Lifton's Legacy in China:
The Psychohistory of the Cultural Revolution
§1. A Research Question Out of Season.
This essay chooses to engage with an outmoded philosophy of history, partly to question in what sense it has become outmoded. Robert J. Lifton's "psychohistorical" approach has become unfashionable, though not because of any single event (or error) that discredited it (i.e., we cannot point to an event like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in its effect on Marxist historicism, as an equivalent "breaking point" for Lifton's approach).
R.J. Lifton published an influential analysis of Chinese Communism in 1961, followed by a separate volume dealing with the Cultural Revolution in 1968. Although Lifton was not the first author to address "brain washing" and the psychology of "thought reform" in China (cf. Hunter, 1951, as an earlier precedent) the success of his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, was influential both in its methods and in its selection of certain key issues for examination within Chinese Communism. A review in The Journal of Asian Studies began by declaring that "this study by Robert Lifton is probably the most profound, the most intellectually rewarding and the most universally significant work which has yet appeared on any aspect of Chinese Communism." (Pye, 1961)
Does Lifton's psychological approach still have validity and explanatory power in understanding the Cultural Revolution today? If the answer is a firm "no", then there's still considerable significance in examining Lifton's approach as one of the most influential "outsider" perspectives of the 1960s. Conversely, if the answer is "yes", his observations of 1968 would now be worth re-examining, in light of more recent publications and revelations about the Cultural Revolution.
§2. Sanity and Insanity in the Cultural Revolution.
"So we are contending", he said, "for no ordinary prize, but for whether we are to be sane or insane." (Marcus Aurelius [馬庫斯·奧里利烏斯], Meditations, 11:38)
One of Lifton's most important forms of influence was in directing attention toward prisons, psychological torture, and the enforcement of social conformity within China. These are issues that could be important in any political analysis (of almost any society, in period of history, not just modern China), but they are usually given a low priority, and tend to be (i) relegated to the specialized field of human rights activism, and (ii) are otherwise mentioned only episodically, when particular scandals are exposed by the newspapers (i.e., not studied as part of the structure defining the norms of state power). For example, the huge tome titled Mao's Last Revolution (693 pages in length) contains only a brief description of prison conditions and psychological torture within a single prison facility, that is not systematically extended to the country as a whole (although the much larger scale of the problem is alluded to many times):
Conditions in Qincheng prison [秦城監獄] were utterly inhuman, and more fascist than fascism! Especially during the first five years [1968–1972] when we were not even once allowed to get out of our cells to get some exercise… Especially inhuman was the practice of covering the windows so you could not tell if it was day or night, keeping the loudspeakers blasting out noise for 24 hours, not letting you see a doctor, force-feeding you a kind of drug that induced hallucinations, and finally announcing over the loudspeaker that today you would be executed and then calling off the execution at the very last moment. (MacFarquhar, 2006, p. 342)
Although only three pages long, this short section devoted to the subject is genuinely horrifying, and I think it would be fair to say that the possibility of being sent to such prisons (and enduring such psychiatric torture) was a fear that haunted many of the historical figures described throughout MacFarquhar's work, and that it was a fear influencing decisions they made, both publicly and privately.
In the course of MacFarquhar's account, numerous people are mentioned as disappearing into these prisons, enduring these sorts of interrogations and "re-educational" psychological tortures, yet the government's apparatus of torture (and/or/as "mental health") is never engaged with as an important subject in its own right. I do not say this to fault MacFarquhar: he does not trivialize the issue, but, in an overt way, he marginalizes it, as if it were a constant, natural condition surrounding the political changes he devotes his attention to. By the same token, MacFarquhar does not investigate this type of torture as a vector for political change unto itself: I would say that MacFarquhar is typical in treating this type of brutality almost as a landscape feature of Chinese politics --present in the background, yet never really the subject of investigation.
Inasmuch as psychological torture was simply a "normal" part of Chinese society after 1949, it is possible to ignore it as "business as usual"; Lifton's work alerts us to the possibility that this is a serious political mistake. Perhaps we should instead question and engage with torture (and the unique role of psychiatry in China's torture establishment) as an important aspect of the revolutionary regime. Indeed, the use of these modes of psychiatric coercion could be a significant criterion in differentiating various types of regimes: in contrast to China's experience over a relatively short period of time, Svensson reports that only 674 citizens of the Soviet Union were "political dissidents wrongfully branded as mentally ill", from the 1920s through to 1991. (Svensson, 2007, p. 482) Although I do not have any statistics for the Chinese Cultural Revolution to compare this to, all sources seem to suggest that China's "medicalization" of counterrevolutionaries was routine, and transpired on an exponentially larger scale; certainly, the real number imprisoned must have been much greater than the 4,600 who were released under a partial amnesty (ordered by Deng Xiaoping) in 1979. (Munro, 2002, p. 84)
Of course, it should also be noted that the Cultural Revolution used the same psychiatric phrasing to describe all sorts of (non-institutionalized) violence that wasn't really connected to the profession of psychiatry at all. In reflecting on his own experience, Hu Ping comments that when he was a student he sincerely believed that many of his teachers should be "remolded" (i.e., subjected to some sort of psychiatric thought-reform, and, of course, forced manual labor, the panacea of the era), but he objected to what actually happened to them after they were denounced: in his mind, "remolding" was not equivalent to beating someone and then locking them in a cowshed. (Hu, 2012, p. 194–5) He reports that he engaged in a minor act of rebellion by letting the teachers out of the cowshed. (Ibidem) The point here is that, apart from the failings of institutionalized medicine (in the intensely political context of the Cultural Revolution), the link between theory and practice could be so tenuous that participants in the violence and denunciation themselves did not know what sort of a fate they were inflicting on their class enemies: a pious Communist (as Hu was, at the time) might have supported the type of reformation that Maoism ostensibly promised, while morally objecting to the brutality of what actually went on under the name of "thought reform".
If we regard psychiatric torture as a normal part of the political structure of Chinese Communist society, it is important to note that the Cultural Revolution was a disruption to that norm. From publications more recent than Lifton's, we know that psychiatrists were both among the torturers and the victims of the Cultural Revolution: as "bourgeois academic authorities" they were targets for persecution, with the best possible outcome for many of them being a term of manual labor in the countryside, to "learn from the peasants". (Munro, 2002, p. 71) Although the same basic apparatus of coercion existed continuously from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, the people conducting torture during the latter period were less often professionals, precisely because the "purging" of skilled professionals was a distinctive feature of the Cultural Revolution. The period's hostility toward technical skill and expertise of any kind, known as the "Red versus expert" problem, (Ray, 1970, p. 23 et seq.) entailed that changes were more significant than just hanging a new slogan on the office wall:
Thus, in what little remained at that time of the country’s mental healthcare institutions [after the leading experts had been purged], official wall slogans proclaimed to mental patients: “Without a correct political standpoint, one has no soul.” [沒有正確的政治觀點就等於沒有靈魂] (Munro, 2002, p. 71)
During those years when class struggle was at the forefront of everything, some [forensic doctors] paid no attention to the principle of seeking truth from facts [實事求是], and instead took the slogans "Always be highly conscious of the class struggle" and "Maintain the highest level of revolutionary vigilance" as their basic guiding ideology for performing forensic evaluations… Some forensic doctors who insisted on upholding the truth were taken in for interrogation, thrown into jail and branded as counterrevolutionaries… Others, however, submitted to political pressure, and went against their own consciences… (Munro, 2002, p. 72, quoting a doctor of the period, Zhao Haibo.)
Munro's report (quoted above) draws on the work of Wei Jingsheng (魏京生) and other direct witnesses in assembling a picture of psychiatric professionals being actively involved in torturing the enemies of the regime (through physical means, chemical means, etc., detailed in gruesome accounts). As bad as the conditions within "mental health" institutions may have been, however, many of the victims participated in presenting themselves as insane, as they were aware that they might endure even worse persecution if they were categorized as (sane) enemies of the revolution:
In order to avoid sentencing of death, these people pretended to be mentally abnormal by screaming nonsense, only to be cruelly beaten and drugged" (Munro, 2002, p. 78, quoting a former inmate).
Conversely, from 1954 forward China had an explicit law stating that insanity was not a sufficient reason to keep a counterrevolutionary out of the regular prison and labor-camp system, (Ibid., p. 80) so confessions of insanity could have the same effect as a criminal conviction for counterrevolutionary intent. In addition to extracting confessions, the psychiatric establishment was also involved in fabricating evidence, sometimes with significant political consequences: establishing the sanity (or insanity) of the wife of Lu Dingyi (陸定一) was an important aspect of the persecution of the Peng-Luo-Lu-Yang Anti-Party Clique in 1966. (Ibid., p. 76) In sum, Munro's work depicts the psychiatric professionals of the Cultural Revolution as an immoral political instrument, sending people to prison, taking them out of prison, interrogating them, sometimes killing them, securing confessions, and categorizing people as sane or insane, all to suit the shifting political convenience of the moment.
This overall picture is worse than what Lifton depicted in the (earlier) era of the Great Leap Forward. Writing in 1968, Lifton remarks that the Cultural Revolution struggled with the same psychological failings as the Great Leap Forward (Lifton, 1968, p. 129), but that it was worse, and was a more extreme failure, in rapidly shifting between contradictory "Party Lines", and in merely intimidating people into presenting "the image" of psychological transformation, rather than attempting real thought reform. (Ibid., p. 135)
Although Lifton's 1961 work was, also, a damning indictment of Chinese Communism, the psychological methods being used in the earlier era seemed to reflect more real interest in the possibility of "reform" itself. Lifton was not aware of the changes within the Psychiatric establishment that Munro (later) wrote about, i.e., his analysis does not consider the extent to which professionals may have been replaced by amateurs, simply due to the persecution of "bourgeois academic authorities" endemic to the Cultural Revolution (perhaps clearing the way for an even more brutal establishment than the one Lifton had studied in the pre-1961 period). The following example, from the summer of 1969 in Shanghai's "Institute for Diagnosing Mental Disorder", is lacking in any of the features that we would associate with "reform", even in the context of a prison or labor camp, let alone a psychiatric establishment:
The whole "institute" was a large cage from within which one could not see the skies. Inside this large cage there were many small cages, which were only half as high as an average person. One could only squat or lie in them, and I had to crawl in and out of mine. They were no better than chicken houses. All those detained in the "institute" were suspected of mental disorder, but being there would truly drive a mentally normal person insane. There, one could constantly hear frightening screams. The wardens tried to stop people from screaming and, when failing to do so, would administer drugs to cause people to lose consciousness and thus become silenced. […] They were allowed to go out of their small cages to be "aired" once a day, and were given two meals of very thin porridge each day. (Munro, p. 77–78)
§3. The Self-Destructive Revolution.
Lifton's basic approach to the Cultural Revolution reflects (1) his earlier work on the Great Leap Forward, (2) his self-defined set of psychological interests, and (3) what he describes as a fairly casual set of interviews with dissidents and escapees in Hong Kong, including at least one former member of the Red Guards. (Lifton, 1968, p. xii) Given the early date of his analysis (in 1968) and the limited resources at his disposal (compared to the mountain of new publications and documentary evidence published since), we might look on this book with very low expectations. However, with the exception of his use of psychological jargon, Lifton's analysis has endured remarkably well.
Most generally, Lifton interprets the violence of the Red Guards as undermining the very authority that the Communist Party had tried to accumulate for so many years, (Ibid., p. 38) and yet, simultaneously, he also understands that the Party will manipulate the Red Guards as a transitional means-to-an-end, soon to be discarded. (Ibid., p. 34) He sees the masses as animated by a resentment of the (bureaucratic and social) norms of Chinese Communism, that create a type of dependency experienced as denigration:
In one sense, then, the Cultural Revolution was an exhilarating revolt of the patronized. It was a violent renunciation of what I have elsewhere called "counterfeit nurturance" --situations in which the weak must remain dependent upon the strong for help they both require and deeply resent as a reminder of their weakness. (Ibid., p. 59)
Although these are just general observations, they were not obvious to outsiders in 1968, and so we already have good reason to treat Lifton's approach to the politics seriously --even if it is presented in the now-unfashionable language of "psychohistory".
Lifton saw the desperation and intensity of the Cultural Revolution as a result of the failure of the Great Leap Forward. (Ibid., p. 21) He saw the bulk of the Chinese people as expecting a return to some such violent campaign or another, under the pattern of "struggle-unity-struggle" that they had learned to anticipate. (Ibid., p. 159) However, the government's attempts to mislead the public into believing the Great Leap Forward had been a success (through phony statistics, propaganda, etc.) had profound implications for Chinese Communism in the longer term, really destroying the people's confidence in the revolution. (Ibid., p. 21–22)
The mix of motives driving public enthusiasm are, in his view, partly sincere and partly contrived. The attempts to immortalize Mao's ideals during the Cultural Revolution reflect an apprehension of the real weakness in his ideology at the time: to some extent, there were genuine concerns about imparting the revolution (as a legacy) to a younger generation that had no memory of the earlier era of "feudalism", "imperialism", etc., (Ibid., p. 19) and this is especially problematic because Chinese Communism defines itself (both psychologically and doctrinally) in terms of hatred for its political "enemies". These enemies are sometimes abstract concepts, sometimes actual people, and sometimes expressed as "demons" and "ghosts" that have to be driven out, that one has to purify oneself against, and so on. (Ibid., p. 25) Lifton says little more about this, but we may add that he was correct in stating that the hatred for the enemies of Communism had been increasingly ritualized, with ceremonial meals to accompany "speaking bitterness" against the old regime, various forms of performance for ridding oneself and society of the "ghosts" of various concepts and vices, etc., with the inevitable problem that the younger generation could not quite participate in these rituals in the same way that a veteran of the Sino-Japanese war could; we might suggest that the "religiosity" of Communism increased as the enemies of Communism became more abstract (both as external enemies, and as psychological character-traits that followers were expected to rid themselves of). I might add, also, that the younger generation who could not remember "anti-imperialist struggle", instead could remember the disillusionment that followed after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. So, the problem of generational transition extends beyond the direct question of who would succeed Mao in authority.
Lifton also regards the whole process of social change as somewhat contrived: the Cultural Revolution arose as an "induced catastrophe" to produce a "death and rebirth experience". (Ibid., p. 32) Lifton contrasts the symbolic importance of the 1871 Paris Commune as a model for the Cultural Revolution to the de facto role of the military in operating the "new" structures of the state created. (Ibid., p. 47) The Paris Commune is supposed to represent "militant unprofessionals" (Ibidem) taking over the powers of the state in a spontaneous uprising (an image briefly invoked in the Shanghai Commune of 1967, etc.); and yet this model is totally incompatible with the "induced catastrophe" of (contrived) mob violence being encouraged under a military dictatorship.
Lifton takes an unpatronizing attitude toward the Chinese people involved in these uprisings, and assumes that most of them are aware of the paradoxes and contradictions within the tasks they're undertaking. He asks the question, for example, of whether the denunciation of Liu Shaoqi [刘少奇] was regarded as a cynical ploy or if it could be sincerely believed in by common people supporting it; his answer is "both". (Ibid., p. 57) He sees the whole process of (cyclical) political campaigns as having prepared the population to rapidly enthrone and denounce any particular leader, or any particular ideal; although this ideological-adaptability is the product of Mao's own policies, it creates a sort of justified paranoia for Maoists and Mao himself, as anyone can be dethroned. The Chinese people, Lifton predicts, will reverse all their commitments to Mao's ideology as soon as Mao's hegemony has ended in the same way that they have been conditioned to accept the denunciation of Liu (and, meanwhile, Liu and others being denounced in 1968 could be just as rapidly elevated to god-like status again, at a later date, once Mao is dead). (Ibid., p. 57) Broadly speaking, this analysis has proven to be prescient.
Lifton observes that history tends to record the actions of fanatical youth, and to ignore those who are quietly disillusioned. The future belongs to the latter, disillusioned "wanderers". (Ibid., p. 130–3) The ultimate product of the Cultural Revolution, he argues, will be a new generation more cynical than any before, with "protean" attitudes (explained below in §5).
§4. Mind Under Matter.
One of Lifton's most important points is hampered by his use of jargon: he uses the word "psychism" with a meaning that cannot be found in the dictionary. What Lifton calls "psychism" is what we would now describe as the "mind over matter" belief that the will can (magically) transform both the world and oneself (a.k.a., "the power of positive thinking", and so on).
Lifton summarizes Maoist psychism in terms of two tenets, (1) that the human mind is infinitely malleable, and (2) that the will is all-powerful, emblematized by the Maoist phrase (not directly from Mao himself) that "the subjective creates the objective". (Ibid., p. 70) Lifton is here drawing attention to an aspect of Maoist philosophy, propaganda and political action that is, perhaps, avoided or minimized by many Western commentators, because it is difficult to translate, culturally alienating, and politically absurd --even relative to other Communist doctrines. However, we ignore it at our peril: the commitment to "mind over matter" is expressed in everything from the Cultural Revolution's hostility toward geography (as per the slogan, Swear to Rearrange the Mountains and Rivers, etc.) to the consistent attacks on any notion of human nature (or even human needs) as "bourgeois" and counterrevolutionary. Lifton sees this attack on "humanism" (in a narrow sense of the term) as clearly expressed in the Socialist Education Movement [社會主義教育運動] that directly preceded the Cultural Revolution (p. 25–26), and he finds the same tendency expressing itself again in the Cultural Revolution's hostility toward technology, technical expertise and science. Lifton's approach, basically, asks us to take certain aspects of the propaganda seriously: the constant claims that revolutionary will is a substitute for any technical constraint (whether the constraint is poor-quality soil in agriculture, or the absence of scientific and technical advantages that "imperialist" countries enjoyed in the 1960s) should not be overlooked as mere bragging, but should be examined an important feature of Communist Society in this era (with long-term psychological and political consequences).
In propaganda, Maoism not only demands suicidal self-sacrifice on behalf of the revolution, but, symbolically, everything that would be associated with life instead becomes associated with death. (Ibid., p. 26) The vilification of "survival" and "self-interest" are components of the broader mind-over-matter doctrine.
Lifton does make a few concessions to Maoist psychism, but we should not be surprised that his analysis tends to judge it both as a disaster (in the present-tense of 1968) and as sowing the seeds for the future collapse of Maoism. Lifton concedes that this sort of psychism can positively motivate people, and he finds a non-violent example in the case of a ping-pong team that sincerely practiced Mao Zedong thought in bringing themselves to the championships:
The writings and spirit of Mao invade every match the Chinese play. The national team, before beginning play, recite Mao quotations to give them courage… It has a terrific psychological effect, seeming to drive them to feats of endurance and other exceptional efforts. (Ibid., p. 74–5)
It is rather sad to note, however, that even this "positive" example of Maoist ideology at work during the Cultural Revolution (i.e., one that is rather quaint, compared to the disasters of various agricultural projects, dam-building projects, industrial experiments, and direct massacres) actually entailed at least one of the ping-pong champions being denounced, criticized, and arrested. (Ibidem)
|Rong Guotuan committed suicide after detention and torture in 1968.|
Rather than creating social conformity, Lifton argues, Maoist psychism creates its own political opposition, and will inevitably destroy Communism itself in China. In the social context created by Maoist psychism, anyone on the farm who cares about the hard facts of soil conditions becomes an enemy of the state for daring to oppose the "mind over matter" belief that the revolutionary spirit itself can overcome any such problem. Maoist psychism demands that we believe that, "there is only unproductive thought, there are no unproductive regions" [i.e., there is no such thing as bad soil]; and anyone who dares to disagree (even for the most scientific or practical of reasons) becomes a target of persecution. (Ibid., p. 106) This "psychistic fallacy" makes all pragmatists into enemies of Maoism, even if they really had been devoted followers of the movement for many years before. (Ibid., p. 107)
Psychism fosters attitudes that are incompatible with science itself, and so all scientists and technical experts end up becoming enemies of the state. (Ibid., p. 110–3) As one example, Lifton mentions that Ma Yinchu [馬寅初] was denounced as a rightist for daring to support birth-control, although, of course, in a later period the Chinese state would support birth control, too, (Ibid., p. 123) and he sees the same tension surrounding the whole (aforementioned) "Red versus expert" debate, showcased by the persecution of Guo Moruo [郭沫若], the President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. (Ibid., p. 53)
However, Lifton's most damning judgement of psychism is, after all, psychological in nature:
Subjected to intense methods of psychological influence, an entire nation is asked to treat the physical universe as if it were nothing but feeling and will. (Ibid., p. 107)
Man's psychic state can be pushed just so far. Or, when pushed to extremes, these can be maintained for just so long. Then psychological and historical forces converge to place limits upon individual psychism and group totalism. […] [The violence of the Cultural Revolution included] the rage of people pressed beyond balance and pushed into untenable stances of psychism. (Ibid., p. 130)
In the simplest terms, the methods being used don't work: they don't even succeed in producing obedient subjects for a dictatorship to rule over, much less do they accomplish any of the more utopian goals that Maoism espoused. Instead, as stated above, Lifton sees the regime as simply producing its own enemies (i.e., alienating its own supporters). Contrary to every objective of the Cultural Revolution, the real cultural effect of the movement is to produce a new generation of cynics, to replace the revolutionary generation that came before.
Chinese Communism attempted to both "purify" and "immortalize" itself by extinguishing the tendency toward revisionism as a set of psychological characteristics, (Ibid., p. 20) but this ended up destroying the social basis for Communist rule in China: precisely the realm of reasonable accommodation was destroyed (especially for pragmatists, technical experts, intellectuals and so on). If the Cultural Revolution began with a somewhat contrived "crisis of faith", it ended with a real one, in Lifton's judgement. The fundamental fear that Maoism would not be able to outlive Mao (Ibid., p. 27) was more of a problem, not less, after 1968.
§5. The Triumph of Cynicism.
Lifton's major psychological conclusion is that the Cultural Revolution would create a new generation very much the opposite of everything the movement had aspired to accomplish: he called this new cynicism the rise of "protean man" as a psychological type. (Ibid., p. 152–3) Although this use of the word "protean" never became fashionable, it is interesting to note that Hu Ping (2012) is both Lifton's successor in the analysis of thought reform, and also continues the analysis of cynicism as the real product of authoritarian rule in China. (Hu, 2012, p. 200)
Lifton's conclusions on the Cultural Revolution are, in this aspect, an extension of what he already observed in the cycle of idealism followed by disillusionment: the most effective period was 1948–52 (Lifton, 1961, p. 399), followed by "a law" of diminishing returns on conversion thereafter. (Ibid., p. 412) In other words, Lifton recognizes the galvanizing effect of the earliest period of thought reform, but then sees each successive political campaign as less psychologically effective --or, rather, as psychologically counterproductive (from the perspective of the Communist Party) in actually producing disillusionment and cynicism.
I estimate that thought reform's maximum (post-takeover) effectiveness was reached sometime during its first wave (about 1951 or 1952), and that after this the balance between enthusiasm and coercion has shifted to a decrease of the former and an increase of the latter. This too is part of the Communist leaders' own treadmill, since it means they can neither achieve their perfectionistic thought reform goals nor cease trying to; and [from the leaders' perspective] every wave of thought reform makes the next wave [seem] even more necessary. […] [Yet for the common people enduring these policies,] repetitive waves of thought reform diminish spontaneity and stimulate resentment… (Lifton, 1961, p. 413)
We should include the caveat that Lifton's (1961) analysis was limited to "Chinese intellectuals", and he did not claim that his observations would apply equally well to (e.g.) illiterate peasants or active members of the military.
Lifton's specific definition of "protean man" is not much more useful than the general concept of cynicism and disillusionment. The protean man is (1) a product of the breakdown of traditional symbols in his society, (2) is aware of the absurdity of the ideological demands being made on him, and (3) he responds to this anomie and absurdity with "the very antithesis of Maoist rectitude", namely, a willingness to switch between various beliefs and identities (in constant "flux"), and through "mockery" of the social standards around him, entailing "a specific rejection of moral earnestness". (Lifton, 1968, p. 152) Lifton does not explain how he has come to these conclusions, but I would imagine that this is what he observed among survivors and escapees, in the interviews he conducted in Hong Kong. I think the simplest critique to offer is simply to suggest that this is merely one type of reaction to the psychological crises created by Maoist Communism. Whereas Lifton may have encountered this type frequently in Hong Kong, we may easily find examples of people who respond to their disillusionment by becoming even more committed to "moral rectitude", such as the aforementioned Wei Jingsheng [魏京生], the prison-reform advocate Harry Wu [吳弘達], or various other "professional dissidents", like the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng [陳光誠]. Religious conversion after disillusionment with Communism is also --reportedly-- common; I met one university professor in Kunming who admitted that she had been tempted to convert to Christianity (as a middle-aged adult) simply because the Church seemed to offer promises similar to those of Communism in her youth (however, she hesitated, and decided not to convert). Anecdotally, of course, ex-Communists are reported to both convert to traditional religions (such as Buddhism), and to get involved with "New Religious Movements", as a result of similar longings. Anyone who has personally known a significant number of sincere Communists will be aware that many of them either (i) sought the same benefits from other ideologies prior to Communism, or (ii) sought the same benefits from other ideologies after Communism, sometimes (iii) both. So, simply put, it is not easy to equate disillusionment with the specific model of the "protean man"; there is no cause-and-effect relationship between disillusionment (with Communism or any particular ideology) and the rejection of all "moral rectitude"(although, doubtless, some percentage of people will react this way, at least in the short term, but in the long term I suspect it is a minority).
In introducing his own views on cynicism (in connection to thought reform) Hu Ping offers a quotation from the 17th century Wang Fuzhi [王夫之], stating that authoritarian government (in the mode of legalists such as Han Fei [韓非] and Shen Buhai [申不害]) resulted in people converting to Buddhism and Taoism. (Hu, 2012, p. 199) Although Hu Ping favors the idea that, "As John Stuart Mill long ago pointed out, authoritarianism transforms the populace into cynics", the example he gives from Wang Fuzhi actually indicates the opposite: that cynical government results in people converting to new ideologies. Although it is easy to sympathize with the observations on cynicism offered by both Hu and Lifton, I would highlight the weakness of the type of "causality" that psychohistory relies on: ultimately, inferences about psychological reactions to political events will only be true for some percentage of people --and, in most cases, there is no possibility of measuring how common each reaction might be. There is an aspect of "confirmation bias" in regarding cynicism as the default reaction to disillusionment with the Cultural Revolution, as opposed to (e.g.) converting to a competing ideology (or religion). These are questions that the social sciences can address, but they do not seem to be the interest of "psychohistory", as a genre.
I do not offer these remarks with any particular agenda: very few people would choose to live the life of Chen Guangcheng, even if he is celebrated as a model of "moral rectitude", but, conversely, very few people are strong enough to live as true nihilists, i.e., without reliance on some ideology or another. For the bulk of humanity, substitution of belief is easier than the demolition of belief; just as, in politics, substitution of one authority-figure for another is easier than real (systematic) reform.
"No one understood the Cultural Revolution, perhaps because there was nothing to understand; nothing rational beneath the vanity, frustration and thirst for revenge that triggered it." (Terrill, 1984, p. 298)
In contrast to Terrill's complaint (above), we get the optimistic impression from Lifton's work that a reasonable observer could come to a solid understanding of the Cultural Revolution, basically just by interviewing survivors in Hong Kong with an open mind, and some degree of sensitivity to the psychological effects that politics can have on the people participating in them. In general, most of Lifton's observations still seem rational, reasonable, and well-informed, even given the progress of scholarship in unearthing new documents, compiling the perspectives from various memoirs, and so on. While the jargon used in Lifton's work has gone out of fashion, in general his analysis has aged fairly well.
Although it was easy for MacFarquhar and Schoenhals to refer to this period as Mao's Last Revolution in retrospect, it was actually somewhat daring for Lifton to conclude that it would have this kind of finality in 1968; for an important contrast, consider that Hua Guofeng [华国锋] believed that there would be many more Cultural Revolutions in the future, during his own presidency after Mao's death. (MacFarquhar, 2006, p. 452) Interestingly, when Lifton first introduced his theory of diminishing returns (of Chinese ideological movements, thought-reform, etc.) in 1961, he did not believe that the cycle was over yet, and instead saw that there were more of these "revolutions" to come; (Lifton, 1961, p. 415) however, in 1968, he correctly saw the Cultural Revolution as the last in the series. This prediction may seem so broad and general as to escape notice, but, in fact, it is a significant one.
The strength of Lifton's approach is in drawing attention to aspects of Chinese Communism that would, otherwise, be given very little consideration, from the use of psychiatric torture to the role of "psychism" (as he defines it, i.e., the cult of positive thinking) within Maoist orthodoxy. The results of his investigation are not fundamentally different from political science, Lifton simply approaches the the issues with a different set of priorities; his version of "psychohistory" does not take much interest in the personal psychology of Mao or other elite Communist Party leaders, (Lifton, 1968, p. xv) and this is a strength, as speculations about Mao's intentions remain nebulous, even after so many "secret" documents have been published. Lifton decided that he wanted to avoid the "solipsistic" tendency to portray "large historical events as nothing but manifestations of someone's individual psychopathology", (Ibid., xvi) i.e., implying that this differentiated him from other authors using the term "psychohistory" at the time.
Of course, Lifton's analysis is partly remarkable just because it was published in 1968. His predictions about disillusionment (etc.) are impressive, in that they predate the death of Lin Biao in 1971, and they predate the arrest of Jiang Qing [江青] in 1976, two major events in the widespread disillusionment of China in the 1970s. Lifton's analysis predates the reversal of policy that would "rehabilitate" denounced Party leaders, including Deng Xiaoping [鄧小平] himself, and he predicted this pattern. He was correct in seeing the Red Guards' challenge to Communist Party authority would end with Party discarding them, and so on.
However, Lifton's ultimate conclusion that cynicism will replace ideological purity seems rather facile. He was correct in foreseeing that the Cultural Revolution itself would come to an anticlimatic ending: there was no counterrevolution, there was no great disaster or implosion, just further disillusionment with the Communist Party, widespread cynicism, and (as Lifton predicted) many of the leaders who had been denounced as revisionists (or rightists, or ultra-leftists, etc.) were "rehabilitated". However, the notion of cynicism does not really answer any questions for us in examining this chapter of history, or what happened next; it really just shifts the phrasing of the question from political belief to political unbelief. Understanding why (and how) Chinese citizens accept (and adapt to) authoritarianism remains a major question for the social sciences, inclusive of both psychology and political science.
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