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The big reach of the Little Red Book

The global influence of Maoism, from 1970s Zimbabwe to 1990s Peru.

Is the Beijing Consensus finally replacing the Washington Consensus? In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi gave a series of speeches lauding China’s “developmental state” as an alternative to a failed “neoliberal” model in Africa. Indeed, the former Albania-aligned Marxist guerrilla and Open University MBA student became something of an ideologist of Chinese-style state capitalism. Since then, the benefits of Chinese aid in Africa and elsewhere have been questioned, but the recent “Belt and Road Initiative” Forum in Beijing still attracted a record 37 world leaders eager to profit from Chinese economic expansion; seven came from the European Union (and three from governments that include right-wing populists: Italy, Hungary and Austria).

As China’s influence rises and America’s declines, it is unsurprising that historians should revisit the Maoist era – when China last seemed to offer an attractive political and economic model – and Julia Lovell’s highly readable and well-researched book is therefore timely. One of Lovell’s main aims is to put China itself at the centre of the story, challenging a common view that it has never harboured ambitions to be a global power. This line was pushed not only by the post-Mao leadership, keen to stress China’s “peaceful rise”, but also by influential figures such as Henry Kissinger, who has long claimed that China, unlike the United States and Russia, has never been a missionary, proselytising state. But Lovell argues convincingly that under Mao at least, this was certainly not the case; indeed she quotes Mao declaring that, “China is not only the political centre of the world revolution, it must also be the centre of world revolution militarily and technically.”

Mao deployed a number of weapons in his campaign for global revolution. A crucial one was Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (aka The Little Red Book). First published in 1964, it was translated into over 50 languages and official editions numbered well over a billion copies. For Mao its effectiveness could not be exaggerated. As the book’s preface put it, “Mao Zedong Thought”, once adopted by the masses, would be a “spiritual atom bomb of infinite power”. But Mao also used more conventional military and financial means, and Lovell particularly emphasises the direct, material involvement in China’s own “near abroad” – in Cambodia in support of the murderous Pol Pot, and in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Indeed, she argues that Mao saw Vietnam much as Washington did, as a “domino”, and believed a communist victory there would open the way to revolution in Asia.

She also traces the influence of Maoism in many other regions, from Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s success in the 1970s owed much to Maoist political and military strategy, to France, where countercultural Maoists “liberated” foie gras and champagne from the upmarket grocer Fauchon, redistributing the goods to French Africans living in Paris’s slums. In India guerrillas still controlled territory in about half of the country’s states in the 2000s, and in Peru the leader of the bloodthirsty “Shining Path” movement, the philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, wreaked havoc as late as the 1990s, having learnt how to trigger not only “spiritual” bombs, but also real explosives, at a Nanjing party school in 1965.

Lovell’s book contributes to a fuller picture of the Cold War, too often depicted simply as a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. It joins Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s recent The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace in redirecting our attention to the regions where the great powers actually fought and the conflict was far from cold. The John le Carré-inspired vision of sotto voce struggles between world-weary agents directed by self-serving bureaucrats in Moscow and Washington, with the odd casualty at Checkpoint Charlie or in the KGB’s Lubyanka prison, is still strong in the popular imagination. But as Lovell shows, China enthusiastically joined the United States, the USSR, Cuba and some east European states in the geopolitical competition of the era, contributing to the extraordinary violence perpetrated by all sides, particularly in the global South.

Yet while Lovell challenges some aspects of conventional wisdom, she risks inadvertently reinforcing others – in particular, the assumption that Maoism was a coherent movement, single-mindedly committed to violent revolution, directed by foreign powers manipulating a motley crew of fanatics, psychopaths and naive idealists, and prone to spreading “virus-like” (a metaphor Lovell uses) across the world. But central
direction, sacred ideological texts and military aid were only part of the story. Equally if not more important was local context, and Maoism’s appeal to activists and ordinary people who could interpret the ideology in very different ways.

Maoist communism did have some consistent principles: a faith in armed peasant revolution, “class struggle” and anti-imperialism; a hostility to “bureaucrats” and experts; some gender egalitarianism; and a belief in the power of mass mobilisation and willpower to overcome all social and natural obstacles. But it was even less suited to central co-ordination than many rival, particularly Soviet, communisms. Because it was so radical, it particularly suffered from the contradiction between an almost anarchistic commitment to participatory democracy and ruthless military-style discipline. And it was this tension that contributed to the chaos of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in the late 1960s, when rival factions, interpreting Mao’s utterances in different ways, fought pitched battles in the streets as China descended into bloody civil war.

Maoism was even less coherent internationally than it was in China itself, and Beijing was much less effective than Moscow in imposing ideological conformity among allied communists. There was no “Maointern” enforcing orthodoxy and, as Lovell shows, Beijing was remarkably casual when it came to handing out funds to revolutionary groups across the world.

This lack of discipline helped Maoism appeal to a wide variety of revolutionaries, but it also often allowed local and national concerns to take precedence over Beijing’s plans. Mao may have intended to inspire a cadre of guerrillas to spark violent global insurgencies, but how far this came to fruition depended on circumstances.

Mao’s revolutionary project was most likely to be implemented by radicals in poor agrarian societies who believed the only way to improve the lives of peasants was to incite guerrilla attacks on exploitative landlords and oppressive officials, while also radically transforming social life. Comrade Kamala, a commander during the civil war between Maoists and the Hindu Nepalese monarchy that lasted for much of the 1990s and 2000s, told the author that her decision to join the guerrilla insurgency at the age of 15 was partly driven by her rebellion against her parents, who tried to force her to marry and deny her an education. And she firmly believed the reforms that followed the peace of 2006 justified the violence: “Things are better now. People have learned to rebel… far more women in my village go to school.”

In the West, though some, like the “Baader-Meinhof” Red Army Faction, did engage in violence, for many armed insurgency was not central. Rather, they read The Little Red Book primarily as an appeal for a radically democratic alternative to both Cold War liberalism and Soviet communism, both of which they saw as equal parts technocratic domination and cultural repression. At a time when students chafed at conventions and inequalities, Maoism’s denunciation of all expert hierarchies – including those imposed by university teachers – was highly attractive. Once the appeal of the Chinese model in western Europe had faded, many of those who had flirted with Maoism were to embrace non-Marxist forms of anti-authoritarianism – liberal human rights, gay rights or feminism.

Global Maoism is best understood less as a project driven by Chinese planning and cash than as a rather loose movement that flourished at a particularly radical time in world history – when old European empires were crumbling, and both the United States and the USSR were under attack for their own neocolonialism – and owed much of its success to its ability to encompass a wide variety of political forces. Both its radicalism and its origins in the global South suited it to anti-colonial struggles and peasant campaigns for land reform, as well as to Western student and worker calls for greater democracy and cultural liberalism in everyday life.

Lovell certainly discusses the diversity of Maoism, but her book sometimes implies it was more coherent than it really was, while overemphasising the roles of Beijing and Mao himself. And although Lovell does examine the social contexts in which Maoism emerged, these are rarely in the foreground, so readers do not always get a real sense of why the ideology’s highly diverse forms appealed at particular times and in very different societies. This probably emanates from an understandable desire to tell a clear story with Mao at its centre, yet the result is a rather Cold-Warriorish feel.

Historians of any global radical movement – from communism to Islamism – are always faced with the challenge of understanding the balance between central direction and local context. But we should be wary of old narratives featuring fanatical ideologues and foreign meddling, which suit the interests of governing elites who prefer not to examine deeper social tensions or ask uncomfortable questions about why so many might feel alienated from the current order. An excessive faith in this type of history often has disastrous consequences – as the American leaders who peddled the “domino theory” of south-east Asian communism during the Vietnam War, and their successors who waged the “war on terror” after 9/11, discovered to their cost.

Beijing’s promotion of the “China dream” across the world today is even less ideologically coherent than Mao’s campaigns, and it is difficult to imagine far-right populists such as the Italian deputy prime minister and Lega leader Matteo Salvini consulting the speeches of Xi Jinping or attending lectures at their local Confucius Institute. Rather, enthusiasm for China’s state capitalist model is largely the result of the failure to reconstitute a global economic order to replace the American-led neo-liberal one that failed in 2008. And until new, genuinely global solutions to humanity’s problems are found, national models like China’s, for good or ill, will continue to provide recipes for the future. 

David Priestland is a professor of modern history at Oxford University. His books include “The Red Flag: A History of Communism” (Grove Press)

Maoism: A Global History
Julia Lovell
Bodley Head, 624pp, £30

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in