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Explainer: what is Mao’s Little Red Book and why is everyone talking about it?

In an extraordinary scene on November 25, a member of the British parliament pulled a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong from his pocket, read a line from it and tossed it in the general direction of the government benches.

The momentary appearance of what is more commonly known as The Little Red Book has whipped up a frenzy in the UK. The ministers on the receiving end of the joke were momentarily dumbstruck. Here was a democratically elected politician reciting the words of a notorious communist dictator. And it wasn’t entirely clear why.

The logic of the point being made is difficult to discern. So, perhaps it would be wise to follow the lead of the Speaker of the House of Commons who, upon witnessing the scene, bellowed: “Order! I want to hear about the contents of the book!”

Tomes and intolerance

The original 1964 production of the Little Red Book was itself a type of political theatre. It was also intimately linked to the behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring that would ultimately be unleashed in China’s Cultural Revolution. In the end, it would become the symbol of this ten-year period of chaos.

Essential reading in 1960s China. Robert Huffstutter, CC BY

The book was the brainchild of Lin Biao, a decorated general, leader of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and, after 1970, Mao’s heir apparent (Mao’s Number Twos never lasted particularly long; after about a year, Lin was killed in a mysterious plane crash that followed a probable coup attempt).

The purpose of the book was to distill the voluminous products of Mao’s mind and pen into a small volume that even a semi-literate peasant or new soldier could read, memorise, or set to music. The aphorisms therein were plucked out of context and strung together without much regard for chronology: if it was Mao’s thought, it must be coherent, went the editorial idea.

The book was used during the Cultural Revolution not simply to streamline ideology and ideological uniformity, but as a weapon to be used against perceived “class enemies” or “counter-revolutionaries.”

Red Guard factions (usually groups of middle school or university students) would use the book to accuse their own teachers, entrenched Chinese Communist Party bureaucrats at all levels, and, increasingly, each other, of betraying Maoist values.

China’s radicalised youth were centring their ideological energies on Mao himself, and the selection of his word.

From reading list to hit list. Mark Hammond, CC BY

Some of the selected quotations in the Little Red Book were from the 1950s and the period of socialist construction, but others dated back to the 1930s and the period of anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle. It was this, the inheritance of protracted warfare and the weak overcoming the strong, that made the book so potent for anti-colonial audiences worldwide. It became popular reading in left-wing circles in the UK and France in the 1960s and beyond.

How do you read it?

Part of the problem with the Little Red Book is that nothing in it is contextualised particularly well – which makes using it for quotations a dicey business.

The incident involving John McDonnell – the man who saw fit to read from a copy in parliament – is a case in point. His choice of aphorism (the conclusion of On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship) does not actually mean what he seemed to think it means. His point was lost and his joke fell dreadfully flat.

The quote in question was:

We must learn to do economic work from all who know how. No matter who they are, we must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously. But we must not pretend to know what we do not know.

This originates from a June 1949 speech by Mao Zedong, which occurred at a moment when the Chinese Communist Party was making the transition from party in eternal rebellion and opposition into party of government. Massive responsibilities were falling on the shoulders of cadre who had more experience in rural areas than in the delicate work of navigating complex urban bureaucracies and foreign trade.

Part of Mao’s response to these challenges was an increasing reliance on Soviet aid and advice – “leaning to one side”, as he called it – in the Cold War. The recommendation about learning from others is a bit of political cover for the influx of Soviet advisers and pro-Stalinist propaganda that was to come.

A surprise appearance in the House of Commons.

McDonnell appeared to be using the quote to accuse the government of being ideological and unpatriotic for trying to strike financial deals with China to build British infrastructure. As such, it seemed an odd piece of advice to offer the government.

Few modern-day politicians are likely to find much purchase among their electorates by reading from the Little Red Book in a national parliament, or indeed anywhere else in public. If any more are foolhardy enough to try, they ought to, in Mao’s words, “put more stock in what they say”.

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