The Cultural Revolution was one of the greatest disasters in human history, the result of a self-reinforcing cycle of ideology failing to match reality and unsolved social problems, and the deranged reaction of zealots triggering defection and civil warfare.
Dikötter’s history of the Cultural Revolution (The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976, 2016; ) offers a broad overview of the multiple failures and follies of Maoism, which culminated in some of the most destructive and disastrous events in human history: the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward/Great Famine, and the Third Front.
The Cultural Revolution was not prompted by any extraordinary famine, or invasion, or genuine threat of invasion, or civil war, or disaster of any kind. How then could it have happened? The Cultural Revolution was sponsored by Mao as a way to purge the middle and upper ranks of the Communist Party of doubters, who might do to him what the Soviets had just done to Stalin: tear down his cult by revealing his monstrous crimes to the world. But Mao didn’t realize the forces he unleashed. Maoism had benefited from taking credit for post-WWII recovery and the defeat of Japan, but the more its policies were implemented and it tightened its grip, the greater the gap between its utopian promises and the grim impoverished Chinese reality became. Because its theories were radically and systematically wrong, any honest attempt to implement them was doomed to fail, and anyone pragmatic would necessarily betray the system. Old systems and ‘inequities’ reasserted themselves, to the frustration of true believers.
The only ideologically-permissible explanations were excuses like saboteurs and spies and corrupt officials. Usually kept in check, when given Mao’s imprimatur and active egging on, mass social resentment and ideological frustration boiled over, leading to a frenzy of virtue-signaling, denunciations, preference falsification spirals, murders, cannibalism, and eventually outright civil war and pandemic. Finally, Mao decided enough purging had happened and his position was secure, and brought it to an end. As strange and awful as it was, the Cultural Revolution offers food for thought on how politics can go viciously wrong, and dangerous aspects of human psychology.
Narrative account of the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution, along with the Great Leap Forward/Great Famine & Third Front, were collectively one of the worst things in human history, and I am embarrassed to be so ignorant of them. Dikötter offers a recent look at the Cultural Revolution and particularly the unusual political tactics & social fad / cycle dynamics which made it so destructive despite not being a (conventional) civil war or invasion.
As Dikötter explains it, the CR was a second revolution, or coup within the Party, by an aging Mao, who intended to eliminate his enemies & threats to his legacy. Mao, that supreme narcissist, believed himself a greater Communist leader than Stalin and was determined to avoid Stalin’s 2 major mistakes—having an industrial heartland near the enemy Nazi Germany, and leaving behind a Communist Party with strong figures like heir apparent Lin Biao who would be able to denounce his cult of personality in a version of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech & ‘de-Stalinize’ once he was gone.
Mao dealt with the first issue (the threat of American invasion (!)1 was to be remedied by sinking a staggering percentage of Chinese GDP down the rat hole of the “Third Front” ie a vast industrial program to build useless ill-designed shoddily-built factories hidden away in mountains), and turned his attention to not just promulgating “anti-revisionism” but ‘reforming’ the Community Party to ensure there would be no de-Maoification, while avoiding direct action himself to escape blame and exploit the power of ‘robust action’ / non-commitment (Padgett and Ansell 1993).
How did it work?
The CR cycle starts with the promises of an ideology; because the ideology is mistaken about human nature, economics, and reality (having, among other things, transvalued moral values so that success is proof of cupidity while failure is proof of worthiness), it does not and indeed cannot live up to the promises. The mistakes lead to resources being squandered on ‘solutions’, leaving people worse-off than they were before. A regime can paper over this by drawing on growth that would have happened anyway or faster under a better government (eg. industrialization in Soviet Russia or Deng China), redistribution and temporary expedients like eating its seed corn (Venezuela spending oil revenues on welfare pork rather than oil R&D or maintenance), or looking good by mere stability (CCCP vs the endless post-Qing Chinese civil war instigated by the CCCP). But eventually, promises are broken—‘temporary’ measures become permanent, the (rare, dangerous) concrete forecasts pass with the goal yet distant, the young grow up, and lack of progress becomes unmistakable. Per Davies 1962, these disappointed expectations set the stage.
The disappointment generates dissonance: many people genuinely believed that the solutions had been found and that the promises could be kept and the goals were realistic, but somehow it came out all wrong. (“We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.”) Why? It can’t be that the ideology is wrong, that is unthinkable; the ideology has been proven correct. Nor is it the great leader’s fault, of course. Nor are there any enemies close at hand: they were all killed or exiled. The cargo cult keeps implementing the revolution and waving the flags, but the cargo of First World countries stubbornly refuses to land.
The paranoid yet logical answer is that there must be invisible enemies: saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, and society remaining ‘structurally’ anti-ideological despite destroying all enemy structures. No matter that victory was total, the failure of their policies proves that the enemies are still everywhere. (“One man’s modus ponens…”) It is not enough to merely execute enemies, one must be engaged in “pulling weeds out by the roots” by murdering all of their children and offspring—the child of a landlord is a landlord too, hereditarily tainted and evil. (One wonders if the landlord trait is carried by genes or epigenetics?)
And the rot must go all the way to the top. (But, of course, not to the very very top, as the actually powerful are too powerful to criticize; the emperor or beloved secretary is—as always—innocent & benevolent and a benediction unto his people, and merely misled or betrayed by evil officials). In actuality, the middle’s evil incompetence and sabotage, in addition to the doubtless high levels of corruption (which may be much less than that of the top and often economically-efficient work-arounds), is merely a muddling through with a mix of ideology, pragmatism, and incompetence, and there is nothing to purge.
Monuments or public artwork, being so visible by design, are some of the first things to go; given the constant churn in ideology and who is in or out, there will always be some problem to be found as pretext. Any disagreement is immediately punished, the more violently the more uncomfortable: “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” (regional murder quotas were set: typically 1 per 1000 humans, but often higher), and soon, preference falsification has set in and “three men make a tiger”. Coordinated resistance is chilled away, as no one knows who might turn them in. With no free thought, all news is forced through an ideological lens where cant replaces conversation, and if flattering news cannot be ginned up, it will simply be faked (and should it somehow be debunked anyway, it will go down the memory hole); no one need order faking, it is simply a natural response to incentives and the double-bind placed on the lower ranks who simultaneously must satisfy their superiors but are also forced into contact with reality. (Collectivization is a miserable failure and this can’t be denied by the regional committee who are unable to conjure grain up out of thin air? Simply lie about the numbers to the higher-ups and create “the Miracle of Dazhai”, analogous to Lysenkoism—such systemic corruption turning centralized planning into an engine of famine despite plenty of food). Propaganda hoaxes of imaginary people (like Lei Feng, Wang Jie, Ouyang Hai, Mai Xiande, Wang Jinsi, or Liu Yingjun) could extend from piously forged diaries to photographs of them or even the person’s uniform & personal possessions enshrined in a museum. (Individuals were also encouraged to recover their own memories of past sufferings in order to “recall bitterness” and better appreciate how wonderful was their life under Maoism.)
Since the victors turn out to have been corrupted by counter-revolutionary forces, the existing party/organization cannot be trusted to cleanse the hidden enemies. So what is the solution? To go to war with the apparatus, to install new ideologically-loyal officials to hunt down possible traitors, confronting them with their sins in struggle sessions, to redeem their souls and serve as an example to educate the rest. Simultaneously, the masses are propagandized and led by vanguards of activists to seek out the invisible forces responsible for the continued social evils, and when found, deliver the people’s justice en masse (regardless of what any—by definition corrupt and unjust—laws might say). Or to put it another way, the top uses the bottom as a distributed decentralized army to attack the middle and purge it, reimposing top-down control and driving political shifts by narrowing an Overton window. The activism of the bottom spurs the top and vice-versa, reciprocally, a self-powering gekokujō.
The top can communicate directly with the bottom through the wonders of modern telecommunications such as radio broadcasts, while messages can be sent back and consensus emerge through mass discussion platforms such as posters on walls (having 144 ‘big characters’ or less).
This opens up brand new avenues for elite conflict: proles can be used as cat’s-paws, there is incentive to create ever new ideological rationales to claim the moral high ground and strike first, while this same instability means no one is safe because what was once goodthink tomorrow becomes crimethink (“la révolution dévore ses enfants”) & old materials like diaries (or yearbooks) are radioactive waste, the cycle can be used as subtle loyalty tests to see who is the most subservient and eager to follow the latest fashionable nonsense, any apparent loosening where regular people genuinely speak their mind can shock the brainwashed elite and provoke a backlash of intensified ideological policing, brief admissions of fault by those in unassailable positions can be used to elicit admissions from others who can then be immediately purged having been damned out of their own mouths (a tactic also enabled by self-criticisms or attempts to pre-empt purging). In the absence of any direct offense, the built-up pressures and anxieties and need to continuously virtue-signal may simply pick up a rumor and amplify it into undoubted truth, providing a Schelling point/tipping point to coordinate on persecution. Even those apparently apolitical, like famous Mao portrait painters, would be beaten or imprisoned for years when works were suddenly discovered to have ‘deviated’ in some respect.
Students, having no responsibilities, no experience, over-educated on propaganda, full of ignorance and ideals, and desperate to earn status among their peers (status which could become permanently entrenched as a hereditary ‘red class background’ with which to defeat the more academically-talented students of ‘exploiting families’ backgrounds, they quickly realized), were the perfect activists for these ‘top against middle’ tactics and could easily be over-awed by Mao or other high-ranking officials, while police intervention is countermanded from above such as by university presidents. “If in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it.”—what mattered was the truth of their feelings & lived experiences.
In one clever instance, Mao eliminated a major Beijing figure and source of stability, Peng Zhen, by suddenly discovering counter-revolutionary propaganda in a historical play written by a Zhen subordinate, yielding a dilemma: “If he shielded Wu Han—a friend, colleague and respected intellectual—he could be accused of allowing the capital to harbor revisionist elements at the highest level. If he turned against him, he would be exposed for failing to spot the danger in the first place.” Zhen failed to realize Mao’s hand behind this and, failing to take sufficient indirect action, was ousted a month later. Another example inaugurated the CR: a subordinate who’d lost in an earlier similar purge decided, based on an editorial, to take revenge on Peking University, and put up a poster denouncing it; this poster was taken to Mao, who called it “more significant than the manifesto of the Paris Commune”, immediately disseminated it through official propaganda channels, and launchd a new series of purges/drills/propaganda initiatives.
However clever these political maneuverings might be, by invoking mass riots and purges across the largest nation on earth in order to remove one rival official, they were like using a A-bomb to kill a fly. When Beijing sniffled, the provinces died of pandemic, demonstrating flaws to centralization and big governments. The bonfire of art, graveyards, religious sites, books, and people was beyond calculation (some sign of how thorough the destruction was can be seen in the desperation of Chinese entities in buying or stealing Chinese artifacts which survived by being overseas or—the virtue of vice—sold corruptly). With them, of course, went all the stock (one company had to dispose of 15,000m2 of politically-incorrect silk), craftsmen and their livelihood, and the web of economic relationships supported by these bourgeoisie vices, which in a country as large as China meant equally large ruin (Dikötter notes of 20,000 people in Guangdong province alone, two-thirds were unemployed & the re-employed direly impoverished).
Instead, resources were diverted to cult objects: 2–5 billion Mao badges, for example, were manufactured, impeding industries like airplanes which needed aluminum, and forcing Mao himself to quash it. The ‘cult of the mango’ has been described elsewhere. Also burdensome were the cadres endlessly visiting Beijing for endless mass rallies (farcically concluding “when even the giant square in front of the Forbidden City could no longer contain them, he [Mao] rode through the city in an open jeep, reaching 2 million students in one fell swoop” to dispel the masses he’d conjured), increasing population by ~50%, leading to infrastructure like political offices covered in shit (with puddles of urine common sights at the mass rallies themselves); cadres and Red Guards, given free travel for rallies, abused it to travel the country and exploit the desperation of locals to curry favor with free room and board and gifts, stressing a decayed economy further and spreading plague (exacerbated by medical shortages down to face-masks, leading to 90% liver infection rates in one hospitals’ workers), resulting in a meningitis pandemic killing 160,000 people.
Poverty escalated, and families would share single sets of clothes (the rest going naked or in straw), with mud-eating, goitre, and other diseases of malnutrition surging. Students at Peking University, the elite, ate slop, chewing carefully to avoid breaking teeth on rocks. There were shortages of buttons, matches, toothpaste, and in some areas toothbrushes were a luxury adopted only years later; waiting lists for water thermoses stretched to years long; in Turfan, there was allotted 1 bar of soap per 3 people—per season. Sexual violence was universal and the chaos served as a pretext for what Dikötter bluntly calls a genocide of Mongols (a crackdown reflex that is manifesting even today while they concentrate on the Uighurs). Schooling collapsed as propaganda replaced education, so middle-school children often couldn’t write their name or numbers or add/subtract or locate Beijing, leading to escalating national illiteracy rates (teachers being too terrified of students, leading to grade inflation).
Meanwhile, further extravagances were indulged, like a nationwide civil defense building program using ordinary people building tunnels by hand (using materials ripped from existing productive buildings), reminiscent of the equally wasteful Albanian bunkers, which, constructed by those lacking any training, resulted in countless casualties and their building soon abandoned. The nadir was The Third Front, an attempt to build an industrial war base of 1800 factories in the safest and hardest to reach (ie. worst possible) places in China, a program that diverted “two-thirds of the state’s industrial investment…between 1964 and 1971…the Third Front cost the country hundreds of billions in forgone output alone”.
Such was the scale of the CR that I’d never heard of the Third Front, or any pandemic being involved, and Dikötter gives these topics a few paragraphs before he must move on, such as to the open warfare between factions, with large-scale clashes like a Shanghai battle between 20,000 & 100,000 people. While victory or defeat in these clashes meant being purged and was a matter of life and death, as the losers might even be ritually cannibalized as subhuman—“Cannibalism? It was the landlord’s flesh! The spy’s flesh!”2—fortunately the Army lost minimal heavy weaponry, only occasionally losing gunboats or anti-aircraft guns, and remained capable of crushing most groups in a pitched battle. (Attempts to instigate revolution in Hong Kong failed when Mao quashed them. Capitalist Hong Kong was too useful.)
The Revolution ended as curiously as it began: Lin Biao panicked, and fled amid a half-baked coup attempt, dying in a mysterious airplane crash (macabre detail: his skull was boiled and preserved in the KGB archives post-identification), while serendipitously, Nixon made overtures for his famous visit to China, which was tailor-made for domestic propaganda consumption as a complete victory of Mao and China over the now-defeated Yankee imperialists (a use familiar from North Korea), and provided a face-saving excuse to wind down the Third Front as well now that America was ‘defeated’ and unable to invade China (not that was a possibility to begin with).
Mao, in increasingly ill health and having achieved his objective, ceased to stoke the flames of revolution, and an exhausted damaged impoverished China began to recover; Mao finally died, and while he succeeded in preventing de-Maofication, the CR and Mao died in time to spare Deng Xiaoping, and we know what happened next.
What should we make of this? For me, it dramatizes the effects of ideology on the real-world, especially as it disseminates out from the elite and is amplified by unchecked followers.
Maoist cant and theory may seem abstract and amusingly detached from the real world in activities like memorizing The Little Red Book and discussing abstractions inflated to meaninglessness like ‘class’ or ‘equality’ and a misguided emphasis on equality of outcome & historical injustices, but with a push from the regulators, that ideology suddenly cashes out as a network of justifications for collectivization and famine, pandemic, illiteracy, mass rape and suicide, genocide, destruction of science and expertise (which deliver inconvenient truths), and mobs beating opponents to death, powered by self-reinforcing dynamics of loyalty tests, virtue signaling, censorship, and preference falsification. Mao, of course, would never have gotten his own hands dirty by cannibalizing someone accused of being descended from a shopkeeper, but a phrase from Beijing ripples out, correctly interpreted by the fringes as a dogwhistle.
This might seem extreme, but it all happened, and was one of the worst things to ever happen.
In reality, no such invasion was possible or contemplated, nor was there any spying of note. Like the USSR, Western HUMINT in Communist China was a colossal failure; hence the investment of so many billions into the most exotic spy satellites or feats of cryptography.↩︎
See also Scarlet Memorial, Zheng 1993/Sutton 1995; The Mouth that Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism, and the Politics of Eating in Modern China, Yue 1999.↩︎