Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed

Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (with Philip Short, 2007) 
reviewed (

Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) is hosted by Philip Short, BBC correspondent and author of Mao: A Life (2000). Bloody Revolution can be divided into two parts. The first half of the documentary covers the course of the Chinese revolution up to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The second half covers what is referred to as the Cultural Revolution decade of 1966 to 1976. About three quarters of  the second half focuses on the height of the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1969 or 1971; the remaining time mostly focuses on 1971 to 1976 and Mao’s death. Bloody Revolution contains much boilerplate anti-communism of the ‘Mao was a butcher’ and ‘people ate their babies’ variety that has been addressed numerous times and in different ways. (1) (2) The narrative of Bloody Revolution is a convergence of the revisionist Chinese state’s account and traditional western anti-communist ones. This review is not going to bother refuting every little bit of tabloid anti-communism in Bloody Revolution. Rather, this review will focus on the broad methodological problems of the film and questions that the film raises regarding the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.

Like Morning Sun (2003),  Bloody Revolution contains some of the best footage of the Chinese revolution, footage of the Maoist left, the mass movements and their leaders. Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, Wang Li, Guan Feng and others make appearances. Black liberation fighter Robert F. Williams makes an appearance. There is even footage of Jiang Qing’s acting career before she joined the communists. The film relies mostly on anecdotes from those who were at one time close to Mao or other top-inner circles. Those interviewed include: Mao’s one time secretary, Li Rui; Liu Shaoqi’s daughter, Liu Tingting; Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, who was crippled during the early Cultural Revolution; Zhou Enlai’s niece, Zhou Bingde; and others. Many of the interviewees have close connections with the top revisionist leaders who presided over the restoration of capitalism, those who ended the socialism and brought the horrors of capitalism to a billion people. Yet the revisionists are portrayed in this narrative as victims who were persecuted by the Maoists and the crazed Chinese masses. Bloody Revolution draws on many of the same interviewees and sources as Morning Sun. The most interesting of the interviewees include Sidney Rittenberg and Nie Yuanzi. Sidney Rittenberg was associated with Wang Li and the mass movement left in the Foreign Ministry in 1967. He was later jailed for years, released, then joined the right and revisionists. Mass leader Nie Yuanzi is also interviewed. She was most known as the Communist Party secretary at Beijing University’s philosophy department who authored of the “first Marxist-Leninist big-character poster” on May 27, 1966. Both ex-radicals are no longer Maoists. Of those interviewed, Rittenberg is the most sympathetic. Despite himself, Rittenberg is correct when he says that, “Up to the present, history, at least the cultural revolution outstandingly is swept under the rug and ignored, studiedly ignored. And I think it is very unfortunate. I think they need to study Mao very carefully. Both what was right about Mao, which was a great deal, but also what was wrong about Mao, which was also a great deal.”

Bloody Revolution relies heavily on personal anecdotes. Anecdotes are not the best approach to understanding something like the Cultural Revolution. While they make for decent entertainment, anecdotes are not a real basis for arriving at scientific conclusions regarding massive upheavals like the Chinese revolution in its many phases. Just because an individual was in the thick of events does not make her an expert on the big picture. Revolutions are scientifically understood as power struggles between antagonistic groups that reshape society at the deepest levels. Being in the middle of the Chinese mass movements in the late 1960s, for example, may have been a great ringside seat. However, there is the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees. Endless anecdotes, mostly from the revisionist anti-communist side of the struggle, do not necessarily increase our understanding of the big picture. Endless anecdotes can divert our attention from the underlying social processes that produced these personal experiences. It is no accident that biographical accounts of the Cultural Revolution flood the market with the blessings of the revisionist Chinese state today. The focus on the biographical is itself a product of bourgeois ideology. Even so, some of the anecdotes are revealing. One of Mao’s doctors Wang Hebin described Mao’s speech:

“When Mao Zedong made a speech, he had the attention of everyone in the audience. The language he used was fresh and he had the knack for explaining profound things in a simple way. He spoke to people’s hearts.”

Another methodological problem is the film’s overemphasis on Mao’s and other top leaders’ psychology to explain revolution. For example, Jiang Qing is described as “emotional and extreme,” as though her psychology is key to unlocking her politics. The film is informed by a kind of dressed-up great man theory of history. Rather than the Marxist view that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” the film sees history as the product of larger than life men, their genius and personality. Fans of Mao often fall for a version of this unscientific outlook. The lack of any serious Maoist critiques of Mao, after a half century since the Cultural Revolution began, shows that even those calling themselves Maoist haven’t made the leap to scientific knowledge when dealing with history. Instead of discussing the mistakes of Mao, people feel compelled to defend Mao the man, to make excuses, as though Maoism’s validity as science hinged on Mao. One big mistake people don’t seem willing to fully face up to is that Mao and the Gang of Four had a shoddy global class analysis. They had a very poor understanding of the First World.  (3) Other mistakes include: the purging of the mass movement left from the Cultural Revolution Group at the end of 1967 and after; the treatment of Chen Boda and Lin Biao; the shift away from the Lin Biao’s global people’s war line and toward Mao’s accomadation with the West; and the rehabilitation and promotion of Deng Xiaoping; and elevation of revisionists in the PLA in the 1970s. Fans for whom Mao can do no wrong and the psychologizing detractors of the Philip Short variety are the janus face of a flawed approach to history. A reflective ex-Maoist-turned-revisionist like Sidney Rittenberg, despite himself, does more to advance scientific knowledge than many of the dopey fans of Mao who populate the so-called communist movement today. Maoism is not a fan club for Mao. Maoism is about proletarian truth, a scientific approach to history, society and revolution.

Like Morning Sun, Bloody Revolution covers events leading up to the Cultural Revolution and the different phases of the Cultural Revolution decade from 1966 to 1976. It covers the rise of Liu Shaoqi after the Great Leap and the early struggles. It covers the mass movement phase from 1966 to 1968, the Ninth Congress, the rise and fall of Lin Biao, the shift toward Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and the rightist PLA in the 1970s. It covers Mao’s death in September of 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four. Like Morning Sun, this film will be a history lesson for those who think that Cultural Revolution was a single event lasting a decade — as though red guards were running around seizing power in the 1970s. Most of what is thought of the Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 to 1969 or 1971. Most of what is thought of as the Cultural Revolution was over after the mass movement period of 1966 through 1968 and the fall of Lin Biao in 1971. Real Maoism is more a product of the late 1960s than the 1970s. As far as history lessons go, Bloody Revolution is inferior to Morning Sun.

Society had become very stagnant and bureaucratized at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Rittenberg reports that Mao used to say that there is nothing worse than a stagnant pool. The film does not hide that it favors Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. It favors the stagnant pool over the Maoists. (4)The Maoists are painted as extremists, idealists, utopians, fanatics who led China on a “descent into hell.” Along with this caricature, all the violence that happened during those years is attributed to the Maoists alone. The Cultural Revolution was a revolution, a class struggle. Revolutions are violent and messy affairs, they are not dinner parties. However, the film makes no distinctions between the violence of the rebels and the rightist violence of the counter current that often suppressed the rebels by force of arms in the provinces, for example. Rather, the film tends to portray the Cultural Revolution on the streets as merely an epiphenomenon of byzantine court politics. While it is true that one aspect of the Cultural Revolution was the removal of top leaders in authority taking the capitalist road, the Cultural Revolution, in its most farsighted moments, was more than that. It was a movement of “big debates,” “big democracy,” aimed at “touching people’s very souls” and remaking society at every level. The vision of the rebel mass movements for a commune of China with mass democracy and the left PLA vision of an egalitarian Yanan-like society of study, whether practical or not, were important to keeping the movement alive. These radical programs for society energized the masses and reset the coordinates of what people conceived as possible. The Cultural Revolution aimed for communism — the end of all oppression. With the ending of the mass movements in 1968 and then the fall of Lin Biao in 1971, the revolutionary energy dissipated. According to the film, “By 1969, however, the Cultural Revolution was running out of steam, the spontaneity had gone. Even Mao seemed bored.” Nixon visited in 1972. In 1973, “To take Lin’s place, Mao rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, the second biggest capitalist roader he’d purged in the Cultural Revolution. The radicals led by Jiang Qing could hardly conceal their dismay.” Bloody Revolution comments on the fall of the Gang of Four, the last leftists standing at the time of Mao’s death. Zhou Bingde, Zhou Enlai’s niece, stated, “The moment I heard the news [of Mao’s death], I thought now Jiang Qing will really get what’s coming to her because the entire Chinese people hated Jiang Qing’s guts. She made them mash their teeth. They loathed her.” Whether this statement is exactly true or not, it seems to be the case that the Gang of Four were not very popular with the masses. There were no massive uprisings with their fall, shock-waves did not ripple throughout society. This shows how the masses were fairly depoliticized in the 1970s.

Bloody Revolution covers the growth of Mao’s cult of personality as though the cult phenomenon is unique to socialism. Cults of all kinds exist in Western capitalist societies: leader cults, celebrity cults, religious cults, and so on. All things considered, following a cult around a revolutionary leader who smashed imperialism, smashed feudalism and brought socialism to a quarter of humanity is more rational than obsessing over a celebrity who makes sex tapes and drives drunk. (5) The film compares the Mao cult to “a religion in its most naive and primitive stage.” The cult released tremendous energy among the masses; it was used to dislodge capitalist roaders like Liu Shaoqi. However, there can be no doubt that the cult also substituted itself for scientific understanding. Even today, most of those who praise Mao  know next to nothing about the Cultural Revolution. Was there an alternative to the cult given the circumstances that existed in China at the time? Is the broad dissemination of scientific knowledge possible without the use of pre-scientific packaging? If not, then is there a better way? These are important questions that revolutionary scientists should think about.

The film correctly comments on Lin Biao’s erasure from history by the revisionists. The same could be said of Lin Biao’s treatment by many Maoist parties. Lin Biao all but vanishes from both the revisionist orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of many of the Maoist fans of Mao. Sidney Rittenberg’s comment about the Cultural Revolution being decidedly ignored rings true for both present Chinese society and the Maoists in the so-called international communist movement. At best, the fans of Mao can only regurgitate Beijing Review from the mid-1970s or Zhou Enlai’s Tenth Congress Report.  Upholding the Cultural Revolution means knowing something about it, asking hard questions and actually being able to say something about how things could have been done better. The Cultural Revolution began a half century ago. Yet none of these dopey organizations are capable of saying anything in-depth about it. To uphold the Cultural Revolution requires taking a stand. Only Leading Light Communism truly understands the Cultural Revolution.

1. Ball, Joseph. “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?” Monthly Review Commentary September 2006:
2. Maoist Internationalist Movement. “Myths about Maoism”
3. Monkey Smashes Heaven. “1967: Robert Williams on the principal contradiction (Beijing Review reprint with commentary)” Monkey Smashes Heaven 31 August 2007:
4. The pool wasn’t really stagnant in a literal sense since there is always class struggle. There is always the problem emerging capitalists within the party and state itself during the socialist period.
5. “Paris Hilton says DUI arrest ‘was nothing’” Associated Press 7 September 2006:

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