The Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian revolution of 1917–1956, and the Chinese revolution of 1949–1976 opened a new chapter in human history. Hundreds of millions rose up and gained precious experience as to what it would take to get to a world without exploitation, without oppression, without destructive violent clashes among humans, without enforced ignorance and superstition. These first and inspiring attempts to emancipate humanity were defeated.
History is being written by the victors: the imperialists. Through the media and educational system, and the promotion of “memoirs” and “studies” parading as serious scholarship, the system spews out endless lies and slanders about what “the wretched of the earth” were trying to do, what brutal forces lined up against these heroic attempts, and why there were limitations and even secondary errors in their theory and practice. The take-home message is that capitalism-imperialism is the “best of all possible worlds,” and that any attempt to go beyond this system will only lead to catastrophe. The effect has been to lower sights, shut down discussion of how the world could be radically different, and reinforce conformist thinking at a time when the world cries out for revolution.
The Set the Record Straight project was initiated in the early 2000s to take on the most widespread lies and distortions about this first wave of communist revolution: its great achievements as well as its shortcomings and problems—and how revolution can go further and do better in today's world. This was based on the work and approach of Bob Avakian, who has not only defended these pathbreaking experiences, and shown a way to truly understand them, but most importantly, has developed a new communism based on a much deeper and more scientific view of what is involved in emancipating ALL of humanity.
The archive from this project, now incorporated into the revcom.us website, contains research essays; video of symposiums and programs (some featuring participants in Mao's Cultural Revolution); articles and basic fact sheets about crucial historical episodes and controversies; interviews and video of Raymond Lotta; and other resources to cut through the slanders and scientifically understand the truth of the first wave of communist revolution.
This is part of a 2004 interview that appeared in the May 9, 2016 issue of Revolution newspaper. The interview originally aired on Michael Slate’s Beneath the Surface show on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, on July 29, 2005. Listen here to the interview.
Michael Slate: Let’s dig into the Cultural Revolution [in China, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s]. You led communists around the world in fighting to understand what the significance of the Cultural Revolution was, and to uphold it as a dividing line question, and to see it as the highest point of class struggle in human history, the greatest height the class struggle’s gotten to in human history. That’s not exactly—in terms of conventional wisdom today, that’s not exactly what you find on the bookstore shelf. You can find 70 books about how—and you can hear people who are 32 years old talking about how—the Cultural Revolution destroyed their careers, and they had remarkable careers when they were like two years old. But it’s had an impact on people. It’s had a big impact on people.
You had musicians who once were major supporters of the Cultural Revolution who now listen to these stories from people, from artists coming out of China, for instance, and saying, “I was misled. I didn’t understand everything that went on because I didn’t understand the suffering that people have.” Or you have these popular cultural forms, The Red Violin, for god’s sake: a movie that had nothing to do with China, but there was this one scene in it where they had to show the Red Guards banging down doors and pulling people out of their houses, searching for this red violin that they needed to smash. And it was this symbol of artistic freedom and creativity.
Or you had Farewell My Concubine, which was a big, big movie among—I know a lot of my friends, a lot of artists and intellectuals who went to see that film two, three times, and really looked at it as a sign of what was wrong, and how the Cultural Revolution was not an advance for humanity, but something that was actually part of suppression, and particularly suppression of intellectuals and artists.
I wanted to ask you about that—let’s talk a little about the question of intellectual freedom. And I think it’s tied up with the question of dissent, but we can get into that separately. But I think actually this idea of—what you’ve been saying all along, and one of the reasons I asked you about this question about the Party and everything else in terms of people starting to settle in, and that kind of thing—is that you had talked earlier about the need for really just a totally, tremendously creative surge among the people and in the Party and among communists, this constant creative application, and then that Marxism itself is a science that actually, in a living form, really does do that. When you were saying that, I was just thinking, you know, it’s so refreshing to hear this thing because it invigorates you with a sense of like, you know, [what] our science really is—it unleashes the greatest creativity, when you grasp it, it unleashes the greatest creativity possible.
But there’s this common, or this conventional wisdom that actually—here’s this crucial development in the class struggle, this crucial development of the science of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and yet it’s portrayed as this sort of thing that was the suppression of artistic and intellectual freedom.
Bob Avakian: Well, once again, I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is a complex question and a complex problem that the Cultural Revolution was seeking to address, and was addressing. And once more you have to situate this in what was occurring in the development of the Chinese Revolution, and not come at it from the way all too many people do in this society. They don’t understand the actual dynamics—why these revolutions were necessary in the first place, what they arose out of, and what were the contradictions they faced when they emerged. And some people have some sense of, OK in China people were poor. If you have read those Pearl Buck novels, you know, people of our generation, where you get a sense about the terrible life of the peasants, and you can understand why people would want to cast off that oppression, and so on. But a lot of people are even ignorant of that, especially now. They have no real sense of what China was like, and why a revolution was needed, and how that revolution had to take place.
So that’s one problem. But not only did they have to overcome the whole daunting prospect, or reality rather, of imperialist domination and carving up China, but they also had a whole history of feudalism, of massive exploitation of the peasantry and hundreds of years—or thousands of years, actually—in which the great majority of people were just desperately impoverished and exploited. And they were coming from a society which, because it was dominated by imperialism, and because of the remaining feudalism, was not advanced technologically, or was technologically advanced [only] in a few enclaves. But then the vast part of the country and the people who lived in it were mired in a lot of enforced backwardness.
So you’re coming from that, and you’re trying to make leaps in terms of overcoming the poverty and the oppression of the masses of people. And you come to power, in 1949, and right away, within a year, you’re thrust into a war with the U.S. in Korea—a war in which MacArthur is saying: let’s take the war to China. That was his big dispute with Truman. Let’s take the war to China. Let’s go right to China and cross the border. Not just go near the border, but go across the border, and roll back the Chinese revolution.
And so right away, you barely have time to celebrate and consolidate your victory, and you’re thrust into this battle with this powerful imperialist force right at your doorstep, literally. And then you fight the U.S. to a standstill, and in effect defeat it—because, in terms of its objectives in Korea, once the U.S. entered the war, they were thwarted in those, in large part because of the involvement of the Chinese in that [war].
So here you are. Now you’re trying to take this country that’s poor and backward, has been dominated by imperialism—you have the situation where [there was] the famous sign in a park in Shanghai, “No dogs or Chinese allowed.” This is just a stark way of expressing what their life was like, even in the urban areas, even if you were among the more educated classes, for example. So what you were referring to earlier—a lot of people did either go back to China [after the victory of the revolution in 1949], or a lot of people in China, intellectuals and others, were very enthusiastic about the new society that was being brought into being, because it was going to overcome this whole situation where China was held down and carved up by different imperialists and the Chinese people and the Chinese nation was going to be able to stand up on its feet and not be run roughshod over and lorded over by these foreign powers, and so on. Read full text...
You Don’t Know What You Think You “Know” About...
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. The First Dawn—The Paris Commune
Chapter 3. 1917—The Revolution Breaks Through in Russia
Chapter 4. China—One Quarter of Humanity Scaling New Heights of Emancipation
Chapter 5. Toward a New Stage of Communist Revolution
Appendix, Notes on Epistemology
Illustrated Timeline, The REAL History of Communist Revolution
Chapter 1: Introduction
Question: What exactly are you referring to when you say the “first stage” of communist revolution?
Raymond Lotta: We’re talking about a sea change in human history, the first attempts in modern history to build societies free from exploitation and oppression. Specifically, we’re talking about the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian revolution of 1917–1956, and the Chinese revolution of 1949–1976. These were titanic risings of the modern-day “slaves” of society against their “masters.” They aimed to bring about a community of humanity, a society based on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs,” and one where there are no more divisions among people in which some rule over and oppress others, robbing them not only of the means to a decent life but also of knowledge and a means for really understanding, and acting to change, the world.
Never have there been such radical and far-reaching transformations in how society is organized, in how economies are run, in culture and education, in how people relate to each other, and in how people think and feel as there were in these revolutions. Against incredible odds and obstacles, and in what amounts to a nanosecond of human history, these revolutions accomplished amazing things—and they changed the course of human history. Never before had the myth of an unchanging human nature—in which people are “naturally” self-seeking, and some people just “naturally” dominate others—been so decisively exploded. For those few decades, a better world seemed on the verge of birth. For the first time the long dark night of humanity—where society is divided into exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed—this was broken through, and a whole new form of society began to be forged.
The Lies of Conventional Wisdom
Question: But the conventional wisdom is that these revolutions were not liberating, but extremely autocratic, trampling on the rights of people... utopias turned into nightmares.
RL: Yes that is the conventional wisdom, and it is built on systematic distortion and misrepresentation... built on wholesale lies as to what these revolutions were about: what they actually set out to do, what they actually accomplished, and what real-world challenges and obstacles they faced.
Now people have a certain awareness of how they have been systematically lied to about things like “weapons of mass destruction” that were the pretext for the war in Iraq. And we’re not talking about incidental mis-admissions of fact here... the Iraq war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and the dislocation of millions.
But all too many people who consider themselves “critical minded” are all too willing to accept the “conventional wisdom” on communism. And let me be clear, the ruling class and intellectual guardians of the status quo have been engaged in a relentless ideological assault against communism... through popular journalism, so-called scholarly studies, memoirs that traffic in the “authenticity of personal experience,” films, and so on. Read full text...