- Mao: The Real Story by Alexander V. Pantsov
The subtitle of this new biography of Mao Zedong, the long-time leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine—“the real story”—implicitly challenges an earlier biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Knopf, 2005). Chang and Halliday met with criticism in some scholarly circles for making far-fetched claims about Mao—in effect, for demonizing him. Pantsov and Levine, by contrast, are clear from the start that, in their eyes, “Mao was neither a saint not a demon, but rather a complicated figure” (pp. 5–6). This “balanced” assessment of Mao highlights his achievements of having unified China and having liberated it from the shackles of imperialism (the authors’ terms) while criticizing his “criminal” behavior in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The authors discuss Mao’s cunning and his political talents in the struggle for power, but they also emphasize his ideological delusions and genuine belief in the potential of a revolutionary transformation of China.
The book’s major claim to novelty is the use of Russian archival sources, especially materials from the Russian State Archive of Social-Political History, which holds the records of the Communist International (Comintern). One of the authors, Pantsov, is chiefly known to Western audiences as a historian of relations between Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s and the 1930s, and the present biography is perhaps at its strongest in dealing with that earlier period of Mao’s rise to power. It is here that Pantsov and Levine are most persuasive, their evidence is most compelling, and their narrative is at its most gripping. This part is also the most detailed. By comparison, the post-1949 years come across as an afterthought.
Perhaps the most important argument advanced by Pantsov and Levine is that Mao consistently received backing from the Comintern and from the Soviet Union, and that this support proved crucial to his political survival amid the treacherous tides of the late 1920s and the 1930s. The authors discredit the Chinese leader’s later claim that the Soviet leader Iosif Stalin continually undercut his position by supporting Mao’s rivals in the CCP leadership. Pantsov and Levine show how Mao, for his part, professed firm commitment to Stalin and Stalinism—a very different picture from the one that casts Mao in the role of a rebellious revolutionary who bravely opposed Moscow’s diktat. Opposing Moscow, Pantsov and Levine argue, was, in any case, a non-starter, given the CCP’s complete reliance on covert Soviet cash infusions. [End Page 158]
Pantsov and Levine do not do as well with the post-1949 years. Their analysis often comes across as simplistic and one-sided, and their evidence is often uncertain and inadequate, primarily because the Comintern materials go up to only 1943 (when Stalin disbanded the organization). To give one example, the authors argue that Stalin’s insistence on the establishment of New Democracy in China (a broad coalition government of an anti-imperialist but not a Communist orientation) was a well-thought-out ploy to paralyze the Kuomintang and gradually take it over from within while trying to fool Washington that the Chinese Communists were not actually Communists. This was the reason, according to Pantsov and Levine, that Stalin consistently refused to receive Mao in Moscow—he did not want U.S. officials to think that Mao was a Soviet agent! Mao, the authors assert, cooperated with Stalin’s trickery by fooling the U.S. “Dixie mission” and otherwise downplaying his Communist credentials in 1944–1946. The authors provide no credible evidence to back up these claims.
The book’s coverage of Mao’s visit to Moscow in December 1949–February 1950 falls far short of the existing historiography, not least Dieter Heinzig’s seminal The Soviet Union and Communist China, 1945–1950: The Arduous Road to the Alliance (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004) and does not take advantage of the...