A 1934 debate about communism among American philosophers

The appeal of Marxist socialism — communism — as an alternative to the consumerism, inequality, and exploitation of European and American capitalism was a powerful draw for many intellectuals in the 1930s, especially in the context of the great Depression and widespread crisis and deprivation of the 1930s. This interest extended to many prominent American philosophers. It is a credit to philosophy that these philosophers took on the great issues of the day and engaged seriously with them.

1934 was an especially intense time for intellectual and political debate between defenders of liberal democracy and advocates for some version of communism. The Depression was in full swing, and there was a widespread view in Britain, France, and the United States among intellectuals that capitalism was bankrupt — incapable of solving the social problems it created and confronted. On the other side, the enormous failures of Stalinist Communism were not yet as visible in the west in1934 as they would be in 1954. The Moscow Show Trials were still five years in the future, the Holodomor was not yet widely known in the west, and — at least in its propaganda image — Soviet economic planning had succeeded in transforming a backward society into a rapidly developing modern industrial economy.

A particularly interesting document from 1934 is a symposium called The Meaning of Marx (link) including contributions by Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Cohen, Sidney Hook, and Sherwood Eddy. All of the contributors except Eddy are leading philosophers in the analytic and pragmatist traditions of philosophy, and their comments and reflections on communism as a social-political system are highly interesting.

Sherwood Eddy and Sidney Hook frame the symposium with articles entitled “An Introduction to the Study of Marx” (Eddy) and “The Meaning of Marx” (Hook). Dewey, Russell, and Cohen offer brief essays on the topic, “Why I am not a Communist”, and Sidney Hook has the final word with an essay called “Communism without Dogmas”. This period of debate is much more interesting and substantive than the vitriolic animosities expressed in the 1950s under the conditions of McCarthyism, because each of these authors makes a serious and sustained effort to make sense of the historical events through which they are living. (In 1937 Dewey and Hook were also actively involved in supporting Leon Trotsky against Stalin’s accusations following the Moscow show trials of 1936.)

Sherwood Eddy

Sherwood Eddy is not a familiar name, but he was a prominent Protestant educator and missionary, educated at Yale and Princeton Theological Seminary. What is striking about Eddy’s essay is the unstinting admiration he expresses for the ideology and values of Soviet Communism. Eddy’s interpretation of social change remains “religious” in a sense; he understands Communism as a unifying belief system capable of motivating the masses of the population.

Russia has achieved what has hitherto been known only at rare periods in history, the experience of almost a whole people living under a unified philosophy of life. All life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity. The new philosophy has the advantage of seeming to be simple, clear, understandable, all-embracing and practical. (2)

Further, he contrasts the ideological unity and purity of Soviet society with the degeneration of values in western capitalist society:

As surely as Soviet Russia has become united, we of the West have witnessed a philosophic decadence and disintegration. Where feudalism once united the world, capitalism has divided it by the competitive anarchy of a loose individualism. Not organized society but the insecure individual is now the unit where every man is for himself. The economics of profit conflict with the aims of culture. The gain of the few is pitted against the welfare of the many. This whole laissez-faire philosophy of life breeds competitive strife between individuals, classes, races and nations. (4)

At the end of the essay Eddy summarizes points of agreement and disagreement with Marx; most important is this point:

I. I do not believe that violent revolution is inevitable, nor do I believe that it is desirable in itself as Marx almost makes it. When once violence is adopted as a method in an inevitable and “continuing revolution,” when to Marx’s philosophy is added Lenin’s false dictum that “great problems in the lives of nations are solved only by force,” most serious consequences follow wherever communism is installed under a dictatorship or prepared for by violent methods. This shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. In Soviet Russia all prosperous farmers are counted kulaks, and the kulak becomes the personal devil or scapegoat of the system, as does the Jew in Nazi Germany. Intellectuals and engineers are all too easily accused of deliberate sabotage, of being “wreckers,” class enemies, etc. When this philosophy–that great problems are solved “only by violence”–is applied, then trials, shootings and imprisonment follow in rapid succession. Hatred and violence mean wide destructive and incalculable human suffering. (27)

Thus, though I acknowledge my real debt to Marx, I do not count myself a Marxist. I have stated elsewhere: the reasons which would make impossible my acceptance of the system as practised in Soviet Russia under the dictatorship: Its denial of political liberty, the violence and compulsion of a continuing revolution, and the dogmatic atheism and anti-religious zeal required of every member of the Communist Party. (29)

Here he draws out precisely the implication of totalitarianism contained in Stalin’s version of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The war on the kulaks — the Holodomor — was going on as this symposium took place (1933-34) (link).

Sidney Hook

Sidney Hook was a well-known philosopher, with a political commitment to radical change and a willingness to defend Communist ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s. He became anti-Communist and anti-Stalinist beginning in 1933 and broke fully from the Communist International by 1939, but remained on the left as a democratic socialist. Hook came to be regarded by some on the left as a renegade and new conservative, but Tony Judt disagrees strongly with that view:

He became an aggressively socialist critic of communism. The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 226)

So what was Hook’s position in 1934? He believed that it was valuable to distinguish between Communism (the specific version implemented after the Russian Revolution) and communism (the ideal theory implied by Marx’s writings on post-capitalist society). Hook’s goal in “The Meaning of Marx” is to express what he thinks Marx’s writings actually imply about “communism”. And he believes, even in 1934, that Stalinism was a cruel perversion of that vision of the future, but that Marx’s own conception was the correct pathway for modern people to follow.

Here is the first premise of Hook’s view:

Marxism [urges] social action which aims by the revolutionary transformation of society to introduce a classless socialist society. (33)

What is a “classless society”?

The abolition of private ownership of the social means of production spells the abolition of all economic classes. (38)

This point reflects a double-pronged theory on Marx’s part: ownership confers massive economic advantage to one group over another, and that advantage is transformed into the political power needed to sustain the class system itself against the protests of the under-class.

Hook then turns to the political implications of this socio-economic analysis of capitalism. How can the working class gain political power over the propertied class? His account has three features — militant action by the masses of workers for improved conditions, coordination with “intermediate and subordinate groups” to change the existing order, and to “destroy the myth of the impartiality of the state” in order to effectively demand social and political revolution (47).

So what about dictatorship and democracy in Marxist socialism? Hook argues that Marx’s conception involves a genuine version of democracy that is different from liberal democracy: “proletarian democracy”.

Against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, Marx opposed the ideal of a workers’ or proletarian democracy. His criticism of political democracy in bourgeois society is that it is a sham democracy for workers–a sham democracy because, no matter what their paper privileges may be, the workers cannot control the social conditions of their life.

In the nature of the case, a workers’ democracy–based upon collective ownership of the means of production–does not involve democracy for bankers, capitalists and their supporters who would bring back a state of affairs which would make genuine social democracy impossible. (49)

How is proletarian democracy different from dictatorship?

According to Marx, in at least two important respects. First, it expresses the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, and by providing a social environment in which human values rather than property values are the guiding principles of social control permits the widest development of free and equal personality. Second, as the democratic processes of socialist economy expand and embrace in its productive activities the elements of the population which were formerly hostile, the repressive functions of the estate gradually disappear. (49).

This paragraph has the tragic ring of utopian optimism about the “withering away of the state”, and observers of the logic of Stalinist repression would note — this expectation of gradual democratization is absurdly unlikely. It sounds like an op-ed piece in the Daily Worker. Hook is strongly opposed to the dictatorship of the party (50); but the logic of power demonstrates that what he describes is a fairy tale. And later in his career, it is doubtful that Hook would have claimed or expected such a benign development. I will return to Hook’s views later.

Bertrand Russell

Russell responds directly to the question, “Why I am not a Communist’. He makes it clear that by “Communist” he means “a person who accepts the doctrines of the Third International” (52) — that is, a Stalinist. His reasons are stated succinctly. He denies “historical necessity” to any particular process of historical change — including the necessary triumph of socialism over capitalism. He finds the theories of value and surplus value in Marx to be indefensible. He rejects the concept of “heroic infallibility” of any individual — whether of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. Unlike Hook, he takes the “dictatorship of the proletariat” at its plain meaning and rejects it because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. As a sociological fact he observes that Soviet Communism is highly repressive of liberty — freedom of thought and expression — and he rejects it on that basis as well.

He also has several more minor objections. Marx glorifies manual work over intellectual work. “Class war” is unlikely to succeed, and politics should proceed through persuasion rather than violence. Communism is grounded in hate, and hate is not a basis for social reconciliation. The claim that we must choose between communism and fascism is a wholly false choice; there is a third alternative — liberal progressive democracy.

John Dewey

John Dewey’s response to the question is similar to Russell’s. Soviet Communism is authoritarian, repressive, and dogmatic. The Communist view of history is deterministic and monistic. The primacy Marxism gives to class conflict over-estimates this particular economic source of conflict within society Worse, the threat of proletarian uprising is likely to bring about fascism. Communist politics — the behavior of the Communist state and its functionaries — rely on lies, deception, and betrayal. And social change created only through violence by one group against another cannot succeed.

Were a large scale revolution to break out in highly industrialized America, where the middle class is stronger, more militant and better prepared than anywhere else in the world, it would either be abortive, drowned in a blood bath, or if it were victorious, would win only a Pyrrhic victory. The two sides would destroy the country and each other. (56)

Dewey’s response gives the impression of a person who has reflected seriously both on history and on the pro’s and con’s of communism. His rejection of communism is fully considered and reflective.

Morris Raphael Cohen

Morris Cohen too gives powerful intellectual and personal reasons why he is not a communist. He finds Marx’s political economy highly illuminating; but the associated theory of revolution and socialism is unacceptable to him. Most importantly, the experience of Soviet Communism is a humanly appalling example of repression and dictatorship. Cohen makes a very interesting historical point: uprisings by single groups almost always lead to disaster, massacre, and oppressive reaction (58). Profound social change requires a high level of social concurrence. He draws attention to the social violence that the USSR is brought to impose:

To this day the Communist regime dare not declare openly in favor of nationalizing the land. Their system of cooperatives is frankly an attempt–and I do not believe it will be a successful attempt–to evade the peasants’ unalterable opposition to communism so far as their own property is concerned. (59)

(Here again — the collectivization of farmland in Ukraine and the horrendous war of starvation against the kulaks was just beginning in 1933-34 in the USSR.)

Rather than harsh dictatorial imposition of the will of one class over another, Cohen offers the view that real social change requires cooperation among social groups:

If the history of the past is any guide at all, it is that real improvements in the future will come like the improvements of the past, namely, through cooperation between different groups, each of which is wise enough to see the necessity of compromising with those with whom we have to live together and whom we cannot or do not wish to exterminate. (60)

And, like Russell, he believes that the argument that one must choose between communism and fascism is entirely specious:

When the communists tell me that I must choose between their dictatorship and fascism I feel that I am offered the choice between being shot or being hanged. It would be suicide for liberal civilization to accept this as exhausting the field of human possibility. I prefer to hope that the present wave of irrationalism and of fanatical intolerance will recede and that the great human energy which manifests itself in free thought will not perish. Often before it has emerged after being swamped by passionate superstitions. There is no reason to feel that it may not do so again. (62)

Sidney Hook (rebuttal)

The primary line of criticism of Communism offered by Eddy, Russell, Dewey, and Cohen is their forthright rejection of the dictatorial and repressive nature of the Communist regime in the USSR, along with their view that these features derive in some way from some of the features of Marx’s own theory of socialism and class conflict. Hook too rejects dictatorship and repression. But he argues that these features are not inherent in a Marxist-socialist revolutionary regime; they are accidents of history. In this it seems that history has plainly refuted him.

But let’s ask the more fundamental question: why did Hook remain a committed Marxist? Why did Hook persist (in 1934) in affirming the importance of socialist revolution? It was because he continued to pay a great deal of attention to the other aspect of Marx’s analysis: the systemic exploitation, domination, and indignity to which the working class is subject within capitalism, without any realistic hope of change absent comprehensive economic revolution. He was Marxist in his socialism because he was Marxist in his diagnosis of how capitalism unavoidably works, and he thought there was no other way to end exploitation and domination of the working class.

It is the absence of a realistic alternative program and path of action which makes the criticism of the communist position — justified as it may appear to be from an abstract ideal position — irrelevant to the pressing tasks of combating capitalism, fascism and war. (65)

However, this is intellectual stubbornness, because there were in fact realistic alternative programs. Laissez-faire capitalism was not the only non-communist political-economic regime to serve as an alternative to communism. The germs of social democracy were already visible in western Europe in the 1930s, including in the socialist and workers’ movements in Britain.

It is hard not to see Hook as an apologist for communist dictatorship in this period of his thinking — even though he explicitly rejects Soviet repression and dictatorship. “My own position is briefly that the fundamental doctrine of communism is sound but it has been so wrapped up in certain dogmas that its logic and force has been obscured” (74). This is either simple naïveté, or simple apologetics. Further, his unwarranted confidence in the Communist movement shows up here:

Communists would not martyrize an entire people as the fascists have done, they would not countenance wholesale massacres of innocent victims, they would not pound and torture women and children in order to achieve power. (71)

The year of this symposium was 1934. And the Soviet Union was engaged in precisely those practices at that time, including especially the horrendous war of starvation against the Ukraine, with four million deaths by hunger. It is interesting that Hook quotes New York Times reporter Walter Duranty. Duranty was the journalist in 1932 who popularized the aphorism, “If you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to scramble eggs” (link).

Hook closes his rebuttal with an indefensible call to repeat a failed experiment: “The time has now come to build a new revolutionary party in America and a new revolutionary international” (89). In this debate, Dewey and Cohen show the greatest wisdom: work towards greater fairness, equality, and liberty through cooperation among social groups in a democratic society.

What I find interesting about this debate is the fact that it is much deeper, about issues that really matter, than any discussions of alternative futures for humanity that might be feasible for future generations that are in the air today. What was at issue in 1934 was whether it was possible to have a decent society for all citizens within the framework of a democratic market-based economy; or, instead, only collective ownership and party rule could ensure equality. There are alternatives — for example, social democracy and the Nordic model — but we no longer seem to want to have those fundamental conversations (link).

Avineri on Marx as social democrat

Shlomo Avineri is one of the interpreters of Marx’s thought for whom I have had a great deal of respect since the publication of Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx in 1968. (I also greatly admire his book on Hegel’s political philosophy, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State.) Avineri has recently published Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, and this book constitutes a very useful contribution to the question of Marx’s relevance to our current situation in the twenty-first century. (Here is an earlier post that attempts to assess Marx’s continuing relevance; link.)

The recent book is presented as a fairly brief intellectual biography — an account of the influences and preoccupations through which Marx’s intellectual framework took shape. (A side theme is the role that Marx’s family history of Jewish identity may have played in his own development.) In many ways the current book covers much of the same ground as the earlier Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx — the background in Hegel’s political philosophy, the conception of human beings as homo faber, the idea of the proletariat as the universal class, the “dialectic” of capitalist development, the limits of revolution, even the skeptical view Marx took of the Paris Commune. In effect, one might look at the current book as an updated and streamlined edition of the earlier book. But the current book has a liveliness and readability that distinguishes it. And crucially, the current book is quite explicit in its most striking claim: that Marx is a much more measured and nuanced theorist of socialism and proletarian emancipation than he is usually thought to be. Marx is fundamentally a social democrat and gradualist. Consistent with the intellectual and political interest of twenty-first century readers who want to find a source of new and non-dogmatic ideas on the basis of which to rethink the failures of our contemporary world, Avineri presents Marx as just such a thinker.

In a nutshell, Avineri argues in Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution that Marx is not the rigid and uncompromising “revolutionary” activist that he has often been understood to be — both by supporters and critics. “What is usually called ‘Marxism’ is what Engels decided to include in the corpus and the way he interpreted it” (kl 81). Rather, according to Avineri, Marx’s key idea, and the key motivating impetus of critique of modern capitalist society, is the idea of emancipation. And Avineri argues that this is, most fundamentally, an affirmation of radical Enlightenment values that were deeply thwarted in the nineteenth century. Here Avineri makes a complicated and crucial point. Marx’s social location as the son of Jewish parents — and therefore himself a Jew — was not a defining fact for the young Karl Marx (according to Avineri); Marx rarely referred to his Jewish identity. But what was defining was the double earthquake in nineteenth-century Europe, first of the political emancipation of the Jews in the Rhineland following its absorption by France in post-revolutionary France, and then the reversal of this emancipation in 1814-15 when the Rhineland returned to Prussian political control according to the terms of the Congress of Vienna. Revolutionary France was the first European country to emancipate its Jewish citizens, granting them equal political and civic rights. So the Jews of the Rhineland experienced a short two-decade period of emancipation and equal citizenship, followed by a return to juridical and social discrimination. 

After some deliberations, the Prussian authorities in the Rhineland revoked Jewish emancipation and imposed on the Jews in the newly annexed territories the status of Jews in Prussia proper. The major principle, following the precepts of what it meant to be a Christian state, implied that Jews could not be in a situation of authority over Christians: they could not serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, teachers in schools or universities. In other words, the Rhenish Jews were de-emancipated, thrown back to where they—or their parents—had been a generation ago. (5)

Marx was born in 1818; so this social and political trauma was fresh in the experience of his parents, including the forced conversion to Christianity reluctantly accepted by his father. And Avineri believes that this experience created a unique kind of alienation for a generation of well-educated Jewish intellectuals from this region — including Marx.

In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them—much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper—of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another. (7)

The most striking element of Avineri’s interpretation of Marx’s evolving position is what he takes to be Marx’s preference for a gradual and non-violent transition to a kind of social democracy.

In a significant but somehow neglected passage in Das Kapital, Marx argues that in England there is a distinct possibility for the working class to reach power peacefully, not only because of the extension of the suffrage, but also due to various aspects of factory and social legislation, adding that “for this reason … I have given so large a space in this volume to history, details, and the results of English factory legislation.” (140)

The grounds of this view can be found in Marx’s rejection of Jacobinism and the Terror in the French Revolution.

In a surprising critique of the Jacobins, Marx argues that the Reign of Terror was itself a testimony of the failure of Jacobin politics because of their wrongheaded fascination with classical Rome, encapsulated in Saint-Just’s call to “Let revolutionary men be Romans” or his nostalgic complaint that, since the Romans, “the world is a void, and only their memory fills it and prophesizes liberty.” This to Marx is not only empty romanticism but would also be responsible for the Jacobins’ shift toward terrorism: the Roman republican tradition focused exclusively on political arrangements in the state, whereas modern societies have to grapple with the tension between civil, bourgeois society and the political realm—an issue totally unknown in Roman history. … any attempt to use force when conditions are not ripe for internal change are doomed to the tragedy—and cruelty—of the Jacobin terror. (61)

The closing sentence of this passage can be read as a firm rejection of the impulses that led to the cruelties and intransigence in pursuit of “revolution” of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

Also important in Avineri’s view of Marx’s development as an advocate for revolution is the new direction Marx took following the failures of the revolutions of 1848. In place of the bold and sweeping view of the future for proletarian revolution outlined in the Communist Manifesto, Marx articulates a more nuanced and historically contextualized conception of “class” in his writings of the 1850s. In The Class Struggles in France, for example, Avineri finds this change of perspective:

The detailed study from 1850 suggests a very different picture of a complex, multilayered society, where many conflicting interests crisscross each other, bringing about shifting coalitions among multiple groups and subgroups and thus impeding the emergence of a clear-cut, polarized class warfare. (109)

And in the 18th Brumaire Avineri finds that Marx accords much greater complexity to the relationship between economic interests and political power:

He admits that the relationship between economic interests and political power is much more complex and not as simplistic or linear as he himself had maintained in the Manifesto.

Avineri also gives a good deal of attention to Marx’s rejection of historical determinism and the idea that there is only one path of historical development. He emphasizes Marx’s view, consistent from early to late, that social change must be understood in its particular social context, and that there is great contingency in historical change. Avineri seems to believe that this sensitivity to historical context is one result of Harx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophical methods: rather than looking for a philosophical theory that explains history, it is necessary to look to historical circumstances to explain change. Avineri provides a very interesting discussion (178) of several drafts of Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich (link) in which Marx denies that his theories have definitive implications for the course of Russian social and political development. (For further discussion of the Zasulich correspondence see an earlier post here.)

Avineri also argues for a reassessment of Marx’s view of the Paris Commune in 1871 (a theme he develops in the 1968 book as well). He describes the published version of The Civil War in France as an official report from the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), and a document that is tailored to the radical working class orientation of IWA; whereas Avineri documents that the drafts that Marx prepared prior to publication of the piece are much more measured, nuanced, and critical. In particular, Avineri argues that Marx viewed the Commune’s rebellion as both ill-conceived and primarily “petty-bourgeois” rather than proletarian:

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the drafts and the final published essay. In the drafts Marx tries to identify the social structure of the Commune and its political aims, and concludes that it was basically a lower-middle-class affair, with scant proletarian input. …

Marx’s drafts clearly and unequivocally identify the rising of the Commune with its petty-bourgeois leadership, and note in great detail the immediate circumstances of the insurrection. During the growing tension between the provisional government in Versailles and the Commune, which controlled Paris, Versailles proclaimed a provisional moratorium on all outstanding bills of payments and rents. The aim of this moratorium was obvious—to get the support of the lower middle class, mainly in Paris, for Versailles, and for a time it worked. The moratorium was to expire on 13th March 1871, and representatives of Paris middle-class associations tried to press for its extension, but the provisional government in Versailles under Thiers refused. Marx recounts that between 13th and 18th March more than 150,000 demands for payment of bills and rents were reactivated, and then on 18th March the insurrection of the Commune broke out. Marx goes on to note that the demand for a further, or definite, extension of the moratorium—obviously an interest of lower-middle-class groups—continued to figure as a major plank of the Commune. The drafts also contain further analysis of the social structure of the Commune leadership, pointing to its petty-middle-class composition. (155)

Avineri finds these same doubts about the Commune expressed by Marx in a letter to Leo Fränckel, a central committee member of the IWA and leader of the Commune, during the final days of the suppression of the uprising (155). Avineri’s view is unequivocal:

Marx never retreated from his view that the Commune was not a socialist uprising and that, by implication, it had set back the chances of the working-class movement in Europe. Ten years later, in a letter of 22nd February 1881 to the Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela-Nieuwenhuis, Marx reiterated his view that a socialist government can come into power only if conditions enable it to take all possible measures necessary for transforming society radically, and then, referring to the Commune, added: 

“But apart from the fact that it was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no way socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of common sense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people—the only thing that could have been reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to put an end with terror to the pretensions of the Versailles people, etc.” (161)

This demystification of Marx’s view of the Commune is important because of the iconic role that the Commune played in the drama and rhetoric of Communist rhetoric throughout much of the following century. The heroic proletarian nature of the Commune and Marx’s important role in its origins are both defining myths of the Communist narrative; but Avineri demonstrates that they are fundamentally incorrect.

So what was Marx’s view of “proletarian revolution” in the final decades of his life? In Avineri’s view, it was a fairly moderate view that urged the party of the proletariat to find non-violent, non-terrorist avenues to political power. Avineri offers a great deal of evidence to support this interpretation. For example, he highlights Marx’s speech to the IWA in Amsterdam in 1872, when the IWA was deeply divided between the anarchists (Bakunin) and socialists (Marx):

The speech is a powerful insistence on the need to gain political power but also expresses a highly pluralist approach to the question of how gaining political power would come about—through violent revolution or through peaceful means, shocking the anarchists by maintaining that in some significant cases orderly electoral politics might be the handmaid of socialism. “The workers must one day conquer political supremacy in order to establish the new organization of labor. … But we do not maintain that the attainment of this end requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores [Sitten] and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and if I would be familiar with your institutions, also Holland, where labor may attain its goal by peaceful means.” (163)

Here we find Marx the social democrat — an advocate for proletarian revolution who recommends seizure of power through a gradual process of legal and peaceful means. And it is important to underline, as Avineri does, that this is not the counsel of despair following the failures of 1848 and 1871, but rather a fundamental view of Marx’s, that social change is not a putsch. “A movement based on terror, intimidation, and blackmail will ultimately produce a society based on these methods as well” (165). Here is Marx’s rebuttal to Bakunin’s philosophy in Statism and Anarchy and his derisory term, barracks communism:

What a wonderful example of barracks communism! Everything is here—common pots and dormitories, control commissioners and control offices, the regulation of education, production, consumption—in one word, control of all social activity; and at the same time, there appears Our Committee, anonymous and unknown, as supreme authority. Surely, this is most pure anti-authoritarianism! (165)

Avineri supports this reading of Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune with several relatively little-known statements by Marx in 1867 following enactment of the Second Reform Act in Britain that reinforce this preference for a peaceful transition to socialism:

It is possible that the struggle between the workers and the capitalists will be less terrible and less bloody than the struggle between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie in England and France. Let us hope so. (167)


In England, for example, the way is open for the working class to develop their political power. In a place where they can achieve their goal more quickly and more securely through peaceful propaganda, insurrection would be a folly. (167)

Avineri is a remarkably learned reader of Marx, and a lucid interpreter. The distance is great between his interpretation of Marx as a principled advocate of a peaceful transition to power by the proletarian majority and Marxist orthodoxy since Engels. And yet Avineri’s case is deeply informed by a close reading of a broad swath of Marx’s writings throughout Marx’s career. It is moreover consistent with Marx’s famous statement — “If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist!”. Rather, Marx displays a sociological imagination that reflected a nuanced, historically minded theorist, constantly aware of the contingencies and contextual differences of historical settings. Further, Avineri makes a powerful case for believing that Marx regarded a strategy of violent seizure of power as deeply self-defeating. Unlike Communist orthodoxy since Lenin, Marx did not believe that successful social and political transformation could be achieved by fiat, force, and ruthless party discipline; in a word, he rejected the premises of Soviet-style communism. And given the crimes that have been committed in the name of revolution in the past century and a half, that is a good thing.

(Bruce Robbins’ review of the book in The Nation (link) is well worth reading.)

Making of a Black Panther

images: Rahman as keynote speaker at “Black Men in Unions” Institute, UM-Dearborn, 2012; 
Rahman with Huey Newton at Detroit Metro Airport, 1970

In an earlier post I discussed the path through which an African-American intellectual, Phil Richards, came to have the intellectual profile he has today. Here I will reflect upon the development of another African-American man, born in the same year, who also journeyed from the inner city to a career as an academic, but through a very different route. Ahmad Rahman traveled through life from childhood in Chicago in the 1950s to becoming a Black Panther in Detroit in his teens to becoming a professor of history in adulthood. Rahman presents an interesting contrast with Richards. Ahmad Rahman too was a powerful personality and an intelligent man whose life itinerary and character were shaped by the experience of race and racism in urban America. Ahmad too became a member of the Black intelligentsia. But his itinerary was dramatically different, and his identity as a militant activist was primary.

Rahman grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, but also spent time with his extended family in rural Mississippi throughout his early years. He had ample opportunity to experience the realities of racism and white supremacy throughout his youth. He graduated from high school in Chicago and became involved in the rising mood of Black Power in the southside neighborhoods of the city. He moved to Detroit while still a teen-ager to become an early member of the Black Panther organization there. He spent twenty-one years in prison as part of a life sentence he received after being found guilty of events that occurred during a Black Panther raid on a supposed drug house in Detroit. (He eventually learned that this incident had been engineered by the FBI as part of the COINTELPRO program.) Rahman converted to Islam while in prison as part of a spiritual evolution he describes in an interview in Transformations, mentioned below.

Rahman’s life changed dramatically when his life sentence was commuted by Michigan governor John Engler. This took place because of the long-term advocacy of a group of committed liberation activists whose support for Rahman never wavered. Rahman completed an undergraduate degree at Wayne State University while in prison and completed a PhD in history at the University of Michigan in 2002 after his release from prison in 1992. He spent the rest of his life as a professor of history at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, where he had a strong influence on a generation of students. His teaching and course content always embodied the critical edge of his lifetime commitment to black progress, but his radicalism perhaps was transformed into something more patient and persistent. Like Phil Richards, Ahmad too was a friend of mine for a long time. Ahmad died prematurely in 2015 at the age of 63. (Here is a brief bio of Rahman from the Detroit Free Press; link.)

Rahman never published a full memoir, but there are several short sources where he tells some of his story. One is “A Detroit Black Panther’s Soldiering Journey with Malcolm X,” his account of his time as a Black Power activist in Chicago, a soldier of Malcolm X, and a Black Panther in Detroit in his contribution to Edozie and Stokes, Malcolm X’s Michigan Worldview: An Exemplar for Contemporary Black Studies (link). The second is an extensive interview he provided to Hajj Mustafa Ali in Transformations on his journey to Islam while in prison in Michigan (link). And a third source is his essay “Marching Blind: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party in Detroit” in Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazarow’s Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.

On reading these brief recollections and recalling many snippets of conversation over the years, it might almost be said that Ahmad was a Black Panther before the term even existed — as a child, as a teen-ager, as a high school student who reacted viscerally and certainly to the Birmingham bombing, and to the visible bonds of white supremacy and police brutality in Chicago and Mississippi in the early 1960s. Ahmad was of a generation of young men who did not easily accept MLK’s advocacy of Gandhian non-violence and who felt that forceful self-defense was entirely legitimate. I don’t think this was an unusual point of view among young black men of the generation who came of age in the 1960s, and it seems clear that Ahmad’s older brothers had much the same feelings.

Like Richards, Rahman too eventually became an intellectual, a historian who wrote extensively on African and African-American history. His book The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora provides a careful political biography of Nkrumah in the context of pan-African liberation movements. The book used previously unreported government documents to shed new light on the actions of the United States in Africa in the 1960s, including particularly the assassination of Nkrumah. (Some of Rahman’s research skills later in life were honed during prison through his efforts to use FOIA documents from the FBI to piece together how the Black Panthers had been undone in Detroit with such efficiency.) But Rahman’s pathway to a life as a creator of new knowledge led through activism and profound engagement rather than through a primary interest in knowledge and discovery for its own sake. His scholarship was diligent and rigorous, but it was not disinterested. He almost always had a point to make about racism, power, and inequality, and his academic writing had this character as well. Most fundamentally, he wanted to expose the hidden lineaments of power and white supremacy in order to assist in the struggle for liberation and equality.

Rahman’s entire life was oriented by his activism in defense of black equality, security, and dignity. Here are a few episodes from childhood and adolescence that bear this out:

My path to prison began with Malcolm X and what I had heard he had said black people should do after the Ku Klux Klan bomb murdered the four little girls in the 16th Street baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. (Soldiering Journey, 169) 

Ahmad was then twelve years old, and this violence against black children had a powerful impact on him.

When the Jet magazine my mother bought detailed their slaughter, I searched for strong statements from black leaders that offered something more forceful than prayer to prevent more Sunday morning bombings. As usual, Dr. King had called for us to remain nonviolent and not lose faith in the white man…. This was the first time I had ever disagreed with Dr. King. He was a living saint to everybody I knew. I remember saying that I thought that only monsters could blow up those girls and monsters deserved a stake in their hearts. My playmates, all Baptists like the four murdered girls, nodded in agreement. (170)

It was Malcolm X’s response and call to action that caught the young Rahman’s admiration.

Now I knew a leader who did not believe it either. I swore that day that whenever Malcolm X formed his army, I would march in their ranks. (171)

Later in the piece Rahman describes an episode during his regular visits to relatives in rural Mississippi in which he makes preparations to use the family’s shotgun to protect the house against the Klan. He doesn’t specify the year, but June 1964 witnessed the Klan murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, which is consistent with Ahmad’s description of the climate of KKK violence during his visit. If so, Ahmad was thirteen years old. (His great-grandmother was a step ahead of him, having found the shotgun shells and removed them from his sock drawer.)

Here is how Rahman describes the appeal of the Black Panther movement to him in the Transformations interview:

The Black Panther party was then arising as a strong influence among young people in Chicago. I was impressed by their stalwart stance for black community control of the educational, economic, and criminal justice institutions, which affected our lives. During the latter 1960’s, statistics revealed that the mainly white Chicago Police Department killed more citizens per capita than did any police department in the United States. Most of the dead were black. The Black Panther Party alone stood up and publicly stated that black people had a right to armed self-defense from racist attack. (Transformations interview)

As a teenager in Chicago Ahmad learned of Fred Hampton’s efforts to form a Black Panther branch in Chicago, and he engaged himself with the party. Soon after he went to Detroit to help in the establishment of a Detroit branch as well, and by 1970 he was fully involved in the Detroit Black Panther party. Several episodes of defiance and resistance described in the “Soldiering Journey” piece give a good sense of Rahman’s state of mind during this period.

This history demonstrates a number of personal characteristics — discipline, courage, and an unusual ability to succeed academically in spite of enormous obstacles. Rahman’s life in prison reflected the same propensity for activism and resistance to injustice, and he was deeply involved in prisoners’ rights organizations inside prison. These qualities certainly affected his development as a historian. The inner peace he learned to cultivate in prison remained with him, and he transformed his urgent desire for progress into a long and sustained commitment to tangible forms of life improvement for young people in Detroit. (I once asked Ahmad what he thought of The Wire. He replied that he had seen too much violence in his life, and he didn’t like watching it on television.)

This development seems to make several things clear. First, the boy and adolescent Ahmad had a personality that was strongly keyed to responding forcefully to perceived injustice. And these traits are equally evident in his memories of incidents of coercion against him in Detroit. These same dispositions seemed to be part of his older brother Eddie’s character as well. Second, the environments in which he lived — Chicago and Mississippi — gave very specific and deep instruction to the young man about the nature of racial injustice and white supremacy surrounding him. Third, Rahman’s exposure to ideas mattered a great deal in his development — to the ideas of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, to the Black Power messages of the early founders of the Black Panther movement, and to the primary texts of resistance and revolution to which he was exposed — Franz Fanon, Marx, Lenin, Che, Mao. (He once said to me that a smuggled copy of Mao’s Little Red Book got him through the ordeal of the first few years in prison.) Finally, none of these influences would have brought about the particular chemistry of the activist-historian-scholar that Ahmad became, without the presence of a powerful intellect, a desire to make sense of the social world that surrounded him, and an active skepticism about status-quo explanations of things. Putting these points together, Rahman’s development seems more predictable and logical than Richards’. In spite of the dramatic contingencies that arose in his life history, there seems to be a fairly direct line of development from the twelve-year-old in Chicago trying to make sense of the Birmingham bombings to the activist-scholar of the current decade.

Here is a video interview I did with Ahmad in 2008; link. Readers may also be interested in Lance Hill’s historical study of the Deacons for Defense, a predecessor to the Black Panthers in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Here is an earlier post on this group (link).)

Was the Civil Rights movement a revolution?

photo: African-American newsman attacked by mob in Little Rock, 1957 (link)

I think of the results of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States as the second American revolution, though a slow-moving one. And it is tempting to think of MLK as one of the founding fathers of this revolution. Is this an exaggeration or a legitimate historical and sociological judgment? Was this struggle comparable in any way to the experience of France in 1789, Cuba in 1953, or Teheran in 1979?

It is true that this period lacked some of the common attributes of a revolution — in particular, it did not lead to regime change or fundamental change in the system of government. But it resulted in a fundamental realignment of power in the United States nonetheless. It profoundly changed the terms of inequality embodied in the race regime of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. It decisively closed the door on the idea of second-class citizenship for African Americans in the United States, and ultimately for other social and ethnic groups, and it broke up forever the foundations of white power and white supremacy through which this subordination was maintained.

It is important to remember the brutality and comprehensiveness of the system of Jim Crow relations between white and black people that prevailed in much of the United States in the 1920s into the 1950s. The photo above captures this system for me: resistance to demanded forms of subordination was met with physical violence. Jerrold Packard provides a detailed and graphic inventory of the code of the Jim Crow system in American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, and Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power offers a focused look at the way the Southern racial system worked for women. This system of subordination extended to virtually all forms of ordinary life: employment, residence, politics, family life, education, and ordinary street behavior. And it was a durable system, reproducing itself through generations of assertive displays of white power. (See also C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 book The Strange Career of Jim Crow and Anne Valk and Leslie Brown’s moving collection of oral history interviews in Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South.)

The civil rights movement challenged every dimension of this system. African Americans of every level of society demanded equality and rights of access to all of the crucial activities of ordinary life: transportation, schools, voting rights, political participation, and the full expression of human dignity. And many thousands of black men and women showed their courage and commitment in standing up to the violence that enforced this system. This includes the famous — King, Parks, Abernathy, Lewis, Malcolm; but it also includes the many thousands of ordinary people whose names are now forgotten but who accepted beatings to register to vote or enroll in segregated schools.

So if a revolution may be described as a fundamental change in the power relations in a society, brought about by the concerted effort of a large-scale collective movement, then indeed, the civil rights movement brought about a revolution in America. Doug McAdam’s fine sociology of American race relations and the civil rights movement is right to call this an insurgency in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. It was an insurgency that was broadly based, passionately pursued, supported by effective regional and national organizations, and largely successful in achieving its most important goals.

It barely needs saying that this revolution is not complete. Tom Sugrue found a good phrase to capture the story in the title of his recent book, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. But further progress will build upon the cultural and structural changes brought about by these courageous and committed ordinary men and women in waging revolution against an oppressive social order.

Skocpol on the 1979 revolution in Iran


An earlier post reviewed Theda Skocpol’s effort in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China to provide a comparative, structural account of the occurrence of social revolutions. There I suggested that the account is too deterministic and too abstract. It gives the impression, perhaps undeserved, that there are only a small number of pathways through which social revolutions can take place, and only a small number of causal factors that serve to bring them about. The impression emerges that Skocpol has offered a set of templates into which we should expect other social revolutions to fit.

One of the benefits of re-reading a book that is now 35 years old, however, is that history presents new cases that are appropriately considered by the theory. One such case is the Iranian Revolution, which unfolded in 1979. And, as Skocpol indicates forthrightly, the Iranian Revolution does not fit the model that she puts forward in States and Social Revolutions very closely. Skocpol considered the complexities and challenges which the Iranian Revolution posed to her theory in an article which appeared in 1981, before the dust had fully settled in Tehran. The article is included in her collection, Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Here is the challenge that the Iranian Revolution created for Skocpol’s causal theory of social revolutions:

A few of us have also been inspired to probe the Iranian sociopolitical realities behind these events. For me, such probing was irresistible – above all because the Iranian revolution struck me in some ways is quite anomalous. This revolution surely qualifies as a sort of “social revolution.” Yet its unfolding – especially in the events leading to the Shah’s overthrow – challenged expectations about revolutionary causation that I developed through comparative-historical research on the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions. (240)

Skocpol finds that the large features of the Iranian Revolution did indeed fit the terms of her definition of a social revolution, but that the causal background and components of this historical event did not fit her expectations.

The initial stages of the Iranian revolution obviously challenged my previously worked-out notions about the causes of social revolutions. Three apparent difficulties come immediately to mind. First, the Iranian Revolution does seem as if it might have been simply a product of excessively rapid modernization…. Second, in a striking departure from the regularities of revolutionary history, the Shah’s army and police – modern coercive organizations over 300,000 men strong – were rendered ineffective in the revolutionary process between 1977 and early 1979 without the occurrence of a military defeat in foreign war and without pressures from abroad…. Third, if ever there has been a revolution deliberately “made” by a mass–based social movement aiming to overthrow the old order, the Iranian revolution against the Shah surely is it. (241-242)

So the Iranian Revolution does not fit the mold. Does this imply that the interpretation of social revolution offered in States and Social Revolutions is refuted? Or does it imply instead that there are more narrow limits on the strength of the generalizations offered in that book than appear on first reading? In fact, it seems that the latter is the case:

Fortunately, in States and Social Revolutions I explicitly denied the possibility of fruitfulness of a general causal theory of revolutions that would apply across all times and places…. The Iranian Revolution can be interpreted in terms analytically consistent with the explanatory principles I used in States and Social Revolutions – this is what I shall briefly try to show. However, this remarkable revolution also forces me to deepen my understanding of the possible role of idea systems and cultural understandings in the shaping of political action – in ways that I show indicate recurrently at appropriate points in this article. (243)

One important difference between the revolutions studied by Skocpol’s earlier work and the Iranian revolution is the urban base of the latter revolution. “Opposition to the Shah was centered in urban communal enclaves where autonomous and solitary collective resistance was possible” (245). “In the mass movements against the Shah during 1977 and 1978, the traditional urban communities of Iran were to play an indispensable role in mobilizing in sustaining the core of popular resistance” (246). This is a difference in the social composition of the social revolution; peasant unrest and uprisings were crucial in the cases of France, Russia, and China; but not in the case of Iran.

Another key difference in the circumstances of the Iranian Revolution was the role played by Shi’a Islam. This is what Skocpol was referring to when she indicated the important role of idea systems and cultural understandings.  “In sum, Shi’a Islam was both organizationally and culturally crucial to the making of the Iranian revolution against the Shah” (249). So ideas and values played a role in mobilizing and sustaining revolutionary actions by the population that does not have a valid counterpart in China, France, or Russia. This is a more serious divergence from the reasoning of SSR, because it introduces an entirely new causal factor — “idea systems”. In SSR the motivations that are ascribed to activists and followers are interest-based; whereas her treatment of Shi’a Islam and the Iranian Revolution forces a broadening of the theory of the actor to incorporate the workings of non-material values and commitments.

How does Skocpol think that ideas and culture function in the context of social unrest? “In and of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi’a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution” (250). So the value system of Shi’a Islam, and the passions and commitments that it engendered, played a key causal role in the success of the revolutionary actors in Tehran, in the view that Skocpol offers in the current article.

So the social actors can be different and the causal factors involved can be different. What about the outcomes of the processes of social revolution? Can we at least keep the idea that a social revolution, once underway, has a certain logic of development that leads to certain kinds of outcomes? Here again, Skocpol is clear in saying that we cannot.

On the contrary, Skocpol brings the fact of contingency into her account here in a way that is not apparent in the earlier book. In her treatment of the Iranian Revolution she is brought to acknowledge and recognize the deep contingency that exists within a social revolution.

Of course, events in Iran may outrun that Shi’a revolutionary leadership. The clerics may lose their political unity and the army or a secular political party may step in. Or regional revolts and foreign subversion may lead to the dismemberment of the country. (254)

Or in other words: there is no necessary sequence of events in this social revolution, or any other.So what remains? How does comparative study of social revolutions contribute to explanation? Rather than hoping for a causal diagram that identifies factors, forces, and outcomes, it seems unavoidable that we need to look for more limited findings. And this pushes us in the direction of the disaggregated approach that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly take in their own subsequent treatments of social contention in Dynamics of Contention.

According to that approach, there are some common causal processes — we would now call them “mechanisms of contention” — that give some insight into the critical events that transpire within a given historical sequence. But these common mechanisms do not have primacy over the myriad other factors in play — the behavior of the military, the emergence of a secular political party, the sudden appearance of a charismatic movie actor turned political leader, the eruption of international conflict (like the war that Iran was forced to wage with Iraq), and countless other possible causal branches. And this means something very deep for the project of comparative theorizing about social revolution, or any other large-scale social change: we should regard these processes as importantly sui generis rather than general, and we should look for the sub-processes and mechanisms rather than high-level macro-causal relationships.

Skocpol on the Chinese Revolution

(Sources: States and Social Revolutions, pp. 155, 282)

In States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (1979) Theda Skocpol set out to discover a causal analysis of the occurrence of social revolution, and she offered case-study narratives of the major revolutions in France, Russia, and China. She provides a 54-page narrative of the Chinese Revolution which can serve as a thumbnail account of the major events and causal factors that made it up. Her narrative is deliberately framed in comparative terms; she wants to locate features of the Chinese situation in relation to relevantly similar characteristics of the French and Russian cases.

Here is Skocpol’s definition of a social revolution:
Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. (Introduction)

The summary tables above both mirror the definition Skocpol has crafted and reveal the essence of her comparative causal analysis of the three primary cases. Tables 1A and 1B provide a coding of the states of affairs in France, Russia, and China in what she identifies as the relevant initial structural conditions — conditions relevant to political crisis and peasant uprisings. Table 1C represents her view of the proximate outcomes of these conjunctions in the three cases — breakdown of effective state power and emergence of widespread rural unrest. And Table 2 reflects her effort to code the more distant outcomes in the three cases, when the dust had settled — the nature of the political configurations and state systems that emerged from the revolutions that took place.
This is historical sociology, not social-science history. The goal is not to be a full historical account of these revolutions in detail, but instead to identify relatively limited number of structural and agentic causes that may be relevant to the occurrence of revolution in the individual cases.
It is worth noting what this account does not provide. It does not attempt to disaggregate revolutionary processes into underlying causal social mechanisms. Rather, it presupposes a fairly macro-level conception of causal conditions and factors. This is what allows Skocpol to make use of a Millian method for discovering what she takes to be necessary and sufficient causes for social revolution. And second, it gives no attention to the possibilities of contingency and path dependency. Rather, she is looking for causal conditions that co-occur in some historical circumstances and then lead to social revolution as an outcome. This is the conjunctural part of her story.
This is a very specific conception of comparativist social explanation. It is anti-positivist, in an important sense, in that it expressly rejects the idea that there might be fundamental laws from which the occurrence of revolution might be derived. But it is also anti-reductionist, in that it is not interested in explaining the large outcomes, or similarities of oarge outcomes, based on underlying mechanisms or processes. I find it hard to think of an example of causal explanation in biology, geology, or physics that has a similar structure. Explanations of the transition of a group of tree species within a forest might look similar — the ecologist looks for macro-level circumstances that favor one species over another. But there is always the underlying mechanism of natural selection and differential rates of reproduction that provides a microfoundation for the explanation.
In Skocpol’s analysis of China several events and structures were most fundamental in the unfolding of China’s social revolution.

  1. The devolution of power to the regional level that had occurred in the final years of the old regime (pre-1911). This reflects the great weakening of the central imperial state and military and the emergence of warlords and local elites with their own militias.
  2. The poverty and oppression of the peasantry. The deprivation of farmers at the hands of landlords and local elites left peasants in a state of misery and deprivation that left them ready for radicalization and mobilization.
  3. The fact of European imperialist military and economic pressure from mid-nineteenth century forward, which both weakened the imperial state and delegitimized it.

The account of the Chinese Revolution provided by Bianco and described in the previous post gives attention to another key factor: the organizational capacity and revolutionary strategies of the CCP. To some extent this runs contrary to Skocpol’s vigorous opposition to the idea of revolution as an intentional process. But Bianco is clearly right, that the strategies and coordination of the CCP provided a vital component of the eventual success of the Chinese Revolution.

Moreover, the more disaggregated studies of the Chinese Revolution that have emerged since Skocpol’s book make it clear to me that there were deep contingencies in the process as it unfolded, and that multiple outcomes were possible. So the antecedent structural conditions that she identifies did not suffice to bring about the eventual revolution.
Skocpol’s comparativist methodology was an exciting innovation when it appeared in 1979. With the hindsight of thirty-five years, however, I am inclined to think that it is a failed experiment. It remains too close to the methodology that asks the researcher to find a set of conditions that vary appropriately with the outcome, and in the end it is methodologically committed to the idea that we can discover an answer to the question, what conditions do all social revolutions share? The critique that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly offer of theories of contentious politics that simply look for large generalizations across groups of large scale contentious events seems to apply here as well. The focus in Skocpol’s analysis remains too macro, with social revolutions constituting the units of analysis. But as MTT argue, it is more useful to drop down a level or two and look to the mechanisms and processes that make up social revolutions, rather than trying to identify high-level generalizations across groups of cases, whether large-N or small-N.

Understanding the Chinese Revolution

source: Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, frontispiece

The Chinese Revolution is one of the world-historical events that has set the stage for the modern world. And, unlike the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it is sufficiently contemporary that there are very substantial sources of data and informants about its occurrence. Several generations of China historians have sought to provide explanations and elaborations on the occurrence of the Chinese Revolution (link, link). The Revolution set the course for a population of over 1.1 billion people, it affected the economic and international development of the rest of the world, and it established a government that continues to rule the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, vast amounts of scholarship have been written in attempting to describe and explain the course of the Revolution.

So we might imagine that the story has been written, and that we know everything we need to know about the causes, events, and main directions of the Revolution. However, this would be a mistake. As earlier posts have shown, there continue to be new questions, renewed debates over old questions, and deep uncertainties about the best ways of understanding the occurrence and development of this momentous series of events.

It is interesting, therefore, to return to one of the earlier efforts at historical explanation of the Chinese Revolution, the widely read book by Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949. The book first appeared French in 1967, and therefore much of what we now understand to be the development of modern China was yet to occur. The Great Leap Forward and attendant famine had occurred in 1958-1959, the Cultural Revolution was just getting underway, and of course the major reorientation of the Chinese state in the direction market reform was decades in the future. In a meaningful sense, Bianco was writing the history of a revolution that was still underway.

The title of the book captures Bianco’s central goal in his treatment of the Revolution: to identify the large factors that explained the occurrence and characteristics of the success of the CCP’s struggle for mobilization and power. Ideology and doctrine play an important role; Bianco spends a lot of attention on the question of whether Chinese communism was heterodox or orthodox in relation to classical Marxist theory. Another key question in Bianco’s treatment is the role of the peasantry in Mao’s strategy for creating revolution. The ideological frameworks brought forward by Nationalist and Communist leaders play a large role in Bianco’s account.

Bianco organizes his analysis around the role of Marxist ideology and theory, the role of the Comintern in attempting to “manage” Communist activism in China, the role of the Japanese war of aggression against China, and the economic and social circumstances governing the agrarian world that brought Chinese peasants into a state of latent revolutionary activism, just needing the mobilization efforts of the CCP to ignite a social conflagration. And he takes up the nationalism thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson in Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 just a few years earlier (1962; link), treating Johnson’s work respectfully but critically. In other words, he raises the central explanatory ideas that observers of the time thought potentially important: ideology, exploitation, war, nationalism, and military competition between the Guomindang dictatorship and the Communist Party.

Three large factors emerge as being the most important sources of revolution in Bianco’s account: the tactical effectiveness of the CCP in mobilizing the peasantry, the crushing exploitation and poverty of the countryside, and the military realities created by the three-sided conflict between the GMD, the CCP, and the Japanese army. Of these, the poverty of agrarian China was the most pervasive:

The source of the revolution, the real strength of the CCP, must be sought in the living conditions that prevailed from one end of rural China to the other, where poverty, abuse, and early death were the only prospect for nearly half a billion people. (87)

Bianco’s greatest contributions to Chinese history are focused on pre-revolution peasant politics. These writings are exemplified in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China, “Peasants and Revolution: The Case of China” (link), and “Peasant Movements” in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Here is a summary offered in Origins:

To the extent that the non-Communist peasant movements I have studied can be characterized in general terms, they seem to me diffuse, sporadic, and lacking in coordination and firm leadership. Above all they seem defensive: peasants may arouse themselves to protest an assault on the status quo, but they almost never attack the deeper causes of their exploitation and misery. (107)

Bianco incorporates his own study of earlier peasant rebellions into his account of the politics of mobilization, and he highlights the non-revolutionary character of those earlier movements (107). As he had argued in his research on China’s peasantry, it was the organizing and mobilizing role of the CCP that turned peasant discontent from local unrest to sustained revolutionary action.

One thing I find interesting in rereading the book today is the fairly general level at which it is written. Bianco essentially summarizes his perceptions of the main elements of the complicated economic, political, and military events that transpired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China. He was a highly expert observer, and was intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Comintern, the Guomindang, and the CCP. But the work is offered at a very high level of discourse, not really intending to provide new historical understanding of the politics of nationalism and the social program of the party.

This contrasts with the level of historical detail and richness of Bianco’s own primary research on peasant movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in China. Here his work is archival and detailed, and offers genuine new insights into the particulars of the phenomena. And it contrasts as well with the level of detail and precision of the treatments of various parts of the revolution in China that were written in the following thirty years.

Origins was influential and widely read. That said, it should be understood as a work of historical synthesis rather than a contribution of original discovery. It remained for the next generation of historians — people like Mark Selden, Yung Fa Chen, and Odoric Wou — to push the historical inquiry more deeply into the mechanisms and variations of these processes of revolution. In his forward to English edition in 1976, Mark Selden attempts to summarize the key issues for future research posed by the book: the need to give a more fine grained taxonomy of the peasantry (rich, middle, poor), the effects of the rapid commercialization that were underway in the twenties and thirties, and the relative importance of domestic and foreign factors in the occurrence of the Revolution. Selden himself takes up some of these issues in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). And historians like Chen and Wou have given substantially greater detail about the specifics of mobilization, strategy, and military tactices in the base areas than was possible in 1967 when Bianco wrote his book.

Mobilizing the masses

One of the books on the Chinese Revolution that I particularly respect is Odoric Wou’s 1994 Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan.  As noted in an earlier post, histories of the revolution have gone through several waves, and a general trend has been towards more focused regional studies.  Wou’s book belongs in what I categorize as the third wave (along with Chen Yung-Fa’s Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945). Here is how Wou characterizes this evolution:

Communist revolutionaries always operated under local conditions, were involved in certain local power politics, and addressed certain needs of the local peasantry. It is imperative to pay particular attention to localities, if possible at the county, the subcounty, and even the village level. Mass politics are invariably related to community issues and community politics. (14)

Here I want to focus on Wou’s title itself: Mobilizing the Masses.   Both parts of the title are important: the idea that the Chinese revolution was a mass-based revolution, and the idea that the Chinese Communist Party succeeded because it pursued successful strategies of mobilization.  The Russian Revolution, by contrast, was not mass-based; Lenin’s revolutionary group was able to seize power without mass support, and the Bolsheviks did not develop effective strategies of mass mobilization.  So the Chinese Revolution is different. We have historical examples of revolutions that did not involve the masses in contemporary society; and perhaps we could imagine a mass-based revolution that succeed without the deliberate strategies of mobilization that emanated from a revolutionary party.  (Lucien Bianco doubts the latter possibility, however; he argues that spontaneous uprisings by peasants or workers are doomed to failure (Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China).)

So why was the committed support of the masses crucial to the success of the Chinese Revolution? Why is mass support difficult to achieve for an emerging revolutionary movement? And what were some of the strategies of mobilization that the CCP used in the 1930s and 1940s to bring about that mass support?

Mass support for a revolutionary movement is in one sense unlikely. The risks of being a supporter are great, and the a priori likelihood of success is small. The forces of order are generally powerful and pervasive, whether warlords or a central government. So peasants and workers are asked to assume great risks for little prospect of success.  As James Scott has emphasized in many writings, there are always options of everyday coping and everyday resistance that allow ordinary people to make do in the context of a repressive state and an exploitative society (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). (I particularly enjoy the scene that Scott describes of Malaysian villagers gathering and laughing as the hired mechanical harvester sinks inexorably into the flooded rice paddy.) These facts imply that mass support for a revolutionary movement will not arise spontaneously; rather, it is necessary for a revolutionary organization and a set of leaders to pursue an effective bundle of strategies aimed at mobilizing the masses.  This means possessing a compelling set of strategies, and it means developing a large and pervasive organization that will be capable of placing “brokers” or cadres in local settings where they can influence ordinary villagers to support the strategy.

So why was the CCP forced to turn to the peasant masses in the first place?  One part of the answer is Mao’s own political theories of how revolution could succeed in China based on the support of the population; and the population was overwhelmingly rural and poor in the 1920s and 1930s.  (It is interesting that Mao’s theories of peasant revolutionary potential continue to propel a large Maoist movement in India; post.) But a more material reason has to do with a stunning defeat suffered by the CCP at the hands of the Guomindang Republican forces in 1927 — the massacre of the urban-based Communist organization in Shanghai.  From that point forward the strategy of bringing communist revolution to China on the strength of an urban revolutionary movement was untenable, and resort to China’s peasantry was the only option available.

So how did the CCP attempt to mobilize the rural masses? What political ideologies did the CCP settle on as being the most promising for arousing the emotions and political commitments of ordinary peasants throughout rural China? How did the CCP use local organizations and cadres to effectively communicate those messages and solicit political engagement by peasants? More specifically, what were those strategies in Henan, the focus of Wou’s book?

Two strands of mobilization ideologies have been emphasized by historians of the revolution. The first is class mobilization — a deliberate attempt to emphasize the exploitativeness of rural land relations, and the conflicts that exist between landlords, rich peasants, and poor peasants. Here the idea is that poor peasants can be energized by a clear recognition of the ways in which their livelihoods are harmed by the social privilege of rich peasants and landlords, and they can be motivated to take on the risky business of revolution. The second is a nationalist appeal in the context of the Japanese occupation of China, and the claim that the Red Army was more effective than the Guomindang military in fighting the Japanese. Here the idea is that peasants of all strata can be motivated to defend their families, their villages, and their region against the imperialistic (and harsh) Japanese invaders.  Wou documents both strategies in Henan.

First the class-based strategy:

After three executive committee meetings, the Eyuwan party decided to reformulate and radicalize the land reform program. The new policy was to “use the agricultural laborers as the base. Form a solid alliance with the poor peasants. Stabilize the middle peasants. Shake up and eliminate the rich pesants.” Politically, the new program called for the discharge of rich peasnts from all Communist mass organizations, including the Red Guards, Youth Vanguard, and Children’s Corps. (125)

And here is the nationalist strategy:

It was during the Sino-Japanese War that the Communists began to revitalize their revolutionary movement. By skillfully playing the game of coalition politics, the party took steps to rebuild its bases and consolidate its power in eastern Henan. Japanese imperialistic intrusion into China offered the Communists a new political opportunity. The war eroded Guomindang state power, changed the political balance, and created a political vacuum in the region. In these favorable conditions, the Communists identified themselves with the nationalistic cause and issued a patriotic appeal to the people. (207)

Finally, Wou emphasizes throughout the necessity for political skill and compromise on the part of party leaders. It was necessary to form coalitions with other non-revolutionary organizations in order to carry forward the objectives of the party, and the CCP leadership in Henan was fully prepared to enter into such coalitions.

These details are of interest chiefly because they illuminate the nuts and bolts of radical social change in a large country.  It is plainly not enough to observe that a large group of people have interests that are in conflict with the policies and social relations of their country or region.  In addition, several things are needed: a sustained and locally implemented strategy of mobilization and a revolutionary organization that acts intelligently and opportunistically as the balance of forces shifts at various times.

These observations have implications for China’s current realities as well.  It is evident that there are millions of Chinese people who have serious grievances — work conditions, environmental pollution, corrupt officials, etc. But the Chinese government has been very adept at preventing the emergence of organizations that might attempt to mobilize that discontent into effective efforts to challenge the state’s policies.  Without organizations, the current level of grievance in China is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the policies of the state.

France 1848

The revolutions of 1848 have gotten renewed attention in light of this year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings. (The amazing photo above depicts the barricades in Paris, 1848.) The parallels are obvious — uprisings in a number of countries, similar grievances across countries, and a degree of cross-communication among the movements and leaders. And, of course, widespread optimism among progressives and activists about the prospects for fundamental social and political reform. The outcomes of 1848 were discouraging to progressives — repression and authoritarian governments were usually successful in turning back the progressive tide. So one hopes that the prospects for democracy and equality are better in the MENA uprisings.

Particularly interesting, of course, is the example of France. So it is intriguing to look back at the causes and processes of demonstrations and resistance in May and June, 1848, in Paris and in other parts of the country. Roger Price’s Documents on the French Revolution of 1848 (Documents in History Series) is worth reading for a number of reasons. First, it provides an astute analysis of the economic, social, and political situation of France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the events that unfolded into the revolution of 1848. But second, it is a genuinely interesting book from an historiographical point of view. The analytical text takes up roughly 50 pages of an introductory essay. The remainder of the book consists of short extracts from primary documents of the period. The extracts are selected and ordered according to the author’s conception of the factors and turning points that were historically central to the moment; so they constitute a narrative of an unusual kind. Price presents his analysis and framing of the events entirely through the extracts he provides; the participants tell the story.

Price’s framing essay begins with the point that France was a backward country in the first part of the nineteenth century, compared to Britain. The population was overwhelmingly rural, the economy was primarily agricultural, and the infrastructure of roads and railroads was underdeveloped. Industry was in the most embryonic state of development, and markets were primarily local because of the weakness of the transport system.

The great weakness of the system, however, lay in its transport infrastructure. Communications by water and, particularly, road were slow and costly. Only the first unconnected lines of the future railway network had been constructed before the 1850s. (12)

And, unlike Britain, there were few signs of an emerging proletariat in large factories and industrial cities, along the lines of the Manchester documented decades earlier by Engels:

The typical French worker would be the artisan working in a small workshop rather than the factory worker. This was true in Paris, for example, where the majority found work in industries catering for the material needs of the population — food, clothing, furniture and housing — or in the typically Parisian luxury industries, all traditionally operating on a small scale. (18)

These factors had social consequences. Hunger in the countryside was a recurring possibility. Landlords and gentry had great power over the rural population. Social inequalities in both town and countryside were visible and extreme. And neither peasant nor urban worker had a strong social basis for resistance.

The contrast in the living standards of rich and poor that daily greeted the eyes of the urban populations, especially in the larger towns, was often extreme. For as long as such a contrast was felt to be inevitable, it could be accepted only with resignation, or with a resentment that might burst out in violence. But new ideas and the diffusion of a more critical outlook were bound to erode this attitude. (20)

At the same time as economic inequalities were increasing the power of a small sector of elites was increasing as well.

The grand notables — landowners, financiers, major industrialists, but also politicians and administrators — collaborated in extending their economic power and safeguarding their social and political authority. This was a group given unity not simply by shared material interests, but by an entire style of life. (23)

Of course it is clear that this is one particular framing of the historical episode, and another historian would have highlighted other issues and other turning points. So the book doesn’t serve as a broad repository of documents, potentially relevant to many different interpretations; instead, the documents have been specifically selected to serve as waypoints on a particular path through Price’s interpretation. That said, the documents are fascinating to read, from observations by elite participants, to government announcements, to confessions by activist leaders and followers.

Was this a social revolution? Some of the goals of the activists involved radical social transformation; but these goals were entirely unsuccessful. The balance between the propertied and the property-less did not change in any meaningful way. Was it more successful as a political revolution? Again, not really. Universal suffrage was established before the June repression; but what followed was autocratic rule and eventually the election of yet another dictator, Napoleon III. So it is hard to see that the revolution of 1848 in France had much effect on the conditions of freedom and well-being of the majority of the poor in France.

It would be very interesting to have a similar compilation of documents and framing social descriptions for Egypt, 2011. I’m sure that researchers and observers in Cairo have been collecting interviews, posters, and other kinds of documents that will shed more light on the social and political grievances offered by ordinary Egyptians as they participated in the demonstrations and collective resistance that led to the fall of Mubarak. And, likewise, it will be valuable to document the timeline of reaction by the state during these crucial several weeks, including repression, accommodation, and eventually capitulation by the ruling circles in favor of — the army.

England’s Glorious Revolution


Earlier posts have remarked upon the interesting fact that large historical events are often significantly reconsidered and re-understood through the passage of time.  China’s Cultural Revolution is one such example (link), as are the revolutions of 1848 (link).

A truly stunning example of this kind of historical recasting of something that we think we’ve fully understood is Steve Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Pincus sets up his argument beautifully: there has been a dominant and eventually unquestioned narrative about the English Revolution of 1688-89, and in detail and in broad outline — this narrative is incorrect. Here is the thrust of the standard story:

According to this dominant story,

The revolution was unrevolutionary. Unlike other subsequent revolutions, England’s revolution was bloodless, consensual, aristocratic, and above all sensible. The English had no desire to transform their polity, their society, or their culture. Instead they worried that James II had intended to do just that. Second, the revolution was Protestant. James II had tried to reinstitute Catholicism in England. The revolution insured that England would remain a Protestant polity. Third, the revolution demonstrated the fundamentally exceptional nature of English national character…. Fourth, there could have been no social grievances undergirding the Revolution of 1688-89 because English society had changed little in the modern world. (kindle loc 134)

According to Pincus, this account fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the transformation that 1688 represented in English history, and it defines the scope of the historical question incorrectly in profoundly misleading ways. Pincus wants to tell a more accurate and revealing story; and he also wants to provide a political historiography that attempts to explain how these misrepresentations have come to define the dominant view of this revolution — the political ins and outs of Establishment Whigs, Conservatives, and Opposition Whigs in the ensuing century and a half of debate and historical interpretation.

His own approach to the historical problem is to start over: to reassess the materials and archives that exist today that allow the historian to gain fragmentary glimpses into the complex social reality that 1688 represented.  As he points out, there are substantial materials available today that were not available in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries when the master narrative was pieced together.  But he also observes that even materials available to Macaulay and Trevelyan can be read to a very different conclusion from those drawn by the eighteenth and nineteenth century historians.

Pincus’s interpretation disagrees with the standard narrative in every major respect. First, he believes that the English Revolution was “the first modern revolution” — the result of conflicts created by the process of state modernization that James II had undertaken. Second, he believes that the English Revolution was fundamentally located within a European context — not a purely sui generis English affair.

The Revolution of 1688-89 is important not because it reaffirmed the exceptional English national character but because it was a landmark moment in the emergence of the modern state. (kindle loc 184)

Just as in the French and Russian Revolutions, there was extensive and violent crowd activity. And just as in other modern revolutions, the revolutionary events resulted not in consensus and compromise but in deep ideological cleavages. (kindle loc 3450)

Third, fourth, and fifth, Pincus refutes the idea that the revolution was “bloodless, aristocratic, and consensual”. He documents that mass mobilization and violence were just as striking in England, Scotland, and Ireland as in the first year of the French Revolution (chapter 9), that segments from all levels of society were actively involved in these conflicts (chapter 8), and that the Revolution and its aftermath involved deep and abiding disagreements about the directions that the English state and society should take (chapter 10).  So — not bloodless, not aristocratic, and not consensual.

Instead Pincus tells a new story:

In this book, then, I retell the story of the Glorious Revolution, but I retell it in significantly new ways.  Instead of a story of triumphant English exceptionalism emphasizing the far-seeing actions of a few men, I tell a story about a wide range of actors reacting not only to developments in English high politics and in the English church but to changes in society, in the economy, and on the broader European scene. (kindle loc 210)

The Revolution of 1688-89, then, like all modern revolutions, was a struggle ultimately waged between two competing groups of modernizers. The revolution did not pit defenders of traditional society against advocates of modernity. Both Whigs and Jacobites were modernizers. It was the Tories who wished to defend a version of the old order. The Tories were placed in the unpalatable position of having to choose between two very imperfect political outcomes. (kindle loc 7542)

So how is it that a great historical event could be so fundamentally mis-construed and mis-remembered? Pincus refers to a number of factors that have distorted the historical understanding of the English Revolution over intervening centuries. One is an English belief in “English exceptionalism.” There was a powerful desire on the part of English intellectuals — for example, Burke and Hume — to see England as being very different from France — more civil, more consensual, and more constitutional.  Second is the intellectual framework of “revolution as conflict between a decaying traditional state and a challenging modernist opponent” (see an earlier post on this conception of revolution).  This led historians to narrow the focus of the events they highlighted, and to give primacy in their accounts to the debates and positions of the great figures inside and outside of government.

Third and most important is a feature of English political ideology, as expressed in the political conflicts between Tory and Whig parties and between establishment and opposition Whigs.

Walpole and his political allies now claimed that the revolution had instantiated parliamentary rather than popular sovereignty and that it had established a constitution rather than a blueprint for further reform. (kindle loc 310)

Opposition Whigs insisted that the revolution’s principles should continue to drive a reformist agenda. In short, by the 1720s the establishment Whigs were emphasizing the immediate tyrannical causes of the events of 1688-89, whereas the Opposition Whigs were highlighting long-term structural causes and the revolutionary consequences of 1688-89. (kindle loc 394)

The works of Burke, Macaulay, and Trevelyan reasserted the establishment Whig interpretation of the revolution. … Their interpretations became hegemonic not because they had uncovered new, irrefutable historical evidence but because in the face of contemporary political events their interpretative opponents had abandoned the field. …. Burke, Macaulay, and Trevelyan did not so much refute the arguments of the Opposition Whigs as assume that in the contemporary political climate their claims were irrelevant. (kindle loc 470)

These passages perhaps represent the key to Pincus’s own perspective on the English Revolution — we might argue that the book contributes to an unfettered “Opposition Whig” account of the revolution. And Pincus seems to support this interpretation: “It is now time to find answers to the questions that the Opposition Whigs raised in the eighteenth century” (kindle loc 503).

So we have the makings of a partial answer to the historiographic question — why did several generations of historians so badly misunderstand the nature of the English Revolution? Ideology played a role; mental frameworks about “being English” played a role; and concrete political conflicts about what the state should do played a role. And, of course, these sorts of factors are still with us.


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