China Study Group

The Cultural Revolution After the “Cultural Turn”
by Arif Dirlik 31 dec 

I take it that this occasion on the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution is not a commemoration-which would distance it too far into the past to have any relevance to the present, or a celebration-which would bring it too close to the present as if it might be directly relevant, but an opportunity to reflect on an event of great historical significance, which raised questions which may be as relevant as ever, and perhaps more so than they ever have been. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect briefly on two aspects of the Cultural Revolution that I think were parts of a single revolutionary project: the part played in social transformation by culture(as it is integral to social consciousness), and, a vision of development that was both the condition and the anticipated result of such social transformation.

I must confess that I am not overly fond of many of the forms in which the cultural goals of the Cultural Revolution were cloaked. Viewed from the perspective of the democratic aspirations of socialism, there is not much to laud in the hero worship around the figure of Mao Zedong with its strong overtones of religiosity, with lesser cults around more minor figures sanctioned by the Party. The chauvinism that the leadership made no visible effort to keep in check further contributed to the contamination of socialist goals by nationalist zeal. A puritanical interpretation of proletarian existence justified attacks on all individual economic undertaking which unjustifiably cast many unnecessarily into the category of the bourgeoisie, with deleterious consequences for the strivings toward socialism. This attitude deprived the concept of class of any flexibility, rendering it into a categorical prison from which there could be no escape, and turning every little deviation from the rigid norms set into a sign of class deviation, fostering unnecessary conflict where compromise would have served better the cause of socialism. Theoretical reductionism bred intellectual intolerance, and a nearly paranoid suspicion of difference. The result was the silencing and suppression of theoretical and political debate, which not only subverted of any effort to confront complex questions in the creation of socialism, but also eliminated dissident Marxist revolutionaries, depriving the revolutionary forces of politically committed and theoretically astute intellectuals.

The list could go on. There were good reasons why some of the cultural aspirations of the Cultural Revolution took the form they did; at least reasons that lend themselves to historical and social explanation. But any effort to assess the Cultural Revolution as an attempt to achieve socialism must also assess these forms critically against their own socialist claims. And from that perspective, they leave much to be desired.

Why then even bother? The answer is simple: the underlying premise of the Cultural Revolution was quite sound, and may be more important now than then as not just culture but cultural criticism itself has been rendered into a commodity-socially and politically, as well as economically. That premise was, as I understand it, that cultural transformation is crucial to the consolidation of social and political change, but only so far as it is grounded in the goals driving the political economy; which, in the case of socialism, would be the pursuit of universal economic and political justice, and freedom from oppression and exploitation. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was not the first to raise this question ,which had been taken up in the 1920s by Russian and Comintern thinkers following the Revolution of 1917. But the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s raised the question dramatically as a mass movement that challenged the socialist state itself, was global in its influence despite the temporary isolation of the PRC from the world at large, and was all the more consequential for the Third World due to the double status of the PRC as both a socialist and a Third World society, bridging the boundary between the Second and the Third Worlds.

The divorce of issues of culture from issues of the political economy since the so-called "cultural turn” of the 1980s has opened the way to the commodification of culture politically and economically. Or, more accurately, it has fostered a culturalism that assigns priority to culture in shaping both the political economy and social relations, which has rendered culture into the foremost site of contestation over social and political power and recognition. Rather than an integral moment of the structuring of the political economy, culture has been rendered into an attribute of commodities, or of ever-proliferating identities which h undermine the possibility of public discourse and justice. This is not to say that the search for justice along lines of cultural identity is undesirable. Rather, it is to insist that such search, if it is to fulfill even particularistic goals, must not be divorced from questions of political economy, which also implies the necessity of struggle along commonly shared needs and interests of all groups similarly placed vis-à-vis structures of political and economic power. They are vulnerable, otherwise, to cultural manipulation-as in much of the contemporary concern with vacuous issues of diversity that distract attention from fundamental questions of intensifying political and economic inequality and injustice both nationally and globally.

The radical cultural project that the Cultural Revolution placed on the global agenda four decades ago is as urgent in our day as it was then. It also affords a perspective from which to view the present critically. This also pertains to the economic, social and political vision that animated the cultural project. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that the developmental vision that animated the cultural project sought to forestall the kind of development that has since become a reality in the PRC and the world at large, that is responsible for the marginalization of large numbers of people as well as bringing the world into the brink of ecological and social disaster. Since the so-called reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, The PRC has been a major player in the global economy, and must bear responsibility not only for its successes but also for its failures. This does not mean that the Cultural Revolution did not suffer from deep contradictions in this area also. Indeed, once again, the developmentalism that it fostered culturally contradicted the developmental premises that Mao Zedong had put forward in the late 1950s, conflict over which was fundamental to the launching of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. If these premises afford a critical perspective on developments since then, the spirit of developmentalism that the Cultural Revolution fostered may be utilized presently to legitimize the course development has taken since then.

Here, too, it is necessary to distinguish the premises that animated this alternative vision from the specific forms it took under the pressures of the times, so that we may decide what may or may not be of lasting significance and broad relevance beyond the immediate historical circumstances of the Cultural Revolution. Three premises were, I think, of fundamental importance to this vision. The first was "self-reliance”(zili gengsheng), which was a pervasive slogan in the years after 1956, but had its origins in the necessities of revolutionary struggles during the Yan'an Period, which also lent it great prestige. "Self-reliance” pointed to self-reliance at many levels, from the individual to the national, but one aspect of it that was extremely important because of its relationship to everyday life problems was its emphasis on the local and the place-based, both in terms of initiatives, and in terms of attentiveness to local needs. One aspect of local self-reliance was the combination of agriculture and industry at the local level, to answer directly to the needs of the population. The idea itself had its origins in China in Kropotkinite Anarchist thinking of the early twentieth century, which first found expression in practice in Yan'an, and acquired currency again from the late 1950s. How the experimentation with local economic forms may have prepared the ground for the township enterprises of the 1980s, which played a significant part in launching the subsequent economic development, is a question that still awaits close examination.1

The second premise was the priority given to social relations (including culture and ideology)over the forces of production conceived technologically, which was clearly enunciated in Mao's critiques of Soviet economics from the late 1950s, which was associated at the time with the turn to a "Chinese model of development.”2 The texts indicate clearly that the social relations Mao had in mind transcended simple class relations, but extended to questions of organization as well. Underlying Mao's stress on social relations was a broader assumption that economic development required attention to social and political totalities, which was clearly visible in Mao's April 1956 talk, "On the Ten great Relationships,” which Mark Selden has characterized as a "basic synthesis, perhaps Mao's most important statement in the process of formation of a distinctive dialectical approach to development applied to China's concrete conditions during the socialist transition.”3

"The Ten Great Relations” was a discussion of what Mao took to be the most fundamental contradictions confronting Chinese development that needed to be confronted and resolved during the development process. They included the relationship between heavy industry versus light industries and agriculture, between the coast and the interior, between economic and defense construction, between the state the units of production and producers, between the center and localities, between the Han and minority nationalities, the Party and non-Party elements, between revolution and c ounter-revolution, right and wrong, and China and other countries.4 The essay is remarkable for bringing together questions of economics, politics, society, military, and culture/ideology, as well as spatial issues of development such as those between town and country, the coast and the interior, the center and provinces, and China and the World at large. If anything of importance is missing from a contemporary perspective, it is issues of environment and ecology. On the other hand, also from a contemporary perspective, while Mao briefly referred to China's relationship with other countries, the "totality” that most concerned him was not global but national. A global totality was of interest to him most importantly as a problem of politics and ideology; especially what China might have to learn from the experiences of other societies. As he wrote famously,

Our two weaknesses are also strong points. As I have said elsewhere, we are first "poor” and second "blank.” By "poor” I mean we do not have much industry and our agriculture is underdeveloped. By "blank” I mean we are like a blank sheet of paper and our cultural and scientific level is not high. From the developmental point of view, this is not bad. The poor want revolution, whereas it is difficult for the rich to want revolution. Countries with a high scientific and technological level are overblown with arrogance. We are like a blank sheet of paper, which is good for writing on….Even when one day our country becomes strong and prosperous, we must still adhere to the revolutionary stand, remain modest and prudent, learn from other countries and not allow ourselves to be swollen with conceit.5

Beginning with the reforms of the 1980s, but especially from the 1990s, the leadership in the PRC would turn its back on these principles. Self-reliance at any level did not carry much appeal in a society that took as its developmental model(at least initially)the Eastern Asian societies from Japan to Singapore that owed their developmental success to export-oriented strategies. The fact that these societies included successful ethnic Chinese enhanced their appeal. The renewed "opening” to the world was accompanied also by a shift of emphasis to the forces over the relations of production, which was an inevitable necessity of insertion in the new international division of labor, but also represented a desperate political urge to escape from the reductionist emphasis in class struggle during the two decades after 1956. Most fundamental in the long run may have been the fact that, as the PRC was incorporated in a globalizing political economy of capitalism, it was Global Capitalism that ultimately presented itself as the totality which shaped both internal and external contradictions. If we may follow the logic of this economy as it has been analyzed by Manuel Castells and others, economies globally have experienced a reconfiguration in recent decades from a preoccupation with surfaces, that characterized nation-based approaches to development, to networks of nodes, which characterizes a globalizing capitalism. In the case of the PRC, this is quite evident in the economic marginalization of the interior that was of great concern to earlier revolutionaries.6

We are all familiar with the success of reforms that have made the PRC into a global factory, with the promise of becoming the economic center of the globe. The reforms also have created a new middle-class that may eventually encompass roughly twenty percent of the population, a middle class that now can enjoy the benefits of development. We are also familiar with the downside of these developments. Self-reliance may have paved the way for the enormous success of local enterprises in this development, but economically, politically and culturally speaking, the PRC has little claim to autonomous development, having become entirely dependent on a global market of which it is at once a motor force and a product. Class inequality matches that of the US(and the globe as a whole), as do gender and ethnic inequality. The seriousness of urban-rural inequality is evident in the daily uprisings that threaten the sustainability of rural existence. Spatial inequalities divide the coast from the interior. Everyone of the contradictions that Mao enumerated in the 1956 essay has reached a sharpness that call into question the continued viability of the PRC as a national entity. And, of course, added to all those earlier contradictions is possibly a looming ecological disaster that is not just a Chinese problem, but has been exacerbated by a drift toward an "American” way of development that substitutes private modes of residence and transportation over public modes. The PRC may now boast, among other things, a population that qualifies for participation in a Transnational Capitalist Class that has an interest in perpetuating this same way of development.

It is also in the interest of this class to undermine if not to silence the revolutionary legacy that played a major part in the creation of contemporary China. This is not to say that the premises I focused on above were translated into satisfactory forms in the developmental activities of Maoist China. While in quantitative terms the revolution registered important successes, without which the subsequent development might have been much more tortuous if not impossible, it is also undeniable that revolutionary reductionism itself created severe problems both internally and externally. The framework for national development which the revolution took as its premise is also no longer sustainable-or desirable.

Nevertheless, the hype over globalization presently conceals the problems created by globalization itself, and ignores the extent to which the welfare of many in both the developed and the developing world is dependent on state guarantees, achieved not under neoliberalism but through a century of struggles of which the Chinese Revolution, including the Cultural Revolution, was an integral part. It is important, as we evaluate critically the revolutionary past, and the ways in which it may have undermined its own socialist goals, to remember nevertheless that there is nothing innocent about contemporary attacks against the Chinese Revolution either in the PRC or abroad.

For all its critique of capitalism or Soviet-style socialism, the path of development outlined by Mao in the writings cited above remained wedded to a developmentalist vision-that utilized critique not to question ideas of poverty and development that were products themselves of modern capitalist development but to achieve development more rapidly and thoroughly through a Chinese version of socialism. We can see here another contradiction that did not find its way into Mao's discussion: a contradiction between revolutionary social and political goals and goals of national wealth and power. The latter has indeed served as the legitimation for development under Mao's successors. As in the rest of the world, national power serves as the justification for the impoverishment and marginalization of millions. The current Party and government leadership in the PRC may have given up on just and equitable development for the population, but it does not hesitate to fuel the flames of nationalism when it serves its interests, especially in distracting attention from urgent social issues.

Revolutionary social goals required slower, more measured, approaches to development that accounted both for the social and the ecological goals of development. That this, too, was part of a Maoist vision was implicit in some of Mao's statement, in particular statements on the virtue of poverty and backwardness, such as the statement stated above. It is possible to read the Maoist strategy of development as a critique of development that fetishized consumption and cultural alienation, and they have been read as such by critics of an unbridled developmentalism that promises to alleviate poverty for some while in actuality creating destitution for a majority.7 It is this situation that renders indispensable the recollection of issues raised in the writings cited above.

Issues of local economic and ecological sustenance, as well as equitable and just social relations may be more important than ever under the new totality created by global capitalism. Ironically, now that the PRC is no longer "poor and blank”(although many people who live there are), but has every reason to feel confident about its place in the world, it may be possible once again to recall with considerable benefit issues of self-reliance and social justice. This is in many cases quite indispensable if the regime has to retain its credibility and legitimacy as a socialist regime. The contradictions that the regime faces presently are not the same as the contradictions of an earlier day. In some ways they may be even more serious in their implications. They include the most fundamental questions of whether or not China as it has formed or is imagined to be as a consequence of a century of nationalist fervor is sustainable, whether or not continued centralized rule is in the best interests of the people, whether or not the PRC is to identify with the world of Global Capitalism or the GlobalSouth, whether or not the PRC can stand with the interests of the dispossessed and marginalized globally or put an end to colonialism at home, whether or not the regime can genuinely work with place-based needs and social movements, including the self-activity and organization of working people in China and abroad, and what, in the realm of culture, is its take on the spread of a consumer culture that may render socialism itself into a commodity of sorts, until little remains of it but its slogans which may even be placed for inspiration in the boardrooms of transnational corporations? In short, whether the PRC will be part of an accumulating global crisis, or of the search for a viable alternative to the economic and political order that is responsible for that crisis.

It is a very different world that we face presently than the world the revolutionaries faced in the 1950s and the 1960s-not just in the globalization of capital but in the reconfiguration of political and cultural boundaries it has called forth. This world still calls for both economic and political reorientation, which is a problem at once of political economy and culture. This is the problem of a cultural reorientation that may help us redirect the course of development toward greater social and political justice-and the necessities of human survival. The space of contradictions has changed, and presents new problems of political, social and cultural articulation. But the contradictions are still there, and the radical legacies of the past may be as relevant as ever in guiding us to their recognition and, hopefully, resolution.

Arif Dirlik
Eugene, OR

  1. Where did the footnotes go?!

    Gregor - Aug 6 10:08 pm

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