Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Vision of Fire #1: Maoism

i received a surprise in my mailbox last week, a zine entitled Visions of Fire, this first issue being devoted to Maoism. The editor has assembled some pieces both sympathetic and critical of maoism, as well as an introductory editorial situating their own position.

The editor is more critical of Maoism than i am. Not that i am or ever have been a Maoist; democratic centralism strikes me as too open to abuse, and i remain skeptical about the virtues of the Cultural Revolution. But i have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal from Maoists i have known, and more broadly from the evolving body of theoretical work being produced by the Maoist movement internationally.

Although this is not the case in Quebec, my understanding is that elsewhere in white North America most younger Maoists are former anarchists, or at least formerly part of the anarchist scene. The attraction to Maoism is despite, not because of, the checkered history of actual Maoists parties and organizations here. It also probably has much to do with the soft hegemony of a form of soft anarchism, and the weaknesses that flow from both that hegemony and from anarchist ideology itself. As people encounter the limits of this new period of spontaneous upsurge we have entered (from Slutwalk to Idle No More), they will begin to look for revolutionary alternatives. This will be a good thing, but not without its own perils - we can recall that throughout the imperialist countries the rise of "party building" ventures in the 1970s was largely a negative experience, even though it did indicate an attempt to respond to real shortcomings in the broader radical left.

To fully grasp the nature of the phenomenon i think one must start from accepting that Maoism has continued to evolve and branch out in various forms, often nationally distinct, since Mao died in 1976, and in ways that can only really be evaluated on a case by case basis, by looking at the activist work but also at the theoretical production. Those taking a new look at Maoism today are not doing so because of Bob Avakian, events and ideas from the zones of insurgency in places like the Philippines, Nepal, and India playing a much greater role.

Keeping that in mind, while this zine is a step in the right direction, it does remain very much focused on the experiences and concerns of american Maoists. This is unfortunate, but at the same time it is understandable, given that it is a zine put together by a non-Maoist in the united states taking a look at a movement they are not themselves a part of. As such, if you're curious about what this Maoism thing is, this collection can serve as an introduction to some of the practice and accusations surrounding the phenomenon, as it has appeared in the united states. And given that i know of no similar "for and against" primers produced any anyone else, that may be as good as you'll be able to do.

(For a more in-depth and sympathetic look at Maoism as compared to Trotskyism, i would recommend this essay by the interesting MLM Mayhem; i have a few quibbles - esp. with the weird claim that Maoism did not exist prior to the 1980s - but it is well worth the read. Also, though it is not available online, Butch Lee's comments in the pamphlet People's War Women's War? are also relevant in this regard. )

There is no snail mail address for Vision of Fire, however there was an email address and i contacted them and they sent me a PDF of it, which is too large for me to attach for this list, but which i have uploaded to my site so people can download by clicking the image above or right here.

i am also copy/pasting the "about this issue" section and introductory editorial below, for your perusal. What follows is from the zine, not by yours truly.


This journal consists of various articles—mostly, but not exclusively, focused on Maoism—most of which originally appeared elsewhere. I enjoyed reading them so much that I decided to compile them to share with others (most of them are written for reader’s already at least somewhat familiar with their contents). The message of these essays and articles is often contradictory, reflecting my own often contradictory thoughts, feelings, sympathies and allegiances. Themes for future issues, if I choose to make any, might be primitivism, nihilism, punk rock, boxing, and other topics that interest me.

Here’s a brief summary of this issue:

*Doctrine by Stan Goff details the author’s break with Marxism-Leninism, utilizing technology-criticism and ecological thought, as well as feminism and anti-authoritarian ideas, to make his case for a new form of liberation politics.

*Notes Towards A Critique of Maoism by “ultra-leftist” academic Loren Goldner is a scathing, and rather effective, critique of historical Maoism that has infuriated many Maoists on the internet (a list of where to find some of their responses is available following the article).

*Why Mao? is self-identified “race traitor” and veteran US communist Noel Ignatiev’s brief overview of Maoism that originally appeared on his blog at the website of radical Bay Area publisher PM Press. It is far more generous than Goldner’s essay.

*Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution by Robin D.G. Kelley & Betsy Esch is a fascinating—sympathetic but not uncritical—historical overview of Maoism and its influence on black radicalism in the USA and elsewhere.

*The Maoist Cultism of the RCP is Anti-Marxist by Eric Gordon comes from the obscure Communist Voice journal, published by the Communist Voice Organization, a small group consisting of several former Maoists. It is a fairly concise critique of the organization usually associated with Maoism in North America: the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP USA).

*Shining Path by self-described “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect is a sympathetic look at the bloodthirsty “sendero luminoso” organization that has lost its previous strength but continues to survive in Peru’s countryside.

*More Than Half The Sky: The Power of Women in Peru by Feather Crawford Freed is a liberal/human-rights based overview and critique of the Shining Path that explores how they have both empowered, and brutalized, Andean women.

*Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth is prolific leftist writer Michael Parenti’s dissection of Tibetan feudalism that destroys any notion that traditional Tibetan society [before the Chinese communist invasion] was the peaceful, spiritual utopia many Dalai Lama admirers seem to think it was.

*“Heaven and Earth Shake with Tears for Kim Jong-Il”: North Korea as a Religious State by professor Gary Leupp examines the fanatical religious (and non-Marxist) nature of the North Korean state (written before Kim Jong-il’s death).

*The New Face of the Regime: Dynastic Succession in North Korea by historian Bruce Cumings offers some history of the fascinating and bizarre North Korean state, and what we might expect from its new leader Kim Jong-un.

*Suggested Reading and Websites is my own resource compilation for people interested to learn more about Mao and Maoism. It consists of a diverse array of mainly pro-Maoist resources, since anti-Maoist resources are abundantly available. I am not affiliated with any of the people or groups listed and I don’t endorse any of them (and that’s not merely a disclaimer).

*Introduction to the Kasama Project is an eloquent primer on the new Kasama network, consisting of various collectives around the country that also runs


Maoism has been a guilty pleasure of mine for the past decade. From my early teens until my early twenties, I considered myself an anarchist. As an anarchist, I believed that Mao Zedong was a brutal tyrant, and the movements his legacy inspired were at best authoritarian rivals on the left (represented in the US by tedious, sectarian weirdos such as the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA or the [now defunct] Maoist Internationalist Movement), and at worst power-hungry mass murderers (such as the “Shining Path” in Peru, whose brutality claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians, including countless people on the Left and from the poor indigenous population they claimed to be fighting for). Still, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the global Maoist tendency. Aside from the absolutely incredible nature of the Chinese revolution (where the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army led by Mao won the support of millions of people, eventually seizing power in one of the largest and most densely populated countries on the planet, after overcoming absolutely horrific conditions and defeating both the Japanese imperialists and the rightwing Chinese nationalist forces, in order to [arguably] improve the conditions for the majority of the Chinese people), there is a rebellious spirit seemingly inherent to Maoism (represented with slogans such “It’s right to rebel,” and “Dare to struggle, dare to win”)—with a special emphasis on empowering the most downtrodden, marginalized, and exploited groups of people—that I couldn’t help but appreciate.

Unlike anarchism, which has (sadly) ceased to have any mass following anywhere in the world since the defeat of the Spanish revolution, Maoism has inspired and mobilized mass movements consisting of thousands of people worldwide, mainly in poor countries such as the Philippines, Peru, Turkey, India, Nepal, and elsewhere. Why is this so? Why do the seemingly most visionary and liberating revolutionary traditions—such as anarchism, and the various schools of libertarian/left communism—which have a sparkling history mostly untainted by the crimes committed in the name of communism (specifically its Leninist variations), fail to attract the allegiance of any sizable number of people anywhere, and especially not in the poorest countries where people have the least to lose and most to gain from radical change? Why is Maoism—despite being almost universally condemned from both the Left and the Right for the crimes (real or imagined) committed by a supposedly discredited Mao and his followers—a hugely popular doctrine amongst revolutionary leftwing forces in the Third World? What is it about Maoism that appeals to often extremely oppressed women, workers, farmers, and indigenous people in poor countries?

Some would say Maoism’s appeal to the poor and oppressed has little to do with Maoist ideology per se, and more to do with the willingness of Maoists to pick up arms. In this regard, Maoism may appeal to the oppressed for the same reasons that some forms of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism do: mainly militancy; a willingness to fight. According to radical environmentalist author (and non-Maoist) Derrick Jensen, “Adivasis—indigenous peoples in India—are joining the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in droves, not because the Adivasis are Maoist, but because the Maoists are resisting.” Perhaps, at least to some extent, this is true. It seems unlikely that the many poor and exploited followers of Maoism in the Third World would have any interest in the more obscure aspects of Maoist ideology (which largely consists of jargon and dogma), or the twists and turns and up’s and down’s of the Chinese Communist Party and the international communist movement; things like the mysterious death of Lin Biao; the Sino-Soviet split; the power struggle around the “Gang of Four” that ensued after Mao’s death; the Sino-Albanian split, etc. But, there are key, defining aspects of Maoism—as both a breed of Marxist ideology and military doctrine—that make it relevant if not seductive to people interested in revolutionary change, especially the most poor and oppressed in the Third World.

According to J. Sakai, author of Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, “Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels challenged capitalism to class war with their opening words in The Communist Manifesto: ‘A specter is haunting Europe. It is the specter of communism.’ Well, today we could say that a specter is haunting globalization. Surprising to many, it is the specter of Maoism.

“Maoism may seem like an anachronism if you’re sitting in a Starbuck’s accessing your 401(k) account online over here, but in the post-modern world there are many more people living in desperately poor, feudalistic rural societies ruled by landlord capitalist classes who keep their traditional positions with armies of gun-thugs.

“In that situation, Maoism is like an old but reliable weapon. Like a do-it-yourself kit crafted for precisely that situation. That has all the concepts and strategies and tactics even down to the details of organization and the slogans, that a handful of revs can use to build a mass revolutionary power and overthrow the old order. If you were a debt slave child condemned to labor until early death in the plantations of Western Nepal, Mao is like a flash of the freshest thing you ever heard of. ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.’

“That’s why there is a ‘Red belt’ of Maoist guerrilla insurgencies and liberated zones involving millions of people stretching thousands of miles across India and Nepal. We’ve all learned that political weapons like Maoism can unfortunately be used against the oppressed as well as for the oppressed, but the point is to always remember how effective these weapons can be. That’s the reality in this post-modern 21st century.”

Related to this, if one wishes to understand why Mao is still a celebrated, admired, and even revered figure in China and elsewhere—despite many disastrous social, economic, and environmental policies (for more on the latter see Judith Shapiro’s heartbreaking and horrifying book Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China)—one needs only look at China before the communist revolution: streets littered with the bodies of people strung out on opium or dying from starvation or preventable disease; women and girls with bound-feet, many forced into prostitution; people being workedto-death in horrible conditions in foreignowned factories or on plots of land owned by cruel, corrupt landlords; a divided, defeated population degraded and abused by foreign imperialists and their native cronies. You get the picture.

For colonized and oppressed people living in similar conditions today—as well as, perhaps, for the most mistreated people in the wealthy countries (prisoners, immigrants, indigenous people, LGBT people, working-class people of color, and others)—the tactics, strategy, and ideology of Maoism may indeed be an enticing and effective weapon for changing awful conditions that demand to be changed. (I also think it’s worth mentioning that decidedly non-Maoist groups, such as the Anarchist Black Cross Federation or, more recently, the radical environmentalist Deep Green Resistance, have been accused—mostly unfairly—of having Maoist-tendencies. It may be that any group that takes revolutionary struggle seriously will be accused of having Maoist tendencies or sympathies; some people believe things like discipline, organization, and determination are inherently “Maoist.”)

The point here is not to defend Mao—whose image probably will never be, and should never be, rehabilitated. The point is to identify why Mao the man, his ideas, and his legacy continue to inspire revolutionary forces (in some cases—such as the New Peoples Army guerrillas in the Philippines—forces that appear to have the most “progressive” stand on key issues, such as the rights of tribal people, children, women or LGBT people. In other cases—such as the “Shining Path” in Peru—appearing to match the state in their ruthlessness and brutality). It is unhelpful and simplistic to merely dismiss these forces as “statists,” “authoritarians,” “Stalinists,” etc when their ranks largely consist of the poor fighting against foreign imperialists and their own ruling class. And, ideology aside, that part of their struggle is valid.

I’m not an anarchist anymore. I don’t believe anarchism—as a theory or practice—provides adequate tools for understanding the world or changing it. Anarchism cannot answer the question of how to fight a war for liberation—of how to create a revolution, and defend it—without resorting to authoritarian and hierarchical methods; without, in effect, organizing a government to stop the counterrevolution and defend the interests and needs of the population (for more about this, I recommend The Historical Failure of Anarchism: Implications for the Future of the Revolutionary Project by Christopher Day). Stateless societies—whether the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies that survived for thousands of years, or the short-lived revolutionary anarchist collectives that once existed in the Ukraine or Spain—are no match for the predatory state societies that [tragically] wiped them out. This is a classic Marxist argument against anarchism; a valid argument that few anarchists bother to address (merely pointing out the failures of “successful” so-called communist/socialist revolutions does not itself vindicate anarchism). Think, for instance, what would happen if there was a revolution in the United States. There would be thousands, if not millions, of fascists, bigots, religious fanatics, corporate executive, bankers, politicians, etc who would need to be repressed. That is a reality most anarchists refuse to even think about. On a much more basic level, since there’s absolutely no evidence of an impending revolution in North America, I don’t believe anarchists in general have their act together enough to even maintain the small collectives they often fetishize. Anarchists, in my experience—despite [correctly] promoting the virtues of mutual aid, equality, and cooperation—are often completely incapable of getting along with each other for any significant period of time. Most anarchist groups—those that consist of more than one or two individuals—are shortlived. Even the most minuscule anarchist groups have a tendency to split and purge themselves apart before disappearing entirely or drifting into total obscurity (anarchist collectives often resemble the most sectarian and divisive Trotskyist and Maoist groups). I wish this weren’t true but, sadly, it is. (Here I am speaking of the North American anarchist milieu. I imagine this critique applies to the anarchist movement elsewhere too, though I also recognize that in some places the anarchist movement has been more functional and successful.)

That said, while I am not an anarchist (for reasons I have just barely touched on here), I am also not an enemy of anarchists (nor am I a Marxist). Just as I see validity in some of the fundamental arguments against anarchism offered by assorted Marxists, I also see much validity in the anarchist critique of Marxism (specifically its Leninist variations), partybuilding, hi e r a r chi c a l organi z a t ion, centralized power, and statecraft generally. Nation-states tend to behave the way anarchists expect them to (badly), and absolutely treacherous acts have been characteristic of those who seek—and seize—power. Atrocities and bloody power struggles have followed every socialist revolution— whether it’s Russia in 1917; China in 1949; or contemporary Nepal (for more info on the Nepalese situation, I recommend the article The Predictable Rise of a Red Bourgeoisie: The End of a Mythical Nepalese Maoist “Revolution” from libcom.org)—and the “authoritarian” communists mostly fail to provide an adequate explanation for why that is, or how it might be avoided in the future. Dogma—whether anarchist or Marxist—attempts to impose ideology on reality, and finds itself confused and embittered when ideology fails to live up to its promise. And the world is crying for something profoundly different than what authoritarian Marxism or utopian anarchism has been able to deliver.

Here I have explored various questions, but I have provided no answers, or even suggestions. That’s because I have none. But I do believe any type of truly liberating theory & practice of the future will incorporate elements of Marxism, anarchism, feminism, indigenous wisdom, etc and—perhaps most importantly—ecological thought. (Perhaps it is First World privilege that allows me to say this but, I believe the ecological crisis is the most important issue facing humanity today).

Contact the editor at: visionoffire@yahoo.com

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