Charisma and contradiction: Julia Lovell's study of Maoism has relevance not only for history buffs, but also for those interested in understanding Chinese policy in the current age of US-China superpower tension.

Author:Williams, Stephen
Position:Book review



By Julia Lovell

30 [pounds sterling] Bodley Head

ISBN: 9781847922496

There are few, if any, politicians of the later half of the 20th century that have had as much impact on the course of world history as Mao Zedong. And there are few, if any, who are as controversial as the Chinese leader. He adopted the mantle of the world leader of a communist revolution that sought the complete overthrow of capitalist systems, while overseeing famine, atrocity and vast upheaval at home.

Mao's contradictions were startling. Here was a man who saw no irony in famously declared that "women hold up half the sky" while he, in the words of author Julia Lovell "had for years also been indulging his taste for pretty young women, taking advantage of their hero-worship on his vast plank bed ..."

Later, Lovell comments, "Mao's inconsistency towards women speaks of his hypocrisy, his split personality, the chasm between his speech and action or, put more indulgently, his deep-seated capacity for pragmatism."

But it would be a mistake to view this book as simply a criticism of Mao's complex character and radical political ideology. Instead, it is a study of how his contradictions played out on the global stage and influenced actors around the world.

Lovell constructs the book initially in a chronological fashion, beginning with Mao's consolidation of power within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By 1941, Mao was the party's pre-eminent leader, with an international reputation burnished by a landmark book by Edgar Snow, an American journalist selected by the party to profile Mao in a sympathetic manner. Red Star Over China was a huge success and did much to boost Mao's international reputation. Lovell describes it as "portraying Mao and his comrades as idealistic patriots and egalitarian democrats with a sense of humour".

The CCP entered into a pact in 1937 with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces to fight the Japanese. But following Japan's defeat in WWII, China's civil war began again in earnest in 1945. Unexpectedly, the communists swept to power in 1949, driving Chiang Kai-shek's forces from the mainland to occupy Taiwan.

Mao consolidated his power within the CCP and instigated a number of purges inspired by the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. He intervened in the Korean War and establishing the International Liaison Department, lending support to foreign communist parties and left-wing insurgencies around the world.

After laying down the...

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