Jules Archer, Mao Tse-Tung: A Biography (1972, 1973) — a Mini Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


26 June 2015



Jules Archer’s Mao Tse-tung: A Biography — recommended


This out of print, approachable 197-page Pocket Book, provides a surprisingly fair-minded overview of Mao Tse-tung’s life.



The 1972 Kirkus review is here.



The volume’s scholarly weakness lies in the author’s apparently exclusively English language secondary sources


But — given China’s pronounced tendency to distort or conceal history, I do not know to what degree the apparently non-Chinese-speaking American author could have avoided this.



An extraordinary military and political leader


Objectively evaluated, Chairman Mao stands unique in world history with regard to the number of people he influenced/coerced — while setting China on the course from a foreign-dominated patsy to the arguably the world’s most powerfully independent economy.


I mention Mao’s historical “greatness” because we Americans doctrinally blind ourselves to our alleged opponents’ strengths and virtues. That unreasoning quirk is often self-defeating.


For example, Archer correctly points out — using General Joe Stilwell’s China writings —that the United States supported the immensely corrupt “Nationalist” Chiang Kai-shek — who effectively refused to fight the Japanese during World War II — instead of Mao, whose troops were fighting Chiang and the Japanese invaders at the same time.



You can be forgiven if you see a parallel between this “heads-up-the-butt” American perspective and our subsequent responses in Vietnam, Iran, Central and South America, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries.


Indeed —unknown to most Americans, then and now (as a matter of intentionally duplicitous American policy) — Mao was occasionally amenable to cooperating with the United States. He was rebuffed, due to our political leadership’s unreasoned and self-defeating hostility toward anything socialist or “red.”  It took President Richard Nixon to see the geopolitical stupidity of the American position and open a relationship with the People’s Republic.



Author Archer, who clearly admired Mao, is critical of the Chairman’s subsequent descent into appalling levels of “revolutionary” mind control — the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution


Mao’s skills lay more in political organization and waging effective guerrilla warfare, than they did in attempting to manage a vast and complex industrial and agricultural nation.


Politically, Mao’s power base lay with China’s peasants. Once he became preeminent, his affinity with the agricultural base was not enough an experiential/educational foundation for him to exhibit wise and economically effective leadership across such a variegated nation.


Mao was, according to Archer, ever fearful of the potential for China to slip back into corruption and warlordism. He suspects that Mao’s repeated escapes from death and defeat made him feel both all-knowing and invincible. Always a bad combination.



Pertinent here — on the philosophical side — is that History almost always outruns our talents


We have to know when to hang it up.


Mao, like virtually every other intensely motivated political or military giant — American President George Washington excepted — did not:



For all his brilliance in shaping the destiny of China, Mao remained essentially provincial, ill-equipped to understand the realities of the outside world except through the books he read, many of them by nineteenth-century authors.


He neither spoke nor read any foreign language. He had made only two trips abroad, both brief and both to the city of Moscow.


Cut off from the world by America’s boycott as well as by his own isolation of China, Mao was not unlike the ancient Chinese emperors who, convinced that China was the center of civilization, had built the Great Wall to prevent contamination of Chinese society by a barbarian world.


© 1973 Jules Archer, Mao Tse-tung: A Biography (Pocket Books, 1973) (at page 193) (paragraph split)



I recommend this biography to readers, who want to consider how dramatic change is actually initiated


To grasp the complexity of initiating social change in a geographically enormous and backward nation, consider Mao’s sentiment/rationalization/insight that:



When the local bullies and evil gentry were at the height of their power, they killed peasants without batting an eyelid . . . How can one say that the peasants should not now rise and shoot a few of them and bring about a small-scale reign of terror in suppressing the counterrevolutionaires?


© 1973 Jules Archer, Mao Tse-tung: A Biography (Pocket Books, 1973) (at page 46) (quoting Mao)


Or this:



Like Stalin [see here] and Kruschev [see here], he ruthlessly purged the Communist party to rid himself of political rivals and opponents, yet unlike Stalin, he rarely had them shot.


Mao preferred to exercise power not by chopping off heads, but by winning psychological triumphs over his rivals and compelling them to confess error.


When some of his polices sagged in failure, he sometimes publicly admitted his own blame. To Mao the hateful sin was not to fall into error, but to deny it and persist in it.


© 1973 Jules Archer, Mao Tse-tung: A Biography (Pocket Books, 1973) (at page 188) (extracts)


In some respects, Mao’s ability to concede mistake shames American leadership, which perennially repeats deadly foolishness, as if the act of discontinuing error itself is sinful.



My point is that forcing noticeable change from within a country always breaks heads


Non-violent internal change, of fundamentally meaningful political dimensions, does not “just” happen. History does not peacefully unseat the powers that be.



What is a well-meaning revolutionary to do?


Self-righteous judgmentalism frequently blocks us from making rational situational assessments with regard to our alleged adversaries’ motives and difficulties.


For example, I had to smile at the following familiar bit of American hypocrisy:



[U.S. Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles [see here], convinced that communism on the Chinese mainland was only a temporary “aberration,” was determined to do all he could short of a shooting war to overturn it.


“We owe it to ourselves, our allies, and the Chinese people,” he announced sanctimoniously, “to contribute to that passing.”


He branded Red China an aggressive menace to world peace.


Mao fired back a refutation. The United States had planes and troops in bases all over the world; China had none. Every sixteen days America spent in armaments what China appropriated for a whole year. Well over half of America’s budget went to the military, compared to only 8 percent of China’s. Which nation, then, was the real threat to world peace?


© 1973 Jules Archer, Mao Tse-tung: A Biography (Pocket Books, 1973) (at page 140) (extracts)


In general effect, Mao’s rebutting observation still applies today.



The moral? — Mao Tse-tung’s life, leadership and accomplishments were of historically epic proportions


That we in the West know so little of him is a pity. Archer’s simply presented (perhaps occasionally uncritical) book is a partial remedy. It also contains a bibliography containing useful secondary sources.


Mao Tse-tung: A Biography implicitly encourages readers to consider what revolutionary-minded leaders should do — when in positions similar to those Mao Tse-tung faced, during his endeavor to make China independent and dramatically less medieval in its treatment of the population, including women.