Caleb Maupin and Harpal Brar: Chinese Revolution 4: The cultural revolution

What was the cultural revolution? Why was it launched? Did it acheive anything? And who won?

In this fourth part of their dicsussions on the Chinese Revolution, Harpal Brar and Caleb Maupin discuss the cultural revolution.

When the cultural revolution was launched, China had built the beginnings of a socialist economic base, agriculture had collectivised, and most industry was owned by the state. Capitalists had been generally eliminated with a few surviving remnants.

But Chairman Mao Zedong was concerned that the state superstructure was still bourgeois, with many people inside and outside the Communist Party of China (CPC) working to restore capitalism. He believed what was needed was a cultural revolution to do away with the bourgeois superstructure.

“Mao stated that this bourgeois superstructure was controlled by capitalist roaders within the party,” says Harpal. “He believed that the top people in the party who had control over the organisations throughout the country were taking the capitalist road.

“Mao singled out two people in particular: Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. So the purpose of the cultural revolution was to produce a superstructure that would not allow for the restoration of capitalism.”

Echoes of the CPSU’s 20th party congress

Following the publication of Nikita Krushchev’s ‘secret speech‘ at the 20th party congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (which was kept secret from the Soviet people, but leaked immediately to the imperialist press by the Krushchevites), Mao, having initially accepted Khrushchev’s assertions about Stalin, started to became critical of the Soviet party’s line. Some in the CPC leaned toward Krushchevism, however.

“If you look at the nine letters from the CPC on the general line of the international communist movement, on the one hand they give a glowing report of Stalin as a great revolutionary and exceptional theoretician, and on the other they pile slander upon him. You can see that these must have been written by two hands,” Harpal points out.

“After the [Soviet party’s] 20th congress, Mao had become very critical of the Kruschevites, but I’m not sure everyone else was critical of the congress. So it’s perfectly possible that Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, if not in words, certainly in practice, were Krushchevites, as they wanted market mechanisms introduced in China.”

The role Of Lin Biao

Harpal details how the cultural revolution began in the universities, and continues: “As the cultural revolution progressed, it got quite out of hand, with a lot of factionalism and fighting. Even with one section of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] being set against another in open battle.

“When that happened, Mao instructed Lin Biao to get the movemebt under control, and to organise production so that the country didn’t fall apart. This was particularly important in light of the fact that the US imperialists were looking to intervene, and relations with the Soviet Union were not good.”

Lin Biao was instrumental in gaining some control over this chaotic situation. He also contributed significantly to the level of theoretical debate by organising the mass publication of Mao’s works. One hundred and fifty million copies of Mao’s Selected Works were produced, along with a billion copies of the Little Red Book of Mao quotations, which helped introduce the ideas of scientific socialism to the average person in the street.

A loyal supporter of Chairman Mao, Lin Biao had been written into the country’s constitution as Mao’s successor by the ninth party congress, and appointed as vice-chairman of the party.

“If Mao had died or retired, Lin would have become the chairman and highest official in the party,” says Harpal. “I do not buy the thesis that he wanted to murder Mao to assume power. When you’re already slated to be the next leader, why would you want to do such a lunatic thing? Lin Biao was not a lunatic. It has never been explained by the Maoists or their opponents why that would happen.

“We are told that once this plot had been foiled by Mao, with the help of Zhou Enlai, Lin tried to run away and died in a plane crash in Mongolia.

“My own view is a guess. I think that a dispute was started when the Americans decided to change tactics with regard to China with a view to separating it from the Soviet Union. The question was: should China get closer to the Soviet Union or to the Americans?

“And I think Lin Biao and Chen Boda were of the view that it would be better to have some accommodation with the Soviet revisionists than with the American imperialists.

“This became extremely controversial, and I think that is what really led to the split between Lin Biao and Chen Boda and Mao Zedong. This particular split, with two comrades who had been very loyal to Mao, was something that could be used by the reformists, and was one of the factors that led to the defeat of the cultural revolution.”

Caleb notes how this view was similar to the thinking of Sam Marcy and the Workers World Party. He also points to Lin Biao’s book Long Live the Victory Of People’s War, in which Lin called for a global uprising against imperialism.

“That would fit this idea that when Lin Biao was removed it led to a turning point and the alliance with the United States,” says Caleb.

Ultra-left and right opportunism: two sides of the same coin

During the cultural revolution, such was the prestige of Chairman Mao, that protagonists on both sides claimed to be acting in his name.

“If one side started a Maoist Red Guard contingent, their opponents would immediately start an even more ‘radical’ one, also in the name of Mao,” says Harpal. “There was one contingent called the ‘Scarlet Red Guards’. They were actually rightists, children of the officials who were under attack by Mao’s adherents. They used a lot of violence against their opponents.

“It became extremely confusing. That was why, within a short period, the Red Guards had to be dismantled, and Mao told them: ‘You must go to the countryside and learn from the peasants.’

“About 15-16 million of these Red Guards were sent to the countryside because they were not doing much good in Beijing or Shanghai. They had been unleashed by the cultural revolution but were not behaving in a very disciplined way. This was something that would be utilised by the reformers later on: that the forces unleashed by the cultural revolution had been disrupting production and causing chaos.

“Stability and calm needed to be restored so China could make progress. William Hinton, who was a big supporter of the cultural revolution, wrote a couple of books about it. His Hundred Day War, which talks about the struggle at the Qinghua university, is well worth reading.

“But he says that in the end a lot of people became disgruntled. Teachers wouldn’t teach for fear of saying the wrong thing. All day they just mumbled the writings of Mao Zedong. Students didn’t learn. They became insolent and didn’t want to obey anyone. Some people didn’t want to learn anything at all in case they were accused of being bourgeois.

“It wasn’t Mao’s fault, but once [provocateurs] had gone to the other extreme, being an intellectual itself became, if you like, a black mark against you.

“These disgruntled people were the ones who would later rally around Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao. They coalesced in order to do away with some of what Mao had been doing. Mao was demonised.

“Then, after Mao’s death, the Soviet Union collapsed amidst a barrage of imperialist propaganda about how bad socialism was, what a failed system it was. And that also helped China’s reformists open the country up to further market reforms. Which they tell us are are the only means of raising the standard of living and increasing production and productivity.”

Cultural revolution in the Soviet Unon

Asked about the cultural revolution that took place in the Stalin-era Soviet Union, Harpal says: “The cultural revolution had a completely different meaning there.

“The Soviet Union mobilised the masses, mobilised the youth in the noble task of building socialism. There was a vast and very popular movement of workers who wanted to build the country, to defend against foreign imperialism, against internal enemies.

“It wasn’t characterised by splits spilling into the streets and causing all kinds of factional fighting. It was very much under the control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

“Personally, I prefer Stalin’s methods. Everything was done in the name of the Communist party, and with the party giving the leadership as to what should be done.

“Without that leadership, the masses have nothing.”

Ultra-lefts looping back around to right opportunism

“This is the contradiction at the heart of the cultural revolution,” says Harpal. “A cultural revolution organised by the Comunist party and in the name of the party, but whose aim is basically to bombard the party’s heaquarters!

“That was the poster Mao put up when he went to a meeting in August 1966, and which eventually compelled the people who were opposed to him to issue the 16 articles that became the programmatic document launching the cultural revolution.

“There are stories within stories about how some people wanted the cultural revolution to be defeated, but wanted it done through the use of ultra-left slogans.”

Comrade Joti points out that the Chinese experience illustrates the often ignored but very important Marxist understanding that the class struggle continues and even intensifies after the revolution.

In China, Mao had enormous prestige as the chief theoretician and leader of the revolution, but at a certain point, he clearly felt himself to be surrounded by officials who were doing things he did’t agree with and did’t think were in the interest of socialism.

“You’ve got to feel you’re in an emergency to mobilise the masses against the party when the party is supposed to be the one that safeguards the interests of the revolution,” she says.

Reflecting on the contradictions of this situation, Harpals says: “You may ask me if I support the cultural revolution. Yes, I do. In the absence of anything else, it was aimed at strengthening the forces for socialism.

“In the aftermath of the 20th congress of CPSU, some Kruschevite reforms were implemented in China. But the reformers wanted to go further and make profit the sole regulator of production. That was where Mao put his foot down.

“The cultural revolution was aimed at preventing a second implementation of the USSR’s reforms: all the reforms that finally came after 1978. On that basis, I think it’s a good thing that China had central planning for ten more years – a period in which a lot of development took place and tremendous progress was made.”

Harpal points out how all the economic progress that was made in China from 1949 to 1978, during the period of central planning, is dumped into a memory hole by bourgeois economists and reformists alike.

“When you look at bourgeois writers, they tell you these were ten years of unmitigated disaster. That’s rubbish. Even if you read the CPC’s 1981 resolution on Certain questions in the history of our party, it actually tells you that this ‘disastrous period’ produced all kinds of things.

“Development took place: the hydrogen bomb, sending satellites into space and retrieving them. New types of rice, new types of insulin were developed, the Himalayas were mapped, huge tankers were produced … A number of important things were done.

“Everyone today knows how many people have been lifted out of poverty since the reforms were implemented. But between 1949 and 1978, the longevity of the Chinese people went up by 30 years. That’s one year of extra life for every year of Communist party rule!

“Longevity does not increase by magic. You have to have the conditions for increasing life expectancy: medical health, schooling, housing conditions, food for people to eat. That’s what led to the increase in life expectancy. From being under 40 on average, life expectancy increased to 69 years by 1978.

“Huge progress was made during that time, and on the basis of that progress the reformers were later able to ‘reform’ something. These ‘reforms’ didn’t come out of thin air, a point even Will Hutton made. He’s a bourgeois anticommunist writer, but even he’s compelled to admit that is what happened.”

Caleb points out the deceptive way US media talks about this period: “It’s as if China had no successes during the Mao years. Every success China has ever had, according to them, is because of the market reforms, but that’s simply not the case.

“There was a huge effort to build up the country from nothing, which laid the basis for them to make the market reforms and experience the economic growth that they have. That’s a very important point to make,” he says.

Central planning v market reforms

“I admit the progress under conditions of market reforms,” says Harpal. “The Chinese have certainly made a success of running a market economy. However, if they had gone along the road of self-reliance, as Mao had advocated; if they had developed their own science and technology, they wouldn’t now be in the position where American imperialism can threaten them with ‘We won’t sell our chips to you’; chips which are the very heart of modern production.

“From refrigerators to missiles, everything needs these chips. China spends $300bn every year buying chips from western companies, and now under the sanctions the imperialists are trying to prevent China acquiring even the chips, let alone the machines that manufacture the chips.

“They’re trying to deny them to China; to thwart its rise. If China had carried on with its own technological development, it would have had an important and thriving industry producing semiconductors and wouldn’t be beholden to imperialism. And the Chinese economy wouldn’t have become an integral part and appendage of the global imperialist economy.

“With the 2008 crisis, tens of millions of Chinese lost their jobs. This does not happen under a planned, socialist economy. The market also ‘plans’, but planning that is done by the market goes from one excess to another. Either there is too little or too much; never is the amoung actually right, because it’s not planned.

“Every capitalist produces on his private account, not knowing what the other capitalists are doing. Only when they come to the market do they find out whether it’s rubbish and nobody wants it because the market is saturated, or that they have produced too little and lost an opportunity.”


This video is episode 11 of a series of discussions between Comrade Harpal Brar and US Marxist Caleb Maupin. It was hosted by Joti Brar and orginally broadcast on 7 December 2022.