Well, you can end a Cultural Revolution without being a counter-revolutionary, I suppose, but not if you do what China did: reverse many of the progressive policies of the Cultural Revolution, and often without the People’s consent.
This series has examined the ground-breaking investigative & scholarly work The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village, by Dongping Han, a former Chinese villager himself. Han hailed from and studied rural Jimo County, interviewing hundreds of locals about the Cultural Revolution (CR) and poring over local historical records. Han was kind enough to write the forward to my new book, I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China.
Even more than Mao and the Great Leap Forward, Western Propaganda on the CR truly turns black into white. Perhaps no political event – and certainly no successful political event – is so misunderstood, negated and shrouded in misinformation and ignorance… thus this 8-part series!
What Han demonstrates is that the CR was the first effort in Chinese history to empower the average peasant against Chinese officialdom, and the results were spectacular. I keep referring to this handy mathematical summary of mine from Part 1: “You just read about 2 times more food and 2 times more money for the average Chinese person, 14 times more horsepower (which equates to 140 times manpower), 50 times more industrial jobs, 30 times more schools and 10 times more teachers during the CR decade in rural areas.”
A rededication to socialism brought more than just economic virtues, but moral ones as well, per Han: “The social vices like official corruption, prostitution, drug abuse, fake products and others that plague Chinese society today were completely absent at the end of the Cultural Revolution.”
But despite the introduction of the Industrial Revolution to China’s rural areas, despite the exponential increases in educational empowerment, despite the fact that the CR represented the first-ever effort to democratically empower rural Chinese against officialdom, despite a decade of generating the irreplaceable human capital upon which China’s 2019 success obviously rests… with the death of Mao China famously turned its back on the CR.
Let’s see what happened, and then discuss why it was a counter-revolution.
CR officials get ousted: meet the new boss, who truly was the old boss
After Mao’s death rebel leaders began to be rounded up. (As I explained in Part 5, Red Guards ain’t all red: Who fought whom in China’s Cultural Revolution?: China had, per Han, the “Rebel Red Guard Faction”, which were spontaneous, grassroots “mass associations”, pitted against the “Loyalist Red Guard Faction”, which were status quo-defending, established, “mass organisations”.) From late 1977 to early 1979 Jimo County saw purges, with few rebel leaders keeping their posts.
Who was restored? Those whom held office before the CR.
That was no quick feat, because the CR had been supported by the center and left of the Chinese political spectrum. But by 1983, “Every government office, school, factory and village was ordered to purge former rank-and-file rebels. Officials who had lost their positions at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution brought charges against individual rebels against whom they held grudges.” Han relates this was a prelude to a larger “official gouge” in rural areas in the 1980s and 1990s.
Selfless asceticism from Party officials abiding by the codes of conduct relayed in Mao’s Little Red Book and working in the fields were no longer expected. Corruption and bribery increased, children of officials got cushy jobs instead of spreading night soil, the right to use big character posters (China’s version of a free press, in no exaggeration) was excised from the constitution, Deng’s “manger responsibility” system – which gave them the authority to determine salaries – was installed.
All of that is obviously contrary to the values of the CR and in line with many Western values: no wonder the West hates the CR!
Despite these changes, to sweepingly say that “China abandoned socialism after Mao” is still nonsense because the CCP remained the vanguard party charged with protecting the 1949 revolution; China’s political system did not revert to liberal (bourgeois) democracy; China did not engage in imperialistic wars and etc. and etc. and etc.
There is the desire by many anti-socialists to see a child’s lemonade stand in socialist countries and to run away screaming: “They’ve gone capitalist!” Such absurdity is only in the self-interest of capitalism promoters, of course, but I will deal with this later. There is also a tendency among the most ardent pro-socialists to view any minor regression as proof that socialist has been betrayed and murdered.
The CR had – Han undoubtedly proves via statistics, anecdotes and analysis – brought such incredible life, power, hope and success to China’s rural areas, and the end of collectivization was a negative societal shock. Yes, the collectives had never developed evenly – that’s to be expected – but Han relates that the collectives had indeed worked for Jimo County, and that Jimo citizens opposed disbanding them in favor of the “household responsibility” system. Jimo’s county officials, along with 17 other neighboring counties, had their officials removed for dragging their feet in implementing this change.
Thus, what happened during the Deng era was very similar to the end of the USSR in that it was unexpected, unwanted and not voted on. “There was no state-sanctioned public debate about the merits or shortcomings of either collective farming or the household responsibility system.”
It should be unsurprising that data shows how rural production fell after 1983, when land was divided among Jimo County farmers: what good are huge farming machines on small family plots? How can the use of such machines be effectively coordinated among hundreds of farmers? In some villages they decided it was better to break up the machinery and sell it for scrap. Fights broke out among farmers over who could use the irrigation system, as there was no more collective solidarity. Draft animals were slaughtered to avoid arguments, further decreasing farming productivity. This is all obviously quite sad and a regression in Jimo County and across rural China.
Tiny individual plots – instead of socialist solidarity – naturally led to the need for more manual labor, which meant more children withheld from school to work on the farm: The number of teachers and staff remained the same, but high school students in Jimo County went from 20,000 in 1977 to 5,700 in 1987. This is also due to the reforms of 1978, which re-established key/magnet schools. Many schools were closed in the name of “efficiency”: Han shows how from 1976 to 1987 Jimo’s middle schools went from 249 to 106; they had 89 high schools in 1976, but just 7 in 1993. This is what happens anywhere when the guiding value is not “equality” but “efficiency”; “efficiency”, especially in Western nations, is usually a code-word for, “Because we want to give more tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations.”
Han relates how Jimo’s experience mirrors that of the rest of rural China since the education “reforms”. Textbooks again became standardized nationwide, and were urban-focused (of course). In 1977 the national college entrance exam was reintroduced, and Han relates “…it has once again systematically drained talent from China’s rural areas, in the same manner as before the Cultural Revolution. Talented rural children leave home to go to college and few return. … Instead of being oriented to serve rural development, schools became an avenue to joining the urban elite. … The divorce of school curriculum from rural life has put rural children in a disadvantaged position because it is harder to study subjects that have no connections with their lives.”
Some readers will assume that such trends are inevitable – they have not read Part 6: The repatriation of young educated people back to their home villages – to serve those who had truly funded their education in the first place – was a huge factor in training up the human capital which led to the incredible exponential economic growth in rural areas during the CR decade.
The rural enterprises, which had been collectively owned, were now often rented to party officials or managers for a fixed rent or sold outright to them. The CR was designed to benefit the People and the Party – the post-CR reforms benefitted the Party and then the People. This is not terrible, because at least “the Party” is not Western 1%ers, but neither is it superb, egalitarian socialism. Make no mistake: the Chinese Communist Party is alive, well, thriving, secure and economically impregnable – it seems certain they are the most powerful economic force in the world – and much of their wealth was produced during the CR decade.
But, clearly, what the end of the CR meant was: a return to the pre-CR era and Party norms.
But the biggest way it was a “return to the pre-CR era” is not in the economic redistribution, but in a decaying of the other of socialism’s two pillars: political power redistribution.
“During the Cultural Revolution decade, village party secretaries had to share decision making power with a number of production team leaders, and their power was checked by a cohesive village population bound together by common public interests….The village party secretaries have gained most from the changes in power relations resulting from the division of land. During the Cultural Revolution decade, village party secretaries had to share decision making power with a number of production team leaders, and their power was also checked by a cohesive village population bound together by common public interests. The division of land eliminated the production team leaders – the most important check on village party secretaries – and also fragmented the village population, concentrating power in the hands of the village party secretaries.”
This is the counter-revolution I am referring to. However, it is a counter-revolution within an already revolutionary society, therefore it is not so very terrible – just as a “right-winger” in a socialist system is still far to the left of a leftist in a Western capitalist system.
Forget about your complaints of the inadequacies of the global political spectrum – the fortunate difference for the Chinese was: a socialist system is fundamentally not predatory in a capitalist sense, and the CR’s gains meant the Party had even more to redistribute than prior to the CR; a regression within a socialist system is infinitely less societally-damaging than regression in a capitalist system.
Han provides proof of this easily-understandable reality and logic: even though rural per capita grain consumption decreased 8% from 1975 to 1985, income increased 700%, far more than inflation (keep in mind that is per capita, not a median). Why? Because economic planning led by a vanguard party is a hell of a lot more effective and sane than relying solely on the “magic of market forces” of the modern neoliberal West (which are really just oligarchical forces). It was only comprehended by relatively few in 1849, but it should be crystal clear to the majority in 2019: management of an industry, factory or business by a socialist party secretary is far, far qualitatively different – in terms of planning, goals, national benefit, etc. – than management by an isolated and self-interested capitalist entrepreneur (not to mention a foreign and self-interested capitalist entrepreneur).
Is there is no freedom without economic freedom: first comes the money, then the democratic empowerment at your job and home? The CR proves rather otherwise – first comes the democratic empowerment then the economic freedom? Frankly, I am not interested in re-arguing if the chicken or the egg came first, because in socialism BOTH ideals are strived for and operate in a dialectic.
On a practical level: Obviously, going from a collective ownership to individual ownership drastically changed the nature of work in terms of job security and safe working conditions. The fragmentation of the collectives has – of course – fragmented the power of farmers; they have the freedom to sell whatever they want, but they lack stability, cohesiveness and solidarity because they are more capitalist.
In 1983, with the dissolution of the collectives, free medical care naturally ceased as well. The “five guarantees” introduced after 1949 – food, clothes, fuel, education and a funeral – were gone. Farmers who gave the best years of their lives to the collective found they were without financial support in their old age.
“Villagers said: ‘xinxin kuku sanshi nian, yi yie huidao jiefang qian’ (we worked hard for thirty years to build up the collectives, but overnight we returned to the status quo before the liberation).” That is from an interview in Jimo Han did in 1990, so one hopes the situation is better for them 30 years later.
Whereas the collective used to pay the tax burden, “The new taxation system in rural China is very regressive. The tax burden is not based on farmers’ income but on the amount of land they farm. Consequently, the bigger a farmer’s income, the smaller the tax burden as a percentage of his income. Vice versa, the smaller a villager’s income, the bigger the tax burden he has to pay as a percentage of his land. … Tax policy, like other aspects of de-collectivization is promoting economic polarization in villages. This, of course, is the intended outcome. Deng Xiaoping himself expressed the view that small segment of the population should get rich first, so that this small segment of the population could lead the whole society towards progress. This was a good reflection of Deng Xiaoping’s elitist mentality.”
Again, it is absurd to say that China is not Communist – the reality is that there is a left and right spectrum in socialist democracy, and that the reversal of the CR was a right-wing move within a socialist revolution, and which did not reverse the socialist revolution.
Negating the Cultural Revolution – China should stop doing the West’s work for them
Han’s final chapter is titled Negating the Cultural Revolution for good reason: not only is the CR totally negated by the West, but the Chinese Communist Party obviously wound back many of its leftist advances despite the obvious success. The reason they did this is probably because leftist advances always undermine those in the 1% in any system. Again, we must reject the typical Western historical nihilism: the 1% in a socialist system is far, far better than the 1% in the neoliberal, neo-imperialist capitalist system.
The final irony regarding Western assessment of the “horrors” of the CR is how incredibly useful they actually were in promoting social good. Mao’s idea that government servants should be fearful of being caught waging corruption… this is somehow a negative thing in the West, and apparently was to Deng as well.
“He (Deng) also announced that there would be no more political campaigns, which was like giving the officials a guarantee that they would not be harassed by the masses even if they were corrupt. Many officials slipped into their corrupt old ways very quickly.”
No more anti-corruption campaigns – the West doesn’t have to even make such a statement because capitalism is legalized corruption, after all.
Revolutionary fervor waxing and waning, waxing and waning – c’est la vie – I think it’s clear that in openly revolutionary nations, unlike the conservative nations of the West, such alternations will be more common. The good news is that the tide has turned – anti-corruption campaigns are back during the era of Xi Jinping.
Mao’s near-yearly anti-corruption campaigns, which culminated in a no-holds barred Cultural Revolution, must be examined with this counterview, if they are to be examined with a hint of objectivity and honesty. Of course, to a capitalist anyone persecuted by a socialist is always innocent of any charge….
Given that he wrote such a heckuva book, we should be interested in Han’s final words, which I humbly relate here:
“The Chinese government’s official evaluation of the Cultural Revolution serves to underline the idea, currently very much in vogue around the world, that efforts to achieve development and efforts to attain social equality are contradictory. The remarkable currency of this idea in China and internationally is due, at least in part, to the fact that such an idea is so convenient to those threatened by efforts to attain social equality. This study of the history of Jimo County has challenged this idea. During the Cultural Revolution decade and in the two decades of market reform that followed, Jimo has experienced alternative paths, both of which have led to rural development. The difference in the paths was not between development and stagnation but rather between different kinds of development. The main conclusion I hope readers will draw from the experience of Jimo County during the Cultural Revolution decade is that measures to empower and educate people at the bottom of society can also serve the goal of economic development. It is not necessary to choose between pursuing social equality and pursuing economic development. The choice is whether or not to pursue social equality.”
Superbly put. An ending worth committing to memory.
Capitalism only chooses between stagnation and development – it would rather tolerate Lost Decades, as in the current Eurozone, rather than do something that China and Iran did: effectively shut down the country to honestly discuss national problems and to democratically agree on solutions which benefit the 99%. Capitalism is the alexithymic shark which must keep moving, or it dies.
China, with their renewed emphasis on corruption and equality, did not die nor implode. Iran, despite all the hot and cold war against them, remains firmly revolutionary domestically, admiringly anti-imperialist inernationally, and far more socialist in inspiration and practice than any Western nation. Even with the current US threat of $0 in oil sales (anything to stop Muslim democracy…) there is seemingly no indication of a domestically counter-revolution of 1979’s ideals.
The Eurozone and the European Union desperately need a Cultural Revolution to democratically grapple with the structures they set in place decades ago which have created such rising economic inequality. That appears unlikely – these nations are not socialist-inspired.
This is why phrases like “social equality” contain no economic component in the West; use that phrase in the West and people will assume you are talking about racism or homophobia – they will never think you are referring to Marxist economic ideas or the idea of class.
A pity for them….
The Cultural Revolution empowered China’s poorest (rural peasants) and that created economic growth: a correlation for the West would be for those in the US to give vast sums of money and power to their Black underclass – such an idea seems impossible; the same goes for the Muslim underclass in France. Critically, both of these neo-imperialists view the exclusion of the poor from the hallways of power as absolutely fundamental to the success of their respective nations:
“Blacks/Musulmans in power? Never/Jamais! They don’t have the right values/ Ils ne partagent pas les mêmes valeurs.” You hear this openly in these societies all the time – these underclasses are just “free-riders” on the genius of the dominant racial/ethnic capitalist class and cannot (should not!) contribute significantly to society.
Such prejudice is no different than a Chinese person in 1965 who thought China could become a safe, thriving superpower by ignoring their rural underclass. Such prejudice is no different from those who are against the Yellow Vests in France.
Han’s study proves such ideas are false: Chinese empowerment of the poor generated human capital, which generated economic capital, which generated national success.
Perhaps the best Blacks and Muslims in the West can do is to wait for the Chinese to take over one day? Or, just maybe, the White rural underclass of the West will wise up and learn from socialist-inspired nations like China, Iran, Cuba and others? I’d start with re-examining China’s Cultural Revolution.
We don’t need to demonise Deng: He may have been on the right of the spectrum of socialist ideology, but he was still also a revolutionary socialist. On the global political spectrum, Deng was still far, far to the left of any supporter of antiquated liberal democracy.
What is a political revolution, after all? It is a cultural revolution
Political revolution is a cultural movement which becomes rooted over generations; it is not just a changing of the leaders – it goes even deeper than just changing the laws.
What needs to be understood about countries with socialist revolutions is their humanity: Revolutionary fervor waxes and wanes. During the CR the “left-socialist” line was predominant, whereas afterwards it was the “bourgeois-socialist” or “right-socialist” line.
Mao repeatedly pushed the “left socialist” line, which stressed loyalty to the collectives, local empowerment and reducing urban dominance to spread equality among the mass of the country (the rural areas). After Mao the so-called “bourgeois right socialist” line of Deng Xiaoping (which is still Maoism!) came to prominence, and my main point here is this: Deng had been around forever – he was in the Long March – so it’s not as if he was some newcomer who brought in brand new ideas in 1976.
“Every farmer and every politician in China knew where Deng Xiaoping stood regarding agricultural policies in late 1970s,” reminds Han.
Right-wing socialism was not something new – it had always been around, it simply had lost popularity… just as any political party (left or right) does in a Western society. Just as people do not wage endless war (except the US war on terror), people do not wage endless revolution – people tire, and that allows less-revolutionary elements to come to the fore.
Han clarifies this exactly: “Deng had the power to do whatever he wanted. But more important, he was supported by the persistence of traditional philosophies and the practices that had been challenged during the Cultural Revolution, and by people who stood to benefit by the restoration of the old ways, or thought they would.”
Show me the country or society where radical changes continued without end? There are none. Even the Revolution of Islam splintered into status quo and revolutionary sects: Sunni and Shia. It’s not as if all Shia have been unceasing revolutionaries since the assassination of Imam Ali in 661 AD, either. Revolutionary spirit waxes and wanes, and maybe this is even a necessary thing? I don’t know….
But it impossible to argue with Han’s conclusion: “The take-off of the rural economy in Jimo began not with market reforms, I have shown, but rather during the Cultural Revolution decade. Agricultural production more than doubled and a network of rural factories were established which fundamentally transformed the county’s rural economy in less than 10 years. Jimo’s story is not unique.”
Han’s assessment there – based on facts, dollars and data – is undoubtedly accurate, but only half the story: China is where it is today because the CR created the greatest wealth there is – human capital. That is socialism’s primary stated goal: allowing the realization of an individual’s potential.
By taking the Chinese peasant and stripping him of all the backwardness, retardation and disempowerment we all associate with the term “peasant”, China created its modern, intelligent, advanced workforce, whom nobody calls “peasant” anymore. China remains intensely committed to lifting up their lowest of the low – absolute poverty is about to become effectively totally eradicated after a 5-year plan led by Xi – but the CR did this en masse by reversing the existing priority of city over country in a nation which was 80% rural.
Indeed, how could Xi eliminate absolute poverty across the continent of China in just 5 years? He couldn’t – he is standing on the shoulders of massive efforts since 1949, and the CR is one of those strong, yet unappreciated, shoulders.
The CR has much to teach us today, but are we willing learn? That is the question of the next and final part of this series, which focuses on the flamingly obvious yet totally ignored parallels between China’s Cultural Revolution and France’s ongoing Yellow Vest movement.
This is the 7th article in an 8-part series which examines Dongping Han’s book The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village in order to drastically redefine a decade which has proven to be not just the basis of China’s current success, but also a beacon of hope for developing countries worldwide. Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Part 1 – A much-needed revolution in discussing China’s Cultural Revolution: an 8-part series
Part 2 – The story of a martyr FOR, and not BY, China’s Cultural Revolution
Part 3 – Why was a Cultural Revolution needed in already-Red China?
Part 4 – How the Little Red Book created a cult ‘of socialism’ and not ‘of Mao’
Part 5 – Red Guards ain’t all red: Who fought whom in China’s Cultural Revolution?
Part 6 – How the socioeconomic gains of China’s Cultural Revolution fuelled their 1980s boom
Part 7 – Ending a Cultural Revolution can only be counter-revolutionary
Part 8 – What the West can learn: Yellow Vests are demanding a Cultural Revolution
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.