From Setting the Record Straight

The Cultural Revolution in China: A Revolution Within the Revolution

Revolution #3, May 22, 2005, posted at

The following is taken from "The Truth about the Cultural Revolution" by the Set the Record Straight Project (See RW #1251 for the full article)

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 countryside at 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.

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. And 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.


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 RCP has initiated a project to Set the Record Straight . Its aim is to bring out the truth of these revolutions—their great achievements 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 focus on colleges and universities. We invite all who are interested to take part.