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  • Afterword:Conversing with the Good Left about PRC History
  • Jan Kiely (bio)

Something Unusual

This has been an unusual experience. As an outsider to the PRC History Group and an anonymous reviewer, I had not expected to be invited to add this commentary at the last minute. How could I say no? Aminda Smith, Fabio Lanza, and their group's engagement with the criticisms and questions posed to them, their passion for the subject, and their commitment to substantive dialogues with those who think and work differently from themselves are admirable. I am happy to continue the conversation.1

There is much to recommend in these pages that I will assign to my graduate students. This includes useful sections on sources and methodology, especially the innovative sources analyzed by Sigrid Schmalzer and Smith's call to "map the grain" of Maoist sources. The inquiries into the relationship between methods and theoretical frameworks for this period [End Page 895] opens a path well worth pursuing with sustained effort. The self-reflection called for throughout—to ensure the "same level of empirical and epistemological scrutiny," as Smith puts it—is always important for historians. Even if not exhaustive, the range of theoretical genealogies traced offers much to explore and question about the common terms, categories, and assumptions with which we often think and write. I will also assign those sections I do not endorse, for the benefit of alternative perspectives and for the productive reflections stimulated by our differences.

Of course, not all that divides us inspires constructive debates. Let me simply note and set aside several of my less stimulating quibbles. Like Matthew Johnson (this issue), I do not perceive a crisis-level deficiency of understanding of Maoism in the scholarship. Nor do I consider the "demonizing" of Maoism to be dominant in the field tout court. The terms irrational and illogical (Smith foreword, this issue) may be common characterizations of Great Leap Forward economic policy, implementation, and persistence in the face of overwhelming evidence of disaster and of the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but hardly seem widespread, definitive judgments on the entirety of Maoism. The notion that the so-called "garbology" approach associated with Johnson and Jeremy Brown's targeted edited volume, Maoism at the Grassroots (2015), is hegemonic appears peculiar to a North American vantage point or "siloed" presumptions within the subfield. The assertions of these perceived problems contribute, at points, to erecting caricatures of existing scholarship that will be justifiably contested.

What I find more interesting is the fabric of the logics that distinguish this project. Of course, there is a lot going on in these articles, so, against my predilection, I will be reductive. As I read several versions of this project in the making, I thought of the contributors, in Maoist vocabulary, as consisting of a "backbone" core of the PRC History Group—the Good Left—and a few of their "friends." It is to the Good Left, and its proposed diagnosis of the problem in the field and prescription for a cure, that I address my comments, starting with the cure. [End Page 896]

The Passion of the Good Left

To "Good PRC history is Left history" (Smith foreword, this issue), I reply: Left history can be good history if its theorizing and analyses enrich and sharpen our historical understandings and explanations. The Good Left's passion for inhabiting Maoism, seeing it from the inside out, in all its complexity, formation and evolution, fullness and limitation, as vision, theory, propagation, implementation, variant manifestations, lived experiences, reproductions, and imaginations promises much to our collective historical endeavor. Recapturing emancipatory visions and social inspirations surely is central to this. Yet I remain perplexed by the minimizing of scholarship that has made such contributions2 and of commonalities across subfield periodization. There is no acknowledgment, for instance, that the much targeted Elizabeth Perry, in her most recent historical monograph (2012), sought to recover veins of inspiration in an initially nonviolent, moral vision for the oppressed in the CCP revolutionary tradition; see in this issue the views expressed by Smith, Lanza, Jake Werner, and Alexander Day. Their notion of inhabiting also seems particular to Maoism, and not meant...


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