In order to understand the inability of the Cultural Revolution to consolidate its achievements, two kinds of questions must be addressed. The first concern the objective factors, internal and external to China, that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. The second set of questions concern shortcomings in how it was conducted and unintended but still negative consequences.
To begin with, the Cultural Revolution was an uphill battle. The Chinese revolution had gone through an extended period of new democratic revolution beginning in the 1920s. Even taking into consideration the social transformations in the liberated areas and after nationwide victory in 1949, it was not possible to completely eradicate feudal and bourgeois ideology in a few years, or even in one or two generations.
In addition, there was a relatively short period of socialist construction before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Much of that was conducted on the basis of the experience of building socialism in the Soviet Union, which had many weaknesses even prior to the rise of Khrushchev and state capitalism in the mid-1950s. As noted earlier, by the early 1960s, much of the top CCP leadership was implementing a pro-Soviet revisionist line with Chinese characteristics, and their network of party and government officials was firmly entrenched.
In 1966, international conditions were favorable for such an unprecedented revolution within a socialist society. It was no exaggeration to say that revolution was the main trend in the world. U.S. imperialism was bogged down in South Vietnam due to the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people, and national liberation struggles were on the rise in Asia, Africa, Latin America and within the imperialist countries. The Chinese Communist Party had launched a bold challenge to the revisionist CPSU and to its undisputed leadership over the international communist movement.
However, just three years into the Cultural Revolution, the military intervention of the Soviet imperialists in Czechoslovakia and the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack on China in 1969 produced a radically different international playing field for the People’s Republic. This forced Mao and the party leadership to make an opening to the West in order to avoid fighting on two fronts. This shift also provided a political opening to and strengthened the position of pro-Western sections of the party leadership.
When combined with the political defection of Lin Biao in 1971, these events led to a shift to the right on the part of a large number of party and government officials grouped around Premier Zhou Enlai. With Zhou’s backing, many revisionist leaders who had been knocked down in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated, including Deng Xiaoping. This set the stage for a full-scale counter-attack on the Cultural Revolution.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cultural Revolution was an uphill battle because of a lack of historical experience. Just as Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union had no prior experience to draw on in building a socialist society in the 1920s and 30s, Mao had to develop a new understanding of the nature of class struggle in socialist society and a political line and mechanisms for keeping China on the socialist road. People sitting here today know how hard it can be to figure out how best to struggle for revolution in situations where there isn’t much in the way of historical experience. During the course of the Cultural Revolution, it is understandable that even dedicated revolutionary activists made mistakes.