When I was studying history at Cambridge in the early 1970s, personalities tended to be airbrushed out of the picture, being almost entirely replaced by social movements and economic trends. But it is people, of course, who make history. One such person was Mao.
As Julia Lovell writes in this arresting study, Mao’s revolution transformed not only China but also much of the world. She begins with the book that made Mao a global celebrity, Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, published in 1937, when he was virtually unknown in the West. She then offers vignettes of groups that considered themselves to be Maoist, including the Malayan Communist Party in the late 1940s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Shining Path movement in Peru and the Naxalite guerrillas in central India. The last of these remain unswervingly loyal to Maoist doctrine in its purist form, unlike the Maoist rebels in neighbouring Nepal, who abandoned their insurgency in 2006 to participate in parliamentary elections. After discussing what Maoism actually means, Lovell takes us on an exhilarating journey, tracing the spread of Maoist theories across Southeast Asia and then Africa, ending up in today’s China, which is Mao-ish rather than strictly Maoist. Despite its global reach, she writes, ‘Maoism remains one of the missed – or misunderstood – stories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’. For Lovell this could be very dangerous. Historians have confined Mao to the past. No one really gives consideration to the possibility that his ideas might make a comeback.