As they say, history rhymes but does not repeat itself. There are a few notable differences between the Cultural Revolution and today’s protest movement. For one thing, the levers of political power in the US and the UK are still in the hands of conservatives, and President Trump hasn’t been shy in using the might of the American state against the protestors.
But no historical analogy is ever perfect, and to seek exactitude over verisimilitude is to miss the point. There are differences, yes, but when it comes to fundamentals, the two moments have much in common.
For instance, the Red Guards of 1968 often came from privileged backgrounds. The first groups emerged from the elite high schools and universities in Beijing and belonged to the generation that had been born immediately after the Communist takeover in 1949. Raised on stories of revolutionary heroism and bitterly disappointed at the fact they had missed their chance to display their Red credentials.
Hence, when Mao Zedong, for reasons of internecine party warfare, decided to claim — absurdly — that the Communist Party was filled with bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, the young students saw their chance to achieve revolutionary greatness. The Red Guards thus went out, seeking to root out imaginary class enemies from within.
Similarly, today’s revolutionary vanguard is also made up of young, well-educated people, a disproportionate number hailing from elite educational institutions and working within elite professions. They grew up at a time of unprecedented progress in race relations, but it meant the main action was already over when they were coming of age.
Thus, the idea that elite Anglo-American institutions are filled with closeted racists, absurd though it is to anyone who has worked in them, became an article of faith overnight. Whether it is in newsrooms, universities or progressive advocacy groups, the hunt for secret racists gives these would-be Selma marchers a sense of purpose.
Then as now, the initial response from the establishment was largely positive. After all, the cause they were asked to endorse was a worthy one, and any excesses could be dismissed as unrepresentative youthful zeal. Were they not simply seeking a better country, a better world? But the initial indulgence would soon backfire, as the movement spiralled outside of their control. Mobs have a logic of their own, and soon the legacy elites found they could no longer exert any control over the crowds they had cheered on.
Eventually, the movement’s slogans make their way downstream to non-elite institutions and popular discourse. In due course, no entity, however remote from the issue at hand, could refuse to make public statements in support of the movement. In China, no book, be it about astronomy or sewing patterns, could fail to contain an introduction with fulsome praise for Chairman Mao, complete with quotations from his collected works. Similarly, today businesses selling anything from teabags to maths degrees feel the need to bend the metaphorical knee to the protesters.
The destruction of the old elite naturally creates opportunities for new ones. Indeed sometimes, the young would-be elites don’t even bother to hide their aims in ousting the old guard. At the Poetry Foundation, which sits on a pot of $250 million, the leadership was overthrown by a group of poets and assorted hangers-on who, in an open letter, called for the redistribution of the endowment to “those whose labor amassed those funds”, namely themselves. In China, meanwhile, Red Guards eventually took over the whole government, kicked out officials from their offices and put themselves in charge.
And there is of course the blatant denial of reality, the constant gaslighting which almost seems designed to ferret out people with any sanity left. In the midst of a global pandemic, thousands of epidemiologists and health scientists signed an open letter claiming that protesting took precedence over disease control. Even there lies a parallel: during the Cultural Revolution, marauding Red Guards created a cerebrospinal meningitis pandemic which killed 160,000 people. Then as now, making revolution trumped public health...
In America, students aren’t beating their teachers to death yet, as they did in 1960s China. But university students have for some time been cancelling professors who refuse to toe the line on BLM. In high schools, students have set up social media accounts dedicated to exposing classmates guilty of wrong-think. In the casual words of Mx Anamika Arya, a 16-year old leading one such effort, “I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs”.
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.