Karl Gerth


On his book Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution

Cover Interview of March 10, 2021

A close-up

My book invites readers to contemplate the larger significance of easily overlooked mass produced things. If they were to skim the book, they would encounter dozens of photos and illustrations of such things. I use these images to provide an accessible entry point into the arguments of the book.

For instance, I include photographs of people wearing wristwatches and an illustration of someone on a bicycle. Such illustrations showcase the spread of consumer desires for industrially produced consumer products and document how the state both deliberately and inadvertently contributed to building consumerism and negating the Communist Revolution. After all, not everyone was able to obtain the three most sought-after items of a wristwatch, bicycle, and sewing machine at the same time. The distribution of these things created and reinforced the inequalities associated with industrial capitalism. Conveniently for the researcher, these sources were easy to find. People remembered their acquisition—or not—of these things even more clearly than more high-profile national events in the era.

rorotoko.comAssortment of Mao badges Collection of Karl Gerth

I also include many photographs of Mao badges because China experienced the largest consumer fad in history when the country produced billions of badges of Chairman Mao for people to wear over their hearts during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. The badges were produced in thousands of varieties, sizes, images, and materials. The assortment depicted above includes a glow-in-the-dark badge in the lower right as well as, above it, Mao looking right, a potentially risky image for the maker for suggesting Mao was endorsing right-wing politics. Who got the latest, biggest, and most desirable badges reflected the growing material inequalities accompanying industrial capitalism. I use these images to illustrate the three defining aspects of a spreading consumerism: the unprecedented scale of industrial production of consumer products, the spread of discourse about such products in mass media that taught people to have new needs and wants, and the growing use of products, including badges, to create and communicate different, often hierarchical, identities. Even Mao and Zhou Enlai saw the badge fad as creating the opposite social values from the socialist ones intended.

I have no doubt that many also felt they were demonstrating loyalty to Mao and faith in the Revolution. But their action (using badges as a substitute currency, collecting them to demonstrate connoisseurship and connection, and countless other uses) had a larger impact. The badge fad—and indeed most activities associated with the Cultural Revolution such as house ransacking and student travel throughout the country—facilitated the “negation” of the Communist Revolution by expanding desire to use mass produced products for social differentiation. So, the badge fad helped manifest the expanding inequalities of industrial capitalism.

These are just two examples of the many aspects of consumerism illuminated by the illustrations. I also include advertisements from the era because few associate advertising and other forms of product promotion with “Maoist China.” And I do the same by highlighting periodic state promotion of clothing fashions. Likewise, I included photos of department stores and service workers to discuss how consumerism operated in retailing. Though such commonplace topics, seldom included in standard histories of the Mao era, we can reconsider the larger history of the era.