Reflections on the June 9-10, 2006 Hong Kong Conference: “The Fortieth Anniversary: Rethinking the Genealogy and Legacy of the Cultural Revolution”


Flying into Hong Kong with my wife, Amy Demarest, early in the morning of June 8, 2006 and jetlagged, I wasn’t sure I’d be up to the next two days of a fully packed conference on the Cultural Revolution.  The conference was sponsored by the China Study Group, Monthly Review, and the Contemporary China Research Center of City University of Hong Kong.  As it turned out, the conference — dedicated to the memory of Bill Hinton — was fascinating, and important.  It brought together scholars (professors and graduate students) and activists from China, the U.S., Australia, Italy, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia.  A number of people traveling with Chinese passports did not know that when coming from the mainland they needed a special permit or to be in transit to another country in order to enter Hong Kong.  Thus, unfortunately, a few key people were not able to participate.  However, the approximately 40 people attending brought enthusiasm to the discussion of one of the momentous occurrences in the history of socialist revolutions — wanting to not only better understood the details of what happened, but also the implications for the present and future attempts to build socialism.  A number of the Chinese participants had participated in the Cultural Revolution and some had spent significant time in jail.

The following is a brief account of the conference, covering some of the highlights.  A number of presentations not outlined below were as important and interesting as those mentioned in more detail.  We hope that most of the papers presented will be available on the China Study Group and/or Monthly Review websites within the next month.

As Harry and I wrote in “Approaching Socialism” (MR, July/August 2005) about the general problems of developing bureaucracies and the continuation of the class struggle following a revolution:

Perhaps one, if not the leading, lesson of the post-revolutionary societies is the affirmation that socialism cannot arrive overnight — the road to such a major transformation of social structure and people’s consciousness is indeed very long.  It is also full of pitfalls.  Mao put it simply and clearly:

Marxism-Leninism and the practice of the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries all teach us that socialist society covers a very, very long historical stage.  Throughout this stage, the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat goes on and the question of “who will win” between the roads of capitalism and socialism remains, as does the danger of restoration of capitalism.  (Mao Zedong, “On Khrushchev’s Phony Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World: Comment on the Open Letter of the Central Committee of the CPSU,” 1964)

At heart, as Mao pointed out, even some in high Communist Party positions wanted to take the “capitalist road.”  Mao’s purpose for initiating the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was to mobilize and engage millions and millions from all sectors of society — workers and peasants as well as students and intellectuals — in a struggle against the forces within the Party that favored the restoration of capitalism.  Among most intellectuals in China and the United States, the Cultural Revolution has been viewed as an era of inhumane chaos.  It is true that the Cultural Revolution was chaotic, with various Red Guard factions (some were even sham Red Guards, possibly organized by those under attack to confuse the masses) and many instances of exaggerated and inhumane treatment of people, including killings.  On the other hand, in the rural areas this period is commonly viewed in a more positive light — an era when much infrastructure was built and attention paid to problems of the great mass of people living in the countryside.

The Conference started with a session on Bill Hinton and the Cultural Revolution.  As part of this session I gave a short presentation about Bill’s long relationship with Monthly Review and its editors.  The former village leader of Long Bow, and very good friend of Bill’s, arrived late to the meeting (because of the visa issue), but spoke movingly of Bill and his contributions to the Chinese people.

The next session was titled “Understanding the Twists and Turns.”  It included a presentation on class theory and the politics of the Cultural Revolution by Wu Yiching —  MR author (“Rethinking ‘Capitalist Restoration’ in China,” November 2005) and graduate student.  Was the main problem confronting the maintenance of a socialist road the development of a new bureaucratic class within the Communist Party, or was it the remnants of the capitalist class (and capitalist class interests)?  Wu argued that old and new methods of class analysis during the Cultural Revolution intermingled in a confusing way, so that the capitalist roaders in the party became secondary targets during the Red Guard assaults on the “4 olds” in 1966 and the 1968 campaign to “cleanse class ranks.”  The attack on CPC bureaucrats ended with attacks on the old class remnants.  A paper by Lao Tian, a young Chinese scholar who was not able to get a permit to visit Hong Kong, described seven rounds of political struggle between “powerholders” and “rebels” in Hunan and Hubei from 1966-1976.

In a session on “Events and Processes” there was discussion of the “Disturbance in the Lushan Mountain Meeting” and the “Wuhan Event.”  It was early in the Cultural Revolution (1967/68) that it became clear that army (the PLA) sided with the conservative factions, as the mutineers in Wuhan did.  Within the Party there was concern that order would break down.  Fred Engst pointed out that forced disbanding of the independent mass organizations at this time led to the failure of the effort to provide a means of truly reforming all levels of the Party.  Fred and Joel Andreas, who presented a paper on mass supervision during the Cultural Revolution, contended that the revolutionary committees — consisting of party cadre, the army and leaders of the mass organizations — that replaced the mass organizations were not able to restructure the Party and effectively combat the development of a bureaucratic elite.  Although most date the ending of the Cultural Revolution to the demise of the “Gang of Four” in 1976, the lack of independent mass organizations (an independent force to supervise Party officials) meant that it effectively ended long before that.  In response to a question about the role of the Party during the Cultural Revolution, Fred Engst replied that you cannot get away from having a dominant party under socialism for a long time.  The key question is ideology — democratic forms can lead back to capitalism too.  The most important thing is for working people to develop the capacity to become masters of society.

In the session titled the “Struggles Over Representation of History,” the distortions of history and representation of Mao — including the recent Chang and Halliday bestseller and thoroughly distorted hatchet-job, Mao: The Unknown Story — was discussed by Gao Mobo and Kaz Ross, two professors from Australia.  Ross’ paper stated that the Chang-Halliday book was only the latest in the genre of “faction” — fiction with a cloak of facts.  When asked how such egregious distortions of the historical record could be combated, Ross pointed to the need for novels, dramas, and movies about the Cultural Revolution and the positive difference it made in the lives of millions of workers and peasants, whose stories have not been told in the West.

A session was devoted to the “International Impact of the Cultural Revolution,” with MR author David Pugh (“William Hinton on the Cultural Revolution,” March 2005) discussing the Chinese foreign policy during this period and others discussing effects on the struggles in the Philippines (Rey Casambre) and Latin America (Matt Rothwell).  Pugh contrasted Mao’s support for revolutionary struggles against US imperialism and Soviet revisionism in the late 1960s to Deng’s development of the Three Worlds Theory in the early 1970s.  Casambre’s paper described how the Cultural Revolution played a decisive role in the break with the old pro-Soviet revisionist party and the refoundation of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968.  He described how Mao Zedong Thought was creatively applied in the Philippines from the 1960s on in areas such as waging people’s war, the mass line, and ideological remolding.  Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the CPP, points out that outside of China, in countries such as the Philippines, Nepal, India, Turkey, and Peru, there are Maoist parties dedicated to propagating the entire range of the Maoist legacy.  Sison states that the Cultural Revolution has given them the theoretical and practical weapons to prevent the restoration of capitalism and to continue the socialist revolution until the stage of communism is reached.

In a discussion “Re-evaluating Rebellion and Socialism,” MR author Robert Weil (“Conditions of the Working Class in China,” June 2006) developed the historical perspective of the struggle for socialism, beginning with the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune.  Weil argued that the most important thing about the Cultural Revolution and other attempts at socialism is the legacy of revolutionary consciousness they leave behind — the positive and negative lessons that are passed down to future generations.  He described how the study of Mao Zedong Thought during the Cultural Revolution raised the consciousness of tens of millions of uneducated peasants and workers, and how the participation of workers in management and party cadre in productive labor should be seen as the shoots of communist society, even if they’re not able to survive for long.  Weil also pointed to the upsurge of struggles among peasants and workers against the new capitalist rulers of China, including the use of “Cultural Revolution methods” in the takeover of a textile mill in Zengzhou in 2001 in order to keep it from being privatized.  Chris Connery also approached the Cultural Revolution from a historical viewpoint and Arif Dirlik discussed the legacies of socialism in an “age of modernity.”

Near the end of the conference on June 10th, there was a roundtable discussion at which Samir Amin’s manuscript was read (he was unable to attend) and Han Dequiang, Liu Yusheng, and Alessandro Russo discussed various aspects and issues of the Cultural Revolution.

As things were wrapping up, someone said: “The meeting on 30th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution was held in New York in English, the 40th has been in Hong Kong in English and Chinese, the 50th will be held in China!”  However, it was also mentioned that conferences to celebrate the 40th anniversary have been held in Zengzhou and in various homes in Wuhan — in the face of official hostility.  As we parted, before the goodbyes, there was a spirited singing of The International in Chinese.

*  Thanks to David Pugh for his comments on a draft of this report.

Fred Magdoff is professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont in Burlington.  He is author of numerous scientific articles; coauthor, with Harold van Es, of Building Soils for Better Crops (Sustainable Agricultural Network, 2000); and coeditor, with John Bellamy Foster and Frederick H. Buttel, of Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (Monthly Review Press, 2000).