Julia Lovell, a professor of modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London, writes at great length and with abundant detail about the enduring influence of Chairman Mao’s brand of political revolutionary thought in her new book Maoism: A Global History, which is based in part on extensive research conducted at archives in Beijing, Shanghai, Berlin, Paris, Lima, New York, and elsewhere.
Lovell is the most recent scholar to interpret Mao’s deeds and words, many of them published in the “Little Red Book,” a bible of sorts for would-be revolutionaries around the world, including members of the Revolutionary Union, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the Weather Underground in the U.S. who carried the book, quoted from it, waved it above their heads at meetings and failed to hear or heed the Beatles, who sang, “when you talk about destruction/you can count me out” and “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” I remember the sad day I visited two members of the Weather Underground at a “safe house” in the Bronx, took one look at the extra-large poster of Mao on the wall, shook my head, said, “Sorry” and walked away. I also remember watching Mao and Nixon on TV in 1972 with several fugitives, one of whom said with disgust, “What’s the point anymore?” Mao had out Mao-ed them.
In Maoism, Lovell chronicles the genesis and evolution of the People’s Republic of China and traces the global reach of the phenomena of Mao’s thoughts for the benefit of readers in the West. It’s unlikely that her book will be published and read in Shanghai and Beijing unless copies are smuggled into the country. Lovell tells stories about modern China that Chinese leaders today undoubtedly would not want the Chinese people to read, as, for example when she writes about Mao’s sex life—he was a male chauvinist pig—his “split personality” or the role of the Chinese Communist Party in the opium trade when it needed funds to make war on Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists.
Long before Lovell began to wrestle with the many contradictions of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party—which controls a thriving capitalist economy— a dozen Western journalists and reporters paved the way for her and refused to view China as an enigma or a riddle, to borrow the words Winston Churchill famously used to describe Russia. Indeed, for more than 100 years, Orientalists insisted that the East was unknowable, mysterious, and opaque.
Not so for the likes of Lovell’s precursors: Jack Belden, Clare Hollingworth, William Hinton, Annalee Jacoby, Jonathan Mirsky, Graham Peck, Joan Robinson, Orville Schell, Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, Theodore White, and Anna Louise Strong, the author of more than 30 books including Tomorrow’s China (1948), Inside North Korea, and an autobiography titled I Changed Worlds: The Remaking of an American. Humble, Strong was not. Lovell is far more modest.
Some of the above-mentioned American and British writers were “fellow travelers,” others outright socialists or communists, still others passionate admirers of the People’s Republic and its leaders. In one way or another Hinton, Hollingworth, Strong, and especially the naive Edgar Snow helped to create the myth of Mao Zedong, who was born into a peasant family in 1893 and who, unlike Zhou and many other comrades, never traveled outside China.
As Lovell shows in chapter after chapter, and for 600-plus pages, Mao shaped dozens of global anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and guerrilla movements. From Tanzania to Peru and from France to the U.S., he was a hero to rebellious students and would-be architects of revolution who rejected reform and peaceful change through elections and turned instead to “armed struggle.”
Lovell tries to steer a course that avoids the “Chinese Panglossians” on the one hand and “the Western cynics” on the other hand. She is critical of Mao’s top-down schemes for modernization and industrialization, including the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, critical, too, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that lasted from 1966 to 1976 and that begat violence and chaos and seemed like madness to many observers. At the same time, she is critical of McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States in the 1950s that exaggerated, in her view, the dangers of Red China and the threat of Chinese “brainwashing.”
“The US intelligence community did not have easy access to solid information about China,” she writes. “The debacle—from the US point of view—of the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 led to a witch hunt of the ‘China Hands’ in the State Department.” She adds that “almost an entire generation was purged from positions of influence and respectability” and that “this traumatic phase for Chinese expertise in the US unbalanced American analysis and policymaking for decades—the US is arguably still suffering the consequences today.” She lambasts the “Reagan Doctrine,” which included, she argues, “the bankrolling of almost any Third World ally (including Afghan jihadists, the mujahedeen) who pledged to fight Soviet influence.” Lovell adds, “the repercussions of this strategy still haunt us today.” Then, too, she insists that “Mao’s scheme for world revolution … would hasten the end of the Cold War,” though she doesn’t explain how or why.
Lovell also argues that Maoist ideas fed the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests. In chapter 8, “‘You Are Old, We Are Young, Mao Zedong.’ Maoism in the United States and in Europe,” Lovell writes, “Although I have no intention of muting the tragedies, absurdities and misapprehension of the Cultural Revolution’s global travels, I also want to consider some of the positive legacies of far-left politics in Western Europe and the US.” Those positive legacies include, in her view, “consciousness-raising,” “feminist, gay rights, racial equality, environmental and academic movements outside China.”
What Lovell doesn’t acknowledge is the primary role of ideas, books, and causes that were born in the U.S., England, and France, and were independent of Mao, Maoism, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Radicalism in the U.S. was hardly a foreign import. In the 20th century, it was sustained by writers and thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Reed, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and W.E.B. Du Bois and buttressed by the New England transcendentalists, especially Thoreau, by the anti-slavery abolitionists, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Rachel Carson and the foes of pesticides and herbicides, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black church, and a host of nature writers such as John Muir who helped found the Sierra Club and popularized the idea of national parks.
The section on Maoism in the U.S. and Europe is one of the weakest in the book. Indeed, Lovell could not be more wrong than when she says that “one of the most under-told stories” is about the ways that “the culture and politics of Cultural Revolution China permeated Western radicalism during the 1960s and 1970s. ”Where she got that idea, I don’t know. Lovell herself offers a 25-page bibliography of selected works like Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che. At the same time, she borrows from Tom Wolfe’s notion of “radical chic” and has fun ridiculing Shirley MacLaine who wrote that “the Chinese way might be the way of the future” while nodding in the direction of those two American cultural revolutionaries, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
In my view, Lovell is mostly glib in her treatment of the Youth International Party, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, and on American Maoists like Bob Avakian and his followers in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), as well as H. Bruce Franklin, the notorious Stanford University professor, who founded with others the Revolutionary Union and later recreated himself and his career at Rutgers. Lovell calls Avakian “reclusive,” but that’s probably because she didn’t dig far enough or deep enough to unearth and map his fiery brand of Mao Zedong-inspired thought.
Lovell’s blinkered understanding of a generation of Western revolutionaries who called themselves Maoists echoes the delusions of the revolutionaries themselves, like the ones I left in the Bronx “safe house” beneath their poster of Chairman Mao. The icon on their wall repelled me because it was a marker of the distorted interior lives of would-be revolutionaries who couldn’t see or feel or understand their own American cultural roots, and in a kind of desperation had turned to worship the image of a man who had no connection to their world in the Bronx. The wall poster was meant to be an advertisement for themselves, and to convey the message that they were still revolutionaries, despite their near-complete ignorance of China or the real Chairman Mao. If they had posted Gandhi’s image on the wall I suppose I would have been less upset, but I still would have wondered why they thought they had to look to a poster of Gandhi every day as though he would save them.
From about 1967 to 1973, when I was involved with anti-Vietnam War protests and worked with SDS, the Panthers, the Yippies, and the Weathermen, I too thought of myself as a Maoist. Reading Maoism reminded me of a great deal that I had forgotten about my own biography as a radical. It also showed me convincingly how entwined the history of the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. have been over the past 72 years: all through World War II; the Korean War, which has never officially ended; the War in Vietnam, which ripped apart the fabric of American society; Nixon’s visit to China and his meeting with Mao; the continuing battles over Hong Kong; the latest trade wars; and what looks like a new Cold War between Washington, D.C., and Beijing.
One summer when I had nothing better to do, I read Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, (1937) William Hinton’s Fanshen (1966), and Joan Robinson’s The Cultural Revolution in China (1969), which helped me to understand that Mao turned Marxism upside down and recognized that the “superstructure” shaped the “base,” and not the other way. Snow’s, Hinton’s, and Robinson’s books opened doors to worlds I had not known, situated me in a culture that was unfamiliar to me, and inspired me to become a political journalist and a reporter. In 1970 when I was putting the finishing touches to my book, The Mythology of Imperialism, I added an introductory chapter titled “Bombard the Critics” which I hoped would launch a kind of cultural revolution in the field of literary criticism and unseat some of its iconic figures, including F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. I borrowed the title for my introductory chapter from Mao himself who had urged his followers to “Bombard the Headquarters.”
He meant the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, a bold and daring strategy intended to shake up the powers that be, mitigate against bureaucracy and prevent China from becoming like the Soviet Union—an ossified society that had lost its original raison d’etre. A reviewer at The New York Times called my book “Maoist literary criticism,” a label that brought me a modicum of fame, attracted the attention of radicals, and led to a paperback edition. Before he wrote Orientalism, Edward Said made my book required reading in his classes at Columbia.
My favorite chapter in Maoism is the first, “What Is Maoism?” For Lovell, Maoism means anti-Western imperialism and an all-powerful state, combined with “anarchic democracy,” “volunteerism,” and an “egalitarian agenda” that empowered women. In her attempt to be balanced, she downplays the enduring cult of Mao, the ever-present use of terror and Communist tyranny. There’s precious little about the earthshaking, bloody protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 that brought worldwide attention to the repressive nature of the People’s Republic of China. Lovell sees Mao as many sided: a theorist, a sage, a calligrapher, an outlaw, a “rhetorical feminist,” and an “architect of his own personality who created a “compelling comprehensible narrative of human history.”
Lovell’s favorite comment about the chairman, she explains, comes from a “devoted Chinese collector of Mao memorabilia” who said, “Mao was better than Genghis Khan because he was a poet.” In fact, Mao was a powerful poet. Willis Barnstone translated his work into English. It was published by the University of California Press in 2008. It’s hard not to feel some affinity for the chairman. After all, he said, “It’s right to rebel,” “Don’t be afraid of making trouble,” and “a revolution is not a tea party ... A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” The delusional Weathermen echoed his phrases, such as “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” One can imagine Tea Party members and some of the rebels who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, quoting Mao while they caused trouble.
In the second half of her book, Lovell traces the impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Peru, India, Nepal, and Tanzania. The material in chapters 5 through 11 is organized by country and often feels overly plotted. The Indians in India, the Indonesians, the Nepalese, and the Peruvians each had their own indigenous leaders and organizations, though they had no single event as spectacular as the spectacular Long March, no one as diplomatic as Zhou, no Lin Biao, the author of the influential essay “Long Live the Victory of People’s War!,” no Zhu De, the founder of the Red Army, no Kang Sheng, the head of the secret police who was known as “Mao’s pistol.” And no one who had the élan of the chairman.
As Lovell shows, communist-led movements in India, Peru, and Indonesia failed to bring about successful revolutions in which one class overthrew another. More often than not, political struggles in those nations led to the massacres of Marxists and Maoists. That’s what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66. Between 500,000 and 1,200,000 Indonesians, many of them members of the Indonesian Communist Party, were slaughtered by the army and the militia with support, Lovell says, from the British and the Americans.
She tells the Indonesian story graphically. She also offers a long quotation from a man named Inong, once the head of a village death squad, who participated in thousands of murders. “Mohammed never killed anyone. He was against killing,” Inong says. “But you’re allowed to kill your enemies.” Inong explains that the only way not to go crazy in the midst of mass murders, is to “drink your victims’ blood … If you drink blood you can do anything. Human blood. I know from experience.” Neither a revolution nor a counterrevolution is a tea party.
In her conclusion, Lovell emphasizes the kinds of contradictions that are inherent in Maoism and that she explores all through her book. “Perhaps China’s current ability to tolerate paradoxes is the most notable legacy of Mao,” she writes. What he bequeathed to China, she suggests, was a “guerrilla-style mode of policy making” that explains how and why China “can be ruled by a party that continues to emphasize its Marxist-Leninist-Maoist heritage, while proclaiming the necessity of market forces.”
About my own Maoism in the 1960s and 1970s I have no remaining sense of nostalgia. I remember the brutal “criticism self-criticism” sessions in Weathermen meetings which were borrowed from the Chinese Communists and that were designed to humiliate and control. Why did I cease to be a Maoist? After a certain point I couldn’t swallow the lies that American Maoists spouted. Clearly, China was not a workers’ paradise. Clearly, dissidents were severely punished. Clearly, industrialization created horrific pollution, destroying lakes, mountains and rivers, and choking entire cities and their inhabitants with toxic smoke.
After his death in 1976, Chinese leaders also tried to turn their backs on Mao and his legacy, but that effort didn’t last long. Even in death, Mao exercised a firm grip on the Chinese Communist Party and on peasants and workers. Today under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic, Mao is more revered than ever before, his image nearly everywhere, his words regarded as ancient wisdom. Criticize Mao, Xi or the party, and a citizen is likely to be placed under house arrest if not worse.
At the end of chapter 1 of her book, Lovell offers a quotation from a French expert on China who sums up the entire phenomenon as well as anyone. “Maoism doesn’t exist. It never has,” he wrote. “That, without doubt, explains its success.”
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.