Sidney Rittenberg on Participating in the Cultural Revolution

Danwei has an interview with Sidney Rittenberg, the first American citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party. Rittenberg lived in China from 1944 to 1975, and spent the time alternating between serving as an adviser to China’s leaders and serving time in prison. Reflecting on his active participation in the Cultural Revolution:

I only got to take part in the first (and worst) 14 months of the Cultural Revolution, but I saw it as a great democratic uprising which was creating a new, lively, democratic form of Socialism. People elected their own leaders, formed their own political organizations, published their own opinions – it seemed like a marvelous new world, while it lasted. I was thrilled to be a part of it, and didn’t realize that it was conceived as a stage in the establishment of a “total dictatorship of the proletariat,” in Mao’s words. I thought he was the great liberator, who was really introducing a vibrant  democratic society.

It’s a good reminder that economic and political motivations don’t always pull in the same direction. There are a lot of people today, particularly in the West, who refer to China’s government as “Communist” as if that were a synonym for authoritarian. There are also plenty of people in China whose main problem with the government is that it isn’t Communist enough, with its anti-democratic features a secondary complaint (or not a complaint at all). It’s interesting to see the tension between democratic and communist values at play in Rittenberg’s account—and the idea that democratic governance was a motivating force behind at least some of the players in the Cultural Revolution is new to me.

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