CHAPTER 15 "Cataclysm"
Having decided that a new rectification movement was necessary, Mao sent his wife, Jiang Qing (1914-1991) to Shanghai to lay the groundwork for the new struggle. This is a truly Byzantine plot as it unfolds in Short's book and I will only go over the highlights.
The target of Mao's plot was Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) the head of state and the putative successor of Mao himself. To remove him from the scene will take a complicated plan.
Peng Zhen (1902-1997) was First Secretary of the Beijing Party and "deputy head of the Central Committee Secretariat, the core of the [CPC's] national machine." One step above Peng was Liu. One step below him was Wu Han (1909-1969) a historian and Beijing deputy mayor. He was also a playwright and wrote "The Dismissal of Hai Rui." Hai (1514-1587) was an official under the Ming Dynasty who defended the peasants against the imperial system.
Jiang Qing went to Shanghai [February, 1965] to get the literary critic Yao Wenyuan (1931-2005) [later, along with Jiang, one of The Gang of Four] to attack the play as a secret attack on Mao by a cabal of capitalist roaders. The article was published in the paper Wenhuibao in Shanghai [November, 1965]-- the first shot of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). An unmitigated disaster!
Meanwhile, throughout 1965 and early 1966 Mao had been arranging his forces and little by little isolating his targets. Peng Zhen sensed that he might be the real target behind the critique of Wu Han and had, since he was the head of a "cultural revolution group" formed by the CC to fight revisionism in the arts, helped formulate what came to be called the "February Outline" . This stated that there was a great battle going on between "Mao Zedong Thought" and bourgeois views but that the battle was to be fought by the clash of ideas and not by "political means" [i.e., purges].
However, by April Peng had become isolated and Mao decided to purge him since he was judged to be really too bourgeois for his position due to the way he had conducted himself concerning Wu Han's play. Peng and a few of his top associates were removed from power for "taking the capitalist road."
By the middle of May Peng et al were out, the "cultural revolution group" he headed was dissolved and a new one created by the CC was led by Chen Boda (1904-1989) who in1969 became #4 in the leadership, purged 1970 (how brief is glory).
So, by Spring 1966, Mao had set up the mechanism to begin a great purge of capitalist roaders (the Cultural Revolution) "put in place a headquarters to direct it " [the new group headed by Chen] which bypassed "the Politburo and mainstream Party chain of command."
Since Liu and Deng (Deng Xiaoping,1904-1997) were the real targets, as well as their allies on the CC and PB, it was necessary to mobilize forces outside of their control if they were to be brought down. The students, from the mid-level through the university level, had many complaints. Mao turned to them for support [as well as to millions in the countryside] against the "party bureaucrats." "In retrospect," Short writes, "it is hard to understand how Liu and Deng could have so fundamentally misjudged Mao's intentions."
The reason Liu, Deng and others were caught, not off guard, but by being blindsided was that the idea Mao "had decided to unleash the masses against the Party itself was too far-fetched for any in the Politburo to believe."
Now the plot thickens. The students, having been stirred up, began their own revolutionary movement (encouraged by Chen Boda) against authority. They began taking over universities all over China, but especially in the Capital. Liu, the Head of State, consulted with Mao, and he and Deng then sent in Party "work teams" to restore order and dampen down the student protests.
For those of you who were around and politically active in July 1966, who can forget the great picture, in all the papers, of Mao's heading bobbing up and down as he swam around, near Wuhan, in the Yangtze River. This was to show that, at 72, the Chairman was still fit. A "metaphor," as Short says, "for throwing himself back into the fray." The bare chested Putin pictures were a similar ploy.
In August, Mao called a plenum of the CC to lay down the basis for carrying out the GPCR. He criticized the "work teams'' being sent to the universities which he called "an act of suppression and terror." Liu was getting attacked for doing what he thought Mao had approved. He made a self criticism.
By the time the plenum ended there was a new PB reflecting Mao's wishes. Liu had been replaced in second place by Lin Biao (1907-1971) as "Mao's sole deputy, with the title Vice-Chairman." The Premier, Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) remained # 3 but the Head of State, formerly ranked # 2, Liu Shaoqi was now # 8, behind his aide, Deng at # 6.
At the end of the plenum there was a rally for over a million Red Guards (the youth of China) who had come to Beijing. When Mao appeared the crowd went wild, his mere presence triggered "scenes of delirium among the young people" reminiscent of old newsreels from Germany in the 30s. Right cat, Left cat it makes no difference if it catches the mice.
The Red Guard them pledged to eliminate all Mao's enemies and destroy all manifestations of the nine "black categories"-- i.e., landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements [rather broad], Rightists, traitors, spies, capitalists, and "stinking intellectuals." Young people all over China went on rampages of violence. murder, and torture killing old people and young. In some places the victims ranged "from a six-week old baby (the child of a 'reactionary family') to an old man in his eighties."
There is nothing one can really say. The GPCR was one of those great outbursts of human cruelty and violence that transcends religion, cultures or politics and reveals a side to the species that can only lead to despair. It's a black spot on Mao's reputation and that of his followers that can never be washed away. Mao even condemned people who had potted plants in their homes, or who kept birds, dogs or cats as pets: "legacies of feudalism."
Like some others in history, the Red Guards particularly disliked books. As a young man Mao had said "all the anthologies of prose and poetry published since the Tang and Song dynasties [should] be burned. Now was the time. Here is an eyewitness account of what happened in the city of Amoy (one of many such incidents) in September of 1966:
"All the books that had been removed from the city libraries ...
were there -- the yellow, the black, and poisonous books. Most
of them were old hand-sewn volumes. 'The Golden Lotus' ... 'The
Romance of the Three Kingdoms', 'Strange Tales from a Chinese
Studio'-- all awaited burning. Shortly after 6 p.m., 50 kilograms of
kerosene were poured on the piles, which were then set afire.
The flames leapt three stories high ... [They] burned for three days
Short says that later, "old books were sent to be pulped. In this way, many unique copies of Song and Ming dynasty texts were lost forever." And this can't be blamed on the Japanese-- it was self-inflicted. It’s lucky for the great heritage of Chinese art that Chiang took the national art museum's collection to Taiwan with him when he fled.
As the movement grew, the Chinese press began to laud the miracle working power of Mao's "Little Red Book" [which no one dreamed of burning]. Reports were published of "how medical workers armed with it had cured the blind and the deaf; how a paralytic, relying on Mao Zedong Thought, had recovered the use of his limbs; how , on another occasion, Mao Zedong Thought had raised a man from the dead." This last one even tops Oral Roberts! Too bad they didn't send a copy to the Lenin mausoleum.
But was this really getting rid of the Old to bring forth the New. This was not something Mao just thought up. It was an exaggerated form of Emperor worship which had a long history in China. The GPCR was in reality a recidivist revival of the worst aspects of the very feudal and exploitative culture the revolution was supposed to have overthrown. The author of "On Contradiction" was now unmindful of the unity of opposites. The dead hand of the past was truly weighing heavily on the present.
Zhou Enlai put it succinctly: "Whatever accords with Mao Zedong Thought is right, while whatever does not accord with Mao Zedong Thought is wrong." That's the thesis. We know what the antithesis is. Today we see the synthesis working itself out.
Nevertheless, Short points out that both in the CC and the Party, radical supporters of the GPCR were in the minority. The radical students who made up the Red Guards were used to attack provincial party leaders and as they increased in numbers began to replace the party with Red Guard organizations.
This culminated with the Shanghai party committee being replaced by the Red Guards who wanted to rule Shanghai as a commune based on the model of the Paris Commune. Short says this was the logical outcome of the whole GPCR, which was to give power directly to the masses. But Mao was not willing, when push came to shove, to actually get rid of the Party and let the masses rule through direct democracy "with free elections and unrestricted political activity."
"There must be a Party somehow," Mao said. "There must be a nucleus, no matter what we call it." The Shanghai Commune was not to be, the model of the Paris Commune was given up [February, 1967]. This was the high tide of the movement. Since the Commune was the logical end point of the ideology of the GPCR and it had been rejected, the GPCR could only retrogress. Short says Mao was in "ideological retreat" and the movement now was one of "raw power" between Mao and the moderates of the Party grouped around Liu and Deng.
Meanwhile, different factions of the Red Guards began fighting one another, and the GPCR committees started to attack some of the old cadres in the PLA. Mao could no longer (after Feb. 1967) trust the PB and it became defunct. Instead he ruled through an enlarged Standing Committee of the PB and through the Cultural Revolution Group now run by Zhou Enlai.
In August of 1967 the Red Guards decided it was time to purge the PLA of capitalist roaders. No emperor in his right mind attacks the Praetorian Guard. As he had in February with respect to the Shanghai Commune, Mao again put his foot down. The PLA would not be drawn into the political struggle. By this time too, ultra-left units in the Red Guards were attacking other Red Guards and had also burned down the British Legation and attacked other foreign missions. Mao was angry about this because it looked like China could not "meet its international obligations." He thus wanted to keep the PLA as a "disciplined force".
While all of the above was going on, the movement to get rid of Liu Shaoqi was also intensifying. In May, 1967 Liu's book "How to be a Good Communist" was attacked in the press as "a big anti-Marxist-Leninist and anti-Mao-Zedong Thought poisonous weed." Short quotes Mao himself as saying it was "a deceitful work, a form of idealism opposed to Marxism-Leninism." It is, of course, a perfectly orthodox Marxist work, and shows how low Mao could stoop in his efforts to defame one of his comrades who had the temerity to differ with him over how to best execute agreed upon goals to establish socialism.
By August, Liu was forced to resign as Head of State and he was placed under house arrest. The Central Case Examination Group was building up a case against Liu (completely fabricated.) This group was under the control of Mao but was formally chaired by Zhou Enlai (the Tallyrand of the CPC) but actually run by Kang Sheng (1898-1975).
Kang Sheng was a Beria type who had been on the PB since 1935 and served as, Short says, Mao's "hatchet man" both in Yan'an and during the GPCR.. He was posthumously expelled from the CPC for "political crimes." But this time he was trumping up charges against comrades close to Liu in order to discredit him. Charges that "Mao, Zhou Enlai, Kang himself and the rest of the leadership" knew were false, but were expedient.
It should be noted that the majority of Chinese communists were not GPCR enthusiasts and that Kang was able to carry out Mao's wishes only because, in the last analysis, he had the PLA behind him. In order to get "evidence" Kang relied on torture to force comrades to denounce others.
Some statistics of what went on:
Hebei- 84,000 arrested, 2955 "executed, tortured to death, or committed suicide."
Guangdong- 7200 arrested, 85 beaten to death.
Yunnan- 14,000 party members (cadres) executed.
Inner Mongolia- 350,000 arrested, 80,000 beaten and maimed for life, 16,000 killed.
All this, and much more is described in the book, to build cases against Liu and people who might support him. "None of these cases," as Short points out, "had any basis in fact." This by the way, is an important fact for progressives today to be aware of. Most importantly so that they can avoid involvement with groups that praise and support the GPCR as some sort of principled Marxist revolutionary struggle. It was more akin to the future Pol Pot (1925-1998).
You can be sure Marx, Engels and Lenin would have been disgusted to think that this movement was carried out in their names. Perhaps Mao's rating should be 30/70 instead of 70/30. Terror and torture, not against class enemies, but against your own people and class were the hallmarks of the GPCR.
Towards the middle of 1968 Mao decided to restore some order. By this time, Lin Biao was his heir and China was basically under the control of the PLA (i.e., a military dictatorship). The army was used to put down warring factions of the GPCR throughout China. By September the core of the old CPC had been "smashed" and it was time to consolidate the Red Guard bands and committees together with what was left of it into larger groups (the better to control them).
Short quotes Zhou Enlai: "We have finally smashed the plot of the handful of Party persons in power, taking the capitalist road." It was time to begin winding down the more extreme elements in the GPCR.
In October of 1968 the 12th Plenum of the CC was held in preparation for the next Party Congress. There were not enough CC members left after all the purges to make a quorum so Mao just added extra delegates, PLA officers and Red Guard leaders as necessary. Liu was definitely gone by now.
Mao was a moderating influence at this Plenum. He protected what was left of the old guard from the more radical faction and even prevented any attacks on Deng Xiaoping (whom he had always liked). Short points out that Deng had never been personally attacked (i.e., by name) during the height of the GPCR. Mao had once said that Deng "has a great future ahead of him." Although he was later arrested, as we shall see.
The Ninth Congress was held in April 1969. Only 20% of the delegates were party veterans from the old CPC. The Congress was held to ratify the new leadership and officially end the GPCR. "Officially," Short writes, " the Cultural Revolution had been an outstanding success. Mao was credited with raising Marxism-Leninism 'to higher and completely new stage' [new, yes-- I don't know about 'higher’’], creating a guiding philosophy for 'the era when imperialism is heading for total collapse and socialism towards worldwide victory.' I remember reading Peking Review in those days, compare it to the Beijing Review of today to see how accurate this assessment may be.
Liu Shaoqi died towards the end of 1969 as a result of being denied proper medical care after contracting pneumonia (he was kept in a cold unheated room and not allowed to be hospitalized). After Mao died Liu was rehabilitated for being the good communist that he was.
Up Next: Chapter 16 “Things Fall Apart”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.