When we glance at the Guardian, the favored newspaper of Britain’s left-wing elites, we’re used to seeing nonstop demonizing of moderates, libertarians, and conservatives alongside articles in which the virtue of socialism is taken for granted and out-and-out Communism is whitewashed. So it came as something of a shock, last Saturday, to encounter a more than 3,000-word essay in the Guardian that presented a sane and sober view of Maoism. The author, Julia Lovell, whose book Maoism: A History has just been published, began by referencing “the strange, looming presence of Mao in contemporary China,” which, despite its radical economic changes over the past few decades, is, she explained, “still held together by the legacies of Maoism.” Even though the sanguinary utopianism of the Cultural Revolution era has been replaced by authoritarian capitalism, wrote Lovell, the ghost of Mao still hovers over the nation of one billion-plus, and can be found in, among other things, “the deep politicisation of its judiciary; the supremacy of the one-party state; the intolerance of dissident voices.” Moreover, Xi Jinping has resurrected the long-dormant personality cult of Mao.
And the West, warns Lovell, has largely failed to notice. For decades, observing China’s economic success from afar, many Westerners have assumed that China has been gradually changing, that it has been becoming a place less alien to us, a nation more like our own. Wrong, insists Lovell. “The opposite has happened,” she writes. She points out – and this hadn’t even occurred to us – that if the Chinese Communist Party is still in charge five years from now, it will have outlasted the reign of its Soviet counterpart.
But you don’t have to go to China to find Maoism. You never did. Maoism, Lovell reminds us, has inspired revolts in countries ranging from Cambodia to Peru – revolts in which, as she admirably underscores, millions of people died. For eight decades, Maoist thought has been “a pivotal influence on global insubordination and intolerance.”
And what is Maoism, as opposed to Soviet-style Marxism? Lovell is helpful here. Unlike Stalin, Mao presided over “guerrilla wars deep in the countryside.” He preached “revolutionary zeal” and “anarchic insubordination” and “a pathological suspicion of the educated.” Stalin was no less evil and bloodthirsty than Mao, but the USSR never had an equivalent to Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The most radical ’68ers in the West looked not to the Kremlin but to Mao, especially his “message to his youthful Red Guards that it was ‘right to rebel.’” Mao posters adored dorm rooms in American college; copies of The Little Red Book abounded. In fact, the Black Panthers – that terrorist group celebrated, then as now, in chic leftist circles in the U.S. – “sold Little Red Books to generate funds to buy their first guns.” In West Germany, the violent but trendy Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof group) parroted lines from Mao, such as “imperialism and all reactionaries [are] paper tigers.” Today, Maoist insurgents threaten peace and freedom in 20 of India’s 28 states, and “self-avowed Maoists” now rule Nepal. So much for Francis Fukuyama’s declaration after the fall of the Iron Curtain that “the end of history” was at hand. “Write Maoism back into the global history of the 20th century,” emphasizes Lovell, and you get a “different narrative from the standard one in which communism loses the cold war in 1989.” Bottom line: with China now challenging America’s economic superiority and global power, it makes no sense whatsoever to pretend that Communism lost out to capitalism thirty years ago.