The history of China’s socialist founding is the history of Mao Zedong. The cult of the Helmsman began in his lifetime and the party continued it after his death. Even men exiled and imprisoned by the Chairman have maintained him as the embodiment of China’s rebirth. By design, his reputation is so legendary that he cannot be surpassed.
On its face, the Mao cult is just hardheaded political opportunism. The materialist, Marxist analysis of society that the party embraces doesn’t seem to have room for it. No one person created the material conditions into which Mao was born at the end of the nineteenth century. Nor could any individual claim credit for the rising value of labor that pushed imperial powers to seek it in Asia. Mao himself did not create the global contradictions of capitalist imperialism which led to China’s century of humiliation, nor the economic underdevelopment that rendered a focus on the urban proletariat ineffective.
But there is some truth to the personality cult: circumstances and material conditions are not the agents of history. They did not formulate the guerrilla strategies of Protracted People’s War, fend off Nationalist troops from the fledgling base at Jinggangshan, or lead a breakout through enemy lines to begin the Long March.
These actions, and the many others that allowed China’s revolution to succeed, were the decisions of people. They plotted, strategized, built parties, led armies, ran governments, kept some loyalties, and broke others.
In numerous moments in the long war for China, history turned on the individual decisions of the Chinese Communists. When Mao chose to lead Red troops to safe haven at Shaanxi—even as his rival lost nearly 80,000 men en route to Tibet—history turned on him as well. Mao’s personality cult may not give us a fully truthful reading of history. But his decisions and personality had world-historic consequences. History could not escape the contingencies of human agency.
Material analysis shows us why one social order came crashing down, and defines the constraints of the next. But when disorder increases, so does the power of contingency, and therefore the consequences of the right man meeting the right moment. There is a reason that the stories of heroes often begin in a time of decay. It’s an observation often attributed to Mao himself: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”
The Battle With Fortune
In China’s case, the right man found the right circumstances to change history. One of those circumstances was the imperial trajectory of capitalism, driven by northern European powers. But this trajectory too once rested on the fate of a particular individual with world-historic ambitions. That man was Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who secured a small kingdom in central Italy. At the time of Borgia’s ascent, Italy was divided by ongoing conflicts between numerous city-states and familial dynasties.
Niccolo Machiavelli gives us an account of Borgia’s personality and goals. The young ruler had made it his mission to create a unified Italian state. He embodied many of the aspects Machiavelli isolated as ideal for a prince: a two-sided ruler who was cruel but also knew how to appear benevolent, usually by targeting his cruelty at rival leaders hated by the populace. He was a crafty schemer. He was aware that much of his authority was reliant on his father, the pope, and had made many plans for the eventuality of his father’s death.
We can imagine a world where Borgia had succeeded in unifying Italy, securing his own place as a heroic prince and state-builder. Italy had many of the same material preconditions for capitalism and the industrial revolution as Britain did. Italy had landless peasants, making for a ready labor force. It had many great scientific and technical minds, as well as traditions of experimentation and research inherited from the Renaissance—Borgia himself was at one point the patron of Leonardo da Vinci. Italy was undergoing a massive accumulation of resources through many wealthy families, along with well-developed property rights due to its historic role as a center of global commerce and trade. Given these conditions, a unified Italy might well have overtaken northern Europe in mercantile and industrial production.
But in Borgia’s case, circumstance overcame the man. Cesare found himself deathly ill at the time his father passed. As Borgia himself told Machiavelli, this twist of fate left him too weak to outmaneuver his enemies at the critical moment. They overcame him and stripped him of his domains. He was killed in battle not long after. The next attempt to unify Italy would be the Risorgimento, centuries later—an attempt that was successful, but far too late to change history in an era when others had already set the terms of industrial society. The fated moment of contingency for the trajectory of European development may have been that unfortunate day for Borgia.
Borgia served as the example for Machiavelli’s ideal prince. Like China at the time of Mao, Italy was a country with great instability and upheaval. Divided city-states were unable to create any large-scale political order for the country, and most could barely even keep their own regimes together. In such a landscape, a prince could assume very little to be stable and predictable. The landscape was constantly in flux.
This high level of political contingency also presented many opportunities for ambitious young lords like Borgia to overturn an existing order and make their bid for power. Machiavelli particularly admired Borgia’s cunning. This, the diplomat believed, was necessary for a prince to successfully make use of contingent circumstances—or as he put it, to deal with the uncertainties of fortune.
One circumstance which posed a structural disadvantage for Borgia was the familial origin of his power. Being the pope’s son gave him many opportunities, but also put him in a position of reliance. His Spanish father’s battles with the Italian aristocracy allowed him few natural allies and made him dependent on foreign support.
Borgia possessed the right mix of intelligence, ambition, and ruthlessness to overcome a number of these adverse circumstances. His ability to rapidly plan and carry out his military operations allowed him to conquer the cities of the Italian Romagna with minimal bloodshed. His willingness to court influence outside of Italy—such as by marrying the sister of the king of Navarre—won him vital military backing and kept him unchained from domestic loyalties beyond the Papacy. Machiavelli observed that when surveying Borgia’s life, he “would not know how to reproach him,” and that he should be “put forward…to be imitated by all those who have risen to empire through fortune and by the arms of others.”
It was the uncertain and tumultuous landscape of Italy itself that allowed Borgia to put these traits to good use. Like others of his ilk, his aims would likely have been impossible in a stable or unified Italy. Equivalent figures do not exist in the France or England of his time, where ambitious men had to find their place in established regimes—or at best, contest reigning kings through their own familial ties and royal claims, rather than through brute conquest.
Material analysis can explain why a figure like Borgia can come to exist. But his impact on Italy greatly depended on unpredictable chance events and highly contingent elements like his personality and intelligence. On the level of social science, there are certain things that are impossible to predict in a deterministic way. For example, though we might be able to create a probabilistic model for how often leaders might die unexpectedly, we will never be able to predict something as specific as Borgia’s fatal illness from a structural perspective. Only retrospective histories can tell us the fate of would-be heroes with confidence.
When a Warlord Builds a Kingdom
Fortune left Borgia among the failed state-builders of history. But a century before Machiavelli, the Chinese writer Luo Guanzhong recorded the story of a more successful prince in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the classics of Chinese history.
Its story is set in the collapsing Han dynasty, whose rulers once presided over a golden age that had lasted for four centuries. Like Borgia’s Italy, late Han China saw a crumbling regime and increasing chaos. Inequality, driven by increasingly consolidated land, had undermined state capacity. Then a plague wrecked the popular legitimacy of the government, leading to the rise of Taoist spiritual healers, culminating in the Yellow Turban rebellion. In the ensuing chaos, the empire was divided into dozens of warlord-controlled fiefdoms.
This history recounted in the Three Kingdoms was one of many stillborn attempts to break from the logic of the past in order to uphold the stability of a unified, central state, and the ultimate impossibility of this while clinging to the ideological legitimacy of the Han state. The circumstances for unification existed, but no one seemed able to actualize this process. Attempts like those of Wang Mang, who briefly usurped the Han throne in the first century A.D., failed because of the deep opposition of the rentier class of wealthy families to land redistribution reforms.
The grand villain of the story is Cao Cao, a relatively unimportant bureaucrat who comes to dominate China’s prosperous and developed north. Cao Cao built a state that, after his death, would go on to conquer the other two kingdoms and ultimately become the Jin Dynasty. He was a cruel man and a brilliant schemer, repeatedly escaping death.
The historic Cao Cao was also a great reformer. In order to beat his rivals, including the political and military representatives of the great well-established landed families, he greatly expanded the establishment of state-controlled military-agricultural colonies. Previously, these had been a minor innovation of the Han. Under Cao Cao’s leadership, these colonies provided supplies for his campaigns and absorbed much of the surplus population thrown into poverty by the Yellow Turbans’ revolt. This strategy brought stability to the population and cemented his control.
The Three Kingdoms, however, touches little on Cao Cao’s historic innovations. Rather, we encounter the cruelty and cunning of the man himself. One scene describes how Cao Cao arrives at the very same principles of deception that Machiavelli later taught to secure both love and fear. Having just killed his host out of the misplaced suspicion that he was an enemy spy, and then covering it up, Cao Cao is betrayed by his traveling companion out of disgust. From this point on, he swears to hide his cruel nature in order to present himself as a ruler capable of benevolence. Later, he retreats to prevent the suffering of his troops—thus staving off potential mutiny—and creates new universities and monuments for the public.
One reason that Cao Cao is portrayed as the villain is because of the ideological contradictions of his rule. All of the Three Kingdoms claimed to be successors to the Han: one did so through possession of the imperial seal, one through blood relation to the emperor’s family, and Cao Cao did so through holding the young imperial heir hostage.
The fact that this ideological power was not formally his meant he was at a disadvantage, one reflected in his fictional legacy as a two-faced scoundrel whose main source of success was not skill or virtue but luck and the sheer power of fate.
Cao Cao, Borgia, Mao, and other such figures tend to share traits like intelligence, charisma, and hubristic pride. Such characteristics help in leading movements and organizations. A leader operating in a chaotic landscape must be smart enough to overcome obstacles, charismatic enough to convince others in a risky cause, and prideful enough to believe that they are the one who can and should be doing this in the first place.
They are also often capable of great cruelty and betrayal under the right circumstances—this allows them to wield the forces of a chaotic time of destruction while making it dangerous for others to do the same to them. Mao himself was even willing to countenance nuclear war in pursuit of his goals. Noting that the human population at the time stood at 2.7 billion, he once told Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru that if “half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground…in a number of years, there would be [2.7 billion] people again and definitely more.”
But cunning cruelty is a double-edged sword. In his writing on the topic, Machiavelli likewise recognized the dangers inherent in the process of deception. Unrestrained sadism—a frequent flaw of those seizing power—could easily become a strategic weakness for heads of state. Although Machiavelli’s intended audience for The Prince was largely one of aristocrats and royalty, he himself was a committed republican. He advised the prince to appear benevolent to the people, even if he was not so benevolent at heart, or was forced to commit immoral deeds to hold onto power. This mimicked, within the prince’s own person, an important aspect of republican government: the failings or immorality of individual politicians are outweighed, even obscured, by the overarching authority of the state.
In situations where the vast mass of people are subjugated, appearances remain important for staving off revolts and having a population willing to resist foreign influence. In order to rule on the basis of anything other than pure power—an unstable situation—the ruler must have some connection with those who are being ruled as conscious subjects who have their own wants, needs, and understanding of reality.
Machiavelli believed that it was only in a republic that merciful individuals could rise to great power and esteem. The republic allows a division of labor in both the creation of legitimacy and the administration of violence. As a result, it depersonalizes them as well. The failings of particular rulers do not threaten the state overall and the failings of the state do not tar the individual.
By building up his own regime, Cao Cao was ensuring that his achievement in securing power would outlast him. For this to work, future successors could not follow the same path to power as Cao Cao himself had—they would have to adapt themselves to his existing regime. Cao Cao was not much of a political theorist on his own, unlike one of his rivals, the Shu Kingdom’s regent Kong Ming. He was situated squarely in the legalist Chinese tradition, and it was he who would go on to copy many of Cao Cao’s most successful policies. The Three Kingdoms period was read as the defeat of the landed aristocracy and the rise of legalist military-administrative states, the most successful of which was Cao Cao’s.
The legalist tradition was essentially the ideology of the centralized, bureaucratic state in its most pure form, centering around meritocracy in bureaucratic appointments, the rule of law, good administration, and opposition to the aristocratic sentimentality of Confucianism, which itself was the ideology of the landed elite.
Many centuries later, the Chinese Communist Party carried out a historical re-evaluation of the villainy of Cao Cao on the basis of legalism, as well as its own materialist analysis. Because of its anti-elitist critiques of Confucianism and its embrace of the bureaucratic state, there was a natural marriage between legalism and Maoism. Mao even favorably compared himself not only to Cao Cao, but also to the famous legalist Emperor Qi Shi Huang. While Emperor Qi had buried 460 Confucian scholars alive, Mao noted that his regime had “buried 46,000 scholars alive…We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.”.
The Chinese Communists also recognized Cao Cao’s wisdom in building up a regime that could outlast him. While the Chinese Communist Party saw its roots in the long history of peasant revolts in China, it recognized the Yellow Turbans as being fundamentally incapable of rule. They viewed Cao Cao, with his agricultural colonies and military dominance, as a progressive economic and political force.
This victory over the wealthy land-owning families, however, was ultimately temporary. After Cao Cao’s family was removed from power and the Jin Dynasty took on their legacy, the agricultural colonies were privatized and the power of the landed families returned. A coup without a broad popular base has a hard time fundamentally transforming society in the long run.
Cao Cao’s China was chaotic and divided by war, but the power of the landed families survived these circumstances. His experiments did not yield a system powerful enough to outcompete and displace the traditional aristocracy. The defeat of his family and the rise of the Jin Dynasty saw the return of the landed elites as the political ruling class, and accordingly the privatization of the agricultural colonies. Cao Cao had made history in laying the political foundation of a new dynasty, but he could not overcome the material foundations of aristocratic power. China’s conditions bounded the scope of his heroic action even as they made it possible.
Rising From Chaos
It is in moments of great contingency and uncertainty that the details of plots, ambitions, interventions of fortune, battles, reversals, and counter-reversals can change the future. This is history in its political aspect, the one most familiar to Machiavelli, rich with meaning and geared towards an audience. The characters of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms refer to this audience as “the people”, who exist primarily not as producers or even soldiers, but as an augur of legitimacy. The work itself was only possible because their stories were recorded and constantly retold by future unifiers and dynasties seeking to establish themselves as the successors of ancient heroes.
However stable China’s imperial dynasties might be, it was the victories of heroic predecessors—recognized and praised even by commoners—which proved that they had the mandate of Heaven.
The loss of this legitimacy by the Han underlies the whole story of the Three Kingdoms. This loss was accomplished by the hands of the Yellow Turbans, who brought chaos and division, but could not realize the content of a new logic, a new state. Only someone in a position to properly act on the political contingencies of the age could achieve that. Cao Cao lacked the idealism of the Yellow Turbans, but the ambitious bureaucrat was able to leverage the existing infrastructure of the failing Han dynasty and put it to work as he created a new regime.
A world in chaos is the ideal backdrop for world-historical heroes to arise. It is only when the logic of a given social system, in its political, economic, and ideological capacities, begins to break down that such heroes can arise and change the course of history itself. It is through the struggles created by the breakdown of order that heroes take the spotlight.
When figures larger than life emerge, it is rarely because their genius is, in fact, so mythically immense. Rather, they apply their talents in a way that exposes and exploits the contingencies of history, reordering them into something new. The great fait accomplis of history defy all the logic of the everyday world, not by doing something impossible, but by showing how a part of that world was a fiction. They comprehend possibilities that are beyond the existing order but inherent in its circumstances and realize them.
In the telling of this ancient wisdom, the perpetual cycle between order and chaos, unification and division, will always necessitate the entrance of such heroes. So begins The Romance of the Three Kingdoms: “Empires rise from chaos and will fall back into chaos; this has been known from the beginning of time.”
The structural role of the kinds of people we call great men or heroes is to catalyze that transition and give it a particular form. Once a new form of political order becomes hegemonic, it is much harder for ambitious people to challenge it. Most find ways to adapt, and the level of contingency in society decreases. The result is a new equilibrium, a new world with a life of its own. It makes sense, then, that the Three Kingdoms ends its tale at the beginning of the new Jin Dynasty, after all the familiar characters have passed away—the age of heroes and villains had come to an end.