Looking Back at Maoism and the Global Left

Kevin B. Anderson

Summary: Review of Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell, emphasizing Southern Africa, Indonesia, and Cambodia. First appeared in New Politics, Winter 2021, here. – Editors

Chinese here.

Portuguese translation here.

As against nearly a century of debates over Stalinism, the international left has never come to terms with Maoism, especially its global impact. Disillusionment with Stalinism is marked by clear, indeed tragic, dates in international politics: the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 that launched World War II, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. These events are well remembered and sometimes debated, in this journal and elsewhere. With Maoism, the following dates also mark tragic events for the global left, yet they have not gotten the attention they deserve: the collapse of the Maoist Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 due to murderous repression by the military with the help of the CIA, China’s rapprochement with U.S. imperialism in 1971-1972 as Nixon was carpet-bombing Vietnam and embarking upon his reelection campaign, the Maoist Khmer Rouge’s autogenocide, or Mao’s lean toward South Africa and Mobutu’s Zaire against African revolutionaries in 1975-1976. To be sure, the fact that these Maoist-impacted events took place in the Global South rather than Western and Central Europe goes some distance toward explaining the relative lack of attention. But that is no reason to continue such a marginalization today.

Maoism became a pole of attraction in the 1960s for the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society in the United States, for a number of African revolutionaries and nationalists, and for the French far left, among others. Many saw Maoist China as the product of a successful socialist revolution carried out by people of color. And while it gradually lost its sheen as an international phenomenon, this came not so much with a bang as a whimper, without the furious debates that marked 1939, 1956, and 1968. The fact that there was no clear reckoning has helped the ideological influence of Maoism to persist to this day, often indirectly.

One example can be found in the structuralist and post-structuralist theories that have impacted so many academic fields. These theories pushed for a concentration on what orthodox Marxists termed the superstructure, especially its cultural and ideological dimensions. Here the affinity with Maoism lies not merely in the fact that some of the intellectuals associated with structuralism and post-structuralism were influenced by Maoism, people like Louis Althusser, or Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida early on. Their affinity with Maoism also lies in an indisputable theoretical point, that Maoist thought sought to displace structure with superstructure, most famously with the Cultural Revolution.

A second example is the extreme voluntarism of Maoism, from slogans like “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win” or “U.S. Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger” to adventurism or worse in the sphere of revolutionary politics: the Indonesian Communist Party, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Again, while few on the activist left today identify with Maoism, aside from groups like the Naxalites in India, the Maoist parties in Nepal, or the Communist Party of the Philippines, its voluntaristic spirit persists in more subtle and indirect ways in some of the far reaches of Antifa and anarchism. This continuity makes Julia Lovell’s brilliant book important for the left, and not just in historical terms.

While there are countless histories of international Communism focusing on the parties, groups, and intellectuals associated with Stalinism from the 1920s onward, Lovell’s book fills an important gap as the first comprehensive history of Maoism as a global phenomenon. It is the product of archival research, of participant interviews, and of a careful synthesis of previous scholarship. Lovell is not part of the radical left but an academic historian whose book is nonetheless of paramount importance for us. And some of her findings are eye-opening.

One of these concerns the gestation of Edgar Snow’s hagiographic 1937 account of Maoism just after the Long March, Red Star over China. Lovell shows that Snow’s book was choreographed and closely edited by Mao and other party officials: “Snow’s English transcript of the translator’s version of Mao’s words” was “translated into Chinese, corrected by Mao, then translated back into English” (76). As the book progressed, party representatives continued to shape its narrative: “As Snow toiled on turning notes into copy through the winter of 1936, his interviewees continued to send him a stream of amendments: telling him to remove any trace of dissent with Comintern policy, to expunge any praise for out-of-favor Chinese intellectuals, to tone down criticism of political enemies turned allies, to talk up anti-Japanese patriotism” (76-77). This was the first, but not the last, romanticization of Maoism on the part of the global left.

Another key juncture Lovell elucidates is the massacre of half a million Indonesian leftists and suspected leftists in 1965 by the army and its Islamist allies, with considerable assistance from the CIA. How did this transpire? It was widely known by the early 1960s that Mao had formed an alliance with the left-leaning nationalist Sukarno, who had sponsored the 1954 Bandung conference of “Nonaligned” countries. Attended by Chinese but not Soviet representatives, Bandung was an important marker in the birth of the third world. It was also common currency on the left that the massive, legal Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), which after the Sino-Soviet split became the largest ally of China among the world’s Communist parties, was caught off guard by the ferocity of the repression in 1965-1966. Indonesia was also seen at the time as the greatest debacle of Maoism as an international movement by the independent revolutionary left, which noted that the PKI did not act substantially differently from the pro-Moscow Communist parties in opportunistically sidling up to a nationalist dictator without building up enough of an independent political or military capacity. But the truth turns out to be more complicated—and more damning to Mao.

The events leading up to the PKI-led abortive insurrection and the brutal repression that followed have long been shrouded in secrecy. Lovell does not succeed in fully cracking this secrecy, given the Chinese regime’s suppression of its own history. Nonetheless, she marshals enough evidence to confirm that the defeat of the Indonesian left lay at Mao’s doorstep as much as that of the PKI leadership and that the PKI’s disastrous miscalculations were impacted by Mao’s own voluntarism. To demonstrate this, Lovell reproduces a version of an August 1965 conversation between Mao and PKI leader D.N. Aidit, in which Mao calls upon Aidit to “act quickly” against the conservative army leaders at a time when Sukarno’s ailing health placed the PKI alliance with him in jeopardy (178). If this is true, Mao made a strategic miscalculation on a par with Stalin’s decision not to allow German Communists to ally with the Social Democrats as Hitler was coming to power. Be that as it may, the ideological influence of Maoism on the PKI was equally deleterious.

As Lovell recounts, alluding to Mao’s disastrous effort to transform the Chinese countryside via “People’s Communes,” which caused the mass famine of the late 1950s, “In the voluntarist style of the Great Leap Forward, Aidit began to eschew the kind of careful, patient mobilization that had taken place through the 1950s, in favor of statements that emphasized high Maoism’s ‘spirit, resolve, and enthusiasm’” (168). And while Aidit talked of organizing a paramilitary force to counter the regular army, and Sukarno did so as well, and China promised vast amounts of armaments, nothing substantial was actually done even as PKI rhetoric against the military escalated. Then, on September 30, 1965, the PKI, acting with apparent Chinese encouragement, moved to incapacitate the military leadership. They killed a number of generals, but the action quickly backfired due to lack of support on the streets or within the military, especially after the ailing Sukarno refused to join their cause. All this allowed the remaining Indonesian generals to orchestrate one of the greatest political massacres in history and to set up a conservative, anti-labor regime that persists today in modified form in a somewhat more democratic polity.

A second revelation on Lovell’s part concerns Mao’s relationship with Pol Pot and what is sometimes called the Cambodian autogenocide, when up to two million people—a quarter of the population—died from starvation, overwork, and executions during the years 1975-1979. The U.S. war in Vietnam, which Nixon extended to Cambodia in 1970, had led to massive bombings that killed a large number of civilians. As peasants fled the bombs raining down on rural areas, where the Khmer Rouge—essentially the Cambodian Communist Party—was based, the population of the cities swelled, making famine a real possibility.

When the U.S. war effort collapsed in 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power, entering the capital, Phnom Penh, and evacuating virtually the entire population at gunpoint. This was part of a harebrained scheme, inspired by Maoist projects like the Great Leap Forward, to empty the cities and build “socialism” in the countryside based upon a precipitous increase in the working day along with minimal food allowances. It all came crashing down as Vietnam invaded in 1979, overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and installed a more rational version of Stalinism closer to the Soviet version to which it was allied.

While the fact that the Khmer Rouge was inspired by Maoism has been known for decades, Lovell puts a point on it: “The evacuation of the cities was an extreme version of Cultural Revolution-era rustification. The creation of the mess halls and the abolition of family dining replicated the collectivization of the Great Leap Forward” (255). Moreover, she shows that Maoist China was deeply committed to the Pol Pot regime, awarding it the biggest aid package Beijing had ever offered, $1 billion in grants and interest-free loans. Even the black cloth for the pajama-like uniforms imposed by the regime was imported from China. In 1975, soon after the Khmer Rouge came to power, but after they had completely evacuated the cities at gunpoint, top leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary met privately with Mao. During their conversation, Mao reportedly said, “We approve of you! Many of your experiences are better than ours,” to which Pol Pot replied, “The works of Chairman Mao have led our entire party” (241). The aging and infirm Mao, who had only a year to live, seemingly felt thwarted by the way he had been forced to call off the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. He also stated, “What we wanted to do but could not manage, you are achieving” (241). Pol Pot expressed similar sentiments three years later but with the suggestion that he had outdone even Mao: “Mao stopped his Cultural Revolution, but we have a Cultural Revolution every day” (259).

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime led to a rude awakening for many left-wing intellectuals who had embraced Maoism as a more militant and anti-bureaucratic alternative to Russian Stalinism, especially in France. Foucault and others now distanced themselves not only from Maoism, but also from Marxism altogether. In this era, the Parisian New Philosophers targeted “totalitarianism” in such a way that they were unable to support genuinely left-wing movements like the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, all the while taking inspiration from the gifted but very right-wing Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. All of this helped usher in something like neoconservatism in France.

The chapter on Africa chronicles a remarkable and sustained commitment on Maoist China’s part to support African nationalists and revolutionaries in the 1960s, almost always in competition with the Soviet Union. China gained substantial support via Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, one of the few African countries liberated in the first wave of independence movements to avoid either right-wing military-strongman rule (Congo-Kinshasa[Zaire], Ghana) or ostensibly left-wing authoritarianism (Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea). Nyerere, who espoused ujamaa, a form of rural socialism, and who supported liberation movements in southern Africa as the leader of the chief “front-line” African state in the struggle with apartheid South Africa, received considerable Chinese aid. So did Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union, an avowedly Marxist revolutionary party that later established a brutal left-wing dictatorship. Lovell highlights these relationships and paints a much more positive portrait of Maoist policy toward Africa than other regions. This has some validity, given accomplishments like the Tan-Zam railway, completed in 1975 at tremendous cost to the Chinese and which freed Zambian copper mines from economic dependence upon South Africa by creating a rail line through Tanzania.

But Lovell ignores completely Maoist China’s greatest failure in Africa, one that sullied its reputation within the global left almost as much as did the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. This was the Angola war of 1975, which took place as this mineral-rich southern African country was prying itself loose from Portuguese colonialism. Over the years, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) became the most left-wing and deeply rooted of the country’s African liberation movements. But because the MPLA was backed by the Soviet Union, China from the 1960s onward supported the more right-wing National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which based itself in Mobutu’s Zaire. Mobutu, one of Africa’s most reactionary and kleptocratic rulers, had come to power by orchestrating the assassination of renowned African liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. Portugal began to pull out of Angola and its other colonies in 1975, having experienced in 1974 its own left-wing revolution to overthrow a fascist regime in power since the 1920s. Portuguese revolutionary officers, who had themselves been radicalized by contact with African revolutionaries, sought to hand over power to the MPLA.

At this point UNITA (and another smaller right-wing nationalist group) made a bid for power, backed not only by Mobutu and the United States but also by apartheid South Africa, which dispatched troops into southern Angola. This placed China on the same side as South Africa. When UNITA, Zaire, and South Africa suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of some 36,000 Cuban troops sent over with Soviet aid, that humiliation was also China’s, as Mao now found himself exposed to the world as an ally of South Africa. For those on the left with the strongest commitments to African and Third World liberation, China’s betrayal of the African liberation movement in Angola became a point of no return. Tragically, the MPLA regime, hardened by the long decades of civil war with the U.S.-funded UNITA that followed, devolved into an authoritarian and kleptocratic state. Still, Mao’s support for forces allied with South Africa played a role in the disillusionment with Maoism across many sectors of the left, especially those involved in Black liberation. For some, this resulted in a disillusionment with Marxism, period.

It is not surprising that Lovell, a scholar of China, is on surer footing when analyzing Maoism’s impact on nearby countries like Indonesia or Cambodia than in discussing Africa. Still, she is to be commended for having written the first survey of Maoism as a global project. Overall, this is a work of deep scholarship and careful judgment. It contains a wealth of material indispensable for the twenty-first century left to consider if we are to avoid the terrible mistakes of the past. And given the fact that Maoism—or at least theoretical and political patterns similar to or derived from it—persists today, from some forms of academic radicalism to some tendencies in the activist left, this book also speaks to us today, if one is able to read it with an expansive frame of mind.


Postscript: A personal note: I participated in some of the debates over the 1975 civil war in Angola as part of the New York left, when I saw some activists long sympathetic to Mao — and with whom I had sometimes had bitter arguments — express a sudden and sharp disillusionment. Angola was also the topic my first article on international politics, “U.S. Imperialism seeks new ways to stifle true Angolan revolution,” News &  Letters, May 1976 https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/news-and-letters/1970s/1976-05.pdf , written under the pseudonym Kevin A. Barry with considerable advice and help from Raya Dunayevskaya.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Chris Brandon

    Dr. Anderson, does Lovell claim that Aidat and the PKI were behind the September 30th Movement?

    I recently read Bevin’s Jakarta Method and he states that it’s still quite unclear if it was the PKI, an internal Army movement, or if the conspiracy was planned or became known to Suharto.

    Whatever happened it seems more plausible that the Suharto, the Indonesian military, the CIA and islamist militants deserve the vast share of responsibility for the genocide rather than the PKI or Mao

  2. Edward Tapia

    This book seems like a very interesting read. Mao was also one of the first world leaders to recognize the legitimacy of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. These reactionary and eggregious positions were rationalized through what became formally known as the “Three Worlds Theory” in 1974, Mao’s reformulation of geopolitics. But as you noted these campist politics, namely, the view that U.S. imperialism was a lesser evil to Soviet “social imperialism” can be found much earlier.

  3. Pierre Beaudet

    Hi Kevin,

    I have seen interest in your recent review of the book on Maoism. I was never a great fan of Maoism which in its local incarnations led to insurmountable issues of sectarianism and more importantly, on a completely delirious view of class and class struggles in Canada. It was nonsense, and it polluted the atmosphere during the late 1970s, it totally disappeared after that except for a few maniacal sects.

    In my mind, China played a superficial role in that period, even with the small groups they were supporting. They were intelligent enough that it made no sense in terms of the overall strategy to break out the isolation they thought they were in. Their magistral piece was the turn towards the US, while at the same time promoting the absurd view of the “three worlds”, including the fact the Soviet Union was the supreme danger. It led them as you say to side with Pinochet, Mobutu and their likes in many countries.
    Rather than an ideological error, I see this as the process of state formation around an independent and capitalist China, which was not too much of a deviation from the early stages of that revolution which was always national-democratic and not socialist.

    We could have a longer debates about the inevitability of that perspective. For me, a socialist project was not on the agenda in China, without being ultra economicst or materialist about it. What could happen and in fact did was a national democratic project that build the base for a state-led capitalism which managed a sort of Keynesianism for the poor, lifting out millions of starving peasants from misery, and creating state force capable of rejecting the assaults of the different imperialisms. This is what happened, not saying that it was the only possible scenario.

    I want to jump quickly to Angola. I was associated with Angolan leftists in the mid 1970s. They came out of a fraction of the MPLA called ‘Revolta activa’. They had been purged, they were based in Congo-Brazzaville, slowly drifting to further exiles. Their leader, Gentil Vianna was in jail and in a very bad situation. They explained and this was confirmed later that MPLA was never ever a revolutionary liberation movement. It had extremely limited influence outside some of the mestizo groups in Luanda and a bit around Luanda in small towns. Agostino Neto who came out on top of a very long power struggles was close to the Communist Party of Portugal, therefore, accessing the Soviet Union. When the war broke out, the MPLA faced South Africa and FNLA with Zaire back-up. Some of the urban classes (minority) came behind it to oppose the very worst, but not with great expectations. Cubans really won that war. Shortly after 1977, repression came very hard on left-wing and nationalists (black power) dissidents, with 13 000 poor people from the shanty town killed behind a pathetic leader called Nito Alves.

    At that time, I was in Angola to observe the devastation. I was briefed on the MPLA when it was ‘reinventing” itself as the Workers Party-MPLA, which was basically an authoritarian project with East German and Cuban ‘experts’ to purge it from any dissenting ideas. By the end of that decade, the MPLA was implementing SAPs designed by the World Bank and negotiating with the US about a possible “peace”, which meant that the MPLA would never go towards the bad road. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 allowed that shift. This is the storey that has been written by various Angolan and external researchers.

    To call MPLA the “left option” is a bit of an illusion, although, with UNITA or FNLA, Angola would have remained in complete collapse, a failed state, with or without China (that played a very minor role) like we see now in the Middle East. Most of my old Revolta Activa friends went back to Angola to try to avoid that collapse, after being “rehabilitated” by MPLA party state and they became relatively competent bureaucrats working in education, health, civil engineering. Iht the mid 1990s with a very feeble democratisation, they regrouped un the Partido revolucionario democratico, but that never came out.

    The end of that story is one of worse predatory state in Africa, talking about people and resources, just plundering and killing, and making sure that no change occurs in the region, especially DRC, where the Angolan Army protected a lousy warlord. I know you know that nothing is simple!

    Our solidarity policies have remained with some of the Angolan popular movements and pockets of dissident intellectuals, highly critical of the party state, always at risk, and not heard in the western world which is happy to participate in the plunder.

    Take care.

  4. Kevin B. Anderson

    Thanks for these 3 very thoughtful comments, which deserve replies.

    Chris Brandon asks if the main blame for the 1965 coup and mass murder lies at the hands of the CIA and the Indonesian military and Islamists. Of course this is the case. However, Mao and the Indonesian Communists of the PKI helped in no small way, through their voluntaristic misleading of the Indonesian working class and peasants, to bring this about. Reaction always waits in store for the left, but it is also our responsibility to avoid helping to bring it about through the kind of wild overestimation of our chances of success that Mao and the PKI encouraged, and then the PKI acted upon.

    As to Edward Tapia’s comment I am in complete agreement and had forgotten about that disgusting recognition of Pinochet. Maoist China did the same thing when Ben Bella was overthrown in Algeria, also a move to the right, though not as much so as in Chile.

    Pierre Beaudet makes a number of important points. First, I want to agree that the most significant turning point in the left’s disillusionment with Maoism was in the early 1970s with Maoist China’s rapprochement with US imperialism, specifically with Nixon’s America, and that the betrayals in Africa flowed out of that process. (I took that as a given, having also lived through that period and broken with the kind of soft Maoism I’d acquired from SDS and the Black Panther Defense Committee at that very time, 1971, when the rapprochement was beginning. That was the same year I found Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism.)

    However, as I said in the article, many on the far left in the USA and elsewhere, and many of them people of color, still leaned toward Maoism in the early 1970s despite this, and tried to take at face value the Maoist claim that they were real revolutionaries opposed to “both” superpowers. Moreover, Africa was a place where China had gained some real headway, with substantial support in Tanzania and among the Zimbabwean revolutionaries. For all these reasons, their betrayal of the Angolan revolutionaries — and especially their ending up on the same side as South Africa in 1975 — was a real shocker, at least to many on the far left and the Third Worldist left.

    Second, of course the Angolan MPLA had some limitations and some authoritarian tendencies. You certainly are more aware of that history than I, especially the story of the independents purged by the MPLA. But overall, I think MPLA was a similar movement to FRELIMO in Mozambique, ANC in South Africa and the like (or earlier, the FLN in Algeria in which Frantz Fanon worked), flawed but deserving of critical support by the international left. (One could say the same about the Kurdish or Palestinian movements of today.) The other 2 Angolan movements in 1975 were outright reactionary in their politics, supported not only by South Africa but also by Mobutu’s Zaire and of course, US imperialism. I think the left has to support liberation movements of this type, while recognizing their limitations as well. Otherwise, we run the danger of a kind of sectarianism that isolates itself from the regions of the world where the most important revolutionary attempts have been made over the past 75 years. And Africa was a particularly interesting case here, as many of the old kinds of parties like Communist Parties and Social Democrats were not really that well developed and thus could not misdirect the movement from day one. (That creativity is analyzed dialectically in Ch. 7 of Dunayevskaya’s Philosophy and Revolution [1973].) The same kind of thing applies to Black politics inside the USA, which often takes the form of working inside the Democratic Party and yet even when that happens it does not mean radical elements are absent. (See my recent article on the Georgia election on this site as an attempt to practice that kind of position https://imhojournal.org/articles/dont-forget-the-political-earthquake-in-georgia/ )

    Third, you seem to see a certain realism and rationality in Maoist politics in terms of China’s own policies and actions during his lifetime vs Maoism outside China. I agree with you, if one is comparing China with really extreme cases like Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the Sendero Luminoso in Peru. But as Lovell shows, Mao was even more voluntarist than the Indonesian PKI, which was hardly a fringe movement, and which he pushed to disaster. You would surely agree that sinking all those resources into propping up the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia was not very rational, especially given the fact, as Lovell demonstrates, that Mao expressed the wish he could have taken things that far inside China itself. Nor were the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution examples of realism and rationality.

    Fourth, I do not agree that Maoism disappeared after the mid-1970s, even though explicitly Maoist parties have declined in importance. Many elements of it survive today, in formations like insurrectionist anarchism or post-structuralist academia, or even — I’m told — a wing of the DSA. The continuing influence of Maoism is of course debatable, but for me, it is why I decided to write the review. Moreover, as I put it in the first lines of the review, “As against nearly a century of debates over Stalinism, the international left has never come to terms with Maoism, especially its global impact.” And I’m sure you’ll agree that the left needs to know its own history and to learn from it, even if you disagree that Maoism was as important as I argued in my article.

    Once again, I appreciate and learned from all the comments, especially the one by Pierre Beaudet.

  5. Liana

    thanks for info