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The best books on Maoism

recommended by Julia Lovell

Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell

Maoism: A Global History
by Julia Lovell


While researching Maoism, China expert Julia Lovell battled against two incorrect assumptions: “firstly that Maoism is a story of China; and secondly that Maoism is a story of the past.” Here she recommends five books for coming to grips with the global, still-relevant impact of Maoism.

Interview by Alec Ash

Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell

Maoism: A Global History
by Julia Lovell

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After tackling the Great Wall and the Opium Wars, your latest book is a global history of Maoism, an ideology that seemed to have been abandoned in China after Mao’s death in 1976, only to emerge resurgent in recent years. How exactly is Maoism visible (or hidden under the surface) in China’s new political ideologies today?

I argue that Mao was never purged from Chinese politics. Even though his successor Deng Xiaoping dismantled Mao’s economic policies, Mao has still left a heavy mark on China’s politics and society; for example, in the politicisation of the judiciary, the supremacy of the one-party state, and the intolerance of dissident voices. His portrait still hangs over the Forbidden City and his embalmed body lies in the middle of Tiananmen Square.

“Since his death, Mao has enjoyed an ambiguous, unstable legacy in China”

Mao’s legacy became particularly conspicuous from 2012, when the CCP under Xi Jinping began to publicly renormalise aspects of Maoist political culture—political self-criticisms, the personality cult, the “mass-line” and rectification campaigns. And in 2017, the Central Committee abolished the constitutional restriction that limited the president to only two consecutive terms: like Mao, Xi could be ruler for life.

I’m consistently struck by how loyal the older generation of Chinese—or those who didn’t suffer under his policies, at least—are to the memory of Mao. Cabbies regularly wax lyrical over him, and a 74-year-old was recently telling me how he cried at his death. Yet to the younger generation, he is like a fairy tale. Do you think Mao’s primacy in China will endure unchallenged in the coming decades, or has it been subtly changing?

I would say that since his death, Mao has enjoyed an ambiguous, unstable legacy in China. The leaders of the CCP have tried to turn Mao into a founding father in order to shore up their own legitimacy and rule. There are, however, major aspects of the Maoist legacy that Xi Jinping is keen to suppress: above all, the bottom-up mobilisations of the Cultural Revolution that almost destroyed the Party-state in the late 1960s.

Yet large parts of the Mao cult also continue to flourish beyond Party control. After the CCP dismantled urban welfare and job security in the late 1990s, many laid-off workers protested and brandished portraits of Mao as the patron saint of labour rights. Neo-Maoists in China today are angry at the inequalities generated by contemporary CCP economic policies, and as part of this dissatisfaction they often cite Mao’s Cultural Revolution incitement to rebel against the state. And student Marxist societies in China’s top universities have been cracked down on by police for organising labour protest. Those two elements of Maoism—validating political rebellion as well as conformity—co-exist.

Before we get into your book selections, I’ll like to take a moment to pay tribute to Roderick MacFarquhar, a giant in the field of sinology, and in particular the study of the Mao era, who passed on February 10, 2019. Are there any words you’d like to offer in remembrance of his career?

Roderick MacFarquhar was a model to us all. He was an extraordinarily crisp thinker, steeped in primary sources and with a lifetime of first-hand experiences to draw upon in his writing about the Mao era. He was also a great communicator, and a brilliant speaker.

MacFarquhar cowrote the first of your book choices on Maoism, Mao’s Last Revolution, with Michael Schoenhals. The revolution under scrutiny here is, of course, the cultural one. What are the key takeaways from this work, about Mao’s motivations for launching the Cultural Revolution and how it spun out of control?

What I find particularly convincing about this book is its wide-ranging quest for blame in the Cultural Revolution, which is one of the most puzzling and unprecedented events in the history of global Communism, in that a leader—Mao—mobilises people at the grassroots in order to destroy the Party-state that he has built.

The book begins with and does not spare Mao as a driving-force, but also carefully analyses Mao’s own motivations and complexities. Under the pen of MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, Mao was driven by both ambition for power—the desire to purge comrades whom he resented for sidelining him in the early 1960s—and by some degree of ideological conviction that this was the way to rescue the world Communist revolution from the corrupting influences of the Soviet Union. But responsibility for the political culture that made the Cultural Revolution possible spread far beyond Mao: two of the principal victims, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were themselves deeply implicated in the PRC’s culture of political violence and humiliation.

Technically, the book is a tour-de-force. It offers a survey of Cultural Revolutionaries at every level of Chinese society; it makes use of a fascinating range of primary sources including interviews, memoirs, pamphlets, posters and diaries.

Next on your list of books is Maoism at the Grassroots, a collection of scholarly essays covering the whole three decades when Mao was at the helm of China’s socialist steamer. What are your favourite essays in this book, and what common threads run through it?

This book is important for a couple of reasons. For one, it illustrates very clearly the archival access that became newly available over the last 15 years, although much of that access has now been retracted. And as a result of this material that has been gathered from archives and also from flea-markets, we can get insight into grassroots, lived experience in Mao-era China in a way that wasn’t previously possible. Maoism at the Grassroots examines many aspects of life in Mao’s China, such as political classifications and crimes, propaganda, popular religion, industry and science, and shows that life under this regime was not airlessly controlled or homogenous.

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One of my favourite essays in the collection is by Yang Kuisong, a historian based in Shanghai and one of contemporary China’s best archival historians of the Mao era. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been translated extensively into English, but his essay ‘How a Bad Element was Made’ uses archival research to illuminate the complexities of 1950s Chinese society in a very eye-opening way. The book as a whole is pushing against a tendency it diagnoses in earlier scholarship to define Mao-era China as totalitarian, and to focus on top-down politics. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a revolution in access to sources, so that even though the CCP is still in power, through local government materials available in archives and sold off in flea-markets we can start to illuminate grassroots lived experience in Mao’s China in a way in which we couldn’t before—the book brilliantly distills some of the new research that has resulted.

Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China is a classic on every China-watcher’s shelf, despite being a distinctly one-sided piece of journalism—a fawning account of Snow’s meetings with Mao before he was Chairman, in the communist stronghold of Yan’an during China’s civil war in the 30s. What do you love (or hate) about this book?

It’s worth remembering that at the time Snow’s book was groundbreaking. He was the first foreign journalist to risk this trek to the forbidden Communist state in China’s West in the second half of the 1930s, when it was under heavy blockade by the Nationalist government. Snow invested a lot of time and energy in bringing an untold story out into the world. But as you say, there is also much that is troubling about the book, especially Snow’s unquestioning, even adulatory, response to Mao’s story about the Communist past and present.

I’ve chosen the book due to its importance as a global vector for Mao’s ideas. From the year of its publication in 1937, it very quickly became a world bestseller, and the book turned Mao into a political celebrity—an affable, poetic patriot. It translated the man and his revolution to a very wide group of people, from anti-British Indian nationalists, Chinese intellectuals and Malayan guerillas, to anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa, German hippies, and American presidents. It really has had an extraordinary reach and afterlife. Edgar Snow himself, a happy-go-lucky globetrotter from Kansas, was a very unlikely intermediary for international Maoism. So the tale of Red Star Over China and its global travels is emblematic of the wider travels of Maoism itself—the phenomenal, often surprising translatability of Mao and his ideas, within and beyond China.

Snow wasn’t the only foreign observer during the 30s to be enamoured of Mao and his mission—a romanticisation of Maoism that extended well into the 60s, perhaps first truly punctured by Simon Leys. What do you think caused this craze, and are we too harsh to paint the western scholars and journalists who defended Mao as fellow travellers, when the facts available to us were not to them?

It’s true that Western Europe and the US in the 1960s witnessed something of a Mao craze, and this took place for a number of reasons. One is that it was an era of intense youth discontent, and of student dissatisfaction with their universities and their governments. In this context of youthful rebellion, many student radicals identified Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a youth protest rather than a political purge. These Western admirers adopted some of Mao’s slogans that seemed to fit with their own counter-culture movement, such as “it is right to rebel” and “bomb the headquarters”.

“Western Europe and the US in the 1960s witnessed something of a Mao craze”

It’s also important to remember there was an international political backdrop to the Western enthusiasm for Mao. The late 1960s was an epoch of widespread disgust at US intervention in Vietnam. Many Western radicals felt solidarity with Mao’s China, which was America’s chief international detractor. Sympathy with Mao’s China also merged with outrage over the mistreatment of ethnic minorities who started to think of themselves as “internal colonies” inside the US, particularly black, Latin and Asian Americans. The militant wing of the African-American liberation group, the Black Panthers, were impressed with Mao’s denunciation of America’s foreign policy, and channeled Mao’s ideas about political violence to challenge the white American ruling establishment.

You’re right that is was a lot easier to be ignorant about what was really going on in Mao’s China in the 1960s and 70s than it is now. At the same time, there were sources of accurate information, such as from Hong Kong’s listening posts. But many of Mao’s admirers, French and Italian intellectuals and so on, were not prepared to be sceptical, and were true believers in the PRC’s propaganda dream of an egalitarian utopian state.

Jumping across the border to Nepal, your next book The Bullet and the Ballot Box takes us through Nepal’s Maoist revolution of the nineties. Could you give us a potted summary of Nepalese Maoism, and tell us what its history show us of how the ideology has been reappropriated?

Nepalese Maoism as an intellectual and a grassroots phenomenon goes back to the 1950s. There were multiple different Communist groups working in Nepali politics and society then, many of which were sympathetic to Mao’s revolution. But it was only in the Maoist Civil war, which started in February 1996, when these political tendencies took on an instrumental power to change Nepali politics. A small unit, 36 members, of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)—a recently formed splinter group—attacked a police station in northwest Nepal, beginning the Civil War.

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A decade later, the Maoist insurgency’s impact on Nepal was huge: in 2006, the Nepali Maoists, often using quite a textbook version of Mao’s military strategies, had fought their way into a position of decisive political influence, pushing back against the superior fire power of the Nepali police and army. Their own People’s Liberation Army was 10,000 strong, and they had taken 80% of Nepali territory out of state control. The Maoist civil war was the principal reason for the collapse of the Nepali monarchy and the establishment of a federal republic in Nepal after 2006. And in the ten years following, two members of the Maoist party have served three terms between them as Nepali Prime Minister. So although the Maoists didn’t realise their ambition of unchallenged control of the country, as the CCP did in China, Nepal is the only country in the world where you can encounter self-avowed Maoists in power.

One of the most surprising adaptations that Nepali and Indian Maoists made to the original creed was to use Mao’s ideology to champion the rights of underprivileged ethnic minorities. Even the critics of Maoism in Nepal would acknowledge their contribution in giving voice to ethnic minorities and low castes who had been marginalised by high-caste elites. However, many Nepalis today feel that this inclusive promise of the Nepali Maoists has not been realised, and that they squandered the radical potential of their movement to help the poorest and most neglected in Nepali society. There is a strong sense that the Maoists, when in power, compromised too much with high-caste elite politics in Kathmandu.

Your own book also gets into the weeds of this global reach of Maoism. Could you give a few more tasters of where else the ideology has spread, and how it has evolved abroad?

There are two incorrect ideas about Maoism that I often picked up on when researching the book: firstly that Maoism is only a story of China; and secondly that Maoism is a story of the past. But Maoism is a force that has changed not just China but many other parts of the world as well, between the 1930s and present day. My book tries to tell it as both a Chinese and a global story, of the past and present.

“Maoism is a force that has changed not just China but many other parts of the world as well”

The ideas of Mao’s revolution spread practically to every continent, beginning with the de-colonising world. Mao’s ideas strongly influenced the Malayan Communist Party as it fought the British state in Malaya, one of the first hot conflicts of the Cold War. There was a big impact on the North Vietnamese Communist state, and also on the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, between 1975 and 1979. States and insurgencies in Africa borrowed Mao’s ideas, and benefited from Chinese aid programmes. Left-wing Latin Americans also acclaimed Mao’s revolution as the path that needed to be followed in their own continent. One famous example is Abimael Guzmán, who began the Shining Path war against the Peruvian state in the 1980s. So this is a very wide-ranging story, that takes in the tea plantations of north India, the sierras of the Andes, Paris’s fifth arrondissement, the fields of Tanzania, the rice-paddies of Cambodia and the terraces of Brixton.

The final title on your list is another essay compilation, A Critical Introduction to Mao. What are the best essays in this book about Mao and Maosim, and what did you take away from them?

I teach Chinese history at Birkbeck College at the University of London, and this is a great book to teach with, because it takes in such a diversity of approaches and perspectives, from a range of top scholars. The essays also offer an entry point into individual scholars’ longer work. For example one essay by a German scholar, Daniel Leese, is an excellent introduction to his full-length book on the Mao cult. The contributions are varied in their subject matter, so they all provide a valuable, distinct perspective on the vast complexities of Mao’s life and ideas, but I found Delia Davin’s piece on Mao and women particularly helpful; as is well known, Mao was extremely contradictory in his statements and his behaviour towards women. His own womanizing fell very far short of his statements of gender equality, and Davin’s essay thoroughly explores that paradox. And an essay by Michael Schoenhals analyses Mao through fragmentary episodes and commentaries. It illuminates in truly eye-opening fashion how deeply unconventional and contradictory an individual Mao was.

No ideology is an island. Outside of these books, how does Maoism fit into the larger story of the revolutionary thought in the 20th century, and to what extent does it—and indeed Xi’s own version of socialism with Chinese characteristics—run with Leninist-Marxism in a new direction?

There are major elements of Maoism that spring from earlier guises of Communism, from Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism. Although Mao had personal quarrels with Stalin, he also had a huge respect for the Stalinist political legacy. In a way, that was one of the significant drivers of the Cultural Revolution: Mao felt that the Soviet Union under Krushchev was turning away from Stalinism, and it was up to China to continue this legacy that Mao was so attached to.

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Yet Maoism distinguishes itself in various ways from earlier forms of Marxist thought. As an ideology born in China, Maoism gave center stage to a non-Western, anti-colonial agenda. Mao declared to radicals and revolutionaries in developing countries that Russian-style Communism should be adapted to local national conditions. He also told revolutionaries to take their struggles out of the cities and deep into the countryside. Mao was a passionate advocate of the doctrine of voluntarism, which holds that by sheer audacity of belief the Chinese could transform their country; revolutionary zeal, he preached, was more important than economic strength or weaponry (though, paradoxically, he was very eager to acquire the atomic bomb). Like Lenin and Stalin, he was determined to build a militarised, one-Party state that worshipped its supreme leader, but he also, especially in his last decade, championed anarchic insubordination. As he declared during the early years of the Cultural Revolution: “It’s right to rebel.” Bear in mind, however, that Maoism across its 80-year history frequently defies tidy definitions. It is a set of very contradictory, often unstable ideas, and over the decades it has meant many different things at different points in time, all around the world. In Vietnam and Cambodia, it stood for militarized party-building; in Western Europe, it stood for counter-culture rebellion; in Peru, it inspired a tiny band of under-equipped ideologues to challenge the government and army.

Interview by Alec Ash

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell is a prize-winning author and translator. She is lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and has also written on China for The Guardian and The Economist. Lovell’s books include The Great Wall and most recently The Opium War, which is shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 Orwell prize

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Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell is a prize-winning author and translator. She is lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and has also written on China for The Guardian and The Economist. Lovell’s books include The Great Wall and most recently The Opium War, which is shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 Orwell prize