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‘Maoism’ by Julia Lovell

Blog • • Professor Julia Lovell FBA

Al-Rodhan Prize logoThis is part of our 2019 Al-Rodhan Prize series celebrating the six non-fiction books shortlisted for promoting global cultural understanding. In this extract from ‘Maoism’ , Julia Lovell considers the contradictions of Maoism in all its global forms. 


While crossing the globe, Mao’s ideas and practices have been implemented in both rigid and adaptable ways. Indian and Peruvian Maoists tried to superimpose onto (more or less) functioning democracies an intractable vision of 1960s Maoism that preached pitiless class struggle directed by a conspiratorial, authoritarian Communist Party. Maoism’s trajectory in Western Europe and the US has been far more wayward. Here, rebels took Maoism as a toolkit for protest. Their engagement with the Cultural Revolution – which in China played out with chaotic repressiveness – scattered into diverse anti-establishment projects (some with their own authoritarian tendencies). 

Some of the translations of Mao’s ideas have been outright distortions. One bewildering example is the way in which Maoist sympathisers in the West and in Nepal read or implemented Mao’s ideas as championing the rights of underprivileged minorities. Maoism in China was in fact violently intolerant of minority rights; consider, as just one example, the tremendous suffering of the Tibetan people during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. 

Maoism’s global journeys have generated other incongruities. Mao is rightly seen as the first major Communist thinker to champion the revolutionary potential of an impoverished rural majority. And yet – both in China and beyond – the rural poor have suffered most at the hands of Mao’s theories and practices. In the People's Republic of China (PRC), farmers starved in their tens of millions after the Great Leap Forward; in India, Nepal and Peru, it was inhabitants of the countryside that constituted the majority of victims in Maoist insurgencies. Their leaders, paradoxically, have come from the educated classes of which Mao himself was so suspicious. 

Mao’s key ideas about the need for violent rebellion to sweep away social injustice and his practical strategies to achieve this aim – party-building, mass work, protracted guerilla warfare – have attracted the discontented across decades and territories. Educated persuaders have used these emotional ideals to galvanise insurgencies, sometimes with enormous bloodshed. But except in China, Maoist insurgencies have failed to translate into stable political power. (And even in China, the Maoist fondness for mass mobilisation has threatened to topple the regime at least twice, amid the catastrophic aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and in the first two years of the Cultural Revolution.) Mao’s promise of ‘mass democracy’ has never delivered: in practice, it has usually resulted in the triumph of those who shout the loudest, or fight and plot the hardest. A Beijing taxi driver once summed up for me, during a five-minute conversation, Maoism’s 80-year political appeal and limitations. “The good thing about China under Mao is that everyone was equal. Not like now, when people will do you over for money, and even beggars won’t leave you alone until you give them 100 yuan.” I asked if he would therefore like to turn the clock back to Mao’s era. “No,” he quickly replied. “I’d rather get myself some education.” To this member of an over-worked, underprivileged economic class in China today, equality of opportunity is more attractive than forcible equalising of outcome. 

Maoism by Julia Lovell book coverThe story of Maoism’s international travels reveals also the PRC’s repertoire of global interventions. It undermines the historical orthodoxy – propagated by China but widely accepted in the West – that Mao-era China had no engagement with the world beyond its borders. Through the research for this book, I began to grasp the enormous amount of time, energy and money that the PRC under Mao put into projecting its image and influence abroad. This task was vast and various. Chinese hosts provided Simone de Beauvoir’s hotel room with a brass double bed and pink silk sheets; she was enraptured. On the occasion of a ceremonial visit by a key ally, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, public security emptied the streets of an entire city and repopulated them with plain-clothes police disguised as ordinary urbanites. The CCP threw billions of dollars at African railways and health care, and financed guerrilla insurgencies across the globe. Although Mao’s China often did not play by international rules, it did play. 

Maoism’s global engagements have had unpredictable results, reflecting the unstable history and political objectives of China between 1949 and 1976. In South East Asia, they brought bitter nationalist warfare; in West Germany, they produced Maoist hippies keen on both the Little Red Book and free love; in Africa, China’s vast aid budgets were happily received by pragmatic state-builders with little interest in implementing Maoist policies. Large investments – in Vietnam, Cambodia and Zambia, for example – bought little or no political traction. In Peru and Nepal, by contrast, the mere dispersal of propaganda and inviting of a handful of hard-line left-wingers on tours of China, won Mao devotees willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of their countrymen to implement a Maoist revolution. The consequences of Maoist foreign policy interventions still haunt global politics today: in India, Nepal and Cambodia (where Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander with an appalling record of political violence, is currently one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers). Last but not least, Maoist history and ideology – the memory of Chinese sacrifice in the Korean War and the two states’ shared ideological origins – have preserved the PRC’s support for North Korea; without that assistance, we would not be confronted by the current threat of potential nuclear destabilisation and by harrowing human rights abuses in North Korea.


© Julia Lovell from Maoism: A Global History, The Bodley Head, 2019

Maosim is shortlisted for the 2019 Al-Rodhan Prize.

Julia Lovell is Professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2019. Her two most recent books are The Great Wall anThe Opium War (which won the 2012 Jan Michalski Prize). She is currently completing a new translation of Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en. She writes about China for several newspapers, including the GuardianFinancial TimesNew York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Blog • • Professor Julia Lovell FBA