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How art spread Maoism around the world, from China all the way to Peru

An excerpt from Art, Global Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, edited by Jacopo Galimberti, Noemi de Haro García and Victoria H. F. Scott, explores the contradictions inherent in the global spread of China’s 20th century political doctrine

“Contradiction is present in the process of development of all things; it permeates the process of development of each thing from beginning to end.”

Mao Zedong, ‘On Contradiction’, 1937

Art and images were and continue to be central channels for the transnation­al circulation and reception of Maoism. Though it is rarely acknowledged as such, the so-called Great Chinese Proletari­an Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was one the most extraordinary political upheavals of the 20th century. And similarly, no other post-war statesman has elicited more conflicted emotions than Mao.

Indeed, despite being responsible, by some controversial accounts, for tens of millions of deaths, the man

known as the Great Helmsman

is still widely revered both inside and outside China, and in the 21st century, the contested legacy of this powerful figure has only expanded.

A 1967 poster features an illustration of Mao Zedong above the phrase “Raise High the Great Red Flag of Mao Zedong Thought to Carry Out to the End the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. Photo: Getty Images
A 1967 poster features an illustration of Mao Zedong above the phrase “Raise High the Great Red Flag of Mao Zedong Thought to Carry Out to the End the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. Photo: Getty Images

Marking the 50-year anniversary of the

Cultural Revolution

, in both China and other countries, academic research produced pioneering studies of the Red Guards, the Shanghai People’s Commune, the “little red book” and seminal theoretical disputes (opposing, for instance, Mao to Deng Xiaoping). Some aspects of Maoism are being reasses­sed, partly because they speak to the present moment, such as Maoism’s critique of colonialism and racism.

If the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of anti-colonial struggles, and “an awakening sense of global possibility, of a different future”, this should also be ascribed to Maoism. Thus it comes as no surprise that Fredric Jameson viewed Maoism, rightly or wrongly, as “the richest of all the great new ideologies of the 1960s”, when the idea of “Maoist China” became a productive epistemological device to reimagine the world, to reinterpret its hierarchies and to act to change them.

Maoism preceded the Cultural Revolution, and can be traced to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, or even earlier. It was, however, only with the Sino-Soviet split and China’s experiments with nuclear weapons that it gained real momentum. Mao’s sustained criticism of the peaceful coexistence between the two superpowers, as well as his advocacy of armed struggles in the Third World, broke what many regarded as the theoretical and geopolitical impasse of Marxism.

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