The Mao Effect

Mao Zedong’s transformative influence on twentieth-century China is an established fact. Less well known, however, is the significant impact that Mao’s thought had upon the lands of the Western hemisphere during the 1960s – a decade in which revolution was in the air and the idea that the Chinese path to modernity, under Mao’s tutelage, was a success story from which the West stood to learn. In this way, a fascinating cultural inversion took place. During the first half of the twentieth century, China’s political leaders – both Republican and Communist – assumed that in order to sever its ties to feudalism and become “modern,” it was necessary for China to imitate the West. During the 1960s, however, the direction of cultural transmission began to reverse itself, as proponents of radical change began to regard post-revolutionary China as a model of political authenticity. Western leftists readily acknowledged the disappointments of Soviet-style, bureaucratic communism. Conversely, with their hopes buoyed by Mao’s launching of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, they wagered that the Chinese road to socialism, which had internalized the lessons of the Soviets’ failure, would succeed.
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Richard Wolin