Two Roads Defeated in the Cultural Revolution Part 1: Young Generals and Mass Movements

Two Roads Defeated in the Cultural Revolution Part 1: Young Generals and Mass Movements

Prairie Fire
18 August 2008

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“Is, however, such a ‘terrible accomplishment’ not the elementary gesture of every true revolutionary? Why revolution at all, if we do not think that ‘the customary order of things should never be restored?’ What Mao does is to deprive the transgression of its ritualized, ludic character by way of taking it seriously: revolution is not just a temporary safety valve, a carnivalesque explosion destined to be followed by a sobering morning after. His problem was precisely the lack of the ‘negation of negation,’ the failure of the attempts to transpose revolutionary negativity into a truly new positive Order: all temporary stabilizations of the revolution amounted to so many restorations of the old Order, so that the only way to keep the revolution alive was the ‘spurious infinity’ of endlessly repeated negation which reached its apex in the Great Cultural Revolution…. what if the Cultural Revolution was ‘negative’ not only in the sense of clearing up the space and opening up the way for a new beginning, but negative in itself, negative as an index of the IMPOTENCE to generate the New?” (1)

In his essay Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Mis-rule, Slavoj Žižek portrays the Cultural Revolution as chaos without a positive radical reorganization of society; the Cultural Revolution results only in destruction, not construction. Mao Zedong swept away the old, opening up the space of revolution, but flawed dialectics prevented the radical transformation of society to a higher level of socialist order. Instead of making a step to a higher level of socialism, the revolution worse than floundered. Society was reordered by capitalism with a vengeance. “So, in a way, there is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the final result of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is today’s unheard-of explosion of capitalist dynamics in China. That is to say, with the full deployment of capitalism, especially today’s ‘late capitalism,’ it is the predominant ‘normal’ life itself which, in a way, gets ‘carnivalized,’ with its constant self-revolutionizing, with its reversals, crises, reinventions.” (2) As Žižek writes in Resistance is Surrender, “Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.” (3) Similarly, the Philip Short-based documentary film Mao’s Bloody Revolution comments that society had become so stifled in Maoist orthodoxy that the pendulum could not help but swing in the opposite direction. (4) According to these narratives, the Cultural Revolution is itself that very impotence to create the new.

If these views are correct, then the Cultural Revolution is something not to be repeated. It is only a road back to capitalism. The problem with these outlooks is that they identify the narrative of the Cultural Revolution too closely with that of Mao — a result of a cult of personality that lingers three decades after Mao’s death. Contrary to this view, there were two ways, two opportunities forward from within the Cultural Revolution that may have radicalized society further. The problem was not one of “going too far.” Whether either of these roads not taken would have led to the success of socialism is something that can’t be answered with absolute certainty. What is important though is that there existed definite social programs that sought to further radicalize society, and these programs were actively defeated. There were two roads defeated in the early Cultural Revolution decade. Instead of these two roads, the spokesman for the Soviet Union’s China experts, Krivtov, characterized, rightly or wrongly, the China of the 1970s as “Liu Shaoqi-ism without Liu Shaoqi.” (5)

The First Road defeated, extending the mass movements of 1967

The First Road that was defeated was the road of the spontaneous mass movements. This road dominated the first two years of the Cultural Revolution. It was often led by and comprised of rebel youth and students. In all probability, this trend that mostly existed from 1966 into 1968 was far from unified. This trend never had a single representative or a single program. Instead, it is represented as a collection of ideas that cohere together and reoccurred amongst supposed “ultra-leftists” and “anarchists.” As the Party looks for scapegoats for alleged leftist excesses in the early Cultural Revolution, it invents a nationwide “May 16th Corps” conspiracy and imbues more solidity to this trend than actually existed. In the following years, this trend was extinguished by an extended purge of the “May 16th corps” and the campaign to purify the class ranks.

This road sometimes advocated a commune form as the correct shape of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This trend’s invocation of the Paris Commune was a demand for a greater mass character to authority under socialism. This was advocating a “bottom up,” “democratic” approach to socialism. Even Lin Biao expressed the ideals of the Cultural Revolution in the terms of this trend in 1966:

“By this extensive democracy, the Party is fearlessly encouraging the broad masses to use the media of free airing of views, big-character posters, great debates and extensive exchange of revolutionary experience to criticize and supervise the Party and government leading institutions and leaders at all levels. At the same time, the people’s democratic rights are being fully realized in accordance with the principles of the Paris Commune. Without such an extensive democracy, it would be impossible to initiate a genuine great proletarian cultural revolution.” (6)

This trend advocated increasing and preserving the power of the spontaneous mass organizations and Red Guards even through the consolidation phase of the Cultural Revolution after 1967. Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen, later, with Jiang Qing, known as the “Gang of Four,” originally had proclaimed the Shanghai People’s Commune on February 5th, 1967 after the January Storm. However, some of the larger, homegrown rebel organizations in Shanghai opposed Zhang’s intervention, viewing him as an opportunist interloper, even if they agreed with the commune idea in principle. For example, Geng Jinzhang of the Regiments and 25 other organizations proposed a rival New Shanghai Commune. (7) (8) Zhang Chunqiao had outmaneuvered his opponents in the Shanghai left (and the Shanghai right, the Party establishment) by February, 24th 1967 after returning to Shanghai from seeing Mao. (9) (10) (11) Perhaps it was Chen Boda, who often butted heads with Zhang, who supported some of the powerful, grassroots left-wing opposition to Zhang such as the Regiments or Worker’s Third Headquarters against Zhang’s Revolutionary Workers Headquarters. The Regiments had been an earlier ally of Zhang, as Zhang stated, “After the Anting incident, the WGH relied on the Second Regiment to gain control of the situation. Without the Second Regiment, the very survival of the WGH would have been in jeopardy.” (12) (13) Kuai Dafu’s Jinggang Mountain Headquarters based in Qinghua University in Beijing had an influential, strong Shanghai Liaison Center. They stated that they only trusted Mao and Lin Biao, implying they had problems with Zhang and Zhou. (14) Other groups opposed to Zhang included the Red Revolutionaries and the Red Guard Army. (15) (16)

At Mao’s suggestion, Zhang abandoned the Shanghai Commune and proclaimed a Revolutionary Committee on February 23rd, 1967. Representing the mass organizations, the Party and PLA, the Three-in-one committee form was adopted from Heilongjiang on January 30th, 1967. (17) (18) Mao opted for Three-in-one committees as the form for consolidating the gains of the Cultural Revolution. Over time, the mass organizations and the progressive gains tended to lose out in this arrangement. (19) (20) (21) Even though the military won out in this arrangement, it was not necessarily those loyal to Lin Biao. (22) (23) The conservatives tended to win out. Chen Boda’s Red Flag (the Party Journal he edited) pushed the commune idea as early as March 1966, over a period of time referring to the commune in sixteen articles. (24) (25) Plus, Chen Boda theorized about communes and their relation to communism as a Maoist theorist of the Great Leap Forward’s People’s Commune movement. The desire for an “All-China Commune” probably has its origins going back to the Great Leap, but it was raised again by the First Road in the early Cultural Revolution years. (26) (27) Even if Chen Boda, Mao’s personal secretary for decades, was left of Mao on this issue, he would never openly go against Mao. (28)

As consolidation won out over continued power seizures in 1968, Sheng-wu-lien, a self-identified ultra-left group in Hunan, criticized Mao on this point:

“Why did Comrade Mao Tse-tung, who energetically advocated the ‘commune,’ suddenly oppose the establishment of ‘Shanghai People’s Commune’ in January? That is something which the revolutionary people find it hard to understand.

Chairman Mao, who foresaw the ‘commune’ as a political structure which must be realized in the first cultural revolution, suddenly put forward ‘Revolutionary committees are fine!’” (29)

The conflict between Mao and this trend became acute after the Wuhan mutiny in July 20, 1967. A section of the PLA openly, violently, directly opposed the Central Cultural Revolution Small Group (CCRSG). CCRSG firebrand and author of Continue the Revolution Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Wang Li and Security Minister Xie Fuzhi were detained and roughed up by the Wuhan Worker’s General Headquarters, a conservative, Red Guard organization supported by General Chen Zaidao, a conservative, provincial PLA commander and part of the general Adverse Current trend of 1967 that opposed the Cultural Revolution. The PLA at the center intervened against Chen Zaidao. Wang Li, who had been roughed up, returned to Beijing a hero. The Wuhan mutiny was one of many such revolts. In Shandong, dissidents abducted Mao’s emissaries investigating the situation in Linyi. Also, in Zuozhaung, another Shandong city, dissidents tried to overthrow a revolutionary committee loyal to Mao. Battles erupted in other parts of Shandong. This happened in Honan also. This suggested a measure of collusion throughout the Yangtze river valley. (30) The rebel Red Guards began to speak of themselves as a “New Trend” from autumn of 1967 and 1968. (31) Later, Mao and the center would let the Adverse Current off the hook by blaming this violence on the CCRSG and Wang Li, saying that he interpreted “class war” as “civil war.”

However, after the Wuhan mutiny, the CCRSG felt vindicated and emboldened. Firstly, on August 22nd, 1967, the British Legation was sacked by the masses. Tension had been rising between the British and Chinese over incidents in Hong Kong. Earlier, on June 5th, 1967, CCRSG leader Qi Benyu warned the British, “If you do not lower your heads and own up to your crimes, we will let you have a taste of the Chinese people’s iron fist!” (32) Qi Benyu’s Patriotism and National Betrayal with its militant language describing the new bourgeoisie as old time compradors, as traitors, and praising the Boxer mass movement, was published earlier in April. Secondly, in response to the Wuhan mutiny, the CCRSG called to “drag out a handful in the military” and “attack with reason, defend with force,” which was a de facto call for arming the mass movements. These were calls to widen the net of the Cultural Revolution against the Adverse Current of 1967, especially the conservative PLA commanders who opposed the Cultural Revolution. Marshal Ye Jiannying was a member of the Adverse Current. In 1976, he arrests the last remaining, mostly symbolic, top members of the left wing, the Gang of Four. Opposing the Adverse Current meant opposing Foreign Minister, Marshal Chen Yi, a vocal opponent of the Cultural Revolution who, with Deng Xiaoping, opposed the militant outlook of Lin Biao’s Long Live the Victory of People’s War!; they favored of moving closer to the West. (33) In addition, the First Road targeted Zhou Enlai, who was seen as the protector and main ally of the Adverse Current and deposed Party cadres. Lin Biao stood to gain by having the Adverse Current forces, the provincial, right-wing PLA, weakened. The weakening of other power centers in the PLA would solidify Lin Biao’s own power over the PLA. After the Wuhan mutiny, Lin Biao gave the impression that he supported the “drag out” campaign, even though he played it safe and never joined it. Referring to the mutiny, Lin Biao said that a good thing must be turned out of a bad thing. (34) National Red Guard leader Kuai Dafu targeted general Xu Shiyuin from Nanjing, an enemy of Lin Biao who would later organize against Lin Biao’s policies 1970-1971. (35) (36)

As Mao moved toward consolidation and a narrowing of the Cultural Revolution, the First Road sought an expansion of the Cultural Revolution power seizures even into the PLA. After Mao turned against the left of the CCRSG, leader of the CCRSG Chen Boda and deputy leader Jiang Qing, sacrificed the Beijing junior leadership of the CCRSG (Wang Li, Guan Feng and Qi Benyu) in order to save themselves. (37) Wang Li, Guan Feng and Qi Benyu were imprisoned. In Shanghai, Zhang Chunqiao, a CCRSG leader and, later, member of the Gang of Four, matched Mao’s tone by publishing an article in August banning the use of all weapons, even for self-defense. The Shanghai group set the tone after the Beijing leftists had been discredited in Mao’s eyes. (38) In the early 1970s, Chen Boda and Lin Biao, but surprisingly, not Jiang Qing because of her relationship to Mao, would be fingered as alleged “backstage bosses” for the “ultra-left” excesses of 1967-1968 within the mass movements. Mao would eventually reverse the verdict on the Adverse Current, fingered by the Maoists of the First Road as the main revisionist current at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Mao said:

“In our country there are people who curse us, saying we are completely leftist. Which people are our ‘leftist faction’? They are those who wanted to knock down the Premeir today, Chen Yi tomorrow, Ye Jianying the next day. This so-called ‘left’ faction is now in jail. For several years there was chaos under heaven, fighting in various places throughout the nation, widespread civil war. The two sides fired guns, all together one million guns. This army faction supported this faction, that army faction supported that faction, [all] fighting. Power was seized by that ‘left’ faction… The chief backstage backer [of the ‘left’ faction] is now no longer with us, [he is] Lin Biao.” (39) (40)

Identifying Lin Biao as the main or only backstage boss struggling against the Adverse Current is part of a police narrative. Whereas Lin Biao was in a de facto alliance with the First Road, the left wing of the CCRSG, it is a stretch to imply that he had organizational control of this trend. Lin Biao’s faction may have been the most important opposition to the revisionist Adverse Current, but Lin Biao’s faction was not the only opposition. It is a mistake to collapse the First Road of the spontaneous mass movements and the Second Road, the Lin Biao Road, into a single trend as some do. (41) Even though these trends overlap, Lin Biao’s Road is distinct from the First Road, even though they cross at times.

Mao saw the friends to enemies ratio within the Party as 90 to 10. The First Road not taken saw the number of enemies as greater. The First Road saw Mao’s ratio as underestimating the hold that the capitalist roaders had on the Party. On the extreme wing of this trend, the ratio was seen as the opposite, as 10 to 90. Hence, on the extreme end, they called for a 1917 style revolution to oust the revisionists. (42) However, this view does not represent the First Road as a whole. The First Road demanded a more drastic revolution to fight a much deeper problem than Mao imagined. Some in this trend went so far as to question the need for a Party. (43) Others advocated a theory of multiple centers, multiple vanguards. To this the center responded that the theory of multiple centers is the theory of no center at all. Mao opted for a rebuilding of the Party and bureaucracy, a rebuilding of the weakened economy, which meant a return to the politics of Zhou Enlai. Mao sought to wind down the Cultural Revolution, the First Road sought to increase its tempo and scope. Eventually, the Red Guards were disbanded, many sent down to the countryside. Officially, they were sent down to make revolution. In reality, their political activity was often neutralized there. The glory days of the Red Guards were over by mid-1968. Over the next seven years, 12 million urban youth, about ten percent of the urban population, were sent to the countryside. (44) Despite the power struggles behind the disbanding of the Red Guards in the countryside, many Red Guards and urban youth took to heart their obligation to carry out revolution in the countryside. (45) Even though Chen Boda and Jiang Qing lost their independent base of support and their reputations were damaged, even though they survived the purge of leftists in 1967-1968 that netted Wang Li, Guan Feng and Qi Benyu. The Maoists lost the “street” movement as it was disciplined. In addition, the military was purged of some leftists close to Lin Biao and the CCRSG. The CCRSG never recovered from the purge; it was disbanded in December of 1969 even though Lin Biao fought to retain the CCSRG after the Ninth Congress. (46)

This early trend of the Cultural Revolution did have its own ideas about how power should be distributed in a socialist society to the mass organizations and not to routinized bureaucracies of the Party or state. This road saw that authority should have a mass character, not a bureaucratic or commandist character. This, rightly or wrongly, was reflected in the idea of an idealized Paris Commune model of proletarian governance. Most of all, this road saw the need to widen the Cultural Revolution in mid-1967. Even if the program of this trend remained largely utopian, this road may have held the Cultural Revolution on course in its attempt to widen the net. Mao walked this road to an extent, but Mao got off in mid-1967. This visionary, utopian impulse of the First Road is an important part of any revolution. Whatever its shortcomings, its loss was a huge blow to the proletariat.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Misrule. Retrieved from:
  2. Ibid.
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Resistence is Surrender. Retrieved from:
  4. LLCO. Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (Review). Retrieved from:
  5. Karol, K.S. The Second Chinese Revolution. Hill and Wang. USA: 1973, p. 445.
  6. Ebon, Martin. Lin Piao. Stein and Day. USA: 1970, p. 287.
  7. Perry, Elizabeth J. and Li Xun. Proletarian Power. Westview Press. USA: 1997, p. 126.
  8. Esmein, Jean. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Andre Deutsch. USA: 1975, p. 184.
  9. Hunter, Neale. Shanghai Journal. Beacon Press. USA: 1969, p. 260.
  10. Perry, Elizabeth J. and Li Xun. Proletarian Power. Westview Press. USA: 1997, p. 129.
  11. Esmein, Jean. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Andre Deutsch. USA: 1975, p. 161.
  12. Perry, Elizabeth J. and Li Xun. Proletarian Power. Westview Press. USA: 1997, p. 125.
  13. Hunter, Neale. Shanghai Journal. Beacon Press. USA: 1969, p, 225-226.
  14. Ibid. p. 230-233.
  15. Ibid. p. 225-230.
  16. Perry, Elizabeth J. and Li Xun. Proletarian Power. Westview Press. USA: 1997, p. 120.
  17. Birth of Provisional Supreme Organ of Power in Heilungkiang Province. Peking Review no. 7 February 10, 1967, p. 12.
  18. Basic Experience in Heilungkiang Red Rebels in the Struggle to Seize Power. Peking Review no 8. February 17, 1967, p. 15-17.
  19. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Free Press. USA: 1986, p. 384-385.
  20. Ibid. p. 349-350.
  21. Ibid. p. 400.
  22. Ibid. p. 362-363.
  23. Domes, Jurgen. China After the Cultural Revolution. University of California Press. USA: 1977, p. 98.
  24. Han Suyin. Wind in the Tower. Little, Brown and Company. USA: 1976, p. 304.
  25. Cheng Chih-szu. The Great Lessons of the Paris Commune. Peking Review no. 16 April 15, 1966, p. 23-29.
  26. Domes, Jurgen. China After the Cultural Revolution. University of California Press. USA: 1977, p. 13-14.
  27. William Hinton suggests that Chen Boda (and Lin Biao) were the backstage bosses of the “ultra-left,” and Kuai Dafu in particular. Hinton, William. Hundred Day War. Monthly Review Press. New York. USA: 1972, p. 151-153.
  28. Sheng-wu-lien. Whither China. International Socialism No. 37. June/July 1969, p. 1. Retrieved from:
  29. Karnow, Stanley. Mao and China. Viking Press. USA: 1972, p. 382-285.
  30. Domes, Jurgen. China After the Cultural Revolution. University of California Press. USA: 1977, p. 13.
  31. Chi Pen-yu Condemns British Fascist Atrocities in Hongkong. Peking Review no. 24 June 9, 1967, p. 12.
  32. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Free Press. USA: 1986, p. 400-401.
  33. Van Ginneken, Jaap. The Rise and Fall of Lin Piao. Avan Books. USA: 1977, p. 123.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Domes, Jurgen. China After the Cultural Revolution. University of California Press. USA: 1977, p. 113.
  36. “The May 16 assumes an ‘ultra-left appearence; it centers its opposition on the Premier.” Jiang Qing, September 5th, 1967, quoted in Milton, David and Miton, Nancy Dall. The Wind Will not Subside. Pantheon. USA: 1976, p. 287.
  37. Ibid. p. 125.
  38. Teiwes, Fredrick C. The End of the Maoist Era. M. E. Sharpe. Inc. USA: 2007, p. 1.
  39. Ma Jisen. The Cultural Revolution in the Foreign Ministry. Chinese University Press. Hong Kong, China: 2004, p. 318-319.
  40. William Hinton, Charles Bettelheim, Samir Amin, and even Sam Marcy of Workers World tend to buy into the the narrative that collapses the First and Second Road. This has its origins in a particular Chinese Communist Party police narrative that mostly served Zhou Enlai because it, by implication, tainted the Gang of Four with Lin Biao’s coup. The official title of the famous trial of 1980 was “the trial of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing counter-revolutionary cliques.” This narrative reduced the various lines of the “ultra-left” to empty rhetoric creating chaos to advance themselves. Once Mao saw how an earlier this summation following right after Lin Biao’s death was destroying the remaining fragments of the Cultural Revolution left, Mao made sure to pin an “ultra-rightest” tag on Lin Biao. When historical narratives are crafted for sectarian reasons without regard for the truth, I call it a “police narrative.” Interestingly, Sam Marcy of Workers World turns the police narrative on its head. He uses the narrative to paper over the differences between the Lin Biao-Chen Boda and Gang of Four left wings. See: Marcy, Sam. China 1977: The End of the Revolutionary Mao Era. Workers World Party. USA. Retrieved from:
  41. Sheng-wu-lien. Whither China. International Socialism No. 37. June/July 1969. Retrieved from:
  42. Esmein, Jean. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Andre Deutsch. USA: 1975, p. 162.
  43. MacFarquhar, Roderick and Schoenals, Michael. Mao’s Last Revolution. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. USA: 2006, p. 251.
  44. LLCO. Review of Some of Us Part 1. Retrieved from:
  45. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Free Press. USA: 1986, p. 401.

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