Noam Chomsky: The Manufacture of Consent (1983)

chomsky interview

In 1982-83, I conducted an interview with Noam Chomsky (by mail! there was no internet back then, or at least one accessible to the general public). It was published in the Open Road news journal, then the highest circulation English language anarchist publication (it’s circulation peaked at around 14,000). The interview reflects many of my own concerns at the time. Chomsky himself was fairly pessimistic back then regarding the human prospect. During the time over which the interview was conducted, the U.S. backed Rios Montt regime in Guatemala was murdering literally tens of thousands of people, largely among the indigenous peasant population. I note that Rios Montt has, just this month, some 30 years later, been convicted in Guatemala of genocide but the conviction has already been overturned. Space limitations prevented me from including excerpts from this interview in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, now available from AK Press.

open roadThe Manufacture of Consent: An Interview With Noam Chomsky

Today you are probably best known as a critic of U.S. foreign policy. What sort of audience are you trying to reach? Are you afraid that you may just be preaching to the converted?

I’m aware of the danger, but don’t feel that it is real. The major groups of “the converted”—that is, the deeply indoctrinated with naive and immutable quasi-religious beliefs—are the mainstream elite intelligentsia. But they are much too well-disciplined to listen to anything I have to say, and they know of it, if at all, only through the fabrications of various party-liners or their own incomprehension of anything that parts from doctrinal purity The reaction among various Marxists sects and the like is similar, and for similar reasons.

The audience I try to reach, and to some limited extent do reach, is a different one: partly, activists of a less doctrinaire sort than the mainstream liberal intelligentsia and sectarian Marxists, partly the kind of general interested audience that one finds everywhere: around universities (primarily students), church groups, and so on.

I’m not trying to convert, but to inform. I don’t want people to believe me, any more than they should believe the party line I’m criticizing—academic authority, the media, the overt state propagandists, or whatever. In talks and in print, I try to stress what I think is true: that with a little willingness to explore and use one’s mind, it is possible to discover a good deal about the social and political world that is generally hidden. I feel that I’ve achieved something if people are encouraged to take up this challenge and learn for themselves.

There are a vast number of people who are uninformed and heavily propagandized, but fundamentally decent. The propaganda that inundates them is effective when unchallenged, but much of it goes only skin deep. If they can be brought to raise questions and apply their decent instincts and basic intelligence, many people quickly escape the confines of the doctrinal system and are willing to do something to help others who are really suffering and oppressed.

This is naturally less true of better-educated and “more sophisticated” (that is, more effectively indoctrinated) groups who are both the agents and often the most deluded victims of the propaganda system.

The New Diplomacy - Just Like the Old One

The New Diplomacy – Just Like the Old One

What position do you think North American anti-authoritarians should take with regard to Third World liberation movements, especially the more authoritarian, Leninist/Maoist type of movement? Do you think our first priority should be to simply oppose U.S. imperialism?

The U.S. has not been elected God, and has no authority to impose its will by violence in the Third World. Apart from the matter of principle, some familiarity with recent history shows clearly enough the effects of its benevolence, in Central America and the Caribbean for many years, in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Any honest person will therefore oppose and attempt to block such intervention, exactly as in the case of subversion or aggression by any other power.

This truism aside, our attitude towards Third World “liberation movements” should be to find out and tell the truth about them. Where we can do something to defend people who are oppressed, to alleviate suffering, or to expand the scope of freedom, we should do so, though the best we can do, quite often, is to keep our bloody hands out of their affairs. We should also try to offer constructive assistance to people attempting to overcome centuries of misery and oppression, in part because it is just and right, in part out of a recognition of what the plague of European civilization has created as it spread through the world. Outside intervention regularly tends to enhance the authoritarian and oppressive elements in these movements, and in fact is often designed to achieve this end (Cuba and Nicaragua are two obvious examples).

It is not clear that there exists any way for most of the people of the Third World to overcome the enormous problems they face, which transcend anything in our historical experience. Whatever slight chance there might be for decent prospects are reduced or eliminated by the violence of the great powers, in part motivated by fear that successful development will take place outside of their control, with a “demonstration effect” that will undermine their dominance elsewhere. These are some of the facts of the world that have to be faced. It is easy to preach to the Third World, a little more difficult to offer constructive recommendations.

quiet rumours

Has there been a resurgence of left-wing political activity in the U.S. in the past couple of years?

First, the alleged decline of activism in the 1970s was partly mythical. This was, after all, the period of the rise of the feminist and ecological movements, and much else. In fact, there remained from the 1960s a proliferation of activists groups of many sorts, doing valuable work, generally locally oriented, and many new people joined or began afresh. As the state gradually returned to its natural stance of militancy, subversion and aggression after its partial failures in Vietnam, and as the economic crisis deepened, this activism quickly emerged to public view.

Yet in Radical Priorities, you deny that either feminism or the ecology movement pose a real threat to capitalism—presumably the demands of both movements can be met within the capitalist system. Do you see any revolutionary potential in these movements, or do you think that the working class remains the most likely agent of revolutionary transformation?

The feminist movement, and to some extent the ecology movement, have, I think, had a significant and lasting effect on social thought and practice. But it should be recognized that capitalism can easily accommodate the idea that individuals are interchangeable tools of production and that the environment should be maintained to be exploited by the masters of the economic and political system. A radical and emancipatory movement is not necessarily anti- capitalist. There are many forms of authority and domination apart from those of the capitalist system; correspondingly, there are many forms of “revolutionary transformation.” It doesn’t seem to me a matter of “one or the other,” as your formulation tends to suggest.

Isn’t industrialism itself becoming obsolete?

Industrialism is far from obsolete. The vast majority of the human race has not even entered the industrial era, or has barely entered it, and in the advanced industrial societies the production of useful goods poses real and imminent problems. One major problem of advanced industrial societies—England, and now the U.S.—is that the capacity for useful production is to a certain extent being lost, a fact that has been emphasized for many years by Seymour Melman, among others.

Manufacturing Unemployment

Manufacturing Unemployment

Do you see any prospects for a libertarian social movement emerging in the U.S.?

Quite often, one tends to find libertarian elements in the various activist groups that are continually forming, disappearing, and transmuting into something else. One of the healthy aspects of American society and culture is the relatively low level of deference to privilege and a general skepticism about hierarchy and authority. I emphasize “relatively”; there is a long way to go. The lack of any live socialist tradition or any party structure also serves to make the U.S. different from other capitalist industrial societies in this respect: on the one hand, it leads to a lack of continuity at the intellectual or activist-organizational levels and a generally shifting and evanescent quality to much that happens here; on the other hand, it often leads to openness and innovation, which helps foster libertarian tendencies that often have quite deep roots, I think. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to where it will lead.

chomsky new mandarins

Many of your political writings are directed toward the “new mandarins,” the intellectual servants of American power and interests. Why do you think it is important to expose the collusion between intellectuals and the state?

It has been recognized for many years that “the manufacture of consent” is a major task in societies where obedience cannot be ensured by violence. Whether they are aware of it or not, a substantial part of the intelligentsia commit themselves to this task. The result is a system of indoctrination that is often remarkable in its effectiveness. The first step in freeing oneself from its grip is to recognize that it exists, to come to understand that the pretended objectivity and neutrality of social and political commentary, or simply news reporting, masks presuppositions and ideological principles that should be challenged, and that often collapse very quickly when exposed.

Until people free themselves from the system of indoctrination, they will continue to support the violence of existing institutions. If they can free themselves, they can often combat it effectively in countries such as ours, where the level of institutionalized violence is relatively low, for the privileged at least. So I think it is important to continually bring out the ongoing collusion, whether it is tacit and subconscious or quite consciously undertaken.

This is unending task, since the major institutions and their servants naturally never cease to construct the perceived world in the form that suits their needs. It is a great mistake to believe that once the lies of the propaganda system have been exposed about, say, the Vietnam war, then it is pointless to take the topic up again. On the contrary, the intelligentsia will maintain their natural commitment to restoring the shattered faith and do so in the course of time, quite effectively if unchallenged.

chomsky statistical error

As a self-described “statistical error,” meaning that people with your sort of political views are generally excluded from prominent positions in the U.S., how do you see yourself as an intellectual teaching at a major American university, in your role as a member of the very intelligentsia you criticize, and in relation to your students?

In fact, I have very little contact with the so-called academic or intellectual community, apart from a few friends and colleagues. With regard to students, the matter is different. They are in a phase of their lives when they are uniquely able to question and explore. They haven’t been completely socialized.

It is, in fact, quite striking to see how differently students and faculty respond to issues involving the university or the larger society. Take just one rather typical example. A few years ago MIT in effect arranged to sell about 1/3 of the nuclear engineering department to the Shah of Iran. When the scandal surfaced, there was much uproar on campus, leading to a student referendum that showed about 80% opposed. There was also a series of well-attended faculty meetings (a rare event), which led to a vote in which about 80% approved.

The faculty are simply the students of a few years ago, but the difference in reaction, on a matter of simple academic freedom apart from the obvious broader implications, reflects the fact that they are now a functional part of the institutional structure of power. It is that step towards acceptance and obedience that it is important to try to prevent. Once it has been taken, the rest is fairly predictable.

1960s Student Movement

1960s Student Movement

So you think a large American university is a suitable place for free education and independent thought?

Insofar as the universities provide the opportunities for free inquiry and expression, it would be crazy not to make use of them, while trying to expand these opportunities. This can be done; it was done quite effectively, in fact, by the student movement of the 1960s, one reason why it was so hated and why it is so maligned by the custodians of history, whose privilege and authority were threatened by the student pressure for free inquiry and who now have to mask their real fears by the pretense that the main thrust of the student movement was totalitarian, Stalinist, opposed to academic freedom, and so on. There is a whole literature of falsification on this topic, which is naturally very highly regarded in intellectual circles.

Anarchists, from Godwin to Goodman, have developed libertarian theories of education very critical of conventional, state-controlled education systems. Do you have any thoughts on this libertarian tradition of educational thought?

I think it often effectively expressed crucially important values. Schools function in many ways as instruments of indoctrination, not only in the content of what is taught, but in the style and manner of teaching and organization, from the earliest years.

Students are rewarded for obedience and passivity—one result is that in the elite institutions students are often pre-selected for these traits and are more effectively indoctrinated than elsewhere.

These are not laws of nature. It is possible in principle for schools to foster the creative impulses that are rather natural from childhood on and to encourage a constant willingness to challenge established doctrine and authority. In fact, this comes close to being true in advanced work in the natural sciences, though very rarely elsewhere. For just this reason, training in the natural sciences might not be a bad way to prepare oneself for a life of serious engagement in social and political issues.

A bit of personal good fortune is that up to high school, I was in such school—one that was Deweyan, not libertarian in our sense, but that did encourage independent thought and self-realization in the best sense. It wasn’t until I entered a city high school, for example, that I discovered, to my surprise, that I was a good student. It was assumed in my earlier school experience that everyone was. Insofar as students were “measured,” it was not against one another but against what they could accomplish.

Such schooling is fundamentally subversive, in the best sense, and therefore rarely undertaken, but it is possible even within the institutional constraints of our societies as they now exist, and the effort to create and expand such possibilities merits much effort and struggle. This is most important within the state educational system, where the overwhelming majority of the population is educated, or mis-educated.

goodman miseducation

You have argued that your linguistic theories have revolutionary implications. Why do you feel that your theoretical work in linguistics is important, and what is the relation between that work, your political views and social liberation in general? In other words, what do innate structures and generative grammar have to do with human emancipation?

A word of caution: I don’t argue that my linguistic theories have revolutionary implications. Rather, that they are merely suggestive as to the form that a libertarian social theory might assume. One shouldn’t claim more than can be shown. Surely one cannot simply deduce social any political consequences from any insights into language. Rather, it is perhaps possible to begin to perceive, if only dimly, how innate structures of mind may lead to an extraordinary richness of understanding, and may underlie and enter human action and thought. On this basis one may hope—it is only a hope—to be able to show, some day, that structures of authority and control limit and distort intrinsic human capacities and needs, and to lay a theoretical basis for a social theory that eventuates in practical ideas as to how to overcome them. But there are huge gaps in any such argument, something I’ve always taken pains to emphasize.

My own hopes and intuitions are that self-fulfilling and creative work is a fundamental human need, and that the pleasures of a challenge met, a work well done, the exercise of skill and craftsmanship, are real and significant, and are an essential part of a full and meaningful life, The same is true of the opportunity to understand and enjoy the achievements of others, which often go beyond what we ourselves can do, and to work constructively in cooperation with others.

chomsky anarchismYou have described yourself as a “derivative fellow traveler” of anarchism and as an “anarchist socialist.” Just how do you see yourself in relation to anarchism as a philosophy, and anarchism as a movement?

What I think is most important about anarchism as a “philosophy” (a term I’m uncomfortable with) is its recognition that there is and will always be a need to discover and overcome structures of hierarchy, authority and domination and constraints on freedom: slavery, wage-slavery, racism, sexism, authoritarian schools, etc., forever. If human society progresses, overcoming some of these forms of oppression, it will uncover others, particularly as we move from confronting animal problems to confronting human problems, in Marx’s phrase.

Anarchism does not legislate ultimate solutions to these problems. I see it as a rather practical “philosophy,” inspired by a vision of the future that is more free and more conducive to a wide range of human needs, many of which are in no position even to identify under the intellectual and material constraints of our present existence.

We will each commit ourselves to the problems we feel most pressing, but should be ready to learn from others about the limitations of our own conceptions and understanding, which will always be substantial. It is only in this sense that anarchism can be a “movement.” It won’t be a party with members and a finished doctrine.

How did you come to embrace such ideas? Is it true you were influenced by the kibbutz movement in Israel when you were young?

Yes, I was influenced by the kibbutz movement, and in fact lived for a while on a kibbutz and almost stayed on. I think there is much of value in the kibbutz experience, but we must also not forget (as I have sometimes tended to do) that the historical particularity of the kibbutz movement in Israel embodies many serious flaws, sometimes crimes. One should also explore other facets of the experience, for example, the kinds of coercion that arise from the need for acceptance in a closely-knit community, not a small topic, I think.

I can’t really say how I came to be influenced by anarchist ideas; I can’t remember a time when I was not so influenced.

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity

What, in general, is your opinion of Marx and Marxism?

Marx was a person, not a god. The concept “Marxism” belongs to the history of organized religion, and should not be seriously employed by a free and independent person. Marx was a major intellectual figure and it would be foolish not to learn from him or to value his contributions properly. He was, like anyone, limited in his perceptions and understanding. His personal behavior (not to be confused with his thought) often left much to be desired, to put it mildly. There are also very dangerous and destructive elements in his ideas, some of which underlie the worst elements of Leninist thought and practice.

chomsky libertarian

The Russian Revolution: Dictatorship or Social Revolution

The Russian Revolution

By 1918, the Bolsheviks under Lenin had abolished the Constituent Assembly and were in the process of establishing their one party dictatorship, paving the way for Stalin‘s ascension to power and the end of the Russian Revolution. In the following piece, written by the Russian anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, he argues that what the Bolsheviks were doing, despite their claims to the contrary, was creating a state capitalist dictatorship with its own ruling class, the party bureaucrats who would now form a new class to rule over the working masses rather than leading the people to socialism.

Bolshevik Propaganda Poster

Paths of Revolution

Is ours a social revolution? There are some who argue that a social revolution presupposes a ‘final and fundamental upheaval’, while others prefer to focus their attention on the character and essence of the day-to-day revolutionary movement. But we shall not dispute whether it is the movement or the decisive upheaval that merits the name of revolution. For since the movement is linked with final goals and since both the movement and the upheaval constitute a single uninterrupted process, must we not examine them together when talking about the revolution?

In answering this question, however, we must not conclude that, simply because there has not yet been a decisive social transformation, there has therefore been no social revolution. For in order to call a revolution ‘social’, it is enough that the movement should simply be striving to bring about this definitive transformation. When the question is put this way there can be no two opinions as to whether or not our revolution is a social revolution.

Yes, our revolution is indeed a social one, for the revolutionary masses are aglow with the destruction of the class system; for a countless series of victories have been won by the workers and peasants under the banner of socialism; for our revolution has been a class war. But is it moving along the path towards socialism?

A ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, they call it. But isn’t the organization of future socialism to be founded on the liberation of humanity from class distinctions? Within the framework of this dictatorship, however, we can see that the centralization of power has begun to crystallize and grow firm, that the apparatus of the state is being consolidated by the ownership of property and even by an anti-socialist morality. Instead of hundreds of thousands of property owners there is now a single owner served by a whole bureaucratic system and a new ‘statified’ morality.

Lenin: Proletarian Discipline

The proletariat is gradually being enslaved by the state. The people are being transformed into servants over whom there has risen a new class of administrators — a new class born mainly from the womb of the so-called intelligentsia. Isn’t this merely a new class system looming on the revolutionary horizon? Hasn’t there occurred merely a regrouping of classes, a regrouping as in previous revolutions when, after the oppressed had evicted the landlords from power, the emergent middle class was able to direct the revolution towards a new class system in which power fell into its own hands?

The resemblance is all too striking. One cannot deny it. And if the elements of class inequality are as yet indistinct, it is only a matter of time before privileges will pass to the administrators. We do not mean to say that this inequality and these privileges are arbitrary, or that the Bolshevik party set out to create a new class system. But we do say that even the best intentions and aspirations must inevitably be smashed against the evils inherent in any system of centralized power.

The separation of management from labour, the division between administrators and workers flows logically from centralization. It cannot be otherwise. There are no other words to the song. The song goes like this: management implies responsibility, and can responsibility be compared with ordinary labour? Responsibility demands special rights and advantages. Such is the source of privilege and of the new anti-socialist morality. Hence we are presently moving not towards socialism but towards state capitalism.

Will state capitalism lead us to the gates of socialism? Of this we see not the least bit of evidence. Will the new government not contrive ‘artificially’ to concentrate property in its hands, as is deemed necessary from the Marxist point of view? Will it not complete the class stratification of the country, which capitalism could not accomplish ‘naturally’? And will the emergence of a single owner really ease the task of achieving socialism?

Soviet Show Trial

Arrayed against socialism are — together with thousands of former small and large property holders — thousands of administrators. And if the workers should, owing to the division of the population into two hostile classes and to the deepening of class consciousness, become a powerful revolutionary force, then it is scarcely necessary to point out that the class of administrators, wielding the powerful state apparatus, will be a far from weak opponent. The single owner and state capitalism form a new dam before the waves of our social revolution.

We anarchists and syndicalists —indeed all who believe that the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves — were too poorly organized and too weak to hold the revolution on a straight course towards socialism. It goes without saying that socialism will not fall from the sky, and that only one conception of socialism is not enough. But now, in the midst of the revolution, we must lay the foundation for socialism and create the organizations for the revolutionary struggle and the economy. The plan for this foundation, in order to conform to the plan of socialist construction, must not be centralist, for, as we have already explained, socialism and centralism are antithetical.

Revolution or Dictatorship

Is it at all possible to conduct the social revolution through a centralized authority? Not even a Solomon could direct the revolutionary struggle or the economy from one centre. And if this is impossible for an intellectual, then it is even more impossible for a worker, who is so little versed in the affairs of state. The worker in a centralized state, alienated from his proper way of life, feels like a fish out of water. What he needs, rather, is an atmosphere in which the functions of management and labour are close together or even merged with each other.

The people made the revolution without orders from any centre. They tore power to shreds, scattering them over the vast revolutionary countryside, thereby confronting power with local self-rule. But that splintered and dispersed power poisoned all the soviets and committees. Dictatorship appeared again in the new garb of Executive Committees and Councils of People’s Commissars; and the Revolution not recognizing it embraced it. Not seeing the enemy, the Revolution was too sure of victory and bit by bit put power in its hands.

There was an urgent need for systematic organization and for the co-ordination of activities. The Revolution looked for this but too few elements were aware of the necessity and the possibility of federalist organization. And the Revolution not finding it, threw itself into the arms of the old tyrant, centralized power, which is squeezing out its life’s breath.

We were too disorganized and too weak and so we have allowed this to happen.

Gregory Maksimov, September 16, 1918

Kan San: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Although anarchism as a significant movement virtually disappeared from China by the 1930s, anarchist ideas and anti-authoritarian movements have continued to manifest themselves in China during various social upheavals. During the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s, some Red Guards took Mao Zedong’s revolutionary pronouncements to heart, advocating the transformation of China into a “People’s Commune” based on the revolutionary models of the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1917 Petrograd Soviets (see the “Whither China” manifesto of the Sheng-Wu-Lien group, reprinted in China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1977)). After the Communist authorities, with Mao’s approval, suppressed these “ultra-leftist” deviations, some former Red Guards became interested in anarchist ideas. In 1976, the Hong Kong based libertarian communist group, the ‘70s, published their collection of ultra-left writings, China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution. Space considerations prevented me from including material from this anthology in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977).

Lee Yu See and Wu Che, in the Appendix to China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution, set forth the following analysis of the Chinese Communist Party and its counter-revolutionary role, drawing on theories of the “new class,” the relationship of intellectuals to the state and the rise of techno-bureaucracy that originated with Bakunin (Volume One, Selections 22, 24, 25 & 64) and were further developed by later anarchists, such as Geoffrey Ostergaard (Volume Two, Selection 27), Nico Berti (Volume Two, Selection 67) and Noam Chomsky (Volume Two, Selection 68).

1. From the beginning, the Chinese Communist Party was a bourgeois organism. The party was structured along hierarchical lines. It was a miniature state. It assimilated all the forms, techniques and mentality of bureaucracy. Its membership was schooled in obedience and was taught to revere the leadership. The party’s leadership, in turn, was schooled in habits born of command, authority, manipulation and egomania. At the same time, the party was the spineless follower of the Comintern directed by Moscow.

2. The rigid dogma adopted by the Chinese Communist Party was that of Leninism-Stalinism, an ideology which had led to the consolidation of a system of state capitalism in Russia. Not by deviating from but by following Lenin’s ideas, a new dominating and exploiting class came into power over the working masses.

3. China was an economically backward country in which the old ruling classes were incapable of carrying out industrialization. The young native bourgeoisie had neither the strength nor the courage to revolutionize the old social structure in the way that a genuine modernization would require. The “bourgeois tasks” were to be solved by a bureaucracy

4. In pursuing the strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside in its attempt to seize state power, the Chinese Communist Party built up a peasant army. But such an army, organized by a bourgeois party, became a tool of the party and therefore a capitalist machine.

5. The so-called 1949 revolution [had] nothing in common with a genuine socialist revolution. It was simply a violent take over of the state by a bureaucracy better placed to manage the national capital than the old ruling clique.

6. Having won control of the state machine, the only way to move forward for the Maoist bureaucracy was to impose a regime of ruthless exploitation and austerity on the working masses.

The bureaucracy began to carry out the task of primitive accumulation. Because of the lack of capital-intensive industry, economic development depended on the most primitive methods of extraction of surplus value: in the countryside, mobilizing millions of peasants and semi-proletarians around the construction of public works and irrigation projects, built almost bare-handed by the rural masses; in the cities, forcing the workers to work long hours for extremely low wages, banning strikes, putting restrictions on the choice of employment and so on.

7. The new bureaucratic capitalist class in China did not emerge because of the development of new modes of production. It was on the contrary, the bureaucracy which brought the new mode of production into existence. The Chinese bureaucracy did not originate from the industrialization of the country. Industrialization was the result of the bureaucracy’s accession to power.

8. Soon after the accession to power of the Maoist bureaucracy, intra-party feuds occurred. Such feuds originated out of two different conceptions of how China was to modernize in agriculture, industry, science and technology.

9. The Maoist-radical faction (led… by Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan [the so-called “Gang of Four”]) advocated self-reliance, the active mobilization of the “popular masses” behind the state and the economy to promote production by ideological rather than material incentives, “redness” over “expertness”, the “infallibility” of the thoughts of Mao Zedong, hostility towards the Soviet Union, “revolutionizing” arts and literature to serve the single purpose of propagating the official ideology, the need for endless mass movements and struggle because “in the long historical period of socialism, the principal internal contradiction is the contradiction between the working class and the bourgeoisie.”

The so-called capitalist roaders (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, et al) favoured the retention of wage differentials and the extension of material incentives for increased productivity. They also stood for a more efficient technological apparatus, rapprochement with the Soviet “revisionists”, liberalization of policies in relation to the arts, rejection of the personal cult of Mao, the priority of national Construction over endless “class struggles”.

Both lines represented different strategies designed by the different factions of the bureaucratic capitalist class for attacking the working masses, for intensifying their exploitation.

The Maoist-radical road was leading to a “feudalistic social-fascist dictatorship”. The road of the “capitalist roaders” would bring a “destalinized Russian type of society” like today’s Russia.

Lee Yu See and Wu Che also provide greater details regarding the so-called Tiananmen Incident in April 1976, when some 100,000 people gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest against the Communist government. Cars were overturned and burned, the barracks of the People’s Liberation Army were sacked and occupied and some protesters battled with the police and worker-militiamen. Similar demonstrations took place in Chengchow and Kunming. In an earlier essay, “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Kan San provides further details regarding the “ultra-left deviationists;” his views regarding Mao’s role are rather naive and at odds with the more critical analysis of Lee Yu See and Wu Che.

Ba Jin (1904-2005)

The awful absurdities and excesses of the Cultural Revolution are discussed from a personal perspective by the Chinese novelist and anarchist, Ba Jin, in “Against the Powers that Be,” an essay that will be included in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas that he wrote in 1984 during a brief period of liberalization (which ended with the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989) . I included several selections by Ba Jin, written in the 1920s, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).

 

Kan San: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution


 

1. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—Why is it called “cultural”?

Superficial observations only revealed brutal struggles, large scale rebellion, or a limited civil war in various places. Under the directive of Mao Zedong, [future Gang of Four member] Yao Wenyuan published the essay “Criticizing the New Historical Play: The Dismissal of Hai Jui from Office” and this raised the curtain of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Yet the revolution should not be called “cultural”. After the October Revolution the Soviet Union had not travelled on the road to socialism and had become an imperialistic power, Mao Zedong had to seek an explanation for this. Of course we ourselves would not think that the foundation for the realization of socialism had been laid if the means of production were nationalized under the leadership of a vanguard party. However, to a stern believer of Bolshevism like Mao Zedong, the revisionism of the Soviet Union was puzzling. Subsequently he came to the conclusion that the superstructure had brought about counter-effects to the economic base. Mao said, “We recognize that in the long course of historical development, the material determines the spiritual; social existence determines social consciousness; but we also recognize in turn the counter-effects of the spiritual on the material, social consciousness on social existence, and the superstructure on the economic base”. This is to say Mao Zedong felt that although the capitalist class had been overthrown, their ideas and ideology were still greatly influencing the superstructure in the arena of theoretical formulation, academic research and artistic creation… Such propagation of anti-socialist ideas was making preparations for capitalism to be restored…

Mao Zedong ignited the Cultural Revolution because he wanted to resolve the problem of the residual capitalist ideas and consciousness having a counter-revolutionary effect on the economic base. He wanted to carry out a revolution which would deeply affect the inner soul of mankind, and revolutionize the thoughts of the people so that China would steer clear from the path travelled by the Soviet Union…

It is my belief that unless we understand the aim of Mao Zedong in initiating the Cultural Revolution to be more than the resolution of his disputes with the Liu Shaoqi faction, unless we are aware that Mao Zedong was seeking to revolutionize the thoughts of the people, we would not be able to explain many of the seemingly incomprehensible occurrences in the Cultural Revolution.

2. A Real Revolution developed from a Sponsored Revolution

Before the Cultural Revolution, the power and influence of the Liu Shaoqi faction had been deeply entrenched… Mao, in addition to his control of the army through Lin Biao, commanded respect through his own authority but he possessed nothing else. Moreover, Mao ignited the revolution not purely for the sake of a power struggle. The move in fact embraced a highly idealistic overtone, and this explained why Mao had the courage to mobilize the masses to attack the bureaucrats of the Liu Shaoqi faction by means of “big Link-Up”, big character posters and the slogan “attack with pens and defend with arms.” At that time, although the people found their material well being slightly better under communist rule as compared to the days of Chiang Kai-shek, they nonetheless felt suppressed in many respects. The youth, in particular, were torn between the education of orthodox Marxism which conferred upon them high ideals on the one hand, and their experience in reality which differed greatly from socialism which the Chinese Communists preached to be in existence. But they could not see where the problem really lay. The bureaucrats enjoyed special privileges and received special attention. What the bureaucrats advocated was to join the party and become an official. What was prevailing was elitism. The principle of “from the top to the bottom” ruled and the masses were reduced to small pawns on a chess board and screws in a megamachine, completely obedient to the top leadership. Hence when Mao Zedong mobilized the masses to struggle against the Liu Shaoqi faction, they responded most enthusiastically. [That] is because the masses, tired of bureaucratic rule, naively believed that it was the Liu faction to whom all problems could be traced. They became a formidable force and the Liu faction was completely toppled.

During the course of struggle against the Liu Shaoqi faction, the masses realized their own strength. The bureaucrats, once posited high above, revealed their impotence and cowardice in front of the people. When the masses smashed the governmental machine, they discovered that each individual had a secret file in which a comment made by the bureaucrats would predetermine that individual’s whole life. For the sake of the struggle against the Liu faction bureaucrats, the Red Guards went everywhere to link up with one another and organized themselves. Their power of analysis was greatly improved as a result. After the Liu Shaoqi faction had been crushed, Mao felt that the major problem had been solved, the only remaining one being the reconstruction of peace and order. But most of the masses felt that even though the Liu Shaoqui faction was overthrown, the problem had not been solved. Some who were thoughtful and sensitive, having acquired a better understanding of the bureaucratic system from their struggle against the bureaucrats, persisted to the end. Some were also beginning to cast away the control exerted by Mao Zedong’s thought, and did what they thought ought to be done. The Shanghai Radio Station broadcast the warning that the rebels must not seize power from the Party, saying: “Some thought-confusing members of our group said, ‘Without the Party’s leadership, we still managed to achieve for ourselves victory in the January Revolutionary struggle for power. Seize power again in the same way and use it well.’”

Mao Zedong, seeing that the masses were gradually going out of his control, panicked. The more thoughtful Red Guards in particular, by means of link-ups exchanged revolutionary experiences with their counterparts in other provinces and gradually formulated their own framework of analysis, most notably in the [1968] article “Whither China?” by [the] Sheng Wu-lien [group]. They pointed out that the only prospect for the Chinese Revolution was forming the Chinese People’s Commune to be modeled after the 1871 Paris Commune. For this goal to be achieved, they thought that the precondition was to smash the entire state machinery and the entire bureaucratic system. Ultra-left ideas thus germinated and flourished and groups like the Northern Star Study Society and Kung Shan Tung were established, causing Mao to feel all the more uneasy. Furthermore, the outbreak of the Wuhan Mutiny by the military to oppose the masses’ seizure of their power further compelled Mao Zedong to decide on the suppression of the Red Guards. Through the military, Mao forced the masses to surrender their weapons to join the Revolutionary Committee of the Old, Middle-aged, and the Young, with the Army, Cadres and the Masses, so as to restore bureaucratic rule and to force the masses to surrender their arms seized from the military. He further launched the “Up the Mountain and Down the countryside” campaign, driving the youths up the mountain and down the countryside, preventing the Red Guards from getting together to discuss and learn how to rebel and how to attain genuine socialism. The masses’ consciousness and ideas had not yet developed to maturity and they had not been aware of Mao’s trickery. This real revolution, developed from the sponsored one, was crushed before it could make great strides. The revolution is dead; long live the revolution! The failure was to pave the way for the new total revolt.

3. The Development of Ultra-left Ideas

…Although the tumultuous mass movement was suppressed, the Cultural Revolution had not yet ended. On the one hand, the Cultural Revolution had had an important effect on the superstructure, including literature, education, scientific research, political organization, and had negated a great part of the establishment—but all these had yet to be reconstructed. Controversies over questions such as the method of production, enterprise management, etc. had also not been solved. On the other hand, the conservative faction of the bureaucrats had reorganized their strength and demanded a restoration of the old order of the days before the Cultural Revolution. They thus tried to seize power from the newly instated bureaucrats, causing the contradiction to be deepened and become evident. The disclosure of the Lin Biao affair [who died fleeing China following an alleged attempt to seize power], the anti-Lin [Biao], anti-Confucius campaign, the criticize [the 14th century literary classic] Water Margin Movement, and the reemergence of certain of the disgraced bureaucrats rendered the vision of the masses clear, enabling them to understand that the Cultural Revolution was yet another trick played by Mao to fool the people. The masses began consciously to boycott the instructions imposed by the bureaucrats. For example, in the field of production, their lack of enthusiasm for work lowered production greatly, and their sabotage further prevented the production target from being reached, tightening the supply of commodities. In the fields of arts and literature, education and scientific research, because of the boycott by the masses, non-cooperation of the old bureaucrats, and the incompetence of the Gang of Four and their followers, Mao’s already ridiculously inappropriate policies were to become even more farcical. In the field of arts and literature, only some ten scripts of model operas were accomplished, and all literary works were repeating the same theme and their characterizations were very much the same. The standard of education declined rapidly: those who accused the teachers were hailed as the model of the people, and those who submitted blank answer sheets in examination, heroes. The intensification of all these contradictions made the pursuit of the answer to “Whither China?” all the more urgent.

The article “Whither China?” by [the] Sheng Wu-lien [group] firstly pointed out that China should head towards the goal of the Chinese Peoples’ Commune. The way to attain the goal was by means of overthrowing the rule of the new bureaucratic capitalist class through violence to solve the question of political power. It is indeed utopian to neither talk about the seizure of power nor to entirely smash the old state machine, but to just cry the empty slogan of realizing the May 5th directive. The red capitalist class had become a corrupt class hindering the progress of history; their relationship with the masses had changed from that of the leader and the led to the ruler and the ruled, and the exploiter and the exploited, from a relationship based on equality in the course of revolution to that of the oppressor and the oppressed. This class must be overthrown if the Chinese Peoples’ Commune was to be realized. The article provoked tremendous response and sparked off further analysis of the essence of the rule of the Chinese communists.

The [1974] Li I-che poster [“Concerning Socialist Democracy and the Legal System,” also reprinted in China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution] once again proved with examples the emergence of the new class in China. The essence of the new bourgeois mode of production is “changing the public into private”. When the leader of the state or an enterprise redistributes the properties and power of the proletariat in a bourgeois manner, he is in fact practicing the new bourgeois private possession of these properties and powers. What has been commonly observed is that some leaders have allowed themselves, their families, kinfolk and friends special political and economic privileges, even going so far as to swap among themselves and push their children into political and economic positions through back door channels. Once the Li I-che poster was pasted up, the people of Canton enthusiastically copied the whole text, and its influence extended more and more. When the Tiananmen Incident erupted [in April 1976], the Chinese Peoples’ understanding of the bureaucrats was pushed to the peak, well demonstrated by their words: “China is no longer the China of yore, and the people arc no longer wrapped in sheer ignorance. Gone for good is [Chin] Shih Huang-ti’s feudal society!” The Chinese Communists mobilized the militiamen to execute the bloody suppression of the masses. After the Tiananmen Incident, the era of Mao Zedong finally retreated from the stage of history. The intense infuriation of the masses indirectly led to the rapid downfall of the Gang of Four and finally managed to force the bureaucrats to stop labelling the Tiananmen Incident as counter-revolutionary. The masses once again became the major determinant of China’s politics.

4. The Lessons of the Cultural Revolution

The richest heritage of the Cultural Revolution was the realization by the masses of the greatness of their own strength. The head of the State who had been regarded as immaculate as well as many of the leading cadres had fallen within a very short time. The idea that leaders were indispensable was negated. In the past everything had been done as instructed by the leaders as if the absence of leaders would lead to the collapse of the sky. The experience of the Cultural Revolution however convinced the masses that without the directions from above and with the masses themselves managing, planning and executing all administration, steel continued to be produced and the trains were punctual in arrival and departure. Production improved both qualitatively and quantitatively. When the workers controlled and managed production on their own, their commitment to work increased for they not only knew how to produce, but also comprehended what it was they were working for. Work ceased to be alienating and the working morale rose tremendously. The dullness of the past had given way to a situation swelling with life and burning with warmth. The people seemed to have realized in this very moment the meaning of life, the truth of revolution, the prospect of China and the future of mankind.

There were, admittedly, a few who had felt uneasy in the face of such great freedom. But they too looked back to those days of freedom with nostalgia and felt infuriated and disgusted with the existing political conditions. They witnessed the process through which the State Chairman Liu Shaoqi became “a traitor and a spy”; the constitutional successor to the Party and the State, Lin Biao, became a “traitor, a man with ambition and a conspirator” who died without a grave; an unknown young man became the vice-chairman of the Party and was then denounced as “a new born capitalist”; Mao’s wife, “student and comrade”, Jiang Qing, was condemned as a monster and likened to Wu Ji-tien. The struggle among the bureaucrats disclosed their corruptibility and rendered the People’s vision clear, making them realize that “there had never been any saviour, god or emperors to give them happiness and that the happiness of mankind had to be created by man himself.” To avoid being fooled again by the bureaucrats, to be freed from the bureaucrats and from the need of morning prayers, evening penitences, the loyalty dance, and the constant threat of struggles and criticisms, the people have to rely on their own strength all the more for the smashing up of the entire bureaucratic system.

The shift of Mao’s attitude from making beautiful promises to mobilize the masses in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, to suddenly proclaiming “Revolutionary committees are fine!” to deceive the masses into discarding the demand for the establishment of the Chinese Peoples’ Commune, and then finally utilizing the army to execute the brutal suppression of the masses… taught the People an old yet still new lesson: the ruling class would never retreat from the stage of history voluntarily. Without force and violence, they would never be overthrown. To be kind hearted and lenient towards the bureaucrats would only result in being slaughtered by them in the end, and to compromise with the bureaucrats was analogous to offering the bandits weapons. The generation baptized by the Cultural Revolution will be the initiator and backbone of the forthcoming socialist revolution in China.

5. Conclusion

The Chinese communists recently announced that “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution has been concluded by the victorious crushing of the Gang of Four”. The real meaning of this is—Mao Zedong is dead; the Gang of Four are arrested, and the Chinese bureaucrats no longer have conflicting opinions on the restoration of the old order of society before the Cultural Revolution. All bureaucrats who have lost their positions during the Cultural Revolution have been restored to positions of power, and are ready to avenge the activists of the Cultural Revolution. Does this mean anything but that the Cultural Revolution marked for its anti-bureaucratic overtone has ended? For the rebels of the Cultural Revolution, the Cultural Revolution had failed long ago. Now, it only means that they can no longer make use of the contradictions among the bureaucrats as they have done in the past few years.

On the face of it thus Mao’s attempt to initiate the Cultural Revolution in order that China will not become like the Soviet Union has failed, for the Hua-Teng policies now implemented have totally negated this attempt of Mao. Mao’s failure however was to be expected and unavoidable. Although Mao Zedong was capable of grasping the idea that the superstructure would and could have significant influences on the economic base, influences, which if not seriously attended to, would ultimately lead to revisionism, nevertheless as head of the bureaucrats, and deeply imbued with bureaucratic ideas, Mao could not understand that the maintenance of the bureaucratic system itself was the prime factor contributing to revisionism and imperialism. During the course of the Cultural Revolution, Mao had tried hard to maintain the bureaucratic system, as demonstrated by his saying that “Revolutionary committees are fine” and by his insistence on the practice of giving orders to be followed—even to the extent that “those understood by the people must be executed and those not understood must also be executed.” How then could the revolution he sought develop from the inner soul of the people? How then could China be saved from travelling the tragic road of the Soviet Union? The failure of the Cultural Revolution is no accident.

But Mao Zedong had nonetheless unexpectedly educated the generation of the Cultural Revolution. His repeatedly reactionary measures helped to generate the awareness of the people and they now have found the way for the Chinese revolution. Mao’s own practice in the Cultural Revolution destroyed his faked revolutionary image and finally led to his fading out from the stage of history. From now on, no bureaucrat will be able to bring forth theories like the “thoughts of Mao Zedong” to fool the masses. The Chinese People have got rid of the chains previously restricting their thoughts and the ideas of the “Ultra-left” can develop in the absence of mystifying fog. The bureaucrats have lost their weapon of ideological control on the Peoples’ consciousness.

What the Hua-Teng bureaucrats have proposed are merely the policies and practices rejected by the people during the Cultural Revolution. How then could they get accepted by and satisfy the people aspiring to genuine socialism? It is not a simple process for people who are aware to turn to action. But how long will it take for this process to be accomplished? This can come about only when the “Ultra-left” thoughts and ideas become more widespread and when there are other changes in the political situation in China… the Chinese Revolution is an integral part of the world revolution, and if there is a genuine socialist revolutionary upsurge in any part of the world, it will inevitably affect China in a substantial way. For this reason, I have come to exchange ideas and experiences with you and hopefully this will contribute to the development of the world revolution in a small way, which will then act as a catalyst to the socialist revolution in China. Then will be the day when the aim of “liberation of myself through the liberation of mankind” is attained.

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