To understand the significance of the Cultural Revolution, it is worth recalling that ever since the Communist Manifesto’s opening salvo that the specter of communism was haunting Europe, defenders and apologists for capitalism have claimed that socialism (to say nothing of communism) will never work because it goes against human nature and ignores allegedly fundamental economic laws. Moreover, they are quick to add that revolutions only lead to old exploiters and oppressors being replaced by new ones. This view was expressed in the words of “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a song about revolution by The Who, a British rock group in the 1960s and ‘70s: “Take a look at the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The experience of the Soviet Union provided support for that cynicism. When the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution transformed the world’s political landscape, millions of people around the world thrilled to the promise of a new world. In the famous words of a U.S. journalist who visited the Soviet Union soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, “I have seen the future, and it works.” However, by the early 1960s, you didn’t have to be an apologist for capitalism to realize that this socialist future was not working in the Soviet Union. To millions of progressive and revolutionary minded people around the world—including many in the U.S.— the Soviet Union had become an oppressive and bureaucratized caricature of what socialism was supposed to be.8 Among revolutionaries it was increasingly understood that state ownership in the USSR had become an empty shell, masking a new form of state capitalism presided over by a revisionist “communist” party.9
What was less obvious to revolutionary minded people at that time was that the same thing was threatening to happen in China. By the early 1960s, many of the revolutionary achievements in the years immediately following the 1949 birth of the People’s Republic were being reversed, and the future of socialism was in doubt.
From 1959 to 1961, a series of events took place that put Mao and other revolutionaries in the Communist Party of China on the political defensive.
The Great Leap Forward in 1958 was an ambitious plan to increase industrial and agricultural production. It undertook radical social transformations and led to new levels of socialist consciousness. In one year, 750,000 collective farms were merged into 24,000 people’s communes, each of which was composed of dozens of villages and on average 5,000 households. The communes were not just economic units but new social organizations that combined political, educational, cultural and military functions.10
The scale of the communes made it possible to mobilize large numbers of peasants to work on big irrigation, flood control and land reclamation projects. Rural industrialization leapt forward, with commune-operated shops manufacturing and repairing agricultural implements, small chemical plants producing fertilizer, and the establishment of local crop-processing industries. Tens of millions of women joined the labor force outside their homes for the first time; childcare centers were set up on the communes. The communes funded new primary schools and a network of middle schools and colleges that combined work and study.
In the industrial areas of Shanghai and the northeast, new forms of factory organization replaced the one-man management system that had been patterned after Soviet industry. The system was called the “two participations” (participation of cadres in labor and workers in management), “one reform” (reform of unneeded regulations) and “triple combinations” (of skilled workers, technicians and administrators to solve production problems). 11 In order to train workers for new roles in their plants, a system of spare-time schools and colleges attached to factories was established. In some plants, 60 to 70 percent of the workforce was enrolled in these schools.
These were important advances. However, a combination of unrealistic production goals (e.g., doubling steel production in a year), transportation bottlenecks, wasteful “backyard” furnaces that produced low-grade steel, and the diversion of too much labor from agricultural work into other areas effectively brought the Great Leap Forward to a halt by early 1960.
Particularly in the countryside, some social transformations jumped ahead of the level of development and political consciousness at that time. Some communes were eliminating private plots for farming altogether. There was resistance among the peasants to this policy and to equalizing the income of the production teams (usually 20-30 households) throughout the communes.12 In addition, Party leaders saw communist society as achievable within the following decade or two. All of this was later criticized as a “communist wind.”
At a party conference in 1959, Mao took responsibility for the overly ambitious goals of the Great Leap Forward and for some of errors in how it had been implemented. He described it as a “partial failure.”13 But Mao and his supporters recognized the Great Leap’s achievements as well as its defects, making it possible for many of its goals, especially in such fields as factory management, education and health care, to be more effectively pursued in the Cultural Revolution a decade later.
The Great Leap Forward was followed by three years of severe drought and floods, which affected 60% of China’s agricultural land.14 In 1960, the Soviet Union pulled out its industrial experts, disrupting production in key industries. In addition, cadre15 in many areas inflated production figures (the “wind of exaggeration” as it was called), making it difficult to ship grain where it was needed most. While the natural calamities played the major role, these factors combined to create famine conditions in parts of the countryside in 1960-61.16
In the wake of the Great Leap Forward, revisionists in the party, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, seized the initiative. Liu became State Chairman in 1959. Though Mao was the Party Chairman, he was sidelined. Mao later said he was treated like a “dead ancestor” during these years.
With a revisionist political line and leaders in the ascendancy, Chinese society became increasingly stratified and bureaucratized. In 1961, the “70 Articles for Regulations in Industry” was issued, which sought to reverse the industrial transformations of the Great Leap Forward. Under it, managers used individual bonuses to appeal to workers’ and technicians’ narrow self-interest, piecework reappeared, managerial authority was strengthened, and greater emphasis on profitability was placed on the operation of enterprises.17
As Liu and Deng promoted contracting collective-farmed land out to individual families, the size of the private plots worked by peasant households increased from 5% to 12% of the tillable land.18 The gap between the cities and countryside in the delivery of modern medical services grew.19 The higher education system was fostering social inequality by shutting out the children of workers and peasants. Party leaders and cadre were becoming increasing divorced from the experiences of working people and were developing into a new privileged elite. China was being pulled off the “socialist road.”
While socialism in a country like China must be understood as a form of class rule of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry, and as a mode of production in which planned production for social needs replaces production for private profit, it is not a static social system. What defines socialism most clearly is the road on which it is traveling. Is society expanding or restricting economic, social and political inequalities to the greatest degree possible? Is it promoting mass participation and debate, or political passivity, in factories, farms, schools and governmental institutions? Is it promoting internationalism and leading mass campaigns to support revolution in other countries? Is it combating “me first” capitalist ideology with struggle for the collective interest? Is it challenging national oppression and male supremacy? And of critical importance, what political line is the working class' political leadership in the communist party and state organs pursuing?
Mao’s responded to the rightist offensive by pushing to initiate the Socialist Education Movement in 1962. In addition, the decision of the Chinese Communist Party to open up polemics in the early 1960s against the revisionist line that had emerged in the Soviet Union spurred the Socialist Education Movement and laid important groundwork for the Cultural Revolution. These polemics, concentrated in The Polemic on the General Line of the International Communist Movement (a compilation of nine documents written under Mao’s direction in 1963-64) 20 indirectly targeted top leaders of the CCP who were implementing similar revisionist policies.
In a September 1962 speech which set the tone for the Socialist Education Movement, Mao stressed that the class struggle would continue in China for a prolonged period of time. The Socialist Education Movement called for combining education with productive labor, rooting our corrupt cadre, and the revival of a socialist spirit among the masses and in the party. In many areas, poor and middle peasants were mobilized to reassert the primacy of collective farming over private plots. The advanced Dazhai commune was held up as a national model for agriculture. The Daqing oilfields, which had been opened up through self-sacrificing work and where the “3-1-2” system was being creatively employed, was a national model for industry.21
An important focus of the Socialist Education Movement was the People’s Liberation Army. While military training continued at a high level, political consciousness and ideological education were given priority over technique. The Quotations of Chairman Mao Tsetung was first developed for use in the PLA in the early 1960s. After Peng Dehuai was removed and Lin Biao became Defense Minister in 1959, the trend towards a Soviet-style professional officer corps was reversed; officers’ ranks and privileges were eventually eliminated. PLA units worked alongside the peasants on the communes and trained a large people’s militia.
There was also sharp struggle over the question of whether China could build up its defense capacity by self-reliant effort, or whether it had to acquire advanced weaponry from the Soviet Union.22 In fact, socialist China was able to produce its own tanks, jets and naval vessels, and by 1964 was able to break the imperialist powers’ monopoly on nuclear weapons.
However, Mao’s initiatives in the early 1960s, with the exception of the campaign to place politics in command of the work of the PLA, were undermined at every turn by Liu, Deng and their network of revisionist officials in the party and government. In the cities, managers and administrators blocked efforts to stem the growing inequalities in the factories and educational system. In the countryside, Liu issued the “23 Directives,” using his position as State Chairman to trump Mao’s policies. Instead of mobilizing the peasants to reinvigorate collective farming and criticize conservative rural party officials, Liu and Deng dispatched “work teams”-- outside cadres organized by higher party organs-- to protect these officials and block independent initiatives among the peasants. Battle lines were being drawn.
Confronted with this situation, Mao’s attention turned to the revisionist policies of high-ranking party leaders. This led directly to the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Its goals were to overthrow those leaders of the party whose policies were leading China backward towards capitalism, and to transform and revolutionize people’s thinking and relationships with each other. This revolution in socialist society was an attempt—unprecedented anywhere or anytime—to mobilize and empower hundreds of millions of workers, peasants, youth, women and minority nationalities in order to stay on the long and difficult socialist road to communism.
Mao’s understanding of the necessity for class struggle in socialist society and his leadership of the Cultural Revolution constitute his most important contribution to the world revolutionary movement. Revolutionary movements and future socialist societies will have to address these questions if they are to realize their promise.