Class Critique in the Cultural Revolution

But this doubly-divided class structure was not immediately apparent to those placed within it. Instead, the official class designations of the pre-revolutionary era were the primary means by which “class” was conceived in both the Hundred Flowers movement[1] and in the early portion of the Cultural Revolution. This is not surprising, given the category’s persistent relevance for one’s placement within the privilege hierarchy. But as the Cultural Revolution continued, this definition of class would be challenged, modified and overturned by new, competing understandings of the roots of the developmental regime’s crisis. Ultimately, China would see the gestation of a dispersed and inchoate “ultra-left” faction (jizuopai), which would begin to articulate class in terms of the power structures actually in place under socialism. Though it developed rapidly, this faction was targeted by the state and dismantled through military suppression, mass imprisonment and rustication before it could cohere.

Early on, the predominant understanding of “class” was deeply conservative. The first to respond to the Party’s call to “rebel” were the relatively well-off children of the political elites, concentrated in the country’s top universities. These students did not intuitively sense the true structure of the class system atop which they sat, and they had very little contact with the country’s peasant majority. “Class” was therefore understood in a fashion consistent with official administrative categories. They came from “good” class backgrounds, as the children of cadre, revolutionary soldiers or martyrs, while their surroundings were littered with people of “bad” class background: those who had been petty shopkeepers, workshop owners or capitalists prior to 1949, as well as those who had been designated “rightists,” “bad elements” or “counterrevolutionaries” during various rectification campaigns. Just like the privileged students of “red” lineage partook in their parents’ glory, so too did the children of these “black” (i.e. bad class background) families partake in their parents’ shame. Here “the prevailing interpretation of the issue of class” came in the form of the “bloodline theory” (xuetong lun), in which class was understood to designate a caste-like lineage inherited from the revolutionary period. [2]

These first months of the Cultural Revolution, from summer into the fall of 1966, were largely confined to Beijing, a city in which the bloodline theory was easily matched with an urban geography conducive to its growth. The city was largely an administrative center, with a heavy concentration of Party officials and top universities. Even prior to the revolution, it had not been an industrial center, populated instead by “[a]n amorphous aggregation of petty traders, artisans, hired laborers, monks and nuns, fortune-tellers, traditional performers, and government clerks, as well as members of liberal professions, such as teachers and doctors.”[3] After the revolution, then, the city found itself split between state officials and various denizens of “nonred” class backgrounds, with a very small population of workers compared to other Chinese cities, and an even smaller cohort of students from peasant families. This created a situation in which Beijing’s students were “divided between a minority from cadre and military families and a majority from various nonred categories of urbanites, as well as those from black households.”[4] In this atmosphere, the earliest “Red Guard” group, formed at Tsinghua University’s attached Middle School (grades 7-12), primarily defended the Party’s own class-line policy, criticizing and attacking students and teachers of nonred background.

Membership in these red guard groups was tightly restricted, and Beijing’s demography ensured that “only around 15 to 20 percent of the middle-school students were eligible.”[5] These conservative factions were also notoriously brutal, conducting home raids, setting up makeshift jails in which they beat and interrogated those of “black” class background and requiring students of politically “impure” lineage to “enter the classroom only through the back entrance.” There were even demands made in big character posters calling for hospitals to stop blood transfusions from those of red lineage to those of nonred families, and to entirely ban donations from individuals of bad lineage.[6]

Across the city, those of bad class background were refused service at restaurants, on busses and at hospitals. Warnings were given declaring Beijing, as the revolutionary capital, off-limits to those from black families, and the conservative red guard factions facilitated mass deportations: “between late August and mid-September 1977, as many as 77,000 were banished from Beijing to the remote countryside.” Nearly half (30,000) of those banished were simply the dependents of those who held a bad class status prior to the revolution. Meanwhile, “scattered killings of black categories occurred daily.”[7]

The conservative tilt of the Cultural Revolution’s early months, however, would soon see a backlash, as students of nonred backgrounds organized for their own defense. Bolstered by the call to attack the “bourgeois reactionary line” within the Party itself, those left out of the privileged circles of the early red guards were now emboldened to attack Party cadre directly and to oppose the conservative students who defended them. These attacks quickly scaled up and “with the abrupt downfall of many high-level cadres as capitalist roaders, those born-reds who had once enjoyed power and privilege found themselves plunging to the status of bastards overnight.”[8]

But this still did not provide a climate in which truly alternative views of class could take hold. Now, instead of bloodline, the focus was on “capitalist roaders within the Party,” who were, nonetheless, portrayed as conspiratorial capitalists, “KMT agents,” or counter-revolutionaries. These outlandish categories were even applied to disgraced top officials such as Liu Shaoqi and, eventually, Lin Biao. Class, then, was still tied strongly to pre-revolutionary class status, only now converted into a conspiracy-theory whereby past power-holders had secretly infiltrated the Party all the way to the top and had only to be rooted out by the masses. After the “capitalist roaders” were ousted, the Party itself would regain its purity. Later, this position would be slightly modified by Mao’s faction within the Party, which would oscillate between upholding the conspiracy-theory version of class and a conception that acknowledged that the socialist developmental drive itself was capable of producing new capitalist roaders who were not agents of the old bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, the solution in either case remained the same: sift the good from the bad in order to revive the popular mandate of the Party.

It was not until late 1966 and early 1967 that more radical views of class began to be formulated, as the Cultural Revolution spread from Beijing to other Chinese cities where factional battles between students would be replaced with more widespread social mobilization across both privileged and deprived segments of the urban populace. The first peak of this general mobilization came in Shanghai in the winter of 1966-1967. This process of radicalization would later be referred to as the “January Storm,” capped by the formation of the “Shanghai Commune” in early February.[9] But, despite the radical name, the Shanghai Commune was actually the first in a series of defeats that would ultimately lead to the foreclosure of the potentials unleashed in the early years of the Cultural Revolution.

Of all Chinese cities, Shanghai had been a hotbed of unrest during much of socialist history. Utterly unlike Beijing, it was populated by an enormous working class, many of whom had experienced the strike wave a decade earlier. But unlike the late 1950s, when senior workers had spearheaded the suppression of strikes by a minority of temporaries and youth, Shanghai now found a much larger portion of its workforce in even more precarious positions. It is estimated that, by the mid-1960s, temporaries and “worker-peasants” comprised as much as 30 to 40% of Shanghai’s nonagricultural workforce.[10] A large portion of these temporaries were women, as the system “channeled women into low-paying and less secure jobs in small-size neighborhood workshops, retail shops, and temporary labor teams,” with some 100,000 women employed in such occupations by 1964.[11]

Meanwhile, wages had continued to stagnate and non-wage benefits were constrained as investment shifted away from the “first front” of the coastal cities and into the “third front” of the Western provinces. More importantly, the post-GLF retrenchment policies had seen millions deported to the countryside in rustication programs. In Shanghai alone, the “industrial workforce was downsized (jingjian) by about 15 to 20 percent—over 300,000 workers—between 1961 and 1963. About 200,000 of these workers were relocated to rural areas […] and thereby lost their precious urban residential status.”[12] Despite their support for the state in 1957, many of those caught in this mass layoff were veteran workers, since their upkeep was more expensive. When investment expanded again in the mid-1960s, a pool of rusticates was also “resettled in the rural suburbs to be rehired as temporary laborers,” retaining their rural hukou.[13]

This effectively re-created the explosive urban situation that had existed in 1957, but at a much greater scale. Not only did temporary workers begin to slow down production in late 1966, but, when layoffs ensued, they now began to form their own independent organizations. By November of 1966, the first major organization of temporary workers had been formed, called the “Rebel Headquarters of Red Workers.” Unlike the Beijing student groups, this was not a small faction organized around one or two institutions, but a massive umbrella network that “soon became one of the largest rebel groups in the city, boasting over 400,000 members.” Nor was the trend limited to Shanghai. In the same month, temporaries from all over the country formed the “All-China Red Laborer Rebels’ Headquarters,” and “the group rapidly expanded, establishing branches in more than a dozen provinces” and staging sit-ins at ACFTU and Ministry of Labor headquarters.[14]

Combined with the agitation of the temporaries, the rusticates—particularly rusticated youth—began to return to the cities from which they had been deported, demanding reinstatement of their jobs and urban hukou status. The rusticates also formed their own independent groups, the largest of which was the Rebel Headquarters of Shanghai Workers Supporting Agriculture, with “some 100,000 members and sympathizers.” The total number of rebel groups in Shanghai skyrocketed to over 5,300.[15]

Municipal authorities soon caved to workers’ demands. The result was that “factories revisited, albeit with far more violence, the pattern found in the GLF, when Party committees flung open the factory doors to outsiders and provided full-time status to scores of new workers.” Meanwhile, planning structures were again simplified and further decentralized, with “functional departments being replaced by ‘groups’ (zu) with broad powers over labor, finance, planning and other issues.” Centrally-administered enterprises decreased “from roughly 10,500 in 1965 to only 142.”[16] This gave enterprises and municipal authorities the power to grant wide-ranging back wage and bonus payments, as well as to transfer temporaries to permanent status.[17]

Factional fighting between workers also increased. The most visible of these conflicts was that between the “Scarlet Guards,” made up of “skilled workers, Party activists and low-level cadres and [which] had once enjoyed the support of the municipal leadership,” and the Worker’s General Headquarters (WGHQ), an umbrella organization of several of the other major workers’ organizations. The Scarlet Guards were defeated by the WGHQ, and “the railway linking Shanghai with Beijing was severed.” Meanwhile “production declined precipitously, and the city’s economy was practically paralyzed because numerous workers walked away from their posts […]”[18] In the city, supply shortages would see shops looted and a run on the banks, as people feared for the safety of their savings.

As this economic and political paralysis spread, a window was opened in which workers were able to take direct, if initially chaotic, control over production and day-to-day life. This process was facilitated by the structures established in their new organizations, which at this point were still independent of the Party. But in Shanghai this phenomenon would be short-lived. The proclamation of the Shanghai Commune represented the Party’s ability to divide and conquer these new workers’ groups. “Power seizure” took on the contradictory character of central state efforts to restore order when local authorities had collapsed and workers’ demands became excessive and “economistic.” State agents intervened in the name of the very workers who had disrupted order in the first place, portraying such intervention as if it were a product of the workers’ own activity.

The first stage of this restoration, in late January, would see the PLA called in “to take control of communication and transportation facilities, supervise political stabilization and economic production, and conduct ideological education.” [19] In effect, the military was seizing key infrastructure nodes to prevent them from falling into rebel hands, all framed in the language of “supporting the left.” Meanwhile, this placed the military in alert positions within the urban fabric, readying them to suppress any more dangerous opposition that might arise despite the Party’s call for order.

It was at this point that the Party endorsed the formation of the “Shanghai People’s Commune,” ostensibly a democratic federation of workers’ groups that would take on the general administration of the city. In the creation of this new apparatus, the Party explicitly invoked the language of the Paris Commune even while ensuring that actual control was transferred to the occupying PLA. At the time of its inauguration, “reportedly half the city’s rebels stood defiantly outside” the “Shanghai Commune,” which had been yoked together under the leadership of Party representatives and which had “only a selective federation of Shanghai’s mass groups incorporated as its backbone.” Among its first declarations was an ordinance that mobilized the military and police to seek out those who would “undermine the Great Cultural Revolution, the Shanghai People’s Commune, and the socialist economy” and to “resolutely suppress” them.[20]

Soon even this “Commune” was seen as excessive, and Mao recommended it be replaced by something along the lines of the “triple alliances” (sanjiehe) initiated in Northern China. This became the basis of new “three-in-one revolutionary committees,” run by military officers, Party cadres and representatives from pre-selected rebel organizations. These committees, “increasingly dominated by the military, [were] to become the main model for constituting the new organ of power and rebuilding the political order.” Those regions not yet deemed suitable for such alliances were instead placed under de facto military government. By March of 1967, “nearly 7,000 agencies nationwide were under military control,” including “ten of the twenty-nine provinces.” This began the outright “militarization of Chinese politics,” which would be a persistent feature of industrial organization throughout the rest of the socialist era.[21]

It would be wrong, however, to understand this military intervention as the widespread and violent suppression of a politicized population demanding more participatory forms of government. In fact, the vast majority of the rebels held unclear or contradictory political positions, if any. They were “just rebels, not revolutionaries.”[22] There was little to idealize in most of these groups:

They hardly ever thought about structural ways to overcome social maladies that had existed in the pre-CR China; they never questioned whether an old power structure with new power holders would be able to make any fundamental changes; and, they had no idea about what they would do with their power. Instead, they were interested in power for the sake of power.[23]

The socialist developmental regime, put under severe strain, began to lose control. Rather than an ossifying bureaucracy, the revival of imperial forms of rule, or the transition to capitalism, the risk now was complete political fragmentation—a recurrent tendency in the history of mainland East Asia. The Party responded to this threat by deploying the military at a scale not seen since the end of the revolution, effectively forcing the developmental regime back into order. Rusticates were returned to the countryside, “organizations of temporary workers were outlawed and their leaders were arrested,” and, most importantly, independent organizations were largely prevented from spreading into rural areas.[24]


The New Trends of Thought

Despite the simple power-politics undergirding much of the rebels’ activity, there also arose so-called “new trends of thought” (xinshichao), some of which were more coherently communist in nature. These new trends began to reconceive the concept of class under socialism and make tentative proposals for the restructuring of society. When suppressed, many of these trends took up the derogatory label “ultra-left” (jizuopai) leveled at them by their opponents. Signs of this trend were visible as early as the winter of 1966-67 in Beijing, as Yu Luoke, a temporary worker of bad class background, helped found a newspaper publishing articles in which he opposed the bloodline theory and the excesses of the conservative red guard groups. Yu was ultimately imprisoned and executed, but his sympathizers would soon form the “April 3 Faction (si san pai),” which published the article “On the New Trends of Thought,” identifying the nascent tendency.[25]

The April 3 Faction was publishing at a time when the country was pockmarked by armed conflict between rebel factions. In July 1967, the Wuhan Incident would see local PLA division commander Chen Zaidao back a conservative rebel faction in its attack against an opposing faction staffed by students and unskilled workers. Chen’s troops laid siege to the city of Wuhan, refusing orders and ultimately taking high-ranking officials hostage. A thousand people were killed in the chaos before Beijing sent in several other military divisions to suppress the mutiny. Nationally, the result was that many rebels were convinced of the need to “attack the handful of capitalist roaders within the army,” and, between late July and early August, “mass organizations raided army depots and barracks, and even attacked trains carrying war materiel to Vietnam.”[26]

But other rebels used this as an opportunity to step back and analyze the situation. Armed conflicts began to subside as the military secured its hold and new organs of power were established. In many cities, “rebel leaders were avariciously scrambling for seats in the forthcoming revolutionary committees,” often selling out their own constituencies in order to do so.[27] This phenomenon convinced many within the nascent ultra-left that the committees were a sham disguising the exercise of power by a new bureaucratic class that had been generated by the socialist system itself, as cadres and technicians took de facto ownership over the collective property of “the people.” This new conception of class led groups such as the April 3 Faction to argue that “the goal of the Cultural Revolution was therefore to redistribute property and power and to destroy the foundation of the new privileged class.”[28]

In this lull, various cities saw the formation of “new trends of thought” study groups and journals. Though the distribution of their materials was relatively limited and many such groups were quickly suppressed, the very condemnation of these groups often had the unintended effect of giving them national attention and spreading their literature farther afield. New Trend groups could soon be found in Wuhan, Changsha, Guangzhou, Beijing and elsewhere. The core themes for all such groups were the notion that a new privileged class had emerged in the form of state bureaucrats, that this ruling class exploited the people of China, especially the peasants, and that only a revolutionary civil war that overturned this new class could result in a communist society. Beyond this, however, the groups differed widely in the details.

Most remained small, and they held divergent ideas, if any, about the revolution’s immediate path forward. Many advocated the formation of a new, truly communist Party—but where and how this might be done was left unclear. Similarly, the “new trends of thought” held a variety of positions (and often changed them) on what their relationship should be toward new organs of power such as the Revolutionary Committees. Most of the groups advocated the “people’s commune” as an alternative political model, but, again, the concrete structure of such communes was proposed only in vague terms that differed from group to group: “The Paris Commune became their model simply because it was the only model they knew that was close to their ideal.”[29] This meant that, despite the concrete historical reference, “they never asked themselves how the Paris Commune had actually functioned and […] no one ever bothered to elaborate exactly what the future People’s Commune of China would look like.”[30]

Many scholars portray the New Trends as little more than small intellectual groups with “little experience in life,” propounding an “egalitarian utopianism” that was severed from any true organizational practice.[31] But this tends to emphasize the importance of individual theorists over the dynamic that produced them. Yang Xiguang, author of “Whither China” and one of the best-known thinkers of this camp, proposed instead that the function of the new “network of study societies” would both be to “constitute the organizational form of grassroots social and political rebuilding” and to facilitate the “self-education of the youth, who had to discover the rational basis for their hitherto largely instinctive revolt. Accordingly, their organizations had to become the center of systematic investigation and study.”[32] This hints at an awareness that history is primary to theory, with Yang and those like him but the self-aware outgrowth of the mass struggles surrounding them.

The risk for the Party was that this self-awareness might spread to the rest of the proto-proletarian segments of which Yang and others like him were a part. In a parts of China, the nascent ultra-left appeared to gain a more widespread purchase among organizations of temporary workers and rusticates as the latter ran up against the material limits identified in the ultra-left’s writings. These organizations found themselves excluded, due to their “economism,” from the new Revolutionary Committees, and then outlawed and attacked by the PLA.

The trend was strongest in Changsha, where a small ultra-left group existed under the auspices of the Shengwulian (an acronym for the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Great Alliance Committee), a loosely structured coalition of rebel organizations including several large groups with broad support in small factories and cooperatives.[33] Among its most active members were tens of thousands of rusticated youth, as well as disaffected PLA veterans, formerly of the “Red Flag Army,” which held “ninety columns of reportedly 470,000.” In addition, other members of the “Xiang River Storm” coalition joined the Shengwulian, including alliances of apprentices, temporaries, workers in the light industrial and transportation sector, and groups of students and teachers.[34]

The rusticates, as the most mobile segment of the rebel forces, also held the greatest potential to spread information and link up multiple local struggles. Rusticates’ familiarity with both city and countryside also created the possibility that this new wave of more militant opposition might spread to the peasant majority. Rusticates affiliated with “ultra-left” groups were documented travelling between Guangzhou, Changsha and Wuhan, participating in various activities in each city and sharing experiences. In late 1967, “delegates from a dozen provinces gathered in Changsha to discuss matters of pressing concern.”[35] In Wuhan, Lu Lian of a New Trends group called the “Plough Society,” theorized that “a new upsurge of the peasant movement” would come in the winter of 1967-68, and the Plough Society attempted to link up with peasant groups in the surrounding countryside.[36] Similarly, the Shengwulian attempted to send investigation teams out into rural areas in the style of the early CCP.


Suppression, Concessions and Terror

In the end these more active ultra-left currents were crushed along with the others. Among the main reasons for their failure to spread were military suppression and conservative terror. Over the course of 1967 and 1968, one the most extensive campaigns of violent repression carried out since the end of the revolutionary war tore across the country as the PLA stifled factional strife and established Revolutionary Committees in each of China’s provinces. This was followed, between 1968 and 1972, by several more campaigns, this time carried out by the Committees themselves, representing conservative rebel groups and privileged sections of the population, with the aim to purge “the class enemies who purportedly had instigated factional strife.”[37]

Despite the common portrayal of the Cultural Revolution as “ten years of chaos” in which factions of every persuasion clashed violently on the streets, bringing the country to the brink of civil war, there is now good evidence that the vast majority of violence in the era was performed by conservative rebel groups and by the Revolutionary Committees (dominated by the PLA). The timing of the spikes in violence in each province followed the establishment of these Committees, beginning in the cities and ultimately spreading into the countryside in a wide-ranging campaign of state terror:

Only 20 to 25 per cent of those who were killed or permanently injured or who suffered from political persecution [during the Cultural Revolution] met with such misfortune before the establishment of their county revolutionary committee. This means that the vast majority of casualties were not the result of rampaging Red Guards or even of armed combat between mass organizations competing for power. Instead, they appear to have been the result of organized action by new organs of political and military power. As they consolidated and exercised their power, often in very remote regions, they carried out massacres of innocent civilians, crushed organized opposition, and conducted mass campaigns to ferret out traitors that routinely relied on interrogation through torture and summary execution.[38]

Of those “20 to 25 per cent” who were killed or attacked prior to the establishment of revolutionary committees, there were doubtless victims of factional fighting and other conflicts, but many were also those of “black” family backgrounds targeted by conservative rebels in the early months of the Cultural Revolution.[39]

There was a rough continuity between the latter and the more wide-ranging, state-led terror that would follow, since many of the outlawed rebel groups were precisely the “economistic” organizations of proto-proletarian temporaries, rusticates, apprentices and worker-peasants. Among these, it was “new trends” groups who were recognized as the greatest threat, despite their smaller size. Significant state resources were poured first into propaganda decrying their positions as “anarchism” and “economism,” and then into the systematic rounding up of all those even distantly affiliated with such groups for interrogation, imprisonment or execution.

This correlation between spikes of repressive violence and the founding of new organs of state power (staffed by cadres, military officials and representatives of the more privileged urban workers) signals that much of the violence that was unleashed during the Cultural Revolution might better be understood as a sort of white terror disguised in red garb, geared toward the suppression of any communist potential latent in the activity of the largely proto-proletarian rebels. The spread of this violence from city to countryside[40] (despite there being such a small density of rural rebel groups), hints that this white terror was also a response to the risk that the conflagration might spread from the urban proto-proletariat (especially rusticates) to the country’s peasant majority.

Nonetheless, the failure of the “new trends” in the Cultural Revolution cannot be attributed to the terror alone. Structural factors tilted the odds against them, especially the enterprise- and collective-unit atomization of Chinese society, including restraints on mobility. Only rusticates and worker-peasants truly moved back and forth between the rural and urban zones, and even they often stayed well within range of the city. Most of the country’s workers and peasants rarely left their county or city, and even urban workers had most of their basic needs fulfilled within the enterprise itself. Autarky ensured that ties between regions, enterprises and privilege strata were weak. When inter-regional ties began to form as rebel groups sought to “link up,” they were often starting from scratch.

Maybe more importantly, the privilege structure of the socialist state was not in a terminal crisis. Many of the privileges associated with working in a state-owned heavy industry would be retained in some form for another thirty years, with mass layoffs in the country’s state-owned enterprises not beginning until the 1990s. Though the number of proto-proletarian workers increased in the 1960s, it was not increasing evenly across the country, nor had it grown to incorporate anything close to the majority of the population. Though the number fluctuated, in 1981, after the reform era had begun and more than a decade since the “short” Cultural Revolution, some 42% of all industrial workers were still employed in state-owned enterprises, producing 75% of the country’s gross value of industrial output.[41] At the time of the Cultural Revolution, the proto-proletariat was largest in the coastal port cities of the south, with their base of light industry, as well as in certain interior river-port cities such as Wuhan and Changsha. It was smallest in the northeast, in cities such as Harbin and Shenyang, where heavy industries were still dominant.

Those in this proto-proletariat were mostly women, young workers and off-season peasants. This meant that the region’s long tradition of patriarchy, the socialist seniority wage structure, and the grain divide had already ensured that any battle against marginalization would be fought on uneven ground, with the proto-proletariat forced to combat not only the Party and the military, but also a large segment of the generation that had fought and won the war for liberation. In other words: the basic problem faced by the rebels was that the Party was able to retain a significant enough legitimacy among the general populace that challenges to it were also challenges to a large section of the working class, who enjoyed a combination of concrete and ideological benefits under the existing regime. The Party-state was not an alien force weighting down on an unwilling population. It was an extensive, clientelist structure based on “vertical networks of loyalty” which were “marked publicly on a regular basis” and reproduced by active cooperation on the part of many workers.[42] Given the ideological authority and real power wielded by older (especially male) workers, the marginalized would find it difficult to fully legitimize what were effectively preparations for a new civil war to be fought against the victors of the last.

The “long” Cultural Revolution would see the violent securing of new organs of power combined with widespread concessions to this loyal segment of the population. Another burst of industrialization came in the new “leap forward” of 1970. Newly militarized industries underwent expansion, planning was again decentralized, and more investment was funneled into the countryside, resulting in a complete recovery of production from the lows of the “short” Cultural Revolution. The next years would see a moderation of these policies, but there was always an emphasis on retaining the support of loyal segments of the population, despite austerity. One of the most important concessions was the massive extension of basic education, especially to rural children: “the rapid expansion of basic education during the Cultural Revolution decade allowed—for the first time—the great majority of Chinese children to complete primary school and attend middle school.”[43] Similar concessions were made in healthcare and in Party, military and factory recruitment practices.

At the same time, the country’s high-end universities were effectively shut down and the privileged children of both “red” and “expert” elites were sent to farms and factories to participate in manual labor. Though these reforms were firmly planted in the conservative framework of attacking individual “capitalist roaders within the Party,” they were, nonetheless, highly visible attempts at reform that brought non-negligible benefits to many people—especially the peasant majority, who could now hope for at least some chance at upward mobility for their children via education.[44]

In the factories, attempts were made to curtail the corruption of local officials and renewed emphasis was placed on participatory decision-making. This limited the authority of engineers and cadre, but ultimately resulted in the re-concentration of power in the hands of supervisors, work-team leaders and “activists,” all of whom controlled key links to official patronage via the factory’s Party committee. Similarly, the limits placed on material incentives and technical or managerial pay-grades did not result in a flattened wage hierarchy so much as a return to the seniority system that resulted from the wage reform over a decade earlier—benefiting senior workers at the expense of technicians, cadre, temporaries and apprentices.

Such concrete gains were paired with widely-publicized promotions and demotions that helped to mythologize the era’s progressive character. The benefits of the Party elite were curtailed and the Party itself was restructured, as a handful of peasants and women were rapidly promoted to relatively high positions. Among the most notable of these was Chen Yonggui, an illiterate peasant who had risen from village head to member of the Politburo and, ultimately, Vice Premiere, largely due to the model status accorded his native village of Dazhai. Chen’s promotion was designed to create a sort of “Obama Effect,” tokenizing a “model” peasant from a “model” village in order to produce the illusion of general social mobility while in reality the rural-urban divide had deepened. Similarly, Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, became a full member of the Politburo in 1969, one of only a small handful of women ever to do so. Acting as one of the “Gang of Four,” she briefly secured a position as one of the most powerful figures in Chinese politics. Again, the token prominence of a strong female leader helped to obscure intractable gender divisions among the workforce and distract from the continued suppression of more radical organizations formed by proto-proletarian workers, the majority of whom were women. Together with more concrete benefits, this widely advertised restructuring of the Party would help to secure support from a wide enough segment of the population to make the outbreak of a new civil war unlikely.


The Limits of Heresy

Aside from this, there was also the simple problem of inexperience among those groups advocating such a violent confrontation. The ultra-leftists’ very decision to operate as above-ground organizations, publicly publishing opposition journals, signals a certain political naiveté. Though they did often keep authorship secret, there is no evidence that the New Trends groups ever considered founding any sort of clandestine organization, despite the fact that they upheld the activity of the early CCP (itself founded in secrecy) as a model. In part, this can be attributed to the chaotic political terrain. But emphasizing the messiness of the situation defers the real root of the problem, which was not so much that the terrain was rapidly shifting but that these ultra-left groups almost universally misperceived the possibilities offered to them and the necessities hemming them in.

Simultaneous with the terror, China witnessed the explosion of an increasingly religious, state-sanctioned ideological fervor. Paired with the militarization of production, the bolstering of Party-state mythology played an important role in ordering the socialist developmental regime when it seemed to be coming unbound. Costly material incentives were replaced with “spiritual” rewards, such as pins or pictures with CCP iconography, quotation books and mangoes.[45] Such spiritual rewards symbolized patronage by the Party-state while also building cultural and emotional ties that bound individuals to the enterprise or rural collective. New forms of meaning and social connection were developed, but they often took a paternalistic character that drew as much from pre-Revolutionary folk traditions as from their Russian precedent. Just as many of the practices were entirely new, developed by accident or grown somewhat organically from people’s everyday experience. But only those that helped to bolster the stability of the socialist developmental regime were enshrined into the official religious complex facilitated by the Party-state.

Constructing this ideology entailed the invention of rituals that reinforced a particular myth of unity between state, Party and nation, as well as the limiting of access to outside information and the selective re-writing of history to accommodate the myth’s contemporary function. Pilgrimages to historical sites became common, as youth travelled the national rail networks to visit places like Anyuan, the communists’ first major base area. At the same time, these historical sites were ritualistically sanitized. In one telling instance, Red Guards pulled up a pair of gum trees that had stood in front of the original Anyuan workers’ club building, thinking (mistakenly) that the trees had been planted by Liu Shaoqi. Liu, whose personality cult had dissipated with his fall from grace, had been replaced by Mao at the apex of the ritual hierarchy. The roots of the trees were dug from the ground, chopped up “and burnt to ashes to purify the site.” Afterwards, “cypress saplings collected from Chairman Mao’s nearby birthplace of Shaoshan were transported to Anyuan, where they were solemnly transplanted in place of the uprooted gum trees.”[46]

This new religious fervor was not purely a matter of reinforcing certain ideas over others. It also involved the material restriction of information by the Party’s censorship apparatus. This had effectively starved oppositional groups of theoretical resources and, most importantly, accurate information about events around them, whether domestic or global. All of the ultra-left groups were therefore forced to form their theories and strategies based largely on  reading works by Mao, Lenin, Engels, (some) Marx and others still within the officially-sanctioned canon, along with information from official newspapers.[47]

Such groups existed in an ideological climate where invocations of “Mao Zedong Thought” (Mao Zedong Sixiang) had become a sort of lingua franca. Even the most radical tenets of the ultra-left were justified in terms of an oppositional “Maoism” (Mao Zedong Zhuyi), and their texts wound themselves in circles attempting to sort out Mao’s apparently contradictory words and actions. The reinvented Communist Party that would lead a new civil war against China’s bureaucratic ruling class was to be, in the words of Yang Xiguang, “the Party of Mao Zedong-ism,” and Mao himself was frequently envisioned as its chairman. This is despite the fact that theorists such as Yang clearly recognized the mystifying effects of the religious fervor stoked by the state. He argued that the “capitalist roaders” had “managed to deify Mao’s brilliant ideas into some ritualistic entities. In doing so, they have also distorted and rendered impotent the revolutionary soul of Mao Zedong-ism.”[48] Rather than rejecting this mythology outright, however, Yang attempts to sift through it in the hope of discerning the rational kernel of “Maoism” hidden deep within the mysticism.

Similarly, when attempting to spread their project to the peasantry, new trends groups ignored the pressing need for secrecy and tended to misperceive the nature of rural power divides. Compounding the problem was the fact that their own vision of what a communist countryside should look like was often unappealing to those who actually lived there. This led to a series of terminal missteps in the few rural campaigns that did get off the ground. In Wuhan, Lu Lian of the Plough Society built strong ties with the “First Headquarters of Bahe District of Xishui County,” a peasant rebel group headed by Wang Renzhou. Wang’s own idea of a communist countryside was inspired by the collectivist utopias envisioned by the Party’s ideological apparatus during the height of the GLF. After travelling to see Wang’s experiment in Bahe, Lu’s own New Trends circle also began to propagate this vision of a “new communist countryside.”[49]

Though Wang’s argument that the peasantry was the most exploited class in socialist China was true to reality, his “new countryside,” was hardly communist. Instead, it was “an experiment modeled after ‘military communism,’” centralizing resources at the commune level and engaging in unpopular practices such as the tearing down of private residences and the requisitioning of family-owned livestock. Peasants were made to eat all meals together in collective mess halls, as during the GLF, and were required to live collectively in barracks-style housing. When the model “met with strong resistance from a majority of the local residents,” the rebel group established a militia “which was empowered to ‘punish mercilessly anyone who dared to sabotage the New Countryside.’”[50] By siding with such forces, Lu Lian’s Plough Society distanced itself from the peasants’ real grievances, instead bolstering a mystified vision of the countryside that was itself in large part a mere mimicry of the Party’s own ruling mythology.

The “new trends,” then, can be understood as a sort of heretical current, in opposition to the ruling ideology but still subsumed by the terms of that ideology itself. Unable to break beyond the bounds of the Party-state’s own mythology, the ultra-left was incapable of perceiving any true path forward. It was thus unable to avoid its own destruction, and failed to ignite the potentials for a new communist project that had emerged out of the conflicts of the socialist era. The most severe of these missteps was the assumption that, in the last instance, Mao himself would be on their side. In reality, it was on Mao’s own orders that the ultra-left was exterminated. Those who survived with their freedom fled in handfuls to neighboring countries in an attempt to transform “a domestic revolutionary situation into wars abroad.”[51] The rest were imprisoned or otherwise lost to the terror.

Finally, though we must foreground the present relevance of this historical sequence, it is only fair to note that the “short” Cultural Revolution bears also the inherent value of all the tragedies and lost causes that cut their shadows against the fading light of history. Communists today at least owe the respect of acknowledging that this was a period in which communist partisans, however dispersed, disorganized and disoriented, did in fact fight and fail. These were people of our own hearts who were killed, imprisoned or—worst of all—“reformed,” by the grim victors of the hollowed world that we have inherited. In the end we can at least lay flowers on the graves of the dead, since their enemies are our own.


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[1] There were some notable exceptions here, apparent in the articles and speeches of individuals such as Liu Binyan, Zhou Dajue and Lin Xiling during the Hundred Flowers period.

[2] Wu, p.54

[3] Ibid, p.58

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, p.63

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, pp.66-67

[8] Ibid, p.74

[9] For examples of this common characterization of the January Storm and events in Shanghai, see:

Meisner 1999;  Jiang 2010;  and Badiou 2014

[10] Christopher Howe, “Labour Organization and Incentives in Industry, before and after the Cultural Revolution,” Authority, Participation and Cultural Change, Stuart Schram, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp.233-256

[11] Wu, p.103

[12] Ibid, p.104

[13] Ibid, also see: Elizabeth Perry and Li Xun, Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution, Westview Press, 1997.

[14] Wu, p.108

[15] Ibid, p.110

[16] Frazier, p.230

[17] Wu, p.110

[18] Ibid, p.111

[19] Ibid, p.125

[20] Ibid, p.129

[21] Ibid, p.128

[22] Shaoguang Wang, “’New Trends of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” Journal of Contemporary China, 8:1, July 1999, p.2 <http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/gpa/wang_files/Newtrend.pdf>

[23] Ibid.

[24] Wu, p.132

[25] Ibid, p.93

[26] Wang, p.8

[27] Ibid, p.9

[28] Wu, p.93

[29] Wang, p.19

[30] Ibid.p20

[31] Ibid, p.19

[32] Wu, p.175, emphasis ours.

[33] Wu, p.159

[34] Ibid, pp.156-170

[35] Ibid, p.168

[36] Wang, pp.12-13

[37] Wu, pp.199-200

[38] Andrew Walder and Yang Su, “The Cultural Revolution in the Countryside: Scope, Timing and Human Impact,” China Quarterly, no.173, 2003, p.98  For more on the same topic, also see: Yang Su, Collective Killings in Rural China During the Cultural Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[39] According to Wu, such a trend existed in Beijing in the late summer of 1966, where a large spate of sporadic murders was paired with (albeit more exceptional) wholesale massacres of those who had been designated “social aliens.” Such massacres occurred in Daxing and Changping villages, where hundreds were exterminated by conservative militias operating according to the logic of the bloodline theory.

[40] Again, see Walder and Su.

[41] Walder 1986, p.40

[42] Ibid, p.12

[43] Andreas, p.166

[44] Upward mobility through education has had a far more resounding cultural importance in the Chinese context than in its Western counterparts, largely due to the inheritance of the Confucian scholar system and the resulting primacy placed on power exercised through Wen (culture) rather than Wu (military force). Expansion of educational opportunity, then, had a greater ideological impact than it might have had in other countries, socialist or otherwise. See Perry 2012 for a detailed study of how Wen and Wu were culturally mobilized by the CCP over the course of the 20th century.

[45] Mango worship developed somewhat accidentally during the Cultural Revolution, and is often cited as an example of the period’s “madness.” For a brief history of the practice, see: Ben Marks, “The Mao Mango Cult of 1968 and the Rise of China’s Working Class,” Collector’s Weekly. February 18th, 2013

[46] Perry 2013, p.209

[47] Wang, p.19; Translations of heterodox history or political thought were accessible only through limited-edition prints of “grey books” (huipishu), and “bourgeois” foreign literature through “yellow books” (huangpishu), all of which were restricted to “internal circulation” among cadres of high rank, and each printed with a unique serial number to help prevent unauthorized distribution or reproduction. Though a few informally (and illegally) gained a high readership, most would have been inaccessible to the youths of bad class background who composed the bulk of the “new trends” theoretical circles. For more on these “internal circulation” editions, see: Joel Martisen, “How the Nazis brought about the end of the Cultural Revolution,” Danwei, August 14, 2008.

[48] Quoted in Wu, p.176

[49] Wang, pp.13-14

[50] Ibid, p.13

[51] From a letter by one such Chinese guerrilla in Burma, quoted in Wu, p.197