao military killed Vietnamese defenders and seized the Spratley islets further south in the South China Sea. These martyrs are memorialized annually in Vietnam. The Kennedy notion of the Vietnam War as Vietnamese serving as pawns for Chinese expansionism was absurd.

Once Khrushchev was ousted from leading the Soviet Union in 1964, his more globally militarist successors offered Hanoi an alternative to dependence on China. Given the Chinese threat, Hanoi grabbed the Moscow offer. Ho Chi Minh was pushed aside. The pro-Soviet Le Duan seized power. His policy was to use advanced Soviet weaponry to defeat the U.S.-backed side as quickly as possible, not caring how many Vietnamese lives were sacrificed. Le Duan purged and imprisoned Vietnamese opponents of the new policy meant to end dependence on China. Beijing understood Hanoi’s struggle for independence as making Vietnam a pawn in a Soviet effort to encircle and undermine China. Mao armed and supported Pol Pot’s brutal killing expeditions into Vietnam’s west, while China, soon after Mao died, unleashed its military into Vietnam’s north for ten years.*

Lanza invokes terms like capitalism, imperialism, socialism, and revolution in ways that obscure what more rigorous scholarship on Asia illuminates. Capitalism should not be analyzed as if the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal moment was eternal. Asian history provides useful lessons about varieties of capitalism, like Japanese neo-mercantilism, sometimes called the East Asian development state model. It is a way to use state power so that one’s industrial firms succeed in the world market. That model contributed to trade deficits for the United States with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in the CCAS era. The U.S. government brought great pressure on those neo-mercantilist Asian states in the 1970s and 1980s to change their policies. Post-Mao China has adapted the same neo-mercantilist practices to produce a turbo-charged East Asian development state, which also has led to American pushback.

Lanza credits Maoism with “provid[ing] U.S. scholars and French radicals—but also Tanzanian farmers and Iranian revolutionaries—with a vocabulary to identify equalitarian practices across the world.” Despite various qualifications, his account is overwhelmingly sympathetic to these Maoist tendencies and the premise they shared—that Maoist revolution offered a vision of human liberation, rather than one of economic misery and political repression. At a time when the results of a totalitarian party seizing power in Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s PRC, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, and the Kim family’s North Korea are well known, it is not credible to claim that revolutionary socialism replacing capitalism will necessarily lead to human liberation. What was revolutionary or socialist or liberating in Mao-era foreign policy, when China partnered with Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran, and the pro-Apartheid forces in Portugal’s colony of Angola in order to oppose the Soviet Union?

For a notion of revolution that can be tied to human liberation, we should instead turn to Hannah Arendt. Revolutions, for Arendt, can expand the constitutional space for societal freedom in which people can creatively and continually join and peacefully struggle against injustices, and for things like civil rights or women’s rights or to end the horrors of an American war in Vietnam, as CCAS members and millions of others did. States are not revolutionary, but they can be structured to better facilitate society struggling to right historic wrongs. In contrast, Leninist dictatorships would repress the popular mobilization of a green movement or a gay rights movement; they do not promote human liberation.

Today neither Japanese nor Indians nor Vietnamese welcome the Chinese ambition of building a region whose governments must subordinate themselves to China. The long histories of Asian states and their painful experiences with imperial China tell them otherwise. This is a world that is unimaginable in Lanza’s conception of socialist revolution ending capitalist imperialism to foster human liberation.


Edward Friedman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His most recent books are Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China (Yale University Press, 2007) and Political Transitions in Dominant Party Systems (Routledge, 2008).

* The best book on China’s ten-year war on Vietnam is Xiaoming Zhang, Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2016.


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