It’s probably a bad idea to quote advice from Chairman Mao during a debate on finance

Did this just happen?
Did this just happen?
Image: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV
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British chancellor George Osborne announced his latest Spending Review today (Nov. 25), a sort of mini-budget that details how his Conservative government plans to spend taxpayers’ money and which contained some surprising U-turns.

But it was his opposite number, Labour’s John McDonnell, giving the opposition’s customary reply to Osborne’s speech, that left many lost for words. ”I brought him along Mao’s Little Red Book,” McDonnell said, taking it out of his pocket to general uproar and to his colleagues’ dismay. ”Let’s quote from Mao, rarely done in this chamber.” You can hear someone screaming with laughter.

The quote was:

We must learn to do economic work from all who know how, no matter who they are. We must esteem them as teachers… but we must not pretend to know what we do not know.

McDonnell then threw the Little Red Book at Osborne, saying he “thought it would come in handy in his new relationship,” an attempt to ridicule Osborne’s vision of a closer economic partnership with China.

Osborne seemed somewhat beside himself with joy. “Oh look,” he said. “It’s his personal signed copy.” Osborne also suggested that some of McDonnell’s Labour colleagues would be sent for “re-education.”

McDonnell is the very leftwing friend of the very leftwing new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who has so far energized the young grassroots of the party—until fairly recently run by centrist three-term prime minister Tony Blair—but has baffled everyone else.

Mao Zedong, who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976, has had his economic policies somewhat discredited over time. Mao aimed to improve agricultural and industrial production with mass mobilization of labor; his Great Leap Forward killed as many as 45 million people in four years. China looks nothing like the country that Mao left behind as his successors have embraced state-sponsored capitalism and turned the nation into the second-largest economy in the world.

Not long after he died, the Communist Party suggested that Mao’s policies had been 70% right and 30% wrong. What does McDonnell make of them, though?