The Cultural Revolution is among the most politically obscured periods in the imagination of popular history. Western liberal-democratic and Chinese state discourse join a single chorus in denunciation of its legacy as nothing more than “ten years of madness;” a disastrous illusion. And what’s more, the era becomes purely reducible to a bureaucratic power-conflict, something akin to an orientalized Great Purge, in which Mao Zedong is simply a Chinese reiteration of Stalin, or perhaps a “Red Emperor” carrying the imperial legacy of China’s past into a destructive “totalitarian” modernity. When the masses figure in dominant narratives they are portrayed as the dupes of a bankrupt dogma, the passive victims of the “Cult of Personality.” The canonization of Mao amongst the pantheon of the twentieth century’s tyrants aims at nothing less than a thorough negation of the entirety of the Chinese Revolution. This somber discourse, whatever the intentions of individual parties, has the real effect of rendering this important period illegible for emancipatory politics.

At issue is not only taking the Cultural Revolution seriously, but studying it with reference to what is universaltherewithin. We must understand what this key era of Maoist China teaches us about how to make change in our own world, the world of a somnambulant but pernicious capitalism. I believe that the Cultural Revolution can and must be made legible for thought, and that when we make it such, we see that it is closer to our own time than we imagine. The Cultural Revolution thus bears a critical relevance to struggle for egalitarian universalism today. Asad Haider has made the line of inquiry clear, writing that “examining the Cultural Revolution helps us to explore both the conditions of possibility for political experimentation, and also the dynamics that often shut it down.”[1] Central to the period was a political experiment which exceeded the grip of the party-state, pointed beyond the State, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of a Statist mode that the Communists proved unable to think beyond. The Cultural Revolution terminated the sequence for which the prime motif was that of the Leninist Party and its offspring, the party-state.

Necessary to my argument is the contextualization of the Cultural Revolution within the broader arc of a historical sequence periodized from the birth of the Paris Commune of 1871 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. The trajectory of the “classical communist sequence” [2] is guided by three moments, each initiated by what Alain Badiou refers to as an “event” (in the sense of a rupture from the state whose consequences are maximal).[3] The classical sequence is constituted by two modes, the Commune belonging to an older conception of revolutionary practice, October 1917 and the GPCR to the second, a Leninist mode. Each moment, initiated by an event, was situated in a world governed by a general, antagonistic contradiction, as retroactively discerned in proceeding political moments. Each stage proposed a new method of resolution to the respective contradiction, and all except the last, the Cultural Revolution, were practically addressed by a subsequent moment. The contradiction which governed the second and third moments has remained — the contradiction between the party-state and the Masses — a political problem for communist politics. The mode with which we are concerned, the Leninist mode, is one which has historically insisted on its proletarian social determination; it aimed for the seizure of state power in order to smash and replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Within this mode the party-state has been the chief historical attempt at the realization of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

a. The Commune, March-May 1871

The Paris Commune was born on March 18th, 1871 and died on May 28th of the same year. For the people of Paris, the prime contradiction was that between the proletariat and bourgeois society, and the Commune developed out of this contradiction through an unprecedented proletarian revolution. The result was defeat and as such remained unresolved by the communards. For the Leninist mode which would follow, the resultant (modified) contradiction could be characterized as the struggle between the proletarian revolution and the repressive state apparatuses of the bourgeoisie. The Commune and its defeat set the parameters for thought about practicing class politics, the prime task of which became the seizure of power, the destruction of bourgeois dictatorship and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Therefore I include the Paris Commune as the inextricable prelude and raison d’etre of the mode of politics initiated by the Bolsheviks.[4]

b. The Russian Revolution, 1917 - 1921

The second moment of the classical sequence was prefaced by the Russian revolution of 1905, during which the “Soviet,” or popularly elected workers’ council, appeared as a key political invention. But the moment was defined by the successful October Revolution of 1917. For Marx, the question of the failure of the Paris Commune was the incapacity exhibited in its self-defense, and Lenin’s reassessment of the commune at once supplemented and preserved Marx’s account.[5] The Bolsheviks resolved the contradiction which they understood had undone the Commune by means of a rigorous class politics and the disciplined, clandestine vanguard party which was its sublimation.[6] The Party was to be the historical guarantor of the political existence of the proletariat and was oriented around the question of the seizure of power, which is itself a question of the state. Able to seize and smash the state by means of this form, the Bolsheviks managed to establish and preserve a proletarian party-state, which survived as the inheritance of the revolution even in the face of foreign encirclement and terrible civil war. 

But the world that the Leninist mode initiated was found to be governed by a newly emergent contradiction. In virtually every state governed by a party-state of this type, bureaucratic degeneration and struggle with the masses it claimed to represent became a progressively developing tendency, one Stalin had only proved to accelerate by means as extraordinary as the Great Terror. This reality, for which I suggest “revisionism” can be seen as the index, is rooted in a newly emerged contradiction between the formally proletarian party-state and the Masses. Exploitation and domination re-appeared within socialist construction in the form of the revolutionary State: and it too remained unsolved within the Leninist mode.

c. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-1968

The third moment, which exploded on the scene with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) was an attempt to grapple with the contradiction which followed in the wake of the Bolsheviks. The period lasted officially from 1966 to 1976 — but we are concerned here chiefly with its early years from 1966-1968. The political world inhabited by the GPCR was that of the one ushered in by October 1917. For this world, the party-state was an invaluable cornerstone; the Marxist politics of class its guiding paradigm. But social antagonisms had indeed not disappeared in socialist societies, and the fundaments of bureaucratic privilege began to emerge within the ranks of cadres, who often assumed roles strikingly symmetrical to their capitalist or feudal predecessors.[7] So it was also for revolutionary China, which, for all its virtues, still presented lingering problems from that of social inequality[8] to the suppression of proletarian politics independent of the party-state.[9] In a bid to confront these problems, Mao sought recourse to means external to Party formalism; to counter the ossification of the party-state he would wager a daring bet — an assault by mass mobilization.[10] The form which would emerge in the course of the GPCR was a model of mass organization independent from, but in relation to, the party-state. It marked a decisive break with the Leninist mode, from which emerged Maoism; the consequences for contemporary politics are still to be fully comprehended.

The Cultural Revolution’s early years can be broadly divided into two simultaneously asymmetrical and overlapping periods: first, there is what can be called the “mass phase” which constituted the revolutionary climax, and second, an epilogical “statist inversion” which was effectively a matter of reconstructing the party status-quo ante.[11]

The Cultural Revolution began as a bureaucratic conflict at the top of the party; it quickly morphed into a mass movement no one could control. The mass phase lasted roughly until autumn of 1968, when it was put down by the People’s Liberation Army, although in some areas disturbances continued for varying lengths of time. In other areas the GPCR ended much earlier and sometimes relatively peacefully, as in Shanghai. It was in this early period that mass political struggle was most acute — workers, students and peasants organized, resisted and finally fought one another — for the “seizure of power” — virtually everywhere. There is nothing like it elsewhere in the history of the Socialist States. The second period, the “statist inversion,” roughly occurred from 1968-1976 and oversaw the reconstitution of a shattered Communist Party initiated by means of military force. It opened with devastating state-backed purges, was marred by the persistence of frozen bureaucratic infighting; there were attempts at radical socio-political reforms and byzantine debates to assess the legacy of the GPCR. In the wake of military intervention, autonomous mass organization had evaporated, with all initiatives being taken henceforth by a State which had been partially reconstructed into “Revolutionary Committees.” Pushing into the mid-70s, remnants of the Maoist radicals remained in gridlock with the bulk of the conservative bureaucracy and military who would resist any attempt at reactivating the radicalism of the early years. 

While the Cultural Revolution posed a radical challenge to the contradiction laid out in the wake of the October Revolution, that contradiction was as yet unable to be resolved. The Cultural Revolutionaries grappled with the contradiction that arises between the revolutionary energies of the masses and the conservative inertia of the State. At the radical height of the mass phase, a short-lived reactivation of the legacy of the Communards occurred in the form of the Shanghai Commune. But ultimately a more conservative reformulation of the post-revolutionary government won out. The analytical problematic through which the Chinese revolutionaries understood the Commune remained that of the Leninist mode; they followed the Leninist reduction of the Commune to two dimensions — its proletarian social determination and the ineffective exercise of power.[12] The inevitably statist orientation which undergirded the question of the seizure of power in the GPCR ultimately contributed to an inability to resolve what was fundamentally a problem of the party-state. Our era is one haunted by this unfinished revolution.

d. Toward the Meaning of Failure

Shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the “Gang of Four,” the Chairman’s loyalists[13], were arrested in a coup d’etat by opponents within the Party. The Cultural Revolution was thereafter rapidly dismantled and ultimately negated by the Party led by Deng Xiaoping, the prime bureaucratic "survivor" of the preceding years. Mao’s last and greatest project had failed to achieve its aim – it had not prevented, and in some sense precipitated the capitalist future it aimed to foreclose.[14] The GPCR had, in the end, given Mao no real alternative to a Party with which he had become so disenchanted. It had not saved socialism from defeat.

Even though much has changed, I insist on the relevance of the communist hypothesis, as Badiou names it, which is active in the midst of both capitalist societies and socialist construction.[15] Despite its defeat, I argue that the Cultural Revolution shows that it is possible to think and act the revolution within the revolution. The GPCR recognized, however tortuously, that bureaucratic degeneration was a threat to virtually all Socialist States, and that it was possible — even for a party sitting in power — to face this and attempt to combat it practically. Its passing propounded otherwise unspoken discourses of the party-state, the class politics upon which it was based and the mobilization of the masses in a formally revolutionary society. The Cultural Revolution is not a victory to lord over our adversaries but rather both a riddle of the revolutionary party-state and a directive for combat.


The early Cultural Revolution was constituted by acute and shifting tensions between the spontaneous activity of the masses and the controlling intervention of the State. Prominent historian of the Cultural Revolution Alessandro Russo divides the mass phase into two distinct processes; the first, “pluralization,” represented the emergence of self-authorizing political entities known as the mass organizations; the second period, one of factional warfare, was characterized by the reimposition of the logic of “dismissal.” Dismissal, the removal or elimination of political actors, is the standard operating procedure of politics of the State whereas pluralization, or the procedure of producing self-authorizing political entities, is fundamentally novel and thus rare.[16] Pluralization of political entities occurred outside of the grip of the party-state; the Maoists “authorized” them only after the fact of their emergence. Sometimes these organizations acted in tandem with the state apparatuses; at other times they launched assaults against civil and military authorities. Mao himself (and his faction, especially the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG))[17] had called for and given backing to mass assaults on the party. This was utterly remarkable for a leader of a Communist Party in power. The Cultural Revolution was thus concurrently an experiment beyond the confines of Marxist-Leninism and yet remaining within its problematic. The tension of this contradictory movement revealed that the party-state had ceased to be an inventive mode of politics; it was now a constraint on the struggle for communism. A close study of the GPCR reveals that the very structures of extreme centralization and discipline distorted and undermined a mass movement which was a fundamental negation of the party-state form.

The Cultural Revolution did not begin as a mass movement. The initial sequence which gave birth to the Cultural Revolution lasted from November of 1965 to May of 1966, and concerned debate on the play “Hui Rai Dismissed from Office.” The play had been written by Wu Han, a scholar of the Ming era and one of the deputies of powerful Beijing Mayor, Peng Zhen. It was construed as an attack on Maoist radicalism and the legacy of the Great Leap Forward.[18] A tangled public discussion ensued with at least three contesting parties: first were Wu and his supporters in the cultural apparatus of the Chinese State, second; Mao, his faction and vis-à-vis the 33-year-old radical literary critic Yao Wenyuan; thirdly, dozens of ordinary academics also participated, articulating positions for or against Wu Han. This traced a tense struggle over the assessments of the play and of China’s revolutionary history.[19] Seeking a revolution in the superstructure, Mao set his initial sights on targeting the cultural apparatuses of the state. The debate became a means by which Mao could challenge the State’s propaganda and educational institutions and launch a cultural revolution. 

The unfolding discourse also occurred simultaneously with Mao’s initial assault on perceived and real opponents within the apex of the party-state and military.[20] The Party purged key officials who either had political disagreements with Mao or whom he otherwise could not trust. Mao severed the link between the PLA and the bulk of the Party-Apparatus; he removed officials to consolidate control over the information flow within the Party, and most significantly, launched an all out attack on cultural party officials. Wu Han and Peng Zhen were among the many party-elites purged in this campaign. Through this preliminary struggle, Mao and his faction secured a central apparatus capable of launching the Cultural Revolution, with the CCRG being preeminent. As the year progressed, the Central Committee and other high-level government organs thus effectively ceased functioning. The CCRG had become the de-facto ruling entity of the party-state. With the publication of the “May 16th Notice,” a document widely seen as initiating the GPCR, the struggle began rapidly to spread outside of the Party elite.[21]

On May 25th at Beida University in Beijing, a big character poster (Dazibao) appeared on the wall of the University’s canteen. The poster was authored by Nie Yuanzi, a 45-year-old party official and member of the university philosophy department. It criticized university authorities and the central cultural apparatus which had engaged in the suppression and manipulation of the raging debate over “Hui Rui Dismissed From Office.” Nie’s intervention would mark the beginning of the student movement in Beijing universities and the birth of the Red Guards (Hóng Wèibīng). Organized spontaneously and famously first among those university students whose parents were elite party members, the Red Guards proliferated in a highly dynamic fashion. The army and security forces were ordered not to intervene, and in some cases, provide material assistance to emergent radical groups.

Many in the Party initially viewed the unfolding Cultural Revolution as a campaign in line with previous mobilization campaigns, focused on targeting typically “suspect” individuals. They could not conceive that Mao’s goal was to target the bureaucracy itself. The initial reaction of the party-state was to deploy “work teams”[22] to manage the campaign. During the summer of 1966, known as the “fifty days,” Beijing university students and work teams vied for direction over a burgeoning mass movement. Students organized demonstrations, public criticisms, debate, and formed their own groups. The work teams were meant to keep tight control over the progression of the nascent Cultural Revolution. A struggle quickly unfolded over the autonomy of the students and the choice of targets of the campaign. Work Teams attempted to guide and restrict while the students pressed for unimpeded action. After almost two months of intensifying struggle, the unpopular Work Teams were withdrawn on Mao’s orders in late July.

Although another prominent historian of the Cultural Revolution, Andrew Walder, convincingly demonstrates that the young mass movement generally did not develop on the basis of the views of individuals prior to the GPCR, I assert that egalitarian universalism and its concomitant anti-state disposition emerged in the very existence of pluralisation.[23] Russo reminds us that though this is the case, “the true demarcation line” was the issue of pluralization. It is true that the pluralization of mass organizations had little grounding in the class backgrounds of their members, but we cannot read actors’ stances on the existence of independent political entities as having no importance with relation to the status quo. In fact, there were real political stakes in the very appearance and scope of the mass organizations, Russo observes, and a fundamental conflict emerged between those who propounded pluralization in relation to the Party and those who sought to curtail or eliminate it[24] — this will be of great consequence in relation to the question of the party-state. Shortly after the withdrawal of the work teams, in mid-August, amidst spreading unrest, the Party Center issued the “Decision in Sixteen Points,” which gave official authorization to virtually unlimited free-association and marked the proliferation of the Red Guard movement nationwide. As these organizations multiplied, membership was drawn from wider and wider sections of the student body. 

The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to revolutionize the Communist Party by means external to the party-state. While beginning initially as a series of dismissals within the bureaucracy, it became a radical experiment in pluralization. The unlimited pluralization of mass organizations in the early years of the GPCR partially de-centered the Party as the sole engine of socialist construction and revolutionary communism. But Mao never ceased to be a man of the party-state and always emphasized that the “bourgeois rightists” and “counter-revolutionary revisionists” were only a handful; the question of mass mobilization was intended to be a corrective with relation to the party-state, and not its wholesale destruction.[25] On the question of the party-state, there was a pervasive tension between the Leninist mode and another, newly emergent mode. Pointing to something beyond the party-state formula, the Cultural Revolution sought out a new form while still ultimately constrained within a statist problematic. This tension would lend itself to both the explosive nature of the GPCR and its eventual demise.

Though Maoist radicals in government had been initially hesitant to mobilize the working class, the activities of the Red Guards catalyzed spreading unrest. The Cultural Revolution could not be limited to schools and the cultural apparatuses of the state. Despite initial government attempts to contain pluralization, autumn of 1966 saw student agitation spread to the workers. In Shanghai’s Cultural Revolution, the proletariat gained a unique prominence marking a decisive shift in the movement nationwide. Over the course of months, confrontations between students, the municipal government, and rival worker factions lead to a chaotic situation which swamped local authorities. Internal conflicts within the Shanghai Party apparatus were key in precipitating governmental collapse moving into 1967. For the workers, who made their greatest contribution to the high-tide of radical politics in the mass phase, the Shanghai Commune (born of the so-called “January Storm” of December-January 1966-1967) was the revolutionary apogee.[26] Here a broad coalition of worker and student rebels (zaofan pai), allied with radicals internal to the bureaucracy[27], agitated for political and economic gains, fought rival “conservative” (baoshou pai) worker organizations and the municipal party authorities, and ultimately took power in a remarkably horizontal association modeled off the political structure pioneered by the Communards of Paris. From there the escalation became even more dramatic; power seizures in cities elsewhere caused disruption and near-collapse of the civilian party-state. One by one, local parties were overthrown. But not all power-seizures were the result of popular rebellion; instead, coalitions of rebels were actually constituted by party-cadres responding to state directed calls for the seizure of power, essentially to save themselves and prevent power seizures by opponents. In this sense, the attempt to press for mass unrest within the context of a disciplined state apparatus led to unintended consequences, which the Party Center would aim to correct with help of selective interventions of the military.

The creative and destructive energies of the Cultural Revolution went far beyond what the Maoists expected or wanted. Pluralization offered a means whereby ordinary Chinese could organize themselves outside the Party hierarchy to address diverse issues including official corruption, socio-economic inequalities and political grievances. Freedom of speech and association were at their highest extent ever witnessed in the PRC, though not without risks. However, late 1966 and early 1967 witnessed a concomitant, general destabilization and collapse of the civilian party-state. Internal power seizures by cadres, often denounced later as "fake" power seizures, were the driving force of this collapse. Radicals pressed their advantage as autonomous political organizations flourished and mass protests erupted. But the rampant, fractal rebellion shifted quickly from revolutionary initiative to increasingly destructive and depoliticized factional combat. By the first months of 1967, virtually every school, factory and office was split in two. Chinese civil society became paralyzed by demonstrations, confrontations, and even armed street battles. In the first half of 1967, factions in the highest levels of the party-state vied for supremacy. Policies see-sawed between competing approaches to the mass movement, resulting in periods of military intervention and periods of support for rebel groups. The vacillating signals from the government lent Party authority a decidedly “schizophrenic” character, chiefly due to intra-bureaucratic struggle. The military, which had been ordered not to interfere with student and worker organization, was still at points deployed by national and local authorities depending on the situation. The campaign to “support the left” was offered as a corrective to the aforementioned “fake” power seizures. But in many cases, military involvement exacerbated violence rather than curtailing it, without guaranteeing the radical political complexion of a given situation.

The positive capacities of the politically inventive period had a short life-span. Unbridled pluralization gave way to a drive towards mutual annihilation of rival factions. As the mass movement increased in scope, the class criteria for admission into membership became less severe, and those from less than “pure” social backgrounds participated in activism. But at some point in early 1967, the creative process of pluralization morphed into brutal infighting among the Red Guards and workers themselves, ushering in a protracted phase of factional warfare which at first featured fists and sticks but then utilized increasingly available military arms. The mass organizations, with typically identical social composition, turned on one another in conflict that could not be deciphered along class lines or any political stance on the status quo. By then, virtually all parties involved agreed on the necessity of pluralization; dismissal now reigned. No longer was the question about the existence of independent student groups but the elimination of the enemy in a parodical obsession with the “seizure of power” with no substantial political stakes. In most cases, schools, factories, and offices split “vertically” rather than “horizontally;” that is, against the grain of class lines and not with them. The picture is obfuscated further by the fact that virtually every faction operated in the language of Mao Zedong Thought, with opposing sides making nearly identical criticisms, accusations, and directives against one another.

Dismissal, ever the rule of the state, reasserted itself in factional combat, where the stakes were reduced to power seizure and elimination of the enemy. This had direct roots in the remaining elements of the party-state’s interference in the mass movement. The stress caused by factional violence and mass unrest reached a critical point, when in July 1967, the city of Wuhan experienced a near-catastrophic fracture of the military. When rogue commanders contravened central orders to support the local rebel coalition, instead backing conservative mass organizations, the Wuhan Military Region careened towards open revolt. Renegade soldiers even captured and beat Wang Li, a prominent civilian radical and member of the CCRG, breaking his leg in the process. It required troops loyal to Mao and Lin Biao to rescue him. The “Wuhan Incident” became a turning point in Mao’s policy during the GPCR.[28] A military coup d’etat against Mao was now a distinct possibility.[29] There was no guarantee that civil war would have meant the victory of the revolution.

It is true that, at the high tide of the radicalism of the GPCR, Mao and his supporters flirted with the idea of a radical alternative to the party-state, as evinced by the “Shanghai Commune,” which came out of the 1967 January Storm. This brief experiment posed nothing less than a radically decentralized alternative to the party-state.[30] But it lasted only a month, from late January to the end of February. In the end Mao opted for another form, the “Revolutionary Committee.” These “three-in-one” (sanjiehe) combinations of revolutionary cadres, mass representatives and army officials appeared popular but were in many areas really dominated by the military.[31] Following the Wuhan incident, Maoists also pressed to “arm the left”, placing rebels under arms, moving in the direction of popular militia to counter the conservative organizations and even the army.[32] This naturally had dangerous implications for the security and role of the PLA, which must inevitably be considered an arch-institution of the party-state. Mass violence rapidly escalated as both sides in the innumerable factional conflicts were now heavily armed. In the end Mao chose to maintain the role and integrity of the military. In both the case of the Shanghai Commune and “arming the left”, Mao retreated from these dramatic experiments, walking back toward what was in essence a more conservative, or orthodox “Leninist” formulation.[33]

Following the Summer of 1967, Mao was forced to set in motion a suppression of the mass movement he had called into being by means of the only pillar of the state still standing relatively untouched: the military. It is true that the Center had called for the military to “support the left” and forge Revolutionary Committees. But the “left” was not defined, and the designators “rebel” and “conservative” often had little distinct ideological content. They were relational terms normally tied to decisions made either in the criticism of a particular official or in choices made to resist or ally with the military. Local military commanders had to determine which factions to support with insufficient criteria in a chaotic and volatile environment. Their decisions were thus based on the practical considerations of force and stability.[34] Thus the forging of Revolutionary Committees was no guarantee that radical Maoists would constitute the post-revolutionary order. 

The conflict now became one between those who sought reimposition of order and those who pushed for the revolution to continue. In the summer of 1969, a famous “ultra-left” pamphlet by a group colloquially known as the Shengwulian called for nothing less than the overthrow of the entire “Bureaucratic Bourgeoisie.” It was one of the GPCR’s few systematic attempts to give a structural analysis of the party-state’s hindrance of the revolution. It forwarded the notion of the emergence of the bureaucracy as a “new class.”[35] The Shengwulian called for the Cultural Revolution to be carried out to the end.[36] But by this time the writing was on the wall; Mao knew that the combat could not be sustained without disastrous effect. A heavy-handed military intervention cracked down on factional fighting and wrapped up the mass movement, forcing restoration of order by creating the PLA-backed Revolutionary Committees. The consolidation of Revolutionary Committees was supplemented by large scale state purges. By 1969, the situation had stabilized but China was trending towards military dictatorship. This was an outcome quite unwelcome to Mao, who had always argued that the party must control the gun and not the other way around.[37]

By the turn of the decade, perhaps 1.6 million individuals had been killed by different modes of violence. The military intervention and subsequential purges were particularly brutal, having killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese. Per Walder’s estimates, PLA repression resulted in perhaps five times the casualties of mass violence before the repression.[38] Many of those targeted were the very rebels Mao invited into political existence as hundreds of thousands more would be censured, imprisoned or killed in rolling purges following the military crackdown. Ironically, the most heavily affected were Maoist radicals in the bureaucracy or student and worker rebels in the mass organizations. Dismissal had returned with a vengeance through a renewed State seeking “revenge” for pluralization. By 1969, the rebels were largely decimated — the radical members of the CCRG like Wang Li and Qi Benyu had been purged[39], perhaps to minimize tension with the military, though some prominent Maoists like Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan were unaffected. Chen Zaidao, the Wuhan PLA commander who had earlier defied Beijing authorities, was restored to his position and celebrated. An uneasy peace gradually settled in after two years of unrest. In 1969 the 9th Party Congress declared the Cultural Revolution victorious[40]; a declaration masked the defeat of the civilian rebels of which only a rump would remain; the “Gang of Four.” This period marked the significant increase in power of Lin Biao and the PLA, while the remaining radicals in the upper levels of the party effectively constituted nothing but a pale echo of the lively rebel activity of the mass phase.[41]

The subsequent “statist inversion” represents a lengthy appendix to the early GPCR. It itself can be divided into at least two more periods, of which the main dividing line is that of the stunning defection and death of Lin Biao in 1971.[42] The first period, roughly 1969-71, marks the height of military prominence in national and local affairs and the greatest excesses of the “Cult of Personality” of Mao, substituting for the unlimited pluralism and revolutionary spontaneity of the mass movement.[43] Purges resurfaced as competing bureaucratic factions vied for power, with the conservative state machinery ultimately winning out. After Lin’s death, the military was gradually removed from the national dominance it had acquired in the wake of the intervention. The statist inversion also saw a gradual shift to the right in foreign policy following Lin’s downfall. China accepted diplomatic overtures from the United States led by Richard Nixon and even congratulated Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet upon his coup d’etat in Chile in 1973.

Many conservative cadres who had been deposed in the most radical phase of the GPCR made their way back into power. Lacking radical state deputies of the technocratic caliber or institutional support of Deng Xiaopeng in the radical faction, Mao hesitantly brought him out of political exile for a brief period in the latter Cultural Revolution, but he was briefly removed again before Mao’s death. Mao’s main initiative in this period was to restabilize the position of the party-state and the economic infrastructure, both of which had been severely disrupted with the partial collapse of the early years. But he also sought to press for debate on the entire project of the Cultural Revolution, something which conservative cadres were unwilling to do. This last period, in the several years running up to Mao’s death in 1976, was one of stalemate and bureaucratic wars of attrition. Key problems remained unsolved, and Mao had become more and more despondent, especially after Lin Biao’s dramatic death.[44] Slowly Dying from ALS, Mao felt his legacy uncertain and attempted to keep the ship righted as his incapacitation progressed.[45]

The Cultural Revolution did not lead to full-blown civil war. The State’s collapse was only partial; it was knocked off its feet but not destroyed. The army, the spine of the state, was beleaguered, but intact. In fact, the paradox was that the persistence of the PLA was key in allowing the mass movement to form while simultaneously a major mechanism in the distortion and destruction of popular mobilization. Collapse was also transitional, and the party was rebuilt with the help of the military and relative stability it had achieved by the end of 1968. If we are to describe the general trajectory of the party-state’s implosion and the proliferation of the mass organizations, the picture gains a little more order. First, there was a “controlled demolition” at the apex of the state apparatus; the purges which resulted from this struggle in the prelude to the GPCR initiated a wave (especially after the October 1966 denunciation of official’s handlings of the work teams on Beijing campuses) of downwardly cascading purges and power seizures internal to the bureaucracy. Simultaneously, mass political activism emerged and lapped the “walls” of the party-state. The shock troops were students; cadres went into open rebellion, workers joined in dramatically and peasants followed their lead. But the prime mechanism of the State’s collapse was internal; as power seizures spread the mass assaults became “drawn in '' as mass organizations linked up with cadre rebels. Walder describes the state as literally turning itself inside-out; when the party-state’s collapse was near complete mass power seizures exploded followed by factional combat, aided by the lack of functional central authorities save the military. In retrospect it appears that the mass mobilization was partly concomitant with the state’s collapse, and that it could not have prevailed in a party-state operating at the level of the status quo.[46] From that point on the shift to statist inversion was largely a process of reconstruction and depoliticization.  

The GPCR left Chinese Communists at an impossible impasse: a standoff between the formal representations of communist revolution and the revolutionary energies upon which a revolution depends for its existence. Mao and the rebels pushed this to its absolute limits but found a dead end in the abyss of civil war. The promising emergence of politicized masses organized independently of the party-state ultimately was fleeting — the mass organizations had essentially cannibalized themselves. At each step of the way, the intervention of what remained of the State helped to inflame and sabotage the promise brought by free association of student and worker rebels. The state was wrecked without any real alternative, save the Revolutionary Committees. But the Committees looked very much like the Party that had come before, except that they were dominated by military men. Dismissal, now the only tool available to Mao, would ultimately prove a poor alternative to the creative novelty of pluralization, and, unable to structurally address the inertia of the party-state, failed to prevent the “right wing” of the Party taking hold. The State resumed its ossification, geared towards preserving economic order and political stability, and the pernicious reconstruction of something resembling class structure. The mass mobilization offered some glimpses into a positive vision of politics beyond the Communist Party, but its self-destructive drive deprived it of a future. To Mao, the only solution to the situation lay in reconstruction of the status quo ante, albeit dressed in the militant clothes of the PLA. In reality, military restoration was an implicit admission of impasse.

It is not unreasonable to surmise that the Cultural Revolution unraveled not just because of betrayal, or defeat by the forces of counterrevolution, properly speaking, but because of some profoundly structural cause, a cause immanent to the party-state. To portray this as a conflict between centralization and decentralization is not incorrect, but it is not sufficient for a theoretical understanding of the impasse. While the Communist sequence prior to 1966 had operated with the party-state as its historical mode and instantiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Cultural Revolutionary years saw an attempt to invent something more than the party-state common to all historical socialist societies. Pluralization pointed in the direction of a decentered politics, even a politics “at a distance from the state.” It sought to redress real problems experienced in socialist construction, and it reinvigorated mass politics necessary for revolution. But the mass movement was brought back under the sign of the operating logic of “dismissal,” taking the form of violent confrontations between communists that had little to do with political invention. No internal salvation was forthcoming from the faction-riven mass organizations, and so the option the Maoists took was one of default. The State was re-built much as it was before. We see that the GPCR tried to find the resources within the Marxist-Leninist problematic and the framework of the party-state, only to collapse and then return to the beginning. The Cultural Revolution was the limit case for invention within the Marxist-Leninist problematic, and thereby marked the saturation of the Leninist mode. Any politics of the present must therefore start with the insight that the old party-state form has reached its limits and cannot be operable in revolutionary politics any longer. Badiou is right, in a sense, when he says we must also return to communist tradition before Lenin to help draft a politics which can think emancipation with an entirely different approach to the question of Party and State.[47]


What might the Cultural Revolution imply for the recomposition of communist politics today? Capitalism’s recurrent crises need no special mention, as the Covid-19 pandemic has elaborated with true revelatory power. Militant politics are still active in the contemporary world riven with an abundance of mass struggle illustrated by movements as disparate as the 2020 George Floyd rebellion or popular revolts in Sudan or Kazakhstan. But time and time again these movements vanish as quickly as they arose; it can leave us wondering if they ever happened at all. They rarely sustain a vision oriented towards universal emancipation, often being supplanted by liberalism where they are not crushed by force. As Lenin said, “without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement.”[48] To outline the requirements for a politics adequate to the communist hypothesis we must organize in thought the lessons from our collective history. 

The Cultural Revolution terminated the broad arc of a sequence begun by October 1917. The Bolshevik mode, inaugurated by the Russian Revolution, became the schema in which the major communist movements patterned themselves. The Cultural Revolution, having saturated the principal pillars of Marxist-Leninist politics, was thus the end of an era for which the collapse of the decrepit Soviet Union was mere punctuation.  Despite the contemporary absence of a recognizable camp of Socialist States, and despite the GPCR’s distance in time from our own, it remains relevant to the world of egalitarian politics today.The most important lessons of the Cultural Revolution are those of the saturation of class politics and the form of the party-state. Any inventive politics in the present must take this as its point of departure. Theory cannot provide a subjective figuration of the GPCR; that is on the order of an event. But we can delimit a space in which politics can be thought to make resources available for the militant.

The party-state, as the Leninist mode’s manifestation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is no longer an inventive form; it has indeed proved an obstacle to the communist struggle. Communism is an anti-state politics par excellence, and, far from being incidental, the withering away of the state remains the fundamental horizon. There is the general contradiction, or antagonism, with which we must contend: the contradiction between the party-state, as the nominal representative of revolutionary forces so crucial to the 20th century communist sequences, and, on the other hand, the revolutionary masses and the creative, unrepresentable force of emancipatory politics. 

The Cultural Revolution demonstrated both the incompleteness of the revolution of October 1917 and the possibility that communist politics could support a genuine renewal of mass struggle in the face of state inertia. But the GPCR likewise ended up incomplete. For our own times, we understand that these internal mass struggles are crucial for maintaining the revolutionary direction of our political organizations, even if we do not know yet what the victory of a cultural revolution would look like. It may not be possible to do away with the state altogether, but it must be recognized that it carries its own momentum in a direction away from the communist horizon. The problem called “revisionism” is also a problem of the “statification” of revolutionary politics. The electoral path has more than amply demonstrated this degeneration, but the Leninist approach to the proletarian state likewise became its own characteristic thermidor. The communist movement of the future must insist on the necessity of its popular and mass character, but also it must organize a politics not centered on either party or state. 

Historically, the question of the party-state has been inherently tied to the notion of the seizure of power, being the consequence of seizure and exercise of that power. For the Leninist mode, the seizure of power was the prime political task of the party in bourgeois society. The party-state was to be the historical instantiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  Therefore, talking about the party-state is also talking about the seizure of power, a concern which is just as valid for capitalist societies as those under a degenerate party-state. A discourse on the party-state is a discourse on contemporary politics. Our approach is rooted in a recognition that the party-state form, which constitutes the organizational mode of the historical sequence of the 20th century, has exhausted itself.[49] I have chosen the word “saturated;” saturation does not imply failure proper, but holds a form to be pushed to its limits, exhausting all avenues and means of disposal, and while gaining its respective victories along the way, the form has essentially given all it has had to give.[50] A new formulation must be found to go beyond the ossified inertia of the State, beyond the transformation of revolutionary party into a self-perpetuating agent of stability. Badiou does not reject organization, but aims to seek a politics conducted “at a distance from the state.”[51] Our history tells us that communist organization must be located in a manner which can not be absorbed by the logic of the state, which forever demands that all politics be included within it. As to whether or not it makes sense to speak of “politics without a party” or instead “a party of a new type”, can only be resolved in the course of concrete militant inquiries. We may not yet know what such politics would look like, but the strictures of our history are clear.

The Cultural Revolution need not be confined to the dust-heap of history. At present we are still only at the beginning of a thorough investigation. We do not yet know in full detail all the intricacies of this dynamic period, but it can certainly continue to be a wellspring of political thought and practice, a central referent of any emancipatory politics of the future. Without its history, without the knowledge of its successes and failures, without a sense of its presence in the world today, we are blind.


  1. Asad Haider, “Dismissal”, The PointMagazine.
  2. This is with relation to a certain Marxist problematic which sustains a) a certain mode of the struggle for communism, b) the party-state, and c) class politics as its fundamental categories. 
  3. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (London: Verso, 2010) 165-168. 
  4. Badiou gives an account of the Commune’s assessment by successive communist epochs in “The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics,” from The Communist Hypothesis, 134-145.  
  5. Alain Badiou, “The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics,” in The Communist Hypothesis, 135-136.
  6. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, (London: Continuum, 2009), 46.
  7. Han Dongping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 14-17. 
  8. Han Dongping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, 10-11.
  9. Dongping, 18-19.
  10. Alain Badiou, “The Cultural Revolution: The Last Revolution” from The Communist Hypothesis, 82.
  11. Richard Curt Kraus, The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 13-14.
  12. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 138.
  13. Worker-rebel Wang Hongwen, theoretician Zhang Chunqiao, literary critic Yao Wenyuan and cultural heavyweight (and wife of Mao) Jiang Qing.
  14. Roderick Macfarquhar & Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008). 
  15. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 4-6.
  16. Alessandro Russo, Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 146-147. 
  17. The CCRG can be seen as a sort of “hatchet” used by Mao to attack the bureaucracy, the military, and conservative mass organizations while liaising with rebel organizations and civilian radicals.
  18. Most accounts reduce the debate on “Hui Rai Dismissed from office” to whether or not it was an allegory to Mao’s dismissal of Peng Dehuai at the Lushan Plenum of 1959. Peng Dehuai, then defense minister, had made a public criticism of the policies of the Great Leap Forward and was subsequently removed. Hui Rai’s dismissal by the emperor could thus be read as an allegory for this traumatic episode of Chinese Communist history. This is not the whole story, however, and it is surprising that the period has not been explored much by historians. Russo performs a pioneering study of the debate in the first section of Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture.
  19. Russo, Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, 11-88.
  20. In concert with Lin Biao, then Defense Minister.
  21. “Circular of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” accessed from
  22. Work Teams, often used in the PRC to direct and control mass mobilizations, were party cadres selected by the State. They constituted a sort of “fire brigade” for popular disturbances. The Work Teams were under the command of Liu Shaoqi, the President of the People’s Republic and second in command to Mao. Mao gave little direction on the issue of the Work Teams and remained non-committal when asked for guidance by Liu and Deng. When Mao returned to Beijing at the end of the Summer after a hiatus from the capitol, he ordered them removed and Liu Shaoqi was henceforth sidelined. See: Roderick Macfarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, “Mao’s Last Revolution.”
  23. Russo, Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, 151.
  24. Russo, 149. 
  25. The circular is one source of this formulation. As Alain Badiou argues in his essay on the GPCR, the “Sixteen Points” were likely largely authored by Mao himself.
  26. Wu Yiching, Cultural Revolution at the Margins, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 95. 
  27. The Shanghai Writer’s Group was a government body within the Propaganda Department that aided the collapse of the authorities and ushered in the January storm. See Elizabeth Perry and Li Xun, Proletarian Power, (Routledge, 1997). 
  28. For a more detailed treatment of political developments in Wuhan, see: Wang Shaoguang, Failure of Charisma, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). 
  29. Macfarquhar & Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, 199-220.
  30. Jiang Hongsheng, “The Paris Commune in Shanghai: the Masses, the State, and Dynamics of “Continuous Revolution,” (Duke University, 2010). 
  31. Yiching, Cultural Revolution at the Margins, 127.
  32. Macfarquhar & Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, 214-216.
  33. Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After, (New York: Free Press, 1999), 348.
  34. Yiching, Cultural Revolution at the Margins, 126-127.
  35. Sheng-wu-lian, “Whither China”, accessed from china.htm
  36. Yiching, Cultural Revolution at the Margins, 181. 
  37. Mao Zedong, “Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. II,” (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967), 224-225.
  38. Walder, Agents of Disorder, 23.
  39. Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 342.
  40. Lin Biao, “Report to the Ninth National Congress of the Communist Party of China,” Important Documents on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1.
  41. A notable exception to this is Shanghai, where worker rebels maintained a significant, though tenuous presence in the new post-revolutionary order. See: Perry and Li, Proletarian Power, 145-188.
  42. Lin Biao had been crucial as head of the Armed Forces and a key political backer of Mao Zedong. The circumstances of Lin’s death in an airplane crash while fleeing to the Soviet Union are to this day unclear. The official narrative is that Lin, or his son, were orchestrating a coup d’etat against Mao Zedong and upon discovery attempted to flee. The official cause of the crash was that the plane had run out of fuel. Much information on what is known as the “Lin Biao incident,” is still sealed in Chinese government archives and is unlikely to be released for a long time.
  43. Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 346-347.
  44. Macfarquhar & Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, 339.
  45. Macfarquhar & Schoenhals, 413-414.
  46. Many conventional accounts have assumed that the collapse of the civilian government in the PRC was the result of conventional mass protest. Intra-bureaucratic power seizures, and not mass assaults, were the dominant source of the state’s incapacitation. (See Andrew Walder, Agents of Disorder).
  47. Badiou, “The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics,” 171.
  48. Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done?, 1902, accessed from, 12. 
  49. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 170-171. 
  50. The concept “saturation” comes from Sylvain Lazarus, who articulates it in Anthropology of the Name.
  51. The classic experimental example of this mode is Badiou’s own l’organisation Politique, an inheritor to the earlier Maoist UCFML, organized primarily with respect to immigrant workers in France, who precisely represent a “void” for the state and thus appear a potent site for revolutionary struggle with a generic, universal impact.