Setting the Record Straight

The Truth About the Cultural Revolution

Revolutionary Worker #1251, August 29, 2004, posted at

The rulers constantly bombard us with the message that "communism is dead," that it hasn't worked and cannot work, and that revolutions in power lead to tyranny. One aspect of their ideological crusade is to systematically distort the revolutionary experiences of the Soviet Union and China, especially the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And the lies and slanders they put out often have the veneer of factuality.

The Revolutionary Communist Party has initiated a project to SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Its aim is to bring out the truth of these revolutions--their great achieve- ments and victories, along with their mistakes and shortcomings--and to bring forward the works and insights of Bob Avakian in summing up these experiences and pointing to lessons for humanity today. The campaign will involve research, writing, debates, and outreach. It will focus on colleges and universities. Our goal is to significantly influence the terms of discussion and debate around communism and the historical experience of socialist revolution. We invite all who are interested to take part.

The first effort of this project is a fact sheet that refutes the charges and distortions of the bourgeoisie: Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong: Frequently Asked Questions About Socialism, Communism, and the Cultural Revolution. An excerpt follows.

China's Cultural Revolution is so controversial. Many accounts describe it as a power-mad purge of opponents by Mao Tsetung that plunged China into great chaos. What was it really about?

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 was a mass revolutionary upsurge involving hundreds of millions of people. It was a kind of "revolution within the revolution."

In 1949, China's worker-peasant revolution overthrew the old order. The revolution established a socialist political and economic system that empowered the masses and brought great benefits to people (see "Setting the Record Straight: Economic and Social Achievements Under Mao," RW No. 1248). But significant economic differences and social inequalities still existed in the new socialist society. Most dangerously, a new privileged elite had emerged. Its political-organizational center was right within the Chinese Communist Party, and its political and ideological influence was growing.

By the mid-1960s, the top capitalist-roaders (so called because they were high-ranking Party leaders who used a watered-down Marxism to justify taking China down a political-economic road that would lead to the restoration of capitalism) were maneuvering to seize power. Their goal was to re-institute systems of exploitation and to open China back up to foreign domination--in short, to turn China into the "sweatshop paradise" that it is today!

Far from being a "palace power struggle," the Cultural Revolution was a profound and intense struggle over the direction of society and over who would rule society: the working people or a new bourgeois class.

Mao and the revolutionary forces in the Communist Party mobilized people to rise up to prevent capitalist takeover and to shake up the higher levels of the Party that had become increasingly cast in a bourgeois-bureaucratic mold. But the Cultural Revolution was much more than that. The masses were carrying forward the revolutionary transformation of the economy, social institutions, culture, and values and were revolutionizing the Communist Party itself. This is what Mao called continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.1

But was this really a popular upheaval? Mostly what you hear was that it was a terrifying "cleansing" of society.

The Cultural Revolution was not about "round-ups," people being sent to "forced-labor camps," or "totalitarian group-think." The methods of the Cultural Revolution were quite different. Workers, peasants, and people from all walks of life engaged in mass criticism of corrupt officialdom. They engaged in great debates about economic policy, the educational system, culture, and the relation between the Communist Party and the masses of people. Mao wasn't interested in "purges." He was calling for mass action from below to defeat the enemies of the revolution. Here are some examples of how the Cultural Revolution was waged.

Wasn't great violence perpetrated during the Cultural Revolution, with many innocent people suffering?

Standard Western accounts suggest that violent attacks on people and physical elimination of opponents had the official blessings of Mao--and that, policy or not, thuggish violence was widespread. Both of these claims are utterly false.

Mao's orientation for the Cultural Revolution was clearly spelled out in official and widely publicized documents. In the Sixteen Point Decision , it was stated: "Where there is debate, it should be conducted by reasoning and not by force."3 Other Maoist policy statements gave further direction. For instance, Red Guards were not allowed to carry weapons or to arrest or try anyone.

Mao called on the masses to "bombard the headquarters" and overthrow the handful of capitalist-roaders who were trying to lead society back into the clutches of capitalism. These were overwhelmingly political uprisings. Mass debate, mass criticism, and mass political mobilization--these were the main forms of class struggle during the Cultural Revolution. Party and administrative officials at all levels were given the opportunity to reform and participate in the struggle (and no more than 3% of cadre were even expelled from the Party--not exactly a draconian purge).

Was there violence? Yes, there was. This was intense and turbulent class struggle. In an unprecedented mass movement of this scale (we're talking about 30 million young activists alone).in a country of this size (800 million at the time).it would be hard to imagine otherwise. And it is inevitable that any great social movement that rights injustices is going to lead to some excesses. But three points must be stressed.

First, the violence that did occur was limited and sporadic--it involved only a minority of the movement.

Second, where harmful trends persisted on the people's side--for instance, Red Guard students physically attacking people or humiliating officials, or people using the movement to settle personal scores and grievances--these things were criticized, condemned, and struggled against by the Maoist leadership. Take one crucial episode of the Cultural Revolution that you seldom hear about. In Beijing, workers following Mao's line went into the universities to put a stop to factional fighting among students and to help them sort out differences.4

Third, much of the violence that occurred was in fact fanned by high-ranking capitalist-roaders seeking to defend their entrenched positions. When they came under sharp criticism, one of their tactics was to mobilize groupings of workers and peasants to attack sections of people in the name of the Cultural Revolution. They even created their own conservative Red Guard formations that went on rampages! This was part of their effort to deflect the struggle away from themselves and to discredit the Cultural Revolution.

These capitalist-roaders eventually succeeded in overthrowing proletarian power in 1976. And speaking of reactionary violence, they were the ones who turned the army loose on protesting students and workers at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

What about the treatment of artists and intellectuals and the policy of sending people to the countryside?

Artists, intellectuals, and professionals were not targeted as a social group or stratum. Artists were encouraged to engage in the revolutionary movement. This included carrying out self-examination of how their works either advanced the revolution or held it back, and viewing their work in the context of the struggle to create a new society. The Cultural Revolution was aiming to foster revolutionary art that would portray the masses and help the masses propel history forward.

One of the objectives of the Cultural Revolution was to break down the cultural lopsidedness that existed in China. It was a social situation in which artists, intellectuals, and professionals were concentrated in the cities, and in which their work was largely divorced from the greater society, especially the 80% that lived in the countrysideat the time. The Cultural Revolution spawned society-wide discussion about the need to narrow the inequalities between mental and manual labor, between city and countryside, between industry and agriculture, and between men and women.

Artists, doctors, technical and scientific workers, and all kinds of educated people were called upon to go among the workers and peasants: to apply their skills to the needs of society, to share the lives of the laboring people, to exchange knowledge, and to learn from the basic people. Great numbers of youth and professionals answered Mao's call to "serve the people" and go to the countryside.

Now for social change to take hold, it was also necessary to institutionalize new social policies. For instance, high school graduates were required to spend at least two years in rural villages or factories before being considered for college. So there was an element of coercion (policies were enforced)--but would you object to school desegregation because it was mandated? And for many intellectuals, abandoning privilege and integrating with the masses in the countryside was a tremendous experience.5

Attacks on the Cultural Revolution for "ruining lives" and "destroying careers" are really taking issue with the Cultural Revolution's radical, anti-elitist social policies.

It is often alleged that the policy of sending doctors and engineers and intellectuals and other skilled people to the countryside was "punishment." No, it was not. This policy has to be seen in a larger social-economic context of Maoist China's quest to achieve balanced and egalitarian development. In the Third World, there is a crisis of chaotic urbanization and distorted development: overgrown and environmentally unsustainable cities with rings of squalid shantytowns; massive inflows of rural migrants who cannot find work; economic policies, educational systems, and health care infrastructure skewed to the well-off in the cities at the expense of the urban poor and the countryside.

Maoist China was consciously seeking to avoid Western-style urban overconcentration, integrate industrial and agricultural development, decentralize productive capabilities, and overcome regional inequalities. It was a strategy of development that paid attention to the welfare of the countryside and gave priority to the needs of the formerly exploited and neglected.

But I've read or heard about many first-hand accounts of the Cultural Revolution that describe great personal agony.

Different social classes and their literary representatives have very different conceptions of what's "right" and what's "wrong," of what's "horrible" and what's "liberating." The fact that someone "lived through an event" doesn't change this in the slightest, or necessarily give him or her special insight.

Many privileged urban-professionals in China felt "wronged" by the Cultural Revolution. They were subjected to criticism; their normal routines of life were disrupted; their privileges were undercut. These were the "wounds" they suffered, and this is the story they tell...with no small amount of distortion. It is hardly surprising that such works are lavishly praised and promoted in the U.S. and in China (where the enemies of the Cultural Revolution came to power in 1976). Positive assessments of the Cultural Revolution and positive "inside accounts" of what it meant for the ordinary laboring people don't generally get published.

Think about it for a second. What kind of understanding of the French Revolution would you gain from someone who was part of the old aristocracy? What would you learn about the U.S. Civil War from a member of the plantation gentry? Or about the struggle today around affirmative action in education from a white person who describes his "persecution" when he was skipped over for admission to his law school of choice? It stands to reason that such "eyewitness accounts" would be deeply biased against social change.

It's no different for the Cultural Revolution. More privileged social forces see, and distort, the Cultural Revolution through a particular social lens. This is not to say there's nothing that can be learned from any of these works, or that no mistakes were made in how some people were treated. But these highly personal narratives greatly misrepresent the actual events, the mass movement, and the main trends of the Cultural Revolution. They obscure the class interests and social programs that were in real opposition and conflict.

Can you point to real accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution?

First and foremost, the Cultural Revolution succeeded in maintaining proletarian rule and preventing capitalist takeover in China for 10 years (1966-76). It also led to profound social and institutional changes and deepened the orientation of organizing society around the principle of "serve the people." Here are some examples.

In conclusion.

The Cultural Revolution was an historic event without precedent. In a situation in which a socialist system had been established, Mao and the revolutionaries in the Chinese Communist Party mobilized the activism and creativity of the masses to prevent the restoration of the old order and to carry forward the socialist revolution towards communism: the elimination of classes and all oppressive relations. History has never seen a mass movement and struggle of such scale and guided by such revolutionary politics and consciousness. History has never seen so radical an attempt to transform economic relations, political and social institutions, and culture, habit, and ideas.

Were there mistakes and shortcomings in the Cultural Revolution? Yes, even some serious ones. But viewed in the context of its enormous achievements, and certainly set against the horrors of capitalist society, these are secondary.

But the communist revolution cannot stand still. It has to critically learn from its experience, not fear to interrogate itself, and advance further and do better. Bob Avakian has been providing the pathbreaking Marxist- Leninist-Maoist understanding to do just that.

Bob Avakian has been bringing forward a vibrant vision of socialism and communism. He has been enlarging the understanding of the tasks and contradictions of revolutionary leadership and how the masses can be unleashed to rule and transform society. He has been speaking to the indispensable role that dissent plays in socialist society, especially in contributing to the critical spirit that must permeate all of society. He has drawn attention to the importance of the intellectual and cultural spheres under socialism and that socialist society needs--and must foster--great intellectual ferment, creativity, and experimentation.10

If you hunger for a different kind of world…you need to explore the truth of the Cultural need to explore the visionary writings of Bob Avakian.


1 See Bob Avakian, Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1979), chapters 6 and 7.

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2 Mobo C. F. Gao, "Debating the Cultural Revolution: Do We Only Know What We Believe," in Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, (2002), p. 428.

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3 "Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (Adopted on August 8, 1966), in Important Documents on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1970).

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4 Han Suyin, Wind in the Tower (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), Part II, chapters 3-5.

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5 See, for example, Xueping Zhong, et. al., Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2001).

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6 Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Educational Reforms and Their Impact on China's Rural Development (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), p. 88; Suzanne Pepper, "Education," in Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank, eds., The Cambridge History of China, Vol. XV (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), p. 416; Ruth Gamberg, Red and Expert: Education in the People's Republic of China (New York: Schocken, 1977).

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7 Gao, "Debating the Cultural Revolution," pp. 427-430. Gao, who participated in the Cultural Revolution, describes the impact of the new culture in villages like his: "The rural villagers, for the first time, organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking operas with local language and music. The villagers not only entertained themselves but also learned how to read and write by getting into the texts and plays. And they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love. These activities gave them a sense of discipline and organization and created a public sphere where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and it has never happened since" (p. 428).

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8 See Stephen Andors, China's Industrial Revolution (New York: Pantheon, 1977).

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9 See Science for the People, China: Science Walks on Two Legs (New York: Avon, 1974).

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10 See, for instance, Bob Avakian, "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production--Questions of Outlook and Method"; "Reaching for the Heights and Flying Without a Safety Net"; and "Dictatorship and Democracy, And the Socialist Transition to Communism," all available online at

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