What is Mao's Little Red Book, first published in 1964 at the start of the Cultural Revolution? In 2019, I think we have to look at it in three ways:
The Little Red Book was a work of journalism. This means it sought to impart knowledge which was specific to its exact time, and as a response to the needs of its particular moment. Were you to read a report of mine from 2009, of course it would not be considered as relevant, hip and accurate were it to be directly applied to the situation in 2019" but that doesn't mean it didn't hit the nail on the head the day it was published. Mao's Little Red Book served an immediate need for immediate decision-making, much like journalism does.
Secondly, the Little Red Book was essentially of code of conduct. It was aimed at workers in the government and preached an ascetic program of socialist officialdom. I.e., it was moral instruction for civil servants, telling government workers to be good workers.
Thirdly and this is the source of the Little Red Book's greatest social impact during the CR and the reason it is immortal it was able to be used as a very real weapon of democratic empowerment for China's lowest classes against bad civil servants.
This series examines The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village by Dongping Han, who was raised and educated in rural Jimo County, China, and is now a university professor in the US. Han interviewed hundreds of rebel leaders, farmers, officials and locals, and accessed official local data to provide an exhaustive analysis of seeming unparalled objectivity and focus regarding the Cultural Revolution (CR) in China. Han was kind enough to write the forward to my brand-new book, I'll Ruin Everything you Are: Ending Western Propaganda in Red China. I hope you can buy a copy for yourself and your 300 closest friends.
Han does something which Westerners never do without total derision, total ignorance of its contents, and a general disinterest in the aims of socialism to begin with: he fairly discusses the impact of Mao's Little Red Book. Han writes with his characteristic modesty and refusal to exaggerate:
"Fundamentally speaking, yang banxi (the model Beijing operas) and Mao's quotations served important social functions. They promoted a democratic, modern political culture and established a highly demanding, though loosely worded, code of official conduct. They called on Communist Party members to accept hardship first and enjoyment later. They required government officials to think about the livelihood of the masses. They denounced high-handed oppressive behavior and promoted subtle persuasion in dealing with difficult persons. " They set up good examples for the officials to emulate, and, more importantly, they provided the ordinary people with a measuring stick of good official conduct."
Providing a new measuring stick is that not what Revolutions are all about?
"To the outside world and to the educated elite, songs based on Mao's quotations and yang banxi constitute a personality cult carried to the extreme. But in a way this cult served to empower ordinary Chinese people. Ordinary villagers used Mao's words to promote their own interests. What some outside observers don't realize is that Mao's works had become a de facto constitution for rural people. More importantly, this de facto constitution became an effective political weapon for ordinary villagers."
There is no doubt that longtime China analysts in the West are flummoxed by such a positive, democratic analysis.
Just like journalism, we can only judge the true worth of the Little Red Book by accepting the judgment of the local masses. It's easy to imagine that non-Chinese, especially properly educated ones, may view the Little Red Book as unnecessary instruction" but this was decidedly not the case in 1964 China for the average person. When "ability to increase the empowerment of the average person" becomes our measuring stick, then our assessment must change"but for this type of focus which is egalitarian and communal, as opposed to individualistic we need people like Han and not Harvard professors.
"Scholarly critics of the Cultural Revolution dismiss the study of Mao's works as blind submission to Mao's words as the final authority. That is very true. It is true that few people in China ever, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, subjected Mao's work to any theoretical scrutiny, which is sad indeed. However, critics sometimes forget the social context of Chinese society in the mid-1960s, and the most urgent needs of ordinary people at that time. For the illiterate and powerless villagers, it was not the business of the day to subject Mao's works to theoretical scrutiny, but to use Mao's words as a weapon to empower themselves against official abuses and to overcome their traditional submissive culture."
Again, Mao's Little Red Book is a superb piece of urgently-needed journalism which created a code of conduct that people from the disempowered classes could immediately use as a democratic weapon.
What are we supposed to do with such an analysis of Mao's Little Red Book? Are we to tell Professor Han with all his research, personal background, knowledge and ability to provide context that his point of view is less informed and intelligent than that of Western journalists and academics? This is why Han's book is revolutionary: those who read it can either accept it and change their "measuring stick" of the CR, the Little Red Book and many other things Chinese socialist" or they can be fairly denounced as reactionaries who believe that upholding illogical but traditional thought which only supports an obviously unequal status quo is more important than the use of honesty, reason and moral fairness.