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Mao and the Writers

Youth are precious because they are simple, sensitive, enthusiastic, courageous and full of the new strength of life. The evils that others have not perceived they perceive first.

At this point it should be noted that in China “youth” has connotations of class as well as of age. The word covers young men and women with leisure, if not with education. In China, as in many places elsewhere, most people go straight from infancy to work. The cult of youth is, of course, linked to the composition of the critical movements. In the rectification campaigns, as well as in the Cultural Revolution, most of the leading critics came from schools and universities.

The appeal to youthful enthusiasm in the midst of a rectification campaign leads to a problem that has puzzled many Western writers. Why did the Communist leadership allow even short periods of free criticism? Merle Goldman appears to believe that these were tolerated so that the authorities could retain the support of the intellectuals on whose expertise they depended. She and Dr. Fokkema recognize that the periods of freedom or “hundred flowers” coincided with rectification campaigns, but they do not seem to see any intrinsic relationship between the two. It is now clear, however, that the initial liberation and later chastisement of the intellectuals was only one element among others.

The major element in rectification campaigns has been the attempt by Mao and certain sections of the top leadership to release youthful enthusiasm and attack ossified Party and government bureaucracy. The critics were not merely tolerated: they were positively encouraged to assault local officials. The later backlash against the critics was savage in its effects on individuals. It may also be seen as a counter-balancing action considered necessary to restrain extremism and to re-establish Party discipline, an action that was made more vicious by the revenge of lower officials who had been threatened and hurt by the criticisms.

Here it should be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of the critics thought of themselves as loyal supporters of the Chinese Revolution. After the “hundred flowers” of 1957, the injured authorities wanting to prove the “rightist” nature of the critics scoured the mass of critical material for evidence of bourgeois or counter-revolutionary thought. This process was continued by Western experts looking for fellow spirits in “the Chinese Hungary.” However, in Roderick MacFarquhar’s excellent compilation of materials, most of the quotations given from the Hundred Flowers period are attacks on bureaucracy, privilege, and the abuse of power. Very few are opposed to communism or Mao. The political criticisms were largely from the left:

The old ruling class has been overthrown but a new class has arisen. The evolution of this will lead to an amalgamation with Taiwan….

There was also an emphasis on voluntarism and a refusal to accept the belief in the constraints of objective conditions so often held by the hierarchy. “Youths, let us unite and do things ourselves.”

A group of “Rightists” in the provinces were later accused of having said “society is in a mess” and “another revolution is necessary.” They were reported to have advanced the view that “social development is not governed by objective laws but is determined by man.”

Not only do the words of the “Rightists” in 1957 resemble those of the Cultural Revolutionaries, but their actions seem to have been remarkably similar. Their targets were examinations, the Youth League, Party control of students, and the dossiers of “black material” on students held by school administrations. In some instances they attacked police stations and Party offices, either by sieges or sit-ins or by unarmed physical force. They tried to go to the factories to rouse the workers. But this was unsuccessful either because of the machinations of the Party bosses or because of the workers’ general distrust of students. Some descriptions published later sound familiar and ring very true.

One peasant…who happened to pass by (a “Rightist” demonstration) said it takes more than three peasants to support one student and yet you still want to make trouble.

Lin Hsi-ling, by far the most influential “Rightist” leader, was not an elderly bourgeois but a twenty-one-year-old student of impeccable working-class origin, who had joined the Peoples Liberation Army at the age of fifteen. In 1957 she was studying at the most politically conscious university in China, the People’s University in Peking, the students of which were all revolutionary veterans and cadres. Most of Lin’s reported speeches were concerned with the evils of bureaucracy and hierarchy. She was particularly hostile to the Chinese Army’s imitation of Soviet ranks and privileges for officers, wanting a return to the egalitarian tradition. She also attacked what she saw as bourgeois in the new society, notably the payment of bonds to the former capitalists. According to a report in the People’s Daily, “She demanded ‘a search for true socialism and advocated using explosive measures to reform the present system.”

Lin Hsi-ling and other “Rightists” saw a clear link between their movement and the radical individualism of Hu Feng. In one of her most famous speeches she said:

Hu Feng’s opinions were basically correct. The “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” policy which the Party offers us today is essentially the same as Hu Feng’s proposal. True socialism is highly democratic. I call this society socialism sprung from feudalism

It has often been argued that the “hundred flowers” were brought to an end because of the bourgeois criticisms that crossed the bounds of socialism. It would now seem more likely that they were suppressed because of the critics’ effectiveness in pointing out the discrepancies between the Chinese Communist Party’s stated values and its actual behavior. This hypothesis is strengthened by the differences between the punishments received in the anti-Rightist campaign. Although ministers from the vestigial bourgeois parties who had made criticisms were demoted, most of them were restored to their positions within two years. On the other hand, Lin Hsi-ling and many of the radical critics were sent into permanent exile in the extreme North of China.

Even during the backlash in the Summer and Autumn of 1957, some aspects of the rectification of the bureaucracy continued, and this helped to lay the foundations of the Great Leap Forward the following year. Nevertheless, the effect of the campaigns of late 1957 and 1958 was to silence outside critics and to increase the power of the Party. During the optimistic enthusiasm of the Great Leap, the Party gained at the expense of Government. But it was also the Party that led the cautious retrenchment of the early 1960s. The measures carried out during this period may have helped to restore the Chinese economy after three years of harvest failure and the confusion of the Great Leap. On the other hand they greatly widened the gap between the officially propagated vision of the just society and social reality, with its economic differentials and rigid stratification.

During these same years Mao, Lin Piao, and their sympathizers began their analysis of what they saw as the degeneration of the Soviet Union, which in many ways seemed the trend of events in China taken to its logical conclusion. It was clear to them that the Soviet retrogression had been brought about by a “Revisionist clique in the leadership.” Selfish bourgeois tendencies lurk in every individual, they argued, and these had come to the fore in the Soviet leadership, because it was in a position of privilege and was divorced from the masses. Furthermore it was steeped in bourgeois culture which the Revolution had failed to cradicate. For this latter reason Mao and his colleagues have frequently emphasized the importance of culture as the stalking-horse of counter-revolution.

In Marxist terms they see the capitalist takeover of the socialist economic base in the Soviet Union as having been brought about by elements in the “superstructure” and by the persistence of bourgeois culture in particular As the late Joseph Levinson pointed out, in Communist countries it had previously been accepted that though culture often lagged behind the rest of society, this problem need not be taken seriously, as it was the economic base that determined the nature of society as a whole. Thus in China, the political line laid down by Mao in the Yenan Talks, and maintained by Chou Yang and the literary hierarchy, was that positive elements of traditional culture should be maintained and used. Now, because of the Soviet example, all pre-revolutionary culture was seen as dangerous. In this way Mao and his friends came round to the position held thirty years before by Lu Hsun and Hu Feng that all feudal culture should be rooted out. In the Cultural Revolution, while refusing to accept Lu and Hu’s call for the introduction of foreign artistic forms, Mao and Lin Piao violently attacked Chinese tradition, hoping to clear the way for a new proletarian art.

There was another even more important convergence of opinion between Mao and the radical individualists. Given the backsliding of a “small group in authority” in the Soviet Union, why had the lower ranks in the Party and the masses failed to prevent them from establishing a “bourgeois dictatorship”? In Mao’s eyes the answer seems to have been “slavishness” or the blind obedience to orders from superiors. If China was to avoid the Soviet fate, she had to destroy “slavishness” and mobilize the lower ranks of the Party and the “masses” not to accept revisionist orders from above.

Thus each individual—however young or ignorant—with the help of the works of Mao, was to develop his own revolutionary conscience by whose standards he was to judge society around him. If he saw an experienced Party veteran behaving in a way that he believed to be unrevolutionary, he had the duty to denounce the latter and organize the “masses” against him, regardless of the cost to himself or society. This in some ways is similar both to Lu Hsun and Hu Feng’s belief that revolutionary artists should establish their own standards, and also the desire of the critics in 1942 and 1957 to attack individuals and institutions they did not think to be truly socialist. Mao and Lin Piao’s freedom for revolutionaries suffers from the same imprecision: it is impossible to distinguish “revolutionary” criticism and disobedience from the “counter-revolutionary” varieties.

In the Forties and Fifties, Mao and the Party Leadership believed in balancing the “protestant” and “catholic” aspects of Chinese communism. In the Sixties Mao wanted to tip the scales toward enthusiasm. In 1966 many people who could remember the Hundred Flowers were extremely reluctant to attack authority in case they were later branded as “rightists.” But this time Mao wanted to make sure that rectification should be thorough and, that no one in the Leadership—excepting Mao himself—should be spared. Above all, he was determined that the authorities should not be allowed to reestablish themselves as before. In this he has succeeded; in spite of the considerable reversal of the Cultural Revolution this year there is no doubt that it has brought about a qualitative change in the structure of Chinese power.

Some radicals in the West may see this transformation as a glorious victory for the spontaneous and free new Left over a hidebound and in many ways reactionary Communist Party. But in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, young intellectual radicals who insist on Revolutionary integrity and “continuous militance” are qu te out of touch with the mass of the people, whose overwhelming preoccupation is with the security and material improvement that have so far only been achieved by organization, coercion, and personal corruption. If we consider the conflict over culture apart from other aspects of modern China, it is easy to choose between Lu Hsun, the attractive, independent, and honest revolutionary, and Chou Yang, the party hack. In China itself, where the Communist Party, in spite of its monstrous faults, has achieved vast benefits for the Chinese people, the question is not so simple.


Opera Lover December 18, 1969

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