The Gang of Four are dead

by Rob Horning

17 January 2006


Not the band, though there is someting spiritually deadening about their comeback tours and their money-grubbing album, Return the Gift. I’m talking about the Gang of Four who started China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Yao Wenyuan, the last living member of the group, died a few weeks ago. During the Cultural Revolution Mao was deified into a living god—Gang of Four cohort Lin Biao claimed “Chairman Mao is a genius, everything the Chairman says is truly great; one of the Chairman’s words will override the meaning of ten thousands of ours”—and students were encouraged to seize power from the state and persecute all bureaucrats and intellectuals for their recalcitrant bourgeois tendencies—for falling back rather than pushing the permanent revolution forward. They were then typically forced to undergo painful public self-criticism, usually while groveling at the boot of some Red Guard thug. The idea seems to have been that complacency automatically bred “capitalist roader” mentalities and inhibited the development of a truly socialist superstructure to complement the command-economy base. Whenever I lament the fact that few take the politics embedded in all culture seriously enough, I think of the chaos of these events, their rabid and unhampered anti-intellectualism, and remember to consider more carefully what it is I wish for. The whole point of self-criticism and the social critique that might flow from it, is that you take it upon yourself; it’s no good if it’s beaten out of you. And it is no good to be forced to the country for proletarian re-education, as many students were during the “Down to the Country” movement, if no one can identify what anyone should be trying to learn. When one reads about this period, it seems like a grotesque version of the contemporaneous film Wild in the Streets, in which teenagers take over the government and force all the adults to take LSD and die insane in prison camps. The Cultural Revolution seems to demonstrate what happens when you fuse modern youth culture, sustained by the mass-media propaganda potential, with a self-aggrandizing political platform and behind the scenes powerbrokers who stand to benefit from chaos. It seems a model for terrorism in the name of Islamic fundamentalism (not to mention Christian fundamentalism—is it so hard to imagine a paramilitary force from a megachurch somewhere being granted police power in some Southern state?)

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