Let the Book-Burning Commence

The New Cultural Revolution Is Just More of the Same Destruction.

Spot the Difference. L-R: Communists in Spain, Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution; Marxist vigilantes today. A Devil’s Curmudgeon.

George Orwell well understood the totalitarian mindset. He didn’t live to see Communist China, but he would have recognised it instantly. Orwell would also have recognised today’s headlines at a glance. The demolition of statues, the erasure of historic monuments, the constant revision and rewriting of books and newspapers, the un-personing of politically-inconvenient people.

The only thing missing – so far – is burning books.

“The most characteristic activity of the Nazis is burning books,” Orwell wrote. “In Italy literature has been crippled […]the most promising Russian writers show a marked tendency to commit suicide or disappear into prison.”

Literature (and film, theatre, television, music – any cultural activity you care to name) has been crippled by the modern totalitarians. Or “cancelled”, to use the modern parlance.

There’s no need to burn books, however, in a digital age when physical books are fast being replaced by e-books. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with e-books (and, in fact, e-books are a booming market for independent writers and publishers), the dominance of platforms like Amazon simply means that de-platforming has replaced good, old-fashioned bonfires. Retailers like Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, etc., are able to remotely update books on their users’ devices. This has its uses – as an independent publisher, I’ve been able to quickly update typos which had escaped initial proof-reading.

But it also has a very dark side. Like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, publishing giants like Amazon can alter texts remotely – or delete them altogether. In an eerie glimpse of the future, in 2009 Amazon inadvertently demonstrated its power by deleting titles en masse from its users’ devices.

The books? 1984 and Animal Farm. You can’t make this stuff up.

In that particular case, the motivation was copyright infringement (unauthorised editions had been published on Amazon’s Kindle platform), but the incident demonstrated just how easy censorship is in a digital age. When HBO removed Gone With the Wind from its streaming service, and the BBC did the same to Fawlty Towers and Little Britain, anyone who didn’t have a DVD or VHS copy was denied forever the opportunity to see these classics.

I’ve been writing for months that we are in the grip of a Cultural Revolution in the fullest sense of the word. Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill has noticed the same thing. Since they don’t teach this history in schools, a bit of a history lesson might be in order.

Mao launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966 in response to his diminished power after the Great Leap Forward failed, killing tens of millions of Chinese. Mao mobilised university students into the notorious Red Guards: violent, doctrinaire thugs with the explicit mission of the “Destruction of the Four Olds”: “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas”.

The Red Guards rampaged across China, destroying, looting and burning. Statues were smashed, books and relics burned, place and street names were erased and replaced, and cultural sites vandalised. The precise extent of the destruction is unknown (like the death toll from the Great Leap Forward, records are carefully guarded by the Chinese Communist Party). But it’s estimated that perhaps three-quarters or more of China’s cultural heritage was destroyed.

There was much, much worse, of course. The human toll of the Cultural Revolution is incalculable. A generation of academics were murdered, tortured, brutalised and “re-educated” into submission. Tens of millions of people were massacred. For the Red Guards, the more extreme their barbarity, the better they demonstrated their revolutionary zeal. Thousands went as far as mass cannibalism (in the absence of famine) to demonstrate just how far removed from “old ways” they really were.

Today’s Cultural Revolution is similarly motivated by an elite under threat. When Donald Trump swept Hillary Clinton aside from the White House, it was as much a threat to the power of the elite as Peng Dehuai and other moderates were to Mao. Today’s “red guards” are almost as determined to demonstrate their contempt for “old ways”.

Perhaps we should be grateful that, so far, they’ve kept their revolutionary zeal to systematically demolish any semblance of social propriety to merely sex, the family, statues and comedy.

At least they haven’t started eating people in CHAZ.


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