Mao Zedong inspired millions across the world to follow his revolutionary path—with disastrous resultsby Isabel Hilton / May 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…