It’s said that history repeats itself, with Karl Marx poignantly remarking “the first as tragedy, then as farce”.
The first was indeed a tragedy. Following the epic disaster of the Great Leap Forward, whose policies resulted in the deaths of tens of millions, Mao Zedong’s effort to rehabilitate his image within the party and re-institute a more pure form of communist revolution kicked off what is known as the Cultural Revolution. Mao sought to purge revisionist elements within the party, and found students to be a willing cadre of revolutionary foot-soldiers. These “Red Guards” led a massive campaign to destroy any and all bourgeois and capitalist elements in society. Numerous historical artifacts were lost to history, Buddhist temples and shrines were defaced, and college professors (among others) were publicly humiliated, beaten, and killed.
These humiliations often took the form of “struggle sessions”, in which crowds of people would publicly berate, insult, and pressure their targets to confess to anti-revolutionary crimes. Here is an account of one of these sessions:
You Xiaoli was standing, precariously balanced, on a stool. Her body was bent over from the waist into a right angle, and her arms, elbows stiff and straight, were behind her back, one hand grasping the other at the wrist. It was the position known as “doing the airplane.” Around her neck was a heavy chain, and attached to the chain was a blackboard, a real blackboard, one that had been removed from a classroom at the university where You Xiaoli, for more than ten years, had served as a full professor. On both sides of the blackboard were chalked her name and the myriad crimes she was alleged to have committed. She was accused of being a bourgeois academic authority and a follower of Liu Shaoqi–the former chief of state of the People’s Republic of China, now labeled a traitor and a scab and a lackey of the imperialists, the Soviet revisionists, and the Chinese Nationalist Reactionaries. She was accused of being a spy and a counterrevolutionary, and opposed to Party Chairman Mao Zedong. The stool on which You Xiaoli stood was balanced in turn on an ordinary wooden chair, and underneath the chair was a heavy wooden desk, the kind professors in China stand behind while lecturing. Both chair and desk had also come from a university classroom.
The scene was taking place at the university, too, in a sports field at one of China’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. In the audience were You Xiaoli’s students and colleagues and former friends. Workers from local factories and peasants from nearby communes had been bused in for the spectacle. From the audience came repeated, rhythmic chants. “Dadao You Xiaoli! Dadao You Xiaoli!” “Down with You Xiaoli! Down with You Xiaoli!”
Behold, we are now witnessing our own native, contemporary cultural revolution, struggle sessions and all:
And lest you think this is some one-off phenomenon at a college known for being weird and catering to communist sympathies, the rap sheet is starting to grow:
- UC Berkeley riots against Ann Coulter
- UC Berkeley riots against Milo Yiannopoulos
- Pomona College demands against conservatives writing for the Claremont Independent
- Middlebury College protests against Charles Murray
- Claremont McKenna college students oust dean amidst racial bias protests
- Wellesley protests calling for Title IX investigation into Laura Kipnis
- University of Missouri protests and threat of football team boycott
I could go on with dozens more small examples. Individually, these stories wouldn’t be too remarkable, but taken together, they comprise a larger narrative about the state of campus culture. And if you’re concerned about free speech, liberal exchange of ideas, scientific inquiry, and frankly, the maturity and resilience of our next generation of workers, that narrative doesn’t offer a very positive outlook. Frankly, the illiberalism is quite scary when you look at it in a historical context.
So Marx has been proven right in some sense–it’s hard to look at pictures like this and not think “farce”:
On the other hand, it’s potentially tragic. It’s tragic for the well-meaning students caught up in these messes who just want to get a good education. It’s tragic for the professors, many of whose idea chickens on minority issues and politics are coming home to roost. It’s tragic for taxpayers, who subsidize the “educations” of these students. It’s tragic for citizens, who have to and will be forced to deal with the human consequences of the narrowing of minds, victim mentality, and all-around f’ing weirdness.
It took a generation for China to start shedding the ideological baggage Mao and his Red Guards initiated. It took more generations for China to largely repudiate Maoism in favor of the state-controlled, one-party corporatism that is now the prevailing political culture. The cultural artifacts and relics though, will forever be lost.
Are we headed for or in the midst of another cultural revolution? Will the current campus culture peter out? Or will students largely outgrow these childish behaviors once they are forced to live in the real world? So many questions and so few answers…