Dikötter, Frank (2015). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Description and Critique

Dikötter, F. (2015). The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. Ch 11 “High Tide” pp. 226-242.


Chapter 11 of Frank Dikötter’s “The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957” focuses on the transition of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) into “high tide” socialism in the 1950s (p.236). This transition entailed collectivization of agriculture in rural communes and nationalization of industry and enterprise across the country. In Dikötter’s analysis, special attention is given to Chairman Mao Zedong’s personal role in shaping the regime politics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through this period. Despite his ignorance of economics and state administration, Mao exercised megalomaniacal control over the internal affairs of the Party as the country’s leadership grappled with forming and instituting nationwide socialist policies. Mao displayed acute political skill in manipulating his subordinates, regularly using the rhetoric of dualistic arguments about the “right” and “correct” (or conversely, “wrong”) way of building the socialist project (p.236). He was a master at engineering a climate of fear through public shaming, struggle sessions, and party purges of persons critical of his ideas or uncooperative with his directives in bringing about his vision of China’s future (p.230, 235). By 1956, as Dikötter writes, “most of industry and commerce were nationalised” and Mao Zedong’s grip on power was stronger than ever (p. 238).


Overall, I find Dikötter’s presentation of the history compelling but narrow. Dikötter presents Mao as egoistic, manipulative, conniving, even ignorant, but above all a master politician who shifts the political game in his favor time and again. Mao’s forte resides in his ability to execute campaigns of terror designed to root out adversaries and ideological opposition. His singular power can be attributed to masterful politicking and the obsequious cult of personality which coalesced around him (alluded to on p.239-240). In view of Mao’s spectral shadow over this period of history, it makes sense for Dikötter to organize his narrative of the road to socialism around the activities of this imposing figure. However, Dikötter’s analysis falls short in fleshing out the multifaceted social and historical context within which Mao’s operated. How could Mao rise up to spearhead the ambitious campaign of restructuring an entire nation? What was unique about the post-war political milieu that allowed for a foreign-born Marxist-Leninist political ideology to take over? It is within that milieu where we find the right conditions for the rise of a new regime, and within it the rise of a dictator. This contextual analysis is missing from Dikötter .

Furthermore, Dikötter’s almost exclusive focus on Mao’s role in crafting the destructive policies of high socialism skips over the role of all those people who widely supported him. Who were these people? What excesses or vulnerabilities were they susceptible to within the new political regime? While the picture Dikötter paints of Mao’s unsavory attributes may be accurate, he was certainly not alone in manipulating the inner workings of the CCP power structures to his advantage. The collective, internal dynamics of the Party facilitated decisions and policy-making that drove the socialist enterprise forward—not merely the conniving of one man.

Dikötter also excludes a broader analysis of the existential condition of the nation after decades of devastating conflict. After WW2 and the subsequent Chinese Civil War, what remained of China’s legal and institutional structures which would have been needed to rebuild the nation? The importance of the question is demonstrated in the fact that Western European countries were able to rebuild after WW2 with aid from the Marshall Plan, largely because their legal and institutional infrastructures remained intact despite mass destruction of their cityscapes. China’s situation, on the other hand, did not mirror the European circumstance. Whatever political or social structures remained after the Communist takeover were apparently inadequate in regulating the forces at work in the post-war power vacuum that allowed the Communists to seize absolute control. This could be a crucial area of research that would illuminate the chaotic struggle of the Maoist period, if only Dikötter had embarked on that journey in chapter 11.

Dikötter’s presentation of the rise of high socialism through the commandeering ambition of the dictator fails to grapple with the multifaceted political, historical, and cultural circumstances within which the socialist project unfolded. Whether my critique holds or not, Dikötter did not provide adequate context to situate the socialist project in a broader historical stream; nor did he illuminate the unique conditions which allowed Mao to rise. All that said, Dikötter nevertheless provides an insightful, instructive view into the internal workings of a political regime that saw the rise of a tyrant with its devastating consequences for the nation.

Research Suggestions:

The main research suggestions I have focus on positioning the narrative in a broader historical context. The main areas I would research are twofold: 1.) The state of China’s development, including its institutions and the economic situation, after WW2 and the Communist Revolution. 2.) The internal organization of the CCP after the Revolution, including its administrative structures and the preparedness of professionals to take on the immense administrative and nation-building task before them.

After researching these areas and laying out a background that positions a figure like Mao in his historical moment, I would explore why the socialist project was seen as an appropriate response to rebuilding the nation given the circumstances. In other words, was Chinese Communism under Mao an inevitability or an eventuality stemming from decades of war? Perhaps the best explanation for the subsequent history lies in the surrounding post-war circumstances rather than in the CCP regime’s fitness to lead. These areas of further research would expand the historical narrative in a more holistic manner.


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