Julia Lovell is a professor at Birkbeck College, the same center at the University of London where Eric J. Hobsbawm worked. In this global history of Maoism, he offers us a study of capital importance to understand not only the meaning of Mao in his time, with its great external irradiation, but what the post-Maoist China represents today. It is an analysis that comes on time, as the economic transformation of the People’s Republic becomes a global protagonist. Attentive to this dazzling, rehearsals follow one another where the hegemonic threat of a communist system is undervalued in which an impressive technical and economic revolution and the aggressive potential of the former “great helmsman” are combined.
The frequent conclusion is that Europe must learn from China, building an alternative model capable of responding to its challenge. Such an assessment is valid, being less so than the issue of the Uyghurs or the end of autonomy in Hong Kong — much more than a simple “restriction of freedoms” – admitting the trivialization proposed from the economic point of view. They are part of a strategy that Lovell rightly describes as post-Maoism, turned towards the appropriation of the outside world. It is no longer possible to believe in Deng Xiaoping’s reassuring presentation of the new China in 1978 as a future economic giant in a peaceful setting. The Tiananmen crackdown already announced that extreme violence, anti-democracy, was part of the modernizing arsenal. Also the renunciation of self-criticism. Echoes of The blue kite, de Tian Zhuangzhuang, y de Live!, by Zhang Yimou, in the early nineties were turned off. The second, exalted in the system, dedicated himself to beating us with his flying daggers and in Hero put martial arts at the service of nationalism. Mao’s image was soon recovered.
Political indeterminacy and corruption appeared, at first, to block the strategic dimension of Chinese growth. It is then when Xi Jinping enters the scene, who proposes a double plan of strict control inside and expansion outwards. His inspiration will be the myth of the imperial past plus the Maoist impulse, both regarding the undisputed power of the Communist Party and his personal power. His “dream of China” supposes the descent to earth of the will of universal revolutionary domination. “Xi has walked the Maoist path just as he has spoken his jargon,” summarizes Lovell. The establishment of the cult of his personality is the last consequence in quasi-Maoist China.
The reconstruction of post-Maoism by the British historian is preceded by a no less lucid investigation of the variants of Mao’s legacy in different areas of the world: Indonesia, Peru, Africa, Europe, India, Nepal, Cambodia. The formation and development dynamics of these offspring are different. In Europe, disenchantment with the Soviet model and the brilliant novelty of doctrines that intellectuals do not even understand well are mixed, given the late translation of Mao’s texts in their incomplete Complete works. That does not mean that adherence to Maoism is not sometimes terribly effective, as is the case with the Red Brigades in Italy or the Baader-Meinhof gang in the Federal Republic of Germany. The recourse to Mao’s prestige made it possible to practice a de facto anti-communism, disguised as a condemnation of revisionism, as it will happen in Spain or France, a previous step even for turns to the extreme right. At the same time, it legitimized the use of violence and terrorism to a high degree of inhumanity. “Kill and run. Hit one to educate a hundred ”, reads the slogan of the Brigades highlighted by Lovell. The Cultural Revolution was a myth that many young European intellectuals fell into in the late 1960s. Key in 1968.
The author insists that the Maoist revolution soon overflowed the borders of China, in agrarian societies where a deep malaise was capitalized by insurrectionary formations, who looked with admiration at the Chinese example. And whose leaders, in addition, such as the Cambodian Pol Pot or the Peruvian Abimael Guzmán, did not only drink from books, but forged their political personality in China. Mao’s own voluntarism led them to disasters like the Indonesian one, also to genocidal experiences like in Cambodia, even a long duration in India or Nepal. The spectrum of Maoist leaders is also wide, from those who became pure and simple tyrants, in the case of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, to those who insisted until the end on the association of Maoism and terror (Khmer Rouge, Shining Path). The chapters of Lovell are almost always bright: thanks to his analysis, the unique vicissitudes of Nepalese Maoism are understandable, with Prachanda in the transition from a brutal guerrilla to parliamentarism. Participant observation and interviews with actors in the process further enrich the story.
As he already has a rigorous previous bibliography, Lovell’s contribution is less when he monographically studies Mao’s revolutionary thought and action. Even with debatable aspects, such as the centrality of brainwashing. It does not take into account Robert Jay Lifton’s approach to the framework in which the most sophisticated reform of thought takes place and its theoretical aftermath in the confrontation with the party in the 1960s. We already knew Mao. With Lovell we enter Maoism.
Maoism. A global story
Julia Lovell. Translation by Jaime E. Collyer. Debate, 2020. 750 pages. 29.90 euros