The margins and the centre: for a new history of the Cultural Revolution

Second Shanghai Riot

Repost of an informative reflection on the lessons to be learned from China's "Cultural Revolution" in light of China's grim political situation circa 2014, centered on a review of Yiching's Wu's pathbreaking new book, Cultural Revolution at the Margins.

Submitted by Nao on November 10, 2014

Reposted from Viewpoint (go there to see hyperlinks omitted from this version). The book reviewed in this article (Wu's Cultural Revolution at the Margins) will also be reviewed in the first issue of the Chuang journal (spring 2015), including a response to this article.

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

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

by Christopher Connery1
September 28, 2014

At the end of the Qing dynasty and in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion­ary activists and the­o­rists believed that anar­chism was China’s most promis­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary path, and that was in part because it cor­re­sponded most closely to the actu­al­ity of social exis­tence. The vast major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion, after all, lived their lives with next to no rela­tion­ship with the state, whose func­tionar­ies almost never reached the vil­lage level, and whose levies and reg­u­la­tions were for the most part admin­is­tered by mem­bers of the local elite, with ties to their com­mu­ni­ties that were many and var­ied. Peo­ples’ lives were marked by var­i­ous forms of com­mu­nity and solidarity—self-help, reli­gious, cer­e­mo­nial, clan-based, labor-cycle, and market-network related—and these forms of sol­i­dar­ity had made many com­mu­ni­ties capa­ble of resis­tance and mobi­liza­tion in the face of exter­nal threats, includ­ing impe­r­ial author­i­tar­ian over­reach. Those early the­o­rists of rev­o­lu­tion felt that these local social capa­bil­i­ties could be strength­ened and politi­cized in an egal­i­tar­ian direc­tion, and that the emer­gent ener­gies of the polity to come would lie pre­cisely in these local forms, rather than national state author­ity.2

The anar­chist rev­o­lu­tion never came, of course, and most anar­chist activists, and the social forces they rep­re­sented, were absorbed, as one-time semi-anarchist Mao Zedong was, into either the Nation­al­ist (KMT) or Com­mu­nist (CCP) par­ties. Both par­ties, in the course of their strug­gle for state power, were forced to respond to or ally with local for­ma­tions in a num­ber of ways, and this made for a num­ber of local vari­ants in rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tice.3 For both, how­ever, the ulti­mate project was strong state power, a ver­sion of which the CCP attained in 1949. Most west­ern observers of the PRC, in the Maoist and reform peri­ods, assume a strong cen­tral state. Fig­ures like Mao or Deng Xiaop­ing give a pic­ture of sov­er­eign author­ity that has led many to ascribe to them a dirigisme that has for the most part been less thor­ough than widely assumed.

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

The local­i­ties have con­sis­tently shown a high level of resilience and semi-autonomy. Dur­ing the double-digit growth years, this bifur­ca­tion of author­ity was gen­er­ally use­ful to the cen­ter.4 The local offi­cials’ front-line sta­tus made them take the brunt of protests from work­ers, res­i­dents with envi­ron­men­tal NIMBY issues, or from those—pensioners, retirees, those with ambigu­ous res­i­den­tial status—with unmet finan­cial claims on the state, and the vio­lent repres­sion those protests often met, as the tes­ti­mony of par­tic­i­pants nearly always revealed, con­trasted with a faith and con­fi­dence in the author­i­ties in Bei­jing, a strong tes­ti­mony to the center’s legit­i­ma­tion efforts. The abil­ity of local offi­cials to profit—legally and illegally—from com­mer­cial, enter­prise, and prop­erty devel­op­ment, or from man­age­ment of For­eign Direct Invest­ment, played a cen­tral role in trans­form­ing them into stake-holders in, rather than con­ser­v­a­tive obstruc­ters of, the cen­tral state’s reform process. This pat­tern of often extreme local diver­gence has served the state in other ways. New forms of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion could be tested locally before being applied on a wider scale. Shang­hai, by all eco­nomic mea­sures the most advanced city/region in China from the mid-19th cen­tury until the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion in the mid-1960s, was left out of the first wave of mar­ket and FDI reforms, which were con­cen­trated in the Pearl River Delta region and in Fujian province, across the straits from Tai­wan; if the reforms proved to be a fail­ure, fail­ure was not deemed to be an option for Shang­hai, whose cap­i­tal­ist take­off waited until the 1990s, after the “suc­cess­ful” imple­men­ta­tion of reform in the south. In the last decade, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has been able to take advan­tage of regional dis­par­i­ties in order to accom­plish inter­nal spa­tial fixes of the kind employed by cap­i­tal glob­ally: the mas­sive infra­struc­tural and finan­cial invest­ments in Sichuan province and else­where in the west have helped to bal­ance and coun­ter­act grow­ing work­ers’ power and con­comi­tant wage increases in the coastal regions. For the most part, the state has well weath­ered the chaotic dynamic between local and cen­tral power, and has thrived. The cit­i­zenry, absorbed into a shift­ing and pre­car­i­ous cap­i­tal­ist labor mar­ket as well as into a multi-tiered con­sumer soci­ety, adept at chan­nel­ing social aspi­ra­tions through mass-mediation and the atten­dant con­sol­i­da­tion of mech­a­nisms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a largely mythic promise of indi­vid­ual self-fulfillment and upward mobil­ity, is left with fewer and fewer social resources.

This par­tic­u­lar center/local dynamic may be com­ing to an end. I write this in Sep­tem­ber 2014 in Shang­hai, and a sev­eral hun­dred per­son strong del­e­ga­tion of the Cen­tral Com­mis­sion for Dis­ci­pline Inspec­tion, the body charged with the mas­sive anti-corruption cam­paign insti­gated by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, has recently arrived and installed them­selves in a local hotel. It is widely assumed that its tar­gets are in high places, and the local papers report and spec­u­late about the mean­ing of events such as one last week, when a neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents group who had in years past unsuc­cess­fully strug­gled against a local real estate devel­op­ment pre­sented the com­mis­sion with a sheaf of pur­port­edly incrim­i­nat­ing doc­u­ments, which the com­mis­sion then agreed to review. Around the coun­try, local offi­cials are falling by the day, in what is prov­ing to be a relent­less and wide-sweeping cam­paign. If Xi Jin­ping is suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing a ratio­nal­ized, func­tion­al­ist bureau­cracy, one which for the most part no longer views land and con­tracts as local resources to be mined, but serves more purely an instru­ment of the will of the state, he will have reached a level of cen­tral state author­ity well beyond that of any of his pre­de­ces­sors. This is not guar­an­teed, of course, and an achieve­ment even of that scale might be open to later rever­sal, but it could sig­nif­i­cantly alter the ter­rain of polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity. Many voices on the Left in China con­tinue to place their hopes in the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, which they view as capa­ble of a deci­sion­ism that would, with the right ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, be able to con­tain the mar­ket within a new social com­pact.5 I sus­pect that they will prove to be mis­taken. It is easy to over­es­ti­mate the polit­i­cal capac­ity to con­tain mar­ket forces.

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

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

Although the state pro­hi­bi­tion on open and wide­spread dis­course on the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion remains in place, there has, over the last ten or twelve years, been a steady and slow accu­mu­la­tion of schol­ar­ship in Chi­nese,6 as well as in west­ern lan­guages. There is of course much archival and empir­i­cal work that remains to be done. But mostly absent in recent work are new his­tor­i­cal syn­the­ses that make clear, orig­i­nal, and cogent claims for the broadly polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, and for its legacy into the reform period. In addi­tion to per­form­ing impor­tant and ana­lyt­i­cally rich his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal syn­the­ses, Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins con­tains much new schol­ar­ship as well, based on newly avail­able mate­r­ial, includ­ing inter­views, and work in archives that have rarely been con­sulted. Wu’s notion of “mar­gins” is not geo­graph­i­cally based—his case stud­ies include events in Bei­jing and Shanghai—but refers to popular-based polit­i­cal move­ments and analy­ses that arose out­side of offi­cial state organs, made pos­si­ble by the irrup­tion of polit­i­cal groups and ten­den­cies over which there ini­tially existed lit­tle offi­cial control.

The view that the mass pol­i­tics of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion was merely a case of mass manip­u­la­tion, or a dis­torted effect of cen­tral CCP power pol­i­tics, has for­tu­nately lost much of its author­ity in recent years, even though machi­na­tions in the cen­tral lead­er­ship remain cen­tral to the most recent com­pre­hen­sive English-language his­tory, Mac­far­qua­har and Schoenhals’s Mao’s Last Rev­o­lu­tion.7 But no ana­lyt­i­cal frame­work of sim­i­larly broad inter­pre­tive scope has arisen to replace this. The argu­ment for the pri­macy and orig­i­nal­ity of the mar­gins is thus an impor­tant one. Those stud­ies that do inves­ti­gate pol­i­tics “from below”—and there have been many good ones recently8 —tend to focus on group iden­tity, inter­est, or struc­tural antag­o­nism, and gen­er­ally down­play non-functionalist dimen­sions of the political.

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

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

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

Impor­tant cor­rec­tive approaches to the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion,9 Wu’s included, treat its pol­i­tics accord­ing to a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal peri­odiza­tion that cen­ters on the chang­ing nature of polit­i­cal actors and small-group com­po­si­tion, the nature of antag­o­nisms, and the char­ac­ter of containment/institutionalization. Wu’s peri­odiza­tion is not, of course, neat and tidy, and the move­ment was cer­tainly sub­ject to numer­ous local vari­a­tions. In the fol­low­ing sum­mary of the his­tor­i­cal sequence, for read­ers unfa­mil­iar with the movement’s con­tents, I will make occa­sional note of Wu’s inter­pre­tive peri­odiza­tion schema, but will address his spe­cific argu­ments in the fol­low­ing section.


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

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

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

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

Over the first half of 1968, the move­ment and fac­tions were largely con­tained, and the focus shifted to the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the Cul­tural Revolution’s suc­cess­ful power strug­gles to date. By Sep­tem­ber of 1968, Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tees were in place in every province. Between late 1968 and 1972, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mit­tees went after thou­sands of peo­ple accused of fac­tional fight­ing and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ties, and as sev­eral schol­ars have noted, these purges marked the most vio­lent period of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion.10 By 1972, the PLA had emerged as the strongest admin­is­tra­tive force in the coun­try. In the fac­to­ries and the schools, the pol­i­tics and val­ues of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion remained in force, as evi­dent in the “worker-peasant-soldier” uni­ver­si­ties, the universities-in-the-factories, con­tin­ued dis­cus­sion of orga­ni­za­tional forms, etc. Although the Red Guards had ceased to exist, this final period wit­nessed peri­odic national cam­paigns (crit­i­cize Lin Biao, etc.) as well as strug­gles within par­tic­u­lar fac­to­ries. The period was also marked by power strug­gles within the cen­tral lead­er­ship, the most salient event of which was an aborted coup by PLA sup­port­ers of Lin Biao in 1971. Fol­low­ing its defeat, the PLA’s author­ity again came into ques­tion. The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion con­tin­ued until 1976, when the “Gang of Four” was arrested.


Cri­tique of bureau­cratic class priv­i­lege was cen­tral to Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion pol­i­tics, and Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins makes dis­tinc­tive ana­lyt­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions to our under­stand­ing of the nature of class, class analy­sis, and class con­flict in the PRC. It begins by rec­og­niz­ing the incom­men­su­rate and dis­crepant tem­po­ral­i­ties of post-1949 class pol­i­tics. The cod­i­fi­ca­tion of class cat­e­gories was first made on the basis of fam­ily ori­gin, i.e., with ref­er­ence to a social sys­tem whose field of antag­o­nism had for the most part ceased to exist by the 1960s, but which were insisted upon, in part, to guar­an­tee a form of affir­ma­tive action for those with “good” class back­grounds, and thus avoid the unin­tended repro­duc­tion of class priv­i­lege.11 Yet these bureau­cra­tized and rei­fied class cat­e­gories, which had become a defin­ing ele­ment of indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ties, had taken on a life of their own, divorced, for the most part, from actual social rela­tions. At the same time, a priv­i­leged bureau­cratic stra­tum was in for­ma­tion, with well-defined ben­e­fits for each admin­is­tra­tive level. Mao’s alarm at the emer­gence of this new class structure—he was deter­mined to avoid China’s rev­o­lu­tion fol­low­ing the Soviet revi­sion­ist path—added a new dimen­sion of antag­o­nism to the social field. Exist­ing class dis­course proved an awk­ward vehi­cle for this newly super­im­posed lan­guage of cri­tique of bureau­cratic class priv­i­lege. A con­se­quence, Wu writes, was that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sheng­wu­lian was one of many pop­u­lar anti-bureaucracy move­ments around the coun­try that arose from the end of 1967 and into 1968, when all of them met the heavy hand of the state and suf­fered the same fate as Shengwulian’s. Indeed, as Wu shows from a sur­vey of mostly Chinese-language schol­ar­ship, the most vio­lent phase of the CR was a con­se­quence of vio­lence per­pe­trated by the state against these late-period mil­i­tants. The period between 1970 and 1976 is a sig­nif­i­cant gap in Wu’s his­tor­i­cal cov­er­age, even given that the book is not intended to be a “his­tory” of the CR. This is the most under-researched period of the CR, and we will need to await fur­ther schol­ar­ship before this period can be eval­u­ated more fully.12 Extra-party mass move­ments had ceased to exist, but as I men­tioned above, strug­gles con­tin­ued within schools and fac­to­ries as the CR was insti­tu­tion­al­ized. Although the period was indeed char­ac­ter­ized by purges of “class ene­mies,” it is likely that in this period, as in ear­lier peri­ods, there were a range of antag­o­nisms that were car­ried out within this dis­cur­sive frame. It is pos­si­ble that fur­ther research on this period might reveal “micro-margins,” within par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions, and thus com­pli­cate Wu’s analy­sis of neu­tral­iza­tion and containment.

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

Here, although it is not dis­cussed in The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion at the Mar­gins, I believe it would be use­ful to return to the reform-period center/local dynam­ics dis­cussed at the begin­ning of this essay, which, as I sug­gested, rep­re­sent a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics at the mar­gins. Wu’s late-Seventies “mar­gins” are worker-intellectual anti-authoritarian activists, who con­tin­ued, in a dif­fer­ent form and in new lan­guage, the rad­i­cal anti-bureaucratic pol­i­tics of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. Equally sig­nif­i­cant in the early reform period were spon­ta­neous village-level reor­ga­ni­za­tions of rural indus­trial pro­duc­tion. There remain sig­nif­i­cant ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal dis­putes about the nature of this devel­op­ment. Many on the Chi­nese Left hold that in its ini­tial phases, these rep­re­sented pop­u­lar, locally based muta­tions of a coop­er­a­tive mode of pro­duc­tion, at more remove from state con­trol, but in which the devel­op­ment of own­er­ship and pri­vate prop­erty rights was not on the political-economic agenda. I tend to con­cur with this judg­ment.13 This is also, how­ever, one argu­ment made by the “con­ti­nu­ity” school in China, which sees in the early Deng-era reforms sig­nif­i­cant con­ti­nu­ities with Mao-era social­ist devel­op­men­tal­ism, but with­out bureau­cratic and author­i­tar­ian shack­les of the ear­lier period, in other words, a polit­i­cally pro­gres­sive devel­op­ment. There are sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions in these claims for con­ti­nu­ity. In this school’s analy­sis of the present period, to sum­ma­rize some­what crudely, China remains a social­ist coun­try, and in the absence of uni­ver­sal private-property rights, and minus the con­sol­i­da­tion of a dis­tinct cap­i­tal­ist class with its own social power, the state retains the capacity—although it has largely cho­sen not to exer­cise this capacity—to shape devel­op­ment along social­ist and egal­i­tar­ian lines, given the rapid devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces and China’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the global econ­omy on its own terms.14 This is cer­tainly an over­es­ti­ma­tion of the Chi­nese state’s abil­ity or will to cre­ate a socio-economic sys­tem that rep­re­sents a seri­ous alter­na­tive to glob­ally dom­i­nant modes of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. It does rep­re­sent a con­vic­tion that the CCP is a power wherein the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic spheres con­tinue to have a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship than else­where in the cap­i­tal­ist world, and that social­ist or social-democratic polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mony within the party remains a possibility.

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

The Chi­nese Left was gen­er­ally enthu­si­as­tic about devel­op­ments in Chongqing at the end of the first decade of this cen­tury. Bo Xilai, Chongqing party chair­man, announced a series of social-democratic reforms and an expan­sion of the government-owned sec­tor of the econ­omy, and revived, though the singing of “red songs” and other pub­lic forums, some of the pop­ulist lan­guage of the Mao era. As I have writ­ten else­where, devel­op­ments in Chongqing departed in very few ways from the market-reform state’s devel­op­men­tal­ist path, and it was ques­tion­able whether the mod­est social-democratic reform pro­grams were eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able, or whether they were, as Bo Xilai’s cham­pi­ons claimed, exportable to the coun­try at large and not merely a slightly pro­gres­sive ver­sion of the spa­tial fix.15 Bo fell from power in 2012—and the extent to which this was a polit­i­cal or a crim­i­nal affair is still debated. Many left­ist sup­port­ers reacted with alarm when then Pre­mier Wen Jiabao raised the specter of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion in his denun­ci­a­tion of Bo. Although there was noth­ing espe­cially rad­i­cal in Bo’s pol­i­tics, the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion lan­guage sig­naled cen­tral con­cern over the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of exces­sive local devi­a­tion. His fall was likely to end, for the time being at least, of any pos­si­bil­ity of sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion at the local level.

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

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


  • 1 Christopher Connery is Ziqiang Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Shanghai University, China, and Professor of Literature at the University of California Santa Cruz. He publishes on contemporary Chinese politics and culture, capitalist geographies, and the global 1960s.
  • 2 Arif Dir­lik, Anar­chism in the Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, 1993. Peter Zarrow, Anar­chism and Chi­nese Polit­i­cal Cul­ture. New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, 1990.
  • 3 For a detailed study of CCP rela­tions with polit­i­cal and social for­ma­tions in a par­tic­u­lar loca­tion dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, see Eliz­a­beth Perry, Anyuan: Min­ing China’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tra­di­tion. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, 2012.
  • 4 This center/local dynamic is dis­cussed in Jean C. Oi, Rural China Takes Off: Insti­tu­tional Foun­da­tions of Eco­nomic Reform, Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia 1999, and David Zweig, Inter­na­tion­al­iz­ing China: Domes­tic Inter­ests and Global Link­ages, Ithaca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity Press, 2002.
  • 5 For sam­ples of this view, see Hu Angang, Wang Shaoguang, Zhou Jian­ming, and Han Yuhai, Ren­jian zheng­dao. (The Right Path for Human­ity). Bei­jing: Zhong­guo ren­min­daxue chuban­she, 2011. Luo Gang, Ren­min zhis­hang: cong ‘ren­min dan­gji­azuozhu’ dao ‘she­hui gong­tong fuyu’(The peo­ple come first: from “the peo­ple as mas­ters of their own des­tines” to “com­mon social pros­per­ity”). Shang­hai: Shang­hai ren­min chuban­she, 2012.
  • 6 Some main­land schol­ars still need to pub­lish their work out­side of China. Li Xun, Da bengkui: shang­hai gongren zao­fan­pai yu wang­shi. (The great break­down: The lost his­tory of the rebel fac­tion of Shang­hai work­ers) Taibei: Shibao wen­hua chuban­she, 1996. Xu Hail­iang, Donghu fengyunlu: Wuhan wengede qun­zhong jiyi (Wind and clouds over East Lake: pop­u­lar mem­o­ries of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion in Wuhan). Hong Kong: Yinhe chuban­she, 2005. An exam­ple of an exhaus­tive and well-researched study pub­lished in China is Jin Dalu, Feichang yu zhengchang: Shang­hai wenge shiqide she­hui shenghuo (The nor­mal and the extra­or­di­nary: Social life in Shang­hai dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, 2 vols.). Shang­hai: Shang­hai cishu chuban­she, 2011. Although Xu’s book is sym­pa­thetic to the rebel fac­tions, Li’s is not.
  • 7 More nuanced stud­ies of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion include Joel Andreas, Rise of the Red Engi­neers: The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and China’s New Class. Stan­ford 2008; Paul Clark, The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion: A His­tory. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press 2008, cen­ter­ing on cul­tural pro­duc­tion in the period; Han Dong­ping, The Unknown Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion: Life and Change in a Chi­nese Vil­lage. Monthly Review Press, 2008. Eliz­a­beth Perry and Li Xun, Pro­le­tar­ian Power: Shang­hai in the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. West­view, 1997; Andrew Walder, Frac­tured Rebel­lion: The Bei­jing Red Guard Move­ment. Har­vard 2009.
  • 8 See foot­note 6.
  • 9 See espe­cially the work of Alessan­dro Russo, who treats Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion peri­odiza­tion with great the­o­ret­i­cal pre­ci­sion. Alessan­dro Russo (1998) “The Prob­a­ble Defeat: Pre­lim­i­nary Notes on the Chi­nese Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion,” Posi­tions 6(1), Spring: 179-202. Alessan­dro Russo (2005) ‘The Con­clu­sive Scene: Mao and the Red Guards in July 1968’, Posi­tions 13 (3), Win­ter: 535-574. For a use­ful review of the polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion schol­ar­ship, see Alexan­der Day, “Inter­pret­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion Polit­i­cally,” Inter-Asia Cul­tural Stud­ies 7.4 (Dec. 2006): 705-712.
  • 10 Richard Kraus makes this point in The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion: A Very Short Intro­duc­tion. Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2012.
  • 11 Sheila Fitz­patrick iden­ti­fies a sim­i­lar dynamic in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, when class categorization—difficult though it was to carry out—was also a state pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. This effort resulted in a new dimen­sion of “class rela­tions” that has inter­est­ing par­al­lels to the sit­u­a­tion Wu describes: “The main way class was sig­nif­i­cant in Soviet soci­ety was as a state clas­si­fi­ca­tory sys­tem deter­min­ing the rights and oblig­a­tions of dif­fer­ent groups of cit­i­zens. By stress­ing class, in another para­dox, the regime had man­aged to engi­neer some­thing like a rever­sion to the old and despised estate sys­tem, where your rights and priv­i­leges depended on whether you were legally clas­si­fied as a noble, a mer­chant, a mem­ber of the cler­i­cal estate, or a peas­ant. In the Soviet con­text, “class” (social posi­tion) was what defined your rela­tion­ship to the state.” Sheila Fit­patrick, Every­day Stal­in­ism: Ordi­nary Life in Extra­or­di­nary Times: Soviet Rus­sia in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2000, 11. See also Sheila Fitz­patrick, “The Prob­lem of Class Iden­tity in NEP Soci­ety,” in Rus­sia in the Era of NEP. Explo­rations in Soviet Soci­ety and Cul­ture, ed. by Sheila Fitz­patrick, Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch, and Richard Stites. Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity Press, 1991, 12–33.
  • 12 Although see Jin Dalu, op cit.
  • 13 The debate between Yasheng Huang and Joel Andreas illus­trates some of the issues at stake here. Joel Andreas, “A Shang­hai Model? On Cap­i­tal­ism with Chi­nese Char­ac­ter­is­tics,” New Left Review, II ‚65: 63-85. 2010; Yasheng Huang, “The Pol­i­tics of China’s Path: A Reply to Joel Andreas,” New Left Review, II, 65: 87-91. 2010.
  • 14 See, for exam­ple, Zhang Xudong, “Zuowei ‘zhuquanzhe’ de Deng Xiaop­ing: Deng Xiaop­ing danchen 110 zhoun­ian jin­ian yu sikao zhiyi” (Deng Xiaop­ing as “sov­er­eign power”: rec­ol­lec­tions and thoughts on the 110th anniver­sary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth). Guan­c­hazhe wang, August 20, 2014. Accessed Sep­tem­ber 11, 2014.
  • 15 See Christo­pher Con­nery, “The Chongqing Way.” Forth­com­ing 2015, bound­ary 2.