Victor Hugo and The Cultural Revolution – Mao Was Right

200 years ago, in August, the White House, the House and Senate buildings of Congress, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Treasury and other public buildings in Washington D.C. were set on fire by British troops, only to be extinguished by a violent storm the next day. Earlier that year, in February, a boy was born in La Rochelle-Normande, France named Auguste Chapdelaine.

43 years later, 1857, the British Parliament asked the American government to form an alliance against China in response to events that would lead to the Second Opium War. The Americans ended up being minimally involved in that conflict, but the French Empire was more committed. They made the alliance on the pretext of the execution of that boy, now a man, from La Rochelle-Normande. In the intervening four decades Chapdelaine had become a Christian missionary in Guangxi, China and was killed, then posthumously beheaded, for illegally evangelizing in the Chinese interior. Earlier French missionaries in China had met similar fates, but France had never taken military action over their deaths before.

During this time, Western empires were trying to renegotiate various treaties with China, and were pushing for more and more access to the country. One of them was the Treaty of Tianjin which said that Christian missionaries like Chapdelaine would from now on have safe passage in China. It also gave embassy rights in Beijing to the British, French, Russians and Americans. But, when they showed up to move in, they were told China was closed and they had to turn back. The Brits weren’t having it so they captured a few port towns and made a forceful push into Beijing. When the Xianfeng Emperor heard of this, he sent some ministers to meet with the approaching armies in Tongzhou, today a suburb of Beijing, to talk it out. One of the negotiators on the British side was Harry Smith Parkes.

4 years earlier, 1856, Harry had been Consul at Canton and was involved in the Arrow Incident, involving a ship called Arrow. It was Chinese owned, but the Brits were using it. One day, as it sailed the Pearl River, it was commandeered by some Chinese officials who had got word that pirates were aboard the Arrow and were to be detained immediately. The Chinese crew was arrested and the Union Jack (the Red Ensign version) was lowered.

Harry was mad. He wrote to the governor general Ye Mingchen to protest, but Ye didn’t really care what Harry thought. The Brits figured they could use the situation to kick down some doors and tear down some walls, literally and figuratively. They shelled Canton. The Chinese burned down the European settlements in response. Harry went to Hong Kong. The English regrouped, shelled Canton some more, arrested Ye Mingchen, and Harry effectively became governor of Canton.

The Second Opium War is also known as the Arrow War because of this episode.

As fighting was breaking out near the capital, Harry was sent north where he eventually met with the Xianfeng Emperor’s negotiators in Tongzhou. Harry’s behavior pissed off the Chinese officials, who may very well have known he was the guy who had arrested their man Ye Mingchen, bombed Canton and then taken its governorship. So they captured him and his crew.

Harry was released not long after, but most of the others with him suffered terribly. About half were executed. It was said that some of them were slowly sliced to death, and others were buried up to their necks to have hungry dogs feed upon them. Survivors told of how they were tied up in excruciatingly tight rope soaked in water and paraded through the streets of Beijing where people jeered and threw garbage at them. Their captors reportedly stuffed their mouths with human feces when they asked for water.

When the commanders and troops of the British and French forces outside Beijing heard of this, they decided to take revenge and send a message that they were coming like it or not. It was time to burn another capital.

Lord Elgin, son of the other Lord Elgin who defaced the Parthenon in Greece, decided to burn down Yuanming Yuan – the emperor’s personal recreation grounds and symbol of Chinese culture, mystique, wealth and prestige. Also called the Summer Palace. The emperor had fled the city and the Westerners took that as confirmation that he was a degenerate leader, and that China was no longer what she used to be.

Eyewitness accounts tell of vast treasures and strange sights in the Garden of Perfect Brightness – and much disrepair. The emperor had so much stuff he didn’t know what to do with it. General Cousin-Montauban of France wrote in a report,

“What is sad amidst all these splendors of the past is the neglect and abdication of the current government and the two or three governments that preceded it; nothing is kept up, and the most beautiful things, except those that decorated the palace in which the emperor was living, are in a deplorable state of decay.”

The local Chinese residents had already begun relieving the grounds of its burden of treasure (and they continued doing so on and off for the next century). All this led the French and British forces to conclude that they might as well get some, too. It was about to go up in flames anyway.

Not that they were all proud of it. Some didn’t seem to care much. Others lamented an epic loss. General Montauban,

“I’ve just now been informed, three o’clock, that all the magnificent pagodas, whose marvelous workmanship I had admired, are at this moment the victim of flames: a vengeance unworthy of a civilized nation because it destroys admirable objects that have been respected for several centuries.”

The message was clear and convincing. The treaties were signed, the embassies opened. The Westerners got just about all they demanded.

(Let’s pause for a second to take in the fact that in under 50 years, when some of your grandparents’ grandparents were walking around, the British Empire, the best thing to ever happen to the world in my opinion, burned down the most important buildings in the capitals of China and America.)

IMG_5358Part of the ruins at Yuanming Yuan


1 year later, when the objects looted from Yuanming Yuan were making their way back to Britain and France, one Captain Butler wrote to his friend Victor Hugo, wondering what his thoughts on the matter were. Hugo replied,

“To Captain Butler
Hauteville House,
25 November, 1861
You ask my opinion, Sir, about the China expedition. You consider this expedition to be honourable and glorious, and you have the kindness to attach some consideration to my feelings; according to you, the China expedition, carried out jointly under the flags of Queen Victoria and the Emperor Napoleon, is a glory to be shared between France and England, and you wish to know how much approval I feel I can give to this English and French victory.
Since you wish to know my opinion, here it is:

There was, in a corner of the world, a wonder of the world; this wonder was called the Summer Palace. Art has two principles, the Idea, which produces European art, and the Chimera, which produces oriental art. The Summer Palace was to chimerical art what the Parthenon is to ideal art. All that can be begotten of the imagination of an almost extra-human people was there. It was not a single, unique work like the Parthenon. It was a kind of enormous model of the chimera, if the chimera can have a model. Imagine some inexpressible construction, something like a lunar building, and you will have the Summer Palace. Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, frame it with cedar wood, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem, elsewhere a citadel, put gods there, and monsters, varnish it, enamel it, gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building. The slow work of generations had been necessary to create it. This edifice, as enormous as a city, had been built by the centuries, for whom? For the peoples. For the work of time belongs to man. Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. People spoke of the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Summer Palace in the Orient. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.
This wonder has disappeared.
One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.
We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.

Hugo during his exile in Jersey and Guernsey.

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! the crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.
The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.
Meanwhile, there is a theft and two thieves.
I take note.
This, Sir, is how much approval I give to the China expedition.”


1 year after this letter was written, Les Misérables was published. He had been working on it, in exile, for over a decade. In it he wrote,

“Revolutions spring not from an accident, but from necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It is because it must be that it is.”

Les Misérables was an instant success. It was released serially across France and people couldn’t wait for the next installment to come out. It eventually became one of the most popular books in history, crossing boundaries, cultures, and time. (In 2010, the 150th anniversary of the Summer Palace’s destruction, Hugo enjoyed a spike in popularity in China when this letter made its way across Chinese media.)

Just over 100 years later, 50 years ago this year, another book was published that was similarly all the rage, although for different reasons: if you didn’t have a copy of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” or the “Little Red Book,” you were in trouble. In it, one read lines such as,

“Changes in society are due chiefly to the development of the internal contradictions of society, that is…the contradiction between the old and the new; it is the development of these contradictions that pushes society forward and gives the impetus for the supersession of the old society by the new.” 

“Revolutions and revolutionary wars are inevitable in class society, and without them it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development and to overthrow the reactionary ruling classes and therefore impossible for the people to win political power.”

File:Mao Zedong in Yan'an.jpg

You might say, “it is because it must be that it is.”

A truly Hugolian amount, a Great Famine’s worth of trees have been felled to spread these men’s words. Les Misérables is so long it can easily take 6 months or more to read even if you read it everyday. The Little Red Book was printed so much so fast that some of China’s publishers nearly ran out of ink for other books. In Hugo’s last novel, ‘93, he ended a conversation between the two main characters with, “Hearing these two men talk was like hearing the conversation of the sword and axe.” He also cooked up an entire dialogue between Marat, Robespierre and Danton. So, what would a conversation between Mao and Hugo sound like? What might they say to each other? Well, I’m happy to tell you the wait is over – let us fell some e-trees.

No one is anything but a towering hero in a Hugo story. Though Thénardier is a thief, he picks pockets at no less a scene than the smoldering, bloody battlefield of Waterloo. Hugo villains are no such thing – you want them to see victory. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, who said it best in her introduction to ‘93, Hugo’s writing doesn’t say “look how great these men and the values they are fighting for are!” but rather “look how great man can be when he fights for the right values.”

(During a recent visit to the National Museum in Beijing with a visiting friend, we were walking through the Mao portrait room and he said, “doesn’t all this make you think of paintings like Washington Crossing the Delaware? I guess every country has its propaganda.” Maybe, but paintings like Crossing or Liberty Leading the People make me think the latter part of Rand’s view of Hugo. The Mao portraits make me think I’m being convinced of the former.)

2 years ago I came to China in a time when Union Jacks are a hot fashion item and French style cafés spring up like a hundred flowers. More people speak English, or are learning to, in China than there are people in the UK and America combined. This month there is a Picasso exhibit in the National Museum to commemorate 50 years of Franco-Chinese diplomacy. Those “thieves” who “plundered” and “burned”? A thing of the past. Or so it would seem.

The first time I walked around Tiananmen Square across from the National Museum, I looked at Mao’s portrait and, perhaps like most Westerners, wondered, “what’s he still doing there? Isn’t he the guy who killed tens of millions of Chinese and set China back by decades?” This is not how Hugo would handle him. If Hugo had written a story of the Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong, even as a villain, couldn’t be done so easily. How would Hugo judge Mao? We’ll never know for sure, but we have plenty of his words to consider.

What did Hugo mean by “revolution is….because it must be that it is”? He continues,

The Revolution of July is the triumph of right overthrowing the fact. A thing which is full of splendor. 

Right overthrowing the fact. Hence the brilliancy of the the Revolution of 1830, hence, also, its mildness. Right triumphant has no need of being violent. 

Right is the just and the true.

The property of right is to remain eternally beautiful and pure. The fact, even when most necessary to all appearances, even when most thoroughly accepted by contemporaries, if it exist only as a fact, and if it contain only too little of right, or none at all, is infallibly destined to become, in the course of time, deformed, impure, perhaps, even monstrous. If one desires to learn at one blow, to what degree of hideousness the fact can attain, viewed at the distance of centuries, let him look at Machiavelli. Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a demon, nor a miserable and cowardly writer; he is nothing but the fact. And he is not only the Italian fact; he is the European fact, the fact of the sixteenth century. He seems hideous, and so he is, in the presence of the moral idea of the nineteenth. 

This conflict of right and fact has been going on ever since the origin of society. To terminate this duel, to amalgamate the pure idea with the humane reality, to cause right to penetrate pacifically into the fact and the fact into right, that is the task of sages. 

What were the facts to be overthrown by right, and the “internal contradictions of society” that Hugo and Mao speak of, in China? Was Mao fact or right? A mix of both?

Some of the most glaring contradictions came to the fore in the Yuanming Yuan episode. The 200o year old dynastic system was coming to its end. The world was changing fast and the changes were coming to China. Revolutions in Europe and the Americas were still vivid, even recent memories for many. Contradictions in American society would lead to the Civil War a year after the plunder of the Summer Palace. Right was asserting itself to facts.

“Revolutions spring not from accident, but from necessity” Hugo says. In Chinese schools today, the looting of Yuanming Yuan is taught as one of the events that made the Chinese Revolution necessary. The Chinese Communist Party uses it to confer legitimacy upon itself (though you won’t hear much about how China’s own Red Guards destroyed far more than any foreign power ever did). It’s a big piece in the Century of Humiliation narrative – “without us, the Party, China would be nothing more than a colony.” This is part of the fact today. People like Sun Yat-sen saw in this incident a world in which China was being left behind and taken advantage of, and a dynasty that had to go.

Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come,” says Hugo.

At the same time the Assembly freed itself from the revolution; it produced civilization. A furnace, but a forge. In this vat where terror boiled, progress fermented. Out of this chaos of shadow and this stormy flight of clouds, shone immense rays of light parallel to the eternal laws. Rays which have remained on the horizon and forever visible in the sky of the people, and which are justice, toleration, goodness, reason, truth, love. 

To be a member of the Convention was to be a billow of the ocean. And this was true of the greatest. The impelling force came from above. In the Convention there was a will power belonging to all and belonging to none. This will power was an idea, indomitable and boundless, which blew from the height of heaven into the darkness below. We call this the Revolution. When this idea passed, it overcame one and lifted up another, it carried away some on the top of the wave, and shipwrecked others. This idea knew where it was going, and drove the gulf before it. To impute the Revolution to men is to impute the tide to the billows.

Revolution is an action of the Unknown. Call it good action or bad, according as you aspire to the future or the past, but leave it to whatever has caused it. It seems the common work of great events and great individuals combined, but it is in reality the resultant of events. Events spend, men pay. Events dictate, men sign.

Revolution is one form of the inherent phenomenon which presses us on every side, and which we call necessity.

Yes, war is the highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions, when they have developed to a certain stage, between classes, nations, states, or political groups, and it has existed ever since the emergence of private property and of classes.

The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. This internal contradiction exists in every single thing, hence its motion and development. 

The metaphysical or vulgar evolutionist world outlook sees things as isolated, static and one-sided. It regards all things in the universe, their forms and their species, as eternally isolated from one another and immutable. Such change as there is can only be an increase or decrease in quantity or a change of place. In China, there was the metaphysical thinking exemplified in the saying “heaven changeth not, likewise the Tao changeth not.”….Engels said, “motion itself is a contradiction. Lenin defined the law of the unity of opposites as “the recognition (discovery) of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society).” Are these ideas correct? Yes, they are. The interdependence of the contradictory aspects present in all things and the struggle between these aspects determine the life of all things and push their development forward. There is nothing that does not contain contradiction; without contradiction, nothing would exist.

In mechanics: action and reaction.

In physics: positive and negative electricity.

In chemistry: the combination and dissociation of atoms.

In social science: the class struggle.

You raise material questions, questions of agriculture, of industry, of commerce, almost to the dignity of a religion. 

All the problems that the socialists proposed to themselves, cosmogonic visions, revery and mysticism being cast aside, can be reduced to two principal problems.

   First problem: To produce wealth.

   Second problem: To share it.

   The first problem contains the question of work.

   The second contains the question of salary.

   In the first problem the employment of forces is in question.

   In the second, the distribution of enjoyment.

   From the proper employment of forces results public power.

   From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness.

   By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood.

From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity. 

Social prosperity means the man happy, the citizen free, the nation great.

England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sates public power or private misery, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. a badly constituted grandeur in which are combined the material elements and into which now moral element enters. 

Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same as dividing it. 

The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one. 

Solve only the first of the two problems; you will be Venice, you will be England. You will have, like Venice, an artificial power, or, like England, a material power; you will be the wicked rich man. You will die by an act of violence, as Venice died, or by bankruptcy, as England will fall. And the world will allow to die and fall all that is merely selfishness, all that does not represent for the human race either a virtue or an idea. 

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness….

This is what socialism said outside and above a few sects which have gone astray; that is what it sought in facts, that is what it sketched out in minds.

Efforts worthy of admiration! Sacred attempts!

I’m not sure you understand. Commandism is wrong in any type of work, because in overstepping the level of political consciousness of the masses and violating the principle of voluntary mass action it reflects the disease of impetuosity. Our comrades must not assume that everything they themselves understand is understood by the masses. Whether the masses understand it and are ready to take action can be discovered only by going into their midst and making investigations. If we do so, we can avoid commandism. 

Tailism in any type of work is also wrong, because in falling below the level of political consciousness of the masses and violating the principle of leading the masses forward it reflects the disease of dilatoriness. Our comrades must not assume that the masses have no understanding of what they themselves do not yet understand. It often happens that the masses outstrip us and are eager to advance a step and that nevertheless our comrades fail to act as leaders of the masses and tail behind certain backward elements, reflecting their views and, moreover, mistaking them for those of the broad masses. 

The transformation of the crowd into the people, – profound labor! It is to this labor that the men called socialists have devoted themselves during (these last) years….A certain hatred of socialism, very blind, but very general, has been at work most bitterly among the influential classes. (Classes, then, are still in existence?) Let it not be forgotten, socialism, true socialism, has for its end the elevation of the masses to the civic dignity, and therefore its principal care is for moral and intellectual cultivation. The first hunger is ignorance; socialism wishes then, above all, to instruct. That does not hinder socialism from being calumniated, and socialists from being denounced. To most of the infuriated, trembling cowards who have had their say at the present moment, these reformers are public enemies. They are guilty of everything that has gone wrong. 

It is an arduous task to ensure a better life for the several hundred million people of China and to build our economically and culturally backward country into a prosperous and powerful one with a high level of culture…we must conduct rectification movements both now and in the future, and constantly rid ourselves of whatever is wrong.

I’m beginning to understand. I look at your work and I see that memorable things have been done. A wonderful heap of demolished materials covers the pavement.

What is done is but little by the side of what remains to be done. 

To destroy is the task: to build is the work. Progress demolishes with the left hand; it with the right hand that it builds. 

The left hand of Progress is called Force; the right hand is called Mind. 

There is at this hour a great deal of useful destruction accomplished; all the old cumbersome civilization is, thanks to our fathers, cleared away. It is well, it is finished, it is thrown down, it is on the ground. Now, up with you all, intellects! to work, to labor, to fatigue, to duty; it is necessary to construct.

Here three questions: To construct what? To construct where? To construct how? 

We reply: To construct the people. To construct the people according to the laws of progress. To construct the people according to the laws of light. 

But wait. Let the nations….beware of a despotism made anew from materials they have to some extent themselves supplied. Such a thing, cemented with a special philosophy, might well last. We have just mentioned the theorists, some of whom otherwise right and sincere, who, by dint of fearing the dispersion of activities and energies, and of what they call ‘anarchy’ have arrived at an almost Chinese acceptation of absolute social concentration. They turn their resignation into a doctrine. Provided man eats and drinks, all is right. The happiness of the beast is the solution. But this is a happiness which some other men would call by a different name. 

Historical experience is written in iron and blood.

You warn of despotism? Very many members of our families have given their lives, killed by the Kuomintang and the American imperialists. You grew up eating honey, and thus far you have never known suffering. In the future, if you do not become a rightist, but rather a centrist, I shall be satisfied. You have never suffered — how can you be a leftist?

Communism is at once a complete system of proletarian ideology and a new social system. It is different from any other ideological and social system, and is the most complete, progressive, revolutionary and rational system in human history…the socialist system will eventually replace the capitalist system; this is an objective law independent of man’s will. However much the reactionaries try to hold back the wheel of history, sooner or later revolution will take place and inevitably triumph. 

Socialist revolution aims at liberating the productive forces. The change over from individualist to socialist, collective ownership in agriculture and handicrafts and from capitalist to socialist ownership in private industry and commerce is bound to bring about a tremendous liberation of the productive forces. 

Wherever there is a community, there is a commune; where there is a commune, there is right. The monastery is the product of the formula: Equality, Fraternity. Oh! how grand is liberty! And what a splendid transfiguration! Liberty suffices to transform the monastery into a republic. 

Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organization and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organizations from the masses which the Party leads. It is an extremely bad tendency. 

You walk on thin ice. Despots play their part in the works of thinkers. Fettered words are terrible words. The writer doubles and trebles the power of his writing when a ruler imposes silence on the people. Something emerges from that enforced silence, a mysterious fullness which filters through and becomes steely in the thought. Repression in history leads to consciousness in the historian, and the rock-like hardness of much celebrated prose is due to the tempering of the tyrant. 

When you point a finger at the moon to indicate the moon, instead of looking at the moon, the stupid ones look at your finger. 

If people can’t see what I’m pointing to, it’s not my concern. Liberty is not our aim. Some won’t like it? So be it! People who try to commit suicide – don’t attempt to save them!…China is such a populous nation, it is not as if we cannot do without a few people. 

Stalin made mistakes. He made mistakes towards us, for example. He made mistakes towards the Yugoslavs too. One cannot advance without mistakes…It is necessary to make mistakes. The Party cannot be educated without learning from mistakes. This has great significance. 

Ah yes, I have seen this all before. At the time Louis XVI was condemned to die, Robespierre had eighteen months longer to live; Danton, fifteen months, Vergniaud, nine months; Marat, five months and three weeks; Lepelletier-Saint-Fargeau, one day. Short and terrible breath from human mouths!

Freedom and security. Unity and Liberty. Feudalism and Democracy. Before this mysterious complication of benefits and suffering arises the “Why?” of history. 

“Because.” This, the reply of the one who knows nothing, is also the reply of the one who knows everything.

In the presence of these climacteric catastrophes which destroy and give life to civilization, one hesitates to judge the details. To blame or praise men on account of the result, is almost like praising or blaming figures on account of the sum total. Whatever is to happen, happens; whatever is to blow, blows. The eternal serenity does not suffer from these north winds. Above Revolutions, Truth and Justice reign, as the starry heavens above the tempest. 

There is not much more for us to say to each other. Before we part, I want to recount to you a conversation had in similar times. In my own country. Between two men who loved each other, but found themselves on two sides of the Revolution. Take heed, and consider your own work.

“This year of ’93 in which we are living will be a bloody date.”

“Take care!” exclaimed Cimourdain. “Terrible duties are before us. Accuse no one who is not at fault. How long has the malady been the fault of the physician? Yes, that which characterizes this tremendous year is that it is pitiless. Why? Because it is the great revolutionary year. This present year is the incarnation of the Revolution. The Revolution has an enemy, the Old World, and is pitiless to it, just as the surgeon has an enemy, gangrene, and is pitiless to it. The Revolution exterminates royalty in the king, aristocracy in the noble, despotism in the soldier, superstition in the priest, barbarity in the judge; in short, everything tyrannous in everything which tyrannies.

The operation is frightful, but the Revolution works with a sure hand. As to the amount of sound flesh that it sacrifices, ask Bœrhave what he thinks about it. What tumor can be removed without involving a loss of blood? What fire can be extinguished without requiring a part of the fire? These terrible necessities are the very condition of success. A surgeon resembles a butcher; a healer may give the effect of an executioner. The Revolution devotes itself to its fatal work. It mutilates, but it save. What! you ask mercy for the virus! you wish it to show clemency toward what is venomous! It does not listen. It holds what has passed, it will finish it. It makes a deep incision on civilization, out of which will emerge the health of the human race. You suffer? Without doubt. How long will it last? during the operation. Then you will live. The Revolution is amputating the world. Hence this hemorrage, ’93.” 

The surgeon is calm,” said Gauvain, “and the men I see are violent.”

“The Revolution,” replied Cimourdain, “needs ferocious workmen to assist it. It rejects every hand that trembles. It has faith only in the inexorable. Danton is terrible, Robespierre is inflexible, Saint-Just is immutable, Marat is implacable. Be on your guard, Gauvain. These names are necessary. They are worth whole armies to us. They will terrify Europe.” 

“And perhaps also the future,” said Gauvain. He stopped and then added –

“Besides, my master, you make a mistake; I accuse nobody. In my opinion, the chief characteristic of the Revolution is its irresponsibility. No one is innocent, no one is guilty. Louis XVI is a sheep thrown among lions; he wants to flee, he wants to escape; he tries to defend himself; he would bite if he could. But not everyone can be a lion. This desire of his passes for a crime. This sheep, in anger, shows his teeth. “The traitor!” say the lions, and they devour him. Having done this, they fight among themselves.” 

“The sheep is a beast.”

“And the lions, what are they?”

This reply made Cimourdain thoughtful. He raised his head and said, –

“These lions are consciences, these lions are ideas, these lions are principle.”

“They cause the terror.”

“Someday the Revolution will be the justification of the terror.”

“Fear lest the terror be the calumny of the Revolution.” 

I see where you’re going, but a revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.

Haven’t I indicated that? Allow me to finish telling what these men said to each other.

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, these are dogmas of peace and harmony. Why make them appear frightful? What is it that we wish for? To subject the people to one common Republic. Well, let us not make them afraid. What is the good of intimidation? People are no more attracted by scarecrows than birds are. It is not necessary to do evil in order to accomplish good. The throne is not overturned to leave the scaffold standing. Death to kings and life to nations! Let us knock off the crowns, let us spare the heads! The Revolution is concord and not fright. Gentle ideas are not subserved by pitiless men. Amnesty is in my opinion the most beautiful word in human speech. I will shed blood only while risking my own. Besides, I only know how to fight, and I am only a soldier. But if one cannot pardon, it is not worth while to conquer. During battle, let us be the enemies of our enemies, and after the victory, their brothers.” 

A Communist should have largeness of mind and he should be staunch and active, looking upon the interests of the revolution as his very life and subordinating his personal interests to those of the revolution; always and everywhere he should adhere to principle and wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions, so as to consolidate the collective life of the Party and strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses; he should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about any individual, and more concerned about others than about himself. Only thus can he be considered a Communist.

The attitude of Communists towards any person who has made mistakes in his work should be one of persuasion in order to help him change and start afresh and not one of exclusion, unless he is incorrigible. 

As for people who are politically backward, Communists should not slight or despise them, but should befriend them, unite with them, convince them and encourage them to go forward. 

Whoever wants to know a thing has no way of doing so except by coming into contact with it, that is, by living in its environment…If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself…If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. 

The aim of all our efforts is the building of a new society and new nation of the Chinese people. In such a new society and new nation, there will be not only a new political organization and new economy, but a new culture as well.

Spare me this. You are putting vegetables in place of saints. All right, citizens, be our masters, rule, take your ease, do what you please, do not stand on ceremony. But it will not in the least prevent religion from being religion, or royalty from filling fifteen hundred years of our history, and the old French nobles, even after you have cut off their heads, from standing higher than you.

This is the question: to be a great Kingdom, to be the ancient France –or China- to be this magnificent land of system…There was something fine and noble in this system. You have destroyed it. You have destroyed provinces, like the miserable ignoramuses that you are, without having an idea of what the provinces were.

You knew nothing of all that. You have broken, shattered, smashed, destroyed, and you have been blindly acting like brutes. Ah! you will have no more nobility. Very well, your wishes will be gratified. Mourn for them. You will have no more paladins, no more heroes. Farewell, grandeur of old! Find me an Assas now! You are all afraid for your skins! You will have no more chevaliers like Fontenoy, who saluted before dealing the deathblow…You will have no more of those proud tournaments when plumes flashed by like meteors; you are a people which has run its course; you will endure invasion, which is a rape…go! go! do your work! Be the new men! Become pigmies!

But leave us great. Kill the kings, kill the nobles, kill the priests, slaughter, destroy, massacre, trample everything underfoot; grind the ancient maxims under your heels, trample on the throne, stamp down the altar, blot out God, dance on the ruins! That is your affair. You are traitors and cowards, incapable of devotion and sacrifice. I have spoken. Now have me guillotined.

Don’t say that! Communists must listen attentively to the views of people outside the Party and let them have their say. If what they say is right, we ough to welcome it, and we should learn from their strong points. 

Fine. My last thoughts – …sometimes in the final crises of worn-out societies, execution means extermination. Revolutions have two slopes, ascent and descent, and bear, terraced on these slopes, all the seasons from ice to flowers. Each zone of these slopes produces men suited to its climate, from those who live in the sun to those who live in lightning. 

God delivers over to men his visible will in events, an obscure text written in a mysterious tongue. Men immediately make translations of it; translations hasty, incorrect, full of errors, of gaps, and of nonsense. Very few minds comprehend the divine language. The most sagacious, the calmest, the most profound, decipher slowly, and when they arrive with their text, the task has long been completed; there are already twenty translations on the public place. From each remaining springs a party, and from each misinterpretation a faction; and each party thinks that it alone has the true text, and each faction thinks that it posesses the light. Power itself is often a faction. There are, in revolutions, swimmers who go against the current; they are the old parties. For the old parties who clung to heredity by the grace of God, think that revolutions, having sprung from the right to revolt, one has the right to revolt against them. Error. For in these revolutions, the one who revolts is not the people; it is the king. Revolution is precisely the contrary of revolt. Every revolution, being a normal outcome, contains within itself its legitimacy, which false revolutionaries sometimes dishonor, but which remains even when soiled, which survives even when stained with blood. 

I suppose you’re right.


Is it justifiable to kill or allow to die tens of millions of people so that billions, or even an infinite number, of other people may have a better life? It’s easy to sit here and ask the question without having the responsibility of facing the answer. If you have ever looked at Mao Zedong’s portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the Forbidden City and wondered why he is still there, it’s because somewhere, in a dark place not looked at too closely in China, the answer is “yes.”

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