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.footnote1 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 Republican Revolution in 1911 to around 1976. The century’s prologue was the period running from the failure of the Hundred-Day Reform in 1898 to the 1911 Wuchang uprising; 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 towards them defined the political divisions of the time. The New Culture movement of the May Fourth period 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.

Why do the Sixties seem to be more of a Western than an Asian topic today? First, although the Western and the Asian Sixties were connected, there were also very important differences. In Europe and America, the rise of the Sixties protest movements saw an interrogation of capitalism’s political institutions and a far-reaching critique of its culture. The Western Sixties targeted the post-war state, ruthlessly criticizing its domestic and foreign policies. By contrast, in Southeast Asia (particularly Indochina) and other regions, the uprisings of the Sixties took the form of armed struggles against Western imperialist domination and social oppression. Revolutionary political movements fought to transform the nation-state, to create their own sovereign space for economic development and social transformation. In today’s context, the armed revolutions of the Sixties seem to have vanished from memory as well as thought; the problems of capitalist critique remain.

A second point concerns the particular character of the Chinese Sixties. Beginning in the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China was unfailingly supportive of Third World liberation movements and the non-aligned movement generally, to the point of clashing with the world’s greatest military power, the United States, in Korea and Vietnam. When European radicals developed a left critique of Stalinism in the Sixties, they discovered that China had already developed a far-reaching critical analysis of the orthodox Soviet line. Yet as China’s wholly new form of party-state was being established, the corrosion of depoliticization was already beginning to set in. Its most important manifestations were bureaucratization and internal power struggles within the party-state, which in turn led to the suppression of discursive freedom. In launching the Cultural Revolution, Mao and others sought a range of tactics to combat these tendencies, yet the end result was always that these struggles became implicated in the very processes—of ‘depoliticizing’ faction fights and bureaucratization—that they were designed to combat, leading to renewed political repression and the rigidification of the party-state.

Even before 1976, the Sixties had lost their lustre in the eyes of many Chinese because of the continuous factional struggles and political persecutions that had occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Following the death of Mao and the restoration to power of Deng Xiaoping and others, the Chinese state undertook a ‘thorough negation’ of the Cultural Revolution from the late seventies. Combined with popular feelings of doubt and disappointment, this led to a fundamental change in attitudes that has lasted to the present day. Over the past thirty years, China has transformed itself from a planned economy to a market society, from a headquarters of world revolution to a thriving centre of capitalist activity, from a Third World anti-imperialist nation to one of imperialism’s ‘strategic partners’. Today, the most powerful counter to any attempts at critical analysis of China’s problems—the crisis in agricultural society, the widening gap between rural and urban sectors, institutionalized corruption—is: ‘So, do you want to return to the days of the Cultural Revolution?’ The eclipse of the Sixties is a product of this depoliticization; the process of ‘radical negation’ has diminished the possibility for any real political criticism of current historical trends.

How then should we understand the politicization of the earlier post-war era? The outcome of the two World Wars had served to dismantle the Eurocentric inter-state system; with the onset of the Cold War, the world order was defined above all by the antagonistic division between the us and Soviet blocs. One prodigious accomplishment of the Sixties was to break of this bi-polar order. From the Bandung conference in 1955 to the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution in 1975, the social movements and armed struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America took the form of a ‘politicization process’ that forced an opening in the Cold War order. Mao’s ‘Three Worlds Theory’ was a response to this new historical configuration. As the national liberation movements broke the grip of Western imperialism, the rupturing of the Communist bloc that began with the Sino-Soviet split also created a space for renewed debate on the future of socialism. Theoretical and political struggles led to challenges to the structure of power, which had grown ever more ossified within the socialist camp. This too can be viewed as a politicization process.

Yet the Chinese Sixties also contained a self-contradictory ‘depoliticizing tendency’, with the anti-bureaucratization struggles becoming subsumed in faction fights—and, above all, in the violence that came to accompany them at the end of the Sixties. In his important essay, ‘How to Translate Cultural Revolution’, the Italian sociologist Alessandro Russo argues that these violent factional struggles created a crisis in the political culture that had developed in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, centred upon open debate and multiple forms of organization.footnote2 This crisis provided the opening for the re-entry of the party-state. In this sense, the final stages of the Cultural Revolution unfolded within a process of depoliticization.

Russo’s reflections on the Cultural Revolution are set against his analysis of the decline in the parliamentary-democratic systems of the West over the last thirty years. The corner-stones of these parliamentary democracies, he argues, were the political parties. A multi-party system presupposes that each party has a specific representative character and political values, for which it will fight against its rivals within the parliamentary-institutional framework. However, as the character and values of the parties become increasingly indeterminate within a broad macro-economic consensus, real democratic politics disappears. Under these conditions, parliament is transformed from a public sphere into an apparatus for ensuring national stability.