Mao was cruel – but also laid the ground for today’s China | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited
Few western critics today appreciate the scale of the task confronting any moderniser of China in 1949. Western economies created the surpluses to finance industrialisation through incredible exploitation – of their own working class, and in the US via slavery. It was never likely that China could achieve self-sustaining economic growth without great collective pain to achieve its own surpluses, or that this could be done without the involvement of the state. Spontaneous market-led industrialisation is a myth.
This is certainly how Mao saw the task, with egalitarianism and collectivism the means. The German sociologist Max Weber, in a famous essay, argued that statesmen facing these kinds of challenges – of winning a war or of master-minding economic development – have to be judged by different moral criteria. Their decisions are means to achieve this ultimate end, and their choices have to be judged by this criteria rather than their inherent moral worth. Truman, for example, justified dropping the atom bomb on the Japanese because of the value of the ultimate end. Mao would justify his radical egalitarianism in the same way. We know that he was wrong. He, authentically and passionately, did not.
Yet that is insufficient excuse. The superiority of liberal democracy over communism is that when politicians take ultimate-end decisions they know they will have to justify them before a wide and critical audience – which means they must have very good arguments to justify them. Truman’s nuking of Japan is still questioned, tribute to the vigour of democracy. Mao only had to justify his decision to himself, or arrest or kill his critics. Even today’s Chinese communists recognise it is an inadequate framework.