Thomas Burnham reviews Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History

Lovell, Julia. Maoism: A Global History. London: The Bodley Head, 2019. 606 pages.

In the West, as popular trust in liberal institutions is eroded, an increasingly unapologetic left is confronting an ascendant right.  In the United States, the word “socialism” has re-entered the popular lexicon through a new generation of voters who, faced with gilded-age levels of income inequality and impending environmental collapse, have gotten over their parents’ Cold War hangover.  As for the People’s Republic of China, once the site of the most radical socialist experiments in the world, socialism seems to be a thing of the past.  At an interview in the Oxford Union, Peking University Fellow Charles Liu grinningly shrugged off journalist Mehdi Hassan’s derision of the income inequality inherent to “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” saying, “We are certainly not as socialist as Norway, Finland, and Sweden.”1 Meanwhile, overzealous public security officers detain Marxist students who, inspired by Mao Zedong’s life and ideas, organize among factory workers and migrant labourers.  Characters and ideas thought to be swept into Fukuyama’s end of history have re-emerged as fields of contention in a post-Cold War context.  In the introduction to her book, Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell asks why a book like this had not been published already.  The answer is that the question of Maoism is a living terrain of struggle, both as a set of ideas and as a legacy.  The timeliness of Lovell’s book, and the book’s ability to draw an unbroken link between the history of Maoism to current events, lies in this ongoing competition over Mao and Maoism in China as well as the reinvigorated arguments over how left the Western left should be.

For the uninitiated, Maoism begins with a crash course on Maoist tenets through a parallel thematic biography of Mao himself, and it is in this crash course that the book takes a clear side on the question of Maoism today.  Framing Mao’s lecherous womanizing or the thought reform of the Yan’an Rectification Movement with tenets like “women hold up half the sky” or “expose errors and criticize shortcomings,” Lovell selectively contrasts Mao’s thought with his life and practice, portraying him as a brutish hypocrite (albeit a charismatic one) so as to lambaste Maoism’s inherent contradictory impulses.  In having set out to uniformly condemn Mao and Maoism, Lovell casts the Anti-Bolshevik League Incident in the 1930s as a sort of biblical fall defining Maoism for eternity as merely an ideology of indiscriminate purges.  Having introduced the reader to Maoism within China, the book briefly charts Maoism’s earliest vectors out of China and into the world.  Through the example of Clarence Adams’ decision to remain in China after fighting in the Korean War, Lovell recognizes that Western injustices like the U.S. Jim Crow laws and the racialization of the draft led to many in the West to empathize with Maoism. The book also paints a somewhat sympathetic picture of Edgar Snow as a carelessly misinformed eccentric forsaking due journalistic diligence in seeking a name for himself.  However, Lovell derides Red Star over China a “puff piece” and frames such perspectives on China as nothing but sanitized or naive understandings of Mao and his ideas, thus setting the tone for how the book will discuss Maoism globally.

The core of Lovell’s warning against Maoism comes in her summary of “high Maoism,” or the peak of Maoist radicalism as experienced in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  Hoping her book will inoculate the reader against Maoism, a point Lovell reiterates throughout is that, like Snow, Maoists in China and abroad are either ignorant or misinformed about the disastrous outcomes of Maoism in power and are therefore prone to repeating those outcomes.  Lovell links Vietnamese readings of the Rectification Movement and Great Leap Forward to the excesses of Vietnamese land reform.  She discusses how Cambodia’s iteration of the Cultural Revolution’s radicalism led to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.  She argues that the CCP’s class-inflected nationalism fostered competing communist nationalisms among the CCP and its fraternal parties in Southeast Asia, resulting in war between the three countries.  A continent away, Lovell argues that iterations of Maoism in Africa were abject failures in every case but in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  Lovell observes that China’s revolutionary foreign policy was successful in garnering enough influence in Africa to join the United Nations and that emulating Maoism helped to prop up African dictators, but the book unequivocally judges Maoism as having failed Africans themselves.  Returning to Asia, Lovell considers the Communist Party of Nepal’s ascent to power, beginning with their grassroots agitation, the Nepali Civil War, and finally with their leaders’ buying into the quid pro quo political machinations of Kathmandu.  With Nepali Maoists having muscled their way into power, Lovell frets about their ignorance of China and the actual effects of Maoism there, saying that this was just revolution “by the book,” in the sense that it was completely (mis)informed by propaganda like Red Star Over China.  In a similar vein, Lovell sympathetically portrays the Naxalites’ work fighting for the catastrophically poor Adivasi people of Northern India, noting their lack of awareness and even apathy about China and Chinese history, and yet insisting that their Maoist-inspired violence and “kangaroo courts” are not the answer to the bare existence endured by the Adivasis.

In addition to criticizing Maoism in power and exhorting against historical apathy, Lovell also makes a more abstract point on how Maoism has been weaponized both by self-avowed communists and the very organs of state repression they opposed.  Lovell connects the American fear of Chinese “brainwashing” in the Korean War to America’s dark history with black psyops (see MKUltra) and the “enhanced interrogation” methods of the War on Terror, setting up the recurring theme of Maoist revolutionary tactics engendering their own reflections in what Lovell calls “Maoish” state repression.  In a similar vein, the book depicts Western Maoists as violence-prone kooks only going through a phase before taking their own role in constructing our neoliberal present, a role they took both directly—by selling out or buying in—and indirectly—by provoking repressive organs of power to bring counter-insurgency methods from abroad to the home front, formulating programs like COINTELPRO.  Lovell further illustrates this dynamic through an account of Sendero Luminoso’s accelerationist battle against the Peruvian state.  The Shining Path both carried out atrocities modelled on Maoist ideas and intentionally provoked state violence as a means of fomenting violent rebellion.  Moving like “fish in water,” the Shining Path deliberately implicated the desperately poor and racially discriminated-against Peruvian peasantry in their actions, only to retreat and abandon them to horrific police and military repression.  Peruvian counterterrorism operators got wise and implemented a Maoism of their own, arming the peasantry and rebuilding whatever patriotic attitude the Peruvian people once had to finally encircle and defeat the Shining Path.

Lovell concludes the book by investigating how Maoism fares in its birthplace today.  The final chapter examines the effort of the contemporary CCP to balance between quarantining itself from the populist chaos of Maoism and disavowing the PRC’s founding father altogether, a move which would risk the collapse of its historical legitimacy.  This chapter contains portraits of some of China’s so-called New Left, a problematic moniker considering that these neo-Maoists are more akin to the red-brown alliance of the former Soviet Union than readers of E.P Thompson or Herbert Marcuse.  The portraits include a Cultural Revolution nostalgic, a group of ultra-nationalists using Maoist language to oppose the new order of reform and opening, and a quasi-religious “teacher” with his own rural commune.  Using the example of Bo Xilai’s mobilization of Maoist symbolism before his precipitous fall from grace in 2012, Lovell argues that both post-1976 de-Maoification and the recent reappearances of Maoist populism are symbolic only; that today’s China is “Maoish,” not Maoist.  According to Lovell, Maoism in post-market reform China endures in the elevation of Xi Jinping to “core status” within the CCP.  Lovell concludes remarking on the dynamic ability of Maoism to navigate paradoxes and contradictions such as the CCP’s management of one of the most vibrant players in global capitalism, speculating that this ability will extend the life of Maoism in China and abroad for the foreseeable future.  However, rather frustratingly, the book does not dedicate any real space to the Maoist students who might be just as quick as Lovell to decry China’s so-called New Left, a glaring omission considering the worldwide attention the students have been able to garner for themselves since the 2018 Jasic incident.

Lovell’s Maoism is unique in its scope and in the seriousness with which it approaches a critically important topic.  It is a timely, engaging, and succinct intervention in a field of study which is highly contentious and still evolving.  By choosing various episodes from Cold War history and drawing on a wide variety of sources, Lovell’s Maoism offers a globe-trotting and roughly chronological account of Maoism’s influence on history, compacting what might be an unwieldy academic endeavour into an approachable and well-paced narrative with a purpose.  Focused on this task, this book is not a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought, but a narrative of what Maoism wrought on China and the world.  Lovell characterizes Maoism like “a dormant virus,”2 amorphous and adaptable, spread by all kinds of vectors, enduring and producing catastrophe after catastrophe.  Lovell’s narrative is an unsympathetic portrayal of the man and his ideas which is meant to serve as a warning against forgetting how Maoism actually played out in Great Leap Forward China, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Peru during the Shining Path insurgency, and elsewhere.  By examining key episodes in the global history of Maoism and connecting them to current issues and events, this book provides an effective introduction to the sphere of Cold War history which resonates most piercingly into the present.

However, this focus on making the story of global Maoism a cautionary tale operates by trivializing and obscuring the repression faced by global left during the Cold War.  The brutal suppression, massacres, and civil war instigated by the Guomindang is set to one side in Lovell’s discussion of concurrent CCP purges in the Soviet areas, and the book’s treatment of the AB League Purge completely glosses over the broader context of the contemporaneous GMD encirclement campaigns or the exigencies of the CCP’s uneven attempts at state building in the Jiangxi Soviet.  Although Lovell mentions the role of Western powers in the genocidal massacres of Indonesian communists and ethnic Chinese in the 1965-66, she somewhat troublingly focuses the blame on the massacre’s victims, arguing that under Mao’s direct influence the Communist Party of Indonesia carelessly adopted an overly militant posture thus polarizing Indonesian society against itself.  This is not the only example of the book seemingly blaming the victim in order to make its overall point.  Framing her discussion of Maoism’s influence in the West with the “secular-religious zeal” of the “extreme millenarian fringe of this scene,”3 Lovell is openly hostile to the idea that Maoism as a set of ideas armed oppressed people with a language of resistance and comes dangerously close to advancing a narrative of “cultural Marxism” reminiscent of the contemporary far right’s hysteria about the permeation of leftist influence in Western academia.  Moreover, recognition of the repurposing of Maoism in Western philosophy and social sciences is so minimal as to do violence to the actual legacy of Maoism in the academy, and the context which may have elicited sympathy for Westerners influenced by Mao, like the story of the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton’s extrajudicial murder, is given short shrift.  Instead, the concept of “Maoish” state repression through organs like COINTELPRO is also blamed on Western Maoists themselves.

Such lack of context makes the book’s orientation towards current events problematic.  For instance, as universally loathed as the Shining Path may be, and as effectively as Lovell depicts the violence set loose against it and those adjacent to it, a key element to understanding Abimael Guzmán’s misguided revolutionary accelerationism, namely the background of U.S.-backed repression faced by Latin America’s left, is left out entirely.  While the people of Peru faced the dual reigns of terror of the Shining Path and the Peruvian state, leftists and their families in the rest of Latin America were being disappeared en masse, thrown out of helicopters, and brutally massacred by roving U.S.-trained and armed death squads.  Although Guzmán is now in prison, many of the architects of the U.S. Cold War policy in Latin America still haunt the halls of power today.  During the 1980s, one of the orchestrators of such suppression, Elliot Abrams, advocated for a style of U.S. accelerationism (accelerating regime collapse and civil war by shipping arms under the guise of humanitarian aid while simultaneously immiserating a target country’s populace through sanctions) in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.  This effort helped to produce the ongoing transnational humanitarian crisis stretching across Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.  Abrams is now the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela where he supports a similar strategy for ousting Nicolás Maduro today.

Lovell’s book depicts Maoism both as a virus against which to inoculate ourselves and also as a weapon that the U.S. government now wields against its enemies.  The October after Nikita Khrushchev initiated de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union, Mao worried that if the socialist camp threw away the sword of Stalin the West would pick it up and kill them with it.4  In foreclosing any potential usefulness for the oppressed and the left by erasing both the wider context in which Maoism arose as well as the post-modernist aspect of Maoism that Zhang Xudong called its “built-in passion for the masses” and “profound disdain for discursive or institutional reifications,”5 Lovell’s warning functionally surrenders Mao to Chinese neo-authoritarians in Beijing and undead Cold Warriors in Washington.

Thomas C. Burnham is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford whose research focuses on Chinese and Soviet development aid to Africa in the 1960s.”



1“What is the human cost to China’s economic miracle? | Head to Head,” Al Jazeera English, YouTube video, 27:38, posted March 15, 2019.

2 Lovell, Maoism: 150.

3Lovell, Maoism:  268.

4“Meeting of the Delegations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, Moscow, 5-20 July 1963 ,” July 8, 1963, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAPMO Barch JIV 2/207 698, pp. 187-330 (in Russian). Obtained by Vladislav Zubok and translated by Benjamin Aldrich-Moodie.

5 Zhang Xudong, “Postmodernism and Post-Socialist Society: Cultural Politics in China After the ‘New Era’,” New Left Review, vol. 237 (September-October 1999) 98.