Horrified by images of American students shouting down and physically attacking speakers on their campuses, some commentators have reasonably invoked memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The problem with that analogy is that it is simply lost on most readers, including most younger than middle age.
So what exactly was this “Cultural Revolution” thing anyway? The U.S. media does a wonderful job of recalling atrocities that they can associate with the Right, while far worse horrors stemming from the Left vanish into oblivion. In reality, not only does the Cultural Revolution demand to be remembered and commemorated, it also offers precious lessons about the nature of violence, and the perils of mob rule.
In 2019, Communist China will celebrate its seventieth anniversary, and in that short time it has been responsible for no fewer than three of the worst acts of mass carnage in human history. These include the mass murders of perceived class enemies in the immediate aftermath of the revolution (several million dead), and the government-caused and -manipulated famine of the late 1950s, which probably killed some 40 million. Only when set aside these epochal precedents does the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 seem like anything other than a unique cataclysm.
By the early 1960s, China’s Communist elite hoped for an era of stability and growth, modeled on the then-apparently booming Soviet Union (remember, this was the immediate aftermath of Sputnik). The main obstacle to this scenario was the seventy year old leader Mao Zedong, whose apocalyptic visions held out hopes of revolutionary transformations almost overnight, of a near immediate move to perfect Communism. Mao himself loathed the post-Stalin regime in the Soviet Union, seeing it as a revisionist system little different from Western imperialism. In an ideal world, Mao would have been kicked upstairs to some symbolic role as national figurehead, but he proved a stubborn and resourceful foe. He outmaneuvered and defeated his “revisionist” Party rival Liu Shaoqi, who became a symbol of all that was reactionary, moderate, and imperialist. Brutally maltreated, Liu was hounded to death.
So far, the conflict was the bureaucratic backstabbing typical of Communist regimes, but Mao then escalated the affair to a totally different plane. From 1966 onwards, he deliberately incited and provoked mass movements to destroy the authority structures within China, within the Party itself, but also in all areas of government, education, and economic life. Mao held out a simple model, which perfectly prefigures modern campus theories of systematic oppression and “intersectionality.” Even in a Communist Chinese society, said Mao, there were privileged and underprivileged people, and those qualities were deeply rooted in ancestry and the legacies of history. Regardless of individual character or qualities, the child of a poor family was idealized as part of the masses that Communism was destined to liberate; the scion of a rich or middle class home was a class enemy.
The underprivileged – poor peasants, workers, and students – had an absolute right and duty to challenge and overthrow the powerful and the class enemies, not just as individuals, but in every aspect of the society and culture they ruled. In this struggle, there could be no restraint or limitation, no ethics or morality, beyond what served the good of the ultimate historical end, of perfect Communism. In a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the oppressed need observe neither rules nor legality. Even to suggest such a constraint was bourgeois heresy.
What this all meant in practice is that over the following years, millions of uneducated and furious young thugs sought to destroy every form of authority structure or tradition in China. To understand the targets, it helps to think of the movement as a systematic inversion of Confucian values, which preached reverence to authority figures at all levels. In full blown Maoism, in contrast, all those figures were to be crushed and extirpated. Bureaucrats and Party officials were humiliated, beaten or killed, as was anyone associated (however implausibly) with The Past, or high culture, or foreign influence. Pianists and artists had their hands broken. Professors and teachers were special targets for vilification and violence, as the educational system altogether collapsed.
Anarchistic mobs replaced all authority with popular committees that inevitably became local juntas, each seeking to outdo the other in degrees of sadism. Some class enemies were beaten to death, others buried alive or mutilated. In parts of Guangxi province, the radicals pursued enemies beyond the grave, through a system of mass ritual cannibalism. Compared to such horrors, it seems almost trivial to record the mass destruction of books and manuscripts, artistic objects and cultural artifacts, historic sites and buildings. The radicals were seeking nothing less than the annihilation of Chinese culture. Within a few months of the coming of Revolution, local committees had degenerated into rival gangs and private armies, each claiming true ideological purity, and each at violent odds with the other. Such struggles tore apart cities and neighborhoods, villages and provincial towns.
Outside the military – and that is a crucial exception – the Chinese state ceased to function. The scale of the resulting anarchy is suggested by the controversy over the actual number of fatalities resulting from the crisis. Some say one million deaths over the full decade, some say ten million, with many estimates between those two extremes. Government was so absent that literally nobody in authority was available to count those few million missing bodies. China became a textbook example of the Hobbesian state of Nature – and a reasonable facsimile of Hell on Earth. Only gradually, during the early 1970s, were the Chinese armed forces able to intervene, sending the radicals off en masse into rural exile.
China’s agony ended only after the death of the monster Mao, in 1976, and the trial of his leading associates. From 1979, the country re-entered the civilized world under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who is today lionized as a great reformer. That portrayal is correct – but we should never forget that as an architect of the earlier Great Famine, Deng had almost as much blood on his hands as did Mao himself.
So extreme was the violence of the Cultural Revolution that we might reasonably ask whether any parallels exist with the contemporary U.S. However ghastly the suppression of free speech at Middlebury College and elsewhere, however unacceptable the rioting in Berkeley, nobody has as yet lost his life in the current wave of protests. But in so many ways, the analogies are there. As in the Cultural Revolution, American radicals are positing the existence of historically oppressed classes, races and social groups, who rebel against the unjust hegemony of others. In both cases, genetics is a critical means of identifying the two competing sides, the Children of Light and Children of Darkness. If you belong to a particular race, class or group, you hold privilege, whether you want to or not. Consistently, the radicals demonize their enemies, invoking every historical insult at their disposal, no matter how inapplicable: Berkeley’s would- be revolutionaries describe themselves as “Antifas,” Anti-Fascists, as if any of their targets vaguely fit any conceivable definition of “fascism.”
For the oppressed and underprivileged, or those who arrogate those titles to themselves, resistance is a moral imperative, and only the oppressed can decide what means are necessary and appropriate in the struggle for liberation. The enemy, the oppressors, the hegemons, have no rights whatever, and certainly no right of speech. There can be no dialogue between truth and error. Violence is necessary and justified, and always framed in terms of self-defense against acts of oppression, current or historic.
Presently, our own neo-Cultural Revolutionaries are limited in what they can achieve, because even the most inept campus police forces enforce some restraints. If you want to see what those radicals could do, were those limitations ever removed, then you need only look at China half a century ago. And if anyone ever tells you what a wonderful system Communism could be were it not for the bureaucracies that smothered the effervescent will of an insurgent people, then just point them to that same awful era of Chinese history.
If, meanwhile, you want to ensure that nothing like the Cultural Revolution could ever occur again, then look to values of universally applicable human rights, which extend to all people, all classes. And above all, support the impartial rule of law and legality. The Cultural Revolution may be the best argument ever formulated for the value of classical theories of liberalism.
Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University. He is the author of Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World  (forthcoming Fall 2017).