Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 25, 2019

Sidney Rittenberg (1921-2019): a long-time and remarkable member of the CP in China

Filed under: China,Maoism,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Today, the NY Times has an obituary for Rittenberg that is included below so that you won’t have any problems getting past the paper’s paywall. I first became aware of him in 2013 when I reviewed a documentary about him titled “The Revolutionary”. Since the review covered another film as well, I am only reprinting the section that dealt with him. Fortunately, the film can be seen on both Amazon Prime for free if you are a member or on YouTube for only $2.99. The link is above.

From my review:

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

2 Comments »

  1. “He was born to a wealthy Jewish family”

    You don’t say? LOL

    Comment by Don — September 2, 2019 @ 6:40 am

  2. I recommend David and Nancy Milton’s GPCR memoir The Wind Will Not Subside. They were opponents of Rittenberg in Beijing’s foreign resident scene – according to them, he favored the ultras against the Red Guards closer to Zhou Enlai. I have wondered for years what connection he had to PL – no doubt that he did. Both Jake Rosen and later Bob Avakian (after PL broke from China) had contact with Zhang Chunqiao of gang of 4 fame.

    Comment by Ethan — September 15, 2019 @ 8:22 pm


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