Cultural Revolution: A Brief Overview
from William A. Joseph, “Cultural Revolution,”
in Joel Krieger, Editor-in-Chief, with William A. Joseph, et. al., The Oxford
Companion to Politics of the World,
2nd edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) was launched
by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong to
stem what he perceived as the country's drift away from
socialism and toward the “restoration of capitalism.” The
campaign, which was euphorically described at its inception
by its progenitors as “a great revolution that touches
people to their very souls” and which inspired radical
students from Paris to Berkeley, is now regarded as having
been a terrible catastrophe for the Chinese nation.
The origins of
the Cultural Revolution can be traced to the mid–1950s
when Mao first became seriously concerned about the path
that China's socialist transition had taken in the years
since the CCP had come to power in 1949. His anxieties
about the bureaucratization of the party, ideological degeneration
in society as a whole, and the glaring socioeconomic inequalities
that had emerged as China modernized escalated through
the early 1960s and propelled him to embark on a crusade
to expunge the “revisionism” that he believed
was contaminating the party and the nation.
that the source of China's political retrogression lay
in the false and self–serving view of many of his
party colleagues that class struggle ceased under socialism.
On the contrary, the chairman concluded, the struggle between
proletarian and bourgeois ideologies took on new, insidious
forms even after the landlord and capitalist classes had
been eliminated. The principal targets of Mao's ire were,
on the one hand, party and government officials who he
felt had become a “new class” divorced from
the masses and, on the other, intellectuals who, in his
view, were the repository of bourgeois and even feudal
to undertake the Cultural Revolution was strongly influenced
by his analysis that the Soviet Union had already abandoned
socialism for capitalism. The Cultural Revolution was also
a power struggle in which Mao fought to recapture from
his political rivals some of the authority and prestige
that he had lost as a result of earlier policy failures.
Furthermore, Mao saw the Cultural Revolution as an opportunity
to forge a “generation of revolutionary successors” by
preparing China's youth to inherit the mantle of those
who had originally brought the CCP to power.
There was also
a policy dimension to the Cultural Revolution: once those
who were thought to be leading China down the “capitalist
road” had been dislodged from power at all levels
of society, a wide range of truly socialist institutions
and processes (“sprouts of communism”) were
to be put in place to give life to the vision of the Cultural
Revolution. For example, elitism in education was to be
replaced by schools with revamped, politicized curricula,
mass–based administration, and advancement criteria
that stressed good class background, political activism
and ideological correctness.
The complex and
convoluted history of the Cultural Revolution can be roughly
divided into three major phases. The mass phase (1966–1969)
was dominated by the Red Guards, the more than 20 million
high–school and college students who responded to
Mao's call to “make revolution,” and their
often–vicious efforts to ferret out “class
enemies” wherever they were suspected to lurk. During
this stage, most of Mao's rivals in the top leadership
were deposed, including China's president, Liu Shaoqi.
phase (1969–1971) began after the People's Liberation
Army had gained ascendancy in Chinese politics by suppressing,
with Mao's approval, the anarchy of the Red Guards. It
ended with the alleged coup attempt in September 1971 by
Mao's disgruntled heir, Defense Minister Lin Biao, who
had also been one of the Chairman's main allies in launching
the Cultural Revolution.
phase (1972–1976) was an intense political and ideological
tug–of–war between radical ideologues and veteran
cadres over whether to continue or curtail the policies
of the Cultural Revolution. Underlying this conflict was
a bitter struggle over which group would control the succession
to the two paramount leaders of the CCP, Chairman Mao and
Premier Zhou Enlai, both of whom were in deteriorating
health by the early 1970s. The decisive lot in this struggle
was cast when the most prominent radicals (the “Gang
of Four,” which included Mao's widow, Jiang Qing)
were preemptively arrested in October 1976, a month after
the Chairman's death, by a coalition of more moderate leaders.
The arrest of the Gang of Four is said to mark the official
end of China's Cultural Revolution.
Revolution is now referred to in China as the “decade
of chaos” and is generally regarded as one of the
bleakest periods in the country's modern history. The movement's
ideals were betrayed at every turn by its destructive impulses.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of officials and
intellectuals were physically and mentally persecuted.
The much–vaunted initiatives that were to transform
the nation often had disastrous consequences for China's
education and cultural life. Economic development was disrupted
by factional strife and misguided “ultraleftist” policies.
economic policies that China has followed since Deng Xiaoping
came to power in the late 1970s represent a thorough repudiation
of everything the Cultural Revolution stood for. Nevertheless
the memory of the movement still casts an ominous shadow
over Chinese politics. Deng, who was purged during the
Cultural Revolution as one of China's leading “capitalist
roaders,” and the other elderly leaders who made
the decision to crush the Tiananmen Square protests in
June 1989 feared that, left unchecked, the demonstrations
would snowball into Red Guard-like chaos. After Deng's
death in 1997, his successors have continued to cite the
experience of the Cultural Revolution as one of the reasons
China cannot risk the disorder that democracy, by challenging
Party authority, might bring to the country.
Maintained by: Professor
William A. Joseph
Department of Political Science
Created By: Giuliana Funkhouser '04 and Joyce Hsu '05
Page Created: August 8, 2003
February 11, 2010
Page Expires: August 8, 2004