Ideas

How a revival of Maoism is impacting China — and the world

If you thought Maoism was dead, think again. It’s enjoying a revival under President Xi Jinping. With tensions between China and the West on the rise, award- winning author Julia Lovell argues the need to understand the political legacy of Mao is crucial.

With tensions on the rise, it's critical to understand the political legacy of Mao, says scholar Julia Lovell

Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death in 1976. His theories, military strategies, and political policies are collectively known as Maoism. (AFP via Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:58

Mao Zedong died in 1976, but his political ideology survives to this day.

"The Great Helmsman Mao Zedong has still left a heavy mark on Chinese politics and society," says acclaimed British scholar Julia Lovell.

The award-winning author says despite its reach and influence, Maoism remains misunderstood by the West. But in China, it's very much alive. 

In fact, there's a significant revival of Maoist strategies in China, under President Xi Jinping.

"Xi Jinping is on record saying that the Chinese communist party has to keep flying the flag of Mao Zedong thought, without that it will lose legitimacy and face a political crisis no less," Lovell tells IDEAS' Mary Lynk.

Her book, Maoism: A Global Story, is in depth exploration of the impact of Maoism in China and around the world. It won  the 2019 Cundhill History prize — a prestigious, international award administered by McGill University. 

In China, President Xi Jinping 's revival of Maoism includes the reintroduction of "criticism and self-criticism" throughout the state bureaucracy and adopting measures to create his own cult of personality. Mao also wanted to 'reassert China's claims to occupy the centre of the world', which some say mirrors Jinping’s own ambitions. (How Hwee Young/The Associated Press)

Lovell, who is also a professor of modern Chinese history and literature at University of London, argues in light of the growing tensions between the West and China, it's critical to understand the political legacy of Mao Zedong.

China, today, downplays the role it played in global affairs under Mao. But Lovell contends Mao and the PRC put an enormous amount of 'time, energy and money' into establishing its influence and image abroad.

"For the past 10 or 20 years, as China has started to look like a superpower, its rulers have advanced the theory of China's peaceful rise. So government publicity repeats that China has never interfered in the sovereign affairs of other countries, unlike the West," Lovell explains.

"China today doesn't want to illuminate its desire for leadership of the world revolution during the Maoist period, which was a time when China under Mao exported not only ideology in the form of hundreds of millions of copies of the Little Red Book, but also hard occurrences of revolution, money, weapons and training for global insurgencies, especially in the developing world."

Employees of the Government Printing House pack in 1971 in Beijing copies of Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book," the bible of Maoism - a revolutionary ideology based on Marxism-Leninism adapted to Chinese conditions. (AFP via Getty Images)

Maoism beyond China

Around the world, Lowell says the export of Maoism continues to be a potent influence, adding it's one of the most significant and complicated political forces of the modern world.

"I also like to argue that there's a pressing need to evaluate the power and allure of Maoism beyond China, because it's had a long after life in revolutions and insurrections that have transformed states across the world in countries like Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Peru, India and Nepal," Lovell says.

"So these revolutions and insurrections and wars have been based on Mao's theories of class struggle and guerilla warfare. Maoism, then, has been a pivotal influence on global rebellion across the last 80 years."

For decades, Lovell says, the West has wrongly dismissed Maoism as an outdated historical and political phenomenon.
"I think it's partly down to perceptions of Western victory in the Cold War, namely that the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 signaled the global collapse of communism," Lovell says.

"Of course, if you take a non-Eurocentric view, if you look at Asia rather than Europe, communism as a state ideology looks far more secure after 1989 in China, Vietnam and North Korea."

In her book, Maoism, Julia Lovell re-evaluates Maoism as both a Chinese and an international force, linking its evolution in China with its global legacy. (Dominic Mifsud/Penguin Random House)

Maoism is not easy to define. It does have some central doctrines, such as voluntarism: "that by sheer audacity of belief the Chinese — and any other people with the necessary strength of will — could transform their country." But it is also full of contradictory ideas, just like Mao himself.  

Here is an excerpt from Julia Lovell's, Maoism: A Global History: 

In contemplating Mao and his ideas, we are left principally with inconsistency. Mao was an army man, an arch political manipulator and centraliser, the architect of his own personality cult, a fetishiser of party discipline; and a glorifier of mass rebellion who continually saw himself as an outsider. He was a rhetorical feminist, who serially impregnated, abandoned, sexually abused and infected women. The wife of a close associate from the Yan'an days up until Mao's death remembered him thus: 'I really admired him. He was so clever. He was very humorous. I was afraid of him. I avoided him. He didn't say much, he'd ask you your view...You'd ask him what he thought and he wouldn't say.' This conversational assessment, lacking the analytical cogency of a scripted answer, condenses Mao's mutability: his informality; his guardedness; the reverence and fear he inspired; his savvy manipulations.

...It is perhaps this perplexing, inconsistent mutability, in combination with memory of the political and military success of Mao, that has given the political line which carries his name its potency, persuasiveness and mobility. 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. Frustrated with its contradictions, its muddying of tidy disciplines, Christophe Bourseiller, an authority on Maoism's journey to Europe, goes so far as to say: 'Maoism doesn't exist. It never has done. That, without doubt, explains its success.' 

Copyright Julia Lovell 2019

Julia Lovell is professor of modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her two most recent books are The Great Wall and The Opium War (which won the 2012 Jan Michalski Prize.) Her many translations of modern Chinese fiction into English include Lu Xun's The Real Story of Ah-Q, and Other Tales of China (2009).  She writes about China for several newspapers, including the Guardian, Financial Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.


* This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.

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