“The Revolutionary” – an American in China’s Communist Party

“I wanted to make history. History ran over me.” – Sidney Rittenberg

“The Revolutionary,” a fascinating new documentary film, is the story of Sidney Rittenberg, a civil rights activist and union organizer from South Carolina who became a linguist, went to China after World War II, and joined the Chinese Communist revolution.

Rittenberg, the only American member of the Chinese Communist Party, worked with top leaders Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the “Gang of Four,” and was involved in all the major stages of the Chinese Revolution, including the early years in Yan’an, “The Great Leap Forward,” and the Cultural Revolution. Rittenberg’s incredible biography would make a successful dramatic film, because it has all of the elements of the great Hollywood historical epic: an idealistic American sacrifices his freedom by going to a far off land to help liberate its people, and finds love along the way.

Rittenberg came to China via the U.S. Army as a language specialist, and decided to join the revolution. He wanted to be in the Chinese Communist Party so he could be in a position to make history. Party leaders recruited Rittenberg as an “engineer” – “to build a bridge to the U.S.” Mao wanted to reach out to the U.S., but the U.S. rejected working with revolutionary China, allowing ideology to counterproductively shape foreign policy.

“The Revolutionary” is a “talking head” documentary that doesn’t suffer from a lack of action, thanks to Rittenberg’s funny, affable, self-deprecating style, his honesty, and his ability as a storyteller to simultaneously enthrall, amuse, and educate. Rittenberg is open about mistakes he made, and “owns” his own shortcomings and bad decisions. He’s further humanized by his long abiding relationship with his wife, Yulin.

The film’s main visual appeal comes from vintage “socialist realist” propaganda posters from the Mao era, and photos of Rittenberg with Mao and other Chinese Communist Party leaders. The film’s narrative of Rittenberg’s China experience is balanced and well put together.    

There’s a neat symmetry to the narrative: Rittenberg’s life in China is book-ended by lengthy prison stays, the first soon after the victory of the revolution. He is jailed when Stalin accuses him of being part of a spy ring centered in Moscow. After Stalin’s death, Rittenberg is released and goes on to become the head of China’s Broadcast Administration, a critically important government ministry. He is imprisoned a second time, again as an “imperialist spy,” after clashing with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and the rest of the Gang of Four over the brutal methods of the Cultural Revolution. Rittenberg is released after Mao dies and the Gang of Four topples at the end of the Cultural Revolution. He spent a total of over 16 years in solitary confinement in China, but never became embittered by his participation in the revolution.

Rittenberg calls Mao a great genius, and a great criminal. He says Mao was a genius for his ability to unite and activate people, and a criminal because he used this ability to carry out his own ideas, conducting social, economic, and political experiments on the masses that resulted in chaos and the deaths of millions.

During the Great Leap Forward, Rittenberg occupied the upper echelons of the Party privileged. He says he was “deluded” by the manufactured success of Mao’s experiment in industrialization. Later, the Cultural Revolution activated insurgent youth against the “establishment” Communist Party bureaucracy. Rittenberg, unlike most of the “Yan’an generation,” takes sides with the “revolutionary” faction in the Broadcast Administration against the opposition faction, the “royalist” side, which supported “establishment” Communists.

I wish this part of Rittenberg’s narrative was developed further; he suggests that everyday operations were politicized and subordinated to ideology, and suffered for it. It would be beneficial to hear Rittenberg’s first-hand experience with issues of basic management and the recurring problem in post-revolutionary situations of whether to include bourgeois managers and technicians in socialist economic development, or follow the impulse to be purely radical and “proletarian.” Rittenberg expresses regrets at having participated in harassing comrades, and persecuting people he knew were good revolutionaries, due to ideological infighting over who best embodied “Mao Zedong Thought.”    

Ironically, in the end Rittenberg decides to leave China, but returns in the 1980s as a “bridge builder,” this time from the West to the East, as a liaison to companies such as Microsoft and Colgate/Palmolive who want to do business in China.

Besides being a riveting entertainment, “The Revolutionary” is valuable for its insights on the revolutionary process, the importance of maintaining civil rights, and the prospects for progress in the current era.

“The Revolutionary”

Directed by Don Sellers

190 min.

Photo: “The Revolutionary” poster