Mao: gone! forgotten?

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is long gone, but if you subscribe to the main message in Julia Lovell’s recently published assessment of “global Maoism” (Bodley Head, 2019), in some ways he is still with us; through his long term impact on assorted liberation movements and people’s struggles around the planet as well as through power politics in the People’s Republic (PRC). It’s an interesting thesis. As the rest of the world commemorates the massacre of thousands of students on the Square of Heavenly Peace in Beijing on the 4th June 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains firmly in control with a good grip on Mao’s legacy too; apparently the budget for domestic surveillance and censorship in China exceeds the total national defence budget.

Lovell, a professor of Chinese history at Birkbeck University in London, argues that the core concepts of Maoism can be summarised in several slogans which guided the turbulent pathway of the CCP from the 1930s until Mao’s death and then beyond. These include:

  • Power comes out of the barrel of a gun…
  • … in a very short time, several hundred million peasants in China’s central, southern and northern provinces will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power however great will be able to suppress it… Revolution is not a dinner party.
  • Practice is the sole criterion of truth.
  • Women can hold up half the sky.
  • Expose errors and criticise shortcomings.
  • Imperialism is a paper tiger.
  • To rebel is justified.
  • On contradiction: the struggle of opposites is ceaseless.

Some or all of these essentials of Maoism can be identified in numerous political struggles, particularly in the second half of the 20th Century. The global story starts with the emergence of the CCP in the 1930s and proceeds through the defeat of the nationalists in 1949, the catastrophic Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s during which at least 30 million people died of famine and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) during which the “Great Helmsman” encouraged young communists to revolt against both capitalists and the party. Subsequently many ideas and tactics of Maoism surfaced in conflicts around the world: in Indonesia before the 1965 massacres, in various African independence struggles, in the wars fought in Vietnam and Cambodia, in European and American youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in the guerrilla war led by Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) in Peru, in the Indian Naxalite rebellions and finally in the Maoist’s transition to power in Nepal after a long civil war (1996-2006). Various revolutionary comrades who had studied and trained in China as well as leaders who had been under the influence of Mao played major roles in these revolts and uprisings.

As I read the story of global Maoism I began to think about how my life has unfolded under the indirect influence of the Chairman and his thoughts. The winds of disruptive change blowing from the East were very strong in the 1960s and 1970s as I recall. They were the decades of anti-colonial struggles, independence and non-aligned movements, youth rebellions, the rejection of conservative social codes, etc. There was peace and love, but also war and revolution. Searching through my memory files I can identify at least four images.

There’s a photo of my family gathered in the back garden of our house in Cambridge, probably dating from 1966 or 1967. I am in school uniform, waving Mao’s little red book! I guess I was trying to annoy my parents. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing at the time and scary stories reached across the globe, particularly when a journalist called Anthony Grey was held under house arrest for many months and the British embassy in Beijing was attacked and burned by the Red Guards (young Maoists). I didn’t understand much about the goings on, but was impressed… and although I’ve moved many times since the 1960s I still have my original copy of the little red book to put on the bookshelf…

A few years later I was one of a large crowd marching in protest against the war in Viet Nam. I remember that some of the demonstrators had made a model canon, which they carried on their shoulders. Like thousands of other young people in the west, we were disgusted and angered by the relentless violence of the war and by regular TV reports of rural communities watching as the American soldiers and bombs destroyed their country. We chanted: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh and I’ve no doubt that the Maoists were on the streets with us. The fury of those years culminated in Richard Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Ha Noi in 1972 and – finally – peace negotiations in Paris, which led to the American withdrawal (defeat…) and to the North Vietnamese Army’s tanks arriving in Saigon in April 1975.[1]

In 1976 I slept for a few hours at the railway station in a town called Makambako in south-western Tanzania. Travelling with a small group, we had been unable to get precise information about the schedules, so we had a long wait. When it finally rolled in, the train was Chinese and had only recently begun to operate on the famous TanZam railway. This huge “friendship project” had been donated by the People’s Republic to link the Indian Ocean and the Zambian copper mines. The then president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was a minor African Maoist and his village collectivisation and self-sufficiency programme (called ujamaa in Swahili) was a major fiasco. We went from the Southern Highlands to Dar es Salaam and then to Nairobi before flying back to Europe. Somewhere in my old paper files I have kept the front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation with the announcement of Mao’s death.

In a leftist bookshop in Oxford in 1977 I found a paperback published by Zed Press called the Wealth of Some Nations. A Scottish specialist in the politics and economics of South-East Asia called Malcolm Caldwell was the author and I became very curious to know more about one of his main subjects: Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia). Without going into lengthy explanation, Caldwell essentially gathered arguments to support an agrarian and peasant revolution in true Maoist style, finding that the example of rural collectivisation in Cambodia was a model for the way forward. The countryside had encircled the cities! As it turned out Mao himself felt the same way about the Cambodian “experiment”, when according to Julia Lovell he met Ieng Sary and Pol Pot (the leaders of the Khmer Rouge) during their trip to Beijing in June 1975, only a few months before he died. One of the translators who took part in the meeting reported that Mao congratulated the Khmer Rouge leaders on their successful revolution and observed: “what we wanted to do, you are achieving” (p. 241).[2]

Much later, when the chairman had passed on to the great commune in the sky and I thought I’d completely forgotten about the impact of Mao Zedong thought, his disturbing legacy reappeared as I travelled around the globe. Several of the countries in which I have worked over the years were exposed to the full force of Maoism at different times since the 1960s, including some of those examined by Lovell in her wide-ranging analysis: Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. The brutality of uprisings, collectivisation and suppression of dissent have taken their toll in these and other countries. But since 2010 the rise of President Xi and active Chinese overseas investment strategies have bought the spectre of Mao back onto the world stage…

Lovell’s observations about the persistence of Maoism are not only based on the continued adulation of the Helmsman by leaders of the CCP, but also on the fact that the party is still in power after 70 years (like NATO this year). Training guns on the students in 1989 was a dramatic demonstration of Mao’s fundamental theory of power! What’s more, despite periods of criticism, the CCP has been able to manage the image of Mao to ensure that the downsides of his despotic rule have been largely wiped from the public memory (in true Orwellian style).

Furthermore, the Chinese are in full swing exporting a highly successful economic development model around the world through the new Silk Roads (which they’ve given an ugly title: the Belt and Road Initiative). In short, as many analysts of globalisation have recognised, the centre of political gravity is shifting to the east. According to the Birkbeck professor this means that we’ll have to “get used to the contradictions of Maoism. It looks as they will be with us for some time yet” (p. 465).


The chairman lives on in Andy Warhol images, here accompanied by my grandson Carl

[1] Gathering my thoughts on these matters, I re-read James Fenton’s classic essay on the ”Fall of Saigon”, published by Granta in 1985. He describes both the exhilaration of the end of the war and the disappointing aftermath of re-education camps and communist repression.

[2] The achievements were horrendous and cost the lives of at least 2 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot’s bloody revolution has been extensively documented by inter alia: David Chandler in Brother Number One – a political biography of Pol Pot (Westview Press, Boulder, 1999). Malcolm Caldwell died in mysterious circumstances in Phnom Penh in December 1978 a few hours after a meeting with Pol Pot and a few days before the Vietnamese military swept into Cambodia “to teach the Maoists a lesson.” The Chinese then launched an attack on Viet Nam, to teach the Soviet backed government a lesson… So much for fraternal communist relations…

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