What the Cultural Revolution Teaches Us about China—And America Today

By Emily Dong.

Based on a presentation given July 30, 2021 at the symposium “Mao Zedong: Revolutionary Genius in the Fight for People’s Democracy” as a part of the Saturday Free School and Church of the Advocate’s Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China

In the face of losing its grip on the world, the American ruling elite and state are escalating antagonism and propaganda against a rising China. In such times, it is imperative for people to seek the truth about the world and fight for ideological clarity. One of the most contentious, loaded facts of history to get straight in understanding China is that of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976.

The Cultural Revolution was a significant period with lasting effects on the Chinese people and the Communist Party of China today. In the West however, the Cultural Revolution is always brought up when talking about China or Mao Zedong as an indictment against Mao, the Party, and modern China’s “autocratic” and dictatorial rule. Along with the Great Leap Forward, Western scholars hold the Cultural Revolution over China’s head as evidence of the Communist Party’s criminality, failures, immorality, and ultimately its incapacity to govern its people.

Worse yet, it is extremely difficult to obtain facts of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution without sensationalism and imperialist bias against the rise of China. Contrary to Western propaganda’s insistence that the Communist “dictatorship” sweeps its failures under the rug, the Communist Party of China itself spent time discussing the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and leadership at that time after the period ended. The Party clarified the crimes of and lessons learned from the Cultural Revolution in its public 1981 assessment from the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, titled “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.” In a sea of intentional misinformation about China, these originally Chinese-language documents are critical in understanding such a controversial period, the role of Mao, and the Communist Party of China’s evolution from the perspective of the Chinese people.

Defining the Cultural Revolution

In its 1981 assessment, the Communist Party of China completely negates the Cultural Revolution, identifying it as responsible for “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.” The first thing the assessment clarifies about the Cultural Revolution is that it was initiated and led by Mao Zedong. The assessment explains that Mao’s thesis leading up to 1966 was that bourgeois and counterrevolutionary revisionists were in the Party. He believed revisionists were pursuing the wrong political and organizational line which threatened Marxism and the whole project of the people. 

Part of understanding this thesis is that preceding the Cultural Revolution, there were internal disagreements occurring between the “Left” and “Right” forces within the Party in regards to economic development. “Left” forces in the Party still believed in expanding China’s internal class struggle, when the main contradiction at that time was the country’s backward means of production which could not meet the needs of the Chinese people. 

These disagreements were exacerbated by the 1958 Great Leap Forward, China’s second Five Year Plan, which the Party explains consisted of excessive economic goals, arbitrary directions, boastfulness, and stirring of “communist wind.” Mao and his comrades were impatient and overestimated man’s subjective will and efforts, leading to many economic failures during an economically important and fragile time for the People’s Republic. Mao believed the Chinese people could miraculously leap over stages of economic development immediately to socialism. The 1981 resolution explains that ultimately the Party’s leadership had a lack of experience in socialist construction as well as inadequate understanding of laws of economic development and basic economic conditions of China, all of which contributed to economic setbacks.

Amidst this internal critique and disagreement about the Great Leap Forward’s “leftist” errors, Mao believed that power could only be taken back from “capitalist roaders,” who suggested prioritizing development of productive forces via capitalism, by mobilizing the broad masses and enacting another political revolution in which one class would overthrow another—one with a zeal greater than that of the original Chinese revolution. This was Mao’s “theory of continued revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.” 

The issue with “continued revolution” was that class struggle was no longer the primary contradiction. With the Party firmly in power and ready to serve the people, developing the national economy to stabilize the country, provide for the people, and defend China from imperialism was now the critical goal. If anything, now all classes of people, from the peasants and workers to the intellectuals and remaining bourgeoisie should unite around the goal of economic development in the name of defending the People’s Republic from Western imperialists who wanted to see it fall.

During the Cultural Revolution, young people were encouraged to go against anything “imperialist” or “bourgeois” such as Confucianism, which had been the ethical backbone of Chinese civilization for millenia and shaped the Party leadership itself. Youth, students, and the Red Guards rebelled against authority figures, who were anyone from the “revisionist” Deng Xiaoping to local teachers and administrators. This is an important historical lesson for America today, when young people and University students not only themselves aspire to be “radical” but are also miseducated and misled in what is revolutionary or radical. Institutions, organizations, and the Left all use agitating and mobilizing earnest young students to “take action” as their strategy for furthering their agendas, rather than grounding young people in revolutionary values and politics which must come from and be close to ordinary, working people. 

Most critically, the Cultural Revolution threatened to destroy the Communist Party and the whole country by stoking vicious internal factionalization of the Party. With the Red Guards and young people rebelling against order in the pursuit of radical “continued revolution” and the Party facing internal finger-pointing of who’s revolutionary or revisionist, the 1981 assessment emphasizes one of the key ideological and political lessons learned — clarity of what defines revolution and what is revolutionary:

“Practice has shown that the cultural revolution did not in fact constitute a revolution or social progress in any sense, nor could it possibly have done so. It was we and not the enemy at all who were thrown into disorder by the ‘cultural revolution.’” 

Does your so-called revolution unite the people, or does it unite the enemy and disrupt the people? This is a very apt quote for Americans today in discerning between a revolution and a woke “movement” with slogans that are immediately, easily adopted by the ruling elite and the state.

The Cultural Revolution caused severe economic setbacks which prevented concrete progress for the people. The 1981 assessment bluntly states that the Cultural Revolution unraveled all that the Party and the people fought and sacrificed for:

“It negated much of the work of the Central Committee of the Party and the People’s Government, including Comrade Mao Zedong’s own contribution. It negated the arduous struggles the entire people had conducted in socialist construction.”

The Cultural Revolution’s effects were not just economic but ideological. The Communist Party of China made it a point in the 1981 assessment to explain that the Cultural Revolution dangerously distorted the Party’s and the people’s understanding of the truth: “The confusing of right and wrong inevitably led to confusing the people with the enemy.”

Assessing Mao Zedong and His Role

The Communist Party of China condemns Mao’s initiation of the Cultural Revolution but does not negate him or his major contributions which allowed a new China to be born. The 1981 assessment also repeatedly explains the importance of not blaming the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution on Mao as a personal figure. This would not only be ahistorical but also confuse the Party and the people more. Instead, the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s thesis behind it were ideological and political mistakes, products of the historical context and the arduous, difficult, and human process of building a new nation for the people:

“From the Marxist viewpoint, this complex phenomenon was the product of given historical conditions. Blaming this on only one person or on only a handful of people will not provide a deep lesson for the whole Party or enable us to find practical ways to change the situation.”

Although an assessment of the Cultural Revolution, the 1981 resolution actually begins with a comprehensive history of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, from twenty-eight years before its founding to thirty-two years after its founding. The Party lifts up the historical context of the Cultural Revolution so that people understand how the period was a result of historical factors, rather than personal whims. I also believe that providing the history of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is a form of political education for the people. It reminds everyone of all that was sacrificed for the Chinese people’s freedom and that must be protected.

The 1981 assessment states that the Party’s top leadership must share responsibility, rather than pinning all mistakes and crimes on Mao:

“Although Comrade Mao Zedong must be held chiefly responsible, we cannot lay the blame for all those errors on him alone. During this period, his theoretical and practical mistakes concerning class struggle in a socialist society became increasingly serious, his personal arbitrariness gradually undermined democratic centralism in Party life and the personality cult grew graver and graver. The Central Committee of the Party failed to rectify these mistakes in good time.”

Deng Xiaoping, in his edits and remarks on the successive drafts of the 1981 assessment, even stated, “What is most important is the question of systems and institutions.” Despite being ousted from the Party during the Cultural Revolution for disagreeing with leftists errors, Deng understood the importance of the 1981 public resolution on the Cultural Revolution in clarifying history, the Party’s duty, and the truth. By understanding mistakes as results of history, rather than individual personality, and clarifying Party leadership’s shared responsibility, future leadership, cadre, and the people can learn from history — how to never let such a period occur again and endanger the People’s Republic.

The 1981 assessment emphasizes that Mao Zedong’s contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes in his later years. Chinese Communists, with Mao as their chief representative, made a theoretical synthesis of China’s unique experience and civilization with Marxism-Leninism. Mao’s steadfast belief in the masses of Chinese peasants as the principal revolutionary force saved and liberated the largest Eastern semicolonial, semi-feudal country. He believed that the proletariat, with its progressive ideology and sense of organization and discipline, with the peasants would lead China to victory.

“Agnes Smedley(far right) with her friends Mao Tsetung(left) and general Chu Teh in Yenan guerilla base.” 1937, Source
Photographer: Helen Foster Snow

The 1981 assessment details the values of Mao’s philosophic and ideological work in advancing the uplift of the people and guiding future generations of cadre forward, listing out Mao’s most important works. For example, it highlights Mao’s point from his 1942 Yan’an talks that culture is a reflection of the politics and economics of a society. Intellectuals and artists must identify with the peasants and workers, and ask the question of “for whom” is art and culture for. The 1981 assessment states the three main ideas of Mao Zedong Thought: Seek truth from facts, the mass line, and national independence. 

By emphasizing the specific merits of Mao Zedong’s leadership and ideological contributions to the people, the 1981 assessment, made transparent and public to the people, not only provides political education in a time of crisis but also shows that “continued revolution” completely goes against Mao Zedong Thought, the ideology and practice of the Chinese revolution as defined by the Long March and founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The Party’s Path Forward

The most striking thing about the Communist Party of China’s 1981 assessment of the Cultural Revolution is its emphasis on knowing, understanding, and thus learning from the history as to never make the same mistakes again:

“Our Party has both the courage to acknowledge and correct its mistakes and the determination and ability to prevent repetition of the serious mistakes of the past.”

The existence of the 1981 assessment and its scientific approach to understanding and clarifying such a difficult, chaotic period debunks the Western notion that the Chinese people, victims of Communist dictatorship and repression, are kept in ignorance of the Cultural Revolution’s and the Party’s failures. Actually, it is clear from the 1981 resolution that the Party knows it is accountable to the people, and will provide the facts so that the people may keep the Party accountable. 

This is a stark contrast to America’s political and ideological landscape today, where elected leaders and political parties are not held accountable to what they do (or fail to do) for the people. Personal attributes of leaders carry more weight for praise or blame than the actual policies and political and moral stances taken. A politician is more likely to be judged on whether they say something “problematic” according to what has been deemed correct by woke elites rather than what has been concretely done for the masses of people. Past and present figures and events are “cancelled” and relegated to be forgotten rather than analyzed, learned from, and evolved upon. In America, people are encouraged to cancel history rather than learn from history.

For example, one of the most turbulent and controversial periods in American history was the Civil War. It has become much easier to say the South wanted slavery, the North did not. The South was bad, the North good. The South is racist, the North is not. The only scientific effort to truthfully clarify and learn from this historical period was W.E.B. Du Bois in his work Black Reconstruction. Armed with the purpose of the Truth, he applied philosophy in understanding the various human forces involved the Civil War, identified the unfulfilled promise of democracy in America due to the Color Line, and clarified the damning compromises and unholy alliances made between Northern industrialists and Southern aristocrats and the White Worker, all to prevent the unity of the Black Worker and White Worker in a revolutionary alliance.

Ironically, it was African American revolutionaries like Du Bois and Paul Robeson, rather than today’s Left, radicals, or progressives, who appreciated the American Revolution and this country’s revolutionary tradition and potential. They asked what America could become and achieve for its people and humanity if only it could confront and learn from the truth of its history. Close to every founding father and American President, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been cancelled, yet the system and institutions protecting the ruling elite still stand.

The Communist Party of China’s 1981 assessment of the Cultural Revolution takes an opposite approach to its history. By clarifying the history of the country, what historical forces and ideological mistakes led to the Cultural Revolution, and taking responsibility for how setbacks impacted the people, the Communist Party of China gives its leadership, cadre, and the people the critical opportunity to learn from history and always hold the Party accountable to the people.

After a turbulent decade of internal factionalization and a breakdown of trust between the Party and the people, the 1981 resolution consolidated the Party and the people once again. In Deng Xiaoping’s personal remarks on the resolution’s drafts, he reminds his comrades that the Party still existed during the Cultural Revolution. Although leadership must ultimately take responsibility for mistakes made, the Party’s continued functions and attempted mitigations are what saved the country from complete destruction:

“Though the Party’s regular activities stopped for a period, it did in fact exist. If it didn’t, how could we have smashed the Gang of Four without firing a single shot or shedding a single drop of blood?”

Within the relationship between the state, the Party, and the people, the Party must and will protect the people. After a decade of ideological and political confusion, the 1981 assessment renewed the guiding spirit of the nation, as delineated by Mao Zedong Thought: the Truth, revolutionary service and sacrifice for the people, and self-determination in the face of imperialism. Everything is for the people, and the enemy is imperialism and war. 

The Cultural Revolution is not an indictment of the Communist Party of China or Mao Zedong. It is a lesson of the importance of the Party, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat, and how the Communist Party of China saved the Chinese people and country from disaster and swore to learn from history. This is a lesson that is not too late for us in America to learn either.

Further Readings:

“Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” Adopted by the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on June 27, 1981

Remarks On Successive Drafts of the “Resolution On Certain Questions In the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” by Deng Xiaoping, 1981


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