New thinking about the Red Guards

Andrew Walder has spent almost all of his academic life, on and off, studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  In Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (2009) he offers some genuinely new insights into this crucial and chaotic period of China’s revolutionary history.  Some historians have focused on the political motivations of Mao and other top leaders in the party; others have examined the economic and social cleavages that existed in China only a decade and a half into its Communist Revolution.  Walder is interested in a much more grass-roots question: what were the motivations, calculations, and states of mind of the “foot soldiers” of the CR, the Red Guards in the earliest years of the upheavals?  And why did the political activism of the CR devolve almost inevitably into intense factionalism between groups whose ideologies seemed virtually indistinguishable — loyalty to Mao, defense of the revolution, attacks on treacherous leaders?  Walder is a political sociologist, and he wants to understand the dynamics of mobilization and affiliation that led to the group violence and inter-group factionalism in the early years of this period.

Here is an example of the kind of factionalism that most interests Walder:

Chapter 8 examines the puzzling disintegration of the rebel movement in January 1967, soon after the decisive victory over its opponents.  Why did the victorious rebel coalition rapidly split into two opposing camps?  In their earlier attacks on ministries and commissions, rebels stayed within separate bureaucratic hierarchies.  Work teams were dispatched down these hierarchies to the schools under them, and the pursuit of work teams led rebels directly back up this hierarchy to the ministry or commission that sent them.  When these rebels moved to seize power in national and municipal agencies, however, they crossed into different bureaucratic hierarchies.  Rebel groups from different schools who went to the same organs of power turned quickly from allies into competitors.  These competitive rivalries were exacerbated by deep splits that had earlier developed among rebel forces in the two largest and most important campuses, Beijing and Quinghua universities.  The splits at Beida and Qinghua served as a wedge to divide rebel forces citywide, as factions of different schools aligned themselves with one or another faction at these two large campuses.  The resulting split between “Heaven” and “Earth” factions crippled the student movement and frustrated the CCRG until the very end. (26-27)

Walder suggests that earlier scholars have sought to understand the motivations and factions of China’s young people in terms of the class position of the participants and the pervasive political indoctrination of youth that had been ubiquitous in the 1950s and 1960s.  Factions existed, according to this line of thought, either because different groups had different interests, or they had different political theories and ideologies (“conservative” and “radical”).  Walder finds these explanations unsatisfactory, since they apply equally to both sides in all the factions — and so he wants to identify some other feature of the political landscape that would explain the behavior and the factionalization.  And, unlike the scholars of the 1970s and 1980s who had to largely speculate about these issues, Walder takes advantage of primary sources that allow the researcher to get a great deal of information about the participants in their own words, and in their relationships to other activists.

Walder also questions the relevance of the core assumptions of social mobilization theory for the Cultural Revolution — the idea that social movements need to be understood in terms of grievances, resources, and the state’s ability to resist group demands.  Fundamentally his objection is that this theory doesn’t help to explain the early months of the Cultural Revolution because all the postulated conditions were present in 1966, and mobilization did in fact occur (14).  But it occurred in a very distinctive way that resource mobilization theory seems not to prove a basis for explaining — the constant fissioning of a group of activists into two or more factions, bitterly opposed to each other.  It appears, then, that resource mobilization theory lacks the tools necessary to explain this specific pattern of mobilization — radicalization followed by bitter factionalism.

Walder’s explanation is a novel one.  He argues that factionalization was a consequence, not of class differences or ideological disagreements between individuals, but simply of the early choices that various individuals made early in the period.  A central feature of this period was the fact of denunciation — denouncing past or current leaders for disloyalty to the revolution or other ideological errors.  And these denunciations within the universities were highly consequential: “by mid-July 55 percent of all university party first secretaries and 40 percent of all general branch secretaries had been labeled anti-party reactionaries and placed in category 4” (57).  The rapid proliferation of denunciations meant that persons close to the denounced leader needed to decide — should they join the denunciation or should they refrain?  The work teams that were sent into Beijing’s elite universities in June 1966 (Peking University, to begin with) were forced to make choices in light of radical students’ denunciation of top university officials; lower officials had to make similar choices; and activist student leaders had to decide whether to support or oppose the activities of the work teams.  And, Walder argues, this choice was fateful and enduring.  It meant that the individual would be shunted into this group or that group, with further decisions cementing the affinity with the group.

Another way of stating the argument is that factional identities and the common interests that define them are the product of political interactions rooted in specific contexts whose properties must be researched, not simply assumed.  Individual decisions — to join factions, to oppose or support a work team — are not the product of prior socialization or social ties but are actdively shaped by political encounters.  The focus is on the interactions that generate choices and outcomes, not the prior statuses of individuals or their preexisting social and political ties. These processes determine when prior social statuses or network ties are activated in a conflict, and when they are not. (13)

In other words, Walder argues that the fact of pervasive factionalization in the Cultural Revolution does not reflect fundamental underlying disagreements or contradictions between the factions; it does not reflect prior sociological distinctions among the participants; but rather reflects the emergence of separate networks of political affiliation from which there was no exit.

Chapter 3 describes how the work teams split university power structures into warring factions, with a focus on the issues that bred conflict between work teams and militant students.  Only in rare and fleeting circumstances were the issues of contention about attacks on the incumbent power structure — a question that might distinguish “conservative” from “radical” political orientations.  Instead, they were usually about the work team’s authority over student actions and the physical control of officials held for interrogation, and about heavy-handed work-team punishment of students who proved hard to control. (24)

This is a fascinating micro-sociology of a crucial span of a few months of violent upheaval in a single city.  It helps to explain a particularly pervasive feature of a broad and chaotic period of political unrest in China — the constant factionalism that occurred at virtually every level of conflict.  It introduces an innovative model of political behavior (path-dependent choices by individuals leading to a durable configuration of political affiliations).  And it provides a new avenue through which the methods of network analysis can be fruitfully used to explain complex social processes.  It is a valuable contribution to the new wave of scholarship that is currently underway about the Cultural Revolution.  (Other contributions to this new scholarship are included in Esherick, Pickowitz, and Walder, eds., China’s Cultural Revolution As History.)

A side note, not crucial to Walder’s argument but interesting nonetheless, is the apparently simple question of when the Cultural Revolution took place.  It is conventional by many historians to date the CR to the years 1966-1976.  In 1966 the Red Guard movement erupted with wall posters and virulent activism in Beijing, among high school and university students.  And in 1976 Mao died, the Gang of Four were arrested, and the disruptions of the decade were decisively put aside.  But Walder dates the CR to a much shorter period, 1966-68, beginning with the same Red Guard explosion that occurred in 1966 but ending in 1968 when Mao unleased the military to put down the radical activists: “Not until August 1968 were the flames of China’s Cultural revolution extinguished by the imposition of a harsh regime of martial law” (1).


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