Revolution with Revolution

May 16 Circular and The Sixteen Point Decision

This was written for a conference hosted by the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, entitled ‘1966 and All That’. I wasn’t initially asked to give a paper, even though it was organised by some people I knew. They had a drop out and, motivated by a minor ressentiment, I grifted my way in. They gave me the last slot on the last day immediately prior to the short break preceding the final ‘keynote’, as they like to call these things.

As you’d expect, pretty much every paper dealt with a theorist or a book or an event in theory that happened in the year 1966. I made my choice with this in mind. The orientation of my paper was, essentially, that given the state of the intellectual culture, that is, the sophisticated albeit torturous ways being found in ‘culture’ and ‘theory’ to mask a timid and bland complicity with all that being wrought by the contemporary new-order of capitalism and against the ‘masses’ though always in their name, a quick look at who and what is ‘culture’ and what is a cultural revolution might not be out of order.

I’m not going to summarise the paper, you can read it and see for yourself the intent. What I didn’t expect was that it would cause the keynote to effectively lose his shit and accuse me of trying to effect year zero (not exaggerating). While I didn’t expect it, I cannot say I didn’t enjoy it.

Two Documents

In 1966 two documents are published and disseminated across China, thereby addressing themselves immediately to 700 million people. It’s true not every one of these 700 million people read the documents but it’s true to say that every one is inscribed within them. The shorthand titles of these two documents are the May 16 Circular and The Sixteen Point Decision (from August 8). These were released by the Central Committee but are clearly authored by Mao Tse-tung. Although ‘Cultural Revolution’ was already an active policy, superseding the existing Socialist Education Movement, most commentators consider these the founding texts of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR).


The GPCR is one of those things that everyone knows about but knows almost nothing about and is probably one of the most under-conceptualised and over-determined events of modern times, as much de-historicised as it is de-politicised. In China, an active policy of ‘thorough negation’ of the GPCR has been in place since the late 1970’s. The Peoples Daily, mindful of the anniversary nature of this conference, published an article calling the GPCR ‘a mistake... that cannot and will not be allowed to repeat itself’ and went on to laud the modernising achievements of the past 30 years.

In the column to the right of the article, giving headlines for articles of interest, were several that caught the modern eye: ‘Students Take Stylish Bikini Graduation Photos’; ‘Monkeys Grab a Handful of Breast’; ‘Air Stewardess Packed into Overhead Bin’; ‘Top 20 Hottest Women in the World.’ As Wang Hui argues, this policy represents not merely a rejection of the radical thought and practice of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution but a ‘thorough negation’ of China’s whole ‘revolutionary century’ which, he says, ‘includes also the French and Russian Revolutions and the Paris Commune, which served always in China as models, and indeed orientations toward them have defined the political divisions of the time.’

This same process of negationism – which is really a pedagogy of un-thinkability – is evident throughout much western commentary on the GPCR which seems to be split between the smug denunciations and cheap irony of specialist mandarins professing a singular insight and those whose general tenor I’d describe as empiricist-hysterics or histrionics, if you’d prefer. Statistics abetting moral posturing itself grounded in the mythological liberalism that is the West’s progressive self-understanding – hence assumption after assumption guides the enquiry, making any real thought of the process impossible a priori.

I should add that western publishers are also partial to the individual eyewitness account, which, being individual is definitive each time. It’s no coincidence the alliance between the Chinese state and western commentary; after all, as Deng Xiaoping, no. 2 capitalist roader in the party almost said ‘we are all capitalist now with Chinese characteristics’.

Importantly for what I want to say about what these documents say and do, this approach mirrors and repeats the very ‘knowledge’ that was at issue in the GPCR. One that can be reductively characterised as presenting as both neutral and hierarchical in conception and effect – indeed the latter because of the former. This because, subjectively speaking, neutrality is always a choice for what already exists.

Bourgeois standpoint

Thus the question of an education in and by this knowledge is a critical one for the GPCR and precisely because this framework serves as the dominant orientation to the revolution itself and for Mao, it is this orientation that has come to give the direction of the revolution its revisionist form – which is to say, taking some lines from the Circular, ‘to appraise the situation from a bourgeois standpoint and the bourgeois world outlook.’

Since about 1961, the right faction – those westerners like to call in all contexts ‘moderates’ – was in the majority in the party, certainly in the upper echelons but spread across the country – though Mao would axiomatically maintain that 95% of cadres were good. ‘Rightist’ essentially meant two direct things: first, following an ostensibly Stalinist path economically – thus a sort of top down determination, primarily industrial: ‘it considers things, not people’ Mao says in his critique of 1958. ‘It’s basic error’ he says ‘is distrust of the peasants.’

Secondly, a Krushevist path politically, which, in short, meant an abandonment of the commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘It obscures the sharp class struggle that is taking place on the cultural and ideological front’, the Circular says. It abandons politics as such, given all class struggle is political.

The key word here is obscures, for this is the key criticism of the Circular in the field of knowledge: that what appears left in form was right in essence. Moreover, these external models, ostensibly communist, hark back to the social formations of pre-revolutionary China, making the rightist both traditionalist and individualist.

To cut what is a very long and complicated story short and to twist it toward my concerns, this meant for Mao, an abandonment within the revolution of revolution as such, insofar as what both positions combined conspired to do was to take the masses off stage so to speak as subject and position them as object, as that with which something needed to be done or in other words: the knowledge of what was to be done in the name of the masses was not that of the masses themselves.

Indeed we can say that for the revisionists, the bourgeoisie of the communist party or the ‘capitalist roaders’, the knowledge of the masses does not exist and this ignorance of the masses is amplified in commentary. In fact, its impossibility is necessary to such commentary given that the thesis of the ‘cult of Mao’ (so popular in the popular histrionics of the west) requires at minimum 700 million passive dupes.

Paradox & Reorientation

It is this paradox in knowledge – a knowledge of the masses not its knowledge – which Mao identified as the impasse of the revolution and it is why, also, the revolution ostensibly begun in 1966, within the communist party itself, was a Cultural one: that is to say, a revolution in and of knowledge as such – its concepts, categories, assumptions, habits, traditions, the privileges it accords to its technicians and so on, which means, most fundamentally, a revolution with regard to its orientation – and indeed that it has one.

Let me note that ‘cultural’ as used here signifies civilisation. Thus the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is a revolution in civilisation and civilisation in this Chinese context refers to an educated class – those who make up and determine the civil, if you will and have done so traditionally. In the context of the GPCR, the orthodox or revisionist position is the educated position and determines the status of the civil.

So what is at stake in the documents is the thorough-going re-orientation of everything that circulates as knowledge in the situation of contemporary China and this includes the knowledge of Marxism-Leninism, given that Mao upsets the orthodox relation of base to superstructure in emphasising the primacy of ideological struggle. Indeed this choice for revolution over orthodoxy inside the revolution – of, the Circular says, opening wide to the masses such that they can ‘hit back’ as against an opening wide to bourgeois liberalism which would be the protection of the bourgeois from the masses – underpins much of the trouble to come.

Comrade Documents

The May 16 Circular and the Sixteen Point Decision are comrade documents. The Circular is a document of critique and intervention and the Decision is a document of affirmation or action. Alessandro Russo argues that the former remains within the formal procedures of the party even as it opens them to critical exposure, while the latter is the basis of what he calls a pluralisation relative to this critical exposure.

The Circular is directed in the first instance at the ‘Outline Report on the Current Academic Discussion made by the Group of Five in Charge of the Cultural Revolution.’ The Report the Circular critiques in the strongest terms was presented under the guise of a critique of a play called Hai Jui Dismissed From Office. The play was based on real events and was considered within the remit of the terms of the GPCR to be ‘revisionist’.

The author of the play was well connected and moreover the revisionary tendency of the play drew many sympathisers. The problem with the report, as the Circular makes clear, is definitely that the play was revisionist and that the report was sympathetic, but the real affront was that the report was sympathetic by stealth. It did not come out and support the line of the play, instead it obfuscated political critique – the content of the play – for academic assessment – a formal exercise.

What is relevant is that the report of the five – written by one man, really, Peng Cheng, Mayor of Peking – exposed the revisionist position to public critique. In writing the report in the way they did, thus channelling the political struggle in the cultural sphere into so-called pure academic discussion, so frequently advocated by the bourgeois politics, and opposing giving prominence to proletarian politics, the revisionist current has asserted itself as what it is: ‘duplicitous and without line’.

As such – and this should ring familiar to anyone who has been forced to go begging before the clerks of the ARC – this document of the revisionist bourgeoisie ‘nurses a bitter hatred against those on the left already published and colludes in suppressing those not yet published. Yet they give free rein to all the various ghosts and monsters who for many years have abounded in our press, radio, magazines, books, text-book, platforms, works of literature, cinema, drama, ballads and stories, the fine arts, music, the dance, etc., and in doing so they never advocate proletarian leadership or stress any need for approval.’

The upshot is that the document the Circular criticises has, despite itself, exposed the field of culture more generally to critique and made culture a way in to the exposing of the bourgeoisie. Thus, now, officially if you like – which is to note, Mao never had the free reign theorists of totalitarianism fetishize – there is the impetus for a real revolution in culture because culture itself – the province of the educated bourgeoisie – has exposed its own artifice and shown itself to be operating at the highest levels and so with the greatest influence on the direction of the state; through the arts etc., but most critically, through education.

The point of this artifice as noted is the de-politicisation of the content of the play by recourse to academic form, which is to say, again, that it is this form that is the target here. Not academics or specific types of knowledge or art or literature per se nor any persons as such – except that 5% who are the enemies of the people. In other words, this form of knowledge, which supposes that it is neutral, supposes neutrality to be off limits to politics, and supposes that before knowledge the bourgeoisie and proletariat are equal, must be critiqued for what it is and transformed. The means of this transformation, which is a re-orientation, is the thought of the masses, the assertion if you like, of the truth of the proletariat into the field of knowledge itself.

The Decision in 16 Points is a different document. If the Circular opens the space of culture to the new form of its critique, the Decision is the affirmation and direction of this revolution as such. It’s sort of the ‘what is to be done’ of the GPCR. And what is to be done, abstractly put, is to shift knowledge from its objective form – by which subjective revisionism hides and insists – to its subjective form, which, as the document specifies, is that constituted in the masses.

Authorising their own existence

To put it another way, if the knowledge of the state under revision, which is what the Circular criticises, is predicated on the impossibility of the thought of the masses, the Decision makes this thought of the masses axiomatic and prescriptive, or ‘not impossible’: this is the basis of the pluralisation thesis Alessandro Russo maintains by which he means that the document of the central committee allows ‘groups authorising their own existence to form across the country, to take up this process of what becomes known as struggle-critique-transformation.’

These groups are certainly concentrated in the first instance in schools and universities, thus the Red Guards, but ultimately exceed this concentration, and involve workers, soldiers and peasants alike, both in discrete organisations and together. (The successful example of this being the Shanghai Machine Tool Plant Worker University.) This despite the efforts of the so called work groups sent into the schools and universities in the early stages of 1966 by the revisionist leaders Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. These work groups, supporting and comprising the Black Gang or Black Line, were actually a pretence aimed directly at preventing this organised coming together of students and workers. The French Communist party had a similar idea in 1968. (Reactionaries also learn from revolutionary events!)

The Decision begins by declaring that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution now unfolding is a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and indeed to change the very soul of man is what is declared to be at stake. I have heard this described as a metaphysical proposition but if so it’s clearly a materialist metaphysics assuming as it does – and contrary to liberalism which reserves man in his essence – that the soul can indeed be changed and through ‘education’ no less, albeit one that is as much taken as it is given, which is to say, is subjectively transformative.

As mentioned, this is not, supposedly, an orthodox position but it is clearly in line with Marx’s determination in hisTheses on Feuerbach that materialists must stop leaving subjectivity to the bourgeois idealists and conceive of a materialist subject as the very possibility of a real change in the world. In short, without this thought of the subject, no such change is possible because, as today, all we have is the subject of infinite potential or innovation – adaptable, flexible, resilient etc. in the face of a change which is not its.

The vitality of adaptation is the impossibility of the subject and this is the supposed subject of education today – schooled into existence as that capable of adapting to what is already determined to exist, which is itself not for turning, as the Lady said. Thus we are all Royal Blue Guards ‘dream[ing]large’ or ‘Believing’ for capital.

In direct contradiction with this orthodox prescription, then, the Decision prescribes that the educated subject must ‘meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticise and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art ...’

So clearly, a bourgeois education cannot support a subject capable of such transformation; such a subject needs an other orientation.

What is to be done

As noted, the Decision sets out both what is at stake and what is to be done. It notes the forms of resistance and how they shall appear; it advocates boldness, no fear, and necessarily in this ‘invention, experimentation’; the latter, Russo argues, ‘in the Galilean sense, in that it reveals an unknown truth, allowing something crucial, though unthinkable in the existing system of political knowledge, to appear’, namely, the ‘structural heterogeneity between emancipatory politics and governmentality, posing the question of how to deal politically with emancipation…outside the form of the party.’

In this sense are friends and enemies distinguished and the Decision invokes Mao’s famous thesis regarding the two types of contradictions: those between the people and its enemies and those amongst the people themselves – namely not to mistake the former for the latter. Indeed this mistake by the Red Guards leads almost to civil war – a mistake Mao, in a conversation with the various leaders of the factions in 1968, held to give them a chance to stop the violence themselves, attributes only half-jokingly to their ‘orthodox education’.

Some of you will be pleased to know that in this same vein the Decision makes clear that ‘care should be taken to distinguish strictly between the reactionary bourgeois scholar despots and ‘authorities’ on the one hand and people who have the ordinary bourgeois academic ideas on the other.’

Fixed Point(s)

It’s funny to us, safe within a society that takes no notice of culture other than in its commodified form or science other than as technology, but in the context of the GPCR it could be a matter of life or death. In the context, if I may:

‘an education is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. An education is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.’

To bring this to its end I want to highlight what I’d say is the central thesis, the one that brings the thought of the masses onto the stage, that interrupts history as revolutions do.

What Mao does is situate this reversal of knowledge, thus this new orientation of the knowledge of all, in the masses as a fixed point, so to speak. Which, Wang Hui argues, is to move from ‘the traditional “worldview based on heavenly principles” to the axiomatic principles of the scientific worldview. This’, he says, ‘embodies a sea change in social sovereignty’. Hence the great and axiomatic statement of Point 4 of the 16 Point Decision: ‘Trust the masses, rely on them and respect their initiative. Cast out fear. Don’t be afraid of disturbances… Let the masses educate themselves in the great revolutionary process. Let them decide for themselves what is just and what is not.’

Let me conclude in point form.

4 things:

1. The masses become the point of orientation – and so the opposition to the orthodox position is to take up this singular position of the universal class and not to retreat into some form of relativism.

2. As self-educating, self-authorising in the field of knowledge, the masses become subject. Thus the subject is not abandoned lest one becomes, again, subject to anything and everything, but renewed relative to this new orientation, which is essentially its very axiomatic existence in the field of knowledge: the emancipation of the masses by the masses.

3. Critically, these two assertions assume that the masses think or are actively capable of thought. What could ‘trust the masses’ refer to but that they can think the situation as such, otherwise than via the knowledge prescribed for them by others, and what is it for them to educate themselves except to suppose that they have the capacity to do so.

4. So the thought of the masses – that they think – is the condition for the revolution in knowledge, the disturbances, such that the question is ‘what is knowledge relative to this orientation’ – which is to say, what is civilisation such that it manifests the thought of the masses?

This idea of trust in the masses, that they think, is Mao’s most radical idea. To put it bluntly, to possess knowledge is traditionally what marks you out as distinct from the run of men and there is a coincident assumption that this distinction accords to it certain privileges – whatever they are: Status, power, research holidays, money – your run of the mill competitive advantages and so on.

Knowledge is distinction from and against the masses, by definition. Thus, as long as knowledge is conditioned by this framework of ‘each according to his abilities’ the revolution will always be in danger of backsliding into this bourgeois framework of relative merit masquerading as natural advantage and failing to be revolutionary as such – and thus, always televised!

Recasting the subject

Turning this upside down, then, Marxism-Leninism is supposed to be the thought/truth of the masses and to make this thought/truth manifest is the revolution: the revolution is the self-education of the masses in what is thought/true of them.

That the masses were generally steeped in tradition is what makes their exploitation by the superior knowledge of the revisionist in Marxism-Leninism possible and thus what makes the revolution top-down, so to speak, supposing as it does that the masses are forever ignorant in just this way. Mao’s ‘axiom’, that ‘the masses think’, is the decision of the sixteen points: that the masses can come to know all they do not; precisely, the truth of Marxism-Lenininsm, which, as manifest – hence as the work of the masses themselves – will have been the truth of the masses.

For Mao, then, this recasting of knowledge, of culture is the way to the full realisation of the promise of revolution. Again, this is unorthodox to suppose that changing the superstructure effects the base except that for Mao here the change is not in what is taught – thus not in known knowledge per se – or at least the target is not the banishment of certain symptoms but in the orientation of teaching and knowledge itself and thus the recasting of the subject of knowledge itself – hence the masses.

This is not some vulgar imitation of a vulgar Lysenkoism: new knowledge doesn't depend on the masses for its existence as knowledge and nor is the masses a check on what can come to be known – that ‘we will come to know all that we do not know’ is one of Mao’s favourite things to say, after all – rather, whatever knowledge comes to exist in the situation of the revolution it will be and can only be the knowledge of all or the thought of the masses – which is Marxism-Leninism – which is not the knowledge of Marx or Lenin!

The masses, the political category par excellence, are the subject of and for all knowledge. It’s precisely a prescription on the way forward and not something already attested to in experience or empirically – it is not precisely known knowledge but, as has been said, knowledge in truth whose experiment is to be carried out – for example, in the factory universities which sought to train their own technicians within this framework of the thought of the masses.

Moreover, this change in the subject of knowledge is the only way to fulfil the victory of the base as it were, to concretise their alignment – to move from the socialist state maintaining the false division of labour to the non-state form of communism – something Plato, with full knowledge of the failure of the GPCR and the seizure of power by the right, wisely said was ‘nowhere visible but not impossible’.

This ‘not impossibility’ of another knowledge than that which orients all education today is something that once again needs to be decided – whether it’s ‘Maoist’ is not the issue. Whether it is the thought of all, the decision that the all are capable of thought is what’s at stake and not, precisely, what we once again have: that the all are subject to what is known of them and thus that they do not, can not and – hence the orientation of contemporary education – must not think what is true for them. Lest it upset the smooth archi-metaphysical institutional order of what passes today as the knowledge of the bourgeois (now called neo-liberal) state form.