Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Happy Birthday to the Cultural Revolution

It is the 40th anniversary today of the start of the Cultural Revolution. An excellent starting place for any understanding of modern Chinese history is Nigel Harris’s “Mandate of Heaven” which has a chapter on the Cultural Revolution.

Obviously the book is 25 years old, and therefore makes no reference to the turn of the Chinese Communist party towards open free market capitalism, but it does provide an excellent understanding of how the CCP’s objectives were always to promote economic development and national independence, rather than advance socialism.

The Cultural Revolution followed the failure of the Great Leap Forward. Economic development seemed to be at an impasse, and Mao recognised that a new political superstructure had simply been grafted on to an essentially rural underdeveloped economic base that could not sustain fast economic development.

Mao wanted to break out of the stalemate, but could not simply purge the party without destroying his own power base. So instead he turned outside the Party for suppport. It all started almost comically when Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, claimed that in the autumn of 1965, a number of articles in literary criticism by Mao were refused publication in Peking and Mao was obliged to have them published in Shanghai. Possibly on the basis of this experience, he concluded: “The central Ministry of Propaganda is the palace of the Prince of Hell.” A Cultural Revolution was required. At the start Mao used it to eliminate opponents, such as P’eng Chen, deputy general secretary, Lu Ting-yi (Minister of Culture and chief of the Propaganda Department), and Lo Jui-ch’ing, PLA (the army) Chief of Staff.

The result was an explosion of student militancy aimed at all symbols of discipline, and of the past. Nearly all pre-1949 writers and music was banned. People were imprisoned for having collections of classical music records, or books by Balzac or Goethe

Eleven million students went on a violent rampage as Red Guards, who while using the intoxicating language of social revolution were in fact easily manipulated by different factions in the party. Lin Piao and his supporters (the “Left”, led by the Cultural Revolution group) saw the chance to remove their main rivals within the party, Mao’s heir Liu Shao-ch’i and general secretary Teng Hsiao-p’ing. Lin Piao would then stand close to inheriting the supreme leadership on the retirement of Mao. Secondly, the party cadres disgraced by Liu and his wife during the socialist education movement now had a chance to destroy Liu, and secure their rehabilitation.

Liu and Teng were obliged to accept the role of scapegoats to protect the party, saying that they alone were responsible for the changes introduced after the Great Leap Forward. Liu ceased to appear in public and retired to his State villa in Chung Nan Hai. Thus the head of State, central committee member, and heir to Mao, suddenly became a “capitalist roader”, the source of all ills for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

The politburo were desperately trying to back pedal, but by November millions of workers started strike action putting forward their own demands. This was too much for the party who blamed a “handful of party persons in authority taking the capitalist road”. “These capitalist roaders have been even fomenting strikes, instigating the masses who do not understand the actual situation to flock to the banks and withdraw their deposits by force.” During the course of 1967 the PLA gradually restored order, and Mao’s twin power bases, the PLA and the CCP remained intact.

Today there will be no discussion of the Cultural Revolution in China. The CCP are no more democratic than they were then, and because their objective was always to simply grow the economy to allow China to become a super-power, they have no problem with neo-liberalism. The last thing they want is a discussion of the anarchy their rule brought China to, nor to remind people that they once used to talk the language of human liberation.


Martin Wicks said...

A lot of the 'revolutionary' rhetoric about 'struggle against bureaucracy' was taken at face value by some on the left at the time. However, what was an intra-bureaucratic struggle utilised the most disgusting 'cult of Mao' which made the 'cult of the personality' in Russia look modest by comparison.

Madame Mao was given charge of culture. She managed to ban all but 7 'revolutionary' Peking operas, sacked all the orchestras, the operas being accompanied by a single paino!

The transformation of Mao's works into 'the little red book' - a collection of quotes without context - created a quasi-religious movement. Mao was treated like a God-Emperor. The 'revolutionary' students used to repeat by rote that Mao was more important to them than their parents and life itself. A completely reactionary movement.

AN said...

Indeed.And one of the intereting conclusions of harris's book is his comparison of the peoples republic with taiwan under the KMT, to show that once you took away the professed ideologies, the structure of the two Chinas was (and is) exactly the same.

AN said...

And there is an interetsing discussion of Mao-Tse Tung's infleunce on the left outside China in Harris's book:

Having given this some more thought, I would take issue with Martin's comment that Maoist influence was "entirely reactionary" - as for example the Black Panther Party were influenced by Maoism, as more of a soft inspiration rather than hard ideology.

But it never did anything for me.

Renegade Eye said...

I'm surprised there still are Maoist groups in 2006.

Look at Napel. They didn't go too much farther than call for the end of the monarchy.

badmatthew said...

I'd be more critical of Mao.
The Great Leap Forward wasn't just a failure, it was a catastrophe in which millions died of famine. One of the consequences was that Mao was sidelined politically. The Cultural Revolution, commencing half a decade after the Great Leap, was much more Mao's way back to power using the Red Guards than a rational strategy of economic development. Politics was in command.

AN said...

Well I am clearly no fan of Mao, but the catastrophic nature of the Great Leap Forward thingie - isn't that the benefit of hindsight?
The CCP entered the Great Leap Forward with good intentions.
I think the argument that the Cultural Revolution was a cynical manipulation to preserve Mao's power is correct though.

Umer A. Chaudhry said...

"I'm surprised there still are Maoist groups in 2006.

Look at Napel. They didn't go too much farther than call for the end of the monarchy."

Very interestingly, Communist Party of Nepal (maoists) have once again reminded the socialist movement about the importance of the tenants of "United Front".

Please take some time to read the [internal party] letter to the CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao from a groups of veteran military personnels and intellectuals.

The letter is present at:

badmatthew said...

The CCP might have started the Leap Forward with 'good intentions', although that terminology is a rather soupy way of approaching the policy choices of state managers; but the conduct of policies in the Great Leap Forward was bizarre, counter-productive and criminally negligent of the welfare of the people of China.But I've got to disagree about the Cultural Revolution: it wasn't about the preservation of Mao's power, but its restoration after the early '60s in which Mao complained about being treated as a household god, suitably revered, but essentially put in the corner and ignored!

AN said...

The Great Leap Forward was certainly bizarre, particularly things like killing all the birds, and trying to make backyard blast furnaces. Criminally negligent would seem a fair description. I think it all derived from the CCP seeing the peasants and workers as objects to be manipulated.