A New 'Document of the Month' from Michael Schoenhals (March 2014)

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The PRC History Group presents the second installment in the Document of the Month Series, curated by Michael Schoenhals.  View the entire series at prchistory.org

March 2014

What Is to Be Done? A Note from the Communist Underground (1961)


(click on the link above to view the full document)

If our textbook histories are to be believed, radicalized Red Guards were the first to challenge actually existing socialism after 1949 from the left – from an ideological position that claimed for itself the status of being both revolutionary and Marxist. From before 1966, precious few records suggesting anything else survive in writing or collective memory. Which is, hopefully, what should make this slightly idiosyncratic Document of the Month interesting….

Dating from 1 August 1961, “Our Guiding Principle and Tasks” is a brief programmatic text, written by one Bian Yigui, a twenty-one year old worker from Harbin’s large state-owned Factory No. 120. It has been preserved in a Public Security Bureau (PSB) case file on a group of bookish but bold Harbin youths who called themselves the “China Communism Study Group” (Zhongguo gongchanzhuyi xuexi xiaozu). The file contains a handful of additional texts (e.g. membership oath, rules of discipline, rights and obligations, general discussion) written by Bian, extracts from a diary and letters, various Public Security interrogation protocols, and selected case group reports. Initially, the local authorities had merely designated the group “reactionary” in nature and dealt leniently with it, but after reviewing the concluded case, the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing objected and in April 1963 Bian and his friends were formally labeled a “Counter-revolutionary clique.” What exactly happened to them after that is not known.

The handwritten original survives only in the form of six black & white photographs from the PSB file mentioned above. I picked up the file in a Beijing flea market in 2012. The typed out transcript is my own.

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I don't know about others' thoughts, but in addition to being hugely grateful to Michael for sharing this document, two rather free associations come to mind for me -- 

- Counter-revolutionary seems to be the right assessment, at least ideologically.  There is a clear and willful impetus to re-work the official state language of Marxist-Leninism, re-examine the principles of the transition to communism (a particularly telling move post-Leap), and to do so under the mantle of Mao Zedong Thought though with no real engagement with that canon.  Rather, the program of action seems to emphasize inductive, empirical research which, read closely, implies a key contradiction between the interests of proletarians (i.e. most members of society) and the interests of the powers-that-be, not excluding the 党中央.  The program is open-ended and critical in orientation.

- On a comparative note, I wonder if it's possible  to talk about youth counter-cultures and alternative lifestyles in the early 1960s.  I've seen hints of what the Shanghai CCP Propaganda Department called "阿飞" behavior and dress in the Shanghai Municipal Archives (the only municipal archive I've visited for which I was able to get robust post-Leap materials from "A" series, i.e. CCP committee and department files ).  Men and women could be "阿飞," which again carried connotations of a certain mode of dress coupled with semi-public hanging out and what was then described as rather louche or hedonistic in orientation.  There's a great project on "dropping out" of socialism, based at the University of Bristol, which others might be interested in this connection (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/research/dropping-out/).  But here again what's so different about the Bian Yigui group is that they seem to be "dropping in," i.e. claiming to revisit and intellectually re-engage with the very principles on which post-1949 society was supposedly founded.

I join Matt in thanking Michael for these amazing documents. Also, I know Julian Fürst who directs the Bristol project and her work is excellent.

What struck me about the Bian Yigui text was that it shows how Maoism (and Maoist language, specifically) could be used to authorize the creation of independent (?) political subjects. As Matt mentioned, this is a program of sort of a group that finds in Marxism-Leninism the formulas and the arguments for discussing politics outside the proper locations for politics (i.e. the Party). This is a move that we usually associate with the Cultural Revolution (and the global sixties in general) but in 1966-68 there are always doubts on how much "authorization" red guards groups received from above, how connected the early rebels were to the CCP, etc. Here you have workers —literate in the Maoist language—who are, from what it seems, self-authorizing as political subjects, precisely by using that language.
I wish we had the texts relative to their indictment to see how that language gets repurposed once again.

Thanks, guys, for taking an interest. I'm so deep in the muck of all this, I don't always realize just what other people find interesting and why. Fabio asked for some more of the "texts relative to their indictment" which should not be a problem, if you can give me some time. I will post an URL here in due course and upload the scanned texts to my university website, the one I mention in my short report on research in Sweden, posted on the PRCHISTORY.ORG "Research Notes" page.

Meanwhile, I also want to draw everybody's attention to a short piece by 徐海亮 in《华夏文摘》some years ago (#522, 23 August 2006) entitled “我的文革见闻--另一类学生与文革”. In it, Hailiang talks about a not entirely dissimilar group of young people in Wuhan who, before the Cultural Revolution, like Bian and his friends also underwent a process of (what I believe in politically correct English these days is called) "self-radicalization".