Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Cynthia Lai

Historic Lessons of China’s Cultural Revolution


Mao Zedong wanted to be remembered for two things: the Cultural Revolution and the 1949 revolution. Today, the Cultural Revolution is denounced as a “period of catastrophe” by Hu Yao-bang, the General Secretary of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and now also the CPC Chairman.

Criticizing the Cultural Revolution as a manifestation of Mao’s personal maneuvering, Wang Yer-shiu, assistant editor of the People’s Daily, said, “According to the theory of Marxism-Leninism, this kind of movement has to be explained economically. However, in the few years prior to the Cultural Revolution, the economic situation was not bad, people were satisfied. From the political standpoint, the Cultural Revolution was to oppose the capitalist-roaders. People should have felt oppressed. Why didn’t the masses feel that way? The general feeling of the masses was, the situation was pretty good. Then all of sudden, there came the Cultural Revolution. Mow everybody said that Mao initiated and led the Cultural Revolution. No one said it was led and initiated by the party.” Believing that it is too easy to manipulate the masses, he concluded that a personality cult of any leader should be opposed.[1]

There is still controversy surrounding the events that shook China and the world in the last decade. Confusion and cynicism are prevalent among those who took part in the Cultural Revolution, or were merely influenced by it. In appraising the movement, a Canton worker who is an ex-Red Guard said, “Perhaps it went wrong because it became too violent.... But there were real problems – bureaucracy, a new bourgeoisie of party officials and intellectuals, the dilution of socialism into a variant of capitalism, the loss of revolutionary morale. I think the goals of the Cultural Revolution were valid, and the proof is that we still have these problems.”[2] Another, a 32-year-old former Red Guard from Shanghai, added, “When I see privileges being given back to the old bourgeoisie, even the former capitalists, and how privileges are also being given to this new class of party cadres and officials, I am really outraged. When the rest of us are really having problems with housing, with jobs, with education, even with getting enough food to eat, these people are establishing a sort of neo-feudalism assuring themselves comfortable lives.... I do not want another Cultural Revolution – 10 years of turmoil did enough damage – but I think we were right in trying to smash the old system.”[3] Not all ex-Red Guards are that positive. “We beat people, we humiliated teachers, we ransacked houses, we burned libraries and destroyed precious cultural relics, we invaded churches and temples. All these things we did in the name of freeing people from the past, but in fact we made them slaves, to something worse through our reign of terror,” lamented another. Some of the ex-Red Guards, formerly staunchest, are openly anti-communist in a country that still holds to its socialist course.

Tremendous Implications

The Cultural Revolution was truly a mass movement – almost the entire Chinese population, one billion people, actively participated. From the early turbulence to the low-key years of the later period, it lasted for a decade. It affected all strata of the society, and all aspects of the Chinese people’s lives. The Cultural Revolution’s breaking of tradition was thoroughly disorienting and the Chinese people undertook it with the will and power worthy of a revolutionary people. However, the denunciation of the Cultural Revolution by the present leadership has brought into question all values, all traditions and authority – thus the present crisis of confidence. There is self-doubt and cynicism – Chinese people are questioning the superiority of socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and Marxism. There is demoralization, pessimism about the future and negation of authority, especially the leadership of the party. There is a strong nihilism, the loss of a standard of right and wrong, good and evil. Of course, there are people sincerely trying to reorient themselves through all the chaos, and they will emerge more confident and clear-headed. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

In this country, there are people such as the editorial board of the Line of March who exploit the confusion among U.S. Marxist-Leninists and try to reverse the verdict on Mao and even the 1949 revolution. This puts them to the right of all revisionists, past and present. A correct verdict on the Cultural Revolution is important not only to differentiate right and wrong; even more important, the sum-up of the Cultural Revolution has tremendous implications for our preparatory work to seize state power, and to consolidate it afterwards. This orientation guides our study of the Cultural Revolution and all other questions facing the party and the international and domestic communist movements. It is most clearly drawn out in Jerry Tung’s book, The Socialist Road: Character of Revolution in the U.S. and Problems of Socialism in the Soviet Union and China.

From studying the concrete Chinese conditions between 1949 and 1965, the year when the Cultural Revolution was formally unfolded, we have concluded that it was both necessary and timely. It was necessary due to revisionism in the party leadership. The roots of revisionism were in the problems of building socialism in an economically backward country, the party’s onesided character of preparation before seizing of state power, and the pressure from the enormous task of building up the country almost from scratch. These conditions caused and further aggravated the problems of party-building – forging a unified and professional cadre core capable of finding independent bearings to distinguish correct from incorrect lines, and capable of implementing correct lines and policies to lead the work of socialist construction. The many sharp two-line struggles on China’s direction reflect these problems. The development and power of the revisionists were strengthened by the failure of the Great Leap Forward movement for economic construction, and even more by the Soviet Union’s turning revisionist and openly supporting the Chinese revisionists. The Cultural Revolution was unleashed as an attempt to resolve some of these problems, and to prevent and combat revisionism in China.

Thus, we disagree with Wang’s determinist argument. He denies the need for any mass movement in relation to the superstructure because “the economic situation was not bad.” By dismissing the masses’ genuine dissatisfaction with bureaucracy and stratification in society, and blaming the whole movement on Mao’s manipulation, Wang slandered the masses’ consciousness and asserted that heroes rather than the masses make history.

Victory in Lessons

Mao did initiate the Cultural Revolution and quite correctly. A leader does not have to wait until after an uprising as in Hungary, or the masses on their own have called for a movement to rid the party of corruption and bureaucracy. As Adan Baldy, a member of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers Party (PUWP) said at its recent Plenum, “We cannot continue making personnel changes only after Solidarity has pointed at those who should be changed. . . .We have to do it ourselves.”[4] The fact that hundreds of millions of Chinese people responded to the Cultural Revolution showed that the revolutionary call corresponded to their genuine desires and that no hero alone could have made them move. In spite of many mistakes during and after the Cultural Revolution, it is absolutely opportunist to denounce it as unnecessary. Even though overall it failed to achieve the goals set out (as the coup by the rightists in 1976, and the degeneration of Mao’s and the gang of four’s lines, show) there is victory in the lessons it offers.

Perhaps Jerry Tung best summed up the historical significance of the Cultural Revolution to the world proletariat in The Socialist Road. He wrote:

Mao’s initiative in calling for and leading the Cultural Revolution was not just something he wanted to do. It was a response to a problem demanding a solution in history; the problems had become obvious in Hungary, within the Soviet Union and in China itself. Mao tried different things. Having made contributions to Marxism by solving the peasant agriculture question in China, in the political sphere he tried the ’Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign and the Socialist Education Movement campaign, all attempts to address the problems that Hungary and the Soviet Union could not solve. In the last ten years of his life, he tried again and that attempt was the Cultural Revolution. The verdict of the Cultural Revolution can’t even be gauged by the simple ’three parts bad, seven parts good’ method Mao suggested. The Paris Commune failed too. Judging aspect by aspect, we can’t even pass a ’three-seven’ verdict on it, because obviously the errors of the Paris Commune outnumbered the successes.
You can lose the war even though you win most battles, and you can lose most battles and still win the war. This military analogy applies even more to political struggles of an historical nature such as the Cultural Revolution.
The historical necessity of the Paris Commune, of the working class taking state power, made the attempt of the Paris Commune great, glorious and correct. It was a path-breaking attempt. Just because in retrospect the basis was not ripe for the proletariat to seize and hold power, it does not mean that the Paris Commune was an ultra-left deviation. Its victories are mainly the lessons of its failures. Though it failed, it was a clarion call, a salvo which inspired generations to carry on the struggle and charted the road ahead.[5]


[1] Wang Yer Shiu, “The essential lesson of the Cultural Revolution is that we must oppose Personality Cult”, Speech delivered at the Central Committee’s theoretical conference, February 13, 1979, (Hong Kong: Ming Pao Magazine, February 1980,) In Chinese

[2] Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1981, Part 1, p.10.

[3] lbid.

[4] New York Times, March 3, 1981.

[5] Jerry Tung, The Socialist Road, (New York: Cesar Cauce Publishers and Distributors, Inc., 1981.) p.18-19.