Lovell on Maoism

That line in The Usual Suspects: ‘The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’

Julia Lovell’s latest awesome book, Maoism: A Global History, convinced me that Maoism was an important international revolutionary movement - however much China’s Communist leadership since 1978 would rather like their ‘pre-reform’ role in fostering usually nasty, sometimes heroic, occasionally genocidal insurgencies around the world written out of history. Everyone from Mugabe’s ZANU guerrillas, to Peru’s Shining Path to Indonesia’s 1960s’ communists, got their vision, lil’ Red Books, training and funding from Beijing. It comes as a bit of a shock, the tying of all these disparate ‘third world’ struggles together and to Zhongnanhai, but by the end, it is clear that Mao was inspirational for millions of non-Chinese, and via Kang Sheng and others in the super-secretive International Liaison Department (ILD) of the Party, very influential too. Beijing wanted to be a leader - and where else were aspiring revolutionaries with power bases in rural areas going to find their inspiration?

Mostly I enjoyed the often-ignored bits of Cold War history that Lovell dives into. I knew little to nothing about the Shining Path movement, for instance. There are bits and pieces about China’s role in post-independence Africa; Julius Nyerere launched his very own Great Leap Forward in Tangyikya. Here are three other things I really enjoyed learning about.

Lovell takes her time to elegantly skewer Edgar Snow, the American journalist-turned-unwitting-Communist-propagandist, who wrote Red Star Over China, and introduced the world to a wise, honest, visionary Mao in the late 1930s. Introduced by Communist-sympathizer and Shanghai-lady-about-town Song Qingling, Snow’s interviews were carefully vetted and edited by Mao’s propaganda lieutenants, translated and then spread throughout the developing world - and back into China. They knew exactly how to play him - gave him a hero’s welcome to Yan-an, fed him, provided that so-illusive access to Mao and Co., treated him like a foreigner who really ‘understood’ China. Snow was calling Mao ‘Maussy’ by the end of his boys-own adventure. His book was a phenomenon - a State Dept official read it and handed over KMT battle-plans to the communists, Nelson Mandela read it before he started his campaign of violence against the ANC. Thousands of Chinese were inspired to hike to Yanan or join the underground movement as a result of reading (‘If a foreigner writes it, it must be true’). Lesson: If you are getting the Five-Star Access-All-Areas treatment when you visit Beijing, think very carefully about why that is.

It is interesting how many of these relationships fall apart because of Mao’s ‘quixotic’ nature (i.e. frequent betrayal), rivalry and ideological schisms. Of course, Mao hated Khrushchev - however much Nikita tried to make like buddies. He was a bureaucratic revisionist, and was not qualified to lead the international communist movement. Stalin never treated Mao with any respect; but Mao only had time for Great Men. So that was the USSR-China relationship down the toilet, however much their interests aligned. Mao also hated Moscow’s cozying up to Washington…

Most of Mao’s adventures overseas were his own, but some were because of instructions from Moscow Central. In Lovell’s telling Mao’s invasion of Korea in 1950 was only due to Stalin’s arm-twisting. Mao was rather keener on attacking Taiwan than defending his neighbor from Yankee invasion. Mao spent 360,000 Chinese lives, massive reconstruction aid and food after the war, but Kim Il-sung still did not respect him. (In turn, Mao liked to call him Xiao Jin (Little Jin)). And in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh - despite speaking good enough Mandarin to get by as a Chinese journalist and viewing Mao as a god - ended up estranged too. Mao signed off on the splitting of the country at the 1954 Geneva conference, prevented Soviet aid from traveling on his trains and used Vietnam as a negotiating chip with the Americans.

The cruelty of the old man also shines through. Lovell provides some of the scant details that are known about Mao’s meeting with Cambodia’s Pol Pot in Beijing. (Beijing continues to deny it supported the butcher.) Mao was far gone with Lou Gehrig disease by then, but he was animated, excited, tantalized. He tells Pol Pot, killer of some 2 million, that he is carrying out the revolution that Mao had hoped to bring China. God help us. Once Pol Pot had executed anyone with an education, plus loads of ethnic Chinese, and evacuated the cities, Mao’s China hands over a USD 1 billion interest free loan. China’s invasion of Vietnam a few months later is in response to Vietnam invading Cambodia in 1978 and restoring some sense of humanity to the country. Pol Pot died a peaceful death, with Chinese support, with most detail of liaisons with Beijing secret. And today, the China-Cambodia relationship could not be closer. Naval base anyone?

Lovell also takes a quick look at some contemporary Chinese ‘Maoists’ (the former Utopia crew) and ponders Xi’s relationship with the Great Man. Here, the book is fine, but has little substantially new to offer. Bo Xilai invented the politics of ‘Sing Red, Strike Black’, which Xi then took up. And she has a nice, though unexplored line, about how CCP policy-making today is rather like Mao’s guerilla-warfare; very adaptive, and hard to pin-down. It would have been good to hear more about how Xi’s foreign policy may echo or reject Mao’s, and about how the ILD (and associated United Front) worked, but as she’s aiming for a broad audience that’s OK to leave out. Certainly, it sounds like pre-reform China was donating billions of dollars every year to Africa; so nothing new there.