“As for almost all other Westerners in 1966 and later, we looked at the theory-intoxicated antics of the cultural revolutionaries with amazement and thought “it could never happen here”. Well, it is happening here now, of course, at least in Britain and the United States, and even in parts of Western Europe and the Anglosphere, though less aggressively. The scenes of crowds burning cities, attacking the police, looting small businesses, and then in an illogical but somehow understandable progression, pulling down statues, destroying national symbols, and doing their best to erase familiar signposts and symbols of their (and our) own past leave little doubt about what is going on. It is a revolution against our culture, our history, our countries, and ourselves.”
As far as the great British public was concerned, the Chinese Cultural Revolution began in London in 1966 when Chinese diplomats rushed out of their embassy in Portland Place (conveniently close to Broadcasting House) and attacked the police stationed there to guard them. A picture of one “diplomat” threatening a policeman with a hatchet made it onto the front pages, and the next day crowds gathered on the opposite side of the Place shouting anti-Chinese slogans. Drunken British hooligans – less of a cliché in 1966 than today – were patriotically inspired to ransack a few Chinese restaurants across the country. Their owners defensively placed in their windows signs that proclaimed “We Are Hong Kong Chinese and British” – sentiments that were interestingly echoed in Hong Kong in recent days. And the British end of China’s Cultural Revolution rumbled on for a while until eventually it ran out of steam and the news.
The Battle of Portland Place, though apparently irrational, was probably a calculated Chinese response to restrictions placed on the movements of their diplomats by Harold Wilson’s government which itself was reacting (much more reasonably, you may think) to the burning of a UK mission and the roughing-up of UK diplomats by “Red Guards” in China. Both governments had no interest in prolonging the crisis, however, and when Mao and his faction re-imposed control over both their rivals and their student revolutionary supporters, they embarked on long negotiations that, among other results, tacitly accepted postponing the return of Hong Kong to China until 1997.
At the time, however, the Brits had become fascinated by the anarchic disorders that were sweeping China as students paraded their teachers in dunces’ caps, local authorities sent lawyers to spread night soil over the fields in forced labour, and precious artefacts of Chinese culture were seized from museums and destroyed in the streets. Young Red Guards, waving Mao’s “little Red Book” were licensed to imprison, beat, torture and even kill people in positions of authority who supposedly represented the obstacles that traditional culture presented to the achievement of a true Marxist proletarian revolution.
It was hard to see such crude atrocities as having much to do with ideas or culture. Mao’s “little Red Book”, which I bought in a Marxist bookshop in London, proved to be a dull collection of improving maxims addressed to young Communists who wanted to succeed under socialism. It had the same intent as – but none of the wit of – Victorian maxims like “The man who watches the clock will always be one of the hands”. And how could a revolution that brutalised and killed its victims almost at random, murdering Communist apparatchiks as readily as distinguished historians or scientists, be interpreted as advancing any serious social goal? What was mystifying then – and to some extent still is – was the seeming pointlessness of the whole enterprise. Were these horrors the results of anarchy or dictatorship? The exiled Hungarian historian, Tibor Szamuely, told a Tory audience in Yorkshire’s Swinton Conservative College, only partly tongue in cheek, that all the sources of information about the revolution seemed to be Maoist ones: “One radio station will say ‘In our province the reactionaries have killed 1,000 people’ only for another to reply “That’s nothing. In our province the reactionaries have killed 10,000 people.’” Was the entire Cultural Revolution an exercise in power politics to destroy Mao’s enemies or a kind of revolutionary fiesta that would ensure the loyalty of an entire generation of young Chinese to his scorched-earth version of revolution?
Historians now seem to agree that it was both. Mao launched it to attack his enemies in the Communist power structure at a time when his authority had been weakened by the catastrophic failure of his Great Leap Forward programme. Once launched, however, it developed an anarchic energy of its own as Mao’s youthful followers beat, humiliated, and murdered anyone who held any kind of authority and many who had none. In the end, almost three million people died in the course of the great anarchy; many more lives were permanently ruined. Its other results were, as theatre critics say, “mixed”. Mao emerged from the Cultural Revolution supreme in China, a kind of God-Man, with his party rivals dead or imprisoned. But after his death the Maoists were purged and the politics of revolutionary egalitarianism abandoned. Deng Xiaoping introduced his capitalist-roader economic reforms about the time Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street, and China’s power and prosperity have grown rapidly ever since. As for the Red Guards, they plainly failed to impose a permanent revolution on China or even on themselves. Those who survived their own atrocities, as many have since testified, now look back with shame and horror at the way they inflicted brutality on people who had done them no wrong and in some cases had been their kindly mentors or even their parents. Whatever criticisms the Chinese people have of their government today, they show no nostalgia for Mao or his ism.
It was only outside China that enthusiasm for Maoism survived among left-wing politicians like Britain’s Tony Benn, academic revolutionaries like Malcolm Caldwell (who was murdered while enthusiastically touring an even more primitivist revolution in Cambodia), and Hollywood celebrities with a taste for exotic radical politics safely distant. Some Western Maoists saw Maoism admiringly as the most complete rejection ever attempted of the seductive but alienating Western liberal capitalism they despised. Others were simply naive utopians ignorant as to what it was like to live under Maoism. Both schools of radical thought were effectively refuted by Deng Xiaoping’s response to Shirley Maclaine in a White House receiving line when she said that a doctor sent to hard labour in the fields to overcome his sense of bourgeois privilege had told her it was the most uplifting experience of his life.
“He told you that, did he?” replied the plain-speaking Deng. “He was lying.”
As for almost all other Westerners in 1966 and later, we looked at the theory-intoxicated antics of the cultural revolutionaries with amazement and thought “it could never happen here”.
Well, it is happening here now, of course, at least in Britain and the United States, and even in parts of Western Europe and the Anglosphere, though less aggressively. The scenes of crowds burning cities, attacking the police, looting small businesses, and then in an illogical but somehow understandable progression, pulling down statues, destroying national symbols, and doing their best to erase familiar signposts and symbols of their (and our) own past leave little doubt about what is going on. It is a revolution against our culture, our history, our countries, and ourselves. Its immediate cause was the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. That immediately became the worldwide symbol of racism against Black Americans, especially at the hands of the police, and it led in turn to a metastasising directionless anarchy.
We can explore many speculations about why this spread was so swift, dramatic, and largely un-resisted. People are bored and angry after eight weeks of lockdown. They are afraid of the economic consequences of COVID-19 which may bring about a sharp fall in their own standard of living, when the pandemic finally ends. They want to blame someone for their own anxieties, preferably the government which, as it happens, really deserves blame for its handling of the pandemic. A large body of unemployed graduates, some unemployable, others employable only in non-graduate jobs – in other words, the traditional cannon fodder of revolution – already existed and will inevitably soon be joined by others as the post-COVID economy sheds jobs made uneconomic by the lockdown. All of these things have combined to foster a climate of febrile discontent, free-floating anxiety, and distrust of authority that coincidentally distrusts itself.
All these help to explain the spread of anarchy once it has started. None explains why the murder of one man, George Floyd, in one country should start a revolution against the cultural symbols and identities of several nations which do not have the social evils that the murder supposedly symbolises. It is not as if the murder is being justified or covered up. On the contrary, it is universally condemned; it seems likely to be punished with remarkable speed (by the standards of American justice); and it is not even one particular example of a general war on Black America by racist police because, though it is dangerous to say so, there is no such war.
Black Americans suffer many serious social disadvantages, but they are the result of many causes most of which are unrelated to the racism of cops and other Americans. The figures for fatal shootings of men by the police show that about two thirds of such victims are white and one third black – amounting to nine people last year. In addition, such shootings have been falling for several years. Admittedly, police shootings of black men are disproportionately high in relation to the Black percentage of the population, but they are disproportionately low in relation to Black involvement in crime. And they are very few in comparison with the overwhelming majority of murders of Blacks committed by other Blacks. Even though racism plays a part in the social problems of Black America, it is not the main explanation of those problems, let alone a complete one.
As the conservative Black columnist Larry Elder recently wrote: “Assume there’s a vaccine against white racism. Would 70 per cent of black kids STILL be raised in fatherless homes? Would 50 per cent of blacks STILL drop out of many urban high schools? Would 25 per cent of young black urban men STILL have criminal records? Would blacks STILL kill 7,000 blacks every year?” The implied answer, alas, is that probably things would improve only slightly, if at all. And if the solutions to such problems proposed by progressive elites were adopted, for instance defunding the police, they would almost certainly make the lives of ordinary Americans, Blacks in particular, much more dangerous as well as poorer.
Suppose, however, that you think Mr Elder is wrong about America and Black lives. Even so we are left with the mystery of why the murder of someone in Minneapolis – a city ruled by progressive Democrats with Black officials at all political levels for two generations – should be a legitimate excuse for riots in London and other British cities where the police bend over backwards in order to maintain good “community relations” with all races? Why too should some of the protests rapidly become violent riots against the symbols of national life and British history? My answers to those questions, drawing on the experience of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, would stress five broad similarities:
The first is that, as in the China of 1966, there is a deep political conflict between different political and cultural elites in both Britain and America which is now being fought out on the terrain of constitutional patriotism versus multiculturalism. It was a subterranean and unacknowledged conflict for a long time. But as Christopher Caldwell has demonstrated in his recent book, The Age of Entitlement – more or less irrefutably as the respectful criticisms of his opponents covertly admit – the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its later expansions by the courts have created a second US Constitution that is at odds with the US Constitution ratified in 1788. By making the outlawing of discrimination the central criterion of a large and expanding portion of American life, the second constitution has undermined and increasingly negated the constitutional protections of the first one. Initially, it powered the massive federal legal regulation of economic life on such matters as hiring, promotion, salaries, the ethnic composition of the workforce and college entry, and the re-writing of tests and standards to weaken meritocratic criteria for appointments at all levels; more recently, it has inspired claims that constitutional rights such as free speech and majoritarian democracy should be regulated constitutionally to ensure that they do not disadvantage racial or other minorities. Britain has undergone a less severe version of this constitutional transformation which has taken place (and thus been more visible) largely under the auspices of the European Union and its legal supremacy over UK law.
Many US and UK citizens, including some Black and minority citizens, have experienced this slow constitutional revolution as the imposition of undemocratic and “unjust” rules where EU law, federal regulations, court decisions or “social justice” arguments trump earlier understandings of fairness and commonsense. As they have become increasingly aware of this de facto constitutional change, they have grown more and more resistant to it. Conservative parties and organisations have been forced by their electorates into becoming the defenders of the original constitutions, while their radical left counterparts have adopted the new constitutions as their enthusiastic partisans. Remember President Obama’s 2009 promise that America would be “fundamentally” changed by his victory. These subterranean discontents exploded into clear national view in both countries when President Trump won the 2016 election and Brexit was ratified by a referendum in the same year. These battles not only continue; they grow fiercer and more bitter.
The second similarity is that this constitutional conflict has been increasingly one of “identity politics” even as it has become more a matter of everyday partisan controversy. A comparison with the Chinese cultural conflict is inexact here because almost everyone involved in it was Han Chinese. But Mao’s Communist enemies were denounced as class enemies and capitalist roaders. In Communist thought, as Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, those identities possess immutable characteristics akin to those of race. The children of aristocrats and the bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union and East Central Europe were deprived of good education and other social opportunities because they had inherited the status of their parents. That kind of categorisation divides people more than just politically. It means that your political opponents belong almost to a different tribe which cannot legitimately claim the same rights as loyal citizens and may even deserve to be shunned, denied employment, shamed, or beaten. In China it justified such extreme measures as the murder of Mao’s opponents; in Cambodia wearing spectacles was grounds for imprisonment, torture and execution.
In Anglosphere politics, “tribes” already existed in the form of racial, ethnic and other groups. But the original constitutions promised them and all citizens legal equality and political rights. That promise was grotesquely violated by slavery and gravely compromised by continuing racism afterwards. It was an ideal confined to legal and political equality, moreover, that neither promised substantive economic equality nor could honestly do so in a free competitive society. Nonetheless it moved steadily towards greater fulfilment until it reached the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which implicitly did promise greater substantive equality. That promise was made explicit in later court interpretations that, for instance, treat inequalities not obviously justified by a third factor as deriving necessarily from discrimination. On that justification a vast engine of federal bureaucratic intervention guided by court decisions was built to root out discrimination and to move towards the equality of racial, ethnic and other groups. Real progress towards that goal has been made – Black and minority Americans occupy leadership roles throughout American society – but for a variety of reasons inequalities continue to exist, and will continue to do so. These are now blamed by self-styled “anti-racists” on a shadowy “systemic racism” in public debate. Liberal-left and radical movements preach a “narrative” that treats America as a fundamentally racist society in which Black people and other minorities are the victims of “white supremacy” institutions that must therefore be torn down and replaced by multicultural ones – possibly elected on racially proportionate lines as Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte has predicted – consistent with the post-1964 second constitution.
It is, of course, absurd to claim that the nation that twice elected Barack Obama is a fundamentally racist nation governed on white supremacist lines. That is a wicked lie. But there are practical reasons for the support these anti-racist fantasies get. Anti-discrimination laws in the post-1964 constitution, for instance affirmative action preferences, give some racial and gender identities significant social and economic advantages and give other identities significant disadvantages. The electoral strength of the Democratic Party – and of the Left within the party – is rooted in Black, minority, and migrant communities. Defending racial preferences has therefore become an organising principle of Left-Democratic politics with the intended effect of herding all “minorities” into a single majority bloc. In effect all politics has been “racialised” as a struggle between white majority and ethnic minorities. To be sure, racial politics are in reality more blurred than this narrative allows – recent polls show that “white liberals” (about 20 per cent of white voters) are angrier about white racism than are most Black voters. Majorities of all races would still probably reject the argument that America is a white supremacist country. That is why much electoral propaganda from the Left is aimed at arousing and aggravating racial and other resentments in order to discourage their ethnic constituencies from assimilating into the great multi-ethnic American majority (stigmatised falsely as “white”) and reducing the power of their coalition of minorities.
That explains half of the significance of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (BLM). The words in themselves are true and inarguable. But when people are dismissed because they refuse to mouth a formula they feel to be racist, when people are investigated by the police as racists for responding “All Lives Matter” when asked, and when the authorities allow mobs to tear down statues on the grounds that they are a denial of the slogan in marble, then the slogan becomes other than truth. It becomes a demand for compliance. Compliance to what, however? The BLM movement’s actual political programme goes beyond racial fairness and legal equality to resemble a catch-all for anything the quasi-Marxist Left can force moderate Democrats to swallow for the sake of office. That was quite a lot in the early stages of this revolution, but progressive politicians with an eye on public opinion are already sliding away from its stronger commitments such as “Defund the Police”.
But the vaguer compliance that BLM demands and gets may be more dangerous. This is a public endorsement of the broad BLM analysis that America is a fundamentally racist society governed by white supremacy. Left politicians, corporate America, the mainstream media, and much of the establishment have shown that they will happily assent to this broad analysis, some (in the media) maybe sincerely, others on the ground that talk is cheap. In making that concession, however, they are assenting to the Lie.
That is how Václav Havel described (in a famous essay, The Power of the Powerless) the way in which totalitarianism extends its control of the citizenry under Communism. A greengrocer might enjoy a quiet life if he were to place a sign in his window alongside the beets and white carrots that read “Workers of the World – Unite!” It signifies his support or acquiescence to the regime. It does not, of course, stop there. Having assented to the regime’s central lie – in the present case the lie of white supremacy – the corporate CEO or university vice-Chancellor will find himself assenting to a succession of subordinate lies. That will require assent to such nonsensical notions as: that racism is whatever anyone perceives as racism; that only white people can be guilty of it because only whites have power; that women must always be believed, whatever the evidence; that statistics should not be collected if they undermine leftist preconceptions; that children prosper equally in all kinds of family structures; that all cultures are equal, including those cultures that deny human equality in both theory and practice; and that all group differences are the result not of their different attitudes and aptitudes but of unlawful discrimination.
Every time assent is given to such a lie, another set of regulations will be imposed to “correct” the accusation embedded in it. While this continues the revolution has a strong moral advantage over its subjects who have given public assent to an entire ideological structure of ideas of which some new demand is simply its latest expression. Were they lying hypocrites when they affirmed Black Lives Matter but now refuse to endorse racial quotas in employment, university admissions, prison numbers, or examination results? Are they traitors now when they question such obvious measures to attain social justice? It is not hard to judge. Their crimes are proved by their failure to subscribe to the ruling Lie. Maybe they are white supremacists? Or class enemies? Or capitalist roaders? Whichever it is, they have no standing in a socially just society, no right to speak, no claim to exercise authority even if their claim to it rests firmly on a democratic mandate. Most submit for the sake of a quiet life.
This coward’s progress continues until the system becomes so oppressive that the greengrocer rebels. He removes the Marxist slogan from the window and with it his assent to the lie and to the regime. But that can take a long time, and until then the revolutionary System – which unlike liberal democracy really is a system in how it imposes its “truths” on dissenters – grinds on. How it does so can be seen in the final three of the five similarities it shares with the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The third such similarity is that progressive elites in the West have their own Red Guards – in Antifa, BLM, and other groups – who enforce the BLM analysis on those who resist or even show reluctance in assenting to it. The Red Guards’ methods include burning the property of resisters, beating them up, forcing them to contribute to BLM funds, preventing them speaking for themselves, and of course murdering them. It is the most striking similarity with what happened in China in 1966. But how are these Red Guards able to do so in a democratic society based on law?
That is explained by the fourth similarity: in a society divided between two governing elites – the Maoist versus the Communist, the progressive versus the elected, those enjoying the Mandate of Heaven versus those holding office – the lawful authorities apply the law selectively. They try to accommodate the protests, even violent ones, of the side that incarnates the revolutionary idea while cracking down hard on those who foolishly breach the law in resisting anti-racist protesters who pull down statues. Some authorities do so from sympathy for the protesters, others from cowardice and fear of being attacked as racist. An illustration of this, both symbolic and real, was the decision by British police and the Premier League soccer body to instruct policemen and footballers to “take the knee” (i.e., kneel) in acceptance of the truth and authority of Black Lives Matter. That was the moment in Britain when the greengrocer put the sign in his front window. It has been followed also by the Mayor of Seattle, who tolerated the establishment of a “liberated” zone in her city until murders began to occur and the mob encroached on her own neighbourhood. And there have been many other examples of this violent lawlessness being tolerated.
If you are unaware of the extent of this anarchy, that is probably because of the fifth similarity. Since the central claims of the revolutionary cause are false, notably those that include the phrase “white supremacy”, and since many of its actions are violent as well as unlawful, and since both would be unpopular if accurately reported, those media outlets sympathetic to the BLM revolution have to lie and obfuscate in their accounts of its excesses. Here is how BBC news reported the first London protests: “27 police officers injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests in London”. And there have been many other examples of this violent lawlessness going unreported or being sugar-coated.
All in all this late flowering of Anglo-American revolutionary instability is a grim picture, but we should be wary of assuming that it will succeed in overturning or transforming either society. The revolution is in its earliest stages. We cannot know how it will turn out. Such upheavals generate opposition as their true oppressive character becomes clearer. And already there are signs that it is running out of steam in Britain as the extreme opinions of the organisers of Black Lives Matter get more attention and their movement’s directionless destruction alienates people.
In America the revolutionaries face the obstacle of a presidential election. They must know that the 1968 Paris manifestations collapsed when President de Gaulle called an election and won it handsomely with the party that backed the students winning about four per cent of the vote. Elections trump revolutions in the game of politics because they have a much stronger claim to popular consent. If Trump wins re-election, especially if his party also keeps control of the Senate, that will shift the political initiative back to him; if the Democrats win, they will try to recruit and control the revolutionary Left and to dilute their policies. Either way revolution will be off the agenda for four years.
As for the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, that too demonstrated the limits of revolution. For it was in truth a counter-revolution against the kind of Marxist revolution enforced then by Rákosi and espoused today by Black Lives Matter. Between late 1948 and mid-1953, Hungarians, under Soviet arms, were forced to emulate Mátyás Rákosi as “the wise father of the Hungarian people”, and “the best disciple of Comrade Stalin”. During that period, about 600,000 police and court actions were enacted, including the death penalty, in a nation of hardly more than 9 million, on charges of bourgeois and reactionary activities, spreading false rumour, and “sabotaging production” in a revolutionary Comminist regime that steered Hungary, one of the richest pantries of Europe, to the brink of famine. Examples of horrenduous abuses by the systemic hatred of Soviet communism (against religion and against ethnic groups) abound in the testimonies in the present issue of Hungarian Review.
Though the 1956 Revolution did not succeed in its main objective of liberating Hungary from Soviet Communism for more than thirty years, it convinced the Soviets that they could not govern Hungarians as Rákosi had done. Kádár would have to win their acquiescence if not their consent. And Communism cannot survive long on consent.
Nor, finally, should we underestimate the appeal of our own democratic culture to refugees from its revolutionary opposite. In response to the crackdown on Hong Kong’s civil liberties by a cheap imitation Mao knock-off, Britain announced last month that it will admit more than three million Hong Kong UK passport-holders to the UK and give them a path to UK citizenship. A poll shows this proposal was welcomed by 57 per cent of all voters and majorities in all political parties – a sharp corrective to the media and progressive narrative of British racism. Moreover, the new Brits are likely to have a sceptical attitude to cultural revolutions anywhere and some knowledge of where they lead. Only recently some Hong Kong demonstrators were waving Union Jacks rather than burning them and singing “God Save the Queen” in preference to “The Internationale”. Their fathers and mothers thirty years before were building a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square rather than erecting a monument to the Unknown Red Guard. We should never forget that we have good clear-sighted people of all races on our side of these barricades. And their numbers grow whenever the next revolutions lumber into view.
For there is one sure and certain cure for believing in revolutionary Marxist socialism: living under it.