Mao Zedong on Forgiveness
Having grown into Marxism through political theology as seen from a Left Christian perspective, I carry two sets of terms for talking about institutional and political matters. Marxism has its “dialecticals,” its “parties,” its “vanguards” and so many other terms whose content is at the core of my political position. Christianity rarely talks about vanguards or parties or, except certain theologians in the academy, dialectics. Because Christian ideology has a highly developed ethical language––Marxism does as well, but it’s articulated quite differently and placed in service of the politics of communism––there are numerous words in its vocabulary for different ways of treating other people. One foundational word in Christian-ese is “forgiveness,” which has a powerful function in Christian circles, for good and ill.
Indeed, the central ritual of liturgical Christianity––which excludes forms of Anabaptism, Quakerism, and the like––that is, Eucharist, invokes this word more than once. In the Last Supper, for instance:
“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Matthew 26: 27-29 (NRSV)
Forgiveness in this context is bound to the concept of grace, the freely-granted atonement for original sin offered to those who believe in Jesus. That’s boilerplate, of course, and there is an elephantine volume of literature dedicated to explicating grace and forgiveness. Its sheer density in Christian talk means that whenever a Church finds that one of its officers or believers has committed some terrible act, some will object to punishing or excluding that person by invoking grace and forgiveness. I would argue that this often leads to churches harboring and protecting abusers, allowing individuals, many of whom were well-respected and participate in patriarchal communities where women’s welfare is often less valued than men’s reputations, to escape legal consequences for their actions. The sickening practice of the Catholic hierarchy, protecting legions of abusive priests, is a key example.
Marxism has a rather different relationship with forgiveness, because there is more emphasis on the need to liberate the exploited and oppressed, to redress the wrongs before there is any thought of forgiveness. We do not forgive the bourgeoisie, whose very life function is to suck labor and time from the proletariat. In dealing with reactionaries, we should indeed be swift and brutal in opposing their actions, at least to the point where it offers political advantage. It is necessary for winning over the masses to always and everywhere oppose their enemies. On the other hand, the treatment of people within the party calls for another response. Mao repeatedly distanced himself from Stalin’s more famously lethal tactics for dealing with dissent from the party line in passages like this, which show that forgiveness does have its own, restricted, place within Marxist “ethics.”
We should adopt a well-intentioned helpful attitude towards those who have made mistakes, and towards those who do not allow people to speak out. We must not create the kind of atmosphere in which people feel that they cannot afford to make mistakes and that there would be terrible consequences if they made any mistakes, and if once they made mistakes they would never raise their heads again. When a person has made mistakes, as long he sincerely wants to make amends, as long as he has really made a self-criticism, then we must show that we accept him. When people make their self-criticism the first or second time, we must not ask too much of them. It does not matter if their self-examinations are not yet thorough, we should allow them to think again and give them well-intentioned help. People need help from others; we should help those comrades who have made mistakes to understand their mistakes. If people sincerely carry out self-criticism and are willing to correct mistakes, then we should forgive them and adopt a lenient policy towards them. As long as their achievements are still of primary importance, as long as they are competent, they can be allowed to continue in their posts.