China and the Cultural Revolution – SOAS, 28 February

14th Feb 2019


Steve Smith, University of Oxford. Hosted by Haymarket Books and Social Histories of Revolution: the Long 1960s.


28 February, 18:30

Khalili Lecture Theatre

SOAS, Torrington Square

WC1H 0XG London

Register FOR FREE here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/china-and-the-cultural-revolution-tickets-55959622738 

The Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China between 1966 and 1976 had a traumatic impact on every high school, university, factory, office and shop in the cities; its effects in the countryside were more limited but by no means negligible. Well over half a million people were killed. Deng Xiaoping estimated 2.9m were unjustly treated. This was an unprecedented historical event in which an absolute leader deliberately brought about a crisis in the regime over which he presided, unleashing forces that quickly got out of control, threatening the very existence of that regime.

This talk asks how far the Cultural Revolution can be considered a ‘revolution’. It looks at rival interpretations of why it took place: a struggle by Mao Zedong to counter the degeneration of the revolution; a struggle to re-establish his personal supremacy; or a power struggle between different factions. It asks how far the subsequent course of the Cultural Revolution was determined by machinations at the top or by social tensions from below. In particular, it focuses on mass mobilization: on the Red Guard movement of students and workers that quickly degenerated into violence, factionalism and chaos.

Young students and workers felt that they were fighting to save the ‘soul’ of the revolution – battling against those in authority taking the capitalist road, against those perceived as ‘class enemies’ in society more widely, and, not least, against other factions that also claimed to be ‘defending Chairman Mao’.

The talk will ask how far social/political interests were at stake and how far ideological differences were in play. The highly theatrical, symbolic and rhetorical style of mass politics made it no less deadly. It will end by showing how order was gradually restored in the run-up to the Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1969, but will argue that the movement can legitimately be seen as continuing until the death of Mao in 1976.

Stephen Smith is Professor of History at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College. He is author of Like Cattle and Horses: Nationalism and Labor in Shanghai, 1895-1927 (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002) and A Road is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920–27 (Honolulu/Richmond, UK: Curzon Press/University of Hawaii Press, 2000). As well as his work on China, Steve Smith is a historian of the Russian revolution and of comparative Communism. He is author of Revolution and the People in Russia and China: A Comparative History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) and of Russia in Revolution: an empire in crisis 1890-1928 (Oxford University Press, 2017).