Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Mao Tse-Tung

In The Sunday Times last week, I remarked of Jean-Luc Godard's politics that they were "disgusting" because he supported Mao Tse-Tung, a man we now know to have been directly responsible for the deaths of 70 million Chinese. A friend, Chris, raises the following point:
"I would debate the idea that espousing Maoism in the late 60's is/was morally disgusting... such commitments were made in ignorance of what was taking place in both China and the USSR. Socialism or Communism was imagined to be doing good: that's different from fascist or Nazi fellow travellers who agreed that racism, to take one example, was a good thing."
This has been bugging me. I could say that a) by 1968, the year in question, we did know what had been going on in the Soviet Union and b)I'm pretty sure I also knew something of what had been going on in China. Or I could say that people who did support Mao in ignorance should now have the humility to apologise and be ashamed - I don't think Godard or, indeed, Tony Benn have shown any such inclination.
But I am most exercised by the distinction Chris makes between being a naive communist and a knowing Nazi - communists seemed to mean well so could legitimately be supported, whereas Nazis were explicitly racist and, therefore, could not.
I don't buy this for a number of reasons. One obvious one is that any intelligent awareness of what the communists were explicitly doing would indicate that their methods must necessarily be coercive and violently so. Nevertheless, Chris's point is important. I suspect it is what continues to make images of Mao acceptable - even rather fun - whereas images of Hitler are not. Not long ago I saw little ceramic busts of Mao being sold in the Conran Shop and, among many other things, you can buy Mao watches. These appear to celebrate the single most disastrous episode in human history and the vilest mass murderer ever to walk the earth. Odd isn't it?


  1. Odder still perhaps that hundreds of lesser filmmakers (well, they're all lesser than JLG) openly support liberal democracy despite the millions upon millions it has killed since Mao died, and continues to kill. Apology isn't even on the agenda.

  2. I think you somewhat misrepresnt my point when you allude to 'naive communists and knowing Nazis': my point is about different ideological and moral values. We do need to understand why Communist values had such dire results. There is no mystery about why fascist regimes ended up with extermination programmes. However for Godard to be 'disgusting' etc - you need to show that he believed: Mao is responsible for mass murder, for THIS reason I revere and admire him. I don't think this is very likely!

  3. Incredible to me how anyone could be under any illusions about the reality of Mao or the Soviet Union at any stage. Stalin attracts everyone's condemnation but even still Lenin escapes largely unblemished. The reality as Dostoevsky so brilliantly predicted in Demons as elsewhere back around 1870, that these people ie the social revolutionaries, had no love in them and contrarily were murderers at heart, possessed of the Unclean Spirit as Dostoevsky might have said. And the Communist Revolution, lauded by the likes of the misanthropic mediocrity Sartre, began with tyranny and mass murder and continued with tyranny and mass murder. Someone like Aldous Huxley in the 1930s could see very clearly the nature of these "demons" and only a dreadful lacking in awareness could have lead anyone to be duped by Mao, Lenin or whoever. I have to say though that Godard's blind spot in this regard doesn't surprise me in any way as I think Bryan, you accurately mentioned an autism in your article regarding some of his camerawork. While works like Weekend and Le Mepris while perhaps very startling and revolutionary, I feel there is a deep coldness generally present.
    And possibly without justification I must contrast with Andrei Tarkovsky, thru whose works the intensest human compassion and genius shines.

  4. Ah Dostoevsky again... That rabid anti Semite and reactionary. Why on earth is the Devils endlessly trotted out by the right?

    And Tarkovsky: how do we deal with the fact that his very greatest films were made under the Soviet system: his worst when he fled to the West?

    Now I am certainly not defending either the USSR or China under Mao - or under Chiang Kai Shek for that matter. Or Russia under the Tsars or V Putin...

    You haven't addressed by point. Insulting Godard, who I don't know personally, as autistsic and disgusting is essentially foolish.


  5. Chris, it appears too many people seem to imagine if you're not pro- the Left then you must be pro the Right. Recognising the leaders of the USSR as a pretty evil crowd, for example I have an adopted sister who will never walk as the result of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan there, does not mean I am under any illusions about US regimes.
    Trotting out Dostoevsky who was pretty much proven to be spot on regarding the Lenins of his day doesn't mean one is of the Right. And as for calling the author of truly revolutionary works, (in the sense of awareness of modern consciousness) such as Notes From the Underground, a reactionary seems ludicrous. What it amounts to is he wasn't duped into believing in Happiness thru Violent Revolution. Means deternine ends obvously enough- If I mix yellow and red, I'm not going to get blue no matter how fervently I wish it.
    You seem to have been quite liberal in regarding the impressions one may get from watching Godard's films as amounting to calling him disgusting and autistic. If I feel a lack of emotion or warmth in his work it would be foolish of me to pretend that I don't.

  6. Dostoevsky is magnificent of course - but I seriously question the way the Devils is trotted out to explain the course of Communist regimes in the 20th Century.

    Far better to turn to Lenin and get from the horse's mouth as it were the fundamental problem: the inscription of violence and dictatorship into the revolutionary programme.

    I would reiterate points that our blog host negelected to include in his account of my response to his Godard piece. (In fact I thoroughly disliked Sympathy for the Devil when I watched the Sunday Times DVD! I would find it hard to live without Pierrot le Fou and Le Petit Soldat but not this one).

    Fascism has a different moral programme from Communism.

    Western liberal capitalist democracy does not have a bloodless record: is the World Bank evil. I think so...

  7. Sorry for the late comment on this article. I just saw it after a web search for Godard...

    Godard was guilty of supporting Mao’s reactionary and murderous attempt to stamp out those who questioned the massive failures of militant Socialism during the Great Leap Forward, which took place years before Godard’s Maoist Activism.

    Furthermore, the totalitarian character of Mao was readily apparent to the world and Godard was aware of it. China under Mao was a dictatorship. Mao’s failure during the Great Leap Forward caused him to temporarily cede some of his power.

    The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s successful attempt to reassert his power and physically destroy his opposition. False confessions, executions and the oppression of political opponents were tactics used under his leadership ever since he gained power. During the Cultural Revolution these tactics were intensified in a reign of terror.

    During the Night of the Long Knives the Nazi’s committed a similar crime on a much smaller scale than the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guard was just as much an instrument of hate as the Nazi Party was. They both discriminated against other people and agitated extermination programs against them.

    Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, intellectuals, landowners and non-Communists were targeted for liquidation by the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution. They made no secret of this. Up to 38 million people were killed by Mao…

    Godard chose to ignore the crimes of the Maoist regime while promoting its ideology and for that history condemns him.