Knight on Lovell, 'Maoism: A Global History'

Julia Lovell
John Knight

Julia Lovell. Maoism: A Global History. New York: Knopf, 2019. 624 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-525-65604-3.

Reviewed by John Knight (University of California, Irvine) Published on H-Socialisms (March, 2020) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: 

Maoism Internationally

Once, Maoism was taken seriously; its influence felt throughout much of the developing world, as well as in the halls of academia and the vibrant counterculture. Today, when Maoism appears at all, it is likely as kitsch. Tacky paraphernalia from China, or the selective restaging of Cultural Revolution-era operas, fails to capture the theory’s previous élan. Julia Lovell, professor of modern Chinese history at the University of London, seeks to rescue Maoism from historical oblivion. Conducting archival research in seven countries and covering prominent Maoist movements on six continents (Oceania is sadly absent), Lovell proclaims Maoism to be “one of the most significant and complicated political forces of the modern world” (p. 7).

But what is (was?) Maoism, and why did it once hold such appeal? Lovell highlights features she deems central to the theory, including a pragmatic view toward violence (“power comes out of the barrel of a gun”), the right to assert oneself against an oppressor (“to rebel is justified”), and the belief that “the masses,” working in concert, can defeat any enemy (“imperialism is a paper tiger”). Yet, while Maoism offers hope to those who have been marginalized, it is also inherently antidemocratic, subscribing to the Leninist notion of a vanguard party, and, on assuming state power, the dictatorship of the proletariat. In light of these opposing traits, Lovell concludes that “Maoism is an unstable political creed that simultaneously reveres a centralized party and mass leadership, collective obedience and anti-state rebellion” (p. 17). The contradiction between anarchic liberation and Stalinist repression—and contradiction is another Maoist feature Lovell identifies—gives the theory its oppositional thrust as well as its hegemonic conformity. Throughout its lifetime, Maoism has swung between these two poles, seldom finding balance between both.

Lovell traces the beginning of global Maoism to Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China. In 1936, Snow spent four months with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at their remote base camp in Yan’an, which was then under Nationalist siege. Snow was the first journalist, Chinese or foreign, to gain such access. Red Star’s publication the following year transformed the CCP from “bandits” to “heroes” in the public eye, both domestically and abroad. Notably, Snow portrayed Mao and other party leaders as “idealistic patriots and egalitarian dreamers with a sense of humor” (p. 61). Unacknowledged was that Snow’s sympathetic account was the product of multiple stages of CCP-authorized translation and revision. Snow, who did not know Chinese, relied on a translator to compile his English transcriptions of Mao’s talks, which were then translated back into Chinese and given to Mao, who made corrections that were then translated back into English and returned to Snow (p. 61). Cognizant of the need to present a positive image that would earn the CCP popular support, Mao gave the following instructions before Snow’s arrival: “security, secrecy, warmth, and red carpet” (p. 61). Accordingly, Red Star presented the CCP as being driven by the liberal values of liberty, equality, and self-determination, rather than by the desire for radical revolution. Perhaps this contrast between the presentation/imagination of Maoism and its often less savory reality constitutes another contradiction inherent to the theory, one which has affected its development in myriad ways.

In the gaze of the West, for example, Maoism could be either demonized or exalted. The “loss” of China in 1949 prompted Edward Hunter, a foreign correspondent with ties to the CIA, to pen Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds (1951). Hunter attributed the CCP’s victory to “an entirely new form of thought control” (p. 88); this claim was echoed by the British, who sought American support in ending the concomitant Communist insurgency in Malaysia, and received further “validation” by the decision of twenty-one American POWs to resettle in China after the Korean War. Not willing to fall behind, the US government spent billions of dollars seeking to reverse-engineer the CCP’s alleged brainwashing techniques, which led to the infamous MK-Ultra program of the 1950s and 60s. Ironically, one component of these experiments—research into LSD as a truth-telling serum on college campuses—likely contributed to Maoism’s favorable appraisal by the Western counterculture.  

During the late 1960s and early 70s, Maoism was deemed seductive by nearly all self-styled “progressives” in the West—students, artists, hippies, civil rights activists, feminists, and terrorists. Rather than reflecting sincere agreement with Maoist principles or an understanding of Chinese Communist policies, Lovell believes that much of this enthusiasm can be explained under the rubric of Orientalism. She reads the Western fad for Mao as “a recent repeat of an age-old predisposition towards identifying conveniently remote, exotic China as a repository of political, social, cultural, and economic virtue” (pp. 290-91). Still, there were some lasting benefits from this brief, if perhaps misguided, love affair. Lovell counts increased civil activism and feminist consciousness-raising among the positive legacies of Western Maoism. When we consider these admirable features alongside the “enhanced interrogation” techniques of the War on Terror—which Lovell considers to be a further development of the MK Ultra program—we see that Mao’s legacy in the West was much the same as it was elsewhere: liberating and coercive (p. 94).    

Although Western fears of Maoist “brainwashing” were unfounded, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) did take an active role in spreading Maoism abroad, as well as in asserting its national interests through its foreign policy. The frequent tension between China’s nationalist and internationalist goals can be seen in the contradictory advice it gave to the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP). Having offered the MCP material and strategic support throughout the early 1950s, China called on them to negotiate surrender terms with the British by the middle of the decade, in tandem with the PRC’s emergence as part of the nonaligned movement. Six years later, following the Sino-Soviet split, China asked the MCP to restart its armed struggle, reflecting Mao’s confidence that “the east wind” had grown stronger than “the west wind.” Finally, by the late 1970s, at which point Mao had died and the winds of revolution had subsided, China asked the MCP to once more lay down its arms, so as to demonstrate the PRC’s commitment to regional stability. China’s foreign policy zigzags lead Lovell to describe Maoist internationalism as “a parochial flavor of internationalism, drawn by a narcissistic interest in how the world praised China, rather than by a disinterested solidarity” (p. 140). However, it is difficult to think of any large nation that does not pursue a similar form of “parochial internationalism,” so of course the PRC’s foreign policy would be circumscribed by its self-interest. 

Nonetheless, one could argue that Maoist China’s internationalism was considerably more altruistic than its peers. China spent between 5 to 7 percent of its budget on foreign aid in the early 1970s, compared to 1.5 percent by the US, 0.9 percent by the USSR, and 0.7 percent by the UK. Of this, 13-15 percent went to Africa. In fact, five decades before contemporary Western warnings over China’s growing presence on the African continent, Western journalists were already sounding the alarm about China’s growing influence. Lovell believes that from the Chinese perspective, “there was as least some genuine idealism to this project,” viewing assistance as a way to both “liberate Africa from centuries of colonial exploitation and to disseminate the greatness of Mao” (p. 203). China’s most effective method of propagating Maoism may have been its use of “barefoot doctors,” rudimentary medical teams who brought basic health care along with Little Red Books to the local population (p. 203). Less effective were its attempts at building viable Maoist movements; Tanzania and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were the only African countries in which the theory held sway. Inspired by China’s Great Leap Forward, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere launched his ujamaa program in 1967, a form of African socialism meant to foster economic development, but which caused famine instead. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) rebels the previous year had begun their Chimurenga war against white rule in Southern Rhodesia; many members had received training in China, including Josiah Tongogara, the group’s chief military strategist. While ZANU succeeded as insurgents, they failed as leaders, delivering native-ruled Zimbabwe to decades of political repression and economic misfortune. Lovell writes that “the outcome of these experiments … contrasts the charismatic appeal of Mao’s ideas and models of rebellion and self-reliance, with their manifest failure to create stable responsive institutions for governance” (p. 188). However, neither Tanzania nor Zimbabwe ever identified as Maoist, and postcolonial Africa has sadly borne witness to dysfunctional states from across the political spectrum. Rather than blaming Maoism for these country’s calamities, it would be better to place them within their historical context. Africa’s independence struggles evoked the hopes of millions throughout the world, China included—even though they so often ended in disappointment. 

The problematic nature of Maoism as a state theory is more apparent when we consider the Communist governments of Southeast Asia. The radical land reform program that was carried out in northern Vietnam in the early 1950s is now seen within Vietnam as a tragic mistake, blamed on the influence of Chinese advisors. Maoist guerilla strategy was also deemed unhelpful for reunification; Vietnamese strategists preferred by the mid-1960s to focus their military attacks on cities rather than the countryside. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, in contrast, followed an orthodox Maoist approach to seizing power, but then sought to outdo Mao after doing so. In June 1975, a frail but enthusiastic Mao greeted Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary in Beijing, telling them, “What we wanted to do but did not manage, you are achieving” (p. 241). By the time the Vietnamese had overthrown the Khmer Rouge three years later, around one-quarter of Cambodians had died, including half of the country’s Chinese population. Demonstrating that Chinese internationalism was indeed shaped by national interests, 1979 saw the PRC at war with Vietnam.  

Maoist China clearly shares blame for the tragedies which befell Indochina, but I am not persuaded by Lovell’s claim that “without Maoism, Indonesia’s catastrophe in 1965 is hard to imagine” (p. 154). The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had a membership of 3.5 million in 1965, and 20 million, or a fifth of Indonesia’s population, were involved with its front groups. D. N. Aidit, the party’s chairman since the early 1950s, publicly supported working within the existing state structure under Sukarno rather than pursuing armed struggle. Following the mysterious murder of six generals that year in the early morning of October 1, Suharto led the army in a brutal crackdown against real and suspected Communists before demoting Sukarno and grabbing power for himself. Lovell believes that the PKI was behind the generals’ murder, emboldened by Chinese encouragement. According to Kamaruzaman Sjam, an arrested PKI member who periodically revealed new information until he was executed in 1986, the poorly planned coup “was drawn up only ten days before it was due to be carried out, and finalized just twenty-four hours before the appointed date” (p. 181). Lovell also finds Sukarno’s cryptic remark that the mid-1960s PKI was “dizzy,” as in dizzy with ambition, to be incriminating (p. 179). However, Sukarno made that comment in 1967, two years after the PKI had been destroyed and he had been reduced to figurehead status. Clearly, such statements are not reliable, and the notion that the world’s third-largest Communist Party or its chairman would suddenly risk it all due to “hopeful Maoist voluntarism” strains credulity (p. 181).    

The final third of Lovell’s ideological history details the continued relevance of Maoism after Mao’s death. Included are chapters on Peru’s Shining Path, India’s Naxalites, Nepal’s Maoists, and the “Mao-ish” moves of China’s Xi Jinping. While one wishes that there was also a chapter on the New People’s Army of the Philippines, Lovell is to be commended for devoting a considerable amount of her study to the afterlives of Maoism. Before covering each of these movements, I would like to draw attention to two features that the Maoists in Peru, India, and Nepal share. First, the leaders of these insurgencies did not know Chinese, or possess “knowledge of China independent of Maoist propaganda” (p. 336). Second, they were predominately intellectuals and/or members of the upper class/caste, separated from those they claimed to represent, with the result that these “cerebral global Maoists … often turned the idealized ‘masses’ into cannon fodder for their doctrinal revolutions” (p. 18). Yet what appear to be detriments were in fact attributes responsible for the theory’s lingering influence. “Like a dormant virus,” Lovell writes, “Maoism has demonstrated a tenacious global talent for latency” (p. 150). Maoism’s strength lies in its vagueness; clarity would diminish its appeal.

Abimael Guzmán, the brains behind Shining Path, was a philosophy professor at the Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, one of the most impoverished regions of Peru. Demonstrating the intellectual pull of Maoist China, one-quarter of Ayacucho professors had traveled to the PRC by the late 1970s, including two trips by Guzmán in 1965 and 1967, the height of China’s Cultural Revolution. Before going underground in the mid-1970s, Guzman was an inescapable presence at his university, in charge of curriculum planning (the Little Red Book was a required text for philosophy and anthropology classes) and serving as director of personnel, which allowed him to staff the faculty and administration with sycophants. After graduation/indoctrination, students would go back to their native villages, spreading the brash discourse they had learned. Not content to be dilettantes, Guzmán and his supporters began their armed struggle in 1980. The result was a disaster for the Peruvian peasantry, who found themselves caught between Maoist fanatics and a sadistic state. Lovell notes that Shining Path “had a confused, condescending set of attitudes to the peasantry” (p. 331). The group did not practice Mao’s concept of the “mass line” but rather “a centralized, top-down model, in which local communities were both idealized and dictated to” (p. 338). When peasants did not embrace Shining Path with the ardor Guzmán and his followers expected, they were punished or killed. As the “People’s War” continued with a violence that would dissuade any but the most committed, Shining Path maintained “a sense of elite intellectual infallibility,” confidently awaiting its historically ordained victory—until 1992, when Guzmán and most of the group’s top leadership were captured and the movement, deprived of its intellectual motor, collapsed (p. 331).

The Naxalites are one of the world’s longest-lasting insurgencies, named after a peasant uprising that began in Naxalbari, India in 1967, which was quickly taken over by Maoists. Lovell sees in the spread of Maoism to India “the remarkable ability of these ideas to travel, to translate across borders, ethnicities, languages, and societies” (p. 348). In the late 1960s and early 70s, “China’s Chairman is Our Chairman, China’s Path is Our Path” was a common slogan on Bengali walls (p. 356). The death of the movement’s original leader, Charu Mazumdar, in 1972—he was either murdered outright or denied medical care while in police custody—as well as the broader (and vicious) state crackdown, dampened Maoist flames, but did not extinguish them. Survivors regrouped in Andhra Pradesh, where they slowly made ties with the Adivasi, India’s perpetually exploited indigenous community. Beyond providing basic health care, Maoists developed a written script for the Adivasi, using newly translated versions of the Little Red Book to promote literacy. Invigorated by their growing support, three Maoist factions reunited as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004; the following year the Naxalites were declared to be the India’s gravest internal threat.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was also phenomenally successful in its insurgency, achieving more than what anyone aside from Maoists could have realistically expected. A decade after launching their People’s War in 1996, the once-fringe group controlled 80 percent of Nepal’s territory. Like Shining Path, Nepal’s Maoist leadership belonged to the elite—in this case, the Brahmin caste—but unlike their Peruvian comrades, the CPN (M) appears to have made genuine connections with those on the bottom: Dalits (Nepal’s lowest caste) and women were especially drawn to the movement. When King Gyanendra assumed dictatorial powers in 2005 to combat the growing threat, the Maoists joined forces with Nepal’s democratic parties, leading to massive demonstrations the following year that drove the king from power and made Nepal a republic. Maoists won the elections afterwards, and remain a fixture of Nepal’s political establishment today.

How to explain the belated victory of ardent Maoists, given the discrediting of radical Maoism in both China and the West? Literature. Song of Youth (1958), Yang Mo’s acclaimed socialist realist novel, was translated into Nepali in the 1970s and became a foundational text for the country’s future rebels. Lovell writes that “fiction and Mao’s essays … welcomed young readers into an imagined world of political commitment” (p. 391). Spurned into action by their romanticized visions of an egalitarian, uncorrupted “China,” radicals did not lose enthusiasm for their revolutionary project, even after the tragic realities of Maoist China revealed it to be a chimera.

Lovell’s final chapter returns to the PRC, now ruled by Xi Jinping, “the strongest, most Maoist leader the country has had since Mao” (p. 421). After assuming power in 2012, a “quasi-religious aura has built around the leader” (p. 443), with Xi Jinping Thought declared to be the country’s guiding principle. However, while Xi has adopted certain aspects of the Maoist toolkit—the cult of personality, anticorruption drives, and the mass line—other features are conspicuously absent. For one, legitimacy is now tied to “economic performance rather than ideological purity” (p. 421). Xi’s “Maoism” does not derive its strength from abstract, idealistic realms but from the concrete measurement of GDP. Thus Xi prizes stability over rebellion; this is the second key feature in which he and Mao diverge. Lovell notes that “the party under Xi, as under all its leaders since Mao, is terrified by the prospect of a Cultural Revolution-style bottom-up mobilization of society” (p. 447). China’s leadership is most enamored by the authoritarian impulses of Mao; no wonder, then, that in 2017 the CCP did away with term limits, paving the way for Xi to be chairman for life. Eighty years after its birth with Red Star over China, Maoism has lost its revolutionary drive, becoming a conservative force.

Lovell’s masterful study will interest those working within the fields of history, cultural studies, and political science. It may also attract current and former activists. Due to its broad scope, the reader will likely disagree with several of the author’s arguments, and question certain omissions. Such reservations, however, are simply nitpicking. When judged within the parameters of a single-volume account on one of the world’s most impactful and controversial theories, Maoism: A Global History is an unqualified success. If radical Maoism rises again, it will be by those who stubbornly cling to their dreams.      

Citation: John Knight. Review of Lovell, Julia, Maoism: A Global History. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL:

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