Socialism Is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World

Part 12: The Cultural Revolution in China, A Seismic Eruption of Liberation

Revolution #039, March 19, 2006, posted at

It’s August 18, 1966. Mao Tsetung is standing on the same terrace overlooking the same square in Beijing from which he spoke in 1949 upon the victory of the revolution. Only now he is reviewing the first public rally of revolutionary youth. They are called the Red Guards. A million have assembled. They are celebrating because just two weeks earlier Mao had written an extraordinary wall poster entitled "Bombard the Headquarters."

This was something no revolutionary leader in power, indeed no leader who has ever been in power, had done before in history. Mao was calling on people to challenge oppressive ruling structures: to rise up and overthrow top party and government officials who were trying to take China down the capitalist road. He was calling on people to seize back from below those portions of political power and those portions of the economy, culture, and education that had come under the control of the capitalist roaders.

Mao was launching a revolution within the revolution.

The Red Guards as Catalysts

At the August rally, Mao motions to the crowd and puts on a Red Guard armband. It's a signal of support and encouragement to the revolutionary youth. Mao wants to unleash their questioning and rebellious spirit. And the Red Guards would play a key role in getting the Cultural Revolution going.

You have to understand China at the time. You had this entrenched section of party and administrative leaders who were, as I said earlier, promoting bourgeois policies camouflaged as Marxism. Many peasants and workers assumed that their leaders, if they called themselves communists, must be good. Mao wanted to puncture this willingness to go along with the status quo. He wanted to puncture the arrogance of the capitalist roaders. The fact is that in many factory units and rural areas, people were simply scared to criticize leadership.

Enter the Red Guards.

The Red Guards created a sensation in society. They organized protests and discussions. They criticized officials, high and low. They called out school administrators who acted like big shots. The older generation had gone through revolution in the 1930s and 1940s in the struggle against the Japanese and the U.S.-backed forces of Chiang Kai-shek. Now a new generation was plunging into revolution. The government allowed youth to travel free on the trains. The Red Guards took off to different regions and to the countryside, hiking and clambering aboard army vehicles. They visited villages to meet with peasants--people from whom they had been cut off and taught to look down upon.

The Red Guards were catalysts. They emboldened people to lift their heads, to speak up, and to speak out. Listen to this account from one peasant:

"The Red Guards were very organized. They divided themselves up and visited every household in the village. They read quotations and told us about the Cultural Revolution in Beijing and Shanghai. Never before had we had so many strangers in the village. They asked us about our lives. They wanted to learn from us. They asked us how we are managing things here in the brigade. They entered into discussions with the leading cadres of the brigade and asked about work points [this was the system of payment in the communes]. I got the book of Mao's quotations from them [this was the Red Book]. They distributed it to various households. In the end, we all had it. Those Red Guards meant a lot to us. And we went on reading the quotations after they'd gone. We read and compared those quotations to what was being done here, and came to the conclusion that a lot of things needed changing." (Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle, China: The Revolution Continued [New York: Vintage, 1972], pp. 106-107)

Mao’s Orientation for the Cultural Revolution

The bourgeoisie hates the Cultural Revolution that took place in China. They talk about it as "thought control." They paint a picture of crazed Red Guards going on destructive rampages. We are swamped with high-profile studies and memoirs that talk about the Cultural Revolution as violence and retribution. But this was not the fundamental reality of the Cultural Revolution.

First of all, the Cultural Revolution was not a violent free-for-all. The Maoist leadership issued guidance for conducting the Cultural Revolution. One of the main documents, and people should read this, was called the "16- Point Decision." Here are some excerpts from Mao's instructions:

  • "Let the masses educate themselves in the movement and learn to distinguish between right and wrong and between correct and incorrect ways of doing things."
  • "Concentrate all forces to strike at the handful of ultra-reactionary bourgeois rightists. The main target of the present movement is those within the party who are in authority and are taking the capitalist road."
  • "A strict distinction must be made between the two different types of contradictions: those among the people and those between ourselves and the enemy. It is normal for the masses to hold different views. Where there is debate, it should be conducted by reasoning, not by coercion or force"
  • 1

This was the orientation. Was there disorder? Yes. Were there excesses and violence? Of course. This was a revolution. But the Maoist revolutionaries tried to keep this movement going in the right direction through all its turmoil: mass debate, mass criticism, and mass political mobilization.

One famous episode illustrates the point. At Tsinghua University, there was considerable factional fighting among students. Eventually it turned violent. In response, the Maoist leadership dispatched a team of unarmed workers to enter the university to help the students sort out and settle their differences.

NEXT WEEK: The Cultural Revolution--Complex and Liberating Struggle


1. "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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