I’ve just read The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust, a collection of essays that consider the social, political, economic, and psychological factors that contributed to the 1966-76 period. It was the first I had read about the Maoist period in years, after my thorough disenchantment with Maoists in Nepal. My renewed interest in the subject is that the Cultural Revolution (CR) could be considered, from one very abstract angle, to be a mass movement aiming to achieve an egalitarian society–one which, of course, completely failed to do so.
Most of the collections’ authors take Mao at his word that the Cultural Revolution (CR) was not initiated merely as a Stalinist purge of non-compliant party members. Rather the purge was merely one component of an ideologically driven struggle to rid the Chinese Communist Party of the “anti-Party and anti-socialism black gang” that was leading China down the capitalist road (28). Arif Dirlik, one of the collection’s authors, writes:
The Cultural Revolution was launched to prevent a slide from socialism to capitalism, which Mao Zedong and his supporters perceived as an imminent possibility. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, this is indeed what has happened, as Chinese society under Deng Xiaoping… has been incorporated into a capitalist world system… In other words, the prognosis that justified the launching of the Cultural Revolution has been borne out by subsequent history (158).
Shaoguang Wang, too, writes that, “purging his adversaries was not Mao’s main motivation in launching the CR. Rather he aimed at constructing something new,” and later that, “for Mao, the purpose of the CR was not merely to purge, but to remodel China’s social, economic, and political system according to his egalitarian ideal” (25, 46). How that egalitarian ideal would be achieved, however, is never articulated beyond repressing capitalists.
The collection’s authors make clear that Mao’s method for purging the Party of its “capitalist roaders” is what differentiates the CR from the Stalinist terror campaign of the 30s. Rather than using the repressive forces of the state to arrest, convict, and execute his enemies, Mao called on China’s millions of disaffected youth to take matters into their own hands, while ordering the police and army to stand aside (58). In this sudden absence of the state, but with no actual alternative, egalitarian system to replace the state, the CR quickly turned into a cacophony of violence. In the cities, middle-school, high-school, and university students formed mass organizations of Red Guards based on allegiance to local Party leaders, demonstrating their devotion to the cause by escalating public displays of mass violence (114-5, 135). In the countryside, traditional rural social relations led to typical communal violence. Entire families were lynched on the grounds of belonging to “bad classes” (115).
Clearly, this was not the construction of something new, nor did it bring the world any closer toward socialism’s egalitarian ideals. In fact, widespread communal violence initiated by one dominant faction of the state against another is what happened in Indonesia in the 50s; except in Indonesia the violence was carried out in the name of capitalism, and inflicted on Indonesia’s Communist Party, labor unions, and Chinese population.
In many ways, the Stalinist Terror and the Cultural Revolution represent the opposing tactics in the socialist movement–communism and anarchism. Communists typically believe that the state must be empowered to lead the way to a stateless society, which has proven time and again to be a contradictory sentiment. Anarchists, on the other hand, typically prefer for the state to immediately cease existing, even though people readily rely on other forms of oppression in the sudden absence of the state.
It is, of course, my belief that these contradictory and opposing viewpoints represent the 19th and 20th centuries’ lack of a viable alternative to capitalism. Without a communications technology–i.e. the Internet–that enables mass, democratic governance, it is only logical that socialists would split into these two equally inadequate factions. Hopefully, now that humanity possesses the necessary tools to “remodel [its] social, economic, and political system according to [its] egalitarian ideal,” it can begin the process of actually “constructing something new.”
My impression of the Cultural Revolution is of teenagers run amok, a terrifying thought. And driving this terror is something almost as terrifying in its banality: an egalitarian society.
In all of the talk recently about income inequality, I don’t think anyone has proposed that the U.S. should be an egalitarian society except as it applies to our broken justice system. Americans agree that we should all be equal before the law, but it’s hard to find anyone who thinks we should be equal in everything.
Bernie Sanders is the tribune of the people who has spoken most about reducing income inequality. Predictably, he has been criticized for preaching “redistribution of wealth,” which is anathema to most Americans. Sanders has observed the obvious, which is that for the past 35 years of so, wealth in the U.S. has been redistributed upwards, away from the working and middle classes into the Swiss bank accounts of the obscenely wealthy one percent. Sanders’s solution appears to be to stop the rich from avoiding taxes and paying their fair share to government.
In capitalist, conservative America, such a proposal amounts to a cultural revolution of a kind. Our system has long tolerated a licit sort of corruption, in which wealthy individuals and corporations have tax loopholes and corporate welfare and built-in advantages that ordinary citizens don’t have. We have one party dedicated to feeding the military-industrial complex while claiming that Social Security and Medicare are bankrupting America. We have gated communities and private security and private schools for the rich, and for everyone else a police force that is required to produce revenue from the people it is supposed to protect. So if Sanders’s proposals were adopted and the wealthy actually paid their fair share of taxes to the government, we would be reversing decades of trickle-up economics. We could repair our crumbling infrastructure to become more competitive with other countries. We could improve education for everyone. We could have police who do policing instead of fleecing.
That would be a cultural revolution worth seeing.