Breaking Power and Class by Becoming a Tyrant
Admittedly, using the revolutionary leaders as examples themselves seems odd. Since revolutions form around discontent with classist institutions and rigid power structures, remarking that professional class-breakers broke class seems like a waste of time. But this is not so. The French and American revolutions opted for lateral shifts in power (what Marx would term “bourgeoisie”) that shut out the working poor as effectively as any monarch. Revolutions aided ambitious personalities, but they didn’t do all the work for them by any means.
As deplorable as Stalin’s and Mao’s actions were, the morality of those actions does not pertain to our inquiry. Instead, measure the distance traveled and not the destination. No new insights lie in passing stale judgments on despots. Unless it is taken by the bloody vision of absolute authority, public sentiment about despots can be easily guessed. Tellingly, most despots don’t cop to despotism. They deny the charge whenever they can. Even tyrants don’t like tyrants.
Rest assured that my interests lie solely with studying reversals of fortune, not praising mass murderers.
The testimonies about Stalin’s early life rarely agree. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) groomed the reputations of Lenin and Stalin in order to shore up their national identity. The constituent parts of the U.S.S.R. (Ukraine, for example) were bound primarily by ideology. The U.S.S.R. hoped that a strong mythology around its founders would create emotional bonds — the Framers of the United States Constitution fill a similar role for that North American union. As a result, the U.S.S.R. fostered, or at least tolerated, some outrageous legends. “Sensation seekers,” writes Oleg Khlevniuk in Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, “proclaimed [Joseph] to have been the illegitimate son of a prosperous merchant, a factory owner, a prince, and even Emperor Alexander III.”
The most reliable primary sources, however, place him in the home of Ekaterine Geladze, daughter of serfs, and Vissarion Jugashvili, a cobbler. Incidentally, Vissarion was also an alcoholic who abandoned his family before Joseph turned 13. This is not the stuff of power. At the very least, it is not the sort of place that produces leadership material.
The decisive factor, then, was the clergy. Seminaries proved to be a great route to success, furnishing young Russian boys with a deep education in language, mathematics, literature, and more. More importantly, it was the sort of institution that granted poorer children concessions for the sake of charity.
That literacy gifted him with access to discontented academics, those who objected to tsarists and shoddy conditions within the Russian Empire. That network of Marxists sowed the seeds of Bolshevism and the future Communist Party. The clergy gave Stalin the tools he needed.
Mao Zedong – Photographer: Hou Bo
Stalin and Mao Zedong’s pre-revolutionary lives ran parallel in unexpected ways. Superficially, they both had abusive fathers, but that’s more salacious than salient. Caste and educational similarities, on the other hand, hold some significance. Like Stalin, Mao came from laborers, albeit financially successful ones. Like Stalin, Mao pursued literacy out of cultural tradition, not an academic one.
By the time of Mao’s birth, the bureaucracy of the Qing Empire was quickly crumbling in the face of Westernization and modernity. The Man Awakened from Dreams chronicles the decline well for those interested in detail, but the gist is simple. The Qing Empire had an extensive system for accounting and managing its government. Rural families still believed in the viability of that system as a profession despite its imminent demise.
Mao’s family was among them. He started primary school with the assumption he’d fall into an older tradition, similar to how Stalin pursued the priesthood. He didn’t care for his Confucian texts, but instead read fiction. Surprisingly, his political life didn’t start until 13, when he fled from an arranged marriage to a nearby province. He continued to attend school, but he branched out into student-led protests and replaced fiction with politics. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mao’s experience was apparently the rule, not the exception. Historian Peter Zarrow writes,