China’s Cultural Revolution


The Cultural Revolution: The Furthest Advance of Human Emancipation Yet

This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of the longer interview with Raymond Lotta in the November 18, 2013 special issue of Revolution newspaper, You Don’t Know What You Think You “Know” About…The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future.

Question: Let’s get into the Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976. That’s the next momentous episode of the Chinese revolution.

Raymond Lotta: The Cultural Revolution was the high point of the first stage of communist revolution... I’m speaking of the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik revolution as the first two milestones.

Now the Cultural Revolution was eventually defeated in 1976. And China is not a socialist country today. But the Cultural Revolution still inspires and is incredibly rich in lessons. Anyone who aspires to a just and liberating society and world needs to learn about... and learn from the Cultural Revolution.

Question: But Raymond, there’s all this vilification that surrounds the Cultural Revolution. How do you begin to go at this and help people see things in a scientific light?

RL: Yes, the bourgeoisie never lets up in its attacks on the Cultural Revolution. And we have to wage a real battle for the truth because this has everything to do with human possibility. What was the Cultural Revolution about? What problems in society and the world was it confronting? What were its actual aims? What were its predominant forms of activity and struggle? What did it actually accomplish? How did society and people change through it?

To even pose these questions for serious investigation and exploration takes us to a different plane of discussion. And by pursuing and answering these questions on this scientific foundation, we do get at the actual truth of the Cultural Revolution.

Now in evaluating any historical period or figure, there will always be countervailing or secondary trends, anomalies, what have you... but the first and main question to answer is: what is principal, what is the essence of the society, or social movement, or historical figure in question... what mainly characterizes things?

The Cultural Revolution was the most far-reaching attempt in modern history, and in human history, to revolutionize and restructure a society away from all exploitation and oppression... on the basis of the conscious involvement, the conscious activism of tens and hundreds of millions of people. During the course of this, millions and millions of people revolutionized their world outlook—that is, their basic values, their approach to reality—and the whole ethos, or spirit, of society was transformed.

The Danger of the Revolution Being Reversed

Question: So what was the crux of the Cultural Revolution? We hear so much about factions and struggles and criticism and people being denounced.

RL: To get at the essence of it, we have to step back. You see, Mao had been searching for a solution to the problem of the revolution being reversed. Not from invasion or attack, real as those dangers were—but being reversed from within... I mean within the socialist system itself. This was the danger that the communist party could be turned into an instrument of a new exploiting class exercising bourgeois control and domination.

You see, a new elite could gain control of the organs of state power and then adapt those organs to reinstall relations of exploitation and oppression... while the state could remain socialist in name, and some of the outward features of socialism could be kept.

This was not an abstract question in China in 1964–66.

We were talking about the Great Leap Forward before. It was a radical break with the Western and Soviet models of development. It was a blow to the bourgeois-technocratic forces in the Party. But owing to the food crisis and famine in 1960–61 and because of the industrial dislocations caused by the sudden withdrawal of Soviet aid and technical assistance, it was necessary to make certain economic and organizational adjustments. But this gave openings to conservative forces in the Communist Party who announced themselves as the “economic realists” who could get the economy where it needed to be. And they moved with a vengeance to try to undermine the policies and spirit of the Great Leap Forward.

These forces had vast organizational strength within the Communist Party. By 1964–65, they were gaining ground. They had a coherent program. They wanted to use profit measures to decide investment priorities. They wanted an educational system, patterned after the Soviet model, to turn out professional elites and “communist elites.” They were very much entrenched in the cultural realm—opera, a highly popular art form, was still dominated by old feudal themes and characters. In effect they told workers and peasants to forget politics—“leave that to the Party and you keep your nose to the grindstone, and we’ll take care of your social welfare.”

As I explained earlier, for these conservative forces at the top levels of the Party and state, the main thing was to build China into a modern, powerful, industrialized country. This is what they identified socialism with... and they pushed and, where they could, adopted policies that served that goal and program.

Internationally, the struggle with the Soviet revisionists was intensifying. Mao was leading the struggle worldwide to demarcate real revolution from the revisionism of the Soviet Union—and the Soviets were trying to isolate China. Meanwhile, the U.S. imperialists were rapidly escalating the war in Vietnam. North Vietnam borders on China, and there was a real danger at the time that the U.S. would escalate further and attack China. In this setting, some of these revisionist-conservative forces argued to cool out the ideological struggle with the Soviets. And they were positioning to adopt for China the Soviet model (which had become a capitalist system within an institutional framework of state ownership and state planning that was socialist only in name).[74]

Remember, we talked about how Mao had studied the Soviet experience very deeply. He analyzed that Stalin’s purges of the 1930s did not solve the problem of preventing counter-revolution in the Soviet Union. For one thing, the masses of workers and peasants were largely left passive. They didn’t develop the conscious understanding to enable them to distinguish between programs and outlooks that would propel society forward to communism... and programs and policies that would lead back to capitalism. And the Communist Party and the institutions of the state were not revolutionized by the purges.

Mao was dealing with a world-historic problem of communist revolution. How do you prevent counter-revolution, but prevent it in a way that is consistent with getting to a communist world? How do you prevent counter-revolution in a way that enables the masses to play the decisive, conscious role in changing society and changing themselves? How do you keep the party on the revolutionary road, and fight against the pulls to “settle in” and become a new exploiting class?

This was the challenge. And it was getting posed very acutely in terms of what was going on in Chinese society in the early 1960s... because these capitalist-roaders were poised to seize power.

The broader situation in society was going in their favor, if you want to put it that way.

Unleashing the Youth to Initiate the Cultural Revolution

Question: What do you mean by that? Wasn’t Mao still leading things?

RL: Look, the Party had become very calcified, with these revisionist forces having a lot of authority and influence... that was a big problem. But there was another big problem. People were too accepting of routine. You know, over the course of the previous 17 years, there had been great improvements in people’s material and social well-being. This created a certain pull, especially among those who suffered greatly in the old society, not to question things. Also, because of all that was accomplished under the Party’s leadership, many peasants and workers assumed that their leaders, if they called themselves “communists,” must be good, must be communists. And in many factory units and rural areas, people were simply too scared to criticize leadership. How do you puncture this willingness to go along with the status quo?

So this was the situation, the necessity, that Mao was facing. Mao was searching for a solution. And the Cultural Revolution marked the breakthrough. It wasn’t going to be a top-down removal of revisionist authority. It was to be a revolution that would involve and require mobilizing the masses, in their millions, from below. Through mass political and ideological struggle led by the revolutionary core of the Party, the masses could come to understand issues of right and wrong, of revolution and revisionism... and on that basis play the decisive role in politically striking down the bourgeois power centers within the Communist Party. The Cultural Revolution was about revolutionizing all of society and people’s thinking.

In deciding to launch the Cultural Revolution, Mao was taking an incredible risk. I talked about the international situation, with the U.S. imperialists in Vietnam and the Soviets’ maneuvering.

So how could you shake things up and initiate this kind of momentous struggle? Mao was looking for a source of dynamism and rebellion. Where was it in society? Mao looked to the youth. They were not, as many older people were, so much comparing things to how they used to be... but to how they could be.

Mao looked to the youth to be catalysts. Mao wanted to unleash the questioning and rebellious spirit of youth.

You had the Red Guards. These were organizations of revolutionary high school and college students and other youth. They organized protests and demonstrations. They called out university administrators for acting like overlords. They launched criticisms of various Party leaders. This was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards helped spread the message that “it is right to rebel against reactionaries,” as Mao had put it.[75]

The schools shut down for a year, and the government allowed the youth to ride the trains free. They fanned out to different regions, hiking even to remote areas, meeting with people, like the peasants, whom they’d been taught to look down upon. They emboldened people to raise their heads and ask: “What policies serving what goals are in command here? Where’s the revolution here?”[76]

The Contradictory Nature of Socialism

Question: Raymond, you’ve used phrases like capitalist-roaders, and maybe you should explain what this is about.

RL: Mao discovered that the roots of the problem of the revolution being reversed are in the very nature, the contradictory nature, of socialist society. On the one hand, socialism is a great leap, a leap beyond exploitation and the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Socialism makes it possible to carry out fundamental economic and social change in the interests of the masses and enables the masses to transform society.

On the other hand, socialism is a society in transition. It is a transition from capitalism—with all its class divisions, exploitation, and inequalities—to communism, a world without classes. And socialism carries the economic, social, and ideological scars of the old society. There are still differences in development between industry and agriculture, between town and country, and between regions. There is the ages-old division between mental and manual labor. There are still differences in pay, and money and price are still in use.

These “leftovers” from capitalist society contain the seeds of capitalism. Take money and prices, which are used under socialism in the exchange of goods and to assist economic planning and to help evaluate efficiency. But the existence of money and prices can also influence decision-making in a capitalist direction... towards producing according to what yields the most money.

There are also the oppressive institutions and ideas that reinforced the old society. I’m talking about patriarchy, racism, and national chauvinism. These things do not just “automatically” disappear once their material basis is undercut with the overthrow of capitalism. They actually have to be gone after in their own right. And there is also the force of habit and thousands of years of exploiting class ideas and ways of thinking.

Getting to communism requires overcoming these economic and social inequalities, these commodity relations, and these oppressive social institutions and ideas. This is not going to happen overnight. Marx actually thought this transition would be relatively brief, but this has proven to be wrong. It’s going to require a protracted and complex process of revolutionary struggle and transformation—on a world scale.

So there’s going to be struggle at any given time over how—or even whether—to transform and restrict these birthmarks of socialist society that I have been describing. Mao summed up that this is actually a struggle between the socialist road and the capitalist road... between policies and lines that would continue the advance to communism, and those that would take society in a different direction, back towards capitalism, as has happened today in China.

Now Mao analyzed that the social inequalities and differences that continue to exist in socialist society, along with the fact that money, prices, and contracts continue to play a significant role in the socialist economy, are all part of the soil out of which new privileged forces and a new bourgeoisie grow in socialist society.

And he took this analysis further. He showed that the core of a new bourgeois class under socialism is found within the top reaches of the communist party and socialist state. These are the capitalist-roaders. They fight for policies that widen these gaps and rely on methods and means handed down from exploiting class society and, because they have the power to influence how production is carried out, they actually become the concentration point of a new bourgeoisie, right within socialist society and right within the party itself. They were trying to seize power... and that’s why Mao and the revolutionary core launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966.[77]

You have to realize what a theoretical breakthrough Mao was making. Mao was applying Marxist categories to the political economy of socialism, and in the process extending and enriching these categories. He showed that socialist relations of production are highly contradictory, that there are bourgeois aspects within them. He showed that capitalism could re-emerge within the framework of formal socialist state ownership. And he took Lenin’s insight that “politics is concentrated economics” to elucidate how certain high-party leaders can actually become the personification of capitalist relations of production. Mao and the revolutionary leadership were putting these kinds of issues before the masses through the course of the Cultural Revolution. The revolutionary headquarters, as it was called, was leading people to study and understand the “deep structure” of society and to interrogate the fabric of society.[78]

You know, the anti-communist narrative is that Mao was this paranoid despot, just inventing enemies for his own convenience. No, the Cultural Revolution was about the fate of a revolution that involved one-quarter of humanity. It was monumental struggle about continuing the struggle for a new, liberating world... against those capitalist-roaders who wanted to take China back to capitalism.

“It Was a Real Revolution”

Question: Could you tell us more about the feel and flow of the Cultural Revolution?

RL: It was a real revolution. It was full of invention and innovation. It inspired tens of millions but also shocked and disturbed tens of millions at its outset. It became very wild: street rallies, protests, strikes, and demonstrations. There were what were called “big character posters” going up all over the place, with people posting comments and critiques of policies and leaders. Some of these were very sophisticated, and some were simple. Public facilities were made available for meetings and debates. Small newspapers flourished. In Beijing alone, there were over 900 newspapers. Materials and facilities for these activities were made available free, including paper, ink, brushes, posters, printing presses, halls for meetings, and public address and sound systems.

Then, as the Cultural Revolution took hold among the workers, it took a new turn. Forty million workers around the country engaged in intense and complicated mass struggles and upheavals to seize power from entrenched municipal party and city administrations that were hotbeds of conservatism. Sometimes these were work stoppages, sometimes these were struggles not to stop work... sometimes these were massive demonstrations, sometimes all-night mass debates, often involving students and Red Guards. Posters were up everywhere, with crowds gathered round intently reading them and debating them... as I said, it was very wild, very revolutionary.

It got very intense. In Shanghai in the autumn of 1966, there were some 700 organizations in the factories.[79] The revolutionary forces were mobilizing. These capitalist-roaders, they fought back. They had their mass organizations, they tried to discredit the revolutionaries, and they tried to buy people off with wage increases.

Eventually, the revolutionary workers, with Maoist leadership, were able to unite broad sections of the city’s population. And in January 1967, they broke the hold of the revisionist capitalist-roaders who were running the city. They seized the main municipal building, took over the communications hubs, and began organizing distribution of basic goods in the city. This was the Shanghai “January Storm.”

And what followed was extraordinary: people began to hold mass discussions and mass debates about how to run the city, about what kinds of political structures would best serve the goals of the revolution. They began to experiment with new institutions of citywide political governance. There was debate... and real challenges were being thrown up about what kinds of organs of political power, what kinds of institutions, correspond to the needs of advancing the revolution.

Big questions were getting posed and were also getting summed up at the highest leadership levels of the Cultural Revolution. For instance, how can you allow for the greatest and most meaningful decision-making by the masses? But at the same time, how can you develop institutions and structures that are strong enough to prevent counter-revolution? How can you have broad involvement and debate... but at the same time maintain revolutionary leadership and give revolutionary direction to the institutions of power?

Because you’re not just dealing with a city like Shanghai as a city unto itself, but trying to develop a system of governance and exercising power that is taking account of the larger needs of the revolution—for instance sending doctors or skilled technical personnel to other parts of the country where they might be needed... or even to other parts of the world to support revolution.

This was the kind of process of experimentation, debate, and summation going on in the first year or two of the Cultural Revolution. And eventually a new institution of political power was established, called the “revolutionary committee.” It combined great mass involvement and a special leading position played by the Party. These lessons were being applied and changes were taking place at basic levels of society... in factories, hospitals, schools and so forth.[80]

Mao said there could be no revolution if it doesn’t transform customs, habits, and ways of thinking. When I was talking about the Soviet Union, I mentioned Mao’s statement, “What good is state ownership of factories, warehouses, if cooperative values are not being forged?” A theme I’ve been hammering at, I mean it’s what Mao was emphasizing and what communism involves... you have to be changing circumstances and changing thinking and values. And for whom and for what: for narrow self-interest or for the betterment of humanity? People were discussing these kinds of things in the midst of the great battles of the Cultural Revolution. People were transforming society and the world, and the relations between people, and their own world outlook and understanding, in a very intertwined process.

You know, early in the Cultural Revolution, Mao made this crucial observation. He said that while the target of the Cultural Revolution was the capitalist-roaders, the goal was to change world outlook—enabling the masses to more deeply and scientifically understand society and the world, their own transformative role, and questions of ideology and morality.[81]

Mass Debate, Mass Mobilization, Mass Criticism

Question: What about the level of violence during the Cultural Revolution?

RL: Violence broke out at times, but that was not what Mao was calling for, nor was it the main character of the Cultural Revolution. Its main forms of struggle were mass debate, mass political mobilization, and mass criticism.

Mao’s orientation was clearly spelled out in official and widely publicized documents. In the 16-Point Decision that guided the Cultural Revolution, it was stated, “Where there is debate, it should be conducted by reasoning and not by force.”[82] This wasn’t some esoteric Party document. It was popularized throughout society.

There was sharp ideological and political struggle against revisionist authority and capitalist-roaders, on a societal scale. And as I was saying, the capitalist-roaders fought back. They organized among the youth, among the workers, and among intellectuals. Look, this was a two-sided struggle.

Now with regard to the violence that did happen... first off, it’s important to understand that some of the violence that did occur during the Cultural Revolution—and as I said this was not the main way it was fought—was actually fanned by high-ranking capitalist-roaders seeking to defend their entrenched positions and to discredit the Cultural Revolution.

Also in this situation, you had Red Guards who got carried away in their zeal to rid society of bourgeois influences and committed excesses, roughing people up. You had some people who were using the Cultural Revolution to settle old scores and grievances.

Another thing that made the Cultural Revolution complicated was the fact that there were cliques, or organized groupings, within the Party that posed as supporters, even “hard-core supporters,” of the Cultural Revolution... but who were actually pursuing a different, and ultimately sharply opposed, “agenda.”

Mao and the revolutionary leaders had to lead the masses to sort things out, to sum up lessons and methods of struggle, and to consolidate gains in understanding. Acts of violence were criticized, condemned, and struggled against by the Maoist revolutionary leadership—through statements, directives, editorials, and on-the-ground intervention.

When you actually study what people who were working with Mao said and did, it is clear that they fought for people to unite around their most fundamental interests and highest aspirations, to wage struggle over principle from a lofty plane, and to help people resist getting caught up in sectarian feuds. For instance, there was a famous incident at a university in Beijing. Student activists got caught up in factional fighting, and it took a violent turn. The Maoist leadership dispatched unarmed teams of workers to help stop the fighting and help people sort out differences.[83]

“Socialist New Things”

Question: So was it just endless struggle? I mean, where was this going?

RL: Well, the Cultural Revolution went through phases. There was the period of 1966 to 1968 where people rose up, and you had the overthrow of many of these top capitalist-roaders, with all the kinds of struggles and debates that I’ve been describing. Then the Cultural Revolution takes another turn. It becomes possible to consolidate gains and carry forward with social and institutional transformation, and this is actually coming out of the struggles and experimentation going on.

And we see these great changes that take place in the basic institutions and running of society.[84]

Question: Maybe you could give us some examples.

RL: Okay, well, one big emphasis of the Cultural Revolution was taking up the question of overcoming, and working to overcome, the historic division between people who work with ideas and those who work with their backs. How to do this? I want to get into that whole topic more later, but for now the important thing is that in most societies this isn’t even a question—it’s just taken for granted that some people are going to work with ideas and get the training to develop those skills, and others aren’t; that’s going to lead to relations of inequality. It’s an oppressive division, and the educational system under capitalism is geared to reproducing that, and so if you just take over the old educational system under capitalism and try to spread it around, you’re still going to have this oppressive relation taking root and spreading.

So, with that in mind, the educational system was totally changed. The old teaching methods, where students are just passive receptacles of knowledge and are driven to grub for grades, and the teachers are absolute authorities—that was challenged, very sharply. Instead, the critical spirit was fostered. Study was combined with productive activity. The elite admissions policies into the universities that gave sons and daughters of Party members and professionals a kind of special track... these were overhauled. There was a big push to bring young people of peasant and worker background into those universities. After high school, students of different social backgrounds would spend two years in factories or on communes, then they would apply to college... and part of the entrance process was recommendations and evaluations by people on the communes and in the factories.[85]

Under capitalism, knowledge is viewed in a certain way: as a tool to gain competitive advantage over others, as a ladder to individual success, as a source of private gain and prestige. And some of this mentality carries over to socialist society, and is another seed of capitalism. Under socialism knowledge is put in the service of society and the world, in the service of a society breaking down inequalities and changing the world for the benefit of humanity, and going after, again, that very oppressive and deep-rooted division between people who are trained to work with ideas and those who are locked out of that.

Out of the Cultural Revolution came what were called “socialist new things” that reflected new socialist relations and values.

One of the most exciting breakthroughs was what was called “open door” research. Scientists would go to the countryside to conduct experiments among peasants. Research stations were set up close to the fields. Specialists from the cities alongside and with peasants carried out experiments... in hybrid grains, insect-life cycles, and other aspects of science. Scientists would be learning about the lives of the peasants and from the questions and insights of the peasants, and the peasants would be learning about the scientific method.

In the cities, leading educational institutions and research institutes developed cooperative relationships with factories, neighborhood committees, and other organizations. People came to laboratories and laboratories went to the people. You had innovative arrangements, like women from a neighborhood factory that was producing parts for an advanced computer—they weren’t working as super-exploited outsourced labor, as in the world capitalist system today, but as part of an economy serving the people... anyway, these women would be going to the research institutes and seeing how the computers were used, and people in the institutes would be going to the local factories.[86]

All this was about breaking down walls and social distinctions.

Question: You’re describing a very different kind of social fabric.

RL: Totally. We’re talking about two different worlds.

There was the “barefoot doctor” movement. Young people in the cities and young educated peasants were being trained to provide preventive medicine and basic medical care. They went to different parts of the countryside. They were called “barefoot doctors” because they were in the rural areas and it was very rudimentary... but this was contributing to meeting basic health needs of people. There were 1.3 million barefoot doctors.[87]

And this was just one breakthrough in health care practices during the Cultural Revolution. There was a tremendous push to combine traditional medicine, like acupuncture, with modern medicine. There was further revolutionization of doctor-patient relations, challenging the notion of patients as mere passive recipients of treatment. There were great advances in research and actual discovery. Insulin was synthesized.[88]

One of the great, untold medical stories of the Cultural Revolution concerns malaria treatment. The Vietnamese liberation fighters, taking on U.S. imperialism, were suffering from new strains of malaria—and in the late 1960s the Vietnamese leadership appealed to China for assistance. Mao initiated a major crash collective program. One group of researchers screened 40,000 chemicals while another researched traditional medicines, sending envoys to villages. An incredibly effective new cure for malaria was developed, and it only became acknowledged as a major breakthrough by the international medical community in the 1980s.[89]

People don’t realize that revolutionary China established the most egalitarian health care system in the world, based on the principle of serving the people, and that essential primary care was reaching practically the entire population. Life expectancy doubled, from 32 years in 1949 to 65 years in 1976.[90] And by the early 1970s, Shanghai had a lower infant mortality rate than did New York City.[91]

In terms of innovations and transformations in other spheres. You had the practice of criticism and mass supervision of Party members, where basic people would make criticism of Party members. These were things institutionalized through the great upheavals and challenges of the Cultural Revolution.

There were big changes in factory management, the practice of what was called “the two participations”—workers participate in management and managers participate in productive labor. The old system of tight control through rules and regulations that often turned workers into no more than extensions of the machinery was challenged.

The Cultural Revolution created a larger culture, where people were paying attention to the big questions of society. The factories weren’t simply production units. They became sites of political struggle, of political study, theoretical study. Cultural troupes were formed in the factories.[92]

Question: Going back to your earlier argument about how you see what is a rational way to organize society depends on what kind of world you’re trying to get to, I can envision capitalists, and people who think like them, exclaiming, “That’s no way to run a factory! That’s insane!” What about the arts?

RL: There was an explosion of artistic activity among workers and peasants—poetry, painting, music, short stories, and even film. Mass art projects and new kinds of popular and collaborative artistic undertakings spread, including to the countryside and remote areas. One of the most famous of these was the Rent Collection Courtyard.[93] This was a group of statues that movingly illustrated the suffering in the old society... you see the peasants handing over their meager harvests as rent and taxes. This was a joint sculptural work of students and teachers, and it was installed on site in the house of a former landlord. This kind of work reached a very high level of artistic expression and revolutionary content.[94]

The Cultural Revolution also produced what were called “model revolutionary works.” They were pacesetters, which people all over China could use as models in their development of numerous artistic works. Revolutionary model operas and model ballets put the masses on stage front and center. They conveyed their lives, and their role in society and history. These model works were of an extraordinarily high level, combining traditional Chinese forms with Western instruments and techniques.

And strong women figured prominently in the revolutionary operas. Where before the ballets still had that sort of dainty, delicate influence—now the ballets were infused with athleticism. So they were not only dealing with themes of women’s emancipation, but you actually saw women dancing in far more innovative and athletic ways. You were seeing new syntheses, new hybrid forms, through the creation of these model operas. So this is what was going on—and different Peking Opera companies would tour in the countryside, helping local culture groups to develop while learning from local performances.[95]

You know, the Cultural Revolution actually had a very big social and cultural impact in China’s countryside. There had been big changes prior to the Cultural Revolution. I talked about what happened during the Great Leap Forward, and how people’s material lives had improved. But the influence of old ways of organizing village life, the role of the family and extended family... and just the fact that life was more contained in the countryside, without the same bustle and intensity and diversity of the city... this had a conservatizing effect. Well, the Cultural Revolution began to shake this up too.[96]

“Human Nature” and Social Change

I remember reading an account from someone who grew up in a rural village during the Cultural Revolution. He talked about how the people in his village learned to read and write by getting into the texts of plays and operas produced during the Cultural Revolution and incorporated local language and music into adaptations. He wrote about how cultural and social life in the villages changed, including sports and study, and how this gave people a chance to meet and communicate... and fall in love. A new public sphere was replacing the more narrow household and village clan.[97]

You know, people are always told that communism won’t work because it “goes against human nature”... that people are “by their nature” selfish. But that’s not a statement about human nature... it’s a statement about “human nature under capitalism”... what gets promoted and reinforced by a system based on competition and private ownership, where people have to compete for jobs, education, everything, even personal relationships... and where you have a system based on profit which promotes “me-first” “winner take all...”

But socialism opens up a whole realm of freedom for people to change their circumstances and change their thinking. This is what happened during the Cultural Revolution. You had an economic system based on using resources for the betterment of society and humanity. You had new social relations and institutions that enabled people to cooperate with one another and maximize their contributions towards liberating society and the world. Through the Cultural Revolution, people’s sense of social responsibility changed... a new social environment was created that valued cooperation and solidarity.

This was real and it affected what people felt was meaningful and important in their lives... and how they acted. It wasn’t some perfect utopia... but real people changing society and their ways of thinking. The slogan “serve the people” was popularized during the Cultural Revolution, and people were really measuring their lives, and the lives of others, with that in mind.[98]

And when capitalism was restored in China in 1976, and the old dog-eat-dog economic relations brought back... people changed back again—back towards the old “me against you” outlook. They changed not because a primordial human nature had somehow reasserted itself, but because society had changed back to capitalism!

Sending Intellectuals to the Countryside

Question: You’ve touched quite a bit on the countryside and cities. What about the policies of sending intellectuals and professionals to the countryside? This is very controversial.

RL: The policies of sending intellectuals and artists to the countryside were not punitive. During the Cultural Revolution, artists, doctors, technical and scientific workers, and all kinds of people were called on to go among the workers and peasants: to apply their skills to the needs of society, to share the lives of the laboring people, to exchange knowledge, and to learn from the basic people.

We’re told that going to the countryside was a form of persecution. But having workers and peasants come into the universities and having professionals go to the countryside—this was not about rewards and punishments. One of the objectives of the Cultural Revolution was to break down the cultural lopsidedness that existed in China. It was a social situation in which artists, intellectuals, and professionals were concentrated in the cities, and in which their work was often carried out in ivory tower-like separation from the rest of society, especially from the 80 percent that lived in the countryside.

The policy of sending professionals to the countryside has to be seen in the larger social-economic context of Maoist China’s quest to achieve balanced and egalitarian development. In the Third World, there is a crisis of chaotic urbanization and distorted development: overgrown and environmentally unsustainable cities with rings of squalid shantytowns; massive inflows of rural migrants who cannot find work; economic policies, educational systems, and health care infrastructure skewed to the well-off in the cities at the expense of the urban poor and the people in the countryside.

The Cultural Revolution spawned society-wide discussion about the need to narrow the inequalities between mental and manual labor, between city and countryside, between industry and agriculture, and between men and women. Breaking down these inequalities and gaps was part of a process of overcoming social division and advancing society’s knowledge and understanding and capabilities—for the benefit of society as a whole.

Question: I see your point about inequalities between the cities and the countryside. But why was there such an emphasis on sending intellectuals to the countryside? Some people allege that intellectuals were simply being ordered to take part in physical labor and farming and working in factories, and that was it. How do you answer this?

RL: What’s really important to grasp here is that the Cultural Revolution was addressing this world-historic question... of the great gulf between mental and manual labor, which I was talking about earlier and which I want to get into more deeply now.

Now most people today take it for granted, or as a given, that there will always be some people who mainly work with their backs and hands, and those who work with their minds. And it’s certainly true that this divide has existed for a long, long time. It goes back thousands and thousands of years and emerged with the division of early human society into classes.

So there has been this condition of human society in which intellectual life and activity, responsibilities of administering and running affairs of society, artistic and cultural endeavor... these things have been the province of a very tiny slice of society. But this is a product of the way human society has evolved and developed, especially since the emergence of classes and economic systems of exploitation in which a small section of society controls the labor and the product of labor of others... it’s not “hard-wired” into human beings.

The division between mental and manual labor has two big effects.

One is that people engaged in these forms of “mental labor” have certain advantages and privileges... even to just to be able to engage in this activity, and there is a superior social status that goes with that. Obviously there are the rulers of society, who have control of the means of enforcing oppressive rule: to preserve systems of exploitation and to reap the rewards of the labor of others. They monopolize the major decision-making in society. Their status is, yes, that of rulers, and the contradiction between mental and manual labor in this case is an antagonistic one. But even people who are not ruling but engaged mainly in mental labor... they still have advantages and social prestige.

As for those engaged in manual labor, they are kept in a subordinated position, “good for their hard labor” and then tossed off. And historically, manual labor has been devalued and looked down upon.

But there’s another negative effect of this division of labor. It stunts the all-around development of the individual. The masses of working people are spending the bulk of their hours doing just that, working... and working in conditions of drudgery, repetition, and often under the whip or mastery of others. They don’t have the chance to engage in the realm of working with ideas, to gain an understanding of society, and to take responsibility for managing the affairs of society. Meanwhile, those who are mainly engaged in mental labor are generally cut off from productive activity... and this stunts their all-around development and understanding of the world. People in the towns get cut off from the natural world, while people in the countryside can lead very isolated lives and become wholly immersed in the struggle with nature.

Now the founders of the science of communism, Marx along with Engels, saw this division of labor and the class antagonisms that it reflects and reinforces as a key problem that the communist revolution has to overcome. They envisioned a future communist society in which a new and higher unity of mental and manual labor is achieved—where people are both productive and creative. But getting there is a complex process... and as with so many other issues we’ve been discussing, if I might put it this way, we “learn about the learning curve” through the first stage of communist revolution.

The Soviet Union under Stalin tried to deal with this mental-manual contradiction in certain ways. One of the biggest initiatives was to promote people of working class origin into positions of management and authority, with resources devoted to training and educating workers. This was a great advance over the old society. But you know, simply putting workers into administrative positions doesn’t in and of itself solve the problem. For one thing, these administrative positions are themselves embodiments of production relations that carry the seeds of capitalism. For another, as Mao pointed out, if these workers have a bourgeois world outlook, then, from their new positions, they can be acting against the broader interests of the masses, becoming “big shots” of “humble origins.”

The Cultural Revolution was going at the mental-manual labor contradiction differently. For instance, as I mentioned, it was not just putting workers in management positions but revolutionizing the whole concept of management. And in addition to undertaking differing tasks and responsibilities, the masses were being led to take up the big social, political, and ideological questions of society and the world. So the mental-manual contradiction was being worked on in a fuller way in the Cultural Revolution than had been the case in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just “promote the workers.”[99]

The policy of sending educated youth and intellectuals to the countryside was another important part of this. Enabling intellectuals to learn from the life experience of basic working people and to share knowledge, and to get a living sense of how their intellectual work was part of a larger project of transforming and revolutionizing society.

And this was very exciting and very meaningful for lots of people. There’s a professor of literature I know who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. As a young woman she went to the countryside... and she’s written about this. She came from an intellectual background in the city. She worked alongside peasants, she studied local languages, she got into theory with peasants. And for her, this was an incredible and life-transforming experience... a life of purpose that doesn’t exist for young people in U.S. society.[100]

Question: But people will tell you that, in a country like the U.S., you can make your purpose out of your own lives.

RL: Look, in 1968–69 in the U.S., if you were a young man without a college education or deferment, there was a good chance you’d be drafted into the army to commit genocide against the Vietnamese people. That’s a life of purpose? In China, young people and professionals were going to the countryside as part of creating a new world.

You know, I remember after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there were all kinds of people—nurses, engineers, drivers, all kinds of people—who wanted to go down there to help. But it wasn’t possible, at least not on a large scale... that’s not how U.S. society is set up. I mean, it’s not an economic-social system where real social priorities inform what happens in society. I also remember how during the Easter break following Katrina, college students from different parts of the country went to New Orleans to join with the masses in rebuilding their lives. But this was small scale and very temporary.

Imagine a society where this is the norm, not the exception. Where people have the capability to work for the common good, to apply their skills and energy to this, and where social decisions are being made to further that. Imagine a society where that kind of impulse we saw with Katrina is given backing by the state power... even as that power is careful not to “suffocate it with support”... in other words, there has to be room for people to try new things and go in new directions.

As I pointed out earlier, in revolutionary China educated people were called on to apply their skills to the needs of society, to share the lives of laboring people, and to learn from the basic people. And great numbers of youth and professionals answered the Cultural Revolution’s call to “serve the people” and go to the countryside and set examples for others. There was an appeal to people’s higher interests and aspirations of serving the people.

And this was made a mass question: What’s more important, that a skilled doctor have the “right” to a privileged life in the city, or that health care be made widely available, so that people in the countryside have a right to decent care? This was a major question, because on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, 70 to 75 percent of government health expenditures were concentrated in the cities, where only 20 percent of the population lived. But by the early 1970s, you now had a situation where, at any given time, about one-third of urban hospital personnel were in the countryside, in mobile teams.[101] This was a tremendous thing.

But great as these breakthroughs were... still, there were problems in how this contradiction between mental and manual labor was being worked at... in how Mao and the revolutionary leadership were approaching overcoming the differences between intellectuals and other sections of society, especially the formerly oppressed and exploited.

Question: What kinds of problems?

RL: This is something I’m going to get into later, when we talk about Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism.

But in terms of the policy of sending intellectuals to the countryside... it was strongly guided by this idea of “remolding the intellectuals.” This was problematic. Now, that phrase, “remolding the intellectuals,” which was used in China at the time, doesn’t mean anything like the anti-communist translation: “force the intellectuals to stop thinking.” It involved struggling against elitist attitudes. But the approach was one-sided. As though the intellectuals, just because they were engaged in mental labor and had associated privileges... were a source of problems in society. And their values and thinking, those of the intellectuals, were being singled out.

There was one-sided emphasis on overcoming the division between mental and manual labor—from the side of overcoming the privileges and prejudices of the intellectuals. Now there are elitist attitudes and values of intellectuals stemming from the particular position they occupy in society. But workers and peasants are also influenced by bourgeois ideology, including resentments towards intellectuals, or bowing down to them. Everyone’s thinking must be transformed... as part of becoming emancipators of humanity.

What I’m saying is that the Cultural Revolution, overall, marked a real advance in working on the contradiction between mental and manual labor. It was pathbreaking. But it wasn’t the full synthesis needed. And we can get into this more later.

What’s Wrong with “History by Memoir”?

Question: There are these memoirs about how bad it was to go to the countryside and how people suffered. What should people make of these memoirs?

RL: Let me emphasize this about memoirs... and any historian worth her salt will tell you the same thing. While some memoirs actually can capture and analyze the main lines and trends of the whole historical period the author lived through, most tend to be limited to what the author directly experienced. Memoirs are not, in general—and again, there are and can be exceptions—works of scientific investigation and synthesis. Memoirs don’t necessarily capture the broad, diverse, and complex social canvas that is history... or get to the essence of different and contending social and class forces, of programs and outlooks that get battled out in society and the world. That doesn’t make them useless... they can shed light on certain things, but we just have to be aware of what they are... what their limitations are. There are bigger social dynamics, and these are the context for everyone’s individual experience.

Now when you get to a situation like the Cultural Revolution, where there was huge social upheaval and this included some people losing privileges and others being the victims of excesses in what was overall a righteous cause, it gets very complex.

You know, I was reading a discussion on memoir literature by J. Arch Getty. He’s an historian of the Soviet revolution. And he made the point that you would never attempt to understand a major event like the French Revolution through personal stories... you know, the telling of “here’s what I went through,” or “what I heard,” etc. But somehow, he went on to point out, when it comes to the Soviet revolution during the Stalin period, it’s perfectly permissible to make grand analytical generalizations on the basis of history-by-anecdote.[102] And the same applies in spades to the Cultural Revolution. You can’t understand all of what we’ve been getting into in this interview, in terms of the mainsprings and main character, as well as the complexity, of the Cultural Revolution... through memoir literature.

It’s important to keep this point of methodology in mind.

In addition, there’s the fact that only a certain kind of memoir, those that are the complaints of those who saw their privileges come under attack during the Cultural Revolution—these are the memoirs that get promoted in U.S. society, in the schools, what have you... as part of the bourgeoisie’s ideological assault against communism. It’s as if someone from another country were to try to understand the 1960s and 1970s, without knowing anything about the whole history of slavery and Jim Crow and then further oppression and discrimination in the northern U.S., solely by reading the memoir of a white person denied admission to a college that had an affirmative action program for minorities.

Mao’s Last Great Battle

Question: Raymond, let’s move on to the course of the Cultural Revolution. You’ve talked about these two phases of the Cultural Revolution—the big upheavals of the early years and then some of the consolidation and transformation. What was going on in the later years of the Cultural Revolution?

RL: The Cultural Revolution began in 1966—and then it went through these phases I’ve described. And by the early 1970s, the class struggle was sharpening. It was a complex situation. There was resistance and opposition to the Cultural Revolution from reactionary forces. Among the masses, there were the really radical-minded who were fighting to defend and carry forward the Cultural Revolution... there were those who were with it some of the time and not so excited at other times... and there were backward people who just opposed it.

Most importantly, the capitalist-roaders were mobilizing continually around their program... even as they had suffered these big setbacks and defeats during the early years of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao had analyzed that the two roads that open up after the seizure of power, the capitalist road and the socialist road... this is not a situation for a few years or something. It is a defining feature of a relatively long socialist transition period. And, as Mao also emphasized: who wins out... that’s not a settled question, until you actually get to communism and overcome the division of world society into classes.

Mao kept warning of the danger of capitalist restoration. The masses have state power under socialism, but the revolution has to continue. As we were talking about before, you’re dealing with the scars of class society—with continuing differences between town and country, with the lingering hierarchy of specialization, with money still playing a role in the management of economy, with the fact that there is that gulf between mental and manual labor.

There is the influence of old ideas and values, of the force of habit... of going along, bowing to convention, keeping to “tried and true” ways, and so on. The position of women in society, achieving the full emancipation of women, and waging struggle against the roots and persistence of patriarchy in its many forms... this is a crucial question of the socialist transition.

This is what faces the revolution in power.

Question: You’re talking about the general character and the general challenges before socialist society. But what did that mean at the time, in terms of these phases of the Cultural Revolution?

RL: The specific situation, the concrete juncture facing the revolutionaries, was very difficult from 1973 until 1976. And it’s not just what was going on in China at the time. There was the whole international situation, and how this was interpenetrating with and impacting the class struggle in China. I can only touch on some of the key aspects of what was going on.

Let me start with the international situation in the early 1970s. There was a growing danger of war, including the possibility of an attack on China by the Soviet Union. People might not know... but by the early 1970s the largest concentration of land troops in the world was on the Chinese-Soviet border, with two armies facing each other. At the same time, there had been developments in China, including outright betrayal, among some people who formerly played a leading role in the Cultural Revolution. This created a great deal of confusion among people, and this had to be sorted through and understood.

One of the defining challenges facing Mao and the revolutionaries in this period was how to confront this danger of war and at the same time keep the Cultural Revolution going. You see, a grouping of capitalist-roaders associated with top party leaders Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai was trying to seize on this sharp and fraught international situation to put an end to... to reverse the Cultural Revolution. They were arguing: “enough of this Cultural Revolution, we need to get down to the business of creating a modern army and efficient economy.” By which they meant a capitalist economy and military. They were fighting for their program at the top levels of the Party... and mobilizing social forces in society.

They still had vast strength in the Party, in the government, and in the military. And they appealed to the masses in a certain way. They were saying that if China plugged into the world economy, society would be better off: living standards of the basic working people would rise, China’s economy would be strengthened, and would be in a better position to meet the war danger. They appealed to the young people of more privileged backgrounds that the Cultural Revolution was robbing them of “careers.”

Mao and the revolutionary headquarters in the Party were mobilizing the masses to confront this situation that I am describing. Leading the masses to defend the new changes in education, including enrolling young people of worker and peasant backgrounds in the universities... leading people to defend the revolutionary cultural works, like the operas... the new types of management in factories... the whole thing we talked about in terms of young people going to the countryside.

It was a complicated struggle that the revolutionaries were waging. They were calling on people to defend these “socialist new things” in the face of efforts by the capitalist-roaders to discredit and undermine them... again in the name of stability. And the revolutionaries weren’t just arguing to defend what had been gained through the Cultural Revolution but calling on people to go further in the struggle to revolutionize society and people’s thinking.

They were promoting the study of Marxist theory. They were exposing the program and line of the capitalist-roaders. They were raising to society the great stakes... for the masses in China and for the cause of communism... the great stakes of this struggle to beat back the attempts by the capitalist-roaders to reverse the achievements of the Cultural Revolution. There were outbreaks of protest—some organized by the capitalist-roaders... others by the revolutionary masses against them. The revolutionaries looked, always, to mobilizing the conscious activism of the masses in this complicated struggle.

The struggle went through sharp twists and turns. And as it wore on and intensified, the mood among sections of the masses was affected. Some people who had gone along with the Cultural Revolution in its early phases were now beginning to tire. This is the reality of the class struggle. But in the face of all of this, the revolutionaries fought very hard in the struggle—to bring out the issues and to re-seize initiative.

This was “Mao’s last great battle.” It was heroic... it was epochal.

It was also in this period of 1973 to 1976 that Mao and the revolutionaries he led made important theoretical contributions to our understanding of the nature of socialist society, the class struggle under socialism, and the goal of communism. The revolutionaries also made some secondary mistakes and errors... and these too carry important lessons.[103]

These are just broad brushstrokes here. If people want to get a deep analysis of Mao’s “last great battle” and its lessons, they should look at works of Bob Avakian like The Loss in China and the Revolutionary Legacy of Mao Tsetung, Mao Tsetung’s Immortal Contributions,[104] and Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will.

When Mao died in September 1976... that was the signal to the reactionaries within the Party. In October they staged a military coup. They immediately moved against the revolutionary core at the top levels of the Party and deployed troops in key parts of the country. There was resistance. But the suppression was quick and harsh, with large numbers of arrests and executions.

Socialism in China was defeated. The first stage of communist revolution came to an end.

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