The Achievements of the Cultural Revolution

On a practical level, the achievements of the Cultural Revolution deserve recognition as the most advanced forms of socialist transformation achieved in the world to date. There isn’t time today to talk in detail about these achievements, but it is important to highlight some of them.

•    First, the Cultural Revolution knocked a whole stratum of
revisionist party leaders and hacks, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, out of the political boxing ring. In one of the best known popular uprisings, the 1967 January Storm in Shanghai, hundreds of thousands of workers overthrew the whole Shanghai party committee and replaced them by a city-wide revolutionary committee composed of workers, revolutionary cadre and soldiers.  Similar 3-in-1 combinations were set up in the factories to implement a new system in which workers participated in management and cadre spent some of the time working on the shop floor.

•    In the countryside, with the encouragement of Red Guards from
local middle schools, peasants subjected abusive and bureaucratic party cadre to mass criticism. In many areas, a new power structure began to replace the old party apparatus. Mass associations of peasants chose representatives to sit on newly organized village revolutionary committees.

•    Women made substantial gains during the Cultural Revolution.
Many broke into higher-paying jobs in industry, developed as political leaders, challenged ideas of women’s inferiority, and began to dig up the Confucian-patriarchal roots of women’s oppression in China. At the same time, during the Cultural Revolution there was an underestimation of the need for political mobilizations and campaigns to root out male supremacist ideas and develop powerful women’s leadership in all areas of society. The full liberation of women must be a central battlefront of struggle both before and after the seizure of power.

•    The Cultural Revolution produced a multi-media explosion of
revolutionary culture–music, plays, ballets, paintings, short stories and poetry that served the building of socialism. Imperial court dramas were swept off the stage and replaced by musical works that portrayed scenes from the Chinese revolution. Many of these revolutionary operas and ballets had strong, independent leading women characters.

•    In all areas of Chinese society, people were called on to reject
narrow self-interest and embrace their collective interests. “Serve the people” was more than a slogan. Students turned away from chasing privileged careers to use their knowledge to serve the workers and peasants, and doctors left the cities and settled in the countryside.  Political study was a part of daily life using a variety of materials.  The 312 page Red Book introduced hundreds of millions of people in China and around the world to Marxism-Leninism and Mao’s political thinking.

•    There was a vast expansion of education in the countryside, which
Mobo Gao and Dongping Han describe in their books from first hand experience. The schools had the goal of producing graduates who were both “red and expert.” Students were expected to gain knowledge and skills that could be used to solve society’s pressing problems. Textbooks and teaching methods at all levels were changed to discourage rote learning, encourage critical thinking and promote socialist values. Nationwide admission exams were abolished, making it possible for many more workers, peasants and soldiers to attend the universities.

•    One of the most dynamic innovations of the Cultural Revolution
was the system of “barefoot doctors” that helped narrow the gap in health services between rural and urban areas. By the mid-1970s, more than a million of these paramedics were working in the countryside. Many of them were educated urban youth who were part of the movement “down to the villages.” Their guidelines were to place prevention of diseases first, and to combine mental and manual labor. Their slogan was “calluses on hands, mud on feet, medicine kit on shoulder, poor and lower-middle peasants in mind.”

•    The Cultural Revolution promoted an internationalist spirit and
support for people’s struggles around the world.  China sent billions of dollars in military aid and over 300,000 troops to North Vietnam to operate anti-aircraft batteries and perform logistical work. The People’s Republic provided training to guerillas fighting against apartheid South Africa, neo-colonialist regimes in France’s former colonies, and against the Zionist settler state of Israel.  Massive rallies were held in 1968 to support the students and workers in France and the Black liberation movement in the U.S. in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.   The CCP denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and inspired the formation of new anti-revisionist communist parties and organizations in India, the Philippines, Turkey, and many other countries including bastions of imperialism such as the U.S.

These “socialist new things” were inspiring, but they were not universal. They faced stubborn resistance, and did not take firm root in many areas across China’s huge territory. Thus, it is important to avoid an idealized picture of the Cultural Revolution.  This does not come to grips with the immense difficulties the Cultural Revolution had to overcome, and it does not lead to a deeper understanding of the factors that led to its eventual defeat.