Mao’s Little Red Book Goes West

BBC Radio 4

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, David Aaronovitch tells the extraordinary story of how Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book captured the imagination of the West.

A collection of Mao’s quotations, packaged with a red vinyl cover, the book is an iconic piece of design and one of the world’s most widely distributed texts. In Britain, it was a massive hit. David hears from comedian and former Maoist Alexei Sayle who sold the book in Liverpool. Activist and former Labour councillor Linda Bellos admits that, while she carried the Little Red Book as a teenager, she didn’t really read it and was more interested in being trendy.

The Little Red Book was hugely fashionable in late 1960s and 70s Europe. The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard popularised it with his 1967 film La Chinoise, in which five pretty students plot revolutionary actions from their Paris flat before taking part in a bungled assassination attempt.

Bestselling author of Wild Swans, Jung Chang, argues that Little Red Book wavers in the West were completely ignorant when it came to the realities of life during the Cultural Revolution. She explains that in China the book was a weapon in a literal sense, used to beat those who were deemed to be “class enemies”.

Meanwhile, in America, the book found an unlikely audience among the Black Panther Party. Elaine Browne, a former Panther who lead the party in the early 70s, explains that the Panthers saw the Little Red Book as a blueprint for enacting the revolution they were hoping to bring about in the United States.

Presenter: David Aaronovitch
Producer: Max O’Brien
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.