The West’s Maoist Moment

Lessons in How to Destroy an Inconvenient Past

8th July 2020
David Martin Jones & M.L.R. Smith

Statues torn down. Buildings renamed. Television shows and films erased from online collections. Books taken out of libraries. Authors denounced. Scholars and broadcasters sacked. School and university curriculums rewritten.

A censorious impulse to remove or ‘cancel’ any person, object or thought that does not conform to the ideological purity demanded by woke activists has escalated over recent months. Now, triggered by Black Lives Matter protests, a wholesale cultural revolution is underway.

Here, David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith explore the influence of Maoism on today’s protesters. They argue we are in the throes of a cultural revolution which will lead, inevitably, to mayhem and destruction.


‘Cantonese boy
Bang your tin drum
Cantonese boy
Red army calls you home’.

Cantonese Boy by Japan (David Sylvian) (Virgin Music, 1981).


In February 2017, the then Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the very reverend David Hoyle, announced his ‘openness’ to removing the Cathedral’s largest stained glass window because of its links to the prominent seventeenth century Bristol philanthropist, slave trader and deputy governor of the Royal African Company, Edward Colston. In the wake of the violent demonstrations in June 2020 against racism and the toppling of statues like Colston’s, the Dean is doubtless even more open to removing his former Cathedral’s window. 

The demonstrations by Black Lives Matter (BLM), in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the Democrat run city of Minneapolis in the United States, supercharged the campaign against the Colston legacy. 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.

Racism, racism everywhere

The BLM movement, which is a loose and decentralised collection of chapters and affiliates, sees institutional racism everywhere: in the structure of schools, universities, the media, business and across the public and private sectors of the capitalist system. In the United Kingdom it considers Winston Churchill a racist, demands that Oriel College, Oxford demolish its statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and favours the removal of the statue of Thomas Guy from the hospital he founded in London in 1720 with profits he made from investments in the South Sea Company, a company that also engaged in the slave trade. Across the Atlantic, BLM subjects institutions and public statues to similar exhortations and assaults. The prevailing ethical orthodoxy holds that ‘opposition to slavery is dead simple. Slavery is wicked and evil’. 

BLM ideology considers racism systemic and institutional. In one sense they are correct, but not for the reasons that they assume. Slavery is systemically embedded in the deep structure of world history, etched into the human experience since the dawn of civilisation. Slavery, moreover, has not always appeared wicked or 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 and political development. Slave labour is still prevalent today. In China, its laogai (prison camps) enables Chinese enterprises to undercut the prices of its economic competitors, a facet of modernity that the designer clothes wearing, mobile phone carrying members of the BLM and Antifa crowds somewhat conveniently manage to overlook. As some historians still appreciate, conquest, slavery and oppression mark the troubled origins of most empires in the non-western as well as the western world. 

All human societies, Hannah Arendt wrote, begin in violence. Foundation myths acknowledge the fact: Cain slew Abel and Romulus killed Remus. These myths tell us that ‘whatever political organization men have achieved has its origin in crime’. Recognising the fact that the establishment of the modern state order involved war and conquest should be central to any thoughtful, political self-awareness. The anachronistic imposition of a modern sensibility on the past and an impulse to remove its heritage from the present disables the very notion of informed historical inquiry.

Iconoclasm and anti-racism

The passionate fervour that informs BLM’s anti-racist rhetoric is deliberately iconoclastic. Iconoclasm is a religious impulse that symbolically rejects and destroys cherished beliefs and images. Indeed, it was the iconoclasm and religious fanaticism that characterised the seventeenth century English puritan movement that occasioned the installation of Edward Colston’s stained glass window in Bristol Cathedral. The opportunity arose precisely because the millenarian enthusiasts of the English Civil War (1642-49) had smashed the original medieval window.

In its later twentieth century European evolution, iconoclasm assumed an ideological and racist idiom, rather than a religious one. The Nazi conquest of Poland required the systematic destruction of historic sites associated with a racially inferior Jewish and Slavic culture. And in the twenty-first century, it played a seminal role in Islamic State’s explicit policy outlined in its operating manual The Management of Savagery (2004) (by Abu Bakr Naji) in Syria and Iraq. In its pursuit of an Islamist utopia, Islamic State rejected any idolatrous (shirk) reverence for the past, particularly relics of the pre-Islamic era of jahiliyya (state of ignorance). Islamic State revealed what this entailed after it captured the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, in March 2015. The very fact that the site featured on a list of United Nations approved World Heritage sites served as the incentive to destroy the artefacts of the pre-Islamic Greco-Roman inspired Palmyrene era. 

Paradoxically, the international community denounced as barbarism the Islamic State’s cultural destruction in Palmyra, when it was a city, like almost all others of the period, built by slave labour. Islamic State, of course, is more violent than the BLM movement, but the strategy of destroying the past to build a purified tomorrow differs only in its utopian goal. Editing the past to meet the standards upheld either by Islamic State, the Third Reich or contemporary campus radicals represents an ideological attempt to kill history, and BLM is no different. 

Waging cultural warfare

Ultimately, the recent penchant for image-breaking arising from BLM inspired protests, reflects the neglected impact of Maoism on both western new left and Islamist ideology from the late 1960s. Commentators have sometimes referenced the similarities between the statue protests in the West and the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Few, however, have dissected the direct and indirect intellectual connections between Mao Zedong’s thinking and radical contemporary movements in Europe and North America. 

The neglected genealogy of the Cultural Revolution that the BLM movement, as well as the universities’ eagerness to ‘decolonise’ their curriculum, reflects, clearly needs recalling. Culture war, after all, represents one of the People’s Republic’s earliest exports to the West. 

Islamic State’s The Management of Savagery, acknowledged the importance of Maoism, in a suitably Islamist guise, to its version of permanent revolution. Its advice on cultural warfare also informed the precursors of the Black Lives Matter movement, the student counter-cultural revolutionaries of 1968 who followed Mao’s Little Red Book (1964) in their denunciation of the ‘sugar coated bullets’ of the bourgeoisie and the paper tiger of US imperialism.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic failure of Mao’s programme of forced industrialisation, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ between 1958 and 1962 that ended in mass starvation, Mao sought to silence criticism through the institution of a ‘great cultural revolution’ (wen hua da geming). Launched in the spring of 1966 to revitalise the socialist spirit and refashion the state structure, the Cultural Revolution required a ‘profound’ reconstitution of society that would touch the ‘people to their very souls’. In the course of the new revolutionary struggle the masses would spiritually transform themselves and remould their objective social world. 

Like its 1960s western counter-cultural imitators, and its more recent evocation in the BLM movement, it was university and middle school students who first responded to the Maoist call to rebel against established authority. The chaos that subsequently engulfed China began at Beijing University, China’s Oxbridge, in May 1966 when a junior philosophy lecturer, Nie Yuanzi, displayed a big character poster on the campus denouncing the university president and calling ‘for all revolutionary intellectuals’ to go into battle.

Encouraged by a June 1966 party decree postponing university entrance exams, student activists mounted political and eventually physical attacks on their ‘reactionary’ teachers and the courses they taught. Rallying under slogans like ‘it is justified to rebel’ and ‘destruction before construction’ these fanatics marched through cities and towns across the country following the Maoist injunction to destroy ‘ghosts and monsters’. Maoist inspired student ‘Red Guard’ groups targeted ‘the four olds’ – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits – that had corrupted the masses. 

During the summer and autumn of 1966 millions of Red Guards waving copies of the Chairman’s Little Red Book, ascribed with semi-magical power, campaigned to destroy all symbols of the feudal past and bourgeois influences in the present. Museums and homes were ransacked and old books and works of art destroyed. The students trashed everything from ancient Confucian texts to modern recordings of Beethoven. They gave new revolutionary names to street signs and buildings. 

The revolution quickly moved from destroying culture to destroying people. The Red Guards arrested and paraded ‘bad elements’ through the streets. Forced to wear dunces’ caps, these ‘cow demons’ were often physically as well as psychologically abused at ‘struggle’ sessions before they confessed their thought crimes at public rallies. Red Guards turned on anyone who had received a western education and on any intellectual who could be charged with ‘feudal’ or ‘reactionary’ thought. 

Academics and teachers bore the brunt of the violence. The lucky ones got away with self-criticism and a humiliating process of self-rectification. Those less fortunate, like the Chinese playwright, Lao She, died at the hands of the mob, after their houses were pillaged and their books burned.

In The Search for Modern China (1990), Jonathan Spence wrote that embedded within this frenzied activism was a political agenda of ‘purist egalitarianism’. It involved much more than the confiscation of private property. It required the total transformation of the self to achieve mass revolutionary consciousness. The resulting anarchy was only resolved, ultimately, with the death of Mao and his replacement by the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping.

Killing history: Mao and Cultural Revolution in the West

Mao’s cultural revolution, however, went down well with the increasingly radical student movements that swept western university campuses in 1968 protesting against Americas imperialist war in Vietnam. Mimicking their Maoist contemporaries the students also denounced ‘reactionary’ lecturers and organised campus sit-ins to raise consciousness. Mao’s Little Red Book and a poster of Che Guevara became essential radical artefacts. Some took it beyond a fashion statement. Mao’s thinking informed the urban guerrilla tactics of the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader Meinhof gang in West Germany, and the Angry Brigade in Britain. 

Contemporaneously, in the US, the Black Panthers Party called for Black Power ‘offing the pig’ and solidarity against ‘the [white] man’. They received encouragement from a new generation of Mao-inspired academic enthusiasts like Angela Davis, protégé of Frankfurt school critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, whose unopened copy of One Dimensional Man (1964) could also be found on any self-respecting radical student’s bookshelf. One of the Panthers’ early leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, considered Mao ‘a bad ass motherfucker’. The Afro hairstyle, the clenched fist salute and the cult of violence that Panthers like Huey Newton, H. Rap Brown, and Bobby Seale embraced, also made them radically chic adornments at celebrity Upper West Side parties held by the likes of Leonard Bernstein in Tom Wolfe’s memorable satire.

In their own time, unlike the current BLM movement, the counter-culture protests had minimal impact on the West’s domestic politics. The urban guerrillas were hunted down ruthlessly by western democratic governments, whether conservative or social democrat. Members of the Black Panthers, Red Brigades and Red Army Faction ended up in gaol or dead. Yet the memory lingered on, especially in the universities. Mao’s cultural, as opposed to an economic, approach to revolution influenced the anti-capitalist endeavours of Frankfurt school critical theory and fuelled a generation of French thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard who treated all knowledge as power and found in Maoism the means to deconstruct prevailing power relations and allow the repressed ‘subaltern’ voice to speak. 

The French connection

Deconstructing the epistemic foundations of western civilisation, the genealogical precursor to its ‘decolonisation’, reflected radical French academic interest in Mao’s philosophy, first outlined in his tracts On Contradiction and On Practice (1937) as ‘a new and novel social and political force in the second half of the twentieth century’. Mao had revealed the ‘almost invisible kernel’ in Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, Philippe Sollers wrote, and developed its implications ‘in an entirely original manner’.

The influential radical French philosophical and political journal Tel Quel (As Is) broke with French Communist orthodoxy, which extolled participation in electoral politics, embracing, instead, Maoist ideas of cultural struggle and permanent revolution in 1971. Under the editorial guidance of Sollers, Tel Quel disseminated Maoist thought across Europe. The journal featured the early writings of radical feminists like Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, the semiologist Roland Barthes, and the philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

The Tel Quel group visited China in 1974 and published a special edition celebrating the transformative effects of the Cultural Revolution. According to Sollers, the Chinese revolution had successfully combined ‘a living millenarian culture with a revolutionary theory and practice that is rightly passionate’. Julia Kristeva, meanwhile, discovered that Chinese women in their anti-Confucius and Four Olds campaigns had achieved a passionate liberation that far surpassed anything in western feminism.

Deconstructing the West

Under French influence, after 1968, revolutionary élan moved decisively from the control of the means of production, to culture and identity. By the 1980s, given the total economic failure of Soviet and Chinese communism, the Maoist inspired deconstructive turn in thought became a form of radical intellectual self-defence, but it also fitted with a more traditional Marxist imperative to undermine any vestigial admiration for western civilisation. 

The deconstruction of western culture, a distinctive feature of humanities and social science scholarship at the end of the Cold War, progressively relativised core democratic political understandings, exposing constitutional freedom and the rule of law as modes of control: a tolerant façade concealing a brutal genealogy of western power. During the post-Cold War period this essentially post-historical critical understanding became the default position for the academic understanding of western civilisation. 

The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis after 2008, identity politics and the rise of so-called populism provided the cultural theorising practiced on university campuses and informing the mainstream media with material for further cultural struggle. Coronavirus, and the frustrating economic and social lockdown that ensued, created an environment ripe for riot and rebellion. George Floyd’s killing provided the spark for the latest Maoist style protest and its bonfire of western icons.

Mao’s influence is evident in the BLM’s UK manifesto guided as it is ‘by a commitment to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy and the state structures that disproportionately harm black people’. In On Contradiction, Mao wrote ‘contradiction and struggle are universal and absolute, but the methods for solving contradictions, that is the forms of struggle, differ according to the differences in the nature of the contradictions’. The revolutionary must use ‘the contradictory aspects in every process’. 

According to this formula ‘the revolutionary’ adjusts practice to contingent social conditions. This might require attacking capitalism at the level of its cultural rather than its economic or material foundations. The formula proved particularly attractive to what philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy termed the Zombie Left, which since 2003 has conducted revolution through culture war whilst dismissing the wealth, tolerance and opportunity afforded by an open democratic market economy. 

Operating within this Maoist framework critical race theory, that animates groups like BLM, presents world history as a dialectical struggle between a systemic white racism upholding the capitalist order and an anti-racism that identifies the black race as the universal victim of oppression. Race conflict replaces class conflict in this political melodrama. 

The leading contemporary exponent of this melodrama in an anti-racist idiom, Ibram X. Kendi, considers the world divided between racists and anti-racists. In How To Be An Antiracist (2019) he explains: ‘One either endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist or racial equality as an antiracist’. Racism is all pervasive. Kendi writes that there are many forms of racism: there is class racism, which conflates blackness with poverty, as well as gender racism, queer racism, and ‘space racism’, where people associate black neighbourhoods, with violence. In the case of education, black students may, on average, achieve lower scores on standardised tests, and drop out of high school at higher rates, but such metrics are themselves institutionally racist, devised to ‘degrade’ and ‘exclude’ black students. 

In an analogous vein, Robin DiAngelo, the white critical discourse theorist and a leading exponent of ‘bias awareness’, asserts that white people exercise ‘collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color’. In White Fragility (2018) she also reduces humanity to two categories: white and other. Since white people exercise ‘institutional power’, only people of colour can speak truth to this power relationship. 

From this Manichaean perspective we must necessarily choose a side. Indifference is not an option. Those failing to identify with BLM whether white or black are by that fact racist. None of these propositions, it should be stated, are based on the rigorous development of arguments based on evidence, let alone subject to any Popperian principle of falsification. 

Creating the land of hatred

The lack of reasoned premises underlying critical race theory partly explains the BLM movement’s predilection for melodramatic posturing and monument sacking. Rage rather than reason fuels the latest outbreak of millennial iconoclasm. Indignation is, as the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre remarked, a predominantly modern emotion and protest its distinctive mode of expression ‘a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility’. The self-assertive shrillness of modern protest conceals behind the ‘masks of morality what are in fact the preferences of arbitrary will and desire’. It is not surprising therefore that ‘the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premise’.

To what end, then, is this shrill ‘will and desire’ directed? If we look at the fanatical image-breaking of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution for guidance, we can say that the goal is historical amnesia and the creation of the perfect super-revolutionary persona, one free of all constraints and inhibition, one that has no duty but to the principles of socialist purity. In order to accomplish this task Mao sought to shape not just the outward behaviour of the people but to control their inner world as well. The prerequisite for this was cultural erasure. Mao wrote approvingly of the personality as a tabula rasa on to which could be inscribed an unadulterated ideological consciousness: ‘A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it’.

And what was the ultimate purpose of the sublime revolutionist? Jung Chang in recounting her family’s experiences of the Cultural Revolution in Wild Swans (1991) best captures the instrumental value of the Red Guards when she wrote: ‘Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China. There was no need. In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred’.

Building visions of the West

This vision, we may presuppose, is what the contemporary western Maoists have in mind in their attempts to erase history: the creation of a society without any shared civic morality, based on discord and hatred. It does not, as Jung Chang observed, require top down imposition or a secret police. It aims at a self-sustaining politics of struggle and inter-societal loathing: all the better for a revolutionary elite to control and govern according to their own interests.

Where will it all end? If the denouement of the Cultural Revolution in China is anything to go by, it leads to mayhem. Despite the viciousness of the Red Guards, they found that, as they spread out across the countryside, the bulk of the people still had a preference for holding onto their old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. The peasantry resisted. Violence and factional struggles produced chaos resulting in the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army to restore order in 1970. 

This is the historical pattern that repeats itself wherever social dislocation and political instability present themselves. From Europe to Latin America, when super-revolutionists introduce violence and disorder into the political equation, it inexorably produces a countervailing reaction. A yearning for security rather than permanent revolution is the default position of most people. Authoritarian crackdowns and military governance are almost always the end result.

Foreshadowing this prospectus, we might contemplate the manner in which universities, the mainstream media and the business sectors have capitulated to the purist assault on capitalism and the ‘sordid’ history of western imperialism. In order to appease the rage, public and private sector PR departments uncritically accept the need to virtue signal their support of a movement that is, in theory, dedicated to their own destruction. Most egregiously, the senior leadership teams and vice-chancelleries of leading Russell group universities unquestioningly accept the need to address their institutional racism and alter their curriculums along BLM approved lines.

Those who resist this latest deconstruction of knowledge will either be silenced, or subject to departmental struggle sessions leading no doubt to bias training and self-rectification. China’s Great Helmsman detested liberalism, its preoccupation with ‘unprincipled peace’, and its desire to appease at all cost. He would, nevertheless, be delighted at the success of the latest generation of cultural revolutionaries in forcing a pusillanimous liberal establishment to take a knee. 

‘We walk backwards, say nothing
Our visions of China

We’re young and strong in this party
We’re building our visions of China’.

– Visions of China by Japan (David Sylvian/Steve Jansen) (Virgin Music, 1981).


David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor at the University of Queensland. He is author of History’s Fool’s: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics (Hurst, 2020), The Image of China in Western Social and Political Thought (Macmillan, 2001) and Political Development in Pacific Asia (Polity, 1999).

M.L.R. Smith is Research Associate in the Office of the Dean of Humanities, University of Pretoria, South Africa and Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London. Amongst his publications he is co-author of Asian Security and the Rise of China (Edward Elgar, 2012) and Year of the Bat: Globalisation, China and the Coronavirus (Civitas, 2020).