On Cultural Revolution
Every successful revolution is a revolution not just in the realm of politics, but in economics and culture as well. If not, it surely cannot sustain itself, and if the revolution does not bring change to every aspect of life it touches, it should at least aspire to do so. The purpose of this article is not to examine China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but rather to examine the concept of cultural revolution itself, and see how it is properly applied.
Sometimes referred to as “permanent social revolution” (not to be confused with the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution), cultural revolution is the undertaking of the builders of the new society to eradicate reactionary and bourgeois influences once political power has been consolidated by the revolutionary class. Cultural and social work must be maintained alongside economic work, as simply taking hold of political power and claiming victory is not enough. A victorious revolution does not mean our work is done. One does not go through the pain of giving birth only to neglect the newborn infant.
The old society is built upon institutions, practices, and beliefs that are centuries old. As such, they cannot be done away with in the span of only a few years. Though societies and cultures are constantly adapting and changing over time, these developments typically occur very slowly outside of great social upheaval. However, in the case of a new, socialist, proletarian society, cultural revolution becomes even more of a necessity, as the efforts of rightists and the displaced bourgeoisie (indeed, rightists and bourgeoisie the world over) will fight tooth and nail to either regain power or simply cripple and destroy the power of the new society.
So, the question arises, what is to be done about culture? Shall we focus on developing culture faster than the political and economic sectors? Shall we allow cultural change to take place naturally within the revolution itself? Are we not Marxists? The answer to these questions is dialectical. Cultural revolution can be undertaken both before, during, and after a socialist revolution, and it must be pursued at the same level and with the same enthusiasm as political and economic change. Adopting a revolutionary mindset and revolutionary practices even before a revolutionary situation comes about not only allows us to educate and organize potential comrades, but also lays the foundations for the eventual building of socialism, making the transition much more smooth.
But what does cultural revolution look like? It starts with an examination of the present culture in a revolutionary Marxist view. What are the aspects that maintain capitalist power? What are the elements that subvert it? Examine subcultures within the greater culture and their aspects as well. Often the greatest potential for community building and strengthening comes from these elements of society. The impoverished, the unskilled, people of color, women, the LGBT community, the disabled, immigrants, and others considered a lesser priority by the system.
As each society must adapt to the material conditions governing it, so too does this apply to culture, and revolutionary cultural change. Past societies have attempted to accomplish this in different ways, with varying degrees of success. For example, in the French Revolution of 1789, a spontaneous cultural change permeated in the heat of the Revolution, which assisted in drawing mass support for its leaders and their goals. Though spontaneous and bourgeois, this event can demonstrate how, with a set goal and an agreed-upon means of achieving it, the people can carry a revolution forward into victory despite great resistance from the establishment. The Paris Commune, however, of 1871, though supported by Marx and revolutionary in its ideals, collapsed quickly from, among other things, a lack of proper planning, support, and organization.
The Russian Revolutions of March and November 1917 met with great success in part because of a strong bond between workers and the peasantry since the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution. This bond, maintained by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution and the brutal civil war that followed, assisted the whole people of Russia and the neighboring countries in building socialism and creating the first socialist nation in history. Despite this, efforts of capitalists and reactionaries the world over to undermine and destroy the Soviet Union resulted in a strict adherence to proletarian culture, which was only lessened after the death of Stalin. Meanwhile, in the United States, women and people of color were second class citizens, while in the Soviet Union all enjoyed the right to work and live on equal terms with their fellow citizens. Even Paul Robeson, an African-American singer, praised the progressive attitude of the Soviets toward race and ethnicity when he visited in 1949.
In China, cultural change began long before the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. As early as the 1920s, Mao Zedong was studying Marxism and the nature of contradictions in class society and how they can be resolved. He analyzed the material conditions of China, particularly regarding the peasantry and how to build socialism in colonial and semi-colonial states. He also saw the need to temporarily join forces with the nationalist Kuomintang to fight off the invasion of the reactionary Japanese Empire. He rejected the bureaucracy developing in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and encouraged a truly proletarian dictatorship through an advanced theory of mass line.
Unfortunately, later in his life, with his health failing, Mao was convinced by rightist members of the Communist Party to pursue reactionary policies and allow great excesses during the GPCR. Despite the initial intent that the GPCR be a peaceful push for progress led by the masses (through programs like the Hundred Flowers Program) and be a way to hold political figures accountable and keep them in check to serve the people (Through Struggle Sessions and “Bombard the Headquarters!”), excessive damage was done to cultural relics, sites, and practices which were not necessarily reactionary, but deemed a part of the “old society” to be done away with. In addition, despite the great advances made in the treatment of women and minorities, literacy, healthcare, and other areas of society, reactionaries within Chinese society and the Party continue to push regressive ideas and practices to this day, using the excesses of the GPCR to warn against progress led by the masses.
Having looked at all of this, what conclusions can we come to regarding cultural revolution? Is it necessary for the building of socialism? If so, how is it to be implemented? How can we avoid abandoning and destroying cultural aspects which are progressive and allowing oppressive cultural aspects to continue? Armed with a correct materialist analysis, and the willingness to lead and be led by the people, these problems can be overcome, as they have been by past and current socialist societies. This, of course, requires a concrete understanding of the conditions of one’s own society and subcultures within it. What works for one society will not necessarily work for others, and as scientific socialists, we must keep this in mind.
First and foremost, the class-structured nature of society plays a great part in determining culture, and recognizing this class aspect is crucial. As the socialist revolution is to be led by the organized toiling masses, so cultural revolution must be carried out in the same way. After all, culture is more naturally brought out from the masses, and is only brought to them in cases of coercion and force. It is not the duty of the revolutionary vanguard to change the culture and force it on the masses, but to show the masses what is progressive and what is reactionary, and allow the masses to use the tools of this knowledge to break down the reactionary aspects of the old society and build up the progressive aspects of the new one.
As the political and economic transitions to socialism are made, this will have a direct impact on cultural changes. Creating a more egalitarian society which produces for the betterment of all will see all within it as equal, and will help bring down the falsely constructed barriers of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination. However, all who hope to see this new society will need to remain ever vigilant for the reactionary elements of the old society who will try everything in their power to make sure progress is not made, including dividing the people on the basis of color, gender, sexuality, religion, occupation, age, and any other conceivable differences to be exploited.
Furthermore, a cultural revolution can be started at any time, though it must be continued under socialism. Challenging reactionary and outdated cultural norms can begin even in this age of imperialist neoliberal capitalism, though it will not go unchallenged. Capitalists and their reactionary lapdogs will recognize that you are trying to break their hold upon the toiling producers of society, and use both economic and political means to fight back. They may spread libelous rumors to discredit you, give credit and status to your enemies and opponents, or even resort to using state violence via the police and military to silence you. All of these things, and more, they have done many times in the past.
But take heart, for you do not work alone, but among many. You work among a number that is ever-growing and organizing into a fighting force to be reckoned with. They can dismiss the voice of one, but they will be forced to listen to the voice of a million.