Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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.

You've reached the end of your free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article.
Purchase this article for
only $1.99
Already a subscriber?
Click here to log in.