From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s has become a frequent reference point in recent books and films on the country. Here Charlie Hore explains that it was not a revolution and there was nothing cultural about it
Over the last year there’s been a remarkable upsurge of interest in Chinese culture. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans was the second best selling paperback book last year (beaten only by Jurassic Park). And Farewell My Concubine seems set to pull the largest British audience of any recent Chinese film. A part of the appeal of both is the vivid descriptions they give of the 1960s Cultural Revolution.
Urban China was torn apart by the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1969. The term was a highly misleading one – it was not a revolution and there was nothing cultural about it. Rather, it was a vicious faction fight among China’s rulers in which millions were persecuted and hundreds of thousands died.
Its roots went back to the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, when Mao Zedong attempted to increase the pace of China’s economic development by forced land collectivisation and speed ups in industry. This led to famines in which some 15 or 20 million people died, and to massive disruption in industry.
Mao had been removed from all effective power by the early 1960s, though he remained the figurehead of the new China. His opponents in the ruling class adopted a strategy of slow growth, giving real economic power to local officials.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s way of reasserting his power over the ruling class as a whole, bringing the local officials back into line.
The pretext was flimsy. in 1961 a play was staged in Beijing about an honest official victimised by a corrupt emperor. The allusion to Mao was obvious, and came from a high placed source – the playwright was the deputy mayor of Beijing. The play was eventually published in an obscure Shanghai magazine. Mao used it as an excuse to launch a propaganda campaign about ‘proletarian culture’.
His opponents could not simply ignore this and so took over the campaign in order to render it harmless to them. In May 1966 Mao publicly accused them of sabotaging it and called for a ‘great proletarian cultural revolution’ to drive out ‘those in power taking the capitalist road’.
In a phrase that rang around China he declared, ‘it is right to rebel!’ The response was enormous. In schools and colleges across China students rushed to denounce hated teachers and principals, holding kangaroo courts and making them confess to non-existent ‘crimes’.
This appeal to rebellion against authority found an echo among these Red Guards as they were to become known – and among many adults too. One former Red Guard remembered that ‘most people felt that the Cultural Revolution was a wonderful thing because when our enemies were uncovered China would be much more secure.’
Another cautioned a researcher: ‘When people tell you that they were always opposed to the Cultural Revolution ... you must not believe them ... Because when the Cultural Revolution began everyone supported it.’
The Red Guards quickly widened their attack because success was so easy. Unpopular local officials were dragged through the streets, and anything deemed to be a symbol of ‘feudal’ or ‘bourgeois’ influence came under fire. Temples, ancient monuments and priceless paintings were destroyed. Owning a piano or the works of Tolstoy was enough to get people beaten up and placed under house arrest.
Education and transport ground to a halt as millions of Red Guards set off to see Mao in Beijing, or tramped hundreds of miles across the countryside in imitation of Mao’s Long March in the 1930s.
Mao was already trying to wind down the Cultural Revolution by the end of 1966. His major opponents in Beijing had been disgraced and arrested, often forced to confess to the most ludicrous of crimes. But on the streets the terror was taking on a logic of its own.
Powerful local officials refused to take their persecution lying down and organised their own Red Guard groups. Warring gangs of hundreds and sometimes thousands multiplied, each claiming to be the only true followers of Mao.
There were 54 such competing groups in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and in one battle between them 250 people were killed and over 1,500 wounded. As fighting intensified, rival gangs took to raiding army barracks for guns. In the heart of Changsha, in central China, one gang used anti-aircraft missiles to destroy their rivals’ headquarters!
How could so many people get caught up in what seemed to its victims to be a mindless reign of terror? The Red Guards could draw on deep wells of bitterness among young people whose lives were minutely regulated by state and party authorities. Mao allowed them to turn the tables on their oppressors.
Large parts of urban China were in a state of civil war by early 1967. In April Chou Enlai, the prime minister, revealed to other senior leaders that his officials were negotiating ceasefires in 12 provinces, and had lost touch with any authority in seven others.
At the same time there was an upsurge of strikes and workers’ demonstrations over wages and conditions. Starting among migrant workers on the Shanghai docks in late 1966, by early 1967 the strike wave had hit almost every major Shanghai workplace.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1967 the strikes spread across China like wildfire, often led by rail workers who took the news of the strikes from town to town. Many of the strikes were short lived – in the chaotic conditions of the time management caved in to the workers’ demands almost at once.
As the strikes spread, and began to cause increasing economic disruption, the army was called in to break them. In Shanghai, for instance, most of the migrant dock workers were sacked and the docks were run by the army for several months.
The strike breaking was part of a wider military takeover across much of China in January 1967. Faced with the breakdown of both state and Communist Party machines, the only force Mao could use against the warring factions was the army.
Yet while the army would break strikes and disarm hostile demonstrators, they would not necessarily take orders from Mao’s local supporters.
Most army officers had close links to the officials who had been attacked by the Red Guards.
In province after province the army cracked down on the Red Guards, often shooting to kill. In the south western province of Sichuan almost 100,000 people had been arrested by the end of March.
Many Red Guard groups drew the conclusion that the army too were Mao’s enemies, and descended even further into gangsterism. Some groups even took to the mountains to wage short lived guerrilla struggles.
Mao’s response was to step up the repression. From the end of 1968 millions of young people were deported to remote country areas. According to one official report one in ten of the entire urban population was deported.
And there were worse things than deportations. Wholesale massacres took place in Guangdong, Inner Mongolia and in particular Guangxi, where most of the town of Wuzhou was destroyed in an especially vicious battle. (According to a recent book, in the same province rural Red Guard groups even resorted to cannibalism as a method of fighting their rivals.)
The Cultural Revolution was formally wound up in March 1969 after widespread clashes between Russian and Chinese troops on China’s northern borders, but it was not until 1971 that the ruling class regained full control of the situation.
The Cultural Revolution left the Chinese economy in tatters, and spelled the end of Mao’s attempt to develop the Chinese economy in isolation from the world economy. Although Mao clung to power until his death in 1976, the vast majority of the ruling class knew they had to take a new course, both to restore the economy and to regain a measure of popular support.
In 1978 the new government led by Deng Xiaoping junked Mao’s economic policies in favour of ‘market economics’ and opening up to the West. It admitted that the Cultural Revolution had been a horrendous mistake.
In the next few years millions of people were compensated for their losses in the Cultural Revolution, and millions of young people were allowed back into the cities. Initially, this made it the most popular government since Mao took power in 1949. But the new rulers could not wipe out the anger and frustration that people had hidden for so many years, or deliver the promised economic gains.
In removing the terror, they opened the floodgates of popular anger. The years since 1978 have seen more protests, demonstrations, riots and strikes than at any time since the 1949 revolution. The Tiananmen Square rebellion of 1989 took this process to its highest level yet. And for the first time since 1967 workers consciously organised to press home their demands.
Even after the repression of June 1989 the rulers could not reinstate the fear that underpinned Mao’s rule. As Jung Chang noted, ‘Fear made its comeback, but without the all-pervasive and crushing force of the Maoist days.’
At its height in 1968 the Cultural Revolution was seen by many socialists as an integral part of the worldwide fight against the old order. Mao badges and Mao’s Little Red Book became increasingly common on demonstrations and protests in the West – paradoxically, just at the time when the repression of the Red Guards was beginning.
Many of the 1968 revolutionaries believed the Western working classes had been bought off by prosperity – they were part of the problem, not part of the solution. Instead, they looked to peasant guerrillas in the Third World as the vital force in defeating imperialism. Mao seemed a natural source of inspiration.
As the truth emerged about the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s those illusions were shattered, along with almost all of the organisations which had been built on them. Thousands of socialists gave up the struggle in despair as they realised the barbaric nature of the movement.
Yet even at the height of the Cultural Revolution there were socialists who could see clearly what was going on. Nigel Harris wrote in International Socialism in 1967:
‘What is happening in China has been, so far, irrelevant to the mass of the population ... The battle then is between different factions of an embryonic ruling class ... and it is disastrous if socialists try to argue for one side as against another.’
Millions of young workers and students suffered prison and deportation for years because of their illusions in Mao. And the belief that Mao’s successors were kinder and less brutal than him died a horrible death in Tiananmen Square. Twenty five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, China’s rulers face an even more uncertain future than ever before.
Last updated on: 25 February 2017