In November 1965, the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was reviewed by Yao Wenyuan in the newspaper Wenhuibao. The review appeared a few years after the staging of the play, a spectacular opera in the Beijing style written by a respected historian of the Ming Dynasty, Wu Han. Later, it would come to be seen as the spark for the tumultuous events of the Cultural Revolution.
At the center of the play was Hai Rui, a real historical figure from the sixteenth century. Known for being an “incorruptible” imperial official, Hai always sided with the common peasants, risking his office to help them regain land that had been seized by the emperor’s corrupt officials. Despite his heroism, Hai was subjected to a public defamation campaign and dismissed by the emperor.
The play was didactic, intended to educate the audience about Chinese history. But according to Yao’s review, it also staged, in the relation between the upright Hai Rui and the adoring peasants who turned to him for salvation, the relation between the leadership of the Communist Party and the peasants who had constituted the base of the People’s War. Yao argued that the play was based on a historical misrepresentation: in portraying the peasants’ dependence on Hai, Wu Han had erased their political agency. The plot point of “returning the land,” meanwhile, was a way of esoterically criticizing the Communist leadership for the Great Leap Forward. The play was thus an instance of “the bourgeois opposition to the dictatorship of the proletariat and to the socialist revolution.”
The review was commissioned by Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao, who along with Yao and Wang Hongwen would constitute the “Gang of Four,” Mao Zedong’s radical inner circle that would, after Mao’s death, be arrested and blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Precisely who in the Chinese revolutionary leadership Hai Rui and the “corrupt officials” were supposed to represent became a matter of central political import. Mao supported Yao’s essay, taking the literary analysis a step further by suggesting that Hai Rui was an allegorical defense of Peng Dehuai, who had publicly opposed Mao in a dispute that had peaked in 1959 at the Lushan Conference, with disastrous consequences. The Chairman had dismissed him.
Despite its endorsement by the highest leadership, however, the review was divisive. At some levels of the local state apparatus, there were initially attempts to censor its republication. Ultimately, the controversy led to the dismissal of Peng Zhen—Wu Han’s supporter and the mayor of Beijing—along with other cultural and political officials. Such would be a major thread of the Cultural Revolution: political disputes which went from debates over agricultural policy and theater criticism to the dismissal of public officials, and all the way round again.
The ensuing sequence of events is fairly well known: on May 25, 1966, there appeared a “big-character poster” at Peking University written by the appointed Party secretary of the philosophy department, Nie Yuanzi. The poster called on the campus to “Ignite the Cultural Revolution in the Universities,” by opposing the “counterrevolutionary revisionists” who were suppressing independent discussions—discussions partly provoked by the Hai Rui controversy. Rather than supporting his own party officials, who had been trying to keep political debate and activity under state control, Mao enthusiastically supported the poster, along with two others that followed at Tsinghua University Middle School, signed by a group that called itself the “Red Guards.” In doing so, he gave his blessing to the youth organizations that soon mushroomed into the major political actors of the Cultural Revolution.
Over the years I have struggled to think through what strike me as two parallel problems. The first is a general historical condition I have come to see as “depoliticization,” which results from the closure of the revolutionary sequences of the twentieth century and the categories of political struggle that defined them. Depoliticization makes it difficult to imagine how, in our contemporary conditions, we could come up with the kinds of organizations and practices that would be capable of fundamentally transforming our society. The second was my own political experiences, in which initial energies of unity, organization and political creation turned, in a sinister reversal, into factions which sought to eat each other alive. Frequently, what began as opposition to society’s most entrenched institutions culminated in disputes over the expulsion of particular individuals.
My sense of novelty each time this happened, which paradoxically appears to be a historical invariant, was tempered somewhat by my awareness that purges and factionalism are classic problems of the left. Yet historically, they occurred in the context of global and civil wars, frequently following invasions and large-scale massacres. Why then did microscopic, parodical versions of these phenomena now take place even in the absence of such stakes?
As I went through these experiences, my thinking was stimulated by studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution, especially the unique analysis of the Italian sociologist Alessandro Russo, newly presented this year in his book Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture. In my ongoing reflections on the seeming impossibility of emancipatory politics in the present, I became fascinated by the category of “dismissal.” This term was used throughout Chinese history to refer to the removal of imperial officials from their positions, but its logic seemed to be reappearing in the entirely different context of contemporary social movements. For Russo, it was central to accounting for the contradictions of the Cultural Revolution, and also to his painstaking analysis of the Hai Rui affair—the revolution’s “theatrical prologue.”
Russo’s book comes at a time when comparisons to the Cultural Revolution abound. Pundits have used it to warn us of the dangerous implications of cancel culture—usually meaning, more or less, social media mobs, but also real-life ones, that target people who deviate from the dominant conformism, with the goal of ruining their reputations and sometimes getting them fired. In these comparisons, Maoism is equated with “social justice,” the Red Guards with students who try to take down their professors or activists who topple statues of the Founding Fathers, the famous “struggle sessions” with today’s ritualistic confessions of privilege.
Such comparisons may seem quite alarming, given that condemnations of the Cultural Revolution are based on some matters of indisputable fact. It included violent conflict between opposing factions, military repression of movements that fell out of favor and the denunciation and persecution of individuals whose ideological rectitude was insufficient. To refer to the examples circulating around Hai Rui, both the author Wu Han and the play’s alleged allegorical protagonist Peng Dehuai were heavily persecuted from the start of the Cultural Revolution, and died in prison.
It is easy to point out, and many have, that contemporary events come nowhere near the scale of violence and repression associated with the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, the exaggerated and ill-informed character of these comparisons—unencumbered by any awareness of the scholarly debate on this astonishingly complicated episode in the history of state socialism—does not necessarily invalidate what we might call their “rational kernel.” The history of the left is dripping with examples of groups fighting for human emancipation and liberation who became punitive and conformist. Social ostracism and unemployment are not the same as firing squads and gulags, but they are harmful nonetheless and, perhaps even more salient for those of us who remain committed to the projects of human emancipation, they are incompatible with those political goals.
Comparisons between the Cultural Revolution and our own time therefore present us with an opportunity to look more closely at the historical example and see what it really has to teach us. Indeed, as recent scholarship confirms, the Cultural Revolution was far more complicated than one-dimensional narratives about mindless mobs directed by Mao would suggest. For instance, Yiching Wu’s 2014 book The Cultural Revolution at the Margins, while quite critical of Mao and the Maoists, shows that, while the Cultural Revolution did display dynamics of containment and repression from above, it also “generated new forms of political subjectivity and solidarity.” From below, participants in the revolution heeded Mao’s call for rebellion, but they also responded to their own circumstances and pursued their own political goals. These included, as Wu writes, “the struggles of individuals who suffered political discrimination for equal citizenship, workers’ demands for better wages and work conditions, popular grievances against cadre abuses of power, and recalcitrant rebels’ opposition to mass demobilization and political recentralization.”
Such accounts raise questions that are more complicated than any hasty comparison can suggest. How did these contradictory tendencies coexist as part of a single political sequence? How do popular energies move in what appear to be irreconcilable directions? How do mass movements introject hierarchical structures of power? While the critique of centralist and top-down models of political organization has become familiar in recent years, less attention is paid to the way that people actually absorb such structures into their everyday lives. This is a problem that requires further investigation and intervention—though not in the moralistic sense that hierarchies are bad and should therefore be eliminated from group dynamics, an approach I have found to paradoxically encourage the policing of others.
The problem with the moralizing view is that it imagines that liberation is latent in human relations, waiting to express itself once the malign, artificial structures are removed. Such dreams of a pure and original structurelessness are tempting, but misguided. Human liberation requires actively building new structures that prevent domination and exploitation from reasserting themselves. Since we do not yet know what these structures will look like, we have to both seriously study past attempts to build them and open up the space for experimentation in the present. 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.
Perhaps Dai Jinhua’s eloquent reflection on historical memory in After the Post-Cold War (2018) best explains the orientation we can take in the present toward past traumas, otherwise reduced to the “depoliticized narrative” of personal memory: “Only the imagination and promise of an alternative future allow historical and present suffering to emerge and speak,” Dai writes, “and only a nonteleological future vision can free history and time from the custody of power and violence.” Indeed, once we recognize the emancipatory and egalitarian dimensions of the Cultural Revolution, the problem becomes more difficult, not less. We now have to try to understand why collectivities advocating an emancipatory politics also engage in persecution of their own members, not only in our own contemporary experience but also in one of the most significant events in the history of revolutionary socialism.
Following the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, the new party-state set about implementing a program of abolishing all class distinctions. This meant not only the dispossession of capitalists and landlords, but also an ongoing attempt to undermine the intellectual and managerial elite whose monopoly on knowledge preserved the division of manual and intellectual labor. A kind of “affirmative action” for those who came from underprivileged worker and peasant class backgrounds, including through university admissions, had been central to this program. Yet at the same time, this approach to “class leveling” gave rise to a new political elite: a bureaucracy of the party-state that served as the primary authority and represented the working class at the level of government.1
Mao worried about the counterrevolutionary potential of this new elite. The sterility of the Party bureaucracy, in his view, threatened to hold back China’s passage through the socialist transition into a fully classless society. The lifelong revolutionary continued to place his faith in perpetual mass mobilization rather than institutional stability. Among his most famous slogans, perhaps most closely associated with the Cultural Revolution, was first articulated in 1939, and placed the principle of rebellion at the core of Marxism:
There are innumerable principles of Marxism, but in the final analysis they can all be summed up in one sentence: “To rebel is justified.” For thousands of years everyone said, “Oppression is justified, exploitation is justified, rebellion is not justified.” From the time that Marxism appeared on the scene, this old judgment was turned upside down, and this is a great contribution. The principle was derived by the proletariat from its struggles, but Marx drew the conclusion. In accordance with this principle, there was then resistance, there was struggle, and socialism was realized.
On August 1, 1966, Mao would repeat the slogan in his letter to the Red Guards of Tsinghua University Middle School, the site of major developments in the coming two years. He added at the end: “Marx said: the proletariat must emancipate not only itself but all mankind. If it cannot emancipate all mankind, then the proletariat itself will not be able to achieve final emancipation. Will comrades please pay attention to this truth too.” He followed this letter with his own big-character poster, which shockingly called on the comrades to “Bombard the Headquarters” of their own (his own) Communist Party. But this was a preview of things to come: the Cultural Revolution would be defined by this antagonism of Mao and his allies—unified with rebellious groups amidst the masses—against Mao’s own Party bureaucracy.
Mao’s encouragement of rebellion in this period, even when it was directed against his own officials, was driven by what Russo emphasizes as a subterranean theme of Mao’s thought. Leading up to the Cultural Revolution, Mao was preoccupied by a historical anxiety that sat at odds with the classical orientation of revolutionary culture toward the inevitability of victory. It was instead the “probable defeat” that framed Mao’s thinking.
Already in a meeting on May 5, 1966 with the Deputy Secretary of the Albanian Workers’ Party, Mehmet Shehu, Mao colorfully acknowledged his aging: “My health is quite good but Marx will eventually invite me to visit him.” He posed the question of when “revisionism”—the classical Marxist-Leninist phrase for the abandonment of the revolutionary path—would take over China. The source of this revisionism, Mao said, would not result from the machinations of established enemies. Rather, “those who now support us will suddenly, as if by magic, become revisionists.” Mao speculated pessimistically that when his generation went off to join Marx, revisionism would prevail. It was thus time at this late stage of the revolutionary’s life to think seriously about the prospect of the “restoration of capitalism.”
“Putting this probability as the first to take place, we are a bit worried,” Mao admitted. “I too am sometimes distressed. To say that I do not think it so and do not feel anxiety would be false. However, I woke up, I called some friends to a meeting, we’ve discussed it a bit and are looking for a solution.” A little over a week later would appear the famous Circular of 16 May, which invoked the Hai Rui affair and declared that “it is necessary … to criticize and repudiate those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and all spheres of culture.”
There is nothing surprising about this. In the modern world capitalism is the rule, and socialism the exception. It therefore requires constant renewal and reinvention by mass experiments. And if the bourgeoisie is inside the Communist Party, this means that organizational forms independent of the Party will be required to combat it. Situating the critique of revisionism in the probable defeat shows how Mao was engaged in a fundamental rethinking of the historical teleologies of revolutionary culture, a profound problem of lasting relevance. No wonder, Russo notes, that in meetings with Albanian comrades Mao continued to emphasize this theme, saying in 1967: “There are two possibilities: revisionism will overthrow us or we will overthrow revisionism.” Putting defeat as the “first possibility,” Mao said, was “beneficial,” since it would allow them not to “underestimate the enemy.” At another meeting a few months later, he expanded this point: “Most probably revisionism will win out, and we will be defeated. Through the probable defeat, we will arouse everyone’s attention.”
For Mao, then, intra-elite conflict was desirable insofar as it was necessary to remove the bureaucrats who were suppressing mass rebellion, since it was only mass rebellion that could avert the possible victory of capitalism in China—which has indeed been the eventual outcome. As Russo emphasizes, Mao’s participation in the debate over Yao’s review was motivated by his assessment of the risk of the rolling back of the achievements of the revolution, and was thus aimed chiefly at those in the ideological apparatus whom he believed threatened the free and open criticism of revisionism. “Mao’s statements in these months,” Russo writes, “can be summed up as focusing on two pressing themes: it was necessary to dismiss certain authorities and open to an unlimited plurality of political voices in China.” The relation between the two terms in this analysis, dismissal and pluralization, is decisive, and not only for understanding the Cultural Revolution. It is also central to grasping the fundamental problems of emancipatory politics in our own time.
Dismissal, as manifested in the Hai Rui affair, involved the expulsion of ministers, leaders and politicians from their posts. But it also represented something much broader. “Dismissal,” Russo explains, is the repetitive procedure “that is omnipresent in every course of action that results in overthrowing, more or less violently, those who govern the life of others from their positions of authority at every level.” It is thus fundamentally a kind of governmental practice which increases in violence as it climbs to higher levels of authority. It revolves around the sensibility of the politician, which evinces, in Russo’s words, an “enjoyment of deciding the fate of others.”
Dismissal, Russo argues, is the rule in history. But there are also exceptions. The “egalitarian exception” is “pluralization,” a process that takes a distance from the existing social hierarchies and the practices of government. In exceptional moments of pluralization we see that “those who are usually in the position of being governed … are at times capable of self-organizing their political existence and inventing egalitarian forms of relations.” Concretely, pluralization in the Cultural Revolution meant the appearance of entirely new organizations independent of and indeed antagonistic to the party-state, spreading far beyond university campuses and extending to the urban working class.
It should be emphasized that, in identifying the emancipatory character of this moment of pluralization, Russo does not seek to rationalize the spectacular performances that are now associated with the Cultural Revolution—and that motivate most contemporary comparisons. Destroying statues and buildings, renaming streets and shops, were a distraction from the real issues: the formation of a plurality of independent organizations without the prior authorization of the single party-state. These spectacular practices, in fact, were to the benefit of the Party bureaucracy insofar as they redirected student activism away from pluralization.
The dilemma of the Cultural Revolution was played out in the overlapping of dismissal and pluralization. As we have seen, the governmental practice of dismissal was initially supposed to open up the space for pluralization, by removing the bureaucrats and revisionists who, raised to positions of power in the early stages of the Revolution, now sought to clamp down on rebellion outside the Party. Mao thought—mistakenly—that the two processes were compatible. But the experience of the Cultural Revolution illustrates that there is in fact a fundamental discontinuity and antagonism between the process of dismissal, which depends on hierarchies in which people occupy particular social positions, and egalitarian invention, which makes equality a living principle through experimentation with organizational forms. In this case, the thousands of new organizations that emerged through pluralization eventually came to attack each other, and the egalitarian experiment self-destructed.
The phenomenon that emerges from the amalgamation of dismissal and pluralization is “factionalism,” and for Russo it indicates the fundamental limit of the Cultural Revolution. Factionalism describes the process by which, through arbitrary splits and alliances, the indeterminate plurality of organizations was reduced to a framework of two. The self-authorization of organizations was no longer at stake; now the factions would confront each other in fighting directed toward political or military supremacy. Instead of maintaining independence from the party-state, the factional organizations sought to become the nucleus of a new party-state, constituted by the process of dismissal and annihilation of the opposing faction. The Cultural Revolution had devolved into “grotesque brawls” between youths, whose struggle for power soon led to the exhaustion of the political energies that had only recently come into being.
Factional disputes, it is important to underscore, were not based on diverging political positions, but rather solely on the goal of destroying rival organizations in the name of the seizure of power. This general point is definitively borne out by historian Andrew G. Walder’s comprehensive synthesis Agents of Disorder (2019). Here Walder draws on material from “local annals” to disprove earlier theories that explained factionalism as a symptom of preexisting interest groups or ideologies. Instead, he confirms, factionalism had only one basis: the annihilation of the competing faction. As opposed to substantive political disagreements creating the divisions between factions, their ideologies served as justification for arbitrary divisions. Support for the military, for instance, was not determined by an organization’s position on the correctness of state intervention, but rather on whether the military would be useful in suppressing the competing faction. In this sense, the factions were entirely depoliticized.
To call the factions “depoliticized” might seem counterintuitive. In contemporary discussions of the Cultural Revolution—which often connect factionalism to cancel culture—both dynamics are often imagined as driven by hyper-politicization, or “the politicization of everyday life.” Looking more closely at the history, however, reveals that factionalism in the Cultural Revolution was in fact driven by a “depoliticized” politics—a politics that had been emptied of positive content and thus was defined only by the annihilation of the opposition. “The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution,” writes the Chinese scholar Wang Hui, in a 2006 essay later collected in The End of the Revolution (2009), “was not a product of its politicization—signified by debate, theoretical investigation, autonomous social organization, as well as the spontaneity and vitality of political and discursive space.” Rather, it was “a result of depoliticization—polarized factional struggles that eliminated the possibility for autonomous social spheres, transforming political debate into a mere means of power struggle, and class into an essentialized identitarian concept.”
Note that, today, class is not frequently viewed as an identity, but it certainly is still the case that “identity politics” is constitutive of identities rather than reflecting existing ones. This was also true of the depoliticizing features of the Cultural Revolution. State socialism designated class as an identity in order to engage in class leveling, but also ended up depoliticizing class as social hierarchies changed and class background became an inherited family trait. An important lesson we should draw from the history of experiments in working-class political power is that to constitute a contemporary politics of class, it is not enough to assert its primacy as a social foundation. Rather, the goal must be to situate it within the framework of an emancipatory politics that does not presume the prior existence of fused identities and interests.
In fact, this points to a revealing similarity between emancipatory politics and factionalism: neither is predetermined by social foundations. In both cases, politics has broken free from its customary anchors. But they run in opposite directions. Factionalism redirects political action into the perpetual governmental practices that maintain or reflect the existing world. It frequently rationalizes its practices with appeals to identitarian categories, but, properly understood, these are consequences of depoliticization rather than its cause. A truly emancipatory politics, on the other hand, exceeds the existing world. It mobilizes existing social categories only insofar as they elaborate a politics which affirms the political capacity of everyone, independent of the place they occupy in society.
The failure of the rebels, Russo concludes, was that they did not establish distance between dismissal and pluralization. Dismissal, we have noted, is the rule in history; it is always “there.” The mistake that has been constantly repeated is to think it can be fused with emancipatory politics. In the Hai Rui affair, Mao sought to curtail the powers of his own Central Department of Propaganda, in hopes it would lead to greater cultural and political freedom among the masses. The problem was that this curtailment became difficult to distinguish from dismissal. And as dismissal absorbs pluralization into the governmental sensibility, the “enjoyment of deciding the fate of others” infiltrates non-state organizations too. To truly distance oneself from the logic of dismissal means to reject that enjoyment.
Is it possible to have pluralization without dismissal—and therefore to avoid the descent into factionalism? This is the question that should occur to anyone committed to a repoliticization of the present. I believe it is possible. But it is also rare, and in studying history we end up often alternating between enthusiasm for the egalitarian exception and dismay at the reassertion of the governmental sensibility. In the case of the Cultural Revolution, dismissal cannot totally be distinguished from pluralization precisely because the framework of the party-state remained central to revolutionary culture, even though there were exceptional moments that pointed past it. But the overlap between dismissal and pluralization occurred even outside of the administrative apparatuses of government, for the enjoyment of controlling the lives of others also exists at the level of everyday practices and behaviors. This is what explains the famous dunce caps and denunciations, which were there from the start of the Cultural Revolution, representing the logic of dismissal even as they operated in a decentralized and informal manner.
Interpreting the Cultural Revolution from the standpoint of emancipatory politics in the present requires us to be attentive to the moments in which the egalitarian exception burst through before being reabsorbed into the rule of dismissal. It is impossible for us here to untangle the complicated timelines of the divergence and amalgamation of these processes. So I will skip to an episode that marks the end of this sequence. In an extraordinary chapter on the “conclusive scene” of the theatrical development that began with the prologue of Hai Rui—a scene that he has previously staged as a play—Russo dramatizes the degeneration of the Cultural Revolution into factionalism and the total exhaustion and depoliticization of the Red Guards.2
In the summer of 1968, factional fighting at Tsinghua University had accelerated to low-intensity warfare, complete with rockets and grenades. The student groups, called “Sky” and “Earth,” were named for their bases at the Institute of Aeronautics and the Institute of Geology, respectively. There was neither a clear ideological difference nor any underlying difference in class background between the two groups. Factional lines had been intersecting and dividing according to a logic that defied comprehension. (“All this Sky and Earth stuff is not clear to me,” Mao would remark.) Participation by students dwindled as factionalism divided them further and further, driving out the less fanatical.
At the same time, the violence of the clashes between the dwindling numbers who composed the two remaining factions continued to escalate. Then, at 10 a.m. on July 27th, at least thirty thousand workers entered the campus, many of them just coming off of the night shift. Unarmed, the workers stood between the factions to stop the fighting. As William Hinton recounted in Hundred Day War (1972):
Right at the start violence flared. As the workers of the Direct Regiment approached the First Classroom Building they came face to face with “Bear,” a formidable and daring fighter famous far beyond Peking whose real name was Wu Wei-ch’i and whose father was an officer in the PLA. Bear stood stripped to the waist behind a barricade of electrified barbed wire. Brandishing a knife in one hand and an axe in the other, he shouted, “Chairman Mao says anyone who suppresses the student movement will come to a bad end! Whoever enters our building will be cut in half!”
“Use reason, not violence,” retorted the workers in unison as they moved slowly forward to surround the building.
Finally the workers succeeded, with what Russo characterizes as a rare “rationalist discipline,” in occupying key points of the campus and bringing the fighting to an end.
It was in the early-morning hours after the end of the battle that the Maoist leadership called various Red Guard leaders to order, challenged them to explain their motivations and sternly criticized their factionalism. The students, at a loss to respond to this call to end their fighting, tried to defend their factions. Obliviously, they requested military aid—which was refused—to suppress their rivals. Near the end of the meeting Kuai Dafu, a leader of the Sky faction and perhaps the most famous Red Guard in China, stumbled in sobbing. Kuai had sent Mao a telegram earlier in the day calling for the capture of whoever was behind the disruption of the Tsinghua University fight. Mao told a dumbfounded Kuai that he himself had been responsible for the dispatch of workers. It is one of the exchanges that, Russo argues, shows that the purpose of the meeting was to grapple with the political exhaustion of the Red Guards.
The Maoist challenge, according to Russo, was to bring an end to student factionalism without dissolving the impulse of pluralization that had brought the factions into existence. The appearance of the workers on the campus anticipated the program that would follow, building on the mobilization of workers against the depoliticized brawls of the students. After factionalism the Maoist strategy was to reinvent the “figure of the worker” at the center of a new political experiment. Attempts to engage in this project can be seen throughout the 1970s, especially in the “workers’ universities” and “workers’ theoretical contingents” organized within factories, which continued the struggle to overcome the division between manual and intellectual labor and the hierarchies of production.
This project was uneven and contradictory: factional divisions lingered through the following decade, and paradoxically some of the egalitarian promise of the Cultural Revolution was only realized afterwards. Nevertheless, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms ultimately overturned these initiatives by converting the point of production into the site of profit accumulation, reducing the worker to an economic unit rather than a political actor. (“Producing more coal is the politics of coal miners,” Deng said.) A merger between previously contending intellectual and political elites, whose status had been attacked by the radicalization of the class-leveling project in the Cultural Revolution, generated a new technocracy.
Thus the state policy of “thorough negation” of the Cultural Revolution converted one of the most egalitarian societies in the world into one of the most unequal. In negating the Cultural Revolution, China advanced at breakneck speed down the capitalist road. In the meantime, in 1968, the Red Guards were dissolved.3
It is worth recalling what is at stake in this historical study: to use the dead end encountered by the Cultural Revolution to rethink the conditions for emancipatory politics today. An emancipatory politics rests on mass mobilization, on the emergence of self-authorizing egalitarian experiments. While we have seen how dismissal amalgamated with pluralization generates factionalism, we have also suggested that it is logically possible to distinguish pluralization from dismissal.
What is called cancel culture today is sometimes presented as a mass phenomenon, placed in a continuum with protests and riots, as though there was one unbroken thread running through getting people fired to tearing down statues to looting. This assumption is misleading, and not only because it can inspire its own brand of repression. What it misses is the necessary distinction, even in movements and spaces where they clearly overlap, between self-authorizing, egalitarian activity and the governmental logic of dismissal. At any given protest or political meeting, one might witness the berating and denunciation of new participants who are unfamiliar with the language and etiquette of contemporary social justice, while in the next moment encountering the affirmation of the principle that everyone is capable of making a political declaration against injustice. It is possible and necessary to separate the egalitarian impulse from the censorious one.
For us, the central point is to understand that even when dismissal is conceived as an aid to pluralization—as was Mao’s intention in the Hai Rui affair—its logic leads to factionalism and thus to depoliticization. Partly, this is a matter of recognizing that it is not only those who pursue politics as a vocation who enjoy controlling the lives of others. The more people take it upon themselves to act like states, engaging in censorship and control, the more they undermine the possibility of emancipatory politics and set the stage for factionalist self-destruction.
The lesson of the Cultural Revolution is that an emancipatory politics is indeed possible, but also fragile and precarious—and under constant threat by the logic of dismissal, which can either prohibit its emergence or propel it into factionalism. In the absence of pluralization—which does not occur with frequency in history, though it does occur—we are faced with the presence and persistence of the rule of dismissal. Depoliticized politics today revolves around dismissal insofar as it evinces an enjoyment in governing others—and nothing else. By way of conclusion, I will indicate three ways I believe dismissal operates today.
First, dismissal is vacuous. It does not take place in the context of the socialist transition and the party-state. Dismissal is now decentralized and embedded, instead, in petty bureaucracies, workplaces and social movements. It is characterized by the relative powerlessness of the base and the low stakes of substituting one bureaucrat with another. Moreover, in the absence of a revolutionary party-state or a process of pluralization, dismissal comes to occupy the entire space of the political. There can be no change in the bureaucratic and hierarchical structures of power, but only in the persons who represent this structure. Dismissal forecloses politics insofar as it is vacuous.
Second, dismissal operates according to the logic of identity. The logic of identity determines and constrains politics according to essentialist social foundations. Reviving the class designations that characterized revolutionary culture is not in itself a solution, especially if class belonging is understood in identitarian terms. Only when it is conceived in terms of an egalitarian political subjectivity can class present an alternative to the essentialism of identity. But in the logic of dismissal, all forms of belonging are only components of the personalization of the enemy that extends from the identitarian emptying. In lieu of any substantive political disagreement, it is only the person who can be attacked. Dismissal determines the person as enemy through the displacement of political action by identity.
Third, dismissal reinforces broader depoliticization through degeneration into factions. Factionalism is the necessary outcome of the capture of politics by dismissal and the personalization of the enemy, and it renders political debate and discussion impossible. In place of the plurality of organizations, there will be two factions, and their reason for being will increasingly become the annihilation of the opposite faction. Dismissal is the depoliticized practice of factional annihilation.
For these reasons, the suggestions that we are witnessing the reemergence of something like the Cultural Revolution tend to invert the reality of our situation, which is that the Cultural Revolution uniquely represents the end of a sequence of revolutionary politics that stretched from Eastern Europe to Asia to Africa to Latin America. This ran parallel to a specifically Chinese sequence of revolutions, reviewed earlier this year in Rebecca Karl’s China’s Revolutions in the Modern World. In contemporary American political discourse, China is viewed here as a trading partner, there as a security risk, or perhaps as a new global hegemon. But its revolutionary history, as Karl shows, has universal significance for those who care about “how worlds other than the given ones could be made thinkable and rendered possible.”
This particular revolutionary sequence was defeated by global capitalist opposition, but it was also, in the terms of Sylvain Lazarus, who was reflecting on his own participation in the French Maoism that came after 1968, “saturated” or “exhausted,” because the model of politics centered on the party-state can no longer be sustained. This is entirely different from claiming that the forms and strategies of these previous political movements were errors, or destined to end in disaster. It rather sets out by recognizing that there are modes of politics specific to historical situations, in which people generate categories like “the Party.” When a historical mode of politics comes to an end—what begins ends, too—these categories are exhausted.
As I reflected on my contemporary political experiences, I began to think that it was precisely because we had not discovered new modes of emancipatory politics that all we had left was a caricatural form of factionalism, personal attacks and denunciations, which did not even represent the historical scale and stakes of rapid industrialization, wars of national liberation or the formation of new economic and political institutions. Some seek to generalize these categories beyond their historical situations, replaying sectarian battles outside of the contexts that gave them their meaning. But even worse than this approach is the one that says nothing ever happened at all, that a genuine politics of rupture with the status quo never really took place, and therefore never will.
The orthodoxies of social justice today propose nothing comparable to the project of total social transformation that once revolved around the categories of party and state. They belong to the period of depoliticization. We may characterize dismissal as the phenomenon that threatens emancipation in the period of state socialism and marks its negation in the period of exhaustion.
The Cultural Revolution shows that the scope of the possible is determined by the presence or absence of pluralization. Yet we have to reckon with the historical reality that dismissal took a devastating form alongside an exceptional process of pluralization. How can we define our relation to this historical experience, that is, the experience of saturation and exhaustion of the party-state, which cannot simply be revived? Furthermore, how do we orient ourselves to the present, framed by the seeming impossibility of pluralization?
Above all, is it possible to invent new ways of doing politics? In the absence of an answer, we are left only with the grim necessity of finding ways to refuse the logic of the governmental sensibility, the alternative being at best the foreclosure of any possibility of pluralization, or at worst the revival of ever more morbid forms of dismissal.
Thus the search for a new historical mode of politics that can refuse dismissal is pressing. Because we will probably be defeated, now more than ever.
Art credit: Li Songsong, “Historical Materialism,” 2014