Robert Jay Lifton, Revolutionary Immortality, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

In 1954, an American psychologist travelled to Hong Kong, where he carried out extensive interviews with both Chinese and foreign survivors of captivity, solitary confinement, and torture psychological variety in Chinese jails. He then published an important book on the Chinese practice of “thought reform” and what was then called “brainwashing.” In 1966 he returned to Hong Kong and began studying the Cultural Revolution.

In 1968, Robert Jay Lifton published Revolutionary Immortality, a short but provocative and insightful book. This book gets very little attention, but it is due for a renaissance or revival, as there are certain aspects of it conducive to the present zeitgeist, particularly that of what might be called “Late Trumpism.” 

Some analysis follows. Page numbers in the following notes refer to the Penguin paperback published in London, 1969, chapters 1-5 of which are available as pdfs (once downloaded, right click on the pdf and ‘rotate clockwise’ once for easiest reading)

Lifton, Revolutionary Immortality, preface and ch 1-2

Lifton, Revolutionary Immortality, chapters 3-5 and references

I read from the Preface through Chapter 4 here:

Chapter 1

Lifton critiques the classic Kremlinological approach to the analysis of Chinese Communist Party leadership by what he calls ‘an increasing coterie of China-watchers.’ The slight to the field feels like a bit of a convenience or a straw man: is he not a part of the field, merely by putting pen to paper, hammering away at a typewriter, and publishing? But in a sense, it is what any writer who wants to be read attentively has to do: Place him- or herself at the center of the discourse by calling attention to one’s own peripheral status against the Pharissees of orthodoxy, answering immediately the ‘so what’ question for the reader. If that means saying that the whole field has got one particular thing wrong, or that the field consists of an essentially monolithic ‘coterie’, so be it. (Readers fluent with the somewhat amorphous and poorly-policed field of North Korean studies will be completely unable to imagine that anyone, particularly anyone whose work is widely cited and read within government policy circles would use this term or rhetorical technique, but it does have its merits.)

Whatever the merits of his point about Kremlinologists or Pekingologists of the late 1960s, Lifton has got to be considered correct on the larger point — analysis of the Cultural Revolution should not be merely about internal power struggle. It needs to incorporate some discussion of emotion and sentiment as well. Lifton is somewhat unique — indeed, even early — in noting that he and his colleagues are in fact surrounded by a great deal of data about what is going on inside of China.

In a sense, it is hard to empathise with him at that stage of history, given that only Mao’s public pronouncements were available, and that there was so often overreading of the evidence available (such as Edgar Snow’s 1965 conversation with the Chairman) in the West. Yet, if we think a bit broader, there was also a wave of Red Guard publications of Mao’s previously unknown works or speeches in 1967 and again in 1969.

Observers at research universities and in Hong Kong would have had access to reports from the US Consulate General in Hong Kong’s translations of a cross-section of Red Guard materials and official publications. The Foreign Broadcast Information Service was putting out big anthologies every week or month, primarily for government use, translations of what it picked up from mainland news reports. For historians of the CCP who had been on the outside looking in at the 1950s, the explosion of source material published in the late 1960s would have felt like a major frontier of study opening up.

At the same time, main participants in the Cultural Revolution were generally not available for interview. My own later friend and colleague Sidney Rittenberg was actively supporting Chairman Mao, and was publishing excited editorials in China Reconstructs, among other outlets. But today when looking back, the totality of events and his own experiences has changed his view. I invited Sidney to speak to my students in Tacoma, Washington in late 2011, around the same time he was completing a documentary film retrospective of the events:

Rittenberg’s documentary is currently available on YouTube, I can only presume legally (it may be preceded by an advertisement, but is very much worth the time; the Cultural Revolution section starts around minute 44).

Anyway, Lifton makes a good point about a relative abundance without explaining what all that information actually is, but, like Dikotter, he is an entertaining read precisely because he does not get mired in explaining his sources, how he got them, and their limitations ad infinitum at the outset. Whereas Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism was a thick book based on in-depth interviews with two dozen subjects in Hong Kong, this book is, essentially, his reading of current events which he is following in the news. Thus, more importantly, he moves swiftly in and establishes the ‘revolutionary immortality’ thesis, capturing the initiative. 

Chapter 2

Lifton reflects on Mao’s death perception and “survivor guilt.” This brings to mind the Mao controversies of the mid-2000s, when Jung Chang’s co-authored biography of Mao did a lot of projection about Mao’s extraordinary casualness toward human life and death. Of course at the time that Lifton was writing, Mao’s doctor was hardly close to publishing his memoir (see Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao), a large document which would have been quite useful to consult, had that been possible, which of course it was not. 

Chapter 3

Here Lifton’s seemingly quirky thesis takes on real relevance, as the oft-stated “revisionism” is seen as demonic to Mao not merely because its ideological contagion, but also as representative of the death of the revolution (pp. 28-29). Lifton shows how the Great Leap Forward was an existential crisis (pp. 30-31), then reads into the perils of moderation in 1961-62, sounding much like Frank Dikotter in a far more recent new Cultural Revolution (pp. 32-34).

The role of foreign affairs in the expression and intent of the Cultural Revolution is a particularly salient point.  Lifton notes how fear of US nukes functions to accelerate the mobilization of the masses in China; it is not so much to arms that they mobilize, although militia activity was at a high, to but a sense of urgency and tautness. Lifton seems more right on here than Walt Rostow, writing for Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1967, that the Chinese people were “likely bone weary of incessant ideological floggings for [the past] 17 years.” 

We see this kind of externally-driven tautness also in Anna Louise Strong’s otherwise fairly predictable reportage from Beijing and the communes in summer and fall of 1958, which present an endless repetition of the Taiwan liberation and US navy issues that often fall out of the present day historian’s psyche when analysing food problems and party leadership of the late 1950s.

Of course Lifton here seems to have the whole period in mind, not just the Great Leap, and obviously did not have access to Mao’s speeches and conversations in Moscow in November 1957 when he seemed to imply that China would welcome a nuclear winter since they would win by virtue of having the largest remaining population when it was all over; for a purple and angry treatment of this, see Jung Chang’s angry and purple and downright strange Mao biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, 2005 (Lifton, p. 35)

Chapter 4, The Quest for Rebirth

Lifton does love to craft a new phrase or term — in this case it is ‘psychism,’ not a concept anyone will have heard of, but the notion of doing things you think you absolutely need to do through exertion of extreme willpower to overcome technical hurdles. If this seems odd or foreign, think a bit more about the psychology of the European Research Group and Brexit, or when in Boris Johnson’s main House of Commons speech advising to vote against Theresa May’s deal whereby he says ‘we just have to put our backs into it’. He thinks he’s channeling Churchill but in fact sounds more like Mao with his spiritual belief in the people over technology — if I may be permitted an idiosyncratic interpretation of an idiosyncratic idea.

However, it does apply nicely to China in this period, and blended with Judith Shapiro’s exquisite Cambridge University Press book Mao’s War on Nature, and discussion of corvee or mass levied labour in the Great Leap Forward, it makes perfect sense.

The note about the youth of Red Guards is most apropos of Andrew Walder, and does a more succinct job of it. There is a blending of middle school and university students such that Red Guards could be 13 or 14 years old, and indeed, the Red Guards originated at the Middle School of Tsinghua/Qinghua University on 24 June 1966. 

Are the Red Guards bottom up or top down in origin? Lifton sees “a combination of purposeful manipulation by Maoists and party authorities and agencies and decisions by leaders of Red Guard units — with all behaviour profoundly influenced by the immortalising vision animating the Cultural Revolution,” he sums up on p. 40.

“Revolutionary creativity…would be no means preclude close control over the extent and direction of that spontaneity” — spot on. But, this is where having some grasp of the Kremlinology might have been helpful. He misses the factions at work behind it all, something that is vividly portrayed in William Hinton’s Hundred Day Rebellion, the best and an eyewitness account of how active Liu Shaoqi and his wife were in manipulating their own Red Guard teams before being swallowed up by Mao and Lin Biao’s, and the differing origins of the Red Guards (as per Walder). In other words, Lifton sees the whole Party as it presented itself — as a unity, behind Mao. There is no space in this text really for Lin Biao, nor Mao’s wife (Jiang Qing) as independent actors or autonomous players — but that is not his point in this pamphlet, and as he mentioned early on, it is against precisely such Kreimlinological speculation analysis that he is in part trying to push. But still, “The Maoists” — are who, exactly?

Instead, he pushes toward another paradox: Are the Chinese Communist leaders simply destroying the Party they were meant to be rejuvenating?  

Lifton lists the ‘five black’ elements in society — I can never quite believe that the Chinese themselves did not give the Party credit for having eliminated these at the outset of the Counterrevolutionary Suppression Campaign. 

Lifton sitting in his office or den in New York City in 1966 was clearly deeply impacted by seeing the footage of Mao descending into the crowds at Tiananmen Square in 18 August 1966, into what he called “a new community of immortals.” (Here he — Mao — is, doing the same after a 1 October 1966 parade, and talking to an Australian comrade about the students and how dangerous they might be to his fellow CCP members, not so subtle). Again, Lifton’s points would be strengthened on Mao’s reliance on youth had he been able to witness, as the Cultural Revolution lengthened and Mao neared the end of his life, the connection that Mao forged with a small number of young women who became his effective caretakers and interpreters (for Chinese speakers — he lost most of his teeth, lacked muscle control, and his already-curled Hunanese accept was hard to understand to begin with).

I see the immersion into the crowds of youth more as Mao distancing himself from the Party and finding a countervailing and eager force rather than the inherent interest in young people, per se.

Lifton then moves into a suddenly lovely gust of 1960s ethos ‘children’s crusade’ and ‘flower children’ references. Lifton gives himself permission to make this parallel to the US hippies since his culture gives him that space — but I doubt a British analyst, even one of a type as far-ranging as Lifton is in his thought, would make the parallel to American pacifist LSD-takers, given that the Red Guards had stormed and attempted to destroy completely the British diplomatic outpost in Beijing in 1967 (a high point of sorts of the violence, and requiring Zhou Enlai to wade in and mediate) and stirred anti-British violence among students in Hong Kong at the same time. Sometimes having an Empire is a salutary experience — something left-wing Americans, even those with experience of the web of US military bases across Japan and Korea like Lifton was, could not quite take in. And of course Lifton does ultimately contrast the ‘flower children’ image with the vengeful violence that followed.

On page 45, Lifton reminds us that the verbal violence was not always followed by physical violence. This is a very difficult paradox of the Cultural Revolution, and is useful for thinking about Mao’s own perception and intentions during the period. There are several points at which he says in his newly-published Chronology or Nianpu that he did not mean for so-and-so cadre to really be struggled against, or beaten. But the damage is done and the body and spirits of these men and women are broken, and take decades to rehabilitate (see: Li Jingquan). Yet Mao’s commandments to save so-and-so from the criticism of the verbal sort might also have saved them from physical violence — although again the macro context is within a deadly mass movement and inexorable direction toward violence that Mao himself had sanctioned and fed — writing big character posters to stir things up into 1967 and failing to calm the tensions in the burning industrial cauldron city of Wuhan in the same year.

Lifton takes an extraordinary intellectual leap on page 46 into a footnote about how this is all very like extreme Calvinists during the Reformation! I am transported suddenly back in my own experience to Utrecht in years gone by, the continental sun streaming in through a stained-glass cathedral window. The window was without any of the ornateness we are accustomed to in York or Durham or St. Paul’s (clustered as that last is particularly with paraphernalia of naval battles of the 18th century), and the light thus streamed in directly onto a cluster of statues seemingly growing out of a wall. Looking on, one sees that all of at the faces of the figures all been broken off with hammers or axes by just such fanatics in the 16th century. Holland’s violence, of course, is well in the past, whereas in China this is living memory.

Iconoclasm in Utrecht.jpg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s