Why I Still Defend the Red Guards

This is a guest article written by our Comrade Drew Smith, while we do not agree with all of his positions we feel that this is an insightful and critical look at very important history. Comrade Drew is a graduate student working on his M.A. in Soviet-Chinese relations and Maoist movements within the Eastern Bloc. – RGA


For better or for worse, despite the grievous suffering and the mayhem they wrought, the Red Guards were unconventional heroes of history.


Lately for my thesis I’ve been reading a lot about the Red Guard movement during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China for my M.A. thesis. True, my thesis takes place in Eastern Europe, but the Eastern European individuals whose stories I’m telling were trying to become Red Guards themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously. They were “bombarding the headquarters” of the ruling parties of their native countries and were “rebels” who were practicing Marxism-Leninism in a way that took on those who also claimed the mantle of Marxism-Leninism. Thus, for the first few weeks of this semester, I did a serious investigation into the Red Guard movement.

So far I’ve read Mao: The Real Story by Alexander Pantsov, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution by Gao Mobo, Mao’s Children in the New China: Voices from the Red Guard Generation by Jiang Yarong and David Ashley, Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement by Andrew G. Walder, The Cultural Revolution in the Foreign Ministry of China by Ma Jisen, Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History by Alexander C. Cook, and Evaluating China’s Cultural Revolution and Its Legacy for the Future by the MLM Revolutionary Study Group. It’s been an exhausting past few weeks of painstaking note-taking, analyzing, and engagement. It’s also been a journey of myself being confronted with uncomfortable questions that go against the almost Pollyanna narrative that I was taught by the Revolutionary Communist Party USA in my youth. Now that I’m older, wiser, and no longer trapped in the traditional RIM paradigm, I can no longer simply scoff away things as “bourgeois propaganda” or “exaggerations”.

In these texts I am confronted a multitude of uncomfortable facts. There were, indeed, many actions by the Red Guard movement that were truly horrible. Thousands of innocent people were persecuted, tortured, and driven to suicide due to humiliation. Countless beautiful, priceless treasures and relics from China’s past were destroyed. By mid-1968 the entire Red Guard movement had completely fractured into literal civil war (the Red Guards in Beijing were fractured against each other from the very start, in fact) with youths waving the same banners, wearing the same uniforms, holding up the same Little Red Books while shooting each other with guns seized from People’s Militia armories. In fact, Mao himself had to suppress the Red Guards to restore order in the country. Finally, as a revolutionary intellectual myself, I am forced to acknowledge that I most likely would have been denounced (at best) by one Red Guard faction or another during the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, while the rest of the Cultural Revolution’s mass movements seem to be righteous and constructive, sometimes I’ve wondered to myself after school: do the positives of the Red Guards outweigh the negatives? Why am I a Maoist if I know that I’d most likely have gotten airplaned and dunce-capped by my students, if not worse?

Well… I’ll tell you why I continue to stand by the assertion that the Red Guards were a positive thing and that if I had been in high school or an undergraduate during that era, I’d still have joined their ranks. Real talk: when you build a socialist society, youth who don’t experience the original revolution are going to have to learn how to be revolutionaries by practicing revolution itself. Kids need to figure out what’s best for the world, who stands in the way of making a better world, and how to fight those who pretend to be their friends but are in fact their oppressors. Yes, Red Guards smashed beautiful works and buildings of China’s past, something that breaks my historian heart [side note: eventually the CCP and PLA put a stop to this in May of 1967, only a year after the launching of the Cultural Revolution]. They ransacked people’s homes in extrajudicial searches, and would burn and loot local Party and Militia offices. But these were youth, caught up in a whirlwind of energy, who were trying to figure out how to destroy an old world that had oppressed them for so long. I myself have been told by a former Red Guard that when she was a teenager, burning a local temple dating back to the Tang Dynasty and then beating the priests was exhilarating because she could finally exact vengeance on those who told her she was born a girl because of something wrong she did in a past life.

The Red Guards may have been at times unnecessarily cruel and merciless towards Party cadres and revolutionary intelligentsia, but when they went among the workers and peasants we see an enormous transformation that went both ways. The Red Guards brought revolutionary ideas to the people, ideas that were put into practice and produced great results. In turn, the masses taught the Red Guards proletarian consciousness, hard work, and humility. Red Guards became amateur medics, literacy tutors, rescue workers, and political organizers. They helped form new peasants’ committees and labor unions that were independent from the old Party brass which were able to rebel against those who abused their power in industry and agriculture.

Red Guards also broke with traditions that kept youth down such as filial piety. Could you imagine being told by the leader of your nation that it was correct to stand up to an abusive family member? I can’t imagine how amazing that would have felt in a society where Confucian ideas had been codified in everyone’s mind for millennia. As someone who came from a dysfunctional family here in America, I can only dream of what that must have been like.

Yeah, yeah, I know, revolution is not a dinner party. Every Maoist spouts that out whenever confronted with arguments against the Cultural Revolution. Yet I think another factor we need to keep in mind is that the Red Guard phenomenon was something that had never been tried before, and like any initiative of that type there’s going to be a matter of trial and error. The Red Guards fractured and spun out of control for multiple reasons, but in the end the movement was a learning experience for modern revolutionary youth and students and both historians and revolutionaries should never “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Most of all though, we must recognize that the Red Guards initiated many other endeavors of the Cultural Revolution that produced more than destroyed. To end with a metaphor, the Red Guards may have kicked up a lot of dirt, gave many groundskeepers unwarranted ass-kickings, and smashed a lot of gardening tools, but they still sewed seeds that became beautiful gardens.

Long live the memory of the Red Guards! It’s right to rebel!