Andrew Walder on the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Americans don’t think much about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. When Americans think about horror on a mass scale, widespread slaughter or persecution of the innocent, they think about the Nazi Holocaust. Nazis are the standard trope Hollywood pulls out if they need a plot with absolute villains or a society gone evil. The other genocides get fleeting attention or none at all. The starvation of the Ibos in Nigeria got some press in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The massacres of the Tutsi in Rwanda got traction in the 1990’s. During the Cold War, there was some attention to Stalinist purges. Communal violence in Africa or Asia, paramilitary slaughter in Latin America, and widespread civilian death in Syria and Yemen get token acknowledgement or none at all. 

The Chinese Cultural Revolution is on the zero-attention list. In the late 1960’s, if you were progressive or artistic, Mao was cool. He was in Andy Warhol paintings right along with Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans. Few people had the slightest idea of what was going on in China at the time. When the stories of the abuses started coming out, these were generally ignored as too embarrassing or inconvenient to deal with. 

Social scientists also ignored the Cultural Revolution because it was inconvenient. There were no obvious clear sides that you could identify in advance – workers versus the capitalists or ethnic group one versus ethnic group two. It was a rising up against the state, but the state at the highest level (Mao and his associates) seemed to be supporting it. The events within it were mind-bogglingly complex. There were a million small factions. The warring groups look remarkably similar to each other. They each accuse each other of virtually the same crimes – being counter-revolutionary – with most of the victims neither being particularly counter-revolutionary nor all that different from their accusers. 

But the Cultural Revolution was indisputably bloody and traumatic. Millions of people died. Beatings and torture were widespread. Purges, public humiliations and mob threats were the norm. A large percentage of the middle and upper class lost everything. At the end, China’s entire population of college students was exiled to the Outer Provinces; in perspective, this was mild treatment considering what much of that population of college students had done to other people while radicalized.

Andrew Walder, former chair of the Stanford Sociology Department, has spent the second half of his career studying the Cultural Revolution. (The first half of his career was spent doing distinguished work on the reorganization of production under Chinese Communism.)  His interpretation of those events is fiercely original and quite helpful. The circumstances that led to the virulence of the Cultural Revolution were unique to the China of the time. It would be nearly impossible to replicate those conditions in another country. However, some of the processes that led to violence do generalize in milder forms in other settings. Elements of the Cultural Revolution show up in many settings – although few settings have all of the ingredients required make the complete recipe.

The basic logic of Walder’s argument can be summarized as Tactical Counterstrike, although he does not use this term himself. Most theories of revolutionary violence assume some form of pre-existing grievance between Group 1 and Group 2. This grievance has a structural origin. One ethnic group is encroaching on the land of another. A new and aggressive middle class is destroying the livelihood of traditional artisans. A central government is demanding more taxes from an overburdened citizenry. Anyone who understands the larger dynamic of the society can see this intrinsic conflict developing. At the revolutionary moment, one faction turns to force to ensure it gets its way.

That is not at all what the Walder view of tactical counterstrike is all about. In his view, revolutionary situations are extremely politically unstable. It is this instability that in fact causes violence by creating an ever changing array of short term immediate threats. Every day, people's political fortunes rise and fall. This means that people's personal allies and enemies rise and fall. A group rises to temporary ascendancy. A group falls from political ascendancy. A key alliance is made between Group M and Group N cornering Group Q. A key political figure is arrested – and now all of her political allies are in trouble.  Every week or every day there is new news. Every week or every day people’s political fortunes rise and fall. Both the rise of enemies and the fall of protectors can be extremely dangerous in revolutionary situations. The loss of protection raises real possibilities of the arrest, torture and death of one’s family and friends. The loss of protection can also mean the loss of one’s office, the loss of one’s job, the loss of one’s assets or the loss of everything one has worked for in one’s life.

If the knives are coming out, it is enormously advantageous to be the first guy striking with the first knife. You remain in a position of power determining the fate of others. You wait too long and let others consolidate their position, and others are a position of power determining the fate of you.

If you were not so cold-bloodedly calculating as to be the first guy with the first knife, and it looks like you are highly likely to be on the victim list, you have every incentive to make as many alliances with other victims and outsiders as you possibly can, to denounce and attack your attackers before you become dead meat.

In a Nazi-like situation, where the threat moves in with an overwhelming majority of force, denouncing your attackers is a lost cause. Your only options are to hide, flee or join the enemy. But revolutionary situations are often intrinsically unstable. There is not any clear or obvious majority of force; the situation instead is highly fluid. If the situation is fluid, and allies are to be had, then counterattacking makes a lot of sense. You are going to have to be fast, efficient and brutal, taking out your enemy completely before they can actualize their plan to take you out instead.

The last four paragraphs are a comic book version of the Cultural Revolution. But they are not far off the spirit of Walder’s more soberly stated argument.  

What happened in the Cultural Revolution? Being a member of the Communist party in China had all of the elements of a complete emotional hothouse. As Walder himself argues, 


1. There were no other employers besides the Communist Party. Everyone working in the organization was in essence trapped.

2. There was close monitoring of all of one’s professional and personal behavior. Not only was objective job performance being evaluated by multiple superiors, but political loyalty and ideological correctness were always being assessed by hostile and suspicious authorities.

3. Punishment for cadre members with bad performance or ideologies was harsh. Purges were routine. One could at any time be busted down to a menial job. Offenses judged as being particularly severe could be punished by labor camp or execution.

4. The supervisory structure was baroque. There were multiple parallel lines of authority and each of these had multiple levels. Instructions from different levels of the same organizational hierarchy did not necessarily match. Instructions between your functional authority (say the manager of your factory) and your political authority (the Communist party examiner placed in your factory for doctrinal purposes) were not at all consistent – particularly when the two branches were fighting. Individuals were often caught in the middle having to guess who they had to keep happy in order to not get in trouble.

This was normal life in Communist China. Now add two more absolutely toxic ingredients.

5. Chairman Mao decided to invigorate the revolution and centralize his power by encouraging radical youth to denounce conservative or insufficiently revolutionary members of the Party. Slow rates of growth or human welfare improvement were attributed to “pseudo-bourgeois” members of the professions, managements, teaching faculties or government offices that were more concerned with property and privilege than advancing the revolution. Never mind the fact that the evidence of socially retrograde professionals holding back the revolution was scanty or non-existent. Young people could quickly advance their political fortunes by finding “conservatives” to denounce.  Lots of people were suddenly discovered as being “conservative”.

6. Doing this just one time would have merely led to a nasty purge. But Mao kept changing his mind about who the enemies of the revolution were. At one point, he sent in “work committees” to review all of the personnel in schools and offices for political incorrectness. Then he changed his mind and blamed the work committees themselves for China’s ills. He would do this several times more – making political advantage an extremely transitory and ephemeral phenomenon. Loyalists would find victims to attack because the party told them to. Then the loyalists would be completely abandoned. The victims would rise up both to take revenge and to protect themselves from any further political threats. This cycle repeated itself many times.

After a while, Mao lost complete control over this process. People had done so much to each other. They had created vast numbers of enemies on the other side. Trust and flexibility were long gone. Cities, universities and factories were divided into permanent, irreconcilable factions, which could never forgive, never forget. They would be fighting each other tooth and nail and knee. What Beijing wanted or who the Party favored was of no importance. All that mattered was that the other side be destroyed.    

In the Chinese context, one could not just go and randomly slaughter people. All violence had to be predicated on counter-revolutionary ideology. The victim had to have betrayed the revolution in some way. So attacks consisted of accusations with show trials. You were seized by a mob. Your crimes were listed on a placard around your neck. You were marched through the streets for “re-education sessions”. If you were lucky, you only suffered humiliation and beatings. Many people suffered worse.

The body of Walder’s work consists of taking this framework and showing how it played out city by city, or school by school, as to exactly who decided to attack whom and when. In nearly all cases, the attacks were determined by short term tactical considerations. In nearly all cases, they were defensive in the face of a clearly delineated and obvious threat. In nearly all cases, the choice of enemy had little to do with any social relationships or economic relationships that had existed prior to the Cultural Revolution. Everything was fast-breaking adaptation to new patterns of perceived danger.

*  *  *

So what if anything does this tell us about violence anywhere that is not Maoist China?


A. Walder’s Take:   Revolutionary situations are very fluid. One cannot understand revolutionary violence unless one is following the micro-dynamics of the flow of the battle. Deep ideology or fundamental interest is less important than tactical conjuncture, the strategic opportunities of the moment.


B. Cohn’s Take:   Chiefs of state delegitimizing government functionaries is not really a great idea. Mao thought he could control the process and produce a dynamic transformation of China that would achieve his sincerely-felt revolutionary ideals. The result was the destruction of many institutions that Mao had been personally vested in building. There was no economic gain. There was no social gain. There was widespread destruction on all sides.

The current government leaders who like to delegitimate government functionaries will not produce Cultural Revolutions. Mao’s assault on his own functionaries was not well thought out. It produced no way to achieve the world he wanted to build. Similarly the current assaults on world leaders' own functionaries are equally not well thought out. These too produce no obvious path towards economic growth, military strength or the welfare of the leaders' supporters.

True, attacks on functionaries may keep government leaders in power.

But Mao was already in power before he started the Cultural Revolution. The same applies to Presidential opponents of their respective Deep States today. 

For More Information

The corpus of Walder work on the Cultural Revolution has been steadily growing. For all I know, by the time this essay appears, he will have refined his models even further. That said, here are some good places to start.


If you want lots of juicy stories, combined with a narrative that is bewildering in its complexity, see Walder’s book Fractured Rebellion: the Beijing Red Guard Movement. Walder is a crystal-clear historian with superlative expositional skills. However, in Fractured Rebellion. he is describing some of the most baroque and complicated of the political infighting that occurred in Beijing. Bring coffee and prepare to take notes on who is who. In return for that, you get a magnificent portrait of people engaging in desperate struggle in complex situations with their lives being on the line.

For a simpler but equally compelling story, see the article he wrote with Qinglian Lu in the American Journal of Sociology (2017) “Dynamics of Collapse in an Authoritarian System: China in 1967”. 


You could also try his Social Science History article (2014) “Rebellion and Repression in China 1966-1971” or his China Journal article (2016) “Rebellion of the Cadres: 1967 Implosion of the Chinese Party-State.”


The gold-standard discussion of chaos in post-revolutionary situations continues to be Theda Skocpol’s State and Social Revolution. Her chapters are organized by nation. Look at the back third of any chapter of a country where a revolution took place.

And if you just like blood, blood, and blood for the gory hell of it, you can read any history you like of the Reign of Terror. David Andress’ The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France will give you your daily guillotine ration along with some serious thought on political violence.