The Cultural Revolution and Depoliticization


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the "May 16 notification" and the commencement of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Below we present an excerpt from the first chapter of Wang Hui's The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, which considers the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese 1960s in relation to the depoliticization that was to follow.  

(1966 French-language edition of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Via Wikimedia Commons.) 

Chinese commentators have been curiously absent from international discussions about the Sixties, despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was so central to that tumultuous decade. This silence, I would argue, represents not merely a rejection of the radical thought and practice of the Cultural Revolution but a negation of China’s whole “revolutionary century” — the era stretching from the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, which ended the monarchic rule, to around 1976. The century’s prologue was the period running from the failure of the wuxu or Hundred-Day Reform in 1898, initiated by the Guangxu Emperor and his supporters, to the 1911 Wuchang uprising, the triggering event for the Republican Revolution; its epilogue was the decade from the late 1970s through to 1989. During this whole epoch the French and Russian Revolutions were central models for China, and orientations toward them defined the political divisions of the time. The New Culture movement of the May Fourth period (roughly 1915–1921), which rejected Confucian values in favor of a new Chinese culture based in democratic and scientific principles of the West, championed the French Revolution and its values of liberty, equality and fraternity; first-generation Communist Party members took the Russian Revolution as a model, criticizing the bourgeois character of 1789. Following the crisis of socialism and the rise of reform in the 1980s, the aura of the Russian Revolution diminished and the ideals of the French Revolution reappeared. But with the final curtain-fall on China’s revolutionary century, the radicalism of both the French and the Russian experiences had become a target of criticism. The Chinese rejection of the Sixties is thus not an isolated historical incident, but an organic component of a continuing and totalizing de-revolutionary process.

Why do the Sixties seem to be more of a Western than an Asian topic today? First, although the Western and the Asian Sixties were connected, there were also very important differences. In Europe and America, the rise of the Sixties protest movements saw an interrogation of capitalism’s political institutions and a far-reaching critique of its culture. The Western Sixties targeted the post-war state, ruthlessly criticizing its domestic and foreign policies. By contrast, in Southeast Asia (particularly Indochina) and other regions, the uprisings of the Sixties took the form of armed struggles against Western imperialist domination and social oppression. Revolutionary political movements fought to transform the nation-state, to create their own sovereign space for economic development and social transformation. In today’s context, the armed revolutions of the Sixties seem to have vanished from memory as well as thought; the problems of capitalist critique remain.

A second point concerns the particular character of the Chinese Sixties. Beginning in the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was unfailingly supportive of Third World liberation movements and the non-aligned movement generally, to the point of clashing with the world’s greatest military power, the United States, in Korea and Vietnam. When European radicals developed a left critique of Stalinism in the Sixties, they discovered that China had already developed a far-reaching critical analysis of the orthodox Soviet line. Yet, as China’s wholly new form of party-state was being established, the corrosion of depoliticization was already beginning to set in. Its most important manifestations were bureaucratization and internal power struggles within the party-state, which in turn led to the suppression of discursive freedom. In launching the Cultural Revolution, Mao and others sought a range of tactics to combat these tendencies, yet the end result was always that these struggles became implicated in the very processes — of “depoliticizing” faction fights and bureaucratization — that they were designed to combat, leading to renewed political repression and the rigidification of the party-state.

Even before 1976, the Sixties had lost their luster in the eyes of many Chinese because of the continuous factional struggles and political persecutions that had occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Following the death of Mao and the restoration to power of Deng Xiaoping and others, the Chinese state undertook a “thorough negation” of the Cultural Revolution from the late Seventies. Combined with popular feelings of doubt and disappointment, this led to a fundamental change in attitudes that has lasted to the present day. Over the past thirty years, China has transformed itself from a planned economy to a market society, from a headquarters of world revolution to a thriving center of capitalist activity, from a Third World anti-imperialist nation to one of imperialism’s “strategic partners.” Today, the most powerful counter to any attempts at critical analysis of China’s problems — the crisis in agricultural society, the widening gap between rural and urban sectors, institutionalized corruption — is: “So, do you want to return to the days of the Cultural Revolution?” The eclipse of the Sixties is a product of this depoliticization; the process of “radical negation” has diminished the possibility for any real political criticism of current historical trends.

Revolutionary endings

How then should we understand the politicization of the earlier post-war era? The outcome of the two World Wars had served to dismantle the Eurocentric inter-state system; with the onset of the Cold War, the world order was defined above all by the antagonistic division between the US and Soviet blocs. One prodigious accomplishment of the Sixties was to break this bipolar order. From the Bandung conference in 1955 to the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution in 1975, the social movements and armed struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America took the form of a “politicization process” that forced an opening in the Cold War order. Mao’s “Three Worlds Theory” was a response to this new historical configuration. As the national liberation movements broke the grip of Western imperialism, the rupturing of the Communist bloc that began with the Sino-Soviet split also created a space for renewed debate on the future of socialism. Theoretical and political struggles led to challenges to the structure of power, which had grown ever more ossified within the socialist camp. This too can be viewed as a politicization process.

Yet the Chinese Sixties also contained a self-contradictory “depoliticizing tendency,” with the anti-bureaucratization struggles becoming subsumed in faction fights — and, above all, in the violence that came to accompany them at the end of the Sixties. In his important essay, “How to Translate ‘Cultural Revolution’,” the Italian sociologist Alessandro Russo argues that these violent factional struggles created a crisis in the political culture that had developed in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, centered upon open debate and multiple forms of organization. This crisis provided the opening for the reentry of the party-state. In this sense, the final stages of the Cultural Revolution unfolded within a process of depoliticization.

The hollowing of Western democracy

Russo’s reflections on the Cultural Revolution are set against his analysis of the decline in the parliamentary-democratic systems of the West over the last thirty years. The cornerstones of these parliamentary democracies, he argues, were the political parties. A multi-party system presupposes that each party has a specific representative character and political values, for which it will fight against its rivals within the parliamentary-institutional framework. However, as the character and values of the parties become increasingly indeterminate within a broad macroeconomic consensus, real democratic politics disappears. Under these conditions, parliament is transformed from a public sphere into an apparatus for ensuring national stability.

At the heart of the contemporary crisis of democracy, then, is the decline of the political party. In the context of a weakened party system, nation-states become depoliticized. From this perspective, there would appear to be an internal dynamic common to both the single-party and the multi-party systems. Over the past thirty years, their structural, internal and historical differences notwithstanding, both China and the West have been caught within a current of depoliticization. In contemporary China the space for political debate has largely been eliminated. The party is no longer an organization with specific political values, but a mechanism of power. Even within the party it is not easy to carry on real debate; divisions are cast as technical differences on the path to modernization, so they can only be resolved within the power structures. Since the mid Seventies the CCP has conducted no public debates about political values or strategy. An outstanding characteristic of twentieth-century China’s revolutionary transformations, however, had been the continuous and intimate connection between theoretical debate and political practice.

A key instance of this process was the disappearance of the concept of “line struggle” after the Cultural Revolution. If this was the terminology used by the victors of the factional conflicts, it also illustrated a central element of the CCP’s history: that every great political battle was inextricably linked to serious theoretical considerations and policy debate. From the conflicting analyses of the question of revolutionary defeat following the catastrophe of 1927, when Chiang Kaishek ordered the violent large-scale purge of Communists from the Kuomingtang nationalist party, to the theoretical disputes of the early 1930s on the social character of the Chinese revolution; from the discussions of national and international politics in the Central Soviet (1931–1937) and Yan’an periods (1935–1947) to the debates on the notion of contradiction during the Cultural Revolution, we can trace a series of important theoretical divisions arising from differing analyses of social conditions, and with divergent implications for party strategy. In my view, it is precisely these theoretical battles that maintain a party’s internal vitality and ensure that it does not become a depoliticized political organization. Subjecting theory and practice to the “line struggle” also functions as a corrective mechanism, enabling the party to recognize and repair its errors.

Due to the absence of functioning mechanisms for inner-party democracy, these debates and differences often found their “resolution” through faction fights. After the Cultural Revolution, many of thoe who had suffered in the process came first to detest and then to repudiate the “line struggle” concept. On regaining power in the late Seventies they sought only to suppress this type of argument in the name of party unity, rather than to analyze the conditions whereby “line struggle” had degenerated into mere power play. This not only resulted in a thoroughgoing suppression of the political life of the party, but also destroyed the possibility of exploring the relationship between the party and democracy. Rather, it laid the foundation for the statification —i.e. depoliticization — of the party.

During the Sixties, China had developed a wide-ranging theoretical agenda, revolving around such questions as the dynamics of history, the market economy, the means of production, class struggle, bourgeois right, the nature of Chinese society, and the status of world revolution. There were heated exchanges between different political blocs on all these questions; the link between theory and political culture epitomized the period. In the context of its subsequent trajectory, we can see that China’s depoliticization process has had two key characteristics: firstly, the “de-theorization” of the ideological sphere; secondly, making economic reform the sole focus of party work.

In terms of de-theorization, the turning-point came in the Seventies, when the mutual interconnection of theory and practice was replaced by the notion of cautiously “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” Nevertheless, the figure of “feeling for the stones” does not accurately describe the reform process, for several reasons. First, in the mid Seventies the CCP did engage in quite lively theoretical discussions about the market, labor compensation, civil rights and other questions, thus touching on many of the fundamental issues facing the country. Without these debates, it is difficult to imagine how the course of reform and the development of a market economy would have come about. Subsequently, from the end of the Seventies, there were a series of discussions about the problem of socialism, humanism, alienation, the market economy and the question of ownership, both within the CCP and Chinese society as a whole — the two discussions, inside and outside the party, constituting a single continuous process. These, then, were countervailing trends to the general “de-theorization.”

The second characteristic of the depoliticization process has been to set economic reform at the center of all party work. Formally speaking, this has involved the substitution of “construction” for the former “two-line” goal of “revolution and construction.” These political choices — understandably — met with wide approval at the end of the Seventies, appearing as a response to the factional struggles and chaotic character of politics during the latter years of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, by this stage, the tension between party and politics that had characterized the early years of the Cultural Revolution had been thoroughly eliminated. The unification of politics and the state — the party-state system — diminished the earlier political culture.

From party-state to state-party?

The concept of the “party-state” was, of course, a derogatory Cold War term applied by the West to the Communist countries. Today all the world’s nations have become party-states or — to extend the term —parties-states. Historically, the development of modern political systems from the preceding monarchical forms was a highly uneven process; by the mid-twentieth century, parties had still not been completely subsumed within the parameters of national politics in China. The creation of a new form of party- state system was a fundamental development of the post-war period.

As the party, through the process of exercising power, became the subject of the state order, it increasingly changed into a depoliticized apparatus, a bureaucratic machine, and no longer functioned as a stimulant for ideas and practice. For this reason, I would characterize the dominant contemporary form as having undergone a transformation from a party-state to a state-party or “state-multiparty” system. This implies that the party no longer conforms to its past political role, but becomes a component of the state apparatus. What I want to emphasize here is the change in the party’s identity: no longer possessing its own distinctive evaluative standpoint or social goals, it can only have a structural-functionalist relationship to the state apparatus. If the state-party system is the result of a crisis transformation of the party-state, contemporary China is the embodiment of this trend. Yet the Chinese case should also be seen as a symptom of the worldwide dynamic toward depoliticization. Those analyses which, avoiding recognition of the generalized crisis in party politics, attempt to prescribe the best means of reforming the Chinese system — including setting Western-style multi-party representative democracy as the goal of Chinese political reform — are themselves only extensions of this depoliticization.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was possibly the last stage of the political sequence wherein the party-state recognized that it faced a crisis and attempted to carry out a self-renewal. The political debates in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution included currents that hoped to smash the absolute authority of the party and the state, in order to further the goal of progress toward genuine popular sovereignty. The Cultural Revolution was a reaction against an early stage in the statification of the party; in order to change course, it was thought necessary to re- examine the party’s political values. Efforts at social remobilization and stimulation of political life outside the party-state context were crucial characteristics of this early period. In these years, factories across China were reorganized along the lines of the Paris Commune, and schools and other units engaged in social experimentation. Due to the forceful reassertion of the party-state system, most of these innovations were short-lived, and the extra-state processes of political activism were quickly suppressed. Yet traces of these early experiments remained in later state and party reorganizations — for example, the policy of admitting worker, peasant, and army representatives into leadership positions, or the requirement that every level of state and party send their members to do social work in rural villages or factories, and so on. These practices, tainted with the character of the bureaucratizedsystem and thus unable to unleash creative energies, became, at the end of the Seventies, prime targets of the government’s drive to “clean up the mess” and “return to normal.”

Today, workers and peasants have wholly disappeared not only from the leadership bodies of party and state, but also from the National People’s Congress, the sole legislative house in the PRC today. Following the failure of the Cultural Revolution and the development of a market society, depoliticization has become the main current of the age. At its core has been the growing convergence of politics and the party-state, and the emergence of the state-party system.

Concepts of class

The consolidation of the state-party system in the Chinese context is directly connected to the concept of class. The representative character of the Communist parties had inevitably become increasingly problematic with the establishment of Communist-led states. Following the Sino-Soviet split in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Mao emphasized the concept of class to stimulate a renewal of the party’s political culture. His target was the Soviet notion of the “party of the whole people,” which not only indicated confusion about the representative character of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but marked the depoliticization of the party-state system. While there is not room here to evaluate the classical Marxist theory of class, what needs to be emphasized is that, in Chinese political practice, class is not merely a structural category centered on the nature of property ownership or relation to the means of production; it is rather a political concept based on the revolutionary party’s appeal for mobilization and self-renewal. Similarly, within the party, the concept was used to stimulate debate and struggle, in order to avoid depoliticization under the conditions of the party’s administration of power. The concept denoted the attitudes of social or political forces toward revolutionary politics, rather than the structural situation of social class.

However, this highly subjective concept of class contained internal contradictions and dangers. Once crystallized into a structural, immutable notion — i.e. a depoliticized concept of class — its political dynamism vanished. As an essentialized discourse of class identity, it proved incapable of stimulating political transformation. Rather, it became the most oppressive kind of power logic, the basis for the merciless character of subsequent faction fights. The increasing predominance of discourses of identitarianism, “family origin” or “blood lineage” was a negation and betrayal of the subjectivist and activist outlook that was the core of the Chinese Revolution, whose central task was the dismantling of class relations formed through a history of violence and unequal property relations.

The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution was not a product of its politicization — signified by debate, theoretical investigation, autonomous social organization, as well as the spontaneity and vitality of political and discursive space. The tragedy was a result of depoliticization — polarized factional struggles that eliminated the possibility for autonomous social spheres, transforming political debate into a mere means of power struggle, and class into an essentialized identitarian concept. The only way to overcome the tragedy of this period is through understanding its dimensions of repoliticization. If we take 1989 as the final end-point of the Sixties — the consolidation of depoliticization — this must imply that it could also have marked the beginning of the long road toward repoliticization.