50 Years Later

Why ‘Cultural Revolution’ Defeated

Harsh Thakor

In the course of the Cultural Revolution, rightist and leftist groupings all claimed to be following "Chairman Mao's revolutionary line". In this complex and often confusing situation, party members and the masses of people could only distinguish between correct and incorrect lines—between the socialist road and the road back to capitalism—by engaging themselves in political and ideological study, discussion and struggle. In many cases, disputes between leftist groupings had to be resolved by the intervention of the People's Liberation Army, which brought new problems. Further advances in the Cultural Revolution and consolidation of its achievements would have required a higher level of political consciousness and willingness to put collective interests first in order to reduce the level of unprincipled factional struggle.

One crucial point was why everything was analyzed from the prism of Mao Zedong thought. Or 'Mao's revolutionary line'. There should have been a wider spectrum of debate. There were tendencies of excessive indoctrination and less critical analysis. A scientifically critical approach so inherent in Marxism was lacking. Lack of sufficient development of institutions of revolutionary democracy and over intervention of people's liberation army had a regressive effect.

The unleashing of millions of Red Guards in the spring of 1966 to criticize the Four Olds and revisionist party officials brought with it a set of unanticipated problems. Many Red Guard organizations ignored the policy of using reason, not force, in conducting political struggle. Mao rejected the slogan adopted by some of the Red Guard groups, "doubt everything and overthrow everything". He repeatedly stated that 95% of the people could be united in the course of the Cultural Revolution, and that the method of political education, of "curing the disease to save the patient'' should be applied with people who had made mistakes.

Behind some of these ultra-leftist Red Guard groups were several members of the CCRG led by Wang Li who were calling for the overthrow of the majority of top state personnel. In 1967 the Minister of Coal suffered a fatal heart attack at the hands of these "rebels" and the Minister of Railways disappeared altogether. Their ultimate target was Premier Zhou Enlai, who was playing an important role in support of the Cultural Revolution at that time. Wang Li and his allies were also behind the burning of the British embassy in Beijing in 1967. It turned out that their ultra-leftist activities were being coordinated by the secret "May I6th Group", which was dissolved, and its leaders were expelled from the party.

In addition there were cases when different Red Guard groups were consumed with fighting each other. One famous example of student factionalism and its successful resolution concerns Tsinghua University, China's preeminent school of science and engineering.

Two factions of Tsinghua students, each claiming to uphold Mao Zedong Thought, had armed themselves and clashed for months, paralyzing the campus. In July 1968, Mao, the CCRG and the Beijing Municipal Revolutionary Committee decided that the situation had gone too far. They contacted a group of revolutionary workers at the Hsinhua Printing Plant to put out a call for the formation of Workers Propaganda Teams to go to Tsinghua, armed only with Red Books and the slogan, "Use Reason, not Violence".

On July 27, over 30,000 unarmed workers entered the campus, with columns assigned to surround buildings occupied by the armed student factions. As the workers successfully persuaded some students to lay down their arms, the largest armed faction launched an attack on the workers with spears, rifles and grenades. By the following morning, five workers lay dead and more than 700 had serious wounds. Nevertheless, the workers did not retaliate against the students, and in less than 24 hours most of the students surrendered, while a few die-hards fled the campus.

Due to the political weaknesses of many Red Guard organizations, Mao and the Central Cultural Revolution Group began to rein them in during late 1966. Over the next few years, 17 million educated youth, including many Red Guards, were sent to the countryside to work alongside, learn from and use their skills to serve the peasants. Many had a hard time adjusting to rural life, but significant numbers of urban youth decided to settle down, started families and contributed their skills and education to the socialist development of the countryside.

Red Guard groups and workers and peasants organizations, each claiming to be flying the "red flag", at times resorted to force during political struggle. This violated the explicit instructions of the "16 Point Decision", one of which was that:
"The method to be used in debates is to present the facts, reason things out, and persuade through reasoning. Any method of forcing a minority holding different views to submit is impermissible. The minority should be protected, because sometimes the truth is with the minority. Even if the minority is wrong, they should still be allowed to argue their case and reserve their views".

However, these instructions were simply ignored and openly violated by some of the forces that joined in at times of chaotic mass upsurges of the Cultural Revolution.

In spite of the August 1966 directive that the principal target of the Cultural Revolution was high-ranking party officials taking the capitalist road, intellectuals, especially those trained in this pre-Liberation era, excesses were repeated. At some points, nearly all teachers, writers and other intellectuals came under fire from Red Guard groups.

When the policy on intellectuals was applied in a more focused way, rightist intellectuals were challenged and criticized in public. Some were sent to work in the countryside, where they did manual work and lived with peasants for the first time in their lives. In the course of political discussion and struggle, many intellectuals were won over to the goals of the Cultural Revolution and returned to their positions with a new outlook.

In addition to remolding and winning over as many of the intellectuals as possible, one of the goals of the Cultural Revolution was to develop working class intellectuals from the workers, peasants and soldiers. The first contingent of 200,000 proletarian intellectuals were graduated in 1974. However, this success story was halted by the defeat of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

One of shortcomings of the Cultural Revolution that was most difficult to resolve was the inability of Mao and the leftists in the CCP to find the means to subject rightist commanders in the People's Liberation Army  to mass criticism, to ferret out their connections to revisionist forces outside the army, and to remove them from power where necessary.

Mao anticipated this problem, and tried to address it before the Cultural Revolution with a special educational campaign directed within the army. The first publication of the Quotations of Chairman Mao Tsetung was by the PLA, as an instrumental move to raise consciousness and to put revolutionary politics in command of military affairs. However, this was in the main pedagogy, not political struggle, and was not sufficient to inoculate against dangers that emerged in full force later.

During the Cultural Revolution, more than a few generals and ranking officers were tied to Liu, Deng and other rightist party leaders. In spite of instructions from Mao and the CCRG that they support the Left, some regional PLA commanders backed revisionist power holders, effectively checking the advance and social transformations of the Cultural Revolution in those areas.

By 1969, the growing danger of a Soviet attack on China threw up another serious obstacle to conducting political movements in the PLA. This new situation favored military commanders who thought the Cultural Revolution should come to an end in order to focus on modernizing the armed forces and obtaining advanced weapons and technology from the Western imperialists.

In spite of these obstacles, there was a great need to carry out the Cultural Revolution and make revolutionary transformations in the PLA after the acute danger of civil war had passed. This necessity became apparent in 1976. When the Chief of Staff of the PLA and other top commanders carried out the arrest of the Four, there was opposition to the coup in the militia in some areas, but virtually none in the PLA.

In the course of the Cultural Revolution, the development of new revolutionary leadership in the top levels of the party was incomplete and it was difficult to consolidate. The downfall of Lin Biao, Mao's official successor as of 1969, the removal of the majority of the original members of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, and the turn to the right in the early 1970s by many party leaders and officials grouped around Zhou Enlai made it considerably easier for Deng Xiaoping and other leading revisionists overthrown during the earlier stages of the Cultural Revolution to make successful political comebacks.

Other than Mao himself, the Four—Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Jiang Qing—were the most prominent representatives of the leftist forces in the party who opposed Deng and defended the accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution. All of them had played a leading role in the Cultural Revolution's early upsurges. At the 10th Party Congress in 1973, Mao supported the Four for leading posts in the CCP; Wang became Vice-Chairman of the party, Zhang was on the five member Standing Committee of the Politburo, and Yao and Jiang were members of the Politburo.

According to a number of observers and scholars, the political strength of the Four was concentrated in Shanghai and a number of other cities, among lower and middle level cadres who joined the party during the mass upsurges of the Cultural Revolution, and in the fields of culture and propaganda-media. An indication of their support at higher levels can be found in the following figures: After their arrest in 1976 about one quarter of the Central Committee was purged, including 51 who had been mass leaders of the working class.

In assessing the role of the Four in the early 1970s, their promotion of leftist campaigns such as "Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" and "Criticize Deng and Beat Back the Right Deviationist Wind" are well known. Less is known about their policies for China's socialist transformation and how they put them into practice. In making an assessment it is important to remember that the Four's work was blocked and sabotaged at every turn by Deng and his supporters.
The lack of a consolidated revolutionary leadership to succeed Mao that could beat back Deng's revisionist forces became very apparent as Mao's health declined sharply after 1972, when he had a stroke. He suffered from Lou Gehrig's Disease, heart disease and anoxia (shortage of oxygen). Mao was also nearly blind, making it impossible for him to read and write documents without assistance, and he issued few major statements until his death.

The question of bringing forward new revolutionary leadership is part of the larger question of what it would have taken to turn back the rightist offensive in the early 1970s and keep China on the socialist road. This would have required a new revolutionary upsurge among the masses. It may have been impossible to conduct a struggle on the scale and intensity of the early years of the Cultural Revolution, but by the time a campaign to explicitly criticize Deng and his "general program" was launched in 1976, it was too late to turn it into a powerful revolutionary force.

Vol. 49, No.3, Jul 24 - 30, 2016