September 3, 2019
Around the World with Mao ZedongHistorians in the News
tags: Communism, China, Mao Zedong, book review, international affairs
Today, Maoism is often remembered in the West as something kitschy — Andy Warhol silk screens, or Shirley MacLaine’s bizarre fandom — but at its height Maoism was one of the most important chapters in the Cold War. Especially in the global South, Maoism contributed to a series of remarkable events, including the greatest debacle of American military history (the Vietnam War), one of the most infamous cases of genocide (committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) and an epic guerrilla campaign (conducted by the Shining Path in Peru).
This history has not been adequately told in one sweeping, accessible book — until now, with Julia Lovell’s “Maoism: A Global History.” A professor of modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, Lovell has previously translated some of China’s most famous novelists, including Lu Xun and Yan Lianke, and written several books about important historical events or objects, like the Opium War and the Great Wall.
Her new book covers a vast amount of ground, moving through chapters on Maoism in Peru, Indonesia, Africa, Southeast Asia, India and Nepal, before ending in China, where for the first time in decades the country is run by a leader, Xi Jinping, who consciously builds on Mao’s legacy.
The book’s greatest strength is its scope. Lovell traveled widely, used archives and conducted interviews in many countries and synthesized the work of scholars in the growing field of global Cold War studies. She demonstrates how Maoism was more than an amorphous idea, but a strategy pushed by China. It trained revolutionary leaders inside China, sent advisers abroad and delivered material support, from weapons to the black pajama-type uniforms of the Khmer Rouge — even portraits of Pol Pot. These are big, hefty chapters, making the book an indispensable guide to this vast movement.
It’s this yearning that gave rise to Maoism, elevating the fragmentary and sprawling ideas of an autodidactic dictator into an international movement. It’s the same longing for justice — and strongman rule — that will perhaps fuel Maoism’s appeal in the future.
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