China: Youth and the Cultural Revolution

For more on the Chinese Revolution, click HERE.

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).


For an alternative view of the role of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, consider these excerpts from "Evaluating the Cultural Revolution and its Legacy for the Future." It describes the positive role of the Red Guards in the initial stages of the Cultural Revolution, as well as their limitations.

"On May 25, 1966 a dazibao (big character poster) at Beijing University lambasted the university president and two close associates of Peng for suppressing political debate. Mao announced his support for the rebels’ dazibaos and called on millions of students at secondary schools, institutes and universities to join the Red Guards to “rebel against reactionaries.” The view of Mao and his supporters was that, in a socialist society, new generations have to experience the process of revolution themselves, to think through for themselves what kind of society they want, who opposes that vision, and how to struggle against those forces..

During the rest of 1966, over a million students, largely middle school students from other areas, were in Beijing at any given time. They rebelled against authoritarian teachers and a revisionist educational system that was geared to produce experts with low political consciousness. Rightist administrators and teachers were paraded in the streets with dunce caps and subjected to public criticism meetings and all-night “struggle sessions.”

Red Guard organizations changed the old imperial names of streets and stores and searched homes, temples and churches for evidence of counter-revolutionary activities, hoarding wealth, and the practice of feudal customs. This was not mindless violence that was portrayed in the Western press, but a political movement to uproot the old ideas and customs of the exploiting classes. However, there were excesses, including serious physical attacks on people in relatively privileged positions, which Mao and others in the party leadership recognized and sought to correct.

In order to provide guidance to the unfolding mass upsurge, a nine-member Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG) was formed under Mao’s leadership. It included Mao’s secretary Chen Boda, Minister of Public Security Kang Sheng, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and two leftists from Shanghai, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. Together with Defense Minister Lin Biao and Premier Zhou Enlai, these forces made up the “Left Alliance” that led the early stages of the Cultural Revolution.

In the summer of 1966, State Chairman Liu Shaoqi, Party Secretary Deng Xiaoping and other high-ranking leaders of the party who were coming under fire by rebel Red Guard organizations dispatched work teams to universities and factories. These work teams organized sections of the masses to attack the rebels and stifled political debate for 50 days. They told students that “wall posters should not be put up in the streets,” and that “meetings should not hinder work or studies.” The work teams also organized “loyalist” Red Guard groups. [FN: While most Red Guard organizations targeted revisionist authorities and feudal customs, rival groups of Red Guards, often children of high-ranking party cadre, organized themselves to defend their privileges and the positions of their parents. In many schools and campuses, sharp struggle broke out between revolutionary and “loyalist” Red Guard organizations.]

Mao returned to Beijing in August from an inspection trip in the provinces, which he often undertook prior to a major struggle in the party. The party leadership, under pressure from members of the CCRG, withdrew the work teams and renewed its support for the rebels. The “16 Point Decision” of August 8, 1966 issued by the party’s Central Committee defined the principal target of the Cultural Revolution as party leaders taking the capitalist road—or “capitalist roaders.” It went on sale in music shops, as part of a set of 33-rpm vinyl discs that included a studio recording of a People’s Daily editorial titled, “Become Acquainted with the Sixteen Points and Put the Sixteen Points to Use.”

In the fall, Mao and the CCRG encouraged rebel Red Guard organizations to “take Beijing to the rest of the country.” Large groups of Red Guards fanned out to other cities and to the vast countryside to “exchange revolutionary experiences.” A peasant from Liu Ling village in Shaanxi Province describes how the Cultural Revolution was brought to his village:

"It was in the autumn of 1966 that the Red Guards came here…. They read quotations and told us about the Cultural Revolution in Beijing and Shanghai. Never before had we had so many strangers in the village. They asked us about our lives, they wanted to learn from us. They asked us how we were managing things in the brigade…. We went on reading the quotations after they’d gone. We read, and compared the quotations with what was being done here at Liu Ling village, and came to the conclusion that a lot of things needed changing."

After news of the 16 Point Decision reached the villages of Shandong Province, east of Beijing, Red Guard organizations began to form in the middle schools. Soon thereafter, mass associations independent of local party control were organized by peasants, artists, and employees in factories, commercial establishments and even in the Public Security Bureau. In some villages, nearly all the adult population belonged to one association or another. This process empowered peasants and workers to criticize the “local emperors” (revisionist party leaders) at mass meetings and through dazibaos plastered all over the villages.

At the same time, in Shanghai, China’s industrial center, a powerful political force was stirring. The Workers General Headquarters (WGH) under the leadership of a young textile worker, Wang Hongwen, had built up strength in hundreds of factories criticizing revisionist management practices that stifled the initiative of the workers. In the course of several days in January 1967 known as the “January Storm,” these rebel workers seized power from Shanghai’s party apparatus. The mass “struggle rally” at which the Shanghai party committee was brought down was the first to be shown live on television. In a desperate ploy to hold onto power, which was repeated throughout the Cultural Revolution, revisionist party leaders organized conservative factions among the workers to defend their positions and privileges. They also stirred up a wave of “economism,” which attempted to sabotage the rebellion by granting tens of thousands of workers big wage increases and years of back pay.

After a short-lived experiment with a “commune” form of organization (modeled after the Paris Commune of 1871), the Shanghai workers formed one of the first “revolutionary committees” composed of members of the workers’ mass organizations, revolutionary party cadre and political cadres of the People’s Liberation Army. The Shanghai Revolutionary Committee took charge of key government agencies and direction of industrial and transport work. Workers Propaganda Teams, which included members of the PLA, were dispatched to universities and schools and resolved factional disputes in factories. WGH-sponsored militia had branches in virtually every factory in Shanghai.

Revolutionary seizures of power took place in other parts of China throughout 1967, removing revisionist party officials in some areas, and putting them on the defensive in others. However, in many areas intense factional fighting developed, with a confusing array of “rebel forces” each claiming to support Mao and defend Mao Zedong Thought. After ultra-left and conservative forces alike raided PLA armories, tens of thousands of casualties resulted. In Wuhan, rightist army commanders violently suppressed rebel mass organizations and kidnapped members of the CCRG who were sent to resolve the crisis. These developments threatened to derail the Cultural Revolution and push the country into chaos.

Mao and the broad Left Alliance that was leading the Cultural Revolution called on the People’s Liberation Army to intervene and support the Left forces. In Wuhan, several divisions of the PLA surrounded the army mutineers and forced their surrender. In August 1967 many mass organizations were disbanded in an attempt to halt factional fighting.

By 1968, three-in-one revolutionary committees had been organized in all of the provinces, with the PLA playing an important role. The revolutionary committees helped reconstitute the party, bringing in new revolutionary activists, including large numbers of women, in the following years. The number of CCP members grew from 17 million in 1962 to 28 million in 1973.

The initial upsurges of the Cultural Revolution, which brought tens of millions of people into political motion, cleared the way for path-breaking social transformations. Universities were opened up to workers and peasants. Women broke into skilled higher paid jobs in industry and into positions of leadership. Workers helped to manage factories, and cadre worked on shop floors. Doctors settled down in the countryside and trained 750,000 “barefoot doctors”--thereby narrowing the gap between urban and rural medical services. (See pages 23-51 for discussion of these transformations.)


After the passage of 40 years, it is important to avoid an idealized picture of the Cultural Revolution. Such a view does not come to grips with the immense difficulties the Cultural Revolution had to overcome, and it does not lead to a deeper understanding of the factors that led to its eventual defeat. In addition, such a view cannot pass on important lessons that will help future socialist societies deal with new and complex conditions.

In order to understand the inability of the Cultural Revolution to consolidate its achievements, two kinds of questions must be addressed. The first concern the objective factors, internal and external to China, that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. The second set of questions concern shortcomings in how it was conducted and unintended but still negative consequences.

To begin with, the Cultural Revolution was an uphill battle. The Chinese revolution had gone through an extended period of new democratic revolution beginning in the 1920s. Even taking into consideration the social transformations in the liberated areas and after nationwide victory in 1949, it was not possible to completely eradicate feudal and bourgeois ideology in a few years, or even in one or two generations. The deep roots of Confucianism, especially its reverence for established authority, was a major target of the revolutionary forces in both the opening and later stages of the Cultural Revolution. “It is right to rebel against reactionaries!” was not a semi-anarchist slogan but a call to break the stranglehold of thousands of years of ideological indoctrination and to prevent a new class of Confucian sages—dressed up as Marxist-Leninists—from usurping power.

In addition, there was a relatively short period of socialist construction before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Much of that was conducted on the basis of the experience of building socialism in the Soviet Union, which had many weaknesses even prior to the rise of Khrushchev and state capitalism in the mid-50s. As noted earlier, by the early 1960s, much of the top CCP leadership was implementing a pro-Soviet revisionist line with Chinese characteristics, and their network of party and government officials was firmly entrenched at all levels. On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, this was the situation faced by Mao and other revolutionary party leaders--as well as tens of millions of workers and peasants who had been told that their party would always stay red.

International conditions were an important part of the objective situation for the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, the situation in the world was favorable for such an unprecedented revolution within a socialist society. It was no exaggeration to say that revolution was the main trend in the world and imperialism was on the defensive.
U.S. imperialism—the chief enemy of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world—was bogged down in South Vietnam due to the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people, and national liberation struggles were on the rise in Asia, Africa, Latin America and within the imperialist countries. The Chinese Communist Party had launched a bold challenge to the revisionist Communist Party of the Soviet Union and to its undisputed leadership over the international communist movement.

However, just three years into the Cultural Revolution, the military intervention of the Soviet imperialists in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack on China in 1969 produced a radically different international playing field for the People’s Republic. As described in more detail in our paper on Chinese foreign policy during the Maoist era, this forced Mao and the party leadership to make an opening to the West in order to avoid fighting on two fronts. This shift also provided a political opening to and strengthened the position of pro-Western sections of the leadership.

When combined with the political defection of Lin Biao and other leaders of the Cultural Revolution such as Chen Boda, these events led to a shift to the right on the part of a large number of party and government officials grouped around Premier Zhou Enlai. With Zhou’s backing, many revisionist leaders who had been knocked down in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated after making perfunctory “self-criticisms,” including Deng Xiaoping. This set the stage for a full-scale counter-attack on the Cultural Revolution.

Perhaps most importantly, the Cultural Revolution was an uphill battle because of a lack of historical experience. Just as Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union had no prior experience to draw on in building a socialist society in the 1920s and 30s, Mao had to develop a new understanding of the persistence of class struggle in socialist society, how capitalism can be restored, and a political line and mechanisms for keeping China on the socialist road. In launching the Cultural Revolution, Mao and the other revolutionaries in the CCP were moving into uncharted political territory.

Below are a number of specific problems faced by the Cultural Revolution, and shortcomings in how it was carried out.

(1) At times, factionalism—in the sense of groups placing their own narrow interests above political principle-- was a difficult problem to resolve. First, it must be said that what may have appeared to be factional power grabs were often examples of acute class struggle between revisionist party officials who formed conservative factions among the masses to defend their privileged positions on the one hand, and mass organizations of revolutionary workers, peasants and youth on the other.

In the course of the Cultural Revolution, rightist and leftist groupings all claimed to be following “Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line.” In this complex and often confusing situation, party members and the masses of people could only distinguish between correct and incorrect lines—between the socialist road and the road back to capitalism—by engaging in political and ideological study, discussion and struggle. In many cases, disputes between leftist groupings had to be resolved by the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army, which brought new problems. Further advances in the Cultural Revolution and consolidation of its achievements would have required a higher level of political consciousness and willingness to put collective interests first in order to reduce the level of unprincipled factional struggle.

Based on their own experience, many readers of this paper know how hard it can be to figure out how best to struggle for revolution in situations where there isn’t much in the way of historical experience. During the course of the Cultural Revolution, it is understandable that there would be great tumult and uncertainty, and even dedicated revolutionary activists inevitably made mistakes.

(2) The unleashing of millions of Red Guards in the spring of 1966 to criticize the Four Olds and revisionist party officials brought with it a set of unanticipated problems. Many Red Guard organizations ignored the policy of using reason, not force, in conducting political struggle. Mao rejected the slogan adopted by some of the Red Guard groups, “doubt everything and overthrow everything.” He repeatedly stated that 95% of the people could be united in the course of the Cultural Revolution, and that the method of political education, of “curing the disease to save the patient,” should be applied with people who had made mistakes.

Behind some of these ultra-leftist Red Guard groups were several members of the CCRG led by Wang Li who were calling for the overthrow of the majority of top state personnel. In 1967, the Minister of Coal suffered a fatal heart attack at the hands of these “rebels” and the Minister of Railways disappeared altogether. Their ultimate target was Premier Zhou Enlai, who was playing an important role in support of the Cultural Revolution at that time. Wang Li and his allies were also behind the burning of the British embassy in Beijing in 1967. It turned out that their ultra-leftist activities were being coordinated by the secret “May 16th Group,” which was dissolved, and its leaders were expelled from the party.

In addition there were cases when different Red Guard groups were consumed with fighting each other. One famous example of student factionalism and its successful resolution concerns Tsinghua University, China's preeminent school of science and engineering. Two factions of Tsinghua students, each claiming to uphold Mao Zedong Thought, had armed themselves and clashed for months, paralyzing the campus. In July 1968, Mao, the CCRG and the Beijing Municipal Revolutionary Committee decided that the situation had gone too far. They contacted a group of revolutionary workers at the Hsinhua Printing Plant to put out a call for the formation of Workers Propaganda Teams to go to Tsinghua, armed only with Red Books and the slogan, "Use Reason, not Violence."

On July 27, over 30,000 unarmed workers entered the campus, with columns assigned to surround buildings occupied by the armed student factions. As the workers successfully persuaded some students to lay down their arms, the largest armed faction launched an attack on the workers with spears, rifles and grenades. By the following morning, five workers lay dead and more than 700 had serious wounds. Nevertheless, the workers did not retaliate against the students, and in less than 24 hours most of the students surrendered, while a few die-hards fled the campus.

Due to the political weaknesses of many Red Guard organizations, Mao and the Central Cultural Revolution Group began to rein them in during late 1966. Over the next few years, 17 million educated youth, including many Red Guards, were sent to the countryside to work alongside, learn from and use their skills to serve the peasants. Many had a hard time adjusting to rural life, but significant numbers of urban youth decided to settle down, started families and contributed their skills and education to the socialist development of the countryside.

(3) In spite of the August 1966 directive that the principal target of the Cultural Revolution was high-ranking party officials taking the capitalist road, intellectuals, especially those trained in the pre-Liberation era, were repeated, high-profile targets.

At some points, nearly all teachers, writers and other intellectuals came under fire from Red Guard groups.
When the policy on intellectuals was applied in a more focused way, rightist intellectuals were challenged and criticized in public. Some were sent to work in the countryside, where they did manual work and lived with peasants for the first time in their lives. In the course of political discussion and struggle, many intellectuals were won over to the goals of the Cultural Revolution and returned to their positions with a new outlook.

In addition to remolding and winning over as many of the intellectuals as possible, one of the goals of the Cultural Revolution was to develop working class intellectuals from the workers, peasants and soldiers. The first contingent of 200, 000 proletarian intellectuals were graduated in 1974. However, this success story was halted by the defeat of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. One year later, nationwide admission examinations were reinstituted, with a predictable impact on the numbers of workers and peasants attending universities.

Of course, there is some truth in the dozens of books written by intellectuals and other relatively privileged groups who suffered during the Cultural Revolution—though it is questionable whether being deprived of their normal life style or leaving a comfortable city job to work on a commune qualifies as "suffering." But in evaluating these accounts, it is worth remembering that history gets written by the victors. Many of the accounts of persecution and torture of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution are as useful and reliable as seeing the pro-slavery movie, “Birth of a Nation,” as a guide to the history of the Civil War and Black Reconstruction in the U.S.

Entirely missing from this one-sided view of the Cultural Revolution are the accounts of barefoot doctors who brought health care to millions in the vast Chinese countryside for the first time, of workers who devised new techniques for raising production on a basis of self-reliance, and of educated youth whose lives were enriched by the years they spent in the countryside.

Some of the rare examples of such counter-narratives about the Cultural Revolution published in the West in recent years include Mobo Gao’s Gao Village, Dongping Han’s The Unknown Cultural Revolution, and Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era. In one account from the latter book, a young woman from Beijing describes the eight years she spent in a remote village in northeastern China:

"I learned to do all kinds of farm work and considered myself a good farmer. I planned and arranged farm activities year round (of course, with help from my peasant partner) and took the lead in doing them. I adopted the local dialect and the peasants’ ways of living and chatting to the point that I could pass as a northeasterner…. Yes, I had changed. I discarded the vanity and sense of superiority typical of city folks and became more down to earth. My life in the countryside changed my way of looking at the world and at life."


The MLMRSG cites with seeming approval the fact that, during the Cultural Revolution, educational administrators and teachers alleged to be "rightists" were "paraded in the streets with dunce caps". This is portrayed as a healthy rebellion by students against authorities who were "suppressing political debate". But the use of public humiliation as a tactic against alleged "rightists" was itself a way of suppressing free political discussion.

The Cultural Revolution was launched by Mao as a way of making a comeback after losing much of his power. Mao had been discredited by the disastrous mistakes he made in the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. These mistakes caused him to lose influence amongst the Communist Party leadership.

However there was no open admission of mistakes, nor open criticism of Mao at that time. The cult of Mao was maintained. This meant that Mao was able to use his prestige to launch the cultural revolution a few years years later.

Academics and teachers were amongst the targets of the cultural revolution, perhaps because Mao saw them as supporters of his opponents within the CP.

Many of them may have had faults such as authoritarianism towards students, attitudes of superiority towards workers and peasants, etc. But public humiliation is not the right cure for these faults. And teachers may also have been targeted, not because of their faults, but because they were potentially articulate critics of Mao's policies.

MLMRSG portrays Mao's opponents as "a new class of Confucian sages - dressed up as Marxist-Leninists". But if we want to make analogies with China's past, we could also compare the adulation of Mao by the Red Guards with the glorification of the emperors by their subjects.

In reality, both Mao's leading supporters and opponents were part of the Communist Party bureaucracy. At a certain point in the struggle, Mao used his prestige, and radical-sounding rhetoric, to mobilise students to attack his opponents. But when the students got out of hand Mao was forced to compromise with his opponents.

At around the same time Mao showed his opportunism by doing a deal with US imperialism. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was used to justify a right turn in foreign policy.

Chris Slee

I probably understated the destructive impact of the Cultural Revolution in my essay (above). The Wikipedia entry on the Cultural Revolution is worth checking out, as it catalogues many excesses; deaths, use of torture and humiliation, and other outrages. I believe it fair to say that China looks back on this episode with great regret at the destruction and disruption caused, and at the lost opportunities, particularly for China's youth.

I live in Perth, Western Australia, and our city these days receives many visitors from the People's Republic of China. A year or so ago I was waiting at a train station and I began conversing with a young Chinese woman from the PRC who spoke excellent English and proved to be very well-versed in her country's history, politics and culture. I asked this person for her opinion of the Cultural Revolution, and she was uniformly negative about it, and in fact clearly had quite strong opinions about it. I asked her for her view of Mao's role, pointing out that it had been his policy to launch the Cultural Revolution. She didn't say anything directly in criticism of Mao, but made it very clear that she thought the whole episode had been an ummitigated disaster.

The official CCP line is, as I understand it, to criticise Mao's role in the Cultural Revolution, while recognising that Mao had made a constructive contribution earlier in his career. I am looking forward to seeing the film recently released in China to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the 1949 Revolution. The positive benefits of the revolution still persist in China. The country remains unified and at peace, and even if the economy has developed strong capitalist features, its dynamism is clear. Personally, I resent and reject the absurd opportunism and inconsistency of the West's attitude to China, which oscillates entirely in accord with the strategic requirements of imperialism. Thus, during the first Cold War, China and Mao were anathema in the West: then during the modus vivendi between the USA and China in the 1970s, Mao was feted as a great statesman. Now, once again, there are no words dark enough to describe him as a historical figure.

But the 'Great Leap Forward' and the Cultural Revolution are two policy areas that led to catastrophe for China, and Mao's instrumental role in both these areas of post-revolutionary policy in China will surely forever tarnish his reputation in China and abroad.

- Graham Milner