Mao the monster? Or, Bellah’s Implicit Imperial Framework

“I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history … You’ve got to break the spell.” So spoke Robert Bellah in a recent interview while promoting yet another book, Religion in Human Evolution. We’ll return to Chairman Mao in a moment, but first a few comments about Bellah’s old-fashioned position.

“I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history … You’ve got to break the spell.” So spoke Robert Bellah in a recent interview while promoting yet another book, Religion in Human Evolution. We’ll return to Chairman Mao in a moment, but first a few comments about Bellah’s old-fashioned position.

He has joined the chorus of thinkers and opinion-spinners in the United States who evince a mixture of fear and fascination with China.  As the brief American Empire begins to crack and fade, the obsession turns ever more to the country that many assume is in the process of usurping the ‘pax Americana’. And the only codes used for understanding that shift are generated by the context from which they are made.

In this context we may understand Bellah’s hoary argument that morality and religion go hand in hand. For Bellah, China is ‘morally adrift’, without a functioning ethical code which is absolutely necessary for societies to flourish. (I leave aside the interviewer’s regurgitated image of China as a fearful people ruled by a paranoid government.) And where do you find such a code? In religion, of course. I must say I am surprised to find Bellah making this argument, since it is a version of a common position in 18th and 19th century Europe, subsequently retooled for 20th century US imperialism. As European political and church leaders anxiously surveyed the rising anti-clericalism and anti-religious movements, they stridently asserted that without religion one cannot have a moral code, and without such a code society would fall apart. What they really meant was that the ruling hegemony was being challenged and that they would do their level best to reassert it. Bellah merely reiterates that old saw: China needs a moral code and their own religious traditions can provide it. But deeper down, it is an effort to reassert the ideological framework of the global US ruling hegemony, a framework that may be cast in Cecil Rhodes’s imperial formula: ‘human rights + 5 percent’, in which claims to human rights, that is religiously-derived morals, become the justification for capitalist expansion.

As a prime instance of that effort, Bellah graciously offers advice as to how China may ‘recover’ its morality. He suggests ‘tian’, the Taoist and Confucian term for ‘heaven’ (but also nature, season, weather, emperor). The problem here is that tian is inevitably connected with tianming, the mandate of heaven, which buttressed imperial rule until the revolution of 1911 that overthrew the imperial order. He also proposes two further Confucian terms, ‘li’, designating ritual and customs of proper behaviour, neglecting its senses of gain and benefit that is acquired through such behaviour (that is, you abide by li for your own advancement) and ‘yi’, justice, or more properly the effort to do the best in a certain situation. However, in making those proposals, he neglects three factors.

First, they are part of a larger Confucian system that became the cultural bulwark of a feudal society, in which the emperor maintained the ‘mandate of heaven’ and the subjects remained just that, subjects. If we include the other ‘virtues’, such as ‘xiao’, or reverence for elders and filial piety, ‘ren’, a combination of authoritativeness and selflessness, and ‘te’, ruling power, we see that they become the qualities of the ‘superior man’ who becomes superior precisely through the qualities of paying attention to others. Indeed, during Confucius’ own time of social unrest and perpetual conflict, he sought a return to an idealised past, with a united royal state and a ruler whose qualifications for power were based on the superior qualities of selfless power. The attack on this feudal framework was not unique to Mao, but stems from the revolutionary movement that was finally successful in 1911 in overthrowing that feudal imperial order.

Second – and paradoxically – these matters are the focus of intense debate in China, especially through the return to the classics. New translations and editions are being published, conference papers, article and books are being produced in order to answer the question: does the Chinese tradition provide resources, reshaped for today, for solving the problems of modernity in a way that is different from the West?

Why do they ask this question? That leads to my third point. The problems that China faces are not regarded as due to Mao, but due to the appropriation of some patterns of capitalist economic practice. This has led to social dislocation, environmental problems and political tensions (witness the regular protests by farmers as a city administrations take over their land for redevelopment). It is widely acknowledged that these problems – what Bellah would call being ‘morally adrift’ – need to be addressed. And they are being addressed, vigorously. The return to the classics I mentioned above is but one effort. Others come more directly from the Marxist tradition, most notably the Chinese ‘New Left’, for whom the answer lies in the government reigning in the economic excesses that have been permitted until recently, and the ‘Utopians’, for whom the key lies in a return to Mao’s principles of radical equality and non-reliance on other states. Needless to say, this makes for open, creative and fascinating debate.

All of which makes Bellah’s proposals sound rather thin and imperialistic. For it is precisely the framework from which he has come that has generated the problems that are being actively addressed. But let us return to Mao, as well as Marx. On the one hand, Marx was scathing about ethics, which he saw as a mystifying ideology that justifies that status quo and keeps the ruling class in position. A brief look at Aristotle confirms that judgment, for early in the Nicomachean Ethics he opines that his detailed reflections on ethics are not for persons of low tastes, who are the vast majority: ‘The utter vulgarity of the herd of men comes out in their preference for the sort of existence a cow leads’ (Eth. Nic. 1.5; see also Eth. Nic. 10.9). He means, of course, the slaves, peasants, artisans and women who made up the vast bulk of the Greek polis. A very different but comparable example is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, where he states that ‘freedom’ applies ‘only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties’, thereby excluding women, children, ‘backward’ and colonial societies and so forth. On the other hand, if we wish to develop a non-ruling class ‘ethics’ we may either have to produce another term entirely, given the associations with the term, or appropriate the term in a qualitatively different fashion.

As for Mao, was he one of the worst monsters in history? Hardly. Was he an astute and at times brutal politician? Of course, but what leader of any large nation is not? Did he lead a revolution by the masses of peasants that has led to China’s preeminent position today? No need to answer that question. Was he complex? Absolutely. And did he make mistakes? Who doesn’t?

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