As American society was roiled this summer by civil unrest, purges, and struggle sessions, I read Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, a recently published book that is newly relevant. The subtitle is a bit of historiographic trolling. “People’s history” is a catchphrase of Marxist social history, and Dikötter has spent the last decade documenting the horrors of Marxism in China. But it is not just a joke. Dikötter relies on memoirs, many of them not previously used by researchers, to show how ordinary people experienced the Cultural Revolution as a time of terror, deprivation, and (occasionally) exhilaration.
Late in his career, Chairman Mao took a radical turn. Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” against the memory of Stalin had made Mao fear that China would one day take a “capitalist road” and seek détente with the West. In order to forestall this deviationism, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962). The Chinese people were conscripted into a war against nature, forced onto disastrous agricultural collectives, compelled to build useless steel furnaces in their backyards—shrines to a cargo cult of industrialization. Tens of millions of people died in the famine that resulted.