Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, October 27, 2006

Last night I went to the Bookworm to hear Sidney Rittenberg. Predictably the place was packed to the gills. I had wanted to get there earlier, but I had a class that ended at 6pm. I did manage to get into the room, but I had to stand.

Of all the foreigners who came to China to help the revolution during the earlier days (such as Israel Epstein, Sidney Shapiro, Anna Loiuse Strong, Agnes Smedley, George Hatem, Rewi Alley and others), I think Rittenberg was probably the craziest, and he spent more time in prison than the rest of them put together. Most of them are gone now. Israel Epstein died in 2005, and Rittenberg himself is 85. But as radical as he was during the Cultural Revolution, he is a very bright, conversational individual with a warm smile and firm handshake.

He did talk a bit about the two times he was incarcerated. The first incarceration was ordered by Stalin, who sent a message to Mao, because he believed that Rittenberg was a spy. Rittenberg did not mention Anna Louise Strong, but it was his association with her that got him in trouble. Stalin thought she was a spy (she wasn't), and concluded that Rittenberg must be, too. He was in prison for six years, and then released when Stalin died. Both Mao and Zhou En-lai apologized to him personally and apologized publicly. But during the Cultural Revolution, he got involved whole-heartedly, and led struggles at China Radio. This led to his second incarceration, for ten years.

I asked Mr. Rittenberg if he felt that Mao had a "lust for power," as has been described in the recent book by Jung Chang. He doesn't like that book, which is understandable, because it is very, very negative, and there are lots of problems with the documentation. He said that he didn't think Mao cared about power, he was just interested in working his program.

In the three years I have been in China, I have been surprised how many seemingly bright, educated people have tried to insist that what is happening in China today is merely a modification of Marxism, when in fact, it is clearly an overwhelming repudiation of Marxism. When I put this question to Rittenberg, he seemed to be talking along the same line. This is a puzzling to me. Of course, it should be said that most of the laowai who came to China during the early revolutionary period were not really economists. They did not join the revolution out of a firm commitment to Marxist economic policy. Still, they were mostly very bright, intelligent, well educated people. I just don't see how you can reconcile what is going on in China today with classic Marxism. Or Maoism, for that matter. It was Mao who said, "If our children's generation goes in for revisionism, so that although they still nominally have socialism, it is in fact capitalism, then our grandsons will certainly rise up in revolt and overthrow their fathers." Some of the old timers didn't live long enough to see this radical change happen. But Sidney Shapiro is still living, and, of course, Rittenberg himself. Rittenberg is honest about some of Mao's cruelty. But I can't help feeling that this is largely because he couldn't possibly deny it. There is something about Mao that inspired deep loyalty, even among those like Rittenberg who were victims of his cruelty.

Rittenberg is currently writing a book about how he endured solitary confinement. He said that during his second incarceration, he had the opportunity to read the two volumes of Hegel's Logic, "and it isn't any easier to understand in Chinese than it is in English." I would, of course, be very interested in reading that book. But I could also wish that I could talk with Rittenberg and others about the phenomenon mentioned earlier. That is, that people who revere Mao insist that what is happening in China today is something Mao would be pleased with. They are, in essence, giving him credit for the development of an economic system that is, in fact, the antithesis of what he proposed. I need to think about this some more. It really is puzzling.

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