Let us consider a question fundamental to twentieth century world history: why did the Chinese Communist Revolution succeed? Was it the result of a few large social forces and structures? Or was this a case of many small causes operating at a local level, aggregating to a world-historical outcome? (See an earlier posting on “small causes.”)
It should first be noted that the CCP’s path to power was rural rather than urban. The Guomindong (GMD) had effectively expelled the CCP from the cities in 1927 and had detached the Communist Party from urban workers. (Note that this runs directly contrary to the expectations of classical Marxism, according to which the urban proletariat is expected to be the vanguard of the revolution. A massive contingency intervened — Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to wipe out the urban Communist movement in the Shanghai Massacre.) Further, the turning point in the fortunes of the CCP clearly occurred in the “base areas” during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45): the areas of rural China where the CCP was able to establish itself as the dominant political and military force opposed to the Guomindong and the Japanese Army. The success of the revolution, therefore, depended on successful mobilization of the peasantry in the 1930s and 1940s. How are we to account for its success?
This question has naturally loomed large in Western discussions of the Chinese Revolution since 1949. Two influential theories offer political culture and class conflict as causes of revolution, and neither of these high-level theories appears to be altogether satisfactory. A more plausible analysis refers to the local politics of class. Rather than postulating a single large causal factor, it is more plausible to understand CCP success as a concatenation of a number of small causes and advantages, deployed with skill and luck to a successful national victory.
Consider first a theory based on political culture. In a celebrated book in 1962 Chalmers Johnson argued that the CCP succeeded in mobilizing peasant support during the Sino-Japanese War because (a) peasants were nationalistic and patriotic, and determined to expel the Japanese, and (b) the CCP was the organization that showed the greatest military and organizational ability to oppose the Japanese military presence in China (Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945). Johnson maintained that the CCP downplayed its social program (class conflict, land reform, etc.) during the war, in the interest of a united front against the Japanese, and that its social goals played little or no role in its mobilizational successes. Peasants therefore supported the CCP out of nationalism, and were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised at the social program that emerged after the defeat of the Japanese. This theory made a feature of political culture — nationalist identity — the central determinant of largescale collective action.
Mark Selden, an American Marxist sociologist, advanced a very different view of the CCP’s success in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). He offered a class-conflict model, according to which Chinese rural society possessed an objectively exploitative class structure in opposition to which the CCP successfully mobilized support. Landlords, moneylenders, and the state exploited the peasantry by extracting rent, interest, and taxes. The CCP provided a program of social revolution aimed at overthrowing this exploitative order, and peasants followed this program, and supported the CCP, in order to pursue their class interests.
Johnson’s theory hasn’t stood the test of time very well because there is a dearth of evidence to support the idea that ordinary Chinese people did in fact possess the nationalistic identity and political commitments that the theory postulates. The chief failings of Selden’s model are substantial as well, however. Selden assumed that the realities of exploitation and class are relatively transparent, so that peasants more or less immediately perceive their class interests. And he assumed that collective action follows more or less directly from a perception of class interests: if there is a plausible strategy for furthering class interests through rebellion (i.e., the CCP), then peasants will be disposed to do so. However, the social reality of China was much more complex than this story would allow, with region, lineage, and village society existing as a more immediate social reality for most rural people than class and exploitation. So neither Johnson nor Selden provide a framework within which a fully satisfactory theory of the revolution can be constructed.
A more convincing view has been offered by a third generation of historians of the Chinese Revolution. One of those historians is Yung-fa Chen in Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945 (1986). Chen offers an explanation of the CCP’s mobilization successes that depends upon a micro-level analysis of the local politics created in Eastern China as a result of local social arrangements and the Japanese occupation. Methodologically his approach is microfoundational and localistic rather than sweeping and mono-causal. And Chen’s main findings disagree in some important ways with both Johnson and Selden.
The main elements of Chen’s analysis are these. First, he confirmed the Marxist view that the CCP had a coherent social program (land reform and fundamental alteration of rural property arrangements), and that the CCP made this program a central part of its mobilization efforts. This program implicitly defined a forms of class analysis of rural Chinese society into poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants, and landlords, and endeavored to sharpen conflicts among these. Second, though, Chen rejected the view that these rural class relations and oppositions were fully transparent to participants, needing only the appearance in the village of a few ideologically correct cadres to mobilize peasant support. Rather, Chen held that the wide variety of rural social relations–lineage, family, religious organization, patron-client, friendship–worked as powerful brakes on the emergence of class consciousness. So a determined program of class-consciousness raising was needed, which the CCP attempted to provide through its “speaking-bitterness” sessions.
And, Chen maintained, peasants were highly skeptical of the ability of outside organizations to protect them against the wrath of local powers (landlords, officials) once the military threat had disappeared. A central problem of mobilization, then, was to create a local organization and militia that was capable of fending off Japanese and GMD military attack; that was sufficiently stable as to lend confidence that peasants could rely on it in the future; and to put forward a social program that would leave it well-positioned to begin the process of socialist reform through land reform, reform of credit institutions, and ultimately collectivization of agriculture and industry.
The heart of Chen’s analysis depends on the assumption that peasants are rational political actors, and will support a political organization only if they judge that (a) it will support their local interests and (b) it will be powerful enough to support its local followers. (This has a lot in common with Samuel Popkin’s arguments in The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (1976).) Chen then considers available data on a large number of local communities in Eastern China during the war years in the base areas of the revolution, and finds that the CCP did a skillful job of satisfying both requirements. It was effective in creating military and political organizations capable of protecting local interests; and it was effective in communicating its class analysis to peasants in sufficient degree to lead to support for its revolutionary social program. But, contrary to the nationalist thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson, he argues that the CCP was very skillful in avoiding direct military confrontation with the Japanese Army.
Another impressive effort to provide a new reading of aspects of the Chinese Revolution is provided by Odoric Wou in Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan (1994). Focused on Henan Province, Wou attempts to uncover the complex set of factors that permitted the Communist Party to mobilize mass support for its program. He emphasizes organizational and political factors in his account: the strategies and organizational resources through which the CCP was able to move ordinary workers and peasants from concern with local interests to adherence to a national program. Wou provides fascinating detail concerning Communist efforts to mobilize miners and workers, Red Spears and bandits, and peasants in Henan Province.
Wou makes plain the daunting challenges confronting Communist cadres in their efforts to mobilize support at the village level: mistrust of outsiders, the entrenched political power of elites, and the localism of peasant interests in the region. Wou describes a social-political environment in the countryside that is reminiscent of Philip Kuhn’s account of the situation of local militarization during the Taiping Rebellion in eastern China—one in which elite-dominated militias had evolved as an institution of self-defense against bandits and sectarian organizations (Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864).
One of the most interesting and surprising findings that Wou puts forward is his contention that mobilization in Henan was not centered in remote and backward border areas, but rather included both remote and commercialized peasant villages (p. 129). This is somewhat inconsistent with Chen’s analysis, who focuses precisely on the tactical advantages of remoteness offered by the base areas.
Wou also makes an effort to crack the riddle of peasant mentality in China. Are peasants inherently conservative? Are they latently revolutionary, awaiting only the clarion call of revolution? Both, and neither, appears to be Wou’s assessment (p. 161). Wou finds a popular equalitarianism within Chinese peasant culture that provides a basis for Communist mobilization around an ideology of redistribution (p. 151); but equally he finds an entrenched hierarchicalism within Chinese popular culture that made subversion of elite power more difficult for Communist cadres (p. 135). (See an earlier post on the Chinese peasant on this subject.)
Wou also considers the political environment created for the CCP by the Sino-Japanese War. (This is the period treated by Chen’s book.) Guomindang power virtually collapsed in Henan Province, and the Japanese occupied eastern Henan in 1938. The three-way struggle between the Japanese, the Guomindang, and the Communist Party gave the Party new opportunities for mobilization against both its enemies. Here Wou makes the important point that structural circumstance—military fragmentation of society, in this case—only provides the opening to successful mobilization, not its sufficient condition. The organizational and strategic competence of the CCP was needed in order to make effective use of these new opportunities for mobilization. Successful play of the game of coalition politics gave the CCP important advantages during this period, and created a position of strength that contributed substantially to post-war success of the movement.
A central tenet of Wou’s analysis is the importance of Communist efforts to improve material conditions of life for the populations it aimed to mobilize. Famine relief, formation of production cooperatives, and revival of the silk industry represented efforts by the Party to demonstrate its ability to provide tangible benefits for local communities (pp. 314-326). These efforts had at least two beneficial effects: they provided material incentives to prospective followers, and, less tangibly, they enhanced confidence among villagers in the competence and endurance of the Party.
Both Chen and Wou make important contributions within a third generation of historical scholarship and interpretation of the Chinese Revolution. Their accounts are to some extent complementary and to some extent inconsistent — as one would expect in detailed efforts to answer profound questions about causation. And both accounts share an important historical insight: it is crucial to push down into the local village circumstances of social life and mobilization that the CCP faced as it attempted to generate commitment and support for its movement if we are to understand why it succeeded in mobilizing support from millions of rural people.
6 Replies to “Theories of the Chinese Revolution”
Thanks for this thought provoking survey of the literature on a topic that huge amounts of intellectual effort in academia has gone into. Perhaps some of its lessons can be applied in other areas such as Burma's Post-WWII history (note: Martin Smith and now Michael Charney have detailed survey histories)."Was it the result of a few large social forces and structures? Or was this a case of many small causes operating at a local level, aggregating to a world-historical outcome?"The small causes explanations puts a premium on focused historical research on limited time periods. Focusing on detailed examination of the primary sources. For example, the period before and after WWII in Korea has long had Bruce Cumings insightful two volume study of the origins of the Korean War but for Burma only recently have Christopher Bayly and Tim Parker produced "Forgotten Armies" and the sequel volume that probes new sources. Instead the history of this important era that played such an important part in determining the way Burma is now, was written mainly by political scientists covering long stretches of time in a superficial and often inaccurate way with preconceived theories.
Thanks for your observations, Jon. I agree with you 100%: this kind of detailed history of Burma's history since the 1940s would be enormously valuable. I've been looking for sources that will help me understand the current situation in Burma better — I'm currently reading David Sternberg's Burma — The State of Myanmar. I'll look for Smith and Charney. If you can suggest other good current writing on the social and political history, I'd appreciate it. Likewise, are you aware of good current empirical sociological or ethnographic work on the social composition of the political movements in Thailand today?
Here are the citations:Charney, Michael W. (2009) A History of Modern Burma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Smith,Martin J. (1991) Burma: insurgency and the politics of ethnicity, Zed Books.Cumings, Bruce (1981,1990) The Origins of the Korean War (2 vols). Princeton University Press.All either are or are likely to become classics.
Thank you for this summary of current thought. Besides the interest of your references, I found it enlightening about the perspective of sociology ( my education is mostly technical). I appreciate you writing so accessibly.Speaking of classics, does anyone still read Jan Myrdal's "Report from a Chinese Village" (1965, William Heinemann Ltd)? He spent a month in a village of 50 households near Yenan in 1962, interviewing dozens of people. The book consists mainly of about 30 life stories of a variety of individuals, supplemented by detailed accounting of the year's production and consumption in the village, and a little about its geography and customs. It gave me insight into the texture of rural life in China which I found helpful in making sense of history.
It is interesting to note that two of the most influential intellectuals to visit China around the time of the May Fourth Movement 1919-20 were John Dewey and Bertrand Russell who was another admirer of Peirce (see my comment on Pragmatic inquiry). http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2009/05/pragmatic-inquiry.html
Surprised that Theda Skocpol's book is not mentioned at all in the blog.