Dhruv Jain, Alessandro Russo’s Egalitarian Experiments on the Stage of the Cultural Revolution (book review)

Russo, Alessandro and Longobardi, Andrea Piazzaroli (eds.) (2020). The Conclusive Scene: Mao Zedong’s Last Meeting with the Red Guards, July 28th 1968. Beijing University. Helsinki: Rab-Rab Press.

Russo, Alessandro (2020). Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

Alessandro Russo’s Introduction to The Conclusive Scene, which accompanies Andrea Longobardi’s annotated translation of the transcript of the meeting between Mao Zedong and the Red Guards, and his monograph, Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, are unique contributions to Cultural Revolution studies because they examine the effects political and cultural debates had on historical sequences for “new egalitarian mass politics” and revolutionary subjectivities. Russo offers an intellectual history, not of individuals or social groups, but of concepts and the ‘thinking of politics.’ The political stakes of this endeavour are enormous: “The present volume … studies the Chinese events of the 1960s and 1970s as a possible resource for rebuilding an intellectual horizon of egalitarian politics” (3).

Methodology and Structure

Russo does not study these egalitarian experiments using conventional sociological categories. While Russo agrees with Yiching Wu that the existing political and cultural structures of the post-revolution Chinese State were unable to deal with the theoretical and political obstacles that had emerged, he disagrees that the Cultural Revolution’s failure pivoted on the need for a new class analysis. Russo contends that “concepts such as “class” and even “working class” were used to hinder and suppress ongoing political experimentation” (6). Instead, Russo posits that “we need categories appropriate to its singularity, many of which must be built during the analysis itself” (3-4). Russo does this using declarations made by the protagonists as “units of analysis” (4). The book thus proceeds through an analysis of historical sequences of theoretical and political conjunctures, which “constitute the stages of an immense political laboratory” in which there is a “peculiar confrontation of the new political subjectivities involved in the experimentation and the framework of political cultural available to the revolutionaries” (4).

However, Russo’s critique of sociological accounts is unconvincing and tautological. For example, Russo provides little explanation why the Red Guard’s desired to seize power besides that the Communist party was the nexus of a series of historical-political concepts that included the seizure of power. Andrew Walder, on the other hand, convincingly argues that repeated attempts to seize power by Red Guard factions were motivated by wide-ranging social pressures, including the need to destroy “incriminating materials” from their political files (Walder: 11). Similarly, Yiching Wu’s work on marginalized social groups provides another compelling account for Red Guard group pluralization. Russo wants ideology to do too much work.

The book is structured into four parts that examine different “key passages of the decade.” Part I focuses on the controversy about Wu Han’s historical play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, and Yao Weyuan’s 1965 polemic against it. Part 2 deals with two significant theoretical problems that Mao perceived and responded to by initiating the Cultural Revolution, “the likelihood of the revolution ending in imminent defeat and a critique of revisionism” (91). Russo employs a short Cultural Revolution narrative consisting of two phases: “the core from late spring 1966 to summer 1968 … and a long coda or “tail” that lasted until autumn 1976” (148). Part 3 studies the initial or “core” phase with a particular focus on debates among students/the Red Guards, workers, and finally between Mao and the Red Guard leaders. Part 4 examines the ‘long coda’ of the 1970s where Mao’s attempted to analyze and overcome the impasse from the failure of the initial phase.

Part 1

In Chapter 1, Russo rejects the existing scholarship by analyzing Wu Han’s play and the “political nature of this prologue” (11-12). Russo identifies in Yao’s polemics three criticisms of the play: 1) on the topos of political subjectivity Wu diminishes the capacities of the peasantry as political subjects (19); 2) historical accuracies (20); and 3) given the didactic function of the play Wu’s Hai Rui “reversed unjust verdicts,” thus begging the question which contemporary “unjust verdicts” needed to be reversed, which was fraught given the on-going debates about collectivization and the people’s communes (22-23). Despite Russo dismissing Tom Fisher’s article about the play as lacking “any particular analysis of the play” (286n12), Russo does not surpass Fisher’s analysis and fails to locate the play within post-1949 theatrical history. Fisher convincingly argues that Wu’s play was not novel and belonged to the ‘new historical plays’ genre that had emerged in the 1950s (Fisher, 22-25).

Chapter 2 analyses Mao’s debate with Peng Dehuai at the Lushan Conference about collectivization (26). Indeed, what was at stake was the “peasant’s political existence” which was indexed to peasants’ political capacity. Russo explores this theme through an analysis of Jian Bozan’s intervention into the Hai Rui controversy because his “concessions theory” argued that peasants were not a “progressive class” because they did not represent new productive forces capable of overturning previously existing relations of production (40). In early 1966, Qi Benyu criticized Jian’s theory, but Qi’s own analysis shared many of the same limitations because they shared the same aporia within historical materialism about the role of peasants (45).

Russo examines the different responses that Yao’s polemic elicited in chapter 3. His attentiveness to the politics of the distribution and circulation of texts is a particularly important as Russo points out that Yao’s polemic was published in an important Shanghai newspaper, but “despite Mao’s support, the text could not be published directly in Beijing, where the power of the cultural authorities was concentrated” (49). The publication of the criticism split intellectual circles and widened the debate (50). Russo describes the various interventions as “parliamentarian” because “[the] point was to keep the dispute within the terms of a controversy among historiographical ideologies” (63). By January 1966 the debate had reached a stalemate. The radicals’ solution to overcome the impasse was to designate Wu as “anti-party,” but Peng Zhen and the Group of Five circumscribed the debate by establishing guidelines for further polemics called “the February Outline” (78-82). Russo concludes however that, “[it] failed to recompose the conceptual void that it had revealed in historical materialism (87).”

Part 2

Chapter 4 analyzes Mao’s concern about the existential threat that Chinese socialism faced through an overview of Mao’s relationship to Soviet ideology. At a May 1966 meeting between Mao and the Albanian Workers’ Party, Mao raised these concerns and introduced the term: anxiety. Russo writes, “At the heart of Mao’s political “anxiety” … was surely his probable defeat. Yet his more immediate concern was how to find the momentum to turn the insight of the impending end of an entire political and cultural era into a set of positive political prescriptions” (93). Mao also rejected the idea that political stability was victory, rather it too was a source of anxiety (96). Thus, Mao called for a “radical reappraisal of that entire political endeavour” both at the “theoretical” and “organizational” levels, and the Cultural Revolution was to be the laboratory in which a mass movement could perform this appraisal (98). Effectively, Mao called for a “study theory” campaign to analyze and combat revisionism. ‘Anti-revisionism,’ Russo contends, helped Mao identify aporias in Soviet theory and practice. However, this attempt was opposed by the party apparatus, which is why Mao insisted that the “main obstacle within communism was its own organizing principle,” the party leadership (103)

Chapter 5 traces Mao’s involvement in the Hai Rui debate from him reading Yao’s draft polemic, to his speech at the 1966 work conference of the Central Committee entitled “Peng Dehuai is Hai Rui” that raised the question of “dismissal” at the Lushan conference, to the machinations that caused the February Outline to be reconsidered, to Mao writing and circulating the “Circular of May 16” (107-119). Through this process, Mao expanded his criticism from that of the cultural apparatus to the whole party-state (120-121). However, Russo to discern two aporias in Mao’s thought: first, the relationship between philosophy and politics because “it wavered between a properly philosophical thesis and one that “saturated” together philosophy and politics” (124-125). Mao could not proceed past Stalin as “the category of class struggle fuses together philosophy, politics, and history in an inextricable web” (125). Second, the relationship between destruction and construction. Given the crises facing China, Mao “wanted to promote new forms of thought and political organization capable of confronting [it],” and in turn allows for “new possibilities of egalitarian politics” (126-127).

Part 3

In Chapter 6 focuses on the debate about revolutionary culture initiated by the publication of the first dazibao on May 25, 1966. Russo contends that Mao neither appealed to the students nor had confidence that they could stop revisionism, rather, students independently rose due to the same “mobilizing anxiety” about defeat and revisionism (142-143). Russo deploys the themes of “dismissal” and “pluralization” to study the Red Guard movement during the initial phase. Having rejected Max Weber’s definition of politics as a vocation, Russo unconventionally defines pluralization as the diversity of “immanent forms” of politics especially “egalitarian inventions.” Russo defines “dismissal” however in Weberian terms as “the subjective automatism that is omnipresent in every course of action that results in overthrowing …those who govern the life of others from their positions of authority at every level” (145). The Red Guards were one such egalitarian invention. Russo examines how the Red Guards debated their independence from the Communist Party (148) and class origins (154-158), however, he notes that by Summer 1967 they had reached an impasse because of their focus on the “seizure of power” (158).

Chapter 7 turns to the arrival of the workers onto the political stage. Workers differed from the students because it was unclear whether they were allowed to form independent worker organizations (168-171), thus culminating in a new form of organization, the industrial danwei (173-177) and lead to the January storm (177-180). This was of course opposed by the Shanghai party authorities who were deploying loyalist worker factions to obstruct the rebel worker groups (171-173, 177). Russo argues that Mao introduced the concept of the seizure of power, thus enmeshing the novel experimentation underway into a pre-existing revolutionary culture and network of concepts (180-197). Russo approves of Mao’s decision to abandon the “commune” because it was enmeshed within a revolutionary culture based on seizing power. By shifting to revolutionary committees, rebels were able to “downsize” the seizure of power, and through widespread debate experiment with a different form of government (189) and avoid degenerating into factional struggles (199-203).

Chapter 8 turns to the “‘closing scene’ of the mass-movement phase,” the demobilization of the Red Guards through a study of the transcript of the meeting between Mao, the Cultural Revolution Group and several Red Guard leaders on July 28, 1968 (204-205). Russo points to the transcript’s theatrical form because it allows him to suggest that “the discussion was carried out in an atmosphere much more egalitarian than could be expected given the differences in the hierarchal position” (212). Mao during this meeting addresses the issues that the Red Guards were contending with, including freedom of speech and political thought, treatment of other factions, increasing factionalization, and the future of the universities. By the meeting’s end the Red Guards had experienced “self-defeat” as “revolutionary culture responded in the most rigid, stereotypical, and, in the end, most self-destructive reaction to the ongoing political experimentation,” the dismissal of the Red Guards (232-234).


Russo and his advisee, Andrea Longobardi, return to this transcript between Mao and the Red Guards leaders in The Conclusive Scene: Mao Zedong’s Last Meeting with the Red Guards, 28 June 1968, Beijing University. Russo provides a new Introduction and reprints large sections of Chapter 8 as the Afterword. Longobardi translates the entire transcript and provides biographical and contextual annotations. In his Introduction, Russo explains that besides the political significance of the document, there is also a theatrical aspect which he alludes to in Chapter 8. Russo recounts a series of rehearsals of the transcript that were held by Gianfranco Rimondi, artistic director of Bologna’s Teatro dei Dispersi / Accademia 96, which brought “questions primarily with concerned the subjective essence of the situation” and allowed the actors to understand the text as subjective or political (4-5). This is not achieved however through an over-identification with the characters, rather “Rimondi’s direction emphasized the indispensable ‘distance’ of the actors from the ‘characters,’ reinforced by the uniformity of the black suits, and instead conveyed the entire scenic tension by the intertwining of the different political traditions” (5). The other significance of this staging is that it is after only after it that Russo started to study the Hai Rui Dismissed controversy that starts the book and the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, for Russo the Cultural Revolution begins and ends on the stage.

Part 4

Russo sidesteps the 9th Congress and the Lin Biao incident, although he does acknowledge the effect that it had on discrediting the 1966-1967 pluralization phase (241). Instead Chapter 9 focuses on attempts to rethink the concepts of historical materialism during the Criticize Confucius campaign; Mao’s study of the socialist state and his attempts to surpass conventional Leninist positions about destroying the state (242-249); and the further experiments with the industrial danwei system in 1975, especially the establishment of “study theory” groups in several factories (250-253) that resulted in two experiments: workers’ universities and workers’ theoretical contingents (254). Workers’ universities were set up in 1968 and expanded in 1973-1974 to reduce hierarchal divisions in the workplace, whereas the workers’ theoretical contingents believed that workers should also be involved in theoretical labour and were set up during the Criticize Confucius campaign (254). However, Russo is critical of these experiments because of their focus on the relationship between private property and class to the State, instead insisting that the State should be studied in relation to authority (258-261).

Chapter 10 deals with Deng Xiaoping’s reform strategy and the debates it caused in 1975-1976. Deng and his think tank argued in the 1975 debate about the socialist for a “thorough negation” of the Cultural Revolution experience, instead emphasizing the need for order, discipline and economic growth (264-273).  Deng’s reforms included the increase in piece-work wage labour, which helped initiate the widespread commodification that Chinese labour underwent in the 1990s, while simultaneously rhetorically tying the Chinese working class to the Chinese party (279-281). This is why Russo prefers to abandon a language of class for an emphasis on egalitarianism (278) While the book lacks a formal conclusion, Russo provides a tentative one when he identifies two crossroads that need to be surpassed: the study of the Cultural Revolution and Chinese politics  (283-284).

While not all will find Russo’s work convincing, especially those who favour sociological explanations for social movements, it cannot be denied that his intellectual history of debates during the Cultural Revolution and their impact on mass movements is an important addition to the existing literature. Russo’s work builds a fascinating theoretical laboratory to produce new concepts through which to analyze the Cultural Revolution as a political laboratory, but also as a stage. The applicability and usefulness of Russo’s concepts will surely be the grist of much future debate, and only time will tell whether they and his account will help rebuilding the “communist hypothesis” in the twenty-first century.


Fisher, Tom (1982). “`The Play’s the Thing’: Wu Han and Hai Rui Revisited,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs No 7: pp. 1-35.

Walder, Andrew (2009). Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wu, Yiching (2014). The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis.          Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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