Sunday, 23 August 2020

Book review: Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell (2019)

I bought this broad-ranging, in-depth work of history at Gleebooks on the way back from out of town. All my books have been packed up for the house move, so I needed something to get me through Sunday (a time when TV fare is subpar).

Probably the most influential Asian of the 20th century, Mao succeeded while his knack for pithy phrases and his volatile temperament were productive. As a ruler he was a disaster, of course (see a recent review for details), but as a change agent he was more than just effective.

Lovell at the end of her book takes a few pages to discuss the ways Mao is celebrated in China today. At this point the pace of the book slows and becomes more contemplative (and less dramatic) but the author is always a careful chronicler, providing support for occasional personal observations and producing a lively and satisfying work of scholarship.

The subtitle is germane if you want to know what the book is really about. It takes in views across the globe from China to Peru, and from India to Nepal. The CCP’s explicit task in the second half of the twentieth century – to transfer its violent revolutionary methods to other nations in the wake of the Soviet government’s censuring of celebrations of Stalin – was often met with enthusiasm from educated people. Mao’s influence was both wide and deep, so protestations today from the CCP about foreign interference are of course hypocritical: historically speaking, China has always been intent on participating as a major player in the politics of other countries.

It wasn’t just in the third world, either. Mao’s appeal was alive in Europe and the US as well, though there the outcome of people’s activities was usually less violent. There were nevertheless bloody episodes in such countries as Italy and Germany. 

For Mao, it was a matter of national pride to be seen as a success, though the truth was more frequently hidden than revealed, as the reality of the Great Leap Forward exposes.

One problem that historians like Lovell encounter however is that many of the records for the period in question are kept in sealed archives. So the truth may not be known for a very long time. Lovell skirts around this problem and did access material from records that have been opened for perusal, as well as those in the archives of other countries. Maoism’s reach into the politics of nations such as Indonesia and Tanzania mean that much can be known even if the CCP won’t cooperate with scholars and publishers.

Lovell is a reliable witness who evidently harbours a passion for her subject. Despite this, you feel as you read that she has a solid grasp not only of the particulars of the evidence she unearths, but of the significance of Maoism for world history in the 20th century. Because of the continuing relevance of the CCP today, this influence remains alive for all of humanity. Mao’s legacy is strong and shows no signs of relinquishing its hold on our regard, despite the many voices that have been raised to deliver messages that the Party cannot be glad to hear.

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