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How the west embraced Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

At the peak of its popularity, Mao's bible was the most printed book in the world. It attained the status of a sacred, holy text during the Cultural Revolution, and retains its place among western devotees.

Raise the red icon: with the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, the belief in the power of the Chinese chairman's words spread to Europe. Image: Corbis.

Mao's Little Red Book: a Global History
Edited by Alexander C Cook
Cambridge University Press, 299pp, £17.99

In 1968 a Red Guard publication instructed that scientists must follow Mao Zedong’s injunction: “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory.” Expert knowledge was not valid, and might be dangerously misleading, without the great leader’s guidance. Examples of revolutionary science abounded at the time. In one account, a soldier training to be a veterinarian found it difficult to castrate pigs. Studying Mao’s words enabled him to overcome this selfish reaction and gave him courage to perform the task. In another inspirational tale, Mao’s thoughts inspired a new method of protecting their crops from bad weather: making rockets and shooting them into the sky, peasants were able to disperse the clouds and prevent hailstorms.

By the time the Red Guard publication appeared, Mao’s Little Red Book had been published in numbers sufficient to supply a copy to every Chinese citizen in a population of more than 740 million. At the peak of its popularity from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, it was the most printed book in the world. In the years between 1966 and 1971, well over a billion copies of the official version were published and translations were issued in three dozen languages. There were many local reprints, illicit editions and unauthorised translations. Though exact figures are not possible, the text must count among the most widely distributed in all history. In the view of Daniel Leese, one of the contributors to Mao’s Little Red Book, the volume “ranks second only to the Bible” in terms of print circulation.

Originally the book was conceived for internal use by the army. In 1961, the minister of defence Lin Biao – appointed by Mao after the previous holder of the post had been sacked for voicing criticism of the disastrous Great Leap Forward – instructed the army journal the PLA Daily to publish a daily quotation from Mao. Bringing together hundreds of excerpts from his published writings and speeches and presenting them under thematic rubrics, the first official edition was printed in 1964 by the general political department of the People’s Liberation Army in the water-resistant red vinyl design that would become iconic.

With its words intended to be recited in groups, the correct interpretation of Mao’s thoughts being determined by political commissars, the book became what Leese describes as “the only criterion of truth” during the Cultural Revolution. After a period of “anarchic quotation wars”, when it was deployed as a weapon in a variety of political conflicts, Mao put the lid on the book’s uncontrolled use. Beginning in late 1967, military rule was imposed and the PLA was designated “the great school” for Chinese society. Ritual citation from the book became common as a way of displaying ideological conformity; customers in shops interspersed their orders with citations as they made their purchases. Long terms of imprisonment were handed out to anyone convicted of damaging or destroying a copy of what had become a sacred text.

The editor of Mao’s Little Red Book writes in the preface that this is “the first scholarly effort to understand Quotations from Chairman Mao as a global historical phenomenon”. It is an accurate description, but the collection has the shortcomings that are to be expected in a book of essays by academic authors. The prose style is mostly stodgy and convoluted, and the contributors seem anxious to avoid anything that might smack of a negative attitude towards the ideas and events they describe. “As a group,” the editor continues, “we are diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnicity and political sympathies.” He is right that, judged by prevailing standards, it is a well-balanced group. All of the relevant disciplines are represented – history, area studies, literature, political science and sociology – and although ten of the 13 contributors teach in the US, the collection is representative of the range of views of China that you will find in universities in much of the world. However, the fact that it reflects the present state of academic opinion is also the book’s most important limitation.

Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death,” Mao observed laconically. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” He did not specify how those condemned to perish would be made to accept their fate. Ensuing events provided the answer: mass executions and torture, beatings and sexual violence against women were an integral part of a politically induced famine that reduced sections of the population to eating roots, mud and insects, and others to cannibalism. When Mao ordered an end to the horrific experiment in 1961, it was in order to launch another. The Cultural Revolution was nothing like as costly in fatalities, but it left a trail of broken lives and cultural devastation, the memory of which is one of the chief sources of the post-Mao regime’s legitimacy.

There will be some who object that everyone knows about Mao’s failings – why bang on about them now? However, if today we know the scale of Mao’s crimes, it is not as a result of decades of academic work on the subject. The first detailed examination of the famine, Hungry Ghosts (1996), was written by the Hong Kong-based journalist Jasper Becker. It was only in 2010 that the historian Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine appeared, a pioneering study based on years of research in recently opened Chinese archives. Apart from accounts given in the memoirs of those who survived, the human costs of the Cultural Revolution were best captured by Simon Leys (the pen-name of the Belgian sinologist and literary critic Pierre Ryckmans) in his books Chinese Shadows (1974) and The Burning Forest (1987). The authoritative and revelatory Mao: the Unknown Story (2005) is the work of Jung Chang and her husband, Jon Halliday. Aside from Dikötter’s, none of the books that captured the human experience of life under Mao was written by a professional academic.

In fastidiously avoiding any reference to the oppressive realities of the Mao years, academics were faithful followers of conventional opinion. The predominant western perception of Mao’s regime was of a progressive political project – if at times it got a little out of hand, that was no more than the exuberance that goes naturally with such a liberating enterprise. When in the 1970s I raised with a British communist the millions who were killed in rural purges in the years immediately after Mao came to power, he told me, “Those sorts of numbers are just for western consumption.” Further conversation showed that his estimates of the actual numbers were significantly lower than those conceded by the regime. No doubt unwittingly, he had stumbled on a curious truth: the prestige of the Mao regime in the west was at its height when the leadership was believed to be at its most despotic and murderous. For some of its western admirers, the regime’s violence had a compelling charm in its own right.

Julian Bourg recounts how in France Mao’s thoughts became à la mode with the August 1967 release of La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s film about a youthful Parisian Maoist sect. Among French thinkers, Bourg notes, “Mao’s language of violence had a certain rhetorical appeal.” In fact, it was his combination of rhetorical violence with sub-Hegelian dialectical logic that proved so irresistible to sections of the French intelligentsia. Eulogising Mao’s distinction between principal and secondary contradictions, Louis Althusser deployed Maoist categories as part of an extremely abstract and, indeed, largely meaningless defence of “the relative autonomy of theory”.

Althusser’s student Alain Badiou (for many years professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure) continued to defend Maoism long after the scale of its casualties had become undeniable. As recently as 2008, while commending himself for being “now one of Maoism’s few noteworthy representatives”, Badiou praised Mao’s thought as “a new politics of the negation of the negation”. From one point of view, this stance is merely contemptible – a professorial pirouette around a vast pile of corpses. But one must bear in mind the fathomless frivolity of some on the French left. Already in 1980, two former Maoist militants had announced their rejection of the creed in the language of fashion: “China was in . . . Now it is out . . . we are no longer Maoists.” Against this background, Badiou’s persistence is almost heroically absurd.

In the west, Maoism had two defining characteristics: it bore no relation to conditions in China, in regard to which its proponents remained invincibly ignorant; and it was embraced by sections of an intellectual class that was, for political purposes, almost entirely irrelevant. In Italy, Mao’s thought had for a time a slightly wider influence.
As Dominique Kirchner Reill writes, discussing Maoism in Italy and Yugoslavia, “In Italy Mao-mania was not purely a left-wing phenomenon. Some ultra-right groups quoted their Little Red Books to justify their arguments.” In 1968-73 the neo-fascist party Lotto di Popolo (“the people’s fight”) lauded Mao as an exemplary nationalist and resolute opponent of US global hegemony. In a footnote Reill observes that the “Nazi-Maoist movement in Italy included many other figures and groups” besides the Lotto di Popolo. It is a pity this aspect of Mao’s influence is not explored in greater detail.

Despite its inevitable limitations as an academic text, Mao’s Little Red Book contains much that is of interest. In a programmatic introductory essay Alexander C Cook compares the Chinese leader’s book to a “spiritual atom bomb” and considers its global fallout. Showing how it reflects the influence of the choral singing introduced into China by 19th-century Christian missionaries, Andrew F Jones provides an illuminating account of the rise of the Maoist pop song. Taking as her starting point the global distribution of the Little Red Book to over a hundred countries in the eight months between October 1966 and May 1967, Xu Lanjun examines the process of translation in the context of Maoist ideas of global revolution. Quinn Slobodian discusses the impact the book had in eastern and western Germany. In the concluding essay, Ban Wang considers the Little Red Book and “religion as politics” in China. Elsewhere, its influence in Tanzania, India, Peru, Albania and the former Soviet Union is discussed.

To my mind, the most illuminating contributions are those of Slobodian and Wang. Distinguishing between “badge books” and “brand books”, Slobodian defines the former as “books that express meaning through their outer form”, while brand books are “commodities that are consumed within the space of the market”. In West Germany in the late 1960s, the Little Red Book “resembled simultaneously an accessory of the classical workers’ movement and a modish commodity of the educated elite”. In theatres, across from the refreshments, there were glass cases “full of pretty red Mao bibles (two Deutsche Marks each)”. As an anti-consumerist commodity, the book became “a marker of social distinction within a commercial market”.

For Wang, the book “represented a scriptural authority and emanated a sacred aura”. During the Cultural Revolution study sessions were an unavoidable part of everyday life for people in China. Involving “ritualistic confessions of one’s errant thoughts and nightly diary-writing aimed at self-criticism”, these sessions, he writes, “may be seen as a form of text-based indoctrination that resembles religious hermeneutics and catechism” – a “quasi-religious practice of canonical texts”.

It was not long before the Little Red Book and anyone connected with it fell out of favour with the Chinese authorities. In September 1971, Lin Biao – who had first promoted the use of Mao’s quotations in the army – died in a plane crash in circumstances that have never been properly explained. Condemned as distorting Mao’s ideas and exerting a “widespread and pernicious influence”, the book was withdrawn from circulation in February 1979 and a hundred million copies pulped.

If it was used as scripture during the Cultural Revolution, the Little Red Book had something of the same function for its western devotees. In China, studying the book was believed to have enabled peasants to control the weather. In the west, its practical efficacy was more limited. Among the radical intelligentsia, it provided a fantasy of revolution that enabled them to forget that their political influence was practically non-existent. As China has embraced a type of capitalism and turned itself into the world’s second-largest economy, original editions have become a scarce commodity. Today the great leader’s thoughts have joined a host of trashy collectibles – Mao fridge magnets, CD cases, cigarette lighters and playing cards, among other bric-a-brac – and become items whose only value lies in the commercial marketplace. The Little Red Book has now achieved what looks like being its most enduring significance: as a piece of capitalist kitsch.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall