Politics & Policy

Fighting the Leftist Revolution

The Red Guard marches in Beijing, 1966.
Communism kills.

Last summer, during a trip to Taiwan, I got a tour of Taipei’s National Palace Museum, where China’s finest historical relics are stored. China’s finest historical relics are in Taiwan because China’s Nationalist party lost the Chinese civil war; when the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, they took as much of China’s heritage as they could carry, fearing it wouldn’t survive among the Communists. During the Palace Museum tour, I got to chatting with one of my hosts, a Taiwanese diplomat. As we admired some carved jade, he said to me — tongue in cheek — “You know what the best thing about Taiwan is? No Cultural Revolution.”

His point was that, had Taiwan had a cultural revolution like China, the museum would have been empty.

China’s Cultural Revolution began 50 years ago this week. In the late Fifties, China’s Communist-in-chief, Chairman Mao, began “The Great Leap Forward,” a Communist economic reform that is believed by historians to have starved between 20 and 50 million people to death. An additional two and half million people, roughly, were tortured to death by Communist militias, and another two-or-so million driven to suicide.

Among China’s Communist elite, these results were met with mixed feelings. There were murmurings of discontent with Mao’s pure Marxism–Leninism, and by 1966, Mao felt the need to reassert his control over the country, fearing that — just as Khrushchev had denounced Stalin — his inner circle might be preparing to attempt “rightist” and “counter-revolutionary” reforms.

On May 16, 1966, Mao issued his “May 16th Notification” to the Politburo, warning of a widespread anti-Communist conspiracy: “Representatives of the bourgeoisie,” he warned, had “sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture.” This “bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists” were lying in wait; “Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power” and end “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” These secret capitalists could be anyone, said Mao. “Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khrushchev, for example, who are still nestling beside us.”

These kids were told to stop trusting their parents and teachers, and to seek out secret capitalists everywhere.

Mao set about destroying some of those would-be Khrushchevs with whispering campaigns, while simultaneously spreading paranoia directly to the people, particularly to that most easily duped segment of society, high-school and college kids. Responding to Mao’s warnings, adolescent “Red Guards” sprang up all over the country — “Chairman Mao has defined our future as an armed revolutionary youth organization,” one Red Guard explained, “So if Chairman Mao is our Red commander-in-chief and we are his Red soldiers, who can stop us? First we will make China Red from inside out, and then we will help the working people of other countries make the world Red. . . . And then the whole universe.”

These kids were told to stop trusting their parents and teachers, and to seek out secret capitalists everywhere. “To rebel is justified” became a popular Red Guard slogan, as did “Those who are against Chairman Mao will have their dog skulls smashed into pieces,” and “Long live the Red Terror!”

These freshly minted 18-year-old psychopaths — and everyone else sucked into Mao’s personality cult — were informed by China’s national chief of police, Xie Fuzhi, that he had no objection to their murdering “bad people.” Meanwhile, Mao’s right-hand man, Lin Biao, addressed Red Guard rallies and called for loyal socialists to destroy the “Four Olds” — pre-revolution culture, customs, habits, and ideas.

Confucius’s grave was looted and desecrated, as were temples, churches, mosques, and monasteries all over the country. In the best National Socialist tradition, clergymen were forced at gunpoint to desecrate and destroy their houses of worship. Libraries of ancient texts were burned. An enormous proportion of all the ancient buildings, statues, and paintings everywhere in China were destroyed (many of the best examples that survive either were already in Taiwan or were smuggled to safety abroad; fortunately, the Terracotta Army had not yet been discovered). Ideologically suspect writers and artists were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. A pamphlet called “Four hundred films to be criticized” was issued, and China’s film industry was shut down. Popular music was banned. The Communist Party’s Central Committee, under Mao’s direction, described this “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” as “a deeper and more extensive stage in the development of the Socialist Revolution.”

#share#Fear of a Soviet invasion had driven China to develop a professional army; fear of an ideologically impure professional army drove Mao to encourage the Red Guards to seize weapons from bases and barracks, while warning the police not to interfere. The now-armed Red Guards began to arrest senior officers (and Mao’s enemies), while Mao used fear of the Red Terror to consolidate his power. One of Mao’s ex-confidants, Marshall Peng Dehuai, was kidnapped by Red Guards, tortured, and forced to parade — in chains, wearing a dunce cap — in front of several thousand Mao loyalists. A sign detailing his crimes was hung around his neck. For the next five years, Peng was repeatedly “interrogated” with torture so unspeakably brutal that his jailers were replaced every two hours, to make sure they didn’t start to feel sorry for him. After five years of being investigated, Peng succumbed to the Cultural Revolution — when he died, in prison, the windows of his cell had long since been blacked out with newspapers. His last request was to see sunlight one more time before he died. His request was denied.

Peng’s treatment was not atypical. (We forget sometimes that North Korea is not the exception among Communist countries. Neither is Cuba. Neither was Cambodia or East Germany.)

All told, the Cultural Revolution cost between 750,000 and 1,500,000 lives.

Education came to a complete stop. Elementary and high schools were closed, as were all universities. When they began to reopen in 1970, entrance exams were abolished in favor of referrals from trusted sources. As in Orwell’s 1984, children were encouraged to denounce their teachers (and parents), who were then arrested and beaten. Many died; many more committed suicide.

All told, the Cultural Revolution cost between 750,000 and 1,500,000 lives. It ended in 1976, after Mao died, and cooler, more “capitalistic,” “rightist,” and “counter-revolutionary” heads began to prevail. But the spirit of the Cultural Revolution lives on — albeit watered down.

RELATED: The Pink Guards on Campus

On American campuses, students denounce and harass their teachers for cultural insensitivity. Lectures are canceled when speakers are found to be ideologically impure. Prominent artists and scientists who play devil’s advocate are forced to issue public apologies, or else face ostracism and unemployment. Offensively named buildings and streets are renamed (that was a Red Guard standard). Mayors give young, angry ideologues “space to destroy,” as they loot and vandalize their cities. Political enemies of district attorneys in Wisconsin and Senate candidates in California are harassed by the police. Organized rightists are harassed by the IRS.

After an anonymous blogger, who (serendipitously) goes by the moniker “CommunismKills,” posted an “offensive” limerick on her blog about Michael Brown, whose shooting triggered the Ferguson riots, self-appointed “social justice warriors” discovered her identity, stole her credit-card number, posted her address and phone number online, threatened her, and tried to get her expelled from George Mason University. One of these new-age red guards sent the following e-mail to her mother: “you nasty ugly f*** face c***. ill do more than burn your house down. ill rape ur stupid sh** f*** daughters decapitate them and send your their butcher bodies.” 

So far as I can tell, these threats weren’t carried out, which is why I can say the Red Guard spirit has been watered down. But the treatment of CommunismKills was not atypical. Meet the New Left, trying to be the same as the Old Left.

So be vigilant, kids. Communism kills.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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