05 August, 2020

This is Not The American Cultural Revolution

A book to read before making a poor analogy.
Earlier this week I was interviewed by Erik Torenberg, for his podcast "Venture Stories." The podcast was wide ranging; among other things, we discussed my posts "The World Twitter Made," "On Cultures That Build," "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," my on-going critique of Patrick Deneen, my essay for the National Review, and my numerous attempts to translate, understand, and explicate Xi Jinping Thought. There was one topic we covered, however, that I have not yet written publicly about. Torenberg asked me to assess what has become a rather common talking point in both Chinese expat and American right-wing circles: the ominous comparison between the BLM statue removal campaign and the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China.

In response, I shared with Torenberg a small letter I wrote in reply to a journalist from a right-wing publication who was seeking quotes on this topic. Here is what I wrote:
The trouble is, [reporter's name], it is not very similar to the beginnings of the Chinese cultural revolution. The cultural revolution began not with defacing statues and public monuments, but with attacks on people: defaming them, publicly, physically humiliating them, imprisoning them, torturing them, and ultimately killing them. People were dying weeks before monuments were being defaced. Tearing downs statues did not lead to mass death; mass death led to tearing down statues. Death was part of the program from the beginning.

This program was egged on, directed, and manipulated by a dictator who feared he had lost control of you might think of as the Chinese "deep-state" and the existing political class. Again, a world of difference from the current environment, where the powers that be are filled with protest-sympathizers and the political class provide active cover for the extremes of the current movement. The major institutions of American life are behind this movement: the major institutions of Maoist life—and more specifically, the individuals who manned them, were the targets of that movement.
Finally, the main thrust of cultural revolution, especially in its initial stages, was dismantling bureaucracies that controlled Chinese life, whereas most of the thinkers that animate this moment (say Ibram X Kendi) call for vast extensions of administrative control over American life, and most of the long-lasting achievements of the movement thusfar  (say the change in hiring policies adopted by firms like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs) have been achieved by administrative fiat. This movement is one big appeal to management; from the beginning, the cultural revolution was about having teenagers drag management out on the street and beat them blue.

Thusfar there are only cosmetic similarities between the two moments (non-state actors taking the fore, ideological fervor, attacks on public monuments) and those similarities are shared by many, many other movements over time, only a few of which led to mass death. Question the intentions or the knowledge base of anyone who blithely compares the two.
Americans are extremely fond of exaggerating the threat their political enemies pose. Histrionics about Donald Trump ending American democracy are everywhere to be found; readers will no doubt remember the protestors who claimed that Dick Cheney was the second coming of Hitler, or that Barrack Obama was a stealth authoritarian socialist. This sort of rhetoric is nothing new to American democracy: look back far enough and you will find prominent politicians and journalists accusing Andrew Jackson of Caesarean ambitions, gold-standard proponents of aiming to overthrow democracy, and railroad strikers of wishing to re-inact the Paris Commune on American shores.

I am afraid we will always have this impulse with us. Everyone wants this vote to matter. Humans hunger for meaning and consequence: we want to be the generation that faced the choice between dark and light, chaos and order, destruction and salvation. More cynically, it is also a lot easier to justify dubious politics—say, voting for Donald Trump—when the alternative is totalitarian cataclysm. The fact that our fear of democratic death springs eternal is in some ways a good thing. It is part of the reason America's liberal institutions have lasted as long as they have: "eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty," Old Hickory said, and we have been nation of paranoiacs ever since. Yet spurring our worries to nightmarish hyperbole has its own weakness. Great powers need not fall with a bang. Many fall apart through drawn-out whimpers. Our fear of the totalitarian murder squads around the corner blind us to the more mundane (yet less imaginary) engines of decay and decline.   

Given this, we ought not confuse cosmetic similarities with deeper parallels. Yes, the emotions that push some kid out onto the street today are not so different from those that pushed kids into Tiananmen Square in 1966. But that could be said for the common emotions that compelled young men into battle both at Verdun and Fallujah. However, the shared experiences of those grunts at war scale poorly. The strategic imperatives of the Western front were fundamentally different from those of an insurgent-infested Iraq, and only so much can be gained from comparing one moment to the other.

To give you a practical sense for what I mean, consider this resolution sent to me by a friend at Georgetown Law, one which chronicles the "revolutionary" agitation of the local Student Bar Association. The "resolved" section of the petition reads:
THEREFORE; be it resolved that:
  • Georgetown Law should mandate a critical race theory unit in all first-year criminal justice courses and require training in preparation for teaching this unit with the opportunity for diverse faculty to provide input. Georgetown Law should also establish a student-faculty committee for the 2020-2021 academic year that will determine how to establish a two-credit racial justice requirement for all full-time and part-time students starting with the Class of 2023, similar to the academic requirement for undergraduates on Main. Campus. 
  • Georgetown Law should mandate annual, expert-led faculty training on implicit bias, harassment, and microaggressions. We recommend offering faculty training twice a year so that professors only teaching during one semester are still able to participate; however, professors would need only participate once a year to satisfy the training requirement. Tenure-track faculty should be required to participate in live training, and adjuncts may participate asynchronously by watching a recording. 
  • Georgetown Law should implement a reporting system that allows students to document bias-related in. cidents in the classroom. This reporting system could be modeled off of the Main Campus Bias Reporting System administered by IDEAA, and is a natural follow on from the 2019 Cultural Climate Survey as it would allow the Law Center to continue gathering data about bias incidents in real time. We recommend aggregating and anonymizing the annual data and publishing it to the Law Center community for transparency.[2]
You can believe that each of these measures is malignant—I certainly do—without pretending that this is anything like what happened in China in the 1960s. What do these student activists want? Mandated classes and grading systems. Additional certification hoops to jump through. An additional layer of bureaucracy to govern and punish their teachers and fellow students.  They are doing the only thing Americans in this century know how to do: creating a ruckus in hope that they can get the management to take their side (and enlarge its own powers in the process).

What would a similar event have looked like in the Beijing of 1966, at the earliest stage of the Cultural Revolution? Students would have begun by identifying counter-revolutionary elements in both the school administration and the faculty in as public a fashion as possible. The student body and the faculty would have divided themselves into factions, mutually denouncing their enemies. They would have proceeded to arm themselves, using violence to humiliate, torture, and kill the professors and administrators that were opposed to their political aims. This was the first step of the Cultural Revolution. Through means like these, cultural revolutionaries in Beijing murdered 1,800 people and drove another 77,000 outside of city limits before the first statue went down.

When statues did start going down in the last week of August, far more than statues were destroyed. Women with 'bourgeoisie' hairstyles or clothes were forcibly stripped and shorn. Flower, barbers, and tailor shops were destroyed, their owners beat or intimidated. The houses hundreds of thousands of suspect individuals were ransacked, street peddlers were beat up, religious figures were ritually humiliated, books were gathered and burnt, and men or women associated with anything old were forced to hand over their property. Some 400,000 were left homeless.

All of that happened in one week in August. In the months to come Mao would redirect the cultural revolutionaries to attack the foundation of the Party itself. Every single bureaucracy in the country except the Army would be targeted. Dissolving the bureaucratic structures that controlled the economic, government, and academic spheres of Chinese life was the central purpose of the Cultural Revolution; the initial waves of violence and destruction were prep work for that end.[3]

Contrast this again with what we see today. The violence and destruction associated with the Black Lives Matter's protests are magnitudes smaller than all of this; the ultimate aim of the movement is not to smash existing bureaucracies and kill or terrorize those who man them, but to increase bureaucratic control over American life. Even the most anarchic slogan of the current moment, "defund the police," betrays the thoroughly bureaucratic mindset of the protestors. China's cultural revolutionaries did not defund their police; they smashed them. [4]  Our protestors petition the government to divert funding away from organs they dislike; China's cultural revolutionaries sought to destroy government itself.

The comparison just does not stick. Those who use it are either uninformed or more interested in scaring you into desperate action than in understanding or explaining the truth.

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This post touches both on American political culture and the Chinese communist political tradition. If you would like to read some of my other posts on American life, consider reading "On Cultures That Build," "A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," or "The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood." On the other hand, if Maoism is the topic of interest, see the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism,"  "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" or "Meditations on Maoism."  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Erik Torenberg and Tanner Greer, "The Past, Present, and Future of the US-China Relationship With Tanner Greer," Village Global's Venture Stories  (2 August 2020).

[2] Georgetown University Student Bar Association, Resolution 2020–2021–9, "Calling for Academic Racial Justice Requirement for Students, Mandatory Faculty Training on Implicit Bias, and Bias Reporting System," passed on 26 July 2020.

[3] My account is grounded in Frank Dikkotter, The Cultural Revolution (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 66-94; 115-147. The statistics on deaths in Beijing are found on pp. 78-79; those on the number left homeless on p. 93.

[4] And burnt all files of their misdeeds while doing the smashing.


12 comments:

Jared said...

I appreciate that you're resisting false analogies, but for crying out loud what is this:

"...the ultimate aim of the movement is not to smash existing bureaucracies and kill or terrorize those who man them, but to increase bureaucratic control over American life."

You're implying that the obvious and repeatedly stated goals of the movement--among them reducing police brutality, countering systemic racism, and not glorifying historical racism in the form of Confederate generals--are just a ruse to provide political cover for their "ultimate aim," which is...bureaucratic control. Please think very carefully about the semantics of "ultimate" and "aim", and if this sentence still makes sense, I don't know what to tell you.

Even as an analysis of the movement's tactics this is deeply weird. If you don't like what American policing has become and you ask your elected officials to change it, how is that anything other than democracy? In what sense exactly were all those tens of thousands of dollars in donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund a desperate attempt to control the nation's bureaucracy? "Defund the police" sounds, depending on interpretation and implementation I guess, like an argument for smaller government and less bureaucracy rather than more.

You're a conservative, you hate the movement's tactics, you naturally focus on the excesses, all fine and good. But seriously, come on.

Rachel Shu said...

I think this is very well said. I should comment that you imply that compared to current American political cadres, the Chinese bureaucracy at that time did not provide cover to the revolutionaries. Of course they did - it was suicide to do otherwise. In many ways Zhou Enlai's pragmatism represented the antithesis of what Mao and the Gang of Four stood for, but in a memorable incident, one of many that he and other "deep state" Chinese Communists were forced into, he resorts to the use of demagoguery and the Red Guard:

"Please leave! (Crowd: When the premier asks you to leave, you have to leave! Leave!) I’ve never seen anyone behave the way you do! (Crowd: Get out!) This is unacceptable, there’s no talk about it! (Crowd: Get out!) Right! You won’t even accept an order from the party center? (Crowd: Piss off!) Listen up, all of you! This is why we end up having chaos! (Crowd: Leave!) Leave! Leave! You’re not going to obey the supreme instructions, are you!? (The premier leaves his seat and steps up to the front. Crowd: The premier’s order must be obeyed!) I am convening this meeting at the order of the Chairman, and this is how you behave!? Red Guards, execute my order! (Crowd: Leave! Piss off! Red Guards step for- ward to drag off Du Xiangguang.) Liberation Army soldiers, arrest the man! (Crowd: Arrest him! Take him away!) Wrecking our Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution like this! I give him an order, and he won’t obey! (Prolonged applause.) Thank you for supporting the decision of the party center. (Li Xiannian: I also want to thank the comrades for your support.) His intention was to seize supreme financial power from the party center! Some of you have been hoodwinked; now is the time to wake up! (Crowd: Long live the dictator- ship of the proletariat! A long, long life to Chairman Mao!! Wake up, hood- winked comrades! Down with the royalists!)"

MacFarquhar, Mao's Last Revolution, p. 158 (I am not sure if this incident is represented in the Dikotter book, which I would have picked to read first if I had known how exhaustive MacFarquhar was going to be - I still have not finished either.)

So I'd say that it was not only that the dictator was trying to destroy his state apparatus, but that the state apparatus was forced to help to mobilize citizens against itself in a paradoxical effort to survive, which fed the Cultural Revolution to the height that it reached.

Anonymous said...

Does this mean it is actually worse than cultural revolution. Because the establishment dare not resist and the revolutionaries know it?

Richard said...

The problem is that so many people on the American Right aresare easily scared "in to desperate action" by the Right-wing Fear Factory. The American Left also tries to do the same but they don't have anywhere as potent a fear factory.

Anonymous said...

And the underlying motivation for destroying The Four Olds is a lot less crazy than its modern Western counterpart. The idea was 'smashing our own past which have kept us oppressed'. It was a very common sentiment in third world. Today in the West it is 'smashing our own past which have made us oppressors', which is not common at all and in fact psychologically abnormal.

Lexington Green said...

And yet ...
What is going on the USA in 2020 is very bad.
Not being as bad as the Chinese Cultural Revolution is a very low bar!

Ji Xiang said...

Yeah, comparing BLM and the cultural revolution is silly. The point about BLM being a movement for increased bureaucratic control of American life is interesting.

The most obvious reason why comparing the two movements is misguided, in my opinion, is that the cultural revolution was started by a dictator with full powers, and opposing it was seriously dangerous. BLM on the other hand is basically a movement of opposition to the current government.

I recently wrote a post on this topic myself: http://thecapitalinthenorth.blogspot.com/2020/06/black-lives-matter-and-cultural.html

Anonymous said...

A good point. This is not the Cultural Revolution of China. The tactical methods have evolved to not require such widespread bloodshed, nor a regular army to invade and occupy our homeland with foreigners. But we are being conquered and our own version of a cultural revolution is indeed occurring, nonetheless.

Michal said...

I think that most of the people comparing modern American progressivism to the Chinese Cultural Revolution mean to say, not that progressivism corresponds to the Cultural Revolution in every major respect -- a claim that is obviously false, and one that most commentators know too little about the Cultural Revolution to credibly make -- but rather that some specific aspect of modern progressivism is analogous to some other, more dangerous aspect of the Cultural Revolution. Thus, you are pretty clearly right that the aims and methods of modern progressives regarding political institutions are not much like those of the Red Guards.
The only comparison to the Cultural Revolution that I have found credible is in that movement's effects on speech: as Xavier Marquez argued in his essay on the subject, the censorship and mandatory praise of the Cultural Revolution, though it began as a way for Mao to regain control over his government, formed a positive feedback loop uncontrollable even by its ostensible leaders, as each person competed with their peers to show more devotion to Mao, so that today's exceptional and extravagant praise became tomorrow's commonplace which anyone wanting to stand out had to exceed. American progressivism, meanwhile, has also used decentralized censorship through pressure for progressives and organizations controlled by progressives to not give any support, broadly defined, to anyone visibly expressing anti-progressive opinions. It has also normalized statements of support for progressivism even among people and organizations with little or no connection to politics or activism, and in some cases required them. Moreover, some cases of the latter are apparently stringent enough that mere honestly expressed support for progressivism is not enough and the only people deemed sufficiently progressive are those who have studied progressive ideology and discourse in detail -- again, similar to (though of course weaker than) the way that, according to Marquez, memorizing quotes from Mao became necessary to avoid political persecution.
Of course, given that progressivism lacks the support of the government and of the majority of the population (even many moderate Democrats insist on independence from it; cf. Biden's refusal to "defund the police"), that significant parts of the population have reacted to it by moving to the right politically, and that the US Constitution and what's left of American political norms place limits on the government's ability to require or persecute speech, it seems unlikely that any such expansion of obligatory progressive speech and censorship of anti-progressivism will be as bad as the Cultural Revolution, or even (outside of the most progressive-dominated institutions, e.g. many universities) as bad as McCarthyism. However, such a threat cannot be dismissed simply by noting that modern progressivism differs from the Cultural Revolution in other respects which are not necessarily relevant.

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