Maoism: A Global History

Julia Lovell writes in her 2019 book:

* After 1949, the book’s [Red Star Over China] message would come full circle. Even though Mao himself never showed any desire to go back to Yan’an, the symbolic birthplace of Maoism, he was so enamoured of his idealised vision – expressed in Red Star – of a cooperative, self-reliant Communist utopia in the north-west run on military lines that he tried to impose it across the whole of the country.80 Having originally been a polycentric phenomenon that was pragmatically adapted to suit each region of China in which it took root, Chinese Communism now became dangerously dogmatic. It was this loss of flexibility – the ‘one size fits all’ approach – that led to many of the tragedies from the 1950s onwards: the Great Leap Forward and its subsequent famine; and Mao’s attempt to resurrect this model in the Cultural Revolution. In designing his international PR, therefore, he also defined himself and his politics. Mao’s revolution ate many of those originally persuaded by Red Star’s Maoism: many of those seduced by the book’s rosy aura of democracy and patriotism would be persecuted and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

And still Mao was not yet done with Snow: after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and before his death in 1972, Snow would be permitted periodic, intensively regulated visits back to China, which in turn generated further influential books (one of which refuted reports of a famine that we now know killed tens of millions).82 These accounts had a disproportionate impact in a context of very limited world there? How were the people there planning and creating a model for a future China? Before Red Star Over China, we didn’t have a … vivid, concrete answer to this … Red Star was a shaft of fierce light, illuminating the way forward for young people struggling in the dark.’ Far beyond the Mao era, it evolved into a self-help manual: in 1989, one young man wrote an essay about how Red Star Over China had helped him through a diagnosis of colon cancer, and to realise his dream of becoming a writer.78

The depiction of strong women in Red Star was a particular inspiration to the second wave of Chinese feminism in the 1930s, encouraging young women to abandon their conventional domestic lives and head north-west. The younger daughter from a patriarchal Shanghai clan told of how she and her sisters – abandoned by feckless menfolk – were passed a copy of the book by a patriotic teacher. ‘I read it over and over; I couldn’t put it down. It told me about the Soviet area in China, where men and women lived equally; it opened new horizons for me … Because Snow was a foreign friend, we trusted that his reporting was the truth. Thanks to this, my and my sisters’ minds broke out of the apolitical prison of feudalism. We became patriots [and] CCP members.’79
After 1949, the book’s message would come full circle. Even though Mao himself never showed any desire to go back to Yan’an, the symbolic birthplace of Maoism, he was so enamoured of his idealised vision – expressed in Red Star – of a cooperative, self-reliant Communist utopia in the north-west run on military lines that he tried to impose it across the whole of the country.80 Having originally been a polycentric phenomenon that was pragmatically adapted to suit each region of China in which it took root, Chinese Communism now became dangerously dogmatic. It was this loss of flexibility – the ‘one size fits all’ approach – that led to many of the tragedies from the 1950s onwards: the Great Leap Forward and its subsequent famine; and Mao’s attempt to resurrect this model in the Cultural Revolution. In designing his international PR, therefore, he also defined himself and his politics. Mao’s revolution ate many of those originally persuaded by Red Star’s Maoism: many of those seduced by the book’s rosy aura of democracy and patriotism would be persecuted and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.81

And still Mao was not yet done with Snow: after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and before his death in 1972, Snow would be permitted periodic, intensively regulated visits back to China, which in turn generated further influential books (one of which refuted reports of a famine that we now know killed tens of millions).82 These accounts had a disproportionate impact in a context of very limited foreign reporting on China, owing to the CCP’s stringent restrictions on access. In 1970, Mao deployed him (ineffectually, as it turned out) as intermediary to Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, while planning the sensational US–China détente of 1972 – a mere handful of years after the two countries had been on the brink of nuclear war. In public at least, Snow was the archetypal ‘friend of China’: a foreigner assiduously courted by the regime in the hope and expectation that, on his return home, he would speak for the merits of Mao’s revolution. On 15 February 1972, Snow died at the age of sixty-six, of pancreatic cancer, in Switzerland – the country in which he had taken refuge after McCarthyism made it impossible for him to earn a living in the US. Mao and Zhou had sent a delegation of doctors and officials – including his old friend Huang Hua – to stay with him, while he slipped into a coma and out of this world.

Given what we now know about the Chinese revolution, Snow and his book should perhaps have been treated more sceptically across the decades – Red Star’s significance as a document of a particular historical moment notwithstanding. Examined from a contemporary perspective, Snow is an awkward, compromised figure, both happy-go-lucky Boys’ Own adventurer and defender of implacable revolutionaries. Often read as a paean to simple, pure idealism, his most famous book was ensnared in murkier motivations: his own need to manufacture a global hit, his left-wing leanings, the ambitions and manipulations of his hosts. Nonetheless, he remains acclaimed by Chinese and Western commentators, as the ‘masterful’ author of ‘probably the greatest book of reporting by an American foreign correspondent in [the twentieth] century’.83

Red Star is a powerful emblem of the international Mao cult: of the translatability of Mao and his ideas, both within, on the periphery of and far beyond China. To those suffering violent occupation by militarily superior foes (Soviet partisans, for example, or Malayan Chinese during the Second World War), it offered a populist military and political strategy, and the inspiring example of a self-made man (Mao). Young European, American and Indian students and subversives of the 1960s fell in love with Mao the rebel – earthy, poetic, statesmanlike. The book and its afterlives exemplify the way that Maoism has always been defined by its global travels.

* In 1951, Edward Hunter, a foreign correspondent and sometime CIA stringer, published Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds.1 The book promised to expose the ‘new and horrifying extremes in … psychological warfare being waged against the free world and against the very concept of freedom’. Hunter claimed that he had discovered an entirely new form of thought control unleashed on the world by the Chinese Communist Party after taking power in 1949. It was anti-American, fiercely coercive and ambitious for a total change in mental state – menticide, as it was sometimes termed; mind murder.2 The Chinese, Hunter declared, had achieved ‘psychological warfare on a scale incalculably more immense than any militarist of the past has ever envisaged’.3 In 1956, he made another bid for royalties with a follow-up tome, Brainwashing: The Story of Men Who Defied It.

Hunter had found his vocation: propagating the idea of a global conspiracy by the Chinese Communists to ‘brainwash’ anyone who fell into their power. Through the 1950s, he would repackage his ideas in books, lectures, articles and testimonies to Congress. By the end of the decade, the US government and intelligence agencies would be devoting billions of dollars and myriads of hours into researching these techniques of mind control and reverse-engineering them for use by the US military-industrial complex.
Outwardly, Hunter enjoyed a successful career in American journalism. But with hindsight his life’s work represents calamitous failure – the ability of rank amateurism and ignorance to sway opinion at the highest levels of Cold War policymaking in a nervy US. Hunter was neither psychiatrist nor psychologist, and he did not speak or read Chinese. His position as journalist-spook raised – to put it mildly – some ethical issues. And yet in only a handful of years, his views on China and its psy-war against the ‘free world’ helped mould perceptions of Chinese Communism under Mao as an irresistibly expansionist doctrine. With the help of government officials, some opportunistic psychiatrists and a suggestible media, Hunter’s ideas about brainwashing became orthodoxy. The United States might possess – for the time being at least – the most advanced military weapons, but Mao’s China had something more menacing: the ability to bend the human mind to its will. And after China’s involvement in two hot conflicts of the early Cold War – the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency – had brought Mao’s revolution into overt and covert conflict with the United States and Britain, these suppositions appeared eminently plausible.

Bemusement, fear, loathing, and at times an alarmed respect – these were the emotions that Communist China generated in 1950s America. For much of the previous decade the US government had poured billions into China’s Nationalist, Guomindang, government. A political and military debacle had resulted.

* By 1956, psychologists given special access to military files on the US POWs in Korea had concluded that brainwashing did not exist, or at least that there was nothing particularly new in the thought reform that American prisoners had undergone: it was just repetitive persuasive coercion, under conditions of extreme physical stress (bitter cold and hunger).

* In the search for ways to understand and counter Communist interrogation, MK-Ultra experimented with truth drugs (mostly LSD, but also a speculative toxin extracted from the gall bladder of the Tanganyikan crocodile), hypnosis, brain concussion, lip-reading, jolting monkey brains with radio waves, and a remote-controlled cat.24 The fear of Chinese brainwashing thus provided a justification for MK-Ultra’s years of peak crazy, during which the CIA – according to two of the sharpest historians of the US brainwashing terror – threw ‘untold excrescences’ of cash at ‘black psychiatry’.25 In the early 1950s, the CIA bought up the world’s supply of LSD, in order to carry out clinical experiments concerning its effects on a variety of human and non-human subjects. It placed stockpiles of the drug in hospitals attached to America’s top universities, and once word got around about the trials, swarms of students volunteered as guinea pigs. Researchers began taking the drug home to give to friends or sell on the black market. The CIA’s open-handedness with the drug also had far more tragic consequences. In late November 1953, Frank Olson – a microbiologist in the CIA – killed himself ten days after his boss secretly spiked his glass of Cointreau with LSD, triggering psychosis and a nervous breakdown.26
None of this would have been possible without the conviction, sunk deep into the intelligence professions, that brainwashing – total mind control – was possible.

The perceived threat of Chinese ‘thought reform’ thus empowered one of the more powerful and anti-democratic institutions of post-war American government and society: counter-intelligence. By the 2010s, the machinery of America’s covert state was costing $75 billion, spread between sixteen intelligence agencies, all devoted to ‘the state of exception’: ‘the paradoxical suspension of democracy as a means of saving democracy’.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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