In the years of the civil war against the Kuomintang troops, Mao Zedong developed a very imaginative and daring strategy. It consisted of eluding the bulk of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, constantly giving ground, forcing his adversary to pursue him and deploy over gigantic distances, wearing himself out in taking cities, and leaving the countryside to the communists, who made politics with the peasants and their combative mobilization the backbone of their guerrilla strategy.
It was due to the creative combination of retreats and counterattacks later called the Long March, to its lightning-fast strategic sense and flexibility, that the dwindling peasant forces of that People’s Liberation Army (known as the Red Army) managed to fool and survive a very much more powerful enemy, led by an experienced political and military leader, and came to establish itself in a northwestern Chinese city called Yanan, which would become its headquarters.
Interrupted by the Japanese occupation, this civil war continued after Japan’s defeat, and the Red Army, against all odds, achieved, in just four years, a victory that was both political and military over a formidable enemy. On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China would be proclaimed.
During the Yanan (or Yan’an, or Yenan) years, Mao and his army dedicated themselves not only to fighting the Japanese, but to do politics which, as the great Chinese war theorists since Sun Tzu knew, was key in building a winning strategy, especially in conditions of military disadvantage.
Some U.S. journalists, such as Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong, went there to talk with Mao in his room in a cave dug into a sandstone slope (yaodongs, in pinyin), like the hills that surrounded the city, according to usage. typical of the traditional houses of Yanan.
Many of Mao’s works that were later translated and known in the West were written at that time in Yan’an: On Practice, On Contradiction, On New Democracy, Against the Party’s Cliché Style, Some Questions on leadership methods, Strategic problems of guerrilla warfare, Interventions at the Yenan Forum on art and literature. All these and others were available, by the way, in Cuban bookstores in December 1961. I remember.
The same year, just a few months earlier, in June, the much-cited meeting of artists and writers at the National Library had taken place in Havana, which would conclude in the session in which Fidel Castro intervened with a speech that would be called Words to the Intellectuals.
Despite the various books published in 2021 about the meeting, the careful editing by Senel Paz of that conversation, those Words continue to be the object of all kinds of capitalization. One of them, for example, is the one associated with the allusion that Fidel makes to the Yenan Forum on art and literature.
This is relevant now because it illustrates the type of capitalized reading of history that some continue to do, without anyone correcting them. The interested reader can review the analysis of that historical context that I made elsewhere, and to which I have alluded earlier in this column. I will limit myself to citing the context of Fidel’s words in June 1961 that allude to Yenan, because of how current they are:
I must confess that in a certain sense these questions [the questions of the freedom of artists and writers that C. Wright Mills and Sartre had discussed recently] caught us a little off guard. We did not have our ‘Yenan Conference’ with Cuban artists and writers during the Revolution [he is referring to the stage of the armed struggle against Batista]. In reality, this is a revolution that was conceived and — it can be said — came to power in record time [Mao’s, as is well known, took more than twenty years to achieve it]. Unlike other revolutions, it did not have all the problems solved. And one of the characteristics of the Revolution has therefore been the need to deal with many problems hastily.
And we are like the Revolution, that is, we have improvised a lot. That is why it cannot be said that this Revolution has had the gestation stage that other revolutions have had, nor the leaders of the Revolution the intellectual maturity that the leaders of other revolutions have had…we, who have had an important participation in those events, do not believe we are theoreticians of revolutions or intellectuals of revolutions.
Whatever our deeds may have been, however meritorious they may seem, we must begin by placing ourselves in that honest position of not presuming that we know more than others, of not presuming that we have achieved everything that can be learned, of not presuming that our points of view are infallible and that all those who do not think exactly alike are wrong. In other words, we must place ourselves in that honest position, not of false modesty, but of true appreciation of what we know… Actually, what do we know? Actually, we are all learning. Actually, we all have a lot to learn.
The reader can verify for himself if Mao’s ideas and his attitude towards intellectuals, in the midst of the war against Japan, are “the antecedent of the cultural policy” of Fidel Castro and the revolutionary leadership, three months after the Bay of Pigs. And compare them. You can also judge if this attitude of learning and talking, that is, of dialogue, is identified with “communist totalitarianism,” the dictatorship, the exclusion, the officialism of art, and that “the artistic and intellectual community was not mostly revolutionary and that the cultural and political vanguards were divorced.” But, above all, no matter what, some lessons can be derived from the political attitude of that Cuban leadership in relation to the exchange on the problems of culture right now.
In the meantime, let us return to those cave houses (yaodongs) in Yan’an, where several hundred young Chinese workers and students arrived twenty years later in the midst of the Cultural Revolution.
The “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that identifies the policy of Reform and opening since 1978, has some key roots in this tense period in China’s history. At the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in 1968, these young people shared the harsh living conditions of the residents of Yan’an and nearby villages, such as Liangjiahe, sleeping on straw mats, on concrete beds under which coal was lit to withstand the cold, and the agricultural labor of a remote, arid region in Northwest China; nothing to do with the coastal areas of the east and southeast. As I learned when I visited the city and its cave houses decades later, among these young people was a 15-year-old named Xi Jinping.
Of course, it is not the same to read about the history of the Chinese Revolution, with the shadows and excesses that social revolutions bring anywhere, or to see it from a Party office, than to have lived it below, and to hear it from the mouths of its anonymous and ignored protagonists. By their own accounts, these formative years gave Xi an insight into the lives of ordinary people and fueled his determination to advocate a reform policy that would take them out of misery.
I arrived at Ya’nan invited by Renmin University in Beijing, where I had taught that summer, to participate in an international conference on socialism in China, for the 60th anniversary of the PRC. Some of the most interesting stories I heard, however, from one of my students, whose family hailed from there.
“My mom has lived most of her life in one of these cave-houses,” she told me one day, while we were looking at the landscape of gray hills that surround the city, and which could well be used to shoot a movie about the colonization of other planets. She was proud, however, of having been born in that point of Chinese geography, so loaded with history.
I confess that the papers presented at international conferences are not always the part I enjoy the most. However, among the ones I heard at the Ya’nan University School of Marxism, there was one that caught my attention. it spoke of “the road to Ya’nan” and democracy. It said that the history and seeds of a new China lay on that path.
“It cannot be reproduced today or transplanted to other countries, but the philosophy of government that encourages it and the purpose to serve the people that it reflects have permanent meaning, and a certain meaning for developing countries as well” (Cui Hailiang, The “Yan’an Road”: a New Road to People’s Democracy).
Among the many Chinese professors and students of Marxism that I have met, and that I have had in my classes, many warn of the costs and side effects of the reforms. I have seen them debate and argue about inequalities and, above all, poverty and backwardness that are manifested in the least favored areas of the huge country.
However, I have not found anyone who disagrees with these reforms, or who disagrees with the current leadership, its results and progress, although most of them are not part of the ranks of the Party. The idea that China is building a capitalist model, and has renounced socialism, is rare, even among those who criticize counterproductive aspects of the changes. The notion that Marxism has been abandoned as a theoretical heritage is disconcerting to them. There are several, particularly well placed in strategic advisory positions, who affirm: “The Chinese model is not for exporting.”
Sometimes I believe that our mental circuits are not wound up to understand the Chinese and Vietnamese modernization processes, these traditional and rural societies, beyond appreciating their economic results.
I wonder what Karl Marx, Louis Auguste Blanqui, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky would have thought about a Chinese or Vietnamese Communist Party whose bases were not proletarian, but peasant. I know how the Marxist-Leninists of the world felt about Fidel Castro’s disquisitions on “the people,” that heterogeneous group, instead of “working class” or “worker-peasant alliance.”
Cuban Marxism had that mixture of anti-colonialist concepts drawn from Martí, Hostos, Betances, Mariátegui, the Mexican revolutionaries, the liberation movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, which nurtured the tricontinental discourses, and which struggled not only with imperialism but also with the fight between the Soviets and the Chinese for trying to dominate them.
That revolutionary Marxist discourse incorporated theoretical, ideological and political struggles, just as there were within the liberation movements themselves and the leftist parties. Describing them as blocs reveals ignorance or bad faith.
I wonder if we Cubans have not been as strange and deviant as the Chinese and Vietnamese. And just as some of us distrust that the path they chose continues to be that of socialism, others have previously affirmed that the Cuban one was not a genuine socialist revolution, but rather a freak, apparently devoid of ideology and steeped in petty-bourgeois adventurism. And look where we got to, before everything got confusing, even the past.
Probably everyone has had or has to have their road to Ya’nan. And that road has no map because it is never open.