The 1981 `Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party’ (https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm), issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China after much drafting and redrafting under emerging paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, is clear enough about who takes ultimate responsibility for the calamitous Cultural Revolution from 1966 till Mao’s death a decade later: Mao Zedong. Without him, the Resolution crisply states, there would have been no such movement. Even the manipulative doings of the Gang of Four, being hauled before the courts at the time for what were to all intents and purposes show trials, would have had limited impact without Mao’s benediction. There the matter was left. China, and the world, needed to move on: this issue was sorted, as far as the Party were concerned.
Writers like Ba Jin however were more circumspect. In the mid-1980s. he wrote of how all of society needed to step back and reflect on what had happened during the various moments in the mass movement that had consumed the country in the final years of Mao’s life. How did it make sense to blame one man, or a small group of people? To some degree, as victims, or victimisers, of both, Chinese people themselves needed to take some responsibility. They had seen an aspect of their nature which was truly terrifying. Why add insult to injury by not at least learning some lessons from the turbulent decade, as the Cultural Revolution came to be called, and asking harder questions about accountability?
Few scholars have done more to address the kind of questions Ba Jin and others asked, and work out in detail how this movement happened, and who played a part in it, than Andrew G Walder. Walder’s worked is fuelled by a deep dissatisfaction with over-simple explanations. It is unsurprising, in view of this, that his work does not support the idea that blaming everything to one figure, manipulating the many millions of others as they went about blindly doing their bidding, will get us very far. Even so, working out to what extent Mao and his unique brand of politics in the latter period of his life did make a significant difference is important. In that sense, Walder’s work is a great act of rebalancing, working between the extremes of the 1981 Resolution and voices like Ba Jin.
In an earlier work, `Fractured Rebellion’ (Harvard, 2012 – https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674064133) Walder had looked in detail at one of the hotbeds of domestic revolution – universities in Beijing – during a key period over the summer of 1966 to 1968. There he meticulously plotted the most influential figures amongst the plethora of Red Guard groups that were set up, the ways they clashed with each other, the kind of legitimacy they were seeking, and their relationship to new entities like the Cultural Revolution Leading Small Group.
The most recent work, `Agents of Disorder’ (Harvard, 2019 – https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674238329&content=reviews) addresses the same general question of agency, and of who did what, and how, during the early period of rising chaos and dislocation in the CR. But it broadens the canvas to a national level, and to areas far beyond universities.
Using data from across the country’s provinces, much of it from official sources, Walder builds up a model of different kinds of actors, motivated by different kinds of impulses and objectives. Inevitably, he reinforces the sense of the era’s complexity. But he also does much to dispel this notion of Chinese people being somehow passive, duped actors over this period. They were, from different vantage points, and in different ways, all engaged in the vast unfolding patter of events happening around them. They may have had highly imperfect access to sources of information, and they may have misinterpreted, or misunderstood (wilfully or otherwise) the situation they were in. But as far as they were able, they engaged in different kinds of mass action, often with very clear intentions.
Red Guards we know much about, thanks to the work of Walder and others. But Scarlet Guards, those who were within the Party cadre system, and who, prompted by the attacks of outsiders mobilised and fought back, is a new term. The Party and its membership as victims of the Maoist populist onslaught is a well developed narrative theme in other work. Walder contests this on two levels. Firstly he shows that the Party membership did not just sit and take what was doled out at them, but worked to respond. Secondly, he shows that for some this involved coalescing at lower levels in order to attack their top bosses, and for others it meant unifying to hit back at external non-Party attacks. In effect, the Party fought not just itself, but others.
The inevitable bedlam this sort of fragmentation resulted in was significantly intensified by the very measure that was meant to ameliorate it – the involvement of the military. They too become embroiled in the carnival of activism consuming the country, hauled in first to try to pacify and restore order to some regions, but then infected by the same factionalism and politicisation as everyone else.
Chinese society, as we well know from the work of Fei Xiaotong and other anthropologists and sociologists, is a profoundly networked one. Walder’s account of the period from 1966 to 1968 shows how much this dense patter of social connections and links was both a sense of strength and flexibility, but also, when things went wrong, assisted in creating deep divisions and fracturing. The networks, partly with aid from Maoism, became contaminated by fractiousness and antagonism, resulting in outcomes no one could predict. Even Mao himself appears in parts of this study as a bewildered bystander watching the turbulence unfold. If one wanted to assign one single factor to explain the Cultural Revolution, this issue of networks and how they showed deep structural disunity in Chinese society would be amongst the most compelling.
Walder’s meticulous and compelling narrative of these different kinds of agents, and how they contributed to the unfolding movement, sheds light too on one of the features of this period – the ways that a purely political struggle in 1966 resulted in so much violence at its peak two years later. This violence though needs to be set in context – something in his final chapter Walder so admirably does. In overall numbers of fatalities, the Cultural Revolution ranks as one of the worst examples of peacetime domestic conflict ever seen in modern history. Only the obscenity of the Khmer Rouge period from 1975 to 1979 in Cambodia exceeds it, with over 1.8 million deaths. But when put beside the huge size of China’s population at the time – 800 million – things look very different. In a population this vast, however lamentable it is to acknowledge this, levels of fatality even in the peak period of the CR were low. What is interesting is the kinds of places where the figure was disproportionally high – Guangxi, certain areas of Inner Mongolia, and Sichuan, for instance. Here, there were particular factors (ethnic tensions, and social issues) that made things particularly bad. The prosaic fact is that for the overwhelming majority of Chinese people alive at the time, the Cultural Revolution did not register largely in their lives.
This is an excellent, thought provoking study – deeply empirical, taking great pains to speak measurably and with academic neutrality about a period of the country’s history that remains sensitive to this day. It would be excellent to see this work in a Chinese translation, available within the People’s Republic, though with current levels of censorship this is unlikely. This is a pity because Walder has no political axe to grind, unlike some of the more recent attention-grabbing, moralising work by other non Chinese scholars on this period. Instead, he shows with great honesty and clarity what happened, and how these things happened. That gets a little closer to answering the larger question of why – but this is one which Walder wisely offers only partial conclusions – largely because, going from what we currently know, partial conclusions are the only sensible and defensible ones.