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Power to the people

12 February 2016

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WHEN your parents are already Communists, whither might a teenager direct his or her own revolutionary tendencies? You might become a Little Lord Fauntleroy, irritating one’s elders by espousing a neo-conservative agenda. Or you could do what Alexei Sayle did, and turn to Maoism. “Don’t call your mother a running-dog reactionary,” his father used to demand over breakfast. But little Alexei knew that real power grew out of the barrel of a gun, not from the power to send a boy to his room without pudding.

He knew this because, like many a little revolutionary growing up in the late 1960’s and ’70s, he was the proud owner of Mao’s Little Red Book — a must-have fashion accessory, containing more than 400 of the Chairman’s greatest pronouncements. Two inches by three, the Little Red Book fitted into a trench-coat pocket, and was as valuable an accreditation in particular circles as a passport.

To mark the 50th year since the start of China’s Cultural Revolution, David Aaronovitch’s documentary Mao’s Little Red Book Goes West (Radio 4, Friday) recalled those fervid days when the likes of Jean-Luc Godard were making Maoism seem impossibly trendy.

Aaronovitch did not spare us the nasty bits. Jung Chang, the author of the best-selling Wild Swans, gave a vivid account of the oppression that, for her, the Little Red Book represented: a prop in the violent denunciations that both her parents underwent. Yet, in other international contexts, the Maoist doctrine provided a useful alternative to the Russian model of Communism: for the Black Panther movement, it offered a specifically anti-colonial rhetoric, while, for the Communists of West Germany, it facilitated an ideological distancing from the Communists over the Wall. And it still delivered a shiver when the former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown declared the Cultural Revolution to be “necessary”.

After Stephen Hawking’s Reith Lectures, it was apposite to hear the story of another brilliant mind turned celebrity. Science Stories: Einstein’s fridge (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) dealt with the awkward middle part of the great physicist’s career — after the brilliance of the early theories, and before the posters of the elderly, wild-haired genius. The 1920s and early ’30s were awkward years for Einstein: his work was under attack from an increasingly anti-Semitic German establishment, and at odds with the wider scientific community over quantum theory.

Perhaps as a release from this pressure, he turned to an engineering challenge, and, with his fellow physicist Leo Szilard, invented and patented a design for a fridge — but not any old fridge: one that had no moving parts, and did not require electricity. The patent was bought by AEG, but the war put an end to development — and it doesn’t work, anyway.

But Philip Ball’s fascinating programme did not end with the fridge. Like all good stories, it led to others: for instance, the later career of Szilard, and his work on the atomic bomb; and Einstein’s tours to Britain and the United States, during which Einstein, ever the pragmatist, combined discussion of theoretical physics with fund-raising in support of a new Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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