Here is a real gem. At the start of the 1970s, China was tentatively opening itself up to the rest of the world (with the exception of the Soviet Union). Mao and his inner circle recognised that they needed to try and carefully manage the process of opening in order the shore-up the legitimacy of the Communist Party.
Alongside openness would be an effort to control which of its many faces China presented to the world - and in 1972, the Party invited the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni to visit China and assist with the construction of cultural "soft" power in a new phase of triangular diplomacy.
"IT IS RIGHT TO REBEL"Here is Antonioni:
In his book, 'The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s', Richard Wolin gives a fascinating account of how the various Maoist sects and factions across Europe wielded a degree of power and influence in public life that vastly outweighed their actual numbers.
Initially, the Maoists in Western Europe were dogmatic 'true-believers' who saw in Communist China what they wanted to see. As Wolin puts it:
These 'Maoists' tended to be de facto disillusioned Stalinists who found abandoning their belief in "actually existing socialism" too painful to bear. Wolin describes this mindset: "the "successes" of Chinese communism - or its imagined successes - would magically compensate for the abysmal failures of the Communist experience elsewhere."
But this all changed when the Maoists found themselves utterly sidelined in the dramatic revolts of May 1968. They found themselves forced by the libertarian spirit and 'new issues' agenda of the moment to broaden their appeal, or sink into irrelevance. As usual, they split into two such camps, with one group continuing to centre their political platform around venerating whatever Mao was doing at that moment, and the other group embracing the more open-minded, grassroots spirit of the times.
"The idea of 'cultural revolution' was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habits, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability."Here are Black Panther supporters brandishing Mao's 'Little Red Book' in Oakland, 1969:
It is hard to miss the irony of using the rhetoric of the Red Guard movement to promote this new 'post-power' politics, when the Cultural Revolution inaugurated by Mao was precisely concerned with restoring his power inside the Party machine - the "rebellion" against established authority that he encouraged amongst the young was a means to the end of strengthening, not transcending, the power of the Party.
Here is a clip from a documentary about the period, which gives some idea of what it was really about:
The key moment for these neo-Maoists in the West came in the aftermath of 1968. Wolin presents a crucial argument that one of the legacies of the upheavals of 1968 was that it instilled a deep sense of humility in Western European public intellectuals, particularly in France and Italy. This was in part because some intellectuals had failed to predict the momentous events using their elaborate theories (Lucien Goldmann aptly observed that "structures don't go out into the streets to make a revolution"), but also because the bottom-up, anti-paternalistic ethic was so integral to the movements themselves.
And writers, artists and intellectuals had a new sense of themselves as being somehow "above" the masses, telling them what they ought to read, look at, and think - which was something they had a duty to resist.
The Maoist sects played an important role in this, largely because they were merely in the right place at the right time, armed with the right (and suitably ambiguous) slogans. The police in Paris chose to target the Maoist groups, and their publishing outlets, to send a signal to other radicals, because they were small enough to be manageable. But heavy-handed intervention only made a public martyr of them and rallied intellectuals to their cause, most notably Sartre and Foucault. Wolin describes how all these processes interacted to undermine an older model of the engaged French public intellectual as a member of an elite 'vanguard' class:
THE RED DESERT
Ever since Edgar Snow wrote Red Star Over China Western leftists had visited the People's Republic and painted it in a positive light. The Party had the same expectation of Antonioni, who had a reputation for using his films to criticise the exploitation he saw in his own society. Like many of his generation, he was haunted by the living memory of fascism under Mussolini. Like the radical left in post-war West Germany, he felt burdened by a sense of duty to guard against the ever-present danger that fascism might resurface in a disguised form.
His earliest feature films addressed the social alienation that afflicted the working- and middle-classes alike under capitalism. The alienating effects of modernity was a theme that ran through his career - at their best, his films force his audience to honestly confront the restlessness and anomie of modern life, and to abandon the self-deception of thinking that there exists a 'strong man' ruler who could restore a long-lost semblance of permanence, order and meaning.
In 1997 the BBC dedicated an edition of Arena to Antonioni. Here is the start - it is worth watching in its entirety to get a feel for the man less as an individual and more as a representative of a restless post-war generation. (Further down the page I have included the section that deals directly with Chung Kuo.)
During the programme, he describes how his philosophy of being an artist changed over time. His comments from the 1960s foreshadow the difficulty the Chinese government would have in trying to use him as their mouthpiece several years later. He describes losing confidence in his judgment about which features of the world around him are worth observing, which aspects of daily life carry some greater significance.
It is not something that ought to be overly rational - you should freely range the camera over anything and everything that might be of interest.
In 1972 Antonioni was invited to China to record a documentary of everyday life. His visit lasted five weeks, and the result was Chung Kuo China, a three-part film that was subsequently shown on Italian TV. The first part was filmed in Beijing, the second in rural Linxian and the southern cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, and the final part focuses on Shanghai. Below are some screen-shots from the film.
"Writers and artists who cling to their individualist petty-bourgeois standpoint cannot truly serve the revolutionary mass of workers, peasants and soldiers."
This policy towards the arts was known as the "Two Servings" - serving the people and serving socialism.