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Book Review: Maoism: A Global History – Julia Lovell

Ford, G. (2019). “Maoism: A Global History” by Julia Lovell, Asian Review of Books, 12 August.

Despite Chinese amnesia and Western disdain, Maoism’s impact on history has been global and persistent. Even as China’s people starved and suffered in their millions during the depredations of the Great Leap Forward and the havoc—with the Red Guards running amok—of the Cultural Revolution, the Party was spending hundreds of millions of dollars selling Maoism and gifting training and weapons to all those that bought the programme and were prepared to march to the Chairman’s tune. Interference in the politics of third countries was the order of the day and the Party’s International Liaison Department the vehicle.

Timing was opportune. The late 1950s and ’60s and the death of European colonialism saw emerging indigenous elites searching for new rules of the road to guide them to power and their new countries forward. The Soviet model was incongruent: urban, workerist and underpinned by heavy industry. China and Mao, in contrast, chimed with the emerging nations’ peasant economies whose cities were as islands adrift encircled by the countryside. State capture was to be rooted there. Neither Washington, nor Moscow: Beijing was the Third Way. All was predicated on the nationalization of Marxist-Leninism: here Stalin had led the way, but Mao was a fast learner and rapidly surpassed his mentor.

Maoism went global. It had its “rice christians”—only in it for the ordnance—but most bought the whole parcel. The USSR was left with the crumbs—Angola, Afghanistan and Ethiopia—while China made away with almost the whole of the revolutionary cake.

In her new book, Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell has chapters on Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, Africa, Peru, India, Nepal, and the United States and Western Europe. She paints a bleak picture. The results were at best mixed and at times even tragic.

Without China’s early and massive material, help Ho Chi Minh’s revolution might well have gone the way of Chin Peng’s against the British “emergency” in Malaya. No good deed goes unpunished. Hanoi resented that they were denied total victory in Geneva in 1954 in exchange for Zhou Enlai’s honing his diplomatic skills. Within four years of the civil war finally drawing to a close in 1975, Hanoi invaded Cambodia and Beijing—unsuccessfully—retaliated by attacking Vietnam, leaving Beijing and Washington washed up together on a sordid political beachhead propping up the remnants of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

In Indonesia a bungled attempt in 1965 by the leadership of the Indonesian Communist Party, intoxicated by Mao’s militant rhetoric and addiction to violence, led them to assassinate a group of seven hostile Generals. This precipitated a bloodbath where in six months a million men, women and children were brutally slaughtered in the name of anti-communism. The descendents of those who survived are still bereft of their full civil rights half a century on. In the case of Peru the butchery balanced. The 70,000 mainly poor Quechua speaking peasants who died in Shining Path’s insurrection had an even chance at dying at the hands of the state’s “death squads” or the acolytes of Abimael Guzman.

Nepal was possibly Maoism greatest success outside of China. It’s late flowering in 2008 led Beijing to sharply distance itself when Nepal’s Maoists finally came to power through the ballot box having abandoned the bullet, but not in time to avoid thousands dying on both sides.

Of the ongoing struggles. Maoism shows empathy for India’s “Naxalites” fighting together with the “untouchables” and the most vulnerable and exploited group in Indian society, the “tribals” or Adivasis. Initially their struggle was against the violence and rapine of officialdom, then transferred to the multinationals as they began the exploitation of natural resources around and under the Adivasis homelands in West Bengal. It continues.

The discussion of Maoism in the West is weaker. Germany and Italy’s “Red Brigades” borrowed from Mao as did the Black Panthers—there are men of color approaching their fifties answering to the name of “Mao”—and the Weathermen, but Lovell at times gets sidetracked by the farcical cults like London’s six strong Workers’ Institute of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought whose leader ended up in 2015 in prison for false imprisonment and sexual assault, yet omits the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who split from the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain, led by Reg Birch from the Party’s Executive Committee and who was subsequently elected and spent four years on the General Council of the Trade Union Congress in the late seventies.

Lovell has nonetheless produced a remarkable tome—606 pages—that will underpin the further shores of Maoist studies for the future. It’s a ghostly creed that shape-shifts as she says to fit

winners and insiders, losers and outsiders, leaders and underdogs, absolute rulers, vast bureaucracies and the oppressed masses.

Now that Beijing is again turning “Mao-ish”—Lovell’s term—it is important to pay attention. After all the ripples from its first incarnation are still with us.