Isaac Deutscher

Deutscher on the Chinese “Cultural Revolution”

First Published: September 1966
Interview conducted by: Ernest Tate on behalf of the editorial board of the Italian left-communist journal, La Sinistra.
Transcribed: Martin Falgren
Online Version: Marxist Internet Archive ( 2011
HTML Markup: D. Walters, 2011

Question: Many political commentators now speak about the imminence of a “direct clash” between People’s China and the United States. In support of their thesis they show the recent declaration of the Chinese on the Vietnam question. What do you think about this?

Answer: I don’t believe at all that China can contemplate a war against the United States. In other words, I am ruling out the possibility that China should harbour any “aggressive plans”. Whether China and the United States clash eventually or not depends solely on the United States. But the Chinese do reckon with the possibility of an American attack on them; and some of the recent developments in China must be seen in this light. I think that Mao Tse-tung and Lin-Piao are working on the assumption that an American attack is possible or even probable, and that it is the duty of the Chinese government to prepare for this emergency.

This has been a very important factor behind the recent political crisis and the so-called “cultural revolution”. The talk about China’s aggressiveness vis-á-vis the United States, or vis-á-vis the West at large, is empty; it is part of the anti-communist and anti-Chinese propaganda. Unfortunately, Soviet and Titoist sources and also the Western European Communist Party have sinned in this respect, sinned quite disgracefully, by lending a semblance of verisimilitude to this anti-Chinese propaganda.

Some of the Chinese accusations against the Soviet leaders and the leaders of the Western Communist parties are, on this point, justified, as is also the Chinese resentment at the total withdrawal of Soviet aid from China, the diplomatic line-up between the Russians and the Indians and other Soviet moves. I also think that much of what the Chinese say about the opportunistic character of the Russian influence on the international Communist movement is justified. I am saying this because in my subsequent remarks I shall have quite a few critical things to say about the latest events in China and I want to put my criticisms in the right context.

To go back to the question of China’s preparation for the emergency of a possible American attack, it seems quite clear that the Chinese Government, Mao Tse-tung and his present supporters, are thinking in terms of fighting alone against the United States. They assume, in other words, that the Soviet Union will fail them and, in the case of an American attack, will not honour its obligations under the Russo-Chinese alliance. On this assumption, the Chinese would have to face the whole overwhelming technological superiority of the United States, and they would have to frame their military doctrine accordingly. They seem to be starting from the premiss that fighting alone they cannot expect to win in a regular war against the United States, a war such as the Soviet Union fought against Germany between 1941 and 1945, but that they have every chance of resisting and frustrating any American invasion by means of a nationwide guerrilla warfare.

Question: What about nuclear attack?

Answer: Precisely because of American nuclear superiority the Chinese, who cannot dream of nuclear retaliation, must stake everything on decentralised partisan warfare, which cannot be disrupted or paralysed even by nuclear blows.

I would not undertake to judge, of course, the military prospects of a nuclear war. No one is capable of assessing these. We don’t really know to what extent nuclear war would put an end to all strategy, to all our accustomed military thinking. But it is understandable that the Chinese, considering as they are, the threat of an American attack, are inclined to rely on a method of fighting which, if any method at all can be effective, would give them a chance to counterbalance the American technological superiority by their own indubitable moral-political superiority.

This is, after all, what has happened — not so far in conditions of nuclear war — in Vietnam, where American superiority in weapons is being neutralised by the moral and political superiority of the Viet Cong and of the National Front of Liberation. The Chinese imagine any armed conflict between themselves and America to develop on this pattern, as a kind of Vietnamese war on a gigantic scale, a war in which the disadvantages for the United States would grow in geometrical progression, whereas the Chinese, if only they can hold out under the attack, will benefit from fighting with all the resources of their manpower and their morale, from their feeling that they are fighting in a good cause, a sacred cause, in defence of their country and their revolution. They still rely on their tradition of partisan warfare: prior to 1949 Mao’s armies had held out, for nearly a quarter of a century, against the superior forces of Chiang Kai-shek, of the Japanese and, in the last resort, of the Americans as well.

They held out by means of a special organisation of their armed forces and of the areas they controlled during the so-called Yenan Period. The essence of their method consisted in an extraordinarily close, intimate political relationship between their partisan troops and the peasant population of their areas, and, further, in an effective decentralisation of their armed forces and administrative units, so that every unit was in a position to carry on the struggle even while it was cut off from the centre.

They also managed to achieve a close combination of fighting and productive units. What is going on in China now can be described as a conversion of the whole of China to something like the Yenan regime. In the Yenan period the Maoist army controlled a limited territory with a population of 90 or 100 million people. Now they are converting to a comparable regime a nation of 700 million.

They have probably been working on this conversion ever since 1959, when they found themselves under Krushchev’s political attack, and especially since 1960, when Krushchev ruthlessly withdrew all Soviet aid from them. From that moment they began working on the assumption that they could not count on the Soviet alliance in case of war. Until then, until the break with Moscow, China’s armed forces were organised more or less on the Soviet pattern, that is, as a modern army, hoping to benefit from the technological resources of the Soviet Union and to develop its own modern weaponry within not too long a time. Since the break with the Soviet Union, they have turned to a different policy, a policy which is to some extent reconciled with China’s inability to catch up technologically with the probable enemy, the United States, within any foreseeable future. Even the fact that the Chinese have now exploded three nuclear weapons emphasises the tremendous lag.

But this assumption is complemented by another one, namely, that the United States cannot match the moral and political power of China either.

Question: Mr. Deutscher, do you consider it correct for the Chinese to exclude from their strategy. eventual Soviet aid in the struggle against Imperialism? In your opinion, is it correct for them to assume their isolation, to struggle alone — not to involve — and not to have as part of their strategy the involvement of the Soviet Union in common struggle against Imperialism?

Answer: While I recognise that the possibility that the Soviet Union may fail China as an ally must, of course, be present in Chinese minds, I am inclined to take the view that this may be too pessimistic an attitude, which leads the Chinese to reconcile themselves with the possibility of the worst perhaps too soon.

It seems to me that no Soviet Government can really afford, in case of an American war against China, to fail the Chinese as an ally; and that a Soviet Government that would not honour its Treaty obligations towards China would, in all probability, be quickly overthrown by its own opponents in Moscow. But evidently the Chinese do not want to rely on this. The rise of Marshal Lin Piao, who has now become Mao Tse-tung’s second-in-command, is significant in this respect — Lin Piao has represented the policy that aims at training, educating, and organising China’s armed forces on the Yenan model, as a nationwide partisan force rather than as a regular army organised on the Soviet pattern.

It was as part of this policy, and, one is told, on Lin Piao’s initiative, that the abolition of ranks in the Chinese army was carried out some time ago. The abolition of ranks had political as well as military implications — it amounted to a rejection of the entire hierarchical structure of the armed forces, which they had borrowed from Russia, and to a revival of the type of partisan army which had fought and triumphed in the Chinese Revolution.

I have said that the Chinese no longer count on the Soviet alliance. In truth they no longer make any serious appeal to Soviet opinion, any appeal aiming at an improvement in Russo-Chinese relations that would give new life to the alliance. In this, I think, they are mistaken. At the latest session of the Cultural Committee, held in Peking between the 1st and the 12th of August, Mao Tse-tung stated with absolute finality that there cannot be any united front between China and Russia either over the war in Vietnam or in any action directed against American imperialism. He denounced the Russians as “revisionist stooges and helpmeets of American imperialism”. He charged the Soviet leaders with the ambition to establish a Soviet-American world condominium, designed to keep down and suppress revolution and anti-imperialist struggles in Asia and Africa. With such people, Mao said — and this is now embodied in the official resolutions of the Chinese Central Committee — there can be no united front against American imperialism. I am convinced that this Chinese view of the Soviet

Union’s role in the world, and of the class character of the relationships between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A., is profoundly mistaken.

To be sure, the Soviet bureaucracy and diplomacy have gone out of their way to achieve a so-called amicable accommodation with the American ruling class, with Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and even with the Johnson Administration. In their striving for the “peaceful co-existence” with American imperialism the Soviet leaders have behaved in a most opportunistic manner and have shown themselves again and again ready to sacrifice the interests of revolution and of the oppressed peoples of the world.

Nevertheless, there are certain limits to this policy. There are certain limits within which they can be relatively successful in pursuing this policy and beyond which they cannot go. We can see this from the indubitable fact that whatever the Soviet leaders may think and whatever their intentions may be, the hostilities in Vietnam have brought back a tension in Soviet-American relations that seemed to be vanishing before the Vietnamese war. The class antagonism between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. is still there, undiminished, even if the cold war has been somewhat mitigated during spells of detente.

The Soviet Union is still the only great power, apart from China, whose economy is publicly owned; and no matter what reactionary developments there may be inside the Soviet Union, this fact keeps in being the gulf between the Soviet Union and America. It also creates the objective possibility, and the objective need, for a common front between Russia and China whether over Vietnam or other issues. The logic of their negative attitude towards a common front drives the Chinese to declare that the class antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States has vanished, and to speak of the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. To anyone who observes the Soviet Union coolheadedly and analyses its social structure with a modicum of realism, this is an absurd contention.

The Soviet Union is very far from any restoration of capitalism, despite the fact that its bureaucracy is privileged and that social inequality prevails there. But even this inequality was much stronger during the Stalin era than it is now; yet the Chinese don’t say that Stalinism brought about the restoration of capitalism — on the contrary, they defend the record of Stalinism! Here is their double and fundamental mistake.

Let me repeat: I hold that many of the accusations they level against the Russians and their criticisms of Russian opportunism in dealing with the Western powers are justified; but, as Lenin liked to say, no one discredits a good cause as badly as he who tries to serve it with excess of zeal — no one spoils a good argument more than he who exaggerates it and overstates it. It is enough, Lenin liked to say, to exaggerate a good argument “just by a hair” to destroy it; and Chinese exaggerate much much more than “by a hair”.

Question: Quite probably you’ve answered this question at another time but it seems to naturally occur here. How is it possible for the Chinese to commit such a colossal error in their analysis of the Soviet Union?

Answer: We must try and feel ourselves into the position of the Chinese. In 1960 when at a stroke Krushchev withdrew all aid from China, all Soviet specialists were recalled; the blueprints of many industrial establishments, the plans, the knowhow, everything was withdrawn. This was a tremendous shock to the Chinese economy and people. The whole industrial development of China was set back by many years; and this coincided with a series of natural calamities and bad harvests. The effect was a traumatic shock. Millions of Chinese lost their jobs in the cities and had to trek back to their native villages where there wasn’t enough food for them. Thousands of factories, into which the Chinese had invested a great amount of their meagre resources, could not be built up and completed. Huge investments were frozen with disastrous results. Since then, I think, the Chinese have been reacting to blows and shocks in an irrational manner, from deep resentment and a sense of grievance.

The Russians had indeed committed a crime against them far worse than any military intervention; compared with the blows the Chinese suffered, the brief, violent, Russian 1956 intervention in Hungary was almost child’s play. China is still smarting under the shock; and Mao Tse-tung and his present supporters are simply not in a position to reason coolly about their relations with Russia. They are speaking from disturbed emotion. Unfortunately, irrationality is still playing a big part, not only in capitalist and imperialist politics but in the politics of revolution in underdeveloped and backward countries as well; and in the politics of the Soviet Union and China.

There are, unfortunately, ominous precedents for all this in the history of the Labour movement. I am thinking, for instance, of the relationship in Germany, just before the rise of Hitler, between the Social Democrats and the Stalinised Communist Party. In those days the Social Democrats did all they could to pave unwittingly the way for Nazism; they did it, first of all, by struggling to preserve German capitalism; and secondly, by their anti-Communism. And the Communist Party, under Stalinist leadership, reacted in a highly irrational way, by denouncing the Social Democrats as “social-fascists” and refusing to join hands with them against Nazism. That was the policy of the so-called Third Period of the Comintern. Allow me, please, to dwell a little longer on this instructive analogy.

I speak here partly from my own experience (I was at the time, in the early 1930’s, involved in the controversies over those policies). The fundamental mistake committed then by the Comintern and by the German Communist Party was that they imagined that Hitler would come to terms with the Social Democrats and would build his Third Reich with their cooperation. The behaviour of the Social Democrats lent some colour to this misconception — the Social Democrats were going out of their way to obstruct any struggle against Nazism; and even at the last moment, when Hitler was already in power, they offered him their collaboration. Yet, despite this, the decisive factor of the situation, one which the Stalinists overlooked, was the basic and irreconcilable antagonism between the aims of the Nazis and those of the Social Democrats, between the kind of regime Hitler was out to establish and the continued existence of any working class parties, whether social democratic or communist.

At that time, Trotsky and some of us argued that Hitler was going to destroy the entire labour movement, both its sectors, the social democratic and the communist; and that this threat to both sectors of the labour movement was and should be used as the objective basis for their joint action against Hitler. The Communist Party didn’t want to see that. They assumed a basic harmony of interest between Nazism and Labour reformism, just as the Chinese now assume a basic harmony between American imperialism and “Soviet revisionism”. They underrated, or rather didn’t see at all the inevitability of a clash, a mortal clash, between Nazism and the Social Democratic Party; and, denouncing the Social Democrats as the “left wing of Fascism”, they refused any common front with the Social Democratic leaders.

The refusal played into Hitler’s hands and also into the hands of those Social Democrats who really didn’t want a common front with the Communists. If the Communist Party had adopted a different policy and pressed them for a common front, the Social Democrats would have found themselves in a difficult situation; a large part of their following would have responded to the Communist call; and this would have made the workers’ resistance to Nazism much more effective and perhaps prevented Hitler’s triumph in 1933 and its consequences.

I really think that today Mao Tse-tung has, as it were, his own version of the theory of “social fascism” which he has applied to Krushchev and his successors, treating them indiscriminately as sheer accomplices of American imperialism. He underrates the antagonism between Moscow and Washington. He underrates the inevitability of conflict between them. I don’t speak of armed conflict here, but of the permanent, continuous social and political conflict that may or may not lead to armed struggle. The Maoists overlook the fact that the Soviet Union has a vital interest in stopping aggression and expansion of American imperialism, no matter how much Krushchev or Kosygin have tried to appease Washington.

The Maoists therefore don’t see any objective basis for their own co-operation with the U.S.S.R., and they reject the united front, instead of calling for it indefatigably, tirelessly, day in and day out; instead of appealing for the united front to Soviet opinion, to the Soviet masses, and to the Communist Parties all over the world. It is the Russians who are calling for joint action; it is they who are appealing for the United Front. One may doubt their sincerity; but the Maoists, by refusing the united front, play into the hands of the American Administration and also into the hands of those in Moscow who really don’t want to do anything over Vietnam, to coordinate action with the Chinese, who really are not interested in promoting the anti-imperialist struggle and the revolutionary ferment in the world.

The Maoists provide those people with a political alibi; and instead of placing the odium of the breach in the Communist camp on those Soviet leaders who are primarily responsible for it, take that odium quite needlessly on themselves. I think that they are committing a great, a fatal mistake, comparable to the mistake committed by the German Stalinists between the years 1929 and 1933. The latter covered up with ultra-radical phraseology a policy of complete passivity and inactions; similarly, I think, the Chinese are covering up a policy of inactivity, which may not be much better than Soviet policy, by means of ultra-revolutionary rhetoric.

It is in this light that we ought to interpret the latest events in China, especially the August session of the Central Committee and the so-called cultural revolution. It seems that the ultra-radical Maoist policy, the refusal of any united front with the Soviet Union, has in recent months or years caused considerable uneasiness and criticism among the Chinese Communist leaders; that men like Liu Shao-chi, who was until August Mao Tse-tung’s second-in-command and is still China’s president, and perhaps even Chou En-lai, saw that this ultra-radical policy was leading Maoism and China into an impasse. Evidently influential quarters in Peking have demanded that an attempt be made to re-establish contact and resume negotiations with Moscow, especially over Vietnam.

For the time being these demands have been rejected. Mao Tse-tung has been stubborn in his refusal to have any talks with the Russians or to make any appeals to them. This accounts for Liu Shao-chi’s sudden demotion in the party hierarchy; he is still a member of the Politburo and the Central Committee but somewhat in the way that Trotsky was a member of the Soviet Central Committee and Politburo, in 1925 and 1926, when he was already in opposition and “disgraced”.

Mao’s critics have, of course, been denounced as revisionists or as agents of capitalist restoration. Yet nothing is less likely than that Liu Shao-chi should be a revisionist. He has been, throughout the Russo-Chinese controversy, on record as a determined opponent of Krushchev and Krushchevism — he has been an orthodox Maoist over the many years during which he has been one of the most distinguished leaders of Chinese Communism. But it is possible to criticise severely Mao’s latest tactics from a perfectly orthodox Maoist viewpoint. It is possible to argue that it is necessary, in the interests of Maoism, precisely in the interests of Maoism, to make a fresh approach to the Russians and to press for a united front against America. This, I assume, is what Mao’s critics have been saying; and if men like Liu Shao-chi and/or Chou En-lai were among them, they must have had considerable support in the Party.

Question: What meaning do you attribute to the latest decisions of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and to the movement of the Red Guards, also in relation to Lin Piao’s position in the hierarchy of the Party?

Answer: The latest events in China have in effect been a showdown between Mao Tse-tung and his critics. Among the latter there may have been revisionists as well, people who have felt a sneaking sympathy with Krushchevism, but there are certainly also anti-revisionists alarmed by the ultra-left turn that Mao has taken. The Chinese press now speaks openly about the party’s division into a “Right”, “Left” and “Centre” although it treats the Left as “only a variety of the Rightist revisionism”. It is quite possible to classify these divisions somewhat differently, to see Mao Tse-tung and Lin Piao as an ultra-left, or at any rate to describe their tactics as ultra-left, and to see that they are opposed by a wide variety of groups. ’In any case, Mao Tse-tung has decided to bring the whole opposition to its knees, no matter what its motives and no matter what shade of party opinion they represent. He or Lin Piao has staged the so-called cultural revolution in order to swamp any inner-party debate over strategy and tactics, over the relationship with the Soviet Union and over China’s attitude towards the war in Vietnam. Backed by Mao, Lin Piao has incited immature school children and undergraduates against the party hierarchy and the critics among the members of the Central Committee. Of course, Lin Piao would have had no chance of winning in this struggle if the school children had been his main striking force. He and Mao have also played the army against the old party cadres. Lin Piao who is a Marshal and Minister of Defence has become Mao’s second-in-command in the Party as well. That gives to the situation a somewhat Bonapartist colouring. One can read in Peking Review and in the bulletins of the Chinese News Agency many reports of attacks staged by the school children and students against Party leaders in various localities, of assaults on local party headquarters and so on. Foreign correspondents in Peking have described those clashes with a lot of circumstantial evidence which, even if part of it is discounted, still points to a severe convulsion of the whole structure of the Chinese Communist Party.

The conversion of China to something like the Yenan regime — to a nation-wide Partisan camp — has its grave economic, social and political implications. Under such a regime it is hardly possible to carry on with — or to resume — China’s rapid, up-to-date industrialisation. The decentralisation that such a regime involves is likely at least to weaken central planning, to obstruct standardisation in industry, to reduce efficiency, to slow down the rate of economic growth and to keep down standards of living. When each administrative region, economic unit, and army corps is to be self-sufficient, an economically rational distribution of resources becomes very difficult or impossible. Such a policy gives rise to frustration, discontent, and opposition. It can hardly arouse enthusiasm in industry.

Characteristically, the “cultural revolution” has made hardly any appeal to the working class. Not only were school children and students its main force, but the working class was conspicuous by its absence. So were the peasants. You could read in Peking Review appeals to the workers that they should not interfere with the cultural revolution; mind you, not that they should participate but that they should not interfere. In other words, this allegedly proletarian revolution was carried out — without any participation of the working class — by elements which, even if they are children of workers, no longer belong to the working class but have entered a different social layer, namely the intelligentsia.

What then has been the value and the meaning of this cultural revolution in its own field, that is, for China’s cultural life? If one takes things at their face value, if one reads literally the various appeals for the cultural revolution, one finds in them things calculated to appeal to certain socialist sentiments. The Red Guards are presented as a spontaneous movement from below, preferable to any bureaucratic establishment working from above. Young people are called upon to rebel against established authority. The Red Guards have been urged to elect their leaders according to the rules established by the Paris Commune, so that every leader could be revoked or deposed by the electors at any time. These evocations of a Marxist-Leninist tradition would be convincing if at the same time you could hear any genuine debate going on in the country, any genuine discussion, any genuine exchange of opinion. Then this movement could be regarded as a manifestation of a new democracy from below. In fact, all that one has been allowed to hear are Mao’s and Lin Piao’s denunciation of their “revisionist” opponents, right or left; you don’t hear any dissenting voice; you are not allowed to find out for yourself what Mao’s critics have been saying, or on what grounds they have been opposing him. In these conditions, the democratic paraphernalia of the “Red Guards” with the implied evocation of the Red Guards of the Russian Revolution, must be dismissed as sheer make-believe. What talk can there be of any genuine movement from below as long as the Chinese working class is not allowed to consider the issues on their merits. I’m sorry I have to say this; I would have preferred to applaud these Red Guards. But they have really acted — unfortunately, I can find no other, more adequate expression — in a hooligan-like manner, stopping any debate, and muzzling any criticism of the Maoist line.

This has led to a senseless attack and humiliation not only of the party cadres but also of the old revolutionary intelligentsia. Most of the intellectuals that are now branded as bourgeois decadents and revisionists are scholars, writers, and artists who have been associated with Chinese communism for 20, 30 or 40 years — before, during, and after the revolution — and who have, since 1949, been in charge of the educational work among the masses. Evidently it is in these social groups and circles that the Maoist policy has met with considerable resistance and so Mao and/or Lin Piao have incited and stage-produced a nationwide riot of school children against the old communist intelligentsia.

Question: Does this explain also the hostility to Western culture as such?

Answer: Naturally, the old intelligentsia have had relatively close ties with Western as well as with their own native cultural traditions. For many of them, Shakespeare and Beethoven and the great figures of French literature are part of a cherished heritage. Since the revolution, and even since earlier, they have cultivated the great Russian writers of the last two centuries. Now you have a reaction against all this. In the name of Marxism-Leninism, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Balzac are denounced as a specimen of bourgeois degeneration. The great “revolutionaries” that denounce them do not even suspect — or do they? — that Karl Marx had a lifelong admiration for Balzac and Shakespeare, that Lenin loved Beethoven and Pushkin (Pushkin’s monument, erected in Shanghai after the revolution, has been defaced!). They have even denounced Tchernyshevsky and Herzen also as products of a degenerate bourgeois culture, not knowing that Tchernyshevsky was a decisive formative influence in Lenin’s thinking and that both Tchernyshevsky and Herzen were the founders and the most brilliant mouthpieces of the Russian revolutionary movement in the 19th century.

All this goes to show that the “cultural revolution” has been negative only, that it has had no positive content, no positive idea. Incidentally, the Soviet press has compared it with the so-called Proletkult, the “movement” for a proletarian culture that developed in the Soviet Union shortly after the revolution. Pravda even described Trotsky as an inspirer of the Proletkult, which should presumably be enough to discredit both the Russian Proletkult and its supposed Chinese counterpart. Now, this is a double falsification. For one thing, Proletkult was a mild and civilised affair compared with the “cultural revolution” in China; for another, Trotsky was not its inspirer but its adversary. He devoted much of his book Literature and Revolution to the refutation of “proletarian culture”; and in this he was at one with Lenin.

True, Trotsky defended the right of the writers and artists of Proletkult to express themselves; he was against their suppression, but he severely criticised their view that it was possible to promote and create any proletarian culture, literature, or art. Pravda and other Soviet papers might have found a closer analogy to the Chinese “cultural revolution” in what happened in Russia during the last years of the Stalin era, when Zhdanov was denouncing Western culture, when the works of Einstein, Freud, Mendel and the many Western scientists and thinkers were banned from Russian universities, when “rootless cosmopolitanism” was being denounced, when all things Russian were glorified, when we were told that almost every important invention and discovery had originated in Russia and that the West had only plagiarised the products of the Russian genius. This is the real analogy! And the analogy extends to the contexts and the backgrounds of the two campaigns. In Russia these outbursts of “cultural” anti-Westernism were, in Stalin’s last years, connected with the cold war and the war in Korea; they were part of Stalin’s attempt to isolate Russia as hermetically as possible from any Western influences and to boost Russian self-confidence.

Now this is precisely what Mao Tse-tung wants to achieve in China at present — he wants to isolate China more hermetically than ever from any outside influence, to boost Chinese morale and pride, to glorify China’s isolation from the world and at the same time to give the Chinese a compensation for their sense of isolation. All this may be seen as part of preparing the national morale for a warlike emergency.

One consequence of this upheaval is a social shift leading to the replacement of the old cadres of the intelligentsia by new cadres who are very young, immature, and uncritical enough to accept Maoism in its latest version. Some such changes through which the old guards and age groups of the intelligentsia give place to new and young ones may, to some extent, be progressive and may occur in any revolution; but when they are carried out as brutally and demagogically as they are being carried out in China now and as were carried out in Stalinist Russia, they impoverish the nation intellectually and spiritually, leave an immense cultural gap between generations, a gap that Russia is feeling till today. I am convinced that just as post-Stalinist Russia has recognised what great harm has been done in this way to the nation and its cultural life, so post-Maoist China will one day — but perhaps too late — recognise it.

Question: There appears to be a contradiction here in terms of the Russian experience: It seems generally agreed that when Stalin carried out the extreme Stalinisation measures and all the things that went with that it was in the interests of the privileged strata in Soviet society, or bureaucracy, as Trotsky described them. In China, however, there has yet to be any evidence produced that there is a development of bureaucracy, of a caste gaining materially an immediate sense. It could be said that the ground has been prepared for such a development but there is certainly no one who would accuse the Chinese leadership of being an extremely bureaucratic privileged stratum as the Soviet bureaucracy was.

Answer: This is correct, and I have myself pointed out this difference on some occasions. I don’t think that the bureaucracy is as formed in China as it is formed in Russia, into a massive privileged social layer. The present movement is causing yet another upheaval in the bureaucracy, and allows us even less to speak of any privileged position of the managerial groups in China. The cultural revolution leads to the overthrow not merely of the old educational cadres but also of technical and managerial elements in industry. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how a country as underdeveloped and poverty-stricken as China is can practise any genuine socialist egalitarianism. That is also impossible. The social inequalities in Chinese society are bound to be quite large, but they seem to be fluid; they are not allowed to crystallise into definite social divisions.

Well, I don’t consider the present Chinese policy as a manifestation of any special bureaucratic struggle for privilege. I have not said this at all. I explain the events in political rather than in socio-economic terms, that is, as a reaction, morbid in part, against China’s isolation by American imperialism on the one hand and by the Soviet Union on the other. I am convinced that even with regard to Russia very often the explanation of Stalin’s moves had to be sought not in the interests of the bureaucracy because Stalin acted quite often against the interests even of his bureaucracy — he was, after all, sending hordes of Russian bureaucrats into concentration camps ! I don’t therefore believe that Stalin’s policies can always be explained by his role as the leader and mouthpiece of a privileged bureaucracy — he often acted only in the narrowest interest of his autocracy, of his personal rule; and at times he acted in the wider national interest. Still less can one consider Mao as the champion of bureaucratic privilege, especially of economic privilege. On the other hand, although there is no fixed crystallised, privileged bureaucracy in China, there exists a lot of political privilege, the paramount privilege under which only the men of the ruling group can express their views and take political decisions. This is indubitable privilege. Even so, until yesterday a man like Lin Shao-chi and his adherents enjoyed that privilege, and now they have been robbed of it. Things do not seem to fit here any clear-cut socio-economic formula. I know it’s always a temptation for a Marxist to find the sociological formula that would fit the situation; but we have very often to analyse phenomena and events in political terms because politics has its own internal dialectics which are not immediately linked with socio-economic phenomena.

If you study Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire” or his other “minor” writings, you see how very often he had to do this, how often he discusses politics, in political rather than in socio-economic terms, although ultimately we have always to go back to the socio-economic structure within which the political processes unfold their dialectics. In the present “movement” in China there is much emphasis on egalitarian slogans; but this doesn’t make the “movement” politically more progressive — egalitarianism isn’t enough in a “cultural revolution”. When they throw Shakespeare and Beethoven into the dustbin, they may imagine that they are acting in an “egalitarian” spirit; but this is reactionary, not progressive.

Question: To go back to the political crisis, what are the long-term prospects? And how does the Chinese situation affect the Labour movement and Communism outside China?

Answer: The present crisis is probably also connected with a struggle for the succession to Mao Tse-tung. Here the events also seem analogous to what happened in Russia in Stalin’s last years. For the time being it looks as if Lin Piao were assured of the succession. He is the head of the armed forces, hero of the Red Guards and, with the help of the armed forces, he is taking control of the party machine. But is he, the heir apparent, really going to be Mao’s successor? And if he is, will he continue the present Maoist policy? These are questions that must, of course, be left open.

In any autocratic regime the factor of the personality, of the leader’s personality, plays a great role; and politics is to some extent affected by such “biological accidents” as to what old age a dictator survives or fails to survive. But whenever Mao goes, his successor may well try and make a new beginning; he may especially try to bring back to life the Russo-Chinese alliance. In the meantime there may be changes in the Soviet Union as well. We should not imagine that the situation is static and will remain frozen for goodness knows how many years. Dynamic developments are likely to occur both in the Soviet Union and in China. What has happened in Peking this summer may have settled the struggle over power and policy only in the short run; in the longer run things may once again be in flux, and Mao’s successor or successors may try to re-establish a common front with the Russians. This is only a hypothesis; not a forecast.

It may also be that the Chinese youth movement, which has now been let out into the streets to storm the old party hierarchy and the old intelligentsia, that this movement will unfold its own dynamic. At present the school children and students are told not to interfere with production, not to disorganise the working of industry and agriculture; and with much drum beating they are being led out of the big cities; one phase of the movement is evidently at a close. We learn that the army is appointing its commanders and political commissars to take charge of the “Red Guards”, that it is trying to bring the movement, which may be something of a Frankenstein, under its orders. The new generation which has now been brought on to the political stage, may gradually develop its own political ambitions and aspirations.

In the long run also a great nation like the Chinese is not likely to reconcile itself to the present rather sluggish tempo of economic development. They have had three or four very good harvests in China, and this has improved the economic situation. A new five-year plan has been launched after an interval during which there were no five-year plans, no overall industrial plans. But the targets of the new plan have not been divulged. They are not so impressive that much play should be made of them in public. In isolation, cut off from the outside world, cut off from Russia, China finds her development greatly slowed down; and it is unlikely that the young generation should make peace with this.

Nor does it seem likely that the almost mystical apotheosis of Maoism, that glorification of Mao’s every gesture and word, a glorification touching the depths of absurdity that the Stalin cult touched in Russia in 1950, it seems to me unlikely that all this should survive Mao. Even now there must be some revulsion against this cult of Mao, the great swimmer, the great philosopher, the great scientist (who helps you in selling melons and has an answer to every question that may trouble you); and I don’t believe that China after Mao’s death will want to go on living with this holy picture of him; although Mao will undoubtedly hold his place in China’s revolutionary history, as the great commander of the partisan army that made the Revolution. In this respect Mao isn’t quite what Stalin was — he is rather like a combination of Lenin and Stalin. But the older he gets the more he looks like Stalin and the less does he resemble Lenin.

Such comparisons are, of course, of limited value. In saying that Mao is half-Lenin and half-Stalin, I mean to make a distinction between Mao, the great revolutionary leader, and Mao, the deified despot. It is the latter, the Stalin-element in him that has now come to the fore. I think the new Chinese intelligentsia will react against this just as the old intelligentsia has reacted. In other words, I believe in China’s progress and I don’t see the present phase, deplorable as it is, as being in any sense definitive. And I believe also that sooner or later the objective logic of their situation will drive the U.S.S.R. and China to make a common front.

I should perhaps explain that when I speak of the need for a common front, I do not mean to say that the Chinese and Russians necessarily need to compose their “ideological” differences. On the contrary, such differences should be openly stated and openly discussed in the international communist movement. Any living movement has its internal contradictions and differences, which it can suppress only to its own detriment. In a way, this sectarian-fanatical conflict between Maoism and Krushchevism (and post-Krushchevism) is the price which the Communist Parties of these countries are now paying for decades of Stalinist monolithicism.

After the “monolith” has broken, it turns out that the people who have been moulded by it are incapable of discussing their differences in any rational manner. They haven’t discussed, argued, debated, or even thought for themselves, over so many years and decades that when their differences do break into the open, they take the most obsessive and demented forms. The situation would be hopeless for the Communist Parties, if they were not in the end to learn the language of rational discussion and debate, and if they were not to learn to co-ordinate joint action, regardless of differences of opinion. We communists and socialists in the West should regard it as our task, not to identify ourselves either with the Russians or with the Chinese, for clearly the present attitudes of neither of them can suit anyone brought up in a Marxist school of thought and has at heart the interests of socialism in the advanced capitalist countries. We ought to maintain an independent attitude.

We ought to criticise the Soviet opportunism and the Soviet betrayal of China; and we ought also to try, as far as we can, to argue the Chinese out of their present ultra-radical and irrational idées fixes. We ought to recall to both the Russians and the Chinese their duty to act in common against the danger of world war, against the American aggression in Vietnam, and in the interests of socialism in the world.

Question: Don’t you find anything positive and progressive in the present cultural revolution in China?

Answer: Now the term “cultural revolution” has to be clarified. You may use the term in a metaphorical sense to indicate the cultural rise of formerly oppressed and illiterate people, a cultural rise that must take many, many years and decades. When hundreds of millions, or tens of millions of illiterate peasants are taught to read and write and are further educated, one can speak broadly of something like a cultural revolution extending over the lifetime of two or three generations. But to speak of a cultural revolution as of a single act is absurd. What is a revolution? The classical definition of it is the transfer of power from one class to another. You can make a social and a political revolution. You make a social revolution when one class seizes the property of another and nationalises it. You make a political revolution when you seize political power from one class and another takes it into its hands — then a revolution is made in a single act or within a very short time. A social revolution is already more than a single act. A political revolution may be an armed uprising which overthrows a government and establishes representatives of a revolutionary in office.

But how can you make a cultural revolution in a single act? Can you transfer at a stroke the knowledge and the skills accumulated in the head of one class into the head of another? Revolutionaries who would achieve this would indeed perform a feat of which the philosophers, including the philosophers of Marxism, have not dreamt. One can, of course, kill, or reduce to silence, or send to concentration camps a whole generation of an intelligentsia and in this way deprive society of a certain fund of knowledge, civilised habits and skills that have been accumulated over generations, but this will not turn those who destroy the old intelligentsia into the possessors of the knowledge, the skills and arts they have annihilated.

Lenin, therefore, spoke not of “cultural revolution”, but of the cultural heritage which it was the duty of the Bolshevik Party and of the revolutionary government to preserve and develop. Trotsky posed the problem of employing specialists in this context — he posed it with regard not only to military specialists employed in the army but to specialists employed in the economy and in education as well; he saw this as part of a great endeavour to make the cultural heritage of the past accessible to a new revolutionary class and to the revolutionary regime. Not “cultural revolution” but mastery of the cultural heritage was the guiding idea in Lenin’s time.

To be sure, the Bolsheviks were not just attending to the cultural heritage of the bourgeoisie and of the feudal classes — they did their utmost to carry education into the masses of the Russian workers and peasants — only in this way could the cultural heritage be made accessible to the rising social classes; and Lenin and Trotsky and their followers accepted the cultural heritage critically, with Marxist discrimination, absorbing what was vital in that heritage and overcoming its obsolescent elements. And so much was and is vital, because in science and in the arts the old dominant classes had in a sense transcended themselves and their own limitations.

One may consider Shakespeare as a representative of the bourgeois dream, as the representative of what was in his time an essentially new bourgeois individualistic sensitivity. But in Shakespeare this bourgeois sensitivity transcended its own limitations and rose above itself, as it were, to create lasting artistic values which retain their force after so many changes of governments, regimes, and social orders Similarly, the old Greek drama can be said to have represented a type of sensitivity and a way of thinking that was rooted in a society which lived by slavery; but Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus artistically transcended these limitations and created lasting values, which are not to be overthrown in any “cultural revolution”. (My Italian readers will, of course, remember the contempt with which a Marinetti and other Futurists once treated Dante, Petrarch and the masters of the Renaissance.)

Only savages, or petty bourgeois, half-baked ultra-radicals, or bureaucratic upstarts can make bonfires of the works of the great thinkers and artists of the past. The Maoists, who do it in the same name of Marxism and Leninism, commit moral harakiri. And they harm the revolutionary interest of China, they harm it shamefully and disgracefully ! We must defend the revolutionary cause of China, despite them and even against them!

Isaac Deutscher.

20th September, 1966.

Isaac Deutscher Archive