Mao: how not to write and how to write

Mao certainly had his criticisms of useless writing and scholarship. After mentioning Lenin and Stalin as positive examples (in ‘On Practice’), he notes their opposite:

The saying, ‘without stepping outside his gate the scholar knows all the wide world’s affairs,’ was mere empty talk in past times when technology was undeveloped (Selected Readings, p. 70).

Adorno made a similar point concerning the philosopher who sits in his cottage with pencil and paper and is able to produce a system that explains the whole universe. But then (in ‘Reform our Study’) Mao notes the type of intellectual that annoys him:

When making speeches, they indulge in a long string of headings, A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3, 4, and when writing articles, they turn out a lot of verbiage. They have no intention of seeking truth from facts, but only a desire to curry favour by claptrap. They are flashy without substance, brittle without solidity. They are always right, they are the Number One authority under Heaven, “imperial envoys” who rush everywhere (Selected Writings, p. 203).

But he also has some suggestions as to how one might write:

Articles should store up forces within. Emerging from Longmen, the Yellow River rushes all the way down to Tongguan. As it turns eastwards, it again rushes to Tongwa. Again it turns northeastwards and rushes to the sea. Once it comes out of hiding and changes its course, it goes for a thousand li without stopping. This is called a big turn. So it is with composition. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, vol. 1, p. 18)

To compose (zuo wen) well, we need to be skilfull, hence the use of the word ‘do’ (zuo); to write (xie), we need to wield the brush furiously, hence the use of the word ‘sketch’ (xie). (p. 19)


How to think, talk and write

Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.

As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Worksthat’s a lot of whispering.