Mao Zedong poses for a photograph in 1950. Photo: Getty/Prospect composite

Politics with bloodshed: how Maoism changed the world

Mao Zedong inspired millions across the world to follow his revolutionary path—with disastrous results
May 4, 2019

Long after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, outbreaks of Maoism still bubble up in the most unlikely places. Two recent examples: in February at the University of California at Irvine, a speech by the climate-change writer Bill McKibben was repeatedly interrupted by loud cries of “Bullshit!” The abuse emanated from a handful of people wearing identical T-shirts and intense expressions—Maoist followers of Bob Avakian, founder of the US Revolutionary Communist Party, who wanted a revolution to fix the climate. In 2013, here in the UK, three women who had been held in slavery escaped from a house in Lambeth, south London. It was the residence of Aravindan Balakrishnan, the founder of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Balakrishnan was later convicted of rape, child cruelty, sexual assault and false imprisonment. Making world revolution didn’t make it on to the charge sheet.

Today the remnants can be unsavoury, but in the heyday of western campus revolution Mao was a familiar icon. In revolutionary circles, he stood out as a leader who relished mutiny for its own sake, even when it was against his own Communist Party. His unpredictability marked his China out from the bureaucratic Soviet Union and licensed direct attacks on what his distant admirers disliked in their own societies.

To students on the streets of Paris in 1968, who saw the Stalinist French Communist Party hesitantly await orders from Moscow, the Mao of 1966, whose Red Guards had paraded their teachers in dunce’s hats, had an immediate—if dubious—appeal. As indeed he did to the founders of the German Baader-Meinhof gang, as well as Italy’s Red Brigade, and the young enthusiasts who pelted passersby with copies of Mao’s Little Red Book from the top of a church in west Berlin.

In her fine new history of global Maoism, the historian Julia Lovell spreads the net even further, tracing the Mao fever that infected so much of the world, not least in the poorer countries where his example and ideas counted for so much. Having come to power at the start of the great wave of decolonisation, Mao’s anti-imperialism made him a hero: if he defeated imperialism, perhaps anyone could.

His innovative theory that revolutionaries must build support among the rural poor so that the countryside can “surround” the city spoke to people in countries that lacked the industrial base and proletariat that had previously been assumed by Marxists to be necessary. In addition, Lovell argues, Mao’s embrace of voluntarism—the conviction that what brings success is “will”—was inspiring to those who had little matériel or military experience to support their armed struggle.

Lovell is an accomplished storyteller with a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of China’s relationship with itself and the world. Her skills were on display in two of her previous histories. In The Great Wall, she explored China’s relations with the steppe people to the north and west; and in The Opium War, she brought a fresh eye to Britain’s ill-fated early attempts to trade with China. In Maoism: A Global History, she argues that the march of the Chairman’s ideas had effects more profound and far-reaching than has been previously been acknowledged.

It is a story as diffuse and contradictory as Mao’s theories themselves—no one could accuse him of being consistent. But if we judge his ideas—simply expressed and disseminated in the millions of copies of his Little Red Book printed for export by the People’s Republic—by their global popularity and curious staying power, then Mao does remain a force to be reckoned with. Understanding that appeal is essential.

The People’s Republic of China has a mantra that its diplomats and politicians have repeated since Mao’s regime was founded in 1949: China, they say, was a victim of imperialism and foreign interference. China itself never seeks hegemony and therefore it never interferes in the internal politics of another nation. Fellow travellers repeat this assertion in support of China’s claim to virtue in international affairs.

It is hard to imagine anyone reading this history could ever take that mantra seriously again. Lovell catalogues the decades of funding, of military training, of political “education” and the encouragement of armed insurrections around the world.

The catalogue includes Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Nepal, India, Malaysia, Peru and Zimbabwe by way of Palestine, West Germany and Italy, all with the aim of fomenting Maoist-style revolutions, and situating Mao’s China as the leader of a new wave of communist states.

The support included propaganda, weapons and money, with five-star tours of China for favoured would-be insurrectionists. They were invariably greeted by large flag-waving crowds, often of schoolchildren. Also essential was the carefully constructed image of prosperity and revolutionary enthusiasm sold to western visitors on “Friendship Tours.”

In his 1970s classic The Emperor’s NewClothes, the Belgian diplomat and historian Pierre Ryckmans (who wrote under the pen name Simon Leys) contrasted the enthusiasm of the visitors with the lack of it among foreigners who actually lived in China.

This sentiment is echoed by John Hevi, a Ghanaian who studied medicine in China in the 1960s, whom Lovell quotes: “God knows there is a lot we’ve got to do to make Africa free,” he wrote, “but what sort of freedom can Africans expect from the hands of those who keep their own people in such subjection?”

In the 1960s, China poured a small fortune into Africa in aid and propaganda—four million copies of the Little Red Book—one for every inhabitant—were distributed in Mali. Training camps were set up in Kenya for the future leaders of the Maoist revolution.

On the whole it was unrewarding work: their biggest success was Robert Mugabe’s victory against Ian Smith in Rhodesia. China became the mainstay of what became Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, a regime that would—in time—manage to halve the life expectancy of its people and impoverish one of the continent’s wealthier countries, all funded by the unwitting generosity of the still struggling Chinese people.

The main legacy of the movements Beijing funded—in Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Peru, Nepal and elsewhere—was death and suffering for the poorest.

But then most of Mao’s international followers, Lovell argues, had no understanding of the realities of Mao’s China. From a distance, such cataclysms as the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) or the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had the compelling appeal of revolutionary miracles. At last, something that worked! Even today, the evolution of Mao’s China into “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—today’s peculiar Leninist-Capitalist system—has generated admiration for the Chinese Communist Party in some unlikely quarters: doctrinaire Maoists might regard it as revisionist, but it is applauded in many western boardrooms.

Mao was fond of the mischievous Monkey character in the 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. His delight in creating havoc made him a very 1960s figure, and his western admirers re-imagined the Cultural Revolution as one long fantastic global libertarian fiesta. What has survived of that? Lovell credits Maoism with a number of innovations that became part of mainstream political and social movements—consciousness-raising as practised by 1970s feminists, and progressive educational reform.

But where, as was more often the case, the theory failed then the results could be appalling. In her chapter on the defeat of Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s, Lovell argues that Mao’s direct encouragement of the Indonesian Communist Party to take a reckless gamble resulted in the slaughter of half a million people and a long shadow of military authoritarianism in Indonesian politics.

Indonesia was attractive to the Chairman as a fertile ground for a Maoist revolution: it was poor, largely rural, recently de-colonised and Asian. When Indonesia’s post-independence leader, the charismatic President Sukarno, visited Beijing in 1956, 300,000 cheering citizens were mobilised to line his route from the airport. Sukarno’s politics originally had plural roots—a blend of nationalism, socialism, Islam and indigenous spirituality. But after being treated like an emperor in China, he told Mao that he now realised it was an error to have several political parties and awarded himself supreme power in his native country.

China swamped Indonesia with bright propaganda images of the happy life under communism. To those who knew nothing of the labour camps, Indonesia seemed drab and backward in comparison.

Dipa Nusantara Aidit, leader of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), also visited China and pronounced the catastrophic Great Leap Forward an economic miracle. In the 1950s, Aidit followed Mao’s revolutionary prescription, successfully building up an extensive network of rural support in the hope that Indonesia could reap similar rewards. By 1965, the PKI and its affiliated organisations could claim around 20m adherents, or one fifth of the population.

The PKI, however, lacked one fundamental ingredient of Mao’s success: an army.

Details remain obscure, but Aidit appears to have tried to decapitate the army in October 1965. Under the leadership of General Suharto and encouraged by the US, the army and its death squads were merciless. Within a year, the army had killed at least half a million and a further million were in detention. The United States called it “a gleam of light in Asia.” Aidit was summarily executed, and in 1967 the ailing Sukarno was replaced by General Suharto, who ruled until 1998.

How much of this was China’s fault? US State Department propaganda pinned the blame firmly on Mao, and Lovell concurs to some extent. Sukarno was ill, and Chinese intelligence believed the army was preparing a reactionary takeover. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai also appeared to have advance knowledge of Aidit’s plan to pre-empt that. Lovell argues that without China’s encouragement, Aidit would not have made such a catastrophic move against the military.

*** There had been many vectors for Mao’s image and ideas over the years. One of the most influential was American journalist Edgar Snow’s book Red Star over China, written after a four-month stay in the revolutionary base in Yenan in 1936. The sanitised picture of Mao—Snow’s text was edited by the Party—created the romantic image of a wise, brave and thoughtful leader who would finally bring justice and dignity to China’s oppressed masses. Until the end of his life, Mao managed to preserve that image for millions of his followers. Many of the accounts that trickled out of the horrors of his regime were dismissed as western propaganda. For them, he was untouchable.

There is a rich vein of dark comedy in the absurdities committed in the name of Mao. A string of celebrities, giddy from visits to China, announced they had seen the future. Radicals intoned Mao’s slogans like magic charms. One case among several that Lovell cites was that of a young American Maoist, Dennis O’Neil, who settled an argument with a Trotskyist friend about which revolutionary hero was correct by reading to their marijuana plants from the respective works. The plants that were verbally sprayed with Trotsky died. Best read Mao to your weed, he advised.

As one contemporary Chinese critic quoted by Lovell put it: “Mao’s great talent lay in turning the Chinese people into slaves, while making them feel they were masters of the country.” Mao’s brutal persecution of real and perceived critics, his savage rectification campaigns in which tens of thousands of people were sacrificed to maintain Party unity and ideological purity, his militarisation of Chinese society and his extravagant leadership cult—all these were replicated by petty tyrants wherever his ideas took hold.

In Cambodia, between April 1975 and January 1979, nearly two million people died in Pol Pot’s version of the Cultural Revolution. In Peru, 70,000 died in the rebellion of Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), most of them from the poor Indian communities, in whose name Sendero’s Mao-inspired leader Abimael Guzmán claimed to be fighting.

In Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh’s version of the people’s war did triumph, Lovell believes that Mao deepened and complicated the conflict. The Sino-Soviet split, she argues, pushed the USSR towards international imperial overreach as it tried to counter Chinese influence. And indeed, while American hawks like to credit the collapse of the Soviet bloc to Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the arms race, Lovell convincingly argues that Soviet competition with China, along with the later US-China rapprochement—all of which flowed from Mao’s assertion of independence from and subsequent competition with Moscow —were equally important.

So what of Mao’s role in China now? Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin was never accepted in China, nor did Mao himself suffer a comparable posthumous rejection. After his death, the Party’s official criticism of Mao was limited to the Cultural Revolution, and even that was largely blamed on his widow Jiang Qing, and the other three members of the Gang of Four. After all, a wider denunciation would implicate the other leaders—or their political descendants—who participated in, or facilitated, his atrocities.

Instead, Mao was embalmed and installed—Lenin-like—in his Tiananmen Square mausoleum as a pilgrimage site. For the Party, he remains the father and guiding light of the revolution to which it still pays lip-service. At one point, this secure place in China’s pantheon did not look guaranteed: in the 1980s there was a decade of painful popular reflection on the Mao years, as people enjoyed the unaccustomed freedom to think and speak, and the giant Mao statues obligatory in Chinese institutions were dismantled. But that ended with the 1989 Democracy Movement and the Tiananmen massacre. The Party returned to orthodoxy and, for many ordinary people, Mao became a talisman, an image to hang on a rear-view mirror, a picture on the wall, next to the deceased grandparents. Local shrines devoted to him attracted worshippers, even as the country’s leader Deng Xiaoping dismantled his policies. There was a cautious opening of the historical archives.

But China was not cured, or even inoculated, against the Mao virus. As the country grew capitalist, critical voices returned to Mao’s words to attack the direction the Party was taking. In Chongqing in the first decade of the century, the now-imprisoned former Party Secretary, Bo Xilai, promoted a Mao revival with mass singalong tributes to the Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, has ruled that history is indivisible—the Mao years and what followed are one glorious story. The archives are closed again and Xi has adopted a Mao-style personality cult along with a fondness for Party purges and ideological orthodoxy.

And yet Maoism’s lingering power to cause trouble is also evident: last year police raided a dormitory at Beijing’s elite Peking University and arrested several self-proclaimed Maoist students. Twenty-one remain in detention. Reading Mao had inspired them to support a group of factory workers in southern China who wanted to form a union. Maoism, it seems, continues to metastasise, and to inspire.

Julia Lovell will be appearing at the Prospect Book Club on 15th July.