Navigate to News section

Epidemics of Insanity: Euripides, Mao, and Qutb

How virulent contagions of political fanaticism spread across the globe—or, what the Muslim Brotherhood and its descendants share with The Little Red Book

Paul Berman
September 21, 2016
(Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)The Little Red Book
Members of the Xiangyang Commune in Jiangsu Province take part in the campaign to 'Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius', one of the last large 'campaigns' dictated by members of Chinese government in charge of the Cultural Revolution. Jiangdu Province, China. (Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)(Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)The Little Red Book
(Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)The Little Red Book
Members of the Xiangyang Commune in Jiangsu Province take part in the campaign to 'Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius', one of the last large 'campaigns' dictated by members of Chinese government in charge of the Cultural Revolution. Jiangdu Province, China. (Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)(Bettmann Collection/Getty Images)The Little Red Book

This past May 20 marked the semicentennial of the start of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, and this past Aug. 29 marked the semicentennial of the hanging, in Egypt, of Sayyid Qutb, the master thinker of the Islamists—doleful events of long ago that may seem to have nothing in common. But I think that, in glancing back at 1966, we ought to notice a common trait in those two events, which no one at the time could possibly have detected. And the common trait ought perhaps to inspire in us a few rueful thoughts on human nature and one of its peculiarities.

This is the human capacity to succumb to contagions of political insanity—contagions that may get started anywhere at all and, in the name of one or another crazy idea, or in response to some kind of beautiful image, may spread with explosive speed to all points of the compass. Epidemics of insanity are not anything new. Euripides took note of the phenomenon, even if, in his day, the technologies of communication did not make it easy for insanities to spread very quickly or very far. But technologies have progressed, and that was true even in 1966.

Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in May of that year because he wanted to shake up the Chinese Communist Party and thought he could do so by mobilizing the students. He wanted the students to challenge the bureaucracy and to confront the new elite, though only in ways that would fortify his own dictatorial power. Mostly he wanted to launch a campaign for ideological purity within everyone’s brain—to excite a revolutionary enthusiasm capable of washing away the lingering stains of bourgeois and capitalist thinking, in favor of a single perfect idea, which was “Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought.” The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution resembled in this respect the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It was a campaign against the very principle of debate, in favor of a rote and single dogma.

This was expressed by a sacred text, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (in the orthography of that time), otherwise known as the Little Red Book, which was a compilation of maxims: “We should support whatever the enemy opposes, and oppose whatever the enemy supports”; “The army must become one with the people so that they see it as their own army”; “Every Communist must grasp the truth, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ ”—and so forth, suitable for memorization and recital but containing no fully articulated thoughts. Mao Zedong Thought was meant, in sum, to be a catechism, and not a philosophy—a doctrine to be asserted, instead of argued. Then again, The Little Red Book was a fetish object. It was published on bible paper with a shiny plastic red cover, wallet-size, rather like the pocketbook street maps of Paris that used to be sold, except more stylish. Masses of people waved it in the air, as if it summarized the whole of human wisdom. I have noticed that, 50 years later, the plastic cover, shiny as ever, shows not the slightest sign of age.

Naturally, the campaign for Mao Zedong Thought was a Reign of Terror in other respects, too. The students stormed the villages and physically attacked the professors and the musicians and anyone else who could be accused of elitist tendencies. Some 3 million people are said to have been killed over the course of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and vastly greater numbers were injured. The damage to Chinese culture itself was immense.

Only, instead of proving repellent to everyone who observed from afar, the combination of extreme dogmatism and mob violence turned out to be, in the eyes of a great many people around the world, irresistibly attractive. The Communist revolution in China was obviously an enormous event, but, until 1966, it had failed to inspire much attention in other parts of the world, perhaps because the Chinese Communists chose to keep their country mysteriously closed off from the rest of the planet. But the Cultural Revolution aroused attention. The scenes of mass enthusiasm and purges and deportations, combined with the prevailing lack of information, allowed people all over the world to imagine that Maoism had come to embody something different and more revolutionary than Soviet Communism—as if, in Maoism, the worldwide Communist movement had at long last found a proper riposte to the gray failings of the Soviet Union.

Maoism stood for the revolutionary principles of Stalin, which Stalin’s mediocre heirs in the Soviet Union had abandoned—Stalin, in the perfected form of Mao Zedong Thought. And, around the world, there were people who fell into the belief that, under Mao, the utopia that had failed to emerge in the Soviet Union was indeed taking shape, and the horrors of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were, on the contrary, grandeurs, and the turmoil in China was merely the traumatism of a magnificent and world-historical birth. The new proletarian civilization was emerging at last, except in the perfected form that allowed it to be, instead, a peasant civilization. The most astounding claims were made on Chinese Communism’s behalf. It was believed that, under the Cultural Revolution, a new level of altruism had been achieved, that individualism had disappeared, that a new kind of sexual purity had emerged, that mankind had very nearly become a new and superior species.


The pop-eyed fascination aroused by these beliefs generated Maoist movements in every region of the world. In Cambodia, the Communist Party came to power in 1975 and imposed a thorough Maoist policy by emptying the cities, turning against the educated class, and, all in all, launching one of the most horrible campaigns of persecution and national auto-destruction of the 20th century. In other countries, Maoist movements fielded guerrilla insurgencies, of which the strongest may have been the Shining Path’s in Peru. The Shining Path, led by a philosophy professor, would surely have replicated the devastation of Cambodia if only it had succeeded in taking power. And yet, even in remaining a mostly rural insurgency, it managed to slaughter vast numbers of campesinos. Maoism in Peru was the most horrifying guerrilla movement in Latin American history. Or maybe the Naxalites in India proved to be the strongest of the Maoist guerrillas. There were Maoist guerrillas in the Philippines.

Maoism blossomed in Europe, too, partly because of the ardor of the Albanian Communists, under Enver Hoxha, in clinging to the heritage of Stalin, their hero, but also because, in the Western countries, the Maoism of China acquired an intellectual panache. The flower of French intellectual life—Sartre, Foucault, and many others—aligned themselves with the Maoist cause in the various ways that Richard Wolin has described in his book, The Wind From the East. The intellectuals, some of them, may even have derived from their Maoism, or to have attributed to it, a number of clever cultural insights, which made for an odd moment in the Maoist craze, a confluence of novelty and nonsense. And, in that environment, a number of Maoist splinter parties emerged in France, the most influential of which, the Proletarian Left, set about preparing for what would certainly have been a terrible guerrilla war—except that, at the last minute, the party leaders underwent an ideological crisis and called off the preparations.

In Norway, too, Maoism became exceptionally vigorous, likewise without generating a guerrilla war. Some of the finest of the Norwegian liberals eventually emerged from the Maoist ranks, after they had recognized their error. Maoism’s history in West Germany was not so agreeable. A variety of tiny parties sprung to life, the so-called K (for Kommunistiche) parties, whose fanaticism and sundry doctrines contributed significantly to the enduring German vogue for guerrilla war, as conducted by the Red Army Fraction (which itself was pro-Soviet instead of pro-China) and the Revolutionary Cells and their guerrilla Arab alliances. Maoism in Italy proved to be still more influential. It was a major influence on the guerrilla struggles of the Red Brigades and other groups, whose violence, as in Germany, went on for decades, a terrible history.

Maoism enjoyed a bit of influence in the United States, too, though it may seem odd to say so. The original Maoist movement in the United States was a tiny splinter of the Communist Party USA, which itself was none too big by the 1960s. The splinter group eventually called itself the Progressive Labor Party, or PL, and it inspired the creation of a couple of other tiny Maoist parties after a while. You might suppose, along with John Lennon, that American Maoism could not possibly have influenced anyone: “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” But that was not true.

In France, the Maoists established a political base at the École Normale Supérieure, which is the elite college where Louis Althusser provided philosophical guidance (beginning with Lenin’s mad slogan: “Marxist theory is all-powerful because it is true”). And, in the United States, the Progressive Labor Party established its own base in the student movement at Harvard. The supremely brilliant young philosopher Hilary Putnam was one of PL’s Harvard intellectuals. And from those origins, PL succeeded, in 1969, in taking over a genuinely mass and popular American organization, Students for a Democratic Society, originally a social democratic organization with roots going back to Jack London in 1905, and just then at its highpoint, with a national membership somewhere around 100,000 people.

The PL Maoists influenced the American scene mostly in a vaguer way, however, and they did so by appearing to be insane. The Maoists dressed ultraconservatively in an era when everyone else on the American left was dressing ultrawildly. They stood up at meetings and said preposterous things about Chairman Mao and Chinese Communism in a flat tone of straight-faced fanaticism. And the message they conveyed added up to this, which was Maoism’s message everywhere: “You can exit from the bourgeois reality. You can enter into a different reality altogether, in which every set of facts and values and principles will turn out to be different from anything hitherto supposed. If you exit the bourgeois reality, you may appear to be, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, a zombie. But you will be, instead, one of the heroic figures in a Chinese poster.” The possibility of exiting everyday reality and entering into a zone of pure myth was the offer, and its allure was great.

In the United States, the people who felt the allure responded, however, mostly by constructing Americanized and slightly watered-down Maoisms of their own, distinct from PL. There was a version that melded the orthodox Maoist vision of a Chinese alternative universe with the hippie world of drugs and rock ’n’ roll. This was the version of one of the largest factions within Students for a Democratic Society, the “Revolutionary Youth Movement 1,” which was anti-PL, whose purpose was to create its own guerrilla mini-army, the Weather Underground, with a politics of countercultural Maoism. SDS’s “Revolutionary Youth Movement 2,” meanwhile, generated a more conventional Maoist faction in California, the Revolutionary Communist Party, which still survives. The paramilitary Black Panther Party offered another version, with its own fully-military-armed guerrilla subsplinter, the Black Liberation Army. And still other factions and armed factions arose in the same Mao-in-America style, sometimes expressing a North Korean variation on Maoism (quite strong in the Black Liberation Army), or with a touch of Cuban Guevarism.

It is easy to look back on these American mini-factions today as hopelessly isolated, but in reality, they were no more isolated than were the guerrilla groups in West Germany, which managed to survive because they enjoyed a substantial support in the big countercultural zones of Frankfurt and Berlin and other towns, or the Red Brigades and other guerrilla groups in Italy, which enjoyed a substantial support in Pisa and Milan and elsewhere. And Maoism in its American versions sometimes entered into the social creativity of the moment. The gay-liberation movement, in the early phases of its eruption into public affairs in 1969, was visibly tinged with Maoist inspirations (even if, in the Maoist China that actually existed, homosexuality was monstrously punished).

Maoism triumphed nowhere, outside of unhappy China and a still more tragic Cambodia and an impoverished Albania. Still, its failure took a long while to come about. In a few corners of the world—Nepal, India, the Philippines—Maoism still clings to life. Even today, Maoism figures within French intellectual life through the influence of Alain Badiou, which means that traces of it figure in the university world everywhere else, too. Only, what was the cause of Maoism’s moment in world history, its cult of dogmatism and guerrilla violence and everything else? Its fashionability? Someone could argue that, in each country where Maoism went into bloom, the causes were multiple and different—but that is tantamount to arguing that, on a world scale, there was no cause. People wanted to be Maoists. That was why it spread. No one was argued into it. People looked at the slogans and the posters and the marvelous Little Red Book and the size of the crowds, and made the leap. It was an epidemic of political madness, occasionally sparked with moments of brilliance, as sometimes happens with the mad, but mostly dominated by a pathology of violence.


I think that, if you keep the history of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in mind, it ought to be obvious that the hanging of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt (under Nasser’s orders) in 1966, three months after Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, set off a parallel epidemic. The hanging inspired a cult of Qutb, the martyr, which spread at first within his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. And the cult drew on Qutb’s own little book, which was Milestones, a pamphlet on Islamist themes. Milestones cannot be said to be a masterpiece. Qutb’s masterpiece, and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the gigantic In the Shade of the Qur’an, from which Milestones is drawn—just as Mao’s greatest literary work is, I suppose, his several military essays. Milestones nonetheless played for many years the same role within the radical wing of the Islamist movement that Mao’s Little Red Book played within the worldwide Maoist movement.

Milestones proposed and still proposes an alternative reality, in a pocketbook version. This is seventh-century Medina, which Qutb wished to reestablish in some corner of the world, yet to be determined, in order to launch the struggle for world conquest against the rival empires of Communism and the Western powers. And Qutb’s book proposed that, in the degree possible, you should begin to inhabit the alternative reality right now, even if the Quranic society has not yet been able to establish itself somewhere. Like Maoism, then, Qutb’s idea offers an alternative life, as well as a program for action. It lends itself to a utopian counterculture, which can be established anywhere, not just in regions where the jihadis have succeeded in taking power, as in the emirate of Afghanistan in Taliban times, when al-Qaida acted on Qutbite principles, or in the post-Qutbite Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in our own moment.

In France, for instance (as I learn from reading a superb new book by Gilles Kepel, Terreur dans l’Hexagone: Genèse du djihad français), an Islamist preacher from Syria succeeded for a few years in establishing a Quranic utopia in the little village of Artigat, outside Toulouse, which attracted converts to Islam and the descendants of North African immigrants alike. The Quranic utopians ran businesses; meanwhile, their community became an outpost of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Jihadis shuttled back and forth from France to the field of battle; sometimes they made France the field of battle.

Why did people join this community, or join the myriad other Islamist countercultures that established themselves in one neighborhood or another in different countries? They joined, and they continue to join, because they have wanted to adopt marvelous and heroic new identities—not the identity of a muscular proletarian or peasant from the Chinese posters, which was the attraction back in Maoist times, but the identity of a companion of the prophet in ancient Medina. Perhaps there are indications that, here and there around the neighborhood, geographical or virtual, a good many people are deciding to adopt such an identity. Then the attraction may become irresistible. In this fashion, the contagion may spread, and the newly established utopias may turn into Euripides’ Thebes, centers of insanity—with the only difference being that, whereas the women in Thebes abandon themselves to wine and Bacchic follies, the women in the Islamist countercultures abandon themselves to a life of teetotaling, self-isolation beneath a niqab, serial widowhood, and perhaps (as we have just now seen attempted in France) martyrdom themselves.

I do not mean to ignore the philosophical and practical chasms that separate Islamism’s alternative reality from Maoism’s. Still, it is interesting to observe that, from the standpoint of graphic design, nothing at all separates these alternative realities. If you look at the iconography of the Islamist terrorist movements—I had the opportunity to do this by attending an illustrated lecture by Ely Karmon in Tel Aviv some months ago—you will be struck by how closely the Islamist images of fists clutching AK-47s and other representations of the jihad follow the graphic-design concepts that were established many decades ago by the Chinese Maoists. But it is not just a matter of imagery. Mostly these political contagions resemble one another in their consequences, which have been, in Maoism’s case, devastating (by and large), and, in the case of the Islamic jihad, devastating (entirely).


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural analyses in Tablet magazine, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.