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When the West almost became red

Kudascheff Alexander Kommentarbild App
Alexander Kudascheff
May 16, 2016

Given the huge number of victims, the term "Cultural Revolution" is very belittling. Mao's approach held an enormous fascination for the left, even in the West, says DW's editor-in-chief, Alexander Kudascheff.

Mao bible in several different languages
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Röstlund

A look back at the past. It is 1966. In the People's Republic of China, the Cultural Revolution begins. Mao Zedong secures power by calling the permanent revolution in China. An incredible transformation of the social, economic and political reality in the country begins. Hundreds of thousands of people disappear in camps. Hundreds of thousands are deported. Hundreds of thousands lose their jobs.

By the end, there are millions upon millions of victims and countless dead, countless slaughtered. Chinese Communism, Maoism: a real nightmare that wants to create a better world on the graves of possibly some 65 million people, as the "Black Book of Communism" estimates.

Rejoicing over the good communism

At the dawn of the student movement, however, that is not what many young people in the West see. There, Maoism exerts an intellectual fascination. There, people sing the praise of the "new" barefoot doctors in the countryside. The fact that intellectuals have to work as farmers or workers is celebrated. The Mao Bible is a standard work and Mao is revered as a revolutionary saint: Communist China realizes the ideals of Marx and Engels that are infringed upon in the Soviet Union or confined in the Gulag Archipelago.

The young left of the late 60s - in Germany as in France, in Italy as in the US - becomes addicted to Maoism. They love pseudo-Confucian wisdom à la Mao such as: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." This allows them to justify the violent street protests. What happened in China could also happen in Paris in the revolutionary May of '68. The idea of socialism, a classless society, flourishes in the student movement. It's anarchic, internationalist - and often, but not exclusively, Chinese.

Alexander Kudascheff
DW's editor-in-chief, Alexander KudascheffImage: DW

As is often the case with the left, the student movement disintegrates early on. There are always the Moscow faithful. The Trotskyists of the 4th International. Faithful communists who see their ideal realized in Enver Hoxha's Albania or in Kim Il Sung's North Korea. Others follow the Eurocommunists in Italy under Enrico Berlinguer. And almost all seek their ideological foothold in the writings of philosophers: the representatives of the Frankfurt School such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the American Marxists like Herbert Marcuse, or the late convert to the left-wing philosophers of freedom Jean-Paul Sartre, who tried his luck with every communist path of his time. Such was the fascination with his aimlessly wandering texts that many said at the time: "Better to be in the wrong with Sartre than in the right with Raymond Aron." A fatal mistake.

Real revolution overlooked

The Cultural Revolution was for many years the benchmark for protesting students in the West. They wanted to overthrow capitalism and parliamentary democracy. They looked to China; they looked at Mao Zedong: the architect of what they believed to be a new, equal, and better world. They ignored the endless suffering brought by the Cultural Revolution.

For many, Mao remained a pillar saint until his death. In contrast to the drabness of the Soviet Union, Mao and the Cultural Revolution made Chinese socialism tempting. The real revolution in China by Deng Xiaoping, Mao's successor, doesn't interest the left today. Only Helmut Schmidt was fascinated by it - but he wasn't a leftist.

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