Ken Kawashima reviews The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetic in Japan’s ’68, edited by Gavin Walker (Verso, 2021)

It is Time to Return to the Future of The Red Years for Our Time.

The Red Years: Theory, Politics and Aesthetics of the Japanese ’68, edited by Gavin Walker, is a book that reconstructs three fundamental aspects of the Japanese ’68 revolution for us today:

    1. Marxist and revolutionary theory, which was caught in a certain mode of crisis, but also in a mode of new possibilities for revolution and rebellion in the present;

    2. Revolutionary politics of the Japanese ’68, i.e., the intersectional diversity of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist revolutionary practice in Japan led by student proletarians;

    3. Radical aesthetics of, and for, revolutionary and emancipatory politics, which changed human perception in the fields of writing, painting, music, dance and theatre.

In what follows, I will focus on the first two points, but if there is an overarching and basic lesson of the book, it is this: “There is no guilt in revolution—to rebel is correct”. (235) Comrade Walker’s timely declaration repeats—and psychoanalytically grounds— Mao’s declaration to The Shanghai Workers’ Revolutionary Rebel General Headquarters in 1967. As the Chairman declared then: “In the last analysis, all the truths of Marxism can be summed up in one sentence: To rebel is justified.”


Marxist theory occupied a central place in the Japanese ’68, and The Red Years discusses how it combined the inheritances of three, inter-related discourses of Marxist theory:

    1. Japan’s interwar discourses of Marxist theory, epitomized by the Debate on Capitalism (“the Debate”), which spanned from 1927 to 1937;

    2. The political economic theories, method and research of Uno Kōzō (1897-1977);

    3. Marxist theory in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1956, the latter year representing the critique of Stalin and the Hungarian rebellion.

Again, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the first two points.

To recapitulate a familiar but still repressed story of the splitting of the Marxist Left in the interwar period in Japan: the split was expressed in the form of a Debate that distinguished two Marxists factions, which took opposing sides in relation to the Comintern Thesis of 1932 on the situation in Japan. The 1932 thesis called for overthrowing the feudal Emperor system in Japan as a precondition for a subsequent proletariat revolution, and also concluded that the Meiji Restoration of 1868 was not a bourgeois revolution, only an incomplete one. (Walker, 2016, Chapter 2).

Supporting the Comintern line was the Japanese Communist Party (JCP, founded in 1922), itself supported by the “Lectures faction” or Kōza faction (講座派) of Marxist scholars and researchers. Opposing the Comintern line, the JCP and the Kōza faction was the Rōnō faction (労農派). The Rōnō faction argued that the Meiji Restoration was effectively a bourgeois revolution and that the capitalist mode of production—especially in terms of the development of the commodity (and market) economy, or 商品経済— had been fully developed in Japan by the 1930s. They thus argued for a direct communist revolution and an immediate dictatorship of the proletariat, but also tended to ignore the idea of overthrowing the Japanese Emperor system.

As The Red Years clarifies, many of the theoretical and political positions from the interwar Debate were transplanted and transferred to the ’68 revolutionaries, and to their new historical conjuncture in the shadows of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaties, which placed Japan in the position of a ‘client state’ under U.S. imperialism. In the ’68 conjuncture, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and its youth league (Minsei) adopted the Kōza faction position; the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) adopted the Rōnō faction position and was deeply influenced by the theories and research of the Japanese Marxist, Uno Kōzō. Finally, many of the New Left sects of the Zenkyōtō movement, who commonly opposed both the JCP and the JSP, were also influenced by Uno. But instead of taking Uno’s theories to parliament like the JSP, the New Left took Uno’s theories to the streets.

In The Red Years, Suga Hidemi gives a concise description of the discursive constellation of the Rōnō faction, Uno Kozo’s economic theories, and the New Left:

In the postwar years, the Rōnō faction’s argument became the position of the left wing of the Socialist Party (now known as the Social Democractic Party), which was to the Communist Party’s right. Insofar as it did not advocate the abolition of the emperor system, the Socialist Party could be considered a moderate social democratic party. Broadly speaking, Uno Kōzō’s economic theories…could be placed within the Rōnō faction ideology. Starting with the Bund, the question of how to interpret Uno’s economics was an important topic for the Japanese New Left. (102)

Further corroborating the impact of Uno Kōzō’s thought on the New Left, Hiroshi Nagasaki, author of the Theory of Rebellion, writes:

The influence of Uno’s political economy on the thought of the New Left was immense. On the one hand, as a method of political economy for disclosing the objective crises of capitalism anew, it provided powerful and independent thematics of economic analysis. It emphasized the need to write a new theory of imperialism. On the other hand, Uno’s theory of principle, by locating the motor-force of revolution outside the text of Capital, provided a conception of ‘freedom’ to practice. It was the opportunity in thought that allowed for the liberation of ‘rebellion’ from the Marxist theory of revolution. (Nagasaki, The Red Years, 37)

In this quotation, Nagasaki emphasizes three points of Uno’s method for political economy that were so meaningful for the New Left’s radical vision and practice in ‘68:

(1) Uno’s theory of the fundamental principles of political economy (i.e., Marx’s Capital)

(2) Uno’s theory of (the inevitability of) crisis

(3) Uno’s theory of imperialism (i.e., Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism)

Regarding the world of principles and its relation to practice, in Theory of Crisis (1953), Uno wrote:

What is clarified as a social principle is something that is expressed as if it can make society move and develop eternally. This means that what becomes a principle is something that is repeated, inevitably and necessarily. The historicity of a society’s birth, growth, and decline becomes hidden in the background, so to speak. Thus, when we provide the exposition of the principles of political economy, as a system that begins with the ‘commodity’ and ends with ‘all classes’, questions such as the birth of ‘commodities’ or the end of ‘classes’ cannot be answered by the systematic principles itself. Now, in Capital, when Marx on occasion explains the necessity of capitalism to transform into another kind of society, I do not believe that this problem can be solved by the systematic principles themselves. This, at least, is how I understand it. There is no reason and no way that the principles, in and of themselves, can provide an exposition of a society’s birth and death. (Uno, 1953, my translation)

For Uno, the question of theory and practice has three aspects. First, the question of theory is never assumed to be automatically unified with practice (politics), as in the phrase “the unity of theory and practice.” Uno instead separated theory from politics, and vice versa (and in a way that resonates with Althusser’s theoretical struggles within the French Communist Party in the 1960s-70s. See Althusser, 1990a and 1990b).

Secondly, practice/politics is ultimately a question of overturning the world of capital’s principles from a position that represents the outside of capital, i.e., the position and movement of labor-power (Marx, 1990, Chapter 6; Kawashima, 2009; Walker, 2016, Chapter 4; Kawashima-Walker, 2019). This is Uno’s famous question of the commodification of labor power, its ‘im/possibility’, as well as its ‘negation’ or ‘sublation’, or 労働力商品化の「無理」•「止揚」. (Uno, 1953, 1958)

Thirdly, the autonomous place of politics is something that can be reached only by passing through three, distinct levels of political economic research and their attendant forms of knowledge (abstract-theoretical; historical; and concrete-empirical):

    1. the theory of the purely abstract, fundamental economic principles of the capitalist mode of production, as theorized by Marx in Capital, also known as Uno’s 経済原理論;

    2. the theory of the historical stages of capitalist development, or 段階論 and 経済政策論, which are based on the differences between the state economic policies of mercantilism (重商主義), liberalism (自由主義), and imperialism (帝国主義);

    3. the concrete, historical analysis of capitalism after 1917, or the analysis of contemporary capitalism in its historical conjuncturesor 現状分析.

These are the three levels of Uno’s method for political economy. As such, they are the ‘precursors’, so to speak, of the emergence of the autonomy of politics. In the context of the Japanese ’68, Uno’s theoretical exposition of the world of capital’s principles had the dialectical effect of liberating thought and politics away from the purely economic principles of capital, and towards the invention of alternative modes of subjectivation, community, and political practice that were totally antithetical to the world of capital and its commodifying and oedipalizing principles of capitalist and imperialist sociality. In short, the political praxis of the Japanese ’68 began where Uno’s theoreticism ended. As Hiroshi Nagasaki writes in his On Rebellion:

We departed from the point where Uno consciously [i.e., logically] stopped. In other words, the radical theoreticism of Uno, which absolutely lacks actual relations with practice, in turn influenced our [political] practices [their autonomy]. (The Red Years, 209)

Echoing this line of thought, Yutaka Nagahara writes:

It is exactly the distinct, autonomous field of politics that must be questioned for its possibility, as Badiou did. This paradoxically resonates with Boltanski and Chiapello, who argue that ‘the history of the years after 1968 offers further evidence that the relations between the economic and the social…are not reducible to the domination of the second by the first.’ It is this ‘inversion’, so to speak, that ’68 made happen on the structured streets.” (The Red Years, 209)



What happened to the Japanese ’68 after the event of ’68?  The problem, as Nagahara quotes Badiou, is that, “We are commemorating May ’68 because the real outcome and the real hero of ’68 is unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.” (The Red Years, 207) Moreover, compounding the problem of neoliberalism, the defeats of the ’68 revolution have created a Left with a strong tendency to “overvalue the negative capability of remaining in doubt, skepticism and uncertainties”, which, according to Mark Fisher, has become a “political vice” of the Left that the New Right is more than happy to take neoliberal advantage of. (The Red years, 231)

How can the Left today overcome this insecure doubt, skepticism, uncertainty, as well as its sad passions? The Red Years, it seems to me, alerts us of two important tasks that can, and must, be done to begin resolving these problems on the Left.

First Task: to develop further the open secret of the Japanese ’68 rebellions: that capitalism ‘works’ and ‘operates’ in the way that it does only because there is something intrinsic about capitalism that is fundamentally inoperable and broken. Any appearance of rationality in capitalism is only an illusory appearance (Schein) of capital’s exchange process based on the commodity-form, which itself is nothing but a salto mortale, or an irrational and speculative “leap of faith” from the relative form of value (‘20 yards of linen’) to the equivalent form of value (‘1 coat’). (Marx, 1990; Karatani, 2020) It is thus a mistake to think that the essence of capital can be explained as if it is a purely rational substance.

Therefore, it is never the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist rebels who are the mad ones. The anti-capitalist rebels are the normal and sane ones; it is capital, its representatives, agents, sycophants, saboteurs and spies—especially in the stage of imperialism—who are the stark and raving mad lunatics, hell-bent on deploying whatever irrational means of violence to realize absolute and relative surplus value for the dictatorship of capital. (Deleuze-Guattari, 1968)

Therefore, to believe that one can describe capital as if it is rationally structured will fail to realize the many ir/rational reasons why everyday people—who think—will repeatedly revolt against the dictatorship of capital, even in vain, if only to taste a little bit of real freedom. As Yutaka Nagahara writes:

Rational Marxian economics could demonstrate the structure of our reiterated defeats scientifically only because of the way in which it describes capital itself as rationally structured; but for that very reason, it can never imagine and therefore realize the (ir)rational reasons people revolt repeatedly in vain. (The Red Years, 182)

Second Task: To develop the revolutionary inheritances of the Japanese ‘68 in today’s depoliticized dead-end of neoliberal thought, it is necessary to re-articulate the critique of contemporary forms of eclecticism. This critique is necessary (once again, as it was for Lenin in the 1890s in Russia) because eclecticism prevents all of us from coming together as a unified combination of forces to overthrow capitalism.

Eclecticism today is a neoliberal way of thinking and living that makes everyone too timid to even dare to revolt against the existing conditions of capitalism. Eclecticism today is a sophisticated and pompous discourse of allowing the existing conditions of capitalism to be analyzed interminably, and thus to remain in place indefinitely and unchallenged. Today, eclecticism also commonly combines with Essentialism and Esotericism to produce a generalized depoliticization. For example, in today’s University discourse, “Latourian Object Analysis + Identity Politics + Neo-Heideggerian fundamental ontology = Eclecticism + Essentialism + Esotericism = Radical Depoliticization”.

Marxism and the Left today must smash such senseless, neoliberal eclecticism in order to begin to actualize the possibilities of socialist revolution that the Japanese ’68, for a brief moment, forced into existence.

As Lenin wrote in the 1890s: “The eclectic is too timid to dare to revolt… Let anyone name even one eclectic in the republic of thought who has proved worthy of the name rebel!” (quoted in The Red Years, 233)

Finally, to stamp out eclecticism amidst the crisis of neoliberal capitalism today requires, more than ever, nothing short of a renewed theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. (Marx, 1875; Lenin, 1917; W.E.B. Dubois, 1935; Balibar, 1977).

Walker’s The Red Years identifies these important tasks (and more) as critical elements for the revolution to be accomplished for our time, daring us to renew a revolutionary and rebellious movement on the Left against the dictatorship of capital.

To rebel is correct and justified!
Smash Capitalism and its Neoliberal Eclecticism!
Labor-Power for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!


Ken Kawashima
University of Toronto



Althusser, Louis (1990a). Reading Capital, Verso.

____ (1990b). For Marx, Verso.

Balibar, Etienne (1977). On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Verso.

Deleuze-Guattari (1968/). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, University of Minnesota.

W.E.B. Dubois (1935/1992), Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, the Free Press.

Karatani, Kojin (1973/2020). Marx: Towards the Center of Possibility, translated by Gavin Walker, Verso.

Kawashima, Ken (2009). The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan, Duke UP.

Kawashima, Ken and Gavin Walker (2019). “Surplus Alongside Excess: Uno Kōzō, Imperialism, and the Theory of Crisis, Viewpoint Magazine,

Marx, Karl (1990). Capital, Volumes 1, Penguin.

_____ (1875). Critique of the Gotha Program.

Lenin, V.I., (1917), State and Revolution.

_____ (1916). Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.

Uno, Kōzō (1953), Theory of Crisis, translated by Ken Kawashima, forthcoming from Brill Publishers, Historical Materialism series, with an essay by Kawashima and Walker, “Uno’s Theory of Crisis Today”.

____ (1958). Capital and Socialism (資本論と社会主義), in 宇野弘蔵著作集、Vol. 10.

Walker, Gavin (2016). The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan, Duke UP.

Editorial Collective, Critical Reflections on “Comfort Women”

Powerful statements have been issued in the last week regarding the inaccuracies and academic misconduct in the publication of “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” With permission, we duplicate here the statement by Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert, who had been contacted by the editor of the journal in question for a critical response. After reviewing the article, they have opted to issue a brief statement, urging a retraction pending a thorough review. 

Editorial Collective, Critical Reflections on "Comfort Women"

Editor’s Note: Powerful statements have been issued in the last week regarding the inaccuracies and academic misconduct in the publication of “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” With permission, we duplicate here the statement by Andrew Gordon and Carter Eckert, who had been contacted by the editor of the journal in question for a critical response. After reviewing the article, they have opted to issue a brief statement, urging a retraction pending a thorough review. 

For additional statements and resources, Michael Chwe has created a helpful page with an updating link to statements, petitions, letters, articles, and events. Please also see our special issue Critical Reflections on “Comfort Women” on the 75-year anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War in August 2020.

February 17, 2021

Statement by
Andrew Gordon, Professor, Department of History
Carter Eckert, Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations,
Harvard University

Earlier this month at the request of the editor of the International Review of Law and Economics, we began to write a critical response to the article “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” by Professor J. Mark Ramseyer, at that point released online by the journal with plans for formal publication in March.

As historians of Japan and Korea, what initially appalled us was Ramseyer’s elision of the larger political and economic contexts of colonialism and gender in which the comfort women system was conceived and implemented, and the multiple and brutal ways in which it affected and afflicted the women on a human scale. But as we began to look into the article, its evidence, and its logic, we encountered a different and prior problem of the article’s scholarly integrity. We write to explain that problem.

Ramseyer’s article rests on a comparison of contracts concluded with the so-called “comfort women”, mainly Korean women, between 1938 and 1945, with contracts for what we might call ordinary legalized prostitution in prewar Japan and in colonial Korea. The article states that he bases his comparison on examination of all these categories of contract (p. 2, final paragraph of section 1). Yet, so far as we and other scholars can determine from tracking Ramseyer’s citations, he has not consulted a single actual contract concluded between a Korean comfort woman, or her family, and a recruiter or a comfort station, or even a sample contract that might have been provided for guidance by the Japanese government or military. One of his sources (Naimusho 1938) provides sample contracts for Japanese women recruited to comfort stations in Shanghai. It describes the women as shakufu (barmaid) not ianfu (comfort woman). It is written in Japanese.

Absent evidence of contracts concluded in Korea with Korean women, readers are being asked, with no justification given, to assume that such contracts were the same as these contracts with these Japanese women. We do not see how Ramseyer can make credible claims, in extremely emphatic wording, about contracts he has not read.

In addition to the absence of contracts, he offers virtually no documented third-party statements, oral or written, about contracts with Korean women. The final sentence of section 3.2 (p.6) claims that “some Korean comfort women in Burma worked on contracts as short as six months to a year.” The citation brings one to a sample contract written in Japanese in 1937 (years before the Japanese military was fighting in Burma). It is a sample for contracting with Japanese prostitutes to work in “comfort stations” which specifies a two-year term.

There is only one verifiable reference in the entire article to a third-party claim about contracts with women from Korea (section 3.4, final paragraph). Ramseyer refers to a diary kept by a “Korean receptionist for comfort stations in Burma and Singapore,” said to make clear that “regularly, comfort women from his brothel completed their terms and returned to their homes.” He cites a book about that diary, not the diary itself (the diary was translated into Japanese in 2013).1 In the diary one finds seven entries noting cases where one or two women completed their terms. Most of them applied for permits to return home, but whether all succeeded is not clear. One also finds an entry noting that two women who had left the station by marrying (one assumes, to Japanese officers) were forced to return to their “comfort stations” by a military official.

The same paragraph that mentions the diary, purportedly a paragraph about contracts with Korean women, ends by quoting a Japanese veteran who recruited women from Japan and claimed many of them paid off their advance and went free.

Any reasonable standard of academic integrity would require that Ramseyer state in his article that he does not have access to actual contracts or sample contracts concluded with Korean women in Korea, acknowledge how few third-party statements he has seen about contracts, and note the limits to what one can learn from those references.

For us, as we believe for the journal and for Ramseyer, the heart of his narrowcast argument about contracts rests on the comparison between two types: those concluded with Korean “comfort women” recruited to wartime “comfort stations,” and those concluded with Japanese or Korean women working as prostitutes in prewar licensed brothels in the home islands or the colony. Just as he is unable to make the comparison in the first place, we are unable to critique that comparison with full confidence without having contracts to examine.

Let us explain why seeing the Korean contracts in full text matters so much, beyond the obvious fact that responsible scholarship requires one to be clear on what one’s sources are or are not (we have little doubt such contracts were concluded; the issues are whether samples or concluded contracts survive in any form, and if so, whether Ramseyer’s article points us to any of them).

The word used from 1938 for “comfort stations” (the places the women were put to work) was wianso in Korean, ianjo in Japanese (the same Chinese characters are used in both cases: 慰安所). The term for “comfort woman,” in use from that year, has two of the same syllables/characters, translated as “comfort”: wianbu in Korean, ianfu in Japanese; 慰安婦 in Chinese characters.

So far as we can determine, “comfort woman” (wianbu/ianfu) is a wartime neologism, and “comfort station” is a repurposing of a term that until the late 1930s carried very different meanings. The Asahi, one of Japan’s leading papers, used the term in 9 articles between 1917 and 1935, most with the meaning of “recreation area,” such as a 1930 story celebrating 15 new “comfort stations” (ianjo) in Tokyo parks for the enjoyment of all residents.2 The headline of an article in praise of a Japanese hotelier in Seoul who has replaced his shabbier inn with a fine new hotel, published in a Japanese newspaper based in Korea in 1937, calls it “a great advance for ianjo in the [Korean] peninsula.”3 A review of Korean-language newspapers between the 1920s and 1945 shows that the term wianso also held different meanings (e.g., shelters for children, inns and hotels, hot springs spas) in colonial Korea as well, and the term wianbu (慰安婦) begins to appear only in the late 1930s.4 A Korean doctoral dissertation from Sŏnggyungwan University in Seoul on the comfort women system (2010) states that “most Koreans did not know what the term wianbu meant.”5 And, even a former Japanese military policeman assigned to guard duty at a “comfort station” in 1943 has said that until he got there, he thought he was assigned to an officer’s club, not a brothel.6

It matters greatly that the terms now in widespread use in Korean and Japanese to refer to brothels and the women put to work there did not necessarily carry the meanings of brothel or prostitute at the time the Japanese government authorized and arranged for the creation of “comfort stations” and issued instructions to recruit “comfort women.” It means that in oral communication to the women and their families, it was an easy matter to obscure the nature of the work being asked for. Indeed, one finds much oral testimony from the women that they were deceived as to the nature of their expected work. It would be all the more significant if, as we suspect, the contracts themselves used these opaque terms. Of course, we cannot be sure if they did, if neither sample nor actual contracts survive.

The obfuscation of this issue created by the lack of any discussion of whether he has seen actual or sample contracts, and the lack of any citation to such contracts, is for us the most egregious violation of academic integrity in the article. But there are numerous other serious problems: citations that are wholly unrelated to claims made in the text (just one is noted above); claims in the text of the article entirely at odds with the documents cited to support those claims; selective use of documents and other materials to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary. Some of our historian colleagues, including those far more knowledgeable than we on these issues, are compiling an extensive list of such problems. They will be shared with the journal in due course, or may have been shared by the time of this statement, and we believe our colleagues will make that list public.

It is not our responsibility to conduct a full examination of the integrity of a paper published by a journal with which we have no connection. That is the job of the journal and its publisher, ordinarily through the peer review process but in extraordinary cases after the fact. This is such a case. We have written to the journal requesting they suspend publication of this piece, conduct its own inquiry drawing on expert opinion, and pending the result, retract the article.

Thomas Burnham, The Analogy Between the Cultural Revolution and “Cancel Culture:” A Historical Perspective

On July 4th, 2020, in the midst of the twin crises of a nationwide uprising against racial injustice and a global pandemic, Donald Trump stood before Mount Rushmore to tell the people of the United States that the greatest threat to its liberty and security was “cancel culture.”

Thomas Burnham, The Analogy between the Cultural Revolution and “Cancel Culture”: A Historical Perspective

Kaiser Kuo's ironic tweet responding to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

On July 4th, 2020, in the midst of the twin crises of a nationwide uprising against racial injustice and a global pandemic, Donald Trump stood before Mount Rushmore to tell the people of the United States that the greatest threat to its liberty and security was “cancel culture.”  He defined it thus:

“If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  Not gonna happen to us!”

Delivering his speech uninvited on native lands, play-acting as a stalwart defender of American history against the iconoclasm of “leftists,” he proclaimed, “Make no mistake, this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution.”

This was yet another instance of the sort of red baiting mixed with orientalism that has taken over in Washington.  With the defeat of the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, the “Russiagate” conspiracy theory became the Democratic Party’s electoral identity above and beyond any policies offered by its renegade progressive caucus.  Following the grand failure of the first impeachment attempt, now president-elect Joe Biden competed against Trump on his anti-Beijing credentials instead.  Since his election in 2016, American news outlets have repeatedly accused Trump of “kowtowing” to Beijing on everything from trade to human rights.  Adding to the din, a Biden campaign ad accused Trump of having “rolled over for the Chinese” in his catastrophic mishandling of Covid-19.  Not to be outdone, the Trump administration ratcheted up its own Sinophobia.

Against this, and against the backdrop of the nationwide protests after to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers last May, Trump’s invocation of China’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” on July 4th drew worldwide media attention.  The Cultural Revolution occupies a special place in the Western reactionary imaginary.  It conjures up images of thronging masses of young students dressed in military garb waving little red books and chanting slogans.  These red guards are imagined as a faceless mob setting fire to the Ming tombs and subjecting their elders to untold abuse.

In a recent piece for praxis on positions politics, Aminda Smith meditated on the abundance of unthinking comparisons between Maoism and Trumpism and found that those making such comparisons share one thing in common: an elitist allergy to popular politics. In a similar vein, this piece confronts how recent writing critical of the last year’s protest movement draws on imagery from the Cultural Revolution, focusing in particular on the analogy with “cancel culture.”  The analogy between the Cultural Revolution and cancel culture came to be because, for many in the West, both are synonymous with far-left politics.  Initially an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement, “cancelling” was meant to hold powerful men accountable.  Now, cancel culture has come to mean any censuring or even criticism done by the “left.”  Cancelling has come be seen as the worst aspect of the “left” even by elements of the left itself.

This analogy is becoming increasingly commonplace in conservative media.  A month prior to Trump’s speech, Kevin D. Williamson published an unstructured litany of conservative clichés in the New York Post, with everything from clueless references to Animal Farm and 1984’s “2 minutes hate” to vague allusions to life under the German Democratic Republic.  He titled the piece “Social justice warriors are waging a dangerous ‘Cancel Cultural Revolution’.”  In the wake of the “Harper’s letter,” National Review contributor Jonathan S. Tobin wrote that “the struggles of ordinary people who are being forced to suffer for not kowtowing to the Black Lives Matter movement or for voting for the wrong candidate don’t get noticed nearly as often.”  According to Tobin, everyone from museum curators to small business owners are being subjected to “Cultural Revolution-style struggle session and humiliation” at the hands of today’s red guards.

From this concern over the “cancelling” of “ordinary people,” the analogy seeped out of conservative media and into the wider political discourse.  After the president’s speech, Matt Taibbi posed the question, “If it’s not ‘Cancel Culture’, What kind of Culture is it?”  In this piece, he linked the red guards’ iconoclastic struggle against the “four olds” (old customs, old cultures, old habits, and old ideas) with the BLM-spearheaded movement to remove or topple monuments to Confederate military leaders and slave traders.

Since July 4th, the analogy has also drawn the attention of those directly connected to the experience of the actual Cultural Revolution.  Writing under the pen name Xiao Li, a second-generation Chinese American academic wrote a piece for Unherd titled “America’s cultural revolution is just like Mao’s.  In it, Xiao Li briefly recounts the abuse suffered by their father during the Cultural Revolution and ponders whether or not BLM is the same as the red guards.  “To my father,” Xiao Li opines, “and indeed to many of his contemporaries, the answer is clear.  They had lived through it, and although they cannot put their finger on the why, they can feel a certain febrility in the air which reminded them of the events of half a century ago.”  Xiao Li ruminates that the red guards “came from privileged backgrounds” and that “today’s revolutionary vanguard is also made up of young, well-educated people, a disproportionate number hailing from elite educational institutions and working within elite professions.”  In a passage which betrays their ignorance about the critique of systemic racism at hand, Xiao Li continues:

“(T)he idea that elite Anglo-American institutions are filled with closeted racists, absurd though it is to anyone who has worked in them, became an article of faith overnight.  Whether it is in newsrooms, universities or progressive advocacy groups, the hunt for secret racists gives these would-be Selma marchers a sense of purpose.”

Having thus waved away the current protest movement, Xiao Li goes further, drawing direct parallels between the red guards and BLM:

“Eventually, the movement’s slogans make their way downstream to non-elite institutions and popular discourse.  In due course, no entity, however remote from the issue at hand, could refuse to make public statements in support of the movement.  In China, no book, be it about astronomy or sewing patterns, could fail to contain an introduction with fulsome praise for Chairman Mao, complete with quotations from his collected works.  Similarly, today businesses selling anything from teabags to maths degrees feel the need to bend the metaphorical knee to the protesters.”

Setting aside their misunderstanding of the neoliberal phenomenon of “woke brands,” it is clear that, without saying so in as many words, Xiao Li is denying the need for the BLM protest movement altogether.  To them, all it has done is brought us teetering on the edge of chaos ”just like” the Cultural Revolution.

On the other side of the Pacific, the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post Wang Xiangwei also wrings his hands about the specter of the Cultural Revolution.  Wang points to the perspective of the Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly, which wrote in July that “(t)he (BLM) movement has also emboldened extremist groups like Antifa, white nationalists and Boogaloo boys.”  In Wang’s characterization, “Some China observers also believe Trump is stoking racism and culture wars for political gain, but his assertion that the US is right in the middle of a cultural revolution is not far-fetched campaign rhetoric.”  However, musing on how the current leadership in Beijing reminds “many of the bygone era in which Mao was deified,” Wang sees the specter of the Cultural Revolution hanging over China as well.

The cover of the July 6-12, 2020 issue of Asia Weekly. "The Six Phenomena of the Cultural Revolution in the West: Facing the Crisis of Factional Warfare."

The Primordial Upheaval

Today, the leadership in Beijing views opposition elements through the lens of the Cultural Revolution.  Since the 1981 “Resolution Regarding Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” the Cultural Revolution has been officially understood as the “leftist aberration” in party history.  It is the primordial instance of dongluan (动乱 upheaval, turmoil, chaos) against which all social and political movements are compared, including the “rightist aberrations” of Tiananmen in 1989 and Hong Kong in 2019.  Another instance was the 2012 Wang Lijun incident which abruptly ended the career of princeling Bo Xilai.  Reflecting on the incident, Premier Wen Jiabao told the Chinese public that “(t)he pernicious and feudal influence of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution has not been completely wiped clean” and “(h)istorical tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution may recur.”1

Since the 1981 resolution, even so-called “Maoists” maintain a complicated relationship with the memory of the Cultural Revolution.  As explored in Jude Blanchette’s China’s New Red Guards, with the coming of age of the post-Mao generation and with the growth of the internet, Maoism has made something of a comeback in China.  Today’s self-avowed Maoists use the imagery, slogans, and songs of the Mao era to conjure up patriotic sentiments.  They just as use the memory of the Cultural Revolution to tar their enemies in accordance with the official ideology.

One Maoist told Blanchette, “The internet is the new ‘big character poster.’”2  In 2011, this digital big character poster was put to work against the liberal economist Mao Yushi (no relation to the Chairman).  He had published a widely circulated article in the prominent Caixin newspaper titled “Judging Mao as a Man.”  As translated by Blanchette, Mao Yushi wrote,

“Some still view Chairman Mao as a god, however, and view any critical discussion of him as blasphemous.  If these people have their way, we will never be able to analyze him, never directly face his legacy, never question his spirit.  Fortunately, the average person is now able to form their own understanding of his legacy.”3

Mao Yushi’s piece continued into paragraphs of invective against Mao and his fourth wife Jiang Qing, the leader of the Gang of Four and avatar of the Cultural Revolution.  Zhang Hongliang and numerous other intellectuals associated with the leading “Maoist” website, Utopia (乌有之乡) vociferously condemned the piece online.4  They accused Mao Yushi of “deliberately stirring up trouble and creating turmoil (dongluan).”  A mass campaign was organized and a petition was drafted calling on his publication to be censored and for him to be tried for sedition.

This drew the ire of the late dissident Chen Ziming.  In his “Brief Analysis of Two Maoist Factions: Royalists and Rebels,” Chen too went back to the Cultural Revolution, but this time to dispel the mistaken belief that today’s Chinese Maoists are all the same.

“There are those who say that in their psychological state, language, and behaviour, Liu Siqi5 and Zhang Hongliang are the same as the red guards in the cultural revolution.  To this I say that although the red guards in the Cultural Revolution all wore red armbands, held up red books, and called ‘long live Chairman Mao’, the targets of their opposition and the goals for which they strived were in fact very different.”6

Chen then divides the red guards into two types: “rebels” (造反派) and “royalists” (保皇派).

The rebels, initially the darlings of Mao Zedong, were adherents to the democratic ideal of the Paris Commune and were stridently anti-bureaucratic.  These are the red guards of the bloody Red August when young students terrorized Beijing’s intelligentsia in 1966, or the 1967 January Storm during which the short-lived Shanghai Commune briefly stood to challenge to the party itself.

The royalists were the “upright seedlings of red roots,” or the children of prominent party members and military leaders.  According to Chen, they were the ones who “swept away all ghosts and monsters” and denounced their classmates as the “sons of bitches” on campus for whatever they saw as deviating from correct party doctrine.  For their relative material comfort and inherited political connections, they were “thrown into the cold” when Mao emphasized the anti-capitalist line in the early days of the Cultural Revolution.  However, as will be shown, they soon returned.

In Chen’s analysis, today’s royalists might be called “pro-party patriots,” or simply “right Maoists.”  Conservative in nature, they are committed to “protecting their fathers and mothers” and “defending the red regime from ever changing colour.”  They remain opposed to the “sons of bitches” on campus, except now they set their sights on “black lawyers” (human rights attorneys) and “reactionary literati” (academics and journalists), calling them “national traitors” instead of “ghosts and monsters.”

Chen writes that although Utopia accused Mao Yushi of “stirring up turmoil,” it is in fact these right Maoists who, “in harmony with official mouthpieces,” were reenacting the Cultural Revolution.  In the conclusion of his piece, he condemns them in the harshest way he can:

“As for these royalist Maoists like Zhang Hongliang, they are absolutely not part of the leftist camp.  They are a superficially left, but in reality they are a special detachment of the authoritarian right.  They are faithful disciples of the Nazis (National Socialists).  They are the backbone of Chinese fascism.”7

But what about today’s rebels?  According to the blogger Chen Chun, these “left Maoists” are not found concentrated in the well-to-do provinces and tier one cities or cosmopolises like Shanghai.  Instead, they are diffused across the distant backwaters and dilapidated third front zones like Xinjiang, Guizhou, Guangxi, Ningxia, or Henan.  Chen Chun, quotes an interview of his with a prominent left Maoist to explain their underrepresentation in Chinese political discourse:

“How could it be otherwise?  Left Maoists oppose capitalism and the status quo.  We’re the most dangerous group.  The liberals don’t like us, we are a headache to the authorities, why would they allow us any exposure?”8

Indeed, while the right Maoists are treated as a problem by the government insofar as they are more royalist than the king, the left Maoists (as well as Trotskyists, #MeToo campaigners, and the odd handful of sympathetic liberals) have no choice but to stay underground.

Examples of their brave efforts have been uncovered from time to time.  As told by Zhang Yueran in an excellent piece for Made in China titled “Leninists in a Chinese Factory,” state repression engendered a strategy among these left Maoists not unlike Leninist vanguardism.  Barely out of college, sacrificing their health and careers, these Leninists deliberately took on work in the most notorious factories.  Their aim was to agitate for the creation of independent labor unions outside of the officially sanctioned All-China Federation of Trade Unions.  This decade-long salting project culminated in a unionization drive at the Shenzhen Jasic Technology factory in June 2018.  The Jasic incident drew worldwide attention when scores of workers were arrested and when 22 members of the student-led Jasic Workers Solidarity Group were disappeared for their involvement.

Among the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group were several members of the Young Marxist Society at Peking University.  The Young Marxists came under heavy scrutiny after Yue Xin, a committed #MeToo activist and leading member of the group, published an open letter to current leadership in Beijing that August.  Soon after she too was disappeared.

The Young Marxists had also been attempting to mobilize on behalf of the underpaid and overworked janitorial and cafeteria staff of their university.  That September, university administration informed them that their group would be disbanded (cancelled if you will) and replaced.

In December, the old Young Marxists’ protested this decision on campus and were met with police batons.  Meanwhile, the new Young Marxist Society held their inaugural lecture on the value of neo-Confucianism for contemporary China. The new Young Marxist Society rejected their predecessors’ mass-based politics of class struggle, opting instead for an official interpretation of socialism as being about the orderly improvement of the people’s quality and the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  Using quotes from Mao and Lenin to justify not reading either, the new Young Marxist Society directed a January 2, 2019 WeChat post against their predecessors:

“Comrade Lenin clearly instructed the youth that ‘to not have grasped mankind’s accumulated knowledge in becoming communists is to have committed a grave error’.  To believe that you do not need to comprehend all the knowledge that has produced communist doctrine (here meaning Chinese philosophy and history) and that to know the slogans of communism is enough is also an error.”

After quoting the 1981 resolution, the new Young Marxists then accused the old of being like the red guards:

“The decade of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ led our country’s economy to the verge of collapse, and we should take warning from this like we would from an overturned cart ahead of us, but you all are obsessed.  You oppose reform and opening, you want to drive backwards into history, to repeat history, to subvert the results of reform and opening, and to return China back again to that age of upheaval.  All those who today are striving with all their strength for a better life and a more prosperous China will never agree!”9

The new Young Marxists even went as far as to blame the old for worsening the lives of those – the factory workers, low-level university staff, and migrant laborers – on whose behalf they were beaten, arrested, and disappeared.  With their WeChat account long since banned, the old Young Marxists had no way of refuting these accusations.

The Shift from Chaos to Order Under the Red Flag

To understand the separate fates of the “royalists” and “rebels,” and to complicate the plethora of unthinking analogies made to the Cultural Revolution today, it is useful refer to the July 20, 1967 Wuhan Incident.

After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, two factions emerged in Wuhan.10  One was the rebel faction.  Composed of various worker- and student-led organizations, the rebels initially enjoyed the broad support of the Wuhan Military Region following Marshall Lin Biao’s ten-point order instructing the military to uphold the left.  When conservative elements of the military and local party bureaucracy declared organizations within the faction illegal, the rebels began mass protests calling for a purge of the Wuhan Military Region.

The other faction was the Million Heroes.  They drew on local party members and conservative elements of the military who secretly opposed the rebels.  As explained in Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s definitive Mao’s Last Revolution,

“(T)he Million Heroes were denying the need for a Cultural Revolution, at least as far as Hubei was concerned….  The formal grounds of dispute between the rival headquarters were whether or not the Wuhan MR had genuinely supported the left.  In reality, the conflict pitted those who saw themselves as having a big stake in the pre-1966 political and social order against those who did not.”11

Largescale fighting broke out between the two factions in the spring of 1967.  In a desperate attempt to quell the fighting and defend itself against the rebels, certain divisions of the Wuhan Military Region began shelling factories and campuses.  Thousands died in the clashes.

On July 20, Mao decided to go to Wuhan himself and to repeat his swim across the Yangtze.  With Mao in tow, Zhou Enlai and the Minister of Public Security went to Wuhan to attempt to resolve the situation to the military and the broader public’s satisfaction.  The mediation backfired, enraging elements of the military and the Million Heroes.  Rioting broke out which forced Mao to cut his propaganda tour short before he could repeat his swim.  He fled the city by plane in the middle of the night while agents of the Ministry of Public Security were kidnapped and beaten to a pulp by the Million Heroes, who were aided and abetted by a division of the Wuhan Military Region.

Having embarrassed Mao and enraged the Cultural Revolution Group, those leading elements of the Wuhan Military Region who had aligned themselves with the Million Heroes were reshuffled throughout the country or tried in kangaroo courts.  The Million Heroes collapsed as an organization.  The rebels celebrated the “second liberation of Wuhan.”12 However, this proved to be a pyrrhic victory.

Yu Ruxin believes that the Wuhan Incident “was a gigantic blow to Mao’s way of thinking” and was a watershed moment in the Cultural Revolution.

“It caused Mao to see a serious development taking shape and pressed Mao to rethink his original intentions.  The chariot of the Cultural Revolution suddenly changed course from ‘chaos’ ([dong] luan) to ‘order’ ([fa 法] zhi 治).”13

Prior to the Wuhan Incident, the Cultural Revolution was typified by the mass tumult of the Red August and the January Storm.  After, it was characterized by the creeping reconsolidation of military and state power as abetted by conservative factions and paramilitary forces.  A number of other “incidents” were to follow Wuhan in this reassertion of the status quo.

That winter, a “red storm” came to the border province of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  In Guangxi, an urban student and worker-based rebel faction called the “4-22” opposed the military leadership of the province.  They enjoyed the public support of Zhou Enlai but were secretly opposed by the military and the “United Headquarters,” a pro-military faction composed of conservative elements of Guangxi society.  Conveniently for the military leadership and the United Headquarters, a rumor began spreading that the Kuomintang “Anti-Communist Salvation League” had somehow been revived and was organizing a revolt of the “five black categories.”14 The 4-22 rebels were labelled as part of this counterrevolutionary movement, and with the assent the military, the United Headquarters endeavored to liquidate them.  Entire families were wiped out by various means.  Despite targeting the “five black categories,” the majority of the casualties were among ordinary peasants and rural cadres who expressed support for the rebels.  Between 70,000 and 150,000 were killed in Guangxi over the course of the decade.15

Soon after the Wuhan Incident, the Beijing Military Region dispatched a new general to the Inner Mongolian Autonomous region to “uphold the left.”  In early 1968, the military initiated a campaign to “dig out the poison” of the “black line” of the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, a pro-communist, ethnically Mongolian political party which had long since become defunct.  The military and conservative red guard factions worked in tandem to root out this fabricated group of separatist counterrevolutionaries.  According to the Supreme Court of the PRC, 34,000 people were persecuted with 16,222 “persecuted to death.” 16  Mongol ethnic identity was treated as proof of membership in the non-existent organization.  Ethnic prejudice was conflated with Mao’s invocation for class struggle, resulting in entire minority populations falling under suspicion of being “traitors,” pro-Soviet “revisionists,” or backwards elements to be struggled against in the fight against the “four olds.”

Jacques Ranciere once wrote apropos of the Cultural Revolution that “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression.”17  Following the Wuhan Incident, conservative forces throughout China were able to re-establish their grip on power by learning to speak the language of Mao and the Cultural Revolution Group.  They did this at the expense of the rebels.  Cast into the countryside, hounded into obscurity, and dead in their shallow graves, it was the defeated rebels who were assigned the full burden of guilt for this decade of turmoil by the 1981 resolution.


This narrative of the Cultural Revolution as a “white terror disguised in red garb” is not general knowledge.18 While some are passingly familiar with the personality cultism, anti-intellectualism, and iconoclasm of the period, most are unaware of tumult that took place between 1966 and 1976, much less how it relates to Chinese political discourse today.  Even fewer have paid close attention to the multiplicity of forces beneath Mao or the ethnic valences of the Cultural Revolution on the local level.  Yet many writers on both sides of the Pacific have uncritically accepted the findings of the 1981 resolution.  They reduce the Cultural Revolution to nothing more than a leftist aberration and the red guards to an undifferentiated, chaotic rabble.

On the one hand, there is the temptation to take the history of the Cultural Revolution as another good reason to dismiss the bickering about cancel culture as a bourgeois concern.  Indeed, how can the “cancelling” of prominent figures, online harassment (no matter how pervasive), or even the loss of income or employment begin to compare to violence and death on the scale of the actual Cultural Revolution?  For that matter, what comparison is there between “cancelling” and the mortal violence occurring in our own society?  What is being “cancelled” in comparison with being murdered by the police or armed militias?  Or being disappeared by the state?

On the other hand, it might be more useful to deepen the analogy instead of rejecting it out of hand.  As described above, following the Wuhan Incident, conservative forces across China were able to coalesce around opposition to fabricated enemies like the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolution Party or the Anti-Communist Salvation League.  The left was then recast as the right to satisfy the official ideology.  In partnership with the military and other local authorities, paramilitary groups were formed to wage counter-insurgency campaigns against entire populations labelled as “counterrevolutionary.”   The carnivalesque upheaval of the early days of the Cultural Revolution was able to be turned right side up again by the structural ability of conservative forces to bring themselves back into alignment with state ideology and surviving formations of power simultaneously.  Politically conservative or even ethnocentrist regimes of repression were cloaked in the radical language of Mao and the Cultural Revolution Group.  As is often said of right Maoists in China today, they “waved the red flag against the red flag” (打着红旗反红旗).  Barring genuine revolution, the tremendous violence of the rebels was impotent against this reconsolidation of political power built on the acquisition of Beijing’s left language by right forces.

Today, something similar is in progress after Trump’s own ridiculous attempt at “bombarding the headquarters.”  Having had their sacred Capitol desecrated by a different kind of royalist faction, Congress now has the bipartisan consensus necessary to legislate on domestic terrorism.  Regardless of the best intentions of *insert your favorite Democrat here*, there should be no doubt that such legislation would be primarily wielded in the interests of the neoliberal status quo.

However “cancel culture” is defined, it is a real phenomenon.  Glenn Greenwald, Taibbi, and others are right in their concern that the legitimization of any form of censorship will ultimately harm the left worst of all.  Nonetheless, whether Greenwald or Taibbi approve of “cancelling” as a tactic or not is irrelevant.  Precisely the sort of cancel culture Trump describes as performing rituals or facing persecution has been going on in Western academia and media since the McCarthy era.  Countless critical scholars and journalists have been hounded out of their fields while the media bias towards presenting “both sides” of an argument drags the political discourse further and further rightward.  The difference is that this cancel culture as wielded by the right – the red-baiting, the trumping up of groundless accusations, outright censorship – is done in alignment with capital and the status quo.  Whether they are subjected to the online struggle sessions or not, the right is armed, organized, and in alignment with the capitalist state.  To prove this, one may look no further than the vast gulf between the treatment of our own rebels and royalists made evident by the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

A different analogy from Chinese history may be useful for thinking about the left’s problem with “cancel culture.”  Towards the end of the War of Liberation against the Kuomintang (1949-1950), the Chinese Communist Party found itself tasked with implementing the promise of land reform to the long-suffering peasantry.  “Speak bitterness” meetings and efforts to “settle accounts” with rural landlords, collaborators, and rich peasants suspected of harboring pro-KMT sympathies flew out of the control of local party cadres.  This resulted in the beating and killing of many of these people by their fed-up neighbors.  The CCP leadership, in hopes of maintaining the countryside as a united front against the urban-based KMT (and setting aside its plans to liquidate landlordism later), emphasized the human rights of these targeted groups and encouraged cadres to provide them the means to transition out of their “bad” class status.

However, Mao also cautioned the cadres not to “pour cold water” on the energies of the masses.  Instead, he advised that efforts be made to redirect their wrath towards select elements, especially the semi-urban commercial landlords, with an eye to enhancing the unity of the countryside against the KMT-controlled cities.19

The primary criticism of cancel culture lies in the degree to which indiscriminate “cancelling” alienates elements of the people from themselves.  To join the right in decrying cancel culture as a whole and play into their blinkered deployment of an analogy with the Cultural Revolution is like pouring cold water on the energies of today’s movement for change.  What needs to be done instead is to redirect that energy in a way which fosters solidarity against the post-Trump status quo.


Thanks to Long Yang for his commentary and invaluable perspective on early drafts of this piece.

1 Yao Linxia, “Zhongnanhai Should Reflect on the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and Mao Zedong’s Sins” (姚临夏, “中南海更应反思’文革’和毛泽东的罪恶,”《DW中文》April 7, 2012). My translation.

2 Jude Blanchette, China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019): 4.

3 Mao Yushi, “Judging Mao as a Man: Only When Chinese Strip Away the Mythology Surrounding Mao Zedong Will we Understand his Terrible Legacy,” Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2011.

4 Mao Yushi was something of a whipping post for Utopia at the time and continues to be to this day.

5 Liu Siqi, the widow of Mao’s son Mao Anying who died in an American napalm raid in the Korean War, was among the family members of the Chairman who signed the petition against Mao Yushi’s publication.

6 Chen Ziming, “A Brief Analysis of Two Maoist Factions: Royalists and Rebels” (陈子明, “简析两种毛派:保皇派与造反派,”《爱思想》May 6, 2013).  My translation.

7 Parentheses and emphasis in original.

8 Chen Chun, “The Leftist Youth of This Era” (陈纯, “这个时代的左翼青年,” Matters, August 13, 2018).  My translation.

9 WeChat account of Peking University Marxist Society, “A Letter from the Peking University Marxist Society to Qiu Zhanxuan and Other Students” (pku马会, “北大马会致邱占萱等同学的一封信,” January 1, 2019).  My translation and parenthetical addition.

10For a deeper analysis of the Wuhan Incident, see Wang Shaoguang’s The Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1995).

11 Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006): 204-205.

12 MacFarquhar and Shoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution: 215.

13 Yu Ruxin, “The ‘8201’ and ‘8199’ in the ‘July 20th Incident’” (余汝信, “‘7·20事件‘中的’8201‘与’8199‘,“《爱思想》, November 13, 2013).  My translation.

14 Landlords, rich farmers, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists.

15 Yan Lebin, “My Participation in Handling Issues Leftover from the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi” (宴乐斌, “我参与处理广西文革遗留问题,”《炎黄春秋》2012年第11期).  Anecdotal figures suggest far more were killed.

16 Bai Yintai, “The Unjust Case of the ‘Inner Mongolian People’s Revolution Party’ From Beginning to End” (白音太,  “‘内人党’冤案前后,”《炎黄春秋》2009年第8期).  This is almost certainly an undercount.  The civil society organization “32 Widows Appeal Mission” estimates that 40,000 were killed.  Hasige’erlei, “Personal Experience of the Injustice of the ‘Inner Mongolia People’s Revolution Party’ Incident” (哈斯格尔勒, “‘内人党‘冤案亲历记,”《炎黄春秋》2009年第1期).

17 Jacques Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson, xvii.  Quoted from Jean Khalfa, “A Theory of Subversion that Could not Also Serve the Cause of Oppression,” Interventions, July 7, 2020: 2.

18 “Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental Regime and the Forging of China,” Chuang Vol. 1 (2016): 195. Available at 

19 Yang Kuisong, “Early Post-War Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Land Reform Policy Changes and Origins: With an Emphasis on the Interpretation of Archival Documents” (杨奎松,“战后初期中共中央土地政策的变动及原因 – 着重于文献档案的解读“,《开放时代》2014/05).

Aminda Smith: Donald Trump, Mao Zedong, and the Audacity of the Masses

Aminda Smith: Donald Trump, Mao Zedong, and the Audacity of the Masses

Donald Trump’s political career has invited all kinds of analogies, some useful, most not. Among the most facile have been the attempts to portray the US president as a Mao-Zedong-like figure. The pundits who make Mao-Trump comparisons tend to be either a). China watchers or China scholars whose specific expertise is not in the history of the Mao era or Maoism, or b). experts, but from a relatively small group of outliers, well known for the distinctive rabidity of their anti-communist views. Most people who specialize in the study of Mao Zedong and his revolution see superficial links, if any, between the Chairman and Donald Trump. The men do indeed share a taste for power and adulation; a willingness to fabricate truths and discard evidence in pursuit of what they deem to be greater goals; and a high tolerance for chaos and violence in both rhetoric and reality. But those characteristics could be attributed to a great many powerful politicians and rhetoricians. In terms of actual politics, message, tactics, and even personality, Mao Zedong and Donald Trump are about as similar as chalk and cheese.

It is unhelpful, if not disingenuous, to draw comparisons between the two men. But thinking about Trumpism in light of Maoism does help us understand why Trump got more votes than any incumbent president in US history. The good news is – it’s not because all those voters are fascists. Rather, it’s that Trumpism, like Maoism, empowers the very people disempowered by the ideology of progressive, liberal, urban elites. It is the failure of liberalism, which time and again, throughout the modern era, has produced subjects who are vulnerable to forms of populist authoritarianism. But the fact that we might be able to compare Trumpism to Maoism, but not Trump to Mao, can also give us hope. It is the form, but not the content, that links the two. And this might mean that it isn’t the content of Trump’s politics, per se, that fuels his popularity. Indeed, many Trump supporters say just that – they note that they don’t always like the things he says; they just like that he says things. Trumpism, like Maoism, empowers people to speak. A politics of equity and emancipation could thus also mobilize massive numbers of people in the US, but it would have to simultaneously grant them the genuine political authority that liberalism denies them.

Take Melissa Carone, for example, the IT worker who was Rudy Giuliani’s star witness at a November 2020 hearing on voter fraud in Michigan. Liberals around the world took great pleasure in mocking Carone after she went viral for shouting down elected officials to allege that Detroit poll workers had counted tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots. In a piece for Slate, Lili Loofbourow urges us “not to laugh at the voter fraud cranks,” noting that Carone represents “a particular kind of American ‘authenticity” that liberals love to mock. (The hearing wasn’t even over before Twitter began demanding an SNL skit; the cast obliged the following weekend). According to Loofbourow, it is precisely the “mockability” of this authenticity that “is its potency,” but she warns us to resist the urge to parody because doing so gives such people a wider audience.  While I sympathize with the desire to stifle misinformation, ignoring the “cranks” or laughing at them are both manifestations of the way liberalism fails the majority and then abets the few in covering their tracks.

To elaborate, let me first ask what, precisely, is inherently or obviously mockable about Carone? Some of her claims were bizarre but familiar (food trucks smuggled in fake ballots), and others seemed more like misinterpretations by someone unfamiliar with the minutiae of electoral procedures— none of them were any funnier than the other tales we’d heard in the preceding weeks. Some commentators seized on her fabulously messy updo, striking eyewear, and perfectly applied dark red lipstick, but that particular expression of midwestern femininity is too common for its satire alone to propel a person to stardom. What is funny about Carone, it seems, is her audacity. As Loofbourow observed, Carone presents “a recognizable “type,” which is “as confident as it is ignorant, so righteous and blustery and simultaneously sincere and unhampered by facts or deference.” And Carone is just one in a long line of similar “types” who testified that they too had seen evidence of fraud and corruption. “Most weren’t quite as theatrical as Carone,” Loofbourow wrote, but they were all like her in that they were “clearly thrilled to be playing important roles, to matter, as they addressed lawmakers.” And that’s really the crux of it—what liberals find funny about Carone is that she thinks she matters.

 As I watched this story unfold, I was reminded of a mid-century porter from China’s Shanxi Province; he was a bit like Melissa Carone in that he became famous for his dogged political accusations, which many around him found outlandish. At the time of the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, Zhang Shunyou was in his late twenties. He had a job driving a cart and hauling wares for a small-time grain merchant named Song Yude. Zhang later claimed that when the new government launched the “Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries” in 1952 and invited citizens to report any such elements, Boss Song began acting shifty. According to Zhang’s account, Song counterfeited travel permissions for himself and his employee, moved his operation from one province to another, and changed his name. “I began to suspect that Song Yude was not a good fellow,” Zhang told authorities, adding “I thought I should report him.”

Zhang’s experiences as he later narrated them run counter to what we usually assume about the Maoist era; it took him months to get anyone in the Party bureaucracy to investigate the case. Zhang did his own research and collected testimonies from others, including accusations that Song was a former landlord who had once killed an innocent peasant. Yet no one would take Zhang seriously; he was turned away from dozens of government units, in large part because officials at all levels questioned his credibility. Zhang did finally find a champion in Central Committee member, Liu Lantao, who saw the potential links between Zhang’s account and the central government’s ongoing efforts to attack the corruption and malfeasance that plagued the bureaucracy. But just as Rudy Giuliani seemed skeptical of Melissa Carone’s political passions, Liu Lantao was apparently skeptical of Zhang Shunyou’s motivations. Historians  later discovered that top officials had conducted an investigation in an attempt to discover the “truth” behind Zhang’s political zeal. A number of theories circulated, and, although Liu Lantao excised the information from the nationwide propaganda campaign, the behind-the-scenes verdict was that Zhang had accused Song for personal reasons, not political ones.

In Mao’s China, as in Trump’s USA, grassroots zealots often baffle people, including the politicians and theorists who sell the ideologies that appear to motivate the zealotry. A common explanation – ideologues don’t believe their own rhetoric and are amused/discomfited when others do – might work in some cases, but most recent studies of the Soviet Communist Party or the US Republican Party suggest that there are more true believers among the elite than the cynics allow. The reason that even other true believers tend to read people like Carone and Zhang as cranks, cynics, or some combination of the two, is probably deeper. In the capitalist globality that produced Liberalism and Marxism, the idea that capitalism is a total system, such that all of human behavior can be understood as part of or analogous to economic activity, is entrenched in modern consciousness. Even the Maoists, with their exceptionally powerful thought reform abilities, seemed unable to completely root out all of the corollaries to the notion that societies are markets and people are self-interested profit-loss calculators.

In this market-consciousness, utility and value are often conflated with self-interest and cynicism, which leads to the conflation of use-value and exchange-value. So, ideology, for example, becomes like a currency, not valuable in and of itself but only as a means to acquire something else, the thing that has the “real” value. We see this interpretation clearly in many of the set pieces oral historians collect from onetime Maoists. I spoke to a former red guard, for instance, who told me that during the Cultural Revolution she had been an ardent radical, but she now spoke of that radicalism as a currency. “I got good at quoting Chairman Mao,” she said, “because it was useful to do that.” I suspect, however, that her hindsight undervalues what Maoist ideology gave to its speakers, because she went on to say that Mao’s words “gave me the right to speak and the power to win arguments. People were more likely to listen to me because they were afraid to ignore Chairman Mao.” If we were to say that her comments revealed a utilitarian deployment of Maoist language, that would be an understatement at best. For this woman, who said that before the Cultural Revolution, she was “someone with no status . . . someone whom no one paid attention to,” the power to be heard, to have her opinions warrant consideration, had a value far more profound than the price of the goods and privileges it might have allowed her to purchase. It transformed her into someone whose ideas mattered.

That market-consciousness can take the investiture of epistemological authority and render it as merely a superficial and often cynical currency exchange is part of what makes liberal ideology so formidable. In recent weeks, as the punch-drunk post-election hilarity ensued, and so many of us were in stitches over satires of conspiracy theorists, I thought of another figure of fun, also from the history of ideology: the most memorable relic of the Korean War brainwashing episode might be the cinematic scene in which the Chinese psychiatrist, Dr. Yen Lo bragged about his thought reform prowess, saying of The Manchurian Candidate: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say. It has been dry-cleaned.” My students and I all laugh every time I show this clip in class, but people once took brainwashing very seriously. In the 1950s and beyond, everyone from the CIA to the Chinese Communist Party was convinced that communist thought reformers had transformed the minds of US prisoners of war, causing them to side with the communists and attack the US for its imperialism. By the 1990s, however, the scholarly consensus, among both US and China-based historians, was that “brainwashing” had largely been a figment of an overactive “American” imagination. This presentist misremembering goes against a great deal of evidence suggesting the Maoism did indeed transform people’s thinking and their actions. It forgets the vast number of ideological converts around the world (from anti-imperialist freedom fighters to French intellectuals). It evades the way Mao’s ideas invigorated radical politics in anti-racist, feminist, and lgbtq liberationist movements and elides the direct links (inspirational and practical) between the Maoist state and revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panthers. But in market-consciousness, brainwashing can only be a joke, a tinfoil-hat conspiracy, because Maoist ideology was simply a currency, which “brainwashed” POWs wielded out of self-interest and/or coercion. Even better than defeating your challengers is convincing the world they don’t exist. If all competing ideologies can be reduced to currencies traded within a liberal-capitalist totality, then that totality appears as the only ontological reality, to which there is, as Margaret Thatcher loved to say, no alternative. Turning Trumpism into a set of bizarre conspiracy theories and then mocking their adherents serves that same agenda.

The value of ideologies, in part, is that they offer epistemologies and lexicons, which people can use to think through and discuss concepts that are otherwise difficult to articulate. The danger of ideologies is also that they advance particular epistemologies and lexicons, so that when one becomes dominant, all others will appear, by definition, as illogical and false. Trumpism, like Maoism, was born and thrives because people are deeply dissatisfied with liberal and neoliberal ideology, and many have caught on to the way it vanquishes its challengers by making them into jokes.

If we don’t like the “truths” that people like Melissa Carone use Trumpism to claim, we might start by trying to figure out what they want to say. It seems to me that Carone and her Trumpist comrades have a litany of valid and legitimate grievances. They rightly see that ordinary people are utterly disempowered in this so-called democracy, that we are indeed being defrauded by global alliances between corporations and states, that many of our political leaders are corrupt and do regularly cover for each other, and for other elites, as they commit heinous crimes. Liberalism does not offer the conceptual tools to make sense of those truths; indeed it is designed to conceal them.

Figures like Mao Zedong and Donald Trump harness that broader discontent, and they distill complex affective and libidinal responses to very real injustices into easy to grasp ideas. Their power lies in their ability to create memes that anyone can use to participate in knowledge production and successfully make claims to political and epistemological authority. Whether people such as Mao Zedong or Donald Trump “believe” their own rhetoric, whether or not they think that Zhang Shunyou or Melissa Carone matter, is of little consequence in the end. Maoism and Trumpism make Zhang and Carone matter, precisely because ideology is collectively produced and only tangentially connected to individual ideologues. Indeed, ideology is not ideology unless it is collectively fashioned and practiced by the many – if there were no Maoists, for example, there would be no Maoism, only the writings of Mao Zedong; and if there were no Trumpists, Trump would be no more than an angry  twitter troll. At the grassroots level, in Mao-era villages or factories, or on Trumpist (social) media, the political knowledge associated with these leaders can be quite far afield from any of their actual words or deeds. The millions of people who participated in spreading Mao’s image around the world did as much if not more than the man himself to create the meanings associated with global Maoism in the 1960s. And MAGA warriors, Q-adherents (or the Q-curious) have done as much if not more to create the Trumpism that is spreading around the globe today.

The lesson linking the two movements is that the masses matter, and when we are mobilized and demand to be heard, we can create powerful change, for better and for worse. Zhang Shunyou did succeed in his campaign against his allegedly counterrevolutionary employer; Song Yude was executed in 1952. Melissa Carone and the other voter fraud activists have come extremely close to overturning an election. They’ve got almost half of our elected representatives to publicly promote the idea that the democrats stole a presidential win. As Dahlia Lithwick emphasized, supreme courts denied voter fraud claims by small margins, meaning that almost half of our highest judges might have awarded a victory to Trump. Those truths are not funny at all. And Donald Trump could never have done that without all of the many Melissa Carones. Rudy Giuliani’s “shushing” of his star witness is a small but important reminder that the ideologues and their consiglieri actually have very little control over what the masses do with the ideology the masses produce.

There’s been a lot of talk about what will happen when a “smarter Trump” comes along, one who can play the game better and tip those legislative and judicial scales in his favor. But neither Trump nor anyone else can actually do that alone. They need us, the masses. If more people refuse populist authoritarianism, it will be because they have another powerful ideology instead. Economics need to be part of the package (we all know that Floridians voted both for Donald Trump and a fifteen-dollar minimum wage). But money won’t be enough, because we know – even if we can’t quite conceive of it with our market consciousness, and even if we can’t quite articulate it with our capitalist lexicon – that we are not solely economic subjects. Financial insecurity is only one of the many consequences of the fact that most of us do not have the epistemological tools, the language, or the political authority to identify, articulate, and demand restitution for the ways we are disempowered by our economic and political institutions. What we all want, most fundamentally, is to matter. And until we all do, none of us will. 

Chenshu Zhou, “76 Days: Can the Dead Speak?”

Chenshu Zhou, "76 Days: Can the Dead Speak?"

76 Days, a feature-length documentary film focusing on the initial coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city Wuhan, has been making the rounds at film festivals around the world since September. Unlike Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, which offers a more comprehensive picture of the same subject, 76 Days devotes most of its screen time to one intensive care unit inside a hospital in Wuhan during its 76 days under strict lockdown. Weixi Chen, a journalist for Esquire China, and a local photojournalist credited as “Anonymous” shot the footage, which Hao Wu (director of The People’s Republic of Desire and All in My Family) then edited from his home in the United States.

While the pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world (including the US), 76 Days is timely, topical, and, despite its limited perspective, relatively informative. For those still insensitive to the reality of the novel coronavirus and for those curious about what goes on behind the closed doors of ICUs, 76 Days is a valuable record of the early stage of the pandemic. Yet watching it as a narrative film, I also find 76 Days to be underwhelming, if not troubling at times. Beyond its immediate topic of the coronavirus, it raises both old and new questions about representation in our now distantly connected world that are worth a closer look.

In several ways 76 Days frustrates expectations. Despite featuring a tense, dramatic scene as its trailer, most of 76 Daysfeels rather quiet. Inside the ICU, there isn’t the chaos one might expect. Patients await their fates in hospital beds while medical workers go about attending to them in a more or less routine manner. It is not that we do not witness emotional outbursts or heart wrenching moments, like when an old man who keeps trying to “escape” suddenly breaks down saying he knows he is dying, or when the head nurse sorts through the belongings of the dead. But overall the mood is not dramatic, and it is clear that Wu aimed not to dramatize (by not including a soundtrack for example). This in itself is refreshing and demystifying. After all, not everyone has time to be sentimental in the face of death. (The contradictory message, of course, is that the marketing of this film clearly privileges intensity and chaos.)

Yet the everyday routineness of ICU life also disrupts any sense of time passing. For a film that foregrounds time in its title, Wu made the interesting decision not to time stamp the film but only use the footage itself to suggest time. During most of the film, one thus only gets a vague sense of where one stands in the 76 days. Whenever a specific date is referenced, it feels surprising. At least to this viewer, knowing how long a patient has spent in a hospital matters, and for the film not to provide that it is very unsatisfying. Without the clear progression of time and a strong narrative, 76 Daysalso feels more like raw footage than a finished film.   

The truly troubling part of the film, however, is its portrayal of the patients with more severe symptoms. I am the kind of person who usually cries at everything, whether it’s a six-year-old playing the guitar or John McCain’s concession speech from 2008. I started 76 Days preparing to tear up, but it did not happen. Part of it, I suspect, is due to the difficulty of connecting with the people being filmed over PPE and face masks that hide their faces. During the first 30 minutes of the film, it was difficult to remember who was who and to recognize their faces or voices. Meanwhile, my viewing was frequently interrupted by another unanticipated and uncomfortable thought: did the “subjects” give their consent to be included in the film? For those who can no longer give consent, did their families give consent?

What is undeniably visible in 76 Days are aging, unconscious, and dying bodies lying silently in their hospital beds. There are shots of swollen hands (both pre-and-posthumous), dirty fingernails, wrinkled, yellowing faces with dents from repeated intubation. These images are extremely hard to look at. They unmistakably show us what illness takes away – your dignity as a human being, your individuality, everything that makes you who you are beyond the physical mass of a body that you can no longer control. Are these images there to shock viewers into awareness? Yes, coronavirus is ugly, death is ugly, and there is proof. But my immediate reaction was to turn to my husband who was watching the film with me and said: “if I am ever in a similar situation and if I die, please remember that I do not give consent. I don’t ever want people to see me like that.”

There is one patient who is identified by name in the film. In one scene, she is shown lying in her hospital bed unable to speak while several medical workers surround her and tell her things will be ok. Later we find out that she has passed away and we get a scene of the head nurse handing her belongings to her daughter outside of the hospital. Somehow not knowing whether she was ok with her last moments being shown in this film and whether her family is ok with it really bothers me. Perhaps she didn’t mind it. Perhaps her daughter was even glad that she could at least get a glimpse of her mother in the hospital bed since she could not visit her in the ICU in real life. I wish I knew. I wish I knew more about who she was and what she did before she became a sick body in a film, a number in a pandemic. But I don’t. I don’t know if she felt violated with the camera of a stranger pointing at her in her most vulnerable moments.

What seems likely (unless the filmmakers say otherwise), rather, is that the absence of the need to obtain consent was fundamental to how 76 Days could come into being in the first place. As mentioned earlier, 76 Days was a result of trans-pacific collaboration. Without Wu’s intervention, footage might have stayed footage, or it might lose its independence, become subsumed by bigger narratives of the outbreak more acceptable to both the Chinese state and its people (as in several recent Chinese tv series that dramatize the event). Without Chen and Anonymous, Wu of course would have nothing to work with. I’d like to believe that Wu would have wanted to go to Wuhan if he could have. In an interviewwith the Toronto International Film Festival, Wu was asked about the issue of access. The interviewer was gesturing toward a comment on China’s control of information. But Wu, instead, shared that he had tried to film at hospitals in New York, which he found to be extremely difficult. “It would be more difficult here because of the HIPPA laws,” he said. 

What is implied is that there are no such laws in China, and it was easier to gain access there. But aren’t privacy laws precisely what prevent documentary filmmakers from looking at their stories merely as stories, and their “subjects” as merely characters in a film?

The ethical dilemma of photographing and documenting human suffering is not something new. If consent was necessary for someone to be included in an image, we probably would not have seen a lot of the iconic images that have changed the world, such as the “Napalm Girl” shot by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War. So perhaps the more important question is, does the violation, assuming that in itself it is never ok, lead to something important? Is it a worthwhile price to pay for greater empathy and justice? (Does the greater good even justify the taking of someone’s image if they adamantly refuse to be photographed and filmed?)

French philosopher Jacques Rancière offers a surprising but useful way to think about these questions. In an essay called “The Intolerable Image” (included in the book The Emancipated Spectator), Rancière expresses skepticism at the assumption that making an image so full of pain to the degree that it is intolerable for the spectator can necessarily lead to guilt/indignation and then action. Without a pre-existing political movement that contextualizes the pain, he suggests, the link between knowledge and practice is tenuous. But this also does not mean that images are inherently impotent. Rancière argues against those maintaining that the ubiquity of intolerable images desensitizes us, banalizes horrors while there is always something at the heart of the horror that is unrepresentable (the Holocaust being a prime example). For Rancière, images are potentially transformative; their capacity to effect change is tied to their ability to draw out new configurations of “what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought, and consequently a new land of possibilities. But they do so on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated.” In other words, strong authorial intentions backfire; what is seen as a strength of images is the indeterminacy of meaning, which invites curiosity and contemplation.

Bypassing the issue of consent, Rancière’s approach is a practical one that we can apply to assess the efficacy of 76 Days. Does the film draw out new configurations of what can be seen and thought? Did it succeed in reshaping the system of representations (or “the dispositif of visibility” in Rancière’s words) that sustain our sense of the reality surrounding the coronavirus pandemic? I’m afraid 76 Days does not let me see past how the severely ill and the dead appear on screen with no voice and no privacy laws to protect themselves. If the message of the film is simply that medical workers tried their best, patients strived to survive, COVID-19 is a tragedy, and death is ugly, I’m not sure if it is worth it to traffic individual suffering in such a blunt way. After all, as Rancière also writes:

We do not see too many images of suffering bodies on the screen. But we do see too many nameless bodies, too many bodies incapable of returning the gaze that we direct at them, too many bodies that are an object of speech without themselves having a chance to speak.”

76 Days, in my view, accumulates more such nameless, voiceless bodies without a greater trade-off. Given how timely the film strives to be, perhaps rather than watching it as a documentary film with grand artistic ambitions, it is more appropriate to think of it as the visual equivalent of a news report, as journalism. It reveals, observes, and informs – to a certain extent. That’s that.