Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the "May 16 notification" and the commencement of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Below we present an excerpt from the first chapter of Wang Hui's The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, which considers the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese 1960s in relation to the depoliticization that was to follow.
(1966 French-language edition of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Via Wikimedia Commons.)
Chinese commentators have been curiously absent from international discussions about the Sixties, despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was so central to that tumultuous decade. This silence, I would argue, represents not merely a rejection of the radical thought and practice of the Cultural Revolution but a negation of China’s whole “revolutionary century” — the era stretching from the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, which ended the monarchic rule, to around 1976. The century’s prologue was the period running from the failure of the wuxu or Hundred-Day Reform in 1898, initiated by the Guangxu Emperor and his supporters, to the 1911 Wuchang uprising, the triggering event for the Republican Revolution; its epilogue was the decade from the late 1970s through to 1989. During this whole epoch the French and Russian Revolutions were central models for China, and orientations toward them defined the political divisions of the time. The New Culture movement of the May Fourth period (roughly 1915–1921), which rejected Confucian values in favor of a new Chinese culture based in democratic and scientific principles of the West, championed the French Revolution and its values of liberty, equality and fraternity; first-generation Communist Party members took the Russian Revolution as a model, criticizing the bourgeois character of 1789. Following the crisis of socialism and the rise of reform in the 1980s, the aura of the Russian Revolution diminished and the ideals of the French Revolution reappeared. But with the final curtain-fall on China’s revolutionary century, the radicalism of both the French and the Russian experiences had become a target of criticism. The Chinese rejection of the Sixties is thus not an isolated historical incident, but an organic component of a continuing and totalizing de-revolutionary process.
Wang Hui is one of China's foremost critical intellectuals. A leading figure of the "Chinese New Left", his work has attempted to chart the intellectual and political conditions of contemporary China. Against the neoliberal restructuring of China, and its official propagandists, Wang's work has remained committed to a left-wing project whose aim has been to take-stock of both the history and the consequences of Chinese modernity.
In this interview with the journal Foreign Theoretical Trends, originally published in Chinese and included as an appendix to the recently published China's Twentieth Century, Wang discusses the discourses of development in China and across the Global South, the intellectual and political heritage of Maoism, and the hopes for a new anti-capitalist movement globally.