The Crude Maoist Origins of Today’s Culture Wars

In February 2017, the then Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the Very Reverend David Hoyle, announced he was “prepared to have a conversation” about removing the Cathedral’s largest stained-glass window because of its links to the prominent seventeenth-century philanthropist, slave trader and deputy governor of the Royal African Company, Edward Colston. After violent demonstrations against racism in a number of British cities in June 2020 and the toppling of statues like Colston’s, the Dean’s preparedness seemed prescient. (note: the four windows were replaced in 2023)

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, supercharged, amongst other things, the campaign against the legacy of Edward Colston. The Bristol experience is one instalment in a movement originating in the US but with European connections to remove the stigma of slavery, colonialism and racism by taking down statues, renaming buildings on campuses and in public spaces, and “decolonising” the secondary and tertiary curriculums.

This essay appeared in Quadrant‘s August 2022 edition.
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The BLM movement finds racism everywhere: in the structure of schools, universities, the media and business and across the public and private sectors of the capitalist system.[1] In the United Kingdom, BLM supporters consider Winston Churchill a racist, demand that Oriel College, Oxford, demolish its statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and favour the removal of the statue of Thomas Guy from the hospital he founded in London in 1720 with profits from investments in the South Sea Company, a company that also invested in the slave trade. Across the Atlantic, BLM subjects institutions and public statues to similar assaults.[2]

The prevailing ethical orthodoxy holds, in the words of Reverend Hoyle, that “opposition to slavery is dead simple. Slavery is wicked and evil.”[3] In a sense, Hoyle is correct. Slavery is evil. Nevertheless, slavery was embedded in the deep structure of world history and etched into the human experience since the dawn of civilisation.[4] For that reason, slavery has not always seemed “wicked and evil”. From Babylon, Egypt and Rome to the Conquistadores in South America, the Ottoman empire, Tsarist Russia and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America, slavery was the basis of economic development and social order.[5] As some historians still recognise, conquest and slavery mark the troubled origins of all empires.[6] Slave labour still exists today. China’s laogai (labour reform prison camps) enable Chinese state-linked companies to undercut the prices of their competitors, an aspect of modernity that the designer-clothes-wearing, mobile-phone-carrying BLM protesters tend to overlook.

This notwithstanding, the fervour that informs contemporary anti-racist rhetoric, and that of environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion, and the LGBT+ movements that share its goals and feed off its righteous indignation, represents a calculated, iconoclastic assault on the West’s history and culture.

Iconoclasm, like slavery, is an impulse that has entrenched historic roots. At least since the Book of Exodus, monotheist faiths consistently rejected and destroyed heretical images.[7] Indeed, it was the iconoclasm that drove the seventeenth-century English Puritan movement that occasioned Edward Colston’s donation of the stained-glass window to Bristol Cathedral. His philanthropic opportunity arose because, during the English Civil War (1642 to 1649), millenarian religious enthusiasts had smashed the original medieval window.

In its twentieth-century metamorphosis, iconoclasm assumed an ideological and racist idiom, as well as a religious one. The Nazi conquest of Poland required the systematic destruction of historic sites associated with what was considered the racially inferior Jewish and Slavic culture.[8] In the twenty-first century, it played a seminal role in Islamic State’s strategy in Syria and Iraq. In its pursuit of Jannah (paradise), Islamic State (IS) rejected any idolatrous (shirk) reverence for the past, particularly relics of a pre-Islamic jahiliyya (state of ignorance).[9] After IS captured the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in March 2015, it gave vent to its iconoclastic fervour. Slave labour, as with all ancient cities, had built Palmyra. The fact that it featured on a list of United Nations-approved World Heritage sites merely served as an incentive to destroy it. [10]

Islamic State’s addiction to iconoclasm was no doubt more intense than BLM’s, but the strategy of destroying the past to build a purified tomorrow differs only in its utopian goal. Editing the past to suit a purified future kills history. The ideology motivating BLM and its affiliates in movements from transgender reform to Extinction Rebellion require nothing less than historicide.


Maoism, Historicide and Culture War

The totalitarian mind wages war on the past and destroys its icons in the present to build a sanitised tomorrow. The current penchant for image-breaking by BLM, XR and Antifa reflects the neglected influence of Maoist ideology, or more accurately, as we shall see, a distinctive form of “global Maoism”[11] on New Left thinking since the late 1960s.[12]

Commentators have remarked on the similarities between the statue demolitions in the West and the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China.[13] Few, however, have considered the direct and indirect intellectual and cultural interconnections between Mao Zedong’s revolutionary thinking and radical contemporary movements in Europe and North America. Cultural revolution propels the BLM movement, fuels the eagerness of state-funded universities to “decolonise” their curriculums, and animates both woke capitalists and transnational non-government organisations (TNGOs) to promote deindustrialisation to save the planet. It needs revisiting.

Culture war was the People’s Republic’s earliest and most enduring export to the West. In fact, the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the United Front in Cultural Work, has, for decades, considered it a “magic weapon”.[14] How, then, did an obscure twentieth-century revolutionary ideology mutate into a totalitarian idiom that achieved its most spectacular success, not in modern China, but in the West?


Cultural Revolution: a Brief History

In the aftermath of the catastrophic failure of China’s program of forced industrialisation, the “Great Leap Forward” between 1958 and 1962,[15] Mao sought to silence criticism of his capricious leadership style through the distraction of a “great proletarian cultural revolution” (wen hua da geming). Launched in the spring of 1966 to revitalise the revolutionary spirit and refashion the state, the Cultural Revolution required a complete renovation of society that would touch the people “to their very souls”.[16]

Like its 1960s Western counter-cultural imitators, and its more recent evocation in the BLM movement, it was university and secondary school students who first responded to the Maoist call to rebel. The chaos that subsequently engulfed China began at Beijing University in May 1966 when a junior philosophy lecturer, Nie Yuanzi, displayed a big character poster on campus declaring “Ignite the Cultural Revolution!” The poster denounced the university for its “indifference and deadness” and called for “All revolutionary intellectuals … to go into battle”.[17]

Encouraged by a June 1966 CCP decree postponing university entrance exams, student activists mounted attacks on their “reactionary” teachers and the courses they taught. Rallying under slogans like “It is justified to rebel” and “Destruction before construction”, these young activists marched through cities and towns across the country, enforcing Mao’s injunction to destroy “ghosts and monsters”. Mao-inspired student Red Guards targeted “the four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits—that corrupted and undermined the revolutionary project.[18]

During the summer and autumn of 1966 millions of Red Guards armed with copies of the Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, endowed, they believed, with magical power, campaigned to destroy all symbols of the feudal past and bourgeois influences in the present.[19] The students trashed everything from ancient Confucian texts to modern recordings of Beethoven and gave new revolutionary names to street signs and buildings.

The revolution rapidly moved from destroying culture to destroying people. The Red Guards arrested and paraded “bad elements” or those with “black” class backgrounds through the streets. Forced to wear dunces’ caps, these “cow demons”[20] were often physically as well as psychologically abused at ferocious struggle sessions before they confessed their thought crimes at public rallies. Academics and teachers bore the brunt of the violence. The lucky ones got away with self-criticism and a humiliating process of self-rectification.

In The Search for Modern China, the sinologist Jonathan Spence wrote that embedded within this frenzied activism was a political agenda of “purist egalitarianism”.[21] It involved much more than the confiscation of private property. It required the total transformation of the self to achieve mass revolutionary consciousness.


Killing history: Mao and the West’s cultural revolution

Given its disastrous impact on China’s economic and political development between 1949 and 1976, Maoism might have gone the way of other Third World ideologies: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Third Way; the Non-Aligned Movement; South American dependencia; pan-Arabism. Indeed, Frank Dikötter’s seminal study of the Cultural Revolution assumed that the subsequent CCP reaction to the experiment had “buried Maoism”.[22]

Far from it. Out of a curious historical conjunction, chance acting upon choice, China’s cultural revolution coincided with the mix of narcissism and boredom that inspired the student revolutionary psychodrama on Western university campuses of the late 1960s. Occurring in the geopolitical circumstances it did, China’s cultural revolution offered the young, Western, radical mind a new and alluring Asian vision.

Support for proxy regimes under Moscow’s aegis in Eastern Europe, or, in the case of Washington, aid to corrupt South American and South-East Asian dictatorships, had undermined the authority of both superpowers. New Left student movements across the West instinctively sided with the oppressed Third World. Asia in particular offered romantic revolutionary possibilities for an affluent post-war generation addicted, as Christopher Booker noted at the time, to neophilia.[23] The wind from the east carried with it the prospect of an exciting, emancipated future with seductively non-Western characteristics.

The United Front in Cultural Work did all it could to encourage cultural revolution in the West. Chinese embassies in London, Paris and Washington printed and distributed free copies of The Thoughts of Chairman Mao. China promised revolution à la mode. Jean-Luc Godard made films about it. A special cultural revolution issue of the French adult magazine Lui featured a bikini-clad model emerging from a cake sporting an AK 47 and quoting Mao’s observation that “a dinner party is not a revolution”.[24] Dressed in fashionable Mao jackets, students found Mao’s catchy aphorisms appealing to their jaded palates in a way that the abstruse dialectics of European Marxists like György Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno or Louis Althusser never could. Mimicking their Chinese contemporaries, European students denounced their “reactionary” lecturers, organised campus sit-ins to raise consciousness and cancelled speakers considered bourgeois, capitalist or otherwise offensive.[25]

Maoism also provided a new, revolutionary focus for what Michel Foucault and the Mao-inspired Gauche Prolétarienne termed the “micro politics of everyday life”. Gauche Prolétarienne, a product of the French grand écoles, and, in the US, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) explored the political possibilities of protest and rage conducted at the level of the shop floor, the high street and the classroom. Sexuality, migration, minorities, prisons and drugs became new sites for contestation that exposed the contradictions in the “fascist” capitalist order.

The more engaged took their Maoism beyond a fashion statement. Mao’s thinking on guerrilla warfare informed the violent tactics of the Red Brigades and La Lotta Continua in Italy, and the Baader Meinhof gang in West Germany.[26] Meanwhile, in the US, the Black Panthers Party called for Black Power to “off the pig”.[27] The Panthers’ early leader, Eldridge Cleaver, found Mao “the baddest ass mother****er on the planet”.[28]

However, unlike the current wave of protest movements that similarly aim to overthrow capitalism, its repressive institutions and structural racism, the counter-culture protests of the 1960s had a limited impact on the conduct of Western domestic politics. Democratic governments in the US and Europe, whether of a conservative or social democratic hue, considered urban guerrillas with their penchant for violence a terrorist threat. Members of the Black Panthers, Red Brigades and Red Army Factions ended up in jail or dead.

Thus, although Maoism affected the ideological practice of groups like the Black Panthers, the Weathermen and West European revolutionary groups, the revolutionaries failed to overturn the existing political order. They nevertheless spawned an enduring radical preoccupation with discovering oppressed minorities, in a variety of sexual, racial or religious guises, and exposing them as neglected victims of an imperialist Western capitalism.

This legacy and its self-induced rage lingered, especially in the universities. The various strands of European Maoism, especially the more intellectually robust and less murderous French variety, proved particularly appealing not only on European campuses but also to US Ivy League literature and humanities departments. The French Maoist group Gauche Prolétarienne with its links to Sartre, Foucault and the fashionable rive gauche literary journal Tel Quel, edited by the Maoist convert Philippe Sollers, played a crucial role in transforming Maoism into the core ingredient of an evolving late-twentieth-century critical theory.[29]

Privileging culture and the politics of everyday life over economics, Mao’s cultural critique informed the deconstructive assault on Western civilisation. This cultural, as opposed to an economic and structuralist, critique had an obvious elective affinity with the anti-capitalist endeavours of the post-war Frankfurt School of critical theory. It also gave a vicarious revolutionary cachet to a generation of radical French thinkers like Alain Badiou, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, as well as an increasingly decrepit Jean-Paul Sartre. They discovered in China’s cultural revolution a historical “event” that opened the door to deconstructing prevailing Western power relations.

Cultural revolution, it seemed, had opened an epistemic rupture in the order of modernity. Existentialists like Sartre, structuralists like Barthes, Althusser and Badiou and poststructuralists from Foucault, Lyotard and Deleuze to the editors of Tel Quel, who undertook a laudatory trip to revolutionary China in 1974 sponsored by the United Front in Cultural Work, all found Mao’s 1937 essay On Contradictions, combined with his practice of revolution within the revolution, a source of excitingly nihilistic possibilities.

In particular, Mao’s concept of cognition, rather than his thinking on guerrilla warfare, represents his real strategic legacy. Maoism held that the mind could be “washed”, rectified and purified to fashion it for revolutionary ends. This, together with a practical insistence on the materialism of ideas, enabled revolutionary social critics like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Kristeva and Sollers to identify the possibility of a new social being, liberated from the baleful consequences of “monotheistic capitalism”.[30] They promiscuously blended their understanding of Mao’s thought and practice with a modified version of structuralism, to elaborate the doctrine of deconstruction. This held that the will to knowledge and the materialism of ideas constituted the discursive realm of truth and power, which it was the duty of the pure intellectual to expose, refute and demolish.

The influence the Cultural Revolution contingently exercised over French leftist intellectuals and the Tel Quel group proved fateful. From the 1970s French deconstructionism merged with and informed other streams of radical and progressive grand theory. Deconstructive Maoism, adumbrated by Frankfurt School Marxism, communitarianism, second-wave feminism, critical race theory and post-colonial theory, all came together at the millennium in an all-purpose, critical discourse theory.

During the Cold War a number of studies traced the transmission of revolutionary Maoist technique to a global audience.[31] However, they rarely account for the reasons it proved ideologically attractive in a specifically West European and North American intellectual setting. The Maoist “long march through the institutions” (the phrase coined by 1968 student leader Rudi Dutschke) spread through the West’s cultural superstructure like wildfire and manifests itself today in critical race theory, cancel culture, iconoclasm and curriculum decolonisation. How did it evolve and what ideological purpose does it serve today?


Constructing and Deconstructing Western Maoism

Maoism (Mao zhu yi) as an ideological formation originated in Beijing, but was hot-housed in Paris’s grand écoles, migrated to Ivy League schools like Yale and Cornell and thence spread across the West’s leading eleemosynary institutions like an intellectual coronavirus. In the eyes of the New Left, Maoism offered an attractively unstable synthesis of often contradictory ideas that amalgamated theories and practices that may be broadly linked to Mao’s political thinking and practice. As an intellectual style, it took “Mao Zedong’s thinking as a point of departure” and adapted it for Western consumption. This evolution might be termed global Maoism, to distinguish it from the official PRC-approved version of Mao Zedong Thought.[32]

Western activists were drawn to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, not because it bolstered the ideas of liberal enlightenment, but precisely because it vehemently rejected them. Mao and his contemporaries loathed liberal democracy in all its modes and, like the early Frankfurt School thinkers Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, developed their thinking explicitly to contest liberal democracy’s “repressive tolerance”. This anti-liberal stance is evident in Mao’s 1937 tract Combat Liberalism.

This ethos, embedded in Maoist strategic conduct, sought to manipulate liberal precepts and the liberal mind against itself in order to undermine liberal democracy. In other words, Mao’s Western transformation—Maoism—is, in a sense, sui generis. It came, via a process of intellectual osmosis, to inform and influence New Left and progressive political conduct in the West. Maoist ideas and practices now permeate the cultural, economic, and political institutions of the West. It means that an activist does not require direct knowledge of Mao Zedong as a historical figure to think and behave like a Maoist. When considered alongside the intersection of Maoism with other, often derivative, strands of progressive thought since 1945, like the Frankfurt School and French deconstructionism, we can see that Maoism has fashioned a powerful strategic tool to confront and undermine liberal democratic society.

From the 1970s the new Mao-infused Left focused its attention on deconstructing the West’s democratic and economic practices and legacies. In this context, it became impossible to articulate let alone study how the West itself might have had its language of political self-understanding corrupted by ideas of a non-Western provenance.

This disposition reflected the evolving Maoist influence on the study of non-Western culture. Deconstructionism influenced Edward Said, who encountered its fading revolutionary embers in Paris in 1978. It inspired his subsequent unmasking of the Western project of Orientalism.[33] Out of the deconstructive genealogies of Foucault, the movement in anti-psychiatry pioneered by Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari and the radical undermining of language and textuality conducted by Derrida and the Tel Quel group, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak concocted postcolonial discourse theory. Spivak, who translated Derrida for American consumption, asked rhetorically if the “subaltern” could speak. The answer, of course, was “no”.

Said and Spivak considered that deconstructionism, despite its assault on Western liberal self-understanding, had failed to recognise the position of the voiceless, non-Western “other”. Said, Spivak and a host of epigoni in North American, European, British and Australian graduate schools hastened to rectify this lacuna. Subaltern studies and post-colonial theory revealed how West and non-West remained dialectically bound by their shared but unequal imperial legacies. The resolution required a revolution “which reconceives emancipatory theory and performance”—a view Mao would have endorsed.

By the early 1990s, Maoist-infused Orientalism achieved the status of campus orthodoxy. It asserted that only the West had the economic and political capacity to impose itself on the silenced “rest”. Ironically, it was increasingly difficult for scholars to study the impact that doctrines or political practices originating outside the West might have had upon the economic and political conduct of the West itself.

Yet Mao-style consciousness-raising or soft power with Chinese characteristics was early evident in the deconstructive endeavours of Maoist-influenced French thinkers, in second-wave feminism, black militancy and, over time, came to inform the politics of the culture wars, human rights and social justice from the 1980s and particularly after the end of the Cold War.

Moreover, as evidence of the barbarity of Mao’s cultural revolution became increasingly undeniable after the death of Mao, poststructuralism, following Foucault and Derrida, became increasingly invested in human rights as a universal post-national emancipatory discourse. In the course of the 1990s this later manifestation of deconstruction increasingly synchronised with progressive, post-Rawlsian American views on social justice, and Frankfurt School understandings of communicative reason, to instantiate an intellectually fashionable idealist and constructivist view of global justice.

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, this constructivist style came to inform an alter globalisation movement that treated international terrorism, environmental degradation, global inequality and the denial of social justice as deliberate products of a post-Cold War Western capitalist imperium. To contest it required local and global resistance. Consequently, Maoist cultural politics and its post-colonial and critical theory offshoots came to inform the theory and practice of Black Lives Matter, decolonising the curriculum and woke academe generally that assaulted the foundations of the West’s democratic institutions and its civilisation.

At the same time, the United Front in Cultural Work assumed physical shape in the form of the proliferation of Confucius Institutes across Western campuses. Their purpose is to raise awareness of China whilst at the same time dismissing or censoring any inconvenient truths about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong. The CCP’s soft power, elite capture and growing social media presence has enabled the PRC to undermine, with the help of the New Left in the West, the conventional practice of political democracy and advance the understanding of China as “a justly aggrieved nation led by enlightened leaders toward a world historic comeback after a century of Western humiliation”.


How Maoism went woke

Whilst cultural critique networks and institutions may not overtly identify as Maoist, they have, nevertheless, applied notions of culture war that ultimately derive from a Maoist epistemology. Such movements may identify as progressive, social justice activism, but their practice is essentially Maoist.

In particular, Mao’s conception of how the mind might be moulded to raise consciousness for revolutionary ends now permeates the strategic logic of the woke Left. The New Left’s growing indignation at the evident success of the free-market liberal democracy after 1990 fed this latest Maoist-inspired assault on Western civilisation.

From its earliest manifestation in the Gauche Prolétarienne, the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, the radical New Left exhibited an ardent commitment to social justice, equality and a willingness to challenge the existing political order with a view to undermining it. This required the rhetorical manipulation of the passions that rapidly became a hallmark of moral and political discourse. In this context, Mao’s theory of consciousness-raising proved central to targeting and manipulating emotional responses especially, today, via social media.

Yet even in 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre had written that “emotivism” combined with protest and indignation had become hallmarks of public debate in the modern West. It reflected, he argued, the incommensurability of ethico-political claims concerning rights, utility and justice in contemporary liberal progressive discourse. The “mock rationality” of the debate concealed “the will and power at work” in its attempted resolution.[34]

It was easy therefore to understand why in an age increasingly given over to feeling rather than reason, Mao-style rage became a distinctive feature of political conduct and why indignation has become the predominant modern emotion. To protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else. But post-Maoist protest is almost entirely a negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights, which are themselves fictions.

Hence contemporary woke-style indignation and protest demand a rhetoric of passion which serves to conceal behind the masks of morality what are in fact the preferences of arbitrary will and desire. Yet, at the same time, such Maoist rhetoric also offers the possibility of unmasking the unacknowledged motives of arbitrary will and desire which sustain the moral masks of liberal modernity.

This rhetoric of rage has evolved into one of the most powerfully modern of activities. It explains why political arguments are not just interminable, but have become extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics has degenerated into a form of civil war.

Observing the contours of contemporary political protest, the New Left rhetorically instrumentalised indignation to serve its goals. This predilection dates from the Gauche Prolétarienne’s translation of a Maoist understanding of consciousness-raising into a Western context. It reflected their admiration of the fervour of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Rage, as a motivating passion for political action, goes beyond mere catharsis. It functions strategically as a force to be harnessed that stands in direct contrast to liberal understandings of rational conduct. Exploring this dynamic as a feature of modern progressive politics in the West reveals how and why this emotion can be instrumentalised into a strategy of rage. What purpose does such a strategy serve?


The Politics of Rage

Creating social discord possesses strategic utility for its revolutionary practitioners. It facilitates confrontation with a liberal pluralism that is functionally designed to accommodate difference, seek consensus and manage grievance. Paradoxically, political and media influence accrues to those who advance Manichean division, and this is a deliberate revolutionary strategy.

Consequently, Western liberal society, which has since the end of the Second World War become more prosperous and socially equal, has moved ineluctably in the twenty-first century towards diversity, disharmony and division. Based on Mao’s strategy of deepening the permanent tensions amongst the contradictions in democratic society, and the necessity for constant vigilance to preserve ideological purity, it is possible to offer an assessment of current trends in Western political activism and their potential future. The central question Western societies must confront is whether, in the long run, democratic states can constrain Maoist ideology within a liberal political self-understanding.

Western societies and their scholar therapists[35] have ignored or dismissed the extent to which the politics of protest and indignation have served the long-term ends of the CCP’s global strategy, which via the United Front in Cultural Work, has for the better part of a century striven assiduously to confuse, disorientate, infiltrate and divide the West against itself to achieve the “China Dream” of re-creating a Sinicised world order.[36]

The moral bifocalism that characterised Sartre and the French New Left in the 1960s has now become the default position of academic, media and political discourse. It is an enduring testament to the Maoist belief that the contradictions in capitalism could be manipulated and used to expose the weaknesses of liberal pluralism and its self-defeating commitment to tolerate the intolerant. Only in an open society, one that questions the values it promotes, could the issue of empathy with, and tolerance of, radical cultural difference arise.

Maoist strategic conduct in the West allows us to see how the manipulation of this propensity to tolerance can achieve indignation, cultural confusion and political chaos. Above all, it shows that those thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s, and their latter-day academic epigoni, who adapted Mao’s ideas to the West’s permanent political melodrama were the ultimate facilitators of China’s most enduring export: cultural revolution.

The question Western politicians now confront is whether, in an age of geopolitical uncertainty, they possess the internal resilience to reassert what Western democracies have always been, namely, particular societies whose most urgent and primary task is their self-preservation and whose highest task is their self-improvement. The financial crisis after 2008, the response to the Covid pandemic, the shambolic retreat from Afghanistan, and Russia’s irredentist war in Ukraine have utterly changed the liberal rule-governed international order and rendered the Western response more urgent. There is an urgent need to revive the prudent political understanding required to resist the illusory desire for value-neutrality engaging empathetically with the non-Western, illiberal other.

Can Western democracies, in other words, defend the historic principles that allowed open and genuinely pluralistic societies to flourish? The alternative is to continue to indulge the burgeoning intrusion of Maoist practices of purification and rectification in the public realm and, increasingly, in the private sphere as well. Absent the traditional contractual understanding of liberal democracy and accountability, the likelihood of further social breakdown and an appeal to new forms of authority assume a worrying inevitability. This has, of course, been the fate of all those who have had the misfortune to endure cultural revolution.

David Martin Jones is a Visiting Professor in War Studies at King’s College London and a Visiting Professor in International Relations at the University of Technology, Sydney.


[1]. See Black Lives Matter, available at https://blacklivesmatter.com/ (accessed 2 September 2021).

[2]. Claire Selvin and Tessa Solomon, ‘Toppled and removed monuments: A continually updated guide to statues and the Black Lives Matter Protests’, Art News, 11 June 2020, available at https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/monuments-black-lives-matter-guide-1202690845/ (2 September 2021).

[3]. Quoted in Hugh Muir, ‘Bristol Cathedral “would consider” removing slavery-linked Colston window’, The Guardian, 22 February 2017, available at /www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/22/bristol-cathedral-would-consider-removing-slavery-linked-colston-window (accessed 2 September 2021).

[4]. See Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge (eds.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 1: The Ancient and Mediterranean World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Craig Perry, David Eltis, Stanley L. Engerman, David Richardson (eds.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 2: AD 500-AD 1420 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[5]. Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (London: Verson, 1997); Richard Stites, Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[6]. Jeremy Black, A Brief History of Slavery: A New Global History (London: Constable & Robinson, 2011), pp. 246-259.

[7]. Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (trans. Jane Marie Todd) (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011).

[8]. James Noyes, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), pp. 132-136.

[9]. Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Umma Will Pass (trans. William McCants) (Cambridge, MA: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University, 2006), p. 114.

[10]. ‘UNESCO Director-General condemns destruction of the Tetrapylon and severe damage to the Theatre in Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site’, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 20 January 2017, available at en.unesco.org/news/unesco-director-general-condemns-destruction-tetrapylon-and-severe-damage-theatre-palmyra (accessed 2 September 2021).

[11]. Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (London: Vintage, 2019), p. 1.

[12]. See Ed Husain, The Islamist (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 161.

[13]. Xiao Li, ‘America’s cultural revolution is just like Mao’s’, UnHerd, 6 July 2020, available at https://unherd.com/2020/07/americas-cultural-revolution-is-familiar-to-the-chinese/ (accessed 2 September 2021).

[14]. James Kynge, Lucy Hornby, Jamil Anderlini, ‘Inside China’s secret “magic weapon” for worldwide influence’, Financial Times, 26 October 2017, available at https://www.ft.com/content/fb2b3934-b004-11e7-beba-5521c713abf4 (accessed 2 September 2021); Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World (London: Oneworld, 2020), p. 17. See also ‘China’s magic weapon’, BBC iPlayer, 23 August 2021, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000z2yt/chinas-magic-weapon (accessed 2 September 2021).

[15]. Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

[16]. ‘A great revolution that touches the people to their very souls’, Peking Review, Vol. 9, No. 24 (10 June 1966), pp. 8-9

[17]. ‘Ignite the revolution!’ 25 May 1966, Alpha History, available at https://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/ignite-cultural-revolution-1966/ (accessed 2 September 2021).

[18]. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 575.

[19]. Frank Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 36.

[20]. ‘Sweep away all cow demons and snake spirits’, People’s Daily, 1 June 1966.

[21]. Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 607.

[22]. Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution, p. xix.

[23] Christopher Booker The Neophiliacs: A study of the revolution of English life in the fifties and sixties (London: Fontana, 1970). See also Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an era of diminished expectations (London: Abacus, 1980)

[24] ‘La revolution n’est pas un diner de gala’. See Morgan Sportes, Ils ont tué Pierre Overney (Paris, Pluriel, 2017) p.95

[25]. Richard Vinen, The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (London: Allen Lane, 2018).

[26]. See Marco Gabbas, ‘Maoism, Political Violence and Terrorism in Italy’, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 22 October 2020, available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2020.1824911.

[27]. ‘Off the pig’ (Produced by Third World Newsreel, 1968). For the full length version see ‘Off the pigs!’ EpiCenterOfChange, YouTube, 9 March 2012, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTL7QWBu0FA (accessed 3 September 2021).

[28]. According to Bob Avakian: ‘Why there was no revolution in the 60s and why there may be in the 80’s’, Bob Avakian Speech at Cleveland, Revolutionary Worker, Vol. 1, No. 48, 4 April 1980, p. 8.

[29]. See Danielle Marx-Scouras, The Cultural Politics of Tel Quel: Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

[30] The phrase is Kristeva’s used repeatedly in Julia Kristeva About Chinese Women (New York, M Boyars, 1974) p.221

[31]. For a survey see David Martin Jones, The Image of China in Western Social and Political Thought (London: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 145-201.

[32]. Kang Liu, ‘Introduction: Rethinking Critical Theory and Maoism’, Comparative Literature and Culture, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2018), p. 2.

[33]. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

[34]. Alisdair MacIntyre After Virtue A Moral Theory (London, Bloomsbury, 1981) p.71.

[35] See Philip Rieff Fellow Teachers: of Culture and its Second Death (Chicago: Chicago University Press,1985) pp.159-69.

[36] See the November 2021 ‘historic resolution’ of the sixth plenum of the Central Committee of the CCP https://www.dw.com/en/china-historic-resolution-seals-president-xis-grip-on-power/a-59792970

2 thoughts on “The Crude Maoist Origins of Today’s Culture Wars

  • David Isaac says:

    “Western democracies have always been, namely, particular societies whose most urgent and primary task is their self-preservation and whose highest task is their self-improvement. “
    Western societies cannot preserve themselves without containing a supermajority of people who are largely unmixed descendents of White Europeans and recognize themselves as such, free of unwarranted guilt for the ruthlessness and brutality of the past.

  • john mac says:

    The West is done , the hostile institutions too vast to dismember, the youth too brainwashed to see the long term damage they – in their righteous indignation – are creating for themselves, and unfettered immigration is never going to cease with competing tribes , and all the violence ensuing will destroy our former easy lives. Each day a new loss of freedom is foisted on us without our consent.

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