Revolution#118, February 3, 2008

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and its Anti-Communist Distortions—Unfortunately, No Shock There

I am now reading—I am about half way through—THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. Already it is clear that there are some valuable insights and analysis in this book, although its main thesis is ultimately not a fundamentally correct explanation of the reality it is examining, and there is a certain tendency in the book toward instrumentalism with regard to this thesis (that is, there is a tendency to interpret—or reinterpret—events to make them fit this thesis). But what is once again striking, and what I want to comment on here, is that this book contains what are, all too much these days (and from social-democratic types like Klein certainly no less than others), the de rigueur distortions of and attacks on communism; and there are the related problems of methodology that characterize “progressive” anti-communists generally.

As a kind of concentrated and egregious example of this, at the beginning of THE SHOCK DOCTRINE (in the introductory chapter, “Blank is Beautiful”) in attempting to draw a comparison between the people in North America after September 11 and the people of China in the midst of the mass upsurge of collectivization in the countryside in the first decade of socialism in that country, Klein grotesquely distorts what is said by Mao in a short essay in 1958, “Introducing a Co-operative.” More specifically, Klein refers to—takes out of context and completely distorts—the point Mao makes about the positive nature of the fact that the masses of Chinese people were then “poor and blank.” Klein writes that, after September 11, 2001:

“Suddenly we found ourselves living in a kind of Year Zero, in which everything we knew of the world before could now be dismissed as ‘pre-9/11 thinking.’ Never strong in our knowledge of history, North Americans had become a blank slate—‘a clean sheet of paper’ on which ‘the newest and most beautiful words can be written,’ as Mao said of his people.” (THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, p. 16)

Here we see that Klein begins with a valid, and important, insight, and then immediately perverts and vitiates it with her gratuitous, and blind, swipe at Mao (and, by association, communism in general). It is hard to know whether what Klein is doing here is conscious and deliberate, or simply results “spontaneously” from the distorting nature of her social-democratic, bourgeois-democratic outlook and its attendant anti-communist prejudices. And I am not in a position to say whether Klein actually read the essay by Mao in question, but nonetheless chose to use this quote from Mao in a way which is completely out of context and which serves to misrepresent, and indeed invert, its actual meaning; or whether Klein simply came upon this quote from Mao somewhere and, as is very common among those who have swallowed down all the slander about communism, she simply repeated this quote without actually looking at the source from which it is drawn, and the context into which it fits. But, in any case, if one reads this essay by Mao, it is very clear (very clear, that is, if one does not view things through the distorting prism of obsessive anti-communism) that the actual spirit and essential meaning of what Mao is conveying, both in the particular quote in question, and through the entire essay, is the exact opposite of what is implied through the distorted use of this quote by Klein.

What Klein is suggesting is that Mao was approaching things as a “totalitarian” tyrant, bent on “socially engineering” hundreds of millions of people in line with his “fundamentalist” and “absolutist” communist views and plans (as Klein presents matters, this is the same sort of thing that is done by George W. Bush and “free market capitalism fundamentalists” generally, but is at the other extreme of the political spectrum, so to speak). In actuality, in reading this short essay by Mao, one finds that he is emphasizing the increasing political and ideological consciousness and the conscious initiative of the masses of Chinese people, and in particular the peasants in the countryside, who made up the vast majority of the population and who had never before been regarded, and treated, as anything but beasts of burden. “The communist spirit is growing apace throughout the country,” Mao notes; and he goes on to emphasize that “Never before have the masses of people been so inspired, so militant and so daring as at present.” It is after emphasizing, and briefly elaborating on this and related points that Mao goes on to say:

“Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are ‘poor and blank.’ This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”

And then Mao goes on to talk about the big-character posters developed and utilized by the masses of people as a means through which they themselves conduct mass debate and ideological struggle, as well as criticizing and exposing the exploiters and oppressors who oppose the revolution. As Mao puts it (with reference to a classical Chinese poem), big-character posters, and in general the political upsurge of the masses of people, have “dispelled the dullness” in the countryside and throughout the country as a whole.

From what has been cited here—and from any honest reading of this entire essay by Mao—it is very clear that the whole spirit and intent of what Mao is saying has to do with extolling, and seeking to build on, the fact that, as he puts it, never before have the masses of people been so inspired, so militant and so daring. More specifically, it is clear that Mao’s essential meaning is that being “poor and blank” results in people not only being desirous of radical change but being capable, much more readily than those with something to lose, of taking initiative to fight for that radical change. And it is clear that Mao’s point is that the “freshest and most beautiful characters” and “freshest and most beautiful pictures” are to be, and will be, written and painted by the masses of people themselves—yes, with the leadership of the Communist Party. As Mao sums up:

“Do the Chinese working people still retain any of their past slavish features? None at all; they have become the masters. The working people on the 9,600,000 square kilometers of the People’s Republic of China have really begun to be the rulers of our land.”

The grotesque distortions involved in Klein’s treatment of this are important to expose not only in themselves but also because they are all too typical, these days especially, all too representative of an orientation and method—not only among overt, aggressive and unapologetic reactionaries but, unfortunately, also among far too many people with progressive pretensions (or even progressive intentions)—an orientation and method which accepts, uncritically, all the distortions and slanders about the historical experience of the communist movement and socialist states led by communists, and that fails to approach this experience in a systematically and consistently scientific way, with the honest and open curiosity and search for the truth, including a healthy skepticism toward “conventional wisdom” (what “everybody knows”) that is, and that must be, a part of critical thinking and a scientific method and approach overall.

In order to contribute to bringing into being another, truly better world, it is necessary to do much better than this kind of orientation and method. And it is certainly possible to do so.

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