The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet

Red Guards and People's Communes

Revolutionary Worker #752, April 17, 1994

Fertile Soil in Tibet for Mao's Cultural Revolution

One sun-filled day in August 1966, Mao Tsetung stood in front of a million young Red Guards who had flooded into Peking--and he put on one of their red armbands. Mao Tsetung did something no other head of state in history had done: he called on the masses of people to rise up against the government and the ruling party that he himself headed. "Bombard the Headquarters!" he said. The intense and historic struggle he unleashed was to rage across China for the next ten years--from 1966 until 1976. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was on.

Within a couple days of that great rally, some Red Guards flew into Lhasa, Tibet--where their radical message found an eager audience. The new high school in Tibet had graduated its first senior class in 1964. A core group of youth from serf and slave backgrounds now knew how to read--and had learned basic Maoist principles about revolution.

Immediately, students of Lhasa High School and the nearby Tibet Teacher's Training School formed their own Red Guard organizations. They were in no mood to wait for orders. They debated how to push the revolution forward. And they immediately took action.

Here, in Part 3 of this series, we will tell what we know about the ten years of struggle that followed in Tibet. It is not easy to uncover the truth. These were wild, complex events in a large and isolated region.

On one hand, those class forces who were targets of the Maoist revolution portray the Cultural Revolution as a senseless nightmare of fanaticism and destruction. The Publicity Office of the Dalai Lama, based in India, offers "eyewitness accounts"told by ultra-conservative, mainly upper-class Tibetan exiles. The men who rule China today talk of "ten wasted years" filled with the "excesses of the Gang of Four." ("Gang of Four" is the name they give to Mao Tsetung's closest supporters.) Such anti-revolutionary accounts are highly unreliable.

On the other hand, the revolutionary activists in Tibet have themselves not found a way to make their own story heard. Many of them are undoubtedly in prison or dead.

To write this article we examined leaflets written by Tibetan Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution itself. We read the writings of different observers and progressive scholars and even critically examined the claims of Maoism's enemies. There are major gaps in the story. But it is possible to piece together a basic picture of what the revolutionaries in Tibet were trying to accomplish in these intense ten years.

Real Communists vs. Phony Communists in Tibet

Mao unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution because he saw a great danger for the people: The Chinese revolution that came to power in 1949 had stalled.

Powerful forces in the government and the Communist Party of China called for building a "modern" China by focusing on orderly production. Though these forces called themselves "communists," they really had no intention of going farther than abolishing feudalism and building a powerful national state. They wanted a halt to revolutionary change.

Mao saw that their imitation of "efficient" capitalist methods would leave the masses of people powerless. Their road would create a soulless, de-politicized, state-capitalist system similar to the one that came to power in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. Mao labeled such forces "revisionists" and "phony communists." He said they were "bourgeois democrats turned capitalist roaders." Their main national leaders in the mid-'60s were Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

In Tibet, this conflict between the revisionist line and Mao's line was not widely known among the people--but it had been very sharp.

Mao's line called for a continuing revolutionary process conducted one step after another--a process that fundamentally relied on and organized the masses of Tibetan people themselves.

Mao had urged patiently building revolutionary organization in Tibet during the 1950s. By the early 1960s, a great alliance of Tibet's serfs and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had shattered the heart of the old oppressive society--liberating the masses from serfdom and slavery, seizing land from the ruling class, and forbidding many old oppressive practices. It was a great advance and application of Mao's line.

Mao believed the revolution had to advance beyond anti-feudal land reform if the masses of people were to be truly liberated. He envisioned the systematic development of new, collective organization in the countryside--so that the masses of peasants could pool their resources: dig irrigation, build roads, create armed peasant militias and schools. Without socialist collectivization, Mao believed, poor peasants would ultimately be oppressed by richer peasants and new exploiters. This applied to Tibet, just as in the rest of China. Mao argued for a self-reliant socialist industrial base in the Tibetan highlands to meet the needs of the people there. And Mao envisioned a revolution of ideas that would uproot the hateful superstitions of the past and on that basis bring about the flowering of a new liberating Tibetan culture.

But the powerful revisionist forces saw Tibet through very different eyes. They were not interested in the revolutionary potential of Tibet's people. They wanted to develop "efficient" systems for exploiting Tibet's wealth--so the region could quickly contribute to the "modern" China they envisioned.

The revisionists intended to turn Tibet's peasants into efficient grain producers. They planned to import workers and technicians from other Chinese regions to develop a few mineral-based industries.

The revisionists wanted to eliminate those aspects of Tibetan feudalism that held back increased production. But they intended to offer the old feudal rulers a permanent slice of power--to use their feudal organizations and ideology as instruments for stabilizing a new revisionist order.

Everyone knew that the lamaist aristocracy was involved in all kinds of counterrevolutionary conspiracies. But the revisionists believed they could contain such plots: first, by offering to protect different aspects of the old society from the masses, and second, by relying on the overwhelming military power of the PLA.

This line was clearly hostile to the masses of Tibetan people: It saw them as hopelessly backward, while it based itself on alliances with their oppressors. This line justified itself by talking constantly of "special conditions in Tibet"--but in practice had an extreme "Han chauvinist" approach to anything Tibetan, and expected to eventually absorb Tibetans into the Han nationality--the majority nationality of China. And the revisionists were not about to tolerate the people rising up to make revolution.

In particular, the revisionists were hostile to any plans for a new revolutionary wave in Tibet. They were against socialist measures--including both collective land ownership and an autonomous industrial base. They said these socialist things would be premature, disruptive, inefficient, and would forever break their "united front" with the feudalists.

In short, the revisionist line for Tibet was essentially a plan for a new oppressive order in which the revisionists (in alliance with the old oppressors) relied on military means to exploit Tibet. This "capitalist road" was sharply opposed to Mao's line in every way.

The revisionist program is familiar because this line is precisely the oppressive capitalist policies that have been carried out by Deng Xiaoping's government and troops in Tibet since they defeated the Maoists in 1976. Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to overthrow exactly those forces who oppress the people of China (including Tibet) today.

Revolution Hits Lhasa Like a Thunderbolt

"Revolutionary successors of the proletariat are invariably brought up in great storms."--Mao Tsetung

In 1966 the revisionists in Tibet were quite arrogant. They controlled the army and had powerful connections in Peking, including with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. The top Tibetan revisionist was PLA General Zhang Guohua, who had arrived in 1950 and saw Tibet as his private "kingdom."

Zhang's forces planned to ride out Mao's new campaign. They used the tactic of "waving the red flag to oppose the red flag." When the Cultural Revolution was announced, they organized their own official "Cultural Revolution Group." They literally painted Lhasa red--announcing that every house should fly the red flag and display a Mao poster. Loudspeakers broadcast revolutionary songs and streets were given new names. Having "proven" their revolutionary enthusiasm in this way, Tibet's authorities announced "there are no two lines here in Tibet." The main reactionary forces, they said, were the bands of CIA-backed feudalists and so the armed struggle by the PLA was the main revolutionary activity that was still needed. In short, the revisionists wanted the Cultural Revolution in Tibet to be confined to orderly production, quiet study, and army actions. They sent squads to every factory and school to make sure that the growing Red Guard movement did not get out of their control. Powerful forces in Peking, including Premier Zhou Enlai, one of the top officials in the government, tried to help by ordering the Red Guards to stay out of Tibet. They even gave the Red Guards a going-away dinner party. But the Red Guards refused to leave.

Tibet's Cultural Revolution took off like a prairie fire! Red Guards formed everywhere and rocked the house. Some Red Guard organizations immediately seized the Jokhang shrine in Lhasa--declaring war on those who tolerated continued feudal oppression and superstition. Shocked authorities declared this illegal and "counter-revolutionary." Building takeovers spread.

The Red Guards demanded to know why senior Party officials kept putting forward serf-owners and top lamas--like the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and Ngawang Jigme Ngabo--as "leaders of the Tibetan people." Red Guards revealed that Deng Xiaoping even suggested recruiting Tibet's upper strata lamas as Communist Party members. Didn't class analysis and social practice show such forces were oppressors?

The special conditions of Tibet, one early leaflet said, did not mean that Tibet was "a zone of vacuum for the class struggle." The Red Guards said the authorities were violating Maoist principles: "The core of Chairman Mao's revolutionary line is the mass line... to have complete faith in the masses, to give free rein to the masses, to have the courage to rely on the masses."

First Seizure of Power, Then Exercise of Power

"In the new situation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, surrounded by war drums repudiating the bourgeois reactionary line, the Lhasa Revolutionary Rebel General Headquarters is born!... We don't fear winds or storms, or flying sand, or moving rocks. We don't care if that handful of capitalist-roaders in authority...oppose us or fear us. We also don't care if the bourgeois Royalists denounce us or curse us. We will resolutely make revolution and rebel. To rebel, to rebel and to rebel through to the end in order to create a brightly red new world of the proletariat."--Founding of Tibet's "Revolutionary Rebels" Red Guards, December 1966

Hundreds of Red Guard groups united to form the Revolutionary Rebels. They were based among the masses: the new generation of Tibetan activists and students, Han truck drivers, ordinary soldiers, lower-level cadre, and Red Guards who arrived from other parts of China.

Some people will be surprised to learn that the Cultural Revolution was not imposed on the Tibetan people by Communist Party authorities and by Red Guards "imported" from the rest of China. Even supporters of the Dalai Lama, like John Avedon and the "exile accounts," acknowledge that large numbers of young Tibetans joined the Revolutionary Rebels from the beginning and that many older Tibetan cadres enthusiastically joined the struggle.

Tibetans were involved in both sides of this revolution. Some, recruited and trained by the revisionists, hoped to become a new elite--Maoists called them the "bourgeois Royalists." Others, especially among the ex-slave and ex-serf youth, were eager to push the revolution forward to socialism. During the coming storms, a whole new generation of communist Tibetan activists was tempered and the Maoist current took far deeper root among the masses of Tibetan people.

In January 1967, when Maoist organizations seized power in Shanghai, Tibet's Revolutionary Rebels declared that they too would seize power from Zhang, "the overlord of Tibet." In February, worker-rebels at the Linchih Woolen Textile complex took over their factory--it was the first power seizure of Tibet's Cultural Revolution. Revolutionary Rebels seized the Tibet Daily newspaper and part of the capital. One Rebel fighter said: "Various kinds of fighting organizations acted first, were declared `unlawful' by the `reactionary line,' and later gained Chairman Mao's approval." These were brave and dangerous moves.

Fearing arrest, Zhang plotted a counterattack and then fled Lhasa. Loyal police units started a conservative "Red Guard" group, called the Great Alliance. It based itself on upper-level party officials and Tibetan aristocrat-cadre. Within weeks, army units suppressed the Revolutionary Rebels with the backing of the Great Alliance. This coup (part of a China-wide anti-Mao movement called the "February Adverse Current") was driven back when Mao Tsetung told the army to "support the masses of the left."

We don't know many details of the complex and sometimes armed struggles that spread through Tibet over the next two years. This much is known: In September 1968, a new government, the Tibetan Revolutionary Committee, was finally established. It united diverse forces around Mao's line. Once this new revolutionary power was consolidated, the Cultural Revolution entered a new phase--leaving no part of social life and thought unchanged.

The Creation of the People's Communes

"When wild geese fly in formation, they can fly over the highest mountains. We poor people can overcome any difficulty if we unite and help each other."--Tsering Lamo, communist leader of a township's Woman's Association explaining the socialist road to other ex-serfs

The liberation of Tibet's people was, and is, intimately tied up with the revolutionization of land ownership and production. After the land reform of the early 1960s, the new arrangement based on small individually owned farms contained the seeds of new oppression. Rich and poor started to reappear as prosperous farmers hired and bought out their poorer neighbors. Focused on family survival, serfs were often too unorganized to face constant feudal attempts at restoration.

With the victory of Mao's line in 1969, experimental new farms--called People's Communes--started to be organized throughout Tibet's vast countryside. The collective methods that had built the new roads of Tibet were now used to change rural life. In each commune, the land was worked collectively by hundreds of peasants. Collective harvests were divided up based on "work-points"--a measure of the amount of work each person did. By 1970 nearly 666 communes were operating in 34 percent of the region's township districts. Soon the communes were everywhere.

It took both patient political work and fierce class struggle to make such changes. Some peasants just wanted their own land--and didn't see the larger picture. Often the poorer farmers, like ex-slave women, were willing to try the new ways first. People's dictatorship was exercised over oppressors--the serf-owners and top lamas. They had to work now too--whether they liked it or not. Counterrevolutionaries were uncovered and pursued.

For centuries, forced labor of the people had served idle aristocrats and built great temples to honor superstition. Now, collective labor brought irrigation and drinking water to 80 percent of Tibet's farmland. Because each family's survival no longer depended on just their own plot of land, it was now possible for the peasants to experiment with dozens of new vegetables, fruits and crops.

Some experiments worked, some didn't. The class struggle itself disrupted some harvests. But big leaps in land productivity were achieved. Food production in Tibet doubled.

The People's Communes also made it possible to organize the first rural schools, mass education and rural theater troops in Tibet's history. Old people were now taken care of even if they had no children of their own. Women had new power. One young Tibetan woman Red Guard said, "Since we, the women, did the labor, of course, the communes were good for us." Arranged marriage and polygamy stopped. Exiles complain that children were revolutionized and no longer obeyed reactionary parents.

The famous Maoist Barefoot Doctor's Manual was published in Tibetan and used to train thousands of new doctors among the serfs. Soon 80 percent of Tibet's hospital beds were in rural areas--and medical personnel arrived from urban hospitals in eastern China. Over half of the 6,400 barefoot doctors were women (who had once been forbidden to practice medicine by Buddhist dogmas).

The People's Communes greatly increased the political power of the peasants. Commune members were armed and trained by the PLA. Each commune produced a yulmag militia brigade to fight the oppressors. They hunted the Dalai Lama's CIA-trained contra bands and broke up all kinds of feudal gangs. These militias are proof of the support for revolutionary change among the Tibetan masses.

Once the revisionist line was overthrown, huge strides were taken in developing a new socialist industrial base in Tibet. In 1964 there had only been 67 factories. By 1975 there were 250 enterprises--most of them serving local and agricultural needs. Small hydroelectric plants brought electricity to the people. Manufactured goods were available to the masses for the first time: Sun goggles cut down the widespread cataract-blindness among old people. Pressure cookers wiped out many child-killing diseases passed in old-style Tibetan cooking. New farm implements increased productivity and made life easier.

Revolution in the Thinking of the People

"The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas."--Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, 1848

"We emancipated serfs have today thrown to the very bottom of the Tsangpu River all the old wicked songs, dances and dramas that prettify the serfowners and spread superstition about gods and supernatural beings. Let the rushing waves carry them away, never to come back."--Dzomkyid, a 50-year-old emancipated serf of Gyatsa county, 1966

"Before I studied Chairman Mao's works, all I cared about was what belonged to me. I knew exactly how many piles of yak dung fuel I had stored at home. I could even tell you how many were dry and how many were wet without looking at them. But I did not care as much for the herds of the collective. Chairman Mao's teachings widened my outlook. My purpose in life is now clear to me. Today I am concerned with not only the collective but the whole world and the world revolution."--A Tibetan herdsman, 1967

"We now know that it was not gods, not demons, that made the motors work. We handled them and we saw that it was not the blood of children that made them run, as the lamas told us."--A new Tibetan machinist

In the Cultural Revolution, Maoists took aim at the "four olds"--old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits. And in Tibet there were many "olds" to challenge. Heavy religious superstition held back the struggle of the people. It was a central instrument of the old feudal order and was used by the new revisionists too.

Before the Cultural Revolution, most serfs had never discussed matters that, to them, were defined by religious authorities. Iron plows, tanning hides, canning milk, shearing sheep, acupuncture, surgery, antibiotics, metal working--all ran into taboos of Lamaist dogma. Women were constrained by countless taboos. Many animals were considered too sacred to eat. In the 1950s the first Tibetan medical students would often pray hard at night, begging the gods to forgive them for the sins they were committing during the day.

New ways were discovered to help the people liberate themselves from the chains of superstition. Bold serf women organized teams to hunt sacred animals and "iron brigades" to break plowing taboos. In 1966, 100,000 farmers waged a two-month mass campaign to exterminate earth rats, rodents that were eating their grain. In the past the monks had protected these rats, saying they were sacred reincarnations of lice from Buddha's body.

The spread of communist ideology--especially the writings of Chairman Mao Tsetung--played a key role in this revolution of the mind. Top revisionist officials had opposed the publication of Mao's Red Book in Tibetan. But soon tens of thousands of bilingual Red Books were distributed--in traditional Tibetan-style red purses. Memorizing key quotations and revolutionary songs was especially popular, because many poor people could not read.

On the mountainsides, huge carved revolutionary quotations from Chairman Mao appeared, in the place of carved prayers. On mountain passes, new red flags showed that the people held power.

Herdspeople in Tibet's grasslands described how PLA Mao Tsetung Propaganda Teams helped them deal with a winter disaster. In the past, they would have accepted their "fate" and many would have died. Now they developed collective plans for saving lives and herds. One old herdsman said, "With Mao Tsetung Thought, we dare to struggle even with god!"

Dismantling the Feudal Fortresses of the Lamas

"It is the peasants who made the idols, and when the time comes they will cast the idols aside with their own hands."--Mao Tsetung, 1927

It was the thousands of monasteries that inspired the greatest superstitious awe. In the heady days of the Cultural Revolution, these feudal strongholds themselves were targeted. In a huge mass movement, the many monasteries of Tibet were emptied and physically dismantled.

Supporters of Tibetan feudalism often say this dismantling was "mindless destruction" and "cultural genocide." But this view ignores the true class nature of these monasteries. These monasteries were armed fortresses that had loomed over the peasants' lives for centuries. Under the revisionist line, many monasteries were kept alive by paid government subsidies. These fortresses provoked justified fear that the old ways might return--one conspiracy after another was plotted behind monastery walls. Dismantling these monasteries was anything but "mindless." These were conscious political acts to liberate the people!

All available accounts agree that this dismantling was done almost exclusively by the Tibetan serfs themselves, led by revolutionary activists. Mass rallies of ex-serfs gathered at the gates, daring to enter the holy sanctums for the first time. The wealth stolen from them over centuries was revealed to all. Some especially valuable historic artifacts were preserved for posterity.

Valuable building materials were taken from fortresses and distributed among the people to build their houses and roads. One exile describes how sacred wooden blocks were snatched up by the serfs, used for fuel and carved into handles for new farm tools. Backward elements claim they were criticized for not participating. Often idols, texts, prayer flags, prayer wheels and other symbols were publicly destroyed--as a powerful way of shattering century-old superstitions. As a final comment on restorationist dreams, the ruins were often blown sky high by the revolutionary armed forces.

Later in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a few lamaist monasteries were restored, so that they could serve both as religious shrines and museums of national relics. But the verdict of the Cultural Revolution was that these monasteries should never again exist as feudal fortresses living from the suffering of the masses.

Difficult Struggles over the Four Olds and the Four News

Like all revolutions, the Cultural Revolution in Tibet advanced through complex debates and struggles. The "four olds" were criticized, and the revolution fought to bring the "four news" into being--New ideas, new customs, new culture and new habits. Important questions were raised and struggled over again and again: What practices are reactionary feudal culture and what practices are Tibetan national culture? Was it revolutionary or Han chauvinist to promote new cultural forms that the revolution had developed in eastern Han regions of China? Was it feudal to wear the old braided hairstyles of serfdom, or was it just Tibetan? Was it reactionary to bless people when you met them--and how reactionary was it?

Han chauvinism (anti-Tibetan prejudices among the majority Han people) remained a problem. Han Suyin gives proof of this in her 1977 book on Tibet where she endorses the view of some in the Party that higher education in Tibet should be conducted in the Han language because, according to her, the Tibetan language was incapable of expressing the ideas of modern subjects like chemistry.

At the same time, others fought for Mao's line on minority nationalities. When that line led, there was a new blossoming of Tibetan culture. The first Tibetan typewriters were developed--allowing for easier communication and records in Tibetan. A single Tibetan dialect was promoted so people from various areas could communicate. Films were dubbed into Tibetan. Millions of books were published in Tibetan--many dealing with the theory and practice of liberation. Tibetan short stories and plays were published. And many Tibetan festivals were transformed to celebrate the people's new triumphs--their People's Communes and their rich new harvests.

Traditional Tibetan medicine was studied and its herbal discoveries were made available to the lower classes for the first time.

New revolutionary leaders were developed among the Tibetans. By 1975, half the top leaders were native Tibetans. Half of these were new cadre in their early thirties--often from serf and slave backgrounds. Women became leaders at all levels. In one county the revolutionary committee was all women. Out of 27,000 Tibetan cadre, 12,000 were women. One Tibetan woman, Phanthog, climbed Mount Everest in 1975!

During the Cultural Revolution, the young revolutionary son of a slave-herdsman named Jedi said, "Where would I be, what would we the people of Tibet be like, if Chairman Mao and the Revolution had not come to us?"

The Last Great Battles

"We are in the process of doing things our forebears never attempted, following a road they never took."--A veteran Tibetan communist, 1975

One observer captured a basic truth about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Tibet: "Now you don't see emancipated serfs in rags carrying the litter of a noble dressed in warm clothing, turquoise rings and gold bracelets." The old, hateful system of lamaist feudalism had been shattered by the people themselves. The life of the people improved. Disease declined. The population increased. The numbing isolation of old Tibet was broken. Literacy and basic scientific knowledge spread among the people. Even enemies of Maoism admit that the wide gap between rich and poor vanished.

At the same time, the Cultural Revolution represented far more than the historic defeat for feudalism. For ten years it prevented the revisionists from carrying out their schemes--of turning the Tibetan people into wage-slaves in a capitalist China.

But the life-and-death struggle between Maoism and revisionism was not over!

In 1971 a high-level military coup by revisionists was defeated in Peking. The powerful general Lin Piao was exposed and overthrown. Some of his close supporters were prominent leaders of Tibet's Revolutionary Committee and they lost power. In the following struggle Ren Rong, a leader of the "February Adverse Current," suddenly emerged as the new leader in Tibet. A cold, rightist chill crept over Tibet.

In Tibet, a campaign was launched upholding the so-called "four basic freedoms" (to practice religion, to trade, to lend money with interest, to hire laborers and servants). This slogan of "four freedoms" had not been upheld since before the serf-owners' uprising of 1959. Upper class Tibetans reappeared in high posts. Negotiations were opened with the Dalai Lama--seeking to bring him back in a prominent figurehead position.

The revolutionary forces regrouped and counterattacked. In the end of 1972, a new campaign criticized "bourgeois extravagance, capitalistic profit motive and economic waste." In 1973 the intrigues with the Dalai Lama were abruptly halted. And in 1974 a national campaign was launched against capitalist restoration. It was called the "Criticize Lin Piao and Confucius Campaign." In Tibet, it was used to deepen the anti-religious consciousness of the people--and to reaffirm the revolutionary verdict that aristocrat-monks like the Dalai Lama were "wolves in monk's clothing." Throughout China the key message of this campaign was "capitalist roaders were still on the capitalist road," and this was very true.

The struggle between Mao's forces and the revisionist forces tightened throughout China. And in the end, the revisionists succeeded in launching a decisive blow to revolutionary Maoist forces. In October 1976, shortly after Mao's death, the revisionist right staged a coup d'état in Peking. They arrested Mao's closest supporters and started a countrywide purge of revolutionaries. They put into place all the policies that Mao and the Cultural Revolution had rejected. Mao's enemy Deng Xiaoping came to power.

In Tibet, the program of the revisionists was put in full effect in the late 1970s. This led to the military suppression of Tibetan people in the 1980s, the restoration of monastic rights, the wholesale exploitation of Tibet for mineral wealth and lumber, and the use of commercialized "Tibetan culture" as a New Age Disneyland for wealthy tourists--all this is only possible because the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and Mao's line were defeated. In the next part of this series, we will examine these events in more detail.

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