Charlie Hore


China: Whose Revolution?


The Cultural Revolution

The “cultural revolution” ... was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic. [10]

This assessment, made by Mao’s heirs, would in the 1960s have been heresy for most people on the left. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was seen as an integral part of the wave of protests and rebellions that swept the world in the late 1960s. Students in Beijing and Shanghai, like their counterparts in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and elsewhere, were on the march against the conservatism and bureaucracy of the older generation. Their revolt was seen as clear proof that China could avoid the degeneration of the revolution that had occurred in Russia under Stalin.

In reality, the Cultural Revolution was a bloody and vicious power-struggle inside the ruling class, in which millions of Chinese were persecuted and jailed and hundreds of thousands died. Mao took the struggle onto the streets for one simple reason: if it had been confined to the ruling class, he would have lost. The only “cultural” aspect of the Cultural Revolution was its pretext.

In 1959 and 1961 the deputy mayor of Beijing wrote two plays about an honest and courageous sixteenth-century court official who attacked the emperor for his cruelty and indifference to the peasants’ poverty. The allusion to Mao was obvious. In late 1965 Mao decided to counter-attack. He found that not a single newspaper in Beijing would print his article. It was eventually published in an obscure Shanghai literary journal. On this flimsy basis, Mao ordered the start of a new campaign.

His enemies could not just ignore this, so they moved to lead the campaign in order to render it harmless to them. In doing so, they fell into the trap that Mao had set for them. For in May 1966 he savaged the work that they had produced and called for a nation-wide uprising against “those persons in power taking the capitalist road”. In a slogan that rang round China, he declared: “It is right to rebel!” (The irony of this – that rebellion is justified when the ruler allows it – was lost on most people at the time.)

At bottom the argument was over the division of power inside the ruling class. Was Mao to be a dictator over the ruling class as a whole, or simply one of its senior members? Mao’s enemies inside the ruling class had been trying to diminish his power ever since the Great Leap, by turning him into a figurehead who had no real control over the day-to-day running of society. But in doing so they built up Mao’s moral authority as the leader of the revolution, which he was able to turn against them.

In Beijing Mao got what he wanted – the removal of his enemies from their positions of power – almost at once. But to repeat this in the provinces it was necessary to take the battle onto the streets. This was the real role of the famous “Red Guards”.

From August 1966 onwards Red Guard groups were set up among students and school-students across the country. Trapped in a demeaning and stifling education system, Mao’s appeal to rebellion struck a chord with them. They moved quickly from attacking their teachers and the school authorities to attacking the local bureaucracy. Unpopular officials (and in the cities most officials were unpopular) were dragged out of their offices, paraded through the streets wearing dunces’ caps or signs hung around their necks, and forced to denounce their “crimes” at mass kangaroo courts.

The terror quickly extended to take in far wider targets. Anything which could be taken to be “bourgeois” or “feudal” culture was to be destroyed. Libraries were burnt, temples and museums containing priceless works of art were ransacked. Anyone who had received a Western education or even had family in the West became an “object of struggle”.

The personality cult of Mao was taken to extremes never seen even in Stalin’s Russia. He was described as “the red, red sun in our hearts”; not being able to recite selections from his Little Red Book was proof of disloyalty. Every family was expected to start the day by bowing to his portrait, just as they used to bow to the family gods. And when he allegedly swam the Yangtse River (four times as fast as the world record for the distance) hundreds of Red Guards died in attempts to emulate him.

The education system came to a complete halt as millions of students headed for Beijing in the hope of catching a glimpse of Mao, or set off on imitation “long marches” across country to “revolutionary shrines”. All this was often described by observers as “mass lunacy”, yet there was a rational core to it. Mao and his followers needed to whip the students and others up to such a fever pitch in order to guarantee their unquestioning obedience. As one directive to the navy put it, “We must carry out the instructions of Chairman Mao, even when we do not understand them.” (my italics)

Yet by late 1966 the disruption had reached such a pitch that Mao was forced to move to wind the movement down. This proved impossible – the situation had gone completely beyond his control.

For the local bureaucrats had not taken the attacks lying down. A few could defy Mao openly. The governor of the far western province of Xinjiang, for instance, dealt with students demonstrating against him by having them gunned down in the streets. (Two years later he was appointed the head of the “Revolutionary Committee” set up to mark the end of the Cultural Revolution.)

Most local officials, however, responded by declaring their undying loyalty to Mao, organising their own groups of Red Guards and accusing those who attacked them of being themselves “counter-revolutionaries”. Warring gangs of hundreds and sometimes thousands began to multiply. The city of Wuhan in central China had at least 54 such gangs; one encounter between them left 250 dead and at least 1,500 wounded.

On the campus of Beijing’s prestigious Qinghua university, battles were fought out with home-made rifles and mortars. In the city of Changsha, one group who had failed to dislodge their rivals from a building in the city centre returned with anti-aircraft missiles! They blew away not only their opponents but also the entire building.

By the summer of 1967 large parts of China were spiralling towards all-out civil war. One former Red Guard described Changsha at the time as: “... absolutely terrifying. Bullets whistled in the streets, and the roar of a motorcycle or the wail of a siren meant violence and tragedy. The gateways of many units [workplaces] had broad white lines drawn across them, and armed guards waited on the other side to shoot anyone who stepped across without permission. There was a 9 p.m. curfew and no one wanted to go out during the day unless he had to; there were many reports of the deaths of innocent vegetable buyers by stray bullets. People criss-crossed their windows with tape to prevent their shattering as the city shook with explosions and gunfire, and at night the sky flashed light and then dark with the passing of rockets.” [11]

But a deeper threat than even civil war had emerged for the ruling class: the reappearance of the Chinese working class as an independent force in Chinese politics. Many of the Red Guard groups set up by local bureaucrats had been based on factory workers. From the end of 1966 these workers started to stage strikes and demonstrations for their own demands – over wages, working conditions and hours, and against managerial privileges.

The strike wave started in Shanghai in December 1966, where it lasted over a month. In the spring and summer of 1967 it spread to cover industrial workers all over China, sometimes through rail- workers (who were in the vanguard of the strike wave from the start) but more often as independent reactions to the appalling conditions faced everywhere. Each individual strike was usually of short duration, with workers going back when they had won their key demands, and there were few reports of any co-ordination of strikes beyond city level (the most notable exceptions being the rail workers). Yet as one group of workers went back, another would come out.

With the party and state machines both paralysed, the only force which Mao could rely on to restore order was the army. Yet while the armed forces could be counted on to break strikes and shoot down demonstrations, they could not be relied on to take orders from Mao. Many local army commanders had close ties to the local officials who had been attacked by the Red Guards, and were loath to take orders from the people who they saw as responsible for the chaos of the past 18 months.

The extent of this problem was graphically demonstrated by the mutiny of the Wuhan army command in July 1967. Two senior Cultural Revolution officials were sent from Beijing to arbitrate in what had become a particularly bloody feud between rival Red Guard groups. When they arrived,, they were kidnapped by the local army chiefs. Mao had the city ringed with paratroops, and a major shooting war was narrowly averted. Yet the punishment meted out to the rebels was considerably less severe than that of their victims.

The reasoning behind this was simple. The need to restore order was considerably greater than the need to do away with Mao’s opponents inside the ruling class. To restore order Mao needed the armed forces, whose leaders at provincial level were invariably associated with his opponents. So from the summer of 1967 onwards the army started to take control of local governments, colleges and factories, and enforce an end to the fighting between Red Guard groups. As the army consolidated its authority in each province, a local “Revolutionary Committee” was set up to mark the end of the Cultural Revolution in the area. These were dominated by the armed forces, but also relied heavily on the local officials who only a year earlier had been dragged through the streets as “counter-revolutionaries”. Red Guard involvement was either token or non-existent.

The response of many Red Guard groups was to conclude that the “persons in power taking the capitalist road” were more widespread than they had assumed, and to fight the new authorities. 1968 thus saw not an end to the fighting, but rather an intensification of it. For many of these groups, stepping up their struggles simply meant descending further into gangsterism. But others moved sharply to the left, and at least one developed a revolutionary socialist analysis of China, arguing that the problem was not one of individuals, but of a “Red capitalist class”.

Shengwulian, as the group became known [12], achieved national fame in March 1968 with the publication of their manifesto, Whither China?. They stated that “... the basic social contradictions that gave rise to the great proletarian cultural revolution are contradictions between the rule of the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie and the mass of the people. The development and intensification of these contradictions decides that society needs a more thorough change – overthrow of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, thorough smashing of the old state machinery, realisation of social revolution, realisation of a redistribution of assets and power, and establishment of a new society – People’s Commune of China.” [13]

The group went on to argue that the new “Revolutionary Committees” were a sham, that the army had become a force for counter-revolution, and that the immediate task was arming the workers.

The response of the state was to increase the repression. From the end of 1968 wholesale deportations of young people to the countryside began, in an attempt to break the Red Guards. Personally ordered by Mao, these deportations gave the local officials, now returning to their offices after having been disgraced, the chance to take their revenge on their tormentors. By the mid-1970s something like 17 million people (roughly 10 per cent of the urban population) had been deported.

There were worse things than deportations. In the southern province of Guangxi the repression caused around 100,000 deaths and destroyed most of the town of Wuzhou. Similar massacres took place in a number of other provinces, particularly Guangdong and Inner Mongolia.

The Cultural Revolution was formally wound up at the Ninth Congress of the CCP in April 1969. Skirmishes with Russian troops on the northern border the previous month seem to have been the final factor that caused the various factions to call a halt. But serious disorders were to continue for some time in the outlying provinces, and it was not until 1971 that the ruling class re-established complete control.

The extent of these disorders can be seen from an order sent from Beijing to the province of Shaanxi in July 1969. This explicitly forbade the hiding, exchanging or transportation of arms; the use of state workshops to make arms for personal use; the sabotaging of road and rail communications; the looting of banks; and the organising of strikes. Strikers were given guarantees that there would be no victimisations if they returned to work inside a month. [14] Clearly it was impossible for the bureaucracy to break all strikes by force.

Clearly, too, the violent opposition to the ruling class was not the work of a “handful of bad elements” but rather a mass activity. Though their fear of opposition from below could temporarily unite all factions inside the ruling class, the destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution, and the fact that it had solved none of the divisions, meant that the faction-fighting was only postponed to another day.

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, two fundamental problems faced the ruling class. Both posed major challenges to Mao’s strategy for developing the Chinese economy.

The first was the task of rebuilding the party and state machines. Restoring the shattered confidence of the army of lower officials who ran these would be an uphill task. Mao’s strategy of keeping them on their toes through a programme of constant – and contradictory – campaigns would be directly counter-productive. What the officials now returning to their offices wanted was peace and quiet, and a leadership in Beijing that knew its own mind two years running.

The second problem was the economy. It was obvious that a long period of liberal economic policies was required simply to repair the damage done during the past few years, just as it had been after the “Great Leap”. But to a section of the ruling class – represented first by Zhou Enlai and then by Deng Xiaoping – a deeper challenge to orthodoxy was necessary.

One of the major victims of the Cultural Revolution had been Chinese science and technology. In four years not one student had graduated, while the majority of Chinese scientists had spent those years cleaning out pigsties or planting rice. Mao’s strategy of catching up with the rest of the world economy through developing as a “siege economy” was now clearly unworkable.

Yet with the onset of the world economic crisis in the 1970s, and the real threat of a war with the USSR – military tensions on the northern border had been growing steadily since the March 1969 clashes – the pressure to compete was greater than ever. Now Zhou Enlai was arguing that this could only be done by opening the economy to Western capitalism, particularly the USA and Japan, in order to get advanced plant and technology. Such a strategy was bound to arouse the opposition of those who had come to power during the Cultural Revolution.

Above all the factions stood the enigmatic and devious figure of Mao, increasingly senile but still capable of playing one faction off against another to maximise his power. It was clear to his opponents that he had no coherent strategy for the 1970s – but it was equally clear that no faction could impose their will on the ruling class as a whole until he died.

The next six years were to see a series of increasingly complex and vicious faction fights develop, as each group jockeyed for temporary advantage against the others. Lin Biao, Mao’s chosen successor, was murdered together with members of his family; Deng Xiaoping rose to power, was deposed, and rose again. Yet the decisive break in this chain came not from within the ruling class, but from a revolt on the streets which was the most important challenge to the regime since its foundation – the “Tiananmen riots” of April 1976, when in Beijing alone more than 100,000 people took part in pitched battles with police, militia forces and the army.

The spark for the riots was provided when wreaths commemorating Zhou Enlai, who had died the previous year and who was revered as the only man capable of mitigating Mao’s excesses, were removed from a monument in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. As the police moved in to break up crowds who gathered to demand the return of the wreaths, fighting broke out. It quickly spread to the whole square, drawing in larger numbers as more police and militia were rushed to the square to contain the fighting. The riot lasted the whole day, with police cars and stations being burnt, soldiers forced to retreat under hails of stones and militia barracks being wrecked. It was only broken up late at night, when hundreds of people remaining in the square were beaten to death as the police finally “restored order”. Similar revolts were reported from the cities of Hangzhou, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Kunming and Guiyang, and in the provinces of Anhui and Guangxi. [15]

The extent of the panic inside the ruling class can only be guessed at. The Beijing riots took place less than a mile from the closed quarter of the city where the top rulers lived – and where Mao lay on his deathbed. They closed ranks at once against this threat from the streets. Deng Xiaoping was held responsible for the riots, and instantly disgraced. A massive repression started, with more than 100,000 people arrested in Beijing alone.

But Deng’s disgrace was to be short-lived. Whether or not he had planned the riots, it was obvious that they had been mass demonstrations in his support and against Mao’s closest supporters, the group known as the “Gang of Four”. [16] The conclusion drawn by most of the bureaucracy was that the “Gang” would have to go. Deeply unpopular with even the most hard-line of Mao’s supporters (who knew a sinking ship when they saw one), the “Gang” clung to power only through Mao’s support. And in September 1976 Mao died.

A month later the “Gang” were arrested at gunpoint, and the by now ritual denunciations followed: they had been for years agents of Western capitalism, implacably opposed to Mao and all he stood for, yet responsible for all the crimes of the Cultural Revolution. The propaganda machine they had built up during the Cultural Revolution, and which they had used to such effect on their enemies, now turned exactly the same torrent of lies and abuse on them.

As one Canadian Maoist, defending the arrests, admitted: “... the official People’s Daily used the same language to describe the Four and their crimes as it had used to condemn Deng Xiaoping not many months before. One could be forgiven for thinking that sometimes the articles were simply reruns with appropriate name changes made to take care of new circumstances.’ [17]

With Mao dead and his closest supporters in jail, the stage was clear for the “modernising” faction of the ruling class, led by Deng Xiaoping, to establish their dominance over the ruling class as a whole. By 1978 Deng had removed all the remaining effective opposition, and set about systematically demolishing Mao’s economic strategy. The siege economy was to be abandoned in favour of an opening to Western and Japanese capitalism, and the development of “market socialism”, as the only way to pull China out of the stagnation and poverty that was Mao’s legacy.




10. Resolution on CCP history 1949-1981 (pamphlet, Beijing 1981) p.32.

11. Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, Son of the revolution (London 1984) p.133.

12. This was a shortened version of their name, which translates in full as the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee. Shengwulian literally means Province-Proletarian-Alliance.

13. Quoted from extracts published in International Socialism 1:37, June/July 1969, p.27. The document can be found in full in The Seventies (editors), The revolution is dead – long live the revolution (Montreal 1977) pp.153-70.

14. See Simon Leys, The Chairman’s New Clothes (London 1977) p.205.

15. According to a report in China News Analysis (Hong Kong, 4 June 1976) drawn from various provincial radio broadcasts.

16. The “Gang of Four” had risen to national prominence as some of Mao’s closest supporters during the Cultural Revolution. They were: Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife; Yao Wenyuan, a journalist who became Mao’s leading intellectual hitman; Zhang Chun-qiao, former CCP boss in Shanghai; and Wang Hongwen, a former works policeman promoted as a token “model worker”.

17. Neil Burton, in Neil Burton and Charles Bettelheim, China after Mao (New York 1978) p.11.


Last updated on 25.3.2001