Reeve on Wu, 'The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis'

Yiching Wu
George Reeve

Yiching Wu. The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. xxii + 335 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-72879-0.

Reviewed by George Reeve
Published on H-Socialisms (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Gary Roth

Rebellion Inside a Bureaucratic Revolution

In a recent editorial published in the New York Times, the Chinese blogger Murong Xuecun, writes: “The Communist Party’s dumbing down of our language was a deliberate effort to debase public discourse.… This deliberate use of language to obscure and confuse serves a clear objective: to conceal the reality of China’s lack of democracy and indeed to pretend that democracy exists.”[1] The author refers to this bureaucratic language as “Mao language,” which he says was used extensively during the Cultural Revolution. “Intellectual discussion, along with reason, were thrown out the window. In this atmosphere, words lose real meaning. The party can then use words to obfuscate and lie.” But Murong Xuecun seems himself to be a victim of the very manipulation of language he talks about. He too uses the expression “Cultural Revolution” in the sense officials do, reducing a complex social movement to a political movement under Mao’s control.

Yiching Wu’s The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis has among other qualities the capacity to get the reader interested in this complexity. After this book, it will be difficult to talk about the Great Cultural Revolution (GCR) by referring merely to the bureaucratic version of it, or even to pretend, as neo-Maoist currents do nowadays, that Mao provided revolutionary leadership during the GCR.[2] Wu’s book fits within a well-established tradition that includes independent researchers, both academic and non-academic, as well as a few radical socialist political groups in Hong Kong, Europe, and the United States that have developed a critique of the GRC years. The social turmoil may have been initiated by the party bureaucracy, but gradually it gave birth to anti-bureaucratic tendencies. These were eventually smashed by the popular army called in by Mao. Testimony by young rebel Red Guards (RGs) has also been published.[3] These accounts show how the official version of GCR terror against the Chinese people hides the fact that the rebel RGs who criticized the bureaucratic system constituted the core of the victims of the army’s repression during the late 1960s.

Wu’s book is a well-documented, unique, and welcome addition to the existing literature on this topic. The author’s extensive research both inside China and elsewhere honors the people--students and workers--who suffered under the subsequent repression because they had put forward an equalitarian, anti-bureaucratic conception of socialism. One terrible aspect of the situation is that many of them died thinking that this conception was shared by Mao himself.

Wu’s thesis can be summarized with a few choice quotes: “The Cultural Revolution,” he writes, “began for the most part as a revolution from above…. But as the movement continued, many long-standing social and political issues resurfaced in a new circumstance in which public order had virtually collapsed. More than a decade and a half after the victory of the Communist-led revolution, popular resentment of bureaucratic privileges and cadre abuses of power was widespread, and many citizens were only too eager to take advantage of the newly proclaimed right to rebel against established authorities” (p. 51). In fact, “as the Cultural Revolution spread, it became clear that the Maoist leadership initially had considerably underestimated the extent of the disruption that mass movement would bring about. It was not merely that party bureaucracies came under siege; the growing mass mobilization also challenged one of the central aspects of the Cultural Revolution’s prescribed framework, namely, the proper balance between rebellion and production and between revolution and economic order” (p. 97).

Wu refuses to adopt the simplified and Manichean approach according to which this complex process was planned in advance by Mao and his closest advisors. Mao was quite ambivalent about the popular movement. He was someone who was attracted to an idea of a “permanent revolution” and at the same time a prisoner of the Leninist conception of the ruling party. Mao did not believe that the working class could be revolutionary on its own. It could only be led by the party. As he said once: “Twenty million people can be readily assembled on a minute’s notice, and they can also be dismissed by merely waving the arm. If it were not for the Communist Party that is in power, who would be able to accomplish such a feat?” (p. 104). As the GCR would show, Mao was right on the first statement and wrong on the second. To dismiss the GCR, it would be necessary to use the army and bloodily repress the rebels. For Mao and his followers, a collectively oriented and self-organized movement could only lead to what they saw as an “anarchist danger.” Wu devotes considerable space to show why and when the GCR evolved beyond the control of the Mao group and threatened the survival of the party. Ultimately, it was the loss of control of the RG movement that forced the Mao group to change its tactics. Unable to navigate within their own ambiguous goals and policies, Mao and company had no other choice but to call in the only institution that remained largely untouched, the army. It was an ironic fate for a “communist state.”

In what follows, I review Wu’s book in order to highlight major themes and ideas as he retells the tragic history of the GCR. Wu begins chapter 3, “From the Good Blood to the Right to Rebel,” by exposing the Chinese “bloodline theory,” which was created by the Chinese Communist Party to justify itself as the new ruling class. This ideology became for the party a sort of dogma in which being a member of the “revolutionary class” was believed to have a “natural character” which is transmitted automatically to the next generation: “One’s family background determined his or her class position, which then determined his or her political status” (p. 54). As Wu emphasizes, many RGs thought that “being red by birth meant that they were more revolutionary by nature” and that “political status should be hereditary” (pp. 58, 60). By justifying the exclusion of those who came from “unfavorable class origins” or “the bad elements” from political participation in general, this “theory” was strongly influential at the beginning of the GCR. As Wu shows, the first RG mobilizations were young people from politically privileged origins who tried to ensure their futures among the rulers by attacking the descendants of the old ruling class, the “bad family origins” people who could threaten their new hegemony. In the beginning of the RG movement, to be a member of the new ruling class was “the most important criterion for membership” (p. 62). In fact, “the appearance of the ‘bloodline theory’ coincided with the explosion of the Red Guard movement” (p. 60).

The initial phase of the GCR and the terrible violence of the first RG campaigns during the fall of 1966 were the expression of these particular trends. Most of the historical sites destroyed during the GCR, and most of the persecutions against individuals accused of being from “unfavorable class origins,” took place during this period. Mao and his group tolerated and supported the chaos, which eventually provoked popular opposition, mostly in the big cities. Soon, the party apparatus felt threatened by these persecutions. The Mao group, which viewed these struggles as a means to distance the party from “old elements,” understood that the bloodline theory had become, for a fraction of the bureaucracy, a tactic to protect itself and therefore oppose the party’s reforms as advocated by the Mao group.

Wu makes extensive use of texts and documents which were produced during the GCR, an approach that enhances his analysis. To discuss the bloodline theory, Wu focuses on Yu Luoke’s essay, “On Class Origins,” published at the end of 1966. This text was exceptionally popular, distributed in more than a million copies, and widely discussed inside the movement. Yu Luoke criticized the bloodline theory and argued that the new privileged class received favorable treatment while the rest of the population had been deprived of basic rights. He and his followers demanded that “all revolutionary young people descending from diverse class origins should be treated equally” (p. 83). Wu maintains that Yu Luoke expressed more than a “liberal” line, as he is viewed today in China, that he expressed a new “analysis of the system of inequalities that produced a dominant elite” (p. 87). Yu Luoke also argued that the bloodline theory was used to legitimate privileges. For Wu, “what appears to be only a liberal discourse of innate human rights took on the additional significance of forming a class-based critique” (p. 90). Other texts furthered Yu Luoke’s perspective, for example the text written by Beijing RG students, “The April 3 Faction,” who wrote: “although China’s socialist revolution had abolished exploitation based on private ownership, economic property and political power were nevertheless concentrated in the hands of bureaucratic power holders” (p. 93). Arrested at the beginning of 1968, Yu Luoke was accused of trying to organize a political organization, and after more than two years in prison, he was executed by the army. For Wu, the bloodline theory had prompted a strong critique of social inequality and developed into a “new political analysis of Chinese socialism” (p. 56). It constituted the first important dissident tendency within the GCR.

Shanghai’s January Revolution of early 1967 is another essential episode of the GCR that Wu studies in detail (chapter 4: “Revolutionary Alchemy”). This was a major turning point when the party collapsed. It was also a moment in which the importance of the working class and its involvement in the GCR became dominant. What was the reason for this collapse? Was it the radicalization of the RGs or the resistance of the old working class that had been named “economism” by GCR ideologues? In Shanghai, agitation spread from students to workers and led quite fast to the creation of the first working-class RG group: “As the Cultural Revolution spread, it became clear that the Maoist leadership initially had considerably underestimated the extent of the disruption that mass movement would bring about” (p. 97). That was especially true when it came to economic disruptions.

The Mao group, in its initial guidelines for the GCR, had not defined the place to be assumed by workers, but had always underlined the fact that the GCR would result in better and increased production. As Wu points out, “the rise of worker rebels in Shanghai was a significant challenge to this formula. Beginning largely as a revolution from above, the Cultural Revolution found it much easier to detonate the mass of repressed energy than to control the scope of the explosion” (p. 98). That became obvious in Shanghai, and from then on this control became the central problem for the Mao tendency inside the party. Wu shows that since the late 1950s, Shanghai’s wages had declined, working conditions worsened, and precarious work increased, while productivity had also increased. The conditions for a revolt existed, especially among the young and precarious workers: “the political cleavage between the rebel and the conservative workers often emerged along the division between unskilled and apprentice workers, on one hand, and skilled workers, on the other” (p. 101).

The question of the hukou (residence certificate which provides access to government-approved rights and benefits) was then--as it remains nowadays--an essential tool to control, discipline, and govern the working class. Already at that time, migrant workers were the majority within many of the largest Shanghai state factories. Rebellion against this precarious condition became central, and many of the rebel RG groups were formed by precarious workers, while the old working class, organized in the factories by the unions, was given new advantages by the bureaucracy in order to support its mobilization and resistance to the GCR. This is what had been called economism by the Mao group. From November 1966 to January 1967, the “great crisis” period, many rebel worker organizations were created, and the struggle spread from the economic field to the political level and society in general. Rebel worker RGs that opposed social inequality raised more and more questions about dignity and self-autonomy. Rebellions, strikes, disruptions, battles, confusion, and chaos, practically paralyzed Shanghai, and agitation spread into the rural communes around the big city. Self-activity and self-organization developed. Mao and his group started by accusing the old local party apparatus and the “class enemies” of irresponsibility, of promoting economism, and opposing the GCR. Meanwhile the party, as an institution, was collapsing. Even scarier for all the factions of the ruling class, the Shanghai rebel RGs began to travel to other parts of China to exchange “revolutionary experiences.”

The collapse of the party structure, the disruption of production, and the development of self-organization were the major factors Mao worried about. As the People’s Diary put it on January 12, 1967, “this economism uses bourgeois spontaneity to replace proletarian revolutionary consciousness, uses bourgeois ultra-democracy to replace proletarian democratic centralism and the proletarian sense of organization and discipline” (p. 123). On the ideological conflicts: “A political linkage was established between economism and ‘bourgeois spontaneity,’ ‘ultra-democracy,’ ‘ultraleft,’ and ‘anarchism’…. Familiar concepts and actions were redefined in a rapidly changing political situation. In the Orwellian world of state-propagated mythology, popular struggles were transformed magically into counterrevolutionary plots” (p. 124). This was the world of the “Mao language” that Murong Xuecun talks about. Mao had appropriated Lenin’s interpretation of the 1871 French Revolutionary Commune and reduced it to the need to construct a new state apparatus. After having used the concept to mobilize the masses for the RGs, Mao realized that this rhetoric also favored the self-government tendencies. He then shifted and insisted on the need to restore order, including economic order, through the revolutionary committees created according to the Triple Alliance--Maoist RG leaders together with party cadres and army officers. Wu quotes Mao: “At that time neither the party nor the government was working. Only the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] was able to do its job” (p. 126). The revolutionary committees were formed by old party cadres but “mostly dominated by PLA officers” (p. 127). The future limits of the GCR were clear, and its demise was planned in advance.

From then on, “a battle was declared against all sorts of deviant political tendencies” (p. 128). Created in February 1967 by some of the Mao RG leaders and “a selective federation of Shanghai’s mass groups incorporated as its backbone (the economist elements being duly excluded), the Shanghai Commune came into being amid pervasive conflicts. Marking the beginning of the more aggressive use of force, the Commune relied heavily on the People’s Liberation Army because its political survival was continually threatened by opposition” (p. 128). Documents provided by Wu prove how Mao directly managed this operation from Beijing because he was worried about what he called the “anarchical tendencies” and the need to preserve the authority of the party. Eventually the Commune’s rhetoric was banned in favor of Mao language: “The army and the police were deployed…. Workers were urged to strengthen labor discipline and a nationwide moratorium was declared on back wages, bonuses, and other allowances. Rusticates who returned to the cities were ordered to report to their rural posts immediately…. Organizations of temporary workers were outlawed and their leaders were arrested…. Nationwide, cross-regional and cross-occupational groups were banned” (p. 131). This was, for sure, the decisive moment of the GCR: the restoration of order had become a priority for Mao.

To illustrate the complexity of the situation, Wu studies in detail the evolution of the RGs inside the large Shanghai Diesel Engine Factory, where two factions opposed one another. One was supported by the old cadres--shop-level employees, party members, and older workers; the other, called Lian Si, “drew supporters mainly from disgruntled workers and challenged the authority of shop-level cadres” (p. 136). Because of its oppositional position, Lian Si was refused admittance to the Maoist RG central organization, which was in the process of being absorbed into a new central political authority. Because of that, Lian Si activists tried to create their own network of contacts in the city, but they were quickly attacked inside the factory by thousands of Maoist RGs: “The suppression of Lian Si marked the end of organized opposition in the city” (p. 137).

As Wu relates, “By late February 1967, most of the key components of this new paradigm--power seizure by officially approved mass organizations, formation of great alliances, suppression of economistic activities, intervention by the PLA, and creation of new power organs--were already in place” (p. 138). Nevertheless, rebel workers maintained enormous influence within Shanghai even after the army had taken hold of the main RG organizations and revolutionary committees. The Shanghai movement created a special situation: “a contradictory moment in which all at once eruption and containment, rebellion and order, and revolution and restoration were closely intertwined … the beginning of the end … of the mass politics characteristic of the Cultural Revolution…. It constituted, in fact, one of the earliest instances of successful restoration of order” (p. 139). In sum, “the Shanghai episode constituted a strategic moment in which the emergence of a powerful critique of the system as a whole was forestalled” (p. 140).

Wu continues: “During the early months of the Cultural Revolution, the Maoist leadership flirted briefly with the idea that the masses should not only seize power but also radically reorganize society and politics around the egalitarian principles of the Paris Commune…. The state and party bureaucracies were not to be reformed from within or above; rather, they were to be smashed by mass revolutionary action from below. Such ideas, however, faded away” (p. 151). The ambiguities and shifts of the Mao group were difficult to accept and integrate into the real movement. More precisely, “the Shanghai model of combining mass power seizures with the formation of great alliances and revolutionary committees … was difficult to replicate in many parts of the country” (p. 142). Also, the frequent use of the army to protect the party became problematic and led to several highly conflictual situations, such as the Wuhan Incident in July 1967, when the army repressed some of Hunan’s RGs (see chapter 5: “Revolution is Dead, Long Live the Revolution”). When it happened, Mao criticized the role played by the local army, even though he was already aware that the movement was spinning out of control and that a restoration of the old order might be necessary to save the party.

Just one year after the GCR started, in September 1967, Mao restored the authority of the army and launched the “three alliance” policy, which “brought many old bureaucrats back to power” (p. 154). By that time, it was obvious that the RGs had weakened, criticized as too revolutionary by Mao, who ordered the RGs to return to school and to local politics. This new orientation, as well as the appeal to the army to restore order, radicalized the rebel RGs all over China. Wu pays special attention to the formation and ideas of an alliance of two dozen RG groups in Hunan, which defied this new orientation. The alliance was called “Shengwulian” and attracted many different rebel groups, mostly formed by marginalized and underprivileged social categories and even old Communist guerilla veterans. It was the agitation provoked by these groups that led to the “Wuhan incident”: “Invoking the Paris Commune as the historical example of popular power, they claimed that what they called China’s new bureaucratic bourgeoisie would have to be destroyed in order to established a genuinely egalitarian society” (p. 146). The Hunan group not only was critical of the new authorities installed by Mao, but went much further. It was the beginning of a new political analysis of Chinese society and of the new bureaucratic ruling class. Wu characterizes this group according to its conception of a broad coalition of students, intellectuals, and workers. The text for which Shengwulian became known was written by a young high-school senior student, Yang Xiguang: “Wither China”—“arguably the most important ultraleft text produced during the Cultural Revolution” (p. 171). For Yang Xiguang, “the major conflict in China was not between Mao’s supporters and the revisionists, nor between the proletariat and the remnant of the propertied classes, but between a collective red capitalist class and the people as a whole” (p. 170). The text “dealt with a number of crucial issues: an analysis of the events that had led up to the present impasse of the movement, the strategies and tactics to be employed, and the social and political future of China” (p. 177).

In “Whither China,” the GCR was clearly not presented as a social revolution, but a movement where “some bureaucrats attack other bureaucrats”: “in Yang’s view, [the revolutionary committee] … was a product of political compromise if not a sheer retreat” (p. 180). The text analyzed how China’s bureaucratic politics had created a different class situation: “A new capitalist class has been formed in Chinese society: a privileged stratum” (p. 182). This characterization of the Chinese system was also developed by some of Yang Xiguang’s followers, who wrote, “although China’s economic infrastructure is still generally socialist, its entire vast superstructure has largely become capitalist” (p. 182). These analyses were condemned by Beijing leaders as being akin to Trotskyism. Yang also understood that workers coming from rural areas were a subversive force inside the Chinese working class. They were marginalized, exploited, and alienated by state control through the hukou system. The pamphlet anticipated what became true in general, that displaced rural workers would become the backbone of Chinese capitalism and the majority of the working class after the dismantlement of the old state enterprises later on. “‘Whither China’ marked the emergence of an alternative interpretation of the Cultural Revolution” and the class nature of the Chinese regime (p. 184). Despite the pamphlet’s shortcomings due to the historical circumstances (for instance, naively portraying Mao as a revolutionary leader), its importance and extremely accurate analysis deserve the attention that Wu devotes to it. The essay was an expression of the limits of Maoism as an ideology of revolution.

For Wu, “turbulent times encourage a profusion of new possibilities” (p. 190). The GCR was, in fact, a period of social agitation that had created spaces for self-organizing for some sectors of the population. In that sense, it has been a unique moment in the history of Chinese socialism: “It’s beyond doubt that the freedom to organize enjoyed briefly by China’s urban populace during the Cultural Revolution was unparalleled in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The mass movement it unleashed made possible popular resistance to the party-state” (p. 194) (chapter 6: “Coping with Crisis in the Wake of the Cultural Revolution”). As mentioned, at a certain moment in this process, the party practically collapsed, and to restore its power, the Mao group was forced to use the army to repress the rebellion. The Mao group identified the rebellion with anarchism. Wu reproduces the following statement from the Beijing People’s Diary, January 1, 1968: “Anarchism … is absolutely terrible. In politics, it negates everything; in production, it permits people to do whatever they please; it splits up organizations and undermines morale and discipline. Those who have deviated from the correct path created anarchy in the name of ‘making rebellion’ or ‘self-emancipation,’ and they are not even ashamed of doing so” (p. 197). Richard Kraus, a China scholar quoted by Wu, wrote that this period has shown “the most violent aspects of the Cultural Revolution, but they were much less visible than the flamboyant rallies in the heyday of the Red Guards” (p. 201).[4]

Considering the specific structure of Chinese state capitalism, any large social movement will lead towards a confrontation with the party-state. This is a lesson from those years which still frightens the Chinese ruling class. As Wu suggests, the brutal repression of the Tian’ anmen revolt in 1989 had been decided by Deng Xiaoping precisely when the Chinese leaders realized that the participation of workers was changing the content of the protests (p. 232). This is also the reason that explains the official version of the GCR used today, in which the majority of the victims, the rebellious RGs, are represented as the repressive force while the forces that actually led the repression, the army and the Mao group, are ignored. In 2015 as in 1970, the masters of this interpretation of history, those who produce the Mao language, are those who run society.

The fear that the existing system might collapse meant that it was time to stop the GCR and the RGs. They had played their role and were not needed anymore. By the end of 1968, Mao had taken this decision. By then, the army controlled about 80 percent of the revolutionary committees. The figures that Wu provides about the wave of repression between 1968 and 1972 are impressive: thousands of arrests, condemnations, executions, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of students and former RGs to the countryside, a period that can be characterized as a “militarization of the Chinese leadership” (p. 203). This was followed by a new political crisis inside the ruling class, with the death of Marshal Lin Biao, a purge within the army, and a consequent decline in its importance, now that it had repressed the regime’s opponents.

But the violent normalization did not totally stop the agitation. Strikes continued, and many young RG rebels continued to question and challenge the GCR and the nature of society. Wu is especially interested in the Li Yizhe group text, “On Socialist Democracy and the Legal System,” from 1974, and the Chen Erjin’s pamphlet, On the Proletarian Democratic Revolution, from 1979, which Wu interprets as further developments of the Shengwulian positions. These texts focus on legal rights and present the GCR as a “comprehensive revolutionary mass people’s  democracy” (p. 207). All this agitation finally ends with the famous Democracy Wall movement of November 1978: “From an organizational point of view, there was no single movement. Rather there were simply many individuals and small groups formed around various illicitly published and circulated journals, posters, pamphlets, and handbills. Similarity, there existed a wide range of political issues and viewpoints” (p. 213). The social movement had been repressed and the production of critical ideas was, in a sense, isolated from the great mass of the population, even if those ideas expressed some of their demands.

In September 1980, the National People’s Congress amended the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China by expunging Article 45, which granted to citizens the so-called four great freedoms (si da), namely, the freedom to “speak out freely, air their views fully, engage in great debates, and write big-character posters” (p. 217). As it turned out, these legal changes were enacted after the changes has been already imposed by force. The amendment marked the legal end of what had been finished already. The GCR was officially over, as was what had been possible during the opening stages of the GCR--the “freedom to organize enjoyed briefly by China’s urban populace” (p. 194).

In the last chapter, “From Revolution to Reform,” Wu summarizes the objective of his research: “I have explored the political and ideological dynamics of radicalizing the Cultural Revolution from below” (p. 223). He also underlines the fact that for him it is impossible to understand the GCR separate from the class issue. It was through this highly complex moment that the Chinese rebels came to understand the class nature of Chinese society. Wu quotes the great British historian E. P. Thompson on his anti-autoritarian conception of class consciousness: “People … experience exploitation (or the need to maintain power over those whom they exploit), they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence to struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes” (p. 224).[5]

Wu ends his book by raising several important questions that lead to the present Chinese situation. He criticizes those who see in modern Chinese history any sort of historical discontinuity. Even if continuity included violent clashes within the ruling class, the suppression of the popular movements of the late 1960s that threatened the party’s power “laid the political foundation of the post-Mao era” (p. 222). This is a basis for a critique of all neo-Maoist currents which analyze post-Mao events as the result of a political rupture: the “right-wing coup of 1967,” the subsequent Deng-era reforms, and the transformation of the ruling class and structure of class exploitation: “The key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course and its economic ascent lies in the Mao era” (p. 233). After the GCR, the ruling class understood the need to transform workers from rebels into consumers; that is to say, to integrate them into the system of material production while keeping them separate from political activity, and to create a new social consensus. In the words of one of Deng’s ideologues in 1980: “Economic reform is good for economic development, which in turn is good for maintaining the Party’s power” (p. 220). This was and still is the main political goal.

On the nature of the system, Wu writes: “Unlike capitalism as typically understood, the bureaucratic stratum possessed no private ownership of the means of production. Strictly speaking, as some dissident rebels came to realize long ago, its property was the state. Economic extraction was achieved by the state’s monopoly of coercive power, characteristically unmediated by market relations. Labor power did not take the form of a commodity…. The result was that collective or public ownership existed largely as a legal fiction” (p. 228). Wu is not far from what the Shengwulian people thought, that the economic infrastructure was considered socialist because it was a state sector.

On the issue of labor and its commodification, however, Wu is inconsistent. If labor is not a commodity, what form does it then take? Following Marx, labor power’s dual character as use-value and exchange-value provides labor with its commodity nature and characterizes the specific social relations of production that dominate capitalism. Because of this dual character, economic extraction in the form of surplus labor can take place. This is true even if this extraction is unmediated by the existence of a market, as for instance in the legalized forms of capital ownership by the Chinese state. Political coercion and the seizure of power by the Communist Party simply replaced the market mechanism as the means of surplus extraction.

The question of the “transition” is not separate from the previous one. “China’s historic transition from state socialism to post-socialist capitalism did not occur as the result of the intervention of a bourgeoisie of private proprietors as typically understood, ” Wu explains (p. 229). On the contrary, “China’s capitalist revolution, in fact, has been spearheaded in major part by class forces from above in conjunction with the rise of a class of private entrepreneurs from below, who are critically dependent on the ruling political elite and are often co-opted into the existing structure of power” (p. 230). One can argue that it is precisely the existence of a class society with labor as a commodity that can explain this transformation. Otherwise, we are left to assert, as Wu does, that labor suddenly takes on a commodity form.

The Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek used to say that history is important insofar as it helps us to understood the present and imagine another future. Wu provides historical perspective for the GCR, and he relates it to the present. This is an enormous contribution. The Chinese situation in particular needs this kind of grounding. There is more continuity between the old and new ruling classes in China than is commonly assumed. The violent, cynical, and corrupt nature of the Chinese ruling class has its roots in its revolutionary past, including the bloodline theory and attendant policies of the 1960s. The reforms that the regime promises today will never take place, if for no other reason than because this is the way the ruling class is built and functions. Those who make promises otherwise are part of the problem. The specific structure of class exploitation within Chinese society is an example of this historical development. The Chinese ruling class has adopted a unique mode of governance: open repression combined with older methods of social control such as the hukou. That was the case during the GCR, it was the case during the 1989 Tian’anmen revolt, and it is still the case during today’s strikes and peasant revolts.

The structural weaknesses of the Chinese economy are now becoming obvious even to mainstream journalists. As in other capitalist countries, the economy’s uncoordinated nature (despite the state control) is bound to create chaos, catastrophic situations, and large-scale social disasters. Given the central place this economy takes in the contemporary global system, the consequences of this disequilibrium may be enormous. Wu’s valuable book reminds us that the Chinese people are not always passive and subdued, that a strong culture of rebellion exists. They can also subvert bureaucratic forms of oppression and self-organize for an equalitarian society. While this remains a scary thought for the Chinese ruling class and its friends, it is a sign of hope for the future for the rest of us.


[1]. Murong Xuecun, “Corrupting the Chinese Language,” New York Times, May 27, 2015. 

[2]. A recent example: Hongsheng Jiang, The Paris Commune in Shanghai: The Masses, the State, and Dynamics of “Continuous Revolution” ( Jiang claims that during the GCR “democracy made big steps amongst the workers,” presents the Gang of Four as “great proletarian heroes,” and pays tribute “to the greatest Chinese leader Mao Zedong.” The paper was published in French (La commune de Shanghai, La fabrique, Paris, 2014) with an introduction by Alain Badiou, who characterized the GCR as “the most memorable democratic mobilization the world had ever known.”

[3]. For instance:Gordon A. Bennett and Ronald N. Montaperto, The Political Biography of Dai Hsiao-ai (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1971); Ken Ling, The Revenge of Heaven: From Schoolboy to Little General” in Mao’s Army (New York: Putnam, 1972); and especially because of his role in the Guangxi Red Guards, Hua Linshan, Les années rouges (Paris: Seuil, 1987).

[4]. Richard Kraus, The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press: 2012), 16.

[5]. E. P. Thompson, “Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle without Class?,” Social History 3, no. 1 (1978): 149.

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Citation: George Reeve. Review of Wu, Yiching, The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. October, 2015.

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