Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 125-127
[Access article in PDF]
The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 3:
The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961-1966
Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961-1966. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 733 pp. $47.50.
The turbulent era of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 is widely regarded as a pivotal historical event and one of the most complex cultural phenomena in the entire history of the People's Republic of China (PRC). No thorough and balanced study of the PRC, Chinese Communism, or current politics in China can avoid taking account of the Cultural Revolution (CR). Roderick MacFarquhar traces the origin of the CR in internal strife and economic crisis, and he also recounts the diplomatic background. His monumental, three-volume work, of which this is the final installment, is an indispensable source for anyone interested in Chinese politics and China's role in the Cold War.
As MacFarquhar emphasizes, Mao Zedong was certainly the initiator and dominant leader of the CR. However, unlike official accounts of the CR in current-day China, which tend to blame an aged Mao and a small number of radical allies such as the "Gang of Four" for atrocities and to portray the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a victim, MacFarquhar offers a much more complex story. He shows that the CR was not just the product of a single man or a single evil force.
MacFarquhar highlights Mao's multifaceted characteristics: his power ambition, political guile, and revolutionary utopian philosophy. Previous accounts have often underestimated the complexity of Mao's motives when he launched the CR. There is no doubt that Mao was a dictator consumed by power and a notoriously wily and manipulative politician. However, Mao was also a revolutionary philosopher and a utopian [End Page 125] "true-believer." Comparing Mao with Josif Stalin and Adolf Hitler, MacFarquhar incisively points out that Mao and Hitler shared more "core beliefs" (p.332) with one another than either of them did with Stalin. Mao's and Hitler's theories of "struggle" and "primacy of will" (p.333) came from a common group of Western philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. MacFarquhar thus deftly shows why Mao was always in favor of revolutionizing the CCP's leadership through mass movements during the CR. As he himself once stated: "I love great upheavals."
MacFarquhar also emphasizes the link between Mao's utopian nature and his decision to launch the Cultural Revolution. Just before the outbreak of the CR, Mao issued his famous "7th of May Instruction," a letter to Lin Biao proposing the formation of a brand new society and brand new people through revolution. This directive was soon transmitted by the CCP to all of its grassroots units a day before the "16th of May Notification" was issued. Each directive was praised as "an extremely important document of historical significance" and a "guiding principle" for the conduct of the CR. In the "7th of May Instruction," Mao called on all trades and professions to eliminate the division of labor and to devote special attention to the "criticism of bourgeois cultures." Mao's "new" society was actually a traditional rural society with strong roots in Chinese history for thousands of years. MacFarquhar's explanation of Mao's utopian blueprints helps us understand the Chinese leader's motives in launching the CR and the willingness of millions of other Chinese to take part in the unprecedented "great upheavals." An individual like Mao who seeks to be both a dictator and a utopian poses a greater danger than does a ruler motivated solely by power.
MacFarquhar's painstaking research on the origins of the CR turns up the surprising discovery that Mao always obtained support for his ruthless purges from almost all of his colleagues, including even his potential rivals such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. When considering why Peng Zhen fell so quickly in...