China: Youth and the Cultural Revolution

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By Graham Milner

The revolution that brought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to power in 1949 marked the second great breach, after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, in the 20th century imperialist world order, and initiated a process that was to remove from the capitalist orbit the most populous nation in the world, containing over a quarter of its population.[1] The revolution of 1949 aroused vast expectations not only among China's popular masses, but also among the peoples of the Third World as a whole, and indeed among the socialist-minded everywhere.[2] However, by the end of the 20th century, communism had been overturned in Eastern Europe and the USSR, while in China a largely discredited, authoritarian, Stalinist regime had virtually abandoned anything more than a nominal adherence to socialist ideals. So what went wrong?

In China, one of the central events that occurred between the 1949 revolution and the crushing of the movement for socialist democracy in 1989 was the experience of the ``Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution''. This volcanic event lasted from 1966-1976 (ending only with the death of Mao Zedong and the fall of the ``Gang of Four''), but the period of greatest upheaval was concentrated between 1966 and 1969. C.L. Chiou, in his reasonably balanced analysis of the Cultural Revolution published in the mid-1970s,[3] divides the schools of intepretation of it into three: one holding that the event marked a crisis in legitimacy of the regime similar to those prefiguring the ``end of a dynasty'' in Chinese history; a second defining the events as a conscious policy move on Mao's part, and over which Mao exercised control throughout; and the third (to which Chiou himself subscribes) in which Mao is seen as only partly in control, not acting in accordance with a preordained plan, but not the victim of a crisis situation either.[4]

Power struggle

The Cultural Revolution can perhaps best be understood not so much in terms of the ideological labels used by the Mao faction during the course of the struggle, but more in terms of a fairly ruthless power struggle between Mao's group in the party and the army on the one hand, and his more conservative opponents on the other -- leading figures among whom, such as Liu Shao-chi and Deng Xiaping, were ousted from their positions.

Looking back on the literature of the time, it is interesting to note that the lexicon of the Mao faction, and the Maoist regime's conceptual understanding of what the struggle was about, was taken over, often more or less uncritically, by Western observers situated on the left politically. Fred Halliday, an editor of the London-based New Left Review, saw no problem in drawing a parallel between Mao's ``Red Guards'' and the revolutionary May 4th student movement of 1919.[5] The US Monthly Review editors, while not uncritical of the Cultural Revolution, nevertheless endorsed it as a legitimate fight against bureaucratic degeneration, a view rejected by their US Trotskyist critics.[6] Some left-liberal commentators, such as the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, accepted in essence the claims of the Chinese regime that the Cultural Revolution was primarily an exercise in shifting the ``ideological-cultural superstructure'' more in line with the ``socio-economic base'', in accordance with Mao's notion, expressed in the 1950s, that the class struggle should continue to be sharply prosecuted in the transitional period between capitalism and socialism.[7]

Some conservative observers have attempted to explain these remarkable events, which brought China to the brink of civil war, in psychological terms. Robert Jay Lifton's studies have focused on the methods of ``thought control'', or ``brainwashing'', in China -- familiar notions from Cold War discourse. The phenomena considered in the Cultural Revolution are linked with the various earlier Maoist ``rectification campaigns''.[8] Lifton's book Revolutionary Immortality, while it is psychologistic in approach, could be making a valid point concerning Mao's desire to guarantee the future of the revolution after his death, by bringing forth a new revolutionary generation through the Cultural Revolution.[9] Leslie Marchant's idea that Chinese communism is a millenarian, eschatological movement and ideology, similar to earlier chiliastic religious movements,[10] is not a helpful tool in understanding the Cultural Revolution, or very much else about revolutionary China. One is always tempted, when confronted with these type of arguments, to ask: should not conservatism be defined in similar terms as an ``eschatology of the present''?

Alongside and often in opposition to the above outlined perspectives is an unalloyed revolutionary Marxist tradition of writing and scholarship on the Cultural Revolution, going back in some cases to the 1960s. Isaac Deutscher saw the essential parallel of Mao's campaign not in the Proletkult of the 1920s in Russia, but with Zhdanov's and Stalin's cultural repression of the late 1940s.[11] Peng Shu-tse, a founder of the Chinese Communist Party who became an important leader of the Trotskyist current in China, and who went into exile after 1949, wrote superb analytical commentaries on Chinese politics -- articles that often appeared in obscure journals.[12] More recently, Charlie Hore, a British socialist, has produced a fine overview of China's history in the 20th century which consistently argues the case for a revolutionary Marxist standpoint, as against the Stalinist and other non-Marxist orthodoxies that have distorted the picture.[13]

Young people

Young people have always been of importance in movements for revolutionary social and political change. Post-World War II demographics have made youth, in China as elsewhere, of growing significance as a sector of the population.[14] The international communist movement had, from its earliest history, placed stress on the creation of strong youth organisations,[15] and the Chinese Communist Party after 1949 mainitained a large and extensive Young Communist League for people ageed 15-25. Before 1966, the YCL incorporated a sizeable proportion of China's youth, with up to 35 million members.[16] The YCL was to be eclipsed during the Cultural Revolution by the Red Guards, mobilised from among China's youth by the Mao faction.[17]

Education in China, in the period before the Cultural Revolution, has been described as reflecting a fundamentally ``bourgeois'' ethos,[18] with a tendency for university education in particular to be dominated by students from non-proletarian or non-lower-peasant backgrounds, i.e. by the sons and daughters of CCP functionaries or of the middle class. Ronald Price has pointed out that virtually any system of university selection would tend to favour the children of educated parents.[19] But if Chinese schools and universities were ``academically stultifying'' before the depredations of the Red Guards, as Luckin maintains,[20] then it is hard to see how these institutions' ceasing to function altogether, as was often the case between 1966-1969,[21] could have improved the situation. Freedom of thought and of adademic inquiry, always defended and promoted by genuine Marxists,[22] were certainly never on the agenda during the Cultural Revolution.

Nothing illustrates the character of the Cultural Revolution, and its impact on the education system of China, more clearly than the fact that the education ministry was abolished in 1966, and not reopened until 1975.[23] The rationale of Mao's program was rooted supposedly in the notion that ``bourgeois intellectuals'' would be re-educated through physical labour, and that young people in the urban areas would be integrated with the rural peasant population.[24] To facilitate the latter project, it is estimated that 12 million or more youth were transferred to rural China during the Cultural Revolution.[25] This program has been seriously assessed as having been a developmental and educational strategy for Third World countries![26] Other such uncritical works, reflecting the influence of Maoist ideology, have also taken seriously the regime's claims concerning education strategy.[27]

Critics have, more realistically, seen the hand of a ruling party bureaucracy behind the rhetoric of the ``mass line'',[28] while some Soviet observers for example pointed out the obvious contradiction between Lenin's real views on ``cultural revolution'' on the one hand, and the destructive impact of Maoist nostrums on China's educational infrastructure, on the other.[29] The low quality of Mao's Marxism has been remarked upon,[30] and the poverty of much of the ideology generated by the Cultural Revolution is clear from the literature circulated during its course.[31]

The psychological effects of the Cultural Revolution on China's youth may best be discerned from a survey of the often excellent and revealing memoir literature that has come out of China, particularly since the 1980s.[32] Some of these works, such as Jung Chang's Wild Swans, have become bestsellers in the West. The clearest message emerging from this literature is one of disorientation and disillusionment, and this theme contradicts the claim made by Wilfred Burchett and Rewi Alley that the ``Cultural Revolution did much to restore the confidence of young people in themselves''.[33]

Accounts of Red Guard activity, including factional fighting, while they may reflect the initial euphoria felt by secondary and university students at being freed from formal study and being allowed free travel and accomodation, usually end with disappointed hopes and a sense of betrayal.[34] Those young people whose family members suffered during the crisis, and who were often torn in loyalty between parents and party authorities, were often very bitter about their experiences.[35]

``Class labelling'' among the young, even involving pre-school children, and the immense psychological damage this must have done, was one of the more insidious features of the Cultural Revolution.[36] The Confucian family tradition seems to have been fused with crudely conceived class critiria to damn whole groups of so-called ``black'' or ``bad-class'' categories.[37] The real purpose behind this push, as has been pointed out above, was primarily the promotion of the interests of the Mao faction in its struggle against opponent groups in the bureaucratic ruling stratum in China.

The misdirection of youth by Mao's faction, and the cynical misuse of the idealism of an entire generation of the young in China, had devastating consequences on the psychological wellbeing of these young people, as well as on the political prospects of socialism. Of the many students who were sent out to the countryside to perform menial tasks, thousands were still there in the 1980s, ``abandoned by their radical patrons at the top''.[38] The massive scale of the disillusionment among China's youth, caused by their negative experiences during the Cultural Revolution, underlines the fundamental responsibility of the regime for the spreading mood of cynicism about socialism and politics in general among that generation.[39] The struggle for democratic freedoms in the Chinese People's Republic that was crushed in the Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989, a movement led by a fresh generation of student and worker youth, should have led to the flowering of socialist democracy, but socialism itself was further discredited as the grip of the Stalinist police state in China fastened anew on the populace, young and old.[40]

The future of socialism in China surely lies with the rediscovery of the lost tradition of revolutionary socialism; a tradition buried with the defeat of the Second Revolution of 1925-27, but which emerged again with the student-worker upsurge of 1989.[41] A future generation of youth in China, determined to build a humane, socially just and democratic future for their country, will hopefully find the path to genuine Marxist socialism.[42]

[This essay dates from 2002. In my opinion, the Cultural Revolution retains its significance as a defining episode in China's 20th century history, and it strikes me as useful to review the general background of this event, and to focus in particular on the issue of youth. Many revolutionary socialists in the West, including myself, come from a background in student politics, and it is worthwhile drawing attention to the connections that were made by the Western student left at the time of the Cultural Revolution in China. I admit myself to purchasing a copy in 1970 of the Little Red Book of Mao's ``Thoughts'' at a bookshop in the city where I live, and brandishing it as an act of defiance during a school assembly at which the Gideons were distributing their free copies of the New Testament and Psalms. Some of the sources mentioned make it plain that significant layers of the student left in the West in the 1960s and early 1970s saw the ``Red Guards'' as an authentic expression of student protest against authority. I have tried to demonstrate from the sources that this in fact was not so, and that the youth were largely being manipulated for the purposes of intra-bureaucratic faction fighting within the party-state hierarchy. (Graham Milner is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.)]


1. For a good discussion of the Chinese Revolution and its context in world politics see Nahuel Moreno, ``The Chinese and Indochinese Revolutions'', in Ernest Mandel (ed.), 50 Years of World Revolution (New York, 1968) pp. 146-81.

2. China Shakes the World (Harmondsworth, 1973; original ed., 1949), US journalist Jack Belden's inspiring account of communist advance during the revolutionary civil war in the late 1940s, aroused enthusiasm for the Chinese Revolution around the world. Earlier in the century, John Reed's classic account of the October Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World had aroused similar enthusiasm.

3. Maoism in Action: The Cultural Revolution (Brisbane, 1974).

4. Ibid., pp.3-12.

5. Students of the World Unite, Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn (eds.), Student Power: Problems, Diagnosis, Action (Harmondsworth, 1969) p. 303. See also the upbeat assessment of the student movement during the Cultural Revolution by Bill Luckin, "Students and the Chinese Cultural Revolution", in Tariq Ali (ed.), The New Revolutionaries: A Handbook of the International Radical Left (New York, 1969), pp. 115-30.

6. See George Novack and Joseph Hansen, "The Upheaval in China: An Analysis of the Contending Forces", Peng Shu-tse, et al., Behind China's Great Cultural Revolution (New York, 1967), pp. 42-63.

7. See Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, China! Inside the People's Republic (New York, 1972) chapter 3. Mao's speech "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People", in K. Fan (ed.), Mao Tse-tung and Lin Piao: Post-Revolutionary Writings (New York, 1972), pp. 151-96, delivered shortly after the Hungarian events of 1956, is a good guide to Mao's thinking on post-revolutionary society.

8. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China (New York, 1961) and Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (London, 1968).

9. Ibid.

10. The Turbulent Giant: Communist Theory and Practice in China (Sydney, 1975).

11. "The Great Cultural Revolution", in Russia, China and the West 1953-1966 (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 334.

12. See the documents collected in The Chinese Communist Party in Power (New York, 1980). Livio Maitain, another Fourth Internationalist, wrote an important book on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Party, Army and Masses in China: A Marxist Interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and its Aftermath (London, 1976).

13. The Road to Tienanmen Square (London, 1991).

14. For a superb Marxist analysis of youth politics in the 1960s see the document adopted at the 1969 World Congress of the Fourth International: "A Strategy for Revolutionary Youth", in Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York, 3rd ed., 1977), appendix 2, pp. 221-46.

15. See E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country 1924-26, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth, 1972) part 5, chapter 45, "The Communist Youth International". Lenin's views are expressed in "The Tasks of the Youth Leagues", in V.I. Lenin, On Youth (Moscow, 1970), pp. 235-52.

16. John Israel, "The Red Guards in Historical Perspective: Continuity and Change in the Chinese Youth Movement", China Quarterly 30 (April-June 1967) pp. 1-2.

17. See Adrian Hsia, The Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York, 1972), pp. 150-2.

18. Stephen Castles and Wiebke Wustenberg, The Education of the Future: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Socialist Education (London, 1979), p. 108. This situation is seen as contradicting the Yenan ethos of pre-revolutionary Chinese communism, an ethos also believed to be evident during the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s; pp. 112-13. Han Suyin sees the Cultural Revolution as a recrudescence of the earlier rectification campaign of 1942-44: see China in the Year 2001 (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 126.

19. Marx and Education in Russia and China (London, 1979), p. 100.

20. Students and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, p. 129.

21. Castles and Wustenberg, The Education of the Future, p. 116. Some universities did not reopen until 1970 or later.

22. See George Novack's eloquent essay "Freedom for Philosophy", in Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (New York, 1978), pp. 39-58.

23. Castles and Wustenberg, The Education of the Future, pp. 121-22.

24. Ibid., p.120. See also the item from the Chinese press dating from the early 1970s ``Up to the Mountain and Down to the Countryside: Educated Youth in the Communes'', in Mark Slden (ed.), The People's Republic of China: A Documentary History of Revolutionary China (New York, 1979), pp. 633-38.

25. Thomas Bernstein, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Village: the Transfer of Youth from Urban to Rural China (New Haven, Conn., 1977), p. 32.

26. Ibid., chapter 7.

27. See, for example, Ruth Gamberg, Red and Expert: Education in the People's Republic of China (New York, 1977) and William Hinton, Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University (New York, 1972).

28. Castles and Wustenberg, The Education of the Future, p. 137.

29. F.V. Konstantinov, et al. (eds.), A Critique of Mao Tse-tung's Theoretical Conceptions (Moscow, 1972), chapter 7.

30. See Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, vol. 3 "The Breakdown"

(Oxford, 1981), pp. 494-522.

31. The three articles by Mao most commonly cited during the Cultural Revolution: ``Serve the People'', ``The foolish Old Man Who removed the Mountain'' and ``In Memory of Norman Bethune'' are simple injunctions to unselfish devotion to the cause. The Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (the Little Red Book), brandished by Mao's supporters, consisted mainly of bland and banal aphorisms.

32. See Gordon A. Bennett and Ronald N. Montaperto, Red Guard: The Political Biography of Dai Hsiao-Ai (New York, 1971); Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (London, 1993); Gao Juan, Born Red; A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution (Stanford, Cal., 1987); Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, Son of the Revolution (New York, 1984); Li Lu, Moving the Mountain: from the Cultural Revolution to Tienanmen Square (London, 1990) and Chihua Wen, The Red Mirror: Children of China's Cultural Revolution (Boulder, Col., 1995), a selection of accounts by children of intellectuals. For the experience of members of the intelligentsia during this period see Yang Jiang, Lost in the Crowd: A Cultural Revolution Memoir (Melbourne, 1989).

33. China: The Quality of Life (Harmondsworth, 1976), p. 311.

34. On the Red Guards and factionalism, see Anita Chen et al., "Students and Class Warfare: the Social Roots of the Red Guard Conflict in Guangshou (Canton)", China Quarterly 83 (September 1980), pp. 397-446. Good accounts of Red Guard involvement, and the disillusionment it induced, include Bennett and Montaperto, Red Guard; Jung Chang, Wild Swans, chapters16-18 and Heng and Shapiro, Son of the Revolution.

35. See the accounts in Chihua Wen, The Red Mirror. The author of the piece "Prisoners and Warders", whose mother was driven to an early death during the Cultural Revolution, concluded by remarking, of the CCP: ``I will never forgive them'', p. 41.

36. See Li Lu's account of political indoctrination and ``class labelling'' in kindergarten in Moving the Mountain, chapter 1.

37. For a good discussion of the issues, see Anita Chen, "Images of China's Social Structure: The Changing Perspectives of Canton Students", World Politics 34, No. 3 (April 1982), pp. 295-323. Compare Chen's view with Israel, The Red Guards in Historical Perspective, p. 5, where the legitimacy of working-class concerns about educational access and equality is taken into consideration.

38. William Joseph, "Forward", p. xxvii, in Gao, Born Red.

39. See Wen, The Red Mirror, p.169. See also Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now (Sydney, 1997) in which Jan Wong records her experiences in China in the early 1970s: her own disillusionment with Maoist politics is matched by that of the surrounding society.

40. On the 1989 events, see Doug Lorimer, "China's Struggle for Socialist Democracy", Socialist Worker (Sydney) vol. 4, no. 3 (September 1989), pp. 4-9.

41. On the second Chinese Revolution see Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford, Cal., 1962). On the revolutionary tradition in China in the 20th century as a whole, see Hore, The Road to Tienanmen Square.

42. On Maoism's relationship to Stalinism see Tom Kerry, The Mao Myth and the Legacy of Stalinism in China (New York, 1977); Les Evans, China After Mao (New York, 1978); and Nigel Harris, The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China (London, 1978).