A cultural revolution was necessary

Cultural revolution

The "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" protrudes like an erratic foreign body from the history of world communism in the 20th century. [1] No other communist party leader except Mao Zedong apparently maliciously jeopardized the success of a socialist state by calling on the masses to resist "revisionist" tendencies within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself. At the time, the movement was branded by representatives of the Moscow-loyal line as a "childhood disease of communism" and as an expression of a "petty bourgeoisie gone wild". Today, the tension between the interpretations of the Cultural Revolution ranges from equating it with the Holocaust to defending Mao's intentions as the last attempt to establish alternative forms of political representation beyond the bureaucratic party state.

The enormous divergence of the interpretations, even 50 years after the beginning of the movement, points to deficits in the scientific research and socio-political analysis of the epoch that still exist today. Even if the topic is not completely taboo in the People's Republic of China, the framework for an officially permissible classification is clearly specified by a resolution on party history passed in June 1981. Critical discussions in public are suppressed, and the period is dealt with so briefly in school books that the Cultural Revolution appears to the younger Chinese generation as alien and removed from their own realities as the Neolithic. However, this impression is deceptive: whether as a terrible scenario of political loss of power and orgies of violence similar to civil war or as a nostalgic model of a largely egalitarian social order - the legacy of the cultural revolution shapes the Chinese present in many ways.

Background and causes

The background of the Cultural Revolution cannot be separated from the person of Mao Zedong and his perception of the political events of the 1950s and 1960s. In the area of ​​foreign policy, it was the developments in the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953 that aroused Mao's suspicions. Nikita Khrushchev's reckoning with the tyranny of Stalin in his secret speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956 was viewed by the Chinese as a breach of trust and a serious political mistake, as it affected the socialist camp as a whole has been. This mistrust increased, not least in view of the Soviet propagation of the possibility of a peaceful overcoming of capitalism and the apparent abandonment of the class struggle. The split between the sister parties occurred in 1960 when the Soviet Union withdrew its technical advisors, including the suspension of Soviet support for the development of a Chinese atomic bomb. An open ideological exchange of blows in 1963/64 spread the differences in front of the world public. For Mao, the developments in the Soviet Union were the alarming example that the success of the socialist revolution with the establishment of the state in 1949 was by no means assured. A relapse into capitalist ways of thinking and economic activity, known at the time as "revisionism", thus appeared to be a potential danger in the People's Republic of China.

Against this background, Mao Zedong followed the domestic political developments in the wake of the disastrous "Great Leap Forward" (1958 to 1961) increasingly critically. He was just as suspicious of the temporary reintroduction of market principles as was the view of his successor Liu Shaoqi that primarily political errors had led to the famine and not adverse weather conditions. Issues of revolutionary legacy and political loyalty also influenced Mao Zedong's perception of the party's increasingly troubled state. The assumption in the older literature that an open "two-line struggle" within the CCP was the primary cause of the Cultural Revolution must be considered outdated. Neither President Liu Shaoqi nor the influential Party Secretary Deng Xiaoping posed a power political threat to Mao. Despite the failure of the Great Leap, Mao was the undisputed leader of the CCP.

The importance of ideological motives for Mao's decision to spark the Cultural Revolution should not be underestimated. However, he did not provide a blueprint for the movement and left even the closest confidante in the dark about his real intentions. From 1962 Mao publicly emphasized the continuing importance of the class struggle and spoke vaguely of "new bourgeois elements" that would have to be fought even after the socialist revolution. However, he left it open to what extent these were only representatives of old elites who had not been discovered during previous purges. In 1965 he initiated a far more radical interpretation for the first time when he stated that in some regions of China a "class of bureaucrats" were hostile to the people. This postulate of the party bureaucracy as the breeding ground for a new, "functional" bourgeoisie, which no longer secured its privileges through land ownership, but through the disposal of state resources, had a completely different thrust. Compared to cadres from rural regions, Mao even emphasized the necessity of rebellion against the party headquarters if revisionism were to arise there. Mao did not resolve the question of the causes for the emergence of revisionism in the course of the movement. The resulting ambiguity fed a conflict of interpretation regarding the goals of the movement, which Mao Zedong managed to steer in one direction or another in the following years and which at the same time shapes the evaluation of the period to this day.

In addition to the party, Mao Zedong's attention was particularly focused on Chinese youth. With the help of the Cultural Revolution he hoped to "immunize" the young generation, most of whom had grown up without war or revolutionary experience, who would maintain his ideals even after his death. The associations of young people, later known as the Red Guards, also had other reasons to rebel against the existing social order. The categorization of each individual on the basis of the pre-revolutionary vested rights or in the cities according to type of employment in predominantly socially defined classes, some of which were rated as advantageous ("red classes"), others as negative ("black classes"), perpetuated itself by transferring the Categories on the following generations. The so-called family or class background played a decisive role in questions of access to schools and universities, in the allocation of housing or in the question of choosing a suitable spouse. Contrary to what is perceived in the often nostalgic retrospect, the early People's Republic was a state with pronounced social hierarchies. In the descendants of former enemy classes, this stigmatization led to a considerable potential for rebellion. In the factories, too, resentment had built up over the increasing differentiation between permanent skilled workers with social security and temporary workers in precarious working conditions, not to mention the great urban-rural divide. Social conflicts thus persisted in various areas of society and emerged openly after the party dictatorship weakened at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Although the Cultural Revolution is inconceivable without the person of Mao Zedong, the movement would hardly have developed its own violent dynamic without the existence of fundamental conflicts in Chinese society. During the Cultural Revolution, questions of political power and visions of alternative models of rule at the head of the state were mixed with protests against structural social injustices from below, which explains the explosive situation and the often anarchic character of the movement.

Destabilization of the party elite

The reason for the Cultural Revolution is generally the criticism of a play in November 1965. In "Hai Rui Will Be Dismissed from His Office", Beijing's deputy mayor Wu Han erected a literary memorial to an upright official of the empire who dared fearlessly to the emperor to report on the real conditions in the country. Originally written in response to Mao Zedong's explicit request to criticize the embellished statistical reports during the Great Leap, Mao had the play criticized by loyal propagandists, initially because of the alleged negation of the oppressed classes as the driving force of the story, and later because of an allegorical criticism. The figure of Hai Rui was subsequently reinterpreted as a symbol for the former Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, who was killed in 1959 because of his criticism of the Great Leap. The primary target of this attack was Wu Hans' superior, the powerful Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen.

Despite all of Mao Zedong's ideological motives for unleashing the Cultural Revolution, there can be no doubt that he conscientiously prepared the movement through tactical maneuvers against potential critics of his plans. Between November 1965 and May 1966, in addition to Peng Zhen and his subordinates, central leaders in the areas of propaganda, organization and the military were ousted for flimsy reasons and replaced by loyal Paladins Mao. In addition to the official party institutions, there were increasingly ad hoc commissions and leadership groups whose power base rested solely on the support of Mao.

The coups were formally confirmed at an expanded Politburo meeting in May 1966, which is often seen as the beginning of the actual cultural revolution, as a programmatic document, the "May 16 Communication", was adopted here. However, the announcement was only made public a year later. The document painted a bleak picture of the current situation. A passage added by Mao personally speaks of "bourgeois elements" striving to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat: "We have already recognized some of them and not yet others." Vigilance and mistrust therefore served as guarantees for the revisionist sleepers in the communist ranks to be exposed.

In a tense atmosphere, Liu Shaoqi, who had just returned from a trip abroad, presided over the fictitious allegations against the alleged putschists around Peng Zhen in Mao's absence. Defense Minister Lin Biao set the tone with a speech in which he made the writings and sayings of Mao Zedong the only truth criterion: "Every sentence of Mao Zedong is the truth. One sentence from him exceeds ten thousand sentences from us." He also drew a parallel with Khrushchev's de-Stalinization policy and warned urgently against similar attempts. Every critic of Mao must be held accountable and executed by the entire nation.

At the same time, Mao Zedong mobilized the youth against "reactionary academic authorities" by calling for newspaper articles to criticize old ways of thinking, old manners and customs and old culture. The tumultuous conflicts in schools and universities that began in the early summer of 1966 raised countless questions about the aims and direction of the movement, but Mao consciously preferred to keep the party leadership in the dark about his plans. The leadership then decided to pacify the educational institutions by sending workgroups, a measure Mao later used as an opportunity to accuse Liu and Deng of suppressing the student movement. Chaotic conditions soon spread in China's educational institutions when, depending on the location, the working groups implemented the central guidelines more or less consistently.

In the summer of 1966, Mao Zedong initially withdrew further from daily politics and planned his next steps. In a famous letter to his wife Jiang Qing, he described the danger that after his death in China the reintroduction of capitalism would be imminent and that the Cultural Revolution would therefore serve as an "exercise maneuver" against the impending coup and should be repeated every seven to eight years. The cult around his person, which was built up by Lin Biao in particular in the military, does not correspond to his own convictions and has not received his approval, but if it serves to ward off the ghost of capitalism, as it does with recourse to the mythical demon tamer Zhong Kui argued that this was how he would submit to this instrumentalization of his public image. Alluding to classical texts, he described the Cultural Revolution as a phase of "great chaos under heaven", which, however, aimed at establishing a state of "great order".

At the end of July 1966, Mao returned to Beijing after a triumphant physical performance show while swimming in the Yangzi River. He sharply criticized the party leadership for the alleged errors in the implementation of his ideas. In the "16-point program" of August 8, 1966, the movement received a manifesto that was as vague as it was contradicting itself, which called for rebellion against bourgeois authorities and "persons in the party who go the capitalist path", but at the same time called for central areas such as Economy or military exempted from criticism. In the end, the document advocated a reform rather than a revolution of the entire superstructure, which should touch people "in their souls" and range from social mentalities through the field of culture to political and state institutions. In this way Mao hoped to effectively prevent the reappearance of capitalist currents in the People's Republic.