What lay behind Mao’s Cultural Revolution?

The Cultural Revolution – a period that is generally considered to have spanned the ten years from 1966 to the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 – is one of the most confusing and misunderstood periods of recent Chinese history. Yet, as Guardian journalist Tania Branigan writes in Red Memory, its shadow still hangs over China today. CHRISTINE THOMAS delves below surface impressionism to draw out what really happened during those tumultuous events.

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution

By Tania Branigan

Published by Faber, 2023, £18.00

At the time that the Cultural Revolution was unfolding, some on the left internationally viewed it as a genuine revolutionary mass movement from below against bureaucratism. Mao was even hailed as an ‘unconscious Trotskyist’. Retrospective narratives like Branigan’s, which is mainly based on personal testimony, tend to concentrate on detailing and conveying the often seemingly random terror, brutality and destruction – in which up to two million people are thought to have died and 36 million persecuted – but with scant analysis of the factors underpinning and motivating what actually took place.

In reality, the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ – in essence an inter-bureaucratic struggle which temporarily leant on the masses to achieve its aims – can only really be understood through the optic of the 1949 Chinese revolution and the nature of the regime it ushered in. That revolution overthrew the brutal, rotten dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT), united the country, broke the grip of Japanese, US and European imperialism over China, and subsequently eliminated feudal and capitalist relations in the most populous nation on earth. By carrying out land reform – in a country where just 10% of the population owned 70% of arable land – nationalising industry, and introducing a national economic plan, the basis was laid for increasing agricultural and industrial production, and improving the living conditions of the peasantry and workers beyond those of comparable countries such as India, where feudal-capitalist relations still held sway. The revolution inspired mass revolutionary movements in South East Asia and beyond, and dealt a serious blow to imperialism. As such, the Chinese revolution can be considered second only to that of the Russian revolution of 1917.

Revolutionary dynamic

However, whereas in Russia the working class – led by the Bolshevik party – had, through the Soviets, and in alliance with the peasantry, played the central role in the revolution, in China the peasantry – through the Red Army (PLA), headed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – was the main protagonist. The different revolutionary dynamic in China can be explained by both internal and external factors: the crushing of the second Chinese revolution in 1927; the utter weakness and incapacity of Chinese capitalism – reflected in the totally corrupt and bankrupt dictatorship of the KMT; and, crucially, the unique balance of forces internationally at the end of the second world war. This left its mark on the subsequent character of the regime that came to power.

Revolutionary movements unleashed by the war in Western Europe had ended in defeat because both the social democratic and communist parties used their authority not to overthrow capitalism but to allow the ruling classes to recover their position. Nevertheless, war weariness of the troops and the post-war public mood meant it was impossible for US imperialism – the dominant capitalist power globally – to intervene to crush a revolution unfolding in a country of 500 million people. The most it could do was send great quantities of money and arms to the nationalists in the KMT. But this on its own was not sufficient to prevent the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek. His regime, in the areas of China under KMT control, was rotten to the core. Peasants starved, desperate for land, while corrupt KMT officials enriched themselves and Chiang-Kai-shek instituted a reign of terror in the interests of the large landowners – the KMT’s main social base – who were themselves inextricably intertwined with Chinese capitalism and imperialism. While the KMT regime was incapable of meeting any of the needs of the peasant masses, the PLA won over and mobilised millions of peasants with promises of land reform.

At the same time, Stalinist Russia emerged from the war greatly strengthened, extending its sphere of influence throughout Eastern Europe. Based as it was on nationalised property forms and other levers of state direction in a planned economy, generating significant economic development, it represented an alternative social system to capitalism that could appeal to workers and the oppressed masses in the colonial and semi-colonial world – notwithstanding the monstrous dictatorial bureaucracy that controlled the economy and society from above. China had a ready-made model on its own doorstep.

Bureaucratic state

The rise of a parasitic bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had been underpinned by economic underdevelopment and the isolation of the workers’ state after working-class revolutions internationally, especially in Germany, ended in defeat. While ultimately resting on and maintaining the planned economy that the workers’ state had introduced after the 1917 revolution, a bureaucratic caste was able to seize control of the state apparatus – with Josef Stalin at its head. Motivated by defence of its own privileges, power and prestige – which derived from the state-directed economy – the bureaucracy rose up above society and, balancing between the classes in ‘Bonapartist’ fashion, proceeded over a period of years to crush all elements of workers’ democracy, the Trotskyist opposition, and all those Bolsheviks who had any links with the 1917 revolution. The result was a degenerated workers’ state in which the economy was under the direction of the state, with the imperatives of market relations tamed, but managed from above by a corrupt, privileged and totalitarian elite.

In China, however, the regime was ‘Stalinised’ from the outset. The mainly proletarian Chinese revolution of 1925-27 had been drowned in blood by Chiang Kai-shek due to the disastrous advice given to the newly formed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin at the head of the Comintern – the Communist International. This called for the CCP to give up its independence and totally subordinate itself to the ‘democratic bourgeoisie’ in the form of the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek. As a consequence, the working class was brutally crushed. Those members of the CCP who survived the massacres in Shanghai and elsewhere fled from the cities to the countryside, where they organised a struggle based not on the working class but on the peasantry.

The seeds of the bureaucratic state that would be consolidated under Mao after 1949 were already present in the Red Army and the territory it controlled during the wars against both Chiang Kai-shek and Japanese imperialism – which controlled up to a third of China until it was defeated in 1945. The hierarchical top-down command structure of the PLA, the privileges of the upper stratum in terms of food, accommodation, health care etc, the terror, purges, and the suppression of dissent, were well rehearsed and entrenched. As the Red Army moved South in the last stages of the revolution, striking workers were shot, Trotskyists arrested, and any independent action by the masses suppressed. One of the first acts of the new regime was to abolish the right to strike.

While ending private ownership of land and industry laid the basis for progress through economic planning, the absence of workers’ democracy and checks and balances from below, the top-down bureaucratic manner in which the economy was run, inevitably led to sudden twists and turns in policy, resulting in terrible waste, inefficiency and mass suffering. One of the most extreme examples was the Great Leap Forward in which around 45 million people died through famine and overwork, and which Branigan and most commentators consider the main trigger for the Cultural Revolution.

Sino-Soviet relations

The Great Leap Forward (1958-61) was a calamitous economic experiment imposed from above to force the pace of industrialisation in what was still an extremely poor, mainly peasant-based economy. Mao’s stated aim was to catch up with Britain and eventually overtake the USA. In fact, the main rivalry was with the USSR. Two superpowers had emerged from the second world war resting on antagonistic social systems – the Soviet Union and US imperialism. This was the main global divide, but divisions and tensions existed within each camp. Genuine workers’ states would have prioritised economic cooperation with each other at an international level, but both the Soviet and Chinese bureaucracies were motivated by a desire to defend and secure their own privileges, power and prestige, thus sowing the seeds of future conflict.

It was these narrow national interests that informed the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, not the promotion of global proletarian revolution. As Trotsky wrote: “The bureaucracy is first and foremost concerned with its power, its prestige, its revenues. It defends itself much better than it defends the USSR. It defends itself at the expense of the USSR and at the expense of the world proletariat”. (In Defence of Marxism) While the Soviet bureaucracy gave some support to Mao and the Red Army at different stages, it looked to control the revolution taking place just beyond its own borders and direct it along a path that suited its own vested interests. So in 1936, for example, against the background of Stalin seeking accommodation with imperialism globally, the Soviet bureaucracy pushed hard for the CCP to form a ‘united front’ with the KMT to take on Japanese imperialism – seen as a military threat to the USSR.

Under the influence of Moscow, Mao’s initial programme on taking power did not go beyond the bounds of capitalism, which was supposed to continue to its ‘progressive role’ for fifty or a hundred years. The CCP formed a coalition with the remnants of the bourgeois political representatives who hadn’t fled with Chiang Kai-shek to Formosa (Taiwan), and abandoned radical land reform. To begin with only the property of the KMT-supporting ‘bureaucratic capitalists’ was nationalised, and Mao vowed to protect private property, encouraging Chinese capitalists to return. But it became increasingly clear that the feeble capitalist class could play no progressive role, and the momentum was towards state control of the whole economy. Spurred on by imperialist blockade through the United Nations during the Korean war (1950-53), and internal sabotage, the bureaucracy leant on the workers and peasants and proceeded to expropriate all of the landlords and capitalists.

The death of Stalin in 1953 intensified Mao’s desire to transform China into an industrial and military power that could vie for influence within the communist bloc. For several years – until the final Sino-Soviet break in the early 1960s and the cutting off of economic aid and nuclear technology – a contradictory relationship existed between the Soviet Union and China. The entry of the most populous country in the world into the communist ‘camp’ added to the prestige of the Soviet bureaucracy but also created a regime with rival interests, which often conflicted with its own – such as the border conflicts between China and India. Mao and the Chinese bureaucracy were totally dependent on the Soviet Union for the financial and military support necessary to become a global power, but were at the same time seeking to pursue an independent path corresponding with their own particular needs.

Economic catastrophe

In the 1950s, on the basis of the planned economy, the Chinese economy was growing by around 10% a year, industrial production at twice that rate. However, this was from a very low level. Mao’s aim was to rapidly ‘leap forward’, speed up industrial development and surmount the difficulties of underdevelopment and low productivity and technique through the super-human efforts and sacrifices of the peasants and workers themselves. To this end, land was forcibly collectivised and peasants rounded up into huge ‘People’s Communes’ where their work and lives were controlled by local party bureaucrats. Food, and the denial of it, was used as a coercive tool. At the same time, workers and peasants had to set up their own ‘backyard’ furnaces for the production of steel, and peasants were coerced into the building of large-scale infrastructure such as irrigation systems.

The central bureaucracy set arbitrary targets for grain production to feed the cities that had no relation to what the peasants were capable of producing. Provincial and local bureaucrats then falsified and exaggerated harvests in order to be seen to reach the targets, resulting in the requisitioning of almost everything the peasants produced and leaving them to starve to death in their millions. At the same time, the Chinese regime was exporting grain and foodstuffs in order to buy industrial and military technology, and gifting food to allies and potential allies internationally such as the Indochina countries and Algeria. Mao’s attempt to forcibly overcome the low level of productive forces was an unmitigated disaster. Rather than creating an economic miracle, the Great Leap Forward ended in mass starvation, economic chaos, environmental destruction and a catastrophic waste of resources and labour.

While for Mao the millions who died were just so much collateral damage in the race for industrialisation, the massive suffering and dislocation that the Great Leap Forward unleashed inevitably created tensions and conflict within the top stratum of the bureaucracy. Peng Zhen, the Beijing party boss, and CCP president Liu Shaoqi, number two in the party hierarchy, gave the main voice to this dissent, supported by general secretary Deng Xiaoping, and were to consequently become principal high-level targets of the Cultural Revolution.

The Liu wing of the bureaucracy proposed a more gradual process of industrialisation and appropriation of agricultural produce. By 1960 it was becoming clear that the situation in the countryside was untenable. Mao was reluctantly forced to accept a policy shift that involved slowing down the speed of industrialisation, a reduction in the size of the communes, and concessions to the peasantry, which included allocating some small plots of state-owned land for private household production. Any produce over and above that destined for the state could be sold in rural markets. At a 1962 meeting in Beijing of 7,000 party cadres, Liu went off script, declaring the devastating outcome of the Great Leap Forward as being 30% natural disaster and 70% man-made. At that same meeting Deng made his famous comment that “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse”.

Cultural Revolution begins

Because the catastrophic disaster of the Great Leap Forward was so closely associated with Mao, it had seriously tarnished his reputation and weakened his position within the CCP. Mao’s credibility had also undergone a major blow in the field of foreign policy. Indonesia had the biggest Communist Party in the world outside of China with three million members and millions more sympathisers. At least one million of those were slaughtered in Suharto’s military coup in 1965, as a direct consequence of Mao’s advice to the party to pursue class collaboration with the bourgeois nationalist president Sukarno. Also, a year earlier, in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev had been removed in a coup, adding to Mao’s fears about his own position as supreme leader of the Chinese regime.

So the launching of the Cultural Revolution by Mao in May 1966 was an attempt at shoring up his damaged reputation, while at the same time preserving the legitimacy of the bureaucracy as a whole, which had also been badly undermined by the Great Leap Forward. It was intended as a means of carrying out a mass purge of the regime, rooting out opposition to Mao but also fighting the excesses of the bureaucracy, cleansing it of the elements that stood in the way of Mao’s personal and political ambitions. And while there was no clear idea or worked out strategy of how exactly those aims were to be achieved, and Mao’s proclamations and instructions were often ambiguous, confusing and contradictory, he looked outside of the existing party and state structures for the means. Mao created the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG), which included his wife Jiang Qing and, initially, a handful of loyal supporters. This was to be his main political lever as he appealed over the heads of the bureaucracy to the masses in order to carry out his ends.

In order to mobilise the masses Mao’s rhetoric attacked ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘class enemies’, ‘revisionists’, and ‘counterrevolutionaries’, implying that the Liu wing of the bureaucracy, and the very minor material concessions to the peasantry introduced after the Great Leap Forward, represented a potential restoration of capitalist relations. Calls to ‘destroy the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes’ unleashed pent-up frustrations with the bureaucracy – the privileges, the oppression, the lack of democracy – as well as economic grievances, and millions rallied to support Mao’s ‘revolution’.

He first turned to the students in the universities, but it was to be the radical students in the middle and even elementary schools who were the initial shock troops, many of them the sons and daughters of the party elite. Branigan paints a graphic picture of the revolutionary fervour of the students in this phase of the Cultural Revolution – roused against the stifling regime of the educational institutions and ready to defend and continue the revolutionary ideals that their parents had fought for, against ‘rightists’, ‘traitors’, ‘renegades’ and ‘capitalist agents’; students like Yu, a Red Guard at 13 years old, who wanted to “break the old world to build a new one”. Around 22 million students in total were mobilised, first in Beijing and then around the country. Every day tens of thousands were piling into the capital, and a total of 12 million attended mass rallies in Beijing addressed by Mao in the period up until November, mostly in Tiananmen Square. Schools and universities were closed down, students given free travel, board, and accommodation, and urged to “ignite fires of revolution” across China. The main targets to begin with were teachers, intellectuals and those of a ‘bad’ class background.

‘Red Terror’

This was not a spontaneous autonomous uprising of students as was to happen in France and other countries two years later, but a mass movement initiated and orchestrated from above by Mao and his supporters, exploiting and harnessing the discontent and energy of students, initially, and later of workers and peasants. Liu and the ‘old guard’ in the bureaucracy sent ‘work groups’ into the educational establishments to attempt to take control of the movement and restrain the students but they were in most places chased out by the student Red Guards, inspired by Mao’s words that “to rebel is justified”. Mao then ordered the removal of the work groups and declared the Red Guards off-limits as far as the PLA and state security forces were concerned. Liu was later denounced, removed from all his party positions, expelled from the party, and left to die without medication in solitary confinement in prison. Deng, who was sixth in the party rankings, was not expelled but removed from office and exiled to Jiangxi to work in a tractor factory.

In the summer of 1967 a ‘Red Terror’ swept the universities, schools, and beyond, fuelled by Mao and the CCRG, with declarations that ‘without destruction there can be no real construction’ and instructions to ‘create disorder under heaven’ and ‘beat to a pulp’ anyone who opposed ‘Mao Zedong thought’. Lin Bao, defence minister, ramped up the cult of the supreme leader with the production of more than two billion Mao badges, the huge portraits, the statues, and the hundreds of millions of copies of Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’. Houses were raided, the property and possessions of those deemed to have the wrong class background confiscated, people evicted from their homes and exiled, relics and places of cultural and historical interest destroyed, and those in ‘western dress’ attacked. Branigan vividly describes how great-character wall posters and verbal denunciations and humiliation of ‘enemy’ teachers by students in public ‘struggle sessions’ gave way to physical abuse, torture, bloody beatings and killings. Cleaning toilets, crawling over broken nails and glass, eating excrement, beaten to death with clubs – the punishments escalated and many of the targets ended up taking their own lives, unable to bear the violence and humiliation.

This phase of the Cultural Revolution was relatively short, lasting no more than a year, and despite the terror far more people died in the later purge of a section of the bureaucracy – who were the real targets, not the intellectuals and people of bourgeois backgrounds. But it is this initial phase – a prelude to the mass purges that followed – that many commentators, including Branigan, pay most attention to.

Cracking down

At the beginning of the ‘revolution’ the workers in the factories had been urged not to join in the movement but to concentrate their energies on production. But after bureaucrats opposing the Maoists began to make economic concessions to the workers in the form of higher wages and better conditions to win their support, in December 1966 Mao urged ‘rebel’ workers to join in, as long as they didn’t abandon production. Peasant organisations were also created. As Roderick MacFarquar explains in Mao’s Last Revolution, this opened up a Pandora’s Box as workers, many of them on temporary contracts, took advantage of the situation to promote their own economic and political demands. These included elements of direct democracy, especially in Shanghai, which didn’t just challenge the excessive privileges of the bureaucracy but brought into question the entire bureaucratic regime.

Notwithstanding Mao’s declarations of ‘faith in the masses’ and calls for them to ‘liberate themselves’, the last thing that any of the factions of the bureaucracy wanted was a genuine independent mass movement, with demands for workers’ democracy, that could become a threat to their rule. The movement that Mao had instigated and manipulated from above was getting out of control and taking on a life of its own. The country was in chaos, with civil war-like conditions as rival organisations and factions of Red Guards and workers fought each other, including with arms, and followed Mao’s exhortation to ‘seize power’.

Having unleashed ‘anarchy’ through his appeal to the masses, Mao now moved to lean on his base in the PLA in an attempt to restore order. From May 1967 until 1972, after the death of military chief Lin Bao, the military effectively took over the running of the government and the economy. ‘Revolutionary committees’ that were meant to unite the ‘revolutionary masses’, ‘revolutionary cadres’ and the army in a ‘triple alliance’ were for the most part dominated by the PLA.

In July 1967, the student Red Guards were instructed to go home and classes were resumed. Workers and peasants were exhorted to now give their maximum attention to production. The following year millions of students were dispatched to the countryside to ‘learn from the peasants’. As Branigan describes, as many as 12 million lived in the most abject conditions, enduring terrible hardships, some for several years. This ‘rustification’ programme was not formally ended until 1980. Many died from hunger and illness.

However, reining in the masses and restoring order was not a straightforward process. The PLA was itself riven by factions and it was unclear which of the rival organisations it was supposed to support in ‘seizing power’. There were constant power shifts at regional and provincial level, with Mao himself balancing between the masses and the military, and between the local and national military commanders. But in March 1969, serious military clashes on the border with the Soviet Union, and the fear of invasion, helped to legitimise military rule and demands for ‘unity in the face of the common enemy’.

Mass purges

From the summer of 1968 until the autumn of 1969 the most bloody phase of the Cultural Revolution was launched. Under the pretext of a fictional ‘16 May conspiracy’ millions of party bureaucrats were ‘cleansed’ and as many as 650,000 killed. While this mass purge was initiated from the centre, without the mass participation of the first phase, it also became an opportunity for bureaucrats at every level to pursue their own grudges, personal vendettas and ambitions.

According to Jonathan Fenby’s History of Modern China, by the ninth party congress in 1969, which was meant to celebrate the ‘triumphal end’ of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, 70-80% of cadres at regional and provincial level had been purged and 60-70% of those centrally. Only nine out of 23 politburo members from 1966 had survived. The vacuum was filled by the military. By 1969, 22 out of 29 first secretaries were from the PLA, and they comprised the majority of cadres on provincial bodies.

An ailing Mao was particularly concerned that the militarisation of government had given an enormously strengthened power base to potential rival Lin Bao, whose position he now set about undermining. Lin’s death in a helicopter crash in 1971, while fleeing to the Soviet Union, opened the way to a purge of the top commanders in the army and a reduction in PLA influence in the government. However, to replace them Mao was now forced to turn back to the ‘old guard’, with Deng Xiaoping eventually rehabilitated and restored to the Politburo.

But as Mao’s health continued to deteriorate bitter factional fighting still raged within the bureaucracy, principally between the ‘radicals’ around Jiang Qing and the ‘Gang of Four’ – who wanted no let-up in the movement – and the Deng camp, which wanted stability in which to restore the credibility of the regime through economic growth from the ‘four modernisations’ of agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology. In a spontaneous outpouring of mourning that erupted in April 1976 by tens of thousands of ordinary people at the death of Mao’s right-hand-man Zhou Enlai – who was generally perceived as having been a more restraining influence on Mao during the Cultural Revolution – criticisms were raised not just of the Gang of Four but of Mao himself. In a final shift, in an attempt to secure his legacy, Mao sided with the ‘radicals’, and Deng was once more removed from office.

However, the ‘radicals’ had little support within the party or the PLA. Within a month of Mao’s death in September of that year, the generals had moved against the Gang of Four, paving the way for Deng to take over in 1978.

Economic reform

Despite ten years of bloody inter-bureaucratic power struggle the social basis of the regime remained intact. State control of the economy and economic planning had not been overturned, although chaos and dislocation had led to some fraying at the edges, with a layer of peasants in the countryside taking advantage of the disorder to cultivate their own plots of land. The bureaucracy, albeit divided into different factions, was firmly in control of the state.

Deng did not set out to overturn the state direction of the economy but to implement reforms that could improve its functioning, empirically concluding that the privileges and power of the bureaucracy could be better defended through promoting capitalist economic relations than through bureaucratic planning. This process accelerated massively following the implosion of the Soviet Union, but with the bureaucracy maintaining a vice-like grip of the state apparatus, and with strategic sections and levers of the economy remaining in state hands. The result is a unique form of economic relations, in which bureaucratic state control, strengthened under Xi Xiaoping, gives a certain flexibility and room for manoeuvre in economic and social policy not available in regimes ultimately following the laws of capitalism.

Branigan is right to say that the shadow of the Cultural Revolution still hangs over China today. Not just Xi’s attempts to bolster nationalism by attacking ‘historical nihilism’ – basically any criticism of Chinese history of the last 70 years – but also the fear of mass movements that could threaten the Chinese bureaucracy’s political control. But as global capitalist economic crisis intensifies, and the growth that has underpinned the Chinese bureaucracy’s legitimacy is undermined, it is inevitable that their control will be challenged at some stage. This could be either by a section of Chinese capitalists moving to take direct political control or the working-class itself vying for power, processes that would be reflected in future splits within the bureaucracy. These are not immediate perspectives, and it is not possible at this stage to say which would be more likely, but when the biggest working class in the world moves independently into action on a large scale its collective power will be immense, with the potential for bringing about genuine democratic socialism in China and beyond.