Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Cynthia Lai

Historic Lessons of China’s Cultural Revolution

Theoretical Basis

To understand revisionism, and its concrete forms in China, we need to establish our understanding of the role of economic base and superstructure under socialism, and revisionism in that context. Only thus will we be aware of the danger of revisionism in the socialist state, the need to fight against it (which is a realm of the superstructure), and the need for concentric attack in general, that is, simultaneous attack to develop the productive forces and revolutionizing the superstructure, including the lines, policies and leadership of the party.


Economic base refers to the sum total of the relations of production of a definite economic system at a definite stage of society’s development. Superstructure includes the political and judicial systems built on the foundation of the economic base, and also ideologies that correspond to the economic base, such as political and judicial thought, morality, arts, philosophy and religion, etc. In general, the economic base is the determining factor. The nature of the economic base determines the nature of the superstructure. For example, in slave, feudal and capitalist societies, the exploiting classes occupy the ruling position in economic lives, and contents of the superstructures reflect the rules of the exploiting classes in the political and ideological spheres. Secondarily, changes in the economic base also determine the changes in the superstructure. When the old economic base is replaced by a new one, the old superstructure will sooner or later be replaced by a new one. This is the objective law of the development of society.

Because of the primary role of the economic base in its relationship with the superstructure, and the restraints on the superstructure (including the ownership of the means of production) by the level of productive forces, the proletariat’s major work after the seizure of state power, especially in an economically backward country, has to be economic construction. Only by developing its productive forces can the socialist state be consolidated as well as give changes in the superstructure material and lasting reinforcement. This is a cardinal principle of materialism and it applies in all cases. The dispute between Marxists and revisionists is not whether productive forces are primary over superstructure, but rather how to develop this material base under socialism, and whether superstructure (including man’s consciousness) is passively determined by the economic base, or actually has its relative independence and given a specific set of material conditions, the superstructure could accelerate or retard its development. It is a struggle between spontaneity and consciousness. Marxists believe in the latter.

As Engels said, “Political, judicial, philosophical, religions, literary, artistic, etc. development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself. The state, for instance, exercises an influence by tariff, free trade, good or bad fiscal system.... Every ideology, once it has arisen, develops in connection with the given conceptual material, and develops this material further, otherwise, it would not be an ideology, that is occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws.” (emphasis in original)[1]

A good example of the effect of the political and organizational superstructure on the economic base is the organization of the private ownership in the agriculture sector into collective ownership and its positive effect on the growth of national economy. Jerry Tung wrote, ̶It is an example of how the realms of policy, plan and the consciousness of man generally can overcome the forces of tradition and spontaneity in pushing forward the productive forces. Despite the fact that productive relations, advanced production forces in the main determine production relations, when properly constructed and carried out based on a set of concrete conditions without fundamentally violating the law of development which is itself based on a definite state of economic reality, can speed up and promote the spontaneous development of productive forces under the law of value.”[2]

Elaborating further on the role of superstructure in the development of the productive forces, he wrote, “Besides advanced organization and administration, other aspects of the superstructure (which include all political lines, foreign policy, the legal system, social morals and ethics, education and culture) can have reverse effects, whether positive or negative, on the economic base, including the effect of a more focused consumption sector on the production sector. It is common sense, for example, to see that a solid education system will have tremendous impact in accelerating the rate of development of productive forces by producing a corps of workers, technicians, and scientists with advanced know-how, even though immediately, it drains funds from the production sector.

A well-grounded set of socialist laws, be they in the field of civic or commercial relations, can facilitate long-range planning and resolution of contradictions among the people, industries, and in relations between the party, the state and the people. Of course, the correctness or incorrectness of these laws and codified policies (such as the right of workers to strike) is essentially the correctness or incorrectness of the communist party’s program of the dictatorship of the proletariat – a comprehensive economic, political, organizational, cultural and ideological program to make the transition to communism. But whether advanced or backward, correct or incorrect, they are all indispensable to build up in the speediest way possible, a strong socialist foundation – the economic base – which is the only thing that can further consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat.[3]

Party leadership is part of the superstructure, and as far as it is concerned, the correctness or incorrectness of the line does decide everything. However, this “cannot be misinterpreted subjectively, to mean that you will communism into being without creating step-by-step, firm material basis to enlarge the state sector and that way to propagate and sustain higher spiritual conditions for socialism. In other words, leadership cannot replace material conditions. But material conditions do depend on the dynamic role of the subjective factor, which includes the profound grasp of the economic reality and its laws of development, to tackle it step-by-step.”[4]

Communists are not helpless in the face of low productive forces and the material reality of present-day socialism. As part of the dynamic role of the subjective factor, they can create material conditions to transform all aspects of production relations along with their living links with the msses. For a party before the seizure of state power, revisionist lines will mean giving up class struggle, and inability to take state power from the bourgeoisie. Under socialism, revisionist lines mean two things. One, as far as the economic base is concerned, revisionists believe in the spontaneous development of the productive forces: “Let nature take its course and survival of the fittest.” They liquidate altogether the task of transforming the ideology and believe that it will eventually transform itself when the productive forces are developed enough. Though revisionists are not capitalists themselves, their lines retard the development of both the material conditions and the socialist consciousness necessary for the transition from socialism to communism. They make it easy for all capitalist and reactionary elements to take hold. The task of preventing revisionism has to be two-fold: one aspect is the long-term development of socialist production relations through raising the level of productive forces; second is the immediate and constant task of socialist education.


In China, and under socialism in general, the material bases for revisionism are underdeveloped productive forces, non-state owned sectors of the economy, commodity production, the principle of “to each according to work,” grades of wage scale, exchange through money, and bourgeois right. In the superstructure, there is material basis both in the feudal ideology of Confucianism which has permeated Chinese thinking for 2,000 years, and the bourgeois ideology of worshipping all things foreign. The latter is relatively new but influential, especially among the intellectuals because of 200 years of humiliation by foreigners and education in foreign countries. Clearly, Liu’s famous line justifying stratification in society, that everyone is born different, is rooted in the Confucian doctrine that all social relationships (king and subject, father and son) are heavenly-mandated.

The tendency to worship all things foreign affected many party members and leaders (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chou Enlai and many others were educated in Moscow and France) so badly that Mao criticized it openly. He said, “There are some who are proud instead of ashamed of knowing nothing or very little of our history. . . .For several decades, many of the returned students from abroad have suffered from this malady. Coming home from Europe, America, or Japan, they can only parrot things foreign. They become gramophones and forget their duty to understand and create new things. This malady also infected the Communist Party.”[5] The same subservient attitude prevailed in relation to the Soviet Union. Mao once complained that doctors told him for three years not to eat chicken or eggs because a Soviet magazine said they were unhealthy.

The external cause of Chinese revisionism was the pressure of a U.S.-orchestrated military blockade and particularly Khrushchev’s revisionism. In the 20th Congress of the Communist Party Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, Khrushchev came out with the revisionist program of the three peacefuls advocating peaceful transition to socialism, peaceful coexistence and peaceful competition with the imperialists. This line gives up class struggle for socialism and national liberation, and capitulates to the imperialists. At the 22nd Congress in 1960, the ideas of the “state of the whole people” and “party of the whole people” emerged. This program calls for the proletariat to give up state power under socialism and liquidates all forms of class struggle under both capitalism and socialism. The “peaceful” lines are thoroughly revisionist. But the majority of socialist countries’ parties followed Khrushchev down the path of revisionism. China and Albania were among the very few exceptions, though the CPC as a whole was far from consolidated in opposing Khrushchev’s revisionism. The Chinese revisionists were encouraged by Khrushchev’s chauvinist call for Albania party members to oust Hohxa. The Soviet Union’s threat of economic blockade pressured others into silence.

Revisionism’s effects included the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Both were suppressed by the Soviet Union’s troops and tanks. Alarmed by possible revisionism in China, Mao called for the Socialist Education Movement in 1963. It was a failure. Mao’s reason for alarm was more than the fact of revisionism among the party leadership. The weakness of the party and party members in distinguishing lines and finding independent bearings in class struggle worried him the most. The Socialist Education Movement was designed to raise the masses’ consciousness and also the party members’ vigilance against revisionism. When it failed due to revisionist sabotage, Mao had to unleash the Cultural Revolution to educate the masses and in that process purge the party of revisionists.


Though the CPC objectively led the international communist movement after the degeneration of the CPSU, it was far from the unified, strong party of its projected image. Its strength was more formal than real. The character of revolution in a third world country such as China leads inevitably to a one-sidedness in preparation for seizing state power and the development of the party apparatus and leadership, as well as problems of party expansion and consolidation before and (especially) after the liberation. The CPC’s relative weakness is also a result of the backward economic base which hindered its ability to propagate its lines and policies for correct implementation.

The problems stemming from lack of a professional cadre core – cadres able to find independent bearings, able to organize people in socialist construction and provide leadership in all other tasks – were not unique to the CPC. The Bolshevik Party after the seizure of state power faced similar problems. But the CPC’s situation was aggravated by a special set of circumstances that made the training and consolidation of the cadre core even more difficult.

Referring to the lack of a professional cadre core among the Bolsheviks, Lenin said in the 11th Congress that, “In the sea of people we are after all a drop in the ocean, and we can administer only when we express correctly what the people are conscious of. Unless we do this, the Communist Party will not lead the proletariat, the proletariat will not lead the masses, and the whole machine will collapse.”[6] “It must be admitted, and we must not be afraid to admit, that in 99 out of 100 cases the responsible Communists are not in the jobs they are fit for; that they are unable to perform their duties, and that they must sit down to learn.”[7]

A similar situation occurred in China when the Eighth Route Army marched into the cities. Mao warned in the Seventh Party Congress that his comrades working in the cities should beware of the “sugar-coated bullets.” For most of the CPC leadership, city life was an entirely new experience. Almost without exception, the known and prestigious CPC leaders, from Mao, Chu Teh, and Lin Piao to Chou Enlai and Deng Xiao-ping, had military backgrounds. The cadre core was the “Long Marchers,” those who had survived a seemingly impossible task. Like Lenin’s Bolsheviks, they had to master a thoroughly different kind of work, requiring different skills and methods of leadership. The one-sided character of their military background was a direct result of the character of preparation in China. It also conditioned the intra-party differences that later crystallized between Mao and Liu.

In a previous journal, we said, “In the third world countries, the dominant classes rule directly with military force. There is no bourgeois democracy, no labor aristocracy, nor any poverty pimps to dupe the masses and suffocate their struggles. There is only naked force. Consequently the masses’ struggle is sharper and more focused against the ruling classes. The situation is generally always destablized and the revolution’s target is clearly defined. The third world has no social props, only military props and therefore the main form of struggle is armed.... But because the main form of struggle is armed struggle and because of the large peasantry and small working class, it is difficult or impossible to master all forms of struggle.”[8] This is the party’s weakness, and also the leaders’.

China went through 20 years of armed struggle before the CPC finally seized state power. Victory was achieved with the strategy of first liberating the countryside, establishing red base areas, and then taking the cities. As the main leader of the party, Mao’s base of operations prior to 1949 was in the countryside, in the liberated red base areas. His constituents, so to speak, were mainly peasants who made up the Red Army. Members of the party apparatus under his direct influence were also mainly peasants and workers. As a result, Mao had deep understanding, indispensable to the success of the revolution, of the peasant question and a very refined talent in the art of mobilizing the masses. On the other hand, his contact with the national bourgeoisie and intellectuals concentrated in the cities, the unliberated white areas, was minimal and formal. Work with those strata was largely done by Liu Shaoqi who headed the party apparatus there. Liu was thus more sympathetic to those strata, and more susceptible to their pressure. He had little confidence in the workers and peasants’ ability to build socialism and had more illusions in capitalism in general, due to his faith in the national bourgeoisie’s abilities.

The differences in style between Mao and Liu, developed over several decades, were as deep as their ideological and political differences. Mao, accustomed to open warfare, was very strong on strategy and tactics, and questions of major direction, but lacked the ability to give meticulous concrete guidance. Liu, accustomed on the other hand to underground work, was very good at concrete guidance, but pressure from united front work affected his sense of direction. Their differences were the seeds of future conflict and the party’s unity after victory was formal rather than deep and lasting.

As a poor, populous country, China’s objective conditions are unfavorable to the training and consolidation of cadres, many of whom are uneducated and hardly literate. To put the CPC’s problems into historical perspective, remember that at the time of liberation, the Chinese population was largely peasantry, with around 85% of the population working the land. Most were illiterate. Despite the leaps in literacy after liberation, an estimated 100 million people out of a billion are still completely illiterate. The lack of a developed communications system due to the level of productive forces also hinders raising the cultural level of the people. Audio-visual communication is almost nonexistent in the countryside. A commune (averaging 50,000 people) with one color TV is considered prosperous. A radio is one of the most desired items for a household.

The main form of communication is printed material. Yet even that is rare in a country with severe material scarcity. An 18-year-old member of the Communist Youth League told one western writer that he had never seen a copy of the Red Flag, the theoretical journal of the CPC’s Central Committee. Circulation of the most widely read newspaper, the People’s Daily, which carries the party’s official views, is only slightly over one million in the entire country, even though there were over 37 million CPC members in 1973.

Because of the character of the revolution in an agrarian society, where the military sphere is especially important, the cadre core’s experience in other kinds of activity was lacking at the time of the seizure of state power in China. This was the case, for example, in the study of the theory of Marxism. The intensity of the protracted armed struggle – over 20 years in China – left the party little time to study theory deeply or comprehensively. The grasp of Marxist theory among the party members and even among the leaders was not deep. The problem was so severe that in the ’40s Mao said if only China had 200 Marxists, the Chinese revolution’s victory would be ensured. In 1973, after a period of systematic training of cadres and popularization of Marxism, the CPC had only 2,000 full-time theoreticians to tackle the innumerable theoretical questions, for a membership of 37 million and a population of one billion. This problem of consolidation was further aggravated by the party’s rapid expansion, especially after the revolution, expansion demanded by the gigantic task of socialist construction in a backward country.

Initiated by only 21 people at its first congress in 1923, the CPC numbered 300,000 in 1934. From 30,000 surviving members of the Long March in 1935, it rapidly grew to 1.2 million in 1945, and 6.5 million in 1954. Two years later, the membership again jumped to a startling 10.7 million. By 1961, at the end of the Great Leap Forward, the CPC counted 17 million members, and the number jumped again to 37 million today.[9] Among this membership of 17 million, ”Eighty percent joined the party after the founding of the country... . Those who joined the party prior to the founding of the state amounted to only 20%, those who joined in the ’30s and ’20s, according to the calculation eight years ago, were about 800. Some have died within these two years. Now there probably are only 700 left.”[10] These 700 members are now very old, but they are the core of bureaucrats running the state and party, and were in the position of training all members, 92% of whom are under the age of 45, and 25% of whom were young communists under 25 years old.[11] The cadre training task, however, was liquidated. The unspoken but real and nagging factional disunity among the 700 veterans, the low cultural level of the majority of the members, the tremendous task of building up the socialist economy in the face of a U.S. blockade and after the Soviet Union’s hostility – all contributed to the problem. Moreover, the cadre core themselves were learning various new spheres of activity as they began running China’s economy and society. Besides the lack of theoreticians, the lack of experts trained in management and science was also serious.

Worried about China’s future, Mao stressed repeatedly the need to train “revolutionary successors” as a strategic task in the later stage of the Socialist Education Movement. It was institutionalized as the first criterion in membership requirements in the Ninth and 10th Party Constitutions. The revolutionary committee encompassing “three-in-one” age combinations was a good but unsuccessful attempt to give this solution an organizational form. Wang Hung-wen, a young textile worker, was promoted to the Political Bureau largely for this reason, but he proved unequal to the task of directing the nation’s work. Membership has again doubled since the Cultural Revolution, but during it the weak cadre core was even further devastated. The majority of experienced cadres basically boycotted the leadership due to incorrect methods of struggle which had affected them adversely.


[1] Frederick Engels, “Engels to W. Borgious in Breslau,” Marx and Engels: Selected Works, Vol. 3, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970) p.502.

[2] Tung, op. cit, p.51.

[3] Ibid., p.151-152

[4] Ibid., p.153.

[5] Mao Zedong, “Reform our Study,” Selected Readings, (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1971,) p.201.

[6] V.I. Lenin, “11th Congress of the R.C.P.(B),” Speeches at Party Congresses (1918-1922), (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971,) p.333.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Capitalism Destabilized, How do we Prepare to Overthrow the U.S. Government?,” The 80’s, Vol. 1, No. 3, October 1980, (New York: 1980,) p.9.

[9] Derek Waller, “The Government and Politics of China,” (New York: Anchor Books, 1971.) p.34-35.

[10] Mao Zedong Si Xiang Wan Xiu (Long Live Mao Zedong Thought), (Hong Kong: 1969,) p.416.

[11] Ibid.