“Maoism: A Global History” by Julia Lovell

Mao

At the end of a network of quiet alleys just to the east of Beijing Railway Station sits Kuijiachang Hutong—Armor Factory Alley. Few stumble across it; you have to search it out. In imperial times, as the name suggests, this was an area dedicated to the manufacture of munitions and the paraphernalia of war. It is not stretching the historical association too far, I hope, to link the street’s former purpose to the explosive power of a work of journalism completed on this hutong in the 1930s, for few could dispute the international impact made by Edgar Snow’s 1937 work of reportage, Red Star over China.

This account of Snow’s remarkable stay with the communist forces at Yan’an—the military and political base they established at the end of the Long March—offered detailed and flattering portraits of the CCP leadership, including Mao Zedong. It set up the communists as plucky underdogs, dedicated to lifting the Chinese masses out of feudal oppression. Red Star over China was a surprise international bestseller; it was this book, more than any other, that created the romanticized image of the “cooperative, self-reliant Communist utopia” of Yan’an, inspiring international fellow travelers and burnishing the CCP’s image at home.

Mao and the party leadership had exercised careful control over Snow’s visit; Julia Lovell, who foregrounds Snow’s story in an early chapter of Maoism: A Global History, recounts that every one of the 20,000 words transcribed by Snow in the course of his conversations with Mao had undergone a rigorous process of transcription, editing and re-translation by Mao and his underlings. This was the price of access, but the book which emerged from the now-destroyed courtyard house on Armour Factory Alley bears much responsibility for the perceptions of Mao—and Maoism—which were prevalent internationally in the early decades of his rule.

“Maoism doesn’t exist. It never has done. That, without doubt, explains its success.”

Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell (Bodley Head, March 2019; Knopf, September 2019)
Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell (Bodley Head, March 2019; Knopf, September 2019)

What, though, is Maoism? In some ways, it was in its global heyday the political equivalent of a Rorschach test; revolutionaries and intellectuals saw in it what they wanted to see. The restrictions on accurate factual accounts of Mao’s rule coming out of China meant that these interpretations were rarely challenged by the stark brutality and unpredictability of real life under the Great Helmsman.

Even now, with a wealth of historical information on Mao’s rule, one is confronted with the reality that Maoism as practiced by Mao was mutable, unstable: the Maoism of the civil war years was quite different to that of the Cultural Revolution.

In her masterful and hugely ambitious global history of Maoism, Julia Lovell begins by using Mao’s own words to try to triangulate a definition of the term. Common themes emerge: violence is laudable; claims to acting for and with “the people” essential; contradiction part of its intellectual bedrock. She quotes the scholar Christophe Bourseiller:

 

Maoism doesn’t exist. It never has done. That, without doubt, explains its success.

 

Lovell goes on to trace the various mutated forms of Maoism in a diverse range of countries where it inspired physical uprisings—Cambodia; Peru; Indonesia—as well as analyzing its intellectual appeal in Europe and America in the 1960s and 70s. In later chapters, modern Maoists are foregrounded; remarkably, there remain committed adherents to Mao’s vision of rural rebellion still active in India and Nepal.

Over and again, we see how Maoism’s notion that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun” appealed to and aided those looking to disrupt the social order, whilst simultaneously offering almost nothing by way of guidance on what to do once that order had been successfully disrupted; it was thus both eminently exportable to poor, agrarian societies globally and doomed to failure as a long term political creed.

 

Lovell concludes by returning to look at its complex legacy in modern China, which she terms “Mao-ish”. Lovell makes clear Xi Jinping’s ambivalent relationship with the Great Helmsman’s legacy; while “there is much about the Mao era that Xi [Jinping] would like to bury,” she writes—not least because Xi’s family suffered badly during the Cultural Revolution— he

 

is steeped in the Maoist heritage: in its symbolism and iconography; in its secretive, opaque party structure …; in its aversion to political heterogeneity; and in its ambition to establish China as a global leader.

 

Mao’s legacy in China and the contemporary rise of the neo-Maoists, is complex and not the main focus of this book, yet it feels right that Maoism returns us to China in its final chapter, as the well-spring of a political ideology oft-dismissed or derided in terms of its international influence which, Lovell persuasively demonstrates, has in fact played a significant and continuing role in shaping thought and action across the world.


Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin.