My copy is 40 years old. I was 21 when I got it in London in 1972. I bought it partly out of curiosity but mainly as a gesture of defiance, like the way I had chosen, on arriving in the city; to go straight to Soho and descend a flight of grimy steps to a strip club, pay my fee, and in the company of half a dozen other men in raincoats watch a bored female take her clothes off in a decidedly unsexy performance. It had done nothing for my libido but, in her defence, it was only 11 o’clock in the morning. I left the club in a more flaccid state than when I had entered, and feeling more than a little disappointed. I had hoped to come out of there morally corrupted and ready to embark on a year of drink and drug crazed orgies that would involve all manner of deviant sexual behaviour. No such luck. I was no different to the wanker who had walked in.
Same thing with Mao’s little red book. It was nothing like the revolutionary call to arms I had expected it to be. In fact, it was just plain boring. I skimmed through it, looking for something to fire me up, something that would inspire me to throw a Molotov cocktail at …at … Well, yes. But instead, all I could find in that long stream of tiresome drivel was stuff about party structure, revolutionary struggle, imperialism, reactionaries and paper tigers. In frustration, I threw the sayings of Chairman Mao into my suitcase and never tried to read it again for four decades.
It did give me a bit of a thrill, though, when I arrived back in ons Suid Afrika in 1973 after my year of unrequited debauchery. Along with publications like “The Communist Manifesto”, “Portnoy’s Complaint”, “Naked Lunch”, “Playboy” and “Penthouse”, Mao lay concealed under a layer of religious pamphlets. When the thug from the Thought Police told me to open my suitcase on a trestle table in the customs shed at Duncan dock, I knew I was living dangerously, man. But when the Dutchman’s eyes fell upon all those images of dear sweet Jesus with little children gathered about him, he immediately lost interest and I was allowed to go. (In those days they were only just learning how to spell paedophilia.)
The years went by, the white supremacists were defeated, and the struggle heroes set me free. I had done nothing to be granted the dubious privileges of apartheid, and I certainly did not deserve to be liberated. However, it takes a fool to look a gift horse in the mouth, and in 1994 I accepted my freedom with unstinting gratitude. Only now, after eighteen years, have I begun to wonder about the trustworthiness of this steed that was thrust upon me. Dark thoughts throng my waking hours, and my nights are interrupted by the thunder of hooves. The mare rears with a deafening whinny and I smell the stench and see the huge teeth, black with rot, and the entire oral cavity is alive with maggots.
It was on such a night, too agitated to stay in bed, that I cast about for something to read. Sandwiched between “Varieties Of Religious Experience” and “Pilgrim’s Progress”, it caught my eye because it was in the wrong section of my library. What the hell was it doing there, I thought, taking it down? I opened it at random, expecting to be confronted by a desiccated slogan caked in dust.
“The comrades must be helped to remain modest, prudent and free from arrogance and rashness in their style of work. The comrades must be helped to preserve the style of plain living and hard struggle.”
The words jumped out at me like a tiger – a real tiger, not some paper imitation. It snarled ferociously, eager to sink its teeth into the fat rump of an ANC politician.
“Well, I’ll be fucked!” I thought to myself. Turning the pages, I found passage after damning passage that shone like a search light in the faces of our self-serving leaders. Every page condemned them.
“Our point of departure is to serve the people whole-heartedly and never for a moment divorce ourselves from the masses, to proceed in all cases from the interests of the people and not from one's self-interest or from the interests of a small group, and to identify our responsibility to the people with our responsibility to the leading organs of the Party.”
This was the book that had inspired hundreds of millions of Chinese to strive for the greater good.
“Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure. It should be made clear to all government workers that corruption and waste are very great crimes.”
Man, this was hilarious! The book served its purpose in bringing about the Revolution in China, China moved on, and billions of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book have ended up in landfill sites, of no more use and reduced to garbage. But the Chairman’s words live on here in South Africa.
“A dangerous tendency has shown itself of late among many of our personnel - an unwillingness to share the joys and hardships of the masses, a concern for personal fame and gain. This is very bad.”
You don’t say? I closed the book and sat looking at it. Its message had been maturing for 40 years, and only now could the full-bodied relevance of it be appreciated. I turned to face my shelves. What other ageing texts were now ready to be sampled?