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Around the World With Mao Zedong

For the century before the Communists’ takeover, China had been bullied by foreign powers, laid low by invasion and humiliated. Under Mao, China’s borders became secure for the first time in generations, it had a formidable military that fought American forces to a standstill in Korea, it developed (with Soviet aid) nuclear weapons and it helped defeat the United States in Vietnam. As Lovell puts it, “Mao assembled a practical and theoretical tool kit for turning a fractious, failing empire into a defiant global power.”

This appeal wasn’t confined to the global South. In the West, alienated minority groups, like the Black Panthers, gravitated to Mao as a person of color who had stood up to white hegemony, while youthful leftists saw him as an authentic, third world leader.

With such influence, it is a paradox that Maoism today is often trivialized, especially in the West, as a jokey relic of the past. Although most people would shudder at the idea of displaying in their living room a diorama of a Jewish shop destroyed on Kristallnacht, tourists and expats in China still bring back clay models of landlords being led to their death or intellectuals beaten by Red Guards. One can also question why artists like Andy Warhol made Mao a Pop Art icon — no other 20th-century dictators are treated as camp.

Lovell helps us think through these paradoxes by showing how Westerners often see Maoism as largely irrelevant, consigned to a past overwhelmed by the tidal wave of capitalism that has swept through China over the past few decades. Even in China itself, global Maoism has generally been forgotten. Today, China solemnly lectures Western countries not to “interfere in the internal affairs” of other countries, even though a few decades ago it sent military advisers to Africa to foment Maoist-style rebellions. “It is an irony that memory of the period during which China enjoyed arguably its greatest global soft power in its entire recorded history has to be ‘disappeared’ for political reasons,” Lovell writes.

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.

But after almost 500 pages of such widely varying stories, the seven-page conclusion feels thin. One would like more about how the different episodes in the book are linked, and perhaps more of a narrative to hold them together.

Still, this is an impressive, readable and often startling account of an era that seems so far from our own. The decades after World War II were a period of revolution, when dozens of new countries came into existence and radical solutions seemed not hopeless or romantic, but the only realistic way to throw off the yoke of colonialism or achieve social justice.

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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