Were Revolutions in China Necessary?

Published on Socialist Project, by By Robert Weil, August 9, 2010.

Is socialist revolution necessary? Under what conditions? How far should it go? Is more than one revolution needed, even in the same society? What about the issue of revolutionary “excess”? Is there such a problem, and if so, what causes it and does it lead to counterrevolution? If the revolution is “defeated,” was it still worth undertaking? And finally, who gets to decide these questions, and write the history of revolutionary change? For each country or society, these queries must be broken down more specifically. In the case of China, for example, was a revolution in land control needed? Should it have been carried to the point of the collective socialist organization of rural society? Why was the Great Leap Forward undertaken, and the Cultural Revolution? Did they go “too far”? Did their “excesses” lead China back to the “capitalist road” under Deng Xiaoping? … // 

… To many heads of elite schools, children making revolution must have seemed ridiculous. But even in the United States we knew at the time what this “means.” My older daughter grew up with the wonderful series of books for children put out by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, exemplifying in simple stories the values it promoted, including cooperation above individualism, and opposition to male superiority. My own personal favorite was I Wanted to Go to School, the beautifully illustrated true life story of a leading cadre, who as a poor peasant child struggled to gain access to an education, and which laid out in moving form all the class relations and the brutal exploitation in a typical pre-revolution village.

But there were other US parallels during the same time, for example the Freedom Schools that were established during the Mississippi Summer of 1964 to give poor Black children access to an education, including in their own history, denied them by the segregated system, or the Free Breakfast program by Chicago Black Panthers a few years later, which drew inspiration in part from the Cultural Revolution and which offered political as well as physical sustenance to primary school students, and was so threatening to the authorities that they murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in their beds in part to stop this example. But the movement could not be stopped.

Two decades later, the pre-school that my younger daughter attended converted Thanksgiving into a celebration of Native American culture, while the child care center where she in turn now teaches has changed Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day. In this way, cultural revolution has continued to sweep the globe, and changed life even for children.

But all such complexities and interrelations escape MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. In the end, they cannot even resist adopting the language of Chang and Halliday – albeit tucked away in an appended “Glossary of Names and Identities” of all the main players. There they tell us, “Together with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, Mao appears destined to go down in history as one of the great tyrants of the twentieth century” (471) – though they don’t go so far as to label him, as some reviewers of the former authors do, the “greatest monster” of them all. As usual, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals do not make clear whether the “tyrant” phrase is their own opinion, or just the “common verdict” of unnamed sources. Certainly, with their own work, they are doing their little bit to make sure that their prediction comes true. Yet only a few pages earlier, they have described another side of Mao’s legacy.

In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, popular liberation finally did begin to flourish. The humiliation of party cadres high and low destroyed the authority of the CCP in the eyes of the Chinese people, who took to heart the Maoist message of daring to think, speak and act. Today, all over China, people protest what they consider to be unjust treatment by corrupt officials. The Cultural Revolution was truly the watershed in the history of the People’s Republic of China (459).

What a strange legacy for one of the “great tyrants” of the modern era – to have helped hundreds of millions, in the working classes especially, to reclaim their birthright, not as objects, but subjects of their own history, to assert their “right to rebel,” and to resist not only the authority of those above them, but the attempt of those same officials to impose on them a brutal exploitation in the name of opening up China to the global capitalist “free market.” Protests by Chinese workers and peasants now number tens of thousands each year, and they are growing in frequency, scale and coordination across the lines of region and class that were so divisive in the past and so easily manipulated by those in power.31 This is the abiding legacy of the Cultural Revolution, even to those who are today unfamiliar with it or who have succumbed to the efforts to suppress its history. (full long text).

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