Let’s get the party started by stating that I don’t like Mao. I think his policies were woefully without foresight; his unassailable position gave him an ego without compare; and he was an icon, not an iconoclast – he ranked with other mystical individuals from Scripture (Moses, Abraham, Jesus Christ), and I don’t believe in deifying mortal humans.
However, I do like the way that radicals outside the country took elements from Red China (especially the Cultural Revolution – more on that below) and ran with them. Like rock n roll, punk and hip hop, the quintessential features of Maoism were mutated and made to fit the sociopolitical contexts of various movements, particularly during the high water mark of the late sixties. The Black Panther movement adopted the principles of Maoism and applied them to their largely anti-colonial outlook. And the wave of protests that shook France during ’68 was indebted to the Cultural Revolution which was occurring during the same time frame – Maoism was the hallmark of the new French left, and it informed the gradual break away from Mother Russia and the worldwide bureaucracy which followed the lead of the Soviet Union.
It was the model of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that created these hybrids. As Red Guards were formed to confront the very organization and state which made their existence popular, the key differences between the party state and the masses were made clear. We can start with the rejection of privileged party bosses who represented the party and who theoretically represented the masses that they lived off of. And the questioning continued, for good and ill.
Cleaning out the ossified party machine was the beginning of the new consciousness of radicals, and it was repeated concurrently in France. The mass strike of ’68 in France was actually opposed by the Parti Communiste de France, as the new left stopped paying attention to their double talk and criticized the sluggish inertia of the PCF. The PCF rode on the laurels of their contribution to the French Resistance of WWII, and hadn’t done much to impress anyone by the sixties. I’m reminded of the film Tout Va Bien, a classic revolutionary tribute to the rebels of 1968. In the movie, the PCF members are portrayed as a group of exclusively older male workers, reciting statistics that were meaningless, completely without context, and largely ignored by the young militants.
The Cultural Revolution was the embodiment of criticism, a total understanding that the party wasn’t always right, that the party members were not sacrosanct, and a new revolution had to take place amongst the masses – a new revolution that was indebted to the Paris Commune more than the Bolshevik revolution. It was a period of upheaval (bordering on civil war at points), messy, and it entailed not only the break between party state and mass movement, but the introduction of a new way of viewing the world. “Smash the old, build the new” was a catchphrase from this period, and it was taken up by the French left, a mass movement which did not take anything for granted. In a sense, it represented the old Trotskyite notion of “permanent revolution”, but this was a reality, not just a concept that could never find root in Stalinist Russia.
It was the formation of an alternative space for politics, above and beyond the bickering for power which is usually found within party states. in the wonderful analysis, Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive, Istvan Meszaros argues that genuine revolutionary movements must take place outside of formal parliamentary power, and that a new environment is possible, a new environment that is not bound down by the formal trappings and narrow confines of “legal” political activity He may well have been talking of the New Left of the late sixties.
The Cultural Revolution was interrupted in China – that’s what happens when any movement starts to attack the army, which is the very backbone of the state. But the importance of the new views began to set in, in China and the rest of the world. The party state is not infallible; leftists everywhere must ask the question, Whom do I serve? If the answer is either yourself or your shortlist of fellow bureaucrats, you’re wrong. Masses must come first -otherwise the party is a false representative of the people. The French knew it, the rest of the left throughout Europe knew it (which set the ground base of Eurocommunism and the gradual move away from Soviet domination), and we know it too.