Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar & Michael Schoenhals

MacFarquhar, R. & Schoenhals, M. (2008). Mao's Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

Mao’s Last Revolution, an extensive and well-executed look at the internal dynamics of the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, is the product of the collaborative efforts of China historian Roderick MacFarquhar and political scientist Michael Schoenhals. In Mao’s Last Revolution, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals take the perspective that Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution as a means to maintain power and manage the complex milieu of personal party politics. The authors dive deep into the internal machinations of the Chinese Communist Party; arguing that in wider view, Mao Zedong’s manipulation of personal relationships constituted his final attempt to secure the revolutionary political system and ensure his place in history.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals discuss internal fragmentation among Mao’s political elite in Zhongnanhai, demonstrating how the formation of internal alliances and the cultivation of growing resentments created within the revolutionary organization a complex political situation. Factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party, as MacFarquhar and Schoenhals show, evoked a pervasive sense of insecurity among the senior leadership. One of the key contributions of the work is MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ demonstration of the degree to which Mao was himself aware of the complexities of internal party politics, and the strategic efforts he undertook in response.

In answer to the question of why Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution – a movement which seemingly sought to destroy what he had spent much of his career building – MacFarquhar and Schoenhals argue that Mao’s motivations were multifold. The authors discuss how Mao’s concerns that the party might succumb to the influences of a Soviet revisionist element may have in part led him to instigate the Cultural Revolution. His encouragement of the radicalization of the youth and approval of the violent tactics they adopted served both as an outlet for new political ideology as well as a tool with which to purge the party. Perhaps the most significant motivation for Mao’s promotion of the Cultural Revolution, however, was his fear of rising internal tension among Communist Party officials and what this might mean for his claim to power.

The Cultural Revolution served as a means through which Mao limited the influence of key political figures who posed a threat to his authority. As MacFarquhar and Schoenhals demonstrate, Mao enshrouded his revolutionary movement in a screen of ambiguity which proved confusing to even the most senior party officials. In the absence of instructions from Mao or clear vision of what their leader sought to achieve, a number of key party leaders took missteps eventually leading to their own downfall. As the population of young radicals gained influence, former political elites were considerably weakened and in some cases, removed from office altogether in disgrace. One of the most high profile cases of the downfall of a senior official was that of Liu Shaoqi. The authors argue that, catalyzed by his fear that Liu Shaoqi had designs to usurp power and to replace Mao as chairman, Mao ensured that he was vilified and ultimately purged from the party.   

Despite the authors’ frank discussion of how Mao was personally responsible – either by design or by inaction – for the downfall of many party faithful, they also weigh in on the culpability of other senior officials including Zhou Enlai. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals comment also on the role played by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, who served as his confidant and pivotal political ally. At the peak of rising tensions within the party, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals argue, Jiang Qing led a targeted attack against Mao’s political opponents in Beijing.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ analysis draws heavily on memoirs and the writings of ordinary citizens from the revolutionary period. The value of many of these writings is in their ability to provide, through anecdotes, a view of the situation in China from the private writings of both the political elite and individual civilians.

One of the great strengths of Mao’s Last Revolution is the relatively well-balanced perspective its authors take in their approach both to Mao Zedong and to a number of other senior politicians who made instrumental decisions leading to the Cultural Revolution. Though they provide a very frank discussion of Mao’s encouragement of the tremendous violence of the Cultural Revolution as well as his efforts to discredit and embarrass former colleagues, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals avoid demonizing Mao altogether. By commenting also on violent acts undertaken by other leaders such as Deng Xiaoping’s quashing of Muslim protests in Yunnan in 1975, the authors show that the brutality of the revolution was in part the product of its time. Their discussion of the Red Guards in particular demonstrates the frenzied nature of events which snowballed into the chaos from which few political elites were entirely exempt.

Though several reviewers have noted that the volume was rather limited in scope, I find that this fact is not to the work’s detriment. Clearly the Cultural Revolution, a devastating episode in modern Chinese history which had major consequences for the fate of the Chinese Communist Party, has been subject to considerable prior scholarship, including previous works by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals themselves. Though I have not personally read MacFarquhar’s three-volume series The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (1974, 1983, 1997), I expect that these works would lend a wealth of additional commentary on various other aspects of this rich topic. Thus, despite its narrow focus on the internal workings of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao’s Last Revolution, in my perspective, largely achieved its objective.