The East is Rent: The consequences of unleashing the young against the old; of elevating ideological rigor above reasoned debate; and of setting the present against the past; was a decade of unprecedented social stress and tension, interspersed with explosions of murderous mob violence and tragic material destruction. More than 30 years after its final suppression by the People’s Liberation Army in the mid-1970s, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution lingered on in families torn apart, careers destroyed, artistic treasures and historical monuments laid waste.
THE GREAT PROLETARIAN CULTURAL REVOLUTION, the very name unfurls like a crudely painted red banner. Most people, if they have heard of it at all, picked up most of what they know from documentaries in which the Cultural Revolution rates only a few minutes of critical historical scrutiny. What those who grew to adulthood in the years following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 will never understand, however, is the sheer disruptive energy of Maoism. Mao’s “Little Red Book”; his fanatical “Red Guards”; the whole terrifying experience of the Cultural Revolution; left an entire generation of leftists deeply scarred. Not only in China, but across the world.
Recent developments on the left of politics, however, are stirring painful memories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. On college campuses, in particular, grey-bearded observers are witnessing the same inflamed political passions; the same terrifying group-think; the same reckless determination to tear down the entire cultural inheritance of the past that characterised the Cultural Revolution. What distinguishes the present ideological extremism from the excesses of Maoism, however, is the opaqueness of its ultimate purpose. The prime mover – and prime beneficiary – of the Cultural Revolution was Mao himself. Cui bono? – who benefits? – from the present “woke” revolt?
Following the abject failure of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (essentially an attempt to achieve the modernisation of China’s economy through acts of sheer collective will) the “Great Helmsman” of the People’s Republic found himself increasingly side-lined by the more pragmatic members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. The leader of these “revisionists”, Deng Xiaoping, famously summed up his approach by citing the ancient Chinese proverb: “It matters little whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” To recover his supremacy, both within the party and the country, Mao needed to mobilise a force powerful enough to challenge Deng and his revisionist comrades.
With towering cynicism, Mao chose as his battering-ram the first generation to have grown up under Communist rule: literally the “children of the revolution”. The unquestioning loyalty of these young people to the man who had made it possible for China to “stand up” was directed against what Mao called “The Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. China, said Mao, was in danger of sliding back towards the untruths and injustices of the past. This could only be prevented by mass struggle. “To rebel is justified”, Mao proclaimed. The time had come to “bombard the headquarters” of a Communist Party which had fallen under the thrall of bourgeois ideas.
Mao’s young “Red Guards” needed little encouragement to attack Mao’s revisionist enemies. Hardly surprising, when his “Little Red Book” offered the following words of inspiration:
“The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you.… The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.”
The consequences of unleashing the young against the old; of elevating ideological rigor above reasoned debate; and of setting the present against the past was a decade of unprecedented social stress and tension, interspersed with explosions of murderous mob violence and tragic material destruction. More than 30 years after its final suppression by the People’s Liberation Army in the mid-1970s, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution lingered on in families torn apart, careers destroyed, artistic treasures and historical monuments laid waste.
Visiting China in 2008, I was deeply saddened by the personal testimonies vouchsafed to me by the victims of those terrible ten years. Not the least injured by Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were the young Red Guards themselves. Seldom in human history has a generation been so cruelly used and cast aside.
It wasn’t only the youth of China who suffered as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s reassurance that “to rebel is justified” also caught the imagination of thousands of young people in the West who had lost faith in the United States-led capitalist system that encouraged endless consumption at home while dealing out death and destruction to the people of Vietnam. The young people who led the Youth Revolt of the late-1960s in the West took heart from the Maoist anthem “The East Is Red” – seeing their own surging street battles magnified a thousand-fold in China’s teeming cities.
It is one of history’s vicious ironies that the only reward for all the exertions of the young revolutionaries of East and West was the triumph of a form of capitalism ten times more ruthless and exploitative than the one they were rebelling against. Deng Xiaoping survived the Cultural Revolution, and very soon his ideologically agnostic cats were teaming-up with all manner of running-dogs. Likewise in the West, where, by the end of the 1970s, the managed capitalism which had delivered three decades of unprecedented prosperity was being traded-in for the “freedom-loving” neoliberal capitalism we know today.
One could argue that, in both cases, these dramatic changes amounted to a revolution – of sorts. If that was the case, then the resurgence of ideologically-inspired inter-generational conflict that we are witnessing today is explained.
Mao Zedong, just like Joseph Stalin before him, considered it most unwise to let the members of his own revolutionary generation keep alive the traditions of dissent, mass organisation, and lively political debate which had made the overthrow of the previous system possible. Keeping these traditions alive, he argued, was an open invitation to the forces of counter-revolution to subvert the new order from within. Better by far to undermine and discredit the revolutionary values of the past by unleashing against them carefully formulated and entirely contradictory ideas deliberately inculcated in a younger generation of officially-sanctioned “rebels”.
By adopting this profoundly cynical and supremely manipulative strategy of fomenting inter-generational strife, Mao restored himself to absolute power. Is Neoliberalism hoping to do the same? Preserving capitalism by taking a leaf out of the little red Maoist playbook?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 3 July 2020.