Puritanism Chinese-Style

Specialists in the USSR and East Europe have both helped and hindered modern Chinese studies. Many scholars such as Benjamin Schwartz came to the serious interpretation of Chinese Communism from Slavic studies. On the other hand, less sensitive East Europeanists have imagined that their training gave them a unique understanding of modern China. When some Sinologists proposed that the Sino-Soviet Alliance might not last, Professor Beloff, for example, claimed that he knew better than did “students of China alone who have made inadequate study of communism in its original setting.” On the Left there has been a related hazard, the temptation for men disillusioned with the Soviet Union to shift their utopia eastward. Without any attempt to study the country itself they simply picture China as what the Soviet Union should have been.

K. S. Karol, a distinguished observer of Eastern Europe who lived in the Soviet Union for several years, was aware of these and other dangers when he visited China. As a Soviet citizen he had seen the deceptions practiced on foreign visitors: the ragged people sent out of sight, the shops filled for the occasion, the special bonuses paid, and so on. He also knew that, being unable to speak Chinese or to contact people except through official interpreters, he would find it difficult to penetrate deeply into Chinese life. Although he was conscious that the impression he received could be very different from reality, he concluded that in China things were very much as they seemed. He believes that Chinese society is fundamentally more decent and less hypocritical than the society he knew in the USSR.

Here I think he has gone slightly too far. Nearly all the techniques of sweeping unpleasantness out of sight employed in the Soviet Union have been used in China: streets have been specially lit up, shops filled with unobtainable goods, extra supplies sent to towns to be visited, and so forth. Naturally the extent to which this is done depends on economic conditions. Mr. Karol made his visit during the spring of 1965, a time of relative prosperity when these measures may not have been necessary; but they were certainly used during the years of hardship from 1958 to 1962. The author also does not believe that there is as much “wangling” in China as existed in the Soviet Union during the war. In this he is almost certainly right: the German invasion put unbearable pressure on Soviet society. However, many convincing charges of corruption and wangling were made during the Cultural Revolution, which indicate that the Chinese are not quite the “singularly and scrupulously honest” paragons that Mr. Karol supposes them to be.

Nevertheless the author’s personal experience of the Soviet Union was helpful to him in many ways, and the contrasts he draws between China and the USSR are often very enlightening. His knowledge of Marxist-Leninist theory also helped in his interviews with Chou En-lai and with Chou Yang, who was, until his overthrow last summer, the leading Party authority on literature. These interviews form the most fascinating parts of his book.

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Mr. Karol left China before the Cultural Revolution began, but wrote his book in 1966 when it was well under way. Like everyone else, he was taken by surprise, and, like everyone else, he was able to reconstruct after the event a few of its earliest signs: complaints about lack of enthusiasm among intellectuals and about the large number of students of bourgeois origin. Unlike some of the “experts,” however, he has the honesty to admit to being bewildered by the Cultural Revolution, which he sees as an attempt to increase social and economic equality and political consciousness in a country where these already seemed to a considerable extent to have been achieved.

He believes that the attacks on traditional culture came because the Chinese Revolution, unlike those in France and Russia, had no intellectual antecedents. He maintains that before the twentieth century there was essentially only one culture in China, Confucianism, with its belief in the submission of the people to the elite. Therefore if traditional culture was to have any influence, it was bound to be counter-revolutionary. Here I think Mr. Karol has exaggerated. In China as in pre-nineteenth-century Europe, the dominant culture was traditional in its social values. However, Chinese culture is large enough to contain almost anything one cares to look for. In the Fifties the Chinese Government laid considerable stress on the “progressive” nature of many traditional operas and novels. Throughout the culture there are elements that do not fit into the orthodox Confucian pattern. In the formative period of Chinese philosophy, before the foundation of the Imperial system, several schools of thought, most strikingly that of Hsü Hsing, contained a belief in equality and the frugal altruistic life similar to that which pervades the Cultural Revolution. In many of the Chinese classics, including the Confucian ones, there are references to a “golden age of unselfishness and simplicity.” The age is usually set in the past, but sometimes it is seen as happening in the future, where it seems to reflect a longing for a millennium brought about by total revolution; this is a sentiment particularly common among peasants in China (and elsewhere) during periods of crisis. A longing for the millennium has also been expressed in the mass revolts against government oppression and the complexities and ritual of official and urban life which have occurred throughout Chinese history.

This tradition of peasant revolt provides one way of looking at the Cultural Revolution. The desire for integration, to resolve the “contradictions” between town and country workers and peasants, soldiers and civilians, and state and society, suggests that the Cultural Revolution, like the Great Leap Forward before it, can be seen as a peasant desire for simplicity, and a reaction to the new state as industrialization and bureaucracy force it to become increasingly complicated and unjust.

However, in 1958 and 1966, this peasant millenarianism was only partly spontaneous. It is probable that the Great Leap Forward did receive some support in the countryside, at least from poor peasants, and it is certain that opposition to the Cultural Revolution is strongest among town workers. However, the mainstay of these movements has not been the peasants but the young. These cadres, students, and schoolchildren are steeped in the thought of Mao Tse-tung, and it is their frustrations, youthful spirit, and their receptiveness to this millenarian ideology that have given both movements their élan. The ideology itself—the disdain for organization, specialization, and measured progress, and the belief in the possibility of a sudden complete personal and social transformation—came to Mao and the Chinese Communist Party from the faith and actions of the peasants during the twenty years of the Revolution. However, after twenty years more of progress and social upheaval, older peasants now appear to lack their former enthusiasm, and this seems to have been an important factor in limiting the successes of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. At present Mao and his young supporters appear to be out of step with the rural population.

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A useful way of looking at the Cultural Revolution is, I believe, to use a Western analogy, describing Mao and the Revolutionaries as Protestants or Puritans, and Liu Shao-ch’i and the other leaders as Catholics. The analogy cannot be taken too far and is of course artificial, but it is no more so than other conceptual divisions such as Right and Left or hawk and dove, and in this case it seems much more helpful. To take one obvious example, there are superficial but significant similarities in the iconoclasm—the destruction of all images except those of Mao Tse-tung—of the Red Guards and that of the Puritans. More profoundly, there are resemblances between Mao’s desire to weaken governmental and political organization and to replace it by ideological solidarity, and the Puritans’ hatred of bishops and hierarchies, and their wish to establish free congregations of saints. Both groups want to do away with anything that separates the individual from the supreme being. They aim at establishing a direct relationship between the two through the printed word of the deity; the Bible or the Collected Works. Mao, like the Protestant God, would like to see himself addressed intimately by the simplest and most humble of his people.

Liu Shao-ch’i and the other leaders under attack are no less Maoist than Mao, but their conception of his function is different. They see him as something like a Catholic God whose words and actions have to be explained to the masses and given specific content by the hierarchy. They contend that to realize the vision of communism it is essential to have a hierarchy or, as they would describe it, a disciplined revolutionary party.

Although the analogy is crude, it helps to explain some otherwise inexplicable features of the Cultural Revolution. Take, for instance, the fall of Chou Yang, described by Mr. Karol. For more than twenty-five years Chou had been the Party watchdog on literature. It was precisely because of this function that he was attacked and overthrown last year. Ever since the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party there have been many distinguished revolutionary and Marxist artists who have believed—and this was heresy at the time—that a revolutionary should be allowed to find his own way to the revolutionary truth without Party pressure or direction. Two of the most brilliant of these were the short-story writer Lu Hsün and his student Hu Feng. Lu Hsün constantly chafed at Party control of literature, and Hu Feng was literally driven mad by Party persecution led by Chou Yang. Hu Feng has not been rehabilitated, but, just at the time of Chou Yang’s fall, Lu Hsün who died in 1936 was widely proclaimed as a “pioneer of the Great Cultural Revolution.”

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An even more important example is the severe criticism of the writings of Liu Shao-ch’i. The Cultural Revolutionaries’ claim that these are insufficiently left-wing is absurd. His works are absolutely uncompromising in their enmity toward all “class enemies.” But Liu has been attacked with the different and more convincing charge that he has placed excessive emphasis on party discipline and on the unconditional and unquestioning obedience of cadres to their superiors and the party line. The Cultural Revolutionaries believe that all men are equal before Mao, and that the primary basis of revolutionary strength is enthusiasm not discipline, though they concede that a certain amount of the latter is needed. They maintain that Liu’s “slavishness” stifles enthusiasm, and they have demanded that revolutionaries at all levels should be free to discuss and analyze everything. In schools and factories all over the country, days have been spent in argument over which faults or crimes local Party leaders have committed, the extent of their guilt, and the way they should be treated. Revolutionaries are encouraged to question methods of work, living conditions, local Party leadership, and anything at all, except of course the omniscience of Mao Tse-tung. They are confident that the realization of such freedom will result in a surge of revolutionary and constructive energy unprecedented in world history.

They also believe that once Revolutionaries have come to a free decision, they should stand up for what they believe to be right, regardless of their alleged superiors. Last September, revolutionary students at Futan University in Shanghai became convinced that Party authorities had collected dossiers on them and had compiled a blacklist. A student deputation asked the Party secretary, who denied the existence of such material and tried to send them away. The students then staged an allnight sit-down outside his house. The next morning he admitted that the material existed but refused to show it to them. The students responded by starting a hunger strike and refused to be tempted away from their revolutionary course by buns and other food offered them by officials. After various prevarications by the authorities the students lost their patience, broke into the secretary’s office, and found the material. As much of this consisted of charges against them, the militant students were at first reluctant to publish it. However, in the prevailing atmosphere of skepticism, they were forced to make it public in order to prove that the material they had made such a fuss about existed. Thus cultural revolutionaries are duty-bound to oppose authority which they believe to be wrong. This theory has been reinforced by the desire to justify those “Maoist” foreign Communists who defy the pro-Soviet leadership of their parties.

“Freedom” thus has a special meaning rather similar to Cromwell’s religious freedom, which was given to all godly sects but denied to the episcopalians and papists who made up the majority of the population. In China today “freedom” is given only to those who can demonstrate that they are filled with the Thought of Mao Tse-tung. It should be clear, however, that absolute devotion to Mao and total obedience to the Party are not the same; the former allows much more liberty than the latter. During 1966, revolutionary students were given the freedom to travel throughout China, to form political groups, and to publish their views in their own newspapers or on wall posters. Quotations from Mao can be used to support many different points of view, and his writings are necessarily more general and give a wider scope for action than do instructions passed down and amplified by layers of party and government control. For example, in the Shanghai Foreign Languages Institute there were at last count three separate red revolutionary groups arguing about such issues as the future function of the school, which teachers and party members had behaved well or badly, and how they should be treated. These heated arguments—in other institutions they have led to violence—are all conducted in terms of the thought of Mao Tse-tung, often simply by using one quotation against another.

Both the “protestant” and the “catholic” positions have powerful arguments to support them. Chinese Party leaders claim that it is party discipline which distinguishes proletarian Bolsheviks and Communists from Anarchists and other petty bourgeois revolutionaries. Without party discipline the Soviet and Chinese Revolutions would have failed. They could also argue that, for the complicated and technical problems involved in the building of socialist industry, Mao’s writings and general enthusiasm are hardly enough: that it is also essential to have specialists and men capable of taking personal responsibility. Even while admitting that there have been instances of corruption and the abuse of power, they could still plausibly argue that the present Chinese administration was more efficient and less corrupt than any of its predecessors. In any case, it was better to have experienced revolutionaries in control than to hand over power to an inexperienced and politically unreliable mob, and especially dangerous to launch this campaign when an American attack was imminent. This was precisely the time when the people should have confidence in the Party, Government, and Army authorities, who should direct national defense.

Mao and his supporters argue that, on the contrary, a failure to launch the Cultural Revolution would have meant the destruction of the whole Chinese Revolution. Had they continued to tolerate the existence of the new elite in China, it would have betrayed the Revolution to American counter-revolution just as, they argue, the Soviet leaders had done. According to them, it was the failure to have a cultural revolution that overthrew socialism in Russia. The “revisionists” in authority, using the unconditional obedience of the lower ranks, were able to lead astray the Soviet Government and the whole Communist Party. When Chou Yang told Mr. Karol that the rigidity of the Soviet regime had stifled the growth of proletarian culture in the USSR he was anticipating the line of the Cultural Revolutionaries. They argue that the lack of a proletarian culture made it necessary for the Soviets to exalt pre-revolutionary culture, and that this bourgeois culture had nurtured the revisionist tendencies of the Soviet leaders, and caused them to turn socialism into capitalism, reversing the course of history.

This analysis is extremely difficult to reconcile with Marxism as it is generally understood. The idea of a bourgeois superstructure overthrowing a socialist economic basis is hard to fit into economic determinism. In the same way, the success of a counter-revolutionary movement in overthrowing a well-established revolutionary state considerably complicates the picture of the irreversible flow of history according to historical materialism. Both of these innovations are reassertions of Mao’s fundamental idealism—that is, his belief in the overriding power of human choice and will. As Mr. Karol very rightly says, “in China ideas are all.” Idealism is not necessarily unrealistic. The Chinese Revolution was built on will power. The Communists used ideas to stalemate the Japanese and defeat the Kuomintang against overwhelming material odds. In 1949, China’s industrial base was so small in proportion to her population that she would have made painfully slow progress by purely organizational and economic means. The Chinese Government has tried to harness enthusiasm to overcome this impediment. During the last eighteen years the stimulation of enthusiasm has been increasingly used as a method to boost production. In the 1950s there was a series of mass campaigns or movements, which reached its climax first with the Great Leap Forward, and now with the Cultural Revolution.

Having established this general pattern one is still left with the problem of why the Cultural Revolution was launched at this particular time. Professor Schurmann has suggested that considerations of foreign policy and the effects of American aggression in Southeast Asia were important factors. Others believe that it was caused by the fear that material concessions made to workers and peasants after the Great Leap would rapidly create a petty bourgeoisie similar to that formed by Lenin’s NEP in the 1920s.

It would seem that fear of this new softness, together with the conviction that socialism was being reversed in the Soviet Union, may have contributed to a sudden increase of pessimism in the minds of Mao and his supporters. As an orthodox Marxist and a materialist, Mao never had any doubts about his success. As an idealist he has a far less secure position: if willpower can achieve anything, lack of it can lose everything. Now, for the first time, he seems to believe that it is possible for the Chinese Revolution to be reversed. Thus, as Professor Levenson pointed out last year in a fascinating article in these pages, pre-revolutionary culture, which had previously appeared sterile and relegated to the past, has now become potentially dangerous. This helps to explain the iconoclasm of the Red Guards; their removal of old names and signs, and their destruction or concealment of pre-revolutionary books, furniture, paintings, and sculptures. It also explains the urgency of the demand for a new proletarian culture. Mao’s doubts and his belief in precautions do not mean that he is generally pessimistic. His idealistic view of the world also has its bright side. The successes of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam and the new militance among exploited peoples throughout the world provide him with evidence of the strength of human will in the face of the most terrible enemies. Furthermore, he clearly believes that the Cultural Revolution and the lessons it teaches will unlock vast stores of new and free revolutionary energy.

The Cultural Revolution represents a temporary break between the two forces that have created the Chinese Revolution: “catholic” and “protestant,” organization and inspiration. Both appear to have at least tenuous links with theoretical positions: organization, its links with materialism; economic determination and inspiration, its links with idealism. It has been the brilliant combination of both elements, as in the early campaigns for hygiene, literacy, and irrigation, that has given the Chinese Revolution its strength and flexibility. But it is their incompatibility—which was seen for instance in the Great Leap Forward—that has caused many of its weaknesses and limitations. Yet, even during recent conflicts, which in many cities have included arresting and beating opponents, as well as bloody street fighting of almost Detroit proportions, each side has paid more than mere lip service to the other. No Party leader wants to shackle revolutionary enthusiasm, and Mao’s supporters make constant appeals for discipline and against anarchism. What they are arguing about is priorities or emphases, and in the end both sides will make concessions and a new balance will be struck between them.

It is impossible to predict what this new balance will be: all one can say is that China will remain more inspirational and less organizational than the Soviet Union. There seems to be a general tendency in this direction among Revolutionary forces. The Cuban Revolution was won without help from the Communist Party, and during the last few years Castro has fought and won a battle against the Party leaders and against dogmatic Marxism. The Revolution in South Vietnam started despite the Communist Party, and even now NLF leaders seem to be different in important ways from the older Party leaders.

Red Guard brutalities, horrible though they are, are nothing like the police terror of Stalinist Russia. In spite of their cruelty, inspired revolutionaries are in many ways more attractive than orthodox organization men. In some circumstances they can even be more efficient. In protracted revolutionary wars, particularly those where nationalism is involved, a common course and a common enemy bind people together much better than any organization can. This spirit can also be recaptured and used effectively in short economic or social campaigns. The disadvantage of this kind of revolutionary movement is its lack of stamina where there is no specific enemy. Over-all planning is almost impossible, no one takes responsibilities, and thorough discussion of every issue wastes precious time.

Just as serious is the danger of the cult of personality. Although Stalin showed that disciplined parties can suffer from it too, among spontaneous revolutionaries lacking the center which party or bureaucracy would provide there seems to be an even greater need to concentrate their devotion on a single charismatic individual. This not only puts intolerable psychological pressures on a leader such as Mao, but creates a pattern of power which produces enormous problems of administration and great difficulties with the succession. In spite of the cruelty, cumbrousness, and stifling of initiative, when it comes to long-term planning, capital accumulation, and economic construction it is hard to beat the disciplined revolutionary party with economic priorities.