Michael Schoenhals and Roderick MacFarquhar’s opus magnum on the Cultural Revolution bears the appropriate title Mao’s Last Revolution, but I have always thought that The Last Revolution would have been an even more appropriate title. Because, while the Cultural Revolution did indeed conclude the revolutionary experience identified with “Maoism” by exhausting its inherent tensions and contradictions, Maoism itself represented the final stage and the most intense moment of the two-century-long global search for a revolutionary path towards equality.
Mao’s death, the arrest of the so-called Gang of Four, and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping coincided with and reinforced a political shift that was both momentous and global. By the end of the 1970s, while China, the former bastion of actually existing socialism, embraced a set of market-based policies, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher heralded the neoliberal era and the British prime minister could proudly quip that “there was no alternative” to the capitalist system. A few years later, social scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, to great fanfare, the triumph of the West and “the end of history”. This was a surprising and sudden shift, a true political whiplash, which took place just in the space of a few years, immediately following what briefly looked like one of the most promising revolutionary moments of the twentieth-century, the so-called “long sixties”, which saw a truly global upheaval against the structures of imperialism, capitalism, Cold War duopoly, racism and the patriarchy. Such a whiplash remains difficult to explain, but I am in agreement with those who argue that it was the radical critique of the 1960s and 1970s which exhausted the very organizational locations and concepts that had been foundational to revolutionary politics (class, the Party, workers, etc.) To that critique, Maoism, and specifically the Maoism of the Cultural Revolution, provided the vocabulary and was therefore absolutely central.
How and why did Maoism — and the experience of the Chinese revolution — “make sense” to activists, intellectuals, and rebels in completely different geographical and political circumstances? First and foremost, China presented to the world the case of a non-white revolution, declaredly and unabashedly anti-imperialist (at least until 1972), and conducted independently of the diktats of the USSR. It was a revolution victoriously waged by peasants, not industrial proletarians, who did not wait for the “right conditions”, but rather invented a flexible political and military strategy to triumph in an evidently unfavorable situation. In that, it provided an example for anti-colonial movements in the Third World, but also for Black Liberation in the first. Coherently, Maoism inspired radical groups such as the Black Panther Party in the US, who viewed their struggle as part of the global fight against (white) imperialism.
In a moment of perceived crisis of both capitalism and Soviet developmentalism, Maoist China seemed of offer an alternative economic model, one where industrial modernization could be pursued in a more humane and equalitarian way. While the reality of experiments such as the Great Leap was indeed incredibly tragic, the search for such an alternative was real and it found expression in forms of workplace democracy and in the attempt to reduce seemingly unsolvable differences, between peasants and workers, manual and intellectual labor, leaders and led. This was also part and parcel of a larger, radical critique of the production of knowledge. Maoism proposed a new epistemology grounded on a principle of radical equality: the masses knew and the role of the Party was to filter and clarify that knowledge. That justified experiments such as workers managing factories, scientists and farmers collaborating in discovering new seeds and techniques, peasants producing art, etc. Then, the mass upheaval of the Cultural Revolution constituted the most sweeping and violent attack by students to the structure of knowledge transmissions as inscribed in the Chinese school system, its stultifying methods, and its persistent class character. It is no surprise that radical students in Paris, Turin, or San Francisco saw themselves engaged in a similar struggle and adopted the moniker of “red guards” or “chinois”. Maoism was a crucial element in a truly global experiment in “declassification”, to use Kristin Ross’s apt expression, in which students stopped behaving like students, workers like workers, and intellectuals like intellectuals. Practices such as établissement, with French intellectuals joining factories as workers, and the political trajectory of Italian autonomia echo the Maoist experience, even if they had independent origins.
That declassification, the breaking of stable and fixed locations, in the end could not but affect the Communist Party itself and the political categories on which it was grounded. The Cultural Revolution was an assault to the Party-state as the source of revisionism and continuing social divisions. During the brief episode of the Shanghai commune, workers organizations wrested control of the city from the CCP, thus directly questioning whether the Party still represented the “working class”. And did it make even sense to talk of that when, during the Cultural Revolution, the very meaning of “class” was far from clear, split as it was between a socio-economic descriptor, an almost biological mark, and the sign of one’s political attitude? Accordingly, by the end of the 1970s, in Europe and in the U.S., we witness the crisis both of “the party” as the privileged location of leftist politics and of any political project based on a unified “working class”.
The Chinese Revolution and Maoism expressed and explored (to the bitter end) tensions and contradictions that were both specific to that experience and connected to the longer search of Marxist revolutionary politics. That search was global, and so was the disillusionment when it failed, and Maoism was crucial both in the search and in its failure. Now that we find oneself in a new global crisis of the capitalist system, one in which China is once again prominent, but in a very different fashion, it’s perhaps useful to re-examine the experience of Maoism and its worldwide significance. First, because it might help us understand the scope of the alternative (if any) that today’s China is offering. But also, and more importantly, because the radical critique that Maoism helped articulate in the long sixties might also help us think critically about the system today.