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The Maoist Evolution

In Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell traces the history of Maoism – starting with the birth of Mao’s revolution in northwest China and concluding with its violent afterlives in South Asia and resurgence in the People’s Republic

The Maoist Evolution

In the first week of January 2016, a vast golden statue of Mao was unveiled in the middle of the Henan countryside in central China, looming out of frozen brown fields under grey skies. Over thirty-six metres high, it cost £312,000 to build, and was paid for by local people and businessmen. For forty-eight hours tourists gathered to take selfies with this curious effigy (apart from the swept-back, receding hairline, the statue's head barely resembled Mao). The statue was, word had it, the brainchild of one Mr Sun Qingxin, a local food-processing entrepreneur crazy for the Helmsman. 'His factory is full of Maos,' testified a local potato farmer. Commentators in the Chinese cybersphere had divergent responses. 'Eternal life to Mao Zedong!', 'He is our legend, our god – we should worship him!', 'Crazy', 'Pull it down', 'It doesn't look like him . . . he should have been sitting on a sofa.' Use the money to build roads or clinics instead, others argued. Then, on 7 January, a black cloth was draped over Mao's head and the statue was destroyed by Public Security officials, leaving behind only rubble and rumours that it had violated planning regulations. Even the usually authoritative People's Daily was puzzled by the whole business, confessing that 'the reasons for the demolition are not clear'. Several locals wept as the statue came down, among them probably descendants of the multitudes – one analyst puts the figure at 7.8 million – who died in Henan during the 1960s famine caused by Mao's policies.


The mysterious rise and fall of the golden Mao colossus of Henan evokes the elusive quality of Mao and Maoism, both in and beyond China. The term 'Maoism' became popular in the 1950s to denote Anglo-American summaries of the system of political thought and practice instituted across the new People's Republic of China. Since then, it has had a fractious history. Its Chinese translation, Mao zhuyi, has never been endorsed by CCP ideologues. It is a dismissive term used by liberals to describe adulation for Mao among contemporary China's alt-left, or by government analysts to describe and disavow 'Maoist' politics in India or Nepal today. 'This group,' sniffed the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when protesting the use of the tag by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), '[has] nothing to do with China, and we [feel] indignant that they usurped the name of Mao Zedong, the great leader of the Chinese people.' Orthodox Chinese analysts use the more cerebral term 'Mao Zedong Thought'.

Yet for all its imperfections it will be used here because it has become the most commonly used term for a successful Chinese Communist programme from the 1930s to the present day. It has validity only on the understanding that the Maoist programme – despite possessing a solid symbolic core, in the shape of Mao himself – has taken various (and often contradictory) forms over decades and continents, according context. It comes into formal existence in the early 1940s, though builds on antecedents from earlier in Mao's life and thought. This chapter sets out the core features of this programme, as Mao and his later disciples (in China and beyond) saw them, organising them – in the style of that ubiquitous badge of high, 1960s Maoism, the Little Red Book – by a series of key quotations. It sorts between the derivative and the original in Mao's ideas: where they overlap with, and differ from, Mao's Soviet predecessors. Some of these differences are in kind, others in degree. In the former category there is Mao's veneration of the peasantry as a revolutionary force and his lifelong tenderness for anarchic rebellion against authority. In the latter category belong central elements of the Leninist–Stalinist project, with its veneration of political violence, its championing of anti-colonial resistance, and its use of thought-control techniques to forge a disciplined, increasingly repressive party and society.

Shanghai, 12 April 1927, 4 a.m. A bugle call from the headquarters of the Nationalist Party on Route Ghisi, in the far south of the French concession, was answered by the siren from a gunboat moored on the city's east side. Members of Shanghai's most powerful triad, the Green Gang – disguised in blue factory workers' uniforms, with white armbands – converged on Communist strongholds scattered through the low-rise Chinese quarters of the city. Sunrise was still an hour and a half away when machine-gun fire rattled through the darkness. Every worker who resisted was shot down. Others were lashed together and marched away for execution. A general strike was called for the following day but those who turned out for a protest demonstration were brought down by Nationalist machine-gun fire, rifle butts and bayonets. The protesters had put women and children at the front of the march, assuming that Nationalist troops would not open fire. More than three hundred were killed that day, witnesses reckoned, and a far larger number wounded, some of whom were buried alive with the dead.

Three weeks earlier, Communist prospects in the city had looked very different. In the last ten days of March, Shanghai's warlord ruler had surrendered the metropolis to a coalition of armed pickets organised by the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Strikers had first shut down the city and then – initially armed with only 100 rifles, 250 pistols and 200 hand grenades, plus propaganda leaflets, posters and newspapers – had fought for shipyards, police stations and the railway. The taking of the city was crucial to the uprising launched in 1926 – the so-called Northern Expedition, China's second revolution in fifteen years – against army strongmen who had carved the country into regional kingdoms.

The 1911 Revolution had brought to an end some 2,000 years of dynastic rule. Within five years, central authority had disintegrated with the rise of 'warlords', provincial commanders. The young republic still had a president in the capital Beijing, but his authority over the localities was nominal. Nonetheless, faith in the idea of a unified China persisted. Urban China in particular periodically erupted with discontent at the new status quo, for political paralysis under fragmented military rule made China domestically and internationally vulnerable. On 4 May 1919, patriotic protests in Beijing and Shanghai broke out after China's warlord rulers agreed at the Versailles Conference to sign away a large slice of north-east China to Japan. By 1923, Sun Yat-sen – the republic's first, briefly incumbent president (in early 1912) and a man obsessed with the idea of reunifying China – forged an alliance between his Nationalist Party (the Guomindang or GMD) and the Communist Party, all funded, trained and armed by the Soviet Union and its Communist International (Comintern). Sun's death in 1925 notwithstanding, his successor as Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, launched the Northern Expedition, a military campaign to reunite the country, the following year. Soviet-trained Chinese troops pushed up from the south, fighting or bribing warlords into submission. The forces were a united front of the conservative GMD and more radical CCP: the GMD controlled the formal, standing army, but everywhere they fought, their task was made easier by striking workers and peasant (organised by Communists), who disrupted the communications, materiel and authority of the old regime.

(Excerpted with permission from Maoism: A Global History; written by Julia Lovell; published by Bodley Head. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'What Is Maoism?')

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