The Cultural Revolution’s Problems and Shortcomings

One:  At times, factionalism—in the sense of groups placing their own narrow interests above political principle– was a difficult problem to resolve. In the course of the Cultural Revolution, rightist and leftist groupings all claimed to be following “Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line.” In this complex and confusing situation, party members and the masses of people could only distinguish between correct and incorrect lines by engaging in political and ideological study, discussion and struggle. Further advances in the Cultural Revolution and consolidation of its achievements would have required a higher level of political consciousness and willingness to put collective interests first in order to reduce the level of unprincipled factional struggle.

Two:  The unleashing of millions of Red Guards in the spring of 1966 brought with it a set of unanticipated problems. Many Red Guard organizations ignored the policy of using reason, not force, in conducting political struggle against revisionist officials.  Some of the Red Guard groups said, “doubt everything and overthrow everything.”  Mao responded that 95% of the people could be united, and that the method of “curing the disease to save the patient” should be applied with people who had made mistakes.

Mao’s instructions were simply ignored and openly violated by some of the forces that joined in the at times chaotic mass upsurges of the Cultural Revolution. The rise in the level of violence in 1967 and 1968 was serious enough for Mao to call it “all around civil war.” This caused many people to withdraw from political life and made it impossible to undertake social transformations in these areas. It also gave discredited revisionist forces ammunition to call a halt to the Cultural Revolution and stand in the way of its social transformations.

Three:  In spite of the August 1966 directive that the principal target
of the Cultural Revolution was high-ranking party officials taking the capitalist road, intellectuals, especially those trained in the pre-Liberation era, were repeated, high-profile targets.  At some points, nearly all teachers, writers and other intellectuals came under fire from Red Guard groups.

When the policy on intellectuals was applied in a more focused way,
Rightist intellectuals were challenged and criticized in public. Many intellectuals were won over to the goals of the Cultural Revolution and returned to their positions with a new outlook. Thus, the principles of struggle and unity must be correctly applied with intellectuals and other non-proletarian strata in socialist society.

Four:  One of the problems of the Cultural Revolution that was most difficult to resolve was the inability of Mao and the leftists in the CCP to find the means to subject rightist commanders in the People’s Liberation Army to mass criticism, to ferret out their connections to revisionist forces outside the army, and to remove them from power where necessary.  The development of widespread factional and at times armed struggle in 1967 created a political crisis. To have called for the Cultural Revolution to be carried out in the military at this point would have risked splintering the PLA and civil war. In addition, the buildup of military forces by the U.S. and the Soviet Union required vigilance by the PLA.  These threats practically exempted revisionist military officers from the scrutiny and challenges which their counterparts in the party were facing.

In spite of these obstacles, there was a great need to carry out the Cultural Revolution and make revolutionary transformations in the PLA after the acute danger of civil war had passed.  This necessity became apparent in 1976.  When the Chief of Staff of the PLA and other top commanders carried out the arrest of the Four, there was opposition to the coup in the militia in some areas, but virtually none in the PLA.

As long as socialist states face imperialist and hostile powers, they will need standing militaries for defensive purposes.  But if mass campaigns against revisionism are not carried out in the armed forces of socialist states, the generals can accomplish from within what the imperialist armies have not yet been able to do from without—overthrow working class rule.

Five: One of the most vexing problems faced by the Cultural Revolution was that the development of new revolutionary leadership in the top levels of the party was incomplete and was difficult to consolidate.  Other than Mao himself, the Four—Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Jiang Qing—were the most prominent representatives of the leftist forces in the party who opposed Deng and defended the accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution.  All of them had played a leading role in the Cultural Revolution’s early upsurges.

In assessing the role of the Four in the early 1970s, their promotion of leftist campaigns such as “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” and “Criticize Deng and Beat Back the Right Deviationist Wind” are well known. Less is known about their policies for China’s socialist transformation and how they put them into practice. In making an assessment it is important to remember that the Four’s work was blocked and sabotaged at every turn by Deng and his supporters.

This question of bringing forward new revolutionary leadership is part of the larger question of what it would have taken to turn back the rightist offensive in the early 1970s.  One thing is clear: it would have required a new revolutionary upsurge among the masses.  It may have been impossible to conduct a struggle on the scale and intensity of the early years of the Cultural Revolution, but by the time a campaign to explicitly criticize Deng and his “general program” was launched in 1976, it was too late to turn it into a powerful revolutionary force.

Some have argued that Mao was too lenient with Deng and other revisionist leaders, as Mao did agree to Deng’s rehabilitation in 1973, But it wasn’t just Mao—the balance of forces in the leadership of the party had shifted sharply to the right. The fundamental issue, concerning which further investigation and discussion is needed, is how and to what extent Mao and his leftist supporters mobilized the masses and the revolutionary forces in the party to defend the achievements of the Cultural Revolution. This effort would have required targeting, exposing and neutralizing revisionist leaders who were taking China off the socialist road.

Six:  On the question of a so-called “personality cult” around Mao:
This view doesn’t understand the relationship between Mao and the Chinese people. To them, Mao led the Communist Party in decades of revolutionary warfare to uproot the power of the landlords and the capitalists who had sold out China to the imperialist powers. This produced deep feelings of respect and even reverence among the Chinese people.

In addition, during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, it was a political necessity for Mao to use his revolutionary stature to appeal to the Chinese people above the heads of Liu, Deng and the other entrenched revisionists in the party and government. Later in the Cultural Revolution, Mao expressed his disapproval of practices that treated him like an icon and references to him as “Great Helmsman” and so on disappeared.

While individual leaders such as Mao and Lenin have played a decisive role in charting a path to revolution and developing Marxist theory, they haven’t done this in isolation.  Correct ideas are most effectively brought from and then back to the masses through the democratic centralist channels of a communist party with a tempered collective leadership.

Seven:  In the early 1970s, Mao, Zhou and most of the Chinese
leadership advocated a  “three worlds perspective” for China’s foreign policy. This was adopted by pro-China communist parties and organizations in many other countries.  (It is important to understand that Mao’s perspective was very different from Deng Xiaoping’s counter-revolutionary Three Worlds Theory, which advocated a strategic alliance with the Western imperialist powers.)

According to the “three worlds perspective,” the neo-colonial governments of the third world and the less powerful imperialist countries of the “second world” could serve as reliable allies against one or both superpowers. In fact, this position undermined the view—which was held by the CCP leadership earlier in the Cultural Revolution– that it was essential to provide aid to revolutionary movements in these countries.

This issue remains crucial today. Similar sentiments are heard about the central importance of struggles for national sovereignty— referring to Venezuela, Bolivia, Iran, Zimbabwe and a number of other countries. They should be defended against attacks by the U.S. and other forces.  However, these countries—even if led by social-democrats like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales—are still caught in the web of imperialist economic relations. While these countries may implement progressive reforms–and even some features of a social welfare state with enough oil revenues– this is not a substitute for the development of a mass-based revolutionary movement, which history shows is the only pathway to socialism.

This process of looking back at the Cultural Revolution has produced a number of thought-provoking proposals looking forward to the establishment of new socialist states and what these socialist societies might look like. These proposals focus on the relationship between the party and the masses of people, on democratic forms of organization, and the role of mass debate and dissent in socialist society.