The following is an excerpt from the author’s new book, “The Weaponization of Loneliness: How Tyrants Stoke Our Terror of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer.” (Bombardier Books, Post Hill Press.)
When Jung Chang went on her first house raid as a member of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard, she was not prepared to see a middle-aged, disheveled, half-naked woman kneeling in a dimly lit ransacked room, shrieking “Red Guard masters! I do not have a portrait of Chiang Kai-shek! I swear I do not!”
The victim’s back was filled with bloody cuts from beating, and she banged her head so hard on the floor that blood oozed from her forehead. Jung further reported: “When she lifted her bottom in a kowtow, murky patches were visible and the smell of excrement filled the air.”
Jung feebly asked the woman’s torturer why they were using “violent struggle” instead of the “verbal struggle” Chairman Mao was said to prescribe. Others in the room agreed with her, but the tormentor immediately shut them down as potential class enemies: “Mercy to the enemy is cruelty to the people! If you are afraid of blood, don’t be Red Guards!”
The “struggle session” is a feature of totalitarianism widely practiced during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976.) It is a public exercise in ritual humiliation that serves to break down a person’s sense of self. Struggle sessions are intended to enforce compliance in a person’s thought processes as well as in speech and are therefore a weapon in the war against independent thought. They typically involve forced confessions, mob persecution, and violence. The Red Guards were Mao’s shock troops to enforce purity of thought and rid society of class enemies.
Mao was a founding member of the Chinese communist party in 1921. From then until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he played all the roles that led to his rise through the ranks: local party agitator, insurrection leader at the Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1927, founding member of the Red Army, and guerrilla fighter and strategist. By 1934, while he led the 5,600-mile “Long March” to escape and regroup after being outmaneuvered by Kuomintang forces during the Chinese Civil War, Mao was chosen to lead both the Party and the Red Army. His fortitude during the march became legendary.
Like so many totalitarian leaders before and after him, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party diligently cultivated a cult of personality around him. During the 1930s, the world communist movement hailed Mao as a “standard bearer of the movement.” Portraits of him were everywhere in China by his conquest in 1949. By the time he mobilized millions of young Red Guards in 1966, he was a virtual god.
Perhaps the utopian vision of the Chinese Communist revolution can be best described as a utopia of “pure Maoist thought.” It culminated in the Little Red Book of Mao’s quotations. His sayings were committed to memory throughout society the way Bible verses might be memorized by Sunday school children, but with the fanaticism of the most destructive religious inquisitions.
However, by the time Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, his star was fading. A power struggle was brewing within the Chinese Communist Party because of the utter failure of Mao’s push to industrialize the countryside and increase grain production. His “Great Leap Forward” program (1958–62) was so riddled with short-sightedness and fake science that it caused the largest famine in human history. The estimated death toll is upwards of forty million.
Some scholars believe Mao also launched the Cultural Revolution because he was unprepared for the level of honest criticism that came out of his “Hundred Flowers Campaign” during 1956–57. He had invited intellectuals to freely air any grievances by famously announcing: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend!” Many quickly took him up on that offer. He cracked down on them mercilessly and said later that he intentionally used the program to “entice the snakes out of their dens.”
But that experience also clarified to Mao that the more intense fight was on the cultural front, not economic. He came to believe that the enemy of the revolution was found within each individual. He saw independent thought as the enemy, as a threat to his hold on power. So, the goal was to get inside of each person, to break down their defenses and their individuality in order to enforce conformity. The struggle session was the perfect instrument for doing so.
Mao kicked off the Great Cultural Revolution in August 1966 with the first of several mass rallies in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Over a million frenzied Red Guards were at the ready to answer his call. These energetic youth—led by students from elite colleges—had already been indoctrinated and swept up in the hype of Mao’s cult of personality. They were eager to prove their mettle and win their hero’s favor.
As with all mobs, Red Guards came to look and act just like one another: waving the recently published Little Red Book, wearing signature Red Guard armbands and “Mao jackets,” and chanting all the approved slogans that served as shibboleths to prove their revolutionary credentials.
Mao unleashed their destructive passions and gave them free rein to confront anyone they perceived to be a counterrevolutionary or simply born into the wrong class. Their mission was to destroy any sign of “the four olds: old habits, old customs, old ideas, and old culture” they could detect among neighbors, associates, families, or passersby. Red Guards ransacked homes, burned books, toppled monuments of the old order, and desecrated graves, including the tomb of the 16th-century Ming emperor. They used dynamite to blow up the gravesite of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
The idea was to wipe the slate clean for Mao’s new utopian order. His battle cry was “to rebel is justified!” He ordered police to stand down on arresting Red Guards for any activities, no matter how violent. So, throughout China, Red Guard youth spread a reign of terror meant to suppress any disloyalty to Mao, not only in the general population but also within the highest ranks of the Communist Party, where doubts about Mao’s policies had been looming.
The central weapon was the struggle session. It would begin when the mobs hunted down and surrounded a suspect, shouting slogans at him or her for being “bourgeois,” a “rightist,” “running dog of capitalism,” counterrevolutionary, or any other slur. They handled victims roughly, often placing on them a placard of denunciation or a dunce cap indicating stupidity and backwardness. Meanwhile, the mob spat at the victim, often beating and tormenting him. Sometimes they’d tie people up like animals and smear foul substances on their bodies and faces. Well-known victims were often paraded in stadiums so that larger crowds could jeer.
Bystanders were not safe. Any witness who did not join in denouncing the person was also at risk of being accused of counterrevolutionary thought and thus isolated and shamed. The psychological pressure was intense for friends, neighbors, and families of victims to participate in these rituals of shaming.
Mao’s first targets were teachers. At the outset, he warned of counterrevolutionary elements in education. He egged on the Red Guards to confront their teachers, guaranteeing them immunity and excusing them from attending classes. The first victim of that “Red August” of 1966 was an assistant high school principal in Beijing. When Red Guards mobbed Bian Zhongyun, they tortured and beat her to death while accusing her of being an enemy of the revolution. Teachers were victimized in droves by students who subjected them to struggle sessions and wrote “character posters” that defamed them publicly.
Official sources put the death toll of that first month at 1,772, but it’s likely higher. These were not official executions but deaths due to Red Guard killing sprees. The Cultural Revolution era overall accounted for 7.731 million deaths in China, according to professor of political science R.J. Rummel. We don’t know the portion related to struggle sessions, though there are estimates of about a million killed due to such mob activity.
Many victims committed suicide after the degradations. Some killed themselves if they merely anticipated a struggle session was imminent. Much of the terror was due to the arbitrary nature of the accusations. The violence was random, and the victim need not be guilty of anything. A simple suspicion uttered by a mob member would do.
Mao adapted the idea of struggle sessions from the Soviet Union. Known initially as “sessions of criticism and self-criticism,” they were used to test the commitment of communists. According to Oxford historian David Priestland, “academics were ‘worked over’ or subjected to aggressive questioning in public meetings; if they were discovered to be in error, they had to confess their sins.”
A lot of the ground was laid for struggle sessions prior to the Cultural Revolution during a previous campaign called “Fulfillment of the New Marriage Law,” unveiled in 1950. Some women welcomed its ban on polygamy. However, communist cadres destroyed millions of families by inciting wives to complain against their husbands, instilling enormous tensions among family members and in-laws. Children were also compelled to report on their parents. Neighbor surveillance was also a factor. Public struggle meetings would follow and exaggerate family squabbles.
The stated goal was to eliminate the “class character” of marriage. But the real goal was to break up family cohesion and abolish any relationship that might compete with the government. This was done retroactively by breaking up and annulling millions of marriages that had been arranged or that involved dowries prior to the Communist revolution in China. And if spouses came from two different class backgrounds, the lower-class spouse was pressured to divorce.
One report stated that many wives hanged themselves after coming back from struggle meetings where they were forced to complain against their husbands. Others who sought divorce came back and were killed by their husbands. According to Rummel, a conservative estimate of deaths from the enforcement of the new marriage law in the 1950s and the struggle sessions associated with it is from five hundred thousand to a million.
Mao emphasized the process of the struggle session in a chapter of the Little Red Book of his quotations titled “Criticism and Self-Criticism.” He stated that such struggles are a never-ending process because communists must continuously purify their thoughts and demand purity in the thoughts of their comrades. Minds need regular “sweeping and washing” in order to prevent “inroads of germs and other organisms.”
This process is a critical part of what Mao referred to as “molding” the revolutionary by subjecting the individual personality to the collectivist framework. The purpose was to expose mistakes of the past “without sparing anyone’s sensibilities,” according to Mao. He compared thought-policing to a surgeon who saves a patient by removing an infected appendix. This spin on the struggle session is that it’s simply medicine to strengthen comrades and unify the Party. But the effect is to induce compliance by breaking down a victim’s sense of self and to induce conformity in bystanders who witness the process.
We can reasonably ask if the cancel culture of the early 21st century is much different from Maoist struggle sessions. Today we have “high-tech” lynchings, to borrow an apt phrase applied in 1991 by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The core features are the same: public smears, ridicule, along with a mob chorus intended to force the victim to recant the sin of dissenting against the enforced narrative.
We may not see the same level of beatings and street thuggery to give the same picture of barbarity that the Red Guard presented. But social media mobs swarm to the tune of the current propaganda, calling for the deplatforming of those who don’t comply. One needn’t be in the streets to get the message: comply, or you will lose your livelihood and your status in society.
In addition, the appearance of growing disregard for due process by American government officials compounds the chilling effect of media-led smear campaigns. For example, several average Americans who thought they were peacefully protesting election fraud at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 ended up imprisoned without a trial date, some even placed indefinitely in solitary confinement.
Nothing really has changed in terms of the methods and the effects of struggle sessions enforced by mobs. What has changed is their global reach and technological scope, which, in effect, amplifies the sameness of the methods.
*The Chinese Communist Party’s adoption of the pseudoscientific theories of Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko was in large part responsible for the famine. Other fake science practices, such as plowing ten feet down and Mao’s “war on sparrows,” as well as a demand that peasants engage in manufacturing steel, also led to the massive famine, causing tens of millions of deaths from starvation. For more on the fallout of the Great Leap Forward, see Rummel, R.J. China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1991. For more on Lysenkoism, see Medvedev, Zhores A. The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko, New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.