When China Was Cool: Mao’s Little Red BookMay 23, 2014
The Cultural Revolution with its hordes of Red Guards waving their copies of Selected Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung was a disaster for China but paradoxically it represents something of a high point for China’s cultural influence in the world. There’s a fascinating new collection of essays that explores the global impact of Mao’s Little Red Book, edited by Alexander C. Cook of University of California, Berkeley it covers the origins, diffusion and global reception. Some of the chapters focus specifically on the book others look more broadly at Maoism
Cook’s collection starts off by looking at the genesis of the LRB. Ironically, party officials in Beijing initially favoured the Selected Works over the LRB but as the Cultural Revolution took off they quickly changed their line. Between 1966 and 1970 650,000 tons of paper was used to print Mao’s work which was ‘slightly more’ than all the books printed in China between 1949 and 1965. In 1966 at least 234.6m copies of the LRB were printed in China.
There’s a chapter discussing the translation and international dissemination of the LRB that includes some useful material on the role of the Foreign Languages Press as a channel for dissemination for dissemination of information about China after 1949 – interestingly enough it was originally set up as a purely commercial enterprise. The target for the book were the ‘in between countries’ with the developing world and the European allies of the superpowers as particular targets.
Most of the chapters deal with the reception and impact of the book and/or Maoism more generally. Tanzania provides a case where there were good government to government relationships, India and Peru are cases with Maoist insurgencies. There’s discussion of the reaction in four communist countries, non-aligned Yugoslavia, pro-China Albania plus the USSR and the DDR. The former wasn’t a target of the campaign and wasn’t that interested. Although pro Chinese Enver Hoxha was suspicious of the subversive effects of the Cultural Revolution. The Soviet Union was terrified at having a billion apparently deranged Chinese just across the border and the reaction both political and satirical seems to have helped to squeeze the last drops of revolutionary enthusiasm out of the Soviet system. In East Berlin the Chinese embassy was a popular source of LRBs for visitors from the west but citizens of the DDR were banned from entering for fear of catching the Maoist bug.
I’m particularly struck by the impact of the LRB in the West and the impact on the whole trajectory of Marxism movements but on the left more generally. in the West it became such a cult item that leftist groups in the West (including the Black Panthers in the US) were able to raise funds by reselling LRBs that they got free or cheap from Chinese sources. In Italy and France Maoism exacerbated the generational crisis within the Communist Parties that was already emerging; many of the ‘best and the brightest’ were pulled away from the PCI and the PCF towards a variety of Maoist groups (in Italy there was even the emergence of Maoist-Fascism – I guess they wore black Mao jackets). But also there’s a broader push away from orthodox political economy and class struggle towards concerns with the Third World, race and gender.
Of course the impact of the LRB was more a matter of context than content, the ‘spiritual atomic bomb’ dropped in the context of the waves of protest that were sweeping across the world in the late ’60s – if the context is right you can just throw out the message and wait for it to take root.