How Mao Zedong Reshaped Global Politics — And Continues To Today

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A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of Mao Zedong's portrait on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of Mao Zedong's portrait on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

October 1 will mark 70 years since Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party of China, founded the People's Republic of China.

Historians have long argued over how to place the legacy of 20th century revolutionaries like Mao in a contemporary context.

A new book out this week says Mao's influence on global politics was far greater than is typically recognized, and that its impact continues today.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Julia Lovell, professor of Modern China at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of "Maoism: A Global History."

Book Excerpt: "Maoism: A Global History"

By Julia Lovell 

In 1935, Mao maneuvered his way into a position of leadership in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the time, the authority was arguably not worth having. That year, around 8,000 exhausted revolutionaries on the run from encirclement and annihilation campaigns directed by the ruling Nationalist Party tramped into Yan’an, a small, impoverished town dug out of the hillsides of north- west China. But within ten years – a decade that saw the country scourged variously by floods, famine and Japanese invasion – Communist Party membership had surged to 1.2 million and its armies increased to more than 900,000. After another four years, the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong had expelled their rivals for China, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, from the mainland and onto Taiwan. Since its founding in 1949, the PRC has somehow managed to survive longer than any of the revolutionary regimes that preceded it in China – despite the convulsions of a vast man-made famine, and a civil war (the Cultural Revolution) that cost and disrupted the lives of tens of millions of Chinese people.

"Maoism: A Global History" by Julia Lovell
"Maoism: A Global History" by Julia Lovell

Today’s PRC is held together by the legacies of Maoism. Although the Chinese Communist Party has long abandoned the utopian turmoil of Maoism in favor of an authoritarian capitalism that prizes prosperity and stability, the Great Helmsman has left a heavy mark on politics and society. His portrait – six by four and a half meters – still hangs in Tiananmen Square, the heartland of Chinese political power, in the center of the capital. In the middle of the square, his waxen, embalmed body still lies in state, like a sleeping beauty awaiting the kiss of history to bring him back to life. ‘Mao’s invisible hand’ (as one recent book puts it) remains omnipresent in China’s polity: in the deep politicization of its judiciary; the supremacy of the one- party state over all other interests; the fundamental intolerance of dissident voices.

Maoism is a body of contradictory ideas that has distinguished itself from earlier guises of Marxism in several important ways. Giving center stage to a non-Western, anti-colonial agenda, Mao declared to radicals in developing countries that Russian-style Communism should be adapted to local, national conditions; that the Soviet Union could go wrong. Diverging from Stalin, he told revolutionaries to take their struggle out of the cities and deep into the countryside. Although, like Lenin and Stalin, Mao was determined to build a one-party state with military discipline, he also (especially in his last decade) championed an anarchic democracy, telling the Chinese people that ‘rebellion is justified’: that when ‘there is great chaos under Heaven, the situation is excellent’. He preached the doctrine of voluntarism: that by sheer audacity of belief the Chinese – and any other people with the necessary strength of will – could transform their country; revolutionary zeal, not weaponry, was the decisive factor. Perhaps most innovatively of all, Mao declared that ‘women can hold up half the sky’. Although his own womanizing practice fell far short of his rhetoric, none of his global peers voiced such an egalitarian agenda.

Born of an era in which China was held in contempt by the inter- national system, Mao assembled a practical and theoretical toolkit for turning a fractious, failing empire into a de ant global power. He created a language that intellectuals and peasants, men and women could understand; a system of propaganda and thought control that has been described as ‘one of the most ambitious attempts at human manipulation in history’; a disciplined army; and he gathered around him a company of unusually talented, ruthless comrades. His ideas elicited extraordinary levels of fervor. Millions entered into marriages of political convenience and abandoned their children to devote them- selves to a utopian experiment. These children, in turn, denounced, humiliated and – in extreme cases – killed their parents in the 1960s and ’70s, in the name of their Great Helmsman.

My first chapter will explore definitions of Maoism, a term that has been used both admiringly and pejoratively for several decades to signify a spectrum of political behavior: ranging from anarchic mass democracy to Machiavellian brutality against political enemies. The English terms ‘Maoist’ and ‘Maoism’ gained currency in US Cold War analyses of China, intended to categorize and stereotype a ‘Red China’ that was the essence of alien threat. After Mao’s death, they became catch-all words for dismissing what was perceived as the unitary repressive madness of China from 1949 to 1976. Here the term is not understood in this petrified form. ‘Maoism’ in this book is an umbrella word for the wide range of theory and practice attributed to Mao and his influence over the past eighty years. In other words, this term is useful only if we accept that the ideas and experiences it describes are living and changing, have been translated and mistranslated, both during and after Mao’s lifetime, and on their journeys within and without China.

As the People’s Republic of China is reasserting its global ambitions for the first time since the Mao era, the imperative to understand the political legacy that unifies the country becomes ever more urgent. But there is also a pressing need to evaluate the power and appeal of Maoism beyond China, where it has enjoyed a long afterlife in revolutionary movements based on Mao’s theories of class struggle and guerrilla warfare. Maoism contains within it ideas that have exerted an extraordinary tenacity and ability to travel, that have put down roots in terrains culturally and geographically far removed from that of China: the tea plantations of northern India, the sierras of the Andes, Paris’s fifth arrondissement, the fields of Tanzania, the rice paddies of Cambodia and the terraces of Brixton. My book is a history both of this Chinese movement, and of its global legacies: it analyses Maoism’s ambivalent history and enduring appeal to power-hungry dreamers and to dispossessed rebels all over the world.

Excerpted from MAOISM: A Global History by Julia Lovell. Copyright © 2019 by Julia Lovell. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

For more, we have a series on China's "Belt and Road" initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan reshaping global trade and geopolitics. Read here

This segment aired on September 6, 2019.


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