Revolution leads to repression. If the utopian convulsions of the 20th century are our guide, it would be impossible to conclude otherwise. The Soviet Union, Communist China, the Islamic Republic, capitalist Russia. In each and every case, the path to democracy was consistently compromised.
Looking at China today, why would anyone want to celebrate its Communist history? Few of its watershed events have been decried more than the Cultural Revolution. Intended to reinvigorate its socialist transformation, Mao’s reboot was a bloodbath, on a par with the Khmer Rouge era that followed in Cambodia.
The difference is that the Cultural Revolution was marketed better, at a time when brutal colonial wars in Africa and Southeast Asia were being fought – and lost – in the name of liberal democracy. Its Maoist mix of militancy and inclusiveness helped sell anti-capitalism to an increasingly cosmopolitan, multiethnic youth culture.
Think of it as akin to gentrification, laying the groundwork for the West’s eventual reconciliation with China less than a decade later, and the conversion of the country into a low-income factory for Western consumer products. Certainly, this was not Mao’s original intention. But the results speak for themselves.
The following German-language flyer, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, exemplifies the romance with which it remains held in certain circles in the West. There’s no arguing the attractiveness of Mao’s program. What’s so depressing is how much the flyer overlooks the sacrifices it forced upon China.
50 years on from the Cultural Revolution
Reign of terror? No! – Power in the hands of the people!
Most people that say anything about socialism and the People’s Republic of China (since 1949) will normally leap to the “horror stories”: that socialism is to blame for famine, poverty and misery, that anyone who disagreed was killed and many more were besides. The Cultural Revolution, which after 17 years of socialism was launched in 1966, was demonised as a brutal measure against “dissidents” and that such a break with Chinese culture was something terrible. The constantly fluctuating “casualties” that are put under our noses without any evidence are often unquestionably accepted.
Such blatant demonization has to beg the question who is spreading it, where do these claims come from and where do the interests lie. The origin of these lies started 60 years ago, when those who had no interest in putting power into the people’s hands used all their means to preserve the old power structures, in which workers and peasants were treated as nothing but servants and in which thousands died on a daily basis from hunger and scores lived in abject misery. It was the anti-popular, bourgeois-reactionary elements, traitors and false communists in the party that wanted to take the capitalist way, because they knew they would lose their personal power when the people finally governed.
And who is it today that still spreads and disseminates these lies? Whether it is history lessons at school or university, or inflammatory articles in the lying media, from Der Spiegel to Bild, the question has to be asked who is keeping this in young people’s curricula and who is behind the big media? It’s the rulers of this system, it’s capitalism and its henchmen. Once again, there are those that want to maintain the status quo, with a few in power over the many and those that are afraid of the people building a new society, free of misery, poverty and war. We don’t hear a word about the immense progress made through the Chinese Revolution and in its socialist phase, about the huge improvements made for the absolute majority or the real truth behind the history of the Cultural Revolution.
The situation in China before the 1949 revolution is difficult to imagine today. Millennia of misery, incredible poverty and repression, hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by war and famine that cost the lives of millions – that was the everyday life of the Chinese people!
The old culture and philosophy, which permeated day-to-day life, told people one solid truth: you can’t change anything. Everything is mapped out before you. If you are poor, you will stay that way forever.
The turning point came when millions of poor farmers, workers and other parts of society decided to fight against the system. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, they won power after years of civil war against their old oppressors. The party was a real party of the masses, incomparable to the parties we know today. Millions joined, this people’s army, and mass organisations were put in place. Its members were disciplined in their fight and the party managed to unite the people and lead them in one fight.
Of course, in the first few years after the revolution the country was still suffering from the scars of civil war and famines do not disappear overnight. But after thousands of years of misery, the revolution gave the poorest parts of the population a dignified life within just a few years, through immense social progress, by redistributing land to poor farmers that had been torn apart by feudal exploitation, changing it so that women were no longer the property of landlords and eliminating mass drug addiction.
All of this progress did not happen, as we are told today, over the heads of the people, no! Former slaves, servants, workers and farmers now had the power in their hands and they could now build a new society to the benefit of the many.
Since the circumstances in which we live always influence our way of thinking, the old roots of feudalism, such as abuse of power and the desire for profit, were not totally extinguished by the revolution. So within Chinese society, the spirit of the new China, the socialist China, raged against the phantom of the old way of life, the way of capitalism. The people of the new China had, however, learned of the importance of their revolution. That importance was that a transformation of society towards one that serves the masses is not only possible but that they themselves could bring it about. But every day they waited strengthened the position of the ghosts of the past. So the Cultural Revolution was brought about, actively supported by the Communist Party of Mao Tse-tung.
Above all it was the young workers and farmers that started the fight. They wanted the old culture of servants and service to be replaced by one of community, of collectives of creativity and of self-awareness. They led open discussions, demonstrations and mass meetings. Words and slogans of the Cultural Revolution covered the walls of cities and universities. People that tried to exercise their personal power over others in the party were openly criticised and relieved of their position. The masses wanted to show that it was still important, even after the winning of power, to expose, criticise and move past false ideas.
The Red Guards and other workers groups, which went into the streets of China’s cities and creatively criticised the false culture, while defending and promoting the true one, had an unbelievable impact on all aspects of Chinese life and other parts of the world. In China, the Cultural Revolution didn’t just change art and literature, it had a direct influence on politics. Old, archaic big-wigs that made their way into the party and wanted a return to the old ways were rooted out. Where remnants of the capitalist way of thinking were found, they were swiftly criticised and denounced. This was not just a mere change in administrative acts, this was the will of the people. Those who had suffered for so long now held the power in their own hands.
In other countries, the Red Guards’ story made an impression, how they had appealed to the rebellious youth. The sparks of the Cultural Revolution led to mass protests, strikes and the riots of the ’68 movement in countries like Germany, France, Italy and Turkey. And even if China has once again been lost to false communists and exploiters, the Cultural Revolution gave people in Turkey, Peru, India and the Philippines, as well as other parts of the world, the strength and courage to fight against their oppressors and the flames it fanned still burn to this day in some cases.
The Revolution shows us that are in this system, whether it be in India, Turkey or Germany, that we have the strength to make a difference. We must not tolerate any suffering or misery, we must not accept any exploitation, we can change things. No fat cats or elected parties will lead this fight for us. We know that whichever box you put a cross in on the ballot paper will not lead to change. Whichever party leads this exploitative system doesn’t matter, Germany will continue to wage war against our brothers and sisters in other countries and you’ll still not have enough money in your account at the end of the month, while your rent won’t get any cheaper.
The imperialistic-capitalist system cannot be “improved”. We must rely on our own strength, organise ourselves and fight together to destroy it. This is the only way to eradicate poverty and injustice once and for all and start anew.
Rebellion is justified!
Translated from the German, by Samuel Morgan. Photographs courtesy of Buster & Bubby and Joel Schalit.