Bonfire of the Bourgeois Vanities

In China, people of a certain generation will tell you stories about an era that might as well be a millenium ago. There are thousands of children, amassed in Shanghai’s train station, waiting for the beginning of what feels to them to be a big and important adventure. Their parents are weeping, watching their children bound towards the carriages on their way to the countryside, where – as part of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – they will spend their formative years learning from the peasants.

The kids who participated in this vast exodus are now in their forties and fifties, and most complain of the gap in their education and the wasted decade lasting from 1966 to the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Others, usually slightly older, have been forced to live with their complicity in the Cultural Revolution, and their part in the Red Guard movement.

Those in the next generation are also the products of the Cultural Revolution. Many Shanghai residents, now approaching thirty, were born in the remote farms of northwestern and southwestern China after their parents were forced into exile. While many are reluctant to talk about it, or even unaware of its main precepts, the Cultural Revolution remains a central fact in their lives.

Near the Three Gorges Dam, there is a mausoleum to Zhang Fei, a general who fought in the Three Kingdom era about 1,700 years ago. On the first floor of the mausoleum, visitors wander through the burning incense into a room lined with lacquered wooden blocks covered in gold inscriptions. Turning the banners around, you see that the blocks have been painted red, and chipped into the paint are the litanies of the Cultural Revolution and the quotations of Mao himself. When the Red Guards marauded through the Temple in 1966, the curators sought to pre-empt them by disguising the antiquities as revolutionary documents. They sought to vandalize the relics to prevent them from being destroyed. Those were the choices that had to be made.

The items at the Zhang Fei Mausoleum survived, but many did not. Matching anything the Taliban did during its reign of terror, a swarm of revolutionaries sacked and destroyed temples, smashed sculptures to pieces and drove writers – including the great Lao She – to their deaths. This was the bonfire of bourgeois vanities, and Mao was its Savonarola. Righteous anger – the sense that you are inflicting damage and committing violence in the name of a higher good – emerges in all societies and in all ages. But why, on occasion, does it spread so widely? Why does the lynch-mob become the pogrom, or the unmarked grave become the killing field?

Much of the Mao era was dominated by unfathomable economic hardship and unbreakable political hallucination. In the higher echelons of the government, mass man-made famines were overshadowed by a surreal alternative world designed by state planners and their faked statistics. The planners were desperate to convince each other, and their superiors, that black was white and red was true and that the Revolution, by harnessing the will power of nearly a billion people, was working. The old slogan of Chinese pragmatism, “seek truth through facts”, was subordinated to the higher truth of Chairman Mao himself, the morning sun of the Chinese people. It didn’t matter that the lessons drawn from centuries of agricultural production were based on empirical experience because Maoism referred to something bigger than mere experience.

After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, that harebrained attempt to galvanize the economy and overtake the West through the establishment of thousands of communes capable of producing steel as well as grain, Chairman Mao was gradually elbowed out of the reckoning by a clique of Communist Party pragmatists led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao, still the symbol of the revolution, was reluctant to go, and the pragmatists no doubt hoped that if they allowed Mao to do his thing in the world of books and plays and newspapers – a purge here, a criticism there – they could then get on with rebuilding the nation’s economy after the devastating Great Leap famines. It proved, however, to be their undoing.

On the sidelines, Mao had grown frustrated. Over the next few years, and using culture as his weapon, the quintessence of the Chinese Communist Party had somehow transfigured himself into the rebel par excellence. By 1966, he had gathered thousands of students on Tian’anmen Square with the clarion call, “It is right to rebel!” The forces of counter-revolution are everywhere, he said, even in the highest levels of the Party itself, and so, he set in motion one of the biggest and most disastrous political struggles in history. Schools and hospitals were forced to close, temples and relics were destroyed, “capitalist roaders” and counter-revolutionary “cow demons” were hounded and tortured and forced to sweat out their sins doing years of back-breaking correctional labour. No one could objectively confirm what a revisionist or poisonous weed was, and so, as a result, everyone was a potential target. You might have joined every rally, destroyed every monument, and condemned every manifestation of reaction, but you might still have been denounced as a “rightist in essence”, as Mao put it.

Expertise – in any field – became a sign of decadence and “revisionism”. In the new reality, only Mao Zedong Thought could produce results. Only Mao Zedong Thought – the exaltation of pure revolutionary spirit not only above practical economics but above even nature itself – could triumph. The general will of the people – described as the Mass Line but echoing Rousseau in its assumption that a society was One – could overcome the “paper tigers” of science, nature, and truth itself. Contemporary documents show a world turned on its head, a world where Mao Zedong Thought is used to cure tumours, improve rice yields and defy gravity.

After the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao’s supporters sought to outshine everyone else in acts of revolutionary fervour, violence and vandalism. Civil society and all its institutions had essentially collapsed, and the communist state had, paradoxically, become atomized, with marauding bands of Red Guards engaging in street battles in order to prove the strength and uniqueness of their allegiance to the Great Leader. They would compete to tear down government buildings, rip art galleries to shreds, and hold impromptu show trials for local Party officials, teachers or intellectuals. All concepts of sense or best practice went out of the window, as did many teachers, thrown through the glass by dozens of bitter but suddenly empowered adolescents. The Red Guards, desperate to emphasize their zeal, would even turn on each other, as they did at the famous battle in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in 1968, which prompted the army to intervene and restore order.

Mao’s motives were ambiguous. There was self-interest, of course, but like the old Crusaders who robbed and looted Antioch and Jerusalem in the name of the Church, Mao had managed to persuade himself that his own interests and those of the State were identical. Some authors, like Simon Leys, believe that the chaos was a smokescreen that allowed Mao and his cohorts to engineer a coup d’etat against Liu Shaoqi (arrested and left to die) and Deng Xiaoping (purged and exiled to the countryside). In any case, what proved crucial was the large swathes of Chinese youth, suddenly given the go-ahead by the biggest cheese in the land to act upon their resentments against authority figures. Mao had lost control, had let loose a force beyond even his reckoning, and by 1968, the army had to be deployed to put an end to the rioting, the looting, the mass demonstrations.

It needs to be said that the irrationality wasn’t just confined to China. While the idea that revolution could be achieved through sheer force of will was, strictly speaking, a violation of classical Marxism (with its emphasis on the transformation of productive forces), there were – according to many idealistic Leftist academics and China hands writing during the period – genuine ideological reasons behind the Cultural Revolution. The revolution had stalled, an inchoate political bureaucracy had been created, and the inexorable logic of dialectical materialism required that the new ruling class be overturned. All this was, of course, superstitious in itself, and rested on the primacy of Marxist truth. In China, however, the situation was different, and rested not even on the primacy of Maoist truth, but on the primacy of Mao himself – that irrepressible, libidinous, all-consuming Monkey King of Chinese politics. What he said, went, and what happened was extraordinary.

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