The Man Who Stayed Behind
By Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett
Simon & Schuster, published 1993

Reviewed by Tony Henderson

What a story. He really was a believer – in the Communist ideals… and why not. Thrown in jail in China for long spells, not just once but twice, he stuck to his beliefs and did not let the side down. Not many of us would be able to go to such lengths. How could ‘The Party’ – the Chinese Communist Party – stray so far from its initial purity evident in reports from 1949 and thereabouts, in its beginnings? The core were so strong, why did they falter?

The value of the book lies in its detailed experiences of living under Chinese communism as Rittenberg acknowledges its achievements but personally went through its terror. He disapproves of the radicalism of Mao but the only other alternative turned out to be Deng’s corruption – of Communism. He cast doubt on communist ideals in the end but in spite of the material comforts he enjoys now he could not find real solace and peace of mind in the coziness of American capitalism.

And, in spite of the grudges expresses in the book, highly deserved in their holding, that Mao treated him unfairly we can say Rittenberg is largely non-judgmental and that makes the book all the more credible and admirable.

He seems to have found his journey worthwhile judging from his evocations of the little girl in Guizhou (or Yunnan) at the beginning and end of the writing. He only regretted that his personal salvation was not proportionate to that he had hoped for knowing that he had helped the people of China from his very heart despite that he was intentionally influencing things in his way trying his best to bring everyone back into line. Not even Chinese, he was part of the revolution and in those days there was an international dimension -“Workers of the World Unite”.

To intersperse a personal note, such was the impression of this highly readable book that I began to reflect on the Humanist Movement I am part of and, will its special form of no-form enable us to keep the integrity in the face of System onslaught? I was not concerned about the future of our first-born political-social organisation, the Humanist Party, because Silo (founder of our Universalistic Humanism) himself said at its launch worldwide in 1984 that ordinarily it takes about seven years before any organisation brought into the public sphere would likely be corrupted. Meaning, it would be undemocratic for us to hang on to power and guide everything so letting it free for anyone to be elected into positions all kinds of oddities were likely. The bane of democracy, even real democracy! The Movement is a different kettle of fish though and has a very different interior so I am not actually concerned but still, just reading about how far the communist party went off the rails was disturbing, sacrificing its very own… for the ‘Greater Good’.

With the Humanist Movement we have no such tenet, for us there is no departure from ‘good for one good for all’ and the other way around equally. No, no sacrificing of the individual for some assumed higher cause. Our principles of valid action speak immediately against that! “Things are well when they move together, not in isolation.”

Socialism brings that, or should bring that, principle into play. Capitalism quite the opposite. It has no intention explicit beyond that of profits to the successful, but it can be modified, of course. There is this ‘enlightened capitalism’ concept with all kinds of checks and balances. That could work. Then, there would be no difference between the two.

Democracy is similar, given all the essentials… free and fair elections to posts, free exchange of information and free press, a working judicial system, equal access to funds for propagating platforms and manifestos, given all that democracy is very good, probably the best way to organise a state’s management or a company’s operations. But, no takers because with those guaranteed supporting pillars no way can the greedy hang on to power and suck up the wealth, national or corporate.

Trouble is, we are starting out in a state of gross inequality and there is no bridge between the haves and not haves and when bridges begin to be built they are broken down by forces under sway of the money.

Example, if you have no regular job that’s one side with one point of view; if you serve in one of disciplined services, get regular pay, meals, accommodation, schooling for the kids, health benefits, well of course you will go out to the streets and bash a few heads at the beck and call of politicians or authorities.

When Rittenberg came home to Beijing from prison he was saddened at the sights. “Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army used to be models of courtesy and discipline in the cities; they were the favourite sons of the people. Now, rude young lads in uniform pushed their way through the long bus lines to squeeze onto the bus, and the civilians who were shoved aside eyed them angrily.”

New buildings were shoddy even at the outset but the biggest difference was the relations between people. There was a new definition of the word ‘friends’. A friend was someone who could get you something, who would put a few pairs of shoes under the counter and hold them until you arrive with few choice cuts of meat. The ‘back door’ was another term he heard redefined for the first time. Using the back door – special personal connections – was the only way to get things done.

Rittenberg found that corruption had seeped into the very marrow of the party structure. He found that the party he had known was dead and gone. It had been destroyed by its creator, Mao Zedong, in the Cultural Revolution.
He saw that the major problems were in Communist doctrine itself, not simply in the way it was carried out… “It wasn’t the fault of Stalin, it was Lenin who had been at fault. And for all his brilliance, Marx’s social and economic theories were limited like everyone else’s and contained major errors. I realised I had vastly overestimated the degree of truth that any preset social ideology can hold, and the capacity of human planning to determine the development of society, whether economic, political or intellectual.”

Rittenberg admits that he had been completely wrong to accept the policy decisions and interpretations of a small group of leaders as if they somehow held a monopoly over the truth.

“At the core of all my political errors was accepting what Lenin held was the central point in Marxist politics: the necessity of having a tight “people’s dictatorship” to prepare the ground for attaining a future perfect democracy.”

He also seen, at last, that he had acquired a stake in the system and the life he had lived in China, “a life of perks, privilege, and deluded complicity”.

Deng’s shut down of the Democracy Wall and the arrest of some of the main poster-writers also came as a shock to Rittenberg as was the proclamation by Deng on January 16, 1980, that no newspaper would be allowed to print anything that did not conform to party policy.

He did recognise Deng’s greatness in reforming the Chinese economy, riding over the system of bureaucratic overcentralisation and international isolation. But the corruption was too evident. As for Mao Zedong, Rittenberg came to see him as “a brilliant, talented tyrant, responsible for the misery and deaths of millions, or possibly tens of millions.”

Interestingly he said: “If he (Mao ) had died before coming to power, he would probably still be remembered as prophet and as something close to a saint.

Despite admiring Mao on many fronts Rittenberg seen Mao’s fatal flaws lay in his beliefs that terror exercised against those who opposed him was the only way to educate and govern the Chinese people; in believing that ‘every idea without exception bears the brand of a definite class’. He was wrong in his economic ideas – tightly controlled, centrally planned state economy secured by forced unanimity of opinion.

However in Mao’s term in China fact is the country was unified and freed of internal warfare for the first time in one hundred years. Lifespans were doubled. The sick children were gone from the cities and rice bowls filled. A rudimentary justice system was born – though by now only honoured in the breach as he says. Deng led the Chinese people to the highest standard of living in their history.

Rittenberg notes that despite all the noise about human rights and the ill treatment of dissidents the Chinese in real terms now have about the greatest degree of individual freedom in the land’s history.

He calls June 4, 1989, a massacre – with the PLA used by the party to shoot the people – but despite that he believes that the Chinese will “gradually evolve a form of political democracy that, while learning much from the West, will also draw on the best of Chinese civilisation and will learn to avoid some of the mistakes that mar our own democratic system.”

In the final pages of his book Rittenberg states his present belief – that an important part may be action of a smaller sort, as people of good will are stirred – not to overthrow an established order – but to change quietly the small part of the world over which they have influence.” In that there is coincidence with our Universalistic Humanism.

Happily, Rittenberg was reinstated in China in the early eighties and has been considered a good friend of China since. His name has been written into the history of modern China in very positive terms. The Chinese friend Lionel who suggested I read the book and whose comments have been assimilated by me here, tells that it has not been translated into Chinese, possibly because of the words Rittenberg pronounced against Mao.