A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution

The following is an essay I wrote a while back on the history of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), focusing on the trends of worker and student radicalism which became known as the “ultra-left.” I post it here because I believe although Maoism is dead and buried in the West where most of us who I expect to visit this blog live and do political work, the GPCR remains one of the most misunderstood chapters in leftist history. The Right puts it next to Stalin’s Great Terror and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields as the Reasons Communism Doesn’t Work, and I believe that many in anti-Stalinist trends of Marxism have accepted a bit too much of this in the effort to distance ourselves. As I try to explain below, when our ruling class says one thing and the Stalinists say the exact opposite (CR was the most advanced achievement of socialism to this date, etc. etc.) we can fairly assume that both are wrong.


The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (CR) started in 1966 as a fight between two factions of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. On one side was that of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who in the early 1960s had emphasized the economic development of China and were willing to countenance at least short-term inequalities between the elite and the masses. On the other side, Mao Zedong believed in the promise of an egalitarian socialist society, and identified Liu and Deng as leaders of the “capitalist roader” faction that was undermining socialism from inside the party.

As the fight within the Party moved into the sphere of mass political action, these factions generally corresponded to a broad division within the “Red Guard” paramilitary groups: “conservatives” and “rebels.” As the CR wore on, a third grouping emerged alongside them. Called “ultra-leftists” by their opponents, they pushed the idea of a “red bourgeoisie” to its limits, identifying the entire Party apparatus as a new capitalist class exploiting the workers, and themselves as a new revolutionary force that would remold China along the egalitarian lines of the Paris Commune. While they claimed allegiance to Mao and his immediate allies in the Party leadership, Mao would turn against them, the first in a long series of defeats for the CR.

Structural Sources of the CR

A mere fight between factions of the Party leadership is not sufficient to explain the mass political mobilization and violent encounters between factions that characterized the early years of the CR. Indeed, its divisions had specific roots in Chinese society as it emerged from the victorious revolution of 1949. The end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961 consolidated the leadership of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping over the CCP, and this was followed by a return of productivist policies. In the factory, the authority of managers and technological personnel from “intellectual” class backgrounds were strengthened, which contributed to widening income divisions between workers and experts.[1] The workers themselves were divided by the Party and factory management into “activists” and “backward elements.” Activists were those who participated in political campaigns, rate-busted in production, and served as a leader and helpmate to their colleagues, while calling someone a “backward element” could mean that s/he did not fill their production target, showed poor attendance habits at work, or showed a lack of political interest or enthusiasm.[2] This division by management bred deep resentment by “backward elements” toward the activists, which would emerge fiercely in the CR.

Such patterns of advantage and disadvantage dominated Chinese society. The CCP had announced in 1956 that antagonistic classes no longer existed. Indeed, the landlords and capitalists had long since been expropriated.[3] Nevertheless, people of those class backgrounds were regularly targeted for criticism in political campaigns, along with their children, who could no longer share any of their parents’ class mentality. Furthermore, “red” (worker or poor peasant) or “black” (landlord, capitalist, intellectual or rich peasant) class backgrounds served as the basis for enforced discrimination in education and job opportunities.

Education was a source of grievance that would find powerful expression in the student mobilizations of the CR. The children of Party cadres had access to special middle and high schools.[4] At universities, to which they were easily admitted along with other students from “red” class backgrounds, they could focus on political activity as the road for personal advancement. During periods of mobilization, this inevitably included criticizing students of “black” class backgrounds, who by and large focused on their studies for advancement, but were not rewarded for doing so.[5] This bred a great deal of resentment among those students.

Mao and the Origins of the Red Guard Movement

For the above reasons, Mao was not without reason in his conclusion that the revolution he had led was dying.[6] He saw this as the result of a continuing class struggle in China. In his estimation, leadership in one-third of local governments had fallen into the hands of “class enemies,” while a large proportion of state-owned enterprises were not in the hands of Communists. Furthermore, he asserted that a counter-revolutionary “black line” had dominated literary and artistic circles, and that bourgeois intellectuals dominated educational institutions.[7] Mao distrusted the central Party leadership, especially Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who he felt exercised too much arbitrary control. As is well known, Mao ordered the publication of an article criticizing Wu Han’s historical play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office in November 1965. This would be the opening broadside in the CR. However, Mao had determined in advance not only to attack the “black line” in culture, but also “those people in authority within the Party who are taking the capitalist road.”[8]

In line with Mao’s attacks against the educational establishment, school authorities in Beijing came under sustained criticism by students, to the point that they lost control of the schools. Liu, believing that the CR was meant to attack “a handful of anti-Party and anti-socialist elements who had attacked the establishment from the outside,” responded by sending political work teams.[9] Students who were related to Party cadres began “struggling” with “bourgeois authorities” especially intellectuals, who had always been the most vulnerable group to political attacks.[10] However, this step escalated tension rather than bringing the situation under control. Some students attacked the teams themselves and criticized Liu and Deng’s attempts to “tie the hands and feet of the revolutionary masses.”[11] Mao sided with the students against the Party leadership. The work teams were withdrawn, and Liu and Deng were removed from effective responsibility, denounced by Mao as having “enforced a bourgeois dictatorship and struck down the surging movement” of the CR.[12]

The withdrawal of the work teams led to a power vacuum on school campuses. A new force to replace them was found in the emerging student “Red Guard” groups. Already students from “red” class backgrounds had begun to come together in groups to carry the CR forward. In August, Mao endorsed the big-character posters of a group going by the name “Red Guards” at the middle school attached to Qinghua University.[13] With this announcement, such groups began to spring up at every Beijing school. On August 18th, Mao received a crowd consisting primarily of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, and symbolically donned a Red Guard armband. From the outset, however, formations of Red Guards were independent of Party control. Their establishment, recruitment, composition, program, strategy and activities were all under control of their memberships.[14]

Soon, the Red Guards were mobilized to attack the authorities themselves. Mao sought to completely refashion the state structure. As revolutionary mass organizations, Red Guards perfectly suited the Maoist vision of the class struggle that would carry this out.[15] With the travel of Beijing students to the rest of the country, the CR began to espread. Finding the revolution in the provinces “stale,” they took the lead in “bombarding” local governments. Authorities in Hefei were shocked to find thousands of students calling for the disbanding of the Provincial Party Committee. Authorities in Shanghai, Hubei, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Guangdong and other provinces faced similar challenges from Beijing students determined to root out “capitalist roaders” and those who followed them.[16] The endorsement of these “rebels” by Mao and the party center effectively delegitimized every local authority, who had no experience of dealing with challengers independently and derived all their authority from the center.

The CR in the Factories and the Shanghai Commune

Mobilization of students led necessarily to the mobilization of other sections of society. The decision to recognize the first official Red Guard organization among factory workers was taken on November 13th by Zhang Chunqiao in Shanghai, and Mao endorsed his decision the next day. This opened the floodgates: if workers were allowed to form their own mass organizations, no other social group could be denied that right. The Chinese “were free to organize themselves into whatever groups they wanted, as long as they claimed that their purpose was to make revolution under the guidance of Mao Zedong Thought.”[17]

In the wake of the new policy, workers’ Red Guard organizations mushroomed. In Shanghai, mass organizations closely linked to the Party apparatus emerged, which were later called “conservative” by their opponents for that reason.[18] “Rebel” organizations grew as well, and fierce competition began to take place, with factory officials caught in the crossfire. The emergence of the working class as a force in the CR saw the mobilization around demands commonly associated with modern labor movements. Workers in Shanghai from all factions demanded immediate pay increases. Organizations of temporary and contract workers emerged, which demanded the abolishment of the contract system and immediate hiring on a permanent basis amidst factional strife with other Red Guards.[19]

The workers’ movement in Shanghai reached its zenith with the “January Storm” in the first week of 1967. Zhang Chunqiao was able to place himself at the head of the mass movement, and encouraged the return of workers to the factories. He promised that the governing organs of Shanghai would be reconstructed along the lines of the Paris Commune, the original model of proletarian dictatorship for Marxists. With the endorsement of Mao, the Shanghai People’s Commune was proclaimed on February 5th.[20]

It was to last less than 20 days. While the idea of the Commune as a new form of socialist organization seized the imaginations of many rebels, Chairman Mao was less confident. Viewing the Commune model as “too weak when it comes to suppressing counterrevolutionaries,” and fearing that the CCP would lose its role in the revolutionary process, Mao was attracted to the “revolutionary committees” which had taken power in Shaanxi and Harbin. Such committees, which had relied on the decisive influence of the People’s Liberation Army, were formed as “triple alliances” between the rebel Red Guards, the Party and the Army, with the latter clearly as the dominant partner and the mass organizations increasingly excluded altogether.[21]

The decision to replace the Commune model with the Committee model was deeply disillusioning to many CR radicals. It had come at a time, moreover, in which the revolutionary process was facing a severe crisis. While the rebels had thrown themselves into the destruction of the old state structures, they were unclear about what should replace them. Thus the primary goal of rebel organizations had become maximizing their own share of power.[22] Here and there, however, sections of rebel organizations would reject the scramble for power, and attempt to overcome the impasse of the revolution.

The Emergence of the Ultra-Left: A Case Study of Shengwulian

The emergence of the Army as a force, conducting the CR “from above” would not remain unchallenged. The specter of a full-blown civil war between the Red Guards and PLA was raised in the July 1967 Wuhan Incident. There, the army led by General Chen Zaidao, despite strict orders from the center, had intervened on the side of the conservative “Million Heroes” faction against the rebel Workers’ General Headquarters.[23] Many radicals were further incensed by the restoration of Party cadres previously denounced as “revisionist,” which was orchestrated by Zhou Enlai beginning in the spring of 1967. These developments were followed by the appearance of big-character posters in Beijing denouncing Zhou as the leader of the “red capitalist class” in China, slogans that called once again for the establishment of Communes, and efforts by large numbers of student and worker Red Guards against the encroaching power of the Army and Party bureaucracy.[24] Vowing to push back the “February adverse current,” the leftist Red Guards raided government offices and PLA arsenals, and rival Red Guard organizations did battle with each other and with the army in nearly every provincial city.

Out of the Red Guard organizations, there had emerged a new force that would distance itself both from the “official” Maoism that supported the committees and increasingly craven rebel leaderships that sought seats for themselves on the committees. The second half of 1967 saw the founding of groups sharing the name xinshichao: “new trends of thought.” Primarily led by individuals of “black” class backgrounds, they justified this on the basis that “the victims of the previous political movements should be relied upon as the motive force of the current CR movement,” since “those who had been suppressed tended to be revolutionary.”[25] Indeed, this was an accurate observation of the CR-era China, in which “the social and political radicals… tended to be the children of families who made up the privileged classes in pre-1949 China.”[26] The ultra-leftists attempted to answer questions such as, what were the root causes of the CR, what was it supposed to achieve, and how best it could realize its goals.[27] The most conspicuous of them was Shengwulian of Hunan province.

Shengwulian, an abbreviation of the group’s full name, “Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee,” was formed in October 1967. During its short existence, it would produce articles supporting its positions, which attracted attention throughout China and marked the group as the most sophisticated of the “ultra-left” forces.[28] Led by, according to their opponents, a middle school student named Yang Xiguang, a female student named Xie, and an art apprentice called Chang Jiachen,[29] they produced three notable articles including a program, a series of resolutions, and an essay entitled “Whither China?” which elaborated and clarified the group’s theoretical stance.[30] “Whither China?” is a remarkable document which should be discussed in some detail.

Evidently, the essay was written by Yang toward the end of 1967, judging by the dates given.[31] The positions it takes are clearly at the most radical edge of the CR. Calling the CR “a revolution in which one class overthrows another,” Yang identified the two opposing classes as “the revolutionary masses” of the proletariat on one side, and on the other, a class of “Red capitalists” or a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie,” who they identified with the CCP apparatus, especially Zhou Enlai. Since the 1949 Revolution, “the relations between them and the people in general have changed from relations between leaders and led, to those between rulers and ruled and between exploiters and exploited.”[32] In contrast with Mao’s more modest estimation, Shengwulian declared that “90 percent of the senior cadres” had formed “a decaying class with its own particular interests.”[33] Consequentially, the CR movement could not stop at dismissing a few “bad” officials, nor would any “reformist path” be workable. Such a path would end with China resembling the Soviet Union, which Mao had previously described as “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” and “a fascist German dictatorship.”[34] It would have to end by overturning the CCP, which it called a “party of bourgeois reformism that serves the bourgeois usurpers in the revolutionary committees.”[35]

Shengwulian analyzed the course of the CR as a series of advances and retreats against the red capitalist class. In the 1967 “January Storm,” which culminated in the establishment of the Shanghai Commune, the red capitalist class had been overthrown, and “the assets… went into the hands of the people.” The feeling at the time was for the establishment of Communes as a new system of socialist power. Due to the immaturity of the masses, who did not understand the revolution was not one of “dismissing officials,” however, the red capitalists “gained an almost overwhelming ascendancy in February and March. The property and power were wrested from the hands of the revolutionary people and returned to the bureaucrats.”[36] This cycle had been repeated with the “August Storm” followed by the “September Setback.” Shengwulian clearly expected that this would be reversed by new victories of the revolutionary forces.

While the goal of Shengwulian was the “People’s Commune of China,” they thought that if this was established without the understanding of the masses, “in reality they would be sham communes.” The correct policy therefore was to prepare the masses’ strength for the final victory.[37] They had harsh words for the revolutionary committees, which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” The committees were likened to the Provisional Government of Russia in 1917, and Shengwulian itself to the Soviets.[38] Just as in the Russian case, it was not appropriate to overthrow the Committees until the revolutionary masses fully understood the significance of doing so and of establishing the Commune. To aid in this goal, the document hinted at the formation of a new Marxist-Leninist Party.[39]

Shengwulian, however, still clearly regarded themselves as Maoists, quoting the works of Mao throughout the essay and ending it with the declaration: “Long live Mao Tse-tung-ism!” As Meisner writes, the cult of Mao in the early CR period “inspired, and flourished on the basis of, the revolutionary fervor of the people.”[40] While Shengwulian regarded Mao as “the great teacher of the proletariat,” however, they were clearly made uncomfortable by his advocacy of the committees, saying that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why Mao suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. In keeping with their formulation above, they absolved the Chairman because the masses did not yet understand his scheme and thought of it as “utopian.” Hence, Mao had made temporary concessions to the red capitalists just as Lenin did to the Germans at Brest-Litovsk, all with the goal of “arming the left” for the next revolutionary wave.[41] Of course, Mao had no intentions of doing so. He had already fully endorsed the revolutionary committees as the best model for continuing the CR. This would spell the end for Shengwulian and other leftist forces.

Persecution of the Left and the Thermidor of the CR

Shengwulian was just one of many ultra-leftist groups. Beijueyang of Wuhan developed a theory that focused on the peasantry, naming the peasant movement as the group “imbued with the strongest revolutionary spirit,” as the Chinese peasantry was the lowest of all social classes, and the most oppressed class tended to be the most revolutionary.[42] Others developed followings in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shangdong. Toward the end of 1967, there was increased collaboration between them in the attempt to form the new Marxist-Leninist Party forecast in “Wither China?”

The Maoist center of the CCP, however, was in the process of breaking with the most radical of the forces it had unleashed. On January 18th of the new year, Hunan Daily, the provincial Party organ, published an editorial which carried the headline “Thoroughly Smash Shengwulian, a Counterrevolutionary Big Hotchpotch.” Zhou Enlai, Jiang Qing, Chen Boda, and Kang Sheng, chairman of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, all appeared at a public rally in Beijing on the same day to denounce the group, which was certainly a compliment given their relative lack of size and influence.[43] The attacks on Shengwulian carried little of substance, and relied on familiar Stalinist practices of slander. Kang, for instance, declared that Yang Xiguang, being only a middle school student, could not have written the document attributed to him. Behind him, “there must be counterrevolutionary black-hands.” He accused the group of disregarding the thought of Mao and the history of the People’s Republic on the basis of quotes from the program taken out of context, and proceeded to paint Shengwulian as being connected to the Guomindang, American imperialism, Soviet revisionism and Trotskyism all at once.[44] Months of repression would follow for the xinshichao organizations. Yang Xiguang was arrested in February. The same fate met the leaders of Beijueyang.[45] “Ultra-left in form, ultra-right in essence” was the Maoist verdict on the xinshichao groups.

The persecution of the ultra-left was just one part of the general de-radicalization of the CR movement. As early as September of 1967, the army had been instructed to restore order, and the mass organizations were instructed by the center to turn in their arms and not to interfere with the mission of the PLA.[46] By the summer of 1968, the movement had wound down, save for occasional outbursts of violence participated in by more militant Red Guards of Guangzhou and Guangxi. In the case of the latter, Wei Guoqing, commissar of the PLA’s provincial military district, responded with massacres and mass executions of Red Guards which “were shocking even by the bloody standards of the times.”[47] Finally, the Red Guard movement ended where it had begun, among the university students of Beijing. In late July, Mao summoned the student leaders of the Beijing Red Guard factions to a personal audience. When the students complained to him that they were being suppressed by a “black hand” working behind the scenes, Mao responded, “The black hand is no one else but me,” and instructed them gently to disband.[48] The remaining fragments of the movement were mopped up by PLA detachments resembling the “work teams” that Mao had denounced Liu and Deng for at the beginning of the CR.


The CR was started as an attempt by one faction of the ruling CCP bureaucracy to get rid of the other. As in the Great Purges of the Soviet Union (1936-9), its rationale was understood in the form of a conspiracy theory: “capitalist roaders” within the Party, “posing as good Communists and in concert with the remnants of old exploiting classes, revisionist Soviets, and Western imperialists, were plotting… to subvert socialism in China.”[49] What made Mao different from Stalin was his sincere conviction that the masses would have to become involved in order to truly prevent a capitalist restoration. His attempt to mobilize the masses did succeed in turning the CR into a popular movement, but he stopped short when some among the masses began to move in a different direction than he wanted them to go, which he believed threatened the eclipse of the CCP and would result in anarchy.

Despite their small size, the xinshichao organizations represent the best elements that came out of the CR. In contrast to the rebels who could destroy but had no idea how to create, and thus were attracted mostly to becoming the power-holders themselves, the ultra-leftists were able under extreme pressures to develop theories which went beyond Stalinist tropes to perceive acutely, though distortedly, the central conflict of the CR. Although they lacked much influence, once they began publishing their critiques the center quickly stamped down on them, resorting to Stalinist slander. Such is a great testament to the clarity of their vision. In their very existence, they challenged the supremacy of the Maoist center and the legitimacy of CCP itself. In this they foreshadowed a new era.

[1] Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, 3rd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1999), 300.

[2] Wang Shaogang, “The Structural Sources of the Cultural Revolution,” in Kam-yee Law, ed., The Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 67-68.

[3] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 303.

[4] Ibid, 301.

[5] Wang, “The Structural Sources of the Cultural Revolution,” 66-67.

[6] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 291.

[7] Wang Shaogang, “Between Destruction and Construction: The First Year of the Cultural Revolution,” in Law, The Cultural Revolution Reconsidered, 26.

[8] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 313.

[9] Wang, “Between Destruction and Construction,” 30-31.

[10] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 316.

[11] Wang, “Between Destruction and Construction,” 32.

[12] Mao Zedong, “Bombard the Headquarters: My First Big-Character Poster.”

[13] Wang, “Between Destruction and Construction,” 36.

[14] Ibid, 38.

[15] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 315.

[16] Wang, “Between Destruction and Construction,” 39.

[17] Ibid, 44.

[18] Andrew G. Walder, “The Chinese Cultural Revolution in the Factories: Party-State Structures and Patterns of Conflict,” in Elizabeth J. Perry, ed., Putting Class in Its Place: Worker Identities in East Asia (Berkeley, California: Center for Chinese Studies), 174.

[19] Ibid, 182-83.

[20] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 330-31.

[21] Ibid, 331-32.

[22] Wang Shaogang, “‘New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” Journal of Contemporary China 8 21 (July 1999): 198, 204.

[23] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 337.

[24] Ibid, 336.

[25] Qtd in Wang, “‘New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” 201.

[26] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 317.

[27] Wang, “‘New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” 204-205.

[28] Ibid, 205.

[29] Klaus Mehnert, Peking and the New Left: At Home and Abroad (Berkeley: University of California, 1969), 103-105.

[30] Shengwulian, “Wither China?”, reproduced in ibid, 82-100. An abbreviated version, with an introduction by Tony Cliff, may be found in International Socialism 1.37 (June 1969), here.

[31] Wang, “‘New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” 205.

[32] Shengwulian, “Wither China?”, 85.

[33] Ibid, 99.

[34] Mao Zedong, “Some Interjections at a Briefing of the State Planning Commission Leading Group.”

[35] Shengwulian, “Wither China?”, 94-95.

[36] Ibid, 87.

[37] Ibid, 86-87.

[38] Ibid, 87, 96.

[39] Ibid, 94-95.

[40] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 346.

[41] Shengwulian, “Wither China?”, 82-83, 92.

[42] Wang, “‘New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” 207-209.

[43] Mehnert, Peking and the New Left, 20.

[44] “Kang Sheng Criticizes the ‘Program,’” in ibid, 107-116.

[45] Wang, “‘New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” 207, 211-12.

[46] Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 339-40.

[47] Ibid, 344.

[48] Qtd. in ibid, 351.

[49] Andrew G. Walder, “Cultural Revolution Radicalism: Variations on a Stalinist Theme,” in William A. Joseph, Christine P.W. Wong and David Zweig, eds., New Perspectives on the Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1993), 44.

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