Branko Milanović – A global ideology that was neither

What is the legacy of Maoism outside of China?

Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest  book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”

Cross-posted from Branko’s blog Global Inequality

File:Mao Zedong in Xibaipo.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

When an author writes a historical-political book whose objective is to privilege a certain point of view or a certain explanation, to show how it might have shaped events, he or she naturally tends to present the argument in as sharp a contrast (with other explanations) as possible. This was the idea behind Julia Lovell book on global Maoism. Maoism was, Lovell argues, an ideology that had a global reach and influenced many events between 1949 and approximately 1990. But the danger such sweeping hypotheses face is that by claiming too much for them, the author loses his/her credibility. Unfortunately, this is the case here, in the otherwise very well researched and engagingly written book by Lovell, professor of Chinese history and literature at the University of London.

In order to impress the reader with the strength of her hypothesis, Lovell mixes several layers of analysis. First, she conflates the role and influence of China as a regional power with that of Maoism as an ideology. Thus, the two most important international events where China played a role were the Korean war, when Chinese intervention saved the North Korean regime, and the Vietnam war when China provided substantial (even if inferior to Soviet) help in logistics and matériel. Both of these events had much more to do with China as a regional communist power, than with Maoism as an ideology. And obviously, nether Vietnam nor North Korea can be considered to have been ideologically influenced by Mao—unless one takes the grotesque manifestations of dynastic adulation in North Korea as being an imitation of similar kowtowing to Mao during the Cultural Revolution. But Kim and his offspring did not need China to teach them how to create a cult of personality; nor can a cult of personality be called an ideology. For Vietnam, the case is very clear-cut: Maoism had almost nothing to do with the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The second conflation is between Mao’s role as the founder of modern China and his role of a communist ideologue. In the first role, he was surely one of the great figures of the 20th century and probably of Chinese history. His ability to reflect in his own person deeply Chinese characteristics and communist Western modernism, to appeal to the Chinese peasantry, to lead successful military campaigns all show a brilliant political leader. But as a theoretician of communism, his contribution was very slender and the “Mao Zedong thought”, rather vacuous. It did not appeal to many outside China. This is true despite Mao’s innovation in converting peasant masses to the idea of communism, and moving the center of CPC’s struggle from the conventionally-preferred industrialized Shanghai to Yunnan and much less developed parts of China. This was an important tactical and political innovation, not a great ideological breakthrough in Marxism.

When it comes to global Maoism, Lovell has assembled an impressive list of Mao-inspired movements that cover four corners of the world: Naxalites in India, Communist Party in Nepal, Malayan insurgency, Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), Pol Pot, and Sendero Luminoso. There is no doubt that they had relations with China (most left-wing movements had) and in some cases were financially and militarily supported by China. But that influence was not as deep as Lovell tends to present it. KPI was, at one moment, the second (or the third) largest communist party in the world. It had strong roots in Indonesia going back to anti-Dutch independence struggle which had nothing to do with Maoism. The Chinese who were members of KPI were so primarily because of Indonesian concerns, not because they were Chinese and admirers of Mao. Drawing the connection between China and PKI was (as Vincent Bevins argues in The Jakarta Method, reviewed here) a way for Suharto to justify the orgy of terror that he unleashed after the 1966 coup and to scapegoat the Chinese minority. Lovell all but agrees with that in her very powerful Indonesia chapter (probably the best of the book)—but because of the hypothesis on which the book is based the China connection gets a disproportionate attention.

Exaggerating Maoist influence leads Lovell to make rather implausible claims. She believes that the struggle for influence among the left-wing and communist movements between Mao and the Soviet Union led the Soviets to ever higher and ultimately unsustainable military and economic commitments in Ethiopia, Angola and Afghanistan. That eventually brought the USSR down: “Although the Soviet Union would not collapse for another three decades [sic!], the fracture lines…caused by the row with China initiated the slow death of the Soviet bloc” (p. 147). This is, I think, wrong on many levels. The Soviet Union was helping anti-colonialist movements from the 1920s onward, and that help would not have been significantly less or very different even if China was in the Soviet corner. It would have surely given the Soviets more power (and that is why they tried to prevent the schism with China as much as they could) but in the Third World, USSR competed with the United States, not with China.

China’s financial contribution to Third World countries is, invariably, presented by Lovell is “enormous” or “huge” and then criticized for taking away from the needy and hungry Chinese masses. This leads us to an interesting issue: when Western countries are disbursing aid this is considered a valuable and worthy endeavor; they are often criticized for not doing enough. But when China is doing the same, this is apparently to be considered bad, not only because of its “nefarious” objectives but because it detracts from income that could be used locally. But should not the aid from somebody who is himself financially strained be considered even more worthy of praise?

Of course, nobody knows how important that aid was. Chinese historical data were probably destroyed, or have been eaten by mice, or perhaps never existed. But Lovell does not help her case by presenting numbers that are totally incomparable. She asks the readers to compare Zhou Enlai’s statement that in 1971 “China was throwing” (Lovell’s terms) 5% of its national budget on foreign aid with British international aid commitment of 0.7% of national income. Assuming that these numbers are correct, 5% of the national budget could be less that 0.7% of the national income is the national budget is less than 14% of national income (which is quite plausible). Thus throwing around the numbers that even technically are incomparable is meaningless.

China indeed was not a big player in Third World politics; it was not even a member of the Non-Aligned Movement despite its presence at the original meeting in Bandung. It was not a member of G77. It remained aloof. It boxed (to use a famous metaphor), throughout the Maoist period, below its weight. Mao’s histrionics and frequent infantile behaviour (documented by Lovell), and robotic repetitions of slogans by Chinese officials alienated many serious revolutionaries (FLN, PLO, Turkish Communist Party). How could China even have much influence when during the years of the Cultural Revolution it withdrew all but one of its ambassadors around the world? That it played a role way below its potential can be inferred from the fact that, when it eventually began to project more coherent policies in the 1970s, it was easily voted back to the United Nations by the huge majority of Third World countries, and despite American opposition. One could, in effect, argue the very opposite of Lovell—namely that Maoism reduced the global role of China below the one that she could have played.

It is not surprising therefore that Maoism tended to attract mostly fringe movements. Some of them like Pol Pot in Cambodia (incidentally, supported by both China and the United States, like Holden Roberto’s – another fringe-movement in Angola) produced disaster and murder. Guzman’s Sendero Luminoso enjoyed popular appeal at first but then veered into plain terrorism. Mao’s ideology thus appealed to those on the left who were unhappy with stolid and bureaucratic Soviet communism, but were more often interested in theatrics and not in either reading or understanding Marxism. It is no surprise that it attracted such intellectual lightweights like Malcolm X and Shirley MacLaine. (Lovell’s chapter on Maoism in Western Europe and the US is by far the weakest of the book.)

If one were to define Maoism as a pragmatic application of Marxist principles to bring about a revolution to China, get rid of “landlordism” and feudal institutions, and liberate China from undue foreign influence, it was indeed a great success. But if one were to look at Maoism as an “exportable” ideology, it was a failure. Maoism in the world, as opposed to Maoism in China, could best be described as the ideology of a senescent classical left-wing movement that lost faith in working class revolutionary potential and hated bureaucratized socialism of the Soviet Union. But it produced almost nothing that is intellectually challenging or durable.

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