The Chairman vanishes

Communist dictators often feel compelled to prove that they are not merely great revolutionaries, but also great and original thinkers. In reality all are variants of the same system

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“Chairman Mao inspects the situation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, 1967. This painting was widely reproduced as a poster with the addition of two lines of Mao’s poetry: “Man’s world is mutable / Seas become mulberry fields”

Communist dictators often feel compelled to prove that they are not merely great revolutionaries, but also great thinkers. It is not enough to carry out a revolution; it requires justification in philosophical terms. A body of work that further develops the tenets of Marxism-Leninism must be produced, preferably one that allows the dictator the suffix “ism” to his name. Among dozens of varieties, we find Stalinism, Titoism, Maoism, Kimism, Hoxhaism, Kadarism, Ceaușescuism and of course Castroism. All insist that while the iron laws of dialectical materialism drive revolution, their particular brand somehow remains quite unique in world history. In reality all are variants of the same system, and none qualifies as philosophy. Few readers today spend time browsing through the 13 volumes of the Collected Works of Stalin or the 28 weighty tomes penned by Ceaușescu, never mind the Complete Works of Kim Il-Sung.

Should “Maoism” be treated differently from, say, Hoxhaism or Kimism? I greatly doubt it. Mao was a successful revolutionary, in the sense that unlike Hitler and Mussolini he died of old age in his own bed. So did Hoxha and Kim. Mao may have been many things, including a gifted wordsmith, a consummate strategist, and a master at corridor politics, but he was no philosopher. His most influential texts (“On Contradiction”, “On Practice”) were ghost-written by Chen Boda, a propagandist trained in Moscow in the 1930s. Stalin himself called Mao a “cave Marxist”, recoiling as his counterpart discarded industrial workers and substituted the peasantry.

Like most communist dictators, Mao was if anything a Stalinist. As soon as the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, it imposed a harsh regime modelled on the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union’s Today is our Tomorrow” became the slogan of the day. Mao emulated Stalin, seeing the collectivisation of agriculture, the elimination of private property, all-pervasive control of the lives of ordinary people, a cult of the leader, and huge expenditures on national defence as the keys to wealth and power.

Julia Lovell, in Maoism: A Global History, proposes to study the many ramifications of what she labels “international Maoism”. Even as she accepts that the term is elusive and encompasses ideas that proved fleeting and even contradictory over time, her first chapter asks “What is Maoism?” She postulates nine core features to this “programme”, from the use of political violence (“power comes from the barrel of a gun”), a fiercely anti-imperialist stance (“imperialism is a paper tiger”) and feminism (“women can hold up half the sky”) to a pragmatic attitude towards revolutionary practice (“practice is the sole criterion of truth”). But it is difficult to see where any of these prescriptions departed from the Soviet model. Lenin applauded violence, abhorred imperialism, and embraced gender equality, as the Soviet constitution became the first to recognise the equal rights of women. Lenin also ruthlessly crushed all independent feminist organisations, much as Mao would do 40 years later, ensuring that all were equally subservient to the state.

The one key distinguishing feature of the Chinese revolution was that Mao and his acolytes embraced the peasants, treating them as the revolutionary vanguard. They had no alternative, as government forces repeatedly forced them to retreat into the hinterland in the decades before 1949. Their approach made sense in a predominantly agricultural country in which fewer than half of one percent of the population worked in factories. After the revolution, however, the peasants were betrayed and transformed into bonded servants of the state, with many millions exploited, beaten and starved — just as in the Soviet Union.

Undeniably, around the world Mao became an inspirational figure for countless rebels and dreamers. Like Che Guevara, his image dominated the revolutionary landscape of the Cold War era, from posters, T-shirts and badges to quotations culled from the Little Red Book. Like Che, he served as an icon of liberation, a symbol of the counter-revolution, an emblem of very different and sometimes mutually contradictory causes, from civil disobedience to world revolution.

The man who contributed most to crafting Mao’s international image was Edgar Snow, a young, idealistic reporter from Missouri invited to spend several months with the Chairman in Yan’an in 1936. Mao offered a mythical version of his own life, personally checking and amending every detail of the account by the American journalist. Red Star Over China, published the following year, was an instant success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages. It introduced to the outside world the mysterious leader of the Chinese Communist Party, describing him as a


. . . scholar of classical Chinese, an omnivorous reader, a deep student of philosophy and history, a good speaker, a man with an unusual memory and extraordinary powers of concentration, an able writer, careless in his personal habits and appearance but astonishingly meticulous about details of duty, a man of tireless energy and a military and political strategist of considerable genius.

The book’s cover, showing Mao wearing a military cap with a single red star, became an iconic image.

Red Star Over China had many afterlives. Its heyday came during the Cultural Revolution, as students everywhere seemed to become enamoured with Mao the rebel. A surprising range of individuals in Europe and North America, as Lovell notes, ran a Maoist fever from the late 1960s. Wearing a Mao badge seemingly became a common act of defiance against every bourgeois order. Schoolboys in Britain asked the Chinese mission in London for copies of the Little Red Book. Students in Paris who rebelled against the establishment in May 1968 covered the Sorbonne in portraits of Mao. In New York shoppers could be seen snapping up Mao suits for $130 apiece, while Andy Warhol produced silkscreen prints sporting the chairman’s image. Even some Black Panthers dressed as Chinese peasants, as Mao’s anti-imperialist stance resonated with dispossessed minorities. “For blacks, Latins and Asians, and the whites who identified with the third World, Mao was Marx and Lenin and Stalin but he wasn’t white,” one sympathiser pointed out. The Little Red Book was easy to understand, with pithy slogans like “Revolution is Not a Dinner Party”, which helped a great deal.

But nowhere outside China was Maoism a major political force. Lovell rhetorically wonders why we fail to view Maoism as a major global phenomenon. The answer is simple: it was a fringe movement, a marketing triumph of style over substance. For all the enthusiasm with which students embraced Mao as an icon of youthful rebellion, the only Maoist movement in Britain was headed by a deranged Londoner, leader of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, a splinter group of the already tiny Communist Party of Britain (membership at most 400). In October 2013 it emerged that the leader and his wife had for decades held several women as captives. In the United States the most notable action of the largest Maoist organisation, christened the Revolutionary Union, was to raise the red flag over the Alamo.

There are three exceptions, recounted in separate chapters by Lovell, namely the Shining Path in Peru, the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The Shining Path waged guerrilla warfare in the Andean highlands for more than a decade until the capture of its leader Abimael Guzmán–a delusional and brutal murderer who declared Maoism to be the “third and higher stage of Marxism”. The Naxalites have operated intermittently in parts of India since the mid-1960s, although they have fragmented into disputing factions and probably number no more than 30,000 members. The Nepalese are the only Maoists ever to have been elected to government.

Since global Maoism was rather limited in scope, Lovell also examines Mao’s internationalism, in effect weaving two quite separate stories together in one book. Again, although most communist regimes were keen to boost their outside image and external influence, the reader is given the impression that Mao’s internationalism was quite exceptional. While Mao intervened in North Korea, Castro regularly sent troops to many parts of Africa, from Angola to Ethiopia. And in Ethiopia, Mengistu projected himself as a communist leader for all Africa. Even in the North Korean hermit kingdom, Kim Il-sung fancied himself a key player on the world stage, financing more than 200 organisations in some 50 countries to study Kimism. His eponymous ideology may have been rather less popular than Maoism, but Kim expertly played Mao against Khrushchev and outmanoeuvred both, freeing himself from their influence while continuing to benefit from their financial aid.

In China, Lovell explains, Mao began competing with the Soviet Union for leadership in the world revolution soon after Stalin died in 1953, pouring billions of renminbi into Asia, Africa and Latin America. Mao aided and abetted guerrilla insurrections wherever possible, not least in south-east Asia, which he viewed as his personal domain. In the case of Vietnam, military advisors were dispatched to the Viet Minh the moment the red flag was raised over the Forbidden City in 1949. The Vietnamese, of course, ultimately broke with their erstwhile ally China, much as China turned against the Soviet Union. Instead, Pol Pot in Cambodia became a major Chinese beneficiary, although here, too, large investments bought little political traction. These chapters are enjoyable but less enlightening, largely expounding well-known stories previously recounted by other historians, not least Chen Jian, Arne Westad and Sergey Radchenko.

Maoism, Julia Lovell claims, was “one of the major stories of the 20th and 21st centuries”. I venture to disagree. If there is a major story here, it is how the Chinese Communist Party has over the past two decades successfully extended its reach far and wide, using its economic and military clout to claim a place at the centre of global affairs. That story has little to do with Maoism, which vanished soon after Mao died, much as Hoxhaism or Kimism would disappear a few years later.


Maoism: A Global History
By Julia Lovell
Bodley Head, 640pp, £30