In the last week or so, I have been reading an excellent book on education reform during the Cultural Revolution called, “Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class” by Joel Andreas. Andreas’ account is perhaps the most conventionally “Maoist” account of the GPCR, however, unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries Andreas has attempted develop a theoretical framework through which one could explain the rise of a new elite class in China. He has dubbed this new class, “the red engineers”, as most of the current Chinese political regime, like their Soviet forbearers, have engineering degrees and have developed a technocratic regime through the uneven distribution of cultural and political capital. Andreas argues, as many have, that the GPCR was a great attempt to deepen the socialist revolution through the redistribution of cultural and political capital. Andreas posits that the GPCR could be characterized by attacks on 1) cultural capital but not political capital; 2) political capital but not cultural capital and 3) on both political and cultural capital. Prior to the GPCR most of the political leadership of the CPC was not highly educated and the majority of the revolutionary membership were peasants and workers who had very low if any education at all. But their involvement in the Chinese revolution had given them enormous political capital. On the other hand, the oppressing classes and the petit-bourgeoisie (teachers, professors etc) had incredibly high levels of cultural capital. Indeed, in the post-liberation years universities remained largely in the hands of these oppressing and petit-bourgeois classes. These classes did not possess political capital and few joined the communist party. However, the failure of the GPCR was caused by the actual merging of cultural and political capital in the formation of the ‘red engineers’ i.e. the rise of a set of individuals that were both educated at Tsinghua University, largely in engineering, thus possessing a great amount of cultural capital and had also accumulated a large amount of political capital through their membership in the YCL and the Party.
Anyways, one of the initiatives that the CPC, led by the radicals, had in 1972/1973 was the idea of a labourer with socialist consciousness and culture. These were students that enrolled in university classes but were forced to actually gain real world skills and engage in manual labor (these students were soon to be supplemented by part-time students who were workers etc. who took classes in the evening and worked in their factories and fields during the day – these were called the worker-peasant-solider students). These labourers with socialist consciousness an culture were required to be part of a worker, peasant or military brigade and engage in manual labor like the rest of the masses. Often the engineering students for example would have had to work in the factory that was affiliated to the university. They were no longer red and expert, but rather simply parts of the working class that had worked hard like everyone else and had enjoyed the privilege to attend university classes full time and thus had develop a socialist consciousness and culture. Needless to say that the revisionists in the CPC fought this tooth and nail.
This is a form of education that I actually wish we got around the world. I know that many of us have worked in service sector jobs, I definitely have and hated it, but I think it would not be a bad thing for us to be required to occasionally work in the physical field that we study as part of the education process. So, someone like myself, who largely studies politics should ideally be required as part of my formal education to be involved in a military brigade for example; it would probably would result in a lot fewer professors and politicians speaking in favour of war. Furthermore, I think it would ameliorate a crisis that many graduate students have about lacking a tangible skill. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t study theory/philosophy or any abstract field but that we should see the entire process that flows from our studies. Otherwise, we risk simply reproducing the division of mental and manual labor which finally caused the death of the communist movements in all of the former socialist countries around the world.