Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Today we’re going to discuss the extraordinary life of Sidney Rittenberg, an Amercian who abandoned his country to become part of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution in China. He then lived there for almost thirty years— sixteen of which were spent in solitary confinement, as he fell in and out of favor with the Party over those three decades. His autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, was published in 1993 to rave reviews in the U.S. As Mike Wallace wrote, “It reads like a riveting historical novel. But there’s no fiction here… it’s Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the Long March, solitary confinement, despair, romance, and redemption. Sidney Rittenberg’s story is a classic.”
Rittenberg’s youthful fascination with Communism is pretty understandable, given his
Depression-era childhood, when many in the U.S. questioned whether there was a better way. This was followed by influence from various radical forces when he attended Stanford University. As he wrote,
“I had joined the American Communist Party in 1940 while I was in college…it was the Communists, with their strong posture on free speech and ethnic equality in America, and their roots in the American labor movement, who seemed to offer a hope of righting the injustices I saw all around me.”
He was deployed to China with the U.S. army towards the end of World War II, and had an opportunity there to seek out his fellow Communists. He was swept up in the romance of China’s revolution, as well as the personal charisma of Chairman Mao:
“This was the Mao Zedong I had been reading about in the daily press, the Mao whose words I had studied in Stanford. I respected his vision for China and admired his philosophical brilliance. And here I was, twenty-five years old… sitting and chatting with Mao Zedong as an equal… Mao had a way of focusing his gaze squarely on whoever was speaking, shutting out the rest of the room. The attention was intense and flattering.”
He became a vital part of Mao’s staff, fulfilling the important role of English-Chinese translation.
He had many friends among Mao’s inner circle, and soon married a fellow party member named Wei Lin. The romance didn’t last too long though, as only a few years after joining the revolution, Rittenberg found himself suddenly arrested, as a supposed American spy. He was carried off to solitary confinement, taken out only for periodic interrogations, where his protests of innocence were ignored, and the only issue was how to confess to his crimes. Amazingly, his faith in Communism did not waiver as he spent six years alone in a cell:
“I loved the party, its aims, and its struggle to change the world…. They were prosecuting my case because they considered it in the interest of the much oppressed, long wronged Chinese people. They had to purge themselves of enemies, I told myself. It was just that in my case they were wrong… The problem wasn’t with the party or its methods… If the fact that they wrongly charged me with a horrible crime became known, it could harm the party.
I made up my mind. This dark little room would be a test for me and a proving ground for my philosophy— and philosophy would win. If I came through this ordeal, it would be with perfect understanding.”
As it turned out, the Party had actually arrested him on orders from their sponsor, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, rather than out of a serious belief that he was a spy. Thus, a few years after Stalin’s death, his friends in the leadership were able to get him released and rehabilitated. They even appointed him a high-level trusted position in the Broadcast Administration, a propaganda arm of Mao’s government. He had, however, lost his wife, who had divorced him while he was locked away.
You would think that his experience would generate some sympathy towards others falsely accused by the regime, but that’s not how he thought. When some young translators in his group were later arrested on similar political charges, he didn’t do much to help them. As he wrote:
“… their real crime seemed to be that while outwardly quiet and respectful, underneath they were arrogant and exclusive, with the kind of rich man’s air that had been so common before the Revolution.
“In the end, Cheng Hongkui was pronounced a member of a reactionary clique, and he and his wife and their new baby were sent with their friends to a labor camp in the cold wastelands of Manchuria. I never saw any of them again… For me, I felt that good honest farm labor would do them some good. Hadn’t I been willing myself to undergo years of privation for the sake of the party?”
As events moved forward in China, Rittenberg doubled down on his faith in Communism. In 1958 he enthusiastically supported the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s program to rapidly collectivize farms, industrialize the country, and build infrastructure. Similar to the Soviet activities of the 1930s that we described a few episodes ago, the government tried to eliminate private farms, arresting and imprisoning any farmers who resisted collectivization. Farmers were also redirected by the millions into activities like steel production and construction, supposedly no longer needed on the farms due to their increased efficiency under state management. The results were similar to those achieved by Stalin in the Ukraine:
“It was late in 1961 when the first symptoms appeared… People began swelling around their necks and going through the day in a listless haze… as the months wore on, it became increasingly difficult to overlook the real reason for people’s distress: malnutrition. We had all watched the food begin to vanish from the shops late in 1960.”
“Few in China knew the truth until decades later. The Chinese were not just hungry, they were starving, starving to death in the countryside by the tens of millions. Fewer still knew the main cause: not bad harvests, not the Soviet debt… but the Great Leap Forward itself.”
Again blinded by his faith in the system, Rittenberg continued in the Broadcast Administration. At least the deadly results of the Great Leap Forward resulted in some criticism of Mao and reduction in his power over the next few years. However, as the nation slowly recovered, Mao grew jealous of those in control, and decided to engineer the “Cultural Revolution” to restore Communist purity. He set loose mobs of teenagers to purge the nation of remnants of capitalism and of non-Communist Chinese tradition. Rittenberg still maintained his faith in his leader:
“With the advent of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, I became an outspoken activist and advocate of returning power to the people… without the least suspicion that this new revolution was a cynical strategy by Mao— and his wife, Jiang Qing— to foment unrest and rebellion and to vastly increase their own power.”
He didn’t see the danger of mobs of teenagers brutally enforcing Communist doctrine, until a pair of old shopkeepers, in-laws of a co-worker, were beaten to death for practicing “consumerism”. Ironically, they were actually operating a state-run shop. Even this wasn’t enough to stop Rittenberg from supporting the Revolution, though he began asking some questions. After that, it didn’t take too long before the movement turned on him, and he was once again arrested as a suspected American spy, He was put in solitary confinement again.
This time he was confined for almost ten years. But even worse than what happened to him were the fates of his second wife Yulin and his four children (ages 2, 7, 9, and 10) while he was gone:
“After that, for the next ten years, Yulin was tossed back and forth. Sometimes she was returned to the Broadcast Administration, where she was the victim of daily struggle meetings and forced to sit outside the toilet with a sign above her head, “This is the unrepentant wife of the dog of an imperialist spy.” Sometimes she was beaten, once badly enough to be sent to the hospital. Always she was reviled and ostracized… She was forced to spend up to three years at labor camps in the countryside, where she worked for long hours in freezing weather… For Yulin, it was particularly bitter. The Communist Party cadre sent to supervise Yulin’s group at one of the labor camps was my ex-wife, Wei Lin… [as she described:] “They wouldn’t even give me enough to fill my stomach. I would drag myself to bed at night, legs and back aching, so tired I could hardly move, and hungry at the same time. I thought of death repeatedly.””
The children had spent some time in prison, though they were cared for by relatives during most of Rittenberg’s absence. Miraculously, the entire family survived the ordeal, and they were reunited upon his release. But this experience was finally enough to drive Rittenberg to question the system to which he had devoted his life. As he wrote,
“…it took me a long time to see the errors of Communist doctrine because of the stake I had acquired in the system and the life I had lived in China, a life of perks, privilege, and deluded complicity.
…I felt that a genuine renewal for China required a leadership that listened to public opinion, dealt conscientiously with corruption, and thus won the trust of the people. What I saw was just the opposite….
I had come to China to serve humanity, to serve people, to change China, to change the world. I had no intention of spending the rest of my life serving those whom power had corrupted, bought by their perquisites, rendered unable to speak or act freely for what I believed in.”
After his second release, Rittenberg moved with his family to the U.S. where he rediscovered his capitalist roots. He started a successful consulting company with his wife, to provide cultural advice to companies doing business in China. One of the closing thoughts in his book seems especially relevant to what’s going on in the streets today:
“In my twenties, I was sure that there was only one answer, and that I knew what it was: socialist revolution. Half a century later, I find myself struggling more and more with questions and finding fewer and fewer answers.”
You might argue that despite his sixteen years in solitary confinement, Rittenberg got off kind of lightly, given his central role in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed the lives of tens of millions of people. But his autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the 20th century story of Communist China.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.