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

Part 13: The Cultural Revolution—Complex and Liberating Struggle

Revolution #042, April 9, 2006, posted at

One of the major distortions about the Cultural Revolution is that Mao masterminded and manipulated whatever happened. Mao is said to be responsible for every act and struggle that took place. Mao is held responsible for any and all cases of violence. There is a notion that everything issued from a single locus of power and decision-making—from Mao.

Different class and social forces were involved in the Cultural Revolution. There were the genuine Maoists in the party and mass organizations. There were anti-Mao groupings within the party who organized students, workers and peasants. And there were conservative military forces, ultra-left groupings, mass organizations that divided into rebel and conservatives camps, criminal elements, and others. Different social interests and motivations were in play. Some people used the Cultural Revolution to settle personal grievances. Often, the enemies of Mao within the Party who were coming under political attack would resort to the tactic of pretending to uphold Mao and incite factionalism and violence in the name of the Cultural Revolution. They would do this in order to deflect the struggle away from them and to discredit the revolutionary movement. The reality was that the Cultural Revolution was a complicated struggle over which class would rule society: the proletariat, which in alliance with its allies who make up the great majority of society continues the revolution to transform society, or a new bourgeois class.

Yet through the course of this struggle, Mao and the revolutionary leadership were able to lead it in a certain direction: focusing the political struggle against the top capitalist roaders, further revolutionizing society, and empowering the masses.

Think about what was happening. Mao was unleashing hundreds of millions to wrangle and debate over the direction of society, and to take responsibility for the fate of society. Nothing like this has ever happened before in history. In the United States and other bourgeois democracies, political life is defined by voting. Once every four years you participate in a ritual that reinforces the status quo and that leaves you passive. Here in revolutionary China, there was incredible ferment and upheaval--which is a great thing in society. And in this situation things went in all kinds of directions. You had Red Guards that got carried away in their zeal to rid society of bourgeois influences and committed excesses. In this atmosphere, Mao and the revolutionary leaders had to lead the masses to sort things out, to sum up lessons and methods of struggle, and to consolidate gains.

The class struggle in society—whether it would continue on the socialist road, or return to capitalism--was concentrated at the top reaches of the party and the state. In dealing with this, Mao was not trying to grab power for himself, as we are often told. He could have just had all his opponents arrested. But, as I mentioned earlier, he didn’t do that-- because that would not have solved the problem of preventing the revolution from being reversed. Mao was willing to risk everything by relying on and politically mobilizing the masses to take up the big questions confronting society. Mao pointed out that the Cultural Revolution was a struggle to overthrow capitalist roaders. But at a deeper level, the Cultural Revolution involved the question of world outlook, of enabling the masses to consciously understand and change the world and themselves.

An Unprecedented Mass Revolutionary Movement

The Cultural Revolution saw great debate and questioning. There were political demonstrations, protest rallies, marches, and mass political meetings. Small newspapers were published. In Beijing alone, there were over 900 newspapers. Countless mimeographed broadsheets were handed out. Materials and facilities for these activities were made available free, including paper, ink, brushes, posters, printing presses, halls for meetings, and public address and sound systems.

The Red Guards helped spread the movement to the proletariat. And as the Cultural Revolution took hold among the workers, it took a new turn. In 1967-68, 40 million workers engaged in intense and complicated mass struggles and upheavals to seize power from entrenched municipal party and city administrations that were hotbeds of conservatism. Through experimentation, debate, and summation, and with Maoist leadership, the masses forged new organs of proletarian political power.

In its scope and intensity, the Cultural Revolution has no parallel in human history. The routine of daily life was blown wide open. People from every social milieu engaged in broad debate.

Peasants were discussing the ways ancient and reactionary Confucian values still influenced their lives. Workers in factories in Shanghai were experimenting with new forms of participatory management.

Nothing and nobody was above criticism. Political, administrative and educational authorities who had become divorced from the people were called to account. No longer could officials be tucked away in offices just barking out instructions. They had to go down and be part of the situation of the workers and peasants.

The Cultural Revolution stirred deep ideological self-examination. Mao said there could be no revolution if it doesn't transform customs, habits, and ways of thinking. Revolution has to bring forward a new ethos, a new way in which people relate to each other. "Serve the people" was a slogan popularized during the Cultural Revolution. This wasn't the same as the bourgeois idea of the charitable acts of the well-off toward the poor. It is about serving the needs of the great majority of society and the cause of communism worldwide. It is about challenging the "me-first" mind-set of capitalism.

What Mao was emphasizing is that you can have a socialist economy—but if you are not promoting the spirit of working for the greater social good, then socialist ownership will be a hollow shell.

International Impact

I can't emphasize enough the impact the Cultural Revolution had on people outside of China. This was a time of radical and revolutionary upsurge throughout the world. It was a time when the Soviet Union had become a force utterly opposed to proletarian revolution. And here Mao was bringing forth a vision of all-the-way communist revolution.

I can speak personally about the effect the Red Guards had on me as a young high school and college rebel. I wanted to be like them. I also remember how tremendously inspiring it was when Mao issued his famous letter in support of the Black masses who rose up in the U.S. in rebellion in April 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Maoist China was not only supporting revolution throughout the world, but was making revolution again within its own society. For me it was incredible. And it still is…

NEXT: The Cultural Revolution’s Accomplishments in Education and Culture

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