Mao Zedong still has resonance with overseas groups

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:09am

It was a bizarre episode on the face of it: a London couple were arrested last month on charges of keeping three women as slaves for 30 years.

The accused, police said, turned out to be disciples of Mao Zedong, reviving memories of a time when the leader's revolutionary ideas attracted many followers worldwide.

Police say that the couple, Aravinda and Chanda Balakrishnan, reportedly led a tiny sect that was inspired by Mao's ideas. With at most 25 members at its peak, the Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong had reportedly believed that Mao's army would take over the world by the end of 1977.

And yet a few of them hung on. Theirs was one of the many revolutionary groups created in Britain and other parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s, when events such as the Vietnam war roused a desire in some for radical change and made Mao's ideas, and his call for the power of youth, so heady.

Mao's foreign followers - often part of far-left political movements - have taken great liberty to interpret, and sometimes reinvent, the Chinese leader's ideas.

Depending on their interpretations of Mao's doctrines, they have fostered intellectual movements, planned guerilla attacks, or - as was the case in London - kept alive a radical cult. Since Mao's death in 1976, the leader's cultural legacy maintains a powerful hold over followers in India and Nepal, where he serves as inspiration to fight for better conditions for peasants.

Although none of these movements ever became mainstream, they once attracted Maoist followers in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

Young French protesters, for example, often waved Mao's portraits in the 1960s and 1970s during protests against causes such as workers' exploitation by the bourgeoisie.

"Zaofan youli [it's right to rebel, Mao's catchphrase during the Cultural Revolution] was very appealing to the youth [in Europe] in the 1960s," says Professor Jean Philippe Beja, a senior researcher at the French Centre on Contemporary China, and at one time a Mao admirer. "Many of them could identify with the Red Guards, thinking that the youth were coming to power."

Then, Mao's ideas were a form of Chinese soft power, Beja says, shared around the world in the 1960s and 1970s, which helped to shape the political and cultural landscape long before his successors rolled out money for initiatives such as building Confucius schools around the world.

Starting in the 1960s, young people were unsettled by the Vietnam war, the collapse of several fascist regimes, industrial unrest and disappointment with other established communist regimes - most in Western Europe - that they believed had become too accommodating to capitalism.

"People felt that more genuine revolution was needed. And Mao, for many people, appeared to offer that," says Dennis Tourish, professor of leadership and organisation studies from Royal Holloway at the University of London and author of The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership, a recent book that explores the psychology and negative impacts of charismatic leaderships such as Mao's.

In Europe, Maoism was most visible in Scandinavian countries and Germany. At the peak of its influence, Maoism attracted several thousand adherents in Sweden and more than 10,000 in Germany, says Tariq Ali, a political commentator in London and a leading figure in international leftist circles. Many of these Maoist organisations had a centralised leadership and tightly controlled their members, Tourish says. They tended to split into smaller groups as followers competed to define the purest meaning of Mao's ideas.

These groups began to dwindle in the mid-1970s after China established diplomatic relations with the US, disappointing many followers who saw this as China being allied with the capitalists.

Reports and books revealed the casual cruelty of Mao's political campaigns. It was not an easy adjustment for his followers - some denied accusations against Mao by claiming those were not intentional deeds, and other movements changed their political direction. French intellectuals who once espoused Maoist ideas are still influential, but they're now considered neo-conservatives, Ali says.

"They were 'fair-weather' Maoists. They chose Maoism because it seemed easier and quicker to come to power, and when that came to an end, they switched to capitalism," he says.

Elsewhere, Maoism continues to survive long after Mao's death, and many of these groups were often identified by authorities as rebellious and terrorist. In Peru, a Maoist guerilla group called the Shining Path has fought to topple the government since the 1980s.

In India Maoist groups that continue to fight the government are collectively known as Naxalites for the place in west Bengal where the movement began.

The Maoist insurgency started in the late 1960s and remains active in more than one-third of Indian states. The groups that once attempted to apply Mao's Cultural Revolution ideas to India now focus on land-related issues that hurt the poor, such as fighting mining operations and land grabs.

"These groups believe in starting from the countryside to capture the cities, and they believe in the peasants' commune," says Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at Delhi University, referring to Mao's infamous tactic of starting the nationwide revolution by cultivating support from the countryside and building rural revolutionary bases before moving on to take the cities.

A border away, Maoists in Nepal have wielded their power successfully, ending a 10-year civil war in 2006 and becoming a ruling party in 2008 by gaining majority seats in the country's parliament, the Constituent Assembly.

"I belong to a community where there are all kinds of oppression and discrimination in every respect," says Suresh Ale Magar, a central committee member of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist.

"Maoism provides liberation tools … this is what inspired me."