Monday, June 6, 2016
Looking back at the Cultural Revolution Rashed Rahman The 50th anniversary of the launching of the Cultural Revolution by Mao Tse Tung on May 16, 1966 passed this year unmarked in China. The media was silent and there was hardly any remembrance or commemoration except personal accounts of suffering during those turbulent years. The post-Mao order since his death in 1976 (which also marked the effective end of the Cultural Revolution) has been either silent or critically dismissive of an event the current received wisdom in China considers a catastrophe. The generation that came of age in the 1960s in China and the rest of the world however, would probably deliver an array of divergent opinions on a historic phenomenon that shook the Chinese communist system and young people worldwide to the roots. So what was this phenomenon called the Cultural Revolution? First, the international and internal Chinese context. The People's Republic of China had not been recognised by the US-led western camp and those countries in the rest of the world that were under western control or influence. The Cold War was at its height. The relative isolation of China internationally was only breached by the socialist camp and some third world countries, notable amongst them Pakistan. Washington had, since the revolution came to power after a protracted armed struggle starting in 1927, set up a cordon sanitairye around China, consisting of its Cold War allies in Asia on and around the periphery of China. Added to this set of hostile powers was the ideological despite China had with its erstwhile socialist ally the Soviet Union, which had its origins in Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin in a secret speech to the Soviet politburo in 1956 and which had led to a split in the international communist movement between pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing parties by 1963. Internally, Mao, hitherto the undisputed leader and guiding light of the successful Chinese revolution, had been all but sidelined by a Rightist trend in the Chinese Communist Party leadership in the wake of the failed Great Leap Forward initiated by Mao in the late 1950s. This initiative was aimed at pushing China pell mell into modernising its economy in the face of the hostile and threatening western alliance. However, carried away by overzealousness and afflicted by poor planning, the Great Leap Forward fizzled out or was abandoned after great disruption to the economy and even food shortages. Taking advantage of the failure of Mao's brilliant albeit flawed concept, the Rightist trend in the Communist Party, led by President Liu Shao Chi, marginalised Mao. The Party's policy then seemed to be converging with that of the Soviet Union, with its emphasis on investment in heavy industry and a conservative approach to social change. This incrementally alarmed Mao, who had seen the degeneration of the Soviet Union under Kruschev into a bureaucratic ossification that led almost inevitably to the death of the Soviet revolution. This was described by Mao as revisionism (the revision of the revolutionary Marxist doctrine in the direction of reformism and the early shoots of a restoration of capitalism). Lenin had warned soon after the Russian revolution that the roots of capitalism could not be so easily plucked from the soil of a socialist society emerging from the womb of capitalism. This despite the fact that the commanding heights of the Soviet economy had been nationalised. The reason, Lenin argued, was because the existence of small-scale, petit bourgeois production, which could not be abolished in one fell swoop without great economic disruption, leads spontaneously and inevitably to the growth of a capitalist sector. Mao feared that China under Liu Shao Chi would inevitably degenerate into a capitalist society. Failing to persuade the highest echelons of the Party on this score, Mao reached out for a very different solution to the immediate trend as well as sought a model that would prevent the tendency of revolutions to degenerate over time and be transformed at some point in that evolution into their dialectical opposite. To achieve this aim, Mao considered the nurturing of new generations of revolutionaries critical to the maintenance and forward march of the revolution. He thus turned to the youth with the stirring slogan: "It is right to rebel." This radical idea not only appealed to the youth in China fired by revolutionary zeal, it also fed into the rebellious youth all over the world, alienated as they were by the 1960s youth challenge to received wisdom and social values. The 1960s generation was seething with revolt against the capitalist system and its values bequeathed by their elders. This rebellion took many diverse forms, from culture to lifestyle to personal and social values and norms. But its most pointed manifestation, which seemed to subsume all the diverse forms of rebellion, was the anti-Vietnam War movement. In China, Mao also formulated a startling slogan to target the deviationist trend in the Chinese Communist leadership. He said: "Bombard the headquarters" (meaning the headquarters inside the Party leadership opening the door to the threat of a capitalist restoration). Unleashed in their millions, the youthful Red Guards targeted the four 'olds': customs, habits, culture and thinking (all rooted in China's feudal past). In this campaign, party leaders, cadres, intellectuals and other sections believed to be trapped in or continuing adherence to the old ways and customs bequeathed by pre-revolutionary society were criticised, pilloried and subjected to public humiliation. The overzealous Red Guards also attacked cultural icons, museums and other symbols of the past. Never in history had such a radical transformation of a society been attempted virtually overnight. That ambition turned out also to be the gravedigger of the Cultural Revolution. The overzealousness of the Red Guards came later to be described by Mao as a Left (extremist) deviation. It was led by Lin Piao, Mao's designated successor, as well as what came to be called the Gang of Four, amongst whom were Mao's wife, Chiang Ching. The increasingly intolerant, denunciatory and violent trajectory of the Cultural Revolution as it unfolded finally compelled Mao to call in the People's Liberation Army to restore order and quell the increasingly violent clashes between rival factions inside the Party and in wider society. That to a considerable extent spelt the end of the extreme radical attempt to lop off history and transform deep rooted historically received social reality virtually overnight. The extreme radicals, led by Lin Piao, were incensed at this turn and in 1971, it was reported that Lin Piao and his co-conspirators attempting a failed coup against Mao, had been killed in a mysterious plane crash while attempting to flee to the Soviet Union. Although the Cultural Revolution sputtered on till Mao's death in 1976, the Lin Piao episode spelt for all intents and purposes the end of the extremely radical experiment of the Cultural Revolution. Apart from the bitter memories of its victims, which have found incremental expression since then, what legacy, practically and in the realm of ideas, did the Cultural Revolution bequeath? Practically, Mao's ideas and thrust did not survive him, and as soon as his ideological nemesis Deng Xiao Peng was rehabilitated and brought back to power, the floodgates were thrown open to capitalism, just as Mao had feared, while retaining the Communist Party's hold on power. This 'neither fish nor fowl' hybrid system is what has emerged from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution. It rests on the implied social contract between the Party and the people that as long as the latter are ensured material comfort and increasing income and wealth, the Party's monopoly on power will continue undisturbed. Thus we have the spectacle of a capitalist economy with lingering traces here and there of the old collective order being presided over and encouraged by a Communist Party that justifies it by reference to considering the pursuit of wealth and riches as 'glorious'. The contradictions inherent in this hybrid arrangement burst forth from time to time in the form of taking the ultimate step to bring the political system in line with the economic base by turning China into a bourgeois democracy. This, however, remains an unresolved contradiction at the heart of the matter. Conceptually, while the idea that all revolutions require new generations of revolutionaries to prevent them degenerating over time and eventually succumbing to the inertia and spontaneous regeneration of the overthrown system (capitalism) has weight, the means to this end remain to be discovered. And that may well constitute the last word on the Cultural Revolution.