Revisiting the Chinese Cultural Revolution.


An essay in three parts.


Mao’s Cultural Revolution, an event loaded with contradictions, ‘what was in his mind?’ a question not easily answered. And here’s another question, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, was it a unique event, or might we find parallels in history, before or afterwards?

Regarding parallels in history, of course we must take care, with out human propensity for pattern recognition – even when patterns do not exist, of the need to proceed with caution, reminding ourselves often, that history does not repeat. Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at the Chinese Cultural Revolution in its full context and then in relation to events that are occurring in Western democracies as I write, the counter culture protest movement taking place in universities and the streets, protests formed around perceived gender and racial discrimination and fear of tipping-point global-warming, now described as ‘climate change.’

The Cultural Revolution that began in August, 1966, took place at the instigation of Mao Tse-tung, though its unfolding developments and outcomes could not have been foreseen by him. Was the Cultural Revolution an idealist endeavour, an attempt by Mao to regain the purity of his original revolution, or was it a political exercise, an attempt to eliminate Mao’s enemies and restore him to power? An overview of the context in which the Cultural Revolution took place suggests that it was probably something of both. So on to context.

Part 1.

Context’s the thing …

whereby you might uncover
the problem situation of yr king
or tsar or politburo or any other
key decision-maker.

An overview of Mao Tse -tung’s words and actions prior to the Cultural Revolution reveal an interaction between his ideological views about revolution and his suspicion of the growing bureaucracy within the Chinese Communist Party.

Mao Tse-tung was not the inventor of the concept of ‘Cultural Revolution.’ A half century before he embarked on his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in the crisis precipitated by China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, intellectuals associated with the New Culture Movement of 1915-19 were calling for a ‘cultural revolution’ to bring about a fundamental transformation of the culture and psychology of the nation, a sweeping away of China’s corrupt and reactionary traditional culture.

The intellectuals of this New Culture Movement placed great emphasis on the role of human ideas and consciousness as the prerequisite for effective political and socio-economic progress and many of the future leaders of the Chinese Revolution, in their formative years, were influenced by the ideas of these intellectuals. One of these was Mao Tse-tung, who wrote for one of their periodicals, ‘New Youth,’ and later adopted their view of the power of ideas to transform culture as a crucial feature of his Marxist program.

See it in differences with the Soviet view of Revolution and in his party programs in conflict with many Party members, what he says, in ‘Mao Unrehearsed, Talks and Letters: 1956-71,’ edited by Stuart Schram, and most significantly, see it in what he does, Mao’s ‘Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign, ‘Great Leap Forward’ economic plan and his ‘Cultural Revolution.’

And if ‘actions speak louder than words…’

There’s a pattern of behaviour observable in Mao Tse-tung’s three post-revolutionary campaigns to engage mass participation in China’s evolving Communist Revolution, Mao’s ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’ campaign, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ program and his ‘Cultural Revolution.’ In each there’s a swing between encouraging the populace to freely engage, to speak and act in a revolutionary spirit, to criticise the bureaucracy with no fear of reprisal, and later a drawing back to the central control of the Party and appropriate ‘correction’ of ‘revisionist’ elements that go outside the Party line in their demands and behaviour.


‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.’ With this slogan taken from Chinese classical history, Mao initiated a campaign in May 1956, to lift restrictions imposed on Chinese intellectuals and encourage greater freedom of thought and speech.

Seven years after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party believed they had successfully transformed China into a socialist country and now the focus was on China’s economic backwardness and its future socio-economic development. No one, not even Chairman Mao, argued that a socialist society could long sustain itself without technical advancement and here arose the question of how to involve the intelligentsia in its achievement.

There was a problem, however, for although the communists had come to power with the support of the Chinese intelligentsia, much of that support had dissipated in the intelligentsia’s experience of an increasingly repressive State. But now, in January 1956, at a meeting convened by the Central Committee to deal with the matter, the Party were looking to involve them in a technical revolution that required intellectual creativity and needed to end what Premier Chou En-lai referred to as ‘a certain state of estrangement.’ ( Ref .‘Mao’s China and After,’ M. Meisner. Ch 11, P171.)

While Mao and Chou were in agreement regarding bringing intellectuals in from the cold, they were doing so from different standpoints. Back in December, 1955, when Mao had urged that intellectuals be allowed to participate in the economic and political activity of the country, he was presenting to the Politburo, his new economic paper in opposition to their proposed 2nd Five Year Plan based on the Soviet model of concentration on developing heavy industry. It was precisely the social effects of the Soviet model, food shortages and the growth of an entrenched political elite, that Mao was attempting to reverse. The growth of the bureaucracy, led by Mao’s rivals, Liu Shao-ch’I and Teng Hsaio-p’ing, was also a personal consideration for Mao in view of his own waning power to determine policy. For Mao, the intellectuals represented people outside the Party who could act as critics, not of Mao’s radical policies but of the Party’s growing bureaucracy which supported the Soviet model. (Ref: ‘Mao’s China and After.’ M. Meisner. Chapter 11.) 

In January 1956, when the Party’s Central Committee convened their meeting to deal with the matter and listen to speeches by Mao and Chou En-lai, Chou’s speech had a different and more favourable emphasis regarding elites, with his reference to ‘the creation of a technocrat intelligentsia, a body involved in ‘science,’ that could effectively separate its professional activities from politics and ideology.’ ( Meisner, P 172.) Considering Mao’s stated concerns regarding bureaucratic elites, this would not have been his personal wish, but given his new economic policy proposing the wholesale abandonment of the Soviet development model, he would have approved the prospect mentioned in Chou’s speech, of this intellectual involvement expediting economic development and ending China’s dependence on the Soviet Union.

Another event that had contextual significance concerning the thought of Chairman Mao took place the following month following Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Soviet Congress denouncing Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin’s crimes was a dramatic event, not just for the Soviet Communist Party but for the Chinese Party as well, raising questions, as it did, of the validity of the communist system as a whole and in China, also reflecting on its leaders who had praised Stalin in the past.

Let’s hear it for’ Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom!’

Behind closed doors, the Party pondered this problem for a month before a public response on April 5th. In an editorial in the People’s Daily, ‘On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,’ probably written by Mao himself, it was stated that Stalin’s achievements should still be studied and Stalin’s errors were referred to only in the most general terms, such as ‘care should be taken to avoid reverting into error through the cult of individualism,’ ‘the Cult of the Individual’ being attributed to ‘the poisonous ideological survival of the old society,’ that is still carried in people’s minds for a long time. This problem, it was implied, was not likely to reappear in China, as the necessary measures were in place to control it. China’s system of democratic centralism, its appropriate balancing between the contradictions of ‘democracy,’ and ‘centralism,’ a system of ‘unity, criticism, unity,’ criticism by the people balancing Party decision making, would prevent the Chinese Revolution degenerating into a routinized bureaucracy.

There’s a pointer in the comment regarding the ‘cult of individualism’ and Mao’s definition of ‘democracy,’ which has little to do with individual right to free speech and everything to do with egalitarian, group participation in the communist revolution. For Mao conscious human activity was the essential factor in historical change, and a successful revolution entailed developing and maintaining a correct ideological consciousness, unity of purpose, not pluralism of beliefs. The populist support from the county side that the Chinese communist revolution had received in the 1920’s led him to attribute to ‘the people’ an almost inherent revolutionary consciousness. Now he appears to be including the intellectuals in his view of those outside the Party as part of this populist entity. Certainly one of the striking features of Mao’s speeches and writings from 1955 on, as Meisner observes in ‘Mao’s China and After.’ P.196, is his ‘populist conception of ‘the people,’ as a more or less single and organic entity, 600,000,000 ‘to be united as one’ in the task of building socialism.’

At first intellectuals were wary to accept Mao’s invitation to bloom and contend and Party hostility to the campaign did not encourage them. It was not until Mao’s speech in February 1957, ‘On Correct handling of Contradictions Among the People,’ (Foreign Languages Press, 1957.) offered a renewed invitation to speak their minds, that the criticism stepped up and through March and April, became a torrent, ranging from minor criticism to the wholesale indictment of the socio-political order.

Where have all the flowers gone?

The season of blooming and contending was brief. An editorial on June 8th in the People’s Daily signalled the end of the Hundred Flowers’ Campaign announcing that right wingers had abused their freedom by attacking the socialist system and the leadership of the Party. By the middle of the month a heresy hunt down of dissidents began.

Mao was clearly involved in that hunt down. As early as May 25th he was expressing concern in the direction the campaign was taking: ‘Any speech or action which deviates from the socialism is wrong,’ he warned in an address to the Communist Youth League, and by June he was calling for the Party to launch an anti-rightist witch hunt. His February speech inviting intellectuals to speak their minds was amended on the grounds that the intellectuals had gone beyond the bounds of justifiable criticism. In the original speech, Mao had been critical of those Party officials who opposed the hundred flowers campaign and feared that it would ‘yield poisoned fruit.’ In the amended version of his speech in June he was emphasising the need to distinguish between ‘fragrant flowers and poisonous weeds.’

Many of the critics of the regime were subjected to severe retribution, imprisoned or sent to the country side for ‘reform through labour.’ The final Maoist witch hunt was to turn the anti-rightist campaign into a massive purge within the Party itself with Mao invoking ‘the mass line’ against rightists within the Party administration. By the time the purge had run its course in 1958, over a million party members had been expelled or reprimanded and Mao had regained control of the party apparatus.

That Great Leap Forward…


Mao was now in a position to put his economic program into action. By the beginning of 1958, at his instigation, the Central Committee of the CCP initiated the strategy of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s vision of mobilizing the masses by ideological appeals to bring about unprecedented and simultaneous development of agriculture and industry. And though Mao needed no external motivation to pursue his long held view that harnessing the energies of the masses was essential to his proletarian revolution, international events of the time gave impetus to his plan. The Soviet launch of a space missile, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, and various colonial rebellions against imperial oppressors led the Maoists to believe that the West was on the defensive, ‘the east wind is prevailing over the west wind,’ and called for a new belligerency from China requiring urgent development of Chinese industry.

There was also the many sided problem situation at home. First the problem identified in Mao’s ‘On the Ten Great Relationships,’ speech in April 25th, 1956, (S, Schram. Text 1.) regarding China’s shortage of capital and how to speed up primitive socialist capital accumulation to develop heavy industry. Then there was the social problem, given the growing unemployment in the cities and under employment in the countryside, that another Soviet style Five Year Plan focusing on heavy industry, like its predecessor, would only create more unemployment. In his speech of April 25th, Mao argues that his light industry and agricultural program can provide greater accumulation of capital and develop heavy industry on a sound foundation of satisfying the needs of the people’s livelihood.

For Maoists there was a third problem, with the general recognition that a technical revolution raises the question of how mastery of science and technology can be rapidly attained without fostering bureaucratism and social inequality. In one of the Ten Relationships in which Mao focuses on ‘ The relationship between the Centre and the regions,’ he proposes that government organs be streamlined and two thirds of them scrapped and discusses the need to arouse the enthusiasm and energy of the regions by allowing them to run more projects under the unified plan of the Centre.

Regarding arousing the energy of the people, Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign was more than a modernization program responding to the above problems. It contained no detailed blue-print for economic development, it was more a product of Mao’s social vision than an economic plan, with deep roots in his early revolutionary experience and his view that human consciousness, the moral values of men, are what determine the course of history. For Mao, the combination of rapid development and a continuous process of increasing social transformation were intertwined with his pursuit to develop a permanent revolutionary consciousness in the Chinese people and prevent any backsliding into capitalism. At the Supreme State Conference on 28th January, 1958, Mao declares that he stands for the theory of permanent revolution: ‘In making revolution one must strike while the iron is hot – one revolution must follow the other, the revolution must continually advance,’ (Schram.Text 3. p94.)

The people’s communes and Mao’s transition to communism.

Before the Great Leap Forward campaign began, following the poor harvest of 1954 social reorganisation was already happening with the setting up of village communes. These were not initiated as a path to communism, but resulted more from an interaction between radical rural cadres and poor peasants than any direction from the centre. It was not long, however, before Mao was recognising these large rural units, pooling the labour of thousands of peasants, as a way to achieve his objective of hastening the transition from socialism to communism. By August 1958, his glowing praise of the commune system was widely reported in the press. On August 29th, despite growing reservations by many Party members, communes were formally ratified as ‘a logical outcome of the march of events.’

Mao’s plan was more Utopia than reality. The failure of The Great Leap Forward is well documented. Hopes were soon dashed that the country could by-pass the process of industrialisation without capital investment in heavy machinery or that ideological purity could overcome a lack of expertise. The masses had no experience in managing small backyard steel-furnaces, large-scale diversion of farm labour into industry disrupted China’s agriculture and morale was undermined by food shortages. As the Great Leap Forward began to run into difficulties, Mao was criticised by other members of the Politburo. At the Lushan Conference of July 1959 his speech is an attempt to vindicate his approach to development against these criticisms. While admitting his responsibility in its failures he reaffirms his enthusiasm for the communes and their future and threatens should the Great Leap and the communes be allowed to perish, he would ‘go to the countryside to lead the peasants to overthrow the government.’

Not wishing to risk civil war, the official communiqué complied with Mao’s demand to revive the Great Leap Forward and affirm the validity of the people’s communes. But Mao’s victory was short lived. Floods and drought ravaged much of the countryside, adding to the mismanagement of the communes, the situation quickly turned into national disaster with China close to collapse.

A letter by Mao, written to the Party in late November 1959, referring to the realities of the situation, heralded the demise of the Great Leap Forward. Over the following months the Central Committee, led by Liu Shao-‘chi, Mao’s rival in policy direction, put in place reforms to the commune system, smaller units of production and incentives to stimulate production. Mao remained the Chairman of the party but his influence was reduced as the ministries in Peking re-established control and planning over the economy.

In 1962 Mao emerged from seclusion to criticise these policies that he condemned as ‘revisionist.’ Although Mao no longer controlled the party apparatus in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, he still commanded enormous personal prestige for his role in the revolution from his more devoted followers and from among the peasantry. As Mao became increasingly disillusioned with the Party as a focus of revolutionary consciousness, evidenced in speeches on Democratic Centralism on 30th January’62, ( Schram.Text 8..)and ‘class struggle,’ (Text 9. ) and later talks prior to the Cultural Revolution, he began to look to the People’s Liberation Army as a means to restore his Proletarian Revolution.

Concerning Fragrant Flowers and Poisonous Weeds…

In the talk on 30th January’62, Mao is returning once more to the central concern of his Ten Great Relationships talk of 1952, the question of combining Party policy decision making with critical participation by the masses, ‘unity combined with struggle,’ in order to mobilize them into the cause of socialism, the process he calls ‘democratic centralism.’

For Mao inherent contradictions between central rule and mass engagement can be resolved by a process of ‘unity, criticism, unity.’ In the January talk, Mao is attacking bureaucratic arrogance and indirectly, the man who has replaced him as Party leader, Liu Shao-ch’i.

This is an important talk expressing Mao’s basic consistency over time regarding how the Great Proletarian Revolution can be maintained, which has everything to do with ‘centralism’ and very little to do with ‘democracy.’ It illuminates Mao’s swings from encouraging free criticism of the CCP to controlling free criticism, demonstrated in his Hundred Flowers campaign. It illuminates his adoption of a new economic model in his Great Leap Forward in opposition to the Soviet model and for the first time in effect calls for the overthrow of a revisionist leadership in Moscow. And it foreshadows continuity with the two prior campaigns in the way Mao directs his Cultural Revolution.

To avoid what Mao argues as the Soviet’s failed revolution in which a bureaucratic elite follow a status quo policy directed to their own interest, Mao needs the criticism of the masses against the elite to countermand this tendency and maintain the purity of the Chinese Proletarian Revolution. Mao argues for the right of the people to speak out so that when the leadership follows an incorrect line, ‘the only thing is for those who represent the correct line, [my italics] at a suitable opportunity, to use the methods of democratic centralism to take the initiative to make the mistakes right.’ (S.Schram.Text 8. P162.)

To the bureaucrats he throws out this challenge:

’Those of you who…do not allow the people to speak, who think you are tigers, and that nobody will dare to touch your arse …will fail. People will talk anyway. You think that nobody will really dare to touch the arse of tigers like you? They damn well will!’ (Schram.P167.)

But there’s an ambiguity regarding the right to speak freely that Mao is offering the people. Throughout the talk, the words, ‘for those who represent the correct line’ is the basic qualifier, ‘free speech’ therefore meaning ‘that which serves politically correct ends.’ For Mao speaking freely is intended to lead to a ‘centralization of correct ideas,’ (Schram. P163.) the growth of flowers and not poisonous weeds.

So the correct consciousness of the people is a thing to be created along with their enthusiasm. Various references to the masses in Mao’s talk suggest this. As in a factory, argues Mao, ‘If the raw material is not adequate in quantity and quality it cannot produce good finished products.’ (Schram. P164.) Promoting democracy entails a manipulative corrective process. It requires ‘understanding what is happening down below,’ ( Ibid.P164.) it requires mobilizing ‘the enthusiasm of the broad masses of the people,’ (Ibid.P187.) making them feel part of the revolution. And it requires a designated outcome, ‘a centralization of correct ideas.’(Ibid.P 187.) to keep the revolution pure, and that requires transformation of the people’s consciousness as well as control of the bureaucrat elites.

Mao Tse-tung speaks as the conductor of the orchestra. The individual members of the orchestra are allowed a little free time to warm up, play a few discordant notes. But then they must play the tune the conductor of the orchestra has chosen, and play it to his direction.

Mao was able to speak as conductor of the orchestra because of his standing with the People’s Liberation Army following the rise to power of Mao’s protégé, Lin Piao. When Lin Piao became the PLO, leader he used his role to turn the army into a ‘Great School of Mao Thought,’ publishing a book of Mao’s quotations, which became known as the ‘little red school book.’ And so, when Mao addressed the politburo in January, 1965, identifying the principle enemy of socialism in China as ‘those people in authority within the Party who are taking the capitalist road,’ he was able to prevail upon reluctant party leaders to undertake a ‘Cultural Revolution.’

Part 2.

The Cultural Revolution.


In January 1965, when Mao Tse- tung persuaded a reluctant party leadership to undertake a ‘cultural revolution,’ a Five-Man Group was set up, delegated to its implementation. This was the prelude to the 1966 official beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The Five-Man Group, headed by fifth ranking member of the politburo, P’eng Chen, managed to keep the debate low key while Mao was away in the provinces rallying support for his policies. The revolution only begins in earnest when Mao returns to Peking, in May ’66. The Five-Man Group is quickly dissolved and P’eng Chen and his followers dismissed from office. The Five-Man Group is replaced by a new organization set up by Mao, the Cultural Revolution Group, with the task of countering a future ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ by revisionist members within the party.

University and middle school students were the first to respond to a call by the Cultural Revolution Group to rebel against the revisionists with students at Peking University posting a manifesto on campus walls denouncing the university president for having suppressed student discussion and calling upon all students to ‘go into battle.’ The poster was taken down by the authorities and those involved duly punished, but a week later, Mao hailed the students’ poster’ as the manifesto of the Peking Commune’ and had it broadcast on public radio and published in the People’s Daily.

Encouraged by a decree on June 18th postponing university exams for six months, student activist groups sprang up throughout the country. These early activist groups were not united. While some were directed at hitherto sacrosanct educational and political authorities, there was also infighting among the groups as well. At the beginning of the student rebellion, Liu Shao-ch’i sent party work teams to the schools and university campuses to organize their own rebel groups, led primarily by the sons and daughters of party officials themselves. These students stigmatised the other students, who were not the children of one-time revolutionaries like themselves, as coming from ‘bad’ class backgrounds . The conflict between these Liuist and Maoist factional groups continued throughout the summer, becoming a physical, as well as verbal struggle.

The Red Guards.

In late July, over the opposition of Liu-Shao-ch’i, Mao condemned the previous ‘fifty days of White Terror’ and ordered the withdrawal of the work teams from the schools, allowing the students to organise themselves solely on the basis of Mao’s thought. In early August, students wearing armbands bearing the characters for the Red Guards, historically soldiers of the Red Army, began appearing in the streets of Peking. And soon, with the encouragement of Mao, students were organising into groups in every university and middle school in the land, rallying under the slogan, ‘It is justified to rebel.’ On August 18th, when almost a million students flocked to Peking to receive Chairman Mao’s blessing, he appeared atop the Heavenly Gate at sunrise and solemnly donned the red armband, thereby becoming ‘supreme commander’ and ‘great helmsman’ of the Red Guard movement.

At the 11th Plenum meeting of the central committee from which many non-Maoist party leaders were excluded, the Red Guard was anointed as the vanguard of the anticipated mass rebellion. Their program was set forth in Sixteen Articles, its main purpose, to overthrow ‘those within the party who are in authority and taking the capitalist road.’ A related goal was the destruction of ‘the four olds,’ old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes whereby revisionists sought to corrupt the masses.

So encouraged, the Red Guard took to the streets carrying placards of Mao Tse-tung and copies of Mao’s little red book. During the remaining months of 1966, the students marched through the streets of cities and through the countryside, destroying anything regarded as bourgeois culture or symbols of the feudal past. Houses were ransacked, ancient Confucian texts and old books were thrown away, museums and works of art destroyed. As well as attacking cultural icons, the Red Guard assaulted people. Those identified as ‘power-holders,’ party officials and intellectuals, were paraded through the streets in dunce-caps and forced to confess their crimes at public rallies where they were often physically abused. Many were beaten, some beaten to death or driven to suicide.

Violence also escalated among the Red Guard themselves and the vandalism and hooliganism that characterised the movement often aroused peasants and workers to defend the existing order. By late October, Mao was acknowledging the havoc caused by his approval of the student poster as the Cultural Revolution manifesto and the vanguard of the revolution began to be viewed as a liability. Already, back in August, in a letter to the Red Guards he had begun to spell out limits to the rebellion, when he transmuted the slogan ‘To rebel is justified,’ into ‘It is right to rebel against reactionaries.’

As increasing numbers of city youth with their own particular grievances swelled the movement, factionalism increased. In Shanghai, a city of eleven million people, disgruntled unskilled and apprentice workers and contract workers on the margins of society, whose conditions made them more likely to rebel than skilled workers, joined the Red Guard movement, later to be opposed by those skilled workers. The result was the emergence of a bewildering number of popular rebel organisations, each proclaiming loyalty to Mao principles. In early November, ‘66, many of the rebels formed a loose alliance, the Headquarters of the Revolutionary Revolt of Shanghai Workers, led by young textile worker Hung-wen, and demanded that the organisation be recognised as a legal entity under ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ thereby challenging the party’s monopoly of political power.

When their demands were refused, some of the rebels commandeered a train bound for Peking determined to present them to Mao himself. After authorities halted the train at a small town outside Shanghai, the rebels carried out a three day siege. On 19th November, a leading member of the Cultural Revolution Group, Chang Ch’un-ch’iao, declared the worker’s headquarters a legitimate revolutionary organisation, compelling the reluctant Mayor of Shanghai to agree as well.

With this signed agreement, government control rapidly disintegrated as rebel groups freely roamed the city gaining popular support in their movement. Opposing them was the conservative group of skilled workers, the Workers’ Scarlet Guard for the Defence of Mao Tse-tu Thought. The economy of Shanghai was paralysed when the Scarlet Guard called a general strike on December 31st amid a background of political demonstrations and marches that brought more violence.

On 5th January, 1967, a dozen rebel groups allied with the Workers’ Group and with the encouragement of the Cultural Revolution Group, published in the main newspaper, a message to the people of Shanghai calling for unity. The next day, more than one million people gathered in the city’s main square to watch a televised meeting where the city’s officials were denounced and removed from their positions. Over the next few days, members of the old regime were made to make public confessions and were paraded through the streets wearing dunce hats.

The old regime in Shanghai was at an end. Chang Ch’un ch’iao struck a deal with Wang Hung-wen to guarantee the support of the Workers’ Group and with the help of the PLO, order was restored for a few weeks. But violence soon broke out again when a group of the more radical workers, fearing that the new apparatus was not much different to the old system, took to the streets once more.

To gain the support of these radical groups Chang promised the setting up of a model based on the Paris Commune with self-government by the producers. The commune agreement was short lived. As the people of Shanghai waited for Peking to hail the establishment of the people’s commune, Chang was called to Peking for a meeting with Mao. Mao queried whether the commune structure left any political place for a communist structure, insisting that China would require the party and its experienced cadres for the foreseeable future. ( \Cited Meisner, P 349.) Mao was no longer attracted to the commune but to a different organisational model, to a revolutionary committee that he called a triple alliance, a bureaucratic committee of representatives of mass revolutionary representatives, party cadres and the army, a committee in which the latter prevailed and the young activists were subordinate. Chang was obliged to return to Shanghai and tell the people of Shanghai why the commune must cease to exist.

The Shanghai pattern of events was repeated with variation throughout China. In February it was decreed that there were to be no more radical experiments with communes, only revolutionary committees based on the triple alliance model were to be allowed.

Unity, contradiction, unity – or something else?

Thereafter Mao retreated from encouraging mass involvement in his revolution towards a Leninist concept of mass subservience to the party leadership. ‘You are communists,’ he said to the 9th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, ‘you are the part of the proletariat which is more conscious. (‘Mao Unrehearsed,’ Text 25.)

In January, Lin Piao had instructed the People’s Liberation Army, acting on Mao’s orders, to become involved in the political protests, supporting the revolutionary left in the struggle but keeping order at the same time. Preference for law and order, however, tended to prevail when soldiers, entering factories to enforce production, failed to distinguish between conflicting groups and often arrested the more radical activists.

Following Shanghai, Party efforts to establish revolutionary committees was resisted in Peking and provincial cities like Wuhan, soon exploded into a frenzy of violence against authority in general. By August, China seemed on the brink of civil war. Wuhan, the heart of China’s railroad system, seemed a particularly perilous uprising given its industrial significance, and its mutiny had to be put down by the PLO in a full scale battle. Meanwhile, in Peking the protests against the central authority continued. The Foreign Ministry was actually taken over for two weeks by rebels.

On September 5th, in a decree signed by the party central committee and Mao Tse-tung, the PLO was commanded to restore order. The process of the ‘return to normalcy,’ while expressed in revolutionary rhetoric, was forcefully carried out with public executions of alleged instigators of violence. That the Red Guards were no longer required was made clear two weeks later with a directive ordering the students to return to their studies. The revolution was at an end.


The Cultural Revolution that had begun with a wholesale attack on the Leninist party within the CCP ended with the restoration of the party in its orthodox form but minus Mao’s more prominent opponents. Liu Shao ‘ch’i was expelled from the party in October’68 for ‘following the capitalist road,’ and thousands of cadre bureaucrats were dispatched to the country side.

Ironies abound. In the long period of post-revolution purges bringing about ‘a return to purity,’ many members of the Cultural Revolution Group who had supported Mao’s Cultural Revolution but failed to keep up with his post revolution move to the centre, were condemned as conspirators, as being ‘Ultra-left in form but ultra-right in essence.’ Mao’s companion and designated successor, Lin Piao, mysteriously disappeared from the scene, accused of a plot to assassinate Mao and said to have died in a plane crash. Thousands of Red Guard students were sent to the countryside to work. In the final upsurge of the Cultural Revolution in the summer of 1968, Red Guards who had continued to rebel in Kwangsi and other remote provinces were killed in bloody massacres or executed by the PLO, the very force that had helped them into being.

Actions speak louder than words. A final irony, that the cultivation of Mao Tse-tung as great leader by the People’s Liberation Army should turn him into a cult figure, and that he, an avowed enemy of the leader as individual, should willingly become this cult figure whose every word was law.

And so, herewith, regarding the idealism or pragmatism of Chairman Mao’s political manoeuvres, I leave the reader to decide… I draw my own conclusions.


To be continued in Part 3. I have no idea how it will pan out, folks.


  1. Again, a fine SuG to get a toff thinking, though not too strenuously.

    When the Mexican revolutionary Zapata redistributed land (with some legality) to people who knew how to make use of it and then left them alone, the opposite of communism took shape. Farmers grew what they liked, preferring subsistence to cash. His Morelos region boomed, though with bad effects on urban centres. Instead of settling into a comfortable mix of fat-cat oligarchy and cash-mongering communism, Zapata took the whole “Land and Freedom” thing literally. No wonder they killed him. (Of course, in view of my social rank I cannot approve of the fellow, but, you know…)

    Mao was a deeply conventional neurotic who wrecked because he was incapable of change. Had the neurotic’s obsession with manipulation, control, cash and self-gratification. A true collectivist. Rather confirms the toff notion that all intellectuals are always wrong all the time.

  2. Thx, moso for yr thoughtful response. Re intellectuals, so regrettable that Utopian impulse to big-sweep, canvas-cleansing – Thomas Sowell called it ‘The vision of the anointed.’

    I like what industrial chemist Primo Levi said in WW2 about chemists having to engage with matter, a clear confrontation with real feedbacks, a contrast and antidote to the dogma of fascism.

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