Above: the “Cultural Revolution” begins in 1966
Fifty years ago in China one of the bloodiest episodes in recorded human history began, in which as many as two million people died.
What followed was an unprecedented period of upheaval, bloodshed and economic stagnation that only ended with Mao’s death, in September 1976.
The so-called People’s Republic of China had been declared in 1949 and began the history of China as a one-party totalitarian nation-state, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
During the 1950s, the conditions of existence in the countryside (where the majority of the population resided) and in the cities were transformed by the CCP, in an effort to economically develop and exert political control within all arenas of everyday life (from work to leisure to home). Agricultural land in the countryside was bloodily “redistributed” to cooperatives and collectives, and cities were ordered into work units and neighbourhood units. The state owned everything. Layers of Communist Party bureaucracy proliferated and corruption thrived.
“Enemies Without Guns” was an early Party propaganda campaign that illustrates the pervasive affect the bureaucratic state was able to exert on its population: breeding distrust amongst neighbours, and breaking down camaraderie among the working class and peasant masses.
The Party encouraged the population to anonymously submit the names of those who they suspected were linked to, for example, money, foreign devils and/or the rival Nationalist Party, into designated post boxes.
Alongside early rural land reforms and urban industrial projects, which sought to launch China (then home to one in four of the world’s population) into a global superpower, was the omnipresence of the state. Effort towards economic modernisation would go hand-in-hand with political repression – the defining feature of China’s political economy.
The 1930s and 40s were shaped by a struggle between the Nationalist Party, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan when Mao took power in 1949. Taiwan has since benefited from US military aid, which is an ongoing source of annoyance for the CCP. Moves by the Chinese state to act on its claim that Taiwan is part of China have long threatened to draw the United States into war.
Tibet is another major geopolitical tension and conflict. The CCP launched a military offensive on the region of Tibet in 1950, claiming the area was a part of China mainland. A Tibetan uprising to CCP rule in 1959 was brutally crushed. The Dalai Lama calls for political autonomy for Tibet, not a separate nation-state. The CCP refuses to negotiate.
While most intellectual life was controlled by the CCP, a momentary opening was created by Mao Zedong’s instruction in 1956 for the country’s citizens and intellectuals to constructively criticise the Party, known as “A Hundred Flowers to Bloom in the Arts and a Hundred Schools of Thought to Contend in Science”. What it released was a huge wave of criticism against Party bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. Walls of universities were plastered with such criticism.
In 1957 Mao declared those he had encouraged previously to criticise the Party as “Enemies and Rightists”, and he appointed Deng Xiaoping to head the subsequent “Anti-Rightist Movement”. This effectively silenced China’s key intellectuals for decades.
When I have visited China in the years 2007-2013, various of my contacts (working in the fields of academia, teaching, and business) have observed that Chinese students and graduates struggle with a sense of critique, i.e., of questioning things. Without doubt, the silencing of the country’s intellectuals decades previously has left a legacy on education, where only a few brave teachers and students dare to question.
The launch of the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 signified Mao’s ambition to equal the West in industrial output within fifteen years. Actually it was a huge propaganda campaign with ludicrous and counterproductive initiatives and targets that, in combination with natural disaster, literally starved to death millions.
People were told to convert scrap iron and steel into pots, and so the countryside was marked by rows of giant furnaces that made piles of pots which were useless and cracked easily. And yet it went on. To meet targets, Party bureaucrats inflated the figures for the actual production of grain. Too much grain left the countryside, generating a food crisis while grain lay stored in excess in the cities. One propaganda slogan, “The corn will grow higher the more you desire”, accentuates the farce.
There was little to no questioning of the Great Leap Forward as a consequence of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement.
Historian Frank Dikötter, in Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, argues that the Great Leap Forward, with a death toll of 45 million, “ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over”.
By 1964 the infamous “Little Red Book”, a book of Mao quotes, had been produced and widely distributed. Its reach cannot be underestimated, both within China and globally. And what it came to symbolise was the cult of Mao, that is, his status as a living god and the irrational fervour that went along with that. In this climate, Mao decided that he needed to call on new forces to boost his hegemony in the Party. In May 1966 he launched a campaign that called on the youth to attack the Party and steer it onto the path of true “revolutionary politics”. The “Cultural Revolution” was born.
In April 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched, under the direction of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and Kang Sheng. Mao’s personality cult reached fever pitch — the Little Red Book was recited daily and 4.8 billion Mao badges and 1.2 billion Mao portraits were produced. China was turned into a cultural desert — schools were closed for a year and Red Guard groups (led by the children of high officials) assailed teachers, writers and artists, and participated in state plunder.
Red Guards were given licence to attack virtually anything from “Hong Kong haircuts” to the “bourgeois-feudal reactionary music of Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich.” The regime issued spine-chilling edicts, condemning: “workers concerned only with love and romance, pandering to low tastes, claiming that ‘love’ and ‘death’ are eternal themes. All such bourgeois revisionist trash must be resolutely opposed.”
But the Cultural Revolution threatened to escape Mao’s control. Proletarian and peasant masses went out on unprecedented strikes and fought pitched battles against Red Guards. A notice in Fuzhou warned that: “A handful of freaks and monsters have cheated the misled members of the worker Red Guard units and some worker masses to put forward many wage, welfare and other economic demands to the leadership and administrative departments of the units.”
There was a significant rebellion in Wuhan, followed by bloody faction fighting. Mao solved the crisis by rusticating the youth and instituting state terror. He purged the top leadership of his regime — Liu Shao-chi and Deng Xiaoping were denounced as “capitalist roaders”, and the purged positions were replaced by appointees drawn from the army.
As Raya Dunayevskaya noted, Maoism was the application of the theory of “socialism in one country” to a technologically backward country in a world divided between two industrialised superpowers. Because of this situation, and because the regime had “no perspective of world revolution ‘in our time’, [it felt] compelled to drive the masses all the harder. Under private capitalism this was known as primitive accumulation; under state capitalism, calling itself Communism, it is called, internally, ‘fighting self-interest’, and, externally, ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Thought Lights Up the Whole World.’”
As such, Maoism belongs to humanity’s reactionary past, not its socialist future.
The fever-ridden young Red Guards were instructed to destroy the “Four Olds”: “Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits”.
The very cultural and historical fabric of Chinese society was devastated — museums, libraries, temples, street signs, and so on. By 1967 the Cultural Revolution descended into factional warfare, with a splinter from the Red Guards forming, known as the Rebels (supported by Mao). By the summer China was in civil war.
It is estimated that thirty six million people were harassed during the Cultural Revolution and up to one million killed (Branigan, 2013).
There is no doubt that the post-Mao Chinese government pursued a series of reforms. But today, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the economic forces that were really transforming the Chinese economy in the first decade of reform were private farming, township and village enterprises, private business in cities, and the Special Economic Zones. None of them was initiated from Beijing. They were marginal players operating outside the boundary of “socialism”. For these marginal forces, the Chinese government was happy to leave them alone as long as they did not threaten the state sector or challenge the Party’s political power. This created a room for what we called the “marginal revolutions” that brought entrepreneurship and market forces back to China during the first decade of reform. Today, China is a major capitalist power, likely to overhaul the US economy in the present century, but still lacking in bourgeoisie democratic rights and free trade unions.
• Branigan, T (2013) “China’s Cultural Revolution: son’s guilt over the mother he sent to her death”, The Guardian.
NB: this piece is based upon the work of various contributors to the AWL’s paper Solidarity, and in particular the late Mike Kriazopoulos.