The rise and suppression of the ‘ultra-left’ in the Chinese cultural revolution

by Pete Brown on September 20, 2013

Originally published here.

Assessing the Chinese cultural revolution is a complex undertaking. For one thing it is necessary to oppose the present-day rightist atmosphere that prevails in both the U.S. and China and that labels any movement of the masses as “insanity.(1) It’s also necessary to give some credit to Mao Zedong for reforms carried out during this period. As a peasant populist Mao consistently stood for reforms such as improving health care and educational facilities in the countryside, and the cultural revolution did bring about some improvements in this area (at least temporarily).

But it’s also necessary to oppose the diehard enthusiasm of the Maoists and “Gang of Four” cheering squads like the RCP,USA, who negate serious analysis of this period. Mao led the cultural revolution, and the cultural revolution spawned a mass movement that was to some degree a genuine expression of revolutionary sentiments. But it doesn’t follow that Mao led, or wanted to lead, a genuine revolutionary movement. Such a movement would have smashed up the state-capitalist bureaucracy he headed and established a revolutionary-democratic regime based on the working class and poor peasantry who made up the vast, vast majority of the population. Far from trying to lead such a movement, Mao worked to suppress those who were striving to build it.

From the standpoint of the struggle against revisionism, the most interesting feature of the cultural revolution was the rise and demise of the “Ultra-left,” the movement to the left of Mao and the other leading Maoists (Lin Biao, the Gang of Four, etc.). For even though Mao and the other leaders of the cultural revolution talked a good deal about the masses, and opposition to revisionism, the fact is that from its beginning the movement was never meant by its Maoist leaders to be part of a social revolutionary movement. The Maoists themselves were leading lights of the state-capitalist system that congealed after China’s liberation in 1949. This is precisely the system that needed to be revolutionized. Mao, despite his calls against bourgeois elements in the party, essentially backed the system.Hence he ended up with a factional struggle against his enemies — other leading lights whom Mao stigmatized as “Rightist” but whose policies in many cases weren’t all that different from his own. As the cultural revolution went on, its sectarian character became more and more clear to everyone; which is why eventually the masses became disillusioned with the whole thing.

But the interesting thing is that, beyond Mao’s limited aims, the working masses did take up genuine struggles in the midst of the cultural revolution. They did fight for political and economic reforms.They did target revisionism and capitalism. They did strive to build their own build independent political organizations. And outside of China, the cultural revolution did inspire militant activists around the world to seek out new forms for fighting revisionism.

The domination of Mao Zedong, Chinese revisionism and three-worldism was a heavy burden for the newly emerging movement of the late 1960s. It took the new generation of anti-revisionist activists years, sometimes decades, to cast off this burden. Even today groups calling themselves Marxist persist in praising China as “socialist.(2) Thus it is still timely to assess the course and development of the Chinese cultural revolution, as it represents the high tide of Maoism on a world scale and as a pretender to leadership in the anti-revisionist struggle.

Chronology: a “bitter decade” or two years of upsurge?

Western journalists of today follow the present-day Chinese regime’s practice of depicting the cultural revolution as ten years of uninterrupted horror. The usual picture painted is of kindly old professors and promising graduate students suddenly ripped from their creative work and marched out to the countryside by crazed Maoists, who forced them to dirty their hands with productive labor for an entire decade. Supposedly this ruined China’s economy and technological potential; and supposedly China didn’t begin to recover until Deng Xiaoping restored order and implemented free-market reforms in the late 1970s and 80s. And besides ruining China, the crazed leftist ideologues ruined the lives and careers of many creative intellectuals and actually killed — who knows? — thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands or even more. As time goes on, the tales get taller and taller.(3)

The Deng regime’s final summation of the cultural revolution, which has not been altered since Deng’s death, was that it resulted in a “feudal-fascist” type of regime. This is a strange mixing of socio-historical categories. But aside from that, the main problem with this sort of assessment is that it’s too simple. The Dengists try to sum up ten years of history and say it was all negative.But in fact a lot happened in those ten years. The cultural revolution had ups and downs, and sideways twists. (And what revolutionaries call “ups” usually refer to what the Dengists would call “downs”.)

Both the Maoists and the Dengists refer to the cultural revolution as lasting ten years, from 1966 to 1976. But looking at this phenomenon from the standpoint of the masses, the cultural revolution only lasted for a year or two. There was only one or two years, 1966-67 or -68, in which the masses were involved and trying to develop new forms of political activity. These two years were highly significant, however. During this time the Chinese masses for the first time began to throw off state-capitalist tutelage and to develop forms of political participation on their own.

The first big-character poster

“On May 25, 1966, Nie Yuanzi and six others of Beijing University put up a big-character poster . . . directed only at the university’s party committee.” Thus Liu Guokai, a former activist in the cultural revolution, describes the first event of that year that gripped the masses.(4) By “only” Liu means that the poster was not directed at any wider target, anyone in higher echelons.But then he goes on:

“Even then this spread shock and alarm among high-ranking party leaders. Previously all purges had been carried out secretly within the party. Even criticism by name in newspapers had to be conducted under the leadership of various party committees. If unauthorized actions spread unchecked, the whole situation would get out of hand.

Liu goes on to explain that in fact this action was not really unauthorized. Mao Zedong had previously talked the CPC’s central committee into setting up a Central Cultural Revolution Group to supervise the purging of right-wing ideology from the nation’s cultural and educational systems. And the week before Nie’s action Mao got the Party’s CC to approve the May 16 Circular, which reorganized the Central Group, brought it directly under the CCP’s top leaders, and prodded party members to get active in this movement. This Circular was not generally publicized for months, but party members knew about it, and Nie and her comrades were inspired by it. Liu Guokai also asserts that members of the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group visited Nie’s campus right at this time.Then as soon as Nie’s poster had been put up, Mao called the editors of the national party newspaper People’s Daily and had them print it. It appeared on the front page along with a laudatory editorial.Mao himself praised it as “the first Marxist-Leninist big-character poster”, apparently distinguishing it from big-character posters put up during the “hundred flowers” period of 1957.

So the beginning of the cultural revolution, which may have appeared spontaneous, was in fact the opening shot of a campaign organized and orchestrated by Mao and his close cohorts. Over the previous few years Mao had been searching for various means to purge the party of what he considered to be rightist tendencies, but various measures he had tried had been frustrated or gotten nowhere, buried by the bureaucracy. Now Mao had hit upon a new idea, to go outside party channels and publicly name names of party officials, to subject them to criticism from people outside the party. As Liu points out, this made many party officials nervous.

Further, Liu says, their apprehensions

“were by no means groundless. Once broadcast and carried by newspapers, Nie’s poster triggered a chain reaction. A wall-poster movement soon swept across institutions of higher learning in Beijing, with the spearhead directed at their party committees. Wall posters were even put up at the head office of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee to attack the newly appointed first secretary . . . .(5)

This was a reaction no doubt beyond the expectations of Mao and his supporters in the Cultural Revolution Group, and it shows a phenomenon that continued to surprise party leaders for the next couple years: given any prodding or support whatever, the masses responded with tremendous enthusiasm to the call to criticize their leaders. This is important to bear in mind when assessing the cultural revolution, because eventually the movement degenerated into a parody of itself. As Liu describes it, China in the early 1970s was turned into a military dictatorship that on formal occasions would trot out the masses to chant slogans deifying Mao Zedong Thought. Mao emerged victorious over all other pretenders to the throne, his cult converted into a state religion. But this doesn’t mean that the masses did not feel involved in the movement earlier on; or that the issues they addressed were not real, burning issues facing them.The students at Beijing University didn’t need to be told twice to criticize the reactionary academic authorities. Obviously they were fed up with the elitism, the favoritism, and the obscurantist educational theories being fostered on China’s campuses. They seized on any approved form, such as a wall-poster campaign, to express their dissatisfaction. And as Liu notes, right away the students began extending this criticism outside of campus to the local political authorities.

The bourgeois reactionary line

The Chinese head of state at this time was Liu Shaoqi. Liu Shaoqi and the group around him were very concerned about the storm sweeping through Beijing’s campuses, so in early June they dispatched party work teams to “supervise” — in effect, to contain — the wall poster campaign.“On June 6, Liu Shaoqi and his group formulated the ‘Eight-Point Decision by the Center,’ which stipulated that ‘a distinction should be made between inside and outside the party’ [i.e., party members should not publicly criticize party members], ‘wall posters should not be put up in the streets,’ ‘meetings should be held on campus only,’ ‘no demonstrations in the streets,’ ‘no large-scale denunciation meetings,’ etc.(6) To try and appease the movement, Liu Shaoqi allowed the minister of higher education, along with the leaders of many colleges and universities, to be purged. But this did not stop the movement.

. . . things did not develop as Liu had hoped. . . . Many students openly attacked the ‘Eight-Point Decision’ as dogma and a rope that tied the hands and feet of the revolutionary masses.. . . Around June 20, students of as many as thirty-nine institutes of higher learning in Beijing tried to kick the work teams off their campuses. . . . Liu and his group were forced to instruct the work teams to launch a counterattack. From the latter half of June to the middle of July, the work teams lashed out, launching a drive to ‘oppose disruption’ and struck down a good many students (including some teachers), branding them as ‘Rightists,’ ‘sham Leftists, real Rightists’ and ‘counterrevolutionaries.‘ Quite a few students were driven mad by the pressure and persecution, and some even committed suicide. This was what was later condemned by Mao as the ‘bourgeois reactionary line.‘ “(7)

This is a good place to note one thing about the debates that occurred during the cultural revolution. Everyone involved in these debates claims to be a leftist, working-class revolutionary. Everyone involved, including Liu Shaoqi and his group, swears eternal allegiance to Mao Tsetung Thought. They all claim to be supportive of socialism and attack their enemies as bourgeois rightists. So in sorting out trends in the cultural revolution you can’t go by general labels, what people call themselves. What’s needed is analysis of what they stood for in concrete circumstances.

At this point what Liu Shaoqi was doing, concretely, was trying to direct the mass movement into safe channels, channels long run by the CCP in campaigns past. Since coming to power in 1949 the party had run a number of “anti-Rightist” campaigns. The CCP kept dossiers on politically active people, and if they took a wrong stand on some question, could trot out their entire history to expose them. These dossiers included information about their personal and family history, their class background, etc. It was a fairly standard thing for someone accused of a political crime to be accused of “representing the bourgeoisie.” Now by 1966 the old bourgeoisie had pretty much ceased to exist as a class. Those who did not flee to Taiwan in 1949 were eventually eased out of their economic positions in the mid-50s (the state purchased their properties with low-interest bonds) and they were living out their lives, highly taxed and pretty much ignored. Some of them still held jobs in industry and commerce, where they were organized into trade groups integrated into the state-capitalist economy and under the close supervision of the ruling CCP. So these left-over bourgeois did not represent any kind of a threat to the regime. On the other hand, they made a convenient target during “anti-Rightist” campaigns.

The May 16 Circular authorized by Mao continued some of this standard rhetoric against “representatives of the bourgeoisie”, but it went a little further in insisting that bourgeois Rightism was a trendwithin the CCP opposed to the “proletarian Left.” The Circular pointed out that this was a problem for party committees “all all levels.” And it called for discussion of this problem to be “opened wide.” Liu Shaoqi’s counterattack in June and July was aimed at doing the opposite: keeping the discussion narrowed and keeping the party in control, rather than party trends being the target.

It was during this period that the Red Guards made their first appearance. Red Guards were organizations of youths who pledged to carry through the cultural revolution and support Mao Tsetung Thought. They organized the wall poster campaigns, marches and demonstrations, etc.But Liu Guokai points out that they were basically not a revolutionary force, because they came forward at Liu Shaoqi’s call to “oppose Rightism”, which was in reality a call to contain the rapidly spreading movement. The Red Guard organizations that emerged in early summer ’66 were composed of the children of cadres, the offspring of party and government bureaucrats.They actually came from relatively privileged backgrounds. And they had the confidence of knowing they were following in their elders’ footsteps when they took to the streets to condemn the landlord and capitalist classes. Based on their dossiers, they were the cream of Chinese society, while their targets, the leftovers of the old exploiters, were the scum.

Mao urges the movement to open wide

But Liu Shaoqi’s anti-Rightist campaign was cut off in midstream by Mao, who in early August condemned the dispatching of work teams as a ‘crackdown on the masses.

“At the end of July Mao ordered that the work teams be dissolved, and on August 5 he wrote a big-character poster entitled ‘Bombard the Headquarters,’ in which he openly disclosed his intentions in launching the movement. At the same time he presided over the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee (August 1-12), which formulated the ’16-point Decision.‘ The ‘Decision’ pointed out that the ‘main targets of the campaign were power holders in the party who follow the capitalist road.‘ The campaign was not aimed at the common people, nor was it to try to single out Rightists from among the masses.(8)

This changed the character of the movement. According to the Central Committee, now ordinary people with suspect class backgrounds could heave a sigh of relief. They were not to be isolated and picked on by Red Guard contingents. Activists instead were supposed to be aiming their fire at party committees themselves. And this was especially true of the higher party committees — i.e., not just those in the schools and universities, but those with responsibilities covering cities, counties, provinces and even higher organs of power. Instead of organizing the anti-Rightist campaign, party committees were now told that they were the targets of the campaign! And instead of containing and picking on the masses, they were ordered to assist the masses in every way possible, to cooperate with the masses when the masses came to denounce them!

This threw party committees into a state of confusion. They no longer knew how to organize or control the movement. On the other hand, this Decision broadened the scope of the youth movement.Many new elements came forward to join Red Guard contingents. And in fact a whole new stratum of organizations was formed, called “revolutionary Red Guards.” This trend had a sharper, more leftist, political line than the original Red Guards:

“Theoretically, the revolutionary Red Guard movement originated from the theory of ‘class struggle.‘ However, the difference was that instead of the classical theory of ‘class struggle,’ the movement was based on a theory Mao had further developed. The classical theory had as its targets of struggle the landlord, rich peasant, counterrevolutionary, bad element, and Rightist.The expanded theory added to the hit list bourgeois representatives in the party, or power holders who followed the capitalist road. And according to the theory, the newly added categories constituted the principal danger in support of capitalist revisionism.(9)

From now on the cultural revolution was marked by sharp clashes between competing groups of Red Guard contingents. From the outside these often appear as senseless factional struggles (and some of them were). But those who have studied the development of the movement, such as Liu Guokai and Maurice Meisner(10), have analyzed a clear difference in membership and orientation between the original, more conservative Red Guards and the revolutionary Red Guards. Members of revolutionary Red Guard contingents were generally not the cream of the crop in Chinese society, generally not the children of party cadres, military officers, government bureaucrats, etc. They were not the most experienced and articulate political activists. But they came from strata with very definite and heartfelt grievances about the present system. This included some from “suspect” strata such as small merchants, peddlers, teachers, the urban poor, etc.(11)

From their inception in August 1966, revolutionary Red Guard contingents attacked the party work teams on campuses and tried to get them kicked out. At the same time they tried to expand the focus of their attack to local and higher party committees. Meanwhile, party authorities mobilized some of the more conservative Red Guard contingents to attack the revolutionary Red Guards, to defend party work teams and local party committees, and to brand the revolutionary Red Guards as “Rightist.

In the midst of this upheaval Mao opened the movement wider by ordering the cancellation of fall classes. Millions of students now had nothing to do but carry out political/ideological work.The party CC also ordered transportation facilities to give students free passage, and they took to the trains and highways, traveling all over China and promoting the new cultural revolution. In the next few months Mao personally welcomed Red Guard contingents to Peking, reviewing literally millions of them in gigantic parades in Tien An Men Square. This included more conservative as well as more radical Red Guards; all of them agreed in shouting support for Mao Tsetung.

In September the revolutionary Red Guards became bolder and more confident. They interpreted the 16 Point Decision to mean that people should not be condemned simply for their background, and in fact that the old political dossiers kept by party officials should be taken out of the files and burned. This led to sharp clashes at many party headquarters, as the revolutionary Red Guards tried to force party officials to hand over the dossiers. This line was confirmed by the party’s CC, which on November 6 ordered: “Dossiers compiled by the various schools and units during the Cultural Revolution for the purpose of nailing the rank and file should be annulled. They should all be taken out and burned in public.(12) At this time the young activists’ regard for Mao was practically boundless, since he seemed to be liberating them from the CCP’s spying activity and tyranny.

From October ’66 on, revolutionary Red Guards became the majority in the Red Guard movement. The new activists enthusiastically took up the call to criticize Liu Shaoqi’s “bourgeois reactionary line” and his attempts to stifle the movement. The more conservative Red Guard organizations tried to fight back, and in November and December they staged a number of provocative actions. In particular, in Beijing they attacked the Ministry of Public Security and tried to take it over. At this point Mao intervened and had these Beijing Red Guard contingents banned. From this point on, the way was clear for the revolutionary Red Guards, which now went by the name of “revolutionary rebels” or “revolutionary young militants.(13)

The movement spreads to the workplaces

In the fall of ’66 the movement also spread to factories and other workplaces. Red Guard contingents were first set up at workplaces in August and September, but these were invariably conservative groups. They were authorized by the local party or trade union officials, and often their main activity was to protect municipal and provincial party officials from the “rebels.” “Rebel” groups tried to contact workers directly by visiting factories, but they were often attacked and chased away by the factory Red Guards. The latter were weakened, however, by the late-fall campaign to criticize the “bourgeois reactionary line,” and by late November the “rebels” penetrated into factories. At this point a whole new collection of organizations were set up in the factories and offices, and a new “division into two” took place.

Liu Guokai describes the two types of organizations as follows: First were the more conservative groups.

“They, too, criticized the ‘bourgeois reactionary line’ . . . but in a much milder way. They, too, chanted the slogan of criticizing capitalist roaders, but they only heaped abuse on Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, . . . etc., and took a very cautious attitude toward local party organizations. . . . They often sent down orders to their followers to defend the factories, . . . stand fast at their production posts, and guard against disturbance and sabotage.. . .Concerning events in society, they generally took a wait-and-see attitude. They did not approve of or get involved in drastic moves such as closing newspapers, assaulting leading government offices, or seizing ‘black dossiers.‘ Sometimes they even openly expressed opposition.” (14) Liu says the leaders of these organizations were generally people of “high political quality” who maintained good relations with their superiors.These organizations mostly called themselves “proletarian revolutionaries.

But there was also

“another type of mass organization whose founders were mostly commoners. These people, carrying no honorable titles, in the past had shown no enthusiasm and had kept a good distance from party organizations. . . . In sum, they were mostly people of a ‘lower political quality.‘ . . . Organizations of this type launched intense struggle to criticize the bourgeois reactionary line, were determined to destroy the black dossiers, and held an unbending attitude toward the leadership. They were the minority in many units, especially in large factories. However, . . .they had enormous capacity to get things done. This kind of organization actively engaged in things outside of their own work units. . . . They also generally took more radical stances toward social events.(15) These organizations generally called themselves “revolutionary rebels” or simply “rebels.

Liu Guokai’s sentiments are clearly for the “rebels.” Other commentators also note these different types of organizations. And Liu and Meisner, among others, note that the movement was especially strong among semi-proletarian strata, people who were trying to obtain full-time employment but who had been shut out. In China, as in other state-capitalist countries, many benefits were tied to one’s status as a full-time state employee. Full-time regular employees had a residence permit which allowed them to live in the city. They were given low-rent housing. Their workplace also provided them with medical care, pensions, and educational facilities for their children.

But millions of workers were regarded as “contract” labor — temporary employees who were not eligible for these benefits. Many of them were only allowed to live in cities on a temporary basis; when their job assignment was over, they were forced back to the countryside. There were also millions of former urban workers who had been forced out to the countryside during the “three bitter years” of the early ’60s. Urban industrial employment had catapulted during the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), but then fallen drastically again immediately afterwards. During these years millions of workers were laid off and forced to relocate in rural areas. These millions of former industrial workers were seething to return to the cities, where living standards were much higher than in the country.As the cultural revolution spread in late fall ’66 and the authority of party and government institutions began to fall, many of these people began returning to the cities on their own. In December this led to major confrontations, especially in Shanghai.

The January storm

During December and January CCP organizations in many parts of the country became paralyzed by the ongoing upsurge of new mass organizations. Groups of “rebels” took to the streets in massive demonstrations. At the same time they “called out” CCP leaders and subjected them to abuse in large-scale “struggle sessions”. Party bureaucrats who had formerly lorded it over the masses were now paraded through the streets with dunce caps on their heads. The breakdown became so severe that in January Mao and his followers in the central party bodies finally gave a call for the new mass organizations to “take power.

The 16-Point Decision of August ’66 called for the establishment of permanent cultural revolutionary groups. That is, the new cultural revolution was not supposed to be just a temporary campaign, but an ongoing part of Chinese society and, apparently, of the state structure. The Decision called for these bodies to be elected and ongoing groups. But there is no indication that cultural revolutionary groups would, or should, replace party committees and the previously existing state structures.

This situation changed during the late fall and winter. Party cadres became paralyzed with indecision, and party bodies ceased to function. And the rebel groups of students, workers, and semi-proletarians began to take on the role of bodies that the masses looked to for leadership on all questions. Even within the CCP itself, the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group began to supersede the authority of the Central Committee and Politburo. Meanwhile the masses were taking to the streets in Shanghai and other cities and bringing commercial activity to a halt. A large strike of apprentices in Shanghai featured a sit-down demonstration right in the center of the city. Thousands of apprentices gathered en masse there in mid-December demanding better pay and working conditions.

Finally, to restore “order” and get workers going on production again, Mao and his leading Group gave the call for a “seizure of power.” The rebel groups were urged to hurry up and take over the paralyzed party bodies, to occupy their offices and to carry out their functions. Thus Mao and the Maoists seemed to be urging a mass revolutionary overthrow of the old system.

But in fact Mao was simply accommodating himself to the new situation which had grown out of his control. The rebel groups were in fact taking over the functions of party bodies in many schools, factories and localities. The only question was, on what basis were the new ruling bodies to be established? Would they become permanent mass revolutionary ruling bodies or not? And on what basis would higher level bodies be established — i.e., on what basis would rebel groups from differing schools and factories unite to establish new ruling bodies for entire municipalities?

Mao and his Central Group eventually provided the answer to these questions, which provided the dismal outcome to the cultural revolution. But as an immediate step they urged the rebel groups on to a rapid “seizure of power” to restore order in Shanghai and other cities. This was coupled with a shift in propaganda from targeting the party bureaucrats to targeting the masses who were slow about “restoring order.

First off came the attack on “economism.” As mentioned above, many demonstrations and strikes were being organized with economic demands. The part-time, temporary, “contract” workers and apprentices were demanding better pay, benefits and working conditions. Full-time workers were themselves demanding better housing and more equitable pay scales (at this time favored workers were able, through bonus systems, to earn many times what the average worker did). Workers from Shanghai and other cities were sending delegations to Beijing to demand that the national leadership look into their grievances.

While the average worker suffered, party bureaucrats had been living high on the hog for years.As in other state-capitalist countries, the party bureaucrats had access to specialty stores, higher pay, privileged access to cars, telephones, quality housing and schools, etc. As they organized their rebel groups, workers naturally took up demands for a more equitable system, something that fit better their notion of socialism.

But Mao’s answer to these demands was “let them eat cake.” The worker delegations in Beijing were ordered to return to their homes. Workers were urged to return to their workplaces, to stop traveling around and exchanging experience, and to do what they could to disrupt the demonstrations of apprentices and other semi-proletarians. All of this was couched in the language of “the working class seizure of power”, but there was no question about what Mao’s orders were: Get back to work, where you belong!

The Maoists even attempted to paint the struggle around economic demands as a “rightist” struggle. The way they told it, workers who demanded economic benefits were being put up to this subversive activity by old-line party bureaucrats carrying on a sinister plot to undermine the cultural revolution. Now in fact some economic sabotage was being carried out by the old-time bureaucrats and managers. In his book on the cultural revolution(16) K.S. Karol cites the example of “model workers” at a factory in Shanghai being handed wads of money by managers attempting to bribe them to stay on the side of management. In this example the “model workers” — those who benefited from the old pay structure — had joined a conservative Red Guard organization that supported the factory management. But during the “January storm” workers were inclined to desert these organizations and go over to the side of the “rebels.” Managers desperate to maintain the workers’ loyalty apparently went to enormous lengths, in some cases, to do so, even throwing their own factory finances out of kilter in the process.

But the Maoist demagogy confused this type of sabotage and Rightist “economism” with the generally legitimate demands of the working class. Of course the workers should have condemned the disruptions, bribery and corruption carried out by the Right. But what has this to do with the Leftist demands and aspirations of the poorest sections of the masses led by their “rebel” organizations? In fact they are exact opposites. But Mao denounced all such demands as “economist”, disruptive, tools of the Right, etc. Mao and the Central Group refused to countenance any pay raises, insisted that workers should repay any raises they had received, and said that they wouldn’t even consider raises until after the cultural revolution was over. (And according to Mao the cultural revolution was still going on when he died, ten years later.)

This is why Liu Guokai, in his book, is careful to distinguish the “January storm” from the January “seizure of power.” Everyone agrees that there was a “January storm” — that the masses were definitely in motion at that time, rapidly forming organizations that were broader and more leftist than anything before. But earlier commentators (for example, Karol) confused this “storm” with the Maoist “seizure of power.” The way they saw it, the Maoists’ call to seize power grew naturally out of the storm and was its culmination. And in fact the masses had begun seizing power in some local areas beforehand. As we can understand now, Mao’s call to seize power was a way of adapting to the movement and then subverting it by playing on its weaknesses. Mao’s first priority was to get the workers back to their workbenches and keep them divided from the semi-proletarians’ movement. And secondly, to get the rebel activists to reconcile with the old Party bureaucrats.

Mao orders “unity with all those who can be united”

Thus the campaign against “economism” in early January was closely followed by a demagogic campaign for “unity”. During the cultural revolution’s early days, Mao stressed the need to denounce party cadres “taking the capitalist road.” Now the focus of propaganda shifted to “uniting with all those who can be united”, and the leading Maoists clarified that this included almost every one of the old party cadres. This strategy was called “narrowing the focus of attack.” Earlier, when he wanted to rouse a mass movement to deal with his enemies, Mao encouraged generalized critiques of party bureaucrats. But now the word from Beijing was that only a few — a tiny, tiny few party leaders were really bad. The rest — the vast, vast majority — were actually good-hearted revolutionaries who had simply, perhaps, made a few mistakes.

Mao and his cohorts were desperate to cut off the masses as the latter began to generate a movement denouncing the old party bureaucracy as a whole. From the beginning of the cultural revolution Mao occasionally used the rhetoric of narrowing the target to a mere handful. But it wasn’t stressed, and the rebel activists ignored it. But now the workers and semi-proletarians were beginning in practice to act independently, and this is what Mao feared the most. Mao’s Central Committee issued a series of directives, propaganda orders, etc. insisting that denunciations be limited to the very few individuals at the top of the party hierarchy who had been picked out by Mao, and ordering workers to reconcile themselves to the mass of CCP cadres.

It was at this point in the cultural revolution that the denunciations of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping reached mythic proportions divorced from any ties to actual fact. Liu in particular was demonized and blamed for just about every mistake the Chinese party had ever made.Supposedly he had “wormed his way” into the party and somehow sneaked into leading positions (it was forgotten that Mao had supported and nominated him for these leading positions). The history of the CCP was rewritten as a history of the “two-line struggle” between Mao’s “leftism” and Liu’s “rightism.” In any particular case, when it was impossible to construe Liu’s position on a subject as “rightist” or different from Mao’s, this was then interpreted as one of those times Liu was “covering his tracks.

Roderick MacFarquhar’s three-volume work on the origins of the cultural revolution(17)examines these accusations in detail and shows the complete falsity of many of them. First of all, it was totally absurd to paint Liu as a long-time opponent of Mao’s. Liu was a firm supporter of Mao’s party rectification of the 1940s. Liu was the original promoter of the cult of Mao, giving the call to “study Mao Tsetung Thought” at the party’s 7th congress in 1945. Liu and Mao were in agreement on the main policy lines of the Chinese state after liberation in 1949, at least up through the period of the Great Leap Forward (late 50s). In fact Liu was a staunch supporter of Mao’s adventurist economic policies culminating in the disaster of the Great Leap Forward.When Mao withdrew from his official role as head of state in 1959, Liu was the natural choice to succeed him, and it was assumed that he would take over leadership of the party after Mao’s retirement. MacFarquhar’s work shows how far off many of the Maoist journalistic articles of 1967 are, as they tried to reinterpret Liu’s actions in the 1950s as showing “sinister intent.

This does not mean that there were no differences between Liu and Mao. There were, and these differences grew more profound over the years. One of these differences emerged in the party rectification of 1957 which coincided with the “hundred flowers” campaign. Here again Liu agreed with Mao on the main lines of the campaign. Following the 20th Congress of the Soviet party and events in Eastern Europe in 1956 (the Polish party leadership was replaced in an upheaval following the Poznan riots, and the Hungarian government was overthrown by a rebellion), the Chinese party leadership agreed on the need to liberalize the regime and the CCP.And they all agreed on a party rectification campaign to fight against the three problems of “bureaucratism” (stagnation due to vested interests of the ruling party), “sectarianism” (an arrogant attitude towards non-party people), and “subjectivism” (narrow viewpoint due to lack of education and ideological training in Marxism). But while Mao stressed the first two problems, Liu discounted them and stressed subjectivism as the main problem. Mao encouraged non-party people to speak out and criticize the party, while Liu felt that the CCP could reform itself through self-criticism and study. This difference between them was later magnified during the cultural revolution, as we have seen, when Liu thought party cadres should lead and direct the masses while Mao thought the party cadres should be subjected to criticism from the masses.

By the mid-60s Mao had decided to do what he could to purge Liu or at least undermine his power and influence; at the same time Mao promoted to prominence an alternative successor, Lin Biao.Liu’s base of support was the civilian party bureaucracy, especially in the cities; Lin’s base of support was the army. Judging the cultural revolution as a struggle between these factions, we can see Mao’s strategy was to use the army as a base of support and stability; basing himself on that, to rouse a mass movement in the cities against the civilian party bureaucracy; and use the movement generated to purge Liu, Deng and a few other top dogs.

By October ’66 Liu and Deng had suffered so much embarrassment and loss of face that they wrote out the first of their “self criticisms” for the Central Committee and were effectively (if not formally) stripped of their official duties. Thus the major tasks of Mao’s cultural revolution (that is, what he considered the major tasks) had been accomplished, and already at that time Mao began calling for the movement to die out. The party’s CC canceled the policy of free transportation for Red Guards and rebel groups traveling around and exchanging experience. And the CC called for the resumption of classes and for students to return to their desks. (As it turned out, the students refused to comply, and it was to be almost another two years before the CC could get classes going again, and they only did so by clearing away an entire generation of university students, forcing them out to the countryside and replacing them with an entirely new crop of students.) So Mao’s enthusiasm for the cultural revolution didn’t last long — only through August-September ’66, as the students were roused against Liu and Deng. But despite Mao’s loss of interest, the masses themselves continued to show enthusiasm for denouncing party bureaucrats right through the fall and into winter, until by January the CCP as a whole was in a state of paralysis.

MacFarquhar shows the inaccuracy of many of the Maoists’ attacks against Liu and Deng. But it’s also necessary to explain why these absurd personal attacks were launched against them. By January-February the main focus of attack wasn’t really Liu and Deng; they had already been deprived of power. The ferocious ad hominem articles against these two weren’t really aimed at them; they were actually aimed at diverting and disorganizing the “Ultra-left”. The militant “rebel” groups, the dissatisfied strata among the working population, the unemployed and underemployed — all those striving to organize a campaign against state-capitalist exploitation;these now became the “main danger” to the Maoists as they tried to stabilize a new regime similar to the one in the past but without Liu and Deng. “Rebels” who tried to organize campaigns against the party bureaucracy were denounced as “disruptive anarchists”, “‘left’ in form but right in essence”, etc. Activists were urged to get back to work — in fact, state-capitalist managers were ordered to not allow any more time off work for political activity. Attempting to analyze the role of the bureaucracy was denounced as “wrongly broadening the front of attack”, and activists instead were encouraged to spend their time reciting rote formulas of denunciation against Liu Shaoqi and a few other individuals. And instead of doing away with the old party bureaucracy, activists were urged to “unite with all those who can be united with.

February’s adverse current and the Shanghai commune

This campaign was intensified in February and March as the Maoists attempted to consolidate a new regime. This was no easy matter, as the masses were in motion and not enthused about being reconciled to the old party bureaucrats. So at this juncture Mao called on his reliable base of support in the army.

In the fall army units had moved into position around the major cities where cultural revolution upheavals were occurring. But they didn’t move into the cities. Army leaders themselves were chary of getting involved in the revolutionary upheavals, since they weren’t completely sure how their troops would respond. A mild “cultural revolution” had previously been carried out in the army, with the supposed elimination of ranks and the intensive study of “Mao Tsetung Thought.” The army’s commander in chief, Lin Biao, was the most dyed-in-the-wool Mao cultist. So within the army there was generalized support for the Maoist cultural revolution. But the army leaders knew that the cities were a maze of political infighting, and it would be difficult to sort out right from wrong and to re-establish order.

But now Mao insisted that the army move in to “assist” the masses in “uniting all those who can be united.” Beginning in February the army was ordered to supervise the establishment of new state organs throughout the country based on the “three-in-one combination.” This meant that the new organs of power would be a “united front” of three basic forces:

1) representatives from the army, who would play a supervisory and “conciliatory” role;

2) representatives from the new mass organizations, the Red Guards and “rebel” groups;

3) representatives of the old party bureaucracy.

These new state organs would be called “revolutionary committees”; and until they were firmly established, with all contending groups reconciled, the army was ordered to set up “provisional revolutionary committees” by fiat.

As I’ve argued above, Mao’s recognizing the “rebel” groups as a constituent of the new state power was simply an accommodation to the existing state of affairs. The party bureaucrats and managers had in fact been pushed out of power by the mass movement. So Mao wasn’t doing the masses any favors by “recognizing” their organizations; the latter had already proved themselves capable of paralyzing the old regime headed by Mao, Liu and Deng. The question posed by the mass movement in January was, what form will the re-organization of state power take? Would the rebel groups headed by youthful activists be able to work out their differences and then take over and re-structure the economy, the military, etc.? — to do so would probably bring them into direct confrontation with Mao, Lin Biao, and other icons of the cultural revolution. Or would the activists be forced into a compromise with the old bureaucracy?

Mao’s propaganda machine pulled out all the stops to promote the latter solution. Having made a concession to the masses and endorsed their seizure of power, Mao immediately sought to undermine and negate it by demanding that new state organs take the form of the military-led “revolutionary committees” based on “three-in-one combinations.” But the whole purpose of the “three-in-one combination” was to revive the old-line bureaucrats, to restore them to power by forcing the new mass organizations to be reconciled with them. This meant restabilizing the old state-capitalist system and diverting the masses from their drive for political independence.

So in February-March army leaders began calling on everyone concerned to chill out, to stop demonstrating and to send their representatives to the provisional revolutionary committees. And they backed this up with threats of force in the cities. Army troops dispersed demonstrations of workers and others in the major cities. This was coupled with a massive propaganda barrage from Beijing about the need for “unity” and denouncing any opposition as “anarchist,” “Rightist,” etc. There was also a barrage of directives and commands from the Maoist center demanding that students return to their home cities, contract laborers return to the countryside, workers get back in their factories, etc.

This attempt at forming new state organs took off very slowly, however, because of mass opposition. The Maoists’ main victory was in Shanghai, China’s largest and most industrialized city. And even there they could not form the three-in-one combination right away but instead had to cover their victory with a lot of demagogy about the “Shanghai commune.

The call for a commune was in fact a genuine aspiration of the masses in Shanghai, who based themselves on passages in the 16-Point Decision. There it was said that a system of elections similar to the Paris Commune of 1871 would be established. Point 9 of the 16-Point Decision was entitled “Cultural Revolutionary Groups, Committees and Congresses”, and it read in part:

. “The struggle of the proletariat against the old ideas, culture, customs and habits left over by all the exploiting classes over thousands of years will necessarily take a very, very long time.Therefore, the cultural revolutionary groups, committees and congresses should not be temporary organizations but permanent, standing mass organizations. They are suitable not only for colleges, schools and government and other organizations, but generally also for factories, mines, other enterprises, urban districts and villages.

. “It is necessary to institute a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates to the cultural revolutionary congresses. The lists of candidates should be put forward by the revolutionary masses after full discussion, and the elections should be held after the masses have discussed the lists over and over again.

. “The masses are entitled at any time to criticize members of the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates elected to the cultural revolutionary congresses. If these members or delegates prove incompetent, they can be replaced through election or recalled by the masses after discussion.

During January the various new mass organizations in Shanghai began to take power by forming united fronts taking in a wide variety of “rebel” groups. But in February this movement towards unity was pressured by the Maoist center to take in conservative Red Guards, to call off demonstrations, and to begin reconciling with the old bureaucrats. A pair of personal emissaries from Mao (Chang Chun-chiao and Yao Wen-yuan) were sent out from Beijing to take control of the situation (later, after Mao’s death, these two were purged as part of the Gang of Four). These emissaries had the support of army commanders in the Shanghai area and were able to intimidate young activists with their authority of having personal instructions from the Chairman himself.The result was that in the first week of February they were able to announce the formation of the “Shanghai commune” and to call for the end of any mass movement there. The “commune” was originally formed by co-opting representatives from many different mass organizations coupled with the promise that this “provisional” organization would give way to general elections within a short time. But within a few weeks even the promise of elections, “later on,” was dropped; and instead the “commune” began to ease into the Maoist plan of “three-in-one combination.

Revival and the August storm

February’s “adverse current” threw activists around the country into a state of confusion and temporarily stymied the movement. The activists who had looked to Mao for liberation from Liu Shaoqi’s party bureaucrats were now being ordered by the Maoist center to reconcile with them.As a result March ’67 was a period of lull. But beginning in April activists began to go on the offensive once again. They refused to participate in “three-in-one combinations” and declined offers of “support” from army commanders. The latter were also growing increasingly confused by the movement in the cities and were disinclined to intervene more. The result was a general revival of the activity of “rebel” groups.

Through late spring and early summer the “rebel” groups grew stronger and more active. At the same time the army’s top commanders began pushing for more and more intervention by local commanders, to force the activists into “three-in-one combinations.” The result was that army units began to clash with “rebel” groups. In many cases members of local army units sympathized with the “rebels.” Indeed, soldiers had formed their own “rebel” groups inside the army and in many cases smuggled arms to the “rebels” to assist them in fighting conservative Red Guards. There was a danger to the Maoist state that the army as a whole would succumb to the “ultra-left”, go over to the side of the “rebel” groups and scrap the whole plan of reconciliation with the party bureaucracy. At this point (in mid-summer) some army commanders began to try taking a hard line and to establish revolutionary committees by force.

A certain climax was reached with the “Wuhan incident” in late July. In Wuhan the local army commanders formed a three-in-one combination to govern the city but left out the more leftist “rebel” groups. The latter appealed to central authorities in Beijing, who sent out a pair of representatives from the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group to mediate the conflict. In Wuhan these emissaries insisted that the excluded “rebel” groups be taken in as legitimate mass organizations, but the army commanders still refused and instead imprisoned and beat up the two emissaries. Chou Enlai (the government premier) had to personally fly out from Beijing to rescue them.

The result was a wave of revulsion against the army and a new upsurge known as the “August storm.” Ch’iang Ching, Mao’s wife and a popular member of the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group — she was one of the Gang of Four and had some connections to the “Ultra-left” — gave a speech in which she told young activists, “Attack with words but defend yourself with guns.” That is, she counseled them not to take any offensive action against the conservatives or army units; but if attacked, they had the right to defend themselves. “Rebel” groups immediately rushed to get arms and didn’t wait until they were attacked, but instead launched offensive actions in many parts of the country.

The September clamp-down

At this point Mao clamped down. He threw his support behind the beleaguered army commanders and insisted that no more violence would be tolerated. In early September an urgent communique to that effect was sent out by all the leading bodies, civilian and military, and signed by all the top leaders including Lin Biao (who was generally respected by the “ultra-left” groups). Ch’iang Ching was trotted out to the rostrum in Tienanmen Square and gave a speech in which she repudiated her former call to arms. The Central Cultural Revolutionary Group was purged; the most radical members, who had organized a month-long siege of government buildings in Beijing involving tens of thousands of young activists, were eliminated.

The immediate result was another setback and period of confusion for the “ultra-left”, followed by a period of standoff in the fall of ’67. By this time some of the more firm mass organizations began to consolidate and to try and sum up the lessons of the last year. They still refused to participate in three-in-one combinations and tried to form their own organs of state power. The result was that in some areas a system of “dual power” existed: on the one hand the army with the three-in-one combination it was sponsoring, and on the other hand “rebel” groups who did what they could to resist the army.

It was during this period that the most prominent of the “ultra-left” organizations, the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, was formed. (*) The Hunan Committee became a special target of attack for the Maoists as they tried to extend the system of three-in-one combinations around the country. By the fall of ’67 only a couple three-in-one combinations had actually been formed and consolidated in Chinese cities; the rest were still in a state of relative ferment. And at this period the Hunan Committee was putting out programmatic documents calling for determined resistance against three-in-one combinations. This included the manifesto, Whither China?, some excerpts from which are given below. The Maoists fought to suppress this movement and to keep it isolated. To this end they organized a special three-day “seminar” in Beijing in January 1968. At this conference the nation’s leading Maoists (including Kang Sheng, chairman of the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group, Chiang Ching and Yao Wen-yuan) denounced the Hunan Committee up and down, “educating” young activists about the need to repudiate “ultra-leftism”.

Suppression of the “ultra-left”

Apparently the Maoists’ political attacks on the “ultra-left” had some effect, because by the spring of ’68 the army felt able to launch a nationwide offensive against the holdouts. This resulted in large-scale battles with thousands of casualties. The fighting intensified on into the summer, but eventually the “rebel” groups were ground down and dispersed by army troops.(18)Liu Guokai testifies that leaders of the Hunan Committee were imprisoned or killed.Also at this time the government ordered an evacuation of young activists from the cities.Students and other young people were ordered out to the countryside, and this was backed up with directives about their ration cards, residence permits, student IDs and so forth being revoked. Millions of youths were relocated into remote areas of China, their political movement dispersed. The army, together with conservative organizations from the factories, moved into university campuses and occupied them. (This was when Yao Wen-yuan produced his cynical pamphlet, The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership in Everything, meaning that rebel activists must knuckle under to the “proletarian” dictatorship of Mao and Lin Biao).Three-in-one combinations were formed on campuses and at workplaces, and army commanders were finally able to establish the “revolutionary committees” as ruling bodies for China’s cities. By August of ’68 Mao was able to announce the establishment of revolutionary committees throughout the country; this marks the end of the cultural revolution as an event of interest for the working masses. The rest of the story, through the early to mid-70s, is a story of squalid sectarian infighting between the Maoist top dogs, with military dictatorship for the masses.

An important part of Western pop-journalism’s denunciation of the cultural revolution is to confuse the issue of the revolution’s casualties. It’s said that “thousands were killed” and then as example the case of some prominent scientist or intellectual is given, who was denounced by the Red Guards and forced to make a self-criticism. So the impression is given that leftists massacred thousands of decent, upstanding intellectuals. But actually the great bulk of those who suffered in this way were the “ultra-leftists” themselves who fought rearguard actions against the army in 1968. They were the ones killed, they were the ones forced into the countryside by the millions.(19)

Not surprisingly, given Mao’s twists and turns and hypocritical manipulation of the youth, many people in China eventually became sick of the whole thing. By the late 70s the Chinese populace had become quite passive, which helps explain the difficulty today in rebuilding a Marxist revolutionary movement there.

Addendum: Excerpts from Whither China?

Commentators such as Liu Guokai, Meisner and Mehnert have pointed to the Hunan Committee as the most foresighted organization among the “ultra-left”. Mehnert’s book(20) reprints the Hunan Committee’s program, resolutions, and a manifesto entitled Whither China?, all of which were written and published in late ’67 or early ’68. Below we reprint some excerpts from “Whither China?”(21)to give a better picture of the “ultra-left” organizations. A striking point is their worshipful attitude towards Chairman Mao and Lin Biao; this was of course a major weakness at a time when Mao was working hard to smash the “ultra-left”. The manifesto’s writer has a hard time explaining this and at one point simply says these actions of Mao’s are difficult to understand. Many theories were prevalent among the “ultra-left” in those days — that Mao wasn’t properly informed, or was being held hostage by enemies, etc. But it’s significant that Mao’s rightward turn did not deter them; they pursued their policy of opposition to the establishment of three-in-one combinations which they knew meant the death of the revolutionary upsurge, even though they had a limited analysis of the system they were trying to mount opposition to.

From section 1, “The Scientific Prediction”:

. “Even before the Cultural Revolution officially began, Chairman Mao, in his famous May 7 Directive, had already depicted the contents of this new type of political structure — the ‘Peoples Commune of China.‘ But people in general regarded the sketch in the May 7 Directive as an idealistic ‘communist utopia.‘ Everyone thought that it was not practical to take the May 7 Directive as the immediate goal of our recent struggle. . . .

. “. . . The development of new productive forces in China today has brought into conflict the class that represents the new productive forces and the decaying class that represents production relations which impede the progress of history. Moreover, it will lead inevitably to a great social revolution, and a new society will inevitably be born amid the fierce flames.This objective law is the solid basis for Chairman Mao’s scientific — not utopian — prediction. . . . People believe that China will pass peacefully into the society depicted in the May 7 Directive.

. “What is the reality? ‘Peaceful transition’ is only another name for ‘peaceful evolution.‘ It can only cause China to drift farther and farther away from the ‘Commune’ depicted in the May 7 Directive, and nearer and nearer to the existing society of the Soviet Union. . . . The rule of the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie must be overthrown by force in order to solve the problem of political power. Empty shouting about realization of the May 7 Directive, without any reference to power seizure and complete smashing of the old state machinery, will truly be the ‘utopian’ dream.

Here we see that the Hunan Committee had a class analysis that described the party bureaucrats as a new bourgeoisie. And they insisted on “smashing” the state machinery of this ruling class — not just reforming it, as Mao wanted, but smashing it up. This is quite different from Mao’s reformist analysis; in the Circular of May 16, 1966 Mao’s analysis was that “it is . . . necessary to criticize and repudiate those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army and all spheres of culture, and to clear them or transfer some of them to other positions.” There is nothing in Mao’s conception about party cadres as a whole constituting a new bureaucratic bourgeoisie with their own oppressive state machine, but this conception emerges clearly in the Hunan Committee’s analysis. (Unfortunately the Hunan Committee also had a fairly shallow conception of what they were up against, seeming to think they would simply seize some arms and wipe out the bureaucratic bourgeoisie. But at least they had a revolutionary conception, as opposed to Mao’s reformist ideas.) They carry forward this analysis in section 2, “the January Revolutionary Storm” (referring to January ’67):

From section 2:

. “. . . Society suddenly found, in the absence of bureaucrats, that they could not only go on living, but could live better and develop quicker and with greater freedom. It was not at all like the intimidation of the bureaucrats who, before the revolution, had said: ‘Without us, production would collapse, and the society would fall into a state of hopeless confusion.

. “As a matter of fact, without the bureaucrats and bureaucratic organs, productivity was greatly liberated. . . . All departments of the provincial Party committees fell, but the various branches of their work went on as usual. . . . The management of industrial plants by the workers themselves after January was impressive. . . . Their enthusiasm had never been so high, and their sense of responsibility as masters of the house had never been so strong.

. “This was the true content of the class changes in the January Revolution. . . . in this short period some places realized, though not very thoroughly, the content of the ‘Peoples Commune of China.‘ The society found itself in a state of ‘mass dictatorship’ similar to that of the Paris Commune. The January Storm told people that China would go toward a society which had no bureaucrats, and that 90 per cent of the senior cadres had already formed a privileged class.

. “. . . this class of ‘Red’ capitalists had entirely become a decaying class that hindered the progress of history. The relations between them and the people in general had changed from relations between leaders and the led, to those between rulers and the ruled and between exploiters and the exploited. From the relations between revolutionaries of equal standing, it had become a relationship between oppressors and the oppressed. The special privileges and high salaries of the class of ‘Red’ capitalists were built upon the foundation of oppression and exploitation of the broad masses of the people. In order to realize the ‘Peoples Commune of China,’ it was necessary to overthrow this class.

. “. . . the Cultural Revolution is not a revolution of dismissing officials or a movement of dragging out people, nor a purely cultural revolution, but is ‘a revolution in which one class overthrows another.‘ With relation to the facts of the January Revolutionary Storm, the overthrown class is none other than the class of ‘bureaucratism’ formed in China in the last 17 years.

. “There is no place here for reformism . . . or peaceful transition. The old state machinery must be utterly smashed. . . .

. “The problem of system, policy, and guideline touched upon in the January Revolution mainly concerned such capitalist systems of labor employment as contracted labor and temporary labor, as well as the revisionist movement of going to the mountainous areas and the countryside [i.e., the Maoists’ attempt to disperse the movement by urging activists to go to the rural areas].

Note that the author clearly analyzes that the oppressor class is the one formed “in the last 17 years”, i.e. since China’s national liberation in 1949. Thus when the author goes after the “bourgeoisie”, he (she?) is not targeting the old bourgeoisie targeted by Mao as the source of reaction. Mao talked about revisionist individuals who have “sneaked into” the Party, these individuals being “representatives of” the bourgeoisie. But the Hunan Committee targets the Party bureaucrats themselves as the oppressor class, the new Red bourgeoisie. Note also, in the last paragraph above, that the Hunan Committee supports the economic struggles of the working class being waged at this time that were denounced by the Maoists as “economism.

From section 3:

Section 3, “The Revolutionary Committees”, examines the question of the new organs of state favored by Mao, the Revolutionary Committees based on the three-in-one combinations. The author has trouble explaining why Mao came out in support of these organizations. But despite Mao’s endorsement, the author maintains opposition in this section’s last paragraph:

. “The three-in-one combination is the concrete content of the Revolutionary Committees.Proposing the three-in-one combination is tantamount to helping the reinstatement of the bureaucrats already toppled in the January Revolution. Moreover, the three-in-one combination will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and local bureaucrats will play a leading role. . . .

From section 7:

This question is further elaborated in section 7, “The Political Enlightenment of the Proletariat”, where some shortcomings of the movement so far are discussed:

. “. . . the Revolutionary Committee is a product of the ‘revolution of dismissing officials.‘ In Hunan, [two leading party bureaucrats] were dismissed from office, but that did not remove the acute antagonism between the new bourgeoisie and the masses of the people.. . . A new bourgeois reactionary line, and a new adverse current of capitalist restoration, have again appeared.A complete and stable ‘distribution of property and power’ has not been realized. The revolution of dismissing officials is only bourgeois reformism which . . .changes the new bureaucratic bourgeois rule prior to the Cultural Revolution into another type of bourgeois rule by bourgeois bureaucrats and a few representatives from several attendant mass organizations. The Revolutionary Committee is a product of bourgeois reformism.

. “Problems cannot be solved by merely dismissing a few officials. Bourgeois reformism will not work. . . .

Section 7 also calls for a new proletarian revolutionary party to be formed:

. “. . . During the violent class struggle in July and August [1968], a very small number of ‘Ultra-leftists’ put forward the demand that the ‘Ultra-left should have its own political party.‘ It was felt necessary to have the basic level organizations of a revolutionary party . . . to actuate the people to overthrow the new bourgeoisie . . . [This] became, for the first time, a practical and steadily growing demand of the fighting proletariat . . . .

And as seen in the following quote the author expresses strong skepticism that the old CCP could ever be re-formed as a genuine revolutionary party. Here again the author goes against the Maoist grain: at this time Mao and Chou Enlai were working desperately to rebuild the CCP and had announced that the Party’s 9th Congress would take place in 1969:

. “. . . The convening of the 9th National Congress of the Party is not expected to settle completely the question of whither the Communist Party is going. The political party that will emerge in accordance with the provisions promulgated by the present Central Committee for rehabilitation, regulation, and rebuilding of the Party (if such a party can be formed) will necessarily be a party of bourgeois reformism that serves the bourgeois usurpers in the revolutionary committees. The convening of the 9th Party Congress will be only a reflection of local ‘revolutionary committees’ in the Central Committee . . . This determines the fact that the ‘9th Congress’ can never thoroughly settle the question of whither China is going . . . .

Unfortunately these predictions turned out to be only so true. By smashing the “Ultra-left” in 1968 the Maoists were able to go ahead and rebuild the CCP and hold their 9th Congress. This Congress, which starred Lin Biao as the hero, was billed as the “victory congress” of the cultural revolution. What it actually signified was the victory of military despotism over the masses, the consolidation of the three-in-one combinations and the restoration of the old bureaucrats. For the masses it left the question of “whither China?” unresolved to the present day.


(1) For example a recent issue of Time magazine with a special article on prominent statesmen of the 20th century put Mao Zedong in the category of a great mass murderer and cited his leadership of the cultural revolution as proof of his fanaticism. (Retutrn to text)

(2) For example the Spartacist League, in their newspaper Workers’ Vanguard (No. 701, 20 November 1998), declares that they “. . . stand for unconditional military defense of China and the other remaining deformed workers states against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution . . .” (p. 4). The SL likes to throw around phrases against “the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state”, but when push comes to shove they will defend that state to the death against not only imperialist attack but also against “internal counterrevolution” — i.e., protest movements that arise from among the Chinese masses and which might threaten the SL’s beloved “workers state.” (Text)

(3) A recent reportage-type book on China raises the ante to the level of cannibalism. See China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn (Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1995). Kristoff and Wudunn are two New York Times reporters assigned to East Asia in the 1980s and 90s. They assert that fanatic Maoists ate their opponents during the cultural revolution, and forced ordinary peasants to do the same. (Text)

(4) Liu Guokai, A Brief Analysis of the Cultural Revolution. Edited by Anita Chan. M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1987. See p. 16. (Text)

(5) Ibid. (Text)

(6) Ibid., p. 18. (Text)

(7) Ibid. (Text)

(8) Ibid., p. 23. (Text)

(9) Ibid., p. 32. (Text)

(10) See Meisner’s book, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, published by The Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc., in 1986. (Text)

(11) Liu Guokai, A Brief Analysis . . ., p. 37. (Text)

(12) Ibid., p. 35. (Text)

(13) Ibid., p. 41. (Text)

(14) Ibid., p. 44. (Text)

(15) Ibid. (Text)

(16) Karol, K.S. The Second Chinese Revolution. Translated from the French by Mervyn Jones.Hill and Wang, New York, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973. (Text)

(17) MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Published for The Royal Institute of International Affairs & The East Asian Institute of Columbia University & The Research Institute on International Change of Columbia University by Columbia University Press, 1983. I have so far consulted Volume 1: Contradictions Among the People 1956-1957 and Volume 2: The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960. (Text)

(*) The Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee was also known as the Shengwulien or Shengwulian, a term which is, in Chinese, an abbreviated form of the Committee’s name. (Note added in 2011.) (Text)

(18) Meisner agrees with Liu Guokai on the basic facts about this suppression, although he’s much more sympathetic to Mao than Liu is. (Text)

(19) An interesting story is told about Mao’s suppression tactics by a number of different commentators. As their campus was being invaded, student leaders at Beijing University made a desperate last-minute appeal to Chairman Mao. The latter deigned to grant them an audience. At this meeting the student leaders insisted they were the foremost champions of Mao Tsetung Thought and were prepared to defend to the death Mao’s revolutionary banner. The only trouble, they said, was that some sinister “black hand”, unknown to them, was conspiring against them.Mao replied, “That black hand is me.” The crestfallen student leaders then peacefully evacuated the campus. (Text)

(20) Mehnert, Klaus. Peking and the New Left: At Home and Abroad. Center for Chinese Studies, China Research Monograph, Number Four. University of California, Berkeley, 1969.(Text)

(21) Ibid., pp. 87-100.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ethan young September 20, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Two other views should be investigated and analysed: the CPSU and the Vietnamese Communists. They are not the same. The Viets had a strong pro-CCP strain until the Nixon visit. After the war, they rolled out a more comprehensive critique of the CCP – not just the GPCR and the Sino-Soviet split, but the Long March and the pro-peasant bias of the CCP. Of course a people at knife-point with the US will have very different priorities than China in the grips of enormous (and reckless) economic experiments. IMO tying everything up with a state cap bow does not allow us to get the deeper lessons.


rationalrevolution September 20, 2013 at 8:04 pm

After about 6 paragraphs it looks interesting, I’ll have to read the whole thing when I have time…


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