H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]:  Knight on Lovell, 'Maoism: A Global History'

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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

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.

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

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: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54885

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Categories: H-Net Reviews
Keywords: maoism