Cultural Revolution

The long shadow of the Cultural Revolution

Roderick MacFarquhar says that even today, as a group of new leaders prepares to take charge in China, Mao's Cultural Revolution and the reactions to it continue to shape national politics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 May, 2016, 3:40pm

Let me begin with what for most Western scholars is a truism: No Cultural Revolution, no reform. In other words, without the disasters that occurred in the first 30 years of the People's Republic, and particularly in the last 10 years of Mao Zedong's life, we wouldn't have seen the amazing economic growth of the subsequent 30-plus years.

So why was there a Cultural Revolution? The great analyst of Mao's thought, Professor Stuart Schram, once said it was one possible outcome of Mao's beliefs but not an inevitable one. What I try to analyse in my three volumes just published in Chinese is how the possible became the necessary from Mao's point of view.

I am not going to detail the horrors of the famine of the Great Leap Forward, but rather to describe how it fitted into the process that led to the Cultural Revolution.

In 1961, as the famine persisted, Mao presided over the drafting of a plethora of plans for running the economy and society on more sensible lines. None had any effect because the tide of leftism was still strong and people were frightened of being called right opportunists. In 1962, Mao and his colleagues decided to take the unprecedented step of holding a massive meeting of officials to try to convince them not to hold back from taking the emergency measures.

The last week of the conference unleashed a torrent of criticism from the lower ranks as to what had gone wrong with the Great Leap Forward. After it was over, Mao absented himself, leaving his colleagues to handle the crisis.

The active members of the Politburo Standing Committee - Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun and Deng Xiaoping - seem all to have agreed that some form of family farming under the aegis of the collective would be necessary to give peasants the incentives they needed.

In mid-1962, when there seemed to be a danger that they were prepared to initiate a national policy to that effect, Mao returned to Beijing to stop the rot. It was from this time forth that Mao told the party never to forget class struggle.

At this point, I need to bring in Nikita Khrushchev. After his secret speech in 1956 at the Soviet Communist Party's 20th congress denouncing the crimes of Stalin and his cult of personality, Mao never trusted him. In 1960, after a series of ideological polemics initiated by Mao, Khrushchev withdrew the Soviet experts who had been helping with China's five-year plans. China denounced him in nine polemics.

The final polemic, in July 1964, alleged that the Soviet Union was reverting to capitalism at home and to consorting with the imperialist enemy abroad. In order to prevent similar backsliding in China, it was necessary to raise a new generation of revolutionary successors, and rectify those people in positions of authority who were taking the capitalist road. As you will all recognise, that was the core justification for the Cultural Revolution. Mao was prepared to throw his comrades in arms in the dustbin of history, to undermine the economy, and to let the country descend into chaos in his determination to make China ideologically pure.

Today, I want to look at the lessons we can draw from why the Cultural Revolution took place at all. What was going on in Mao's mind during those 10 years and how did he change from the benevolent despot of the Hundred Flowers Campaign to the trouble-maker leader of the Cultural Revolution? The answers to these questions are important for China today.

Mao believed in leadership and organisation. Had he not, he would not have led the communists to victory. But only leadership fitted his restless personality. He hated bureaucracy because it was a dead hand upon mass spontaneity and because it inhibited the leader. Had China persisted with its five-year plans rather than launched a Great Leap Forward, it would have become a massive bureaucracy like the USSR. Mao would have had no role in such a China; Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, however, would have been in their element.

But there was a more important aspect to Mao's dislike of bureaucracy. Like Milovan Djilas, the dissident theorist of the Yugoslav revolution, he saw the Communist Party as a new class, dominating and feeding off the great mass of the people. Of course, Mao himself benefited from that relationship. But consistency was for lesser people. What Mao attempted to do with the abortive rectification campaign of 1957 was to reform the party and change the way it ruled. He thought the sectarianism that the party displayed towards non-communists could be cured peacefully; in the Cultural Revolution he decided that revisionism could only be fought violently.

In the end he was seeking to achieve contradictory objectives: on the one hand, he still believed even at the height of the Cultural Revolution that there was a need for a strong party - that was why he rejected the suggestion that Shanghai should be turned into a massive people's commune. But on the other hand, he wanted the party to rule better, to inspire people to do things. It wasn't going to happen, but the Cultural Revolution made it more likely that it might happen one day.

The chaos and economic damage caused by the Cultural Revolution was shock therapy for China's leaders, notably Deng Xiaoping; they knew they had to work hard to justify the continuance of communist rule and so they reformed the economy and opened up the country. But I want to talk about the long-term political consequences.

The Cultural Revolution destroyed the party's credibility and authority. Its corruption during the reform era has destroyed its legitimacy. The cult of Mao during the Cultural Revolution inevitably produced a reaction in the post-Mao era: no more maximum leaders. That was a major reason for the removal of Bo Xilai . The cult of Mao's thought also brought about a reaction so that ideology is no longer of any weight in China.

Thus the Cultural Revolution and the reaction to it in the reform era have undermined what was in the 1950s the iron triangle institutional configuration of the Chinese party-state: leader at the apex, supported on one side by ideology and on the other by the party and buttressed at the base by the forces of law and order, and it was because of the erosion of that once powerful triangle that the People's Liberation Army had to be brought in to save the party state in 1989.

Inertia is a very powerful force in politics. The party state may have a good few years left. But I suspect that the new leaders of China who will take office soon are aware that the clock is ticking and that they ought to be undertaking measures of political reform if the system is to survive.

Roderick MacFarquhar is Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard University. This article is excerpted from a lecture he delivered last week at the Chinese University