ASSOCIATE EDITOR CAMILLE BRYAN WRITES — A true revolutionary dedicated to avenging colonial invasions, Chairman Mao would delight in seeing today’s uprising in the West: the burning courthouses, destroyed storefronts, street rampages — all in demand that the world hear those formerly silenced. In his own country, the Chairman legitimized such use of violence as a fight to create a history separate from that of western capitalism. His doctrine that the masses are the makers of history, that the state must be prioritized over the individual, and that both are born to revolt and overthrow intellectual elitists created Communist revolutions not only throughout China but in Vietnam, Nepal, India, Peru, Italy, and even the United States.
Julia Lovell’s Maoism (Knopf, 2019) takes you to every corner of the world and every Maoist movement that was inspired by the Cultural Revolution as espoused in that legendary Little Red Book. Her work is not a history of China (no book could fully encompass those 9000 years), nor is it a history of Mao. Rather, it details the journey of the Chairman’s vast ideological influence and never ceasing dedication to exporting Communism with as much fervor as Xi Jinping’s regime today exports iPhone parts.
Lovell takes you from the birthplace of Mao in southern China to the creation of the PRC (People’s Republic of China); to the Vietnam War; to Cambodia; through the Cultural Revolution; down to Zimbabwe; over to Peru; then back to Nepal and India, at which point you need a stretch break and a quick turn to page 467 to check her book’s handy chronology appendix, just to make sure you know exactly where you are, literally, in global history. These revolutions were certainly not dinner parties, to paraphrase Mao. Lovell spares no expense in either lexicon or diction as she goes through communist insurrection after communist insurrection, detailing the expansion of China’s soft power.
Lovell tells how, through it all, Peking (now re-named Beijing) radio broadcast Maoist thought throughout Africa as Mao tried to out-communist the Soviet Union. His purpose: to show solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle by pushing Chinese comrades into African countries in order to receive the African delegation’s vote as to whether China or Taiwan would get a seat at the United Nations. Beijing, of course, won. Such an impact on the international balance of power exemplifies the reach of Maoist ideology.
Lovell’s dense and detailed account (awarded the 2109 Cundill History Prize) shows just how all of this happened. Mao facilitated and empowered full-scale state communist revolts such as the one in Indochina and facilitated the movement of masses into the fields. What’s more, Lovell discusses how political protest in the United States throughout the 60’s and 70’s was actually based on Maoist thought. The radicalism of the second wave of feminism, the Black Panther movement and the growing power of the LGBT community stem from Maoist concepts such as: “consciousness raising,” “serving the people” and “cultural revolution.” That the Chairman could take his power and domination of Chinese communist thought so far that it seeped into the minds of western, capitalist American youth goes far beyond what we normally conceptualize when we think of Mao.
Herein lies the enormous global influence of Mao, up until the year 2018, when China gained a leader who did away with pesky term limits. Xi Jinping, Lovell argues, is a newer, shinier, quasi-Mao — one who thrives off a market economy and special economic zones. Instead of producing millions of Little Red Books, this 21st century “Mao” produces miles of railroad tracks, oil pipelines and highways to create a modern Silk Road of Chinese influence, via the Belt and Road Initiative.
Lovell is quick to posit a tad of realism into this argument, though, noting that the God-like adulation of Mao is not extended to Xi, despite Xi’s many political writings attempting to spread his word across the world. This by no means suggests we should pay less heed to the seemingly never-ending rise of China, or to the tightening political control enabled by prevailing tenets of Maoism. Lovell warns, and rightfully so, that the complexities and dichotomies of Maoist thought are here to stay.
Lovell’s exceptionally ambitious book is a kind of cautionary tale. As we enter a new age of insurrection, the reader might well reflect on the necessity to take care as the masses rise again in revolution under leaders who encourage reactionary violence and ensure that we learn from the vast array of Mao’s mistakes.