A decade after the events in Paris, Régis Debray passed a withering verdict on the Maoism that had colored much of France’s far left in May ’68. In his mockingly titled “Modest Contribution to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary,” Debray derided the ’68er radicals who had looked to Chairman Mao for an anti-bureaucratic, emancipatory socialism. “The Great Helmsman” was certainly an unusual guide for these militants’ rebellion against French conservatism.
The “pro-Chinese” ’68ers had torn down the old France and the old left, only for many to arrive at liberalism. For Debray, this contorted route to capitalist modernity resembled a past voyager whose maps to India had taken him to the Americas: these modern Columbuses thought “they were discovering China in Paris, when in fact they were landing in California. Their sails were filled by the West wind, but they were steering by the Little Red Book which said the opposite.”
During the movements of 1968 that book of Mao Zedong quotations had indeed enjoyed a curious prominence in the Western far left, and in anti-imperialist and resistance movements more generally. With over a billion copies printed, its 427 quotations and aphorisms were both a political compass for a fresh layer of militants and, in their sheer ubiquity, a symbolic point of reference that seemed to harbor a new world.
Published in 2014 upon the fiftieth anniversary of its first printing, Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History (edited by Alexander C. Cook) examines this text’s extraordinary success in a variety of national contexts. Taking in not just Western leftist radicalism but anticolonial struggles, the Eastern Bloc countries, and its uses in the People’s Republic of China, its chapters are a fascinating insight into the ’68 period and the imaginary in which Mao Zedong Thought took root.
This is perhaps most starkly illustrated in Julian Bourg’s chapter on the French influence of the Little Red Book. The prestige that the French Communist Party (PCF) had built during the World War II Resistance had already by the 1960s begun to ebb, especially for those who supported the Algerian Revolution. Mao’s China, which began to part ways with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, became an alternative reference point for those who accused the PCF of conservatism.
The Little Red Book, first appearing in France in 1966, appealed to a hard, orthodox Leninist sensibility, but also the so-called “anti-hierarchical” (later, “spontaneist”) Maoism of the Proletarian Left. The students around Louis Althusser were key to the formation of this latter brand of French Maoism, and despite their lack of prominence in the May events themselves, after 1968 they formed one of the dominant trends of the new dissident left.
This sensibility, present across several organizations, was an intellectual phenomenon but also concentrated on organizing groups such as rural laborers, immigrants, and prisoners, relatively marginal to the PCF’s own conception of the working class or French people. The Little Red Book’s veneration of youth, renewal, and “study” appealed to the young militants at the heart of this tendency, immortalized in Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise.
While Godard’s description of his subjects as “Robinsons whose Friday is Marxism” suggests an image of wayward travelers, Bourg points to a more theorized use of Mao’s work. Key was Althusser’s wider use of Mao’s dialectics to attack stale Communist orthodoxy. It is, however, difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Little Red Book is itself deeply schematic, not least in its pretension to summarize and replace the insights of all previous Marxism.
For all the Maoists’ deprecation of Soviet monolithism, the book is strikingly jarring. We might even say that in the West the quotations’ evident cultural alienness was part of their luster, the embrace of a new language from a new world. Its elision of nation and class, and its efforts to counterpose “faith in the people” and the “revisionists” and “running dogs,” created a simplistic system of binaries to be applied to political struggle around the world.
It vigorously denounced Soviet dogmatism in the name of Mao’s own. Elizabeth McGuire describes a 1967 incident in Lenin’s mausoleum where Chinese tourists holding up copies of the Book began to sing the quotations, to the bemusement of Soviet onlookers, before allegedly sparking a brawl. This was followed by physical clashes at the Soviet embassy in Beijing and the Chinese embassy in East Germany, where the work was similarly suppressed.
During the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, carrying the book and being able to quote from it was a challenge to Soviet orthodoxy. Yet it was also an object of factional conflict within China itself. With the death of its orchestrator Lin Biao in 1971 and Mao himself in 1976, it fell into discredit.
By the end of the 1970s, the Little Red Book had been pulled off the bookshelves in the People’s Republic, condemned as a distortion of Mao Zedong Thought. With the retreat of the student movements that had flourished in 1968, and indeed Mao’s reconciliation with Richard Nixon, its appeal had also faded in the West. This, and then China’s market turn in 1978, was a psychological trauma for those who had invested their hopes in an anti-systemic power.
Mao’s Three Worlds Theory identified the Soviet Union as a “social-imperialist” great power standing alongside the United States as a barrier to the global revolution. The USSR’s “state capitalism” after Stalin’s death was identified with its conservative acceptance of peaceful coexistence with the West, with Moscow hesitant or outright unwilling to support the anticolonial movements of the 1960s.
While the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties allied to it had made great headway after World War II, following Stalin’s death its advance was less notable. Nikita Khrushchev’s recognition of his predecessor’s crimes, then suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, had undermined the unity and idealism of the Communist movement, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 further made clear that new centers of revolutionary prestige were on the rise.
In the Maoist imaginary, China stood in the vanguard of the Third World revolt against the postwar global order. This was an element of Maoism’s appeal among the European and US far left, and in particular those who looked to Algeria and Vietnam as evidence of the possibility of overthrowing established Cold War dividing lines. For Lin Biao, the Little Red Book was an “atomic bomb” able to blow apart the old world.
Such a description reflected both Chinese pride, as it sought to catch up technologically with the more established powers, and what might kindly be called a slightly unhinged idea of catastrophe producing redemption. Nonetheless, Lin’s comment aptly indicated the charge of the Maoist-inspired anticolonial politics of the ’68 period, ranging from anti-imperialist guerrillas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to even the heart of empire.
Indeed, in the United States, the Little Red Book was widely read in Black Power and anti-imperialist circles. Huey Newton was well-versed in Mao’s previous work and, with Bobby Seale, promoted the sale of the book as a means of financing the Black Panther Party. Its message of “serving the people” was of course reflected in the Panthers’ own community activism, and together with the likes of Frantz Fanon it served as a counterpoint to a Eurocentric socialist canon.
Bill Mullen sharply illustrates its role in the Panthers’ vision: both a “blueprint” from afar and a work whose simple truths allowed it to be used as a “blank check.” A Detroit militant like Grace Lee Boggs was critical of West Coast Black Panthers’ superficial transplanting of Mao into the US context. Yet she paired this with a classically Maoist focus on the primacy of study, integrating Mao Zedong Thought, Lenin, and Amílcar Cabral into a new anti-imperialist politics.
For Mullen, the Little Red Book was both “a symbol for an oversized and itinerant dream — a successful Chinese-style revolution in America” and “a prism onto that dream’s irreconcilability with US capitalist imperialism.” Yet with the decline of the ’68 left and indeed China’s own capitalist turn, Maoism left its mark in a contorted, cultural form, especially through the application of Maoist “self-criticism” and “consciousness-raising” in campus radicalism.
Today the Panthers’ slogans are lauded by kitsch art exhibitions, but the force of their message has been dulled by the manufacturers of posters and T-shirts. This is of course part of a more general mainstream recuperation of ’68: the countercultural revolt that ended up being venerated as nothing but cool.
While any characterization of ’68 must explore the silencing of the sharper politicization that shaped this period, Quinn Slobodian’s chapter can be thanked for pointing out a contradiction that was already present within the late 1960s uses of the Little Red Book. He uses the notion of the book-as-“badge” to suggest that for many, the Mao volume was more like a fashion accessory than a text to be understood.
This is best encapsulated in a 1968 anecdote in which Freiburg police attempted to impose a book-sales permit, in response to which German student demonstrators offered the Little Red Book for free together with a tomato costing two marks. Just like the tomato, the book was ammunition — to be thrown.
In this sense the Little Red Book occupied an unusual position between being a serious article of faith and an ironic “provocation.” Its uses were as varied as they were widespread, a single ubiquitous book onto which militants projected all manner of beliefs. As old orthodoxies crumbled, the book with the force of an “atomic bomb” united a transcontinental revolt. Yet, ultimately, Mao’s quotations provided no easy map to a new world.