Friday, July 12, 2013

The Chinese Cultural Revolution and Mao's "creative destruction" (political-theory wonky)

With Obama's Pacific Pivot, I expect we'll see more ideological and military arguments built around China, aimed at interpreting Chinese policies. And, of course, using those interpretations to argue for policies good, bad and confused. (On the Pacific Pivot, see Congressional Research Service, Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s "Rebalancing" Toward Asia 03/28/2012)

The Great Helmsman and his adoring public

Orville Schell and John Delury in Chairman of the Board: How Mao unintentionally created China's capitalist revolution Foreign Policy 07/12/2013 make an argument that the Cultural Revolution in China was a successful modernizing effort, although the results in the last few decades have looked very different from what Mao Zedong presumably envisioned:

Seen through such a historical lens, the wrecking ball of Mao's revolution can appear in a different light, as an instrument that was savage but necessary to clear the way for whatever might follow. It is true that Mao's final two decades -- from the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Great Leap Forward through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution -- were to a horrifying degree "lost" years for China. Tens of millions of people endured persecution in the name of Mao's "permanent revolution;" tens of millions more died from the famine caused by Mao's reckless economic policies. [This is a reference to a famine that preceded the Cultural Revolution; see below.] As Chen Yun, Mao's comrade in arms since the 1930s, summed up his legacy: "Had Chairman Mao died in 1956, there would have been no doubt that he was a great leader of the Chinese people.... Had he died in 1966, his meritorious achievements would have been somewhat tarnished, but his overall record was still very good. Since he actually died in 1976, there is nothing we can do about it."

Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao's most uncompromising nihilism that demolished China's old society, freeing Chinese from their traditional moorings. Mao's brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China's subsequent boom under Deng and his successors, catapulting the Chinese into their present single-minded and unrestrained pursuit of wealth and power.

Even Harvard's John Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States (and by no means a Mao enthusiast), could appreciate the purgative virtue of the Chairman's permanent revolution. "In the old society teachers were venerated by students, women were submissive to their husbands, and age was deferred to by youth," wrote Fairbank in 1980. "Breaking down such a system took a long time because one had to change one's basic values and assumptions accepted in childhood. The times called for a leader of violent willpower, a man so determined to smash the old bureaucratic establishment that he would stop at nothing." [my emphasis]
It's hard to know whether this a brutally Realist analysis of results or a Hegelian idealist view of Mao as a "world-historical" figure.

An event surrounded by ideological passion

I do know that the Cultural Revolution is an issue around which plenty of ideological mine fields have been planted from the time it was occurring. Evaluating it calls for caution. German historian Götz Aly, for instance, scolds his former fellow radicals from The Sixties in his book, Unser Kampf: 1968-Ein irritierter Blick zurück (2008) for not having been properly outraged at the bad sides of the Cultural Revolution in China. In "The Sixties," some radicals in Europe and the US took the Cultural Revolution to be an expression of a democratic upheaval involving a massive student movement.

Aly's book is a useful history of the "68er" movement in Germany. But his polemic harshly scolding his former militant comrades for being insufficiently repentant for ever having been attracted to the symbolism of Mao or the Cultural Revolution is odd. On the one hand, he makes a fairly banal point that looking for revolutionary inspiration in countries you don't really know much about is famously tricky business.

But like much of such criticism, Aly also comes off sounding like he's embarrassed at having been young and is relieved to be able to criticize others who were once young but are not embarrassed enough about it for his taste.

Because, as Aly himself explains, for many German radicals of the late 1960s, a Mao image or rhetorical support for the Cultural Revolution was a symbolic statement of rebellion, not a deeply informed commitment. How many kids today who wear a Ché t-shirt see Ché Guevara as anything more than a vague statement of rebellion, of unconventionality, or even of individuality, though the real existing Ché of history was hardly a prophet of individualism? Maoism was not an ideology that found mass support in West Germany. Or East Germany, for that matter, since Soviet-line Communism rejected Maoism at least as intensely as Western anti-Communists did.

Aly quotes the now-legendary German student leader Rudi Dutschke (requiring the reader to go to an endnote to see who he's quoting) praising the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as an example of "permanent revolution" in which mass pressure and activism was being used to sweep aside "petrified institutions" faster than would be possible by other means. This is pretty much what Schell and Delury say in the Foreign Policy article, though in less a tone of admiration. Aly apparently thinks Dutschke was obtuse or cynical in rejecting the idea that the Cultural Revolution was primarily a instance of orchestrated state "terror."

I may return in another post to unpacking this argument that Aly makes in Unser Kampf. He makes a point that is partially valid, that a movement like that of the German "68ers" that prominently criticized their parents' generation for being insufficiently critical of the Nazis should also have been more reflective in embracing a leader like Mao and a mass movement like the Cultural Revolution that had some clearly ugly sides. But he also embeds it in a dubious framework that sounds uncomfortably like a neoconservative polemic with a Trotskyist-like edge. Briefly put, criticizing Germans in Germany for insufficiently responding to the German Nazis and their crimes is not really the same thing as criticizing young Germans in Germany for being naive about events in China of which they were were basically only vaguely aware and which had mainly a symbolic value for them. (I also discussed Aly's book in "1968" in Germany 01/01/2009.)

He points to the work of Jürgen Domes (1932-2001), a German scholar who seems to have had a pretty realistic view of what was going on in the Cultural Revolution at the time. In an obituary for Domes in The China Quarterly 168 (Dec 2001), Eberhard Sandschneider describes Domes as:

... one of the leading figures of contemporary China studies in Europe. Indeed, Jürgen Domes was one of the first German political scientists to work on contemporary China. He approached his subject from a strictly disciplinary perspective, his fluency in Chinese allowing him to base his analyses on primary sources. For almost four decades, he was one of the most internationally renowned German scholars working on contemporary China.
And Sandschneider agrees with Aly that student activists during the late 1960s in Berlin in particular, the most active center of the student movement, could have gotten more realistic information about the Cultural Revolution from Domes if they had sought it:

During the turbulent years of the student movement in (West) Berlin, Jürgen Domes belonged to those who insisted on academic standards. He became known not only for criticizing the Cultural Revolution in his academic work, but also for opposing those who easily fell victim to [the Chinese Communist newspaper] People's Daily propaganda in order to push their own personal [?!] interests. It must have been a difficult time for him, which he himself never mentioned except for the occasional short, sarcastic comment. He suffered many blows in silence but finally left Berlin unbroken in his attitude, although looking back to his time there with bitterness.
But activists like Dutschke - whose personal philosophy was based on his Protestant Christian religious faith which he never renounced - weren't focused on Chinese scholarship, but on Changing The World. In terms of his political ideology, Dutschke was more of a Guevarist (i.e., start the revolution and the masses will rally around) than a Maoist, plus a heavy strain of German nationalism in his dedication to German unification.

The point of this excursion into the politics of the student movement of the 1960s in Germany is to illustrate what I said above: the Cultural Revolution is an issue around which plenty of ideological mine fields have been planted.

Geostrategic competition

Since we're talking here about not just events as they occurred but how they were translated into ideology, it's important to remember that not just young admirers of Ché Guevara in Berlin found encouraging aspects to the Cultural Revolution. So did Western Cold War strategists who were following the split between the Soviet Union and China. It had begun in a serious way in the 1950s - Mao's last visit to the Soviet Union was in 1957 - and was about as open as it could be in the 1960s. With national liberation movements a prominent feature of the post-Second World War international political landscape, a great deal of the ideological polemics between the two Communist powers centered around the question of the nature of those movements and the lessons to be drawn from them. Mao and the Chinese Communists insisted on a devotion to armed revolution. The Soviets defended the possibility of a "peaceful transition to socialism" while holding up the USSR as the more devoted friend of national-liberation movements like the one led by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.

For many leftwing political activists in the West and elsewhere, this made China the more militant-looking protagonist in that debate, giving Maoism a (colloquially speaking) romantic air that Soviet-style Communism did not have for them.

For Western nations, the Sino-Soviet split was a geostrategic opportunity to be exploited, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were able to do in a dramatic way during the Nixon Administration.

But the Sino-Soviet split was not just about national liberation wars. It was a high-stakes competition for ideological influence among potential sympathizers all over the world. So distinctive Maoist internal projects, notably the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the Cultural Revolution, were roundly condemned by the Soviet Union. This added considerably to the ideological fog around those events. From the standpoint of the USSR and Soviet-line Communist Parties, such projects were "voluntarist", and their contrast to the Soviet model made them "revisionist" or even "anti-Communist."

In the Cold War world, the "anti-Communist" aspect of Maoism, i.e., its opposition to the Soviet Union and to Soviet political models, made it appealing to Western strategists as a way to weaken the USSR. And part of the appeal of the symbolism of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution to leftwing activists like Rudi Dutschke was undoubtedly its "anti-Communist" (anti-Soviet) aspects. Dutschke was an East German, and he wanted to see the Soviet-style East German regime replaced as much as he wanted the West German capitalist one changed.

The Maoist experiments

The Great Leap Forward was an effort by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party to leapfrog the Soviet model of industrialization and agricultural collectivization. It involved using rural communes to boost labor productivity. It also famously featured small-scale efforts to produce steel, which failed badly.

There's a serious body count involved with the Great Leap Forward. Not mass murder, but starvation partially as a result of the project's failure. As always, I go to the Encyclopædia Britannica for a baseline scholarly if stodgy view, in this case "Great Leap Forward"; Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite (2012). Their verdict:

The inefficiency of the communes and the large-scale diversion of farm labour into small-scale industry disrupted China's agriculture seriously, and three consecutive years of natural calamities added to what quickly turned into a national disaster; in all, about 20 million people were estimated to have died of starvation between 1959 and 1962.
By Britannica's standards, Götz Aly and Jürgen Domes were rank apologists for the brutality of Mao Zedong. Aly recounts that in 1964, Domes calculated between the Great Leap Forward failures and those natural catastrophes, 10.5 million people died of starvation.

I hate digging into these historical body count questions. But they are part of history, as nasty as it may be to reflect on them.

Jonathan Spence in his short biography Mao Zedong (1999) doesn't specify the number of starvation victims. But he does explain the historical context:

By 1960 famine began to strike large areas of the country. ...

In 1960 the famine tightened its grip across the country, exacerbated not only by a devastating drought that ruined crops on almost half of China's farmland, but also by an erratic pattern of south-to-north typhoons that brought violent wind damage and murderous flash floods. In many areas for which accurate figures became available, between a fifth to a half of all the villagers died, with Anhui province perhaps suffering the most. And yet, so pervasive was the force of Mao's words at Lushan, that many of the fundamental principles of the Great Leap were maintained. Communes continued to be run on the radical and egalitarian principles enunciated in 1957 and 1958. Extraction of rural "surpluses" continued, to support industry and subsidize food prices in the cities. Many peasants were taken from the land to boost the industrial labor force in the cities, where urban communes were now introduced widely, to bring the same principles of mixed and intensified production to factories, schools, and offices.
No doubt, in coming years we'll hear advocates of more aggressive confrontation with China reference such events. If the Cold War pattern persists - and it does - this mass starvation will be presented polemically as an example of Chinese indifference to human life. As Götz Aly reminds us, trying to be realistic about understanding such events is worth the effort.

Our friends at Brittanica provide us a signed article by Kenneth Lieberthal on the "Cultural Revolution," which Lieberthal dates as 1966–1976. (At this writing, Wikipedia agrees with Lieberthal's dating.) Lieberthal gives us the basics:

Programs carried out by his colleagues to bring China out of the economic depression caused by the Great Leap Forward made Mao doubt their revolutionary commitment and also resent his own diminished role. He especially feared urban social stratification in a society as traditionally elitist as China. Mao thus ultimately adopted four goals for the Cultural Revolution: to replace his designated successors with leaders more faithful to his current thinking; to rectify the Chinese Communist Party; to provide China's youths with a revolutionary experience; and to achieve some specific policy changes so as to make the educational, health care, and cultural systems less elitist. He initially pursued these goals through a massive mobilization of the country's urban youths. They were organized into groups called the Red Guards, and Mao ordered the party and the army not to suppress the movement. [my emphasis]
Lieberthal refrains from providing a body count for the Cultural Revolution. (Citing a January 1967 statement by China's Foreign Minsiter, Aly gives a 400,000 figure.) But Lieberthal presents its results as a failed experience that resulted in lost economic growth, a drastic loss of educational experience for millions of students who "were denied an education and taught to redress grievances by taking to the streets" and who were unable to make up the lost opportunities later, and an increase in corruption as "the fears engendered by the Cultural Revolution and the scarcity of goods that accompanied it forced people to fall back on traditional personal relationships and on bribery and other forms of persuasion to accomplish their goals." He concludes, "Perhaps never before in human history has a political leader unleashed such massive forces against the system that he created. The resulting damage to that system was profound, and the goals that Mao sought to achieve ultimately remained elusive."

Schell and Delury, in contrast, see the Cultural Revolution as having accomplished a fairly remarkable clearing away of the social barriers to economic progress, although they understand it as a capitalist kind of progress that Mao himself didn't envision. While that's true, China today is not operating its economy according to the neoliberal prescriptions of what not so long ago was known as the "Washington Consensus." The fact that American conservative for decades have treated China as an honorary capitalist country, that doesn't mean it accepts Washington's approach or Angela Merkel's "ordoliberalism" in economic policy.

Spence's account gives a sense of what an adventurist undertaking the Cultural Revolution was. Calling it a "strangely apocalyptic mission," he quotes Mao's description of his concept that it was necessary to periodically "set fires" to keep the revolutionary spirit vital. Thomas Jefferson famously made a similar observation in more sanguinary language: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure." (Letter to William Stephens Smith 11/13/1787) This was, however, during his time as Ambassador to France from the new revolutionary republic of America. During his two terms as President, he was presumably not so eager to see such nourishment applied to the tree of liberty.

Mao was. "It's certainly not easy to set a fire to burn oneself. I've hear that around this area there were some people who had second thoughts and didn't set a big fire," he said. (Spence) And it got ugly. A Central Case Examination Group chaired by Premier Zhou Enlai was set up to conduct mass party purges and disciplinary actions. Spence:

Torture [US English 2013: enhanced interrogation], sleep deprivation, round-the-clock group interrogations, withholding of food, and many types of mental and physical pressure were used by the case investigators - in virtually all cases their victims were prominent or even once-revered revolutionaries. Peng Dehuai [a senior official] was brought back from Sichuan to face his own group of investigators. Incarcerated in high-security prisons (of which Qincheng was the most terrifyingly notorious), the victims could not write letters home or see family. Letters they wrote to Mao or Zhou Enlai requesting more compassionate treatment were filed away, unread. Only "confessions" were considered a tolerable form of writing.

These political prisoners only encountered the outside "revolutionary masses" at carefully orchestrated occasions. Red Guard groups would use printed forms to apply to "borrow" one of the victims, as long as they were "returned promptly." Red Guard units might have to pay the cost of renting a place for these confrontations, which would then be advertised in advance. Certain "struggle rallies" were postponed in case of rain, and some victims were in such demand that their appearances had to be limited to three denunciations a week. Liu Shaoqi died from these experiences, as did Peng Dehuai. Deng Xiaoping survived, perhaps because Mao only intended to intimidate him, not to destroy him altogether. This system of case investigation was spread systematically to the provinces, and by the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 as many as two million cadres had been investigated by these or similar means.
Although the Cultural Revolution is understood to have continued until 1976, the year Mao died, Spence notes that for many people "the height of its political fury was during 1966 and 1967," though it continued to be a major aspect of Chinese political and cultural life until 1976.

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