MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events



Cultural Revolution

In September 1965, Mao’s closest associate, army leader Lin Biao, made a speech urging school pupils to criticise ‘bourgeois liberalism and Khrushchevism’. In the frenetic campaign which ensued, the cult of Mao was elevated to a pitch surpassing even Stalin’s cult. The youth particularly were mobilised against any and all tendencies towards independent thought or action in every sphere of Chinese life. All cultural, scientific and educational work was paralysed. Production plummeted as workers spent long sessions in the study of Mao’s ‘thoughts’.

The “Cultural Revolution” was aimed at smashing the Chinese Communist Party, and re-building an administration owing allegiance to Mao alone. The politically uneducated youth and the peasants were used as a battering ram against the Party that had made the Revolution. Prime targets of the campaign were Liu Shaoqi, the head of state from 1959 (accused of the ‘heresy’ of asserting the primacy of the working class, rather than the peasantry), and General Secretary of the Party, Deng Xiaoping.

In the first phase of the Cultural Revolution, the urban youth were mobilised against the intelligentsia and better-off or educated sections of the working class. To this end, Mao appealed to the loyalty of the youth to the Revolution, and taught the youth to regard all manifestations of culture as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. Lessons were stopped, all entertainment and social life other than ‘politics’ denounced, and ‘politics’ reduced to mindless repetition of ‘Mao’s Thoughts’ and the witch-hunting of anyone unwilling or unable to reduce themselves to the same idiotic level.

In the second phase of the Cultural Revolution, the atomised and terrorised population was mobilised against the Party. In December 1966, Mao declared that the ‘bourgeois headquarters’ was in the top leadership of the Party itself, and called on the population itself to overthrow the Party administration in their area. By-passing the Party apparatus in this way (something Stalin never dared do), Mao had no mechanism for controlling or directing the “revolution”. As a result, in all areas of the country, rival groups claimed the mantle, and launched holy war, not only against the “capitalist-roaders” – generally the best elements of the Party – but against each other. China degenerated into the chaos of factional fighting which the Revolution had only just succeeded in overcoming.

The means of Mao’s war against the Party was quite different from Stalin’s. Mao mobilised the general population rather than the secret police as the weapon of terror. Torture and murder were carried out quite publicly, by the public, and were supplemented by very effective social control through the eyes and ears of a thousand million neighbours, friends and family members.

Only four of the seventeen members of the 1956 Politburo survived to the Ninth Congress in April 1969 – Mao himself, his acolyte Lin Biao, the pragmatic and revered Zhou Enlai and Li Xiannian.

In the third phase of the Cultural Revolution, Mao faced again the objective fact that his policy had brought the country to the brink of destruction. Some way had to be found to halt the disintegration. To this end, the urban youth which were out of control in the cities were broken up into small groups and sent to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”. Just at a time when Soviet scientists were beginning to catch up for lost decades during which genetics, cybernetics, information technology, relativity and quantum physics were ideological no-go areas, China went all out for Lysenko-ism. Peasants lectured agricultural scientists instead of the other way round.

Scattered around to vast hinterland of China, put to manual work under back-breaking and primitive conditions, under the control of the conservative Chinese peasantry, they were kept out of harm’s way, while the surviving Party apparatus was given limited “rehabilitation” to get the cities back into working order.

From early in 1969, still under Mao’s leadership, China began to take a rightward course in its foreign policy. The People’s Republic of China was admitted to the UN October 1971. ‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ – beginning with an exchange of ping-pong teams – opened up contact with the US, and Nixon visited China in February 1972, and every new diplomatic contact or trade agreement was now hailed as a ‘victory’ along the road to ‘Socialism’.

The Cultural Revolution did not really end until Mao’s death in September 1976, although from 1971 onwards there was a gradual return to ‘normality’. Less than a month after Mao’s death, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and the other members of the “Gang of Four”, who had led the Cultural Revolution against the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese working class, were denounced as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and jailed indefinitely.

So discredited were the slogans of the ‘cultural revolution’ that in a short time the ‘capitalist roaders’, most notably Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping, rapidly consolidated their power. Deng Xiaoping was eventually to succeed in taking Chinese Stalinism over to the policy of the restoration of capitalism under the political control of the Communist Party.