The parable of Mao and Max
From 1791 to 1794, Maximilien Robespierre was a deputy in the legislature. He voted to execute the king of France and was a leader of the Committee of Public Safety during the terror. No one became more associated with the guillotine than Max.
But in 1769, when he was 11 years old, Max was a star student, on scholarship at a private school, an impoverished orphan. He won a contest; he was chosen to prepare a poem to recite for the king when he visited the school in Reims. But on the day of the royal visit, it was raining. The king ordered the driver to go on, not stopping to listen to Robespierre’s little poem. Indeed, the king splashed his only good suit of clothes with mud as they drove off (source).
Years later, he would be one of those beheading the very king who left him muddy by the side of the road.
In 1919, Mao Zedung, aged 26, got a job librarian’s assistant at Peking University under Li Dazhao, one of the formative influences on Mao at the time. Although not a student, he attended as many lectures as he could in the University environment to educate himself. He was frequently ridiculed by students of his own age, or younger, for his crude, rural accent, and for not being a student.
Mao nursed a resentment of all intellectuals from that time on. In 1966, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, targeting, among others, intellectuals. The same type of people who made fun of him when he was young would be tortured and killed when Mao got the chance.
The Big Payback
There is more to the French Revolution and Robespierre than payback. Mao resented many people, not just intellectuals.
But, these apparently petty slights, when the young Robespierre got splashed with mud or when snobby eggheads laughed at Mao, are not to be discounted. These two rather determined men nursed grudges for 30 or 40 years. Then, when times changed, they were ready for the big payback, as James Brown put it. You know that James Brown song “The Boss”? He was the boss and wanted you to know it. Not saying he knew something about resentment, but maybe he did.
What is the moral of these two little stories?
Be nice to the powerless, as they may end up as leaders of the revolution one day and cut your head off?
What may be a non-incident to one person, a petty slight at most, might be a life-altering slap in the face for another person?
Payback is a bitch?
America has never had a revolution as in France in 1789 or in China, culminating in 1948, where, literally, the powerful truly fall and we truly flip the script. If John Brown’s raid in 1860 had succeeded… imagine that. An armed slave revolt…
If you ponder the violence of the French and Chinese revolutions, you might think this lack of a real revolution is a good thing. But the way these two fake American political parties are heading, the complete lack of real progress and reform, you never know what the future holds.
America has been one of the most successful, stable, hierarchical, oligarchic, fake democracies in history and no signs of a Mao or Robespierre emerging , not a hint. But then again, if you were in China in 1919 or France in 1769 you would be hard pressed to prophesy future events.
Just to be on the safe side, you’d think these oligarchs would go easy on the ridicule and mud splashing, but I don’t see them as too concerned about how overtly they slap the common person.
Mud. Ridicule. Think of Hillary Clinton making a speech to Goldman Sachs. Then the transcripts came out. The comment about her “public and private positions” got the most attention, and well it should. In fact, “we have a public and a private position” could well be the motto of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Or consider Wikileak ID 23756, on the 2014 Princeton Study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The Podesta team says, “I guess it takes a study to point out the obvious.”
Or the murder of Philandro Castile. Or letting Puerto Rico languish right now. Or billionaires flying around on private planes at government expense.
You throw it in our faces long enough…
Plenty of grudges to nurse in America. And you might not guess who the one to watch might be, nor what the slight was.
So that’s the parable of Mao and Max. Just keep it in mind when you go through the drivethrough Taco Bell or sign for that package from the UPS man.
As long as I’m comparing revolutions, I would like to say, since I have been thinking about it, as the subject came up, that Mao and Max are in no way similar figures. Likewise, the Reign of Terror in France, on one hand, and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China, on the other, are not really all that similar.
So here is a very brief and somewhat tentative conclusion emerging from comparing these two revolutions, an idea to consider. The scale of the Chinese atrocities is much larger. Moreover, Mao was more responsible for these abominations as an individual. Lastly, and most significantly to me, there were no extenuating circumstances that necessitated either violent campaign. The Communist Government was not under critical threat or in the middle of civil war when Mao sparked these two catastrophic and horrible campaigns.
France around 1793 to 1794 is an entirely different case. Yes, the Terror included score settling among competing factions and many unjustified killings. However, the revolutionary government in France was under siege from domestic and foreign enemies, in a state of civil war. Most of the killing in the terror was not in Paris among political factions but in areas of France where the old regime, the church and the aristocrats, still held a great deal of sway with the peasants and where armed rebellion was ongoing. While facing domestic enemies, every single country bordering France supported and collaborated with the revolution’s domestic enemies and was either actively at war with the French government or preparing to invade.
Furthermore, as brutal as the Terror was, slavery still existed at the time. The wars of religion of the preceding century had been far more arbitrary and brutal. Old Regime justice was pretty scandalous prior to the revolution. Witch trials were still going on in Northern Europe.
Meanwhile, the election of 1791 was the most democratic national election in modern European history and perhaps in the history of the world up until that point. The revolutionary government would abolish slavery. The Jacobins were moving rapidly towards the political and cultural equality of the sexes. From our modern point of view, the government under siege during the Terror was legitimate and correct on a number of issues.
Meanwhile, the opponents of the Jacobin government did not accept democracy as a legitimate means of allocating power. The forces arrayed against the revolution did not respect the idea of patriotism. These opponents routinely engaged in what looked to the Jacobins, and would appear to us today, to be treason with the enemies of the nation. A foreign king was preferable to a democratically elected national government.
Given the ongoing war and their inherent electoral legitimacy, the bloodletting of the Terror is as much the fault of the counter-revolutionaries as it was of the revolutionaries. I know this conclusion is out there… and I am only tentatively repeating the idea here.