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The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (volume 1)

January 29, 2010

Roderick MacFarquhar. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: Contradictions Among the People 1956-1957. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

The seemingly sudden onslaught of the Cultural Revolution baffled China scholars around the globe. Roderick MacFarquhar tackles the puzzle of the Cultural Revolution in his three-volume examination of its origins. He begins his study with this detailed account of 1956-1957, the years in which, MacFarquhar argues, the seeds of the Cultural Revolution were sown. MacFarquhar seeks to unveil why Mao, who had spent his life building up the Communist Party, nearly destroyed the Party with the Cultural Revolution. By investigating the impact that the main events of 1956 and 1957 had on the interactions between Mao and the other Party leaders, MacFarquhar illustrates how these early tensions foreshadowed the Cultural Revolution.

MacFarquhar sees the roots of the Cultural Revolution in two main events that occurred in 1956: the end of collectivization and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The end of extremely successful collectivization set the stage for Mao to embark on the Great Leap Forward. Mao’s plan to launch the Great Leap Forward met with a great deal of resistance in the Party. Mao, obsessed with making China into a modern nation, pushed for “more, faster, better, and more economical” industrialization with the Great Leap Forward (p. 26). However, by promoting economic development outside established governmental institutions, Mao advocated the abandonment of the Soviet economic development model before most of the Party was ready to be so brash. Mao’s emphasis on economic development also pulled funds away from national defense, which alienated Defense Minister Peng Dehuai. Unfortunately, for Mao, the Great Leap Forward flopped with a faster, more economic production of more useless, unmarketable products. The failure of this unpopular plan further aggravated the tensions that the plan had created. Mao needed to find a way to revive his authority which had plummeted with China’s economy.

The second event, the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, raised two issues that later became major points of contention within the Party. The first issue was the disintegration of Soviet communist ethics that accompanied Khrushchev’s softer line toward the imperialist United States. This issue informed the extreme moralism of the Cultural Revolution. The Twentieth Congress of the CPSU also raised the issue of the cult of personality. In the face of Khrushchev’s severe denunciation of Stalin, Mao felt an urgent need to clearly distance his role from the role Stalin had played in the Soviet Union. In an effort to erase any potential accusations of dogmatic dictatorial rule, Mao called for “a hundred flowers to bloom.” This act, followed by the second Rectification Campaign strained many of the remaining relationships that the First Leap Forward of 1956 had not yet damaged. As with the Great Leap Forward, the “Hundred Flowers” campaign spun out of control. The campaign, as well as the need to reign it in and crack down on the criticism that it generated, further undermined Party authority. According to MacFarquhar, the “Hundred Flowers” movement and the subsequent Rectification Campaign resulted in a great number of personal tensions among Party members. The struggles that surrounded the formation, execution, and remission of these campaigns resurfaced in 1966 with a vengeance.

MacFarquhar’s reviewers all take special notice of his fastidious attention to detail. Timothy Mo, (The Nation, 219 (21 December 1974): 662-663), praises MacFarquhar for his skillful ability to pull many small details together into an argument that is “scrupulously reviewed and cross-checked. However, Joel Glassman, (Political Science Quarterly, 90.3 (Autumn 1975): 602-605), criticizes MacFarquhar’s use of detail as “Kremlinological.” He states, “the flimsiest evidence is used to buttress an argument or to add a minor detail that might have been best left unresolved.” Glassman asserts that MacFarquhar skews his account of the debates in 1956 and 1957 with his teleological framework. John K. Fairbaink offers a solution to this problem; had he written these volumes, he would have written them in reverse order. Fairbank states in Trade and Diplomacy that an historian should “never begin at the beginning” because “historical research progresses backward, not forward” (p. ix). Whether this approach would have led the quest for the origins of the Cultural Revolution to the same beginning is difficult to say, but perhaps it would have protected MacFarquhar from Glassman’s critique.

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