To call the factions “depoliticized” might seem counterintuitive. In contemporary discussions of the Cultural Revolution—which often connect factionalism to cancel culture—both dynamics are often imagined as driven by hyper-politicization, or “the politicization of everyday life.” Looking more closely at the history, however, reveals that factionalism in the Cultural Revolution was in fact driven by a “depoliticized” politics—a politics that had been emptied of positive content and thus was defined only by the annihilation of the opposition. “The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution,” writes the Chinese scholar Wang Hui, in a 2006 essay later collected in The End of the Revolution (2009), “was not a product of its politicization—signified by debate, theoretical investigation, autonomous social organization, as well as the spontaneity and vitality of political and discursive space.” Rather, it was “a result of depoliticization—polarized factional struggles that eliminated the possibility for autonomous social spheres, transforming political debate into a mere means of power struggle, and class into an essentialized identitarian concept.”
Note that, today, class is not frequently viewed as an identity, but it certainly is still the case that “identity politics” is constitutive of identities rather than reflecting existing ones. This was also true of the depoliticizing features of the Cultural Revolution. State socialism designated class as an identity in order to engage in class leveling, but also ended up depoliticizing class as social hierarchies changed and class background became an inherited family trait. An important lesson we should draw from the history of experiments in working-class political power is that to constitute a contemporary politics of class, it is not enough to assert its primacy as a social foundation. Rather, the goal must be to situate it within the framework of an emancipatory politics that does not presume the prior existence of fused identities and interests.
In fact, this points to a revealing similarity between emancipatory politics and factionalism: neither is predetermined by social foundations. In both cases, politics has broken free from its customary anchors. But they run in opposite directions. Factionalism redirects political action into the perpetual governmental practices that maintain or reflect the existing world. It frequently rationalizes its practices with appeals to identitarian categories, but, properly understood, these are consequences of depoliticization rather than its cause. A truly emancipatory politics, on the other hand, exceeds the existing world. It mobilizes existing social categories only insofar as they elaborate a politics which affirms the political capacity of everyone, independent of the place they occupy in society.
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