Richly detailed, occasionally ponderous study of a political ideology that, while often disastrous, endures in many guises today.
Lovell (Modern China/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China, 2014, etc.) dissects a strain of political thought that rests on Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism while partaking of Chinese traditions stretching back thousands of years. As she writes, Mao “assembled a practical and theoretical toolkit for turning a fractious, failing empire into a defiant global power,” one that turned a huge population to the service of a machine that was part utopian experiment and part totalitarian nightmare. Maoist thought, by Lovell’s incisive, sometimes-dry account, was a confusion of terms, propaganda, and pragmatics. As a man of rural origins, Mao held the peasantry in higher regard than the urban sophisticates who helped modernize the Chinese economy. He “acclaimed the brilliance of the (rural) masses,” holding that only their ideas were correct, then led from the top all the same, turning Marxist thought into crude, blunt messages that boiled down to class struggle and yielded calamitous famines and the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. So how did the ideas of the Red Emperor spread as widely as they did in the West? One was his devotion, on paper if not always in reality, to feminist ideals; the Maoist formulation “women hold up half the sky” is a standard of T-shirt slogans today. Just so, Maoist political movements have long outlived their creator—Shining Path in Peru, guerrilla groups in India and Nepal, offshoots everywhere, including, to no small extent, Trumpism in America, which hinges on the same cult of personality. Even in China, which had plenty of experience with the disasters of Maoism, the ideology is, if not openly encouraged, officially tolerated. The government of Xi Jinping may have declared the Cultural Revolution “utterly wrong,” but Maoism is evident everywhere, “caught between official oppression and ambivalence, commercial kitschification and inchoate grass-roots sentiment.”
A useful key to understanding the role of China in the modern world, a role that is increasingly influential.