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'Maoism: A Global History' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Maoism: A Global History

By Julia Lovell, Bodley Head, 624 pages, £30

The rustle of vegetation in Southern Rhodesia as “Margaret Thatcher”, “James Bond” and “Chairman Mao” crept through the undergrowth. These were guerrilla fighters for the Zimbabwean African National Union. The attractions of famously flinty Brits aside, the soldiers’ choices of noms de guerre reflected a deep ideological and tactical debt to Chinese Communism and to Maoism in particular.

Elsewhere during this time - the Sixties and Seventies - Africans going for eye tests found themselves squinting at excerpts, in ever diminishing font sizes, from the Little Red Book. Patients were greeted by Chinese doctors with the reassuring words: “Chairman Mao sent me.”

Massive Chinese investment in Africa, with the expectation of rich strategic returns, tends to be thought about as a relatively recent phenomenon. It is part of a broader settled story about modern China: revolution in 1949, followed by bloody and disastrous domestic social experiments; a turn towards authoritarian capitalism, and only then the steady projection of the economic and military might thus accrued out into the world, most notably in the biblical scale of China’s Belt and Road Initiative - awesome infrastructure projects linking Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean, said to be worth pounds 690 billion over the next 10 years.

In fact, argues Julia Lovell, professor of modern China at Birkbeck, University of London, our picture of the country - and of the Cold War - is missing a piece. While Westerners spent the Sixties and Seventies devouring John le Carre’s “pentagonic Moscow-Berlin-Prague-London-Washington plots”, and having their cats innocently answer to “Chairman Miaow”, Maoism was developing real global heft courtesy of radicals around the world - particularly those in “underdeveloped, colonised, or recently decolonised states... which at least superficially seemed to resemble pre-1949 China”.

Lovell’s book reveals the vigorous attempts of Mao and his allies to control the movement where they could, rarely distinguishing between liberating Asia and Africa and establishing Chinese hegemony there. Setting out to counter the rather low and limited popular view of Maoism that we have inherited, Lovell acknowledges some serious constraints. Some of the most important archival material is kept under lock and key by a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership that prefers - indeed, has actively encouraged - our inattention to this topic. Lovell has nevertheless managed to draw together, from available sources, interviews and a vast scholarly literature, an exciting and eye-opening account of Maoism’s worldwide spread.

We follow the ideas as they take shape during Mao Tse-tung’s fight for control of China: rural powerbases, guerrilla tactics, political violence, culture war, anti-imperialism, purges and “thought reform”. From here, we move abroad to encounter insurgents in India, Nepal, and south-east Asia (including the murderous Khmer Rouge); anti-colonial fighters in Africa; intellectuals and activists in Europe and the United States; and Peru’s Shining Path.

The need to knit all this together, across regions and across time, occasionally results in some rather unsettling hopping around. But Lovell has a gift for compressing long and convoluted histories via just the right stories, characters, moments, and statistics. Having helpfully interwoven the emergence of Maoism with an account of the triumphs of the CCP and its differences with Soviet Communism (most obviously Soviet suspicion of the peasantry versus Maoism’s reliance on it), Lovell goes on to arrange her main chapters according to region. This allows readers to dip in and out of particular national contexts, comparing the take-up and impact of Maoism in each place.

One of the striking themes to emerge as a result is the combination of romance, naivety, and self-interest that fuelled Maoism’s popularity abroad. The US journalist Edgar Snow managed to see in Mao, on meeting him in 1936, the ideal American: a “Lincolnesque” countenance and a simple, rugged lifestyle; an earthy sense of humour; scholarly learning lightly worn.

Both men did very well out of the resulting book, Red Star Over China. Snow was transformed, almost overnight, into a wealthy authority on China, while Mao became a global presence: in British living rooms (100,000 copies were sold in Britain within weeks), in Communist training camps in Malaysia, and later in the lives of Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress activists in South Africa.

In each region we find local catechists adapting Mao’s creed to new conditions. In the late Sixties, the Indian revolutionary Charu Mazumdar brought together Maoist ideals and tactics, a worldwide spirit of student radicalism, and profound popular disappointment with the fruits thus far of independence from Britain to turn an anti-landlord protest in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari into a wider “Naxalite” uprising.

Tens of thousands of people were drawn in, Mao’s face and words were stencilled on to walls across Kolkata, assassins targeted politicians and judges, and the police took to calling it a “peaceful day” when fewer than a dozen bombs went off. A crackdown forced the movement south into India’s central forest belt, where the deep injustices suffered by Dalits (formerly “untouchables”) and tribal peoples were turned into the raw material for a struggle that continues to this day.

A group of Indian Communists arriving in Beijing after a perilous journey via Nepal and Tibet - including a 90-minute crawl over a disintegrating wooden bridge slung across a giant chasm - encountered in Mao a figure of immense personal warmth. “He instantly clasped me to his chest”, recalled one. “I got completely lost in his hug.”

African visitors accustomed to racial discrimination back at home were treated instead to “flowers, confetti, gongs, cymbals, firecrackers, cheering multitudes, limousine cavalcades, and tete-a-tetes with heroes of the Chinese revolution”. Some of Mao’s visitors went on to receive ideological and guerrilla training before heading back; others enjoyed scholarships.

The CCP raced to out-invest and out-befriend the Soviet Union across the globe - with credits, loans, and projects such as the Tanzania-Zambia railway - even while at home its efforts to achieve a fully Communist society ahead of the Russians were costing the country dear. On a visit to Zimbabwe in 2015, China’s premier Xi Jinping spoke of his country’s solidarity with Zimbabweans during their “national liberation struggle”. And yet as he presides over a new era of Chinese investment in Africa and Asia, there are sobering lessons to be learnt from Lovell’s book about just how little Mao gained in return for his efforts.

Leaders in need of China’s money, equipment, training and aid gladly took it, before largely going their own way. In vivid, often grim detail, Lovell shows us how and why Maoism has proven better, both inside and outside China, at attacking state infrastructure than building it up. That said, there is no telling what the leaders of “Mao-ish” contemporary China - as Lovell memorably describes it - will do to ensure they make it to 2024, overtaking the Soviet Union to become the longest Communist regime in history. Maoism may yet have more in store.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019