The Cultural Revolution began essentially as a purge launched by Mao against top leaders like Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and the group which dominated the apparatus at that time. They had excluded Mao from direct power after the failure of his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-60). The personal Bonapartist power of Mao was no longer compatible with the interests of a consolidated mature bureaucracy.
But when Mao mobilized students, peasant youth and the unemployed into the Red Guards under radical “anti-bureaucratic” slogans, he undimmed a seething reservoir of discontent.
All the factions in the leadership tried to manipulate the rebellious youth for their own ends. But once in action, the radicalized youth went far beyond Mao’s aim of dislodging his rivals. The spontaneous but politically crude movement exposed the privileges and corruption of the bureaucracy.
Red guards who hauled bureaucrats out of their houses found valuable antiques, luxurious gardens, servants’ quarters, expensive imported clothes, perfumes and liqueurs and other luxuries. Later, when the radical leaders associated with the “Gang of Four” were toppled, they were found to enjoy a similar lifestyle, far removed from the conditions of the vast majority.
However, the Red Guards’ demand for a democratic control from below threatened the very existence of the bureaucracy.
Mao himself was forced to dam the tide. Compromising with his rivals, Mao gave his authority to the use of the army and the militia to subdue the Red Guard. In many regions, factional clashes led to violent, armed conflicts and tens of thousands, possibly millions, perished in the bloody suppression of the movement.
In the period after the cultural revolution, up until Deng’s new supremacy, the party leadership rested with an unstable coalition of factions, with Zhou Enlai as a key balancing figure. Economic policy oscillated between reform, emphasizing modernization, imported technology, incentives to managers and entrepreneurs and return to tighter controls over the economy and the state machine exercised from above by the top leadership in Beijing.
However, the leadership was still dominated by a struggle for control of the apparatus between the “radical leftist” newcomers, who had gained positions during the Cultural Revolution, and the “old guard” bureaucrats. Step by step, the old guard around Zhou Enlai and Deng re-conquered control.
Lin Biao was ousted in 1971. After Mao’s death in 1976, the “leftist” Gang of Four around Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, were put on trial and given life sentences. There was not a murmur of mass protest, which belied their claims to mass support after the Cultural Revolution.
After a transitional period under the “compromise” leader, Hua Guofeng, Deng restored the grip of the old guard bureaucrats.
In his struggle for control, Deng, with great caution, used a similar tactic to Mao. Beginning with the Tiananmen incident in 1977, when tens of thousands commemorated the first anniversary of Zhou Enlai’s death, Deng encouraged mass pressure on his rivals. This led to the so-called “democratic movement”, partly orchestrated by the Deng faction, but also spontaneously expressing the real grievances of young workers, uprooted youth and unemployed school leavers.
The movement involved very mixed social forces, with largely inchoate demands. There was support for the stability and prosperity apparently promised by Deng’s reform policy. But to Deng’s “four (economic) modernizations” the movement added a “fifth modernization”, democracy. Some of those undoubtedly raised liberal capitalist ideas, but others were groping towards the idea of socialist democracy.
Though falling short of a clear program for the overthrow of the bureaucracy and the establishment of workers’ democracy, some of the currents posed an unmistakable threat to the bureaucracy. Predictably, having used the protest movement for his own purposes, Deng moved to suppress it, jailing some of its leading figures and banning its publications.
Such expressions of mass protest, for all their limitations, are a significant pointer for the future, when a new generation based on a strengthened working class and a much higher level of culture, will challenge China’s ruling bureaucracy. Closer ties with the world market, moreover, will mean that movements of the working class internationally will have far more effect on China in the future.
For the time being the Deng leadership is in the ascendant. But those enthusiastic commentators in the queen’s entourage who are hailing Deng as a man with original solutions forget that the 82-year-old veteran is starting once again from where his old boss, Liu Shaoqi, left off before the Cultural Revolution, applying similar reforms to present-day conditions.
Deng does not represent a fundamentally new stage of the Chinese revolution – merely a new episode in the career of the bureaucracy, although one which will have many repercussions for China’s proletariat.
Militant, October 17, 1986