The Margins and the Center: For a New History of the Cultural Revolution

“There is irrefutable evi­dence that the rot­ten heads of the Unit­ed Depart­ments plot­ted to insti­gate a Sec­ond Shang­hai Riot! They can­not get away with it!” (ca. 1967, via

At the end of the Qing dynasty and in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion­ary activists and the­o­rists believed that anar­chism was China’s most promis­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary path, and that was in part because it cor­re­spond­ed most close­ly to the actu­al­i­ty of social exis­tence. The vast major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion, after all, lived their lives with next to no rela­tion­ship with the state, whose func­tionar­ies almost nev­er reached the vil­lage lev­el, and whose levies and reg­u­la­tions were for the most part admin­is­tered by mem­bers of the local elite, with ties to their com­mu­ni­ties that were many and var­ied. Peo­ples’ lives were marked by var­i­ous forms of com­mu­ni­ty and solidarity—self-help, reli­gious, cer­e­mo­ni­al, clan-based, labor-cycle, and mar­ket-net­work related—and these forms of sol­i­dar­i­ty had made many com­mu­ni­ties capa­ble of resis­tance and mobi­liza­tion in the face of exter­nal threats, includ­ing impe­r­i­al author­i­tar­i­an over­reach. Those ear­ly the­o­rists of rev­o­lu­tion felt that these local social capa­bil­i­ties could be strength­ened and politi­cized in an egal­i­tar­i­an direc­tion, and that the emer­gent ener­gies of the poli­ty to come would lie pre­cise­ly in these local forms, rather than nation­al state author­i­ty.1

The anar­chist rev­o­lu­tion nev­er came, of course, and most anar­chist activists, and the social forces they rep­re­sent­ed, were absorbed, as one-time semi-anar­chist Mao Zedong was, into either the Nation­al­ist (KMT) or Com­mu­nist (CCP) par­ties. Both par­ties, in the course of their strug­gle for state pow­er, were forced to respond to or ally with local for­ma­tions in a num­ber of ways, and this made for a num­ber of local vari­ants in rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tice.2 For both, how­ev­er, the ulti­mate project was strong state pow­er, a ver­sion of which the CCP attained in 1949. Most west­ern observers of the PRC, in the Maoist and reform peri­ods, assume a strong cen­tral state. Fig­ures like Mao or Deng Xiaop­ing give a pic­ture of sov­er­eign author­i­ty that has led many to ascribe to them a dirigisme that has for the most part been less thor­ough than wide­ly assumed.

Unlike in the Qing dynasty, offi­cial­dom in the PRC pen­e­trat­ed to near­ly all lev­els of soci­ety, but, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the reform peri­od, the inter­ests and prac­tices of local offi­cials have often been at some vari­ance from those at the cen­ter. I remem­ber being ini­tial­ly sur­prised, when tak­ing a bus in 1991 through coastal Fujian province—an area that had emerged as a cen­ter of new export-ori­ent­ed man­u­fac­tur­ing in the post-1978 reform period—by the num­ber of red bill­boards exhort­ing local enter­pris­es to pay their tax­es as required. The bill­boards wouldn’t have been there had tax­es been paid. The center’s inabil­i­ty to man­age rev­enue col­lec­tion cre­at­ed fis­cal dif­fi­cul­ties for the state and neces­si­tat­ed pol­i­cy changes in the mid­dle of the reform peri­od.

The local­i­ties have con­sis­tent­ly shown a high lev­el of resilience and semi-auton­o­my. Dur­ing the dou­ble-dig­it growth years, this bifur­ca­tion of author­i­ty was gen­er­al­ly use­ful to the cen­ter.3 The local offi­cials’ front-line sta­tus made them take the brunt of protests from work­ers, res­i­dents with envi­ron­men­tal NIMBY issues, or from those—pensioners, retirees, those with ambigu­ous res­i­den­tial status—with unmet finan­cial claims on the state, and the vio­lent repres­sion those protests often met, as the tes­ti­mo­ny of par­tic­i­pants near­ly always revealed, con­trast­ed with a faith and con­fi­dence in the author­i­ties in Bei­jing, a strong tes­ti­mo­ny to the center’s legit­i­ma­tion efforts. The abil­i­ty of local offi­cials to profit—legally and illegally—from com­mer­cial, enter­prise, and prop­er­ty devel­op­ment, or from man­age­ment of For­eign Direct Invest­ment, played a cen­tral role in trans­form­ing them into stake-hold­ers in, rather than con­ser­v­a­tive obstruc­ters of, the cen­tral state’s reform process. This pat­tern of often extreme local diver­gence has served the state in oth­er ways. New forms of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion could be test­ed local­ly before being applied on a wider scale. Shang­hai, by all eco­nom­ic mea­sures the most advanced city/region in Chi­na from the mid-19th cen­tu­ry until the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion in the mid-1960s, was left out of the first wave of mar­ket and FDI reforms, which were con­cen­trat­ed in the Pearl Riv­er Delta region and in Fujian province, across the straits from Tai­wan; if the reforms proved to be a fail­ure, fail­ure was not deemed to be an option for Shang­hai, whose cap­i­tal­ist take­off wait­ed until the 1990s, after the “suc­cess­ful” imple­men­ta­tion of reform in the south. In the last decade, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has been able to take advan­tage of region­al dis­par­i­ties in order to accom­plish inter­nal spa­tial fix­es of the kind employed by cap­i­tal glob­al­ly: the mas­sive infra­struc­tur­al and finan­cial invest­ments in Sichuan province and else­where in the west have helped to bal­ance and coun­ter­act grow­ing work­ers’ pow­er and con­comi­tant wage increas­es in the coastal regions. For the most part, the state has well weath­ered the chaot­ic dynam­ic between local and cen­tral pow­er, and has thrived. The cit­i­zen­ry, absorbed into a shift­ing and pre­car­i­ous cap­i­tal­ist labor mar­ket as well as into a mul­ti-tiered con­sumer soci­ety, adept at chan­nel­ing social aspi­ra­tions through mass-medi­a­tion and the atten­dant con­sol­i­da­tion of mech­a­nisms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a large­ly myth­ic promise of indi­vid­ual self-ful­fill­ment and upward mobil­i­ty, is left with few­er and few­er social resources.

This par­tic­u­lar center/local dynam­ic may be com­ing to an end. I write this in Sep­tem­ber 2014 in Shang­hai, and a sev­er­al hun­dred per­son strong del­e­ga­tion of the Cen­tral Com­mis­sion for Dis­ci­pline Inspec­tion, the body charged with the mas­sive anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign insti­gat­ed by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, has recent­ly arrived and installed them­selves in a local hotel. It is wide­ly assumed that its tar­gets are in high places, and the local papers report and spec­u­late about the mean­ing of events such as one last week, when a neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents group who had in years past unsuc­cess­ful­ly strug­gled against a local real estate devel­op­ment pre­sent­ed the com­mis­sion with a sheaf of pur­port­ed­ly incrim­i­nat­ing doc­u­ments, which the com­mis­sion then agreed to review. Around the coun­try, local offi­cials are falling by the day, in what is prov­ing to be a relent­less and wide-sweep­ing cam­paign. If Xi Jin­ping is suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing a ratio­nal­ized, func­tion­al­ist bureau­cra­cy, one which for the most part no longer views land and con­tracts as local resources to be mined, but serves more pure­ly an instru­ment of the will of the state, he will have reached a lev­el of cen­tral state author­i­ty well beyond that of any of his pre­de­ces­sors. This is not guar­an­teed, of course, and an achieve­ment even of that scale might be open to lat­er rever­sal, but it could sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter the ter­rain of polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty. Many voic­es on the Left in Chi­na con­tin­ue to place their hopes in the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, which they view as capa­ble of a deci­sion­ism that would, with the right ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, be able to con­tain the mar­ket with­in a new social com­pact.4 I sus­pect that they will prove to be mis­tak­en. It is easy to over­es­ti­mate the polit­i­cal capac­i­ty to con­tain mar­ket forces.

Few left­ist intel­lec­tu­als write of polit­i­cal ini­tia­tive or cre­ativ­i­ty com­ing from the peo­ple themselves—they see intel­lec­tu­als as ful­fill­ing that role. Labor activism remains large­ly with­in the local dynam­ic described above; there remain sig­nif­i­cant insti­tu­tion­al and polit­i­cal bar­ri­ers to broad­er, trans-local mobi­liza­tion. Although the Yue Yuen (shoe man­u­fac­tur­ing) strikes in the spring of 2014 had a wider reach than pre­vi­ous labor actions, it is too soon to eval­u­ate what this por­tends for the future. Still, giv­en that a mil­i­tant pol­i­tics has to date large­ly been con­fined to “the mar­gins,” and giv­en the present fair­ly bleak polit­i­cal ter­rain, an exam­i­na­tion of his­tor­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of polit­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty at the mass lev­el might have greater than his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal impor­tance.

Wu Yiching’s re-inter­pre­ta­tion of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion—The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins: Chi­nese Social­ism in Cri­sis (Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014)—is such a study, and it is a sto­ry whose dynam­ic bears an impor­tant rela­tion to the his­tor­i­cal vicis­si­tudes of the local/center dynam­ic. Con­sid­er­ing its his­tor­i­cal and con­tin­u­ing polit­i­cal impor­tance, includ­ing in much recent rad­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion (CR) remains one of the most under-stud­ied phe­nom­e­na of the 20th cen­tu­ry. This is a par­tic­u­lar­ly acute prob­lem in Chi­na, where the nega­tion of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion and the pre­ven­tion of its recur­rence form a cen­tral pil­lar of state ide­ol­o­gy, and where the rel­a­tive absence of sus­tained analy­sis and dis­cus­sion of the peri­od has fore­closed a deep­er under­stand­ing of the chang­ing nature of what has con­sti­tut­ed pol­i­tics in Chi­na over the last half cen­tu­ry. This, and the pro­hi­bi­tion of dis­course on that oth­er and more ambigu­ous out­burst of the political—the late 1980s protests that cul­mi­nat­ed in the so-called Tianan­men Square move­ment in 1989—has been cen­tral to the state’s ongo­ing depoliti­ciza­tion process.

Although the state pro­hi­bi­tion on open and wide­spread dis­course on the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion remains in place, there has, over the last ten or twelve years, been a steady and slow accu­mu­la­tion of schol­ar­ship in Chi­nese, as well as in west­ern lan­guages. There is of course much archival and empir­i­cal work that remains to be done. But most­ly absent in recent work are new his­tor­i­cal syn­the­ses that make clear, orig­i­nal, and cogent claims for the broad­ly polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, and for its lega­cy into the reform peri­od. In addi­tion to per­form­ing impor­tant and ana­lyt­i­cal­ly rich his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal syn­the­ses, Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins con­tains much new schol­ar­ship as well, based on new­ly avail­able mate­r­i­al, includ­ing inter­views, and work in archives that have rarely been con­sult­ed. Wu’s notion of “mar­gins” is not geo­graph­i­cal­ly based—his case stud­ies include events in Bei­jing and Shanghai—but refers to pop­u­lar-based polit­i­cal move­ments and analy­ses that arose out­side of offi­cial state organs, made pos­si­ble by the irrup­tion of polit­i­cal groups and ten­den­cies over which there ini­tial­ly exist­ed lit­tle offi­cial con­trol.

The view that the mass pol­i­tics of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion was mere­ly a case of mass manip­u­la­tion, or a dis­tort­ed effect of cen­tral CCP pow­er pol­i­tics, has for­tu­nate­ly lost much of its author­i­ty in recent years, even though machi­na­tions in the cen­tral lead­er­ship remain cen­tral to the most recent com­pre­hen­sive Eng­lish-lan­guage his­to­ry, Mac­far­qua­har and Schoenhals’s Mao’s Last Rev­o­lu­tion.6 But no ana­lyt­i­cal frame­work of sim­i­lar­ly broad inter­pre­tive scope has arisen to replace this. The argu­ment for the pri­ma­cy and orig­i­nal­i­ty of the mar­gins is thus an impor­tant one. Those stud­ies that do inves­ti­gate pol­i­tics “from below”—and there have been many good ones recent­ly7 —tend to focus on group iden­ti­ty, inter­est, or struc­tur­al antag­o­nism, and gen­er­al­ly down­play non-func­tion­al­ist dimen­sions of the polit­i­cal.

Wu’s the­sis is that the irrup­tion of new polit­i­cal ener­gies in the ear­ly peri­od of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion was ini­tial­ly facil­i­tat­ed but not con­trolled by the cen­ter, that it rep­re­sent­ed new respons­es to long-stand­ing griev­ances and dis­con­tent as well as emer­gent forms of polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion, and that the state’s response to that irrup­tion deci­sive­ly shaped the char­ac­ter of the par­ty-state itself, begin­ning as ear­ly as 1968 and con­tin­u­ing up to the present day. Wu does not ascribe to the “mar­gins” more polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal coher­ence than they actu­al­ly pos­sessed; pol­i­tics at the mar­gins was ten­ta­tive, messy, het­ero­ge­neous, and out of con­trol. The state’s active pol­i­cy of con­tain­ment not only led to the pre­ma­ture end of polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion, but made con­tain­ment itself, and the resul­tant ener­gies of polit­i­cal neu­tral­iza­tion, a core com­po­nent of state func­tion. Wu writes of the object of con­tain­ment:

The free­ing of polit­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion from the neat cat­e­gories of offi­cial thought cre­at­ed a car­ni­va­lesque space in which offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned ideas and hereti­cal mean­ings coex­ist­ed and impinged upon one anoth­er; and ortho­dox notions—while being rit­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly invoked—were nev­er­the­less sur­rep­ti­tious­ly appro­pri­at­ed and cre­ative­ly mod­i­fied into new inter­pre­ta­tions. (13)

The mass polit­i­cal activism char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, how­ev­er, was not nec­es­sar­i­ly the direct expres­sion of pre­ex­ist­ing social dis­con­tent and griev­ances. Rather, this activism was often the result of nov­el forms of polit­i­cal lan­guage and action in a tur­bu­lent process that few par­tic­i­pants ful­ly com­pre­hend­ed. In espous­ing explo­sive slo­gans such as “Bom­bard the head­quar­ters” and “Rebel­lion is jus­ti­fied”, Mao—China’s par­ty chief turned rebel leader—set in motion new dynam­ics that rad­i­cal­ly dis­rupt­ed the exist­ing arrange­ments of pol­i­tics. With the abrupt sep­a­ra­tion of Mao’s charis­mat­ic author­i­ty from the par­ty appa­ra­tus, supe­ri­or polit­i­cal under­stand­ing was no longer the monop­oly of the par­ty. Indeed, the basic ratio­nale of the mass pol­i­tics char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion was that Mao’s Thought could be grasped direct­ly by the gen­er­al pop­u­lace, unmedi­at­ed by the par­ty. Although every­one was speak­ing in the name of Mao, Mao’s frag­men­tary ideas were var­i­ous­ly inter­pret­ed in flu­id cir­cum­stances and were appro­pri­at­ed for diverse purposes—to ratio­nal­ize inter­per­son­al con­flicts and fac­tion­al rival­ries, to artic­u­late pop­u­lar griev­ances, or to jus­ti­fy attacks on polit­i­cal author­i­ties… Giv­ing new mean­ings to a myr­i­ad of antag­o­nisms that had hith­er­to remained latent, the events of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion had a log­ic and dynam­ic of their own, and in ways that nei­ther the Supreme Leader nor any deter­mi­nate polit­i­cal pro­grams could ful­ly con­trol or even fore­see. (51)

Impor­tant cor­rec­tive approach­es to the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, Wu’s includ­ed, treat its pol­i­tics accord­ing to a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal peri­odiza­tion that cen­ters on the chang­ing nature of polit­i­cal actors and small-group com­po­si­tion, the nature of antag­o­nisms, and the char­ac­ter of containment/institutionalization. Wu’s peri­odiza­tion is not, of course, neat and tidy, and the move­ment was cer­tain­ly sub­ject to numer­ous local vari­a­tions. In the fol­low­ing sum­ma­ry of the his­tor­i­cal sequence, for read­ers unfa­mil­iar with the movement’s con­tents, I will make occa­sion­al note of Wu’s inter­pre­tive peri­odiza­tion schema, but will address his spe­cif­ic argu­ments in the fol­low­ing sec­tion.


The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion began in the late win­ter of 1966, with a pow­er strug­gle waged by Mao and his allies against oth­ers in posi­tions of cen­tral author­i­ty deemed to be fol­low­ing a “revi­sion­ist” line antag­o­nis­tic to Mao him­self. Mao and his anti-revi­sion­ist allies con­sol­i­dat­ed their pow­er from Feb­ru­ary on, cul­mi­nat­ing in the May 16 estab­lish­ment of the “Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group,” whose most promi­nent mem­bers includ­ed his wife, the rad­i­cal Jiang Qing, as well as Kang Sheng, polemi­cist Yao Wenyuan, and the­o­rist Zhang Chun­qiao. On May 25, Bei­jing Uni­ver­si­ty phi­los­o­phy lec­tur­er Nie Yuanzi post­ed the first “big char­ac­ter poster” attack­ing the uni­ver­si­ty lead­er­ship and its sup­pres­sion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor, a poster that Mao pub­licly approved. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, Red Guard groups arose at near­ly every uni­ver­si­ty and mid­dle school in Bei­jing, and this was soon to be emu­lat­ed around the coun­try. In the ear­ly sum­mer of 1966, then-Pres­i­dent Liu Shao­qi, lat­er to become the major tar­get of the anti-revi­sion­ist cam­paign, sent “work teams” to the schools and uni­ver­si­ties to direct and super­vise stu­dent activism. This attempt to sup­press these nascent ener­gies met with sub­stan­tial stu­dent oppo­si­tion. The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group also rec­og­nized the work teams as coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and these teams were with­drawn in July. At that point, the “plu­ral­iza­tion” phase, as Alessan­dro Rus­so has called it, devel­oped rapid­ly, as numer­ous and var­ied Red Guard groups sprang up, often in con­flict with each oth­er. Although the com­po­si­tion of the Red Guards was diverse, Wu observes that in this ear­ly peri­od, the chil­dren of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and cadres, those who were “Born Red,” played a dom­i­nant role. These young peo­ple pri­mar­i­ly tar­get­ed those with “bad class back­grounds,” which they believed made them real or poten­tial agents of counter-rev­o­lu­tion. Beijing’s demographics—it had a neg­li­gi­ble work­ing class pop­u­la­tion and a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high num­ber of gov­ern­ment functionaries—shaped this dynam­ic. This, accord­ing to Wu, con­tributed to the strate­gic and ide­o­log­i­cal pre­dom­i­nance of the “blood­line” the­o­ry of rev­o­lu­tion­ary iden­ti­ty in the ear­ly peri­od. The sum­mer and ear­ly fall of 1966 were marked by numer­ous inci­dents of vio­lent attack on those with bad class back­grounds, as well as destruc­tion of his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments from impe­r­i­al times. In Wu’s analy­sis, the high degree of vio­lence in this peri­od was not unre­lat­ed to the ide­o­log­i­cal dom­i­na­tion of the blood­line posi­tion, and he musters research to sug­gest, here and else­where in the book, that the worst vio­lence in the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion was not char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion as a whole, but was the prod­uct of dis­tinct polit­i­cal con­junc­tures.

The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group was tepid in its sup­port of the “blood­line” analy­sis, how­ev­er, and over the fall, the tar­gets increas­ing­ly includ­ed all those in posi­tions of author­i­ty, irre­spec­tive of class back­ground. This, accord­ing to Wu, both allowed for broad­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in the move­ment and occa­sioned sig­nif­i­cant­ly more polit­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty than had been pos­si­ble under the more rigid iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics of the pre­vi­ous months. The most sig­nif­i­cant events of late 1966 and ear­ly 1967 occurred in Shang­hai, where, in con­trast to Bei­jing, large num­bers of work­ers became active in the move­ment. The Shang­hai events are among the most stud­ied in the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, but inter­pre­ta­tions vary. Over the course of the autumn, work­ers orga­nized around a dis­parate range of grievances—pay, employ­ment sta­tus, res­i­dence and relo­ca­tion, work­ing con­di­tions, and fac­to­ry gov­er­nance, and in Novem­ber, a loose coali­tion of groups took shape, nam­ing itself the Work­ers’ Gen­er­al Head­quar­ters (WGHQ). Fore­most among their demands was recog­ni­tion and legit­i­ma­cy, for the direc­tives from the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group were, in the fall of 1966, some­what ambigu­ous on the ques­tion of work­ers’ par­tic­i­pa­tion. Oth­er groups sprang up as well, includ­ing the Scar­let Guards, who were defend­ers of the Shang­hai munic­i­pal author­i­ties, against whom the WGHQ were arrayed. Events came to a cli­max in late Decem­ber and ear­ly Jan­u­ary of 1967, as WGHQ and allied groups’ mil­i­tan­cy reached a boil­ing point—institutions were tak­en over, and the sit­u­a­tion in gen­er­al was akin to that of a gen­er­al strike. Zhang Chun­qiao of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group came to Shang­hai in Jan­u­ary and offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized the WGHQ as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary group. Feb­ru­ary 5, 1967 wit­nessed the for­ma­tion of the famous Shang­hai Com­mune, which was her­ald­ed as a new mod­el for a pol­i­tics devel­op­ing out of the seizure of pow­er from below. Ear­li­er than this, how­ev­er, units of the Peo­ples Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) had been sent into Shang­hai to assist in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary seizure of pow­er, and the PLA con­sti­tut­ed, in Wu’s analy­sis, an ener­gy of order and, at times, con­tain­ment.

As events pro­gressed in Shang­hai, Mao had sec­ond thoughts about the Com­mune, and ordered it dis­band­ed on Feb­ru­ary 24 in favor of a new admin­is­tra­tive form that had emerged in the north­east. In Shang­hai, as else­where in Chi­na, the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion was to be over­seen by Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tees, com­pris­ing mem­bers of the PLA, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of rebel groups, and par­ty cadres. Through­out the late fall and win­ter, and through­out the brief life of the Com­mune, groups with var­ied com­po­si­tions and agen­da pro­lif­er­at­ed, with demands that their griev­ances be addressed and that they par­tic­i­pate in pow­er shar­ing. The sit­u­a­tion before, dur­ing, and after the Com­mune was very flu­id. Although the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tee mode of gov­er­nance was intend­ed to be fol­lowed nation­wide, its imple­men­ta­tion was slow and uneven, and Shang­hai remained the scene of inter-fac­tion­al strug­gle until the sum­mer of 1967. The events in Shang­hai pre­cip­i­tat­ed many oth­er attempts to seize pow­er through­out the coun­try dur­ing the win­ter and spring of that year.

In the spring of 1967 in Wuhan, a strate­gi­cal­ly and indus­tri­al­ly impor­tant city in cen­tral Chi­na, the PLA inter­vened mil­i­tar­i­ly against the city’s large, rad­i­cal Red Guard fac­tion, despite being ordered to desist by the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group. When two rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group arrived in the city, one was assault­ed. This prompt­ed a brief cam­paign against “cap­i­tal­ist road­ers in the army,” and the dam­age to the PLA’s legit­i­ma­cy encour­aged wide­spread defi­ance against their author­i­ty. This con­flu­ence of events con­vinced many in the cen­tral lead­er­ship that the coun­try was threat­ened with total chaos. In Sep­tem­ber of 1967, Mao began a cam­paign to end fac­tion­al con­flict, and rapid­ly put the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion under the con­trol of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tees. This met con­sid­er­able resis­tance in many quar­ters, but by the end of 1967 it was clear that this was the center’s cho­sen course.

Over the first half of 1968, the move­ment and fac­tions were large­ly con­tained, and the focus shift­ed to the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the Cul­tur­al Revolution’s suc­cess­ful pow­er strug­gles to date. By Sep­tem­ber of 1968, Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tees were in place in every province. Between late 1968 and 1972, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tees went after thou­sands of peo­ple accused of fac­tion­al fight­ing and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ties, and as sev­er­al schol­ars have not­ed, these purges marked the most vio­lent peri­od of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion.9 By 1972, the PLA had emerged as the strongest admin­is­tra­tive force in the coun­try. In the fac­to­ries and the schools, the pol­i­tics and val­ues of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion remained in force, as evi­dent in the “work­er-peas­ant-sol­dier” uni­ver­si­ties, the uni­ver­si­ties-in-the-fac­to­ries, con­tin­ued dis­cus­sion of orga­ni­za­tion­al forms, etc. Although the Red Guards had ceased to exist, this final peri­od wit­nessed peri­od­ic nation­al cam­paigns (crit­i­cize Lin Biao, etc.) as well as strug­gles with­in par­tic­u­lar fac­to­ries. The peri­od was also marked by pow­er strug­gles with­in the cen­tral lead­er­ship, the most salient event of which was an abort­ed coup by PLA sup­port­ers of Lin Biao in 1971. Fol­low­ing its defeat, the PLA’s author­i­ty again came into ques­tion. The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion con­tin­ued until 1976, when the “Gang of Four” was arrest­ed.


Cri­tique of bureau­crat­ic class priv­i­lege was cen­tral to Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion pol­i­tics, and Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins makes dis­tinc­tive ana­lyt­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions to our under­stand­ing of the nature of class, class analy­sis, and class con­flict in the PRC. It begins by rec­og­niz­ing the incom­men­su­rate and dis­crepant tem­po­ral­i­ties of post-1949 class pol­i­tics. The cod­i­fi­ca­tion of class cat­e­gories was first made on the basis of fam­i­ly ori­gin, i.e., with ref­er­ence to a social sys­tem whose field of antag­o­nism had for the most part ceased to exist by the 1960s, but which were insist­ed upon, in part, to guar­an­tee a form of affir­ma­tive action for those with “good” class back­grounds, and thus avoid the unin­tend­ed repro­duc­tion of class priv­i­lege.10 Yet these bureau­cra­tized and rei­fied class cat­e­gories, which had become a defin­ing ele­ment of indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ties, had tak­en on a life of their own, divorced, for the most part, from actu­al social rela­tions. At the same time, a priv­i­leged bureau­crat­ic stra­tum was in for­ma­tion, with well-defined ben­e­fits for each admin­is­tra­tive lev­el. Mao’s alarm at the emer­gence of this new class structure—he was deter­mined to avoid China’s rev­o­lu­tion fol­low­ing the Sovi­et revi­sion­ist path—added a new dimen­sion of antag­o­nism to the social field. Exist­ing class dis­course proved an awk­ward vehi­cle for this new­ly super­im­posed lan­guage of cri­tique of bureau­crat­ic class priv­i­lege. A con­se­quence, Wu writes, was that

Instead of giv­ing rise to a con­cep­tion of class ade­quate to Chi­nese social­ism, the reifi­ca­tion of class and com­pres­sion of class analy­ses cen­ter­ing on old and new—or pre­rev­o­lu­tion­ary and postrevolutionary—social rela­tion­ships end­ed up cre­at­ing a hope­less­ly inco­her­ent ide­o­log­i­cal space in which sharply dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics of class inter­pen­e­trat­ed and fused, with new types of social con­flict con­tin­u­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed as man­i­fes­ta­tions of the titan­ic bat­tles of the past between the rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces and the agents of the ancient regime. (49)

Although much exist­ing schol­ar­ship on post-1949 class rec­og­nizes the inco­her­ence of PRC class dis­course, it remains far less ana­lyt­i­cal­ly pre­cise on this incom­men­su­ra­bil­i­ty and its con­se­quences. Wu sug­gests the polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal work at the mar­gins pro­posed var­i­ous ways out of that inco­her­ence. The party-state’s con­tain­ment and repres­sion of those ini­tia­tives cul­mi­nat­ed, ulti­mate­ly, in the sup­pres­sion of class dis­course alto­geth­er as the reform peri­od pro­gressed. Today, for exam­ple, the word “class” (jieji) is frowned upon, in favor of the less fraught term “stra­tum” (jieceng). Anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of class in Chi­na today, although Wu neglects to men­tion this, is that mem­bers of fam­i­lies with “bad” class back­grounds have been dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the ranks of uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, in exec­u­tive posi­tions, and in arts and let­ters. This phe­nom­e­non is not uncom­mon in post­so­cial­ist soci­eties, where­in pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary elites, such as the Pol­ish szlach­ta, have man­aged to recap­ture sub­stan­tial social and eco­nom­ic priv­i­lege after decades of social restruc­tur­ing. This re-emer­gence might make one look more sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly at the redis­trib­u­tive iden­ti­ty-based class pol­i­tics of the ear­li­er peri­od.

One sig­nif­i­cant force on the mar­gins was Yu Luoke, whose writ­ings rep­re­sent­ed a major chal­lenge to offi­cial class dis­course. Yu Luoke is best known for his polem­i­cal essay against the blood­line the­o­ry, “On Class Ori­gins,” pub­lished in Jan­u­ary 1967. It was crit­i­cal not only of the rigid­i­ty of cod­i­fied class iden­ti­ty, but also of the capac­i­ty of such a sys­tem to pro­duce a new elite class. Wu makes the strong claim that Yu Luoke’s posi­tion was in no way a func­tion­al­ist expres­sion of a par­tic­u­lar­ist inter­est, derived from his own (priv­i­leged back­ground) class posi­tion as defined by the sys­tem, and thus a har­bin­ger of a lat­er lib­er­al uni­ver­sal­iz­ing human rights dis­course, as some have claimed, but rather a sig­nif­i­cant attempt to reframe the rev­o­lu­tion-era dis­course of class in its entire­ty, turn­ing it to ques­tions of “moral auton­o­my” and “human dig­ni­ty.” Although, as I men­tioned ear­li­er, mem­bers of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group also expressed reser­va­tions of the blood­line the­o­ry, the broad­ly anti-author­i­tar­i­an and pop­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic impli­ca­tions of Yu’s analy­sis were con­sid­ered too great a chal­lenge to the CCP. Yu, var­i­ous­ly brand­ed as a Trot­sky­ist or an anar­chist, was arrest­ed in Jan­u­ary 1968 and exe­cut­ed in 1970. Wu sug­gests that the state’s reac­tive fore­clo­sure of this dis­cus­sion of class was a for­ma­tive com­po­nent of its grow­ing neu­tral­iza­tion func­tion, a func­tion kept alive today in state bro­mides on the “har­mo­nious soci­ety.”

Wu offers a new and orig­i­nal inter­pre­ta­tion of the Shang­hai events. The spread of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion beyond stu­dents and into the work­ing pop­u­la­tion was not part of the revolution’s orig­i­nal plan. The PRC was of course a devel­op­men­tal­ist state, and Mao was con­sis­tent in his insis­tence on the impor­tance of main­tain­ing pro­duc­tion lev­els. Although approv­ing of work­ers’ rad­i­cal­ism in the strict­ly polit­i­cal sphere—the chal­lenge to the pow­er of munic­i­pal author­i­ties, for example—concerns were raised, for the first time in PRC his­to­ry, about “economism.” For on the sur­face, “econ­o­mistic” con­cerns were indeed a pri­ma­ry acti­va­tor of the Shang­hai mobi­liza­tions. There were good rea­sons for this. Mas­sive num­bers of work­ers had been laid off in the ear­ly six­ties, many sent to the coun­try­side where they met a severe reduc­tion in liv­ing stan­dards. A sys­tem had grown in place where­by peas­ants from near­by agri­cul­tur­al areas were brought into fac­to­ries sea­son­al­ly, accord­ing to pro­duc­tion sched­ule needs, and at vast­ly low­er wages than those of urban work­ers; in many fac­to­ries they rep­re­sent­ed 30% or more of the work­force. The hous­ing cri­sis was acute, with urban res­i­dents reduced to an aver­age of around three square meters per per­son. Although state rhetoric des­ig­nat­ed the work­ing class as the mas­ters of the coun­try, in Shang­hai, their posi­tion seemed to be dete­ri­o­rat­ing.

In late 1966 and ear­ly 1967, though, when state author­i­ty was at its nadir and when rad­i­cal work­er pow­er was at its apogee, demands for back pay and ben­e­fits were often rapid­ly met, deplet­ing enter­prise and munic­i­pal cof­fers. The charge of “economism” was the lan­guage the state author­i­ties used to curb this alarm­ing ten­den­cy, and this charge was echoed by their epigones in the move­ments. And yet, as in the dis­course of class, “economism” failed to cap­ture what Wu sees as an under­ly­ing dynam­ic of an inchoate pol­i­tics, an under­stand­ing of which requires a con­sid­er­a­tion of the rela­tion between the eco­nom­ic and the polit­i­cal in social­ist soci­eties.

Although work­ing-class strug­gles over wages and the length of the work­day under cap­i­tal­ism may be viewed as econ­o­mistic (or “eco­nom­ic-cor­po­rate” to bor­row a term from Anto­nio Gram­sci) and thus struc­tural­ly intrin­sic to a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, the same may not be true of sim­i­lar strug­gles in state-social­ist soci­eties in which eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal spheres lack dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and in which extrac­tion of sur­plus-labor is achieved through extra-eco­nom­ic means… But in cer­tain forms of non­cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety (includ­ing state-social­ist soci­ety), the amal­ga­ma­tion of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­ers makes pos­si­ble extrac­tion of sur­plus labor through the coer­cive appa­ra­tus of the state. In such con­texts, con­tests over eco­nom­ic issues chal­lenge the state pow­er under­ly­ing sur­plus extrac­tion, and appar­ent­ly eco­nom­ic strug­gles often become insep­a­ra­ble from polit­i­cal con­flicts. (107)

The CCP, Wu holds, func­tioned very ear­ly on in the rad­i­cal phase of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion as a force of con­tain­ment, a force vis­i­ble even in the procla­ma­tion of the Shang­hai Com­mune itself. Wu’s analy­sis of the com­plex sequence of events in Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary is extreme­ly detailed. Zhang Chun­qiao, in this analy­sis, does not emerge as a spokesperson/theorist of a new worker’s pol­i­tics, and the Com­mune is not the expres­sion of work­ers’ vic­to­ries. Rather, the state from the start worked to fore­stall the devel­op­ment of a mass pol­i­tics that had yet to coa­lesce and which could have, giv­en space, time, and oppor­tu­ni­ty, cre­at­ed a new polit­i­cal dis­course, expand­ing its ini­tial­ly promi­nent “econ­o­mistic” con­cerns more ful­ly into the social and polit­i­cal field. The procla­ma­tion of the Com­mune had a dual char­ac­ter. It gal­va­nized polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion else­where in the coun­try, as Wu demon­strates in his chap­ter on the Sheng­wu­lian group in Hunan province (see below), but it was at the same time an attempt to reassert order, albeit with­in the para­me­ters set by the polit­i­cal achieve­ments of the rebel groups.

The doc­u­ment “Whith­er Chi­na,” writ­ten by Yang Xikuang for the Sheng­wu­lian group, which formed in Hunan province in Sep­tem­ber 1967 in reac­tion to the derad­i­cal­iza­tion of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion then in progress, reflect­ed the lessons that its author had learned from the Shang­hai Commune—that the way to build com­mu­nist soci­ety was through the whole­sale elim­i­na­tion of the bureau­crat­ic stra­tum, and the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of com­munes. It is an extra­or­di­nary doc­u­ment, and I rec­om­mend it to read­ers of this review (avail­able as of Sep­tem­ber 2014 at or ). Reject­ing the view that Shengwulian’s com­po­si­tion reflect­ed a form of inter­est politics—its mem­bers were com­mon­ly drawn from those deemed to have been left out of the Cul­tur­al Revolution’s main thrust, such as decom­mis­sioned sol­diers, urban “rus­ti­cates” who had left the vil­lages to which they had been sent and returned to the coun­try­side, and others—Wu holds that it was rather this mar­gin­al sta­tus that gave ener­gy to a broad­er and more gen­er­al cri­tique of bureau­crat­ic author­i­ty. Based on inter­views and on archival work in Hunan (for which Wu was jailed and sub­ject to inter­ro­ga­tion), Wu gives a remark­ably clear his­to­ry of the orga­ni­za­tion­al prece­dents for the Sheng­wu­lian group in Hunan—this itself is a remark­able feat of historiography—and the spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal con­junc­tures to which it was a response. The chap­ter also makes clear that Yang Xiguang, mem­ber of Sheng­wu­lian and author of the famous “Whith­er Chi­na” essay, was not the only active intel­lec­tu­al in the move­ment. Wu makes clear that the stan­dard view of Sheng­wu­lian as a move­ment of the dis­af­fect­ed and per­se­cut­ed is not an inac­cu­rate one, but argues con­vinc­ing­ly that the group’s pol­i­tics are not reducible to that.

The com­bi­na­tion of local­ly based demands and the devel­op­ment of nov­el polit­i­cal ideas that informed and gave new mean­ing to spe­cif­ic inci­dents and griev­ances had a poten­tial­ly explo­sive impact on the mass pol­i­tics of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. But such rup­tur­al moment did not mate­ri­al­ize. Con­demned as “anar­chist” and anti-par­ty, these crit­i­cal cur­rents were swift­ly crushed by nation­al and local author­i­ties. The polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal activ­i­ties of the activists were sup­pressed ruth­less­ly. They were denounced for call­ing for the dis­card­ing of par­ty lead­er­ship and delib­er­ate­ly prop­a­gat­ing a false image of a self-per­pe­trat­ing bureau­crat­ic class. With the reasser­tion of orga­ni­za­tion­al reg­i­men­ta­tion and inter­pre­tive con­trol, crit­i­cal voic­es emer­gent in the move­ment were silenced, and polit­i­cal ortho­doxy was reim­posed. (185)

The Sheng­wu­lian group was active as the most rad­i­cal phase of the CR was wind­ing down, as the par­ty was con­sol­i­dat­ing the poli­cies of con­tain­ment and neu­tral­iza­tion that crys­tal­lized in reac­tion to devel­op­ments such as those described above. The Sheng­wu­lian pre­sent­ed a par­tic­u­lar­ly rad­i­cal chal­lenge to the new­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed state ortho­doxy, and Wu’s analy­sis makes clear why it met with such a heavy state response.

The Sheng­wu­lian was one of many pop­u­lar anti-bureau­cra­cy move­ments around the coun­try that arose from the end of 1967 and into 1968, when all of them met the heavy hand of the state and suf­fered the same fate as Shengwulian’s. Indeed, as Wu shows from a sur­vey of most­ly Chi­nese-lan­guage schol­ar­ship, the most vio­lent phase of the CR was a con­se­quence of vio­lence per­pe­trat­ed by the state against these late-peri­od mil­i­tants. The peri­od between 1970 and 1976 is a sig­nif­i­cant gap in Wu’s his­tor­i­cal cov­er­age, even giv­en that the book is not intend­ed to be a “his­to­ry” of the CR. This is the most under-researched peri­od of the CR, and we will need to await fur­ther schol­ar­ship before this peri­od can be eval­u­at­ed more ful­ly.11 Extra-par­ty mass move­ments had ceased to exist, but as I men­tioned above, strug­gles con­tin­ued with­in schools and fac­to­ries as the CR was insti­tu­tion­al­ized. Although the peri­od was indeed char­ac­ter­ized by purges of “class ene­mies,” it is like­ly that in this peri­od, as in ear­li­er peri­ods, there were a range of antag­o­nisms that were car­ried out with­in this dis­cur­sive frame. It is pos­si­ble that fur­ther research on this peri­od might reveal “micro-mar­gins,” with­in par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions, and thus com­pli­cate Wu’s analy­sis of neu­tral­iza­tion and con­tain­ment.

Wu con­tin­ues his analy­sis of the anti-bureau­crat­ic ten­den­cies by skip­ping to the imme­di­ate post-Mao peri­od in the late 70s, treat­ing mate­r­i­al more famil­iar to read­ers of Eng­lish-lan­guage scholarship—Li Yizhe, Chen Erjin, and Democ­ra­cy Wall, com­mon­ly tak­en as the first stir­rings of west­ern-style human rights and lib­er­al democ­ra­cy dis­course. Wu places this irrup­tion of late Sev­en­ties pol­i­tics with­in the con­text of the grass­roots anti-bureau­crat­ic move­ments that arose in late 1967 and ear­ly 1968, and makes a clear and con­vinc­ing case for the many con­ti­nu­ities he finds between move­ments of the two peri­ods. The eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal shifts of the imme­di­ate post-Mao years had, of course, cre­at­ed the lat­ter open­ing, and polit­i­cal con­tin­gency made it ini­tial­ly expe­di­ent for the Deng Xiaop­ing reformist fac­tion to use and tol­er­ate the move­ment. Con­tain­ment and neu­tral­iza­tion of these ener­gies would take a new form, how­ev­er, with the 1978 Deng-ist reforms, which Wu ana­lyzes accord­ing to Gramsci’s notion of “pas­sive rev­o­lu­tion,” where­by the ear­li­er antag­o­nisms were dis­placed into and neu­tral­ized by the new con­text of mar­ket reforms. The state log­ic of con­tain­ment that arose in 1968 per­dured, albeit in a new form.

Here, although it is not dis­cussed in The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins, I believe it would be use­ful to return to the reform-peri­od center/local dynam­ics dis­cussed at the begin­ning of this essay, which, as I sug­gest­ed, rep­re­sent a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics at the mar­gins. Wu’s late-Sev­en­ties “mar­gins” are work­er-intel­lec­tu­al anti-author­i­tar­i­an activists, who con­tin­ued, in a dif­fer­ent form and in new lan­guage, the rad­i­cal anti-bureau­crat­ic pol­i­tics of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant in the ear­ly reform peri­od were spon­ta­neous vil­lage-lev­el reor­ga­ni­za­tions of rur­al indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion. There remain sig­nif­i­cant ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal dis­putes about the nature of this devel­op­ment. Many on the Chi­nese Left hold that in its ini­tial phas­es, these rep­re­sent­ed pop­u­lar, local­ly based muta­tions of a coop­er­a­tive mode of pro­duc­tion, at more remove from state con­trol, but in which the devel­op­ment of own­er­ship and pri­vate prop­er­ty rights was not on the polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic agen­da. I tend to con­cur with this judg­ment.12 This is also, how­ev­er, one argu­ment made by the “con­ti­nu­ity” school in Chi­na, which sees in the ear­ly Deng-era reforms sig­nif­i­cant con­ti­nu­ities with Mao-era social­ist devel­op­men­tal­ism, but with­out bureau­crat­ic and author­i­tar­i­an shack­les of the ear­li­er peri­od, in oth­er words, a polit­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive devel­op­ment. There are sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions in these claims for con­ti­nu­ity. In this school’s analy­sis of the present peri­od, to sum­ma­rize some­what crude­ly, Chi­na remains a social­ist coun­try, and in the absence of uni­ver­sal pri­vate-prop­er­ty rights, and minus the con­sol­i­da­tion of a dis­tinct cap­i­tal­ist class with its own social pow­er, the state retains the capacity—although it has large­ly cho­sen not to exer­cise this capacity—to shape devel­op­ment along social­ist and egal­i­tar­i­an lines, giv­en the rapid devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces and China’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the glob­al econ­o­my on its own terms.13 This is cer­tain­ly an over­es­ti­ma­tion of the Chi­nese state’s abil­i­ty or will to cre­ate a socio-eco­nom­ic sys­tem that rep­re­sents a seri­ous alter­na­tive to glob­al­ly dom­i­nant modes of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. It does rep­re­sent a con­vic­tion that the CCP is a pow­er where­in the polit­i­cal and the eco­nom­ic spheres con­tin­ue to have a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship than else­where in the cap­i­tal­ist world, and that social­ist or social-demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mo­ny with­in the par­ty remains a pos­si­bil­i­ty.

I would sug­gest, rather, that the course of the reform peri­od, espe­cial­ly begin­ning in the 1990s, with its mas­sive accel­er­a­tion of pri­vate enter­prise devel­op­ment and cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket rela­tions, even with­in the state-owned enter­pris­es, rep­re­sent­ed a reshap­ing of the center/local or center/margin dynam­ic, locat­ing it no longer in the realm of pol­i­tics, but in the realm of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed cap­i­tal­ist spa­tial­i­ty. To date, this has served the state rea­son­ably well. But the neg­a­tive consequences—corruption, over-capac­i­ty, local debt, envi­ron­men­tal degradation—not only ren­der the econ­o­my more prone to crises but, more impor­tant­ly, threat­en state legit­i­ma­cy. Cur­rent efforts to reassert cen­tral con­trol and ratio­nal­ize the bureau­cra­cy are intend­ed to address these threats. It is doubt­ful that this effort, even if suc­cess­ful, could immu­nize Chi­na against cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis. But it could very pos­si­bly, in the near future, in any case, weak­en the capac­i­ty for inno­va­tion or polit­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty at “the mar­gins.”

The Chi­nese Left was gen­er­al­ly enthu­si­as­tic about devel­op­ments in Chongqing at the end of the first decade of this cen­tu­ry. Bo Xilai, Chongqing par­ty chair­man, announced a series of social-demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms and an expan­sion of the gov­ern­ment-owned sec­tor of the econ­o­my, and revived, though the singing of “red songs” and oth­er pub­lic forums, some of the pop­ulist lan­guage of the Mao era. As I have writ­ten else­where, devel­op­ments in Chongqing depart­ed in very few ways from the mar­ket-reform state’s devel­op­men­tal­ist path, and it was ques­tion­able whether the mod­est social-demo­c­ra­t­ic reform pro­grams were eco­nom­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able, or whether they were, as Bo Xilai’s cham­pi­ons claimed, exportable to the coun­try at large and not mere­ly a slight­ly pro­gres­sive ver­sion of the spa­tial fix.14 Bo fell from pow­er in 2012—and the extent to which this was a polit­i­cal or a crim­i­nal affair is still debat­ed. Many left­ist sup­port­ers react­ed with alarm when then Pre­mier Wen Jiabao raised the specter of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion in his denun­ci­a­tion of Bo. Although there was noth­ing espe­cial­ly rad­i­cal in Bo’s pol­i­tics, the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion lan­guage sig­naled cen­tral con­cern over the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of exces­sive local devi­a­tion. His fall was like­ly to end, for the time being at least, of any pos­si­bil­i­ty of sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion at the local lev­el.

Exist­ing schol­ar­ship on the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion in Chi­na gen­er­al­ly adheres to the offi­cial state view of “ten years of dis­as­ter” or restricts itself to detailed, often region­al­ly spe­cif­ic empir­i­cal study. It is dif­fi­cult to do more than that, and the polit­i­cal argu­ment that Wu is advanc­ing here would not be pos­si­ble in Chi­na. In Eng­lish-lan­guage schol­ar­ship, anoth­er set of con­straints obtains. One is what Jacques Ran­cière once referred to as the “police view of his­to­ry”: the his­to­ri­an func­tions as the cop at the scene of an inci­dent, urg­ing wit­ness­es to move along by say­ing “noth­ing hap­pened”: the CR as dis­as­trous aber­ra­tion with­out any­thing sig­nif­i­cant at the lev­el of con­tent. More seri­ous stud­ies com­mon­ly focus on planes of antag­o­nism either at the lev­el of the CCP high­er bureau­cra­cy, or between fac­tions among the peo­ple, fac­tions whose own orga­ni­za­tion­al log­ics are inter­pret­ed in var­i­ous ways, most com­mon­ly accord­ing to mate­r­i­al or cor­po­rate group inter­est, and to the rela­tion­ship or non-rela­tion­ship between pol­i­tics at the cen­ter and in the extra-par­ty orga­ni­za­tions.

Wu’s achieve­ment in this book is to con­sid­er the pri­ma­ry antag­o­nism as that between the par­ty state bureau­cra­cy and the “mar­gin­al” polit­i­cal forces that arose either in the ear­ly peri­od of the CR or in reac­tion to the containment/consolidation of late 1967 and into 1968. His analy­sis over­laps with, but is ulti­mate­ly quite dif­fer­ent from, that of Per­ry and Li, for whom work­er pol­i­tics in the CR was pri­mar­i­ly an expres­sion of work­er inter­est. For Wu, as out­lined above, has a more nuanced sense of “inter­est.” It also has some over­lap with, but is ulti­mate­ly quite dif­fer­ent from the very inter­est­ing work of Alessan­dro Rus­so, who has a much more san­guine view of the anti-bureau­crat­ic pol­i­tics of Mao and oth­ers in the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Group. Wu’s book makes a coher­ent and impor­tant argu­ment about the polit­i­cal con­tent of pop­u­lar move­ments in the CR, even though these pol­i­tics remained inchoate, and the deep impact that these move­ments had on the nature of the par­ty state. The legit­i­ma­cy of the con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese state rests on the twin pil­lars of devel­op­men­tal­ism and “main­tain­ing sta­bil­i­ty” (wei­wen). The lat­ter is of course a noto­ri­ous­ly flu­id term, and serves a num­ber of purposes—suppression of pop­u­lar protest move­ments, mil­i­ta­riza­tion of eth­nic-minor­i­ty regions, con­trols on the internet—but it is wide­ly under­stood to refer in no small part to the “chaos” (luan) of the not-so-dis­tant past. In keep­ing with the log­ic of nega­tion that this posi­tion embod­ies, the state thus remains with­in the para­me­ters set by the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, which makes Wu’s study so vital today.

  1. Arif Dir­lik, Anar­chism in the Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, 1993. Peter Zarrow, Anar­chism and Chi­nese Polit­i­cal Cul­ture. New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, 1990. 

  2. For a detailed study of CCP rela­tions with polit­i­cal and social for­ma­tions in a par­tic­u­lar loca­tion dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, see Eliz­a­beth Per­ry, Anyuan: Min­ing China’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tra­di­tion. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, 2012. 

  3. This center/local dynam­ic is dis­cussed in Jean C. Oi, Rur­al Chi­na Takes Off: Insti­tu­tion­al Foun­da­tions of Eco­nom­ic Reform, Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia 1999, and David Zweig, Inter­na­tion­al­iz­ing Chi­na: Domes­tic Inter­ests and Glob­al Link­ages, Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002. 

  4. For sam­ples of this view, see Hu Angang, Wang Shaoguang, Zhou Jian­ming, and Han Yuhai, Ren­jian zheng­dao. (The Right Path for Human­i­ty). Bei­jing: Zhong­guo ren­min­dax­ue chuban­she, 2011. Luo Gang, Ren­min zhis­hang: cong ‘ren­min dan­gji­azuozhu’ dao ‘she­hui gong­tong fuyu’(The peo­ple come first: from “the peo­ple as mas­ters of their own des­tines” to “com­mon social pros­per­i­ty”). Shang­hai: Shang­hai ren­min chuban­she, 2012.  

  5. Some main­land schol­ars still need to pub­lish their work out­side of Chi­na. Li Xun, Da bengkui: shang­hai gongren zao­fan­pai yu wang­shi. (The great break­down: The lost his­to­ry of the rebel fac­tion of Shang­hai work­ers) Taibei: Shibao wen­hua chuban­she, 1996. Xu Hail­iang, Donghu fengyun­lu: Wuhan wengede qun­zhong jiyi (Wind and clouds over East Lake: pop­u­lar mem­o­ries of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion in Wuhan). Hong Kong: Yin­he chuban­she, 2005. An exam­ple of an exhaus­tive and well-researched study pub­lished in Chi­na is Jin Dalu, Feichang yu zhengchang: Shang­hai wenge shiqide she­hui shenghuo (The nor­mal and the extra­or­di­nary: Social life in Shang­hai dur­ing the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, 2 vols.). Shang­hai: Shang­hai cishu chuban­she, 2011. Although Xu’s book is sym­pa­thet­ic to the rebel fac­tions, Li’s is not. 

  6. More nuanced stud­ies of the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion include Joel Andreas, Rise of the Red Engi­neers: The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion and China’s New Class. Stan­ford 2008; Paul Clark, The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion: A His­to­ry. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press 2008, cen­ter­ing on cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion in the peri­od; Han Dong­ping, The Unknown Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion: Life and Change in a Chi­nese Vil­lage. Month­ly Review Press, 2008. Eliz­a­beth Per­ry and Li Xun, Pro­le­tar­i­an Pow­er: Shang­hai in the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. West­view, 1997; Andrew Walder, Frac­tured Rebel­lion: The Bei­jing Red Guard Move­ment. Har­vard 2009. 

  7. See foot­note 6. 

  8. See espe­cial­ly the work of Alessan­dro Rus­so, who treats Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion peri­odiza­tion with great the­o­ret­i­cal pre­ci­sion. Alessan­dro Rus­so (1998) “The Prob­a­ble Defeat: Pre­lim­i­nary Notes on the Chi­nese Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion,” Posi­tions 6(1), Spring: 179-202. Alessan­dro Rus­so (2005) ‘The Con­clu­sive Scene: Mao and the Red Guards in July 1968’, Posi­tions 13 (3), Win­ter: 535-574. For a use­ful review of the polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion schol­ar­ship, see Alexan­der Day, “Inter­pret­ing the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion Polit­i­cal­ly,” Inter-Asia Cul­tur­al Stud­ies 7.4 (Dec. 2006): 705-712. 

  9. Richard Kraus makes this point in The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion: A Very Short Intro­duc­tion. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012. 

  10. Sheila Fitz­patrick iden­ti­fies a sim­i­lar dynam­ic in the Sovi­et Union in the 1920s and 1930s, when class categorization—difficult though it was to car­ry out—was also a state pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. This effort result­ed in a new dimen­sion of “class rela­tions” that has inter­est­ing par­al­lels to the sit­u­a­tion Wu describes: “The main way class was sig­nif­i­cant in Sovi­et soci­ety was as a state clas­si­fi­ca­to­ry sys­tem deter­min­ing the rights and oblig­a­tions of dif­fer­ent groups of cit­i­zens. By stress­ing class, in anoth­er para­dox, the regime had man­aged to engi­neer some­thing like a rever­sion to the old and despised estate sys­tem, where your rights and priv­i­leges depend­ed on whether you were legal­ly clas­si­fied as a noble, a mer­chant, a mem­ber of the cler­i­cal estate, or a peas­ant. In the Sovi­et con­text, “class” (social posi­tion) was what defined your rela­tion­ship to the state.” Sheila Fit­patrick, Every­day Stal­in­ism: Ordi­nary Life in Extra­or­di­nary Times: Sovi­et Rus­sia in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000, 11. See also Sheila Fitz­patrick, “The Prob­lem of Class Iden­ti­ty in NEP Soci­ety,” in Rus­sia in the Era of NEP. Explo­rations in Sovi­et Soci­ety and Cul­ture, ed. by Sheila Fitz­patrick, Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch, and Richard Stites. Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1991, 12–33.  

  11. Although see Jin Dalu, op cit. 

  12. The debate between Yasheng Huang and Joel Andreas illus­trates some of the issues at stake here. Joel Andreas, “A Shang­hai Mod­el? On Cap­i­tal­ism with Chi­nese Char­ac­ter­is­tics,” New Left Review, II ‚65: 63-85. 2010; Yasheng Huang, “The Pol­i­tics of China’s Path: A Reply to Joel Andreas,” New Left Review, II, 65: 87-91. 2010. 

  13. See, for exam­ple, Zhang Xudong, “Zuowei ‘zhuquanzhe’ de Deng Xiaop­ing: Deng Xiaop­ing danchen 110 zhoun­ian jin­ian yu sikao zhiyi” (Deng Xiaop­ing as “sov­er­eign pow­er”: rec­ol­lec­tions and thoughts on the 110th anniver­sary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth). Guan­c­hazhe wang, August 20, 2014. Accessed Sep­tem­ber 11, 2014. 

  14. See Christo­pher Con­nery, “The Chongqing Way.” Forth­com­ing 2015, bound­ary 2

Author of the article

is Ziqiang Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Shanghai University, China, and Professor of Literature at the University of California Santa Cruz. He publishes on contemporary Chinese politics and culture, capitalist geographies, and the global 1960s.