Nils Petter Gleditsch
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Dikötter’s trilogy on the Maoist period in China does not follow a chronological pattern, but rather a ranking by violence. Starting with the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) in 2010, he continued in 2013 with the period of communist victory and consolidation of power (1945–57), and now moves to the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath (1962–76). The period described here is the most chaotic and confusing of the three. The Cultural Revolution was in part (and in various stages) a popular rebellion against the privileges of established cadres, an effort to recreate egalitarian ideals, a war for leadership succession, the establishment of a military dictatorship, and a product of the devious mind of Chairman Mao. Although the book’s narrative is rich and engaging, at times it is hard to keep track of who’s fighting whom and for what reason. The logic of violence after the communist victory can easily be understood (if not condoned) as victor’s justice. The death toll in the Great Leap Forward can be interpreted as a case of failed collectivism, leadership hubris, and a lack of counterbalancing institutions in a one-party state. The logic of the Cultural Revolution is harder to understand. The upheaval was enormous, the economic disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward, and the violence extensive. The denunciations and public humiliations can be measured in the millions, but the deaths were nevertheless much fewer than in the periods described in the two earlier books. The death of Mao in 1976 put an end to these recurring periods of mayhem, slowly introducing an era of economic progress, but still under the watchful eye of the all-powerful party.