Some takeaways on the division of labor, technocracy, and the Cultural Revolution

I recently finished reading Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class (2009), an excellent analysis of how different social classes formed and contested one another during China’s socialist period, and an effective look at the dynamics and evolution of the Cultural Revolution.  The main point of analysis is on the way the two elite groups that remained after the victory of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949—educated people, and CPC cadres—slowly fused together.

In 1949…very few members of the educated classes belonged to the party, and very few party members had higher education.  Those who had a foot in both camps—the Communist intellectuals—were tiny in absolute numbers and a small minority within each group.  As children of the educated elite gained political credentials and children of the political elite gained academic credentials, the number of people who occupied the intersection of the two groups—the Red experts—grew steadily. (272-3)

This process began almost immediately after 1949, with the advent of a massive expansion of education policies modeled after the Soviet Union that focused on technical and scientific fields.  It was interrupted, however, with attempts by Mao and his allies to fulfill the official goal of building communism and eliminating class hierarchies, as seen through the tumultuous—and often horrific—events of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  These “class-leveling” campaigns (specifically, the ones during the Cultural Revolution) gave the two elite classes strong reasons to stop fighting teach other (as was the case during the Great Leap Forward) and unite to protect their power against the rebellious masses and lower-level CPC cadres.

The two elites also converged politically as members of both groups came to recognize a mutual interest in preserving social stability and halting class-leveling campaigns.  During the first decades of Communist power, these campaigns were facilitated by a gulf between the new and old elites.  Communist cadres saw the educated elites as representatives of the old order and believed that undermining the privileges they derived from cultural capital was party of the party’s revolutionary mandate, while intellectuals saw Communist cadres as unqualified usurpers and resented the privileges they derived from political capital.  In 1957, members of the two groups lined up on opposite sides of battle lines defined by political and cultural capital.  In 1966, the same kind of inter-elite antagonisms exploded at many elite schools, but simultaneous attacks on both groups ended up forging inter-elite unity…Budding Red experts of all class origins took umbrage at radical slogans denouncing party-affiliated college graduates as “new bourgeoisie intellectuals” and they came together in the moderate camp to defend both political and cultural capital.  (273)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this was how clearly serious the more militant communists were about actually abolishing class, and eliminating the divide between “manual” and “mental” labor.  Obviously these efforts not only failed, but backfired; the violence and intensity of the campaign lead to the convergence of two previously hostile elite classes and the creation of a pro-capitalist technocratic ruling class that continues to hold power today.  But it’s still interesting to see a revolutionary movement grapple with the problem of the division of labor, and raise arguments and debates that seem entirely absent from modern radical circles—a problem that will likely need to be rectified if modern communists are serious about revolutionary struggle, and engaging with the increasing stratification of the working-class based on differential skill-sets and knowledge bases.

Another interesting line of analysis in the book was the way it traced the evolution of 20th-century socialist states from being initially committed to Marxist socialism (and its intention to build a classless communist society), to eventually becoming much more defined by the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon, which explicitly theorized the need for an elite technocratic class of planners and bureaucrats who governed society according to the common good, and on techno-scientific principles.  Like the dynamics around the division of labor, modern communists should make sure to study the collapse of Marxist socialism into utopian socialism, and ensure that similar trends don’t emerge in contemporary revolutionary movements.


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One thought on “Some takeaways on the division of labor, technocracy, and the Cultural Revolution

  1. […] The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class (2009) (see my brief review here), Mao adhered to a strategy that saw the masses as the ultimate force in the socialist […]


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