Seas are Rising, Clouds and Waters Raging
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Begins, Maoist China from 1958 to May 16, 1966
“May 16th Circular”
Debates had been raging about the direction of China’s culture since at least the Socialist Education Movement. Since at least the early 1960s, the Maoist sought to retain their influence in culture as their influence in the day-to-day running of the economy and state waned. Maoist intellectuals battled with their revisionist opponents in philosophy, literature and art. But it was the struggle over Wu Han’s play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office that would become a national debate, that would shake power in the Party, and develop into the stronger movements of the Cultural Revolution. Wu Han’s play is probably not as important as it has become in official histories and myth making. Numerous debates like this occurred between Maoists and their opponents. It just happened that the Maoists were able to capitalize on this debate due to the revisionist abuses of power. Had Wu Han’s play not been the focal point of the struggle, surely another document would have.
In the Cultural Revolution period, usually lower-tier figures foreshadowed the fall of higher figures. Just as Wu Han’s fall foreshadows the fall of Peng Zhen, Lu Dingyi, and Luo Ruiqing, so do does the fall of Peng Zhen, Lu Dingyi, and Luo Ruiqing foreshadow the fall of top revisionists State Chairman Liu Shaoqi and Vice-chairman Deng Xiaoping. Later, lower-level Maoists foreshadow the fall of higher ones. Wang Li, Guan Feng and Qi Benyu fall, then Chen Boda, then Lin Biao. This is a pattern that is repeated again and again on both the right and left, within both the capitalist and proletarian headquarters. With the falling of the second-tier revisionists, with the fall of the Group of Five, the stage had been set for the next phase of the Cultural Revolution. The ball was in motion by Mao, but eventually it would get out of even his control in the hot summer of 1967.
Already by May 1966, big-character posters criticizing the “black line” and denouncing “freaks and monsters” were popping up in factories, but they had not erupted onto the streets yet. Beijing was filled with rumors of the power struggle. (1) It was in this climate that the Maoists issued the May 16th “Circular of the Central Committee” to formally rebut the policies around Peng Zhen and the “February Outline.” The “May 16th Circular” specifically names Peng Zhen as the main culprit holding back the struggle for socialism in culture:
“The outline report by the so-called ‘Group of Five’ is actually an outline report by Peng Zhen alone. He concocted it according to his own ideas behind the backs of Comrade Kang Sheng, a member of the ‘Group of Five’, and other comrades. In handling such a document regarding important questions which affect the overall situation in the socialist revolution, Peng Zhen had no discussion or exchange of views at all within the ‘Group of Five’. He did not ask any local party committee for its opinion; nor, when submitting the outline report, did he make it clear that it was being sent to the Central Committee for examination as its official document, and still less did he get the approval of Comrade Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Central Committee. Employing the most improper methods, he acted arbitrarily, abused his powers, and, usurping the name of the Central Committee, hurriedly issued the outline report to the whole party.”
“Party committees at all levels must immediately stop carrying out the ‘Outline Report on the Current Academic Discussion made by the Group of Five in Charge of the Cultural Revolution’. The whole party must follow Comrade Mao Zedong’s instructions, hold high the great banner of the proletarian Cultural Revolution, thoroughly expose the reactionary bourgeois stand of those so-called ‘academic authorities’ who oppose the party and socialism, thoroughly criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art, and publishing, and seize the leadership in these cultural spheres. To achieve this, it is necessary at the same time to criticize and repudiate those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and all spheres of culture, to clear them out or transfer some of them to other positions. Above all, we must not entrust these people with the work of leading the Cultural Revolution. In fact many of them have done and are still doing such work, and this is extremely dangerous.”
The “May 16th Circular” goes on to make various criticisms of the handling of the Cultural Revolution under the leadership of Peng Zhen and his Group of Five. For example:
“Proceeding from a bourgeois stand and the bourgeois world outlook in its appraisal of the situation and the nature of the current academic criticism, the outline completely reverses the relation between the enemy and ourselves, putting the one into the position of the other. Our country is now in an upsurge of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which is pounding at all the decadent ideological and cultural positions still held by the bourgeoisie and the remnants of feudalism. Instead of encouraging the entire party boldly to arouse the broad masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers, and the fighters for proletarian culture so that they can continue to charge ahead, the outline does its best to turn the movement to the right. Using muddled, self-contradictory, and hypocritical language, it obscures the sharp class struggle that is taking place on the cultural and ideological front.”
Numerous other specific criticisms are made. One thing that is striking about the May 16th Circular is that it widens the scope of and intensifies the Cultural Revolution. No longer is the movement merely limited to the academic realm or cultural realm, rather, it is an all out class war between the proletariat and bourgeoisie:
“Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and various cultural circles are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through, others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khrushchev, for example, who are still nestling beside us. Party committees at all levels must pay full attention to this matter.” (2)
A little over a year later, in June, 1967, these battles in culture would be summed up:
“In the 17 years since the founding of New China, the soul-stirring class struggles that have taken place one on the heels of another on the literary and art front are centered on political power. Backed to the hilt by the top Party person in authority taking the capitalist road, the group of counter-revolutionary revisionists on the ideological and cultural front — such as Lu Dingyi, Zhou Yang, Ji Yanming, Xia Yan, Lin Mohan and Peng Zhen, ringleader of the counter-revolutionary revisionists of the former Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party — carried out activities in drama, cinema, fiction and theory on literature and art which were all aimed at creating public opinion for the overthrow of the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, the struggle waged by the proletarian revolutionary fighters of the literary and art front under the leadership of the great leader Chairman Mao has been aimed at eliminating public opinion for counter-revolutionary revisionism and consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (3)
The tone and content of the “May 16th Circular” signaled that big struggles and purges were on the horizon. It was a battle cry. May 16th, 1966 is seen by many as the real start of the Cultural Revolution. It was also a call to the masses. May 16th entered into myth. It is a day that would continue to inspire revolutionaries throughout the decade.
Peng Zhen was disgraced and his Group of Five dissolved. A few weeks later, it was announced that the Beijing Municipal Committee was to be reorganized. No mention was made of Peng Zhen in the June 3 announcement from the Central Committee. However, before that, as Peng Zhen’s Group of Five was dissolved, a new Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG) was appointed to lead the Cultural Revolution at an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau in May. This new group was made up of a majority of Maoists. It was headed by Chen Boda, Mao’s long time secretary, ghost writer, and a long-time Maoist. It included the junior intellectuals around him in Beijing: Wang Li, Qi Benyu, Guan Feng, Lin Jie and Mu Xin. Its deputy head was Jiang Qing. It included intellectuals from her circle in Shanghai: Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. Powerful members from the security services, Kang Sheng and Xie Fuzhi, also participated in the new group. Eventually, the CCRG would function as a stand-in Politburo, yet another form of New Power. (4) Another related group that was formed around the same time, at an enlarged session of the Politburo on May 24, 1966, was the Central Case Examination Group (CCEG) whose initial task was:
“…to further examine the anti-Party activities and irregular inter-relationships of Peng Zhen, Lu Dingyi, Luo Ruiqing, and Yang Shangkun. The CCEG would transform from its original mandate to a permanent institution operating as a kind of intelligence agency and secret police that served those aligned with Mao. Another form of institutional New Power to be used against the revisionists. According to Wang Li, it was technically under the Politburo Standing Committee, but in reality was “directly accountable to the Chairman.”
It would work in conjunction with the CCRG and Lin Biao’s military. The CCEG’s membership overlapped with both the CCRG and Lin Biao’s officers. The high military involvement is reflected in that 789 soldiers were at one time or another employed by the CCEG. The CCEG was a multi-layered bureaucracy with three offices at the top. Wang Dongxing, the new director of the General Office headed one. General Yang Chenwu, Lin Biao’s acting Chief of Staff, and Xie Fuzhi, the Minister of Public Security, headed the others respectively. Zhou Enlai was a Mao loyalist, although opposing the leftist line, he also maintained links with these leading bodies. Zhou Enlai chaired the CCEG’s meetings. Wang Li recalls that even though Zhou Enlai “involved himself in all of its activities,” his relationship to the CCEG was “unclear from the outset.” Kang Sheng was especially active in the CCEG, personally taking charge of hundreds of investigations. Other members of the CCRG took charge of cases and received regular reports on major cases. Mao himself also received regular reports. (5) These groups, along with Lin Biao’s Maoists in the army, would direct the course of struggle over the next few years. They, along with Lin Biao’s re-organized army and mass movements, would serve as the growing Maoist New Power within the shell of the old institutions and society.
At this point, in mid-1966, the revolution remained primarily cultural. Many elites who had fallen were associated with high culture. Announcing the new Maoist direction, Red Flag, edited by the Maoist Chen Boda, published “Long Live The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” The editorial stated:
“Comrade Mao Zedong has scientifically summed up the historical experience of international proletarian dictatorship and put forward the theory of contradiction, class and class struggle in socialist society. He constantly reminds us that we must never forget class struggle, never forget to bring politics to the fore, never forget to consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that we must adopt various measures to guard against the usurpation of leadership by revisionism and the restoration of capitalism. He points out: ‘In order to overthrow a regime, it is first necessary to lay hold of the superstructure and ideology and to make good preparations for public opinion.’ This applies to the revolutionary class as well as the counter-revolutionary class… Comrade Mao Zedong is precisely proceeding from this basic viewpoint when he class on us to launch the class struggle for the ‘promotion of the proletariat and the destruction of the bourgeoisie’ in the ideological sphere.”(6)
It was being called “a revolution in the superstructure” as part of wider struggle. Chen Boda’s magazine alluded to the fact that the cultural struggles were the first step. More and more, the Maoist press, both civilian and military, raised the issue the “fundamental question in revolution is the question of power.” (7) Most people understood something very significant was on the horizon.
Leading Lights have always emphasized the need to advance revolutionary science, to update Marxism to today’s realities. One of the discoveries of the Leading Light is how, within the history of socialism, looking at the world through the lenses of the police is connected to the revisionist Theory of the Productive Forces. The idea that socialism is simply a perfectly-rational machine that produces prosperity tends to lead to a police state. Because when the machine fails to produce as it should, as it will always fail to meet the perfectly-rational machine ideal, people will look for explanations for its failure outside of socialism itself. They will see socialism’s problems not as part of the transitory nature of socialism itself. Rather, they will look for infiltrators and saboteurs, outsiders. And this requires an ever-widening police state. Later Maoists would begin to introduce a concept of “New Bourgeoisie” to explain the reactionary interests of the bureaucracy. Thus later Maoists would not only delink the concept of class from the traditional Marxist conception of “relation to the means of production,” just as Leading Lights have done so in its analysis of the reactionary nature of the global bourgeoisie, which includes First World workers. Similarly, Leading Light has advanced the concept of the global, new proletariat delinked from the point of production. However, it is important to note that at this early stage, Maoist theory had not advanced to this point. Even though Maoists were calling on criticism and mass actions, their conception of counter-revolution was often still that of infiltration by outsiders who had “sneaked” into the socialist machine to sabotage it. This is reflected in the language of the “May 16th Circular” itself, which is inherited from the Bolshevik, especially Stalinist, conception of counter-revolution. Even though the Cultural Revolution had begun, Maoism was not yet Maoism in its best, fully developed, sense. In fact, the whole idea that the Chinese Maoists ever fully broke from the Stalinist tradition is a later-day, post-Chinese Maoist myth. By the end of Mao’s life, the Maoist concept of counter-revolution and how to fight it would still be a muddled one, a mix of traditional outlooks inherited from Stalin and the emerging more intellectual, more scientific, structural analysis that claims counter-revolution is a product of incomplete revolution, of the transition itself, of socialism. The traditional Maoist narrative emphasizes the role of the Red Guards and mass movements, which is often connected to the leaders of the CCRG. However, latter-day Maoist mythmaking often fails to mention the key role played by CCEG, which was tightly controlled by the security forces, its methods more in line with the traditional Stalinist approach. Similarly, they leave out Lin Biao’s military’s role as an instrument of New Power and its role as a kind of praetorian guard protecting the Maoists and the mass movements. Although the Cultural Revolution did contain a great deal of unintended, spontaneous events, it is a mistake to think that the fall of high-ranking revisionist figures was only a result of the mass movements. The reality is they they were highly coordinated and planned.
- Han Suyin, Wind In The Tower (Little, Brown And Company, USA: 1976) pp. 271-272
- “Circular of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China May 16, 1966” in Chinese Politics edited by Myers, James T., Domes, Jurgen, and von Groeling, Erik (University of South Carolina Press, USA: 1986) pp. 220-226
- Great Truth, Sharp Weapon” Beijing Review no. 23 (June 2, 1967) p. 17
- Jin Qui The Culture of Power (Stanford University Press, California, USA: 1999) p. 57
- Schoenhels, Michael “The Central Case Examination Group” in The China Quarterly, no. 145 (March 1996) pp. 89-100
- “Long Live The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Hung Chi Editorial No. 8, 1966)” in Chinese Politics edited by Myers, James T., Domes, Jurgen, and von Groeling, Erik (University of South Carolina Press, USA: 1986) p. 226
- Esmein, Jean The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Andre Deutsch Limited, Great Britain: 1975) p. 64