Given the attempts at rehabilitation of Mao’s reputation being undertaken by the Xi regime of the Chinese Communist Party, it is warranted a better understanding of who Mao was and his global legacy in the second half of the 20th century (and through today). One need look no further for a comprehensive introduction than Julia Lovell’s meticulously researched and well written account of global Maoism and its ramifications.
What emerges from this extraordinary work of scholarship is the picture of a tremendously gifted politician, his genius trumped only by his wickedness. And Lovell does not pull any punches. Mao is presented here in all his personal and moral failings, a sociopathic figure bent on wreaking the maximum destruction possible – at home and abroad.
Maoism differs in many (and significant) ways from Stalinism. Stalin was above all a bureaucrat in search of order. His ability to create a massive administrative state that encompassed eight time zones and hundreds of millions of people was prodigious – and thats what Stalinism is. Attempts at order – totalitarian and brutal, to be sure, but above all oxygenless and clean in its implementation. Maoism, on the other hand, is the installation of a permanent peasant revolution against the cities. An insurgency of the body and the mind that knows no limits and seeks no end. It is a celebration of blood and violence and destruction with the hopes that somehow at the end of it all a spontaneous birth of equality will emerge. And it did – to a degree – the equality found in death and misery.
Maoism was also international, finding allies in a world that was rapidly de-colonizing following the end of WWII. The justification of peasant violence against the center was attractive in a post-occupation world where insurgencies were gaining legitimacy as colonialism waned; in places like Cambodia and Indonesia and Tanzania. While Soviet communism was the expression of the semi-Europeanized, semi-industrialized; Maoism was the rebellion of the third world. Maoism was however significantly more violent. One anecdote from the book has stuck with me as particularly enlightening. Upon successfully exporting Maoism to Cambodia in support of the Khmer Rouge, Mao receives Pol Pot. In a private meeting, Mao tells Pol Pot he is thrilled with the Cambodian genocide – because that was the approach he wished to prosecute in China but had been stymied by reactionaries.
The utopia of Maoism is to be found in the killing fields.
This book is also particularly relevant in the United States today; because the debate in the public arena around ‘socialism’ fails to explain that the hard left progressives in our country are not Stalinist but actually Maoist. In the celebration of violence, the iconoclasm leading to the rewriting of history, the attempts at ‘brainwashing’ (this word itself is actually taken from Maoism, or more specifically those seeking to explain what he was up to) through the creation of ‘safe spaces’ and trigger warnings and Maoist style ‘rectification’ ceremonies where the hopes of shaming and purging those who think incorrectly is stymied only by rule of law and free speech rules defended by our constitution, for now. This is all very Maoist, so reading Lovell’s account of the genesis of this approach to control is important.
A final quick point. In the introduction Lovell (inaccurately) compares Trumpism to Maoism. “Intriguingly, the rebellious repertoires of Leninism and Maoism seem to appeal to the architects of Trumpolitics. Steven Bannon sees himself as a ‘tsar of agitation’, as (in his own words) a Leninist plotting to bring the political system crashing down. The Australian sinologist Geremie Barme has compared Trump (‘the Great Disrupter’) with Mao: for his erratic populism, his scorn for bureaucratic establishment, his predilection for brief earthy statements, his rhetorical obsession with national autarky.” In this analysis, Lovell fails to understand that the desired end states matter, as does the approach – to be sure there is a certain amount of iconoclasm in the Bannon/Trump playbook. The desire to see the “deep state” disrupted; however the purpose of this disruption for the Trump crowd is to set people free from what they see as the shackles of the state; it is if anything anarcho-libertarian (a celebration of spontaneous order), and certainly not an overture for the killing fields. There are Maoists in the United States, operating in the far fringes of the left (ANTIFA, for example) – not saying this wrests credibility from Lovell which she is trying to pursue as a neutral observer. But alas it is often most difficult for analysts to see what is going on in their own house – confirmation bias and echo chambers being what they are.
Nevertheless, “Maoism: A Global History” is an extremely important book, especially today. I highly recommend you read it.