Home » 5th Season » A Quest for Purity: The Nuances Between Stalin’s Great Purge and Mao’s Cultural Revolution

A Quest for Purity: The Nuances Between Stalin’s Great Purge and Mao’s Cultural Revolution

By Sophia Liu, V Form


A Quest for Purity: The Nuances Between Stalin’s Great Purge and Mao’s Cultural Revolution

In the 20th century, the concept of an intentional and permanent revolution for the proletariats called Communism spread across the continent. Although the philosophy of Communism is the true embodiment of the people, they in fact became oppressed under a number of the Communist regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. In 1922, Joseph Stalin rose to power after the death of Vladimir Lenin. He established a totalitarian regime based on terror and propaganda throughout the next three decades; especially during the Great Purge, when an estimate between 600,000 to 3 million people were killed, having been labelled ‘counter-revolutionary.’ Meanwhile, a parallel event was taking place south of the Soviet Union. After a long power struggle both externally and internally, the Chinese communist party came to power under the lead of Mao Zedong, who also imposed a totalitarian regime upon the country. Similarly, Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-1967) radically oppressed any ‘counter-revolutionary’ ideas, culminating with the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Many of those killed were intellectuals, ‘bourgeois’, and political opponents of Mao. The two revolutions surprisingly had very different outcomes. After the death of Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev rose to power and openly denounced Stalin in his ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences. Similarly, the public perception of Stalin were generally negative immediately after the end of his regime. In the long term, the Soviet Union collapsed.

On the other hand, despite the similarities of the Cultural Revolution, the majority of people in China still regard Mao as a messianic revolutionary hero and has unmovable faith in the country’s regime of communism forty years after his rule. Since Khrushchev’s speech, Stalin’s campaign has been largely recognized as his egotistic political struggle against his political opponents to establish his authority. Many scholars also argue about the fundamental objectives behind Mao’s Cultural Revolution in comparison to the Great Purge. At first glance, Mao and Stalin were very similar in their usage of terror, propaganda, and public purges, and the two shared common rhetorics. However,  through closely analyzing Mao’s intentions behind his rhetorics, the focus and target of his propaganda, and his applications of ideas, it becomes evident that Mao’s movement was a campaign across the entire nation to achieve ideological purity. This could also mean Mao was trying to reach the end goals of the permanent revolution in China, rather than reinforcing his individual power by targeting his political opponents like Stain did. Analyzing this fundamental difference is also the key to understanding the puzzling outcomes of the two structurally similar revolutions, shedding more light on the ideologies, policies, and impacts of Mao.

When looking at Mao and Stalin’s style of rhetorics in published manifestos and spoken speeches, one may find that the two were mostly comparable. Keywords that were often used by the leaders to label those individuals possessing potential threat to the regime were ‘counter-revolutionaries’, ‘capitalists’ and ‘enemies of the people.’ For example, Mao said, “Classes and class struggle continue to exist in socialist society, and the struggle still goes on between the road of socialism and the road of capitalism.” However, he fails to provide readers with the exact definitions of those who take the road of capitalism. Similarly, according to Khrushchev’s speech, ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,’ “Stalin originated the concept enemy of the people. This term automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven;” this quote indicates that both of the leaders, being intentionally vague, failed to provide an exact definition of ‘capitalists’ and ‘enemy of the people’. By combining the ambiguity of these keywords and the long-standing Black-versus-White, Socialist-versus-Capitalist mentality of communism, which says that there is only one correct interpretation of Marxist-Leninism, there was no logical defiance and doubt against whom the leaders shall label as ‘counter revolutionary’, in the extreme, ‘evil,’ because they were the only correct interpretation of Marxist-Leninism. The measures, however radical, taken by the leaders to eliminate ‘capitalist’ and ‘enemies of the people,’ physically and mentally, were also legitimately justified.

However, while the common goal of these intentionally vague rhetorics is to provide a compelling explanation for totalitarianism, it also presents a distinct nuance of Mao and Stalin: the intentions of their rhetorics were fundamentally different. The intention of Stalin’s rhetorics mentioned above were more likely to be solely justifying his purges of political opponents. On the other hand, the intentions of Mao were more complex: to install the idea that the people themselves were fighting against the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ for common welfare, creating the delusional dichotomy with the reality of the absolute power he held to reinforce his political influence. In other words, Mao successfully utilized the hatred and power of the people to target his own political opponents and to advance ideological purity not only to the government but also to the masses. For example, in ‘Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Revolution,’ a programmatic document of the Cultural Revolution, Mao says,

“Because of [capitalist] resistance is fairly strong, there will be reversals and even repeated reversals in this struggle. There is no harm in this. It tempers the proletariat and other working people, and especially the younger generation, teach them lessons and give them experience, and help them to understand that the revolutionary road zigzags and does not run smoothly.”

He explicitly reminds that it is the job of all the proletariats to roam the revolutionary road, or in other words, to fight against whom Mao labelled as ‘counter-revolutionaries’. This concept is conveyed in a confident and audacious way. By saying that even the continuous re-emergence of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ would benefit the people, Mao furthers the illusion that the people were fighting for a greater cause instead of being oppressed by a totalitarian regime to rule out dissonances. As a result, Mao established himself as a more valid leader than Stalin did because Stalin only justified his actions in ways which would have triggered more doubt. More importantly, Mao’s rhetorics were effective in putting everyone throughout the nation to  a revolutionary task, furthering his progress towards ideological purity and the conclusion of a permanent revolution in China.

Similarly, Mao’s focus of propaganda, unlike Stalin, was not himself but the people and the mentality of being revolutionary. This focus becomes evident in two examples of direct criticism towards Stalin’s propaganda collected in ‘Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia’ from 1937, the most notorious period of Stalin’s rule:

“By the way, the portraits of party leaders are now displayed the same way icons used to be: a round portrait framed and attached to a pole. Very convenient, hoist it onto your shoulder and you’re on your way. And all these preparations are just like what people used to do before church holidays…They had their own activists then, we have ours now. Different paths, the same old folderol.”

This illustrates how Arzhilovskii, a participant of the May Day celebration in 1936 and 1937, described the portraits of the leaders. While explicitly criticizing this cult-like ritual and representation of the leaders as almost deified figures through the comparison of demonstrators with church activists and denouncing the portraits as a ‘folderol’- something showy but useless. His words also show the fanatic focus on the government, alluding to the fanatic worship of Stalin during the Great Purge. An anonymous letter written in 1938 shows similar contexts:

‘Dear comrade Zhdanov!

Do you not think that comrade Stalin’s name has begun to be very much abused? For example:

Stalin’s people’s commissar, Stalin’s falcon, Stalin’s pupil, Stalin’s canal, Stalin’s route[…]’

The propaganda of Stalin placed an emphasis on beautifying himself. This intention, however, was eventually unable to trigger the people to support Stalin’s fight against ‘counter revolutionaries.’ Instead, it had the counter effect of directly showing the people that they lived under a totalitarian state in which everything is about Stalin and his political partners whom he deemed as holding the ‘correct’ ideologies.

On the other hand, Mao’s propaganda focused on and successfully called upon the revolutionary spirit from the civil war of the 1940’s. Rather than creating a cult of personality on an individual, Mao created a cult of revolution, gaining almost unanimous and fanatic support over the country, ruling out the dissonant voices of the minority. The most typical example that demonstrates Mao’s charismatic propaganda targeting the people was the the ‘Decision’ commenced by Mao and the Central Committee of the Chinese Government and also published on People’s Daily in 1962. In Point 2, ‘The Main Current and the Twists and Turns’, Mao says:

‘The masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cares form the main force in this great Cultural Revolution. […] Since the Cultural Revolution is a revolution, it inevitably meets with resistance. […] There is abundant evidence that such resistance will be quickly broken down once the masses become fully aroused.’

The word ‘aroused’ is a direct reference to the revolutionary spirit, motivating the masses towards a state of revolution and ideological purity. Again, Mao reiterates that the fundamental nature of the Cultural Revolution, as being presented to the masses, is using the power of the people to fight ‘counter revolutionaries’ and capitalism. In response, the revolutionary ‘younger generation’ would gather and form The Red Guards without direct orders from Mao with firm beliefs in their arduous quote: “Chairman Mao has defined our future as an armed revolutionary youth organization…So if Chairman Mao is our Red-Commander-in-Chief and we are his Red soldiers, who can stop us?” In contrary to the proliferation of the name of ‘Stalin’ on roads, buildings, and public structures, what proliferated throughout China was a sense of revolutionary spirit. Instead of naming every street and every road after Mao, many street names were changed to fit the theme of revolutions. For example, “Anti-Imperialist Road,” “Road for Eternal Revolution,” and “Red Guards Park.” By integrating the revolutionary spirit into the daily lives of people, the indoctrination of Mao’s idea rooted within the hearts of the Chinese people, creating a strong backbone for an era of fanatic ideological consensus and other radical actions. Instead of following the path of Stalin, shifting the focus to himself, and having the counter-effect of highlighting himself as a totalitarian dictator, Mao was able to gain almost unanimous support through publically focusing on the masses – the foundations of any Communist regimes. In more broader terms, Mao’s intentional act of focusing on the people left himself with a more positive public perception than did Stalin. The revolutionary spirit and effective indoctrination of the Communist spirit also gave the majority of the masses more knowledge and allegiance towards the core ideology of which the nation is founded on, providing more support for the following leader and preventing the collapse of the entire communist regime in China.

Another method Mao and the Chinese government used to boost his support and achieve ideological purity was to create a sense of ‘conformity’ throughout China, highlighting that the Cultural Revolution was again a ‘national’ and societal movement rather than one person’s political movement. As announced in the ‘Foreword to [the] Second Edition of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,’

“The broad masses of the workers, peasants, and soldiers and the broad ranks of the revolutionary cares and the intellectuals should all really master Mao Tse-Tung’s thought; they should all study Chairman Mao’s writings, follow his teachings, act according to his instructions, and become Chairman Mao’s good fighters.”

This infers to Mao’s use of the conformity of the Cultural Revolution to create a collective that is greater than the individual, and Mao himself was the leader of this manipulative collective. Much like in Nazi Germany, Mao pursued the concept of being a part of ‘something greater than oneself’ and the ‘common welfare’ to exert his manipulative power on the people. Many Chinese among the revolution simply conformed to what everyone else was doing: “wearing Mao buttons and carrying his little red book and reciting his quotations, and even the simplest transaction at in a shop had to include a recitation from Mao’s words.”

This is how Mao’s personal physician Li Zhi-sui described the situation in his memoir. For those who were skeptical, they did not have many choices because the idea that ‘the majority rules’ was so prevalent in the ideology of communism and in Chinese culture. By installing the mindset that the masses were a part of a great campaign, Mao once again obscured them from seeing the oppressiveness of the regime and their own fanatic worships of Mao. As a result of this ten-year-long manipulative bond, the succeeding leaders of China were cautious about publicly criticizing the decisions of Mao. The unquestioned and almost unanimous support for him remained even after his death. In fact, the immediate leader after Mao appealed to Mao’s public image by imitating his hairstyle, political activities, and calligraphy to utilize the bond which Mao created to gain support from the population. It was only until almost fifty years after the revolution that the media and news agencies broke the silence and publicly declared the Cultural Revolution to be a political mistake of Mao.

Not only did Mao strive to achieve ideological purity, he also implemented the themes of ‘new society’ and ‘new people’ in the Cultural Revolution. This strategy appealed more to the people than Stalinist purges as it fomented a sense of hope for a better future, especially when many were recovering from famine and poverty caused by the Great Leap Forward campaign. Mao, too, was very keen on taking actions to actually apply these ideas to his campaign as a faithful Marxist. One of the most typical example is the breaking of the ‘Four Olds’ – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas and establishment of the ‘Four News.’ Not only did people attack and harass intellectuals for their ‘backwards’ ideas, the Red Guards also went into people’s homes to burn old books, genealogy books, and furnitures. The more radical Red Guards also attacked ancient tombs of emperors and destroyed thousand-year-old architectures. It becomes evident that the physical manifestations of building a new society appealed to the masses more, as they felt that they were physically taking actions to fight for the new society. This idea quickly proliferated throughout China and was also greeted with many organized actions, for example an article called ‘Red Guards Destroy the Old and Establish the New’ that described the enthusiasm of the Red Guards: “Beating drums and singing revolutionary songs, detachments of Red Guards are out in the streets doing propaganda work, […] [holding] big banners with the words: ‘We are the critics of the old world; we are the builders of the new world.’”

As it is shown here, the easily influenced youth was also a major source of power and support for Mao.

Other organizations were created to facilitate Mao’s instructions of the Culture Revolution, and the emergences of these organizations demonstrate that the Cultural Revolution is a planned, nation-wide campaign. Politically, the Gang of Four emerged as a political faction mainly in charge of propaganda and education during the time of the revolution, and maintained power through their implementation of Mao’s radical ideas. In addition, The Red Guards, under the supervision of the Gang of Four, were the culprit behind criticism sessions. Within the society, workers in the same factory attacked old influences and ideologies within their work environment. Though many organizations were not actually set up by Mao, he backed many of the prominent ones like the Red Guards and the Gang of Four. This fact shows that the Cultural Revolution was more of an intended and organized campaign mobilizing all factors of society,  rather than the single effort of Mao himself. In fact, due to the political players and organizations within the government falling into a state of power struggle and turmoil, the people did not associate their sufferings with Mao but with these radical organizations. As a result, the Gang of Four became the most enthusiastically blamed group after the Cultural Revolution while Mao maintained a positive public perception.

To conclude, Mao’s Cultural Revolution fundamentally differed from the Great Purge under Stalinist Russia as it was not a mere struggle to eliminate political opponents. The Cultural Revolution rather was first of all a revitalization of the revolutionary spirit from the Communist Revolution. Building upon that, Mao was also trying to reach a political and ideological purity, eliminating dissonant and ‘counter-revolutionary’ ideologies and its manifestations. Most importantly, it was his search for a ‘new society’ as the end result for a permanent revolution in China. Scholars like Paul Hiniker agree with this fundamental difference by describing it as, “‘Maoists’ heightened search for ideological consonance following the dissonance created by a failed prophecy.” It is also important to note that, because the heightening of the two leaders’ authorities were a common outcome of the two revolutions, it obscured the fundamental difference between the two revolutions.

The Cultural Revolution remained a notorious and painful legacy of the 20th century with millions of innocents persecuted or killed, families and friends torn apart, and unemployment of educated youths eventually causing stagnation of  economy and education; however, there are a few arguably positive impacts of the Cultural Revolution. For example, many peasants received benefits especially education in the long term, allowing for a stable economic and social base for the current middle class of China. The stagnation throughout the Cultural Revolution was also an incentive for the rapid economic growth and industrialization in the next four decades. Though controversial, the revolution also made the Chinese population more allegiant to the regime, contributing to the restoration process. Today in China, more ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are being redressed, more songs and literature start to recount the era, and more propaganda posters are in fact printed on mugs and t-shirts as popular souvenirs. Nevertheless, this should not be a period of history that goes forgotten and unstudied as it is crucial to understanding more about the current politics and society of China.

Sophia Liu is a V Form boarding student from Beijing, China.







  1. Chong, Woei Lien. China’s great proletarian Cultural Revolution: master narratives and post-Mao counternarratives. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.
  2. Davies, Sarah. Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  3. Fan, K.H. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: Selected Documents. Grove Press, Inc., 1968.
  4. Hiniker, Paul J. “The Cultural Revolution Revisited: Dissonance Reduction or Power Maximization.” The China Quarterly No. 94 (1983): 282-303
  5. Khrushchev, Nikita. “Khrushchev’s Secret Speech ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.’” Wilson Center Digital Archive, February 25, 1956. https://elearning-gilman.remote-learner.net/pluginfile.php/93508/mod_resource/content/1/Khrushchevs%20Secret%20Speech.pdf.
  6. Li, Zhi-sui. The Private Life of Chairman Mao. Random House, Inc., New York, 1994.
  7. Unknown. “Map of Beijing.” Beijing, 1968.



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