Cultural Revolution

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Cultural Revolution

Cultural Revolution, 1966–76, mass mobilization of urban Chinese youth inaugurated by Mao Zedong in an attempt to prevent the development of a bureaucratized Soviet style of Communism. Mao closed schools and encouraged students to join Red Guard units, which denounced and persecuted Chinese teachers, intellectuals, writers, artists and other “class enemies,” engaged in widespread book burnings, facilitated mass relocations, and enforced Mao's cult of personality. The movement for criticism of party officials, intellectuals, and “bourgeois values” turned violent, and the Red Guard split into factions. Torture and suicide became common, and it is estimated that a million died in the ensuing purges and related incidents. The Cultural Revolution also caused economic disruption; industrial production dropped by 12% from 1966 to 1968, years that also saw the worst of the urban violence.

In 1967, Mao ordered the army to stem Red Guard factionalism but promote the Guard's radical goals. When the military itself threatened to factionalize, Mao dispersed the Red Guards into the countryside, and began to rebuild the party. The Ninth Party Congress (1969), which named Marshal Lin Biao as Mao's successor, led to a struggle between the military and Premier Zhou Enlai. After Lin's mysterious death (1971), Mao expressed regrets for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. However, the Gang of Four, led by Jiang Qing, continued to restrict the arts and enforce ideology, even purging Deng Xiaoping a second time only months before Mao's death (Sept., 1976). The Gang of Four were imprisoned in Oct., 1976, bringing the movement to a close.


See R. MacFarquhar, Origins of the Cultural Revolution (3 vol., 1974–97), R. MacFarquhar and M. Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution (2006); F. Dikotter, The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976 (2016).

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Cultural Revolution

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cultural Revolution


(socialist), the revolutionary process of the spiritual transformation of society; an integral part of socialist construction, it is the creation of socialist culture—the highest stage in the development of world culture and the opening of the achievements of culture to the working people. The cultural revolution aims at making all the working people socially active participants in the cultural-historical process and at shaping the new man. It is one of the most important laws of building socialism.

The theory of the cultural revolution as “a whole phase of social development” was developed by V. I. Lenin, who defined its essence, tasks, and goals. Lenin introduced the term “cultural revolution” in 1923 in the work “On Cooperation.” Rejecting the dogmatic social democratic theories that social transformations must follow a rigid sequence and that the attainment of a “high level” of culture is a precondition for a social upheaval, Lenin set forth the program of the cultural revolution immediately after the October Socialist Revolution.

The conditions for the cultural revolution are revolutionary transformations in economics and politics—that is, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the socialization of the means of production, socialist industrialization, and the collectivization of agriculture. The cultural revolution begins after the working class wins power, and it is carried out by the working people under the leadership of the Communist Party. A necessary condition for building socialism, the cultural revolution destroys the spiritual rule and cultural monopoly of the bourgeoisie in society and makes culture, which is alienated from the people under capitalism, the property of the people. It opens to the working people the fullest possible opportunities to take advantage of the benefits of culture, civilization, and democracy (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 38, p. 94).

All the instruments of cultural activity become means of disseminating the new socialist culture. Destroying and rejecting whatever is reactionary, constrictive, and obsolete in culture, the cultural revolution retains for the new society all of the best values that mankind has created throughout its history—that is, all that is progressive in man’s cultural heritage. It develops creatively and critically the best models, traditions, and achievements of world civilization “from the point of view of the Marxist world outlook and the conditions of life and struggle of the proletariat in the period of its dictatorship” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 462). The cultural revolution signifies the replacement of the laws governing the spiritual development of the antagonistic society—laws that reflect the growing gap between culture and the people, as well as the dominance of a reactionary culture—with new laws of spiritual development. These new laws lay the foundation for the emergence and triumph of socialist and communist culture.

The cultural revolution includes the development of a socialist system of public education and enlightenment, the reeducation of the bourgeois intelligentsia, the formation of a socialist intelligentsia, the development of socialist literature and art, the rise of science, the formation of a new morality, the strengthening of the atheistic world view, and a reconstruction of mores. Its most important aim is to make the principles of Marxist-Leninist ideology the personal conviction of everyone and to develop in him the ability to use these principles in his practical activity and to fight uncompromisingly against survivals of the past and against bourgeois and revisionist views.

The substance and aims of the socialist cultural transformations are the same in different countries, but there are some variations, depending on the national and historical characteristics of a particular people, nation (natsiia, nation in the historical sense), or country and on the level of economic and cultural development attained before the beginning of the cultural revolution. The characteristics of the cultural revolution in the USSR —the first in history—were determined by the considerable backwardness inherited from the old regime and by the uneven economic and cultural development of the nations and peoples of Russia. According to the census of 1897, 73 percent of the population nine years of age and older was illiterate. In the period of transition from capitalism to socialism in the USSR the system of public education was radically reconstructed, mass illiteracy was eradicated, and an extensive network of schools, higher educational institutions, and institutions of cultural education was created.

The rate of progress of the cultural revolution was greater in the national republics than in the central regions of the country. The reeducation of the old intelligentsia and the rapid formation of a new intelligentsia drawn from the ranks of the working class and the peasantry led to the flowering of science, literature, and art.

The significance of the cultural revolution has been evaluated in the Program of the CPSU (1961): “A cultural revolution has been carried out in the country. It led the toiling masses out of spiritual slavery and darkness and introduced them to the riches of culture accumulated by mankind. A country where the majority of the population had been illiterate made a tremendous flight to the summits of science and culture” (1972, p. 14). The cultural revolution has affected all social, national, and ethnic groups, promoting the development of cooperation and unity among them on the basis of the Marxist-Leninist world view.

Resting on the principles of internationalism, the cultural revolution resulted in the comprehensive development of all national cultures and the elimination of the cultural backwardness of a number of peoples and nations. In the USSR written alphabets were created for the first time for about 50 nationalities. Literature is published in 89 languages, and radio programs are broadcast in the languages of more than 60 peoples of the USSR. The intensive flowering and mutual enrichment of national cultures have strengthened the features common to a single international culture. Opposed in principle to the bourgeois trend toward the standardization and leveling of culture, the cultural revolution creates the preconditions for the free development of all the toiling people.

The cultural revolution helped to overcome the antagonism between the city and the countryside and between those engaged in physical and in mental work. Increasing the political activity of the masses, it enlisted the working people in the management of society and brought about an enormous upswing in the productivity of social labor.

As a result of the cultural revolution in the USSR, the spiritual life of the working class and of the kolkhoz peasantry has been renewed, their cultural and technical level has risen, and radical changes have taken place in their consciousness and everyday life. From the peasantry emerged millions of qualified kolkhoz members and workers, specialists, scholars, and public figures. Gradually but successfully the culture of the countryside is being brought up to the level of the socialist city. Before the October Revolution of 1917, Russia, with a population of 159 million, had only 290,000 specialists. In 1973, about 33 million Soviet people were engaged primarily in mental work. Under Soviet power the number of scientific personnel has increased 90 times, reaching 1,055,400 in 1972.

In a mature socialist society the creation of all the necessary ideological and cultural conditions for the victory of communism is very important. As the Program of the CPSU points out, “to a tremendous extent an upswing in the productive forces, technological progress, the organization of production, an increase in the public activity of the working people, the development of the democratic foundations of self-government, and the communist reconstruction of everyday life depend on the cultural growth of the population” (ibid., pp. 129–30).

The scientific and technological revolution, which is now in progress, and the increasingly intellectual character of labor associated with it, make it urgently necessary that all the working people be enlisted in creative activity and that the masses be ensured the opportunity to attain the cultural level needed for their participation in the management of society and for the comprehensive development of the personality.

Guided by the Marxist-Leninist theory of the cultural revolution, the members of the commonwealth of the socialist states creatively borrow from each other everything that is most valuable. The use of the abundant experience of the USSR and the growing cultural consolidation of the socialist countries promote the further flowering of each country and the enrichment of the spiritual potential of the world socialist system as a whole.

Because the European socialist countries were spared civil wars, they were able to solve successfully many of the problems of the cultural revolution in the very first years of the people’s power. The relatively high development of their productive forces and the help of the USSR made it possible for some of these countries to carry out cultural transformations relatively quickly. At the same time, the strong influence of religion (in Poland, for example) made the course of the cultural revolution more complicated.

The experience of the cultural revolution in the USSR and in the other socialist countries has had a great impact on the cultural development of the Asian, African, and Latin American countries that have gained independence. It affects their struggle to eradicate mass illiteracy, to reconstruct and expand public education and enlightenment, to create a new democratic school, to form a national intelligentsia, and to establish the ideology of anti-imperialism and anticolonialism. Although these transformations in themselves are not socialist, they are closely related to the general tasks of the antifeudal, anti-imperialist, democratic revolution and may be considered a national democratic type of cultural revolution.

The political campaign conducted in China in the second half of the 1960’s under the name of the “cultural revolution” has nothing in common with the cultural revolution. In China masterpieces were destroyed, anti-intellectualism and a nihilistic attitude toward world culture were instilled in the people, and the intelligentsia was persecuted.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Nemetskaia ideologiia.” Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii.” Ibid., vol. 4.
Lenin, V. I. “O proletarskoi kul’ture.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 41.
Lenin, V. I. “O nashei revoliutsii.” Ibid., vol. 45.
Lenin, V. I. “O kooperatsii.” Ibid.
Programma KPSS (Priniata XXII s”ezdom KPSS). Moscow, 1972. Chapter 5.
Materialy XXIVs”ezda KPSS. Moscow, 1971.
Krupskaia, N. K. “O proletarskoi kul’ture.” In her book Pedagogicheskie sochineniia, vol. 7. Moscow, 1959.
Lunacharskii, A. V. Kul’turnaia revoliutsiia i obshchestvennost’:Rech’na Vtorom s”ezde ODN. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929.
Kommunizm i kul’tura. Moscow, 1966.
Stroitel’stvo kommunizma i dukhovnyi mir cheloveka. Moscow, 1966.
Kul’turnaia revoliutsiia v SSSR, 1917–1965. [Moscow, 1967.]
Arnol’dov, A. I. Sotsializm i kul’turnaia revoliutsiia. Moscow, 1970.
Leninizm i razvitie sotsialisticheskoi kul’tury. Moscow-Tashkent, 1971.
KPSS vo glave kul’turnoi revoliutsii v SSSR. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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