Agents of Disorder: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution
“Now that China is positioning itself as the world’s premiere anti-American power, it is worth knowing and understanding where ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoist aspirations come from. If the world really wants a Chinese-led new order, then a reckoning with its blood-soaked 20th century is essential.”
Radical, well-organized students storm the campus and shout down their professors and the school administrators. They throw dunce caps on the ones they want to humble the most. Elsewhere, radicals, with the full backing of the central state, attack and overthrow municipal and provincial governments. All of these events are done in the name of some half-cooked utopian dream of social liberation and the always shifting goalposts of revolution.
No, this is not a rundown of the United States post-2016. Rather, as the historical sociologist Andrew G. Walder shows in Agents of Disorder, it accurately (but not fully) describes China’s Cultural Revolution. Between 1966 and 1976, the revolutionary vanguard of student rebels known as the Red Guards used direct action and violence to “purge” Chinese society of all so-called “capitalist” elements. What this meant in practice was that independent wholesalers, fruit vendors, and the children of former Nationalist Party members were hunted to near extinction. More importantly, Communist Party bureaucracies in cities like Shanghai and Nanning were removed by the “ultra-left,” who had Chairman Mao’s official blessing.
Why was the Communist state established by Mao eaten from within? Walder provides several answers in this scholarly text. First of all, the Cultural Revolution increased the centralization of the Chinese state, which in turn centralized Maoist thought across all political, social, and economic strata.
Second, in what may be Walder’s most thought-provoking contribution to the study of Communist China, the Cultural Revolution was an outgrowth of the state’s emphasis on political mobilization. The upheavals of 1966–1967 “were not a function of predefined social and political positions, but rather were a product of interactive processes as conflicts unfolded,” Walder notes.
In simpler language, revolutionary communism is on a constant quest to name and shame supposed counter-revolutionaries in order to maintain an abstract purity ungirded by vulgar power. In China, this desire to perfect an imperfect revolution led elites to attack each other on the municipal and provincial level in order to display their loyalty to Mao and the “ultra-left.”
Agents of Disorder not only upends the traditional assumption of historical sociologists that revolutions usually feature subaltern classes striking out against their superiors, but it also investigates how the revolution occurred in urban and rural China. Walder’s book is riddled with graphs and data sets, all of which track how the Cultural Revolution managed to go from an urban, student-based phenomenon to one that was experienced even in the rural center and west.
Finally, Agents of Disorder dismantles the notion that the Cultural Revolution was a top-down and streamlined process. Yes, Mao praised the Red Guards, but he also sent the Chinese Red Army into the maelstrom in order to protect economic activity. Not only did Red Army soldiers and Red Guards trade shots with each other, but the urban proletariat formed Crimson Guards in order to protect their interests from being steamrolled.
Agents of Disorder is an excellent example of historical sociology done right. While it is not intended for a popular audience, nor is it easy to follow, it does present a case wherein revolutionary fervor led to oppression and the deaths of over a million people. Now that China is positioning itself as the world’s premiere anti-American power, it is worth knowing and understanding where “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoist aspirations come from. If the world really wants a Chinese-led new order, then a reckoning with its blood-soaked 20th century is essential.