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Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward: Master or Monster?

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One of the greatest, oddest monuments of all time: the young, handsome, dynamic Mao Zedong, wart and all, on top of a mountain at Juzizhou, China. The statue is 32 metres high, a suitably huge monument to the leader of the revolution. (Author: 刻意; Source: here)

 

Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward: Master or Monster?

‘A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.’ Mao Zedong

The 1960s are famous as a time of radical change. As the generation that had been during the Second World War came to adulthood, technology developed and tastes changed so as to mark a step-change in the attitudes, values and goals of many, although not the majority of people. The changes of that decade usually focus on things like The Beatles, hippies, protests and the moon landings but there were also fascinating developments to be found in the many bookshops on Britain’s high streets. One of the ‘new’ books which caused more than a little controversy was ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by DH Lawrence (1885-1930), Nottingham’s  most famous literary son, which had originally been published in 1928 but only became available in the shops after the famous obscenity trial in 1961. It flew off the shelves after the trial which approved its publication. The trial itself attracted huge publicity and reflected a significant change in social values in Britain. One comment by the barrister who led the prosecution, Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, showed how out of touch some members of the ‘establishment’ had become since the book had been written: ‘Is this the type of book that you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ However, while Lawrence’s work threatened and disturbed many people for its language (lots of swearing) and subject matter (lots of sex), it was not the most disturbing book of that decade for many people. For that ‘honour’, we have to delve into the murky world of ideology and politics, as it was ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’, better known as ‘The Little Red Book’, which really sent shock waves around Britain and the Western world.

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DH Lawrence (1885-1930), the slightly unlikely looking man behind the controversial ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He has probably not appeared in many articles about Chairman Mao before. (Author: Unknown; Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University here)

As it suggests, ‘Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung’ contains the sayings of the famous leader of China, Chairman Mao’. ‘Mao Tse-Tung’ was the old way of spelling his name and today it is usually spelt ‘Mao Zedong’, rather like ‘Peking’ has become ‘Beijing’. This was the most printed book of the 20th century with over 5 billion copies made and was at the forefront of a massive propaganda campaign which aimed to explain Mao’s policies and the values of Communism to the people of China. It also became a huge propaganda tool in the West where many copies appeared in the hands of, mostly, young people. The book itself came to prominence during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China in the mid-sixties and became hugely popular around the world, being seen as a part of the Eastern wisdom which was so potent amongst many young, wealthy Westerners at the time. This was an age when increasing numbers of people, especially the young, were disillusioned with traditional Western politics, lifestyle and philosophy and started to look to the East for hope and ‘salvation’. This embracing of Eastern values was seen in numerous ways at the time: the opening prayer at Woodstock in 1969 was offered by Yogi Bhajan; The Beatles, Mike Love of ‘The Beach Boys’, Mia Farrow, Donovan and other stars travelled to India seeking enlightenment; and many hippies simply dropped out and smoked their way from Marrakesh to Vietnam. On the back of this love-affair with the East, Mao was presented as an almost mystical figure, a god-like character who could inspire a new way of living which was beyond the imagination of traditional leaders in the West. His ‘wisdom’ was available in the ‘The Little Red Book’, a radical expression of those traditional Eastern values for modern times. While this might have been the interpretation, though, the reality of life behind the book was a somewhat different tale. Most people knew little or nothing of life in China so that Mao’s words were devoid of context and not supported by any evidence. Whereas Mao’s words seemed to speak of a gentle wisdom, the sort of thing a spiritual master might share with his disciples, the truth was that his methods led to death and suffering on an unimaginable scale in China itself. Perception might have presented Mao as a ‘Master’ but reality offers us a ‘Monster’.

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Mao Zedong looking very happy in about 1950 (Author: The People’s Republic of China Printing Office; Source: here)

As we have said, for Mao’s supporters, the ‘Little Red Book’ was full of wisdom and guidance for anyone wanting to reach a Communist utopia. For his enemies, on the other hand, these were the aggressive, confused, dishonest ramblings of an extreme dictator in the tradition of Joseph Stalin. Here are three examples of his writings which can range from the rather aggressive to the reasonable and thoughtful, at least as words on paper:

“People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs! People of the world, be courageous, dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave. Then the whole world will belong to the people. Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed.”

“Our comrades must understand that ideological remoulding involves long-term, patient and painstaking work, they must not attempt to change people’s ideology, which has been shaped over decades of life, by giving a few lectures or by holding a few meetings. Persuasion, not compulsion, is the only way to convince them. Compulsion will never result in convincing them. To try to convince them by force simply won’t work. This kind of method is permissible in dealing with the enemy, but absolutely impermissible in dealing with comrades or friends.”

“We should be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness, and serve the Chinese people heart and soul. Our point of departure is to serve the people wholeheartedly and never for a moment divorce ourselves from the masses, to proceed in all cases from the interests of the people and not from one’s self-interest or from the interests of a small group, and to identify our responsibility to the people with our responsibility to the leading organs of the Party.”

To understand the ‘Little Red Book’, of course, it is necessary to know something about Mao himself, one of the most important figures of the Twentieth Century. Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan, in the Hunan province of China in 1893, the son of a peasant farmer. At that time, China was still ruled by an Emperor, Guangxu (1871-1908), the penultimate Chinese Emperor of all time. This was a time of increasing unrest in the country, a time of trouble which would bring the end of the empire in 1911 and see the establishment of the Chinese Republic the following year. The story of that ‘Chinese Revolution’, in which Mao took part as a soldier, is, however, another story.

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Shaoshan railway station makes a lot of the fact that the ‘great man’ was born there. You might also like to know that this was the original home of the ‘Mao Family Restaurant’, which is now a chain found in many cities across China; it’s a strange world at times. (Author: Troy Parfitt; Source: here)

Another topic that will have to wait for another post is the fuller story of Mao Zedong’s life before he came to be leader of China and, indeed, so much of the other interesting stuff that surrounds his time in power. As you’ll see if you do any research of your own, the books on Mao are almost always very long simply because there is so much to cover and so much opinion on what he did and why he did it. If you want to pick up on a few points from those first 56 years of his life, you could focus on a few dates: 1911 and his involvement in the revolution to end the Chinese Empire; 1925 and his role in Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) alongside key figures such Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and, his arch enemy of later years, Jiang Jieshi; 1935 and the extraordinary struggles of ‘The Long March’; 1937 and the Second World War with the struggle to overthrow the Japanese forces through carefully orchestrated guerilla warfare.

Mao became leader of China in 1949 when the Communist Revolution overthrew Jiang Jieshi (also known as ‘Chiang Kai-shek’, (1887-1975)) and his Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang. Victory had finally been won after Mao’s forces won the Chinese Civil War, a struggle which had raged on and off for more than a quarter of a century and where the Nationalists had been backed with aid from the West, especially the USA, which took a real interest in Chinese affairs. The China that Mao came to rule in the middle of the century had the largest population in the world, some 350 million people, but it was a poor, economically under-developed country in which most people worked as farmers and there was very little by way of a modern infrastructure or advanced technology. It faced similar challenges to those of the USSR in the 1920’s, so change in some form was needed if it were to survive in the increasingly competitive post-war world, a world dominated politically by the Cold War and economically by capitalism and the forces of globalisation.

Mao Zedong was a huge admirer of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR from 1928 to 1953, and he was been horrified when Nikita Khrushchev attacked Stalin in his ‘Secret Speech’ at the XXth Party Congress in 1956. Mao had actually visited Moscow in 1950 to seek Stalin’s approval and guidance for the country, and was always willing to defer to the man he recognised as the leader of ‘world Communism’. Mao trusted Stalin, believing in his strong style of leadership which made him happy to play second-fiddle to the USSR, and giving the Kremlin leader precedence within Communism as the ‘older brother’. But when Stalin was attacked and his legacy threatened by Khrushchev, it was too much for Mao, who became increasingly wary of Moscow and started to offer an alternative model of leadership and support to other Communist states. For Mao, Khrushchev was effectively a traitor to the Communist cause and their relationship became increasingly tense and awkward. While the West, and especially Washington, saw Communism as one family controlled by Moscow, the reality was always different, something no US president fully understood until Richard Nixon came to power in 1968. The strength of Mao’s commitment to Stalin’s style and methods were seen in two major events: the extraordinary ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the late 1950s and the bizarre and tragic ‘Cultural Revolution’ which started in 1966.

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Front cover of a school textbook in 1971 showing Chinese Red Guards fighting with a pen and announcing the message from ‘The Little Red Book’; a wonderful example of propaganda. (Author: Giulia Villa; Source: here)

Let’s start with a look at ‘The Great Leap Forward’. Karl Marx had believed that Communism would first be established in one of the advanced industrial economies of Europe, such as Germany, France or Britain. He would have been shocked to see it first appear in Russia and then imposed by force in Eastern Europe before taking control of China. Russia and China were predominantly agricultural economies which had little by way of a complex capitalist structure with the mass exploitation of workers, while the use of force to impose control on the population of eastern Europe went against any idea of the the uprising of the people to overthrow oppressive rulers. The lack of economic development was an essential problem in the USSR where Stalin recognised the country’s industrial fragility and so forced industrialisation on what was an agricultural society through the ‘Five Year Plans’ after 1928. The cost was huge in terms of human suffering but the progress achieved had effectively driven the Soviet Union to victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45 and established the country as a ‘Superpower’. In twenty years, the USSR went from being a peasant economy where many ploughs were pulled by people, to one which had produced its own Atom Bomb. Mao faced a similar situation in China, where the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked as peasant farmers. In homage to Stalin and in direct opposition to advice from Khrushchev, Mao decided to impose his own version of the Five Year Plans on China. This was to be the ‘Great Leap Forward’, the massive and rapid industrialisation of the country.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ began in 1958. It echoed not only Stalin’s goals from thirty years before but also his methods. The people and culture of the country had clearly not produced the ‘desired’ system so force had to be used. The majority of farms, which were small and independent, were to be taken over by the State and the land would become part of a huge industrial farming structure, under a system of ‘collectivisation’. This was a direct echo of what had happened in the USSR in the 1930s and played such a key role in the Ukrainian famine, an appalling tragedy which had killed some seven million people. New technology was to be used to replace the peasant farmers who would then be moved to urban areas, which would become the focus for huge industrial developments. Fertile rice paddies were ploughed up and replaced by factories in what turned into one of the greatest disasters of all time. However, the new farming methods did not work as people did not know how to use them, schedules were changed too dramatically and there was a huge loss of experience and skills. Everything happened too quickly and was chaotic; and no one was able to challenge it under fear of death.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ was an almost total disaster, a situation which was epitomised by the thousands of small furnaces which were set up across the country. In backyards and on streets, the people made their own furnaces in an attempt to make steel, the goal being to overtake Britain for its level of steel production. The use of quotas and targets was another thing which echoed Stalin’s ‘plans’ and the people responded with a mix of fervour and fear. Pots and pans, door handles and old tools were amongst the things melted down in an attempt to increase production of steel for massive projects, such as factories, transport, mining and power. The energy and resources poured into the whole project of industrialisation was so wasteful that overall production of key resources failed to reach anything like the planned levels. And it was all a waste of time as the quality of the steel produced was so poor as to be useless; as Ian Dury and the Blockheads once sang: ‘What a waste’.

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This propaganda poster calls on Chinese people to produce more steel: “Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields.” It’s hardly the snappiest slogan of all time but it’s a clear message and a classic image. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The problems caused in the towns were terrible but those in the countryside were even worse. Unrealistic targets, attacks on those who challenged the system and the loss of experienced workers combined to create harvest failures on a massive scale. One of the worst famines of modern times was the result and at least 20 million people died. Some estimates actually put the death toll at over 40 million, which would make it the worst recorded ‘natural’ disaster of all time. And the blame for what happened lies sully on the shoulders of Chairman Mao Zedong, making him a serious contender for the title of the ‘greatest killer of all time’. But the full details of the tragedy did not emerge for many years because Mao made sure that there was a total suppression of information. No one was allowed to mention the famine, deaths and problems associated with the failed experiment so that no resources were diverted to help those in need. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ came to an abrupt end in 1961 and was a disaster on an unprecedented scale.

One footnote to the tragedy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ was the fate of Tree Sparrows in China, one of those sad, simple stories which show human beings at their worst. As part of the campaign for industrialisation, Mao launched an attack on what were known as the ‘Four Great Pests’, namely, rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows. Regarding the sparrows, Mao believed that they were eating grain and so disrupting agricultural production – and they had to go. No one knows quite how many birds died but it was in their many millions that these small birds fell to the ground. The usual plan was for people to make as much noise as possible so that the sparrows would not settle in the trees to rest and so fall to the ground exhausted. This was done by banging pots and pans, waving flags or simply shouting. Birds were shot, traps were set, nests were torn down, stones were thrown and eggs were broken in an attempt to wipe out the Tree Sparrows. The campaign was a part of the disaster, though, as too many sparrows died which allowed a plague of locusts and grasshoppers to attack the harvest. It was a tragic ecological footnote to an horrific human disaster.

Mao was less secure in his position as Chairman following the disaster of the ‘Great Leap Forward’. His behaviour became increasingly eccentric and he withdrew from public view more and more, adopting an approach similar to one of the old Emperors rather than that of the ‘Father of the Nation’. In an attempt to re-assert control over the Communist Party and the country, Mao launched the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966. One feature of this plan to re-gain control of the state was the publication of the ‘Little Red Book’. Red Army soldiers, children at school, students at university and ordinary people in the street were expected to have their copy and to read it. It was seen at rally after rally and it was read out at meetings, on the street and over the radio. For a person to read the works of other authors or to question Mao’s ideas in any way was enough to unleash the most severe consequences. This period saw a ban on the publication of new books or the presentation of new ideas on just about any topic. Journals on the arts were banned and art schools were closed. Old monuments and temples were attacked and the works of Confucius were amongst those burnt; only the books of Lu Xun were allowed. Lu Xun (1881-1936) was the one author Mao admired and saw as completely acceptable with regard to Communism, although the author himself never joined the Chinese Communist Party.

The ‘Cultural Revolution’ was a drastic and devastating attempt to ‘purify’ Chinese society of all opposition, rather in the style of Stalin in the ‘Great Purges’ and the ‘Show Trials’ of the 1930s. It was a classic example of what extreme dictators do: they dictate in extreme ways. Mao aimed to re-establish his control over the Communist Party and thousands of people were removed as a part of this process, including former allies, leaders and critics. The most high profile casualty was the man who appeared to be Mao’s heir, Lin Biao, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1969, shades of Stalin’s removal of Trotsky perhaps. The ‘Cultural Revolution’ had clear echoes of Stalinism, as it involved attacks on any form of opposition to Mao, especially focusing on landowners and ‘intellectuals’. In reality, this was all an attempt to expose and remove any officials who questioned Mao’s methods or showed any support for the Soviet model of Communism. It set back any hope of political and economic progress in China by a generation.

In echoes of Stalin’s use of propaganda, this most dark episode had to be ‘sold’ as a triumph and there was a widespread use of posters, songs and badges carrying Mao’s image. Here is a translation of one song from those days but you will have to work out any tune for yourselves:

Ten hundred million people unite in fighting; our red state power stands firm.

A new generation is growing to maturity,

Going against the wind and breaking the waves, they are the heroes.

The industries learn from Daqing,

And the agricultural sector learns from Dazhai.

News of victory is reported all around the country.

Seven hundred million people follow Chairman Mao,

To continue revolution and walk forward.

 

The Cultural Revolution is good!

The Cultural Revolution is good!

The Proletarian Cultural Revolution is indeed good,

Oh, indeed good, indeed good and indeed, indeed good!

 

There were so many horror stories from these days that they are impossible to list. Anyone who was wealthy could see their house taken from them and the whole family forced to live in one room. Red Guards could enter a house and simply destroy anything they chose to see as a sign of being one of the ‘bourgeoisie’, such as a painting, a chair or having meat in the house when others didn’t. Wearing western clothes or having a foreign book or music in your house could bring the most severe punishment. To forget a saying from the ‘Little Red Book’ could bring a beating or imprisonment, as well as the loss of a job. Certain foreign nationals faced particular dangers, such as the Tibetans, a situation which has echoes today in the plight of that nation. The children of the rich were sometimes simply murdered for their privileged background, the bodies being thrown onto rubbish tips. And while all this was happening, rather like in the French revolution, no one was able to question what was happening for fear of their own death.

The Cultural Revolution resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 million people between 1966 and 1976. It’s the sort of number that doesn’t sound too bad if you say it quickly but that is pretty much the same as the deaths in the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 and the equivalent of, say, twice the population of modern Berlin, although all such comparisons are pretty meaningless in the end; it is a number beyond comprehension for most of us. At the forefront of the atrocities carried out were the ‘Red Guard’, usually young, zealous, fanatical members of the Party. The horrors of those tragic days also had echoes of the Holocaust as party officials competed with each other by identifying and removing more ‘enemies’, so showing their ‘greater’ loyalty to Mao. In the cities, party officials were forced into humiliating public admissions of guilt; in the countryside it was reported that wearing glasses was enough to mark someone as an intellectual. Everywhere, the bodies piled higher as a sign of the purification of the country. Despite these horrors, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ did not mark the darkest days of Mao’s regime, though, thanks to the earlier tragedy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’.

Mao Zedong died in 1976. He was 82 years old and had ruled China for 27 years. As he got older, he was increasingly paranoid so that he rarely washed and refused to clean his teeth for many years, fearing this would be a way in which he might be poisoned. His private life became increasingly secretive and, according to his personal doctor, morally corrupt. He used heavy barbiturates but generally enjoyed reasonable health until his death. Of the many words he said and wrote, his final ones were, apparently, ‘I feel ill; get the doctors’, something he denied to many millions.

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On Mao’s death, there was an enormous outpouring of grief in a manner which was very similar to that for Joseph Stalin, as the photo shows. The people lined up in their thousands to pay their respects and his body is still preserved and honoured; his mausoleum stands at the east of Tienanmen  Square and is a popular place for both tourists and local people to visit. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘The Little Red Book’ might have claimed to offer wisdom and guidance for a new world and a ‘heaven on earth’, but one hell of a lot of it was written in blood. His final ‘death toll’ was put at more than 70 million, a number well in excess of either Hitler or Stalin, and he has to stand alongside them when it comes to any contest for the title of ‘Most Evil Man of the Twentieth Century’.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book’ (www.bnpublishing.com); ‘Private Life of Chairman Mao’ by Zhisui Li (Arrow, 1996); ‘Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962’ by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011); ‘The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1957′ by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013); ‘Tombstone: the Untold Story of Mao’s Great famine’  by Yang Jisheng (Allen lane, 2012); ‘The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Richard Curt Kraus (OUP); ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang (HarperPress, 2012) and ‘Friends and Enemies: Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party in China’ by Kerry Brown (Anthem Press, 2009)

TV/DVD: ‘The Cold War’ (CNN), especially episode 15, ‘China, 1949-76′ although interesting background can be found throughout.

 

 

 

 

 

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

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Lenin, Engels and Marx. (Original author: unknown; Source: here)

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Well, here’s a happy topic and one which you have been looking forward to, no doubt, with some eager anticipation: Communism. This was a political ideology that a lot of people around the world used to believe in when there were political ideologies to believe in. Some countries are still called ‘Communist’ but it has fallen away so quickly since 1990 that it is becoming difficult for many people to remember just what Communism was all about. And it is almost impossible to recall just how frightening and threatening the Communist system was to those of us growing up in the Western world, the world of capitalism and democracy, a world fighting an epic battle for ‘good’ against ‘evil’. People recall things like, ‘They built a wall, didn’t they?’, but the general view is that ‘It failed, so it can’t have been much good’. But what was Communism all about? Why did people believe in it? Why was it so frightening? And why did it ‘fail’? So here begins a quick look at the most famous left-wing policy of them all.

‘Communism’ as a word that looks very like ‘commune’, ‘common’ and ‘community’, which is just as it should be for its focus is on the community over the individual. There is nothing unusual in stressing the importance of community in human history, of course, for every family, tribe and settlement has been a reflection of the human need to belong to a group. No child can survive without someone to care for them. Few, if any, individuals have all of the knowledge and skills needed to survive completely in isolation. It is natural for people to give to a group in some way and to receive from it. So where did this ‘frightening’ ideology come from if it was in some ways an expression of something so natural?

‘Communism’, or ‘Marxism’ as it is often known,as a political system is the name for the extreme left-wing ideology originally developed by two Germans, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), in the middle of the nineteenth century. You will almost certainly have heard of Marx, a German philosopher, journalist, historian and revolutionary, although you might not be aware of Engels, his main supporter and collaborator. In simple terms, Marx did the writing and the thinking while Engels provided the money and other support to allow him to work. Before we look in more detail at these two fascinating characters, we should have a photo of the memorial to them in Berlin which reminds us of just what fine facial hair these two revolutionaries developed. They are a serious contrast to the modern, image obsessed politicians who lead most modern governments.

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A close-up of the statue of Marx and Engels in Schlossplatz, Berlin. (Author: Manfred Brückels; Source: here)

There was some graffiti painted onto this statue after the collapse of Communism in East Germany in 1989: ‘It was not our fault!’ This was a very reasonable point, really, as what came to be called ‘Communism’ was rather different from what Marx and Engels intended. The truth is that the system which we know as ‘Communism’, the system of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, of the USSR, China and North Korea, the ideology that so threatened the West in the Cold War era, was a long way from being that envisioned by Marx and Engels. There was definitely a breakdown between the ‘planners’ and the ‘producers’ when it comes to communism. There was actually a rather heated debate in Berlin about whether or not this monument to the ‘founders’ of Communism should be kept or removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it was surely both a good and a necessary thing that it has remained in place as it would have been too easy for people to deny or ignore the past. In a world lacking ideology and integrity in the political world, the statue is a reminder that people have thought differently in the past – even if their ideas have not been successful or accepted. If success were the only criteria, it might be logical that all religious iconography in Western Europe would be torn down for a start – and as for the split between the original visions of the religious founders and the modern expressions of their ideas…well, that is a whole other story.

So, back to our finely bearded protagonists, especially Karl Mark. Marx was a German, born in 1818 in the town of Trier, near the border with Luxembourg and France. He was from a Jewish background being the son of a rabbi in a family of rabbis. His family can be described as upper-middle class family and he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Marx went to the University of Bonn before moving on to the University of Berlin where he came under the influence of the ideas of Georg Hegel. Hegel had said, ‘Philosophy is its own time raised to the level of thought’ (in ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’), a phrase open to much debate but one which the young Marx and others took as a call to action that challenged the established order in Germany. Hegel believed that the only way to understand things in the present was to see them as a part of some unrelenting or irresistible march of freedom, truth and reason. This idea suggested that human freedom would come about as a result of this ‘progress’. Alongside this ideology, the rejection of religion as a valid means of understanding or addressing life and real issues was a key theme, centred on the work of another philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Marx’s radical ideas did not go down well in the university and he was blocked by the authorities from continuing his academic career and so he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist. In Paris, Marx met up with many German thinkers and activists who had left their country to escape the oppression of living under a dictatorship. In France just half-a-century after the French Revolution, his radical ideas were considered more ‘normal’ than in Prussia. Marx saw a more aggressive and, for him, advanced working class challenging the control and oppression that they suffered at the hands of the powers in the state, such as the politicians, church authorities and business leaders. He studied History and Social Sciences, both in Paris and, later, in Brussels, developing his observation that the more workers contributed to the capitalist system, the more they were alienated from the final outcomes, namely, the rewards, the profits. The workers might create great things through their skills and labour but they never had the chance to own them or to share fully in the profits; these belonged to the oppressive ‘bosses’ of society, the owners, the authorities. This sense of injustice and inequality in the means of wealth production became the heart of his idea of a ‘class struggle’; the alienation of workers seen in the control and exploitation of the proletariat by the landowners, nobility and the bourgeoisie under capitalism was to become the background for revolution.

By the time he met Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels had already spent some time in England, much of it in England. With its many cotton mills, Manchester stood at the heart of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and, therefore, represented an expression of capitalism in its fullness. Industry had transformed the British landscape and society and, through its huge and growing Empire, it was shaping change across the globe. The population of Britain was growing and moving from the countryside to the towns; mechanisation was revolutionising employment; fortunes were being made but many of the people were being thrust into poverty. The experiences of Britain were being echoed in the rapid changes of European economies, too. Engels was actually from a reasonably wealthy family that was involved in mills and textile production, one of the bosses or ‘exploiters’. It is interesting to note that it was only through the money he made as a boss that Engels was able to support Marx in his revolutionary work. He is far less famous than Marx, so a proper picture might help at this point, especially as it gives another chance to admire his beard, an absolute gem of its kind. Actually, let’s put Marx in as well as they were such a team. You could lose a couple of small squirrels in their facial growth and they wouldn’t feel a thing.

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Karl Marx (Author: unknown; Source: here) Friedrich Engels (Author; unknown: Source: here)

The reason why Engels knew England so well was that, in the early 1840s, he had been sent to Manchester to help run his father’s cotton mill. While he was there he became interested in the condition of the workers, believing they struggled under inhumane conditions. His studies led to the publication of an important book, which was ignored by most people at the time. This was, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845). It’s interesting to compare Engels’ findings with those of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree some fifty years later because it shows how so much in life is about having the right message for the right audience at the right time. Engels’ message was a clear warning of what Booth and Rowntree later identified but for some reason his work had little impact at the time; it’s really not the validity of what you have to say so much as the willingness of the audience to hear it which matters in so many areas of life.

Anyway, Engels was horrified by the terrible living conditions he found in places like Saint Helens, Oldham and Manchester itself. The depth and the extent of poverty amongst the workers was frightening, their poor health was a great concern and, most of all, the injustice was intolerable in his eyes. The gap between rich and poor was stark and growing greater each day as privileged employers exploited the workers for profit. Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844 and they struck up an immediate friendship based on their sense of injustice about the impact of industrial change with Marx coming at it from a philosophical angle, Engels from his practical experience. At about the same time, Marx also made contact with the ‘Communist League’ which had developed from ‘The League of the Just’, an organisation set up by German workers who had emigrated from their homeland in the previous decade. While in Brussels in 1847, Marx joined Engels in attending a conference of the ‘Communist League’. The speech that he gave there was an expression of their ideas as formed over the previous years and it was published the following year as the ‘Communist Manifesto’, one of the most famous documents of the century.

Although Marx was the thinker and visionary, Engels played a crucial role in bringing the ‘Manifesto’ into existence. He supported Marx financially during these years, giving him the royalties from his book as a way of supporting his friend while he developed his philosophy. Engels’ support enabled Marx to commit himself entirely to his reflections as it allowed him to read, write and travel free from any financial pressure. The publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ was actually a development of a piece of Engels’ own work which was called ‘The Principles of Communism’. Marx took this and developed it into the manifesto itself, foreseeing a class struggle which would end with ‘World Revolution’ and the overthrow of the oppressive business owners and landowners, the so-called bourgeoisie. The ‘Workers’ or the ‘Proletariat’, would rise up and establish a new system where everything was shared in common; there would be a classless society of total equality. This utopian ideal was rooted in the injustice Engels had seen and smelt in the slums of northern England; its goal was justice, fairness, equality and opportunity for all at the expense of the privileged few. Apart from the expected violence which would be necessary in the initial stages of the revolution, the vision was almost religious in its aims and values.

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‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, February, 1848. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

‘The Communist Manifesto’ was published in February, 1848, just as Europe was on the verge of one of the most traumatic years in its history. The pamphlet seemed to be truly of its time because risings of workers in 1848 threatened every major European country except Britain – and, even there, tensions rose with the revolutionary demands of the Chartists. It was known as the ‘Year of Revolution’ as France, Spain Austria and Germany all experienced major political change and radical social upheaval loomed large in the political consciousness. Having spoken of risings of the workers, it all seemed set to come true and Marx and Engels were among those happy to see the uprisings which threatened to tear the continent apart during the summer of 1848. Their ideas expressed a new vision which came to inspire many intellectuals and idealists, as well as the lower classes, but made enemies of the established ‘powers’, the politicians, the monarchs, the churches and the business leaders. In the face of these troubles in Europe, and the inflammatory nature of their words, both Marx and Engels were expelled from Belgium.

Without going into great detail about the ‘Communist Manifesto’ itself, it might be interesting to see a summary of the demands of the Communist Party in Germany from this period. They indicate something of the goals of the party if not their strategies or arguments. Not all of these arguments seem very frightening today but in the mid-19th century, they terrified many leading figures in politics, society and the churches.

Demands of the Communist Party in Germany
  1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single indivisible republic.
  2. Representatives of the people (MP’s) shall be paid so that workers also can sit in the parliament of the German people.
  3. Universal arming of the people.
  4. The estates of the princes and other feudal estates, all mines, pits, etc., shall be transformed into state property. On these estates, agriculture is to be conducted on a very large scale and with the most modern scientific means for the benefit of all society.
  5. Mortgages on peasant holdings shall be declared state property; interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.
  6. In the districts where tenant farming is developed, land rent or farming dues shall be paid to the state as a tax.
  7. All means of transport: railway, canals, steamships, roads, post, etc., shall be taken over by the state. They are to be converted into state property and put at the disposal of the non-possessing class free of charge.
  8. Limitation of the right of inheritance.
  9. Introduction of a steeply graded progressive taxation and abolition of taxes on consumer goods.
  10. Establishment of national workshops. The state shall guarantee a living to all workers and provide for those unable to work.
  11. Universal free elementary education.

Having been forced from Belgium, Marx and Engels made their way to London, where Marx himself would settle for the rest of his life. London was a very tolerant and open society for revolutionaries in those days, and many outsiders from Europe found their way there. Marx eventually died in 1883 and is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery alongside some other famous names including Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti and Douglas Adams. Key places linked with him in London include: the Reading Room at the British Museum where he wrote his famous work, ‘Das Kapital’; Covent Garden where meetings of the First International took place; and Hampstead Heath where he used to enjoy trips out with his family on Sundays. While Marx was in England, he was protected by the British Government of the time on the grounds of allowing people to express their ideas, which is an interesting situation as he was effectively considered to be a terrorist by some states. Britain’s interest was always in its Empire and helping rebels who annoyed the European powers was almost a pleasure for the Government at the time. Marx was not allowed back to Germany but Engels did return there to  work for his father but regularly visited London and he continued to support Marx financially.

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Marx’s Grave in Highgate Cemetery: ‘Workers of all lands unite’. (Author: here; Source: here)

After Marx’s death, Engels publicised his work, writing commentaries and making it more suitable for publication. Neither lived to see the ‘Communist Revolution’ and they would have been shocked to see what happened in Russia and the world in the years after 1917. They had fully expected revolution to happen in an advanced industrial country, such as Britain or Germany, where the exploitation of the masses created the conditions for a true uprising. They had thought that revolution had come in 1848 when Europe was thrown into turmoil, and were dismayed that the moment passed without the sweeping changes they expected. They both died having changed politics and philosophy but without seeing the fulfilment of their dream – and they would almost certainly have had some questions for Lenin and others in terms of what was done in their name in the Twentieth Century.

Obviously Marx and Engels were revolutionaries who wanted the overthrow of oppressive powers in society but would they have recognised or approved of what came to be known as ‘Communism’? Would they have been admirers of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro? Was the Communism of the USSR and China, North Korea and Cuba, what Marx had in mind? Did these systems address the issues as Engels saw them? It seems highly unlikely that they would have been in total agreement with the reality of ‘communism’, but that’s what tends to happen when other people get hold of your ideas in a different place and at a different time. It’s a bit like writing a song, releasing it yourself to no particular acclaim and then discovering that it’s been covered by Chris de Burgh, Lady Gaga and Primal Scream; the words might be the same but you never thought it would come out quite like that. You get the idea, anyway.

So, what was ‘Communism’ supposed to be? What was it supposed to change? In the ideological world, ‘Pure Communism’ was to mean a number of things: there would be no private ownership of property or business; people would work according to their skills and be paid according to their needs; people would live in the same accommodation as each other and there would be no classes; there would  be no nations due to people being united by their bond as ‘workers’ rather than any idea of nationality; there would be no need for democracy and elections as there would be unity amongst the people, a shared vision and absolute freedom as all would be united in one community. The words of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon come to mind in some ways.

One particular area of controversy was Communism’s approach to religion and the churches. For Marx and Engels, there would be no organised religion as this was a tool by which the powerful in society controlled the people, allowing them to believe that troubles here on earth might bring pain but they would eventually be compensated by the glories of heaven. The churches, therefore, preached a message of cooperation with the authorities which allowed exploitation and oppression to be maintained. In return, the leaders of the churches were allowed privileges alongside the highest in the land as long as they ensured the people were loyal, committed and passive; in the mean time, the powerful could enjoy their rewards here and now. Marx’s view on religion was expressed in one of his most famous quotes but one which is usually misquoted: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. Just so you know it but don’t show yourselves up by misquoting it, here it is in full:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’

It should be noted that this is not quite as negative about religion as it might sound. It speaks of religion as the ‘heart’ of a ‘heartless world’. At the time, opium or heroin was commonly used as a pain-killer so Marx was saying that organised religion acted as an anaesthetic against the pains of everyday life for the poor. The real evil for Marx lies in the system, capitalism, and not with religion which seeks to help alleviate the suffering of so many oppressed by that system. The religious authorities, though, collaborated with the economic and political powers, emphasising the glories of the next world over the need for justice in this one, and so allowed religion to support the oppression of the workers. In this, Marx would probably have been concerned by the aggressive actions of Lenin, Stalin and others in seeking to destroy the churches. Khrushchev’s decision, for example, to take his first wife’s coffin over a wall rather than have her carried through a Russian Orthodox Church on the way to her grave would have struck Marx as foolish, unnecessary and misguided.

It is obvious to see why Communism made enemies and, in the end, failed. Taking the second point first, Communism failed because most people are, to a greater or lesser extent, selfish. As long as you care more about people you know than people you don’t know, Communism cannot work as people do not see everyone in the world as equally important or as their ‘brother and sister’. Full unity is not possible when family ties, nationality, race, culture, language, gender, age and a dozen other factors can cause divisions that are anything from a hindrance to an insurmountable obstacle. Marx never really took full account of the individual in his system; the dream of being special is there in most people, and being or feeling at least slightly different, slightly better, slightly wealthier, slightly better dressed and slightly happier than others means that true equality does not appeal to many people, if any.

Of equal importance in the failings of Communism was that fact that its enemies were many and they were powerful. It’s easy to see who they were and why they were unhappy. They were the established authorities who had status, power and influence in social, economic, political and religious terms. Communism did not choose its enemies wisely, raising anxiety amongst landowners and business leaders, monarchs and the nobility, church leaders and politicians. And alongside these groups were many individuals who aspired to belong to those groups, living by values which were in direct contrast with those of Communism. It is possible to see Marx and Engels as incredibly naïve, rooting their theory in the idea of unity amongst peoples who would define themselves as ‘workers’, embracing unknown ‘others’ against those with whom they already had some bond: language, religion, race, culture, family, friendship. And the idea that such a unity might exist for ever after the removal of the common enemy, the oppressive leaders of society and industry, was equally extreme.

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The response shown by so many people at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a rare example of an outpouring of emotion for someone few people actually knew – but it was an emotion not shared by everyone. (Author: Maxwell Hamilton; Source: here)

The fatal flaw in Communism, therefore, was its failure to grasp what motivated real people. As mentioned above, people usually care more about people they know rather than people they don’t know. They tend to be selfish and look for their own survival (individually and as a group) which is why ‘true’ martyrs are so rare, those who will die for an idea or to save someone they do not know at all. People are more than theories and ideals; most need something real and practical too. The highly committed believers may meet, debate, argue and really live out their ideology but most people see them as ‘fanatics’, and get on with their own lives: work, home, food, leisure, competition, savings, dreams and so on tend to dominate life for ordinary people. When fanatics take over, be they religious, political or whatever, then ordinary people tend to get bored, confused, angry and demoralised. One only has to see what happens when the ‘World Cup’ comes along every four years. The committed football fan gets excited; the majority at best tolerate it, maybe watching the odd game, during which they will probably annoy the true fan by asking questions that are either distracting, simplistic or irritating: Which team’s in blue? Why do they kick each other? Just what does ‘off-side’ mean? They are not as bothered or as obsessed as the true fanatic. Marx, Lenin and others never grasped this fundamental issue and the failure to convince ordinary people of the nature and benefits of ‘true’ Communism was a key to its eventual demise.

Despite these problems, Communism can and does exist but only rarely and on a small scale. It can be seen in highly motivated, ideological communities, two examples being some religious communities (monasteries) and on a kibbutz. Looking at a monastery, those who enter do so of their own choice and make a life-long commitment, although that can be broken. They take various vows: poverty means not seeking or receiving particular rewards for your work, which brings a clear form of equality; obedience means that your own ideas and values are not imposed on others or used to argue with others, as you accept your role within the running of the larger community, another form of equality; a vow of chastity is often taken, not just an issue around marriage or sex, but a commitment of equality in friendship and belonging with all in the community. The leader of the community is chosen by the community itself, serving the whole group in a way that protects them and leaves them free to do what they need to do. The leader serves for a set period of time before returning to the ranks as an ordinary member of the community. Communism is possible and has worked in the past but it is rare, not for all and requires certain conditions to be met. It demands total commitment and belief in the system and the values it proclaims. It must also be freely chosen and not imposed on the unwilling. Many people are religious and have enough belief to go to a church, mosque or temple regularly; but the majority are not motivated to give their lives over to it. In the same way, Communism appealed to a core group ideologically, made sense to some in particular circumstances but never appealed to the majority as a way of life. It does not mean the ideology itself was ‘bad’, it just never had enough rewards or made enough sense to people who had other values.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not ‘bad’ men, as some people try to portray them. In many ways they were visionaries who expected change in the name of justice and equality for all. It’s not that they were wrong, it’s just that too many key people thought they were wrong; they ignored certain things about ordinary people and made enemies of too many powerful people because that ‘justice and equality for all’ thing’ is just a bit too much to take. In many ways, their are many people suffering because of capitalism today who probably wish their full vision had come to dominate the world. Exploitation and oppression remain but, with rampant individualism and consumerism in the ascendancy, communism is unlikely to be anything other than a footnote in history for some time to come.