Maoism: a global history

Image: Marlon Griffith


Commentary on the book by Julia Lovell

In contrast to almost a century of debates about Stalinism, the international left never came to terms with Maoism, especially with its worldwide impact. Disillusionment with Stalinism is marked by certain tragic dates in international politics: the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 which launched World War II, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. remembered, sometimes debated, here and elsewhere.

As for Maoism, the following dates, even if they do not receive the attention they deserve, also mark tragic events for the world left: the collapse of the Indonesian Maoist Communist Party, in 1965, due to the murderous repression of the military aided by the CIA, the rapprochement with China and US imperialism in 1971-1972, as Nixon ravaged Vietnam with bombing raids and embarked on the campaign for re-election, the self-genocide of the Khmer Rouge, the rapprochement of Mao, South Africa and Mobuto's Zaire against the revolutionaries Africans, in 1975-1976. Certainly, the fact that these events, impacted by Maoism, did not occur in the countries of western and central Europe, but in the Global South, already explains the relative lack of attention. However, such marginalization is not justifiable.

In the 1960s, Maoism became a pole that attracted the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society in the United States, some African revolutionaries and nationalists, the French extreme left, among others. Many saw Maoist China as the product of a successful socialist revolution carried out by people of color. And if it gradually lost its luster as an international phenomenon, it was more like a buzz than a bang, without the furious debates that marked the years 1939, 1956 and 1968. The fact that there was no clear balance helped the influence Maoist ideology to subsist, often indirectly, until today.

An example can be found in structuralist and post-structuralist theories, which impacted many academic fields and postulated a concentration on what orthodox Marxists called superstructure, especially in the cultural and ideological dimensions. This affinity with Maoism does not merely rest on the fact that some of the intellectuals associated with structuralism – such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and, early on, Jacques Derrida – were influenced by Maoism; it is also based on an indisputable theoretical position: that Maoist thought sought to put the superstructure in place of the structure, notably with the Cultural Revolution.

Another example is the extreme voluntarism of Maoism: from slogans like “Dare to Fight, Dare to Win” or “US Imperialism is a Paper Tiger” to adventurism, or worse, in the sphere of revolutionary politics, such as the Indonesian Communist Party and Pol Pot's Cambodia. If few of the current activist left are those who identify with Maoism – apart from groups such as the Naxalites in India, the communist parties in Nepal and the Communist Party of the Philippines – its voluntarist spirit subsists, more subtly and indirectly, in some corners of Antifa and anarchism. It is this continuity that makes Julia Lovell's brilliant book important to the left, and not just historically.

If there are countless histories of international communism that focus on the parties, groups and intellectuals associated with Stalinism from the 1920s onwards, Julia Lovell's book fills an important gap as it is the first history of Maoism as a world phenomenon. It is the product of archival research, interviews and a careful synthesis of previous studies. Julia Lovell is not part of the radical left, she is an academic historian, whose book is nevertheless of the greatest importance to us. And some of her findings are even revealing.

One of them concerns the gestation of Edgar Snow's hagiographic account, in 1937, shortly after the Great March: Red Star Over China [Red Star over China] Lovell shows that Snow's book was closely directed and edited by Mao and party officials: "Snow's English transcription of the translator's version of Mao's words" was "translated into Chinese, corrected by Mao and retranslated into English” (p. 76). Party officials, the book goes, continued to shape the narrative: “Throughout the winter of 1936, as Snow worked on copying the notes, his interviewees continued to send him a torrent of amendments: that he remove any trace of dissent with Comintern policy, which expunged any praise for disgraced Chinese intellectuals, which lowered the tone of criticism of political enemies who had become allies, which exalted anti-Japanese patriotism” (p. 76-77). This is the first, but not the last, romanticization of Maoism by the world left.

Another central event that Julia Lovell elucidates is the massacre of half a million left-wing Indonesians, or suspected leftists, by the army and its Islamic allies, with considerable assistance from the CIA, in 1965. What was known about it? In the early 1960s, it was known that Mao had formed an alliance with Sukarno, a left-leaning nationalist who had sponsored the 1954 Bandung conference of “Non-Aligned” countries – incidentally, in Bandung, a major landmark in the XNUMXs. birth of the third world, Chinese but not Soviet representatives attended.

It was also on the left that the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) – mass, legal and which, after the Sino-Soviet split, became China's greatest ally among the world's communist parties – was caught off guard by the ferocity of repression in 1965-1966. At that time, the revolutionary left also saw Indonesia as the biggest failure of Maoism as an international movement, as it perceived that the PKI had not acted so differently from the pro-Moscow communist parties when it opportunistically aligned itself with a nationalist dictator, without before it had built up enough independent political or military capacity. The truth, however, turns out to be more complex – and more damaging for Mao.

The events leading up to the abortive PKI-led revolution and the brutal repression that followed were long shrouded in secrecy. Julia Lovell was unable to fully reveal the secret, given the suppression of her own story by the Chinese regime. Still, she gathers enough evidence to also blame Mao for defeating both the Indonesian left and the PKI leadership, whose disastrous miscalculations were impacted by Mao's own voluntarism.

In order to demonstrate this, Julia Lovell reproduces a version of a conversation between Mao and the leader of the PKI, DN Aidit, in August 1965, in which Mao asks Aidit to “act quickly” against conservative military leaders, and that at that moment Sukarno's state of health put the alliance with the PKI at risk (p. 178). If this is true, Mao made a serious miscalculation, comparable to Stalin's decision not to allow the German Communists to ally themselves with the Social Democrats while Hitler came to power. Be that as it may, the influence of Maoism on the PKI is nonetheless deleterious.

Alluding to Mao's disastrous effort to transform the Chinese countryside through the “People's Communes”, causing the massive famine of the late 1950s, Julia Lovell reports: “In the voluntarist style of the 'Great Leap Forward', Aidit began to abdicate from mobilization cautious and patient movement of the 1950s, in favor of statements that emphasized the high 'spirit, resolve and enthusiasm' of Maoism” (p. 168). And while Aidit, like Sukarno, talked about organizing a paramilitary force to face the regular army, and China promised massive amounts of weaponry, nothing substantial was actually done, even as the PKI raised the tone against the military.

Then, on September 30, 1965, the PKI, acting with apparent Chinese encouragement, took a step to incapacitate the military leadership, killing some generals; however, without support from the streets and the military, the action quickly receded, especially when the ailing Sukarno did not join the cause. This allowed the other Indonesian generals to orchestrate one of the greatest political massacres in history and establish a conservative and anti-labor regime, which still persists today, in a modified form, with a somewhat more democratic institutionality.

Yet another revelation by Julia Lovell concerns Mao's relationship with Pol Pot and what some call the Cambodian self-genocide, in which up to two million people – a quarter of the population – died of starvation, overwork, or were executed, during the years 1975-1979. When Nixon extended the war from Vietnam to Cambodia in 1970, massive bombings killed large numbers of civilians. As peasants fled from the bombs that rained down on rural areas – where the Khmer Rouge, notably the Cambodian Communist Party, had their base – the city's population swelled, making famine a reality.

When the US war effort collapsed in 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized power, sweeping into the capital, Phnom Penh, and evacuating, at gunpoint, nearly the entire population. It was part of an insane scheme, inspired by Maoist projects like “The Great Leap Forward”, to empty the cities and build “socialism” in the countryside, based on a combination of abysmal lengthening of the working day with minimal rations. All this came to an end in 1979, when Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, installing a more rational version of Stalinism, closer to the Soviet one, of which it was an ally.

If it has been known for decades that the Khmer Rouge were inspired by Maoism, Julia Lovell explains it: “The evacuation of cities was an extreme version of the ruralization of the Cultural Revolution era. The creation of dining halls and the abolition of the family meal replicated the collectivization of the 'Great Leap Forward'” (p. 255). Furthermore, it shows that Maoist China was deeply committed to the Pol Pot regime, which was awarded the biggest aid package Beijing had ever offered: $XNUMX billion in grants and interest-free loans. Even the uniforms imposed by the regime, black pajama-like garments, were imported from China.

In 1975, as soon as the Khmer Rouge came to power and completely evacuated the cities at gunpoint, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, the main leaders, met with Mao in private. Mao is said to have told them: “We approve of you! Many of your experiences are better than ours”; and Pol Pot replied: “Chairman Mao's works guided our entire party” (p. 241). Aged and ailing, with just one more year of life to go, Mao seemed frustrated with the way he had to give up on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution: "What we wanted and couldn't do, you are doing it." (p. 241), he said. Three years later, Pol Pot expressed a similar sentiment, still suggesting that he had surpassed even Mao: "Mao stopped his Cultural Revolution, we have a Cultural Revolution a day" (p. 259).

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime led to a harsh awakening, especially in France, for many left-wing intellectuals who had embraced Maoism as a more militant and anti-bureaucratic alternative to Russian Stalinism. Michel Foucault and others distanced themselves not only from Maoism but also from Marxism. In this era, the New Philosophers of Paris took aim at “totalitarianism” in such a way that they were unable to genuinely support movements such as the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, while drawing inspiration from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, talented but very right-wing. . This all helped to direct a certain neoconservatism in France.

The chapter on Africa chronicles Mao's China's remarkable and firm commitment to support African nationalists and revolutionaries in the 1960s, often in competition with the Soviet Union. China gained substantial support from Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, one of the few African countries that broke free in the first wave of independence movements and avoided both a strong right-wing military government (as in Congo-Kinshasa [Zaire] and Ghana) and an ostensible left-wing authoritarianism (as in Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea). Nyerere, who defended the socialism, a form of rural socialism, and which, as the leader of the main African state on the “front line” in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, supported liberation movements in southern Africa, received considerable Chinese help.

The same happened in Zimbabwe, with Mugabe's African National Union, a party declared Marxist, but which later established a brutal left-wing dictatorship. Julia Lovell highlights these relationships, painting a much more positive picture of Maoist politics in Africa than in other regions, which has some validity in the face of achievements such as the TanZam railway, which was completed in 1975 at tremendous cost to the Chinese, freeing Zambia's copper mines from economic dependence on South Africa.

But Julia Lovell totally ignores Maoist China's biggest flaw in Africa, a flaw that, along with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, has tarnished its reputation within the world's left. This is the war in Angola, in 1975, which occurred when this country, rich in minerals, broke the bonds of Portuguese colonialism. Over the years, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has become, among the liberation movements in African countries, the most left-wing and the most deeply rooted. But because the MPLA was backed by the Soviet Union, from the 1960s onwards China supported the right-wing National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), whose base was Mobutu's Zaire.

Mobutu, Africa's most reactionary and kleptocratic ruler, had come to power by orchestrating the assassination of renowned African liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. Portugal began to leave Angola and its other colonies in 1975, having already experienced, in 1974, its own left-wing revolution, which overthrew a fascist regime in power since the 1920s. Portuguese revolutionary officers, radicalized by contact with revolutionaries Africans, sought to hand over power to the MPLA.

At that moment, backed not only by Mobutu and the United States, but also by apartheid South Africa, which sent troops to southern Angola, UNITA, with another smaller right-wing nationalist group, tried to seize power. This put China and South Africa on the same side. When UNITA, Zaire and South Africa suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of 36.000 Cuban fighters sent with Soviet aid, the humiliation was also China's, as it exposed Mao to the world as an ally of South Africa.

China's betrayal of the Angolan liberation movement became a point of no return for the left that was more firmly committed to the liberation of Africa and the Third World. Tragically, the MPLA regime, hardened by the long decades of civil war against UNITA, which was financed by the United States, became an authoritarian and kleptocratic state; nevertheless, Mao's support for allied forces in South Africa played its part in disillusioning many sectors of the left with Maoism, especially those involved in black liberation. For others, however, it resulted in disillusionment with Marxism.

It is not surprising that Julia Lovell, a scholar of China, walks on safer ground when analyzing Maoism's impact on countries like Indonesia and Cambodia than when dealing with Africa. Nevertheless, she is to be commended for having written the first analysis of Maoism as a world project. On the whole it is a work of deep scholarship and careful judgment. It contains a wealth of indispensable material for the XNUMXst century left to consider if it wants to avoid the terrible mistakes of the past. And since Maoism, or at least similar or derived political patterns, subsists to this day, both in some forms of academic radicalism and in tendencies of the activist left, this book also speaks to us today, if it is read with an open mind.

Postscript: A personal note. As part of the New York left, I participated in some of the debates on Angola's 1975 civil war, in which I saw some activists, who had long been sympathetic to Mao - and with whom I had sometimes had bitter arguments - express a sudden and sharp disappointment. Angola was also the subject of my first article on international politics: “US Imperialism seeks new ways to stifle true Angolan revolution” [“The United States seeks new ways to stifle the true Angolan revolution”] (News & Letters, May 1976:, published under the pseudonym Kevin A. Barry, with considerable advice and help from Raya Dunayevskaya.

*Kevin B Anderson is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Author, among other books, of Marx on the Margins: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (boitempo).

Translation: Rodrigo MR Pinho.



Julia Lovell. Maoism: A global history. New York: Knopf, 2019, 624 pages.

Originally published in New Politics.


⇒The website the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters. Help us to maintain this idea.⇐
Click here and find how.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining
  • Return to the path of hopelate afternoon 21/06/2024 By JUAREZ GUIMARÃES & MARILANE TEIXEIRA: Five initiatives that can allow the Brazilian left and center-left to resume dialogue with the majority hope of Brazilians