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1.10  Factors Contributing to Mao’s Launching of the Cultural Revolution

1 July 2018

In the aftermath of the disastrous GLF and the Great Famines, 1962 – 65 was a period of impressive economic recovery and policy initiatives for the CCP under the pragmatic leadership, most notably, of Liu Shaoqi, who had taken over from Mao as the head of the state in April 1959, and of Deng Xiaoping, who headed the Secretariat. In the economic front, steel production, which was about 5 million tons in 1960, had probably been doubled by 1965. According to Western estimates, China’s gross national product, which had been depressed from 108 billion yuan in 1958 to some 92 billion yuan in 1961, as a result of the GLF, was back at the 1958 level in 1965.[1] On a political level, the leaders tried to re-establish the system that had developed by late 1956: a system of clear division of responsibility, with a powerful Secretariat serving the needs of the Politburo, with extensive ministerial direction of the government and the use of wide-ranging State Council commissions to prevent the system from becoming too fractionated along functional lines, and so forth.


Despite adopting a path divergent from Mao’s more ideological and political approach, the leaders of this system did not see themselves as approaching a showdown with Mao. They continued to respect him and tried to accommodate what they must have felt were his somewhat misguided policy demands. But they were concerned overwhelmingly with putting the country back on its feet after the GLF and recapturing the initiative in their dealing with Chinese society. In this, as noted, they disagreed with Mao's more optimistic assessment of the situation as of 1962 - and probably thereafter. Notwithstanding, the leaders around Liu always tried to meet Mao more than halfway on substantive issues.


How, then, did the Chairman himself arrive at the conclusion that it was necessary to launch a frontal assault on his accommodative colleagues in the Politburo?


Factors Contributing to Mao’s Launching of the Cultural Revolution


Three interwoven elements appear crucial to understanding Mao's psychological evolution during the critical years of 1959-66: (1) his changing understanding of the potential evolution of the Chinese revolution under the influence of Khrushchev’s “revisionism”; (2) his continuing concern with the problem of succession; and (3) his related sense of his impending death.


All of these elements intertwined in a way that escalated his fear that his life's work had produced a political system that would, in the final analysis, turn away from his values and prove as exploitative as the one it replaced.[2]


(1)  Potential Influence of Khrushchev’s “Revisionism” on Evolution of Chinese Revolution     


To begin with, Mao was always wary of Soviet’s excessive influence over China because of his nationalistic inclination. As the least Soviet of the Chinese leaders, he had spent much of his career fighting Soviet influences in the CCP. Among other issues, Mao had felt that the Soviet leaders had often been overbearing and lacking in understanding of the Chinese situation. During the mid-1950s he had launched concerted efforts to move China away from the Soviet model of development, and starting in 1958 he had included the military and military doctrine in this effort. At the height of the GLF, Mao was further alarmed by Khrushchev’s attempt to establish leverage over China as evidenced by what he saw was Khrushchev’s collusion with Peng Dehuai in 1959 and by the Soviet sudden withdrawal of advisers from China in mid-1960.


Besides this concern of Soviet’s influence over China, Mao was perhaps even more alarmed by the degeneration of the Soviet political system under Nikita Khrushchev, who had succeeded Stalin when the latter passed away in 1953, so much so that Mao began to question whether the Soviet revolution itself had not gone fundamentally astray and changed its nature. In 1959, for example, Mao was dismayed by Khrushchev's declaration that the Soviet Union had become a "state of the whole people" rather than a "dictatorship of the proletariat". By calling the Soviet Union a "state of the whole people," Khrushchev indicated that the exploiting classes had been destroyed and class struggle had ended in the Soviet Union. A "dictatorship of the proletariat," by contrast, is the form of dictatorship used by a Communist Party in power to wage class struggle against the remnants of the exploiting classes.


Mao could evidently see the same forces under way in China, where his colleagues, led by Liu and Deng, now argued that class struggle must be subsumed under the overriding importance of the struggle for production. As a hardened veteran revolutionary, Mao continued to believe that the material incentives that had been restored to the peasants and others were corrupting the masses and were counterrevolutionary. Inevitably, if these trends were allowed to continue, he feared that the younger generation would grow up with a revisionist perspective. His legacy to China might then be an exploitative political system that could even collude with imperialism. All the hitherto efforts on socialist revolution and on fighting the Nationalists and Japanese would have come to nought.


Mao’s qualms with the Soviet Union intensified particularly after Khrushchev’s two speeches delivered at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956. The first of these was his official report on the work of the Central Committee, which provided the basis for Beijing’s subsequent disagreements with Moscow on bloc policy. The second Khrushchev’s infamous “secret speech”, featuring an all-out attack on Stalin’s “cult of personality”, had obvious implications for the cult of Mao. To make matter worse, the CCP delegation was neither given advance warning nor allowed to attend the session on February 25 when the secret speech was delivered, being informed of it only immediately afterward.


The Chinese was angry not only because they were kept away during the delivery of the secret speech. More pertinently, they feared the likely impact of Khrushchev’s destalinization on the world Communist movement. To suddenly destroy the image of the man who had been the unquestioned leader and the paragon of all virtues for Communists everywhere was seen in Beijing as an act of extreme irresponsibility, a verdict that was soon demonstrated later in the year by the Hungarian revolt and the defection of thousands of Communists from parties in the West.


But it was the ideological innovations in Khrushchev’s public report that were the main grounds for the subsequent polemics between the CCP and the CPSU. To Mao, Khrushchev revised Leninist doctrine in two ways: he proclaimed that war between communism and imperialism was not fatally inevitable; and he foresaw the possibility of peaceful, rather than revolutionary, transitions to socialism to enable Communists to come to power.


In 1959, Mao’s unhappiness with the Soviet caution was compounded by Khrushchev’s decision to renege on the secret agreement to give the Chinese a sample atomic bomb with detail of nuclear technology. This was quickly followed by the unfraternal Soviet decision to assume a neutral stance on the 1959 border clashes between China and India. To the Chinese, Khrushchev was sacrificing the national interests of his principal ally in his efforts to promote peaceful coexistence with the US and to cultivate the friendship of bourgeois nationalist leaders of the Third World like India’s Premier Nehru. Both of these aims were seen by Mao as reflections of the revisions of Leninist doctrine by Khrushchev in his public report to the CPSU’s Twentieth Congress.


Mao chose the ninetieth anniversary of Lenin’s birth, April 22, 1960, to launch four major polemics against revisionism, albeit without pointing the finger directly at Moscow. The year witnessed a series of heated Sino-Soviet clashes at Communist gatherings, in the end so infuriating Khrushchev that in July he ordered the withdrawal of the almost 1,400 Soviet specialists then working in China to help its development program. Despite the subsequent dispatch of a high-level Chinese delegation headed by Liu Shaoqi, No. 2 in the Chinese Politburo and already Mao’s successor as head of state, to Moscow in November 1960, only a cosmetic truce resulted.


For much of the next eighteen months, the pragmatic Chinese leaders led by Liu were desperately concerned with trying to alleviate the terrible GLF famine. The Sino-Soviet dispute continued to smoulder, however, despite the efforts of other Communist parties to bring the two sides together. A superficial civility was maintained by the avoidance of direct attacks on the other. By 1963, even this was abandoned when the Chinese decided that the partial test-ban treaty, initialled by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain on July 25, was an attempt by Khrushchev to freeze the Chinese out of the nuclear club.


From September 1963 to July 1964, Mao supervised the writing of a series of nine polemics, which spelled out CCP’s reasons for breaking with the CPSU. They included expositions of the issues of Stalin, war and peace, peaceful coexistence, peaceful transitions to socialism, and Khrushchev’s revisionism. The most important of the polemics was the ninth, “On Khrushchev’s Phoney Communism and Historical Lessons for the World”, published on July 14, 1964. It quoted from the Soviet press to prove that the proletariat was under attack by the bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union. Mao faulted the Soviet leadership by citing their exaltation of material incentives, tolerance for high income differentials, defamation of the proletarian dictatorship by attacking Stalin’s cult of personality, and substitution of capitalist management for socialist planning. These faults were clear demonstrations that the “revisionist Khrushchev clique are the political representatives of the Soviet bourgeoisie, and particularly of its privileged stratum”. He went on to warn that the unprecedented danger of a “capitalist restoration” in the Soviet Union should sound the tocsin throughout the Communist world, where parties like the CCP were struggling to prevent a similar “peaceful evolution”. In effect, the ninth anti-Soviet polemic contained the justification for what would turn out to be Mao’s Cultural Revolution to pre-empt any possible impacts of revisionist thoughts on socialist revolution in China.


(2)  Mao’s Concern over the Problem of Succession             


Related closely to Mao’s obsession with revisionism was his mounting concern over the issue of succession of Chinese political leadership.


Mao's changing role in the Chinese political process contributed to his sense of urgency. As earlier noted, the Chairman reportedly had stopped his regular attendance at Politburo meetings after January 1958. After that date, he only attended those Politburo meetings that he wanted to address. Otherwise, he relied on reports of what had happened at the Politburo meetings and he had to approve all documents issued in the name of the Central Committee before they could be circulated as official documents. Hence, his absence from the Politburo meetings in fact marked the beginning of a period in which he dominated the political system more than at any time previously. Mao at that point indicated also that he would like to give up his role as head of state so that he could concentrate on the larger issues of the development of the revolution. On both the Party and state sides, therefore, Mao saw himself as having firm control over the central directions of policy while at the same time moving into place successors in whom he would have confidence.


But after the collapse of the GLF, Mao realized in 1962 that he was not able to assume full control of the basic directions of policy again. Rather, Liu and Deng now appeared to restrict his access to the policy flow and to twist the meaning of his directives, such as those on rectification. Thus, although Mao had voluntarily stepped back to the "second line" in 1958-59, he was dismayed as that changed its meaning in the wake of the GLF.


The heart of this growing disparity between Mao's priorities and those of his successors lay in the different lessons they drew from the GLF.


Mao, as aforementioned, learned that mass mobilization is not the key to rapid economic development. But at the same time, he retained his faith in mass mobilization as an instrument of ideological renewal, social change, and rectification. Mass mobilization was not, however, a policy that could be carried out by central ministries in Beijing. Rather, by its very nature it relied on the skills of CCP generalists rather than technical specialists, and demanded tolerance of sufficient decentralization to permit the flexibility this strategy inevitably entailed. Thus mass mobilization was to an extent an inherently anti-intellectual and anti-bureaucratic approach, although it could be implemented without totally dismantling a centralized, specialist-dominated political system.


In contrast, Liu, the anointed successor, and his colleagues concluded from the GLF that the campaign approach of mass mobilization had served the CCP well in the days in Yanan and the early 1950s, but it was no longer suited to the complex task of governing the country in the 1960s. The "high tide" politics inherent in major political campaigns could only disrupt the effort they were making to salvage what they could from a bad situation. Given the parlous state of the country's economy and political institutions in 1962, they felt that strong measures must be taken to put control over the economy back in the hands of experts in the central ministries and commissions, and related efforts must be made to rebuild disciplined Party and state organizations that would link the centre to the basic levels.


During the “Three Years of Natural Calamities”, given the harsh situation, Mao relented and subscribed to Liu-Deng’s strategy to set in motion an economic recovery and to solve the critical problem of acute food shortage. He sanctioned the abolition of the unpopular and wasteful collective mess halls in the rural people’s communes and agreed that in the countryside, the accounting unit should be the production team, the lowest level organization within the commune, corresponding most closely to the natural village. This strategy increased incentives by diminishing the equalization of incomes across a commune composed of a large number of villages of differing prosperity. During the unprecedentedly large conference of 7,000 cadres in January-February 1962, Mao even made an uncharacteristic self-criticism for his roles in the disastrous GLF.


But once it became clear that the economy had turned the corner in 1963, Mao tried to nudge the system back toward his own priorities through periodically indicating specific policy preferences in various fields that had the effect of attacking the urban orientation and technical premises of the Liu-Deng strategy. In culture, for example, he wanted writers and artists go to the grass roots in order to understand life through living with average people, especially in the countryside. In medicine, he demanded that the best doctors of the country leave the cities and practice in the rural areas.[3] In education, he advocated a shorter curriculum, more concentration on applied studies rather than theory, and the integration of manual labour with the academic curriculum in a significant way.[4] In economics, Mao objected to the economic centralization and argued instead for greater regional self-sufficiency.


In all these areas, the Chairman's recommendations would have the effect of undercutting the control exercised by the authorities in the relevant ministries in Beijing. The results in virtually every area were largely the same. In each case Liu and others accepted the general thrust of Mao's critique of current policy and took some measures to implement his ideas. But at the same time, these measures fell far short of the type of drastic restructuring of the system Mao had in mind. As a result, Mao increasingly saw his colleagues as running a bureaucratic leviathan that gobbled up his pressing demands and turned them into relatively innocuous reforms that did little to affect the basic functions and trends of the system.


Take rural reforms for example. Mao insisted on holding the line on collectivist agriculture. But maintaining collectivism was not enough; the peasants had to be convinced that it was good collectivist agriculture for them. Mao thus called for a Socialist Education Movement to restore the faith. But party leaders soon realized that peasants were unresponsive to the arguments of rural cadres who in many places had become as corrupt as the KMT officials that they had replaced. Under the aegis of Liu Shaoqi, the SEM was soon transformed into intensive investigations and purging of rural cadres by massive teams of central officials. Though supportive at first, Mao soon turned against the policy in late 1964.


Liu and Mao first came together in the late 1930s when they found themselves on the same side against leaders preferred by Moscow. Then in the early 1940s, Liu played a major role in the rectification campaign that re-educated the CCP to accept Mao’s leadership. And at the party’s Seventh Congress in 1945, Liu’s potential political report was a paean of praise to Mao’s thought, marking the beginning of the Mao cult.


By the 1950s, after the birth of the new republic, Liu Shaoqi “accepted a position as Mao’s subordinate, but clearly had no intention of abandoning his critical faculties.” Unsurprisingly, Liu was not always successful in divining Mao’s line. So even though he espoused Mao’s SEM enthusiastically, he had been prepared to argue with the Chairman over its goals and its implementation.


Moreover, despite his long history working closely with Mao, Liu had an independent status within the party, having risen by a different route from Mao. The latter had earlier on seen the peasantry as the engine of a Chinese revolution, whereas Liu had taken the more conventional Leninist route as an organizer of the nascent proletariat in the cities. The two men were also very different personalities, Mao the romantic revolutionary, revelling in struggle and martial action, Liu “somewhat bookish, thoughtful, rather taciturn, but clearly persevering,” stoic by temperament, a man who ascended step by step “not by obvious talents, but by solid hard work.” Truly gray in his eminence, Liu seemed to have totally internalized the principle of the primacy of the organization over the individual. With a strong base in the party machine that he had done so much to create, Liu must have loomed in Mao’s imagination as a potential Brezhnev, able to topple him if he turned his back.


By the early 1960s, the Chairman’s dissatisfaction with Liu came to a head when Mao, driven by his obsession in revisionism, had become uninterested in the SEM purge of rural cadres for what he considered petty peculation. To Mao, the greater danger laid in the ideological backsliding of party members and the consequent danger of a capitalist restoration as spelled out by Mao in his ninth anti-Soviet polemic. The polemic listed fifteen principles based on conventional Marxism-Leninism and Maoist ideas to avert this danger. But more importantly, Mao held that it was absolutely vital to groom revolutionary successors:


In the final analysis, the question of training successors for the revolutionary cause of the proletariat is one of whether or not there will be people who can carry on the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary cause started by the older generation of proletarian revolutionaries, whether or not the leadership of our Party and state will remain in the hands of proletarian revolutionaries, whether or not out descendants will continue to march along the correct road laid down by Marxism-Leninism, or, in other words, whether or not we can successfully prevent the emergence of Khrushchev’s revisionism in China. In short, it is an extremely important question, a matter of life or death for our Party and our country.


Even the process by which succeeding generations would be imbued with Maoist principles was hinted at: “Successors to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat come forward in mass struggle and are tempered in great storms of revolution. It is essential to test and know cadres and choose and train successors in the long course of mass struggle.”


By the end of 1964, the Chairman’s dissatisfaction with some of his colleagues became clearly visible. At a top-level conference, Mao challenged Liu’s handling of the SEM and got his way. In an unusual development, a CC directive on the next stage of the SEM had to be rescinded because the Chairman had had second thoughts. The new directive, issued in January 1965, contained a passage that clearly presaged that the Chairman

had in mind a movement far more significant than just the elimination of corrupt rural accounting:

The key point of this movement is to rectify those people in positions of authority within the Party who take the capitalist road… of those people in positions of authority who take the capitalist road, some are in the open and some are concealed… Among those at higher levels, there are some people in the communes, districts, counties, special districts, and even in the work of provincial and Central Committee departments, who oppose socialism.


At this point, there should have been no doubt in his colleagues’ minds that Mao’s target was high-level “capitalist roaders”.


(3)  Mao’s Concern over his Mortality


Finally, Mao's concerns about these issues grew rapidly in 1964-65 because, as his available speeches and interviews indicate, he began to focus on his own mortality. Beginning in 1964, the Chairman increasingly saw his physical life coming to a close and his fundamental identity as defined by the fate of the revolution he had fathered. In other words, Mao thought he could achieve immortality only through the continuation of his revolution along proper paths,[5] but what the Chairman saw as he looked around him was the subversion of that revolution through the revisionism of his chosen successors.


Mao, by this time, seemed very different from when he had become party chairman twenty years earlier. Back then, he had been a welcome unifier after years of internecine struggle: the leadership formed at the Seventh Congress in Yanan in 1945 basically lasted through the Eight Congress in 1956 and to the eve of the Cultural Revolution in 1965. Up till the mid-1950s, Mao seemed tolerant of debate in the Politburo, even accepting defeat on economic policy issues. But then his attitude and behaviour toward his colleagues changed by 1958. He thrust aside the cautious planners at the outset of the tragically misconceived GLF and forced Premier Zhou Enlai into a humiliating self-criticism. Eighteen months later, Mao flew into a rage at Peng Dehuai and dismissed this hero who won many battles first against the Nationalists and Japanese and then during the Korean War, the Americans. In 1963, when Mao judged that the GLF catastrophe was ending, he disrupted the ongoing national recovery effort by forcing his colleagues to accept renewed class struggle. Whatever camaraderie had been forged among the veterans of the revolution had given way to trepidation in the face of a headstrong Chairman who would brook no opposition. He began building his clique of alliances that included Jiang Qing (his wife), Lim Biao (the Minister of Defence), Kang Sheng, Chen Boda, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen, and Zhang Chunqiao. Each of them harboured ambitions and hopes for political gains from any reordering of the leading organs of the Party and the State.

By about 1964, Mao may have begun to distort reality quite seriously in his own mind. The Chairman's changing mental state and concerns about his mortality may have caused him to turn normal types of policy disagreements into a moral struggle between the forces of good and evil. The psychological and political stakes for him thus became so high that he felt compelled eventually to launch a brutal frontal assault on the Party he had spent his life creating.

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[1] See Harry G. Shaffer. (1967). “The Communist World: Marxist and Non-Marxist Views, Volume 2.” Ardent Media, Pg 178 – 181.

[2] See Cambridge History of China. Vol 14. Pg. 351 – 359.

[3] See David Lampton, The politics of medicine in China, 129-92.

[4] See Seybolt, Revolutionary education in China, Introduction and 5-62.

[5] See Robert Lifton, Revolutionary immortality.

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