Jiang Qing and the Cultural Revolution

By Sam Marcy (June 20, 1991)

The death of Jiang Qing removes the acknowledged leader of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was inspired by Mao Zedong and was carried out in his name.

Xinhua news agency, after waiting two weeks, announced she had died on May 14, reportedly by her own hand. Her struggle with cancer of the throat and the frailties of old age, together with the setbacks for socialism internationally, could not but have affected her. She had been detained, first in prison and then under house arrest, ever since 1977 when the leaders of the Cultural Revolution were jailed just one month after Mao's death.

How did Jiang Qing come to be so closely identified with the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966?

A cultural rebel

Jiang Qing was born in March 1914 into a poor family in Chucheng County, Shantung Province. When she was 15, her parents tried to marry her off to a rich merchant. She resisted and eventually was placed in the care of the county government, which sent her to an opera school in Tsinan. While there, she made contact with the Communist Party. She then made her way to Shanghai, where she joined a repertory company.

The theater had become the vehicle for a progressive struggle against feudal reaction and imperialist aggression, and was viewed with scorn and hypocrisy by the conservative elements. Eventually she left Shanghai for the long and tortuous road to Yanan, where the Communists had their headquarters.

The capitalist media depict her as nothing but a spiteful and power-hungry woman who took advantage of the position of her husband, Mao Zedong. This crude recourse to sexist stereotyping seeks to eradicate her long revolutionary history, particularly in the field of culture.

Jiang Qing didn't come out of the blue as a leader of the Cultural Revolution. She was part of a continuum of great cultural personalities who challenged the views of the old order. She was influenced by several generations of writers and artists who prepared the masses for struggle.

One of the outstanding personalities who preceded and must have influenced her was Chen Tu-Hsiu. He was a writer who boldly attacked feudal culture and propagated Western democracy and science. His efforts had great influence in cultural circles. He called on young Chinese to abandon passive, conservative thought and instead adopt a forward-looking, progressive and scientific outlook. He opposed the feudal autocracy and warlord rule and aimed at seeing China built into a bourgeois democratic state.

Chen Tu-Hsiu was reluctant, however, to mobilize the broad mass of the people to participate in revolution. He entertained the illusion that a bourgeois democratic government would be founded in China without any class struggles.

Lu Hsun (1891-1936), another strong influence on Jiang Qing's generation, was an outstanding writer of the 20th century school of realism. Before the outbreak of the 1911 revolution he joined the bourgeois revolutionary movement led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. In 1918 he published "A Madman's Diary," the first modern Chinese short story, in which he attacked the feudal social system. Lu Hsun pointed out that several thousand years of feudal society were but a history of savage repression on the part of the ruling classes. He called on the people to rise against the system. Lu Hsun's militant campaign played an important role in waking the Chinese people.

Li Ta-Chao, another leader of the cultural movement, put forward a thoroughly revolutionary program, crying out for an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggle. Li emphasized that imperialism was the deadly enemy of the people all over the world. A genuine democratic government could never be won unless and until imperialist rule was overthrown. He was the first to link the anti-imperialist struggle with the struggle against feudalism.

Jiang Qing was undoubtedly influenced by this flowering of revolutionary culture beginning with the 1911 revolution. There is no question that she tried through her own art medium, the theater, to do what Chen Tu-Hsiu, Lu Hsun and Li Ta-Chao had attempted earlier.

They were mainly literary figures. Jiang Qing was a political leader. They articulated the struggle against feudalism and to a limited extent against imperialism. She espoused the revolutionary reconstruction of feudal and bourgeois society.

These great personalities prepared the minds of the people for the revolution in the same way that St. Simon, Fourier, Voltaire and Rousseau had prepared the way for the French Revolution.

In Shanghai, Jiang Qing must have been absorbed in the great events convulsing that proletarian center. She learned of the revolutionary rebellions led earlier by the Yi Ho Tuan, called the "Boxers" in the West. The Yi Ho Tuan was a secret society organized against the Manchu Dynasty. The great bulk of its participants were peasants and handicraftsmen, active in Shantung, her native province.

The Yi Ho Tuan get little more than a footnote in contemporary U.S. history books. But the so-called Boxer Rebellion of 1900 must have had a profound influence on Jiang Qing and her contemporaries. We should recall how the Yi Ho Tuan were defeated and by whom.

The Outline History of China (Tung Chi-Ming, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1959) gives this description:

Britain, the United States, Japan, Germany, czarist Russia, France, Italy and Austria combined to organize a force of 30,000 to advance toward Beijing."

Aren't these the same forces that just invaded Iraq?

The combined forces of the eight imperialist powers reached Beijing where they met with the strongest resistance of the Yi Ho Tuan. After a few days of fierce street fighting, however, the city was lost to the enemy.

Superior fire power, more developed technology.

On their way from Tientsin to Beijing, the imperialist soldiers committed atrocities of every description--massacre, rape, arson and plunder. Many villages along their line of advance were rendered to ruin. After they entered Beijing, they perpetrated the most shameless plunder of modern history. They not only pillaged, but made the victims transport the spoils. . . .

They set fire to every building which was known to have been used by the Yi Ho Tuan. They killed every person suspected of being a Yi Ho Tuan follower. On one occasion a group of refugees were herded into a blind alley and machine-gunned.

How different is this from the pillage, plunder and destruction of Iraq? High technology, telecommunications and rapid means of transportation have not added to the "civilizing" role of the imperialists, but have made them more brutal, more cruel and devoid of any kind of human sentiment except hypocrisy.

The Japanese invasion of China in 1931, the sacking and burning of Shanghai, the wanton killing of hundreds of thousands, multiplied the earlier aggression of the imperialists a hundredfold. An unmitigated hatred of the imperialist oppressors and their native collaborators would well up in any revolutionary of that time.

Jiang Qing was a product of these great upheavals. Born the same year as the outbreak of the First World War, a child during the Russian Revolution, she was still a teenager at the time of the Japanese invasion.

When the imperialists and the reactionaries speak of Jiang Qing as the most hated woman in China, they are merely venting their own hatred of a revolutionary. They pour their venom upon her precisely because she was an unflinching and devoted adherent of the cause of revolutionary communism.

China after liberation

By 1949, the Peoples Liberation Army under the leadership of the Communist Party had not only defeated Japanese imperialism but ousted the pro-imperialist forces of Chiang Kai-shek. Mao Zedong became the leader of the country. What was the social situation in China after liberation?

It is not by accident that China called itself a people's republic rather than a socialist one, like the USSR. True, the military victory over Chiang's armies laid the economic foundation for socialism in that the means of production were taken over by the new people's government. Also, the land was distributed to the peasants. However, that is a far cry from the socialist collectivism which later characterized the communes in China.

Much of the property of the bourgeoisie, especially the middle or petty bourgeoisie, was not expropriated. Commodity production, especially in consumer goods and foodstuffs, continued. Of the bourgeoisie whose property was taken over, many were compensated by the government.

This first phase of the Chinese Revolution was thoroughly anti-feudal and anti-imperialist, but it did not usher in a deepgoing socialist transformation, which was the aim of the leaders at a later period. Many of the bourgeoisie who supported the struggle against foreign domination and opposed feudalism were not necessarily pro-socialist.

A variety of different and even antagonistic social and political currents all supported the people's government in the early stages. The critical issue was whether the Communist Party and its leading cadres could carry these divergent groupings along with them in the socialist phase of the revolution.

Thus, for a period of time, there was confusion both at home and abroad as to the class character of the new Chinese state. Some contended, especially in the U.S., that this was primarily a peasant revolution, like so many earlier uprisings which had failed to transform the social order and had ultimately settled down to the same old system where the peasants were exploited by a new dynastic group.

How different really was the Peoples Liberation Army? Wasn't it overwhelmingly peasant? And didn't the Communist Party, which commanded millions of supporters, have a narrow base in the proletariat, itself only a tiny minority of the population? Wouldn't history repeat itself?

The example was given of Li Tse-cheng, the famous peasant leader whose army swept through Chensi, Kansu and Honan provinces. It ultimately reached Beijing itself in 1640 and overthrew the Ming Dynasty. His peasant army had a brilliant and unprecedented victory and tried to live up to its slogan of equal distribution of the land among the poor and the rich. But the old social system reasserted itself.

A formidable faction in the U.S. State Department, led ideologically by Owen Lattimore, contended in the early fifties that the U.S. should forget about the Chiang Kai-shek regime and recognize the Chinese Communists because they were qualitatively different from the Soviet government, despite their close connections.

Among progressives abroad the same question was raised. Was this a real communist revolution? Or would it turn out to be a mere agrarian revolution and adapt itself to the bourgeois mode of production?

Second phase of the revolution

To the Chinese Communists, it was plain that China needed a second phase of its revolution. It needed to technologically modernize its plant and equipment, the means of communication and transport, all the vital arteries of economic life. The only way this could be done without falling under the domination of the imperialist monopolies was through a centrally organized socialist transformation that called on the energies of the masses.

However, the party apparatus became weakened and by the 1960s was in many areas the fortress of the rightist forces, led by Shao Qui and Deng Xiaoping. Mao virtually lost his organizational hold on the party apparatus. Difficult economic times divided the party leaders on which course China should choose--forward with socialist construction and the elimination of the bourgeoisie and their supporters, or backward toward a capitalist mode of production.

No grouping in the party could openly embrace the second route. The party leadership was bound by unanimous decisions. There was no open debate on which road China should take. However, the denunciation of Stalin by Khrushchev in 1956 and the abandonment of his course in the USSR had opened the way for strengthening the rightwing in the Chinese party. The Cultural Revolution went outside the party apparatus to directly mobilize the masses for the class struggle.

Eastern Europe's `people's democracies'

In Eastern Europe, the new states which emerged after World War II were called people's democracies, not socialist republics like the USSR. In reality the revolutionary transformation of society went only halfway. The means of production were nationalized and agriculture was collectivized to some extent. But there is more to a socialist revolution than the seizure of the means of production from the bourgeoisie.

There was no spontaneous revolutionary uprising of the masses such as happened in Russia, China and Cuba. The socialist transformations were carried out under the aegis of the Soviet Union after its victory over the fascist forces. While they were certainly progressive and, from a class point of view, even revolutionary, they were not wholly the work of the masses themselves. Eastern Europe was a halfway house between bourgeois society and socialist economic achievements. Retreat followed upon retreat.

The exception of course was Yugoslavia, where a socialist revolution was accomplished independently of the Soviet army. The landlords and bourgeoisie were overthrown by the Partisan movement led by Tito and the Communist Party. Yugoslavia's subsequent degeneration is another story.

A struggle to narrow gap between rich and poor

In China, by the time of the Cultural Revolution, the gap between rich and poor and the growth of privileges and emoluments for those in positions of authority was becoming so enormous that it fed a bourgeois restoration movement, certainly in the field of consumption. The leaders of the Cultural Revolution were fighting against this ever-widening gap between the mass of the population and those on top.

The duty of the party, according to the Cultural Revolution leaders, was to narrow the gap to the extent possible. The struggle once again reduced itself to what had existed in so many periods before: a struggle between rich and poor.

To use a historical analogy, the Cultural Revolution was the Jacobin phase of the Chinese Revolution. The Jacobins were the most far-reaching revolutionaries in the French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the monarchy and established a bourgeois republic. Their heroism--in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, their sin--was that they tried to carry the French Revolution beyond the needs of the development of the emerging capitalist system. They fought in the interests of the artisans and poor of the cities, who were really the proletariat in its very early infancy.

Objectively, the role of the Jacobins was that they pushed the revolution far enough to at least ensure that when the moderates took over in the period of reaction, the political situation was stabilized with a new ruling class--the bourgeoisie--in place of the feudal aristocracy.

The Jacobins led the campaign of revolutionary terror against the rightwing Girondists. The revolution went through many zigzags. The culmination of its leftward course was the Commune of Paris and the establishment of the Committees of Public Safety, the eyes and ears of the revolution. But all this could not stop the march of the bourgeoisie to power. Thermidor, the month in which the reaction triumphed, was inevitable.

Was the Chinese Revolution fated to follow in the footsteps of this earlier brilliant social transformation? That is the question.

`A proletarian political revolution'

How did the proponents of the Cultural Revolution explain its significance? "The Great Cultural Revolution is a proletarian political revolution as well as a continuation of the civil war and a continuation of the class struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party" was the way K'ang Sheng, one of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, put it. (From the book Comrade Chiang Ching, by Roxanne Witke, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1977.)

There is no question that this is the very essence of the Cultural Revolution.

What were the sins of the Cultural Revolution? The book China's Socialist Modernization (ed. by Yu Guangyuan, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1984, p. 17) states, "The Gang of Four opposed the growth of the productive forces, attacking the four modernizations as turning to capitalism, and slandering measures to improve the material and cultural life of the people as `revisionist.' They objected to the principle of `to each according to his work,' business accounting, and aspects of socialist relations of production that basically correspond with the development of productive forces. They encouraged the reactionary egalitarianism, the theory which actually asserts that extravagance is justified, and they advocated a transfer to `communism' on the conditions where the level of the productive forces was very low."

But this is a falsehood. They were for the modernization of the means of production, but opposed taking the capitalist road to achieve this.

In order to understand the issue of payment according to work, one must take into account Karl Marx's criticism of the Gotha Program. The program was an attempt to describe communist society, and was written in 1875 for a Congress of the German Workers' Party. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx stressed that in between capitalism and communism there would be a lengthy transition period characterized by the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. In this first phase of communism, bourgeois norms would still prevail and payment, or the distribution of the social product, would be determined by the slogan "from each according to his [her] ability, to each according to his [her] work."

Only in the second phase of communism could distribution be "from each according to his [her] ability, to each according to his [her] needs."

Communist society proper would be achieved once the development of the productive forces had been raised to the point where bourgeois norms were no longer necessary and there would be such an abundance of the products of labor that each could take from the fund of consumption whatever her/his needs might be.

Were Mao and the leaders of the Cultural Revolution guilty of trying to skip over this first stage? No, they did not deny or even attempt to modify Marx's conception of these two stages in the development of communism. Nor did they challenge the validity of a lengthy transition period which could only advance through the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat (in China in alliance with the peasantry).

But it was otherwise with those who came after Mao. Contrary to the book on China's modernization quoted above, Marx never said that payment according to one's work is a principle. It's not a principle. No one called it a principle in Marx or Lenin's time--certainly not in the most important works on this question, Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program and Lenin's State and Revolution. Actually, it was Stalin who converted this statement, which is perfectly correct and sensible when applied to the first stage of communism, into an eternal verity.

Distribution according to work is a necessity in a society recently emerged from capitalism, with all the accompanying birthmarks. But it is certainly inadequate, since human needs and abilities may differ substantially. Should someone with a disabling condition be paid only according to their work? How are different types of work to be remunerated?

The Cultural Revolution leaders, while they raised these questions, did not encourage "reactionary egalitarianism," despite what is said today. Petty bourgeois egalitarianism was denounced by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. What the bourgeois elements regard as egalitarianism was the struggle against rank privilege.

We see the same kind of accusation raised in the USSR. During the first years of the Gorbachev administration, then-Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov opened the struggle for bourgeois market reforms with a campaign against supposed "levelers" in the working class. This was really a struggle against the workers who were increasingly angry over the enormous differentials in pay between workers and the upper crust--the privileged stratum of managers, enterprise chiefs, and the like.

The idea of egalitarianism originated during the 18th century among the petty bourgeois idealist philosophers. It was a reflection of the economic laws which regulate the exchange of commodities according to the roughly equal amounts of socially necessary labor incorporated in a commodity.

"Reactionary egalitarianism," if such a thing exists, is not a perspective of the working class.

How do things stand in China today? The same powers that invaded China, that carried out the Opium Wars, that crushed the Yi Ho Tuan, that threatened China with nuclear war in the 1950s, that kept it out of the UN for 25 years--they are all still united against China. China is still a besieged country, from the western border of Tibet to Tienanmen Square.

It is the duty of the world proletariat, and particularly the advanced workers in the United States, to give unconditional support to China in its struggle against imperialism. The enduring objective of imperialism, pursued regardless of which political grouping is at the helm in Beijing, is to undermine, destroy or reduce this great country of 1.1 billion people to a neocolonial status.

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