China is the only major communist power that has never junked Joseph Stalin. The Soviets started the process when he died in 1953; Eastern Europe followed suit. But China has stuck with the Boss through thick and thin. Even today, China’s censors ban criticism of the long-dead Soviet dictator. And from time to time, a portrait of the mustachioed communist leader (with very Asian-looking eyes) glares out over official Chinese functions.

This position makes little sense if you’re of the opinion that the shadow of Stalin no longer darkens the path of the People’s Republic of China. In a few weeks China will try to make it through another peaceful political transition. Its mixed economy, its puckish digital world, the growing sophistication of its middle class — none of these suggests a nation living with the legacy of a Stalinist past.

But a new, important history seeks to explain China’s curious safeguarding of the Stalinist cult. The reason, argue Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, is that Stalin’s best student was none other than Mao Zedong.

For decades Mao’s reputation in the United States, cultivated by many American China watchers — from Edgar Snow to John K. Fairbank (and stoked by Party Central in Beijing) — was that of an independent-minded revolutionary who creatively adapted leftist theories to China. Some influential Americans made the case that Mao was merely an agrarian reformer. Others argued that at root he was a nationalist who clothed himself in Leninist garb for purely pragmatic reasons — to cadge money and materiel from his erstwhile comrades to the north. For years there was even a theory that if only the United States had been smart, it could have enticed Mao away from the Soviet bear hug.

But over the past two decades, documentary evidence from Soviet archives and some Chinese sources has dunked those cockamamie notions in what Levine has called the “acid bath of reality.”

’Mao: The Real Story’ by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine (Simon & Schuster)

“Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin who took pains to reassure the Boss of his loyalty and who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death,” Pantsov and Levine assert near the beginning of their 700-plus-page tome. Mao’s rise to the leadership of the party was backed by Stalin and funded by the Communist International. During China’s civil war against the Nationalists from 1945 to ’49, Mao solicited and often followed Stalin’s advice — even to the extent of concocting the veneer of independence from Soviet control that bamboozled a large percentage of the American diplomatic and military corps. “It is amazing how easily Mao, Zhou and the other [Communist Party] leaders were able to deceive . . . experienced American intelligence officers,” Pantsov and Levine write. “There was nothing they didn’t promise them.”

After the communist victory, Mao’s war against China’s peasantry, his murderous collectivization of China’s agricultural sector, and his elimination of capitalism and the capitalist class were cribbed from Stalin’s playbook. Finally, even Mao’s fateful decision to enter the Korean War, the authors write, appears “at least in part to have been a conscious demonstration of [China’s] leaders’ devotion to the Kremlin boss.”

Pantsov, who wrote a well-received biography of Mao in Russian five years ago on which a significant portion of this book was based, and Levine, a respected historian of China, have titled their book “Mao: The Real Story” — a belittling nod to the last giant work on Mao, by Jung Chang, the best-selling author of “Wild Swans,” and her husband, Jon Halliday, who called their book “Mao: The Untold Story.” In the catty world of China studies, that counts as a smackdown. Pantsov and Levine barely mention Chang and Halliday’s book, but much of their focus seems aimed at refuting the screed-like tone of that work, even though many of the scholarly conclusions are the same.

Mao might have done horrible things, and his crimes against humanity were “no less terrible” than those of other 20th-century dictators, Pantsov and Levine write, blaming him for the deaths of some 40 million of his countrymen, but he also had Earth-shattering successes. He “transformed China from a semi-colony into an independent and powerful state,” and, most important, he compelled “the entire world to respect the Chinese people.”

They conclude: “The scale of his life was too grand to be reduced to a single meaning.”

Still, the portrait of Mao that emerges from their pages is that of a thoroughly repulsive political operator, a man who was brought to communism by its “apologia for violence, the triumph of will, and the celebration of power.” Pantsov and Levine document Mao’s many abusive marriages and numerous love affairs, his distant relations with his children, and the personal tragedies that ravaged those closest to him. Of his 10 children, he lost four sons, the last courtesy of an American bomb in the Korean War; a daughter was handed away to a peasant on the Long March and is believed to have died. Another son was institutionalized. The Nationalists executed one of his wives; and his final bride, Jiang Qing, spent years as her husband’s attack dog, ruining the lives of countless Chinese intellectuals during his last political campaign, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Like most good works about China, Pantsov and Levine’s book would do better if it were available to readers in mainland China. But the chances of that are tiny. Since China’s leader Deng Xiaoping decided to preserve the regime’s continuity by committing the party to an official view of its former ruler as “70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong,” nothing much critical of the Great Helmsman can be published in China.

While the authors’ most serious contribution is probably their insight into Mao’s Stalinist creed and his movement’s complete financial and ideological reliance on the Soviets, they also make another important allegation about Mao’s revolution. For decades Americans have been taught that Mao led China’s farmers to victory in his fight against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek. Pantsov and Levine disagree. Mao found the cannon fodder for his rebellion in the countryside all right, but they weren’t farmers. Rather they were landless day laborers, vagabonds and bandits — “a lawless mob,” as Panstov and Levine call them. They, and not China’s peasants, constituted the foundation for Mao’s revolution — an uprising of hooligans who “wanted to dominate, humiliate, and grind into the dirt everyone who was even slightly better off than they.” Even Mao’s comrade Zhou Enlai was shocked. “Mao’s troops are just bandits who roam here and there,” he said in 1927. “Such leaders do not believe in the strength of the popular masses.”

And that leads to one of the book’s two main weaknesses. Pantsov and Levine flirt with but never launch fully into an exploration of Mao’s enduring legacy in China. His corpse, or at least something resembling a corpse, remains embalmed in the heart of Tiananmen Square. His face is on every Chinese banknote. Maoism is stamped indelibly on the coin of political discourse in China. “Throughout his life in the revolution,” they write, “Mao manipulated the basest of human emotions. It was not brotherly love that he conveyed, but rather enmity and universal suspicion.” How has that affected today’s China? The reader is left to wonder.

And finally, for a book that so excellently skewers the American China-watching fraternity in the mid-1940s for believing Mao when he pretended to embrace American-style democracy and floated the idea of changing the Communist Party’s name to the New Democratic Party, the book comes up short when the United States next figures in Mao’s story: the rapprochement with Richard Nixon. That story is told mostly from an American perspective and is widely known. In such a detailed book about the chairman, we deserve to know his side of the tale.

John Pomfret , a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, is the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.”


The Real Story

By Alexander V. Pantsov

with Steven I. Levine

Simon & Schuster. 755 pp. $35