Not so Mao: Mao Zedong and his revolution loomed large even outside China but many of the far-flung Maoist groups that formed in countries like Britain eventually became fantasy outfits, each with its own homegrown Mao playing on the genuine global desire for change that dominated the 1967-77 decade.
With a Maoist sect in London facing slavery allegations — including the imprisonment of a Malaysian woman — an author wants to remind the world that many took up Maoism for the best of reasons.
THE recent revival of British surreal comedy group Monty Python has come with a bizarre reminder from south London that once, long ago, there were a few tiny Maoist groups in Britain who used language that could have been cribbed from the Monty Python film Life Of Brian.
Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73, and his 67-year-old wife, Chanda – arrested on Nov 21 on suspicion of holding three women as slaves in a flat in south London’s Brixton for 30 years – were leaders of a tiny sect of 25 members known as the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, invisible to the left at large. This sect had split from its father organisation, the Communist party of England (Marxist-Leninist), which itself had less than a hundred followers. The Maoists’ antics were rivalled by a number of Trotskyist sects, smaller and larger, whose implosion often involved the mistreatment of women, and the story is by no means over.
The Balakrishnans’ Brixton commune, it is now alleged, kept three women – including a Malaysian woman – as virtual prisoners against their will. But the commune prospered. Membership declined, but property increased. The Balakrishnans pre-empted China’s turn to capitalism – according to some reports they had interests in 13 properties, three more than their total membership at the time.
What was the attraction of Maoism? The figure of Mao and the revolution loomed large, but the outpourings from these groups did not suggest a close reading of On Contradiction or other texts by Mao that might have stimulated the brain cells. Instead, they became fantasy outfits, each with its own homegrown Mao playing on the genuine desire for change that dominated the 1967-77 decade.
As a political current, Maoism was always weak in Britain, confined largely to students from Asia, Africa and Latin America. This was not the case in other parts of Europe. At its peak, German Maoism had more than 10,000 members, and the combined circulation of its press was 100,000. After the great disillusionment – as the Chinese-US alliance of the mid-1970s was termed – many of them privatised, and thousands joined the Greens, Jurgen Trittin becoming a staunch pro-Nato member of Gerhard Schroder’s Cabinet. In France, the Gauche Proletarienne organised workers in car factories, and set up Liberation, its own paper that morphed into a liberal daily. Ex-Maoist intellectuals occupy significant space in French culture, though they are now neoconservatives: Alain Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner, Jean-Claude Milner are a few names that come to mind. The leading leftwing philosopher Alain Badiou never hides his Maoist past.
Scandinavia was awash with Maoism in the 1970s. Sweden had Maoist groups with a combined membership and periphery of several thousand members, but it was in Norway where Maoism became a genuine popular force and hegemonic in the culture. The daily paper Klassekampen still exists, now as an independent daily with a very fine crop of gifted journalists (mainly women) and a growing circulation. Per Petterson, one of Norway’s most popular novelists, describes in a recent book how, when Mao died, 100,000 people in a population of five million marched with torches to a surprised Chinese embassy to offer collective condolences.
All this is a far cry from the cult sect now being excavated in Brixton.
What always struck me even then as slightly odd was that, regardless of the political complexion of a sect, the behavioural patterns of its leaders were not so different. Even those most critical of Stalinist style and methods tended to reproduce the model of a one-party state within their own ranks, with dissent limited to certain periods and an embryonic bureaucracy in charge of a tiny organisation. It was in western Europe, not under Latin American or Asian military dictatorships, that clandestinity and iron discipline were felt to be necessary.
Young Euopean women and men who joined the far-left groups did so for the best of reasons. They wanted to change the world. Many fought against the stifling atmosphere in many groups. Women organised caucuses to monitor male chauvinism inside the groups and challenged patriarchal practices.
Pity that not all the lessons were learned. And it’s easy now to forget that many who fought within and led the women’s and gay liberation movements – in Europe and elsewhere – had received their political education inside the ranks of the combined far left, warts and all.
I can still recall a South American feminist calmly informing a large gathering of revolutionaries in the 1970s that advances were being made against machismo. “Only last year,” she declared, “my husband, who is sitting on the platform, locked me in the house on March 8 so I couldn’t join the International Women’s Day demonstration.” The husband hid his face in shame.
Now the 1970s really does seem like another country. The thunder of money has drowned much that was and is of value. The campaign to demonise trade unions – indeed, any form of non-mainstream political activism or dissent – continues apace, despite the fact that the left has never been weaker. A sign, perhaps, that the votaries of the free market remain fearful of any challenges from below. – Guardian News & Media
> Tariq Ali is an author, journalist and filmmaker as well as an editor of the London-based politics, economy and culture journal, New Left Review.