Was the Chinese cultural revolution under Mao absolutely necessary?Godfree Roberts, Ed.D. Education & Geopolitics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1973)

There were two Reigns of Terror if we would but remember and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror–that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves. Mark Twain, The French Revolution.

In truth, by 1966 China was a people’s democratic dictatorship in name only. Land reform had channeled excess production from private landlords to the State but had otherwise changed little. Four-hundred million rural people were still semi-destitute, illiterate, without access to basic needs, education or medical care. The bureaucratic elite commanded vast influence and prestige, held all political and cultural power and their sons were openly advocating a return to hereditary authority. After 1960, when the Soviet Union withdrew its engineers, technicians, and blueprints the country remained too poor and vulnerable to allow agricultural and industrial development to stagnate.

Rumblings were audible among the peasants1. Though Mao had launched seven anti-corruption campaigns they complained of corruption and he agreed, “You can still buy a branch secretary for a few packs of cigarettes, not to mention marrying a daughter to him.” But corrupt officials troubled him far less than an estimated five thousand officials whom he called “capitalist roaders,” who had gradually established control of the state and who wanted the peasants to continue serving as beasts of burden. They were, he charged, “Seeking to seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Although he and his allies resisted this tendency they were not very successful. Most war veterans who were now officials were quite comfortable with the prewar order of urban privilege, scholarly elitism, official impunity, corruption, and exploitation. Mao⁠2 warned them,

If real democracy is to be practiced, I am all for it. You’re afraid of the masses taking to the streets. I’m not. Not even if hundreds of thousands should do so..If some people grow tired of life and become bureaucratic and if, when meeting the masses, they have not a single kind word for them but only take them to task, and if they don’t bother to solve any of the problems the masses may have, they are destined to be overthrown. This danger does exist. If you alienate yourself from the people and fail to solve their problems the peasants will wield their carrying-poles, the workers will demonstrate in the streets and the students will create disturbances. Whenever such things happen, they must in the first place be taken as good things. That’s how I see them, anyway.

William Hinton⁠3, visiting at the time, explained,

Socialism must be regarded as a transition from Capitalism to Communism. As such it bears within it many contradictions, many inequalities that cannot be done away with overnight or even in the course of years or decades. As long as these inequalities exist they generate privilege, individualismcareerism and bourgeois ideology. They can and do create new bourgeois individuals who gather as a new privileged elite and ultimately as a new exploiting class. Thus socialism can be peacefully transformed back into capitalism.

Mao had often confided his concern about peasant rebellions, “When frustrations burst forth in emotional storms in which hatreds, resentments and a sense of hopeless desperation break through social restraints in an overwhelming surge.” A cultural revolution, on the other hand, would spiritually revolutionize the people, especially the youth, and revitalize the Revolution’s socialist goals while still employing the radical language of class struggle. He proposed to direct the peasants’ energy outward and, through the power of ideology expressed in political slogans to, “Break the shackles of repression with study and convert thought into creative action.”

Preferring to believe that most Party cadres were good, or at least redeemable, he settled on a purge of the hierarchy rather than labelling them a new ruling class. Doing so would have forced him to condemn old comrades as members of an exploiting bureaucratic class, created a political revolution and plunge into civil war the nation he had just unified. He was well aware that most of those who the Party had simply been revolutionary nationalists caught up in his Communist revolution. Few were ever socialists and even fewer were Communists. Though they embraced his theory of class struggle, they would denounce it if they became its victims. Most were perfectly comfortable with the ancient order of urban privilege, scholarly elitism, official impunity, corruption and exploitation and few were anti-Western or anti-capitalism. It was because this coalition retained such political power that Mao was forced to rely on his personal charisma and authority so much that, at times, he seemed to be overturning the entire bureaucratic machine by himself.

He had no magic wand. If the peasants wanted freedom he would have to educate hundreds of millions of them about the political forces at work in their society, culture, politics, and the world, for only through their own study and effort could they grasp the link between their struggles and the wider world. “Democratic politics must rely on everyone running things, not just on a minority of people running things.” Criticizing the Soviet constitution he said, “It gives the workers the right to work, to rest, and to education, but it gives the people no right to supervise (cheng-li) the state, the economy, culture or education–the most basic rights of people under socialism.”

Modernizing land ownership, infrastructure, agriculture, and industry were secondary, he said. If ordinary people wanted to control their lives they must also control intellectual capital. “Working men and women must have their own army of technical specialists and professors, teachers, scientists, journalists, writers, artists and Marxist theorists.”

Nor could the job be done without the help of intellectuals, “We are calling for a technical revolution that is also a cultural revolution, a revolution to do away with ignorance and stupidity, and we can’t do it without them. We can’t do it by relying only on uneducated people, lao-ts’u, like ourselves.” If working people were not politically mobilized around broader issues it would be impossible to transform China’s economy, management, and labor so–having eliminated the barriers to their ownership of land–he would now eliminate the barriers to their ownership of knowledge.

Since the Cultural Revolution would be an intense political and ideological experience⁠4, he prohibited the use of force and the disruption of economic production. Though his rhetoric was radical he well knew the difference between a cultural revolution and a political one. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the only successful social revolution of the 1960s, would be a ten-year saga during which hundreds of millions of peasants liberated themselves from three-thousand years of second-class citizenship and social contempt. Says Mobo Gao⁠5.

In the US in 2004 I met a Mr. Chen, an energetic recent migrant from the PRC in his late fifties..I pointed out to him the fast-emerging social inequalities in China: that a rural migrant worker may have to work sixteen or more hours a day for seven days a week to earn US$80 a month, and that perhaps this cannot truly be called ‘development’. Chen replied, “$80 is good enough for a peasant.” I could not help but ask, “Would you accept that kind of payment and life?” “That is not the same,” he said. “They are low quality people, tamen suzhi di.” When the topic turned to what I was going to research in China I said I would like to go return to Gao Village to find out what the rural people think of the Cultural Revolution. He was genuinely surprised: “To study the Cultural Revolution? Why do you want to find out what rural people think? Rural China was not much affected by the Cultural Revolution.”

The peasants were eager when Mao called on them to destroy the urban-rural divide. Theoretical study groups and working people’s cultural activities would take place at “universities of class struggle” where everyone could practice the Four Freedoms, speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates, and writing big-character posters. One Spring morning he told startled colleagues, “I firmly believe that a few months of chaos, luan, will be mostly for the good,” and became the only national leader in history to overthrow his own government.

He promised peasants that the government would turn their ideas into concrete programs and so consolidate their political power⁠6.

Fundamentally, we must concentrate the advanced experiences and aspirations of the people; our plan must be constructed for their use and it must unleash their initiative. This requires political leadership of a specific type–not a dominant clique–a genuine vanguard party linked to and serving the people; a vanguard capable of leading people forward through the complex struggle to bring a new society into being and of revolutionizing the vanguard itself. That’s what I mean by ‘putting politics in command’. Under no circumstances can history be regarded as something created by planners rather than by the people themselves. The technical constraints of planning must remain secondary to political and ideological assumptions, which are not givens, but issues that require struggle..So everyone must know what kinds of transformations are planned, why, for whom, and to what end.


1 Chungwu Kung, ”Cultural Revolution in Modern Chinese History,” in Nee and Peck.

2 SPEECH AT THE SECOND PLENARY SESSION OF THE EIGHTH CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA. November 15, 1956

3 Turning Point in China by William Hinton, Monthly Review Press, 1972.

4 The Cultural Revolution and China’s Search for Political Order. Byung-joon Ahn. The China Quarterly No. 58 (Apr. – Jun., 1974), pp. 249-285

5 Gao, Mobo. The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (p. 1). Pluto Press.

6 Critique of Soviet Economics by Mao Tsetung. Translated by Moss Roberts. Monthly Review Press. New York and London © 1977

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