by Stuart Hayashi
Mao Tse-Tung was an evil man, and many people in the West remain ignorant of the extent of his murderous ways. I have heard both Americans and mainland Chinese recite the cliche, “Yes, in his old age Mao went too far. But when he was young and just beginning his governance over China, he brimmed with noble intentions. It is merely that he later lost his way.” Therefore, a few years ago I felt reassured when I heard that some new biographies were coming out that showed that Mao was power-hungry and bloodthirsty from the very beginning.
These more recent biographies do argue that Mao already held malevolent tendencies when he was young and just starting out in politics. Unfortunately, these Mao biographers take a rather questionable route in how they choose to “prove” that Mao was evil from the beginning. These writers do not acknowledge that dictatorship and murder are simply the logical consequences of the collectivist ideals that Mao held in his twenties. Rather, these biographers deny that Mao sincerely believed in any of the collectivist rhetoric that goes along with Marxist dogma. On the contrary, these biographers assert — Mao was, in private, a consistently egoistic individualist who merely lied about having collectivist convictions. The biographers would have their readers think that Mao did not genuinely feel that the height of morality was for the individual to subordinate his own self-interest to the will of society-as-a-whole.
Mao Believes in the Virtue of Selfishness?
As evidence that Mao was ideologically an arch-individualist and egoist, not a collectivist, these biographers cite the man’s early writings. In particular, they refer to notes that Mao wrote in the margins of A System of Ethics by the nineteenth-century German neo-Kantian philosopher Friedrich Paulsen. Mao scrawled these comments from 1917 to 1918, when he was twenty-four years old.
This is the estimation of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in Chapter 2 of Mao: The Unknown Story:
In these notes, Mao expressed the central elements in his own character, whichstayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.[Emphasis added. –S.H.]
Mao’s attitude to morality consisted of one core, the self, “I,” above everything else: “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others . . . . People like me want to…satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.”
Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. “People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.” . . . “…I am responsible to no one.”
Mao did not believe in anything that could not benefit him personally.
Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook.
The topic is treated similarly by Alexander Pantsov and Steven I. Levine in Mao: The Real Story. On pages 40-41, they quote the marginal notes that most strongly evince Mao’s ethical egoism:
Since human beings have an ego, for which the self is the center of all things and all thought, self-interest is primary for all persons. . . . The starting point of altruism is the self, and altruism is related to the self. It is impossible to say that any mind is purely altruistic without any idea of self-interest. Nothing in the world takes the other as its starting point, and the self does not seek to benefit anything in the world that is totally unrelated to the self. . . . In the realm of ethics, I advocate two principles. The first is individualism. Every act in life is for the purpose of fulfilling the individual, and all morality serves to fulfill the individual. Expressing sympathy for others, and seeking the happiness of others, are not for others, but for oneself. …we have a duty only to ourselves, and have no duty to others.
On page 41, Pantsov and Levine take particular offense at these remarks: “Some say that we must believe that the moral law comes from the command of God, for only then can it be carried out and not be despised. This is a slavish mentality. Why should you obey God rather than obey yourself? You are God. Is there any God other than yourself?”
Pantsov and Levine agree with the other biographers that Mao’s margin notes exhibit consistent egoism: “As in Descartes’s formula ‘I think, therefore I am,’ Mao placed his emphasis on the pronoun ‘I.'”
Recall that evaluation of Jung Chang and Halliday: “In these notes, Mao expressed the central elements in his own character, which stayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.” Given that these authors judged the margin notes to be consistent in advocating ethical egoism, the insinuation is clear. As the insinuation goes, Mao did not agree with any of his own lofty rhetoric about subordination of the individual to the collective. Throughout his entire reign as dictator, across each of those decades, Mao secretly thought that the individual’s pursuit of happiness — Mao’s own pursuit of happiness — is of greater moral importance than individual sacrifice to others, particularly society-as-a-whole.
Evidently, these authors presume that if one is to prove that Mao’s quest for political power was evil from the start, it is necessary to convince the reader that Mao always believed that it is ethically right to hold one’s own happiness as one’s highest priority.
If Mao is an ethical egoist, then the wretchedness of his actions can be cited to smear a certain famous advocate of ethical egoism. Disgustingly, a review of the Jung Chang/Halliday book in The Daily Telegraph blathers that Mao’s decisions as head of state were animated by “a sort of Ayn Rand philosophy of selfishness.”
Proof That These Biographies’ Evaluations Are Inaccurate
However, one can read most of these margin notes in Mao’s Road to Power — Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949 volume 1: The Pre-Marxist Period, 1912-1920, edited by Stuart R. Schram.
In this section of the volume, editor Schram divided each page into two columns. In the right column are the passages of Paulsen’s A System of Ethics to which Mao reacted. In the left column, in boldface, are Mao’s comments. Hereon, when I refer to page number, I am referring to the pages of the Schram-edited volume; not the pages of Paulsen’s book, which are naturally numbered differently.
The citation of Mao’s margin notes to prove that Mao’s ethical egoism motivated his actions as dictator, is facile for several reasons. First, the margin notes that Mao made were not always necessarily his own opinions. Rather, much of the time Mao was simply paraphrasing, for his own understanding, the point that Paulsen was trying to make.
Secondly, a reading of the notes reveals that Mao’s own opinions were quite tentatively anyway. Some of his comments even implicitly condemn actions that Mao would later take as Chairman. On page 282, the 24-year-old Mao remarks, “The reason why stealing is not permitted concerns primarily human character, and secondarily happiness. Being a dark, malevolent act, a despicable method, stealing quickly destroys a person’s self-respect.” Clearly Mao would come, as despot, to hold contempt for private property rights.
Thirdly, a fuller reading of the young Mao’s notes reveals that Mao is not making a consistent ethical defense of pursuing one’s self-interest. Rather, he expresses qualified agreement with Friedrich Paulsen’s theory of ethics and politics. Paulsen’s theory on how government first emerged is similar to that of Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, Paulsen assumes that, by default, every person is a psychological egoist. That is, by default everyone wishes to selfishly indulge in every possible whim, including the expropriation and spoliation of other people for one’s own immediate gratification. To indulge in every such whim is what Paulsen and Mao consider to be self-interest taken to its logical extreme. As Paulsen, Mao, and Hobbes realize, if everyone indulged in every whim, violence would ensue and everyone would destroy one another. This would be inimical to everyone’s survival. Therefore, goes the theory, out of self-interest, everyone tacitly agrees — in a Tit-for-Tat manner — that there ought to be a government restraining such violence. According to these people, if you concede that there ought to be a government protecting everyone from random violence, then you acquiesce to restraining some of your self-interest. You agree to a compromise — a balance — between your self-interest and the good of society-as-a-whole. You agree to restrain some of your self-interest, and your deliberate restraint of self-interest is motivated by . . . self-interest(!!!).
Anyhow, Paulsen advocates what he perceives as a middle ground between self-interest and collectivism, and Mao expresses qualified agreement on this issue.
Mao Does Praise Self-Sacrifice
Jung Chang and Halliday would have their readers believe that, in his own private notes to himself, Mao revealed unbridled disdain for the concept of empathy. That is not so. Consider when Paulsen asserts, “It is true that there are persons in the world who are totally devoid of feelings for the interests of others, who are oblivious to the interests of their neighbors, who even take pleasure in the suffering of others.” On page 203, Mao responds, “Except for those who are sick and crazy, there definitely are no such persons. Love of wife and parents is inescapable. Lions and tigers seem to have this; can human beings not have it?” On page 206, Mao continues, “This, the narrowest form of egoism, does not exist in this world.”
Nor does Mao reject self-sacrifice as a moral ideal, as demonstrated in other responses to Paulsen. Paulsen writes that “…Jesus suffered greatly and gave his body in sacrifice, his way [dao –editor Schram] ultimately triumphed and his believers founded the theory of the heavenly mandate of the new kingdom of love.” On page 275, Mao responds, “This truly brings out very well the mentality of all those great men of the past and present who sacrifice themselves for benevolence.” On pages 207-08, Mao comments, “If you want to achieve a certain result, you must engage in an action that implies that result. Thus sacrificing oneself for a good cause is also respected by teleological ethics.”
Elsewhere, Paulsen states, “Sacrificing one’s life to save the lives of others, or for the public interest of one’s nation, these are great and good acts.” Mao says approvingly, “This is in agreement with our Confucian theory of ethics. It also agrees with Mozi’s universal love, because the mutual aid of Mozi’s universal love does not ignore my own important interests for the minor interests of others, but is altruistic self-sacrifice that results in benefiting others.”
The Collective Is the Greater Self?
Here we will observe the process whereby Mao follows Paulsen in attempt to reconcile self-interest with the supposed public interest.
All human beings regard themselves as being members of the entire society. Every human being thinks of himself as belonging to a clan or society or nationality, and consequently human beings take the goals of their society as their own personal goals. It is indeed clear that the interests of the individual are mutually interwoven with the interests of society, so that it is impossible to draw a line demarcating the two. For this reason, it may be said that the goal of my will is the common shared welfare of the individual and of society, or we may say that the welfare of society includes the welfare of the individual.
On page 203, Mao replies, “Quite true, quite true!”
From page 200 to 201, we see Mao’s quasi-Hobbesian attempt to reconcile self-interest and public interest:
Since human beings have an ego, for which the self is the center of all things and all thought, self-interest is primary for all persons. That this serves the interests of others is due to the fact that those others who belong to the same category as the self share related interests. Thus we say that the self cannot but benefit others. The starting point of altruism is the self, and altruism is related to the self. It is impossible to say that any mind is purely altruistic without any idea of self-interest. Nothing in the world takes the other as the starting point, and the self does not seek to benefit anything in the world that is unrelated to the self.
On page 273, Mao says, “Without the self, there would be no universe. The universe is formed of the collectivity of all selves, and each self exists for itself. Without the self, there would be no selves! It is for this reason that within the universe, only the self can be honored, only the self can be feared, only the self can be obeyed.”
As with Hobbes and Paulsen, Mao judges that pure egoism entails acting on every whim and impulse, and that this makes unfettered egoism untenable in the long run. And as with Hobbes and Paulsen, Mao states that the most practical course is for someone to agree to live under a government that expects him to be peaceful toward others. And like those philosophers, Mao presumes that agreement to be a self-imposed constraint on self-interest. Between egoism and altruism, Mao writes on page 280,
it is egoism that pursues life, and altruism is simply one of the methods it employs to attain one’s life objectives. It goes without saying that there is absolutely no basis for pure altruism. Pure egoism is also merely a theory that definitely cannot be realized in this world of multiple individual entities and diverse activities. . . . Should we choose the method of pure egoism? In the beginning, a people, and the individual person when first born, do indeed select this method, but after a while run into a great many obstacles, so they discard this pure egoism and choose instead the method of combining egoism and altruism, and thus all people pursue life.
I Am You; You Are Me
Mao does end up favoring collectivism, and says that this should not be seen as pure renunciation of the self. Rather, he prefers to think of it this way: as a person matures, he increasingly comes to expand his self-concept to include a wider collective around him. As a child, one thinks of one’s self merely as one’s individual self. Then, growing up, one thinks of one’s self as one’s family; one comes to make no distinction between the interest of oneself and the interests of family members. Hence, any threat to another family member is a threat to the self, and any benefit to a family member is a benefit to the self. Then one’s self-concept expands to include one’s society. Now one refuses to distinguish one’s own life from the collective welfare of the society. The society, not the single person, is the unit that is considered important and considered the self. Hence, if one person is killed for the ostensive benefit of the society, no individual is sacrificed. Rather, a small, unimportant part of society was shed for the benefit of the real individual: society-as-a-whole.
In Mao’s own words on pages 201-02:
To act in self-interest may be small-minded, but is at least true. To pretend to be benefiting others when really acting in self-interest is a great falsehood. To extend self-interest to the greater self of benefiting all mankind, to the greater self of benefiting all living things, and to the greater self of benefiting the universe, this is to go from a small truth to a great truth. The progress of human wisdom can achieve this. When the self and other are equal, their order is not clear and it is easy to pretend to be acting for others when actually acting in self-interest, in which case it is impossible to achieve the highest self-interest. I think that the theories of our Confucian scholars are based on egoism, as in saying, “The way of heaven and earth has its origin in the relation of man and wife,” and can be seen in, “He who first cultivates himself may afterward bring peace to the world,’ and “He is first affectionate to his parents, and then benevolent to the people and kind to creatures.”
The theory of universal love is not altruism, for universal love includes the self, is to extend the love of self to loving all men.
By basing the theory on self, it has a starting point, a criterion. If self and other are treated as having equal weight, there is no starting point, and the criterion is lost.
On pages 200-01, Mao says, ” If I open my eyes wide and say that mankind is the greater self, and say that all living things are the greater self, and then say that the universe is the greater self, does this negate self-interest?” His answer is no — collectivism, whereby one person can be sacrificed at the demand of everyone else, is simply an elevated manifestation of self-interest (even for the one man being sacrificed).
On page 209 he again says there is no divide between the self and the wider collective: “Furthermore, a group is an individual, a greater individual. The human body is constructed of the aggregation of a number of individual parts, and society is constructed of the aggregation of a number of individual persons, and the nation is constructed of the aggregation of a number of societies. Separated they are many, together they form a single whole. Thus the individual, society, and the state are individuals. The universe is also an individual.” On page 273, he muses, “In the past, I emphasized altruism, believing that there was only the universe, without self. Today I realize that this is not so, that the self implies the universe.” On page 289, he concludes, “The path that benefits both oneself and others is mutual aid.”
Because Mao already supports collectivism, he knows whom he wants killed: “the capitalists” are among the “evil demons of the world” (page 208).
Thus, contrary to these biographers, it is not the case that Mao’s communist rhetoric, whereby he demanded that individuals be sacrificed for the greater good of the State (himself), contradicted some egoist philosophy he held in secret. In his own private notes, he stated that psychological egoism must graduate to a morally superior level: collectivism. What he preached as dictator logically developed from that line of thought.