August 24th 2019


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BOOK REVIEW The epic awfulness of Mao and his 'isms'

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BOOK REVIEW
The epic awfulness of Mao and his 'isms'




News Weekly, August 24, 2019

MAOISM: A Global History

by Julia Lovell

Vintage, London
Paperback: 448 pages
Price: AUD$35

Reviewed by Bill James

Those over a certain age will remember the reign of Mao back in the 1960s and ’70s.

His icon was taped to the walls of student digs, from where the Great Helmsman could preside over the long hair, hippy clothes, rock music, all-night partying, drug taking and casual sex – all of which which his puritanical apparatchiks forbade in China.

“China Liners” split the Australian communist movement.

In a self-indulgent display of ideological one-upmanship, contingents of Maoist marchers irrelevantly chanted “Smash Soviet revisionism!” in the middle of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.

There is no shortage of biographies of Mao or histories of 20th-century China. Julia Lovell, however, Professor of Modern China at University of London, perceived a need for a study of the worldwide impact of Maoisms.

Use of the plural is necessary because of the phenomenon’s protean appeal to murderous radicals in China, Peru, Nepal, India, Africa, Germany and Italy; to romantically revolutionary middle-class university students in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia; and even to pragmatic (“my enemy’s enemy is my friend”) Islamists in the Middle East.

Maoism lifted the living standard of the poorest Chinese, but killed up to 45 million of them (more than twice the number who died under the World War II Japanese occupation of China) in the 1958–62 Great Leap Forward alone. Not surprisingly, Mao later expressed an insouciant readiness for tens of millions more to perish in a nuclear conflict.

The Chinese Communist Party claimed to be Marxist but defied Marxist orthodoxy by working through peasants rather than the urban proletariat (there was a personal element in this: Mao himself proudly displayed his own peasant origins through his boorishness and ignorance).

Mao proclaimed that “women can hold up half the sky”, but casually exploited them, even infecting his countless temporary concubines with venereal disease.

Maoism was brutally repressive and conformist but, through the Cultural Revolution, it projected an image of “anarchic democracy” which appealed to Western adolescents of all ages – such as Jean-Paul Sartre. It claimed to have no interest in interfering with other nations, yet invaded and subjugated Tibet, and opportunistically fomented efforts to impose communist dictatorship in many other countries.

It deplored the role of opium in China’s subjugation by European colonialism, but grew and sold opium to finance the Party prior to 1949. It espoused international brotherhood, but promoted Chinese nationalism, hegemony and exceptionalism.

“Somehow, Maoism is the creed of winners and insiders, of losers and outsiders, of leaders and underdogs, of absolute rulers, vast, disciplined bureaucracies, and oppressed masses.”

According to the gnomic utterance of a Mao scholar quoted by Lovell: “Maoism doesn’t exist. It has never done. That, without doubt, explains its success.”

Despite Maoism’s having proved to be “a body of contradictory ideas … an umbrella word”, in her chapter headed “What Is Maoism?”, Lovell extracts and discusses nine propositions which theoretically, at least, constitute its formal basis.

The first, the famous dictum “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun”, she traces back to Mao’s experience of the slaughter of Chinese Communist Party members by the Nationalists in 1927.

Another fundamental element is summed up in the euphemism “Rectification”, which refers to the Party’s imposition of doctrinal conformity on dissidents by means of self-criticism, confession, torture and execution – Mao “long harboured a sense of inferiority towards intellectuals”.

Then there was Maoism’s hatred of imperialism. During the post-World War II convergence of the communist seizure of China with the new era of decolonisation, he famously derided imperialism as a “paper tiger”, which won him the admiration of what became known as the Third World.

But Mao’s global reputation began years before the establishment of his dictatorship in 1949. In 1934, he led communist forces on the Long March to Yan’an in China’s northwest and set up a communist administration there, which entertained the visiting American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936. The gullible Snow, who was comprehensively duchessed by his agitprop-savvy hosts, was a stereotypical example of what Lenin is supposed to have described as “useful idiots”.

Decades later, Snow wrote another book on China “which refuted reports of a famine that we now know killed tens of millions”.

His hagiographical account of his experience in Yan’an, the best seller Red Star Over China, presented Mao and his comrades as “idealistic patriots and egalitarian democrats with a sense of humour”. It was censored by the communists who oversaw its publication, to remove any hints of the authoritarianism, doctrinal rigidity, torture and executions that characterised the Yan’an regime. Translated into many languages, and read widely in the West, Russia, China, India, Burma, Malaya, South Africa and elsewhere, it became the first important tool in the international dissemination of the Maoism myth.

Following the communists’ seizure of power in 1949, Mao began to project his influence beyond mainland China’s borders, but not always, according to Lovell, by the Svengalian modus operandi imagined by Western observers. She claims that a reluctant Mao was “bounced” into the 1950–53 Korean War by Stalin and Kim Il-sung, and that the Chinese were “forced” to rescue Kim when the war turned against him.

Talk at the time of Maoism’s seemingly occultic capacity to “brainwash” both the Chinese populace and American prisoners was also exaggerated.

Another conflict during the 1950s, the Malayan Insurgency, received only limited practical assistance from China, which always subordinated the needs of the Malayan communist insurgents to its own geopolitical priorities.

What Lovell calls “high Maoism”, from the late 1950s until the Chairman’s death in the mid-1970s, was a “peculiar form of internationalism: universal in theory, parochial in practice”.

It consisted of three elements. The Great Leap Forward (1958–62), a disastrous attempt at grass-roots industrialisation, aimed at building China’s prestige in the eyes of developing post-colonial countries by surpassing the outputs of both the Soviet Union and Western capitalism.

Asserting China’s leadership of world revolution also lay at the basis of the second element, Mao’s mid-1960s split with the Soviet Union. He accused the Soviet leadership of “revisionism” for its alleged decision to give up fomenting global revolution and live in peaceful co-existence with the non-communist world.

Third, the cruel and chaotic Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, was aimed at consolidating the Great Helmsman’s leadership of both Chinese and overseas communism by using the country’s Mao-idolising younger generation – symbolised by the Red Guards and The Little Red Book – to destroy his opponents.

Soon after Mao’s death in 1976, “domestic economic pragmatism was already ousting abstract dreams of world revolution” but, like a “dormant virus, Maoism … demonstrated a tenacious, global talent for latency”.

An episode of interest to Australia that occurred during the era of “high Maoism”, was a 1965 abortive coup in Indonesia, attempted by a cell of army officers with communist sympathies. It was swiftly suppressed by the rest of the army led by General Suharto, who replaced the China-leaning Sukarno as president. Widespread massacres of at least half a million alleged communists followed.

Lovell concludes that “the documentary record concerning direct Chinese involvement [is] problematically fragmented and compromised”, but suggests that the ramshackle coup’s “romantic revolutionary elan” carried the “Maoist imprint” of faith in the efficacy of sheer willpower.

“High Maoism” ultimately also failed in Africa, despite its widespread influence in many independence movements and post-colonial regimes. The Belgian Congo/ Zaire/ People’s Republic of Congo; Rhodesia/Zimbabwe; Tanganyika and Zanzibar (later Tanzania); Ghana; Guinea; South Africa; Algeria; Cameroon; Kenya; Mali; South West Africa/Namibia; Mozambique; Angola; and Central African Republic, all received some form of Chinese largesse.

Inducements included economic, “educational”, health and military aid, plus lavish junkets in China for African leaders, complete with “spontaneous” cheering crowds who mobbed their every public appearance. Mugabe, Nyerere, Mandela, Kaunda, Mobutu and Nkrumah were just some of emergent Africa’s celebrities who flirted with Mao at various times, and to varying degrees.

In the two countries where “aspects of the Maoist repertoire were applied with particular vigour”, the results were “famine in Tanzania [and] one-party thuggery and economic calamity in Zimbabwe”.

Despite its financial generosity, anti-imperial appeal, and promise of a shortcut to modernity and prosperity, Maoism in Africa failed because of linguistic and cultural barriers. Its representatives’ “political regimentation inhibited their easy mixing with locals”.

One of the elements driving Maoist involvement in Indonesia and Africa was rivalry with the USSR, which was also a factor in Chinese aid to Vietnamese and Cambodian communists during their wars against the French and then the Americans between 1945 and 1975.

Another motivator for the Chinese was the ancient imperialist assumption that Indochina was their natural sphere of influence. Old-fashioned nationalist tensions and realpolitik therefore underlay the surface fraternalism of the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian communists.

The Chinese and Vietnamese disliked and feared one another, and the Cambodians disliked and feared both, but saw China as a counterweight to Vietnam. In 1979, these tensions culminated in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia/Kampuchea, and a Vietnamese victory over an attempted Chinese invasion.

In the years before and after 1975, however, the Chinese poured money, weapons and personnel into support of Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. “Though discredited today, the domino theory gave a fairly accurate account of Chinese communist ambitions in Indochina.”

It is difficult to “point the finger solely at Chinese Communist intrigues in creating the vast human tragedy of Indochina”, but “Mao-era China’s role needs to be written back into this history”. Among the atrocities committed by the Vietnamese “disciples of Mao”, Lovell lists the slaughter of farmers who owned smallholdings (vilified as “cruel and bullying landowners”), coercive ideological uniformity, and the destruction of free speech.

The Khmer Rouge regime not only hewed even closer to Maoist radicalism, but attempted to surpass it, with mass starvation, slave labour, a torture centre run on an industrial scale (“stocked with Little Red Books in Khmer”), and an autocide of 2 million that concentrated on “murdering educated professionals”. Much of the killing was perpetrated by “indoctrinated youngsters” in a  “veneration of juvenility”.

In 1976, the year of his death, Mao sent a congratulatory telegram: “The Chinese people are extremely happy to see the vast and deep changes occurring in Kampuchea.”

If we divide the post-World War II world into “the West and the Rest”, then it is possible for us to understand, if not condone, at least something of the appeal of Maoism to the latter. But why young people from the free and prosperous West should have adulated a totalitarian mass murderer (other than the trite, but possibly true, explanation of épater les bourgeois (“shock the middle class”)) remains a mystery.

Perhaps for pseudo-intellectuals it was an opportunity to flaunt an arcane ideology; perhaps for ethnic minorities a way of expressing resentment at perceived injustice by supporting a non-white major power; and perhaps for hormone-driven, middle-class adolescents, an excuse to let off steam with exhibitionist vandalism and violence.

For Shirley MacLaine, Maoism, which she described as “totalitarian benevolence”, helped her out of a midlife crisis. She told reporters at her Las Vegas cabaret that “Mao Zedong is probably responsible for my being here”. (After her Mao phase, she moved on to an interest in “our space brothers and sisters”.)

Her Chinese hosts provided Jean-Paul Sartre’s partner, Simone de Beauvoir, with “a brass double bed and pink silk sheets; she was enraptured”. Brigitte Bardot and Sammy Davis Jr sported tailored Mao suits.

At an even sicker level, Mao-flavoured cults such as the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Weathermen wallowed in indiscriminate murder sprees.

While Maoism in the West was largely theatre – if occasionally of the grand guignol variety – with no hope of victory, a later “millenarian … cult of Mao”, in the Western hemisphere at least, succeeded in wreaking prolonged havoc in a poor country.

Peru’s civil war of 1980–99, ignited by the Maoist movement known as the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, “killed 69,000 people, annihilated the possibility of political moderation [and] gave gangster-oligarchs an excuse to bulldoze democracy”.

Why Peru? After all, while sharing the chaotic economic and social problems of much of South America, it was substantially democratic and literate, and had benefitted from land reforms, so it was not the most obviously fertile soil for revolution.

The driving force in the founding of Shining Path and its pathological violence was philosophy professor Abimael Guzman. A devotee of Mao, he had visited China during his hero’s lifetime, and was “deified” by his devotees as “Peru’s ‘Chairman Gonzalo’ and the greatest living Marxist- Leninist”.

He mobilised unemployed, frustrated middle-class university graduates through a mixture of  elitism, simplistic ideology, access to guns and explosives, and permission to both destroy dissidents and lord it over (in the approved Leninist manner for a vanguard) the backward peasantry and proletariat. In areas controlled by Shining Path guerillas, development projects were demolished, the old and sick were liquidated, (“recalling the Khmer Rouge saying ‘to spare you no gain; to kill you no loss’”), and 12-year-old girls were conscripted as sex slaves.

The capital, Lima, “was the Beirut of Latin America, shaken by car bombs, blinded by blackouts, petrified by the public assassinations of community leaders”.

Guzman’s cause was helped by Peru’s police and armed forces, who reacted to Shining Path terrorist attacks exactly as he had hoped: by treating the whole populace as probable Shining Path collaborators deserving of assault, rape and execution.

The movement collapsed (“like a paper tiger”) after Guzman’s arrest in 1992, but not before setting back the nation’s social, political and economic progress by many years.

India is geographically far closer to China than is Peru, but China and India are rivals for leadership in Asia. Moreover, they have engaged in continual border disputes, and historically had clashed over Tibet and Bangladesh, so the popularity of an ideology birthed in China was just as improbable in India as in Peru. However, “the phenomenon of Maoism in South Asia … reminds us of the ability of these ideas to travel, to translate across borders, ethnicities, languages and societies”.

Maoist insurgency began in India during the 1960s through a combination of the militancy of Indian communism, India’s deep-seated social and economic injustices, and “the eagerness of the Chinese Communist Party to support rhetorically (and in limited ways materially) an Indian revolution”. It was peasant-based, emphasising “revolts against landlords … redistributions of land, and village self-government”.

The West Bengal village Naxalbari, scene of an uprising against large landholders in 1967, produced the name by which all Indian Maoists are now known: Naxalites.

During the late 1960s, the movement spread to the cities, where authority figures, “politicians, judges, teachers, police officers, were at risk of assassination”. In the countryside, landowners were tried and executed by so-called “people’s courts”.

This phase of insurgency petered out during the 1970s, to be replaced by a new strategy, which featured “talented, idealistic graduates … some of them from India’s best families”. This was to carve out, in emulation of the young Mao, a base area (a “Yan’an of India”) in the impenetrable, thinly inhabited forests of Chhattisgarh state in east central India.

This venture saw some success in helping and indoctrinating the dirt-poor Adivasis of the region, but the situation was complicated in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with the granting of mining contracts to corporations. Destruction of the environment, and exploitation of the indigenes, was met by Naxalite resistance and retaliation, which necessitated government police and military assistance to the miners.

“Violent confrontation escalated”, and continues to this day in Chhattisgarh and other parts of eastern India. Sympathisers, such as award-winning author Arundhati Roy, laud the Naxalites, much as Edgar Snow glorified Mao’s communists, as “good-hearted, idealistic rebels with beautiful smiles”.

Unfortunately, the Naxalites in fact embody traditional Maoist attributes such as “an intolerant, totalitarian ideology”, along with an intellectual contempt for the simple peasant (similar to that of the Shining Path’s élites) but with an Indian flavour, that is, “high-caste domination of Maoist hierarchies”. They also engage in corrupt and extortionate, behind-the-scenes dealings with the mining corporations.

Various features of Indian Maoism were replicated in India’s neighbour to its immediate north, Nepal. Among them were the monopoly of senior leadership positions by high-caste university graduates; its intolerance of doctrinal or strategic dissent; its “reckless worship of violence”; and its requisition of labour, child soldiers, money, food, and sex in the areas it controlled. On the other hand, its rhetorical and theoretical support of untouchables, ethnic minorities, women and feudally exploited peasants won it some popularity.

The Communist Party of Nepal was founded in 1949, and was involved in the struggle against monarchist and religious (Hindu) conservatism until 1991. In the 1960s, a Maoist wing emerged that retained its bedazzlement with Mao for decades, despite the later exposures of his horrific reign, and the presence of Tibetan refugee camps in the Kathmandu Valley.

When the resumption of democracy in 1991 did not result in much discernible improvement in Nepali life, it launched a civil war in 1996, with the help of military training by Indian Naxalites. Ten years later, the king was forced to abdicate – under long-term pressure from the insurgency, and immediate pressure from ordinary citizens in Kathmandu – and Nepal was transformed into the secular republic that it remains today.

Uniquely among Maoist parties worldwide, the Nepali Maoist leaders decided after a decade of fighting the army (1996–2006) that they could not win. So, despite the fact that “their People’s Liberation Army was 10,000 strong and had wrested 80 per cent of Nepal’s territory from state control”, they decided to cooperate in the new parliamentary democracy. A Maoist was elected as prime minister in 2008 and again in 2016.

“Nepali Maoists are the only group outside China to have attained state power … one of the most interesting and perplexing political experiments in contemporary history.” And, it might be added, one that raises the question (reminiscent of the famous “No True Scotsman” fallacy) of whether they are still “really” Maoists.

What about Maoism in contemporary China?

Deng Xiaoping emerged as victor from the struggle for party leadership after Mao’s death in 1976, and in 1980 instituted a program of “de-Maoification”. Foreign policy shifted from inciting global revolution to “diplomatic pragmatism”. Communes were dissolved, the Little Red Book was banned, and the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were openly discussed.

The limits of this openness to change were reached with the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. But, if maintenance of the absolute power of the Chinese Communist Party was non-negotiable, ongoing economic liberalisation was possible, and in fact was conceived as buttressing the party’s dominance.

“Convinced that the CCP depended on the spread of material prosperity, [Deng] called for an end to ideological hang-ups about the capitalist nature of economic liberalisation, and for an unleashing of market forces.”

Through these decades of upending his actual policies, both official and grass-roots reverence for Mao as China’s tutelary deity remained a sacrosanct obligation. Ubiquitous representations of him ranged from the huge icon in Tiananmen Square, to Ozymandias-like statues, to kitschy portraits adorning alarm clocks, mobile phones and cigarette lighters.

During the first decade of the new millennium, neo-Maoists emerged, glorifying the Chairman’s achievements, defending even the worst aspects of his reign, and demanding a return to socialism. They were tolerated by the Party as long as they stopped short of suggesting a repetition of the “chaotic mass mobilisation of the Cultural Revolution”.

In 2012, China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, became Party Secretary, and in 2018 succeeded in abolishing the two-term limit on the presidency, which “gave Xi the go-ahead for lifetime rule”.

For Lovell, Xi represents a reversion to Maoism in a number of ways. He has used “the Great Helmsman’s techniques to create both myth and mystique of leadership”; in fact, the state media describe him as “the helmsman” (“a phrase previously reserved for Mao”).

Xi has “reinstated the party as the disciplined, monolithic, solely legitimate representative of China, its people and national interest”, with its “secretive, opaque structure dependent on control of the military”. He is “[averse] to heterogeneity … from human rights lawyers to the Uyghur inhabitants of Xinjiang”.

Lovell goes on: “China is ruled by the strongest, most Maoist leader the country has had since Mao. Xi has reasserted [China’s] global ambitions with an energy and confidence unseen since Mao proclaimed China the centre of the world revolution.”

Xi is reinvigorating the Maoist policy (contrary to “the historical orthodoxy that Mao-era China had no engagement with the world beyond its borders”) of influence abroad, “especially in Australia and New Zealand, where analysts are disquieted by evidence of CCP surveillance and control of student organisations, and by the links and funding between the Chinese Communist Party and candidates for political office”.

Xi’s big project is the “Chinese Dream – in English you might call it ‘Make China Great Again’”.

Lovell concludes with a final reminder that “ability to tolerate paradoxes is the most notable legacy of Mao”. In other words, China’s current conflation of consumer capitalism and communism is quite in line with its past incongruities – or hypocrisies.

And Lovell’s summing up? “Mao, his strategies and political model remain central to the legitimacy and functioning of China’s Communist Government. For decades, Western analysts have been too quick to overlook or dismiss the persistent influence of the Maoist heritage in contemporary China.”

This well-written and thoroughly researched book is a gripping read for anyone with an interest in history and geopolitics. For Australians, its publication is particularly pertinent, concerned as we must be with developments in our near north, ranging from Hong Kong freedom protests, to China’s gangster belligerence in the South China Sea.


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