fbpx

China’s Cultural Revolution and the Social Justice Left

In a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and Michael Eric Dyson, Peterson asked a question: When might it be evident that the Left has gone to far?

In other words, what is the limiting principle in liberalism—when is an idea pushed to a point where it becomes so contrary to human reason or decency that to enact it would cause serious harm? Peterson wasn’t talking about acts of violence, which he noted is something that all people of good will are against. “There are sets of ideas in radical leftist thinking . . . that led to the catastrophes of the 20th century,” he said. “That was at the level of ideas, not at the level of violent action.”

So—when has the Left gone too far? Dyson had no answer, instead resorting to name-calling. The real answer to Peterson’s question can be found in China’s Cultural Revolution: Remembering the Past to Prevent Repeating It, an exhibit recently mounted at the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C.

It was pretty basic—just dry-mounted photographs bearing captions that looked like they’d come out of a computer printer. No frames, no elegant typeface that one sees in most museum exhibits. Moreover, it was barely advertised. China’s Cultural Revolution, funded by the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, was in the rotunda of AU’s Katzen Arts Center for a few weeks in May and June.

Its content is available, though, in books and photographs, and its subject matter should be of interest to the general public, and in particular, to anyone engaged in political debate in America. The Cultural Revolution period in China (1966-1976) has a deep and disturbing correlation to the campus Left today. The shocking images on display provide the unsettling answer to Peterson’s question of what happens when the Left goes too far. When Marxist ideas are put into action, people are tortured, centuries-old institutions come under attack, and the bodies begin to pile up. Deep in his subconscious, Michael Eric Dyson knows this.

All Must “Hold High the Great Banner”

The Cultural Revolution was the brainchild of China’s “Great Helmsman,” Mao Zedong (1893-1976), the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and one of its founders. After the failure of Mao’s economic Great Leap Forward, a program of agricultural collectivization that resulted in tens of millions of deaths, Mao saw the Cultural Revolution as a way to turn things around. “Our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road . . . so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system,” he said in his “Sixteen Points” declaration of 1966.

In The People’s Revolution: A Cultural History (2016), China expert Frank Dikötter observes that Mao hoped his movement would make China the pinnacle of the socialist universe and make him “the man who leads planet Earth into communism.” When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, Mao took that as a sign of weakness on the part of Khrushchev, a weakness to be exploited by Mao, who saw a clear path to surpassing Stalin himself in greatness. Toward this end, he launched the Cultural Revolution. A flyer from the Katzen Arts Center exhibit outlines the plan:

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, art and publishing, and seize the leadership in these cultural spheres.

The result of this thinking, and the atmosphere of denunciation it spawned, is evident in the exhibit’s photographs. These are heart-rending images of purges, torture, rallies, propaganda posters, and executions. Urban professionals, middle-class merchants, those who wore ties or showed other signs of being influenced by Western, bourgeois ways, were targeted. “We were told that we needed to use violence to destroy a class, spiritually and physically,” one eyewitness account reveals. “That was justification enough for torturing someone. They weren’t considered human anymore.”

Students attacked their professors, as they were considered out-of-touch intellectuals who failed to serve the needs of the rural masses. Red Guards destroyed Buddhist statues and burned down Catholic churches, as they represented a “black religion” and “old thinking.” The Peking Union Medical College Hospital, founded in Beijing by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1921, was renamed the “anti-Imperialist Hospital.” Wang Guangmei, the wife of President Liu Shaoqui, who was purged when he was deemed insufficiently committed to Mao, was forced to wear a necklace of ping pong balls as a mockery of her pearls and formal wear. (Liu died under torture in late 1969, but was posthumously rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping’s government in 1980 and granted a national memorial service.) Women’s choirs were forced to sing Mao’s praises. Individuals accused of bourgeois deviationism had to stand and wear dunce caps announcing their crimes.

There Are Two Extremes to Guard Against, Not Just One

Since World War II, Western culture has erected a very elaborate and sensitive early warning system for fascism. A politician, public figure, or celebrity who trades in anti-Semitism is quickly reproached, and his or her reputation justifiably impugned. The Republican Party is frequently examined for fringe characters who preach intolerance. When white nationalists marched in Charlottesville in 2017, the media was there, and reporters continue to follow the trail of those who were at the march.

The spotlight on the far Right is the sign of a healthy culture that is on guard against extremism. But what about the “Antifa” brawlers, radical environmentalists, restaurant-haunting Democratic Socialists of America harassers, and others on the extreme Left?

What we see happening on our campuses is college students shouting speakers down; activists from Black Lives Matter calling for dead cops; censors laying down the law about what entertainment can be provided to or what kinds of art can be made or seen by students. Academia is top-heavy with socialists like Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist, who cannot demarcate a limiting principal for their ideology. China’s Cultural Revolution: Remembering the Past to Prevent Repeating It blipped by for a few weeks in the summer in our nation’s capital, where it was largely missed by the students, reporters, and academics who most need to see it.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 13, 2018 at 10:09:05 am

"Women’s choirs were forced to sing Mao’s praises",

"Cause baby, there ain't no Mao Zedong high enough,
Ain't no rally low enough,
Ain't no border wide enough,
To keep me from getting to you babe!"

This is probably a better question posed to Maxine Waters, although I think she has already pretty much answered it.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 10:25:13 am

Fine essay--although I grow a bit weary of this essay format: "1. THE LEFT IS BAD! 2. The left is kinda bad. 3. Ok, sure, we need a balance of right and left." But I guess if people titled their essays, "We need balance," no one would read them.

But, having acknowledged that "There Are Two Extremes to Guard Against, Not Just One," it makes sense to re-write the opening question to "When might it be evident that the Left [or Right] has gone to far?"

We used to have norms of political discourse and conduct, and violating those norms would indicate when a person or faction had "gone too far." Today, norms seem to have been abandoned in favor of tribalism, where "good" is defined as anything that advances the interest of your own tribe or harms the interest of a rival. This alarms me. As the political center empties and people migrate to the extremes, the willingness to demonstrate empathy for those in the other tribe dissipates. Norms established guide rails to keep us on the road even when emotional compulsion was lacking. They were like C.S. Lewis's concept of agape--a duty to seek the welfare of others, regardless of how you feel about those others.

That said, I suspect I'm over-reacting. Perhaps the old norms were needlessly restricting. Yes, I support the norm against threatening violence against your (non-violent) rivals--but must we also have the debater's norm against putting your hand in your pockets, on the theory that this action reflects a tacit threat to reach for a concealed weapon? Surely most of the norm violations these days are similarly harmless to society.

But it can be hard to know which ones are harmless, and which ones aren't, except in retrospect. I hate to over-react, but as Hitler and Mao remind us, the costs of under-reaction are pretty steep, too.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 13, 2018 at 10:30:38 am

Nobody,

My only response to you is, "Well Said, Well Said"!!!

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 10:31:47 am

By the way, about that picture: Wasn't Mao's Little Red Book ... you know ... little? The guy in the picture looks like he's waving a phone book.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 13, 2018 at 10:35:11 am

"Little" is a relative term, but you're right, it does look like a phone book, maybe its the book that contains all the names for whose death he was responsible....

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 10:41:53 am

Well, surely it isn't the same as Santa Claus' book, is it?

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on July 13, 2018 at 10:48:51 am

An editorial correction:

Agape predates CS Lewis by millennia BUT well said , indeed.

Let me add one thing:

All too often we are incensed, or at least feign such indignation, when we read or hear of some celebrity, some modern personality, say a Hollywood actress, make some outrageous comment on politics, religion, etc.

I must ask:

Why in the world would we care what this "personality" has to say? why publicize it? Why get exercised over the uniformed, or mal-informed ravings of someone whose command of political theory / philosophy may not even be on par with a high school sophomore.

GET OVER IT!!!!

Pay no attention.

As the British Bobbies are reputed to be fond of saying:

"Move along, nothing to [hear] here."

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on July 13, 2018 at 11:04:38 am

One difference that is immediately apparent to me: In 1967 China, the academics were discredited. Professors were forced into the fields to sling manure in service of the People.
In contemporary USA, the professors are venerated, uncritically accepted as custodians of the Truth.

read full comment
Image of John High
John High
on July 13, 2018 at 12:20:33 pm

Take a look at the yuan and see whose face "graces" it. Mao was a mass-murderer of callous indifference. Imagine the uproar if Russia were put Stalin on the ruble or if, before the Euro, Germany had put Hitler on the Deutsche mark. Yet not a peep about Mao on the yuan -- though surely he caused the deaths of as many or more. Yet this is man the régime in Beijing memorializes and the face that régime chooses to show the world on its currency. Symbols are intentional statement: what does this one mean?

Frank Dikötter recently published three volumes on Mao's excesses. The trilogy is must-reading to understand the corrupt tap-roots of the current régime:

1) The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
2) Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62
3) The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962―1976

read full comment
Image of James Connelly
James Connelly
on July 13, 2018 at 13:44:55 pm

When I was in high school, a speaker at one of our LRY (Liberal Religious Youth- Unitarian) meetings was a journalist who had been one of the 30-odd Allied POWs in the Korean War who refused repatriation after the armistice Several years later, he requested permission to return to the US, and the Chinese government let him go. He told us that it had always intended to go back to the US- he just wanted to see what China was like.

I do not recall what he said about China of the 1950s. As he spoke to us when the Cultural Revolution was in full fling, I never forgot what he said about it. He told us that the Cultural Revolution was the work of Mao, and Mao was a poet.

I later concluded that one lesson of the Cultural Revolution is that poets do not make good political leaders.

Years later, I knew a Chinese grad student. He told me that as a 12 year old he was marching all over in service of the Cultural Revolution. I later found out that one of his grandfathers was a Nationalist general who had fled to Taiwan. Having such a family tree must have been rather uncomfortable during the Cultural Revolution, though he never explicitly said anything about it.

read full comment
Image of Gringo
Gringo
on July 13, 2018 at 13:53:04 pm

Why, of course today's Black Lives Matter and #MeToo is exactly the same as the Cultural Revolution that murdered millions!

Um, no. But nice try.

read full comment
Image of excessivelyperky
excessivelyperky
on July 13, 2018 at 14:28:18 pm

Ha - not a naughty list I would wanna be on!

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 14:38:43 pm

"Why in the world would we care what this “personality” has to say?"

Because Celebs are American Royalty - Even the Brits have begun to care more about what Meaghen Markle has to say over HRM Queen E or Theresa May - what could be better for Americans than a Hollywood Star who is also Royalty - that's quite a two-fer!!!

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 14:47:28 pm

"You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell." - Matthew 5:21-22

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 14:54:42 pm

The large print edition?

read full comment
Image of EK
EK
on July 13, 2018 at 14:56:03 pm

Um, no BUT maybe Cecile Richards is on a par with Mao.

Stop with the false equivalencies; no one is making the allegation you claim.

read full comment
Image of gargamel rules smurfs
gargamel rules smurfs
on July 13, 2018 at 15:00:57 pm

But if Hilly had won or if Obama should decide to assume leadership of the so called resistance, then they would be. As it is, the closest match is die Rotfront of the 1920s in Germany. That's were and whene Antifa was born and it was Stalinist from its first breath.

read full comment
Image of EK
EK
on July 13, 2018 at 15:13:40 pm

If it were the large print edition, this book would only cover the names beginning with the character "月".

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 16:10:51 pm

I regret that I did not know of the exhibit, "China’s Cultural Revolution: Remembering the Past to Prevent Repeating It." It was just down the road, so seeing it would have been convenient and might well have taught me some historical details about the Cultural Revolution which I didn't already know.

But I would take issue both with Mr. Judge's assertion that such displays have any significant effect of moral instruction for the "... the students, reporters, and academics who most need to see it." and with his assumption that America's ongoing cultural revolution (which we have endured for 50 years) is significantly akin, either in its political causes or in its group psychology consequences, to what transpired then (and is happening now) in Red China. Nor, in my opinion, would seeing a year's worth of such historical reminders dampen by one degree the heat of passion of the True Believers he is concerned about. The illusions of ideology are unaffected by the facts of reality, most especially its historical facts.

Several things might be said with confidence about the lessons of history: if learned they are quickly forgotten; they are seldom understood, and they are often misapplied by those who would lecture from them.

read full comment
Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on July 13, 2018 at 16:37:42 pm

Several things might be said with confidence about the lessons of history: if learned they are quickly forgotten; they are seldom understood, and they are often misapplied by those who would lecture from them.

Hey, has anyone seen my Cynicism Crown? Luftmensch bestowed in upon me recently, but it appears someone has snatched it away.... :-)

Harsh, dude. Not wrong--but harsh.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 13, 2018 at 18:03:45 pm

Not to worry, brudda, Good Ole Gabe , in his foresight, had recently purchased one from Amazon. Will be here shortly. I may award it to you next week.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on July 13, 2018 at 18:12:58 pm

My comment as to the "lessons of history" is so factually and historically demonstrable as to have become a reality-based truism, so that asserting it is anything but cynical. Your comment that "NO ONE GIVES A SHIT" about an indisputably important matter of constitutional interpretation is both factually untrue and an abnegation of meaning, so that stating it (indeed, shouting it) is the epitome of cynicism.

The former is a level-headed, clear-sighted expression of what is true; the latter is but the emotionally-driven expression of a falsehood couched in despair, which may be one of several important ways to distinguish realism and cynicism.

read full comment
Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on July 13, 2018 at 18:25:19 pm

I am contemplating adding nobody.really to my "Must (not) Read" list of Jonah Goldberg, George Will, David French, William Kristol, David Brooks and Paul Krugman.

read full comment
Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on July 13, 2018 at 18:25:52 pm

I then must challenge you, Nobody, for the title of "Cynical Champion of the World", as it is a title I have long deserved and have well earned!

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 18:30:14 pm

Nobody's been reading Nobody for a long time now, cause there ain't nobody but nobody left to read nobody.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 13, 2018 at 23:49:33 pm

Fats Waller wrote, "Everybody loves my baby, but my baby don't love nobody but me."

But if everybody loves my baby, it follows that my baby loves my baby.

But if my baby don't love nobody but me--and we've already established that my baby loves my baby--then it necessarily follows that I am my baby.

Top that!

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 13, 2018 at 23:58:54 pm

Ok, that's pretty good...you win, Riddler. I'll concede the Riddler Crown to you, but I am still after that Cynical Crown.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 14, 2018 at 09:05:33 am

Now there's the enigma of paradox, a man in reply to one commentary who would both quote Scripture (Matthew) and claim title to the King of Cynicism.

read full comment
Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on July 14, 2018 at 09:59:43 am

That's why I keep practicing my faith...hopefully I'll get it right someday! ;-)

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on July 14, 2018 at 11:33:21 am

Hey didn't Hillary also write a book. Was it (or should have it been called) "It takes a [Chinese] village to raise a child"
with a foreword by Myerdahl.
How is that for conflation? rather than cynicism?

read full comment
Image of Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on July 14, 2018 at 13:49:07 pm

Except, of course, the one who are from time to time defenestrated for heresy.

read full comment
Image of EK
EK
on December 15, 2019 at 06:31:34 am

An exaggerated false equivalence? Perhaps, but I can attest to seeing reputations murdered and businesses destroyed (through the medium of facebook, for the most part) by the overzealous neo-Maoists in my little neck of the woods.

In an attempt to lighten things up, I've cracked: it's a good thing you're all vegans, otherwise your targets would be on the menu! (yes, the cultural revolution in its most extreme cases did give way to cannibalism). Of course, I got no laughs, for these people are absolutely humorless.

read full comment
Image of R.Oro
R.Oro

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related